About Adoption 5

by | Feb 15, 2019 | Adoption, Memoir, Uncategorized

My grandmother’s experience of ‘adoption’ in the 1870s comes from my as-yet-unpublished account of working class life in early Melbourne – an account of her life and times, as seen through the many kitchen windows that framed her perspective. Orphaned at six, she and her two brothers were found a place in the Melbourne Orphanage, while her two teenage sisters became household helps.


Annie Amelia is not familiar with this side of town. Her heart beats unevenly to the clop of the horses’ hooves on the gravel. Up on the Richmond Hill there are imposing resi-dences – but to her they are just so many verandahs to be scrubbed, windows to be washed, and doorknockers to be polished. A maze of workingmen’s cottages crowds the little streets and lanes leading off the broad thoroughfare across the flats to the Hawthorn Bridge. She looks out miserably at the cows grazing in the riverbank paddocks. She can’t understand how Albert can want to let her go, just to become a drudge like Naomi.

Albert has grown into a conscientious, good-looking young man of nearly eighteen but the weight of his responsibilities has made him serious and reserved. It’s difficult for Albert to show his affection. He sees a splendid chance for his little sister: a secure home where she can remain until she goes to a home of her own some time in the future, equipped with all the es-sential household skills. Her manners and morals will be well looked after in such an upright, God-fearing Quaker family. He shrugs off her protests; she must make her own way in the world whether she likes it or not. At little past her age he was working part time in the office and is far more than satisfied now he has permanent employment at the orphanage.

Across the bridge the road leads up a steep bank. Annie’s spirits don’t rise with it. The bitter parting is not a good beginning to her new life. Albert seems heartless.

She looks up at a picket fence around a reserve, with gates so children and cows are fenced out. She lifts her gaze higher above the road to the Hawthorn school, surrounded by a pink fence to prevent the children falling from the top of the cutting, and wonders if that is where she will go school; she can’t foresee that her granddaughter will, one day, but not An-nie. Beyond the village the road from Melbourne leads on to the agricultural districts in the Parish of Nunawading.

Hawthorn is quite a flourishing little village. Annie reads the names on the hotels: the Hawthorne, the new Terminus and the older Railway, the Sir Robert Nickle, and the Governor Hotham where the horse bus waits outside. But they are going further. There are rows of shops, and solidly built houses with shrubby gardens and neat picket fences. Houses are sparser as they continue on past the village, past the Congregational Church to Connor Doo-ley’s Hay and Corn store at the edge of Red Gum Flat. Here they turn south into Auburn Road. Forty breakwaters protect Auburn Road from the torrents that pour down it to Gardin-ers Creek in wet weather. For the orchardists, market gardeners and vintners whose properties line both sides of the road, wooden bridges and stone crossings make Hawthorn’s gutters and gullies passable in all but exceptional weather.

When they stop at last on the long, long slope down to the creek they are quite in the country. It is clear, open, civilized rural land occupied by men who attend to business in the City during the week and cultivate their vines and fruit trees and vegetable patches as a hobby.

Subdivision is becoming more profitable than vegetables but as yet Mrs. Indiana Pier-son’s small wooden house stands almost alone among the fields.

Annie clutches her bundle of spare underclothes and looks around at the countryside spread peacefully in the autumn sun. Rows of cabbages grow in the Chinaman’s garden down behind the house, their green heads a poor substitute for the rows of friendly faces she has left behind her absorbed in sums and careful copperplate.

Indiana Pierson has more than two years to guide and mould this child before she can be legally apprenticed, for she has not yet reached her twelfth birthday. If Mrs. Pierson does her job thoroughly her servant problem will be eased for years to come, perhaps permanently, she hopes. She introduces Annie to the first of a series of domestics who will teach her, shows her the nursery where she is to sleep with three little girls and hands out her working clothes. Her plain, boring orphanage clothes are to be her Sunday best now.

Annie puts away her little bundle and contemplates her workaday outfit with horror. She hates the heavy, cheap, clodhopping boots, hard and inflexible, imprisoning her toes; shapeless underclothes of unbleached calico, scratchy against her skin; and a drab, dowdy dress, certain to fit for years to come and never wear out.

The three little girls lift her spirits. Indiana (called Ina), Millie and Ethel are to be her “little ones” now and she can look forward to games and stories with them. She enjoys being a little mother and as they overcome their shyness and began to play and laugh together she for-gets her appearance.

But at dinner they go to their mother in the dining room, while she eats in the kitchen with the servant. At bedtime, too, the girls cluster round their mother in the living room while Annie sits apart listening silently to the Bible reading, with no part in their affectionate hugs. The cool kiss Mrs. Pierson plants on her forehead when her own bedtime comes does nothing to make her feel she belongs. There is no warmth for her; she is just an orphan girl intruding on a closed family circle. She can never become one of them.

She has always looked forward to school but the next morning it is a matter of anguish to appear before strangers in the working clothes that proclaim her status. She shrinks from the appraising stares of strange girls. The orphanage uniform, neat, warm and comfortable, now seems highly desirable as it never was before. Mrs. Pierson keeps her fetching and carrying until she despairs of getting to school in time.

There is a school closer than the one above the cutting, a new school built in Mr. Box’s paddock in Manningtree Road only a year before. She hurries off at last, past post and rail fences surrounding apple orchards and pigpens, pear trees and fowl yards, and occasional new houses sitting uncomfortably in run-down paddocks; past Dalley’s orchard where Mr. Dalley lives who is on the Council with Mrs. Pierson’s father. Ma Dalley sees her passing and makes a sour face at her, the first of many. Falling leaves from Mr. Box’s plum trees blow into his waterhole and she notes how sleek and fat his marrows grow.

Annie feels the whole class staring at her. She’s late. She has no book. It hasn’t oc-curred to her that she needed to bring one for everything was provided at the orphanage. The teacher’s search for paper for her to work on is a further embarrassment.

The girls’ curious eyes follow her at lunchtime as she unwraps the newspaper from around her lunch. She is distressed, ashamed of her poor girl’s lunch of a couple of thick slices of bread glued together with treacle, and unable to make the easy approach to the other girls that is normal for her. The girls soon get used to Annie Spear’s awful clothes and bread and treacle lunches and feel sorry for her. Sometimes they even share their more appetizing lunches with her.

She asks for an exercise book but all Mrs. Pierson will give her is torn pages and odd scraps of paper.

On Sunday the Piersons set off to town for the Russell Street Meeting House. Annie Amelia is sent off alone to the local Methodist Sunday School. She doesn’t know her way around yet and goes by mistake to the Congregational Church that she remembers passing on the way to Auburn Road.

After Sunday School she has a long walk back down the quiet roads alone and decides it’s easier to stay on at the Congregational Sunday School rather than face another lot of strange children, but she never gets to know the children of the Congregational families any more than she does the school families. The daughters of Hawthorn tend to go to private schools like Hawthorn College up the road, while poor girls her age are scattered throughout the suburb’s kitchens and nurseries. She is left out of the groups of friends that form and re-form in the class. The Hawthorn girls are not in the habit of inviting orphanage nursemaids home, even if Annie were free to go.

Annie is so good with the children that Mrs. Pierson begins to keep her at home to look after them. There are days when she lies on the couch and leaves Annie to watch them all day. Of course Annie’s work really requires no further schooling. Soon she is attending so seldom that she can’t keep the thread of the class work. With her bright and active mind she feels a fierce resentment at missing out on the education that her older sisters and brothers have had.

Most middle class families have a nurse-girl, but it is very hard to find a good one and they are not usually expected to take very much responsibility. It is the lowest form of servi-tude, the girls’ equivalent of the sort of job John had so scornfully refused at the age of nine. It is a job for little girls whose parents cannot afford the school shilling, who are not old enough yet to work efficiently as maids. Even poor families find it degrading if they have to take their girls from school and send them to such employment at ten or eleven years old. It is a job fitted only for the “little girl from the orphanage.”

The orphanage has given Annie experience in taking responsibility for younger children and she takes a pride in looking after her girls well. The Germain Nicholsons have made an excellent choice for their old friend.

Annie’s days settle into a quiet routine of helping with the children and taking them for walks. As Mrs. Pierson’s trust in her grows she explores further afield. Everybody gets to recognize Mrs. Pierson’s Annie as she wanders the roads with the children. She keeps them off the road when the carriers’ vans and lorries rumble in and out from their yards at the corner of Riversdale Road. She is careful to stay well away from the brick pits and dangerous quarries that dot the area. Brick kilns along the road verges are set back by regulation to prevent the roasting of passers-by. They watch the bricklayers putting up new house walls formed from good Hawthorn clay.

There is only one store nearby. She takes the children with her to look in the windows and on past Mr. Fisher’s place to show them how he has spelt out GOD IS LOVE with plants in his garden. They pass big houses where important people live: Judge Molesworth has a street in Kew named after him and Sir Charles Gavan Duffy is Speaker of the House in Par-liament. They get to know Duffy’s dog very well.

Annie is fond of that dog, loving to pet him, but often has to chase him home. Then one day he keeps on following them and she has no choice but to front up to Mr. Duffy’s house.

Mr. Duffy is off electioneering in Gippsland. There is a group of prosperous farmers along the Mitchell River who have him to thank for their homesteads. It is one place where his Selection Act of 1862 was not subverted by the stratagems of the squatters. In Gippsland Charles Gavan Duffy rejoices in “the best crop the land can raise – a crop of independent and prosperous yeomanry.” Along the Mitchell River tobacco plantations are worked by the Chinese while women and children provide labour for the hop picking – “a long frolic and picnic for the children,” according to Duffy.

Sometimes Annie walks the children right away from the brick pits, down the slope to Gardiners Creek at the bottom of the hill. The children are enchanted with the running water and the banks all set out neatly with rows of vegetables. They run home eager to share their discoveries with their mother.

“Oh ma, you must come!”

“Do come, ma!”

Indiana Pierson trudges down the hill with them next day to see where Annie has taken them and to look at the dams and bridges they have made in the creek. She is pleased with Annie’s good sense and reliability with the children and Annie is glad to know that she gives satisfaction. It goes no further; they can never warm to each other.

When Mr. Pierson comes home from his voyages to New Zealand and Queensland the atmosphere is lighter. Mrs. Pierson has her own loneliness to live with when he is absent so much with his hardware business and is happier when he returns, easier to get on with, and warmer and kinder to Annie in his presence. Nobody is aware of how she takes in out on An-nie in his absence.

Mr. Pierson takes to Annie. He shows an interest in her and encourages her with his appreciation of her care and her obvious love for his children. He is happy to see the ties she is forming with the little girls. She’s friendly and responsive, and fiercely honest. He hopes the training she is receiving in their ways at such a young age will induce her to remain with them for many years, if not as a family retainer for life. He assures her that she will always have a home with them. But Annie is of two minds about that.

There are often guests to dinner when Mr. Pierson is home. Dinner can be unpredict-able, its quality varying with the quality of the current servant, but Annie picks up a little new knowledge from each one as they come and go.

When Mr. Pierson departs on a fresh voyage Mrs. Pierson lapses back into her cus-tomary dull life and sharp speeches. Her determination to keep the servant classes in their place and her discouraging manner do not go down well with the average servants who are often independent daughters of egalitarian miners and immigrants.

The passing parade of cook-generals never seems to consider staying on. They come and go as they please, and they please to leave frequently. Although domestic servants form the largest occupational group in prosperous Hawthorn there are never enough proficient girls to go round. If Cook takes offence at a reprimand she can leave, knowing that another position will be easily come by. Some find the area too quiet, others leave just for the sake of change.

Annie is not free to leave. Her education has been cut short and with no future but do-mestic service she is a captive audience and a handy scapegoat when grief and loneliness drive Mrs. Pierson’s to impatience and irritability.

Whenever the latest girl flounces out Annie is pressed into service in the kitchen and eats in the kitchen alone. When a new woman comes she is at the mercy of her whims, whether kind or disagreeable. An unpaid nursemaid living on charity, she’s an easy target for a woman who takes a twisted satisfaction in finding somebody even lower to torment.

Often they taunt her with coming from the despised Industrial Schools, assuming igno-rance and disgrace, dirt and dishonesty. Her indignant denials don’t ease the pain of this imputation.

As Annie is not officially an employee she has no regular time off, although occasion-ally she goes off for a lone walk. One day she hears her name called on the road.

“Miss Spear! Miss Spear!” To her amazement it is Mrs. Woollard she sees hurrying towards her. They have not met for years, although Mrs. Woollard visited once or twice in the early orphanage days.

Annie is surprised to be recognised in her coarse grey wincey servant’s dress and the heavy boots that hurt her feet. Without comment Mrs. Woollard carries her off home up the long hill to Kew where Annie spends a joyful hour, transported back in time to the happy days when they all rambled over the cemetery hill with Walter and Herb and Annie Woollard and the others.

She gets permission to visit Kew again, and is given her fare on the horse bus. When she arrives Mrs. Woollard gently takes off the heavy boots and laces on a beautiful soft kid pair from the shop. Annie is rapt. But when she returns Mrs. Pierson is furious. She makes Annie take off the neat, comfortable boots and return them to Kew.

Stunned, she sets off, wondering how she can face her friend. She returns home filled with a piteous indignation that she can no longer hold in.

“Mrs. Pierson, why did you do that?” she asks. “Mrs. Woollard is my best friend!”

Mrs. Pierson is severe. “Then I’m afraid, Annie, that your best friend and I have fallen out.” Confused and uncomfortable, Annie stays away from the Woollards for a long time.

It seems to her that her foster-mother loses no chance for a slight. Mrs. Pierson comes back from town one day wearing a new dress. “How do you like it, Annie?” she asks,” – that’s if you’ve got any taste.” Annie wonders how she can be expected to demonstrate good taste while she has to wear the clothes Mrs. Pierson provides for her. She stores these small slights like coins in a bank of resentment.

She has occasional visits from Naomi and the boys who are entitled to days off. They arrive dressed in their best, into a strained atmosphere. Mrs. Pierson hovers discouragingly, making them feel like intruders.

Naomi has promoted herself to lady-help so feels happier than she was at the boarding house. She eats with the family and enjoys a more acceptable social status than the servants who are Annie’s workmates, and feels it is well worth accepting lower pay.

The Orphanage Committee approves John’s apprenticeship to a seed-merchant in the hope that the outdoor work will protect his lungs and build up his delicate constitution. He is satisfied that he has enough education to enable him to secure his own future if he applies himself with diligence and ambition, which he will willingly do. He looks forward to having his own business like his father.

On John’s first visit, full of his new job with a room of his own, he recoils at the sight of Annie. “She’s dressed you like a farmer’s wife,” he says with contempt. Having her brother treat her like some drudge from a bark hut makes Annie feel even worse.

His employer, Mr. Cresswell, conducts the Victorian Seed Stores at 37 Swanston Street, a branch of his Hobart Town business. He stocks a “choice collection of Seeds of the Forest Trees, Shrubs and Flowers indigenous to Tasmania . . . collected annually by an experienced botanist.” He also deals in bee and propagating glasses, gardening and pruning gloves, flowerpots, chemicals, and his own brand of jams and jellies which he manufactures for export as well as the Australian trade. His address is a fashionable one, Vaucluse, in Toorak Road.

The boys are concerned about Annie’s lack of schooling but they see household work as the most important thing for a girl to learn, and a protected position with a good family as far more desirable than independence. None of the older children are in a position to look after her, and Naomi’s near-disastrous boarding-house love affair has highlighted the advantage of having Annie in a house with no permanently resident male.

The boys don’t appreciate all her nonsense with the children and her ready friendliness with people she meets. Instead they reprove for being unladylike. They don’t want her to grow up with a reputation for lightness and levity so they are pleased when she seems to quieten down.

Annie is only free to follow her own nature when she is out with the children. They play in the creek, watch the builders at work on new houses, or visit Uncle Sayce’s cows grazing in the paddock at the back. They pick up windfalls from his orchard and watch the Chinaman hoeing his cabbages further down. They go to meet Ina and the other schoolchildren taking their short cut home, running the drain after school.

The boys don’t seem to realise she is becoming withdrawn.