About Adoption 6
My grandmother Annie Amelia was apprenticed to her foster mother as a household servant when she turned fourteen, without completing Grade 6. Those remaining in the Orphanage were often employed at thirteen as the demand for new admissions grew. Annie’s elder brother was ‘apprenticed to the office’ and joined the staff, becoming acting supervisor; the younger brother was apprenticed to a seed merchant and became a florist. Her ‘big sister’ or ‘buddy’ from the Orphanage returned to her widowed mother, as did her brothers when they finished school and were able to earn. It was just as impossible for a respectable widow to support a family as it was for the disgraced unmarried girls. In the flourishing Marvellous Melbourne of the 1880s, Annie and her three surviving siblings were able to complete their training, choose their employers, earn their respect, and regain their place in society.
In their day the overwhelming demand for shelter meant that moral choices were made. Children from less desirable backgrounds had to be relegated to the Industrial Schools. Here their social disability was perpetuated as neither health nor education could be properly maintained, meals and accommodation were substandard and supervision focussed more on control than their happiness, belonging and future welfare. The intention of training them for the workforce remained unfulfilled, as they grew and raised families without schooling, moral training, family stability, or apprenticeship training to raise them above labouring jobs.
The underclass grew, were given no chance of a reasonable income and looked down on by mainstream society. Hunger and hopelessness added mental instability to their plight. Adoption was not usually considered an option. Children orphaned or illegitimate, neglected, abused or deserted, did not attract family placement unless for their labour.
The ‘State Kids’ boarded out in rural Monbulk lived happily in a small community where all were socially equal and mutual helpfulness was spontaneous. They were accepted and lived as if adopted but without any legal status. The Depression of the 1890s that instigated that ‘Village Settlement’ scheme brought about a fresh wave of hardship in the city, however, as hardhearted landlords threw the unemployed onto the street and sold off their possessions. In the narrow back streets and service lanes of the inner suburbs, tiny dwellings thrown up on the cheap for the labour force of the ’eighties now deteriorated into slums.
‘Rescue’ became a priority for the socially conscious Methodist Church. The Methodist Children’s Homes at Cheltenham initially offered asylum to children removed by the Courts from unfit parents; to neglected and abused, and illegitimate children. Most were placed with families, many were sheltered for shorter or longer periods until they could find work, or relatives who could care for them. World War I left many deserving widows who could not provide both care and support. As with my grandmother Annie’s best friend, the children were admitted so the mother was able to earn a living.
However, illegitimate children under twelve months were only accepted if the mother would consent to an adoption, and pay the cost of care until this could be arranged. The fatal results of such young children being deprived of maternal care was so well known that in the 1890s, when Annie’s eldest daughter was admitted to the original Children’s Hospital, even the hospital would not accept children under two.
The slums continued to expand and deteriorate. A young Methodist man, F. Oswald Barnett, although raised himself in Melbourne’s inner suburbs, was appalled at what he found when he began to investigate the back streets and lanes. Many of these cramped and overcrowded dwellings still had only a shared tap in the street, without bathrooms, and sanitation unimproved since the Gold Rush. As unemployment spread again at the end of the 1920s, many fathers just gave up.
These conditions, and the death of seven toddlers at the Home, led Barnett and other young men from the Methodist Young Men’s Movement began fund raising to build a modern Babies’ Home with the main object of rescuing slum babies. It was completed just after new adoption laws came in, in 1928.
I worked in the city office after World War 2.