On 11 May 1885, the official register of Meteor Park Orphanage shows that eleven children were transferred from the State Orphanage, Rockhampton to Meteor Park, 'with the sanction of the authorities'. On 22nd December 1885, it is recorded that fifty-seven children were brought from the Mackay Orphanage and then on 1st January 1886, seven children came from the Townsville Orphanage. Records indicate that by this date, ninety-two children were in residence.
The arrival of these children began a history of out-of-home care for thousands of children until the last group of children were transferred to Family Group Homes in 1978. Over the years, the number of children cared for at the Home has varied. At one time the numbers were near to one hundred, and yet at another time, the numbers were closer to five hundred. From existing records, the total number of children who have lived some or all of their childhood years at Neerkol would exceed four thousand five hundred.
The four thousand acre property included a dairy, cattle yards, pigs, fowls and an area for growing crops and mixed vegetables. A dam was constructed to ensure an adequate water supply. At first, the buildings included a convent, kitchen, nursery, three other dormitory buildings, a dining room, bakery, laundry and a school.
A small chapel was built beside the convent and when Fr Cassar resided at Neerkol in 1916, a presbytery was built on the grounds near the cemetery. In 1922, Neerkol became a separate parish and in 1927, the presbytery was relocated to a site near the chapel.
Young girls assisted in the kitchen preparing meals for the children, the Sisters, the house-keeping staff and the farm workers.
Over the decades, older wooden buildings gave way to more modern brick constructions. The first change occurred during the time of World War II when, with the financial help of the American soldiers in Rockhampton at the time, a brick building called the 'Change and Dressing Rooms' was erected. This building later became the school when the old school was pulled down early in the 1960s.
Wooden dormitories were gradually replaced by brick structures and over time, dormitory groupings were changed from Nursery, 'Little Girls', 'Little Boys', 'Big Girls', 'Big Boys' to the small family-group idea. Here brothers and sisters could be together with a mixture of boys and girls of different ages in the hope that the experience of family could be felt in this very large environment.
Throughout the years, secondary school age teenagers had the opportunity to continue their education - the boys at St Brendan's College (Yeppoon) and the girls at the Range College (Rockhampton). By the 1970s, many children travelled into Rockhampton for their education at the various Catholic and Education Queensland primary and secondary school facilities.
In 1974 changes in child care practices and policies led to the Sisters of Mercy placing children in alternate accommodation. Children were re-united with their own families, others were fostered and by 1978, the remaining children were settled in either of the two specially-purchased Family Group Homes in Rockhampton.
The original orphanage was licensed under the Orphanages Act 1879. It was then licensed under the State Children Act 1911 and under the Children's Services Act 1965 on 4 August 1966.
Allegations of abuse of children living at St Joseph's Home, Neerkol received public attention from the 1990s. Many submissions to the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions (1998 to 1999) related to Neerkol. A delegation of British MPs travelled to Australia in 1998 and heard testimony from Former Child Migrants who had placed at Neerkol. The 2004 report of the Senate's Forgotten Australians inquiry stated that 'Neerkol Orphanage in Rockhampton, Queensland, was mentioned in a number of submissions, very often in an unfavourable light'.
One former resident of Neerkol reflected in 2010 about her time at Neerkol, and on the Australian government's Apology to Forgotten Australians ad Former Child Migrants in November 2009:
' Well, life in Neerkol was no pretty picture at all. We'd get up 5 o'clock in the morning, go to church, then we'd come back and we'd have to do the dormitories and we'd just have to do a lot of things. If we didn't do it properly we were given a hiding. We were given the strap. We just had to do it proper.
As a child we weren't able to form bonds at all. We never really got to know each other as children. I think we were all scared of what would happen to us, not that we couldn't but we just weren't allowed to, we just didn't feel like we could, you know, because of things that went on - sorry. Things that happened out there to different kids, kids were strapped and they were hurt very badly.
Being here today, the apology means today that it's finally recognised as we were all telling the truth and not lying. Well, it helps move on a little bit, one step at a time. You can't go - one day at a time - you can't go any further than that. If you try to go any further you get nowhere.'
In November 2017, the Rockhampton Regional Council granted approval for a developer to convert two of the buildings on the site of St Joseph's Home into a private residence.
19 February 2019
Cite this: https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/qld/QE00151
First published by the Find & Connect Web Resource Project for the Commonwealth of Australia, 2011
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