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Victoria - Glossary Term

Child Rescue (c. 1880 - c. 1910)

  • Social work of the church: child rescue agencies of Melbourne

    Social work of the church: child rescue agencies of Melbourne, 23 June 1899

c. 1880
c. 1910
Social movement
Alternative Names
  • Child Saving

An outgrowth of the evangelical revival in England, the child rescue movement captured the imagination of many Melbourne philanthropists during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, leaving a particular mark on the city's child welfare services. It argued that the existing orphanages and statutory organisations were too passive in their approach to children at risk. Identifying inner-city slums as breeding grounds of vice and crime, child rescuers argued that society's future depended on children being removed from such environments. Positing the parent as the enemy of the child, they sought to have total control, reconstructing rescued children as honest workers.


The philosophy of child rescue found its natural home in the inner-city missions where workers, reluctant to disrupt Melbourne tendencies to romanticise back slums as evidence of its great city status, were confronted daily with behaviours they read as evidence of sin. The possibility of rescuing 'innocent' children from such situations became a religious crusade.

An article published in the Methodist Spectator newspaper in 1899 appealed to readers to support the many child rescue agencies that were by then operating in Melbourne:

When we remember that in thousands of homes the name of God or Christ is never used except for purposes of profanity, that the sacred name of mother has lost its true propriety and loveliness, and mother and daughter, with father and son, pass a parasitic existence preying upon others, is it any wonder that the children of such homes have literally to be DRAGGED OUT ere they can be rescued? … How can we expect morality when there is almost an entire absence of ordinary family life? These children, aye, and parents too, must be RESCUED FROM THEIR SURROUNDINGS before permanent reformatory work can be done.

The most prominent child rescuer was Selina Sutherland (1839-1909), who interpreted her shipwreck on the Victorian coast as a message from God. An encounter with a homeless child on Princes Bridge decided her fate. Working from Scots' Church she began in 1881 to seek out children and arrange for them to be placed with families in the country.

When the Neglected Children's Act came up for review in 1887 Sutherland interceded with Victorian Chief Secretary Alfred Deakin to provide legal sanction for her activities. The subsequent Act included a clause authorising licensed child rescuers to remove children they considered to be at risk, and to accept a transfer of guardianship from parents, powers long sought by child rescuers overseas.

In a report from 1891, the Secretary of the Department of Neglected Children, George Guillaume, discussed the Neglected Children's Act 1887 and the new powers it conferred on 'approved private persons'. Guillaume wrote that this power

should prove of vast service and encouragement to the Scot's Church Neglected Children's Aid Society and other like agencies in their philanthropic endeavours, and these provisions, if taken advantage of, will probably be found to have the effect, by extending private benevolence, of gradually lessening the number of orphans and waifs and strays coming into the care of the Department.

Guillaume reported that in 1890 the number of 'private persons' approved by the Department to act as children's guardians already numbered eleven, and that the number was very likely to increase.

The legal validation of child rescue activities aroused sectarian rivalries, with all major denominations establishing societies in order to safeguard their future flock. None was as successful as Miss Sutherland either in locating children at risk or in finding country homes, although their small receiving homes became substantial church-based children's homes over time. St Joseph's, Kew, operated by the Sisters of St Joseph, the Church of England Children's Home, Brighton, controlled by the Mission to Streets and Lanes, and the Methodist Homes for Children (initially in Cheltenham and later in Burwood) all began as denominational child rescue societies.

Miss Sutherland, who was less successful in dealing with her supervisory committees than in her work with children, was the founder of Kildonan, the Presbyterian homes (initially in North Melbourne, later in Burwood), the Victorian Children's Aid Society (initially in Parkville, later at Black Rock and now Oz Child) and the Sutherland Homes in Diamond Creek (now Berry Street).

Although the principal societies came together to form the Child Saving Council in 1910, the movement had by then lost its early fervour. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (Children's Protection Society), founded in 1896, registered its inspectors as licensed child rescuers. By 1920 they were the only voluntary agents still active in the child rescue field.

Organisations involved in child rescue often produced newsletters to publicise their work. The Mission to the Streets and Lanes published Mission notes, later known as In our midst. The Salvation Army had the War Cry and Selina Sutherland's Neglected Children's Aid Society published From dark to dawn.

Related Organisations


Journal Articles

  • Swain, Shurlee, 'The value of the vignette in the writing of welfare history', Australian Historical Studies, vol. 39, 2008, pp. 199-212. Details

Newspaper Articles

  • Brigadier Kyle, 'Our boys: the true inwardness of the Army's preventive work', War Cry, 17 June 1899, pp. 3-4. Details
  • Duff, G.B., 'Social work of the Church: child rescue agencies of Melbourne', The Spectator, 23 June 1899. Details


  • Guillaume, George; Connor, Edward C., The Development and Working of the Reformatory and Preventive Systems in the Colony of Victoria, Australia, 1864-1890, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1891. Also available at Details

Online Resources


Social work of the church: child rescue agencies of Melbourne
Social work of the church: child rescue agencies of Melbourne
23 June 1899


Sources used to compile this entry: Guillaume, George; Connor, Edward C., The Development and Working of the Reformatory and Preventive Systems in the Colony of Victoria, Australia, 1864-1890, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1891. Also available at; Swain, Shurlee, 'Child Rescue', in eMelbourne: the city past and present, Encyclopedia of Melbourne online, The University of Melbourne, 2008,

Prepared by: Shurlee Swain and Cate O'Neill