In the mid-nineteenth century people in both Britain and Australia saw large-scale institutions such as orphanages as the best way of providing for children who could not live with their families. The first purpose-built orphanage was the Melbourne Orphan Asylum; its Emerald Hill (South Melbourne) building opened in 1853. By 1855 there were Catholic and protestant orphanages in Melbourne and Geelong. In 1865 the Ballarat and District Orphan Asylum opened, and for more than a century to follow orphanages in these locations remained in operation.
The real heyday of orphanages was the 19th century. During the 1850s and 1860s orphanages run by voluntary organisations appeared in Victoria's three largest centres: Melbourne, Geelong and Ballarat. These institutions ran on a barrack style had the capacity to hold over one hundred children at a time, and sometimes as many as four hundred. They modelled themselves after similar institutions in Britain which provided large dormitory style accommodation for the children. These institutions sheltered, fed and clothed the children under their 'care', but daily life was dull, heavily regulated, and with little scope for personal attention.
Orphanages were intended to provide for the 'innocent victims of misfortune', meaning abandoned children, single orphans (whose fathers were deceased) and double orphans (who had lost both parents). They were not supposed to be correctional institutions, like reformatories, but they did impose a disciplinary regime of religious observation, basic education and training, which was designed to prepare children for life as servants and labourers. In most orphanages children were expected to spend several hours each day contributing their labour to the running of the institution. Older boys were often required to work in the orphanage's garden, or to tend livestock. Girls and younger boys typically performed domestic chores.
In the 19th century the children in Victoria's orphanages were voluntary placements. This meant that families had requested for their children to be admitted to the orphanages as opposed to being parted with their children by court order. However, many of the families who placed their children in orphanages had few other alternatives. Colonial Victoria had few sources of relief for impoverished families, and mothers who needed to earn a living could rarely find employment which allowed them to keep their children with them. Sometimes placing children in an orphanage was the only viable alternative, and often families hoped they would be able to reunite their families in the future. The 1871 Royal Commission into Charitable Institutions found that both Catholic and Protestant orphanages in Victoria often had waiting lists for admission.
In the first half of the 20th century some orphanages experimented with different models, including cottage care, which were intended to provide a more personal and more 'family like' atmosphere for the children. Other orphanages persisted with more conventional dormitory style accommodation in which children were divided by age and gender. Some orphanages, such as the Melbourne Orphanage, had their own school, and in other places children attended local state schools.
Orphanages continued to take voluntary placements in the 20th century, but from the 1930s it became common for them to provide placements for state wards. Orphanages continued in this mode of providing for privately placed children alongside children placed by the government for several decades. In the 1960s and 1970s Victoria's orphanages responded to changes within the child welfare sector and either closed or substantially remodelled their provision of out-of-home 'care' since institutionalisation of children was increasingly viewed as an undesirable way of raising children.
1835 - 1850 Emergency Shelter: early colonial child welfare
1850 - 1977 Orphanages: the first institutions
1864 - 1887 Reformatories and Industrial Schools: the government enters child welfare
1874 - 1940 Boarding out: government reform of child welfare
1887 - Reformatories, Youth Training Centres, Juvenile Justice Centres and Youth Justice Centres: the government response to juvenile correction
Sources used to compile this entry: Broome, Richard, The Victorians: Arriving, Fairfax, Syme and Weldon Associates, McMahons Point, NSW, 1984; Jaggs, Donella, Asylum to action. Family Action 1851-1991: a history of services and policy development for families in times of vulnerability, Family Action, Melbourne, 1991; Musgrove, Nell, 'The Scars Remain': A Long History of Forgotten Australians and Children's Institutions, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, in press.
Prepared by: Nell Musgrove
Created: 19 December 2012