Research into a charitable agency is revealing much about changing attitudes to Melbourne's disadvantaged. John Lahey reports.
IT IS ABOUT 20 years since Victoria stopped putting children into large, dormitory-type homes for the unfortunate. Despite this short time, the homes are already almost myth _ something as foreign as the poor-house _ but this is not surprising, because every generation looks back patronisingly at the one before it.
Suddenly, a great deal of information about the homes is emerging from research as the Mission of St James and St John compiles the history of its first 75 years. Until the 1970s the mission maintained a network of homes across Melbourne and around it. To these homes came babies, toddlers and children who had been orphaned, abandoned, or born in shame out of wedlock. And there were others: children from families who were so poor, so ill or so neglectful that they no longer had food or shelter.
Like similar charitable agencies, the mission switched to a system of foster care, largely to acknowledge that children need love and a sense of identity within a family. But were the large homes so bad? Listen to the recollection of one former inmate: "You felt safer being inside the orphanage than you did outside the orphanage. I don't know what it was. There's just something there that you felt: once I'm inside the gate, I'm free.
And another: "The quinces and the plums and the apricots _ oh, it was wonderful _ blackberries ... We were all really happy there. We got into trouble, naturally, by pinching people's fruit off their trees that were hanging over the fence. So what?" Listen to this: "I've been in a home for 10 years of my life, and those 10 years have been the same as every other kid's. I went out to school, and the only difference was I had a bigger back yard, a bigger front garden (statues and all), a much bigger house, and many more friends.
These memories are coming in at the mission's head office to Joanne Monk, a Monash University student, who is working towards a master's thesis in public history and compiling the mission's story along the way. She is lucky to have this task while so many who can talk are still alive.
Not all the memories are unreservedly bright. One woman recalls: "I always wanted a doll and never got one." Another talks of the thrill of being so ill that she had to sleep in the matron's residence. It was a privilege, she says, "because then I felt I was getting to know somebody, and I thought she was my mother, but she wasn't my mother.
And that's about the only time that I remember that I was close to somebody.
There are stories of fights, alliances, loneliness, transgressions, punishments, bells, queues and marching (not walking) in to dinner. No home was perfect. Some children were resentful. But for others, there was peace: "I sorta miss it because I class that as home sorta thing.
If I wasn't in the home I don't know where I would have been really because it taught me right from wrong, even if it was hard at the start." Another view: "The boys were sorta like a brother to me. It was a second home.
One man, when asked if he missed his brothers and sisters, said: "I didn't know what I had, so when you don't know what you've got, it doesn't click with you.
Joanne Monk says: "In the Depression, at least they had food, a bed and someone to take care of them. These kids did not know where their next meal was coming from. It was their childhood, and I think most children make the best of what they are given.
Some memories hint at secret sadnesses: "I don't think privacy entered our minds because how could you be private with 50 boys there, and with the staff around I don't know that you could be private. I suppose you had a private place in a tree or something where you could hide or something.
To those who went through the homes, it must now seem odd that they have disappeared and something quite extraordinary has replaced them.
These days the mission runs a variety of services for children who in the past might have found themselves in a home.
Foster care is usually the best option for children who, for a time, cannot live at home. Some foster-parents take in two, three or even more children, and already may have several children of their own. The Dekker family, of Upwey, recently spent $75,000 extending their house so that they could take in more children _ particularly brother-and- sister groups. Nell and Jacques Dekker have raised four children of their own and have taken in 50 foster-children in nine years.
The Davies family at Millgrove, who have three children of their own, are about to add a bungalow to their back yard so that they can foster more brothers and sisters. The mission, the State Government and volunteers contributed to the bungalow's cost.
While children are in care, counselling and family-support work are often under way. The aim is to tackle whatever problem led to the child being removed and to return the child home as quickly as possible.
Another thing that has changed hugely over the years is services to lone women with babies. Joanne Monk cites a woman who went into care at the mission's home for unwed mothers, Kedesh, about 20 years ago.
This woman, aged 14 then, and rejected by her mother, felt strongly that she had been locked away and made to pay a price. The swinging '60s had sanctioned free sex, but the subsequent years had not removed the stigmas from women who enjoyed it. The girl's baby was adopted out.
This woman must look in amazement today at the mission's work with pregnant teenagers and lone, often homeless, women. This work is based at a centre called Choices in East Melbourne. The services here include temporary housing, personal counselling, group education sessions and intensive support in crises. Nearly all of these women keep their babies.
Joanne Monk wants to hear, in confidence, from more people with recollections of the mission's homes, especially Kedesh and the former venereal diseases hospital for women, Fairhaven, which the mission ran between 1927 and 1951. The mission's office is at 12 Batman Street, West Melbourne (telephone 329 6133). Joanne Monk is there on Mondays.