There were very few provisions for children in need in Victoria before 1850. Some people provided shelter for individual children out of kindness, some early charities helped children by helping their families or arranging private boarding and other children were placed in gaols as an emergency shelter.
In 1835 European people arrived in the Port Phillip District of New South Wales, now known as Victoria, to found the city of Melbourne. In the early years, there were few resources for people who fell on hard times. Children who were orphaned or abandoned relied upon the kindness of strangers. Some people did take children into their homes out of mercy, but other destitute children were left to struggle for survival on their own.
The Port Phillip District had been settled against the direction of the New South Wales Government, and so the people of Port Phillip were left to provide social welfare services for themselves. In 1840 the New South Wales Governor refused a request to fund a hospital for Melbourne, and also refused later appeals for money to establish and orphanage.
By the 1840s philanthropic groups associated with local churches in Melbourne and Geelong began providing assistance to the needy, particularly for people from amongst their own congregations. The main way they helped children was through providing relief to their parents. During this period the Melbourne Friendly Brothers' Society also arranged for some children to be boarded with local Catholic families. Other children were held in gaols as emergency accommodation.
Victoria became an independent colony in 1851, and within weeks of the formal separation from New South Wales, word spread that gold had been found in the Victoria. As sizeable discoveries were publicised, Victoria's gold rush gained momentum. The first impact was that men abandoned the cities in pursuit of gold, and in some areas only women and children remained. After that, began arriving from other colonies and countries in their thousands to join the quest for riches on the gold fields. Melbourne was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of people arriving in the colony, and the city's existing infrastructure was stretched to breaking point. Some people made extravagant fortunes of the gold filed, but many others lost everything or could only ever scrape by.
The poverty swelled amongst people who had failed to realise their dreams on the gold fields, the abandoned families of men who had gone seeking gold and never returned, and others who were on the margins of the booming gold rush economy. The Victorian government did not introduce an equivalent of the British Poor Law, which would have involved taking direct responsibility for the impoverished, but chose to contribute funds towards the existing voluntary charitable networks
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: Barnard, Jill; Twigg, Karen, Holding on to Hope: a history of the founding agencies of MacKillop Family Services 1854-1997, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2004; Dickey, Brian, No Charity There: A Short History of Social Welfare in Australia, Thomas Nelson Australia, Melbourne, 1980; 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; Twomey, Christina, Deserted and destitute: motherhood, wife desertion and colonial welfare, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2002.
Prepared by: Nell Musgrove
Created: 13 June 2012, Last modified: 25 June 2015