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Victoria - Event

Reformatories and Industrial Schools: the government enters child welfare (1864 - 1887)

  • Boys' Reformatory, Ballarat

    Boys' Reformatory, Ballarat, c. 1890, courtesy of State Library of Victoria.


The Neglected and Criminal Children Act 1864 established a government system of institutions to provide for children who came under state guardianship. Children could be committed to the state either because they were considered 'neglected' (in which case they were sent to an industrial school) or because they were found to have broken the law (in which case they were sent to a reformatory). In practice, older children tended to be sent to reformatories and younger ones to industrial schools, with little attention paid to precisely why they had been committed. The joint administration of industrial and reformatory schools was formally ended by the Neglected Children's Act 1887 and the Juvenile Offenders' Act 1887.


In 1851 the Victorian government opted to support social welfare in the colony by funding existing charitable organisations. It hoped that by supporting the colony's orphanages it could avoid having to provide child welfare services directly. However, within a few years it was obvious that the orphanages would not be able to meet all of the colony's requirements. There were more applications for children to be admitted to orphanages than there were places available in many orphanages, so based on numbers alone, the existing orphanages could not meet the needs of impoverished families.

There were also groups of children beyond the scope of the orphanages' work. Orphanages were designed to assist the 'deserving poor'. This meant families who were considered the innocent victims of misfortune. 19th century philanthropy had a deep suspicion about how and why people became destitute, and people who drank alcohol, gambled, were unemployed though able-bodied, spent money on indulgences, or associated with criminal or 'disreputable' people, were often seen as 'undeserving' of charitable assistance. Around Melbourne and Geelong during the 1850s and 1860s there were groups of unsupervised children becoming more visible on the streets. Some were surviving by pickpocketing or begging, some were engaged in work such as selling newspapers, and others were simply visible on the streets because their working class homes lacked space for play and leisure. These children were seen as vulnerable to corruption, or as sources of vice and crime themselves. Furthermore, the 1857 Select Committee on Penal Discipline condemned the presence of children in the colony's gaols. Some children were imprisoned alongside adult offenders for committing crimes, and other children were incarcerated alongside their mothers since there was no other way to provide for them.

These were the problems that the Victorian government tried to address when it introduced the Neglected and Criminal Children Act 1864. It established a system of industrial and reformatory schools, based on Mary Carpenter's model, which would house all children who were committed to state guardianship. Carpenter, a British social reformer, advocated industrial schools for children who seemed to be at risk of becoming involved in criminal or disreputable activities, and reformatories for children who had already been convicted of crimes. She saw both as positive interventions rather than punitive ones. Industrial schools were supposed to provide training for children so that they would develop skills they would not acquire in their own families and therefore become more employable. Reformatories were designed to prevent juvenile offenders from being placed in adult convict populations so that they could receive special corrective treatment in the hope of returning them to a respectable path in life.

Unfortunately, the Victorian government had misjudged the nature and the scope of the situation in the colony. First, it had assumed that the children who would come under state guardianship would be from that visible group begging, working and playing on the city streets. Industrial and reformatory schools were designed to work with children from about ten years of age upwards, and so could have sensibly provided for those children. However, many of the children who were committed under the Act were very young children of desperately impoverished families. Second, it underestimated the size of the need. The government expected that the number of reformatory cases would be very small, and that the industrial school would need to cater for roughly the number of children who had been placed in the stop-gap accommodation at the Immigrants' Aid Society. Within six months, the 463 children who had come from the Immigrants' Aid Society to become the first occupants of Victoria's industrial school had swelled to 590. By the end of 1865 there were 1,095 children in the industrial and reformatory schools, and a year later the number was close to 1,500.

The over-crowding of the industrial schools, combined with the weakened condition of many of the children committed to the schools, caused terrible health problems. Contagious disease was a big problem, particularly measles and opthalmia (an eye disease). In his 1866 Annual Report the Inspector for Industrial and Reformatory Schools wrote:

I found at Princes Bridge about 22 per cent of the children sick, at Sunbury 15 per cent, and at Geelong about 10 per cent, a great number of the eye cases especially being very bad. The sanatory condition of the schools slowly improved but the unhealthy season which commenced in November last increased the sickness in the schools so much, that at one time nearly 400 children were confined to their beds.

Many of the children were in poor health when they were admitted, which made the situation even more difficult and it was several years before the mortality rate dropped below 5 per cent.

Victoria's industrial and reformatory schools were all overseen by the Inspector of Industrial and Reformatory Schools, who answered to the Chief Secretary. Some of the schools were run directly by the government, others were run by religious, predominantly Catholic, organisations and supported partially by government funds. The institutions were in both urban and rural locations, and some were even run on hulks (decommissioned ships).

Although some people questioned whether reformatories were effectively setting children on a better path, this model of providing for convicted or 'difficult' children was to remain the favoured model for a very long time. The industrial schools did not stay in favour for so long. Throughout the 1860s pressure was placed on the government to improve the conditions in the industrial schools. The cost of the schools also proved higher than expected, and so the government opted to use boarding-out as a way of caring for most of the children who would usually have been placed in an industrial school. The government gradually closed down its industrial schools to build a model which aimed to place most children in foster homes. The intention was that the government would only run reformatories and a receiving home to hold children before or between foster placements.



  • Musgrove, Nell, 'The Scars Remain': A Long History of Forgotten Australians and Children's Institutions, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, in press. Details


  • Industrial Schools. Report of the Inspector, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1866 - 1868. Details

Online Resources


Boys' Reformatory, Ballarat
Boys' Reformatory, Ballarat
c. 1890
State Library of Victoria


Sources used to compile this entry: Industrial Schools. Report of the Inspector, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1866 - 1868; 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