Having become involved with a book on Keilor pioneers, teacher and historian Joan Brogden was asked if she would do some research on the Police in Keilor in the 1880's. Thus she became aware of the Industrial School in Sunbury, as children from the school who had committed an offence appeared at the Magistrates Court in Keilor. Intrigued to learn that these children, bare-footed, walked the 13 miles between the towns accompanied by a mounted policeman, she decided to investigate the records of the Industrial School.
The idea behind Industrial Schools was to care for vagrant children and teach them a trade. Vagrancy became a huge problem at the end of the gold rush, as there were no jobs for families who returned to Melbourne. Men were forced to go bush to seek work whilst women and children often ended up on the streets.
In 1864 the "Neglected and Criminal Children's Act" was passed. Convicted children were to be sent to reformatories whilst neglected children were to go to the Industrial Schools. These early government schools had problems right from the start due to a lack of money and little foresight.
The Immigrant's Aid Society had a wooden building near Princes Bridge, Melbourne which housed up to 400 children under the stewardship of the Wesleyan Minister, Rev. James Harcourt. He was called upon to open the Sunbury Industrial School.
It was considered healthier for children to be out of the city in the fresh air and near to clean water. Sunbury certainly had plenty of fresh air. In the school's first year 100 boys with the eye disease opthalmia arrived at the school, which was built on the top of Jackson's Hill. As the dormitories were not completed they were given tents which blew down in the strong wind. As for water, Jackson's Creek runs at the foot of the hill but a man with a horse and cart would take 2½ hours to go to the creek, load a tank, and return. A windmill was eventually erected but the strong winds brought it down. (The second windmill was so substantial that it needed gale force winds to turn it.)
Hygiene at the school was poor. Because it was scarce, children washed in the same water. There were no towels so children dried themselves on their sheet. They were allocated only one sheet. Bed-wetting was a problem but there were only 3 chamber pots between 50 boys. Some had no pillow and most slept on a straw palliasse on the floor. Lice, fleas, and scabies spread quickly. The first health check showed 103 out of 120 boys had scabies. One comb was used for the 50 boys. Many children lost their eyesight because of opthalmia. More than 50% of the boys were under the age of 10 and the death rate for the first year was 11%.
The intention was to provide good food but meat was rancid by the time it arrived from Melbourne. There was no kitchen so food could only be stewed or broiled. The boys ate their meal sitting on the edge of their bed. There was no heating.
The dormitories became schoolrooms during the day but it was difficult to obtain teachers. One master complained that he had to sleep in a cupboard. For those children who worked, planting potatoes in clay soil would have been very difficult.
It was completely chaotic and James Harcourt resigned in frustation. He later ran an asylum at his home in Richmond. The Sunbury School closed in the 1870's and today, 9 of 10 dormitories remain. Jackson's Hill has an interesting history with the Insustrial School, the Lunatic Asylum, "Caloola" and now Victoria University. Joan Brogden searched through 400 boxes of records to find a very distressing story.
Contributed by Jan Hanslow (PPPG Member No. 1057)
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