Although this address by Helen Doxford Harris concerns events during 1890-1900, the issues raised are equally relevant to Port Phillip Pioneers - How did working class women cope if they were sole parents?

Most working class women could not afford to go to a secondary school. Women were not admitted to Melbourne University until the 1880's and fees were high. The role of women was as wives and mothers and thus upper class schools taught women how to run a household and manage servants. There were no government run creches and women did not get the vote until 1908. Unmarried mothers could get maintenance payments if paternity could be proven. As some women turned to prostitution, proof of paternity was difficult to demonstrate. The Adoption Act came into being in 1928.

Working class women took jobs in factories, as domestic servants and as wet-nurses. A woman with children, whose husband had died, who had been abandoned, whose husband was in gaol or who had an illegitimate child, would have to pay another working class woman to mind her children if she did not have help from her extended family. If she had a job in a factory she could leave her children in the morning and collect them in the evening. However, most domestic jobs were 'live in' so children would have to be looked after full time.

The 'nurses' who cared for these children were called baby farmers. They worked in their own home for a negotiable fee and registered with their local council. A suitable woman was of good moral character, literate, and had a clean house. The area of the house determined the number of children cared for.

Not all 'nurses' were of good character. Some sold children in their care. Others disappeared with deposit money, simply abandoning babies. Some watered down milk fed to babies, causing malnutrition and some like Frances Knorr who was an unregistered nurse, strangled babies, buried them and moved on to other premises. As it was the law to register illegitimate babies within 3 days of their birth, women with unregistered babies were loath to complain if their baby disappeared.

Lady 'visitors' from the upper classes helped councils by going to homes and checking on cleanliness and the condition of both the nurses and the children. Desperate mothers were known to abandon their children at baby farms, and infanticide increased during the depression of the 1890's. Not all mothers using baby farms were from working class families. Well to do unmarried mothers 'went away' for a while to the country, or interstate. After the birth of their baby they 'returned', the infant often going to a baby farm. Most 'farms' were in the city not the country.

In 1898 the Infant Life Protection Act administered by the Police was introduced. Roll books recorded the names of children in farms, the date of admission and departure and it became mandatory for an inquest to be held if a death occurred at a baby farm. Nurses had to register every 12 months or if they changed address. Police had to make fortnightly checks of baby farms and every month a return had to be sent to the Chief Commissioner of Police. This took up too much of Police time as over 500 nurses were inspected each month.

In 1908, the care of these infants was handed over to the Department of Neglected Children. Unfortunately the records of this department were burnt. The Police correspondence files from 1853 - 1893 however are held at the Public Record Office. There is a huge amount of material to research. Helen has created many indexes from these records the particulars of which can be seen on her website. For a fee she will search the indexes for you. As there are some 500 boxes of Infant Life Protection Act material (VPRS 937) and 250 boxes of uncatalogued material this is probably a good idea.

(The Above is a Report on the Address by Helen Doxford Harris
at the General Meeting on 14 May 2005)

Contributed by Jan Hanslow ( PPPG Member No. 1057 )

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