Beyond the Internet Week 20: Orphanages

Beyond the Internet

This is Week 20 in my Beyond the Internet series in which I explore the sources of information beyond our computer screens. This week the topic is Orphanages.  For some reason this week I’ve been procrastinating and it was tempting to defer this topic to later in my schedule. Is it because the topic is over-whelming? Too sensitive? I don’t know enough? Not sure……but it’s now technically week 21 so I need to get on with it.

Are you aware of any family members you’ve researched who spent time in an orphanage? Of course, the very name is something of a misnomer, as at least some of the children who entered these institutions were definitely not orphans.

I think I first became aware that one of my grandfather’s siblings had placed her illegitimate child in the orphanage when I letter-dropped all the Kunkels listed in the Australian phone book, or perhaps it was one of those confidential conversations family historians sometimes find themselves privy to. I did know that another child had been placed in a baby farm at New Farm and had died as an infant, because he was listed in the Archives inquest indexes, but I hadn’t known about this one. The descendants had little information about their ancestry and wanted to know more. I provided them with the contact details for Nudgee Orphanage so they could apply for access to any information contained in their father’s records. They received no response so the matter was in abeyance for some time.

It may have been Judy Webster’s blog post on this topic that alerted me to the fact the records had been opened. (Judy also highlights other sources for records of children who may have been taken into care). On the next visit to Queensland State Archives I checked out the admission details,  not only open now but also available online. I don’t plan on highlighting any names in particular but I’ll give you a sense of some of the comments found in the St Vincent’s (Nudgee) Orphanage admission records:  “illegitimate, father not known”; “Parents in lockup, incorrigible drunkards,” “mother dead, father deserted”, “mother insane, father unable to look after”, “father dead, mother unable to support”. This latter mother admitted two children first, then over the next few years, another two. Only one of the four has any annotation that they were taken back from the orphanage.

In short, tragedy condensed in almost every line of these documents.  I remember as a young girl going to the Anglican children’s home, Tufnell Home, in Brisbane with the Girl Guides. I assume they were trying to teach us charity and how well off we were, but I wonder if they thought how it must have felt to the children living in the home to see us visit then be able to go away to our parents and safe, secure homes.

But back to the practicalities, what these records do is provide you (if you’re lucky) with the name of the father, perhaps the only place it will be recorded. As a result I was able to tell my relatives the name of their biological grandfather. This in turn poses many challenges for us as family historians, especially around issues of privacy (for our own and the other family) and the impact of the news on the family members concerned (with no options for counselling). In this particular case, I knew the family were all very keen to know anything about their father’s history but I still had to give it a lot of thought, especially as relatively brief research showed that both families still lived in comparatively short distance from each other in rural Queensland. What would it mean to the other family if they found out? Illustrating six degrees of separation (or less), I was talking to my closest friend about this on the flight to Darwin. Blow me down, but another of her family friends was actually descended from this same family on the Darling Downs.

So perhaps you can see why I’ve been dragging my feet about this post. Perhaps it should have been called “family history ethics” and not just “orphanages”. There are so many layers of social and moral obligation around this sort of issue.

Each state, and country, will have different records for orphanages so it’s wise to investigate the catalogues of the relevant archives and it’s quite possible there may have been multiple orphanages or homes, so you do need to look in your region of interest. You may also find police records, government allowances, case files, police gazette desertion notices, or other records which will bear investigation.

In the British records, for example, you may need to look at workhouse or hospital records, assuming you can gain access to them.  I’ve been singularly unsuccessful helping a friend to find her father’s original birth information as he was fostered out before adoptions were formally recognised.

As a tip, too, you may find that particular parishes are associated with an “unmarried mother’s home” as they were once called, or even more judgementally a Magdalene Home. Of course the birth indexes are likely to tip you off that a child is born illegitimately, but it’s then worth checking the most likely parish for their baptism records to see what further information you can find. In Brisbane Wooloowin Catholic parish is one that is definitely affiliated in this way, and you will find entries of children coming from there to the Nudgee orphanage.  Also don’t forget to search under the official name of the orphanage if you know it to ensure you get the full list of resources.

Wherever you look, be prepared and wear your best emotional armour because these truly are incredibly sad documents.  So much human misery for defenceless little children…it breaks my heart. “Suffer the little children to come unto me” seems pertinent.

8 thoughts on “Beyond the Internet Week 20: Orphanages

  1. We have a number of orphans in the family tree; it seems to be one of our themes. Some of these people are still living, and with Victorian records, only they can request a copy of their files. However, given the stories they have told, there’s no way I’m prepared to open their wounds.


    1. I absolutely agree Fi…the whole topic is fraught, which I suspect is why I was procrastinating. The only thing is that in the case I discussed they really wanted to know, and their father was already dead. Did I do the right thing? I don’t honestly know.


    1. I remember reading that story Prue…quite horrendous. I wonder if the surviving parents realised the odds they were putting their kids up against. Times were certainly tough to have to put the kids in “schools” but with family probably stretched for money, and needing to earn an income, what choice did they have.


  2. Pauleen, this was not only and interesting post, but one that makes us think about our responsibilities as family historians and individuals. I have been struggling with my grandfather’s entries in his diary during the time that he was the supervisor of the Poor Farm — he named names of a few people that he had to escort to and from the state mental institution and the Poor Farm. Edit out the names?? Then where does the “editing” stop? For me as a historian, I search for this information where ever I can find it; should I decide who is privy to the diary and who is not? Some of the names that come up in the diary are friends and neighbors or his (and in a weird way have become my friends and neighbors), so does his information enhance or harm.

    I can play either side, on any given day — but my guess is that when the time comes to publish the diary, the historian given to transcribe his words and thoughts, will do exactly that — as faithfully as I can. But still ;;;;


    1. Thanks Joan, you have highlighted the ethical issues we face. In a transcript of the diary I would probably include exactly as he’s written it. Attitudes have changed so what was once socially unacceptable is less so now. With things I’ve found out or been “told” informally, the line is more blurred. Perhaps naming the people concerned will explain for their families now, where those ancestors got to.


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