An Australian first but destitute asylum a sorry end of the line for poor women with children


Women were the majority of those forced to live in the destitute asylum, a quadrangle of buildings completed in 1856 near today’s Kintore Avenue off North Terrace.

In 1856, the destitute asylum, the first of its kind in the Australian colonies, was providing “indoor relief” to 65 women, 30 men and 43 children. Fifteen of those women were in the final stages of pregnancy or recovering from childbirth. Ten had the added stigma of being unmarried.  

Asylum inmates had to wear a uniform, and to rise, eat and sleep at set times. The able-bodied were obliged to work; men in the asylum gardens and women in the traditional pursuits of cooking and sewing.

Inmates were only permitted to leave the premises one afternoon a week. They were allowed to see visitors for three hours every Wednesday. Parents were allowed to see their children for two hours once a month.

In the 1850s, the colony’s government had to deal with 3000 men, women and children needing poverty relief. This poverty came from excess female immigration that pushed down wages. A failed grain harvest increased unemployment and many wives were deserted by their husbands leaving for the Victorian goldfields.

Until the lying-in hospital was completed in 1878, destitute pregnant women had nowhere to go. Paternity of babies could be denied by claiming that the mothers were prostitutes.

The cost of raising their child was often beyond single mothers. Many women terminated their pregnancies or killed their babies. If convicted for this, they could be hanged but the sentence was automatically commuted to imprisonment with hard labour. If a woman decided to have her baby, it would, in many cases, be given up to “baby farmers”.

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