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”.

Other related ADELAIDEAZ articles

School of the air founder Adelaide Meithke, with Phebe Watson, makes a dynamic impression

Lifelong friends Adelaide Miethke and Phebe Watson, made a dynamic impression on education, female teaching and other aspects of South Australian life in early 20th Century. Among many achievements, Meithke started the world’s first school of the air from Alice Springs in 1950. Phebe Watson became senior lecturer at Adelaide Teachers’ College. As secretary and president of the Women’s Teachers League in 1937, Watson and Miethke led 600 of the 1000 women members of the South Australian Public School Teachers' Union to leave and form the South Australian Women Teachers' Guild in protest over their lower salaries.

 



 

Headmasters protest as Blanche McNamara made Australia's first female inspector in 1897

The appointment of Australia’s first woman inspector of state schools, Blanche McNamara, in 1897 was resisted by the males who had dominated as heads of state schools, while most teachers were women, after education became compulsory in 1875. McNamara was one of the women appointed to important government offices after South Australian women won the right to vote in 1895. McNamara became a role model for women teachers. But she also recommended reshaping girls education to make them better fitted for performing domestic duties.

 

Foodbank SA diverting surplus food to more than 100,000 of state's needy every month

Foodbank SA, part of Australia’s largest food relief and food rescue organisation, was serving 117,260 South Australians – 27% of them children – every month in 2018. Based on an American concept, Foodbank works with South Australian charities to redirect surplus food donated by supermarkets, restaurants, manufacturers, growers and the public. It also uses agencies, communities, councils or government departments to identify areas with food insecurity. Launched in 2000, Foodbank SA has food hubs in Berri, Mount Gambier, Whyalla, as well as Edwardstown, Bowden, Christies Beach and Elizabeth in the Adelaide metropolitan area. In a step away from the traditional model, Foodbank SA has started a mobile food hub to get food to families living in the regional areas of highest demand. The mobile food hub was expected to travel to Murray Bridge, Gawler, Victor Harbour, Barossa Valley and Port Adelaide/Enfield, particularly identified as being areas of greatest need with limited service or access to food relief. The mobile food hub has also been designed to assist families during natural disasters and support drought-affected regions. ElectraNet electricity transmission company sponsored the hub for the first four years, after the state government provided the initial start-up grant. Food to be available from the mobile food hub include pantry staples, healthy food options with free fruit and vegetables and meal packs. To access the Foodbank food hubs, attendees must have a referral voucher from associated agencies. Foodbank had more than 200 volunteers.

 

Mary Lee a prime mover in campaigns for social purity, better working conditions, the vote

Impoverished widow Mary Lee was an important founding force of the Social Purity Society, the Women’s Suffrage League (1888) and the Working Women’s Trade Union (1890). Lee, at 58, had migrated from Ireland with a daughter in 1879 to care for a sick son. After her son died, Lee took up campaigning passionately for women at a time when they had few legal rights, poor wages and working conditions, and restricted opportunities in public life.

Madeline Rees George leads girls' education at Advanced School equal to the best for boys

Madeline Rees George, with a governess background, was appointed in 1880 as part-time German and French mistress at the new Advanced School for Girls in Franklin Street (later Grote Street), South Australia's only state secondary school at that time. As headmistress from 1886, she worked with education inspector-general John Anderson Hartley to maintain high academic standards. Emulating English girls' high schools, Rees George provided higher education for girls equal to that in the best private boys' schools.

 

First female JPs in 1915, first female lawyer in 1917 but no women let onto juries until 1965

Having been the first in the world in 1895 to gain both the right to vote and stand for parliament, South Australian women were energised to assert women’s place in the justice system. In 1911, Evelyn Vaughan (wife of future premier Crawford Vaughan) spoke for a deputation to Labor premier John Verran in favour of women being able to serve on juries. This was not successful but, in 1915, the Vaughan Labor government did appoint four women – a first for the British empire – as justices of the peace. They were Elizabeth Nicholls (Women’s Christian Temperance Union president), Jane Price (wife of the first Labor premier Tom Price), Mrs E. Cullen (Adelaide Hospital board member) and Cecilia Dixon (a founder of the Travellers Aid Society). Also in 1911, South Australian women were allowed to practise as lawyers, opening the way for Mary Kitson, the state’s first female law graduate, to be admitted to the Bar in 1917. Queensland was the first state to allow women jurors in 1923 but the South Australian campaign for it took another 40 years. A deputation to the Tom Playford government in 1951 was led by Dr Constance Davey and Phyllis Duguid. The chief secretary Reginald (R.J.) Rudall, from the Adelaide legal firm dating back to 1854, agreed that women were “competent, able and intelligent” but he simply didn't favour them as jurors. Roma Mitchell QC led a renewed unsuccessful campaign in 1960, with a deputation of seven women’s organisations introduced to Playford by the LCL MPs Jessie Cooper and Joyce Steele. In a surprising reversal, Playford in 1962 agreed to women jurors  from 1965.

Contact Us

We welcome positive constructive feedback