Newcastle ‘Girls’ – Chaos and Mayhem in the City

Reflection from Military Barrack window of parade ground and Gate House where some of girls were incarcerated. Photograph: Charles Hardy 2013
(This post has been transferred from ‘Newcastle Government Domain’ WordPress site- originally posted 28 June 2013)

Local Treasures 1233ABC Radio- 28 October 2014

Presenter: Carol Duncan

Interviewees: Ann Hardy & Jane Ison

The University of Newcastle’s Coal River Working Party and the National Trust of Australia (NSW) have been strong advocates of the historic Newcastle Government Domain (James Fletcher Hospital). The stories about the girls who lived there from 1867 to 1871 is perhaps the most controversial in the history of the place. In 1867 two new institutions, the Newcastle industrial school and reformatory were hastily set up in the vacated military buildings during the 1860s. Local historian Jane Ison began her research in 2009 on these girls’ institutions, drawing extensively on records located at State Archives of NSW. Newcastle’s institutional history made a significant contribution to the development of the care of children in NSW. Ann Hardy has also written about the context of care for these girls in NSW.

Prior to the Newcastle Industrial School and Reformatory for girls opening the needs of children were addressed by orphanages. Charitable organisations offered the majority of the care to assist neglected and impoverished children in NSW. In 1866, under the guidance of Henry Parkes, the Premier of NSW, the government passed the Act for the Relief of Destitute Children in an attempt to alleviate the dreadful conditions under which many children were living. It was one of the first government initiatives to help the poor. By 1867 accommodation had been organized to facilitate the removal of children from their families and provide an opportunity to gain education and employment training. Boys were to be placed on the Industrial School Ship Vernon moored in Sydney Harbour. The provision of care for girls was considered vital because it was perceived that if they were to become pregnant at a young age, they would perpetuate the problem of poverty. Eventually the decision was made to fit out the former military barracks in Newcastle and from August 1867, arrests were made across NSW. Children were removed from dangerous situations, appeared in court and were sent to the Newcastle. In 1869 a Girls’ Reformatory was also opened on the same site.

The colonial government was ambitious in efforts to provide care for vulnerable children. In his speech to the girls, Parkes encouraged them to make the most of their circumstances, urging them to look for opportunities that would advance their situation:-

I want you to look upon life hopefully and at the same time try to understand your duty…It should not be forgotten that you are supported here at great cost to the country. I hope your obedience to those placed over you, and your general good conduct, will prove that you appreciate the benevolent intention of the Legislature in making this provision for your permanent welfare. (The Industrial School at Newcastle”, 14 Feb 1868).

Although Parkes let the girls know that their care was a significant cost to government which created a duty to reform, he also tried to empower them, by saying that one day they would make “heads of families, possessing property and influence and enjoying the respect of good men and women”.

These institutions existed at Newcastle for four, short, tumultuous years. The Industrial Schools legislation enabled authorities to accommodate, detain and provide training for children under the age of 16 years who were deemed not to be in the control of their parents, in particular those associated with prostitution. They were often identified by members of the local police force as vagrants or destitute. Once admitted by court order, children were subject to control of the Superintendent of Industrial Schools as their guardian until eighteen years of age.

Some were released at younger ages, either returned to their families or guardians or, after twelve months, apprenticed out. In cases of return to families, police checks were conducted in advance to ensure that the child was being sent into a suitable situation.

The girls who came to Newcastle were caught up in cycles of poverty and neglect and although the institutions themselves became sites of disorder, they were intended to alleviate social distress. The girls were very resilience, testing the management skills of authorities in charge of them. Their behaviour was infamous and their exploits as individuals or as a group were featured in local and national newspapers. Newspapers articles described their colourful and often outrageous behavior, their ‘ribald’ language, frequent escapes and the wild riots.

They were safe in their dormitories at 11 o’clock p.m. They made their escape by thrusting out the fastening of a window facing the verandah and broke open the Clothes Store Room by pushing a pole through one of the windows, from which they extracted some of the clothing they escaped in. They piled up some stones on a Bucket and climbed over the Fence next (to) the residence of the Police Magistrate. They were brought back by the Police at 3 o’clock a.m. and placed in the Cells at the Guard House where they will remain until the decision of the Honorable. Colonial Secretary. [Eliza O’Brien] has absconded from the Institution on three several occasions, she had frequently thrown stones with violence at the new bell, injuring the paint work, and rang it contrary to all discipline. She has gone into the pond against the most positive rules, was one of the most violent in the disturbance of the 9th of July and most active in breaking windows and otherwise injuring the property of the institution. Her language is usually of the most revolting and disgusting description, sometimes very blasphemous. She has taken my keys and robbed my private apartments. On one occasion, in the Muster Room, when correcting other girls for being in the pond and destroying their clothing, she rushed at and struck me before the rest. In the dining room throwing pannikins to destroy them and has several times threatened to take my life. She is constantly instigating other girls to acts of mischief and inciting them to insubordination. Her whole conduct has been such, and her violence of temper so ungovernable, I have no hope of any reformation on her whatever. I would earnestly recommend her removal to another Institution where the means of separation from others is complete and where there are no younger children to be vitiated by her pernicious example. (SRNSW: CSIL: 68/5714 4/637 )

Other girls successfully escaped by climbing out of the windows at the barracks and descending the drainpipe.

Drainpipe at the former Barracks. Photograph: Charles Hardy 2014.

In 1871, the girls of both schools were transferred to Biloela on Cockatoo Island. Girls in the industrial schools were apprenticed to households across NSW, often moving further from their parents and siblings. The Industrial school was eventually moved to Parramatta in 1887 and became Parramatta Girls School.

Thanks to Jane Ison’s research we know a little more about the life and experiences of the girls, and the period in which they lived. Unfortunately one section containing the names of 226 girls has been lost. The register for the reformatory is also missing. Identification of these missing girls requires careful compilation of the scattered records found mainly in the correspondence of the Colonial Secretary. Jane has meticulously compiled histories of individual girls and has provided valuable insights into the essential clues to their identity. Research to compile the names and admission dates of all Newcastle Girls as well as the missing Biloela girls is ongoing.

The names and details of those who staffed the school, the 187 girls admitted to the Newcastle Industrial School and the 6 girls admitted to the Newcastle Reformatory have been identified and biographies written. No biography is ever finished! It has been difficult to find some girls because after they were discharged from Newcastle, they assumed an alias to hide, not only from where they had come and to avoid any association with the infamy of the Newcastle institution (as the institution had gained quite a reputation), but they also wanted to conceal the stigma of their convict ancestry.

Many of their stories are quite remarkable. With rare exceptions, each story is a tale of the poor, vulnerable and disenfranchised during the nineteenth century and every girl deserves to be remembered. Most were admitted to the school after a tragedy had struck their family. Almost all of them were born in NSW and a very large number of their parents or grandparents had been transported to Australia. About half were born before compulsory registration and half after 1856. Their combined histories give an insight into society in NSW in the 1860s and 1870s. These girls survived childhood diseases, a difficult or turbulent early life and their life in the school and often their early employment as a single girl alone on the colonial frontier.

While the life of the poor and vulnerable at this time may make shocking reading, the stories of success are numerous, as most of these girls went on to become loving wives, mothers and successful women.

The following websites provide a brief glimpse into the world of the girls, their families and the many issues facing them.

Newcastle Industrial School for Girls. By Jane Ison

“. . . here is an Asylum open . . .” constructing a culture of government care in Australia 1801 – 2014, pp.81-101. By Ann Hardy

“The Industrial School at Newcastle”, Newcastle Miners’ Advocate 14 Feb 1868.

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