Convict Orphans by Lucy Frost

Reviewed by Rod McLary

While the history of the transportation of many thousands of convicts to Australia from 1788 to 1868 is well-known to most Australians, the fate of thousands of abandoned children is less well-known.  But their stories are critical to a fuller understanding of our history.  But who are these abandoned children and why were they considered to be abandoned?  These questions are answered in this extensively researched book by Lucy Frost.

In 1825, the editor of the Hobart Town Gazette warned ‘those abandoned children who prowl our streets in shreds of wretchedness’ are dangerous and ‘pose a threat to the social order’ [1].  The colonists of Van Diemen’s Land campaigned for an institution similar to the well-established Orphan Schools in New South Wales where these children could be placed.

However, very few of the children who were eventually admitted to the orphanage were really ‘orphans’.  In reality, they were the children of convicts and what made them ‘orphans’ was the convict system itself.  The children were considered orphans simply because their mothers had been arrested and sent to prison.  If a child was not being breast-fed, he/she was removed from his/her mother and placed in the orphanage.  As Lucy Frost poignantly states ‘the protection of Australia’s children has had a dark side from the beginning’ [1].

There is a dark and dismal history of institutional care for children in Australia.  From the orphanages of the late nineteenth century through to those of the twentieth century, unbelievable emotional and psychological damage was done to the children unfortunate enough to spend some of their lives in one.  We need only to critically consider the removal of the children of the First Peoples and their placement in those institutions where their experiences echoed those of the ‘convict orphans’ – being trained for either farm work or domestic service.

Drawing on her painstaking research into the limited information available, the author developed a collection of stories from which she wove the narrative of her book.  She describes the orphans’ vulnerability to exploitation and abuse and their unpaid work at the most menial of tasks – what some colonists called ‘white slavery’ [8].  There were few protections available even under the Queen’s Asylum Act.  As the author points out, bringing the perpetrators of domestic violence to court – then and now – depends so much on chance.  Many of the orphans chose instead to suffer in silence.

One such orphan was Joseph Douglas who came from Glasgow when he was four years old.  He spent the next ten years in the orphanage and was apprenticed to a farmer when he was fourteen.  There is no further record of him.  His mother was released from prison at the end of her sentence but made no effort to reclaim her son.

Another was Hannah Bennet whose mother stole a watch in England.  Hannah went into an English prison with her mother, then on convict transport to Australia, and finally into the orphanage.  She was then two-years-old.  Eleven years later, she watched the orphanage’s cook skim the cream off fresh milk; the watery residue was further reduced by adding hot water with ‘a little tea and a smidgen of sugar’ [15] and given to the children for breakfast.

The experiences of these two children were not uncommon.  Some were badly mistreated as was Edith Gregory who was beaten by ‘everyone in the Ramsden household [where she was apprenticed], again and again’ [163] with variously boots, fists and a horsewhip.  Rather unusually for the period, a politician proclaimed in the Tasmanian Legislative Assembly that the orphans ‘should not be treated as chattel property’ [166].

To compound the orphans’ tribulations, the orphans were considered to be ‘tarred with the brush of transmitted degeneracy’ [9] – or more colloquially ‘the convict stain’.  The fear of the stain gained traction during the anti-transportation movement in the late nineteenth century when many Australians denied or attempted to remove any family connection to the convicts.

But as heart-wrenching as these stories are, they are balanced to some extent by heart-warming stories: some orphans were placed with families who gave freely of themselves with kindness and generosity.  The orphans who were fortunate enough to be with these families had a far better chance of successfully taking their place in the community and creating happy lives for themselves.

Lucy Frost has brought to life the histories of a number of orphans and by extension the families with whom they lived and worked.  It is a marvellous piece of social history.  While not always an easy book to read, it is one which is necessary to ensure that the convict orphans have their stories heard and their history takes its rightful place in the broader context of Australian history.  The narrative is well supported by a select bibliography, a comprehensive index and a number of photographs – all of which are sourced.

Lucy Frost is Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Tasmania; and has extensively researched and written about nineteenth-century women and children.  She has written Abandoned Women; No Place for a Nervous Lady and other books.

Convict Orphans


by Lucy Frost

Allen and Unwin

ISBN 978 176106 768 6

$34.99; 296pp


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