Saturday, August 19, 2017

Week 2 #NFHM2017 Blogging Challenge - Careful He Might Hear You

This is my contribution to Week 2 of the #NFHM2017 Blogging Challenge - Careful He Might Hear You.  I've been inspired by Pauleen Cass' post about the orphans in her family.

While technically not orphans, my maternal grandmother and her twin sister were placed in the Randwick Destitute Asylum at the age of 3.  Their mother - Kate Amelia Forfar (nee Ellis) died on 31st December 1905 at Denison Street Arncliffe. 

My maternal great-grandmother Kate Amelia Forfar (nee Ellis)
My maternal great-grandmother Kate (Kitty) Amelia Forfar (nee Ellis) 

Kate had four children at that time - the eldest was Ernest Henry aged 6,  then Dorothy Emily aged 4, then the twins aged 3 - Grace Isabella (Belle) and Helen Kate (Kit) - my grandmother. There was a younger child Walter William but he died earlier in the year from asphyxia.  

The four children were admitted to Randwick Asylum on Saturday 24 February 1906 by their father Walter William Forfar of Denison Street Arncliffe.  They were discharged seven years later back to his care on 20th December 1913 and taken to their new home in Beauman Street Petersham. Ernest was then 13, Dorothy 12 and the twins 11 years old.

What would their life have been like in those intervening seven, nearly eight years?  What are your earliest memories? Could the children remember family life before the Asylum? I suspect that Dorothy and Ernest could.  Would those memories have faded quickly?

There are many places I can look to find information - newspaper articles on Trove, journal articles, books and family memories.

Family Memories

I never knew my maternal grandmother Kit Forfar, the younger of the twins.  She died before I was born.  I only met her twin sister Belle a couple of times and when I was very young.  I rely on the memories my mother shared with me which are very few and she too is dead now so these memories are over 20 years old.  She told me that the twins were very grateful to their step-mother, Alice Bourke, who upon hearing that Walter had placed the children in the Asylum, insisted that he bring them home.  Alice and Walter only married on 15 November 1913 and the children came home on 20 December.  That's a quick increase in the size of a family for a newly-wed! My mother also told me that the twins were glad never to smell carbolic soap again.

The twins' older brother Ernest also died before I was born and our family seemed to have lost contact with their old sister Dorothy's family over the years.  This photo shows most of the siblings together in about 1953 or 1954 we think.  We're not sure what the occasion was. The twins would have turned 50 at the end of 1952. My mother would have been 17 or 18 years old. Tom and Kit would have celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary in August 1954.  Who knows?

L to R Tom McLoughlin, Barbara McLoughlin, Kit McLoughlin (nee Forfar), Belle Wingfield (nee Forfar)  Joyce Jeffrey (nee Wingfield) , Dorothy  Peterson (nee Forfar) and Reg Peterson.

The back of the photo says in Belle's handwriting "Reg was feeling happy here doesn't he look a bird.  Tom looks like a retired publican"

After my mother died, Dorothy's grand-daughter Kath made contact with me but her grandmother had not talked about the Asylum days with her family. They were unaware of that part of her life.  


My mother purchased a copy of Frank Doyle and Joy Storey's publication from the Randwick & District Historical Society Inc. Destitute Children's Asylum Randwick 1852-1916. It was published in 1991 and is a slim volume of 36 pages. It has a Table of Contents (weirdly called an Index) and about 14 illustrations and a map of what is now the Prince of Wales Hospital showing the location of the Asylum which was in Avoca Street Randwick.

Much of the booklet deals with the earlier days of the asylum and you have probably figured out by now that my grandmother and her siblings lived there towards the end of its days i.e. from 1906-1913.  But the last paragraph of the book struck a chord with me.  It is a quote from "an elderly man who had lived there as a boy - told to Mrs Nell Pillars, Founder of the Randwick Historical Society."  (The Society was founded in 1957)

"It was always tough for the kids, and we were always hungry. Bathtime was no fun. The boys were put in a long trough (made from lead) many at a time, and always with 'Lysol' (a strong disinfectant) which stung like hell! At 14 years of age I started my first job."

Asylum for Destitute Children Randwick by Samuel Thomas Gill

Journal articles

Several articles have helped me put the Asylum in context of care available at the time for children in a similar situation. 

Rod Blackmore reminds us in his article "State Intervention with Children- Two Centuries of History" that:

"Fathers...had no recourse to support if they were left alone to care for a young child" 
It is often said that men of that generation did not know how to boil an egg.  This could not be said of Walter William Forfar as he was a pastry cook by trade but the sheer logistics of working whilst caring for four young children would have been very challenging.  

Blackmore also reminds us that "there were fewer families with close relatives".  Walter Forfar certainly had no siblings in the country. His older brother George was living in England and his other brother Ernest was living in Canada.  

I suspect that they were estranged from his wife Kate's family at the time.  They did place a heartfelt death notice in the paper but four children would have been a big ask for anyone to take on.

Death Notice Kate Amelia Forfar SMH 4 January 1906
Death notice for Kate Amelia Forfar courtesy of National Library of Australia, Family Notices (1906, January 4). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 4. Retrieved August 19, 2017, from

Legislation at the time favoured boarding out or fostering neglected children to families rather than housing them in barrack-style accommodation.  The Asylum and similar institutions came in for much criticism in the 1870s after an outbreak of whooping cough killed 77 children in 1867.  

The Find and Connect website gives valuable insight into why Walter Forfar may have chosen the Asylum for his children.  

The difference between the Asylum and the boarding out system was that families could use the Asylum for temporary care, and, so long as they paid maintenance, retain influence over their children and keep their visiting rights. The State Children's Relief Board made children wards of the state and considered boarding out to be a permanent arrangement. It generally prevented boarded out children from seeing their families.

Newspaper Articles 

Searching Trove for newspaper articles has proved very fruitful.  Using the search term "Randwick Asylum" produces a good deal of results rather than the full term "Destitute Childrens Asylum Randwick".  There are 718 articles for the period 1910-1919 and 633 articles for the period 1900-1909.  Of course it is worthwhile looking at advertisements as well. 

Most of the articles describe the annual picnic excursion, Christmas festivities and annual reports of the Society.

Joseph Coulter was the Superintendent of the Asylum from 1886 - 1916 - a total of 30 years. There was a school on site established in 1877 and staffed by government teachers. Parents could visit the children once a month. 

Three days after the children were admitted to the Asylum it is imagined that they joined the other children at the annual picnic described in the article below.

DESTITUTE CHILDREN. (1906, March 1). The Australian Star (Sydney, NSW : 1887 - 1909), p. 8. Retrieved August 19, 2017, from

Does anyone have any idea what the special electric cars might have been?  Are we talking trams do you think? Or perhaps buses?

Empire Day was celebrated at the local school in May and who knew we used to celebrate Trafalgar Day for goodness sake??

THE BRITISH ENSIGN (1906, October 21). The Sunday Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1903 - 1910), p. 5. Retrieved August 19, 2017, from

All stops were out for Christmas Day at the Asylum.

RANDWICK ASYLUM (1906, December 26). The Australian Star (Sydney, NSW : 1887 - 1909), p. 6 (LATE SPORTS). Retrieved August 19, 2017, from

There is not much discernable difference in the accounts of these occasions over the seven years that the children lived there.  

My mother often looked at this photo which Randwick Library has kindly given me permission to use (for a fee) and wonder if the twins and or their siblings were featured in it.

Children in the quadrangle of the main building [n.d. but probably 1909]

The quality of the photos from The Star in an article in 1908 leaves a lot to be desired but my wishful thinking wonders if this is the twins being taught to peel potatoes.  They would have been aged five years old at the time.

The caption reads "Meals are a big feature here in such an institution.  We see here an elder girl teaching younger ones how to prepare vegetables for dinner"

Dorothy would have been just seven at this time, perhaps that is her standing to the right. We'll never know.

However I did find mention in this article of twin sisters as follows:

"Two great pets, small twin sisters, were then brought out to sing for us, for, as explained before, as well as being the hospital quarters, this is the nursery for the very wee mites." (this would have been the Catherine Hayes Hospital building)

The article mentions that there were 165 children resident at the time - 111 boys and 54 girls.  The matron was Mrs Jennings. The article describes garden beds and the boys being responsible for growing vegetables.  They are pictured at the wood heap where they no doubt learned to chop wood.  The girls did the laundry and made clothes.  At the age of 14 children were apprenticed out to agricultural or domestic work.

There are some rather engaging images of the children going on a motoring excursion in 1907.

and the boys having a snack before they get in the cars...

RANDWICK ASYLUM, SYDNEY. (1907, December 21). The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946), p. 29. Retrieved August 19, 2017, from

Of course newspaper articles would have been putting the Asylum's best face forward but they have given me an insight into my ancestor's lives for which I am very grateful.

Subscription Websites

Although we originally obtained the Admission and Discharge records for the Randwick Asylum from the State Archives of NSW, those records are now available through Ancestry. 

Also available through Ancestry are Police Gazette Records and it was through these that I discovered that poor Ernest (recorded as Henry Forfar) seems to have made his way back into state care shortly after being discharged from the Randwick Asylum.  In 1915 he is recorded as having escaped the Gosford Farm Home for Boys on 27th November.  He was described as 15 years of age, 5 foot high, slight build, sallow complexion, dark hair and grey eyes.  He was dressed in blue dungaree suit with a black cap.

Questions for me to follow up

The twins were just eleven years old when they were discharged from the Asylum in December 1913.  Would they have gone to school the following year? According to Carole Riley's blog post here  the Public Instruction Act of 1880 required them to be at school until the age of 15.  Would they have gone to Petersham School as my mother did?  Would they have gone to a local Catholic school given that Alice their step-mother was a Catholic?

References (2010) NSW Australia Police Gazettes 1854, Operations Incl, Provo UT, USA

RANDWICK ASYLUM, SYDNEY. (1907, December 21). The Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 - 1946), p. 29. Retrieved August 19, 2017, from 

DESTITUTE CHILDREN. (1906, March 1). The Australian Star (Sydney, NSW : 1887 - 1909), p. 8. Retrieved August 19, 2017, from

RANDWICK ASYLUM (1906, December 26). The Australian Star (Sydney, NSW : 1887 - 1909), p. 6 (LATE SPORTS). Retrieved August 19, 2017, from

RANDWICK ASYLUM (1908, June 19). The Australian Star (Sydney, NSW : 1887 - 1909), p. 1 (FIRST EDITION). Retrieved August 22, 2017, from

Blackmore, Rod (1998) State Intervention with Children - Two Centuries of History, Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences 30:1, 5-17

Doyle, Frank and Storey, Joy, (1991), Destitute Children's Asylum Randwick 1852-1916Historical Monograph No. 5, Randwick & District Historical Society Inc.

THE CITY WAIF. (1904, September 2). Evening News (Sydney, NSW : 1869 - 1931), p. 7. Retrieved August 19, 2017, from

Gill, Samuel Thomas & Gill, Samuel Thomas & Allan & Wigley. (1856). Asylum for Destitute Children, Randwick Retrieved August 19, 2017, from

Hughes, Lesley (1998) Catholics and the care of destitute children in late Nineteenth Century New South Wales, Australian Social Work, 51:1, 17-25 

Quinn, Peter (2005) That Other State Aid Question: Assistance to Charitable Homes for Children, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society, v.26, 2005 Annual, p.29(14)

State Archives NSW; Registers for the Randwick Asylum for Destitute Children, 1852 - 1915, Series: NRS 13362; Item: 7/3799; Roll: 1868

THE BRITISH ENSIGN (1906, October 21). The Sunday Sun (Sydney, NSW : 1903 - 1910), p. 5. Retrieved August 19, 2017, from


Cassmob (Pauleen) said...

Just catching up with reading. This is a great story Alex but doesn't it make you feel sad for those wee mites? Even at such a young age they were having to work for their board. A parent's death had an enormous effect on the family, whether the death was of a father or mother. Is there a way you can search for whether there were other twins at Randwick at the time? If not, claim the photo at least in an emotional sense.

Cassmob (Pauleen) said...

Alex, I've send you a FB pm. Reading the Randwick Admission books (or indeed any orphanage records) is just so very sad. So much tragedy and family disruption over generations. :(

Alex Daw said...

Dear Pauleen - Yes indeed I reckon I could do a whole PhD on the effect that institutional care has on children and their descendants. I can't begin to imagine what it must have been like. I am a tad obsessed with those Asylum records and would like to do statistics on how many children were admitted per annum while my ancestors were there, how old they were, where they were from and how long before they were "collected" by a parent or put out to an apprenticeship. I think it would be fascinating (well for me anyway)!