Originally referred to as Coal River and later King's Town, Newcastle is situated at the mouth of the Hunter River in NSW. The river was first discovered and named by Europeans in September 1797 by Lieutenant John SHORTLAND, nearly ten years after the arrival of the First Fleet, while searching for convicts who had escaped from Sydney. Coal was mined and exported from the area from as early as 1799.1 In March 1804, after the Castle Hill rebellion, those Irish convicts involved in the uprising who were not executed, were sent to Coal River thus establishing Newcastle as the first location for secondary punishment outside Sydney.2


Plan of the City of Newcastle, Parish of Newcastle, County of Northumberland, NSW [1873] M46443
Image Courtesy of the Cultural Collections University of Newcastle (Australia)

The State of NSW

The population of NSW in 1867 was estimated to be 444,059 persons – 242,745 males and 201,304 women.4 While transportation had ceased in NSW, by 1867 many long-term transportees were still under sentence. Many of these men and women, as well as freed or pardoned transportees from Van Diemen's Land had moved to Victoria and NSW to seek gold. Many were settling and having families and establishing farms, businesses and homes in Sydney and country towns. Large families meant that the younger children of these men and women were often placed in conditions of poverty due to a high mortality rate for adults caused by accidents at work for men and childbirth for women. A death of one parent then placed the family under pressure as without support, it was difficult to earn a living and still care for dependent children. There was little or no support for those who had not been able to establish themselves or were without their extended family. There was no Government support for people in this situation and while there was limited support for children under eight, there was nothing for older children other than charitable institutions. Sydney and other large towns suffered from the lawlessness of 'wild white children' and 'street Arabs' who were considered to be a developing criminal class.5

BDM Registration

NSW made the registration of births, deaths and marriages (BDM) compulsory after the passing of An Act for Registering Birth, Deaths and Marriages on 1 March 1856. District Registrars became responsible for the registration of all births, deaths and marriages in NSW. Parents were responsible for registering births. Ministers registered marriages. Deaths were registered by the owner of the house where the death occurred. Most events were registered following verbal advice from the informant and these records were sent to Sydney at the end of March, June, September and December. The Sydney Registry then consolidated these returns, listing Sydney registrations first, followed by metropolitan districts and then the country districts in alphabetical order. The 1856 act also provided for the registration of births and deaths at sea en route to NSW.6

Undertaking this research has meant that some birth, marriage and death registrations have been purchased and the generosity of descendants has enabled the contents of other registrations held by them to be incorporated into the biographies. The 'V' reels of the pre-1856 baptisms, marriages and burials have been read wherever possible.7 On these reels Catholic baptisms consistently record the maiden name of a girl's mother but Presbyterian and Church of England records do not provide this information. VINE HALL states in regard to these records that it is

… important to stress that the parish register information held by these state registries is not usually in the form of original records, but transcript copies of them. Whenever an original record is transcribed by hand, or a typescript is made, there is a chance of transcription error occurring. Many such errors have occurred in the Australian system. Some of these so-called "errors" can prove to be deliberate attempts to distort or cover up the truth such as bigamous marriages, or those which occurred less than nine months before the birth of a first child.8

For the purposes of this site and because of changes in recording of references to the 'V' reels on NSW BDM Index, this site has varied the reference for clarification. Prior to 2016 births, marriages and burials were identified on the CDs and on the online index using the cumbersome format V(year)(number) (volume number)(year). After the upgrade of the site they were recorded as (year)/(number) V(year)(number) (volume number). This site will record these references with the simpler V(volume number) (year)/(number). All mention of A, B, and C on the reference will be removed as they are inconsistent, often non-existent, incorrect or misleading as to the location of the record. This modified reference further identifies the chronological process required to locate the actual birth, marriage or burial on any microfilm, remembering that within almost every volume baptism records are recorded first followed by marriages and finally burials. Changes to the recording of references are slowly being made throughout the site.

The original reference V18522973 39A/1852, which is now recorded on the NSW BDM Index as 2973/1852 V18522973 39A will therefore be recorded on this site as V39 1852/2973.

Transcription errors have also been identified in some registration numbers recorded on the online NSW BDM Index especially in the 'V' reels. When such an error has been found, or an error is suspected, a footnote has been added to the relevant biography identifying that error. Illegitimate births almost always appear on the NSW BDM Index because a father is not recorded but many illegitimate births have been uncovered where the given names of two parents have been provided. Duplicate registrations for the same event may also be found indexed under two names so a search using only the register number may provide some details appearing on the record without the need to purchase a particular record.

It must be acknowledged that a birth registration may not necessarily have been recorded using the name under which a child was eventually known. This is true in the case of some admissions to Newcastle. By the time of admission, circumstances of a family may have changed so the child had acquired a different surname from the one that appeared on the registration of her birth. Accents also caused 'errors'. At the time of their marriage many girls adopted a former name and occasionally provided themselves with a surname of their choosing. When a girl died her death was registered with the name by which she was known and only the details of the registration would identify her maiden name and only if it was known to the informant.9 The following verified baptisms or births of inmates at the school will not be easily located on the NSW BDM Index under the name they were using by the time they were admitted.

Inmate Registered Name Registration Number/Year
Louisa Josephine ARDIS Louisa J. OTTES 10356/1859
Jane BAKER Susan E. BAKER V38 1852/855
Elizabeth BERRY Elizabeth BAILEY 13681/1859
Margaret BEVAN Ellen BEVAN V39 1852/2973
Mary Ann CALLAGHAN Mary Ann DANFORD V39 1853/177
Margaret COONEY Margaret ERWIN aka CONLEY 6511/1856
Eliza HANMORE Elizabeth MOORE V67 1848/1054
Rachel McCURDY unnamed McCURDY 4875/1859
Hannah McGILL Hannah SHORT 193/1855 Reg. 33 (Tasmania)
Mary Ann NOWLAN Mary Ann NEWLAND V44 1857/2164
Rachel SOLOMON Female SOLOMON 9076/1857
Ann WILLIAMS Ann Gill GOBY Volume 5 p. 59 (South Australia)
Rachel WILLIS Margaret WILLIS 8474/1860

While investigations concerning the place of birth of the 193 inmates in Newcastle are ongoing, currently 157 of the girls admitted to the Industrial School and Reformatory have been confirmed as born in NSW. Their birth locations were sourced from

  1. NSW BDM Index – where any birth or baptism registration was matched with another government or family record
  2. registrations of confirmed older siblings if a registration for a particular child was missing
  3. location of a birth stated on a marriage registration or on an online tree for identified girls or their family
  4. court statements identifying a birth location during any trial for an inmate
  5. a confirmed birth or marriage in NSW for either parent
  6. NSW gaol records where a birth location or ship of arrival was identified in the description

Births of these 155 girls occurred within the eight years before compulsory registration10 and within the nine years after compulsory registration.11 Statistics for these girls therefore provide a general indication of the number of children in NSW whose baptism or birth doesn't appear in the NSW BDM Index. The surprisingly high number of apparently unregistered births from the period after the commencement of compulsory registration in 1856 was probably predominantly due to the lower socio-economic and literacy levels of their mother.

Years Total Number Records Found % Found Records Not Found % Not Found
Number of NSW Inmates 157 117 75% 40 25%
Baptisms: 1848 to 1856 82 58 71% 24 29%
Births: 1856 to 1866 77 59 77% 18 23%

The Life of the Poor

The circumstances of the poor reflected in the letters connected with the girls of Newcastle, indicate that the living conditions of many were dire. Police reports written by constables about the families of the girls described the conditions under which some of them lived.

The petitioners12 … only shelter is the boughs of some trees in the bush, at Kingsgrove, near Canterbury. They have no means whatever of providing for their child.13

Occasionally newspaper reports recorded living conditions. The life of the sister of one of the girls14 living in the areas of the Bark Huts and Liberty Plains15 is described

The walls were literally blackened with smoke. Furniture, there was none, one small shelf, eighteen inches square, contained a few articles requisite for holding food. The half of a smoke dried fish, a little tea and sugar, a few pieces of broken crockery, and the equipment of the sitting room is told. That a woman presided over this abode of wretchedness, and that woman, a native of the colony, is almost incredible. The floor, which was nothing else than the bare ground, looked chilly and damp, and to render it still more unfit for human habitation, 'Dick' had ingeniously cut away the bottom of a slab near the fireplace, and made a drain to save the trouble of taking the slops outside. This drain had just been used, and the smell that arose from it, mingled with the noisome fumes of opium, tobacco, and the effluvia caused by neglect of personal cleanliness was absolutely disgusting. Our guide … ushered us into the 'bedroom,' which wore a slightly more presentable appearance than the 'sitting room.' This apartment, between the slabs of which the cold wind whistled, contained two beds that occupied nearly the whole of the available space – there being just enough room to pass between them. Seated on the side of one of these was a young woman, some 23 years of age; she might be said to be 'good looking,' her conversation showed her to be intelligent. She seemed to be recovering from a severe illness. She did not appear unhappy, unless it could be inferred from a remark of hers, 'that people got used to anything from constant suffering and misery.'

Even within the city living conditions in poorer areas were dangerous and unsanitary. Not only were crime rates high in the area of Baldock's Lane,16 Durand's Alley,17 and Syrett's Lane18 in Sydney, these areas were described as 'hovels and rookeries' and were unsanitary and dangerous. The 'abominable stench' in Baldock's Lane came from the rotten and putrid rubbish left by the rag and bone dealers, so an order for demolition was made in 1880.19


Fowler's Square (1880)
Image courtesy of Trove - Digitalized Newspapers
The Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil (Melbourne, Vic. : 1873 - 1889)20

The description of one notorious Sydney building suggested:

… a fearful condition of life. The Puzzle is a brick house at the corner of Victoria-place (the entrance from Liverpool-street) and a narrow lane which gives access to Sussex-street. A narrow lane at right angles to this joins another lane, the two forming a T, one end of the top stroke of which affords an outlet to George-street, near Goulburn-street, and the other end leads into Sussex-street. Fronting these lanes are numerous tenements. The Puzzle consists of two buildings, joined on the second story, the larger of which would, for size, make a comfortable six-roomed house, two rooms on each flat, for it is three storeys high, the rooms having the disadvantage of low ceilings throughout. The top storey appears to have been but recently added, the … other portion is a brick structure two storeys high, a narrow passage running between the bottom storeys of the two buildings, which are connected and form one on the second flat. The larger of the buildings has a main entrance from Victoria-place ; the entrance to the small one is also from Victoria-place. The main building has also a second or back entrance through the narrow passage between the two structures. The passage was unlighted, and there was an unwholesome stuffy smell about it. … From the end of the passage we turned … a single room, about 13 feet by 11 feet, with mouldy-looking ceilings only about 9 feet high. The floors were bare, of course, of everything but dirt. The furniture consisted of one bedstead, one wooden chair without a back, a common chest of drawers, small old chiffonnière safe, and small table. On the mantelpiece was the frame of an old American clock, the works of which had disappeared, and a few empty bottles. At one side of the fireplace was a shelf with nothing but litter on it, and the only sign of food having been prepared, or of any having been in the room, was a greasy fryingpan in the middle of the floor. Over the bed were thrown some tattered mosquito curtains, which had once presumably been white, and the bed itself was covered with a collection of filthy rags. … (another room) … on the second flat, and about 8 feet x 10 feet, and the same low characteristically dirty ceiling. In addition to a bedstead covered with filthy bedding, were a chair, small table, chest of drawers, and chiffonniere which had seen its best days. This room was distinguished from the others by having a few pieces of dirty oilcloth on the floor. … This room was littered with scraps of vegetables, a few cooking utensils, and various other articles, and the odours were simply sickening. The furniture consisted of a double bedstead, but in the absence of the usual laths a bed had been made up of a little more than half the width, and covered with dirty clothes. There were also a table and chair, and a sort of safe. In another room, far from cleanly, yet much more wholesome than any of the others we had been in, lived a man and wife and two little boys. It was only a small room, yet the four people lived, and most of the cooking had to be done there. If the room were clean, still the vile odours from a portion of the house would be wafted into it along the narrow funnel-like passage at the end of which it is situated. … Another room … had its entrance from the lane which runs to Sussex-street. … the number of occupiers was two or three to one room, … The tenants in the few rooms having fireplaces appear to do their cooking in their own rooms; but for the convenience of the others there is a box-like place of galvanised iron in one corner of the yard, wholly inadequate for the purpose, … There are only two small latrines in another portion of the yard, although the house, when full, will probably have as many as 70 or 80 persons in it. … The bathroom—for there is only one for the whole establishment—consists of a tiny closet, in which there is a sink, where a person might wash either hands or face; but there is no bath, … Altogether there are 27 or 28 rooms in the building, … The rooms are let at 8s. per week for furnished, and 5s. per week unfurnished. The crooked passages and extraordinary division of the rooms make it difficult for persons to find their way, and this circumstance has caused the house to be styled 'The Puzzle.' Its construction, the absence of anything like proper ventilation, and the system of over-crowding, to say nothing of its general unwholesomeness, are dangerous to health and standing menace to the community in that respect. There is another danger to which its inhabitants are exposed—that of fire, for should an outbreak occur in the lower portion of the building it would in all probability be accompanied with an appalling loss of life, as those in most of the upper rooms would be cut off from escape.

The Law

Until 1867, industrial schools were occasionally operated by charities, churches and benevolent individuals but never by the government of NSW. In 1867 the establishment of the Vernon and the Newcastle Industrial School were an initiative of Henry PARKES.21 He visited the school on the occasion of an inspection on 9 February 1868. Before leaving, he spoke to the girls 'many of whom were moved to tears by the earnestness and kindly feeling with which he spoke.' He said:

I wish to say a few words to you, girls and children, with the view of explaining the situation you occupy in being detained here. The difference between civilized society and a savage state consists chiefly in the protection afforded by law and authority to all persons in holding possession of whatever is their own. This protection, enabling every one, whether he be the possessor of a few articles of clothing only or the owner of a landed estate, to live in the enjoyment of his property, secure from all molestation, is the result of government. But the maintenance of law and order requires of all persons a certain kind of submission and obedience, in exchange, as it were, for the protection I speak of. Thus, in a civilized state it becomes necessary that all children and young persons should be so far instructed and disciplined as to understand their relations to the rest of society. It is the duty of parents to do this for their children. In your cases, unhappily, either by reason of your being without parents, or having parents that have neglected their duty, you have not received , and were in circumstances where you were not likely to receive, this necessary instruction. Therefore the power that represents law and authority, in other words the Government, has stepped into the place of parent, and has taken possession of you and detained you here that you may be instructed, trained, and fitted to fill useful and honourable places in after life. It is for your own good and the good of society that you are detained in this school. There is no other object whatever in keeping you here. Your forcible detention here in no way reflects discredit on any of you. Your position is not of itself a degradation. You are not prisoners, nor is this a prison. It is, therefore, open to any of you, by making the best of the advantages which are now placed within your reach, to raise yourselves to positions of respectability and usefulness. Whatever the past may have been, you do not now live under any disadvantage that may not be overcome. If you had been left in the state of vice and misery where the law found you, none would have been found to respect and few to pity you, and you must indeed have eaten the bread of bitterness. Privation and disease, with unwomanly associations, would have been your lot, followed in many instances by an untimely death. Now, it rests with yourselves, one and all, to be respectable women. If you take advantage of the present opportunities afforded you – if you profitably employ the season of instruction which is now present, but which will soon pass away, never to return – many of you may become heads of families, possessing property and influence, and enjoying the respect of good men and women. But remember you must face trial and difficulty, resist temptation, and strive resolutely to attain this. I want you to look upon life hopefully, and at the same time try to understand your duty, and try to do it. 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.

Industrial Schools and Reformatories

Even at the time, the terms 'Industrial School' and 'Reformatory' were confused within the terms of the act and even before the opening of the reformatory in January 1869, the Newcastle institution was referred to as a reformatory. In the case of HOWARD and SOLOMON in 1874, the use of the word 'reformatory' was used generically. These girls were both admitted to the industrial school.

Updated August 2016

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