AN ARTIST'S LIFE

AN ARTIST'S LIFE

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22 October 2012

Remembering the Orphans


 More than eighty five years ago Paul Jones and his little sister Enid used to walk up a steep track from Murrell St (now Rattle St) in New Town and across the cemetery to Sunday School in the Parish Hall at St John's. Today he was back here to attend a ceremony arranged by the Friends of the Orphan Schools, St John's Park Precinct.

Paul had a pretty happy childhood with loving parents and indulgent grandparents; the children confined at the Orphan Schools in the nineteenth century were not so lucky.

Governor Arthur (in office 1824-36) commissioned the colonial architect John Lee Archer to design an Orphan Asylum, the first built expressly for this purpose, to house destitute and orphaned children, and it operated on this site from 1833 until 1879. In 1848 about 450 children were housed there. Most were of convict parents but there were several aboriginal children, among them Mathinna, Fanny Cochrane-Smith and William Lanne.

Dianne Snowden from Friends of the
Orphan Schools, St John's Park Precinct.
Her great great grandfather William
Butler was one of the children
living at the School
The school was operated by the Convict Department and conditions were tough. Food was often in short supply, sometimes stolen by those in charge of the orphans, dormitories were overcrowded and punishments were brutal. Several epidemics – scarlet fever, measles, whooping cough and scarletina – wreaked havoc. In the 1850s Edward Swarbreck Hall, medical practitioner, took up the cause of the orphans and as a result there were inquiries into conditions at the school. No fault was found with the management, and there were some improvements, but Hall continued his campaign. After further inquiries the school was found unviable and closed in 1879.

Sections of the original Orphan Schools became the New Town Charitable Institution, caring for the poor and infirm until 1920; later it became simply known as "St John's" and the focus shifted to aged care.

Friends of the Orphan Schools, St John's Park Precinct was formed in 2007 under the umbrella of the National Trust (Tasmania) to research the history of the site and work towards a listing on the National Heritage Register.

As part of this effort they have had memorial plaques made as a monument to the more than four hundred children who died at the Orphan Schools. It was unveiled this morning by the Lord Mayor, Alderman Damon Thomas, who stressed the historic importance of the entire St John's Park area.

The Lord Mayort, Alderman
Damon Thomas, with Paul Jones
 Later, in conversation, he remarked that people in general would have accepted the treatment of children at the Orphan Schools as "just the way things were"; those managing the institution would have believed they were doing the best they could.

I half-remember a quotation about future generations saying of us, somewhat patronisingly, "they did the best they could, according to the standards of the time". But what will they be talking about? What are we doing now that will appal our descendants a century and a half from now?

One thing is for certain, however. With a bit of help the Friends of the Orphan Schools will make jolly sure the old Orphan Schools, and St John's Church, which was built in 1834 to serve it and the parish of New Town, will still be standing.


attending the unveiling at the old Parish Hall


For more information about the Friends of the Orphan School, and to offer your support, see http://www.orphanschool.org.au

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