Detecting the past

I thought it would be interesting to share some of the joys – and hurdles – of researching the lives of people from our past. While working on ‘In this place: a history of the Migration Museum site’ my colleague Corinne and I spent hours in archives, libraries, doing online searches, and talking to family members about some of the people who have lived and worked here. The place where the Museum now stands was once part of a large complex that housed a destitute asylum, schools for Aboriginal and orphan children, a girls’ reformatory, and a lying-in home. Over the six decades of its existence, literally thousands of people passed through the Adelaide Destitute Asylum complex.

The State Archives of South Australia at Gepps Cross holds many important resources that assisted us in our research. One of the most interesting items in their archives is the Registers of Infants Born in the Destitute Asylum (GRG29/15) which tells us that 1678 babies were born at the Destitute Asylum Lying-in Home between 1880 and 1909. Of those, 116 (6.9%) were listed as stillborn and, as the Register notes, many others died during the six months that they and their mothers were required to remain at the Lying-in Home. We have transcribed the list of names and birthdates and uploaded it to the Migration Museum website. We’d love to hear from anyone who knows anything about what happened to anyone from the list.

Image: page showing ruled columns and copperplate writing

State Records of South Australia, GRG 28/13

In order to find out more about the women who gave birth here we turned to the Registers of Admissions to the Lying-in Home (GRG28/13), and the Reports on Applicants for Admission to the Lying-in Home (GRG28/14). Both sources provide information about the age, nationality, and marital status of the women, as well as names and locations of putative fathers and any other children the women had. In many cases the registers tell troubling stories of poverty, abandonment, and even sexual abuse by employers or family members. The longer we spent working with the registers the more connected we became to the women whose lives we read about. Mabel Worley was the first of the women who tugged at our sleeves and our heartstrings, demanding that her story be told.

Mabel was a sixteen year old State Ward  when she gave birth to her daughter Hilgrove at the Lying-in Home in November 1888. Two years earlier she had been declared ‘uncontrollable’ by her widowed mother and the magistrate at the Police Courts, and sent to the Girls’ Reformatory at Magill where she stayed for six months before going into service at Grove Hill in Norton Summit. Here Mabel became pregnant to the son of her employer, and his  family paid the State Children’s Department £150 ‘in consideration of all demands’.

The Register of Infants Born in the Destitute Asylum ((GRG 29/15) notes that while Hilgrove left with her mother in May 1889, she was removed by the State Children’s Department a few months later on the grounds of Mabel’s alleged immorality – a charge that was brought by Mabel’s brother Walter. In order to find out more about what happened to Hilgrove we turned to the Ledgers of Children Boarded Out (GRG 27/5). After much frustrated searching we eventually found an entry for Eleanor Giles Worley, as Hilgrove had been subsequently renamed. The entry detailed the foster homes to which she had been sent, and also included references to State Children’s Department correspondence (GRG 27/1). Once we worked out what these references were, we were able to access a series of letters written by Mabel, her brother Walter, and Henry Hawkins, the man she later married, all of which were addressed to State Children’s Department officials. The letters are kept in folders that were annotated by State Children’s Department staff, and this too proved to be an interesting source of further information.

Our encounter with Mabel and Hilgrove led us to search Trove for newspaper reports, and also for information about births, marriages, and deaths. Through we met descendants of Mabel’s sister Rebecca who was also sent to Magill Reformatory after being declared to be an ‘uncontrollable child’. Each of these sources helped to give us a fuller picture of Mabel’s life, her parents, siblings, and their families. We haven’t, as yet, been able to track Hilgove (Eleanor Giles) Worley beyond 1897 but, like all good family researchers, we refuse to admit defeat. We would love to hear from anyone who knows anything at all about her.

Mabel Worley is just one of the many people who passed through the Destitute Asylum, and whose lives we have been able to trace. Over the past twelve months we have stumbled across journeys that ended in tragedy as well as those that augured new beginnings; life-long commitments, and stories of abandonment and poverty; lives in the circus, and lives on the land; crimes of every sort imaginable, as well as successes that beggar belief. Historical research is undoubtedly one of the most satisfying aspects of the work we do at the Migration Museum, and we are always more than happy to hear  from anyone who has a story about the history of our site they’d like to share.

Image: room with open doors and architectural drawing on floor

In This Place, a permanent exhibition at the Migration Museum


  • Annette Falahey says:

    Wonderful Article Dr Nikki Sullivan ! Brilliant !

  • Dianne Spiers says:

    Dr Nikki Sullivan – Re the Registers of Infants Born in the Destitute Asylum (GRG29/15) – babies born at the Destitute Asylum Lying-in Home between 1880 and 1909 – your transcribed & uploaded list of names and birthdates to the Migration Museum website. I have been unable to find the uploaded list on the website.
    I am looking for my Grandmother’s records. Dorothy May Malcolm born to MARY ANN MALCOLM, father recorded as NULL was born at the Lying-in Dept on 10 May 1898. I am endeavouring to do some family research & would like to know more about Mary Ann Malcolm. My grandmother Dorothy May was subsequently adopted or fostered by Mary Agnes Lynch & her husband Henry Francis Lynch who lived in the Adelaide CBD. [They also adopted/fostered a son also born in 1898 Thomas Francis Lynch (birth name & details unknown)].
    There is a MARY ANN MALCOLM listed on the Destitute Asylum Admissions GRG26/5 in 1890 (4 children & pregnant) & in 1891(5 children) and from my research she appears to have been married to an Alexander Samuel Malcolm.
    I am having trouble confirming whether this would be the same MARY ANN MALCOLM who gave birth to my grandmother, Dorothy May Malcolm.
    I am hoping you can help me and I thought this may also assist you in your request hear from anyone who knows anything about what happened to anyone from the list, should they be on it.

  • Dianne Spiers says:

    HI Nikki, I have since found out through resarch and State Records SA that the Mary Ann Malcolm was indeed the birth mother of my grandmother Dorothy May Malcolm Lynch.
    As far as I have been able to find out Mary Ann Malcolm was born Mary Ann Hayes and born in Ireland and travelled to Australia with Mary McKillop as a Nun on the ship St Osyth in 1874 and entered the Order on 8 December 1874 in Adelaide. Her religious name was “Sister Wilfred of the Second Sorrowful Mystery” and was formerly secularised on 18th August 1883. Mary Ann Hayes then went on to marry Alexander Samuel Malcolm on 25 Jan 1887 at O’Halloran Hill SA and they went on to have 5 children with the 5th child Wilfred Stanislaus Malcom being born in the Adel Destitute Assylum and dying in ther age 9 mths after Alexander Malcolm having left Mary Ann. Dorothy May Malcolm was subsequently born in the Destitute Assylum 10 May 1898 to Mary Ann Malcolm. Furtner research and DNA testing has found that Dorothy May’s biolgical father was Alfed Albert Wyman of Adelaide.
    (reseach source also: Suzanne Ryan, Archivist, Sisters of St Joseph, Kensington SA.)

  • Chantelle Mcintyre says:

    Hi there, I’m trying to track down Birth details for my
    Great Grandmother In the Lying-In Home in 1910 Her Name is Violet Thelma Elston Her Mothers Name is Rose Elston. If you could find anything it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks Chantelle.

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