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Remembering Australian Child Slavery

By Richard Hil, Joanna Penglase and Gregory Smith - posted Friday, 26 October 2007

The bicentenary of the passage of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act 1807 has been greeted with much contrition and moral reflection. Yet despite reassurances that the worst excesses of slavery are over, it has been estimated by the UN that currently there are around 27 million people world-wide suffering slavery. They do so in that they are controlled against their will, made to work without pay, and constantly face the threat of violence and intimidation.

In Australia there are occasional references to human trafficking and slavery, although, by and large, this is seen as a problem restricted to poorer countries. Slavery is also considered as something anchored in the distant past, or in the histories of other nations, remote and distant to the Australian way of life. But is it?

Published in August 2004, the report of the Senate Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care, Forgotten Australians, documented the experiences of Australian-born children who experienced institutional life in orphanages, children’s homes and out-of-home 'care'. Some of these children were state wards; others were placed in care by parents or relatives unable to care for them in an era of almost non-existent community or government support for families in crisis.


The 700 people who gave evidence to the Inquiry constituted a fraction of the over 500,000 people who as children passed through the doors of various institutions over the course of the last century. Many of these 700 witnesses were in their sixties or seventies and could only recently tell their harrowing stories. It is not possible to read page after page of evidence from such people without shuddering at the nature and extent of the trauma visited upon them. The callousness and disregard for children by so-called ‘carers’ is, even with the most generous hindsight, difficult to fathom.

This was not a case of 'rotten apples' where one institution became a 'hell hole' – a commonly used term among witnesses - but rather was a systemic and systematic form of cruelty inflicted on tens of thousands of children who, through no fault of their own, had already suffered the unimaginable loss of their own parents. The physical, emotional, sexual and other forms of cruelty and neglect which these children endured have resulted in suicide, fractured and fraught relationships, unemployment, isolation, depression, anxiety, alcoholism and drug addictions, and various combinations thereof.

The Forgotten Australians report also touched on another, less documented, feature of this ‘care’ –that of slave labour. While slavery in the Australian context is often talked about in relation to the domestic, farm and industrial labour of indigenous and migrant children, the Forgotten Australians report shows that child slavery was also widespread amongst children who were predominantly white, Australian-born citizens.

The Committee of the 2004 Inquiry reported that it received "numerous stories outlining experiences of child labour in institutions". As a Victorian state ward in the Salvation Army Boys’ Home at Box Hill in the 1950s stated: "Work, floggings… floggings, work was my whole life at the homes, which now seem to me nothing but concentration camps". Under the heading Child Labour Exploitation’ the report documented a range of complaints ranging from the daily workload of chores to physically demanding work in laundries and on farms, work that many described as ‘slave labour’.  Sixty-six people, or 7.6 percent of the submissions to the Inquiry, spoke of this. Forgotten Australians observed that:

"It appears that in government institutions children were not put to employment insofar as they were not used to provide free labour through farming or laundry work. However, children in government institutions were often used to perform the day-to-day labour of running the home by assisting with kitchen, garden or other domestic duties that were a form of free labour. This form of labour was common to all institutions [i.e. state and Church], with many descriptions of harsh domestic duties including constant cleaning, scrubbing and polishing floors and furnishings; of scrubbing bathrooms and toilets; cleaning windows; of working in the laundry; of hours spent peeling vegetables and other kitchen duties."

It is no exaggeration to say that without the labour of children many institutions would not have been able to operate at all.  A former inmate of the Ballarat Orphanage observed:

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About the Authors

Richard Hil is Senior Lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University, NSW.

Joanna Penglase grew up in a Children’s Home in Sydney in the post war era. She is the author of “Orphans of the Living” Growing up in ‘care’ in 20th century Australia (Curtin Uni Books/Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005) and the co-founder of CLAN, a support and advocacy organisation for people who grew up in orphanages and Children’s Homes. CLAN helped to establish the 2004 Senate Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care.

Gregory Smith spent much of his youth in institutional care. He is now about to complete an undergraduate degree at Southern Cross University.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Richard Hil
All articles by Joanna Penglase
All articles by Gregory Smith

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