Academic journal article Hecate

Baby-Farming and Benevolence in Brisbane, 1885-1915

Academic journal article Hecate

Baby-Farming and Benevolence in Brisbane, 1885-1915

Article excerpt


Because of an almost total absence of government services in the second half of the nineteenth century, Queensland's female immigrants who were single, unskilled, working-class, and impecunious were often confronted by the inevitability of accepting money for sexual congress in order to survive. For such unskilled women few jobs apart from general servants of all work, as described by Margaret Anderson, were available.1

In the period 1861-97, Queensland admitted 43,963 single women immigrants (and 73,228 men).2 In 1888, of the 2435 single female immigrants, 2214 claimed a skill.3 A total of 221 were therefore unskilled, but a small number of these might also have been financially independent.

Many of those without families and unable to get work probably found prostitution their only alternative and, consequently, some of them became mothers of illegitimate children whom they often lacked the resources to rear. An unwed mother, even if she had a family, risked being cast out as a social pariah, as such a situation was a great source of shame for all concerned in those days.

Single, unskilled mothers were unlikely to be able to care for a child and earn a living at the same time. Their only option was to find a place for the infant in an orphanage, or otherwise pay a baby-farmer to care for it.

Baby-farming, which probably arose from the needs of impoverished single mothers, prostitutes, and destitute and deserted wives, was a lucrative business, but many of the women who operated these 'farms' were totally unscrupulous and if the mother, for whatever reason, ceased the weekly payments, the child's survival was at risk. Both church and state in the nineteenth century were very tardy in providing any sort of childcare for indigent, unwed mothers.

If a prostitute wished to change her life, her only option was to seek a place in an industrial home. These were benevolent institutions- often teaching a range of domestic skills- but, irrespective of whether they were run by nuns or by Brisbane's middle class philanthropic women, there was always an evangelic and redemptive dimension. Inevitably, some of the women dropped out instead of being 'saved', and the whole vicious cycle would start again.

This article explores how the government and some social institutions attempted to cope with the spread of prostitution and the rise in the illegitimate birth-rate, and gives an example of a benevolent society that catered for prostitutes and illegitimate children. Finally, it profiles one of the prominent philanthropic women of the time.

Prostitution in Brisbane

Prostitutes openly solicited in the streets, and drove in style to their weekly medical examinations, compulsory under the provisions of the Prevention of Contagious Diseases Act of 1868, which in fact gave their occupation legal recognition.4

Brisbane's 'red light' district was close to the city centre- mainly the area from Mary Street along Albert Street towards the Botanic Gardens- and there were also several brothels in the inner suburbs. This area remained the red light district, and 'tolerated houses' of prostitution existed in Brisbane continuously from at least the 1890s until the late 1950s.5 This is despite the fact that the Government legislated in 1897 to make keeping a bawdy house an indictable offence.6 A contemporary newspaper described the area in fulsome tones:

The city of Brisbane has numerous more or less remarkable peculiarities: one of the most extraordinary of these, the way in which the obese authorities of this admired metropolis permit the parading of lower-class harlotry in the principal streets.... Take George Street, Brisbane- the Parliament House end. . .In the immediate vicinity of Margaret Street- largely indescribable in this reputable print; and Albert Street- unspeakable.... The language which occasionally pulsates by night on the chaste air of this favoured locality would shock a beach-comber. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.