Ructions and Resilience: A Family Crisis and the Meteor Park Orphanage (Neerkol), 1916 by Lesley Synge
May 14 @ 12:30 pm
The primary source for this essay is a case file in the Queensland State Archives related to four children in the care of an orphanage near Rockhampton compiled by the State Children Department of Queensland. Meteor Park Orphanage, also known as Neerkol Orphanage, was operated by the Sisters of Mercy. The four children in care were my great-aunts and great-uncles – their plight as youngsters previously unknown to me.
The long-buried correspondence file reveals a tussle over the children by the protagonists: the head nun, the senior public servant in the Rockhampton office of State Children, the mother, the estranged father, and the miner who declared himself willing to step in to provide. Other players were the head office in Brisbane and the police officer commissioned to investigate the mother’s circumstances. The file reveals what was at stake – would the family escape the poverty to which their natural father had reduced them in the declining goldmining town of Ravenswood in North Queensland and start over in Mount Morgan, Central Queensland? Would the family break through, rebuild and flourish – or break down?
My research highlights the vulnerability of displaced children caught between church and state in the early years of the early twentieth century against the economic backdrop of the mining industry. It also highlights societal attitudes about legitimacy and illegitimacy and the resilience needed by women to preserve their families. The children in the O’Keefe file experienced a happy ending – one which had a direct impact on my childhood sense of belonging, both to the physicality of Central Queensland and to an extended, resilient working-class family – but clearly the Meteor Park Orphanage files indicate stories of Australian children destined to live far more disrupted and tragic lives.
Bio Lesley Synge lives in Brisbane. Her last Wednesday Lunchtime Talk for RHSQ was about the life and times of a Brisbane waterside worker based on the co-authored biography, Wharfie (2017). She holds an MA in Creative Writing from UQ and is published in many genres besides social history, including fiction and poetry. When Giuseppe Met Jackie, a novella set in Italy in 1962, was the winner of the Ravello Tales (Italy) 2018 Award. Her most recent poetry collection Signora Bella’s Grand Tour (2019) also has an Italian theme. ‘Ructions and Resilience’ was the winner of the Arts Central Queensland Lorna McDonald Essay Prize 2018 and can be accessed on the Arts Central Queensland website and in Hecate 44.1 &2, 2018. Website www.lesleysynge.com