In 1877 infant mortality was high. Not only were tiny lives lost due to illness and poverty, but unwanted children were often abandoned in public places or died as a result of infanticide. These tragedies often resulted from families in desperate poverty, many others from young girls bearing children out of wedlock.
The attitude of the public at that time was condemnatory...pregnant girls who were believed to have ‘sinned’ must accept the punishment of pregnancy and should not be helped.
Fortunately in 1877, a group of Melbourne women voiced their concern about the high infant mortality rates and the plight of these disadvantaged pregnant girls and women who had neither homes, hope nor money.
With the assistance of Lady Bowen, the wife of the then-Governor, the women decided to raise money to give shelter to “the unfortunate, the dying babies and the fallen women”. Their fundraising drives resulted in the establishment of the Victorian Infant Asylum, which operating from a house in Fitzroy, took in unwanted or illegitimate babies and their mothers were given shelter and support.
The determination and contribution of these courageous women led to the establishment of what has now become one of the larger child and family welfare organisations in Australia - Berry Street.
Changes in the organisation’s name give a fascinating insight into its changing role and changing society attitudes. The word ‘asylum’ came to have negative meanings and was dropped, the word ‘foundling’ came and went too and then in 1881, a site on the corner of Vale and Berry Streets in East Melbourne led to the ‘Berry Street Babies Home and Hospital’.
From early days, the training of mothercraft nurses in the specialised care of babies played an important role at Berry Street. In 1907, Berry Street implemented a formalised training program that later became the Mothercraft Nurses Training Program which continued until 1975.
As times and philosophies of children's welfare changed, so did the services of Berry Street.
The adoption agency was closed in 1975. By 1992 Berry Street had expanded into the youth and family services area and, in 1994, Berry Street amalgamated with Sutherland Homes for Children.
The founder of Sutherland Homes, Selina Sutherland was known as ‘New Zealand's Florence Nightingale’ and in 1888 she became Victoria's first licensed ‘child rescuer'. In 1909 Selina Sutherland founded the Sutherland Homes for Neglected Children.
The following year, her dream of creating a permanent home for children was realised when another generous and compassionate woman, Auguste Meglin donated her 40 acre property in Diamond Creek to Sutherland Homes. For nearly 90 years, Sutherland Homes was home to thousands of children.
Berry Street merged with Lisa Lodge in July 2012 to strengthen the services being provided in the Grampians Region. Lisa Lodge was established in 1970 by an admirable group of women Probation Officers who identified the need to provide local accommodation and support for young women appearing before the Courts and being sent to institutions away from Ballarat.
Berry Street celebrated its 140th birthday in 2017 – and we've published a history book to commemorate it
The book charts the history of Berry Street across three centuries from its beginnings as Melbourne’s Berry Street Babies’ Home in 1877 to its current status as Victoria’s largest independent child and family services organisation. Interestingly, Berry Street’s history is Melbourne’s history and also traces the development of children’s and women’s rights in Victoria.
We are proud of our long history and the contribution we have made to improve the life opportunities of many children and young people.
However, with the benefit of hindsight and through the courage of people prepared to tell their stories, we now know that our past practice was not always what we would have expected.
In recognition of this, we have made:
- An Apology to adults who suffered harm when they were in our care (2006)
- An Apology for our part in the Stolen Generations (2006)
- An Apology for harm caused by Forced Adoption (2013)
- A revised Apology for our part in the Stolen Generations (2016)
- A revised Apology to Forgotten Australians (2016)