Behind The Wall, The women of the Destitute Asylum Adelaide, 1852-1918

Behind The Wall

The Women of the Destitute Asylum
Adelaide 1852-1918


Behind The Wall
The Women of the Destitute Asylum
Adelaide, 1852-1918

Mary Geyer

Behind The Wall is a compelling social history, which provides an insight into Adelaide's Destitute Asylum and the women who experienced life behind its walls. Although out of sight, the men, women and children who were forced to use its facilities, were certainly not out of mind. Until its closure in 1917 politicians and governments, Commissions and Boards of Inquiry tried to solve the problem and cost of destitution to the colony.

South Australia was planned according to the Wakefield principles, where there would be no poor or destitute. According to this theory emigration of the correct proportion of capital and labour would create an ideal society free from social, economic, political or religious problems. It would be a self-sustaining society, prosperous and virtuous without the need to provide for paupers.

Within months of landing at Holdfast Bay harsh reality would prove to be very different. Almost from the very start the South Australian Immigration Agent had to provide assistance to those in need. As early as 1843 the government passed its first legislation to deal with poverty. It now became law that relatives were responsible for the maintenance and relief of deserted wives and children.

Six years later the South Australian government became the main source of relief funds and established the Destitute Board to administer the destitute. During 1849 the Board provided relief to 25 indoor and 114 outdoor destitute. By 1851 this had increased to 63 and 187 respectively. By 1855 it reached an all time high when it had to provide relief to more than 3,000 men women and children.

This alarmingly high number came about as a result of excess female immigration which resulted in lower wages being paid, a very poor harvest causing increased unemployment and the large number of wives who had been deserted by their husbands leaving for the Victorian goldfields. Deserting husbands were the chief cause of female poverty and it was suggested that these men should be flogged. During 1865 there were still 1,276 people on relief of which 150 were housed at the much overcrowded Destitute Asylum.

The Destitute Asylum was a far from attractive place. It was a separate institution where the poorest and most dependant could be regulated and hidden from the affronted gaze of respectable citizens. To keep numbers and cost down the asylum with its high stone walls, poor accommodation and many regulations was meant to be a place of last resort. Men and women were segregated by a stone wall of nearly three metres. Once admitted, inmates were only allowed to leave for five or six hours once a week.

However with their distinctive uniforms few women made use of this opportunity. Each day the bell would ring five times, the fist in the morning to get out of bed, three times a day for meals and finally for lights out. While residing at the asylum women were expected to earn their keep and were involved in washing for outside customers, ironing as well as sewing hessian sacks, garment making or embroidery.

Orphans and children of destitute families were admitted but separated. Parents could visit them once a month but only for two hours. After 1867 this practice was ended when children were sent to industrial schools or boarded out to families.

Ann Keenan, who was only 19, unmarried, pregnant and without a single relative was one of 15 women who lived in the asylum in March 1856 when there was only accommodation for nine lying-in women. She got very little compassion from her fellow inmates or colonists in a time when society damned these women rather than help them. There were even those who questioned whether single destitute pregnant women should be considered ‘deserving poor’.

In an age when DNA testing was unheard off, paternity could easily be denied by claiming that the mothers were just common prostitutes. Many women terminated their pregnancies one way or another, or even killed their babies. The cost of raising their child was often beyond their capacity. If convicted they were to hang, but the sentence was automatically commuted to imprisonment with hard labour. If she decided to have the baby, and if it survived, it would in many cases be given up to ‘baby farmers’.

Until the completion of the Lying-in Hospital in 1878 no proper facilities were available for destitute pregnant women. By the 1880’s the Destitute Asylum had become a hospital for the aged, decrepit and diseased. For those still residing the daily food allowance consisted of 453 grams of bread, 226 of beef or 340 of mutton, 14 grams of tea, 57 of rice, another 57 of sugar and seven grams of salt.

Improvements at the asylum were only made after Catherine Helen Spence became a member of the Destitute Board in 1897. After the introduction of the aged pension the demand for the asylum decreased and it was finally closed in 1917 bringing to an end another dark and unpleasant episode in trying to do something about a social problem in South Australia’s history.

Based on historical records and information provided by descendants of the inmates, it is the story of women who endured life as South Australia's paupers. The book by Mary Geyer, contains many photographs, a bibliography and chronology.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Behind The Wall
by Mary Geyer
is available at $14.95 from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8362 8800


Destitute Asylum photographs

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