Last updated:

April 1, 2020

In recent years, there have been a number of official inquiries that have highlighted the importance of good recordkeeping and access to files of institutional ‘care’ both as a social justice imperative and as a means through which people who have experienced institutional ‘care’ can put their lives into historical perspective and make sense of their identity. In their article ‘Improving Access to Victoria’s Historical Child Welfare Records’, Frank Golding, Cate O’Neill and Natasha Story explore the role records can play in assisting those Australians who have been affected institutionalisation as children. They look at the experiences of the ‘Forgotten Australians’, Child Migrants and members of the Stolen Generations, to shed insights on how the records held by Public Record Office Victoria (PROV) ‘are being used to form new understandings about the history of “care” in Victoria’ as well as the way in which the Find & Connect web resource is creating new and more easily navigated access pathways to PROV’s child welfare records. The authors argue that the empowerment of marginalised communities such as the Forgotten Australians to harness the historical records about their time in ‘care’ has a great deal to teach archivists about what they need to do to ‘broaden the skills of the archival profession’. Archivists should see part of their role as being a form of engagement with particular communities whose lives have been affected by encounters with institutions and how they can best address their access needs. They need to move beyond the idea that the communities they serve are passive recipients of a reference service to having them at the centre of designing access systems that better meet their needs.

Another article in this year’s issue shines a light on another aspect of these issues by providing an insight into the disposition of some of PROV’s holdings relating to records of child welfare. Charlie Farrugia, Senior Collections Advisor at PROV, focuses on VPRS 4527 Ward Registers which document children who were made wards of the state in Victoria. Farrugia’s article attempts to recreate context about the institutional recordkeeping system that these registers were part of despite the fact that this system has largely been destroyed by the agency which created these records over the past half-century. Understanding the context of these records helps ‘care’ leavers understand the way in which the records, and the institutions that created them, operated in the administration of their duties in relation to children who were deemed to be wards of the state. Farrugia’s article should be read in conjunction with Dr Shurlee Swain’s paper from last year’s issue of the journal (2012) ‘Making their case: archival traces of mothers and children in negotiation with child welfare officials’ which considers the interaction between poor women and welfare authorities documented in child welfare records held by PROV, seeking to contest the notion that mothers were uncaring and children were unwanted.

With shows like Whose been sleeping in my house having made the history of homes a mainstream form of TV entertainment, it is great to see two articles in this issue that show the value of public records for documenting historic houses and other places of interest in the built environment. Lee Andrews in ‘The Mystery of the Cottage in Burnley Park’ attempts to solve the puzzle about the construction of a nineteenth-century cottage in Burnley Park, in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond. The threatened demolition of the cottage in 2005 provided the catalyst for this article which investigates the architectural and historical origins of the building. It was through this research into the records held by PROV that Andrews established the cultural significance of the structure which turns out to be the third oldest park keeper’s residence in Victoria and an important link with the built environment created at the very outset of European settlement in the state. Although Andrews observes more research will be required to fully document the significance of this particular building and ensure it continues to stand as a connection to Victoria’s past, her article confirms the major role public records can play in protecting our built heritage.

Another remnant of Victoria’s early built environment is explored by Fay Woodhouse in ‘The Pope House, Williamstown’. Woodhouse researches a derelict house located in Aitken Street, Williamstown as an instance of ‘adverse possession’, a law which allows people in Victoria to acquire land belonging to another person. The article in fact traces two instances of adverse possession in relation to this property. The initial impetus to research the property came after a 2002 application for adverse possession of the property in question. In response Hobson’s Bay Council commissioned Woodhouse in 2006 to investigate the history of the derelict house on the property as a condition of sale. This led her on a long journey back through 170 years of history into the earliest days of the Williamstown settlement. Through records held at PROV Woodhouse discovered an earlier case of adverse possession in relation to the property. As a result of these records in the PROV collection, Woodhouse discovered that many of the features of that earlier application had much in common with the more recent case.

Another article retracing a place of historical interest in this issue comes from Joan Hunt in ‘Piggoreet: A Township Built on Gold’. The articles focuses on the heady days of the Victorian goldrush, in particular the decade 1861–1871. The now-disappeared township of Piggoreet was located in the Springdallah goldfields and before Joan’s research very little was known about it. Hunt retraces portions of the daily life of the township and the significance of deep-lead mining to the town’s social and economic fabric. Hunt does this by drawing on a database compiled from an array of primary and secondary sources in addition to government, church and community resources providing evidence of this once vibrant township, its industry and its inhabitants.

Finally, Kathryn Steel revisits a major industrial dispute from Victoria’s recent history involving the now disbanded State Electricity Commission (SECV). In 1977, SECV maintenance employees in the Latrobe Valley went on strike for a period of eleven weeks, which caused the government agency to impose severe electricity restrictions with wide-ranging impacts on Victoria’s industry, public transport, domestic and commercial properties as well as social life in general. By examining records created by the SECV’s Assistant General Manager (Operations) now held at PROV, Steel attempts to find evidence of the drastic and controversial action taken by the employer of the striking workers to effectively shut down much of Victoria’s power supply.

As this year’s articles demonstrate, archival research can provide valuable sources of insight into places, people and events in Victoria’s history. In the case of ‘care’ leavers and defending heritage sites, it can also play a more practical role, on the one hand helping people heal their sense of identity, and on the other, providing the raw materials for identifying and preserving our shared heritage as a community.

Sebastian Gurciullo