The Ballarat Orphanage

The social upheavals following the goldrush meant that the township of Ballarat was home to a large number of orphaned or destitute children. To address this problem, a number of charitable institutions were established, including the Benevolent Asylum (1858) and the Ballarat Female Refuge (1893, 1867).

Whilst orphaned children were initially housed at the Benevolent Asylum, it was decided that the influences of such an institution were unsuitable. In mid-1865, a proposal to establish an orphan asylum was adopted by the North Star Lodge of Oddfellows, with Ballarat Freemasons and Foresters joining the fundraising efforts, and a committee of management was drawn from “gentlemen representatives”, led by Emanuel Steinfeld. He took a leading role in business and civic life, and was instrumental in facilitating the acquisition of a local water supply and in the foundation of the orphanage and public library. 

The architect H R Caselli’s plan for a two-storey gabled building with a central tower won the design competition, and the foundation stone for the Ballarat District Orphan Asylum was laid by the Hon. J McCulloch, Chief Secretary of Victoria, on 8 December 1865. The original orphanage, constructed in three stages (1865, 1867 and 1871), consisted of dormitory wards, staff quarters, schoolrooms and hospital wards. It was the first institution of its kind to have a swimming pool, and the orphanage farm provided much-needed revenue as well as training for the children.

The initial proposal for the orphanage was tabled at Mr W P Martin’s Ballarat home when it was found that accommodation and care for orphans in the region was almost non-existent.

On 28 December 1864, a fète was held to raise funds for the building of a district orphan asylum. The first committee meeting was held on 13 February 1865 and designs for the building were invited. Completed in July 1866, the western wing was the first building to be erected. Fixtures and fittings were provided and local well-known public teachers, Mr and Mrs Finlay, were appointed as the superintendent and matron. The orphanage was then formally opened on 1 October and in 1869 the orphanage farm was established.

By 1914, the orphanage cared for an average of 225 children daily. In 1928 it was decided to establish a toddlers’ block to accommodate children from 3–6 years of age. Major rebuilding of the orphanage began again in 1959 and was completed by 1965.