Collingwood Notables Database
Harriet Elizabeth Longdill
Teacher, child welfare worker, suffragist
Harriet Longdill spent less than a decade in Collingwood, but held a significant post as a deaconess of the Australian Church. She worked with the Church’s Social Improvement, Friendly Help and Children’s Aid Society, which had been established by the Reverend Charles Strong. A major component of her role was managing a receiving house for neglected children, so she became a well-known face in local courthouses in the 1890s before returning to New Zealand in 1896.
The earlier process of sending destitute and neglected children to industrial schools under the Act for the Amendment of the Law Relating to Neglected and Criminal Children (1864) had been largely phased out in favour of boarding-out, or fostering, for which the carers were paid an allowance by the government. Ladies’ Committees were responsible for inspecting potential foster homes. The children were still sent to court to have their future decided on by the magistrates, and usually spent some time in an institution before a suitable home was found.
The Society’s previous agent for neglected children was Laura Langley (who became known as Dorothy), a sister of Violet Langley who was matron of the Collingwood Crèche, also established under the aegis of the Australian Church. When Dorothy resigned in 1891, the Society decided to make the position a Deaconess instead of an agent, and to reduce the salary to £30 per annum with board and lodging at the receiving house at 125 Oxford Street.
English-born Harriet had arrived in Australia in 1889 or 1890. She was a licensed teacher in Auckland, and we have no indication of what brought her to Australia. On 17 August 1891 she was gazetted as ‘a person to whom children may be committed’ under the provisions of the Neglected Children’s Act, 1890. The Society’s preference was to place children with carers in country areas, regarded as a safer and healthier environment. At the end of 1891, Harriet wrote her first report:
There are at present on the books of the society fifty-two children; of these thirty-two are boys and twenty are girls. With a few exceptions they are placed with farmers in the country, who treat them as members of the family. Since my appointment on 5th August, I have accompanied ten children to their new homes and have been greatly pleased with the cordial spirit in which these little strangers have been received … In Euroa and Lardner especially much sympathy with and desire to co-operate in the work of the society has been shown. Good reports of the children are the rule … The following three cases will give an idea of the circumstances under which the children are sent away:
- Boy, aged 11; rescued by neighbours from neglect and ill-treatment of a drunken mother. Father dead. Has now a very happy home and attends school regularly.
- Boy, aged 15; eldest of family of five, deserted by dissolute father. Gets 5s. a week, most of which he sends to his mother … Writes he “never was so happy in his life”
- Girl, aged 10; mother deserted her husband and family and the father being unable to look after her, applied to the society to take her. This child is at present in the home.
There are currently six children in the Home.
The children sent to foster homes would, of course, have been expected to work at either household tasks or on the farm, but this was standard for the time. Not all placements turned out happily. Poor little Rosie Pike was fostered by the Shaws, who farmed near Benalla, but not long after Mrs Shaw’s death, George Shaw was charged with criminal assault (that is, rape) of the eleven-year-old. The local paper was shocked that the judge did not order a flogging.
Harriet also worked with volunteers of the Society who conducted various sessions, such as a Sewing Class and Singing Class, activities rather limited by the small size of the house. Socials were held from time to time and for these the Society rented the Congregational Church hall in Peel Street, just around the corner. Harriet also accompanied volunteer ladies in visiting the poor. At this time the economic depression exacerbated the misery of workers. Reporting on 1891, she wrote:
The past winter has been a time of great distress in Collingwood, owing to slackness of work, and the influenza epidemic which has left few houses unvisited, and which from want of proper care has been followed … by bronchitis and pneumonia. The Society has endeavoured to lessen the suffering … by interesting their friends in town and country, and inducing them to send their needlework direct to the underpaid seamstresses of this district, and give them in return a fair wage. In several cases of sickness, families have been tided over by … milk and broth … sums of money … cast-off clothing.
The Oxford Street house was owned by Foy and Gibson who were gradually acquiring properties in the block in order to demolish them and construct their factories. This may have been the impetus for Harriet relocating to 56 Cambridge Street, one of a recently built terrace of narrow brick houses. Within a few years, another move took her to 93 Cambridge Street, owned by John Robson, also owner of the Crèche building.
In June 1893 Harriet appeared as a witness in front of the Sweating Board, which was investigating sweated labour, that is hard work done for low wages in poor conditions. She described the pitiful piece rates paid to women sewing at home. In this she would have been supported by Strong, who was not content to try to paper over the cracks of an inequitable society, but laboured to remedy the underlying situation. He was outspoken about the evil of sweating in the clothing trade and devoted much effort to attempting to improve conditions in this and other areas. The Anti-Sweating League was founded in 1895, with Dr Strong as a committed member, and was ultimately successful in lobbying for incorporating improved conditions for workers in the Factories and Shops Act (1896).
Around 1896, the Social Improvement, Friendly Help and Children’s Aid Society appears to have ceased operating the receiving house. Harriet returned to Auckland where she lived with her mother and sister, and enjoyed the opportunity to vote, granted to NZ women in 1893 following a series of massive petitions. In this they were more immediately successful than their Victorian cousins, who signed a petition in 1891, but had to wait until the early twentieth century to get the vote. Harriet was a signatory to the Victorian petition.
|29 April 1853
|Status of Building
|125 Oxford Street
|56 Cambridge Street
|93 Cambridge Street
|Auckland, New Zealand
|Purewa Cemetery, Auckland, New Zealand
The Age; The Argus; Mercury and Weekly Courier; Cummings, Bitter roots, sweet fruit; Our Good Words; The Australian Herald; MMBW Detail Plan 1201; The Social Improvement, Friendly Help, and Children’s Aid Society Sixth annual report; Bendigo Independent.