Collingwood Notables Database
Laura Lydia (Dorothy) Langley
Teacher, nurse, welfare worker
Laura Langley resided only briefly in Collingwood at the time of the 1890s recession, but she played an active role there as an agent of the Australian Church. Working with the Church’s Social Improvement Society, which had been established by the Reverend Charles Strong, her role included managing a receiving house for neglected children. The principal object of the society was ‘by lectures, visiting among the poor and sick, care for neglected children, social meetings and every other means in its power — to improve the social condition of the poor’.
A large committee of ladies managed the Society. Volunteers conducted various sessions such as a Sewing Class and a Singing Class. Regular socials were held, utilising, in the early years, Dr Singleton’s hall. Volunteer ladies visited the poor, and the society had an agent registered with the government for the rescue of neglected children. From late 1885 a Mrs L. Edwards had been the ‘lady agent’, whether paid or not is unclear, and among other tasks she organised the sending of boys and girls to the country. This was part of a system by which destitute and neglected children were ‘boarded-out’ or fostered, for which the carers were paid an allowance by the government, while Ladies’ Committees were responsible for inspecting potential foster homes. The children were charged with being neglected and sent to court to have their future decided on by magistrates, and usually spent a little time in an institution before a suitable home was found.
Miss Langley’s past experience was varied. She had been a teacher in a workhouse school in England before migrating to Tasmania in December 1882, where her efforts to find a teaching post were to no avail, as the Board of Education inspector found her standard in elementary subjects below the level required. Finally, she took a position as matron at Kyneton District Hospital in October 1885, her referees including Lady Elizabeth Loch, the governor’s wife. Her application indicated experience at Hobart Hospital and training by her mother in England.
This post was not without difficulties, at least partly due to factional disagreements and perhaps poor management among the hospital committee, whose arguments featured frequently in the local newspaper. In March 1888 she resigned, probably as an alternative to being dismissed.
She moved to Carlton. In early 1889 her sister Clare Langley was employed in association with the Australian Church as matron of the Collingwood Crèche, and Laura’s employment started around the same time. She began using the name Dorothy, a sudden change which remains unexplained. By December of that year she had sent 21 children to the country. The following December 1890 she wrote: ‘We have 55 boys and girls at present placed out in the districts of Euroa, Charlton, Hamilton and Castlemaine.’ (The children would have been expected to work at farming or household tasks).
Although the Society in the 1880s had an ‘office’ in Smith Street, it is not clear whether children stayed there while awaiting their placements. But in 1890 the society began renting a house at 125 Oxford Street, where the children were certainly housed temporarily. A local newspaper waxed lyrical about this accommodation:
At the Home the children are cared for with maternal solicitude, the rooms provided for them comfortable, and the bedrooms upstairs where the air is fresher and purer than in the rooms on a level with the densely packed houses below; upstairs, a nice view is yet to be obtained of hilly country and bush; the towers of the Kew Asylum can be seen among the green, and the breeze comes fresh and sweet and strong, from the hilly ground thereabouts in at the windows of the Children's Home, thereby making it pleasant as it is healthy. The children who were there at the time of my visit were the pictures of health and infantile happiness, and will be boarded out in some home where there is a certainty of both being preserved as long as possible ...
Fitzroy City Press 28 Nov 1890 page 3
A selection of newspaper reports gives some idea of the circumstances of the children. In April 1889 Mary and John Desmond aged 5 and 7 were found by a policeman wandering in a paddock in Simpsons Road. Their mother had recently died (the little girl was dressed in mourning clothes) and their father had deserted them. In June 1891 three neglected little girls found in a house in Little Oxford Street without bedding or food were ‘handed over to Miss Langley’ by a decision of magistrates Peter Nettleton, James Tait, Peter Hanslow and Joel Eade. Several drunken adults in the house were arrested.
Other children were not actually neglected, but troublesome. In one case, a widow earning a precarious living by washing and charing reported she had lost all control over her daughters, Lucy and Frances Brennan, aged 11 and 13. She wanted ‘Miss Langley’ to take them, but in the end, because they were Catholics, the magistrates sent them to St Joseph’s Orphanage. A runaway called Alfred Smith was remanded and in the courthouse his father confessed he had lost all control and would be very glad if ‘Miss Langley’ found the urchin a situation in the country.
The maritime strike of 1890 had a significant impact on Melbourne life. Collingwood, home to a large number of poor working men, was badly affected. The Herald interviewed Dorothy about the effects of the strike in daily life. The article, placed on the front page, enabled The Herald to underline its anti-strike position, and Dorothy to showcase the concept of the ‘deserving poor’.
THE EFFECT OF THE STRIKE ON THE FAMILIES OF THE MEN: A SAD TALE OF MISERY AND WANT TOLD BY A LADY VISITOR.
" I find," said the lady, " a great deal of misery in the workingmen's houses. When the strike first commenced they did not appear to feel it so much. A few pounds which they had prudently saved, aided by the "strike pay," helped them to get along for a little, but how long could that last? A poor man with a large family, earning a wage of from £2 to £2 .10, cannot save much. In fact, when sickness comes, it is as much as he can do to make two ends meet. I am, of course, speaking … of the steady laboring man, who, with his wife, has made the wages go as far as possible. There are … numbers who lived improvidently, and the result has been that they have been pinched from the very start. A few weeks after the strike commenced applications for relief came in. Our society makes it a rule that either myself or the committee of ladies which govern our affairs should make personal inquiries into every application for relief. I have found in all my visits that the majority of cases are genuine, that the man is a hard working, industrious fellow, and that the woman is a careful, kind mother and wife. . . For instance, here is a family … with himself and his wife a total number of nine mouths to feed ... before the strike he was earning about £2 10s a week. Their rent is 10s a week. He gets now £1 per week strike money. Imagine how that family lives? Do the best she can, the poor woman cannot feed nine persons on 10s a week … on finding the case to be a really deserving one, I was happy to relieve them … The children were pale and thin, half clad, afflicted with hacking coughs, and their hungry faces told a sad tale of want and privation … my books have a record of eighty-seven cases relieved in the month of September of this year as against thirty-seven for the corresponding period of last year. And this is only from our society … We are careful to give as little money as possible. It is generally in the shape of orders on grocers, butchers and bakers. In some cases we give money ... Constant visits to the house soon show us the manner in which the money is spent … There are a number of non-Unionists too. Their excuse for not working is that they are frightened to take up work which the Unionist has left. Some of them, I think, have good cause to entertain this fear; others, again, make it an excuse for their idleness, and I can generally find them out …
The Herald 18 October 1890 page 1
Dorothy resigned in 1891. Harriet Longdill was appointed in her place, on a reduced salary. Dorothy returned to Tasmania where she married Alexander Gibson and took up the position of matron at the Beaconsfield hospital. Her wide experience was highly spoken of at the time, but in 1897 she resigned owing to a number of complaints making her position untenable. Once again, the hospital committee seemed very divided as to her suitability.
|Birth Date||Birth Place|
|Spouse Name||Date of Marriage||Children|
|Alexander James Gibson||1892||Jessie, 1893|
|Work Street||Work City||Status of Building|
|125 Oxford Street||Collingwood||Demolished|
|Death Date||Death Place||Cemetery|
|30 April 1927||Launceston, Tasmania||Beaconsfield, Tasmania|
Archives Office of Tasmania, Applications for Teaching Positions and Associated Correspondence, ED2/1/660, 826 Laura Lydia Langley and 826A Clare Langley; The Age; The Argus; Mercury and Weekly Courier; The KynetonObserver; Fitzroy City Press; 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; Avoca Mail; The Sydney Mail and New South Wales Advertiser; Launceston Examiner; The Mercury (Hobart).
Photograph courtesy of Beaconsfield Mine and Heritage Centre, Tasmania.