Books & Literature

Book Review: Behind the Wall, by Mary Geyer

A fascinating history of the penniless women whose only option was life in Adelaide’s Destitute Asylum.

The Women of the Destitute Asylum Adelaide, 1852-1918

This compact book of just sixty nine pages manages to pack a lot between its covers. Historian Mary Geyer was commissioned by the Migration Museum to write a history of the Adelaide Destitute Asylum. Some of the old Asylum still stands on the area around the Museum.

South Australia’s free female settlers were supposed to be able to work for a living or be married and supported by their husband. The government initially provided no ‘poor relief’ but it soon became apparent that the practicalities did not match the rhetoric. We have to remember that, as we too often see more than 150 years later, being poor was viewed as a moral failing and politicians argued relief was ‘over-bounteous…it begins the spirit of pauperism’ (page18).

In an 1885 Royal Commission report the main cause of women becoming destitute was said to be husbands deserting their wives. As married woman had no property rights until 1883, there were few options if they were deserted.

Of course, there were also unmarried women who were pregnant and had also been abandoned. From the beginning, part of the Asylum was what was known as a Lying-In Home but within just a few years it was well over its capacity. Following the birth, the mother and baby were confined to the Asylum for six months and although this was mandatory, it did provide a safe home for mother and baby – unlike many of the foster carers of the time.

The book includes illustrations and some wonderful early photographs, including some gruesome obstetric instruments. I especially enjoyed the inclusion of the pictures of Ada Deare who was born in the Lying-In Home in 1900 but never acknowledged as a daughter by her mother Lily. Sadly, Ada died at only 35 but ‘Aunty Lil’ kept in touch with her six grandchildren.

Geyer’s meticulous research for this book has uncovered the untold histories of poor women in the archives of the Destitute Asylum and through parliamentary debates and reports. Through her details of these histories readers learn of the Victorian morality of the time, which tended to condemn women who could not afford to meet the, mostly unachievable vision, of the ‘angel in the house’.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Wakefield Press
Released: January 2019
RRP: $19.95

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