Methodist Children’s Homes at Cheltenham : A Time for Change

The Homes, c1940. Courtesy Eric Longmuir.

Following the depression years of the 1930s there was a general move towards modernisation. Increasingly in the field of child care the emphasis was on meeting the needs of children as individuals and fostering a developmental approach rather than a custodial one. The philosophical approach of the time was to see a move generally from the predominantly congregate care style to the family type care.

This was evidenced in 1935-6 when the Ladies Committee encouraged more flexible routines, more individual attention and more free play for the children. A playground with donated equipment and kindergarten equipment were set up in 1936, and a playground instructor appointed.

Two new Methodist church organizations at this time helped the Homes to have a more flexible approach. The Women’s Home Mission League brought with it a wider financial support for the Homes, and The Methodist Girls’ Fellowship took a special interest in the Homes developing relationships with individual children, and taking small groups on excursions to the outside world. The After Care Fund was changed to allow for training and for secondary Education so that now domestic service and farm work were not the only options for the children. The dormitories were given individual lockers and cupboards to try and make them more homelike. In a visit by the Director of the Board of Social Studies from Melbourne University, he saw within the Homes enough progressive women on the committee of management and staff to introduce an experimental program which would be a demonstration to the State

The outbreak of war in 1939 halted plans for modernization of buildings and the introduction of new programs. The shortages of staff and of building materials, plus financial crises stopped further consideration at this time

The Homes Annual Report in 1943 commented on the state of disrepair of the old building and promised that “as soon as building is possible the old main building must be demolished and new quarters be found for the 50 children there. The 1944 Annual Report outlined a proposal to rebuild family style accommodation cottages on the Cheltenham site as soon as economic and social conditions permitted."

The Annual Methodist Conference in February 1945 also received a report from the Men’s Advisory Committee which questioned the wisdom on spending large amounts of money on buildings not even suited for their present use and favoring a bold rebuilding scheme on the cottage system. Conference adopted the proposal to rebuild at Cheltenham and gave general approval to a larger scheme involving the reconstruction of the whole of the buildings on a cottage plan. Two further decisions were made by other committees that would influence the future of the Homes. The Church Building Committee appointed people to meet with the Homes Committees to act on the possible selection of a new site. Also, at the suggestion of the Chaplain General of the Army, Rev T C Rentoul, the Conference agreed to the establishment of a Garden Settlement for Children to be the Conference Peace Memorial, and authorised “appeals in connection with the Peace Thanksgiving".

Rentoul’s ideas had resulted from a visit to the Methodist National Children’s Home at Highbury near Birmingham during a visit to England in the 1930s. Here cottages, large buildings housing either boys or girls, had been built around a village green. However, the concept of the settlement drew more heavily on the environmentalist theories of the Garden City movement than on child development theories. The war stopped Rentoul from pursuing the cottage settlement in relation to Cheltenham, which was unfortunate as by 1945 the garden settlement model was no longer to the fore in post war British developments in child care. Rather, the shift was moving towards having small homes in a suburban setting.

Rentoul was so committed to the project of a garden settlement on a new site, and a peace memorial, that he along with the Rev. A. Pederick of the Home Missions Department, took an option on a twenty one acre orchard in Elgar Road. Burwood alongside Wattle Park. They had not consulted with the Homes Committee, or received Conference approval. In a way, the work had gone a full circle, for like Mrs. Varcoc and Mrs. Crisp, they acted, and then urged the church authorities to endorse their action.

Why Burwood? It’s hard to say. Already there were three other Homes in close proximity which meant that Burwood would have a cluster of children’s institutions. However, the availability of undeveloped land on the edge of Melbourne, and the closeness of Wattle Park may have influenced the decision. Although the Rentoul family were busily planning the cottage settlement, others were not so enthused. The ladies at Cheltenham were not necessarily against the proposal but they had concerns. The Cheltenham site of twenty seven acres was larger than Burwood and in their eyes being nearer to the train and beach made Cheltenham a more attractive proposition. A cottage style development was already in the minds of the Committee. Rentoul met with the Committee and persuaded them to support the scheme. He set out to get the fundraising under way seeking support from every Methodist Circuit in Victoria and Tasmania. He estimated the cost to be £50,000 which proved to be way under the estimates of the architects who drew up a master plan which had ten cottages, each to hold fifteen children. It was thought that there would be one hundred children from Cheltenham and fifty migrant children.

The Cheltenham ladies queried the need for a chapel, as the children would be going to a church for worship and sunday school. Rentoul defended the chapel as being central to the project. He saw the chapel as a Shrine of Peace with three stained glass windows representing the three services and the name of every Methodist who served inscribed and placed in the Sanctuary along with a roll of honour for those who died. Despite his duties as Chaplain General, Rentoul had achieved a lot in 1945. The new site had been purchased, Conference approval had been given, a master plan prepared, and fundraising commenced. However, with his sudden death in December 1945, it became clear how much the project had depended on his standing in the church and his forceful personality

In 1946 the Methodist Conference followed the same confused pattern of decision making. The Children’s Homes and the Peace Memorial Homes still seemed to follow their own track. Revs. Norman Kemp and John Benjamin were designated to conduct an appeal for £100,000 in 1946. They did not have the contacts or dominating personality of Rentoul. They faced difficulties in approaching the Circuits, who were tired of appeals for funds. Tasmanian churches asked to be excluded from the appeal. There was a strong peace movement amongst Methodist clergy which may have shown reluctance towards a Methodist shrine. Only half the Circuits submitted the names of church members who had served to be inscribed on the memorial roll. Reluctantly, the 1947 Conference continued the appeal. At the end of the year £70,000 had been promised. Perhaps the appeal would have been more successful if it had emphasised the new children’s cottages rather than the peace memorial. However, the target was high for a church whose members were largely of modest means. Also, voluntary support alone for raising money for improved buildings and staff training in the childcare area was slipping. Whereas in the past, donations from the church sustained the buildings and the program, in 1950 the major sources of finances were child endowment payments and payments from parents.

The proposal to bring fifty migrant children to the Homes from England was endorsed following the visit in 1948 of the Rev. J H Litten of England. With high hopes of a continuing arrangement, negotiations continued, but once again, expectations exceeded reality. Improved conditions in Post World War II in Britain altered attitudes to child migration. Only thirty seven children arrived in the next two years and not all of them transferred to Burwood.

In 1948, a trimmed down proposal for three cottages and a preschool was granted by the State Building Committee. The proposed school was not included, as The Ladies Committee believed they should go to local schools. However building did not commence for another two years. This produced problems at Cheltenham - buildings needed repairs, the endowment and building funds were depleted due to having to bear the cost of the Peace Memorial Appeal, which led to the statement in the 1950 report, “It is so long since any repairs were done at Cheltenham that there is still a great deal to be done, both in making the buildings more attractive for their purpose and preserving them."

In 1950 the decision to appoint a Superintendent in place of Mr. and Mrs. Hobson who were retiring, was a vital step that was to lead to action at Burwood. The Rev. Keith Mathieson became Superintendent. He had gained his Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Divinity by the time he was ordained in 1932. He completed his teacher training and travelled overseas for a year to study further in the education area. He was a naval chaplain, and following the sinking of HMAS Perth, he was a prisoner of war for three and a half years. On return to Sydney he became Senior Naval Chaplain till 1949. Ordained, well qualified, and on the spot he was accepted in the position. Some wondered if he was dynamic enough to fill a position fraught with political and practical difficulties. However, despite his cautious and guarded public presence, he was the one who got Burwood going.

His reaction to Cheltenham as he settled into the Superintendent position was that “the Home remained largely self contained with the world coming in rather than the children going out, despite the tendency of the war years to provide wider activities for children and to emphasise educational needs." The things that appalled him were the frequency of corporal punishment, the limitations due to corporate care, the degree of regimentation, en masse social activities, the limited contact allowed with parents, the view that the monthly parental visits ‘as upsetting for children’ and the problems of outmoded buildings and malfunctioning equipment. Generally, however, Mathieson was impressed with the changes that were being made at Cheltenham. These were in line with changes of childcare policy in Britain, and were starting to be seen in Australia. Whereas in the past, the concern of the Neglected Children’s Society had been to place children in homes, now the aim was for the voluntary institution to create a home and family for State wards.

Among the denominationally based child care institutions in Victoria, the response to family replacement as an objective was most notable in the Methodist, Anglican and Presbyterian churches. The Salvation Army and the Roman Catholic churches remained committed to congregate care. In 1956 Mathieson submitted his Ph.D thesis in which he stated his position as “achieving the closest possible form of family replacement a policy that was the basis of the Burwood Homes."

Work on the new site began in June 1951 with a contract cost of £185,000. The Commemoration Stone was laid by Victorian Governor Sir Dallas Brooks on 3 March 1951. The first children from Cheltenham did not arrive at Orana - the new name for the homes derived from the aboriginal word meaning welcome- till mid 1952. The cost at that stage had risen to £215,000. Finally in September 1952 all were in residence.

St John of God Home for Boys, c1960.

The Cheltenham land and buildings (excluding Cato) was sold in March 1953 to the St. John of God brothers for only £39,000 a mere trifle to the amount paid by Myers to allow for the development of the Southland Shopping Centre. Phyllis Dodman the secretary of Cheltenham Homes described the move to Orana as ‘messy’

Take 8 staff members, 36 children (some preferably on the small side) about 100 workmen, 3 cottages more or less finished, others still far from complete, an assortment of deep holes, gutters, mud and building equipment. Mix well together till you have the builders in the cottages, the mud on the children, the children down deep holes and the staff hanging on to their morale by thoughts of how nice the settlement will be in 5 years time.

Many of the staff missed the close atmosphere of Cheltenham, where they had lived and had meals together. Some felt they ‘didn’t have their own focus’ and there was some residual resentment at the lack of consultation with Cheltenham staff in developing Orana. Those who were children at the time were reluctant to draw comparisons. The two homes were ‘different places’ and ‘we were happy at both’. They didn’t mind the move as long as their friends came too. They appreciated ‘going out’ to school and the more personal life of the cottages, especially having bedrooms instead of dormitories. To their surprise they found themselves envied by new school friends for the gardens and space of Orana,

What is left at Cheltenham to remind us of the existence of the Methodist Children’s Homes? A visitor to the Southland Shopping Centre can view a plaque near the Information Desk on the second level of the Eastern Building. Alongside the lift doors is the plaque with the words: -

Southland commemorates the service
to children given on this site by
Methodist Homes for Children
The St. John of God Training Centre

By kind permission of the authors, Renate Howe and Shurlee Swain, I have been allowed to use their book All God’s Children, which was prepared for the Centenary of the Methodist Homes for Children and the Orana Peace Memorial Homes, 1990 My thanks to the Uniting Church Archives, for providing access to all the annual reports since the commencement of the Homes
27 June 2018
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