Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Infant welfare centres and their role in women's lives: An interview with Heather Sheard

Black Rock's historic infant health centre (above). Photo: Courtesy Heather Sheard

The fight to save the site of Black Rock's historic maternal and child health centre is heating up, with Bayside Council giving the local community a couple of weeks to respond to its plans to sell off the site and put the funds towards renovation of council offices.

While in some ways a local issue, the history of the site is part of a national women's history and the amazing role these centres have played in improving child health in this country.

Recently historian and Bayside resident Heather Sheard made contact with me as she'd heard about the plans for the site. Heather Sheard is the author of a history of baby health centres - All the Little Children: The Story of Victoria's Baby Health Centres. Below Heather details the history of this and other centres.

How did you come to write your book?

I’ve always been interested in the buildings – especially those like the one at Black Rock with its bow fronted Art Deco look. A few years ago, I looked for something to read about the Centres and was amazed that I could not find anything when these centres were and are a hive of women’s work.

When I retired I set about writing a history and after noticing time slip easily by, enrolled in a Masters degree at the University of Melbourne to give me deadlines and encouraging supervisors!

Two years ago I was giving a powerpoint presentation to mark the 80th Anniversary of the creation of the Department of Infant Welfare – now Maternal and Child Health, and the CEO of the Victorian Municipal Association suggested that this should be published and that they would fund it. Eighteen months later we have a book called All the Little Children The Story of Victoria’s Baby health Centres.

500 copies were printed and they are apparently almost all sold.

What do you know of the history of the Black Rock centre - for example, when it was built?

World War Two began eight days after the foundation stone for the Black Rock Baby Health Centre was laid by the Sandringham’s Mayor, Fred Yott on the 26th of August 1939.

Fortunately this did not halt the building works and the Mayoress Mrs AJ Steel opened the new centre in November with Sister Ada Bowie in charge. The Sun News Pictorial on November 2nd 1939 led with the headline "Babies by the armful were brought by mothers to the new Baby Health Centre at Black Rock.." and The Age wrote of "Large, light giving windows and well-equipped rooms…".

Dr Vera Scantlebury Brown, Director of Infant Welfare, opened the new Centre and spoke of the importance of Baby Health Centres to the development of the physical, mental, social and spiritual aspects of a child's growth.

The Sandringham Historical Society has a baby’s card from the centre for Rosia Boyd, who may have been a member of the famous Boyd family who had houses in both Edward Street Sandringham and Surf Avenue Beaumaris.

Before 1949, funds to build centres had to be raised by the local community, usually by women and the cost of £1750- was an enormous effort on the heels of the Great Depression.

Black Rock’s Baby Health Centre is an iconic structure in the Moderne style with a projecting semi-circular bay window front, floor to ceiling steel framed windows and steel letters proudly proclaiming its name.

The City of Bayside’s Heritage Review lists the Centre as deserving of Heritage Overlay Protection and notes that it is of historical and aesthetic significance. Even more importantly, the Centre is a significant reminder of Bayside’s social and women’s history, being a prominent example of women’s work both as mothers and Baby Health Centre Sisters.

2008 is the seventieth anniversary of the women of Black Rock approaching the Victorian Baby Health Centres Association and the local Sandringham Council to provide infant welfare services to the area.

How significant is it as a site?
It seems to me that its significance is twofold. Firstly because its history encompasses years of work by women and mothers in lobbying, fundraising and mothering as well as the professional work of the Sisters.

Secondly its significance lies in that it is a community resource which belongs to local families and any redevelopment of the site should acknowledge local families’ needs.

You mentioned most of these early centres were created with community funds? What implications does that now have for councils?

Up until the second World War Two, the Sister’s salaries were paid by combined local council and state government funding. Buildings were the responsibility of the local community and invariably meant intensive fund raising along with council contributions. The implications for Council are interesting. I wonder who gave them the land in the first place? Over the years these centres are just assumed I suppose, to ‘belong’ to Council and they may in fact have bought the land in the first place. But many centres have been and are being demolished, so Council ownership is just assumed I think.

At the very least if they end up demolishing the building there should be some record at the site of what was there!

What is its role in the history of women in Victoria?

Baby Health Centres were begun by a small group of women in 1917 during the first World War to attempt to counter the high rates of infant mortality that still occurred throughout Melbourne and country Victoria.

Until 1926, the voluntary groups, the Victorian Baby Health Centres Association and later the Society for the Health of the Women and Children of Victoria ran the centres in church halls, council rooms, RSL halls, CWA rooms, Bush Nursing Hospitals – in fact anything they could get their hands on. Sisters’ salaries were funded by joint Council/State government funding.

Richmond was the first centre and first council to be involved.

The Centres have always attracted very high levels of patronage in Victoria and have become an integral part of local communities. Their history is also that of Victorian families, mothers and Baby Health Centre/Infant Welfare/Maternal and Child Health nurses and outstanding women like Dr Vera Scantlebury Brown, first Director of the Department, 1926-1946 and Sister Muriel Peck, first Assistant Director, 1927-1944.

Are you going to be engaged in the fight to save it?
I would like to be.

What would you like to see happen at the site?
The pressing and complicated issues of family and children’s services are currently being highlighted at the national level. For Council to consider selling a community resource built for families to fund office renovations, is entirely inappropriate and simplistic. How about a state-of-the-art integrated day and occasional child-care, pre-school, playgroup, and maternal and child health centre? Now that would be a new icon!

Heather Sheard is the author of All the Little Children The Story of Victoria’s Baby Health Centres published in 2007 by the Municipal Association of Victoria

You can contact Heather at: h.sheard@bigpond.com

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