Topic: Our Children's Homes: St Hilda's Home at Otane 1919 - 1958

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This booklet by Kay Morris Matthews is a companion to her book 'Who Cared? Childhoods within Hawke's Bay Children's Homes and Orphanages 1892 - 1988'

If you are interested in reading this book in full, CHB District Libraries have a copy avaialable to borrow.

Excerpt from 'Preface and Acknowledgements'

The two Anglican run homes for children aged four to fifteen were both located in central Hawke's Bay: St Hilda's at Otane, and Abbotsford at Waipawa. Both admited girls and boys, 'so as to provide a natural home atmosphere in each home'. (Waiapu Church Gazette, Volume XII, Issue 9, 1 March 1922, p.354.) The locations were not specifically chosen, but arose from bequests to the church, which provided solutions to housing orphans as quickly as possible. However, their shared purpose and close proximity would make it even harder for the far-flung diocese, which spread from Tauranga to Woodville, to raise funds to support them. Over time, the main regular providers would become the smaller parochial parishes of central Hawke's Bay with generous support from other parishes of the Diocese, local individuals, families and community organisations.

Excerpt from' Who were the children?

Although the word 'orphanage' was adopted for use at St Hilda's, and initial pleas for funding were predicated on the children being orphans, as early as 1922 the diocesan newsletter reported that 'most of the children' at St Hilda's 'have one parent living who pays something towards the support of the child.' In some cases there was more than one child. For example, two of the first children admitted to St Hilda's were Hall and Hilary Cain. Their mother died in 1916 and their father, Fred, a builder, was unable to care for them. They lived at St Hilda's for a number of years.

Indeed, the Bishop was keen to stress to parishoners that St Hilda's catered for all, and that some parents did indeed pay fees for the upkeep of their children:

No deserving case is refused admission so long as room is available. It's open to children of all denominations. Most of the children have one parent. In these cases the parent or guardian pays as much towards their support as he or she is able to. Often it is little or nothing. The amount received in fees last year was 332 pounds. The rest of the cost of maintenance (952 pounds) was provided by the subscriptions and donations, and by the General Diocesan Fund. 

While it was true that a few fathers who had been widowed did pay fees to the church and kept in touch with the children, it would appear that most of the children did not know their one parent. Typically, she was a younger unmarried mother who had given birth at St Mary's in Napier, and had then given up her child to the care of the Church. This enabled her to return to paid work and, in many cases, to be freer to marry and then have other children. It was common for the existence of a pre-nuptial child to be kept hidden from the husband and later children.

Excerpt from 'The good times'

There were few good times recalled back at St Hilda's; but one was the occasion of one's own birthday, as recalled by Ruth, when 'we were allowed to sit at the dining room table with the staff and senior girls and were allowed to choose a meal. We children nearly always asked for a boiled egg. The other treat we could have on our special day was bread with butter and jam.'

There were also occasional treats when the children were taken on outings. Ron recalls going to farms, being transported there by the Williams family in cars, and going to picnics at Penleigh Station. There was the annual school fancy dress ball, too. Mary remembers 'I went as a pixie, a fairy, a beautiful red rose and Bo Peep. Had lots of fun and dances. We all had a fantastic supper put on by the parents.'

Excerpt from 'The bad times'

One long-lasting trauma for many was not being called by their real name. Instead, Miss Waller assigned each a nick-name, usually with a non-flattering association. For example, Mary was 'Paleface' or 'Rake'; Isabel was 'Bimbo'; Joan was 'Pixie'; and Norman was 'Bumble'. Other dehumanising practices were used on a regular basis, such as reminding the children that any punishment they received was so they 'would suffer for the sins of your fathers'. As most did not know their fathers or what they had done to sin, all they could possibly make of this was that they were both bad and should be punished.

Bed-wetting was not surprising, given that the children were forbidden from getting out of bed once there. In the 1920s, Mary Hammond tells of children having to hold up their wet night clothes and recite to all the children present, 'I'm a dirty baby, over and over again until told to stop'. By the 1940s, Isabel was tied into her bed each night because she would get out of bed and wet her pants rather than wet her bed. Her punishment was public humiliation through 'having to stand in the corner of the dining room during breakfast and going without breakfast'. As she says, she did not eat breakfast very often! The boys were not often punished for bet-wetting, because they had devised a way of coping: their dormitory-style room had a hole in the floor.


In the end however, there was not enough money to pay for the extensive repairs needed at St Hilda's in 1952 and led the church to take the unusual decision to construct a new building for St Hilda's on the Abbotsford site in Waipawa. The new St Hilda's opened in February 1953, under the leadership of Abbotsford's matron, Miss Johnston, who ran both homes. The critics, particularly the district Child Welfare Officer of the time, were proved right. The enterprise became 'a monument to bad planning'; it was simply 'not a realistic assessment' having two children's homes with the same purpose on the same site, at a time when the numbers of children requiring care were low. In addition, the shift occured at a time when the state was withdrawing its capitation subsidy for institutions and supporting smaller family-style homes instead. St Hilda's closed in 1958.

If you are interested in reading this book in full, CHB District Libraries have a copy avaialable to borrow.

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Our Children's Homes: St Hilda's Home at Otane 1919 - 1958 by jochubb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License