Globally, the nineteenth century saw rapid change and social upheaval. These changes also affected the young colonies of Australia. The cities of New South Wales were fast growing and with that came the problems associated with urban life such as poverty and overcrowding. In addition many men had left for the Victorian Gold Rush, leaving their families behind and without support. By the mid-nineteenth century there was a serious problem with orphaned children and juvenile delinquents who roamed Sydney in street gangs. In 1866 the legislative assembly of New South Wales brought two acts to pass to attempt to deal with these problems: An Act to establish Juvenile Reformatories and an Act for the relief of Destitute Children (The Industrial Schools Act) it was followed by the Reformatory Schools Act in 1869.
Newcastle Industrial School for Girls was one institution set up to deal with wayward girls. It was renowned for terrible conditions, an inconvenient location and frequent rioting. In 1871 the girls from Newcastle were moved to Cockatoo Island to live in the prison that had been vacated in 1869. In an attempt to provide psychological distance from the notorious prison years the institution was renamed Biloela, an Aboriginal word for Black Cockatoo.
The institution was split into two parts: the Biloela Public Industrial School for Girls and The Biloela Reformatory. The reformatory was for girls who had broken the law while the industrial school was intended to operate more like an orphanage. However, these girls mixed together which meant that girls who had been neglected or orphaned were housed with petty criminals; all of them living in the dire conditions of the convict cells.
In 1871 a school ship for boys, The Vernon, was docked off the Island. The ship housed neglected boys and was intended to teach them nautical skills. Although both run from the Island the two institutions had different management and vastly different ideologies. The school ship was run under strict standards by benevolent and thorough masters who had faith in the possibility of reform, the boys learnt nautical skills such as vegetable gardening, compass, lead line, sail drill, reefing and rowing as well as such as shoe-making and school lessons. Yet girls were treated as hopeless cases, trained for domestic service jobs and were left without occupation or amusement and sometimes in squalid conditions.
While these institutions occupied the Island, it was still forging its industrial identity which meant it became a heady mix of wayward and neglected boys and girls and dockyard workers. In theory, each of these parties were separated by high fences but there are many reports of fraternising between the groups.
In 1871 the superintendant of The Vernon, Captain Mein, complained to the Principal under secretary:
"The girls came down abreast of the ship, in a semi-nude state, throwing stones at the windows of the workshops – blaspheming dreadfully and conducting themselves more like fiends than human beings. I was compelled to send our boys onto the lower deck to prevent them viewing such a contaminatory exhibition.”
In 1874 English social reformers Florence and Rosamond Hill visited the Island; they noted the difference between the conditions in Biloela reformatory for the girls and the boy’s ship, The Vernon.
"We were agreeably impressed with the exquisite cleanliness of the ship, and the frank open countenances of the lads.”
However, in regard to the girl’s institution the social reformers were deeply concerned.
“Cockatoo Island was chosen as the new location but this site was really no better than the old one. The building allotted to the school had obtained a terrible notoriety as a convict gaol. The home influences essential to the wholesome training of girls, the very lack of which had brought them to the school, are impossible of attainment within the gloomy walls of a prison... Not only did the evils described attach to the locality, but the Government dock, bringing necessarily large numbers of sailors to the spot, is upon the Island. Three hundred men, we heard, had been there a few days before our visit. The school premises are on high ground overlooking the dock, from which they are divided by a low wall or fence, and the presence of a policeman is necessary to prevent sailors and school-girls from crossing the boundary.”
–Florence and Rosamond Hill ‘What we Saw in Australia’
In 1874 The Legislative Assembly appointed a public commission to ‘Inquire into and report upon the working and management of the public charities of the colony’. The review was to asses the state of a number of institutions including Biloela Industrial School for Girls, Biloela Reformatory for Girls and the shipVernon.
In regards to the School and Reformatory the report uncovered gross mismanagement and cruelty from the administration and unruliness and frequent rioting from the girls. The institutions were overseen by George Lucas, who was found to be slovenly and ineffective. His wife Mary Ann Lucas was described as controlling and full of rage. The couple often had violent disputes in front of the other staff and the girls. The commission found, upon visiting the Island that the girls were ‘impudent, disobedient and unreproved’.
The commission found the institution to be in a woeful condition: the girls lapped water from a common trough and were not given cutlery to eat with. They were locked in the gloomy gaol cells for twelve hours a night with nothing to occupy them. The report detailed an incident where Mr Lucas took away the girls beds as punishment and making them sleep on the cold stone flagging. Many of the girls were found to have bruises and lacerations.
There were reports of the wayward girls singing bawdy verses and drawing lewd cartoons on the walls to keep themselves entertained. The testimony of 14 year old Katie Solomon is illustrative of the conditions
“Mr. Lucas came into the dormitory and saw some figures on the wall. He was very angry about them, and caught me by the hair of the head and told me to rub them out. I said I should not. He then dragged me down, and put his foot on my back and stood on me. He knocked my head against the wall, and said he would take my hair to rub the figures out with it. Annie Smith, Janet Boyd, and Mary Windsor were beat very badly.... I was kicked on the hop, and I have the mark on the place to show... I got that mark on my face when he hit my head and rubbed it against the wall.”
From 1880 The Reformatory and Industrial School was split, the Industrial girls went to Parramatta Girls Home and those in the reformatory to Shaftesbury Reform School at Watsons Bay. However, The Vernonwas judged to be a reasonable success and it stayed moored off the Island until 1890 when it was replaced with a second school ship The Sobraon which continued as a school ship institution until 1911.