The Orphan School buildings at New Town sit at the end of the tree-lined St John’s Avenue, on either side of St John’s Church. Few people are aware of the history or significance of these buildings, although they may know of St John’s Park Hospital, which closed in 1994.
The first Orphan Schools in Tasmania were established in 1828 in temporary accommodation but quickly became overcrowded. The Female Orphan School was at Bellevue in Davey Street and the Male Orphan School was in a disused distillery in New Town.
Source: Archives Office of Tasmania
From 1828, the institution was referred to as the King’s Orphan Schools, after George IV (1820-1830) and then William IV (1830-1837). From 1837, when Queen Victoria came to the throne, it was known as the Queen’s Orphan Schools. From 1861, it was known as the Queen’s Asylum for Destitute Children.
The King’s Orphan Schools at New Town, designed by John Lee Archer, were the first purpose-built orphan institutional buildings in Tasmania. The Orphan Schools at New Town were one institution with two parts, the Female Orphan School and the Male Orphan School. Very young boys were admitted to the Female Orphan School before transferring to the Male Orphan School when they were old enough.
Between 1833 and 1879, the Orphan School housed destitute and orphaned children, including Aboriginal children and the children of convicts. The Infant Orphan School, constructed in 1862, on a rise behind the earlier buildings, was used in the 1870s to house pauper women from the Cascades Depôt in South Hobart. Today this building forms part of the Southern Cross Care Rosary Gardens complex.
In 1879, the Orphan Schools closed and the buildings were used for the Male Division of the New Town Charitable Institution (for invalids, the destitute, and the aged poor). It was later known as St John’s Park Hospital.
Children were admitted when they arrived with their parents on convict transports, when their parents were undergoing punishment, or when they were destitute. Children of the Royal NSW Veterans Company (disbanded 1833) were also admitted in the early years.
The term orphan was applied loosely and did not mean a child who had lost both parents, as we would use the term today.