Lorna McDonald Essay Prize Winner 2018

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Ructions and Resilience: A Family Crisis and the Meteor Park Orphanage, 1916

by Lesley Synge


Christmas Day, 1915. Australian soldiers had been evacuated from Gallipoli and the Australian Imperial Forces were either fighting in the trenches of the Western Front or en route to the Middle East. In North Queensland, Mrs O’Keefe (1882–1959) and her five children were spending their last Christmas in the goldmining town of Ravenswood. As the year came to a close, she was envisaging, it seems, improved prospects in Central Queensland. She planned her move, including lining up a job as a cook in Mount Morgan and putting her children into the care of the Sisters of Mercy in Rockhampton as a stop-gap measure until properly settled.


Elizabeth (Lizzie) Jane O’Keefe, 33, caught the branch line to Townsville where, according to family memory, she ushered her brood onto the Canberra, a coastal steamer. The oldest was my grandmother Mary Ellen (Molly). All she would say about her father was,


‘Me father was a shocker, a terrible drunk, there was always ructions, and he died “Out West” working for the railways.’


The order of events seemed to be: a railway accident that devastated the family, then the move to Mount Morgan; the truth – in a correspondence file complied by the State Children’s Department[1] – is rather more complex than that.


My mother – Lizzie’s first grandchild – was a schoolteacher and married my schoolteacher father in Gladstone in 1951. By 1959 they had three daughters. My mother and her mother were close, so school holidays invariably involved catching a train to Rockhampton and up the Razorback to Mount Morgan. Through the 60s and 70s my sisters and I grew to love the town on the Dee River whose fortunes waxed and waned with those of its gold and copper mine. Like us, Molly’s siblings visited often, and consolidated our love affair with ‘The Mount’. They were my great-uncles and aunts but I knew them as Aunty Flo and Aunty Pearl, Uncle Frank and Uncle George. I knew their homes, their good-natured, family-centred generosity, their spouses and their offspring. We were all ‘family’. I had no insight – then – into their childhoods and the resilience they’d had to foster.


St. Joseph’s Meteor Park Orphanage (also known as Neerkol Orphanage until it closed in the mid-1970s) was a four thousand acre property including a dairy, cattle yards, pigs, fowls, and an area for growing crops and mixed vegetables. There was a convent and chapel, a laundry, bakery, kitchen and dining room, three dormitories, a nursery, and a school for the children.[2] It was situated west of Rockhampton, just under 20 kilometres from the present-day airport. The Superintendent, or Sister-in-Charge, was Sister M. Cecilia Ludgate.


During the years of the Great War, Mount Morgan’s copper mine was flourishing but the Ravenswood goldmine had closed. Many men enlisted; others left to mine elsewhere. One of the workers who left was Phillip O’Keefe, born 1864 in the village of Knock in County Clare, Ireland. Phillip was some 18 years older than Lizzie but in fact very much alive, if not in town.


‘They had five children then he suddenly disappeared,’ Millie Dennis, a niece of Lizzie’s in North Queensland wrote to me in 1998.[3] Whether Lizzie left Ravenswood with the help of anyone is not known, but she arrived in Rockhampton in late January 1916 and took her four youngest to the orphanage. Keeping only Molly (then 12) with her, she started work in the Imperial Hotel in Mount Morgan as a cook. While Frank (11), Florence (9), Elizabeth – known as Pearl (8) and George (5) stayed under the care of the Sisters of Mercy, Molly attended school in Mount Morgan.


The State Children Department file begins five weeks after the arrival of the four O’Keefe children at Meteor Park orphanage when, in one of Sister Cecilia’s frequent pen-and-ink despatches to Mr J. Patterson, Inspector of State Children of the District Office of Rockhampton, she asks about them. The orphanage was licensed under the State Children Act 1911 and enjoyed close co-operation with the state government office. It is possible that Lizzie O’Keefe, knowing from past experience that there was little hope their father would provide for them, was counting on the orphanage to keep them as an act of charity. However, that was not the way things worked, as she would soon find out.


Sister Cecilia’s immediate concern was to pin down the funds needed for their upkeep. In the absence of provident parents, the government stepped in, but that necessitated a process of turning children into ‘State Children’. On 6 March 1916 the nun applied her neat and stylish penmanship to the matter:


We have four children named O’Keefe here, since 27th January, the mother wanted to go to work, and she told me forms [the Undertaking Form that parent/s would sign to commit to the upkeep of their children and the Admission as State Children Form] had been sent to the father of the children, Phillip O’Keefe of Ballara [near Cloncurry] to sign; I told her they may not be admitted as State Children [until the forms were completed]; have you heard anything about them?


The Rockhampton office typed its despatches and soon sent Sister Cecilia a memo, asking her to forward the addresses of the parents. These were furnished. Phillip may have ‘suddenly disappeared’ as far as the extended family in Ravenswood was concerned, but Lizzie O’Keefe knew exactly where he was: Ralston Leases, Ballara via Cloncurry – a copper field west of Townsville. Sister Cecilia passed his address on as well as that of Lizzie, c/o the Imperial Hotel.


Mrs O’Keefe soon received her first memo dated 10 March from the State Children office, with an Undertaking Form enclosed,


‘We may state that each State child … costs this Department the sum of 6/6 [six shillings and sixpence] per week. Have you heard anything further from the father of the children?’


On 11 March, Sister Cecilia again wrote to the office – she wanted to place the children on the department’s Weekly Return in order to collect the 6/6d payment the government would provide for each for them. From her point of view, either the parents or the state government was accruing a weekly debt of £2/2/- to the orphanage.


The children had been in the care of the Sisters of Mercy for less than two months when a second memo dated 18 March arrived at the Imperial Hotel. Mrs O’Keefe should sign the Undertaking Form and heed this warning,


‘If we not receive a reply in the near future, we will be compelled to treat the children as neglected children.’


A clearly panicked and indignant Lizzie put pen and ink to pages torn from a notebook and wrote ‘To the head Sister’ of Meteor Park:


Just a few lines hoping this will find you quite well as it leaves me at present very miserable I had a letter from the State Children department last week for me to sine [sic] the forms instead of their Father how can I sister pay 6/6 a week for each child and again yesterday I had a nother saying they would be neglected children   Sister if there [sic] Father has no love for them there [sic] Mother has. Well Sister as I started to cook at the Imperial hotel for the two pounds a week, I only stood it for three days I am still in the kitchen but only get one pound, as I was not able to stand the hard work. Being weak after [page 2] Sickness   Well Sister I am going to look around this week for a small house and I will take the children from your hands and will try and battle for them my self. I am writing my self to the Bishop also to the State Department I think that would be for the best as I don’t know what else to do. I can take in Washing and do some sewing if it is enoug[h] for me to live on a crust of bread it is good enough for my darling children to do the same I will try and get a little house of my own and for them to be with me. I think it would be the wises[t] think [sic] to do as I am their loving Mother and it is my duty to look after them hoping this scribble will find you and all the children are quite well as it leaves me at [along on side of page] Present broken hearted till [tell] Frank [the oldest boy] I will come along some time next week for them I remain, Yours Truly, Mrs O’Keefe


Sister M. Cecilia immediately forwarded it to the State Children office in Rockhampton.


On 26 March a third typed memo arrived at the Imperial Hotel asking for a commitment of ‘whatever amount you can consider you will be able to reasonably afford’ and the return of the Undertaking Form; meanwhile it [the office] would pursue the father for the balance.


Still no support for the O’Keefe children, Sister Cecilia wrote on 4 April. The office could only reiterate in turn that it ‘could not allow their names to be entered on the Weekly Return’ until it heard from Mrs O’Keefe. It sent a fourth memo to the Imperial Hotel.


Lizzie obtained paper printed with the hotel’s letterhead and replied on the same day, 5 April, 1916. Despite numerous inkblots, she sent it off to the district office:


Just a line as I have been slow in answering your letter some days. I don’t get a minute to call my own about the children I am not in a position to sine [sic] those papers you sent me as I am only getting one pound a week and out of that I have to keep my self also the other girl [Molly, my grandmother (1903–1990)] … at the College and it takes some thing to keep her going at that School with books   the only thing I can do is this to buy them some clothes as often as I can as I was thinking to try and get a small house and get them with me I could take in washing then and try and keep them that way. Did you hear from there [sic] [page 2] Father   I think it is hard that he his [sic] to be let off and as I have been the Mother to those darling children one Mother in a hundred has not done the same for there [sic] Children as I have done. But it is no use talking I only hope that God will reward me. I don’t know where there [sic] Father is as I don’t write to him all my hard earnings is gone after sinking wells making fences also outhouses.


Not only was Phillip a poor provider, it seems she subsidised his business to the point of wiping out her savings. She continued:


What do you think it is best for me to do. Take them out and try and battle to keep them for my heart is nearly broke I could not sine [sic] those papers as I might get out of work and could never pay up for you know as well as I do a woman dont [sic] get much for [the] work she does. I will write on Sunday to Brisbane to the Labor Party [written on one side of page] and see if they will help me along with them any way I will be going down to see the Children next Thursday the 13 of this Month. trusting you will excuse this scribble as in a hurry not to [sic] good at writing I remain, Yours Truly Lizzie O’Keefe


It is clear from the file’s initials, signatures and instructions that Inspector Patterson himself now took over the management of the case. Sensitive to the embarrassment official letters might cause to her in her place of employment, he instructed staff to use plain envelopes. He also instructed deferring the matter until she called in – it seems that parents wishing to see their children in orphanages in 1916 had to obtain permission first from the district office.


Apparently Lizzie did not call at either the office or the orphanage and soon a memo and Undertaking Form enclosure was on its way to Phillip O’Keefe, Cloncurry:


We have the honour to inform you that there are at Meteor Park Orphanage, Neerkol, four children named O’Keefe who we understand are yours. The Sister in Charge of the Orphanage has written to us seeking permission that they be made State Children, but in order that this may be done we must have the attached forms 1 and 13 completed in the presence of a Justice of the Peace. Please attend to the matter … Each child at Meteor Park costs this Department 6/6- per week.


While the public service awaited his reply, Sister Cecilia penned an update on 24 April. As no financial support had been received she intended to take the train to Mount Morgan and to ‘call at the Imperial Hotel, and see Mrs O’Keefe …’ She asked the Office to telephone her urgently with approval because she wanted ‘to tell the mother to take them away’. It did not; nor did she find Lizzie that day.


With her orphanage plan going badly awry, Lizzie at last managed to visit the Rockhampton office in person and spoke to Mr Patterson on 26 April. There were confessions, confidences and tears as she completed the forms asked of her – firstly the application to make the four in the orphanage State Children[4], and secondly undertaking to pay 5/- weekly, beginning immediately. The signature on the forms is that of Miss Elizabeth Dennis – Lizzie had revealed that Phillip had never married her; obviously Inspector Patterson insisted that she sign as the ‘spinster’ she technically was. Mrs Lizzie O’Keefe was no more.


I remember my great-grandmother Lizzie. (Naturally, as a toddler, I did not call her Lizzie.) Molly lived a few dirt roads and gullies away from her mother – Mount Morgan is a hilly place – and I remember walking to her wooden house near the railway station over rough gravel. I can picture the big green tree frog that lived under the wooden stump near the rainwater tank outside great-grandmother’s kitchen, I can hear the trains shunting behind the back fence, the chickens squawking in the coop. I can smell the beef bone soup stock simmering on the wood stove, recall the dark underbelly of the house with its hammock to swing in, and much more. I remember her asking me if I wanted a biscuit, then reaching one down for me from a tin on a high cupboard. I remember nothing more except that she was old and kind and loved me.


In the Office of State Children in Rockhampton on 26 April after Lizzie left, the complexity of the O’Keefe case saw Mr Patterson composing a letter to Head Office in Brisbane to go with the forms:


… herewith an application from a Miss Elizabeth Jane Dennis of Mount Morgan for the admission of her illegitimate children, Frank, Florence, Pearl and George O’Keefe to the Meteor Park Orphanage. The case is a very pathetic one, the applicant having cohabited with a man named O’Keefe, in Ravenswood, for a number of years, but only recently left him. The children are at present at Meteor Park Orphanage privately. We have taken an Undertaking for 5/- per week from the mother, and we have already communicated with their father on the matter. The children have to me, been registered wrongly, and this fact would be revealed if a Police Report were asked for, and same would probably result in the prosecution of the father for the incorrect registration of the births of the children. I mentioned the matter to Miss Dennis, and she stated that, for the sake of the children, she would not like anything like that to happen. The children are entirely ignorant of their mother’s being unmarried, and their mother wept when asking me not to have him prosecuted for wrongful registration of their births. She could not keep the children if she did take them again from Meteor Park Orphanage, and in their interests, I think it would be preferable for the Department to take them … From a humanitarian standpoint, I am not asking for a Police Report [into the wrongful registration of their births], but recommending their admission as State Children, as soon as possible. A first instalment of maintenance has been paid.


Lizzie Dennis did something else that day, 26 April, 1916 – she went to the Methodist Parsonage in Campbell Street Rockhampton, and married.


When my distant, unmarried relation, Millie Dennis, wrote to me in 1998 she said that after Phillip O’Keefe ‘suddenly disappeared’, Lizzie left for Mount Morgan and a brother on her mother’s side of the family, her Uncle Will Hancock, followed her. Millie Dennis sent me a family tree sketch and the booklet Ravenswood Remembered.


In 1916, William Edwin Hancock (1875–1953) was a miner aged 38, from a family of emigrant Cornish miners who first worked in Copperfield near present-day Clermont, Central Queensland. When that field ran out, the family moved to Ravenswood to mine gold. There were eight children in the family, Will being one of the younger ones and born in colonial Queensland. Will was initially a teamster who hauled ‘boilers and timber, ore and other loads’ with his team of horses.[5] Will must have been acquainted with Lizzie Dennis/O’Keefe since his sister was married to Lizzie’s brother John. There are few secrets in small towns and Will must also have known that family life with the Irishman was tough. He may have observed family violence at first hand – it is impossible to know. With O’Keefe ‘suddenly disappeared’ to Cloncurry he may well have decided then to plan a future with her. Millie Dennis reported,


‘Uncle Will became interested in Eliz much to the disappointment of his Mother.’[6]


That a man from Ravenswood should find work with Mount Morgan mine was not at all unusual, but that he would marry a woman with five children while their father was still alive, was. Whatever the mutual understandings and communication between himself and his intended, Will Hancock must have known the children were in the orphanage on 26 April 1916 when he and Lizzie married.[7]


None the wiser about Lizzie O’Keefe’s reversion to her maiden name of Dennis, or to the transformation into Mrs Hancock, Sister Cecilia wrote to Inspector Patterson on 1 May, telling him that not only had she failed to locate Lizzie in Mount Morgan, furthermore, there was ‘no answer whatever’ from the father and Lizzie hadn’t visited to the orphanage. She again raised money since ‘we have commenced the fourth month’s maintenance account for her four children’.


In his terse memo of reply Patterson disclosed nothing of Lizzie’s past; he simply advised that the case was in the hands of Head Office.


When Sister Cecilia took up her pen the following week, it was to report a significant development – the mother had visited and had taken one of the children the previous Saturday. Since the children were not yet State Children, the nun wrote,


‘I had to comply with her wishes.’


The office assured her promptly in a memo that it was ‘quite in order’ for her to do so.


Lizzie, unaware of the channel between orphanage and office, wrote her own tell-all version to Inspector Patterson. In her typically unpunctuated script, her words loped across the page in an innocent way as if not revealing bombshells. Patterson read, pen-in-hand, and astutely underlined one passage in blue ink as below:


Just a few lines to let you know I was out to see the children on Saturday and as one of them had been sick and just looked wretched I brought her back with me the little girl called Pearlie. I felt that much for her that I could not leave her behind   Well Mr Patterson as the Sister in Charge told me they could not find their Father I think it would be for the best to take the other three out and I will look after them as I married a man called Mr Hancock in Rockhampton by the minister as to not put you to any more trouble I think the Children would be better with me now. Trusting you will [on the right-hand margin] answer this and I will get the other children home any day this week. I remain, Yours Truly, Lizzie Hancock x Mrs O’Keefe


Coolly, he sent a memo on 11 May to Mrs Elizabeth Hancock at her new address of Central Street, Mount Morgan, making certain requests of the husband.


On receipt of William Hancock’s letter (there is an absence of inkblots or marginalia in marked contrast to his bride’s), Patterson again took up his pen and underlined a particular phrase,


‘I am willing to receive & also to care for them from this date on. The Minister who married us was the Rev. Thomas Brassington, Methodist Minister …’


Patterson realised he was dealing with an application for the discharge of the three remaining children, Frank, Florence and George, and on 18 May, he asked Sergeant McKenzie of Mount Morgan police to investigate.


Meanwhile Head Office, addressing paperwork submitted 26 April, made the children State Children. Patterson sent a memo to Sister Cecilia appraising her but added that the mother ‘had lodged an application for their discharge on account of having married a man named Hancock’. This was probably the first the nun heard of it.


The Sister, obviously relieved she could add three names to her Weekly Report and collect 6/6d for each of them, replied,


‘If the mother comes for the children, I have your letter to show that she cannot take them without your authority.’


The police report dated 18 May arrived and Inspector Patterson applied his pen to it, too:


Mrs Hancock has just recently being [sic] married and is living in a six roomed house in Central Street Mount Morgan.  Her husband is employed at the Mount Morgan Mine and is receiving 10/4 per day and is in constant employment.  Mrs Hancock & husband bear [sic] a good character, the house in which she lives in [sic] is comfortable & exceptionally clean & tidy & also the children she has now with her.


P. O’Keefe now entered the fray from the Cloncurry District. Dated 15 May, his penned letter arrived at the office a week later:


… they [the children] are there without my consent and without the Slightest Knowledge on my part that the Mother intended taking them there. She and they always had a happy home with every want supplied by us while living at Ravenswood and the first Knowledge that I had of breaking up the house was when I saw them on the train bound for some destination unknown to us at the time.

My love for the children compels me to ask that they be kept at the orphanage until December next when I will visit Rockhampton & make arrangements for [continues p.2] their welfare. I will send the requisite amount every month & they must be kept free any the control of the Mother. … I have heard of Meteor Park, and I know that under the care of the good Sisters in charge thereof, their (the children’s) lot could not be placed under better protection.


The office acknowledged receipt and advised, somewhat stiffly, on 30 May:


Their mother lodged an application for the discharge of the children from State Control on the 8th instant. Enquiries have been made into the circumstances connected therewith, and all papers, including your letter herein referred to are being submitted to Head Office where the question will be eventually decided by the Minister.


Discreet and thorough as usual, Inspector Patterson composed his latest recommendation to Head Office in Brisbane. On receipt, the Acting Director did the underlining:


According to Section 50 of the Act we have first call on O’Keefe for the maintenance of the children, but I feel confident that the mother is very much attached to them, and if she met with a refusal to her application it would be very distressing to her. Her husband William Edward [sic] Hancock wrote this office signifying his willingness to take and care for the children in the future, and if O’Keefe is so much concerned about the children, it is somewhat strange that he did not marry their mother long ago instead of merely cohabitating with her.


Of course if the children were discharged to her care we must also consider the possibility of his coming along at a future date and making himself objectionable to the woman, but still she has the protection of her husband, Hancock, and I do not think their future should be jeopardised in any way, therefore I shall recommend her application for favourable consideration.


A handwritten official comment responds,


‘Being illegitimate the putative father has no legal claim on his illegitimate children.’


The application for discharge from state control was stamped APPROVED. On receipt, Patterson of the Rockhampton Office lost no time in instructing the typist: notify applicant.


None the wiser to Mr Patterson’s advocacy or to Phillip O’Keefe’s demands, Mrs Lizzie Hancock received a final memo dated 9 June telling her that the three remaining children in the orphanage were released from State control and that the Sister-in-Charge ‘will hand the little ones over to your care’. Discharge forms for Frank, Florence and George, signed by Sister Cecilia on 11 June 1916, are the last papers in the file. The newly-formed family could begin their version of living ‘happily ever after’.


The union of Lizzie and Will Hancock would result in three children of their own so, in all, Will raised eight children on his wage as a miner at Mount Morgan. According to Millie Dennis, his mother in North Queensland went to her grave without forgiving him.


What traumas that the children experienced during their four months of separation from all things familiar to them can only be imagined – no family stories of the orphanage have prevailed and their silence indicates perhaps a little shame about the whole palaver. It must have been especially hard for Frank, the oldest. The growing children continued to be known by the surname O’Keefe and they continued to worship as Roman Catholics although their step-siblings, Myrtle, Charlie and Doris Hancock, worshipped as Protestants. Whether their father ever visited Mount Morgan is not known but it seems unlikely.


The family survived the ‘Spanish Flu’ epidemic of 1919, the ups and downs of the mine – fires, floods and closures – and, by all accounts, when William Hancock died in 1953, he was a man at peace with himself. I never had the pleasure of knowing him but his kindness, sobriety and reliability lived on in Molly’s siblings and step brother and sisters. He must have fallen deeply in love with Lizzie in Ravenswood, and I hope he never felt regret in the rescue of her children.


The O’Keefe branch of the family all married and produced children. Molly stayed in Mount Morgan and had my mother; Frank went building in Bundaberg and had a son and two nuns; Florence went farming with her family of three sons; Pearl raised her three and ran small businesses in Brisbane; George settled in Rockhampton, sold insurance and had a family of six.


My mother was born in 1924, the first of Lizzie’s grandchildren. Earlier that year, on 27 May, Phillip O’Keefe died in the Longreach Hospital after fracturing his thigh in an accident and developing pneumonia. He was 59 and working at the time with the Railway Department, perhaps doing fencing and other forms of manual labour.


The task of finalising his affairs fell to the Public Curator. His Intestacy file reveals a man with almost nothing besides basic items of clothing, a swag, a razor strap, a mosquito net and so on. Cash in the bank amounted to 5/11d. His gun and gold ring were sold to cover the cost of administering his affairs.[8] Although no liquor was itemised in his possessions there was every indication of a man whose drinking problem condemned him to a poor and lonely life. His status was single; the only kin parents John and Mary, address unknown. His mates pitched in to pay for the funeral. On a scrap of paper in the long-buried and yellowed file was an address I recognised: Mrs W.E. Handcock [sic], Central Street, Mount Morgan.


Behind my grandmother Molly’s taciturn summation of the tumultuous year of 1916 – a terrible drunk of a father who died “Out West” – there lay quite a story.


My thanks to Maree Fischer in Rockhampton for unearthing the Meteor Park Orphanage case file and inspiring this essay.


[1] QSA 555434 Case file, Meteor Park Orphanage, O’Keefe, Frank et al. Unless otherwise noted, all letters are sourced from this file compiled by the then State Children Department, Rockhampton District, an agency of the Home Secretary’s Office; currently Department of Community, Child Safety and Disability Services.

[2] Find and Connect website Meteor Orphanage Neerkol   https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/ref/qld/biogs/QE00151b.htm (Accessed 24 Sept 2018.)

[3] Dennis, Millie, Letter to author, 8 November 1998. Her father, John Dennis, was one of Lizzie’s brothers.

[4] Becoming a State child was a serious matter. The form is headed: State children are liable at any time to be boarded out, hired out, adopted, or apprenticed to a trade in any part of the State, without reference to their parents or relatives and without informing them of what has been done.

[5] Crow, Mary, Ravenswood Remembered. Ravenswood Restoration and Preservation Association Inc, 1997, pp 12-13.

[6] Dennis letter.

[7] Registry Records, Rockhampton, Queensland.

[8] QSA 2918601 Intestacy Files, Rockhampton, Phillip O’Keefe, No 186/1923.


4 Responses

  1. Therese Veronica Mary Morrissy

    Raymond John, Kevin Paul, and Therese Veronica Mary BURKE were inmates at Neerkol Orphanage from June 1950 for an unknown period of time, and on more than one occasion. Details unknown as records lost in fire? Any details available would be most appreciated.
    Therese Morrissy. née BURKE

    • Lesley Synge

      Hi Therese, Do get in touch with Qld State Archives and ask for assistance in accessing their State Childrens Department files for 1950. The Department may have been renamed by then; this was the name in 1916 the period of my research. Explain that you are family because these sensitive files are (I believe) generally closed to the public until 100 years have passed. All the best

  2. Therese Veronica Mary Morrissy

    I knew George O’Keefe – one of the children in the main body of the history detailed above. He became my Uncle when he married Philomene Griffin … one of my mother’s sisters. I knew of Aunty Pearl by hearsay from Uncle George but unsure if I ever met her.
    I lost contact with the family in 1958 when I left Rockhampton. but re-connected with them in about 1968 and still in contact now.

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