The importance of childhood photographs

Posted on 15 March 2017 by Rachel Dale

Children playing on swing set with mothercraft nurses

Last time I visited my grandparents, my grandfather pulled out a photograph of my grandmother with my dad, aged four, and my aunt, aged one. It was a fuzzy blown up photocopy, but the genuine smile on my grandmother’s face was clear enough to give insight into the joy in that moment. My father, distracted by a toy he was holding, had a cheeky look on his face that I can still recognise today, some 62 years later.

It’s not often that I get to see photographs from my parents’ and grandparents’ youth. When I do, I’m filled with love for the people they portray – former selves of the relatives I adore today – and completely enchanted by the memories they evoke. These stories, lost if not for the photographs that hold them, are worth so much more than the simple ink and paper they are made of.

I was reflecting on this during a recent visit from a former mothercraft nurse at St Joseph’s Babies' Home in Broadmeadows and St Anthony’s Home in Kew. Like many nurses, Elizabeth had photographs from her time there including several of the children and babies she cared for. She brought the photographs to add to our collection in the hope that they can be shared with the children in them.

The collection was mixed amongst her family photographs: more than a period of training, it was a happy time of her youth. As we flipped through the album, memories spilled off the pages. Elizabeth shared how much she and all the mothercraft nurses loved the babies they cared for. The bond between children and nurses was evident in their candid smiles; emotions which can’t be forged for the sake of a camera. Turning the pages, I couldn’t help but wonder about the people these babies became.

Our Heritage Archive contains more than 115,000 individual client records and 20,000 photographs. Many of these photographs were taken by former staff including mothercraft nurses, residential workers or religious brothers and sisters. Others have been donated by holiday hosts and by the children themselves.

For many people who grew up in homes or were separated from their families, these are the only photographs of themselves as babies or young children. Seeing them can help unlock childhood memories which may otherwise be forgotten. But more than this, the photographs have been catalysts for reconnection between the children and their carers.

We are always eager to add photographs to our archives. If you have photographs from any of the Homes of our founding agencies, we would love to hear from you. These homes include:

  • St Vincent’s Boys' Orphanage, South Melbourne
  • St Augustine’s Orphanage, Geelong
  • St Vincent’s Girls' Orphanage, South Melbourne and Black Rock
  • St Catherine’s Girls' Orphanage, Geelong
  • St Joseph’s Home for Boys, Surrey Hills
  • St Joseph’s Babies' Home, Broadmeadows
  • St Joseph’s Receiving Home, Carlton
  • St Anthony’s Home, Kew

If you’d like to share your photographs you can get in touch with us here.

Our Heritage and Information Service is responsible for the preservation of historical records including photographs. If you would like to access photographs or information about yourself or a family member, you can do so by submitting an enquiry here. You can also visit our Heritage Display in South Melbourne.