She was reported to be ‘deficient’ and ‘mentally difficult’; a description that could apply to me at various times of my own life. But when did this apparent state of mind develop? Did it already exist or was it a control mechanism? Was it because they wouldn’t return her children?
I first read the phrase ‘mentally difficult’ on my grandfather’s 1924 Victorian State Ward Card only a few weeks ago. This was part of a description of his mother and perhaps a polite way for the describer to say, ‘I’m finding relations with this person challenging’. Read today, ‘mentally difficult’ appears to place the onus back on the describer rather than the described, but in the early twentieth century, it had more damaging and destructive powers.
In Australia in 1924, my great-grandmother was in trouble because she was mentally difficult, deficient, a woman, pregnant, caring for many children, homeless and penniless. Add to that an abusive, alcoholic husband and there was no help for her. But at least there was the State; the children wouldn’t be destitute.
The Neglected Children’s Act 1915 (and subsequent amendments) meant the Victorian Government was on the job. Or at least, our civilisation recognised the need for a central body to oversee the care of ‘neglected’ children. In theory this is fantastic. In practice it was an arduous task; to oversee the vast number of neglected children. Any help that alleviated that burden was considered a blessing.
Frankly if I wasn’t already mentally difficult, I might soon be if my children were kept from me.
The term, ‘mentally deficient’ was an official term, part of the Mental Deficiency Act 1939: ‘an Act to make provision for the Care of Mentally Defective Persons and Mentally Retarded Children and for other purposes.’ It reflected early twentieth century views that ‘scientifically the problem of mental deficiency is medical, educational, and social’. This is where I am starting, looking for answers to other questions thrown up by my family-history research. The term ‘other purposes’ is intriguing, and may help solve the big mystery of my great-grandmother and her actions that affected so many people, and still do today.
The mystery is still unfolding. Once upon a time my grandfather was an orphan, and then he wasn’t. We didn’t know his name or his parents, and then we did. His six siblings were lost and then we found them, and then we found more; seven, eight, nine, and more, up to thirteen thus far. His mother was married before his father and after too, and there were babies when she was a teenager. My great-grandmother changed her name many times through marriage, on birth certificates and seemingly willy-nilly. I’ve always thought her actions were deliberate, until now. I thought, that’s how a woman in her situation would survive in 1924.
However, what if ‘mentally difficult’ means more than struck by grief or post-natal depression? Today Ethel would’ve had swathes of options, support and help, and from people she didn’t even know. But in 1924, she was abandoned too.
The ‘mentally difficult’ phrase has caused me to rethink the first section of my short story, ‘Abandoned’. The villainous abandonment of the children and subsequent lives they had may well lay at the feet of the ‘system’ and not the parents.
This is what happens when you write and research at the same time. However, you must still write and research (at the same time) because if you stop writing, you might get it wrong and if you stop researching, you might not get it at all.
To search for Victorian state ward or adoption records, please visit Family Information Networks and Discovery, Human Services.
For information and history of Australian orphanages, children’s homes and other institutions, please visit Find & Connect (please note, some people may be distressed by information found on this website).