A new book captures what childhood looked like in colonial Sydney
THE photos of children in colonial Australia can look idyllic but there was a darker reality behind most of the scenes frozen in monochrome.
Photos were — with the exception of some portraits of the gritty streets of Sydney and spartan bush life — the indulgence of the middle and upper classes capturing their kids at play. But working-class kids in colonial times knew the meaning of tough. They were barely schooled, underfed and used as factory slave labour from age eight.
Author Edwin Barnard has written Spinning Tops And Gumdrops: A Portrait Of Colonial Childhood, which examines the lives of largely forgotten working- class children between 1788 and 1900.
Barnard said finding information was difficult, as working-class people rarely had time to document their own lives, let alone those of their children.
“Life was too difficult and short for kids to write a diary — the recollections are mostly people looking back at their lives,” he said.
“The voice of working-class people were generally not heard, either in text or photographs.
“They didn’t get asked their opinions as it wasn’t considered worth recording.”
Trawling through the National Library collection for just over a year paid off for Barnard as an unexpected picture of people’s lives emerged.
Boys wore dresses until the age of six for ease of toilet training and “children were dressed like small adults”.
Many of the official records of the time don’t fully reflect what living in Sydney during that period was truly like.
“Living in Sydney at that time was a desperate place that must have been a terrible time, but it’s just not written down and recorded,” Barnard said.
“Any official records gloss over any of the issues.”
Spinning Tops And Gumdrops: A Portrait of Colonial Childhood is now available.
Children on horseback off to school in the 1880s.
Children play up for the photographer in their toy cart, circa 1900.
Women and children take a tea break by the water.
A rural family put their harvester into storage, circa 1895.
Boys playing soldiers, complete with toy cannon, circa 1900.
A Sunday school group pose in their best clothes, circa 1897.
Enjoying a picnic on a river bank, circa 1890.