Historian records tales of 30,000 children who called Renwick home

IT is the site earmarked for a major Landcom residential development, but Renwick was once the home base for displaced and orphaned children and wards of the state.

In fact, more than 30,000 both boys and girls were accommodated in farm homes across the 234-hectare property as well as Cottage Homes around Mittagong from 1881-1994.

The homes, over the years accommodated children from various walks of life, including orphans, state wards, mentally challenged and ill youngsters.

The centrepiece of the Mittagong operation has been known as Mittagong Farm Homes, Industrial Estate and Toombong School, but is best known these days as Renwick.

The 115-year history of the various Mittagong Cottage Homes, the farm homes on the Renwick property and their role has become a tale close to the heart of Mittagong historian, Leonie Knapman.

Mrs Knapman said her connection with the homes began in the 1950s when her mother worked in the hospital on the Renwick property.

She said her interest grew when she was a young mother with two sons.

Mrs Knapman said she was involved in coaching her sons’ soccer team in Mittagong when she met some boys from the homes who were also a part of the soccer team.

“I began to learn about their life on the farm and how some went to school on the farm while other children in the homes attended the public school at Mittagong and Bowral High School,” she said.

“I began teaching craft at some of the homes at night and found each one catered for boys with different needs.

“I also found the boys worked on the farms learning trades and producing food for all associated with the homes.”

Mrs Knapman has spent much of the past 20 years piecing together the stories of many former residents, the history of the homes and the Renwick property.

She said displaced children were sent from orphanages in Sydney to live in private cottage homes in the Mittagong area from about 1881.

However she said the struggle for individual families to feed the additional youngsters in their homes saw the State Government of the time lease a portion of land (now known as Renwick) opposite the Marist Brothers property and Mittagong Airport from about 1885.

“The intention was to grow food on the property which already had several buildings on it and an orchard,” she said.

“More buildings were established and homeless men from the city were sent down to live there and work the land.

“They produced enough food to support children in homes both in Sydney and Mittagong.

“The government decided to buy the entire Renwick site in 1907 with children accommodated in farm homes on the property and in cottage homes in the Mittagong community.”

Mrs Knapman said while she was happy about the current Landcom plans for a residential subdivision on the Renwick property she wanted to ensure its history was not lost.

“Renwick has been sitting there doing nothing for some time so the redevelopment plans are good, but I want to make sure children who are raised there in the future have an understanding of the more than 30,000 children who once lived and played there,” she said.

Mrs Knapman said many of the former residents and staff at the homes were still alive today, ranging in age from 40-82 years.

She said she never chased former residents for their stories, but some 300 people, had come to her to share their thoughts and memories.

“It has become something of a cleansing process for many of those who have shared their stories,” she said.

“Some of the stories make you cry and some make you laugh, but the common theme is that many of those who were sent to the homes have struggled through much of their life trying to understand why.

“Many have said they would have been dead or in jail if it wasn’t for the homes.”

Mrs Knapman said it was important people understood Renwick was not a place for naughty children.

“That belief would be way off the mark,” she said.

“It was a place where children were sent to live because of varied circumstances.

“Some came from broken families where the father had left and the mother was trying to raise five or six children on her own.

“There was no dole, no endowment and no money from the fathers - so mothers would send some or all of their children to the homes, so she could go out to make a living.

“The harsh reality was they knew their children were guaranteed food, clothing and shelter at the homes - that was something many struggling mothers could not do for their kids if they didn’t let them go.”

Mrs Knapman said other children in the homes suffered from a variety of disabilities and illnesses such as polio, and some came as wards of the state.

She said some were taken away from their parents for their own wellbeing while others were sent to the homes because they were truants or were in trouble with the law.

Mrs Knapman continues to piece together the story of the Renwick and Mittagong homes.

She welcomes input from all former residents.

Details: 4871 1804.

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