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Children’s Transit House: the story of a Māori baby

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Erica Newman
31 October, 2020

“Child in home of [foster parent]. Placed by Transit House v[iew] to ad[opt] but child is too dark for them. [Foster mother] wants child removed by weekend if possible. I rang Mrs Wallis [Director], Transit House, Mrs Wallis will arrange further temporary board.”[1]

It is from this quote, and other comments made, in my mother’s adoption file that I first became aware that there was such a thing as the Children’s Transit House. As the name suggests it was a place where children were placed into a temporary care arrangment, and even identified within newspaper reports as “a clearing house between the children’s own homes and the temporary homes”.[2] Or as the quote “a clearing house for babies and children” [3] suggests, it could be used for a child in transition until they were placed in permanent care.

Although my mother was born in 1948, Transit House began in 1943 as a response to the disruptions of war. The inital purpose was to provide relief for mother’s whose husbands were soldiers during World War II, or any mother who was in need of assistance. Transit House came under the umbrella of the ‘New Zealand Happiness Club’ and they arranged temporary care for children if their mother was unwell, in hospital or any other reason that meant the mother was not able to fully care for their child or children.

In July 1943 the Children’s Transit House was opened in Hobson Street, Auckland. It was located opposite Farmers’ Trading Company who had donated the venue. On 21 July the Mayor and Mayoress, Mr and Mrs Allum, performed the official opening.[4] Mayor Allum gave a glimpse of the stressful living conditions for some families in the urban areas during this time, especially for mothers whose husbands were fighting during the war: “Under present-day conditions one continually hears the call for assistance made by mothers, and even fathers, who in times of necessity need help in caring for their children”.[5]

Transit House itself was not a care facility. Their premises were described as “the suite of rooms, which has been most attractively equipped and decorated, includes a model kitchen, a large playroom, sleeping room and bathroom, office for the supervisor and a sewing room ... . Some of the walls have been charmingly decorated with nursery themes by the director of the Happiness Club, Miss Joan (Edith) Sutherland”.[6] The idea of such a layout was to make sure the children were “fed, rested, and, if necessary, supplied with clothing before being sent on to their temporary homes”.[7]

Funding for the operation of this voluntary organisation came from the Happiness Club and from various activities, such as pageants and social balls. A small charge of 15 shillings per week per child was paid by parents to have their child in care – if they could afford it. Farmers Trading Company provided the location of Transit House free of charge.

Transit House offered temporary care arrangments for children under the age of 13 and worked with and co-operated with social workers in ensuring mothers in need were rendered assistance. At the time of opening, the Auckland Transit Home had 35 to 40 private homes approved and licenced by child welfare as appropriate temporary care homes and were ready to start receiving children. As early as August 1943 advertisements under ‘Board Wanted’ in the Classified section of Auckland newspapers were appearing in search of “KIND PERSONS, willing Board Children of sick mothers for short period”.[8] By the end of October 1943 the popularity of this service is evident with 80 children having been placed in temporary homes.

The daily operations of transit house under Mrs A. Andrews was performed with voluntary helpers. Not only were the volunteers involved in caring and placing children, they also inspected each and every home that was offered and they maintained contact with the sick mothers whose children they had become responsible for.

Not all approved and licensed homes could cater for the very young. On advertising however, there were never a shortage of possibiliites. “In the case of the tiny baby [10 days old] a call for assistance was put over the air, and in half an hour Mrs Andrews had 14 offers of homes”.[9]  This is something that happened with the placement of my mother in 1948 when it became difficult to find a suitable home due to the colour of her skin and her age. The fact that it occcurred with my mother five years later indicates that this was a normal practice when there were not enough carers for children of a particular age. Families who took in children were paid 10 shillings per child, per week, by Transit House.

By the end of October 1943, Transit House had 75 approved and licensed homes located as far as Whangarei to Hamilton and often in rural areas or along the coast. Mrs Andrews liked to make these short stays into holidays for the children “by placing little ones from congested areas in homes on the ranges, or town children at the seaside”.[10]

 Auckland was not the only place to have a Children’s Transit House. In 1947 Transit House was set up in Petone. However, it was known as “Child’s Emergency Centre” (CEC) due to the “Transit Housing Scheme” that the Government had established to avoid any confusion between the two. Like the Auckland Transit House this one also came under the umbrella of the Happiness Club.  Within half an hour of this branch opening it is recorded that a child was placed within a home, much to the relief of the father whose wife had been admitted to hospital.[11]

I started this story with a quote from my mother’s adoption file. My mother was born in urban Auckland. Her Pākehā birth mother was admitted to hospital and her Māori father not identified. My mother could not stay with the people at the house where she was born – she was not wanted there. Transit House was contacted to find suitable temporary accommodation as she was too young to be placed at the Home of Compassion [12] who was willing to take her but only from the age of two months. 

Child Welfare had provided one possible placement for my mother, but that family did not want to adopt her as my mother was “too dark for them”. They requested she be removed by the end of the week in which they had received her. Child Welfare then instructed my mother’s birth mother to make adoption or boarding out arrangements herself, saying that she could place an advertisement in the newspaper. If any arrangements were to be made, Child Welfare needed to be advised so they could licence the property. Transit House was contacted again to find another temporary home until an adoption or boarding out could be arranged. The last comment made by the Child Welfare officer on the bottom of the brief handwritten report is the comment that her mother “is very poor type. I should not like to offer the child for adoption”. My mother at this time was between two and three weeks of age. I believe Transit House put a request over the radio as there is evidence that they used this method to find homes for very young children, and her adoptive mother heard and made contact. My mother was told by her adopted mother that this was how she found out about her needing a home, and from the age of four weeks this is where she lived with the final adoption order processed two years later.

Children’s Transit House was initially established for mother’s whose husbands were fighting in World War II as a means to provide the mother with some time out and for mother’s who were ill and/or had to be admitted to hospital. This organisation was able to find suitable accommodation for urban children for short periods of time. The Auckland branch used this opportunity to send urban children to rural or coastal locations and this was treated as a holiday for the children. And it would appear they were also instrumental in helping to find suitable homes for children to be adopted into, including Māori children, as in the case of my mother.

 Image: Author's personal collection.

[1] This quote, names omitted, comes from a note in my mother’s adoption file and made by Child Welfare officer.

[2] ‘Care of Children: Aid for Mothers: New Project in City’. New Zealand Herald, 20 July 1943: 4.

[3] ‘Woman’s World: Transit House Grows: Meeting an urgent need’. New Zealand Herald, 29 October 1943: 5.

[4] ‘Woman’s World: Transit House: Project for Children’. New Zealand Herald, 22 July 1943: 5.

[5] ‘Transit House: Opening Ceremony Held’. Auckland Star, 22 July 1943: 3; Woman’s World: Transit House Grows: Meeting an urgent need’. New Zealand Herald, 29 October 1943: 5; ‘“Transit House” Part of New Scheme’. Evening Post, 23 July 1943: 6.

[6] ibid.

[7] ‘“Transit House” Part of New Scheme’. Evening Post, 23 July 1943: 6.

[8] ‘Board Wanted’. New Zealand Herald, 04 August 1943: 1.

[9] ‘Woman’s World: Transit House Grows: Meeting an urgent need’. New Zealand Herald, 29 October 1943: 5.

[10] ibid. This organisation was a practice of social welfare and as such worked closely with Child Welfare Department. The work that Mrs Andrews did essentially led to her becoming approved as a Child Welfare Officer.

[11] ‘Official Opening: Children’s Emergency Centre’. Hutt News, 25 June 1947: 4.

[12] Going from my mother’s adoption file, this appears to be St Mary’s Orphanage in Penrose, Auckland.


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