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Our Beginnings

The Royal Society of Mothers & Babies was set up to co-ordinate the efforts of many NSW charitable and Government agencies working in the field of infant welfare during the post war period. At the time, the infant mortality rate was so high, that while during the First World War 55,000 men were killed in battle, the country also lost around 58,000 babies.

In view of this it is not surprising that there was strong popular support for the agencies who were concerned about infant welfare and the reduction of the infant mortality rate. This was reflected in the political arena by the appointment of a “Minister for Public Health and Motherhood”.

What emerged was the Society for the Welfare of Mothers & Babies, a new organisation providing hospital care for babies with feeding and behavioural problems, a training school for nurses, and a residential and outpatients clinic for mothers and babies.

The establishment of the Society in 1918 took place on 4th November, 1918 at the Sydney Town Hall, at a meeting chaired by the Sydney Lord Mayor, Hon J. Joynton Smith M.L.C.

At this time many organisations were contributing to the saving of infant life including the Baby Clinics, the Sydney Day Nursery Association, the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children and Renwick and Lady Edeline Hospitals. There was a recognised need for co-ordination of the efforts of all agencies working for the welfare of mothers and babies.

Incorporated by an Act of Parliament

An Act incorporating the Society was passed by NSW Parliament in 1919 and an office was established in the Chief Secretary’s Building, Sydney, with Mr S. R. Innes-Noad M.L.C. nominated as President. In April, 1919, His Majesty King George V assented to the prefix “Royal” and Queen Mary officially became Patron in 1920. After her death, on a visit to Australia in 1954, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 11 granted her patronage to the Society.

Our First President

The Society’s founding President was Mr S. R .Innes-Noad M.L.C. who ensured that the aims of the Society were vigorously pursued.

As summarised in the Act to incorporate the Society, its goals were:

  1. The saving of baby life and the amelioration of the conditions of life of children up to the age which they are required to attend school.
  2. The ensuring of proper nursing and health conditions to every expectant mother prior to and every mother subsequent to childbirth.
  3. Such further objects and purposes as may be proclaimed by Government.

Mr Innes-Noad had a vision for the Society – that of securing the best possible life and future for young Australians and on the occasion of Baby Week 1920, was quoted as saying ‘The Mother is nature’s guardian of her child. The Royal Society only wishes to make her more efficient’.

How did Tresillian get its name?

In 1921, the Society purchased 2 Shaw Street, Petersham, to house Australia’s first Infant Mothercraft Training School. ‘Tresillian’ was the name bestowed on the home which was built by the Cornish born, Mr Langdon whose family were lumber merchants founding the business of ‘Langdon & Langdon’.

The palatial Petersham house reflected the Langdon’s timbercraft traditions with fine cedar doors, partitions and staircase. During his lifetime, Mr Langdon was an Alderman and Mayor of Petersham. It’s thought he named his home ‘Tresillian’, as a tribute to memories of his Cornish childhood. The Society affectionately became known as Tresillian from then on. The property was described as ‘a roomy modern house with charming grounds’. Dame Margaret Davidson officially opened the Petersham Centre on 7th September 1921, giving what was reportedly a very short speech asking for ‘help and interest’ with this very important work.

In its first year of operation, 30 mothers and 30 babies were admitted to Tresillian and it was reported all had improved with lactation induced and mothers able to nourish their children. As well, 46 outpatients were also treated successfully.

Nurse Education – the cornerstone of the Society

Nurse education has been the cornerstone of the Society’s educational activities. The first Medical Director, Dr Margaret Harper was an innovator and pioneer who travelled to New Zealand to study the methods being used under the Plunkett system, led by Truby King. On Dr Harper’s return in 1921, her report to the government recommended the opening of an Infant Training School. This opened at 2 Shaw Street, Petersham in response to the increasing demand for trained staff to service the Baby Clinics. Post graduate certificate courses were offered to those holding either obstetric or general certificate qualifications.

The important components of the Plunkett system were “Standardisation of methods” and a “scientific approach to inducing lactation and to calculating the food value of artificial feeding when it has to be resorted to”. These were all implemented by Dr Harper, but by 1923, Truby King was critical of the methods employed at the Training School, claiming they were not following his principles. Dr Margaret Harper responded that the environment in Sydney required adaptation to the Plunkett system. Acrimonious debates and correspondence in the newspapers ensued!

Initially, the courses offered at Tresillian were for general trained nurses only. Later in 1924 a course for untrained girls as ‘Mothers’ helps’ was introduced. The course for general trained nurses was of three months duration and the trainees paid a fee of £15 later raised to £25. From 1924 – 1932 the Society trained Froebal nurses – these were students who studied for 6 months at the Kindergarten Union and 6 months at a mothercraft hospital. A Course combining mothercraft nursing and child care.

Community education

Community education was pursued by the Society from the outset. The first Report in 1919 lists thirteen members on the “Propaganda Committee”, headed by Judge Backhouse and it was claimed by the President that “the influence of the Society’s propaganda has had an immense effect on public interest, and has been largely instrumental in making mother and infant welfare the live subject it undoubtedly is.”

Subsequently, the Society actively promoted publicity campaigns in the city and country, conducted Baby Weeks, produced pamphlets, established a Mothers’ Rest Bungalow with displays at the Royal Agricultural Society’s Annual Show in Sydney, published regular baby management advisory columns in women’s journals and arranged lecture tours in country areas on infant and maternal welfare. One of its most influential publications was Dr Margaret Harper’s “Parent’s Book”. To this day, Tresillian’s continues to play an active role in educating new parents.

Wicker bassinettes

A hallmark of Tresillian has been the handmade wicker bassinette’s for baby, that are still used to this day. The bassinettes were crafted for the Tresillian in the early 1920’s by the Royal Blind Society and have become synonymous with our service to parents. These bassinettes were scrubbed clean by the nurses as each baby was discharged. A truly sustainable cot.

A key task for the student nurses was to make chaff mattresses – baking the chaff, filling mattress covers and then sewing them up. A further skill the nurses learnt was making the bassinettes up with enveloping sheet. A real art of folding a large sheet to suit the weather (more layers in winter, less in summer). The babies would be swaddled using these sheets and settle very quickly on the chaff mattress.

Learning mothercraft

Until the early 1990’s becoming a mothercraft nurse required participating in an apprentice style program which mean working shifts and attending lectures. Expert, very experienced senior nurses would oversee the mothercraft nurses.

One former student, Cathrine Fowler elaborates ‘The nursing sisters were sharp eyed and as students we were constantly watched. Often we were left to struggle until we were about to leave in frustration and a sister would arrive and rescue us and more importantly the baby. They would very efficiently settle the baby or assist the mother attach the baby to their breast and then walk out’.

She added ‘Miss Evangelyn Carr, the then Matron at Petersham had the art of just appearing down to a fine art. For many students she became a key person in their learning to become mothercraft nurses. Her quiet efficiency and her wealth of experience in caring for infants and young children was a gift she willingly shared with the students. Miss Carr remains actively involved in Tresillian, a yearly event is setting up the Christmas tree at Belmore which is much appreciated by the staff and families. ‘

‘Being allocated to ‘Foodroom’ in the residential unit, was another experience that was much more difficult than today. Making the milk feeds, learning to dilute cows or goats milk to the right proportions and adding sugar and vitamins. Using milk products we would not contemplate today such as condensed milk for weaning or bottle refusal, sunshine powdered milk and cow’s milk. There were no prepared infant formulas powders in those early days’.

May Gibbs

Speaking of books, in 1918, renowned Australian children’s author and illustrator, May Gibbs, best known for the gumnut babies ‘Snugglepot & Cuddlepie’, dedicated one of her early artworks to the promotion of the Society allowing it to feature on the cover of a Tresillian Parent’s handbook. It featured the words, ‘I hardly like delivering the goods Mrs Kookaburra – them humans is so gum careless of ‘em’.

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