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All the little travellers: the children of ‘Morningtown Ride’

Sarah Green

It’s a sad fact that many people who were in care do not know what they looked like as children. When I was the Find & Connect Client Liaison Officer (2011 to 2014), I received many emails from people desperately searching for photographs and video footage of themselves and their relatives. These images are so highly prized and there are so many researchers looking out for them – Care Leavers, historians, archivists, genealogists, to name only a few –  it seems impossible that there would be any on the public record that haven’t already been discovered. Stories such as the woman who found photographs while cleaning out her Aunt’s house seem to suggest that new discoveries are more likely to come from private collections.

So you can imagine my surprise when I accidentally stumbled across a video of children in care, in the most public of places: YouTube!

One weekend in January 2016 I was browsing YouTube videos – well, I was watching The Seekers – and I came across a video clip of Judith Durham and her bandmates performing Morningtown Ride on Puffing Billy. The train is filled with young boys, plus two girls sitting on the performers’ laps. The children look bored and uncomfortable, which made me wonder where on earth they came from. At the bottom of the video was a caption:

Uploaded on Nov 10, 2011

Filmed on ‘Puffing Billy’ near Melbourne with the kids from a local Children’s Home. I recently had an email from one of them, now in his 50s, after he recognised himself on the video!

This set in train (pardon the pun) a detective hunt to find out which Home the children were from. I chatted with Cate from the Find & Connect web resource and we brainstormed a few ideas. Blackburn Cottages? Sutherland Homes? Orana? None of them quite fit the age range and the date of 1966.

In many ways it reminded me of when we would get emails to the Find & Connect web resource with a rough description of a Home which we’d try to identify through a process of elimination. I sent a tweet to Care Leavers Australasia Network (CLAN) and Frank Golding, sure they would be able to help sleuth out the answer. They joined the hunt and soon there was a whole bunch of us trying to track it down. I wrote to the poster of the video, as well as to Open Place, the Victorian service for Forgotten Australians, but still no answers. Burwood Boys’ Home kept coming up as it had been mentioned on a few different forums, but it didn’t quite fit the bill.

I reckon most researchers love a good detective hunt and it’s this type of mission that reminds us why we do this work. I was beside myself with excitement at the idea of someone out there being reunited with video footage of themselves as a child, even if it was of them looking a bit bored.

Mike Jones

Sarah told me the story of the Seekers clip over a drink in January. Like others who heard the story, I was immediately curious; and, as the former Lead Archivist on the Find & Connect web resource project (2013 to 2014), like Sarah I knew the immense value of these sorts of records. But, despite time spent searching the web and trying to follow the trail, I didn’t make any more progress than those already on the case.

As a regular Twitter user (@mikejonesmelb) I had found my Twitter contacts useful in the past, so put the word out.

Within 15 minutes I had a few responses, including a suggestion I check Find & Connect. While we were heartened to hear that people consider us a ‘first stop’ for information, in this case we needed to look further afield! The breakthrough came from Caz (@Birdwiththegold), who suggested we contact Seekers expert Graham Simpson.

I sent an email to Graham asking if he knew the name of the Home, and explaining why we were looking, and within just a few hours I had the following:

Thanks for your email.  The work you and your colleagues do sounds fascinating and very valuable.

Luckily, my memory is still good, so I believe I can help you with this query.

The photo you’re referring to is a production still from the Channel 7 TV special ‘The Seekers At Home’, which The Seekers filmed during their second Australian tour in 1966.

“Morningtown Ride” was filmed on Puffing Billy and the children were from the St. Vincent de Paul Orphanage, which I believe was in South Melbourne.

The entire clip – showing a lot of footage of the children – is featured on a commercially available DVD called ‘The Seekers At Home, Down Under’ (which is actually two TV specials – 1966’s ‘The Seekers At Home’ and 1967’s ‘The Seekers Down Under’).

I thanked all my Twitter followers, and spread the word to those who had been interested in the video and the identity of the Home. Around the same time another Twitter friend, Lyndsay Farlow (@LyndsayFarlow), sent through a link to a 2014 article which backed up Graham’s recollection. Not only did we have our answer, we had confirmation in a published source.

The story of the Seekers video is a great example of a really important historical document ‘hidden’ in plain sight, and shows that the records which are significant to people who grew up in ‘care’ could come in a whole variety of forms. That these children from St. Vincent de Paul Orphanage were brought in as ‘background’ for a music video perhaps says something about attitudes at the time in which it was filmed. And the input from colleagues, Twitter friends, and external experts – all collaborating virtually – shows how technology can be used as part of research.

We will also use technology to publish our findings, in this blog post and as part of the Find & Connect web resource, to ensure the details of the video become public knowledge. Sarah and I would like to thank all the people who helped search for more information on the Morningtown Ride video.

Finally, if there is anyone who remembers being in the video, we would love to hear from you.

*Post edited at 9:40pm, 29 February 2016, to add the name and Twitter handle of Lyndsay Farlow.

13 Comments

  1. Richard Saunders

    March 6, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    Hi Sarah & Mike, I’m glad my upload sparked your investigation! I hope it’s OK that I’ve now linked the video to your blog? I looked back to try to find the email I mentioned, but couldn’t track it down – I think it was in the old YouTube inbox, which was discontinued some time ago.

    Really interesting what a little YouTube upload can lead to!

    • Hi Richard,
      Perhaps my first message to you went to that old YouTube inbox too! I’m delighted to make contact with you here. Thank you so much for uploading that video and including the very important caption. It sparked off quite the detective hunt.
      Regarding your message about the 1990s clip – you are right to say Graham was involved in its production, and he has confirmed that the children in that video were family and friends. (Thanks again Graham!)
      Cheers,
      Sarah

  2. Nikki Henningham is right about the frequent use in TV and movie scripts of a character’s back story’s including having been in an orphanage/ children’s Home – sadly it is more often a negative than a positive!
    As to the question about British Migrant records, there are several really helpful Past Provider organisations in the UK that I’ve written to that have had good access to records that they were prepared to go to a lot of effort to share.

  3. Nikki Henningham

    March 3, 2016 at 6:26 am

    Great sleuthing and congratulations to all involved! And thank goodness for the person whose caption caught your attention in the first place!

    I’m struck by how regularly this history crops up in popular culture, in unexpected places. Last Sunday I watched ‘Call the Midwife’; an episode that involved a story of neglected children. The last scene depicted the children walking up a gangplank, all smiles and full of hope as they ‘headed towards the sunshine’. The voice over corrected the picture, making reference to the cruel deception perpetrated upon child migrants to Australia. And it made me wonder, what records of those children did places in London (like Nonatus House) have of those children.

    • Mike Jones and Sarah Green

      March 3, 2016 at 11:22 am

      Thanks Nikki! I have found the same – the history of children in ‘care’ runs through so many spaces and places, and had an impact on so many people. Mike.

      • Thanks Nikki! You are right – it truly does pop up in the most unexpected places. And yes, it’s amazing what a difference one little caption can make. Funnily enough, there is actually another video of Judith Durham singing Morningtown Ride on Puffing Billy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d6JCzkFpG8k
        That one doesn’t have a caption, so where those children came from is a total mystery!

      • Sarah, Like you, since Christmas, I have been watching a lot of Judith Durham YouTube videos.

        There is a third one dated 2001. The one you just mentioned has a circa 1991 date on it. I THINK the two videos are the same with a new audio track for Christmas and the version you mentioned.
        http://youtu.be/vmxjpFkBhsc

        I believe that one of the girls in the colour version is [G]’s daughter. Apparently [G] is now working full time for Judith so contacting him about the colour version of the film might yield rewards but the children in the colour version look happier than those in the circa 1965 version in black and white.

        This work you are doing is great as a relatively new Canadian I will admit to being mostly oblivious to our involvement with British Home Children. I am more aware of the Residential Schools horror for our indigenous people here.

  4. Happy to have helped 🙂

  5. Thanks for joining the detective hunt with us Frank! I’m crossing my fingers this will somehow reach people who were in the video.

  6. Well done Mike and Sarah! Persistence and the smarts combined to get a good result.

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