The Royal Women's Hospital history in brief
Aerial view of the Women's in Carlton, looking north circa 1970
In 1856, a group of philanthropic women and two young doctors founded the Melbourne Lying-in Hospital and Infirmary for Diseases of Women and Children in Albert St, Eastern Hill (East Melbourne). Within two years they had been granted land in Swanston Street, Carlton where they built a new hospital.
From the outset, the Women's aimed to lead in setting standards for medical and nursing care, becoming the first Australian hospital to train nurses in the late 1850s and to teach obstetrics and gynaecology to medical students (1865).
The Women's was the first place in Australia where a specialist Diploma in Obstetrics and Gynaecology could be undertaken (from 1932).
In the 1940s, the institution was known as the Women’s Hospital, changing its name to The Royal Women’s Hospital in 1954. It is often referred to as “the Women’s”.
By the second half of the twentieth century, more women gave birth in the Women's maternity section than in any other hospital in Australia.
In 2008 the Women’s relocated from Swanston Street in Carlton to Flemington Road in Parkville.
View from Cardigan Street of the 3AW Community Service Building, Carlton 1972
The Women’s has cared for pregnant unmarried women since its foundation but very little is known from the early days of how their babies fared.
In 1929, legislation required that adoptions be registered, and enabled the hospital to become an adoption agency in its own right.
In 1934, the hospital appointed its first Almoner who helped people in hospital with financial and social problems. From 1941, the Social Work Department liaised with birth mothers and prospective adoptive parents.
From 1966, new legislation saw the hospital become legally registered as an Adoption Agency.
In 1969, a Foster Mother program was introduced to care for babies for the 30 days during which a relinquishing mother could decide whether or not adoption would go ahead.
From 1974, so few babies were available for adoption, the waiting lists for adoptive parents were closed.
In 1985, the hospital began phasing out the adoption service, which finally closed in July 1987.
In 2009 the Women’s commissioned Professor Shurlee Swain to produce an independent report on the hospital‘s historical role in adoption, specifically with respect to single women birthing at the hospital, from 1945 to 1975. Professor Swain‘s study examined the policies, practices and staff attitudes of the Women’s in order to understand how these affected the experiences of single mothers who gave birth at the hospital.
This history informed the Women’s formal apology in 2012 to relinquishing mothers and adoptees.
The history Confinement and delivery practices in relation to single women confined at the Royal Women’s Hospital 1945-1975 was submitted to the Senate Community Affairs Reference Committee Inquiry into the Commonwealth Contribution to Former Forced Adoption Policies and Practices along with the apology.
Records of Adoptions
In 1987, after the Adoption Agency closed, all records pertaining to adoptions arranged by The Royal Women’s Hospital were transferred to Community Services Victoria.
The Women’s does not hold any records relating to adoptions and is unable to help find information about relinquished babies, birth mothers or adoptive parents. Enquiries about adoptions arranged by the hospital must be directed to in the Department of Health and Human Services.
Warning about distressing information
This guide contains information that some people may find distressing. If you experienced abuse as a child or young person in an institution mentioned in this guide, it may be a difficult reading experience. Guides may also contain references to previous views, policies and practices that are regrettable and do not reflect the current views, policies or practices of the department or the State of Victoria. If you find this content distressing, please consult with a support person either from the Department of Health and Human Services or another agency.
Please note that the content of this administrative history is provided for general information only and does not purport to be comprehensive. The department does not guarantee the accuracy of this administrative history. For more information on the history of child welfare in Australia, see .
More information about the history of the Royal Women’s Hospital is recorded in Sex and Suffering, Womens Health and a Women’s Hospital by Janet McCalman, published 1998 by Melbourne University Press, Carlton South.
List of records held by the department
For information relating to the central management of care leavers and wards of state, please consult the guide to Central department wardship and out-of-home care records. These collections date back to the 1860s and include ward registers, index cards and ward files.
Defunct Agency Adoption Records (1920–97)
File and Card; Unappraised
Content: The Adoption Act 1984 allowed approved agencies to arrange and negotiate the adoption of children. It also required that agencies keep certain records. If an agency’s approval or operations ceased, their records were to be forwarded to the Secretary of the Department.
The Act also required the Department to establish an adoption information service (AIS) with access to both records created by the Department and the records of the former approved agencies. The adoption records now held by the Department were created by as many as 30 different adoption agencies that were in operation at different times. After the AIS was formed, circa 1985, it gathered the records of the various agencies, numbered the files sequentially with an “A” prefix and created a full index.
Other AIS unnumbered adoption files and card indexes were also transferred at a later date. The records management unit allocated these records different numbering systems to distinguish between the card indexes from the files. The categories of files were grouped by the adoption agency they related to and the function of the file. Some of the file sequences also hold an "A" prefix as adoption files. However, the numbering system is separate to the first collection transferred from the AIS.
Content of files will vary but may include.
- Application to Adopt form
- documents and correspondence supporting the application.
- Consent to Adopt and correspondence.
- legal documents
- birth certificates
In this collection, there are two categories of files attributed to The Royal Women’s Hospital:
- adoptive parents files in alphabetical order of adoptive mothers name
- Miscellaneous birth mother records, K to Y, relating to women whose children were born at the Women's but adopted privately or through another agency.
The Royal Women's Hospital and the Department’s Adoption Indexes (c.1960–84)
Content: These three indexes seem to have been held by the Adoption Information Service. The index cards are arranged alphabetically by family name.
The indexes comprise:
- The Royal Women’s Hospital Relinquishing Mothers Index, c.1950s–80s. This typed and handwritten card index contains all or some of the following information:
o date stamp of card
o enquiry file number or patient file number
o birth mother’s name, address, religion, marital status and age
o reference to “A” File with adoptee’s name (sometimes more than one child)
o day of the week stamp
- The Department’s adoption section index cards c.1960–84. This typed and handwritten card index contains all or some of the following information:
o Reference to Non-Ward Adoption Act 1964
o Transaction or file number
o Year of adoption
o Ref. Nos.
o Husband’s first names
o Wife’s first names
o Name of Child
o Date of Placement
o A.O [Adoption Order] date
- The Royal Women’s Hospital Information Service Index, c.1970s–80s. This typed and hand written card index was developed by social workers.
This index comprises a combination of Relinquishing/Natural Mother Central Cards, Adoptee Cards, Central Card Adoptive Parents, Exchanging Information and Photos (with Adoptee) cards and provides the following details:
o name, address and telephone number of adoptive parents, birth mother and adoptees;
o the social worker’s name or initials.
The Royal Women’s Hospital Adoptive Parents Indexes (1941–89)
- “R.W.H. Adoptive Parents Index A-K Discharge List
- “R.W.H. Adoptive Parents Index L-Z ALPHABETICAL”
These volumes comprise two ring binders with foolscap pages. The hand written entries are arranged in a single page column format.
The column headings comprise:
- Discharge Date
- Adopting Parents
- Case No.
- Patient (birth mother)
- Comments (column usually empty)
The volumes do not hold any information or even mention the child who was adopted out.
The column entries are all in the same biro pen and seem to have been made as part of a process of collating information on the discharged birth mothers and adoptive parents, after the adoptions had ceased, possibly in the 1980s.
This assumption is supported by the fact that the volumes are in alphabetical order by adoptive parents’ surnames and not in chronological order of birth mothers’ discharge.
The Royal Women's Hospital - Adoption Discharge and Court Hearing Registers (1966–87)
These registers were received by Archival Services from the Adoption Information Service in 1995. Very little is known regarding the circumstances of their creation.
They were determined to be records from the Women's by cross-checking the non-ward numbers provided with the departmental Non-Ward Register, which revealed the child had been placed with "R.W.H. applicants."
The volumes are arranged in chronological order, but the sequence is not complete.
Each register has been used to record two separate groups of information – "Daily Discharge" and "Court Hearings" – with the second group beginning in the middle of the volume.
The content of the "Daily Discharge" section includes discharge date, number, applicant surname, patient name (not specified if "patient" is the mother or the child), age of child, sex, whether follow up done, and date of hearing.
Reviewed 24 April 2019