Children were always a high proportion of the Sydney population – over 40% in 1871. They were especially well represented in industrial suburbs like Pyrmont. In these suburbs living conditions were severely cramped: most families lived in one or two room cottages, sharing a privy with neighbours.
Privacy was impossible. A majority of families produced six or more children, so inevitably children and adults ate, slept and washed together. Nevertheless Australian children fared better than their British cousins. By 1838 the infant mortality rate was 20% – infant deaths were so frequent as to be almost normal – but not quite as common as in Britain where the rate was 33%.
Middle class parents sent their sons to school (here or at Home) to become gentlemen; they sent their daughters to school to grow into wives who could manage a household and provide a cultured domestic atmosphere. Schooling in Pyrmont was much less organised. A National School opened in a weatherboard building in 1858. A decade later it was dilapidated and unfit for children. In one room there were 110 children: in the other, 80 or 90. When the grand, stone-built Pyrmont Superior Public School opened in 1884 (costing £10,0000) the physical conditions were much better. But – even before the school closed in the 1930s – most kids got most of their education in the Anglican and Catholic parish schools, from teachers whose own education was limited. 70% of all children attended Sunday School, which for some was all the education they got.
By this time – the 1880s – Christmas had become a children’s festival, with Santa Claus and toys. Boys were given ‘masculine’ toys like clockwork trains and boats, while their sisters received teddy bears, dolls, with tiny clothes, prams and cots. (Once CSR was established, there was a Christmas party for the children of all employees, and generous gifts.)
However, Pyrmont children’s lives were much more exciting than eating, sleeping and schooling. Mothers wanted them out of the way while onerous housework was underway, and the kids were only too happy to explore the streets (where traffic was scarce and slow) or on the fields that still dotted the peninsula. And there was always fun to be had in or around the public baths.