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Adelaide Ladies on the Town


1. Johanna Brans

by Robyn Hukin © All rights reserved
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Great great aunt Johanna probably owned a working coat, stained at the back with tree sap and the dirt of the city. She worked on summer nights in the southern parklands of Adelaide, South Australia, and was a member of the shadowy people who felt at home in dark alleys and silent places. Her job carried with it the almost certain promise of an early death and the risk of becoming an alcoholic. She was an outcaste of society, along with beggars, thieves and pimps. Once she had been a wife and mother, now deprived of both these havens of respectability.

Johanna Brans's marriage was short lived, as her husband Charles Brockmann, threw her, and their two small children, out of home in January 1877. She applied to the Port Adelaide Police Court for maintenance, which was granted, but which was an order Charles chose to ignore.

When Johanna went to his home to ask for the money he grabbed her by the throat and threw her into the street[1]. The police magistrate did not look too kindly on this and Charles, a Danish seaman, was incarcerated in Adelaide Gaol for one month. Having no sympathetic parents to turn to, Johanna sought refuge with her sister Mary Jane Brans, who had been working as a prostitute in a brothel in Glanville, in the Port Adelaide area. The police became aware of this new girl "on the town" and were alerted to the fact that her two children, Magnus and Johanna, were also living in the house of ill repute. They raided the brothel and the children were subsequently charged in the Port Adelaide Police Court with being neglected.

I stumbled across Johanna's story by accident, having previously been more obsessed with her younger sister Mary Jane. After obtaining a number of Brans birth certificates I had collected a gaggle of illegitimate children, all born to great great aunt Mary Jane, and seemingly fathered by different men. Some of these children were born in the Destitute Asylum. Something was definitely amiss! Pam Smith, a friend in Adelaide, kindly delved into some of the more unsavoury records that are held in the treasure troves of the Mortlock Library, and State Records of South Australia. She soon discovered, via the Adelaide Gaol Admission Registers Index, Mary Jane had served two terms in that institution in November 1877 and January 1878. Both charges had been for loitering with intent and the sentence, one month in prison. Additionally, the index indicated that Mary Jane's three brothers and her elder sister Johanna had also been confined in Adelaide Gaol on a number of different occasions. A check of the Registers supplied me with information I sought regarding their crimes. One of Johanna's entries stated that she had not paid a Board of Health fine. This intrigued me a great deal, especially as I could find no reference to the event in the newspapers around that date.

Among the wad of Brans family members listed as being in Adelaide Gaol was a younger brother whom I assumed had died as an infant, as I had found no reference to him in a variety of official records. Unfortunately Volume G of the Admissions Registers, in which both he and Johanna appeared, had mysteriously "gone missing", a circumstance which has remained that way for some years now. Being a person who can't accept No for an answer I decided on another tack to discover just what they had done to incur the wrath of the Police Court magistrates.

This involved wading my way through approximately three years worth of the daily court reports in the Express and Telegraph. I got more than I bargained for! Johanna began to appear at regular intervals, ... at one stage, on average, every fortnight. I also discovered a total of six other family members who had been in trouble with the law at one time or another, not all having been imprisoned, but merely paying a fine.

Johanna's story, however was by far the most poignant. After the Port Adelaide police discovered that she and her children were living in a brothel, Johanna was told by the Police Magistrate that he would remove her children from her and place them under the protection of the state if she did not take better care of them, and find other lodgings. It would seem she did just that. The next report I found explained the Board of Health conviction mentioned earlier:

(Express and Telegraph March 25 1878) Police Court Port Adelaide.
Johanna Brockmann, married woman, of Glanville, was charged on the information of William Gosse, President of the Central Board of Health, with disobeying an order of that Board, dated March 8, directing that a certain lean to situated in Sutherland Street, Glanville, was unfit for habitation. Mr Harold Downer for the prosecution. The defendant was absent through illness, and the case was heard ex parte. G.H. Ayliffe, Inspector under the Board stated that he reported on the state of the building referred to the Board, and that body issued a notice stating that it was unfit for habitation, and that it was not to be inhabited after March 11. Witness placed the notice on the house but the defendant did not leave. She afterwards admitted occupying it from the 12th to the 20th. The lean to was 14 ft by 5 ft with a mean height of 7 ft. It was occupied by three women and two children. The defendant told witness on March 20 that she had just been confined. Dr MacIntosh said he had examined the lean to in question. He found it quite unfit for the number of persons occupying it. The amount of air would be about 500 cubic feet - far too small for the number of persons living there. The only ventilation was through the door and chimney. Louisa Volbrecht, who was called for the defence, said she attended the defendant at her confinement. She was confined on March 13. Fined 10s per day for eight days and costs £1. 18s.

Johanna, having been unable to work, had no money to pay the fine and therefore was incarcerated in Adelaide Gaol for two weeks. Presumably her newborn (and unregistered) child accompanied her. Johanna's two legitimate children were subsequently found wandering the streets, were charged with being neglected children and placed in the Industrial School for fourteen days or until their mother's release. Once children were placed in state care in South Australia it was often very difficult to have them released. Such was the case with Magnus and Johanna Brockman.

Four months later Johanna and another prostitute were told by the Port Adelaide Police Magistrate that they should leave the area and if they returned he would imprison them. Johanna then traveled to Adelaide, where she began working in a notorious group of brothels, known as Boddington's Row.

There were different classes of prostitutes in Adelaide, ranging from the "better" class ladies who dressed in red satin and white gloves, and frequented such hotels as the Theatre Royal, (their favourite haunt there was known colloquially as the Saddling Paddock) right down to the street walkers who offered basic services, often in alleyways and dark parks. These women generally catered for the working man, who could not necessarily afford "the works". The ladies of the Saddling Paddock did a brisk trade after the theatre finished whilst many of the less well to do men availed themselves of the services of other women of the town on their way home from work, usually about 7pm. A correspondent in the South Australian Register of 1/10/1877, who styled himself "The Amateur Inspector", accompanied the police on their nightly rounds and reported that:

I passed through the dark entrance to the famous or rather infamous Boddington's Row - a line of cramped filthy hovels lying in a long narrow yard between Hindley and Hawdon Streets. Of these dens there are seven, each consisting of two rooms, with the exception of the first, which contains I think four apartments, three of which are about as large but by no means as sweet as the stalls in a stable. Into the first of those I obtained entrance by following the detectives ... In the principal room, which was fearfully dirty and foul smelling, were several men lounging about and three women, one of whom, a young creature apparently not more than 20 years of age was smoking a common black clay pipe. In the close evil smelling boxes were some men lying in drunken unconsciousness on the filthy beds. In No. 2, the rooms of which seemed even lower and, if possible more squalid, were two wretched girls and five lads. The floors were rotten and in yawning holes, which were partially filled by what seemed to be house refuse. The tobacco reek and stench were intolerable. ...

The court reports in the Express and Telegraph also reveal that Johanna briefly revisited Port Adelaide in order to smash every window in her father's home. She went on to collect a long string of convictions for drunkenness, indecent language, riotous behavior, and loitering. She is also known to have damaged a policeman's hat! In May 1879 her thirteen month old son Alfred, died and was buried in West Terrace Cemetery. In November the same year her other two children were sentenced by the Adelaide Police Court to be placed in State Care until they were sixteen. They were subsequently "boarded out", an early form of adoption, though with no legal ties. Five year old Johanna junior was taken by her "new" parents, the Scudamores, out of the colony without the consent of the authorities and I have no further knowledge of her. Magnus ended his days in Broken Hill, New South Wales in 1934 and although he married, produced no offspring.

On 1 March 1881 Johanna attempted to hang herself whilst in the Adelaide police cells, and for her pains she was ordered to find a surety of five pounds and told to keep the peace for one month.

Women with little or no education had few means of earning a good living in the mid to late 1800s. Taking in washing, as Johanna had done after her husband left her, was physically demanding. Female domestic servants were paid little and working conditions were often poor. Many young women saw prostitution as a quick way to earn good money, often using the profits to set themselves up in some form of small business (in the case of some South Australian prostitutes they set up confectionery stalls on the beach fronts ... often incorporating a room for their "other" business in the evenings). Many women used prostitution to escape homes of oppression, alcoholism, sexual and/or physical abuse, and other sorts of distress. Most prostitutes didn't remain in the profession long, either finding "better" circumstances or by dying at a young age.

From time to time, the residents of Adelaide vented their spleens about the various immoral practices in their city. On one such occasion the ladies of Boddingtons Row were raided by the police and turned out in the streets. Many of them went to live under the willow trees by the river Torrens[2] .

Such living conditions were not conducive to good health. Johanna was one of the women who succumbed to tuberculosis, dying on New Years Eve 1889. She is buried, aged 35, in an unmarked plot in West Terrace Cemetery. Her younger sister Mary Jane died in the Adelaide Hospital four months later of the same malady and is presumably buried in a communal paupers grave, along with hundreds of other unwanted folk.

In the process of researching the tragic lives of these two women I have been absorbed by not only their lifestyles, but also some of the day to day concerns that affected not only these two, but women all over the world. What contraception did they use, if any (and there was many a rue bush in Botanical Gardens all around the world which suffered defoliation!), how much would it have cost them and where did they obtain it? How were unwanted pregnancies dealt with? Who delivered their babies when the local midwife refused to do so? What happened to the children who became state wards? What sort of venereal diseases were around and how were they treated? Where did the women turn when their families, their church and their friends ostracized them? The answers are all there in published literature for those who care to look, and for those who are not afraid of the less "ordinary" aspects of the lives of our female ancestors. But that is another story!


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Sources and Notes

[1] Express and Telegraph 25 May 1877.
[2] More Sinned Against Than Sinning. Prostitution in South Australia 1836-1914. Susan Horan

General Sources

Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Office of South Australia
Destitute Asylum Registers
Adelaide Gaol Admissions Registers
Registers of Children Boarded Out
Express and Telegraph
More Sinned Against Than Sinning? by Susan Horan. An essay from So Much Hard Work. Women in Prostitution in Australian History. Edited by Daniels, Kay. Pub. Fontana 1984.
Women of the Streets a sociological study of the common prostitute. British Sociological Council Pub. London: Secker and Warburg 1955.
Whores in History, by Roberts, Nickie. Pub Harper Collins. Hammersmith London 1992.
Far From a Low Gutter Girl. The forgotten world of state wards: South Australia 1887-1940, by Barbalet, Margaret. Oxford University Press. Melbourne 1983.
Adelaide's West End, by Patricia Sumerling. An essay from William Shakespeare's Adelaide 1860-1930. Ed. By Dickey, Brian. Pub by Association of Professional Historians, 1992.

Last Updated on Sunday, 06 October 2013 10:38

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