‘Gave us our life back’: Message of love in baby photo reunion

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When Jennifer Catlin saw baby photos of herself for the first time in her life, she burst into happy tears.

In some of the photos, which were taken by trainee mothercraft nurses at the Presbyterian Babies Home 60 years earlier, she was holding a little teddy bear.

Jennifer Catlin and her childhood teddy bear at the former Presbyterian Babies Home in Camberwell on Monday.Credit: Joe Armao

Catlin, who was given up by her alcoholic mother and sickly miner father when she was 18-months old, still cherishes the toy bear today.

She said the fact that she was given the teddy at the home, and allowed to keep it, showed that people there cared for her.

The photo of such a tangible connection to the past delighted her and the revelation that staff took photos of her told her something.

“That I was loved by the nurses,” Catlin said. “And that someone cared enough to give me a home.”

Jennifer Catlin recognised her teddy bear in this photo of herself as a toddler at Presbyterian Babies Home.

In the past five years, the heritage service of Uniting, the community services arm of the Uniting Church, has reunited Catlin and dozens of other former home residents with their baby photos.

Staff have digitised 4000 photos that were taken – against the rules – by mothercraft nurses at the Presbyterian Babies Home in Camberwell and the Methodist Babies Home in South Yarra.

Catlin said on Monday it was overwhelming to return to the Camberwell building, a stunning 1880s mansion that is now a retirement village, for the first time since she was adopted by an Essendon couple as a toddler.

She says she treasures the baby photos, which she first saw early this year, and often goes through them. It has given back some of her history. “It’s definitely changed my life,” she said.

Margaret Tippett, a former mothercraft nurse at the home, on Monday.Credit: Joe Armao

Margaret Tippett, nee Trevaskis, a teenage mothercraft nurse trainee at the Presbyterian home from 1967 to 1969, wasn’t there at the same time as Catlin, but said trainees weren’t supposed to take photos, but did in case residents sought them out one day.

“The babies didn’t have anyone else to speak for them or save their memories for them,” Tippett said. “And we loved them. They were like our own little family.”

In 2017, Uniting Heritage Service manager Catriona Milne, who helps care leavers and people affected by adoption get access to records, discovered that some of the mothercraft nurses who worked at Methodist Babies Home before it closed in the mid-1970s had kept their photos of babies.

They arranged for the photos to be copied and armed with a $22,000 grant from the Uniting Church, they expanded the reunion project to the Presbyterian Babies Home.

Jennifer Catlin pictured at Presbyterian Babies Home as a toddler in the early 1960s.

The photos are now accessible to past residents looking up their records.

The mothercraft nurses weren’t told the babies’ real names, and so they wrote their pseudonyms on the back of the photos.

But the nicknames were recorded along with the real names in the babies’ files, so the photos can be identified.

Milne said more than 30 people have seen their baby photos so far. “Sometimes they say, ‘I’ve never seen myself at this age. I didn’t know what I looked like’,” she said.

Margaret Tippett (rear, right) as a trainee mothercraft nurse at Presbyterian Babies Home in about 1968.

“They say, ‘someone cared enough to take a photo of me’ and ‘someone cared enough to keep it’.”

Some former home residents have reunited with staff who knew them. One former trainee told a man that when he, as a child, visited her house, he loved vacuuming and going to the supermarket.

“The children often don’t remember these things, they were too little,” Milne says.

Asked what she thinks of the baby photos project, Catlin says: “I think it’s awesome. It can transform someone’s life, because when you haven’t had photos, if you’ve been adopted or lose your parents early, you’ve got nothing to hang your hat on – no memories. That’s how I felt most of my life.”

To Tippett, the former mothercraft nurse, Catlin said: “Thank you, from the bottom of my heart. What you, and your nursing friends, did for us, was give us back some of our history. Gave us our life back.”

More information about the Mothercraft Nurse Photographic Project can be found here.

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