Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Corbin, Laura Mary Louisa (1841–1906)

by Helen Jones

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Laura Mary Louisa Corbin (1841-1906), crèche founder, was born on 26 April 1841 in Adelaide, daughter of Alfred Hardy, town surveyor, and his wife Mary Louisa, née Newenham. Educated at home by her mother, Laura was a constant reader 'with a sweet disposition'. On 16 June 1869 at St Michael's Church, Mitcham, she married Thomas Wilson Corbin, a medical practitioner; Bishop Augustus Short celebrated the marriage. The Corbins visited England in 1872 and next year settled in King William Street, South Adelaide, where Thomas practised near the city's poorest quarter. 'Very beautiful', Laura bore six daughters and four sons. Continuing her family's charitable traditions, in 1876 she joined Mary Colton and others on the foundation ladies' advisory committee planning what became Adelaide's children's hospital. She became deeply concerned at the plight of poor mothers, often widows, forced to leave children at home alone, sometimes with tragic consequences, while they worked at charring, laundering or office cleaning. In June 1880 an unnamed lady, possibly Mrs Corbin, advertised and opened a short-lived English style 'crèche or day nursery' near Victoria Square.

In May 1887 Laura founded the South Adelaide Day Nursery. Designed, like its predecessor, for 'taking care of the children of women who go out to work by the day', it opened with four children in a rented room. Laura visited city missions to publicize the service. Admissions, staff and facilities gradually increased: by 1889 weekly attendance averaged forty-one. Babies and children under 6, admitted for twopence per day between 7 a.m. and 6 p.m., were washed, freshly clothed and given good food and care by carefully-chosen staff. Health and hygiene were paramount considerations and the 'sleeping decoctions' some mothers administered were banned. With her family's backing, Laura devoted herself to every aspect of management; she presided over both general and house committees, whose pioneering rules were adopted by crèches in other colonies. Despite 'disappointments and discouragements', she persevered, encouraged by the children's wellbeing and mothers' gratitude. The crèche became a colony-wide cause: many, like Port Elliot's needlewomen, giving essential money and gifts in kind. Governors' wives were patrons.

The name became South Adelaide Crèche after Laura found in 1891 in London that, apart from having a playground, it operated similarly to the Whitechapel 'mother crèche'. During the 1893 depression admissions temporarily plummeted. Laura inaugurated a soup kitchen and founded a Women's Distress Relief Fund, working indefatigably with Augusta Zadow and Mary Lee to organize and distribute necessities to impoverished families. In reporting this work the Register, unusually, published modest Laura's own three initials, not her husband's.

In August 1896, in a ceremony watched by thousands, she laid the foundation stone of a distinctive new crèche building, reminiscent of a doll's house, in Gouger Street, using generous donations from the popular children's Sunbeam Society. In 1897, having seen 37,000 admissions, she resigned from her presidency and 'labor of love', taking her last opportunity to protest against employers' long hours for working women. She died of pneumonia on 24 October 1906 at Woodville and was buried in Mitcham cemetery. The crèche closed in the late 1930s; its building was finally demolished in 1996 after a heritage controversy.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Cuming, ‘Claremont’ Glen Osmond (Adel, 1982)
  • S. Marsden, P. Stark and P. Sumerling (eds), Heritage of the City of Adelaide (Adel, 1990)
  • South Australian Day Nursery or Creche, Annual Report, 1889-97
  • Register (Adelaide), 3, 10 July 1880, 25 Sept 1893, 13 June, 20 July, 8, 10 Aug, 18 Dec 1896
  • Observer (Adelaide), 20 June 1878, 8 July 1893, pp 29, 30, 15 Aug 1896, 27 Oct 1906, p 38, 24 Aug 1918, p 19
  • Evening Standard, 21 June 1878
  • private information.

Citation details

Helen Jones, 'Corbin, Laura Mary Louisa (1841–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/corbin-laura-mary-louisa-12857/text23215, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 28 May 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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