The Smith family in 1892 (ALMFA, SLT)

Life in nineteenth-century white families was similar to that in Britain, where the middle-class ideal of a husband with dependent wife and children was influential. The husband's earnings and the wife's domestic skills were supposed to provide a warm, secure and comfortable home in which to nurture and discipline children. Memoirs attest to the contentment this model provided some families. Free migrants from evangelical Protestant churches in particular vigorously promoted it to counter the effects of the convict system.

Although this model worked for many, other families deviated from it. Alcoholism and domestic violence occur in all social strata. However, the middle class considered them a working-class problem and organisations like the Benevolent Societies, the City Mission, and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union tried to lessen alcohol consumption to better family life. In working-class families, the wife's skills in managing the domestic economy and eking it out with child-minding, taking in laundry and so on, and the husband's ability to earn, were essential. The death, desertion or incompetence of either partner could have disastrous effects, especially when so many extended family members were still in Britain.

The frequency of desertion, usually by the husband, and early death, made single-parent households common. Financial difficulties often led to new relationships blended families have always been a feature of Tasmanian life. Divorce was expensive and until 1919 could not be obtained until two years after desertion, so many of these families were formed through de facto relationships. Fewer single-parent households were derived from unmarried motherhood. While mothers could keep their children, the stigma and difficulties of supporting the infants meant relatives or a paid carer usually looked after them. From the 1930s, unmarried mothers were increasingly expected to relinquish their children for adoption by couples.

In 1907, the Harvester Judgment reinforced the ideal of the male breadwinner. The gradual improvement of working men's pay and conditions made it possible for them to have dependent wives and children but for families without a male head, low women's wages created problems. Even so, the middle-class model of family life dominated until the 1970s when women's work aspirations and a higher standard of living led to many more dual-income families. In some families the domestic chores are now equally shared. There are more single-parent households, in part because the introduction of the single parent's benefit in 1973 made it possible for unmarried mothers to keep their children, and also because of a higher divorce rate.

Further reading: L Scripps, Women's sites and lives in Hobart, Hobart, 2000.

Caroline Evans