Rockhampton historian Dr Lorna McDonald
Rockhampton historian Dr Lorna McDonald The Morning Bulletin Archives

Essay winner shows glimpse of shocking Neerkol history

AN ESSAY revealing a mother's experience surrendering her four children to Neerkol Orphanage in 1916 was awarded first place in the second Arts Central Queensland Inc. Lorna McDonald Essay Prize.

The winner, Lesley Synge, wrote her essay Ructions and Resilience on the story of her grandmother and her siblings being taken in by the orphanage after their single mother could not financially care for them.

An excerpt of the essay reads; "The State Children Department file begins five weeks after the arrival of the four O'Keefe children at Meteor Park orphanage when, in one of Sister Cecilia's frequent pen-and-ink despatches to Mr J. Patterson, Inspector of State Children of the District Office of Rockhampton, she asks about them. The orphanage was licensed under the State Children Act 1911 and enjoyed close co-operation with the state government office. It is possible that Lizzie O'Keefe, knowing from past experience that there was little hope their father would provide for them, was counting on the orphanage to keep them as an act of charity. However, that was not the way things worked, as she would soon find out."

"Although I live in Brisbane, I feel a close connection to Central Queensland because I spent my childhood here," Ms Synge said.

"When my second cousin, a family history buff, shared a file about the Neerkol Orphanage in 1916 from the Queensland State Archives with me, I felt inspired.

"I hope I have brought the main characters to life, especially my great-grandmother Lizzie O'Keefe - and that many people enjoy reading my essay."

Local Barbara Hunt was awarded the runner-up prize for her memoir tale Just a Cooee.


"Cooee Bay will always hold a special place in my heart, so I am honoured to be awarded the runner-up prize," Ms Hunt said.

"My inspiration for writing this essay was the trophy that my daughter won in 1982, the World Cooeeing Champion - Under-Fives.

"It still sits on my mantel shelf, so I brought it along to the prize-giving."

Rockhampton's Brenda Whitton was also one of two Highly Commended Certificate recipients.

ACQI president Mark Svendsen said Dr McDonald was pivotal in delivering social history stories about Central Queensland.

"Lorna's genuine imaginative and intellectual interest in the enterprise of living in this region fuelled her work from when she first 'fell in love' with Central Queensland," Mr Svendsen said.

"So when Arts Central was asked by the McDonald and Bucknall families to host an essay prize in Lorna's honour, the answer was unanimously, resoundingly, emphatically: yes.

"We saw that to honour Lorna's work with such a prize was not a hollow gesture to glory but rather a practical way to share Lorna's passion for Central Queensland by encouraging new writers writing passionately, in their turn, about their place."

Many of the essays submitted in the competition included recollections and histories of pioneer families, or tales of cultural events unique to CQ.

Judge Lorraine Cairnes said: "Several well-researched essays gave a real sense of the special challenges in Central Queensland of adapting to changing circumstances, yet surviving.

"The winning essay this year is the story of one woman's gritty determination in the early 1900s, as she struggles on behalf of her five children to overcome government and institutional bureaucracy in circumstances which are vastly different to those of today's society.

"The research is thorough, and the reader will be well satisfied with the happy ending."

To view Ructions and Resilience, visit

Read more of the essay in this week's Morning Bulletin.