An outgrowth of the evangelical revival in England, the child rescue movement captured the imagination of many Melbourne philanthropists during the last quarter of the 19th century, leaving a particular mark on the city's child welfare services. It argued that the existing orphanages and statutory organisations were too passive in their approach to children at risk. Identifying inner-city slums as breeding grounds of vice and crime, child rescuers argued that society's future depended on children being removed from such environments. Positing the parent as the enemy of the child, they sought to have total control, reconstructing rescued children as honest workers.
This philosophy found its natural home in the inner-city missions where workers, reluctant to disrupt Melbourne tendencies to romanticise back slums as evidence of its great city status, were confronted daily with behaviours they read as evidence of sin. The possibility of rescuing 'innocent' children from such situations became a religious crusade. The most prominent child rescuer was Selina Sutherland (1839-1909), who interpreted her shipwreck on the Victorian coast as a message from God. An encounter with a homeless child on Princes Bridge decided her fate. Working from Scots' Church she began in 1881 to seek out children and arrange for them to be placed with families in the country. When the Neglected Children's Act came up for review in 1887 she interceded with Victorian Chief Secretary Alfred Deakin (1856-1919) to provide legal sanction for her activities. The subsequent Act included a clause authorising licensed child rescuers to remove children they considered to be at risk, and to accept a transfer of guardianship from parents, powers long sought by child rescuers overseas.
The legal validation of child rescue activities aroused sectarian rivalries, with all major denominations establishing societies in order to safeguard their future flock. None was as successful as Miss Sutherland either in locating children at risk or in finding country homes, although their small receiving homes became substantial church-based children's homes over time. St Joseph's, Kew, operated by the Sisters of St Joseph, the Church of England Children's Home, Brighton, controlled by the Mission to Streets and Lanes, and the Methodist Homes for Children (initially in Cheltenham and later in Burwood) all began as denominational child rescue societies. Miss Sutherland, who was less successful in dealing with her supervisory committees than in her work with children, was the founder of Kildonan, the Presbyterian homes (initially in North Melbourne, later in Burwood), the Victorian Children's Aid Society (initially in Parkville, later at Black Rock and now Oz Child) and the Sutherland Homes in Diamond Creek (now Berry Street Inc).
Although the principal societies came together to form the Child Saving Council in 1910, the movement had by then lost its early fervour. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (Children's Protection Society), founded in 1896, registered its inspectors as licensed child rescuers. By 1920 they were the only voluntary agents still active in the child rescue field.