by Rupert Hewison (guest author) on 16 November, 2011
Former Child Migrant Rupert Hewison shares his personal history, from his time at St. Faith’s Home in Surry, UK to his being sent to Fairbridge House ‘Tresca’ in Tasmania.
My Life Inside a Children’s Home
I lived in the Fairbridge House ‘Tresca’ at Exeter in Tasmania from October 1964 to October 1965, roughly from eight years to nine years old, while my mother got herself a job and established a home at 439 Wellington Street in Launceston. It was just 12 months out of a life that now spans 55 years but that one year scarred me deeply in ways that, today, I only begin to understand.
How I came to be in a children’s home
My mother and father never married. In fact they never lived together and I didn’t meet my father until I was a young adult of 22. My birthday is towards the end of November but my mother told me that I was three week’s overdue. Connecting this bit of interesting information with the fact I learned when I met my father in a park on a sunny winter’s afternoon in London in 1979, that his birthday is in late January, it is highly likely that I was conceived on my father’s birthday. My mother, then a 28 year old virgin, gave herself to my father as the ultimate birthday present.
It appears then that I was conceived in an atmosphere of caring and love. However appearances, as we know, can be deceiving – as indeed my father was being. Unbeknown to my mother, my father had a second girlfriend. When my mother told my father, ‘I am pregnant’ his reply was, ‘Are you sure it’s mine?’ My mother was absolutely sure it was his but he was judging her by his own moral standards. Around this time my father’s second girlfriend also became pregnant and my father decided to marry her. So my mother found herself pregnant and single in the England of 1956.
I was born in St Helier Hospital, Carshalton (near Wimbledon), in London, on 20 November 1956 after a 36 hour labour and eventually a forceps delivery. By all accounts I was a very beautiful baby. Admiring nurses who asked ‘where does he get his nose from?’ were told by my mother, who was slowly coming around from an anaesthetic, ‘the milkman’. There was no parental leave in those days and my mother used much of her long service leave for her brief time off work to have me.
My mother was fond of the name John for me but as her name was Jean, to avoid possible confusion of two ‘J Hewison’s’ she put my first name as ‘Rupert’ – a name she happened on by chance when walking up Shaftsbury Avenue in London, eight months pregnant and crossed over ‘Rupert Street’. When registering my birth my mother presented the appropriate form filled out with all the relevant details of mother and father. However, on learning that my mother was unmarried, the registry clerk struck out all details of my father and instead recorded ‘unknown’. Such was the law of England at the time, an unmarried women’s word was not to be trusted. Though had the milkman indeed been my father, if my mother had been married the official record would have shown the husband to be the father and the milkman to be simply the milkman. The first deception of my life was complete. In an instant a vital part of my personal heritage was forgotten to me for over 20 years.
At the risk of stating the obvious, in 1950’s England there were no single parent benefits and no childcare facilities. What young people today take for granted had not been conceived in the minds of policy makers back then. The solution to the ‘problem’ of single mothers and their children was simple. Either the children were looked after by the extended family or they were put into a children’s home.
Initially I was fortunate in that my grandmother (my mother’s mother) looked after me through the week while my mother worked at the Tasmanian Agent General’s office in the Strand in London, just opposite Charing Cross station. My mother would pick me up on Friday evening and drop me off on Monday morning. It was a care arrangement that worked reasonably well. Although it meant that I have no real early memories of my mother, and it was my grandmother, and not my mother, who heard my first uttered word and saw my first wobbly step. The relationship between mother and son, while containing much affection was nonetheless a disconnected one in all sorts of different ways.
In 1961 when I was four, a series of coincidences changed the direction of my life. My grandfather retired, my grandmother got high blood pressure and the little pre-school near my grandparents’ home burned down. My grandmother, who was then 62 and looking after a house and a 65 year old husband, felt she couldn’t also manage her health and look after a lively four year old as well. My mother took the balance of her long service leave and found a children’s home in the country for me to go to.
Life in St Faiths
I went into St Faiths, Fredley Park, near Dorking in Surrey from mid 1961. It was a grand home on an estate of many acres including its own woodland area, extensive open lawns and vegetable gardens. St Faiths had been set up as a home for girls who were either orphaned or had a single parent. But then a family of two girls and one boy (Jill, Joy and John Adams) were looking for a home and thankfully some official had the decency not to separate the siblings. After one boy had entered the home soon another followed (Jamie) and then I came along.
All this time I was known as John. In fact such was my love of porridge I had gained the nickname of ‘little Johnny porridge’. But on the first evening in St Faiths when John Adams and I were being bathed together by the matron she said, ‘stand up John’ and we both stood up and banged our heads together. The matron, Miss Cracknell, a very jolly ex-missionary returned from India, decided on the spot that two ‘Johns’ would cause no end of confusion so she decided hence forth I would be known by my first name ‘Rupert’.
There was no consultation with my mother and certainly I didn’t have any say in the matter. But an accident in a bathtub and the instant decision of the well-meaning matron, changed my self-identity on the spot. I went off to bed that night in the boys room without a goodnight story from my grandmother or mother, without a warm glass of milk, without a hug and a kiss and a good night blessing as usual. I was now just one of several boys in a big dark room and I was no longer ‘John’ but ‘Rupert’.
I was in St Faiths for just over three years from the age of four to seven and a half. My memories are mixed. It was certainly a magnificent place for a child to grow up. The house was huge and the gardens and woods provided plenty of playing areas. What had been the ball room was the children’s playing room. It was big enough to run around in and tall enough that our yelps and laughter echoed back and forth.
Every Sunday the matron would take us for a walk in the nearby countryside. And we also spent some time writing to our parents. My mother saved a lot of these and I still have them today. ‘Dear Mummy I hop you are well I am well to.’ Telephone calls in the 1960’s were expensive and a call from my mother’s flat in London to St Faiths in Surrey would have been a trunk call, booked and connected via an operator. So communication in between visiting days was by letter.
Visiting day was once every two weeks. I would long for them to come. Some Saturday’s I’d wake up with the joy of visiting day only to be told no, it was visiting last weekend and so the next visiting day is next weekend. For a four year-old a fortnight was an eternity. When visiting day did at last arrive it was over in an instant and off I went to bed in the big dark room with no hugs and kisses and the jibes of the other boys as I crawled deep down my bed with the pillow over my mouth trying to smother the sound of my crying for my lost mother so the jibes would stop.
It was a condition of being in St Faiths that my mother had to sign over legal guardianship to the chairman of the board of governors, Sir George Lloyd Jacob. Sir George wore a knitted brown sleeve over his left arm as it had been badly disfigured when he served in the army in the Great War. He had built a career in law and was a judge at the Nuremberg trials after the Second World War. Sir George was a well meaning man but also a man of his time and upbringing who maintained strict discipline. It was his view that all the children in St Faiths should be treated equally. As several of the children were orphans and had no family to go to at Christmas, Sir George decided that all children would stay at St Faiths for Christmas. This was a decision that greatly upset my mother. After the third annual argument about not being able to have me at home for Christmas my mother had had enough. She would take me out of the home and we would emigrate to Australia.
My mother already worked for the Tasmanian Government by virtue of being employed at the Tasmanian Agent Generals office in the Strand. Indeed she enjoyed higher wages and longer holidays than most others employed in England. Migration was at its height and serving sometimes on the counter answering questions about emigrating to Australia, my mother new a lot about the great southern land and Tasmania in particular. For just ten pounds my mother could emigrate and as I was a child my passage was free.
We left South Hampton dock in late September 1964 on the Sitmar lines ‘Castel Felice’ (‘Happy Home’). The voyage took just over four weeks and at the age of seven it was the longest continuous time I had spent with my mother since the six weeks immediately after my birth. Bedtime stories and hugs and kisses every night for four weeks! We travelled through the Suez Canal and stopped at Aden. Then 14 days non-stop across the Indian Ocean to Freemantle. Another two days to Adelaide and then one more to Port Melbourne.
We arrived on Thursday 29 October 1964. After processing through customs at Port Melbourne we were met by a representative of Fairbridge and taken to Essendon Airport. In the afternoon we flew on a TAA Viscount to Launceston. My mother’s log at the time records that she looked down over the green land of Tasmania and cried with joy on arriving in the ‘promised land’. The biggest promise was that in Tresca, in Tasmania, my mother would see more of her son. Visiting day was thought to be weekly instead of fortnightly and children were allowed home at Christmas. We were met at Launceston airport by Mr and Mrs Richmond, the house parents at Tresca and driven to my new home at Exeter, a small town in the Tamar River valley. My mother took this opportunity to introduce me by her preferred name for me, ‘John’.
Life inside Tresca
For me as an (almost) eight year-old it was a real mixture of impressions and emotions. I knew I was in a new country with different customs. At Freemantle children had been given a little book about how Australia was different to England. The only thing I can remember about it today is the expression ‘sticky beak’, not used in England. But while Australia and Tasmania were noticeably different, all the children in the home were English and spoke with English accents. Indeed some children were from northern England and had thick accents that were hard to understand. The first time I heard the word ‘billabong’ was from a girl from Liverpool and so she said it with a hard g at the end. I had had very little exposure to other parts of England and so I thought Australia really was very different pronouncing words ending with a hard g.
After dinner my mother and I were sitting with Mr and Mrs Richmond while various other children got ready for bed, came and said goodnight and disappeared quietly to their rooms. I sensed that this was the thing to do and volunteered to go to bed, knowing that this would mean I would have to say goodbye to my mother until the next visiting day. Mrs Richmond said, with a north England accent new and strange to me, ‘Why don’t you have a look (‘luke’) at your book (‘buke’) for a wee while.’ I wondered to myself why would I just look at a book, why wouldn’t I read it? With teary eyes I said goodbye to my mother and went off to bed in a new boys’ room in a new country without a bedtime story or any hugs and kisses and, yet again, with a new name.
The atmosphere at Tresca was obvious from the very beginning. This is something I have only realised as an adult looking back. But before you ask how was it obvious from the very beginning if you only realised it as an adult looking back, I need to explain that at the time I felt the difference without being conscious of it. It only dawned on me in quite recent years that I had noticed the difference to St Faiths immediately although I wasn’t completely conscious of it.
Briand and Kevin were assigned to show me around. On my first full day at Tresca I remember in the laundry where there was a copper for washing clothes, the usual stirring stick was broken in two. I asked how it had become broken and Brian said, in hushed tones, that Paul had caught a baby rabbit and kept it in a shoe box under his bed. ‘Dad’ had found out and hauled Paul out of bed at night time and hit him across his back with the stirring stick until blood came through his pyjamas and the stick broke.
Although worn from years of laundry use the stick was still quite a thick, solid stick. It was not a flexible cane that was used in schools. I imagined that considerable force must have been used to break the stick. I knew catching and keeping a rabbit was a ‘naughty’ thing but I had never heard of anyone being hit with anything that thick that had broken. And I had certainly never heard of anyone being hit until they started to bleed. In St Faiths occasionally Miss Cracknell had hit a child on the back of their leg with a wooden spoon or wooden coat hanger but that was all. You must remember that it was the 1960s and corporal punishment was matter of fact in schools and most homes, whether children’s homes or ‘normal’ homes. I would say today that the rabbit and broken stick story was a case of excessive punishment and disproportionate to the misdeed. Back then as an eight year-old I was not capable of articulating this thinking. All I knew was that this place was not like St Faiths. It was much, much tougher.
All the children had chores after breakfast and before tea in the evening. Chores were assigned each day by Mr Richmond. One morning in my first week one of the boys said that ‘dad’ wants to see you. I found Mr Richmond in the kitchen wiping down a bench top with an old grey rag. Mr Richmond to me always looked old though I had no idea of his age. He had thinning grey and white hair that was lifeless and straight. When he leant forward to wipe the bench his hair fell forward a bit in Hitler style and his face was red with exertion. It was not a welcoming site. ‘Have you got your gumption lad?’ he asked in his north England accent. Although only eight I had a good reading age – as I did read books rather than just ‘luke’ at them – so I had a vague idea that ‘gumption’ meant ‘courage’ or ‘determination’ or something like that. So I said, ‘yes dad’.
I hated calling Mr and Mrs Richmond dad and mum. Especially as I had a ‘real’ mum who was pretty and smelt and felt wonderful. While Mrs Richmond was ugly and old and smelt awful (I don’t mean bad necessarily, just very different from my mother and not at all like ‘mum’ should smell).
With a grim look on his face and with a tone befitting an interrogation Mr Richmond asked, ‘well, where is it lad?’ Again while my eight year-old brain struggled to understand how on earth I could show anyone my courage or determination I had no way of articulating this. I felt quite petrified as I didn’t really understand what was happening. I was answering Mr Richmond’s questions truthfully yet he was getting angrier by the second. What was I doing wrong? ‘Your gumption lad. Where’s your tin of gumption?’ he bellowed at me. My little brain worked fast. Gumption apparently as well as meaning something like courage or determination also came in a tin. As I clearly didn’t have a tin in my hands I had to now say I don’t know to which I was told to go and get it. I wasn’t told where it was. I had to work that out for myself.
I quickly learned that this was the way at Tresca. Although being only eight years old and in a foreign country with new and different customs, and being surrounded by some children and house parents with north English accents and phrasing that I was also unfamiliar with, in addition I had to work out what was expected of me most of the time by guessing. Mr Richmond never explained or taught like a real parent would. Rather, he bellowed and inquisited like the toughest of army sergeant majors. Sometimes I guessed correctly but mostly I didn’t and then I got admonished as being ‘lazy’ or ‘cheeky’. Mr Richmond would bellow, ‘you’re lazy son, aren’t you?’
At first, just by instinct I resisted this suggestion. I had been told by many in England that I was a well brought up boy with excellent manners. At Mickleham School in 1964 I was top of the class. My teacher wrote on my report, ‘Rupert is a conscientious worker. He is reliable and helpful at all times, and we are sorry to lose him.’ To which the headmaster added, ‘We wish you every happiness in your new adventure. Shows much promise.’
So at first when Mr Richmond bellowed, ‘you’re lazy son, aren’t you?’ I politely answered no. But this just enraged Mr Richmond further. ‘I beg your pardon?’ He would bellow more loudly. I knew I wasn’t saying the right thing but had no idea what I was meant to say. ‘No, Mr Richmond’. ‘I beg your pardon!’ ‘No, dad.’ ‘I beg your pardon!!’ Until finally – somehow – the penny dropped. ‘Yes, dad. I’m lazy’.
Time and again this would be the way of things. Nothing was explained. When I got it ‘wrong’ – that is, didn’t do something the way Mr Richmond expected – I got the inquisition. ‘You’re lazy son, aren’t you?’ If I answered no I was then told, ‘you’re cheeky son. What are you?’ The first time I also said no to being cheeky I got hit. So I learned quickly that whenever I heard the, ‘you’re cheeky son. What are you?’ line, I knew I had pushed my luck too far. ‘Yes dad. I’m lazy. Yes dad, I’m cheeky’.
Visiting, it turned out sadly for both my mother and I, was the same as in England – once every two weeks. At least it wasn’t less frequent. That was until January 1965, barely 10 weeks after we arrived in Tasmania. My mother received a letter from Mr Richmond stating that his ‘house committee’ (there was no such thing, it was just him) had decided that from January, visiting would be the first Saturday of every month. My mother was devastated. She replied and asked if the decision could be reviewed. Had she known this, she would never have emigrated as the whole idea was that she could spend more time with her son. There was no review and visiting remained the first Saturday of the month.
In early 1965 on one morning I was assigned the chore of raking up the leaves on the front lawn between the path and the driveway. I did my little chore, as my teacher in England would have said, conscientiously and reliably, and then went off to school. When I got home one of the boys said, ‘dad wants to see you’. I knew this meant I was in trouble but I had no idea what for.
Fronting up to Mr Richmond I got the, by now familiar, inquisition. ‘What did I tell you to do this morning?’ ‘Rake up the leaves on the front lawn.’ ‘And did you do that?’ ‘Yes, I did’. ‘I beg your pardon?’ ‘Yes, I did Mr Richmond’. ‘I beg your pardon?’ ‘Yes I did, dad’. ‘I beg your pardon?! If you had done what I told you to do why were there leaves everywhere when I went out at nine o’clock?’ Silence. I couldn’t think of anything to say. ‘I’ll tell you why, lad. Because you’re lazy, aren’t you lad?’ ‘N..’, I began but got cut off. ‘I beg your pardon?!’ ‘Yes, I’m lazy dad’. ‘Yes you are lazy. Now do the same chore tomorrow morning and this time make sure you do it properly or you’ll get the slipper!’
The slipper, was now Mr Richmond’s favourite form of discipline. Red leather, wool lined, slippers which he would use to hit us on the bottom with. First we would have the indignity of taking down our trousers and underpants and bending over. Then Mr Richmond would hit us on the bottom with one of his red leather slippers. The hitting itself hurt but the after effect of course was that it was painful to sit down for about a day or so.
With the promise of ‘the slipper’ I raked every last leaf up very carefully the next morning, checked that I hadn’t missed any and went off to school. When I got home one of the boys said, ‘dad wants to see you.’ I knew I was in trouble and I guessed it was to do with raking up the leaves but didn’t understand why as I had very carefully raked them all up.
The inquisition started. ‘What did I tell you to do this morning?’ ‘Rake up the leaves on the front lawn.’ ‘I beg your pardon?!’ And on it went. I tried to resist Mr Richmond’s suggestions that I had been lazy because I knew I hadn’t. I had raked up every last leaf on the ground under the threat of being hit with the leather slipper. I wasn’t going to risk that. Eventually though the bellowing and the ‘I beg your pardon’s?!’ wore me down and I admitted I hadn’t raked up the leaves properly and yes, I was lazy. I duly got hit on the bottom with the red leather slipper and went off to tea with a sore backside and the promise that if I didn’t rake up all the leaves properly tomorrow I would get another session with the red leather slipper.
The third morning I was very, very careful. I raked up all the leaves. I looked around for any that might be in the flower beds and picked up a few more. I stood looking up at the tree and suddenly something happened. A solitary leaf floated down to the ground. I was stunned and just stood staring at the tree. After a little while a second leaf fell gently to the ground. I can’t say a thought suddenly struck me, rather I just acted by instinct. I climbed the tree and pulled every single leaf off and threw it to the ground. Then carefully raked all the leaves up and went off to school feeling very relieved.
I came home that afternoon in a more upbeat mood. Or I suppose I should say in a normal mood rather than downcast. The only times at Tresca that I ever felt upbeat were visiting days. Anyway I knew all the leaves were raked up and therefore I wasn’t going to get hit with the red leather slipper again. But as soon as I walked into the boys’ room I saw Brian who had a rather glum look on his face. We looked at each other, sharing a knowing look. I knew what he was going to say even before he said it. ‘Dad wants to see you.’
Not only my little brain but now my entire body was in turmoil. My stomach twisted and tightened. I tried to keep the tone light and avoid any possibility of appearing cheeky. ‘Yes dad?’ ‘What did I tell you to do this morning?’ ‘Rake up all the leaves on the front lawn.’ ‘And did you do it lad?’ He asked with the same tone of menace in his voice as before. I hesitated, doubting the truth and trying to guess the answer I thought he wanted to hear so that I would avoid another beating. ‘Well lad? Did you do what I told you to do this morning?’ This time there was slightly more agitation in his voice. After a few more seconds silence while I tried desperately to think of what to say I finally just said, ‘yes dad.’ ‘Yes. You did!’ He bellowed in a grim voice. I felt relieved. I wasn’t going to be beaten again for telling the truth. I didn’t have to try and guess what Mr Richmond wanted me to say. I had escaped. I was safe. But I was wrong. ‘Now then lad if you could rake up the leaves properly this morning why couldn’t you do it properly when I first told you to do it?!’ I didn’t know what to say. I was too exhausted and didn’t have any capacity left to guess any more. ‘I’ll tell you why lad.’ Mr Richmond’s voice filled in the silence. ‘It’s because you’re lazy, isn’t it son?!’ At last I knew what to do and what to say. ‘Yes dad, I’m lazy.’
There was the time I had gone to school and passed on a joke one of the older boys in the home had told me. ‘Did you hear about the talking parrot that went to church? When the congregation sang “Stand up, stand up for Jesus”, the parrot sang out “Sit down sit down for Christ’s sake, the parrot at the back can’t see.”’ I told this to several kids around the school and everyone had a good laugh. One girl went home and told her parents. Her father rang Mr Richmond and complained. I got hauled out of bed and got the red leather slipper treatment.
Looking back I suppose it was particularly bad for Mr Richmond’s reputation in the Exeter community because on Sundays he was the lay preacher at the local Church of England church. He was also a member of the Lions and Rotary clubs, a fine upstanding member of the local community, who looked after the ‘poor unfortunate children’ in the home. Various people donated food to the home. Tasmania was still exporting apples in the 1960s and so we got given boxes and boxes of reject apples from the packing sheds; all the apples had bruises and/or some insect in them. I never had a ‘clean’ apple the entire time I was in Tresca. We also had the world’s worst potatoes donated to us. I don’t think you could have produced a more horrible potato if you’d tried. These went into ‘stews’ or ‘casseroles’ that the girls had cooked under Mrs Richmond’s supervision. They were watery and the mutton was tough and tasted awful but it was the only food available so that’s what we ate.
A short time after I arrived at Tresca two new girls arrived, Julie and Gillian. Julie was a couple of years older than me and Gillian was younger, around six. Her father had made it very clear to Mr Richmond that Gillian sometimes made a fuss about things she couldn’t eat but he reassured Mr Richmond Gillian could eat anything except peanuts as they made her sick (peanut allergies were unheard of in the 1960’s). Breakfasts consisted of cereal, or toast with vegemite or peanut butter, on alternate days. Gillian very carefully only ate the vegemite. Then one morning Mr Richmond asked Gillian to try a piece of toast with peanut butter on it. Gillian said that peanuts made her sick and her older sister Julie backed her up. ‘Oh’, said Mr Richmond in a very paternal tone, ‘we’re a big girl now, aren’t we? Big girls can eat peanut butter. Have a piece of toast with peanut butter.’ Gillian and Julie continued their protests politely but earnestly until Mr Richmond lost his patience and simply said to Gillian, ‘you’re not going to leave this room until you’ve eaten a slice of peanut butter toast.’
The rest of us finished our breakfast in silence and went and did our morning chores. I can’t remember what my chore was that morning but I do remember passing by the dining room door several times, seeing and hearing little Gillian crying her way through a triangle of peanut butter toast. Eventually Gillian vomited up her breakfast.
My mother had to supply some of my clothing and also pay extra to Tresca as the house provided the bulk of the children’s’ clothes. In reality this meant we were given very obvious, very old and very worn, hand me down garments that stood out a mile off. Total strangers in the school yard would know instantly who the home kids were simply by the clothes they were wearing. Also knowing we were English migrants living at the home, we were frequently called ‘pommy bastards’. I had no idea what this meant but I sensed it clearly wasn’t a compliment.
The Richmond’s did not encourage learning in any way, and also were not available as a confidant or counsellor. We had to endure the school yard jibes without any recourse to adult comfort or explanation. So I looked in a dictionary: ‘bastard – illegitimate’. None the wiser I looked up illegitimate: ‘born outside marriage, illegal, unlawful, against the law, criminal’. I didn’t understand why, but I was a criminal just for being born the way I was and there was nothing I could do about it. My little brain couldn’t understand it all but thankfully it didn’t need to for much longer. My grandparents emigrated a year after my mother and I and I left Tresca the day they arrived in Tasmania, in late October 1965 and we all lived together in 439 Wellington Street in Launceston.
In 1966 we moved to a new house in Bavaria Street in Kings Meadows and stayed there until my grandfather died of a heart attack in 1971 when I was 14. My grandmother moved into a retirement village, which was a relatively new concept then. My mother and I moved into a little cottage in Norwood Avenue, Norwood, and we lived there together until I left home in early 1975 to seek my fame and fortune in Melbourne. So, in all I had around three years living with my mother, and she had three years living together with her son.
They were a few good years and we had a lot of fun together. But I always felt a bit distant and a bit cold towards my mother. Why had she sent me away to live in homes? Why had she rejected me? Why, when she left me at the end of visiting day did she smile and say cheerio, instead of cry like me? Was it because I was a worthless person as Mr Richmond often told me I was? Did my mother really love me? So many doubts filled my mind and I had no-one to talk to about any of them.
Much later in life, not long after her 80th birthday, my mother had a severe stroke which, amongst other things, left her with dis-inhibition. Jean would say in a loud voice, ‘look at the fat women over there, she looks like Meredith, doesn’t she?’ And at other times her dis-inhibition would have her say any amount of things just as she saw them. It was like that Jim Carey film where he is forced to tell only the truth. Often it was amusing. Sometimes it was embarrassing. But it was also very enlightening. It was now my turn to visit my mother instead of her visiting me. I understood for the first time that there is no point showing my tears as I left my mother as that would only upset both of us.
With Jean’s dis-inhibition my mother had no option but to tell me the truth. And for the first time in my mother’s life, and mine, she would say to me, ‘You a lovely little boy. I so glad I had you’. Every visit, two or three times a week, without any prompting from me my mother would tell me, ‘You a lovely little boy. I so glad I had you.’ Thankfully then I knew of my mother’s deep and genuine love before she died peacefully just before Christmas in 2009. But other legacies from my time inside children’s homes stay with me.
The aftermath that lingers
I can sum up Tresca in one word: cold. It was cold physically, mentally and emotionally. The only heating in the entire house was an electric bar radiator that was on in the dining room while we were in there in winter time. The bedroom was cold as was the bed. Electric blankets were unheard of and hot water bottles were not allowed. Even today if you look in the room that was the boys’ bathroom you won’t find any hot water. Cold showers were the norm even in winter. There was no emotional warmth at all. The children were not encouraged to write to their parents as in St Faiths. Paul’s desperate gesture of love, by keeping a baby rabbit in a shoe box was not met with a caring explanation or a hug or any kind of understanding but rather with a violent beating at night time that drew blood through his pyjamas. Mr Richmond did not care about ‘his’ children. Rather he simply felt the responsibility for the charges under his control. Amazingly though in an article in the Launceston Examiner when Tresca closed in the mid 1970s he was quoted as saying how he loved working in child care and had in fact been a ‘pioneer’ in the field. Did he really believe that or was that just a public cover story? I guess I’ll never know. Like so many aspects of my life inside Tresca, I will never fully understand.
Today, recalling the incident about raking up the leaves on the front lawn confuses the hell out of me as an adult. Why did I give in? Why did I lie about the truth? Why was Mr Richmond so … so like he was? Surely he knew it was autumn and that leaves fall off the trees in autumn. And they don’t all fall off in one go? Why did he behave the way he did? Why did I behave the way I did? I have to be careful not to be too hard on myself. I was only eight years old and just doing my best to survive by instinct. But why any adult would treat a child in the way Mr Richmond behaved is beyond me. I imagine he had a hard life growing up in the north of England through the years of the Great War and the depression. Perhaps he was abused as a child himself. Thank goodness we no longer put children inside children’s homes!
Ever since I left Tresca I have always lacked confidence and had low self esteem despite being blessed with above average intelligence, good physical health and gaining good marks at school and, later, university. I have attempted suicide twice and also had two failed marriages. My ability to form and maintain relationships of any kind is limited as I find it very hard to trust anyone and seem often to provoke friends and partners to the point of separation in order to ‘test’ their degree of loyalty … and to confirm to myself that I am a worthless person who others will inevitably reject. I am highly suspicious of anyone in any position of authority or ‘control’. This can include a bus driver or a shop assistant as well as the more obvious office manager or police officer. As a consequence I have had more than my share of unfortunate altercations at various times in my life. I’m sure many have been career limiting or otherwise detrimental to my progress over the years.
I have behaved stupidly and unkindly to a large number of people as I’ve travelled through life. In particular I would like to say a very sincere sorry to Philippa, Ross, Freya and Vic. I am not offering excuses for my bad behaviour through the telling of this story but perhaps, at least, a bit of an explanation. When all is said and done only I am responsible for my choices and my actions.
It simply isn’t fair on anyone and everyone else to try and hide behind the fact that because I was abused in a children’s home there is nothing I can do and ‘you have to understand and accept me as I am.’ Only I can be me. Yes, I was abused as a child but that was a long time ago. Others in other children’s homes had much tougher times than me, and in any case I am recalling events from my life that happened almost half a century ago. For me it’s time to let go of the past and free myself for what lies ahead.
I have many, many people to thank for helping me to see the light and find a way forward. In particular, and in addition to the four mentioned above, I would also like to sincerely thank my doctor, my counsellors, my work colleagues Jane, Shilpa, Vanessa and Paul, and the following people who I now count as dear friends: Jan, Mark, John, and Adele.
In 2010 after my second suicide attempt I was diagnosed with clinical depression. After a period of some intensive therapy with three counsellors, and finding the right dose of anti-depressant medication, I am feeling more normal now than I’ve ever felt in my entire life. I could say it’s such a pity that I’ve had 50 years of life taken from me. If only my mother had married. If only the pre-school hadn’t burned down. If only we hadn’t emigrated to Australia. But what’s the point? I rather like the saying, ‘if only my auntie had balls she’d be my uncle.’ There is no point wishing for the impossible or avoiding taking responsibility for my own actions.
Whatever situation I find myself in today I am glad that at last I am ‘response-able’ to deal with it myself. So instead of bemoaning 50 wasted years I am finally looking forward to 20 or 30 years of happiness and adventures ahead of me. As Voltaire writes at the end of Candide, how we got to this moment is nowhere near as important as what we do, now we are here. What is most important is that ‘we must go and cultivate our garden.’
In loving memory of my mother, Jean the Dreamer, who always imagined a better life and then made it real for both of us. ‘Behind every great woman is herself.’