by Rachael Romero (guest author) on 16 November, 2011
Interdisciplinary artist Rachael Romero is currently creating the Magdalene Laundry Diary drawings for her forthcoming film. Here she shares some more images from her work in progress. Continue reading “The Pines”→
by Janice Konstantinidis (guest author) on 15 November, 2011
Janice Konstantinidis was an inmate in Mount Saint Canice, Sandy Bay, Tasmania, where she worked as an unpaid child labourer in the Good Shepherd Sisters’ commercial laundry. Janice now lives in California in USA. Here, she shares one of her recent poems. Continue reading “Summer’s Cloud”→
‘The Superintendent said, “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice” and banged boy 90’s head several times against the tin wall’. Read the full 1961 report of the Inquiry into Westbrook Farm Home for Boys by Stipendiary Magistrate, Mr AE Schwarten.
The report was conducted after an ‘incident which occurred on Sunday, 14th May, 1961, at the Farm Home for Boys, Westbrook, in which approximately 36 inmates of the said Home were involved and number of whom escaped’.
The report was provided to the National Museum of Australia by Al Fletcher, author of Brutal: Surviving Westbrook Boys Home by Al Fletcher as told to Cheryl Jorgensen. The report has since been published online by the Queensland Government.
‘My identity was stolen from me’. Child Migrant Ann McVeigh shares her personal history and photographs of St Joseph’s Orphanage, Subiaco (now Wembley), WA.
As a child migrant my identity was stolen from me the moment I left my home land, without my mother’s consent. The name that I was born with was changed when I was put into Nazareth House in Belfast. I came to Australia on the [SS] Asturias when I was 5 years old in 1950.
On arrival in Western Australia I was sent to St Vincent’s Foundling Home in Wembley till I turned ‘a big girl’ 6 years of age. When one turns 6 one is sent to St. Joseph’s Orphanage which was next to St Vincent’s. Once placed there I still had my name changed and the date of my birth was changed also. Right away we were given numbers to answer to, put onto our clothes and lockers, my number being number one. Straight away you were expected to work always rising at 6 am every day for prayers and Mass. Duties being – sweeping yards, cleaning toilets, washing and polishing floors in the dormitories, classrooms and long corridors on hands and knees. Children were put in charge of children to be cared for in nurseries, kindergarten and foundling home. Laundry had to be done for private boarding schools and hospitals as well. Huge big washing machines, dryers and mangles which were like oversized irons for sheets and the like. The work was relentless and very tiring.
A lot of the child migrants were, I feel, abused both physically and mentally simply because we didn’t get visitors and had no-one to report the abuses to. Girls were constantly being told that ‘from the gutters of Belfast you came and to the gutters of Belfast you’d return’. Schooling was always under duress, beltings if exam results weren’t good enough or if you couldn’t understand what was being taught. To my mind it was likened to a modern day Oliver Twist, with all the cruelty that went on.
When I was in grade 2 I was informed that I was a very lucky girl because I received a letter from my mother. I was called up to the front of the class whilst the letter was read out to me. I never ever forgot that letter and always wondered when I would get a visit from my mother who said she’d try and come to get me to take me back to Ireland. Every time the door bell would go you’d stop and wait with hope, expecting your name to be called. In the end it would be a joke – yeah she’s walking across water to get me – not ever realising my letters that you wrote were never passed on. My education ended in second year high when I was 15 ½ years. I was sent 300 miles up north to look after 5 children and help around the house. One day I was with 200 kids, the next day 5 children and 2 adults. The quietness was frightening as I missed my school pals terribly. That job lasted six months and the second job for only one month, another country job doing housework for a very nasty and cold family. I was never ever greeted the time of day – just given orders on what had to be done for the day. No payment ever received. The third country job was as a shop assistant which I really enjoyed, but after 11 months I was very upset when told I would have to go back to St. Joseph’s. When her son came to pick me up I locked myself in the bathroom until I was given an assurance that I wasn’t going back. I was sent to a juvenile detention centre which scared me somewhat when I woke up the first morning as there were bars on all the windows and I thought that I had been sent to jail.
Because I rebelled I was given a welfare officer to help me out with jobs and accommodation. It was she who got my mother’s address and encouraged me to put pen to paper. Because I was eighteen I had to correspond by mail till I was allowed to go overseas and visit the family when I turned 21. When I first started to write, my mother told my siblings (2 brothers and 4 sisters) that I was their cousin from Australia. As they were still very young and still at school, not much explanation was needed. In 1967 I met my family for the first time. Being shy, I was very nervous, wondering if I was going to be accepted, but I needn’t have worried as everything turned out well.
When my mother passed away, I took my one year old son with me to the funeral. Sadly, she was buried on my birthday. When my son was eleven, I took him over again so he could meet all his cousins. It was wonderful to see them all together, it was like he belonged and was wonderful to see.
In 1988 I bumped into a school pal and she was telling me that when she received her personal papers from the welfare department, she had a breakdown. You see, because of her Afghan heritage she was dark skinned and in her papers said, although she was a very pretty little girl, she was unsuitable for adoption. We got talking and wondered how the other girls had faired when they got files. She told the doctors that …. the treatment the girls got at the home would come out – so he went to the Wish Foundation and formed an organisation called ICAS (Institutional Child Abuse Society). We went to print and on air and received a lot of support, especially after the radio interview. We got a lot of calls from the boys who were in Clontarf, Bindoon, Tardun and Castledare, telling us about the abuse that took place. We only heard from one or two other girls that they weren’t interested and just wanted to forget. After all this happened the boys formed their own organisations and the world got to hear of the terrible treatment the migrants and Aussie kids received in the institutions of the day.
I was on the committee that erected the child migrant statue in Fremantle, outside the Maritime Museum. My partner is a child migrant also and both our names are on the Welcome Wall, very close to the migrant statue. While on the committee, submissions were invited for the Child Migrant Memorial Statue, although my poem wasn’t accepted, these are my thoughts on the very sad history of child migration.
Rachael Romero, who was in the The Pines, the Convent of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in Plympton, South Australia, shares her drawing A Severed Life.
Rachael writes about her art work:
Those responsible for our incarceration were looking in the mirror. How many lives cauterized? How many hands maimed? Girls not protected but stained by unwarranted and self-righteous religious and civil presumption of guilt. Their persecuters were looking in the mirror.
An X-ray scan of a leather strap made by Bill Brennan, who grew up in Clontarf Boys’ Town, WA, shows internal metal reinforcements inserted to give the strap more strength.
Bill made this strap when aged in his 50s as a copy of the the same straps he was required to make, at the age of 12, for the Christian Brothers. The X-ray image shows the metal reinforcements included to give the strap more strength when used to hit children.
by Heather Templeman (guest author) on 31 May, 2011
Heather Templeman shares of photo of herself, aged 13, at Catherine Booth Salvation Army Girls Home.
It was our day to wash and polish the dining room floor. It was really quite big. We had already been on our hands and knees from washing the floor. After the floor had dried, we had to get down on our hands and knees again and rub the polish on. So our knees were sore so we thought well, we’ll go and get some rags and put them on our feet and run up and down and polish the floor that way and have some fun. We got a hiding for it but we had fun. The photo was taken before we cleaned the dining room and it was taken by the Gardener. Can’t remember his name but have another photo he took of me and another girl. He liked the other girl a lot so he only got half of me in it. Pity as it would have been a nice photo. It was Captain C. who caught us but Matron who gave us the hiding, but it wasn’t as bad as what her other ones were.
by Wayne Chamley and Tony Danis (guest author) on 23 May, 2011
Dr Wayne Chamley, an advocate from Broken Rites, shares the history of Tony Danis. Tony was held in the Mont Park Asylum after escaping from a home run by the brothers of St. John of God. Wayne did a lot of advocacy work for Tony and he now lives comfortably.
When I first found Tony, he was living in a horse stable, working 6 days a week, as a stable hand and being paid $300 for the week’s work! Tony has poor literacy skills because he has never received any education. He is actually quite smart and because of his life-journey, he is now very street wise.
This is the statement that he dictated to me and which he sent as a submission to the Forgotten Australians Senate inquiry. It is a very sad and disturbing recounting of his appalling treatment. You will see that he identifies a Br. F. as one of his abusers and then this same person has counter-signed his committal certificate, as was required under the Lunacy Act.
Tony Danis’ experience at a Home, in Victoria, run by the brothers of St. John of God:
I was born in 1946. I live alone. Since about the age of 16 years I have been able to work sometimes, in either full time or part-time work to support myself. I have worked in a range of manual jobs. At other times I have had to live on social security while experiencing serious depression. For most of my life I have suffered seriously from asthma and this has been getting progressively worse in recent over the last six years or so. At the beginning of this year I had to finish working because of this illness and ongoing depression.
Records that I have obtained about my childhood indicate that I was first placed into care in St Anthony’s and St Joseph Boys Home at the same time. We were later moved to a Home for Boys … that was operated by the St John of God Brothers. At times I was taken for holidays to the St John of God farm … and also to a house that the Brothers had …
Placement in [VIC] Institutions
St. Anthony’s Home: 1950 to 1951
St Joseph’s Home: 1951 & 1952
St John of God Home: 1952 to 1960
As I recall, the domestic routine … as fairly constant. I was in an upstairs dormitory and as I recall all of the boys who slept upstairs were the ones who either never, or rarely, had adults visit on weekends. The boys who got visitors were on the ground floor.
Every day boys were woken early, they then dressed and went to the dining room for breakfast. After meals some boys were rostered to clear the tables, sweep the floors and help with dishwashing. Boys not rostered were allowed to go outside and play. Later a bell went and boys went into classes.
While many of the boys went to classes for most of the day, I only went to short classes in the morning. After this I was put onto other duties. These varied and included gardening, maintenance jobs, working in the kitchen after lunch and helping to prepare vegetables for the evening meal, cleaning the dormitories and making beds.
After school classes had finished we were allowed to play outside and then we would come in for tea. All boys had showers either before or immediately after tea and showers were supervised by the brothers.
After dinner, boys were allowed to watch TV until about 8.30 pm at which time they had to go to bed. Before going to bed, many boys upstairs were given a red medicine every night. This made me feel very groggy.
On weekends, boys were allowed to play various games and sometimes we were taken by brothers to a football match. Sometimes the brothers would get very drunk while we were at the football.
Experience of Abuse
I experienced severe and sustained abuse which was carried out by several of the brothers when I was in the Home … and at the … Farm and in the house …
I experienced the following abuses
Incarceration in a psychiatric institution sat the instigation of the brothers
Deprived of an education and subjected to unpaid child labour
During my nine years (approximately) in the Home … I was sexually abused many times and by several of the brothers. I also experienced instances of harsh physical abuse. The sexual abuse varied from fondling by one and sometimes more brothers and it took place when I was in the toilets and during the night when I was in the dormitory. Over a period of 3-4 years I was abused frequently by five brothers.
On another occasion I was raped … by Brother F. in a toilet. All the time I was crying and in a lot of pain.
On another occasion when I was about 10 years old, I was held down by three brothers in the corridor of the dormitory and, while one continued to hold me on the floor, the others manually pulled out some emerging pubic hair and chest hair. As they did this, they joked and referred to my having “bum fluff” which had to be removed.
The sexual activities of the religious brothers were not confined to within the precincts of…[the Home]. On occasions boys were taken from Cheltenham for holidays. In my own case I was taken for holidays to the farm and to a holiday house.
The two brothers at the holiday house were Bro. H and Bro M. Both these brothers abused me and I was also abused by a Bro. B while I was at the farm.
From the time I was placed into ‘care’ … I experienced physical abuse at the hands of various brothers and I lived in fear. I was not the only boy who was treated like this although I did seem to be singled out, on several occasions, for particular punishments. The abuse took the form being punched in the body and/or hit on the side or the back of the head. On other occasions I was beaten by an individual brother using a piece of cane and at times I was whipped by a brother using a leather strap.
Many times I received a beating when I arrived late at the breakfast room along with another boy, L. who had red hair. The circumstance that led to my often being late for breakfast is linked to the fact the L. and shared the same dormitory. Each morning L. had to put calipers on his legs on order to be able to walk and if L. was slow in getting ready, I would stay in the dormitory and help him to put on his calipers. Thus I was often punished for helping my friend L. while L. himself was punished for being late because of his having a physical disability. Another boy who was often punished for being late was L. W.
Hunger was a constant companion while I was in the ‘care’ of the brothers. This reflected the fact that the amount of food made available to boys was insufficient and often the meals lacked any variety. Consequently, sometimes boys did not eat a meal then our hunger got worse.
When boys are staying at Lilydale we were allowed to help with some of the farm work including milking cows and feeding chicken and pigs. The pig’s feed included leftovers from the kitchens and this was transported to the piggery on a truck or a trailer. I can recall occasions when I and other boys would ride on the same vehicle going to the piggery and we would eat the best of the scraps before they were fed to the pigs.
On one occasion when I was about 11 years old, I was whipped very heavily by a brother using a leather strap. Because the assault upon me and the pain that I was experiencing, I could not stop crying and so I was then locked in a dark room and left there for three days. Every now and again I was checked by a brother and during those days I received only bread and water.
When I was let out of the dark room I was crying and very upset. I learned that while I had been locked up, all of the boys had been given new leather scout belts. Later that evening, Bro. T. came to see me in the dormitory. He had brought me a new scout belt and the buckle had my own name on it. Bro. T. was a very kind person. Although he knew about the abuse that was going on, because boys told him, he did nothing about it.
This experience of being locked in a small dark room has had a profound effect upon me and to this day I experience uncomfortable anxiety if I am in a dark room and the door is closed.
Incarceration in the psychiatric institution at Mont Park
At the instigation of the Brothers of St. John of God, I was incarcerated in the Mont Park Asylum for more than two years.
The circumstances that led to my being incarcerated need to be explained. When I was 12 years of age I ran away from the Home on three separate occasions. My motivation each time was to try to escape from the abuse, the terrifying experiences, the persecution and regular beatings that I was getting at the Home. The sequel to each escape was for me to be returned to [the Home] and then I was punished for my action. Usually this took the form of further beatings by various brothers.
In one escape I managed to get to the Royal Botanical gardens and I entered the back of Government House. One of the gardeners met me and I was taken to a kitchen at the back of the large house. After a short time the wife of the Governor came and talked to me. She arranged for me to be washed and given food and I told her about being whipped and abused by the brothers. Her response was that I was making the story up. Soon after, a police car arrived and I was taken to a police station close by and I was questioned about my escape. After this I was driven back to [the Home] in a police car in the company of female police.
After my third escape I was sent away from [the Home] by the brothers and I was placed into a receiving house at Mount Park Asylum. This was a terrifying experience. I was first placed in unit M10 which was like a prison. During the day I was allowed to move around within large communal rooms and I could watch TV. As I was fairly small and only a young teenager (13 years old), I was sometimes physically attacked by some of the older patients with mental illnesses. I was not allowed out of the unit unless I was accompanied by a member of staff.
During the night I was locked up in a small cell that had bars on a window and a solid door with a small, barred, glass window in it.
I spent about two years at Mont Park until one day a Dr R. had a long talk to me. I recall this doctor made an assessment of me and then told me that I should not be in such a place. I was 14 years of age.
After my meeting with this doctor, arrangements were made for me to live in a private house in Preston where one of the nurses lived. After a short time I got a job in a local clothing factory and I continued to board at the house for a few years.
Deprived of getting a basic education and subjection to unpaid child labour
As I have outlined in the section that describes the domestic routine at [the Home], I was given little opportunity to get a formal education. This was not the case for other boys who spent several hours each day in school classes. The chance to learn to read and write was denied me by the brothers and instead I was kept in a situation of unpaid child labour. For most of the time at [the Home], I was required to do domestic work for the brothers.
In his Submission to the Senate Inquiry from Broken Rites, Wayne wrote:
We are aware of at least two statements made by different, former inmates who allege that two different boys sustained injuries, as a consequence of beatings, that probably resulted in death. One of these boys was thrown down a staircase (according to the witness) soon after he arrived at the [farm]. We are also aware of at least two boys who both experienced serial, sexual abuse and who were (as juveniles) certified under the Victorian Lunacy Act (1915) and then incarcerated within the Royal Park Asylum. This was the Order’s final response to each boy’s continuing efforts to abscond from the Home; his chosen strategy for escaping from his paedophile attackers. In one of these cases the brother who filled out and signed the committal report was the ‘alpha’ paedophile!
New York artist and film-maker, Rachael Romero, and former resident of ‘The Pines’, Sisters of the Good Shepherd Convent, Plympton, South Australia shares a page from her book which will be published this year.
Rachael’s book is a series of prints documenting the life in the Convent of the Good Shepherd. Regarding her work below, The Mangle, Rachael says,
You … need to imagine immense heat, little ventilation and the din of thundering machinery.
Oliver Cosgrove writes in response to personal histories about child slave labour in children’s homes. He refers to a photograph on this website (below) of children building the swimming pool at Clontarf Boys’ Town. Oliver notes that such work contravened the International Labour Organisation Convention.
In relation to slave child labour in children’s homes, Oliver Cosgrove writes:
It is salient to note the International Labour Organisation Convention C5 of 1919. In essence it requires that children under the age of 14 not be used on industrial undertakings.
ILO Convention 33 refers to the minimum age of working children in non-industrial employment, and notes that children under the age of 14 who are still required to be at school shall not be employed unless otherwise provided for in the convention. The main such provision was that of Article 3 which allowed the use of children over the age of 12 for work outside of fixed school hours provided that the work was light.
This means that the time available for children to do so-called ‘light work’ in the institutions was one hour and 35 minutes on a school day and two hours on a non-school day.
In respect of the photograph of the children doing excavation of the swimming pool it is patent that:
some children are under the age of 12
they are bare-footed
they are doing excavation work, and the fact that some groups of boys are carrying bags of sand indicates that the workload is heavy.
An article in the West Australian newspaper, 19 March, 1958, indicates that the swimming pool was built within three months. Work ‘… began soon after Christmas Day, and the first swimmers plunged into the water on Monday [17 May 1958]. The capacity of the pool was said by Brother Doyle to have been 150,000 gallons.’ An internet website converted 150,000 UK gallons to 681.913 m3.
The average maximum temperature in Perth for January is 30.6°C; for February 31.3°C and for March 29.2°C.
The State Records Office holds the Clontarf Swimming Pool file and contains a letter dated September 3, 1957 from Brother Maloney of Clontarf who stated that:
‘under the supervision of our Manager, Rev Brother Doyle, we hope to build with the aid of twenty senior boys a swimming pool… We would greatly appreciate the guidance of your Dept. and any little help you would permit.’
The Director of Works wrote back and in paragraph 7 he stated:
‘I was informed that some £3000 to £4000 is available for this project and also that all the materials for the concrete, except the cement, will be a free gift. This amount of money should be ample to construct the pool as all the labour will be free.’
Below is the relevant excerpt from the International Labour Convention 33:
C5 Minimum Age (Industry) Convention, 1919
1. For the purpose of this Convention, the term industrial undertaking includes particularly–
(a) mines, quarries and other works for the extraction of minerals from the earth;
(b) industries in which articles are manufactured, altered, cleaned, repaired, ornamented, finished, adapted for sale, broken up or demolished, or in which materials are transformed; including shipbuilding, and the generation, transformation, and transmission of electricity and motive power of any kind;
(c) construction, reconstruction, maintenance, repair, alteration, or demolition of any building, railway, tramway, harbour, dock, pier, canal, inland waterway, road, tunnel, bridge, viaduct, sewer, drain, well, telegraphic or telephonic installation, electrical undertaking, gas work, water work, or other work of construction, as well as the preparation for or laying the foundations of any such work or structure;
(d) transport of passengers or goods by road or rail or inland waterway, including the handling of goods at docks, quays, wharves, and warehouses, but excluding transport by hand.
2. The competent authority in each country shall define the line of division which separates industry from commerce and agriculture.
Children under the age of fourteen years shall not be employed or work in any public or private industrial undertaking, or in any branch thereof, other than an undertaking in which only members of the same family are employed.
The provisions of Article 2 shall not apply to work done by children in technical schools, provided that such work is approved and supervised by public authority.
by Godfrey Gilmour (guest author) on 13 April, 2011
“I may not have been an orphan in the real sense of the word, and my experience at Clontarf as a state ward, however, was full of orphaning experiences”. Godfrey Gilmour, a retired Anglican priest, noticed himself as a child in a photograph, published on this website, taken by Mick O’Donoghue at Clontarf Boys Town in the 1950s. Here, he shares his experiences as a child migrant from a loving family in Malta to the harsh conditions at Clontarf:
I was born in Malta in 1944 in wartime. My mother was Mary Tonna and my father Geoffrey was an English soldier recently transferred to Malta from the North Africa campaign. My parents met sometime in late 1942 or early 1944. It was a wartime love affair and did not come to light til my mother became pregnant and her parents became involved. It was then discovered that Geoffrey was married and that despite my grandfather’s attempt to sort something out, it came to no avail. The army then intervened and sent Geoffrey away to the Italian campaign. My mother never heard from him again and her registered letters to him containing photographs of me went unanswered.
After the war, I lived with my mother and grandparents. It was a comfortable and culturally enriching life. I was close to my grandparents and extended family and I still have very happy memories of that period of time.
At the age of seven I was placed in St Patrick’s School in Sliema which was a boarding school where I experienced abuse for the first time, my family was unaware of this, and I felt unable to tell them about the events at St Patrick’s for I was fearful of the repercussions that might ensue. I was eager to leave the place and always longed to see my father. Some time in 1952 Father Cyril Stinson came to the school in Malta from Western Australia to recruit boys to migrate to Australia. I always remember that he had a florid face and smelt of whiskey. Along with other boys I was told how wonderful Australia was, and the wonderful school we would be going to. My mother along with other parents was also told similar things and also thought this would be a good thing especially as she was also advised that she could also follow me to Australia. In my child’s mind, I thought that somehow, I would be closer to England and that I might see my father. I had no idea Australia was on the other side of the world.
In July 12th 1953 I migrated to Australia. When I arrived at Clontarf, I immediately felt that this was a dark place. And it proved to be so almost from day one. It felt as though I had landed like on the dark side of the moon. I didn’t fit in at Clontarf; I had come from a cultured family in Malta. My mother had a wonderful singing voice. I always had plenty of reading matter, at night, in Malta; she would sing me to sleep with operatic arias that she had learnt. But at Clontarf, I experienced a great deal of deprivation especially in the early years. I was to experience emotional, physical and sexual abuse almost the very first days. There was a predatory culture at work at Clontarf and at Castledare; young boys were preyed upon by particular staff and also older boys. My first nights in one of those large cold dormitories were miserable and I recall crying myself to sleep wondering when my mother was going to arrive and take me away.
From the first days I witnessed and then personally experienced the harsh discipline and the use of the infamous straps made of several layers of leather and reinforced with metal to make them weightier and more painful. The staff carried these up the sleeves of their cassocks and used them with terrible efficiency. In the absence of their straps staff resorted to sticks, canes and fists even on very young boys and those who were maimed through accidents. The attitude of some staff was sadistic.
There was also this process of depersonalisation at work at Clontarf and a loss of identity. I soon became a number. My Christian name was never used, only my number and surname. My personal belongings were soon taken away from me, my books were burnt, and my mail home was censored. We were forbidden to speak Maltese. Being bi-lingual I was at times told to translate letters from Malta to Maltese boys for the principal in case information about Clontarf was getting back to Malta. There was a lack of respect for the individual, the well-being of the institution mattered more.
The food was so awful after the Mediterranean diet I was used to; hunger was a constant reality, and boys resorted to raiding the pig bins for food. The enforced nudity, the lack of privacy [even the toilets lacked doors], the constant hard work that we had to engage in, often in dangerous conditions, made inroads into our health and well-being also affected of academic performance. Many boys failed academically and were put to work at an early age and were functionally illiterate on leaving Clontarf.
My mother came out to Australia in October 1954. Catholic welfare found her work at a Catholic presbytery in Fremantle. In early 1955 my mother found employment at Castledare, the junior orphanage that fed into Clontarf. She became uncomfortable with the violence that she saw. On raising this with one of the brothers, he said, “I didn’t want to be here. My parents forced me to become a Christian Brother”. My mother was asked to leave Castledare and moved to Perth and worked there. In 1957 my mother married Jack Gilmour. He immediately wanted to adopt me legally and immediately ran into obfuscation both by the authorities and also the staff at Clontarf. People did not readily question authority in those days. Unbeknown to them, I was legally a state ward. My step father then took steps to change my name by deed poll. This was done much to the chagrin of Brother Doyle, the principal, who in an interview with my parents at which I was also present raised objections. My parents insisted that I should now be known as Godfrey Gilmour. Already out of favour with Brother Doyle this latest issue made life difficult, ever more difficult for me.
My final year at Clontarf was spent in Br Doyle’s class. It was a devastating year for me. I was brutalised and humiliated by this man all year. I was at times hit over the head by this man and had my spectacles broken after being hit across the face. He took a dislike to my accent and constantly drew attention to what he described as my ‘plummy accent’ and humiliated me in front of my peers. I became an anxious boy, I developed a speech impediment, had sleep problems and even experienced bouts of enuresis, [bed wetting] something I had never experienced in my life. At the end of the school year I was simply told to leave and not come back. I virtually left in the clothes I was standing in. I was still a ward of the state and yet my parents received no support whatever for my transition to life outside the orphanage. After several years my mother received a letter from the Child Welfare Department in Perth, advising my mother that she could now adopt me.
Such was my experience in care in Western Australia, I may not have been an orphan in the real sense of the word, and my experience at Clontarf as a state ward however was full of orphaning experiences. Putting the past behind me I forged a career in education, family welfare and ministry.
PS: I was to meet my father in the UK, shortly before he died we were reconciled. I also met 9 siblings and large family. My mother did not live to see that day. She died in Malta.
Former Child Migrant Raymond Brand writes about his experience as a child migrant from Britain, growing up in Castledare and Bindoon, WA. Ray describes the abuse he suffered and how education and medical care were low priorities at Bindoon.
by Oliver Cosgrove (guest author) on 12 April, 2011
How did abuse happen in institutions without anyone knowing at the time? In 1944, a Mrs Grundy in Perth knew. Her letters of complaint against child slave labour at the Convent of the Good Shepherd were published by the Catholic newspaper The Record, on Wednesday, 20 September 1944. In the reply, the editor published the response of Welfare. Oliver Cosgrove kindly made available to the National Museum this excerpt from The Record, headlined Child Welfare Department Refute Malicious Slander Against Home of the Good Shepherd:
Mrs Grundy, Perth:
The next letter is from Mrs Grundy, Perth. She writes: Dear Sir – Will you please answer the following question?
Q: Why are such corrupt and diabolical institutions as the (so called) Convent of the Good Shepherd, where the inmates are mainly slaves, and where the industrial laws of the country are flouted, exempt from Government inspection?
A: In view of the startling and damaging nature of your revelations, your letter was shown to an official of the Child Welfare Department, so that the matter could be investigated and the abuse corrected if necessary. The following reply was received:
“All industrial homes, including the Home of the Good Shepherd Convent must be approved by the Governor through his representative, before they are allowed to function and all are subject to inspection by Government officials at any time. So far as the Home of the Good Shepherd is concerned, a full inspection covering buildings, living and working conditions, food and books of admission and discharges is made every three months by officers of the Child Welfare Department, who also interview the children and make individual reports upon them to the Secretary of the Department.
“The Child Welfare Department regulations require the institution to provide industrial training, such as needlework, washing, ironing, housework, cooking, gardening, and where cows are kept, dairying. This is necessary for the rehabilitation of the children. The same regulations control the hours of work.”
The next question from Mrs Grundy is this:
Q: The prisoners in our common gaols get a little remuneration for their labour, but in your Good Shepherd reformatory all they receive is plenty of hard work, hard living and blows. No wonder the poor unfortunate girl delinquents prefer the State prison to the sheltering care of your Convents.
A: Once again I quote the letter of the Child Welfare Department official;
“The committal of children to the Home of the Good Shepherd is not made as a punitive measure, but as a constructive one, and every effort is made to train their minds as well as their hands.
“Regular remuneration is not given because the Home is run for the comfort and care, not only of those who work under supervision, but also for those who for various reasons cannot work, some having to be nursed.
“State prisons are a Government responsibility, the overhead cost of running them being met by the taxpayers.
“As for girls preferring State prisons to the Home of the Good Shepherd, this may be said by an incorrigible girl out of bravado, but is far from the truth.
“The conditions of living at the Home of the Good Shepherd are such that many children, both ex-wards of the State and private girls, return there of their own free will, rather than remain in homes or in positions. Government regulations allow that corporal punishment may be administered for offences against morality, gross impertinence, or for persistent disobedience, but not for trivial breaches of discipline or dullness in learning. However, corporal punishment is not resorted to in the Home of the Good Shepherd.”
Following on from his autobiography, A Tormented Life, Warren Porter writes the story of his deceased brother, Graham Davis. Warren writes about their abusive stepfather, how Graham was sent to Westbrook Farm Home in 1961 and police violence. Warren argues the case for a Royal Commission into the treatment of children in Australian institutions.
Warren mentions several locations in the south side of Brisbane including “the Gabber (the Five Ways)” which refers to the then layout of the railway yards in the suburb of Woolloongabba.
by Rachael Romero (guest author) on 10 March, 2011
Rachael Romero who was sent to the The Pines, Plympton, SA, run by the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, recalls the importnace of holy cards:
Holy cards were currency -emotional currency–in a place where expressions of contempt are the norm; where you can’t trust anyone because of co-ersion and it is unwise to share secrets, the holy cards where a sanctioned (because purified) way of showing loyalty and caring between people–to say what otherwise may not be said–to give each other courage. We weren’t allowed to speak more than an hour a day–otherwise we were in silence and the thundering noise of the Laundry Mangle or being raved at by the head nun as we ate the rotten food. Allways watched, we could buy the cards for pennies from the nuns and sometimes we were given them as gifts. We could not pass notes or letters unless the nuns read them first but the holy card was ok. It carried our “voice” however coded, however muffled.
They were given on Feast Days and Birthdays because we had no other gifts. We got 20c every week towards buying our own shampoo, soap, tooth paste–and holy cards, from the nuns.
by Oliver Cosgrove (guest author) on 7 March, 2011
Here Oliver Cosgrove shares the St Benedict’s Medal which was given to all the boys at Boys’ Town, Bindoon, WA as well as an article from 1955 written about the Medal. The article sadly makes light of child slave labour at Bindoon.
In the August 21, 1955 edition of the publication Pax (Latin for “peace”), an article reads:
…a Freemason had insisted that the possession of the Medal Cross of St Benedict had been the cause of much good luck at the Races! The Freemason was indeed sincere. But when today in fact was related to us from Bindoon we felt that this was more in keeping with what we would expect from the great Patriarch.
At Boys’ Town, Bindoon, all lads had been issued with St Benedict’s Medal by the chaplain, and one lad at least certainly wearing his treasure round his neck. While at work on the first floor of one of the new buildings some fifteen feet from mother earth, this lad fell. To make matters worse it was not mother earth who received the falling boy, but a heap of rough-edged rocks. The spectators were greatly alarmed and expected serious injury, to say the least. But what was their surprise when they saw the lad pick himself up immediately – and on enquiry they got the reply: ‘I’m alright – of course I’m alright. I’m wearing the Medal of St Benedict.”
Also from Pax 31 July, 1955:
St Benedict’s Medal Described
(By Dom Justin Bruce O.S.B., N. N.)
The essential parts of the Medal of St Benedict are the Cross, the image of St. Benedict, and certain letters which we mean to explain. The shape of the Medal is evidently not important. To avoid confusion we must remember that one Medal, known as Ordinary Medal of St Benedict was approved, and richly indulged by Pope Benedict XIV in 1742, and a second was struck and approved by Pope Pius IX in 1877 in anticipation of celebrations in honour of St Benedict on the 14th centenary of his birth, which occurred in 1880.
A glance at the Ordinary Medal of St Benedict will show a Cross engraved on one side, on the arms of which certain letters appear, while more letters are seen in the angles of the Cross, and also in the border around the edge of the Medal. On the other side there is an image of St. Benedict. These are the essentials for the Ordinary Medal is genuine.
The letters: In the angles of the Cross we read the letters C. S. P. B. which stand for Crix Sancti Patria Benedicti (“The Cross of the holy father benedict”). On the perpendicular bar of the Cross are found the letters C. S. S. M. L. They signify: Crux Sacra Sit Mihi Lux (“May the holy Cross be my light”).
The letters on the horizontal bar of the Cross are: N. D. S. M. D. Non Draco Sit Mihi Dux (“May the devil never be my guide”).
Obviously these words express simply a renewal of our baptismal vows, by which we solemnly declare ourselves followers of the Cross of Christ, renouncing at the same time the devil and his snares. Around the margin….are the following letters, beginning at the top right hand:
V. S. N. S. M. V. S. M. Q. L. I. V. B.
and stand for the following verses:
Vade Retro, Satana:
Numquam Suade Mihi Vana
Sunt Mala Quae Libas
Ipse Venena Bibas
(“Begone Satan. Tempt me not with antics. What thou offerest is evil; drink thou thyself the poison”).
At the top of the same side of the Medal, can be seen the three letters I.H.S. which signify the Holy Name of Jesus.
This is the Medal of St. Benedict. If we carry it on our person, we are continuously, if implicitly, making an act of renunciation of Satan. ……..
The second Medal above mentioned is known as the Jubilee Medal. It differs from the Ordinary Medal in that it has attached to it not only the indulgences of the latter, but has others added besides. On the side which bears St. Benedict’s image we see the words: “Eius in obtu nostropraesentia muniamur” (“May we be strengthened by his presence at the hour of our death”). Also the Benedictine Motto “Pax” (Peace) will always be found engraved on the side of the Jubilee Medal which bears the Cross and the letters.
by Janice Konstantinidis (guest author) on 28 February, 2011
Janice Konstantinidis, shares a current photograph, as well as her detailed history of her time from the age of 12 working in the laundry of Mount Saint Canice, Tasmania, one of the Magdalena laundries, nicknamed “The Mag”. Janice also includes recollections of the lengths some girls would go to in order to escape.
Mount Saint Canice
At the age of twelve, I was taken by my grandparents and father to Mount Saint Canice, one of the Magdalene Laundries. The laundry was run by the Order of Good Shepherd Nuns in Hobart, Tasmania. There were a number of these laundries in Australia, as well as in other parts of the world. I am not sure how or why it came to pass that women and children were taken in by the nuns, but I know that the courts had no hesitation in sending adolescent girls to these homes for punishment. It was also common for parents to place their children in these homes when they could no longer house them, or for any number of reasons. It is not my purpose to speculate here as to why the state allowed this and, indeed, there has been an inquiry and subsequent public apology to all of us who were incarcerated in this manner. It is important for me to write my own record of my experiences so that it can become public knowledge. In doing so, I hope that no child now or in the future ever has to experience the horror I did.
I had been told that I was going to Mount Carmel, a Catholic boarding school in Hobart. My father had been asked to find a school for me as his parents, who were unwell, were no longer able to care for me. My father was a sadistic alcoholic, and he had lied to my grandmother about where I was going. In her mind, the nuns could do no wrong.
My first day at Mount Saint Canice began at six a.m. It was pitch black and cold. The lights were turned on, hurting my eyes, as a nun came through each dormitory calling out loudly “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”. All of the inmates got out of bed and fell to their knees. I was to learn that this command was to be obeyed immediately upon penalty of losing a mark. I will talk about marks later.
I also got out of bed and dropped to my knees. We said the Lord’s Prayer in unison. I was then told by a girl next to me to make my bed, and to get washed and dressed. We lined up at the unlocked door and waited until all were assembled, before filing through the next dormitory and down two flights of stairs. As I type this, I look back and realize that there were no exit signs and no fire escapes in that particular area. Even so, the doors were locked at every turn. We would have been in serious danger had a fire ever broken out.
We walked silently through two more doors, our numbers growing as each group joined us. We eventually ended up in the convent church. We, the girls from the home, had a part for ourselves that had been sectioned off, although some of the older girls sat in the public area. The nuns had their section as well. We had to attend Mass each morning. I was Catholic, so this was not new to me; but many girls were not and, therefore, resented having to attend Mass. I have to say that I resented this as well, as I did not have a strong belief in God.
We were not allowed to speak at all. When Mass was over, we filed back in order, based on who had come from where. Once assembled, we made our way to the refectory for breakfast, which was usually oatmeal with milk, and toast with butter and jam. After breakfast, we filed out of the refectory. I was escorted to a huge room by Judith, who was an auxiliary nun, and told that it was the ironing room. There, I was introduced to Mother Marguerite, who was in charge of this area. I had never seen anything like it. There were ten large cloth-covered ironing tables that ran through the middle of the room. These were duplicated, so there were twenty places at which the girls would iron. There were huge steam pressers and steam egg-like implements used for pressing clothes. These ran along either side of the tables. There was also an area that led to the next room, and just nearby, there were many bins of wet clothes waiting to be ironed.
I was shown to a table near Mother Marguerite, who was ironing. She pulled a bin towards me and informed me that it was my job to iron handkerchiefs until the bell rang, and that I would then be collected for school as I was a school girl. Once again, I was told that there was to be no talking. I was shocked, to say the very least, at this turn of events. I had no idea what was going on, but I began to iron the handkerchiefs obediently. This and other laundry work would be my employment until I left Mount Saint Canice at age 15 and a half.
We were pretty much governed by bells. They would be rung late at night and first thing in the morning for the nuns, the first one being at 6 a.m. These bells became a way of life for me. They also corresponded with my need to perform rituals, so I was able to put a lot of my existing obsessive compulsive disorder into the various bells as they sounded. All nuns immediately stopped whatever they were doing at the sound of the bell; even if they had been in the process of dotting an “i”.
At nine a.m., I was called out by a girl in school uniform. She told me her name, and took me to the area of the convent in which the school-aged girls were given lessons. At that point, I was still of the belief that I would find myself at Mount Carmel. But this was not to be the case.
The school room and general area was divided into three rooms. We used one for the classroom, one for sewing, and the other for cooking. Our teacher was Mother Claver, a small but plump nun with a sharp tongue, whose bark was a bit worse than her bite. I was shown some navy skirts, white blouses, and navy sweaters to see which would fit me. I tried as hard as I could to find the right size, but nothing fitted me very well. I was given some white socks and told that I would get a pair of lace-up shoes when my size came in. I was then taken to the room where the cooking was done. Another nun, Mother Philip, was teaching cookery there, so I joined a girl at a table. I felt uncertain about all this as I knew that I was in the wrong color uniform for girls from Mount Carmel. They wore light brown tunics with sky blue blouses.
As I looked around me, I saw, in the distance, what I thought was a long, blue swimming pool. I asked the girl next to me if we were going to swim in it at some point. She looked at me peculiarly, and asked me to repeat myself. The class was silent and everyone was looking at me. I think there were about 15 of us who were of school age. When I repeated myself, I was told, amidst roars of laughter, that that was no pool, and to go and have a proper look. I walked over to the windows, which were huge and took up one entire side of the building. One girl said to me, “Can you see now?” I could see that what I had thought was a pool was actually blue corrugated iron. She asked me if I could see the rolls of barbed wire on top, and I told her that I could. I could also see that the windows through which I was looking were barred; ornate, but barred nonetheless. Someone asked me where the f****** I thought I was. I told her that I was at the Mount Carmel Boarding school for Catholic girls. Huge peals of laughter followed. I was then informed that I was in the “Mag”. I asked what that was, and was told that it was the Magdalene Girls’ Reformatory – otherwise known as Mount Saint Canice. I then asked why there were bars on the window, and was told they were there to prevent us from jumping out, and that the fence was there to ensure that we would not run away. I could not absorb what they were saying, and I suddenly began to feel unwell; I was having an anxiety attack. Mother Phillip guided me into the next room to sit down. I thought that my heart would break. I felt very betrayed and humiliated, and I began to cry. I told Mother Phillip that there had been a mistake made, and that I had been sent to the wrong school. She told me that I had been placed with them by my family, and that I had to stay. I asked her when I could go home, but she told me that it would be some time before I would be allowed to leave. It turned out that it would be eight months before I was allowed a break for Christmas. I can’t describe the turmoil engulfing my mind at that point. The reality was simply too sad for me to contemplate.
My memories of my early days at Mount Saint Canice are not consistently vivid, although I am not sure why. I recall that the first night was exceedingly frightening for me. Due to my extreme anxiety, my face was going numb quite a lot. I had been given a seat at a table with three other people in the refectory – which, by the way, was a new word for me. There were about 200 girls inside. The first thing that I noticed was that they were not all young, and I was puzzled by this. The refectory was divided into three areas, one of which had women who were quite old. It turned out that some of these were the women who ran the convent farm; some were intellectually challenged; and some had been in the convent for most of their lives. I would learn all about this later.
I felt quite uncomfortable as I sat in the dining room. I felt as though everyone was looking at me, and I suppose they were. After all, I was the new girl. I was seated at a table with Judith, the auxiliary nun mentoned abive. These women wore grey habits with grey stockings and black lace-up shoes. They also wore veils with a light blue strip of fabric around the head area, although it was not a full-faced coif like those worn by the other nuns. They also wore light blue and grey belts, and had large silver crucifixes hanging from their necks. These nuns took yearly vows and were usually the product of a lifetime in the institution. While not considered for ‘proper’ orders, they were nonetheless nuns as they saw it; and some, like Judith, were in charge of a group of girls.
Mealtime was unusual. In the afternoon, we had bread with butter and jam, along with cups of tea. Sitting at my table was a young woman who was about 18 to 20 years old. She was profoundly intellectually challenged, and she carried her teddy bear with her at all times. Judith cared for her; in fact, she was like her child. Her name was Kerrie Anne. She could not speak, and was very myopic. I was frightened of her at first because Judith told me that she bit people if she was annoyed.
There was no speaking allowed while eating. I later learned that one could speak if it was the feast day of a saint. Whenever she came into room, the nun on refectory duty would say “God be blessed”, and the room would buzz with chatter. When we finished eating, we washed our cutlery in colored plastic bowls which were bought to the table by the girls whose turn it was to do so. The bowls were filled with hot, soapy water from a large jug, which was also brought to the table. We reset the places, wiped our placemats with a cloth, and dried the cutlery with a tea towel. Our plates were taken away when we were finished. We all took turns at these jobs.
After tea that first afternoon, I went to what was known as a group room. I was allocated to a group called the Rosarians. There were about thirty girls to a group, and we had four groups. The nun in charge of my group was Mother Magdalene. The group room was used for recreation, and had chairs and tables for crafts and puzzles. We also had a TV and various other bits and pieces. We took turns to clean the group room.
On my first night in the dormitory, I recall being very frightened. I had been allocated a bed in a huge room which was shared by about 40 girls. All the women at the home were referred to as girls, regardless of age. I was not able to sleep in the two rooms that the other group members used as they were short of a bed for me; so I slept in the dormitory used by some of the older girls and auxiliary nuns. My bed was in the centre of the room in the middle of a line of beds. I recall the main lights going out as it was my turn to shower. It would have been nine o’clock. My shyness about going to the shower made me late. I was also extremely nervous and I dropped my new shampoo and watched helplessly as it spilled all over the tiles. The bottle, which had the name Blue Clinic on it, was made of glass. I was so upset that I had spilled it. Thankfully someone came to help me to clean it up. I also recall going to bed with wet hair that night. I could still see the moon through the windows. I noticed that these windows were also barred, but I tried not to pay too much attention to this. I cried that night; it was all very, very strange to me. I was also particularly upset because I could not perform my rituals in case I was seen, so I had to do them in my mind. I had developed OCD when I was nine years old and I hade developed a need to perform many rituals as a result of this. My time in Mount Saint Canice made all this considerably worse, as I was constantly anxious.
The curriculum at the school at Mount Saint Canice could have been worse. It covered basic arithmetic, spelling, and the usual subjects up to about grade four level. I recall being annoyed that we had to learn about Burke and Wills. I tended to do my work and say very little. After some weeks, Mother Claver asked me to help some other girls, and I did this throughout the rest of the school year. I was very sad about this, as I knew that I was not learning and the thing that had been so very important to me since I began school, was to absorb myself in my school work. Most of the girls found their schoolwork to be very hard. There was one other girl of my age who was unable to manage her schoolwork. I will refer to her as Lucy, although this is not her real name. Lucy and I became friends and have remained in contact to this day. She had been placed in the home because her parents were heavy drinkers and her mother had thrown her into a fire.
I kept hoping that I would be able to go home to tell my grandmother about all that I was experiencing. My watch had been stolen in the first week, as had my underwear. The latter were, however, replaced by Mother Anselm from the reserves that she had. These clothes were new, but were very old-fashioned; they were made of pink cotton, and the bras were unlike any I had ever seen. I later discovered that they had originally been purchased for the nuns. Long pink petticoats and white ankle socks were the norm. Lucy had come to the home as an emergency placement and had no clothes on arrival, so the pink clothing was not new to her.
During my first week at Mount Saint Canice, my neck was burned. All girls had to be deloused and checked for fleas. I was aghast at the very notion, but had no choice but to go along with it. On my second day, I was given a bottle of vile-smelling liquid by Judith, and told to shower with it. I think this was usually done on the first day, but I had arrived late the previous day. Judith also delegated an older girl to wash my hair with kerosene, and this is what burned my neck. There was also no treatment for this.
We all had to take a glass of Epsom salts once a week. This was to ‘clean us out’ and, in fact, usually gave us diarrhea. We all hated drinking it, but we would lose a mark if we refused. There was also no sense trying to write home about our circumstances, as all our mail was read. This applied to both incoming and outgoing mail. Some girls had to rewrite their letters, while others found pieces cut out of the mail that they received from home and friends. We were allowed to read and write letters on Saturday afternoons in our group rooms, and all letters had to be shown to the group nun.
School ended with a bell at 3 p.m. We filed out in line to the refectory. After having our afternoon tea, we went back to work in our respective places in the laundry until 5 p.m. when we finished work. We were allowed back into the dormitory to have a quick wash before having dinner at 5.30 p.m. As usual, there was no talking, except when we were given permission to do so. The meals, while fattening, were generously proportioned and always warm. I have to give credit here; no one went hungry.
There was even a convent cat to feed. My grandfather had been in the habit of drowning my cats whenever they had kittens. I would come home to find my cat gone and sometimes only one kitten left. I grew to like the convent cat. It belonged to Mother Phillip and I used to amuse Lucy by writing poems about it.
The laundry was huge. There was the ironing room where I worked when I was not in school, the machine room where Lucy worked, the folding and packing room, and the drying rooms. The machine room was very large and contained two enormous mangles and rows of large washing machines. These machines were operated by one man who had been employed by the convent for years. He was unfortunate enough to have his daughter come to the home a year or so later. He was not allowed to speak to her, but they would look at each other from a distance.
The laundry provided services to hospitals and many other institutions. It also offered private laundry services, mainly to the priests, as well as to the archbishop’s residence. To my knowledge, it was the biggest commercial laundry in southern Tasmania. The mangles, which pressed all flat items, were so large that it took two girls to feed a wet sheet into one, and two on the other side to remove and fold it. The heat was so intense that a wet sheet would only need to be fed through once. The work that we did in the ironing room was different, and consisted of tending to smaller items such as underwear, shirts, and hankies. There were dozens of shirts and hundreds of hankies per day. This work was done every weekday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and girls who were aged over 14 worked on Saturday mornings as well.
I was allocated a place in a new dormitory in time for my 13th birthday. I recall being glad that I could finally see out of a window. Our dormitory was three storeys high, and although my window had bars, I could see the moon and some of lower Sandy Bay, and for this I was immensely grateful. There were nine beds in the room, which was one of the smaller dormitories, and Judith and Kerrie Anne were my roommates. I had a bed, a single locker, a chair, and a mat. Our beds had to be made to army standards, and we had to keep our area clean and tidy. There was an inspection every Saturday afternoon, after which we were given our marks.
Sometimes the girls would try to escape. In fact, on occasion they were successful. But they were invariably caught by the police and brought back to the home. Their hair would be cut roughly within an inch of their scalps, and their fingernails would undergo similarly harsh treatment. “Punishment frocks”, which were dresses made from hessian with bias binding trim, would also be worn for some months. The girls could wear a skivvy under them, but all of their own clothes, with the exception of socks and underwear, were confiscated. These punishment frocks had to be worn to “parlor,” much to the humiliation of the girls. Parlor was the room in which the girls saw their family on the second and fourth Sunday of the month. Some girls who were nearing the end of their sentence would be allowed home for a weekend. This was an extremely special event. In all my time at Mount Saint Canice, I never went to parlor. I had no visitors, with the exception of one visit from relatives from the country who had heard that I was at the home.
There is one particular incident that I will never forget. A group of three girls was planning to escape one Sunday night while the rest of the girls were watching a film. I was in my dormitory helping to bathe Kerrie Anne when they attempted to escape. I had gone to the window to see if I could see them jump. They had planned to jump from the third floor bathroom window – this was one of the few windows that had no bars – to a ledge, to another ledge, and then to the roof of the first floor, which was concrete and had been added on to the home in its later years. The first girl jumped, but lost her footing when attempting to land on the ledge. She kept falling until she landed on the concrete roof. I heard her fall and saw that she lay still. The alarm was sounded by someone and the flood lights came on. An ambulance and the police were called. We soon learnt that the girl had broken her back. We never saw her again. We were told that after being discharged from the hospital, she was sent to Lachlan Park, which was a mental institution. We were all very upset by this. I felt awful because I had known that they were intending to escape, and I repeatedly wondered if perhaps I should have informed one of the nuns. Then again, to do so would have led to a physical thrashing for me and I was afraid of the bullying that took place in the home.
The other girls who wanted to escape from the home would cut themselves or take some other action that would require admission to hospital, as this was seen as preferable to being at the home. One girl who had escaped, been recaptured, and whose hair had been cut off as a result, was working with me in the ironing room one day. Mother Marguerite had gone out for a few minutes. The girl was working on a press for shirts, and I saw her lay her hands on the press as one would do to flatten out a shirt. I then noticed with horror that she let the press down on her hands. I ran to her, thinking that it must have been a terrible accident, and I stepped on the release foot pedal. But this was a mistake as her hands were stuck to the top lid of the press. She screamed, I screamed, and an older girl raced to help us. The burned girl was taken to the hospital and did not return until sometime later. Despite the trauma that I experienced, I was expected to carry on with my work, and to eat my afternoon tea as if nothing had happened. I had nightmares for a long time about the girl who had jumped, and the girl who had burned herself.
I was terrified of the times that I spent as a carer for three girls who had epilepsy. I was terrified of seizures, but was given the job of watching these girls – some of whom were over 21 years old – at night. We slept in a room with nothing but mattresses so that, in the event of a seizure, no one could do themselves any harm. When a girl had a seizure, I had to run from the room – I was given trustee privileges for this – and I had to pull hard on the rope that rang the bell. Mother Marguerite was the convent nurse and, after a time, she would appear with an injection for the girl or girls, as sometimes another girl would have a seizure as well. I was so horrified that I could hardly speak. I would even have anxiety attacks of which they were completely unaware. To say that I lived my life in constant anxiety and fear while in the convent would be an understatement.
There were times of incredible sadness for some of the girls. Sometimes a girl would come to the home pregnant, or another might escape and become pregnant. Although she would try to hide her condition for as long as possible, she was eventually sent to Elim House in West Hobart, which was a Salvation Army home for unwed mothers. The girls eventually came back to us after they had delivered their babies. Some of them were over 18, but remained wards of the state until they were 21 years old. They, therefore, had no say in what happened to them or their babies. To see their sorrow at having lost their children was heartbreaking. To see them punished for what, in hindsight, seems to have been depression was also devastating. Worst of all was the news that one girl had hanged herself, which was such a shock to me that I felt unable to breathe for some time. She had been a lovely person. She had come to the home in the very early stages of pregnancy and had been sent to Elim. She’d come back to tell us that she’d had a baby boy.
On Saturday mornings, we were allowed to sleep in until 7 a.m. We went to a later Mass, had our breakfast, and came back to the dormitories to clean them. We would even wash and polish the floors on our knees. Everything in the convent was always spotless, and we took turns cleaning the bathrooms, which were then inspected.
We were expected to shower every night and again in the morning if we wanted to. Due to my constant efforts to get the kerosene out of my hair, I began to wash it every day, and I have continued this practice to this day.
We worked in our dormitories until lunch time. After lunch, we went to our group room and we were allowed to talk or play a game until Mother Magdalene came, at which point we had other activities to do. Every second Saturday, Mother Anselm would come to the groups as well. She would be told about us and would give us marks and pocket money according to how many marks we had received. I believe that these marks were a way of maintaining some degree of control over the girls. Three marks were to be given to each girl; one for work/school, one for our general care of ourselves and cleanliness, and the other for our general behavior. If we were ‘good’ in all three areas, we received four shillings. If we lost a mark, it would be three shillings. The loss of two marks meant that we got only two shillings, and the loss of all three marks meant that we received no pocket money and no special privileges such as being allowed to go to the movies, which were shown on Sunday nights.
Other forms of punishment took the form of the extra cleaning of the dormitory floors. Used tea leaves were thrown over the floors, which we would then have to sweep and polish. There was a large, red cement hallway that ran through various areas of the home. Scrubbing this hallway while on my hands and knees was a job that I came to know well. It would take me over two hours, and I was expected to use a toothbrush for the grouted areas. I would be given this punishment for simply asking “why?”, or for taking too long in the toilets. They did not consider the fact that I suffered from constipation and that hurrying was, therefore, impossible for me. Furthermore, the red corridor was cold and draughty most of the time.
We always referred to ourselves as slaves, and, looking back, I can see that we were. All the girls who could work, worked long and hard hours, and the sum of four shillings was an insult to them. I had never had any money and was often away in my fantasy world; so it did not occur to me to be less than grateful for anything that came my way that was not going to hurt me. It is hard for me to look back and adequately explain this, but it is how I felt. We were expected to use this money to buy our own toiletries and other items for our personal use. Some girls had parents who provided for them, while others did not. In any case, the nuns took everything that came into the convent and dispensed it as they thought appropriate. Only sanitary pads were provided and we had to ask Mother Marguerite for these. They were known as a packet of “Bunnies” and we were only allowed one packet per menstrual cycle. My periods were heavy and I suffered chapping due to changing napkins infrequently.
We would go up to the dormitories at 7:30 p.m. each week night and lights were out at 9 p.m. I was always excited to get into my bed. I had the most wonderful fantasy life that anyone could imagine and I could not wait to get lost in it. My fantasies were many and varied, but a common theme involved having a large family.
The population of the home consisted of many different girls. There were older girls — women — who no longer worked in the laundry; they would sit outside in one particular corridor where there was sun, in their own group rooms, or perhaps in bed. Some of these girls had not been outside of the home for many years. I knew one older woman who told me she had not been outside for over twenty years. There was another woman in her late thirties whose job it was to care for these girls. As far as I know, this woman had come to the home in her youth, and had never left. Every so often, one of the older women would die, and we were allowed to visit her bed if we wanted to. This was so we could say goodbye to her before she died. I was also terrified of this.
Other girls were younger and suffered from various forms of developmental delay. These girls would often work on the convent farm, which was huge and very productive. They were often overweight, and smelled of cow manure, as I recall. They did not suffer any nonsense from the younger girls. They would clip our ears as we walked past, or hit out at us. Some of these girls had been in the home for as long as they could recall. There was a family of three girls who lived in the home with their mother. I am not sure how this came to be. Then there were the girls who were sent to the home for various so-called crimes — the fallen, the wretched, and the shamed. I have to say that I can’t recall any bad girls at the home. Rather, as I see it, their behavior was the product of being institutionalized. Of course, I did not know any of this then, and I saw myself as bad, and without worth or entitlement.
I have never really recovered from my years of living in Mount Saint Canice. I lived in fear of being locked up again, and maybe, at some levels, I still do. After leaving the home, I went on to make some extremely poor life choices. I was unhappy for most of my life, suffering from profound depression and anxiety. It was not until I was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in therapy in my late fifties that I began to think and feel like I could actually control my own life. To this day, I believe that someone should be accountable for the tragic occurrences that I witnessed and underwent at that time. When I recall these incidents, I do not believe that any apology given by the government is of any value at for me.
I enjoy a good quality of life now, but I know many women who suffered the same fate in these homes. These women have not been able to lead happy or productive lives. I can only hope that my story will serve to remind people what can happen when children are not cared for or shown the respect and love that they need.
As a child, were you required to fulfil cleaning duties in your institution? The National Museum wishes to draw attention to this work in it pending exhibition Inside: Life in Children’s Homes. Can you help?
We are interested in learning, from former residents of Children’s Homes, about what cleaning products or objects you cleaned with.
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by Rachael Romero (guest author) on 16 February, 2011
Rachael Romero remembers those women, admitted as children, to the Convent of the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, ‘The Pines’, Plympton, who had stayed on in the institution well into their adulthood. Why didn’t they leave? What became of them?
Gaylis copyright Rachael Romero, 1973
Gaylis was a ‘lifer’, a sweet-hearted person left there by her family. She was made to slave in the kitchen with no idea how to be the cook, but she did her best.
I still remember the chunks of lard and the bubbles of powdery flour that had not been stirred together sufficiently before baking a crust for that terrible gravy pie with junks of leathery kidneys swimming in it. I want to retch.
Having once seen ‘Little Jo’ on Bonanza, Gaylis was forever besotted with him – it was all she spoke of. Oh Gaylis what became of you when the place closed and the nuns fled? Slaving was all you knew.
There was also a woman with Downs Syndrome who folded hankies in that thunderous laundry. She waited on a Sunday with her handbag for someone to take her out. No one ever did.