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Racial Folly: A twentieth-century Aboriginal family

Chapter 4

Pembroke Street to St Francis House, 1946 to 1949

My mother, brother Bill and I left Balaklava sometime around late October of 1945. She took me to Father Smith’s home for boys of mixed Aboriginal descent at Pembroke Street Kensington Gardens, Adelaide. My mother did this in the belief that education in a white urban setting would give me far better opportunities in life than she could offer me in Victor Harbour or Alice Springs. Hope existed in abundance on many fronts as the wars around the world were coming to an end. Father Smith had moved six boys from St John’s Hostel in Alice Springs to Kensington Gardens and requested financial support to care for them from governments and the Anglican Church. This hope of financial support was some years in the making, and so the dream became more and more difficult to realise. I recall the tensions later at St Francis House. As time went by Father Smith was forced to fall back on charity to support the home; the practical side of theory now faced failure. On the other side of town in Kensington Gardens, St Peter’s College stood as one model of education while Ethelton School in the working class suburb of Port Adelaide loomed as the alternative prospect.

Our mothers were never involved in the process of choosing what quality of education Father Smith would provide for us. In the end a public school was chosen because of the level of charity that Father Smith was able to muster. Although the Adelaide Anglican parishioners rallied, the amounts raised were still insufficient to realise Father Smith’s hopes. In the short term accommodation was found, but the dreams of long term upkeep and an excellent education were already beginning to fade.

A Miss Murphy owned two houses in Pembroke Street; one was her home and the other was a disused private hospital. Miss Murphy was a nurse who had in earlier times worked with local general practitioners in the private hospital but after the practice failed she was left with an empty house. Miss Murphy was a charitable woman and loaned the property rent free to the Church. Father Smith looked forward to the boys being educated and socialised successfully at nearby Marryatville School but even in the early days that vision was beginning to falter. Father Smith’s health was not robust and he was also anxious as to whether his wife could cope as a house mother to the growing number of children he now cared for. Mrs Isabel Smith, his new wife, was a refined lady who taught piano with methods more appropriate to upper class rather than working class students. But nevertheless, Father Smith went ahead and was soon in discussions with both state and federal governments for financial support while at the same time searching for a permanent home for the now seven boys in his care, and prospects for an increase. In 1946 he found a large unused mansion called Glanville Hall in an isolated location close to Semaphore beach, with a large attachment of land that would be perfect for the new hostel. However, this was all in front of him as I settled into Kensington Gardens and Marryatville School with the other boys.

I remember leaving the aliens’ camp and being left by my mother to make up the seventh child at Father Smith’s boys’ home. I also remember being very upset, crying and being consoled by Mrs Smith. There were two women in the house, Mrs Smith and her mother Mrs Almond. I suppose I warmed to the women but was never greatly attached to them as they drifted in and out of my life. The other boys were a different matter. I remember some from the Bungalow such as Charlie, David Woodford and Peter Tilmouth but I had no memory of John Palmer, Bill Espie or Malcolm Cooper. Nevertheless I soon familiarised myself with them over the next day or so. They were in order of age, John Palmer, Bill Espie, Malcolm Cooper, Charlie Perkins, Peter Tilmouth and David Woodford. Because these boys knew me as a baby at the Bungalow they immediately called me ‘Nicky’ the name my mother had always called me. As soon as Father Smith heard the boys calling me this name he scolded them and ordered that I was to be called Gordon, the name on my birth certificate but one that I was totally unfamiliar with. Later, however, belligerent boys changed my name first to Brugget, and then to Biggo as we grew older. A nickname many still use.

I only saw my mother a couple of times in those first few years from 1945 to 1948. In my new home in Kensington Gardens and with my new name I walked to the Marryatville kindergarten and public school. I did this with the other boys and soon got used to the routine of going to school, but learnt little. The bad start I had at Kirribilli and Mulgoa continued at the Marryatville School. One problem was that I had never really been used to wearing shoes and I was always getting scolded for tossing them in the canals I passed on the way to and from home. Kensington Gardens is in the Adelaide foothills and had the many run-off streams that came from the higher ground. The canals were used by us to play in during the dry weather and provided short cuts to school – a shorter way to and from Pembroke Street – where I learned to play with, and kick, a football.

On the first Sunday at Kensington Gardens I began going to church and Sunday school. This custom turned into a weekly ritual that was immutable. The weekly kindergarten classes became a problem because I could not read well. I preferred to be distracted by the girls of my own age at school rather than learning to read, write and count. I had great difficulty in moving up from grade one to two. It must have taken me from 1944 to 1948 to complete grade one. I don’t think I ever graduated from kindergarten at Kirribilli or grade one at Marryatville because Christmas always came upon me before I had mastered grade one lessons.

My eyesight was very good and I was reasonably articulate. I could, I remember, tell the class about walking up the foothills of the Mount Lofty Ranges with the other older boys from the home. I would tell my class stories about walking up the drains to Waterfall Gulley, carrying our galvanised iron sheets as toboggans to slide down the steep hill-sides on Saturday afternoons. I was careful in the grape season not to tell them about stealing grapes from Hardies’ wineries on our way to and from the gully. Drawing was another of my preoccupations. I would draw gum trees, desert and acacia trees (Kalka in my mother’s language). Other boys from the home such as John Palmer could reproduce Albert Namatjira style paintings and he would tell me about the Kalka. He would tell me about the Kalka nuts that his mother would make into necklaces for her many sisters. John’s mother was a sister to my mother and we were very close to each other in the half-caste institution. John drew me to him in two ways. First he and Malcolm Cooper were good boxers and, second, both were really good footballers. Soon after settling down they taught me how to box and kick the footy.

There was no real call for me to learn how to box. I cannot recall being threatened, bullied or discriminated against by white people during my time in kindergarten at Marryatville, but the strains of living with the new boys prompted some self-protection. I think the reason behind learning to box was that I was just fascinated by John Palmer and because I was the youngest I was sometimes bullied by boys in the house. I know I was never protected in these public confrontations by either Mrs or Father Smith. The oldest boys, I thought, often took advantage of me by giving me jobs like collecting the hens’ eggs, washing the bath tub and because I often threw my shoes away or wet the bed, they took every opportunity to tell tales on me, which made me angry. I did get some relief by befriending John Palmer, whom I thought of as a protector.

Nevertheless, I can recall fighting at Mulgoa and I carried the fascination forward. The older boys rigged up a punching bag in the back yard where they taught me how to punch, evade a blow and learn to skip. All this came in handy when Brian Butler was added to our numbers because we were made to fight each other. I cannot recall any malice, or intent, about fighting each other; it was mostly because we were the same age. Most of the boys were much older than me; their ages ranged from about ten and 11 to 14. I was seven going on eight and the only relief I got from the taunts of the older boys was when Brian Butler came or I went to stay next door with Miss Murphy. Brian Butler was the oldest son of a white contractor from Alice Springs. Brian’s Aboriginal mother became very sick and was unable to care for him until she was cured, possibly of tuberculosis. With the arrival of Brian I occasionally stayed elsewhere – usually next door with Miss Murphy. I enjoyed this because she kindly allowed me to have toast with honey and fresh cream on top for breakfast, a rare treat. As time passed I became much more settled and happier; at the same time becoming closer to the older boys.

It was during this period of stagnated learning at school that I developed a passion for Australian Rules football. I learnt my skills in Kensington Park; it took a lot of practice but it provided me with some relief from the madness of continually doing what I was told. On most winter weekends the older boys and I would head up to Kensington Park to kick the footy and during the summer we would take the cricket bat and ball to the same park. Cricket was Father Smith’s favourite sport and he had the skills to go with it. Being a Freemason, I realised much later, he had friends in high places; some were members of the South Australian Cricket Club, which meant that we were often taken to see Test matches from the members stand.

While at Pembroke Street we would often go via the back streets past the Kensington Oval to where Don Bradman lived while he played cricket for Norwood. We had to pass Bradman’s house and Father Smith would tell us about how Bradman played for Australia and he himself played cricket in Brisbane for his church school. Father Smith’s keenness on cricket spilled over into teaching, and it was he who coached us on the finer points of batting and bowling. These skills meant that as we got older we were always picked to play for the school as well as making up our own teams.

Although Brian Butler was not a cricket star his presence enabled me to have a reprieve from the stress of coping with the older boys because I had an ally. But the reprieve was short lived as his mother’s health improved and the family moved to Port Augusta so I was again left to contend with the older boys. By this time the Japanese War had ended and we attended the celebrations in Hindley Street. The rejoicings began with dancing in the streets followed by fireworks displays. Everybody got dressed up and I was decked out in a brand new grey woollen suit, long woollen socks, and a brand new pair of black shoes. Then, on the day of revelry, we went by tram from Marryatville shops into the City where thousands of people headed towards Hindley and Rundle Streets. All the buses were packed with people. In the City we saw, and joined, large crowds singing and dancing the whole day through. We then went on to King William Street, after watching the football at Adelaide Oval, and sat in the gardens surrounding Government House as night fell, overlooking the River Torrens. All this was new to me, but the euphoria came and went and so did the big boys.

Father Smith earned extra money by taking on relieving jobs in other parishes as one way to keep his family and to pay urgent bills. I would travel with him in a borrowed car, normally the Bath’s Chevrolet, to country towns as far north as Clare in the Barossa Valley, east to Mannum and Kan-Man-Too, near Murray Bridge and south to Narellan and Blackwood. Father would teach me how to serve communion and treated me like the son he did not yet have. In his relieving jobs in Adelaide I would both serve and sing in the choir. When I was as young as seven or eight he would dress me up in either a red or black cassock well before I could read either the common prayer or hymn books. We would go with the other boys to Unley Church, where we would attend the harvest festivals and then collect boxes and boxes of food gifts. We would all go to the church at Kensington Gardens and other places of worship in Adelaide itself. Father Smith would often go and assist with the communion services at the Goodwood church and it attracted me for two reasons. After church they had no Sunday school but had a great breakfast of scrambled eggs, a breakfast I always liked.

Father Smith allowed the boys to attend a nearby gymnasium every Friday evening during our time at Pembroke Street. There we were taught to use the monkey bars, roll on the mats, and swing from the parallel bars, together with more boxing and an exercise regime. The gym was about two kilometres from our home in Pembroke Street and we had two regular customs while going back and forth. One was to steal fruit in season from people’s back yards and the other was to run along the tops of the highly manicured and closely-knit cypress hedges. These hedges were strange to us; we had never seen their like before. Most of the boys would run along the tops of these hedges, but occasionally a boy would disappear! We could never work it out until we were much older, how we could walk on top of them and why nobody was ever seriously injured.

Sunday school at the Kensington Gardens Anglican Church, however, was something of an event for there was nothing more significant in our lives than people telling us how different we were. These Sunday school gatherings were where we sang the same old Mulgoa hymns. From memory they were ‘Bringing in the sheaves’ and ‘Jesus wants me for a sunbeam’. The hymns were played and the stories reinvented, punctuated by games such as ‘put the match box on peoples’ noses. For the white children with their sharp pointy noses it was an easy task but for us half-castes with our broader noses it was impossible. I remember the first time the white children and the Sunday school teachers yelled out ‘you’ve got no nose’. We never forgot the embarrassment of being singled out.

As Christmas approached the bigger boys started to get excited about the long trip to Alice Spring. It was time too to acknowledge that at seven years of age the idea of Alice Springs being my home meant little to me. At the time my mother was still working at the Victor Harbour repatriation hospital and so it was seen as unnecessary for me to return to the Northern Territory. I was now the only boy left at the home. This first Christmas with the Smiths was a memorable one. Not just because it was the first one that I was conscious of but because I met the Bath family who really touched me. The Baths were a Christian family who attended the Goodwood Anglican Church and had befriended Father and Mrs Smith. The Baths had grown-up children and were, I guess, in their late 50s or early 60s. Mr Bath, I think, was a lawyer-banker and Mrs Bath was a housewife. Looking back, they were either wealthy or socially comfortable as the saying goes.

Father Smith would sometimes leave me with the Baths, and I liked that. There was nothing that I can in hindsight put my finger on but I liked them and I always felt safe with them. I don’t think I was fully comfortable with Mrs Smith or her mother, probably because my manners were rough and ready. Besides I was not their child and came to them too late for them to change some of the ‘bad’ habits together with strange things my mother and Mulgoa had taught me. The tension was always high between me and the two women. Nevertheless, I recall I did take to Father Smith and the looming Christmas of 1946 eased some of the tensions.

At Christmas time I listened to stories about how Santa Claus would come down the chimney and fill my pillowcase full of toys, fruit and presents. I imagined I saw him in the dark as he moved across the room to attend to my stocking. Christmas Day turned out to be an exciting day and I received a big toy top, the first one I had ever had. True to the Smith’s stories Santa left quite a lot of presents and other nice things. Soon after New Year, because I was the only boy left, I went to stay at Mrs Smith’s brother’s house on Semaphore Road, Semaphore. This was only the second time I remember going to the beach. The first time was at Collaroy, a northern Sydney beach in about 1943. There I recall the large expanse of water and being swamped by a big wave, nearly getting drowned in the process. Later I learned to swim at Mulgoa and because Semaphore was a very calm beach, I took to the water with gusto. The Almonds, Jean and Jack had a daughter Judith who was about two years older than I was. Judith along with a friend looked after me for the Christmas holidays. We swam most days from early morning until dusk and later returned after our evening meal to attend the sideshow and revolving swings in the fun fair on the foreshore.

This location was significant because it was close to where I would be living for the next ten or 11 years. One day Father Smith called and collected the whole family and me from the Semaphore address. We travelled about five kilometres south along Military Road to a big old mansion called Glanville Hall. The house looked like an English castle with a big tower on the southern end. I learned much later that the tower was built and designed by a Captain Hart, the original owner, so that he could peer across the sand hills to check if his cargo vessels had arrived from other parts of the world, particularly England.[1] The place had 15 rooms including a large lounge and dining room, a very big study and a ballroom attached to a common room or library. There was an annex which stood as a kitchen and serving room and a large courtyard complete with stables, with workshops as well as gardens at the rear. To Father Smith the place was perfect but in need of some repairs. The Australian Board of Missions and the Territory Native Welfare had to approve the project as well as put up some of the money for the repairs.

While this searching and purchasing was in full flight the issue of post-war development was talked about around meals at Pembroke Street. One point that caught my ear that I have never forgotten was the British testing on the rocket range, cutting through Pitcha Pitcha Lands. Early in 1947 Dr Charles Duguid, a friend of Father Smith’s, spoke to him about the Australian Board of Missions getting involved in protests that were soon to take place in Melbourne, Adelaide and other places. Duguid asked Father Smith if he would help to organise the Adelaide protest at the Willard Hall in the City on 31 March 1947 and at a later date at the Adelaide Town Hall. That day sticks in my mind because Father Smith rounded up all the boys to attend the protest meeting. I heard Father Smith talking about the tests when Prime Minister Chifley announced the British-Australian compact in 1946. The project angered Father Smith and Dr Duguid and I overheard other prominent persons’ names mentioned, such as Elkin, Thomson and Strehlow.

The newspapers were full of how Elkin (Professor of Anthropology at the University of Sydney) had betrayed Aborigines by helping government to steal Aboriginal lands. I think I wrote to my mother who was in Victor Harbour asking her if her mother was affected and I asked Father Smith if my grandmother could stay with us. Later it came to me that following Chifley’s statement, an Aboriginal man called Bill Ferguson could be heard on the wireless protesting about the infringement by the British and Australian governments in taking Aboriginal land for rocket testing. Again I thought of my grandmother but Father talked not about poor Aborigines but the poor Church and nothing more happened as the purchase of Glanville Hall at Semaphore took-over the table-talk.

In mid-1947 Father Smith put the proposition to the Church and the Commonwealth government that they buy the property. This project could only be realised, Father said, if the Commonwealth broadened the welfare program it had adopted to include half-castes. Failure was not something that Father accepted and he was bullish even in the face of difficulty which at the time I thought was worrying. In any event, eventual agreement between the South Australian Education Department and the Australian Board of Missions allowed Father Smith to commence his project. So, late in 1947 plans for funds to run the project went forward and during the Christmas break of 1947-48, the Smith family moved into Glanville Hall. Looking around the property it was evident that a number of repairs had to occur; some of the windows had to be replaced, the front area needed attention and a whole new shower and bath area had to be added, along with a hot water system. One final addition was that a small two room apartment located in a building across the other side of the courtyard, that we called the gymnasium, was to be renovated for a cook and family.

Looking at the purchase over the years the deal was a messy one. In hindsight the process never looked or sounded real but the prevailing thought was that somehow we would soon move. In any event, the grounds and buildings of what was to become known as the House, were purchased by the Australian Board of Missions in late 1947, the purpose being to conduct a home for the education of ‘part Aboriginal boys’ from the Northern Territory. The Mission body was not able to find the total asking price of the land, so the Commonwealth government asked the South Australian Department of Education to pay the balance as well as about $1,600 in cash for repairs in return for a swap of other lands. A proposed road was closed, which gave more land to Glanville Hall. This made a total area of about 13 acres, allowing the sale to be completed for occupation by 1948. The cumbersome nature of the sale balanced around what the Church wanted and what the government needed. The Church wanted a trouble-free transfer of the land whereas the government and the local council were unable to say what their interests were and made the sale drag on until 1953.

The renovations and occupation of the newly named St Francis House went ahead. There was an addition of bathrooms, complete with a coke-fired boiler for hot water throughout, two additional rooms together with a bathroom and toilet for staff, and renovations to a small flat for the cook, Mrs Jean Almond (Jingle, as she was known). The dates of these events are vague in my mind but Jingle Almond, Jim and their daughter, Judith Almond (a young girl of about ten years of age) moved in. Of course Judith captured the attention of the older boys, but the real division between her and us was that our destiny was working class schools and the factory while the cook’s daughter’s was towards high school and the professions.

The Bishop of Carpentaria descended upon us for ceremonies to rename Glanville Hall as St Francis House. The bigger boys at the house had already been prepared for confirmation and the Bishop performed the confirmation ceremony at St Paul’s Church, Port Adelaide. At the House the boys made a special road for the Bishop to drive his limousine along when he came onto the property for the official renaming ceremony. The new name was chosen by Father Smith. The choice was based on the personal nature of St Francis who was a man of humility and compassion. He humbly accepted his life of poverty, renouncing all his worldly goods and that was the philosophy he preached. His compassion also extended to animals, in particular, the weak and sick. Father and I built a bird bath that could be observed from his study, the structure of which made him very proud. I was also proud and had grown close to Father and more or less had accepted him as a father figure. Still, I could not understand our poverty, the rigour of religious education as well as that of public education, most of which went over my head.

In February the older boys returned from their Alice Springs holiday, with some of their relatives in tow. Soon, 11 more boys from Mulgoa arrived, including three from Alice Springs, Ernie Perkins, Richard Bray and Max Wilson. Ernie Perkins was Charlie’s younger brother; Richard was Lawrie Bray’s younger brother and Charlie’s first cousin. Later, Lawrie became a great painter and Richard a talented Port Adelaide footballer. Finally the last boy, Max Wilson, was related to Robert Quartermaine, or as many knew him, Robert Tudawalla. There were some adjustments, mainly in our younger age group, as the pushing and shoving transformed into lifetime friendships, both social and political. One custom that simply came out of left field was that we always either shortened boys’ names or completely emasculated people’s names. I suppose this name-changing custom comes from deep within Aboriginal customs, but it also came from that belligerence to authority where a lack of confidence turns officialdom into informality. Many of these boys became men of consequence while others became tragic figures.

I became close to Charlie Perkins, Gerry Hill, John Moriarty and Vince Copley all of whom I have retained a lifelong connection with. I’ll speak here about Vince who was born at Point Pearce sometime in the late 1930s. This Aboriginal government reserve was on the York Peninsula, some 120 kilometres from Adelaide. Its sister reserve was Point McLeay on Lake Alexandrina, which is adjacent to Hindmarsh Island at the mouth of the River Murray, where many of the people are related to Vince by tradition and blood. Initially, Vincent Warrior Copley grew up in South Australia but when his mother became ill with tuberculosis he went to live with his sister Winnie and David Branson in Alice Springs for a short period of time. But Winnie had her own family to care for and Father Smith agreed to take Vince. The Commonwealth had a say in fitting children like Vince and Brian Butler into care because the tuberculosis campaign was one of their programs.

Cop, or Fat Tarzan, as we called him, had an elder brother who died very young, and two surviving sisters Winnie Branson and Josie Agius. Josie married a great league footballer, Freddie Agius, and he played for West Adelaide, the team I followed. Although Winnie died young, she was instrumental in establishing the forward movement of the 1967 referendum and was significant later in national Aboriginal politics. I never knew until many years later, in fact not until 1988 when I was studying for my Master of Arts that Winnie’s husband David Branson was of Marduntjara descent and had met Winnie when she lived in Alice Springs. Winnie knew my mother Eileen well; they both had worked together in the laundry at the Victor Harbour Repatriation Hospital located about 80 kilometres south of Adelaide.

During the following two years a number of significant events in my life occurred. The first was, I recall, that Peter Tilmouth, David Woodford and Charlie Perkins brought spears and boomerangs back from Alice Springs, things I could not recall seeing before. I was probably too young to remember bush relatives living close to the Native Institution in Alice Springs and using such implements to gather food. Peter, David and Charlie collected these hunting implements from Napperby and Bond Springs Stations where they spent the holidays. Their bush relatives lived in the stock camps at these stations.

St Francis House was about 500 metres from the Semaphore South beach and in those days it was largely deserted except for the mornings when horse trainers like the Hayes and Cummins families swam their horses. I remember the boys took their weapons to the beach, with me tagging along, and spent a lot of time throwing them. They began by attaching a Kularta (a throwing stick in Mardu) to the end of the spear and then throwing the spear an amazing distance; much further than without this implement. They taught me how to operate these two weapons together and I gradually became quite skilled. These beaches tended to have a build-up of seaweed and on the open sandy area we would build heaps of seaweed and have competitions at spearing these heaps. Soon however, it was time to go back to school but these were lasting memories.

The second major event at that time was buying new clothes at Semaphore the week before school started. The shoe shop was a place I had been to before but never with so many boys. The whole exercise took about two hours and all the shoes bought had leather soles. The boys going to Technical School had boots and the younger ones, including me, had shoes. I was sent two pairs of socks by my mother; the only time I received a present from her. By now my mother had married and was now Eileen Wickman. She and Reg Wickman her new husband moved to Alice Springs. The upshot of this was that the socks and trousers Eileen sent had to last for a very long time, at least two years. The socks were mended a couple of times and, in the end, the trousers had patches on both sides, like a pair of eyes in the seat of my pants.

It was likely that Father Smith was spending money he hoped to recoup from fundraising or from a less parsimonious Commonwealth regime. By this time the Chifley Labor government had introduced a new interpretation into the Social Services Act 1941 (Cth) stating that Aborigines of mixed descent were ‘non-nomadic’. Following this interpretation Aborigines of mixed descent began receiving social security payments such as child endowment and pensions. This subsidy enabled some mothers to pay the child endowment directly to Father Smith to buy school clothing, other needs and extras such as a train fare home to Alice Springs in the holidays. In any event we all got new clothes, but new clothes could not save us from what was to come in that our heritage was gradually whittled away.

The third event of significance occurred the day we turned up to begin our lessons at the Ethelton Primary School in the summer 1948. Everyone at St Francis House was up early in anticipation of attending the new school. Publicity about the new school attendees appeared in the daily press and some local bigots and parents were alerted to what the Church, or should I say Father Smith, was planning. Assimilation policies argued by the Commonwealth and ideas about altruism and ‘race’ were a common feature in newspapers. Father Smith favoured the notion that equality would emerge, not from ideologies drawn from legislation such as ‘by reason of character … intelligence and social development’, as espoused in the 1941 legislation, but through social mechanisms and ‘on trust’.

Whatever the case, all ideas were put to the test when we fronted up on our first day to Ethelton Primary School in the Port Adelaide district. Father Smith came with us and we marched as a group from St Francis House to the new school to be confronted by a howling throng of white mothers, fathers, and adolescent boys and girls barring our way in through the school’s front gate. Father Smith was no man of force or violence; he left us some distance from the gate and passed with some difficulty and shouts of abuse through to the Head Master’s room. The Head Master came out and addressed the 60-odd protesters and indicated that he would call the police if there was any attempt to stop these Aboriginal children from walking through the gate to be registered at the school. He had no illusions about forcing order; but Father Smith always sided with the boys’ view when they had a couple of fights in the yard to settle their differences. Most Australians at the time probably accepted that the barriers to racial discrimination were social rather than legal. Father Smith tended to ‘forgive’ rather than rely on the ‘rule of law’ to control prejudice.

At the same time Mulgoa, the Anglican refuge in New South Wales, where we had been evacuated during the early war years, was in turmoil. The Church removed these people at the beck and call of the Military but ultimately failed them by not reuniting them with their people. The Church was driven to proselytising and tended to forget what the original purposes or commitments were to these refugees from the Japanese War. By the time hostilities ended some of the half-castes had returned to the Territory, but others remained in Mulgoa as refugees and had even become parishioners of St Thomas at Mulgoa! It may be argued that these Aborigines were happy to accept that the Christians were good people who protected and fed them when nobody else did, but the Church ultimately denied the rights of simple people and we still await entitlements of reparation in many ways!

The Church argued their educational ideas were more important than sending half-caste Aborigines back to their homes. Protestors accused the Church of denying this group their civil rights. Others argued that assimilation had already occurred, and that the children should be allowed to finish their schooling, allowing assimilation to further take its course. John Smith gives a spirited defence of the Church in his father’s biography. However, John’s work goes no further than accepting the Church’s role in the assimilation process as fostering its own self interest. I am unaware of any action the Church took to protect people’s heritage, to protect their human rights, their land rights or offer them compensation from the Anglican’s stock of property wealth. The Anglican Church therefore still has much to answer for these events. There were older half-caste people who should have been repatriated and were never truly given the care for which they were promised and entitled. John Smith argues that the Church was in a no-win situation and it took time to resolve the complex issues. It was deemed that the only way out was to close Mulgoa in New South Wales and send the young boys to St Francis House to finish their schooling under Father Smith’s guidance; and that is what they did. The girls were sent to St Mary’s Hostel in Alice Springs. The Japanese War had affected many Aborigines, whose lives were never the same. White Australian people once more were more interested in revelling in their own windfall. The returned soldiers became Menzies cowboys –those who voted him in and later controlled the ex-service clubs and other conservative institutions – and in general despised Aborigines in any form!

In my case, my family was still reeling from the after-shock of the Japanese War. In 1947 Eileen and Reg’s son Dennis was born at Victor Harbour. My mother was impetuous and was falling into situations from which she could never extricate herself. Many of her difficulties in life stemmed from her own upbringing, and while she had skills she could give to those who employed her, she lacked either commonsense or any idea of planning. I went to Victor Harbour in the winter of 1948 to meet Reg and to meet my brother Dennis for the first time. I never saw my mother, Reg, Dennis or Bill again until the summer holidays of 1950-51. I should mention here that as an adult Bill went on to serve in the Royal Australian Navy as a stoker for six years; including active service in Vietnam. I later speculated about the reasons why I had not seen my mother for such a long time. I thought that the assimilation policies of the Menzies government were one reason. As children of Aboriginal descent we would occasionally hear news on the radio about how the Commonwealth had reintroduced what they called the ‘New Assimilation Policy’ for Aborigines across Australia, which somehow were policies that affected us, our ‘welfare’ and education. Father Smith always pointed to the fact that we were ‘wards’ from the Northern Territory and the Anglican Church and Commonwealth government were responsible for us. We knew from our mothers that they had been affected by wartime employment and were paid less than white labour. I also knew from my family’s internment at Balaklava that ‘assimilation’ meant that white people expected us to be like them: but we always knew we were not, and they made sure we were different!

The contradictory ideas about our relative importance and place in the world often perplexed us. Father Smith appeared in many ways to hold attitudes and values that were fair and reasonable to us, yet on the other hand he appeared more nationalist than others. For example, fund-raising was an activity we were always involved in. The staff and the boys were involved in raising money to contribute to the upkeep of the House twice a year. On one occasion we had a public exhibition night and our role was threefold: to perform a play called ‘William Tell’ as well as a gymnastic display; to help in running a ‘fete’ and finally to sell theatre tickets for a St Francis House benefit fundraising night. Almost every time these occasions arose the boys would get highly embarrassed. On the one level we performed the rituals expected of us in the general community such as singing the national anthem ‘God Save the King’, and after our play ‘William Tell’ had been performed we would lustily sing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. But we knew we were different in that we were always hungry, suffered the continual embarrassment of having holes in our socks and patches not only in our school shorts but also in our Sunday best. And to top it off, on many occasions we barely raised any money at all.

But for all the downsides we remained a close-knit group at the House, especially from outside attacks. When this happened we would close ranks, but there also were bitter short and long-lasting disputes among the boys. Let me tell you about outside conflicts. Most of us at the House had our own shanghai and we would go to the sand hills that stretched from the Glanville Fort to Escort House in the Grange. This was an expansive area of sand hills and we tended to fight anyone who encroached on our patch. One day the Port Adelaide boys led by the Wright brothers, Freddy and Jimmy, attacked us with sticks and bottles. A very dangerous business and we retaliated with our shanghais. We made our ‘dingers’ (as we called them) out of truck tyre inner tubes that were heavy-duty rubber that could shoot a stone a very long distance. All of the boys were rounded up and off we went to the sand-hills as a group to defend our patch. I did not see the Wright brothers for about two years after that incident in mid-1949.

The inside squabbles were both short and long-lasting. The first group to come from Pembroke Street in 1947-48, the older boys – John Palmer, Bill Espie and Malcolm Cooper – had the wood on the younger boys because they could fight. Charlie Perkins and Lawrie Bray, who were first cousins, made up one tight group and depending on the issue and conflict would support each other. Then Vince Copley became a close friend of Lawrie Bray and would get caught up in any fights. Because I was much younger, I tended to be matched with boys of my own age like Ernie Perkins and his cousin, Richard Bray. The younger boys closer to my age had problems for one reason or another especially those who had came into the House at different times. On the whole, however, fights were few and far between and the general conditions at the House tended to send any real animosity among the boys, deep underground.

As I mentioned before, we could not escape nicknames at the House. Peter Tilmouth got his name ‘Truck’ because he worked each Saturday on a vegetable truck. When the Mulgoa boys arrived to join us in 1948, Jim Foster chose the name Truck; and it stuck. Jim Foster’s nickname was ‘Frog’ which came with him from Mulgoa. Some of these older boys carried their biases with them and this was the case with Charlie and Truck. On one particularly fine Saturday morning in early 1949 Truck had given up his vegetable run and was working side by side with Charlie on a job near the cow shed at the rear of the House. Wally MacArthur was in charge of the work group. All of a sudden a dispute broke out and Charlie swung a full-blooded punch at Truck and hit him on the cheek cutting him below the right eye. As previously mentioned these kinds of disputes tended to divide along age and family lines; Truck was a friend of John Palmer, which meant that David Woodford immediately became involved. The argument Charlie had with Truck was over the roster duties; Charlie had long standing soccer commitments and Truck had changed them to suit himself. But these conflicts have to be understood in relation to families because they could and did affect dormitory sleeping arrangements, rosters, sport and other social relationships.

Other recollections involved room allocations of younger boys. It appeared to the smaller kids that when they moved into St Francis House that they were at a disadvantage regarding sleeping arrangements. The older boys occupied what must have been the original servants’ quarters while the younger boys were allocated the original stable hands’ quarters. As one of the youngest boys, I had one of the first choices of rooms; largely because I had moved in before the rest of the boys came back from Alice Springs in the summer of 1947-48.

Anyway, when the boys returned to St Francis House Vince Copley and Charlie’s brother, Ernie Perkins, had the other two rooms upstairs in the southern wing, while Lawrie Bray and David Woodford had the last room on the south wing. David Woodford’s mother, Millie, married Lawrie Bray’s brother Norman Bray. Millie was a full sister both to Peter Tilmouth’s mother Tilly Tilmouth and to the deceased May Hill, Gerry Hill’s mother. Only in hindsight do I look back and ask the question: Why did I not know these relationships when I was young? We were kept in the dark and discouraged from knowing more about our Alice Springs relatives. The inference was that our future was with the white world.

In many ways it was the layout of the House that caused tensions too. Access to the bedrooms meant coming up the stairs that led to the tower through an annex to our three rooms. To get to the older boys’ rooms you had to go past the pantry, which was in the main thoroughfare of the house, through the servery and up a flight of stairs. Other ways were either over the roof or by way of the fire escapes. We would use these pathways when raiding the pantry. The area around the pantry was like a honey-pot to the boys and many of us ended up in trouble for stealing things from it. Father Smith and family took the big forward rooms while the handyman, house and kitchen staff had rooms along the main corridor. Some of the cleaning staff of the House had been recruited from ‘New Australian’ migrant refugee camps in Europe, people outside called these workers ‘Balts’, a pejorative term I always thought was cruel. As a young boy I saw these people of Latvian and Estonian descent suffering much the same indignities as us. In the meantime, Jim and Jingle Almond came to live permanently at the House in 1948, while their flat in the gym building was renovated. Jim Almond never did take up his position as handyman because while waiting he took a job as a machinist at General Motor’s Holden at Croydon, and while there, he lost his fingers in a machine accident. All these pressures added to the process of settling in and, as John Smith points out, his father was never a well man. We were never privy to the nature of his poor health, but he was wilting under the pressure to bring more boys down from the north.

By the time I was ten, in November 1948, I was acutely aware of the ‘rigid controls’ others in society had over me. News items about Aborigines made me and the boys I grew up with, sensitive to new ways the government would or could impose conditions on us. The news bulletins often contained information about how far governments would allow Aborigines to be educated, to receive full legal rights, how to behave, to enter licensed premises or even shops – where often we would be asked to leave for no other reason than the colour of our skin. These events had an impact on us and we would often hear about other Aboriginal boys who were the victims of discrimination.

News items gave white people ammunition as ‘know-alls’ to tell us what to do. As we came to know people more intimately they would reveal to us either our lack of civil liberties or our human rights, sometimes in advance of us knowing them. Fear of breaking these customary barriers or even laws, was a constant threat. When we played football we would be required to leave the training sheds immediately, similarly at swimming pools and picture theatres. On one of my mother’s rare visits to Adelaide, I recall being asked to leave the Balfour’s Cake and Coffee shop in King William Street in Adelaide. When we sat down there were still seats spare but we were nevertheless asked to leave.

Although Father Smith encouraged us to be proud of our past, the contradictions of religion and state policy played against their education theory and the relentless prejudices of white society. This was counterbalanced to some extent in that the boys were encouraged to write home on a regular basis. Writing letters meant that we did have some contact with relatives and we always hoped that this would improve our chances of school holiday breaks. On rare occasions mothers and siblings such as Bill Espie’s brother Peter would visit. Freddie Archee, who later married my relative Myra Taylor, often came to visit as did Myra and Peter Taylor. Maggie Taylor, Myra’s mother, was a close relative from Lilla Creek, so my spirits were always lifted when these visits occurred. Freddie was doing his electrician’s apprenticeship and stayed at the Presbyterian Home for Aboriginal boys at Eden Hills, with Peter Taylor and others from around South Australia. When I wrote to my mother I would mention these visits and, later in life, she would recall these occasions when we met with Maggie Taylor at the Lutheran Mission Block on Gap Road in Alice Springs.

In 1950, my mother with her new husband and two young boys, Bill and Dennis, moved back to Alice Springs. My mother and Reg were overburdened with problems such as rent, accommodation and jobs. Eileen eventually got work as a cook and domestic and Reg as a labourer around town, but neither of them had capital for housing so renting was their only prospect. In the end even their prospects for renting were so poor that St Johns Hostel for boys gave my mother one room for a husband and two babies, plus a low paying job as a cook. But the marriage was under stress which meant Eileen neither had a place for me to return to in Alice nor the money for train fares, so I stayed at the House. Once again I was at the mercy and goodwill of the superintendent of St Francis House, and stayed there for the Christmas holidays once again.

But as the years passed the dream sold to our mothers came crashing down around our ears with a bang not a whimper. The image in everyone’s mind was of an education of excellence. Father Smith’s dream in 1945 was crystal clear in the minds of everyone who read about it in the Adelaide Advertiser or heard it from Father Smith’s lips. Pembroke Street was in a bourgeois suburb of Adelaide that gave everyone involved a warm glow that success had arrived. By 1947-48 stresses began to show that assimilation was an ideology void of confidence. As the population of the House increased with new faces from Alice Springs and Mulgoa the image and the original idea was soon lost. There was a feeling that the House was being gradually transformed from a home for better education and care to an orphanage for motherless half-castes, a reform school for wayward half-caste children who were classified as ‘welfare’.

It had taken more than a decade for Father Smith to fashion his ideas on solving the ‘half-caste problem’ through education. The wartime chaos in central Australia provided him with the opportunity to apply his belief that whatever he did would resolve itself in the end by faith alone. In spite of what the effects might have on us young children, he went ahead. His vision was grounded in a lot of hope. He hoped that the boys would cope away from their families; he hoped that the Church would find the money to feed the boys and his own family; he hoped that his own family would cope with the pressure; and his final hope was to find the money to pay the staff that came to work for him. In any event, 1949 was Father Smith’s last year at the House, the year that his son John was born, the year I felt, rightly or wrongly, that he abandoned us for a new job and title: Canon the Reverend P MacD. Smith.

[1] Dunn 2004.


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