Bringing them Home - Jennifer story

Jennifer

My grandmother, Rebecca, was born around 1890. She lived with her tribal people, parents and relations around the Kempsey area. Rebecca was the youngest of a big family. One day some religious people came, they thought she was a pretty little girl. She was a full blood aborigine about five years old. Anyway those people took her to live with them.

Rebecca could not have been looked after too well. At the age of fourteen she gave birth to my mother Grace and later on Esther, Violet and May. She married my grandfather Laurie and at the age of twenty-three she died from TB.

Grandfather took the four girls to live with their Aunty and Uncle on their mother's side. Grandfather worked and supported the four girls.

Mum said in those days the aboriginals did not drink. She often recalled going to the river and her Uncle spearing fish and diving for cobbler. Mum had eaten kangaroo, koala bear, turtles and porcupine. She knew which berries were edible, we were shown by her how to dig for yams and how to find witchetty grubs. My mother also spoke in several aboriginal languages she knew as a small girl. The aboriginals had very strict laws and were decent people. They were kind and had respectable morals. Even though the girls fretted for their mother they felt secure with their own people.

Years later Grandfather told my mother a policeman came to his work with papers to sign. The girls were to be placed in Cootamundra Home where they would be trained to get a job when they grew up. If grandfather didn't sign the papers he would go to jail and never come out, this was around 1915.

My grandfather was told he was to take the four girls by boat to Sydney. The girls just cried and cried and the relations were wailing just like they did when Granny Rebecca had died.

In Sydney my mother and Esther were sent by coach to Cootamundra. Violet and May were sent to the babies' home at Rockdale. Grace and Esther never saw their sister Violet again. She died at Waterfall Hospital within two years from TB.

My mother was to wait twenty years before she was to see her baby sister May again.

Cootamundra in those days was very strict and cruel. The home was overcrowded. Girls were coming and going all the time. The girls were taught reading, writing and arithmetic. All the girls had to learn to scrub, launder and cook.

Mum remembered once a girl who did not move too quick. She was tied to the old bell post and belted continuously. She died that night, still tied to the post, no girl ever knew what happened to the body or where she was buried.

Aunty Esther was a big girl for her age, so she was sent out as a cook to work at twelve years of age. Mum being of smaller build was sent out as children's nurse at fourteen. She had responsibility for four young children; one only a baby for 24 hours a day. Mum said they used to put girls ages up if they were big for their age and send them out to work on properties. Some girls were belted and sexually abused by their masters and sent to the missions to have their babies. Some girls just disappeared never to be seen or heard of again.

Eventually after several years Mum was sent to Rose Bay to work. Whilst in Sydney she met her sister Esther who was working in the Chatswood area. As far as I know neither Mum or Aunt Esther ever got paid for those hard working years under the Board.

My mother often recalled the joyous time Aunty May came to Kempsey to see her sisters and father. The three young women hugged one another and cried with happiness and sadness for their sister and their mother.

Early one morning in November 1952 ...

Early one morning in November 1952 the manager from Burnt Bridge Mission came to our home with a policeman. I could hear him saying to Mum, 'I am taking the two girls and placing them in Cootamundra Home'. My father was saying, 'What right have you?'. The manager said he can do what he likes, they said my father had a bad character (I presume they said this as my father associated with Aboriginal people). They would not let us kiss our father goodbye, I will never forget the sad look on his face. He was unwell and he worked very hard all his life as a timber-cutter. That was the last time I saw my father, he died within two years after.

We were taken to the manager's house at Burnt Bridge. Next morning we were in court. I remember the judge saying, 'These girls don't look neglected to me'. The manager was saying all sorts of things. He wanted us placed in Cootamundra Home. So we were sent away not knowing that it would be five years before we came back to Kempsey again.

Mum used to write to us every week. Sometimes it would be 2 months before we received the letters, of course they were opened and read first. Sometimes parts would be torn out of the letters by matron or whoever was in charge.

Cootamundra was so different from the North Coast, it was cold and dry. I missed the tall timbers and all the time I was away there was this loneliness inside of me. I had often thought of running away but Kate was there and I was told to always look after her. I had just turned eleven and Kate was still only seven. I often think now of Cootamundra as a sad place, I think of thousands of girls who went through that home, some girls that knew what family love was and others that never knew; they were taken away as babies.

Some of the staff were cruel to the girls. Punishment was caning or belting and being locked in the box-room or the old morgue. Matron had her pets and so did some of the staff. I look back now and see we were all herded together like sheep and each had to defend themselves and if you didn't you would be picked on by somebody that didn't like you, your life would be made a misery. I cannot say from my memories Cootamundra was a happy place.

In the home on Sundays we often went to two different churches, hymns every Sunday night. The Seventh Day Adventist and Salvation Army came through the week. With all the different religions it was very confusing to find out my own personal and religious beliefs throughout my life.

My mother sent us a new outfit every change of season, we only received one parcel. The matron kept our clothes and distributed them to her pets. In winter it was icy cold and for the first time in my life I didn't have socks to wear to school.

One day the matron called me to her office.

One day the matron called me to her office. She said it was decided by the Board that Kate and myself were to go and live with a lady in a private house. The Board thought we were too 'white' for the home. We were to be used as an experiment and if everything worked out well, more girls would be sent later on.

We travelled all day long. We didn't know what place we were going to, all I knew was we were going further and further away from home. Late afternoon we stopped at this house in Narromine. There lived Mrs S., her son and at weekends her husband Lionel.

The twenty months Kate and I spent at Narromine were honestly the worst time of my childhood life. I often thought I would not survive long enough ever to see my mother again.

The Scottish woman hated me because I would not call her 'Mum'. She told everyone I was bad.

She made us stay up late sewing, knitting and darning that pillowcase full of endless socks. Often we weren't allowed to bed till after 11 p.m. I was always late for school, the headmaster used to greet me with 'Good afternoon Jennifer'. Mrs S. did not allow me to do homework, therefore my schoolwork suffered and myself - a nervous wreck.

When I was thirteen years old Mrs S. called this middle-aged male doctor to the house and said she wanted an internal examination of me. That was terribly shameful for me, I will not say anymore. During the time [with her] I was belted naked repeatedly, whenever she had the urge. She was quite mad. I had to cook, clean, attend to her customers' laundry. I was used and humiliated. The Board knew she was refused anymore white children yet they sent us there.

Near the end of our stay she got Mr F. from Dubbo to visit. She tried to have me put in Parramatta Girls' Home. By this time I knew other people had complained to the Board. Mr F. asked me if I wanted to go to a white home or back to Cootamundra. So a couple of days later we were back in the Home. It was hard to believe we had gotten away from that woman.

It wasn't long after we were back at the Home and Matron called me to her office. She wanted to know what had happened at Narromine. I told her everything. She said the experiment did not work and she would write to the Board for fear they would send more girls out. It did not do any good though because more than half the girls were fostered out over the next three years. Some of the girls were sexually abused, belted and called names by their foster parents. Of course the brainwashing continued about Aboriginals being lazy, dirty and of low intelligence going nowhere.

In December 1957 our mother finally got us home.

In December 1957 our mother finally got us home. She was the first Aboriginal to move into a Commission house. My mother died four years later, she suffered high blood pressure, she was 54 years old. It was fight all the way to survive because she was born an Aboriginal.

I still can't see why we were taken away from our home. We were not neglected, we wore nice clothes, we were not starving. Our father worked hard and provided for us and we came from a very close and loving family.

I feel our childhood has been taken away from us and it has left a big hole in our lives.

Confidential submission 437, New South Wales. Jennifer's Story appears on page 52 of Bringing them home.

Last updated 2 December 2001.