November/December 2005


During the 1950’s my mother, Mrs Sheila Barns was housemother of Nelson cottage, and my brother Roger and I lived the same life as all the other kids. My mother died whilst working at Fairbridge, on 5th August 1959, and I returned to live with relatives in England in 1960. My brother Roger remained in W.A. and still lives in Perth.


A pair of collection plates were dedicated to her memory at Fairbridge Church, I cannot remember exactly when. You will see from the above that I can lay no claim to being a bona fide Old Fairbridgian, but my memories are of one of the few places in my life where I have been truly happy. I have greatly enjoyed looking through the photos on the website, a good many nostalgic tears were shed when I found myself looking at places I well remember, including Nelson Cottage. It is unlikely that I will see Fairbridge again, for various reasons, but it is good to know that such a place was not simply allowed to fall into rack and ruin once it was no longer being used for its’ original purpose.


I am not certain, but I think we must have arrived in the early 1950’s, as the first school I went to was the one “on site”. The headmaster was called Mr Mudford, and the only two teachers I can remember were Miss Arnott and Mr Ensley. These two later married.


We first lived at Middlemore cottage, but soon moved to Nelson. I was very happy there, and remained so until the death of my mother in 1959. After this event the Fairbridge authorities were at a loss as to what should become of me, 9 months later the situation was resolved when I sailed from Fremantle on the MV Fairsea and went to live with my Mum’s sister.


To my great regret I have never been back to Australia, the nearest I have been was when I was serving in the British Army in the Persian Gulf in 1968. My memories of Fairbridge would fill a book, a lot of them are of various places on the river, mainly the old pool, Big Welly, Little Welly and Happy Valley. Of the housemothers, I remember Mrs Schokoff and her son Wally, Mrs Chard, Mrs Burns, Mrs Roberts and her two sons. I went to live at Raleigh Cottage after my mum died. which is why I remember Mrs Roberts’ name. Of the other people I remember, George Elliott of course (everyone knew George ) Mr Allen, Mr Bridges, Mr Petitt, Mr Brayne, Mr Buckee and of course Father Hodge.


Regarding the collection plates, I think they were of wood with a brass insert with my mum’s name engraved. Please don’t hold me to an exact description as my memories are becoming a little dim after 45 years. They must have been dedicated sometime between August 1959 and when I left in May 1960. I was present at the dedication, and would assume the plates are still part of the church property.


I don’t remember many of the boys’ names, chiefly Keith Wilgoss (piggy), the Whitehead brothers and Terry Savory. The latter and I were good friends, it is possible he may still remember me. Please feel free to publish any of this material wherever you wish. I should add that as I lived at Fairbridge because of my Mum’s position, it is not likely that many of the Old Fairbridgians will remember me, but there may be one or two. Sorry if I have bored you with this great long screed, I could go on forever and you did ask!. The only thing I would like to say i is that I was rather upset to see in the photos of Nelson Cottage that nothing was left of the gardens on which Mum lavished so much TLC . I suppose it was a bit unrealistic to expect them to still have been there after all this time.


The picture of the store with the old petrol pump is of particular interest to me as I once had an illegal key to the padlock which secured this pump. I also had a key to the kero pump of the same vintage, which used to stand to the right of the petrol pump. I never used either key, collecting keys was a hobby of mine when I was a boy. In the end I had so many my mum confiscated them! Incidentally, the rear of the car is definitely that of a Mk one Ford Consul/Zephyr. Mr Ensly, a teacher at the school had a Consul, so the car could easily have been his.


I remember Bill Pettit very well. Apart from running the store he was an excellent re-spoker of bike wheels. I have memories of him arriving at Nelson on his bike to take the weekly meat order from my mum.


In the swimming pool picture captioned “Staff kids, Beards and others” the boy at the rear right is almost certainly Geoff Kendal, whose mother was Sister Kendal and used to run the hospital at Nightingale in my day. Geoff and I were close friends, we used to spend holidays together on his uncle’s farm at Nannup.


In regard to the photo of the “middle” Fairbridge bus, this belonged to a man named Jones and was based in Pinjarra. He used it as a sort of school bus bringing children to school from outlying areas. I think he went as far as Mandurah on a daily basis as I knew someone who lived in Mandurah and caught the bus twice daily. Before this bus he had a much smaller very rounded Bedford bus which he used for the same job.


In the photo featuring “Tina the dog”, this was my mum’s fox terrier. I looked after her after mum’s death and she was still alive when I left, so I assume she was still living at Nelson cottage when this picture was taken.


In the photo with the boys with the corrugated iron canoes, the boy in the middle of the river is me. I know this for certain as I have the original of this photo. I had gone to a great deal of trouble in the building of that canoe, having beaten all the corrugations out with a hammer and painted it a smart shade of green. It was also named “Dreadnought”. It was carted home after every use , not sunk in the river below the pool, as so many were.


Woodchips, as well as lighting Cottage fires, had a very important function. They were used to fire the “chip heater” in the Housemother’s bathroom. this was an absolutely lethal device about 4ft tall and about 12″ across, and was crude in the extreme. It was round with a long tapering upper section, and had inside a coil of water pipe which came out at the top and pointed down the outside into the bath. When hot water was needed a fire was lit (fired with woodchips) after the water had been turned on. The water was thus heated for the bath. The dangerous part was that unless the water had been turned on first, there was a danger that the water left in the inside pipe from the previous use would turn to steam and blow the whole device to pieces! My mum once burned a £10 note while feeding the heater with the contents of her waste-paper basket – a costly mistake in those days.


Then there were cigarettes, the smoking of. I was hooked from the first drag I took, and joined in with all the other villains in obtaining supplies. When we were out of tobacco, we learned to smoke various other substances such as tea, cane from basket weaving and the silk from the tops of wild corn which grew down by the river. Occasionally we would pool resources and buy a 2 oz pouch of Champion Ruby or Blue Capstan, I think this was managed by getting one of the Pinjarra kids to buy it for us, Fairbridge faces were far too well known !


I remember George Elliott wielding the shears when it came to haircut night, but my memory has the clippers plugged into the light socket in the laundry of Nelson, not at another location.


Now then, we come to weapons. There were various devices around, the most important of theses was the “ging”. This was modelled on the “catapult ” used by Lord Snooty and Co in the Dandy, but was home-made from Jarrah, inner tube rubber and leather. It didn’t have a handle (much too sissy ), and could be carried around the neck under a t-shirt. Using small stones as ammo, gang wars against other cottages’ kids could be undertaken. Then there was the home-made bow and arrow. The bow was made in the normal way, and the arrows were of bamboo with wire wrapped around the business end to make sure the damn things came down somewhere. The “gidgi” was a home-made spear about 4ft long, made from straightened-out fencing wire with one end flattened and filed into a vicious-looking barb. These last were not for use against other kids, but were taken when going into the bush. Finally we come to the sheath knife. There weren’t too many of these around, to possess one was a sign of great wealth. They were only traded or swapped as a last resort.


It is sad to see the old swimming pool has more or less gone, I’m sure the new one is a much more hygienic thing, but somehow it doesn’t have the magic of the river. I learned to swim at the old pool.


Yours, John Barns