1963-1969 & 2005 by John Sumner (Tomaszewski) from Kitchener cottage

 

It is a long, but enjoyable, trip from Albany to Fairbridge to attend a re-union. It has been a much longer journey from Fairbridge to Albany over the thirty-six years since I left. My memory may not match yours, may even be incorrect, but I don’t mind – we all age – so here’s how I remember it.

 

I was an “inmate” (only joking, I was a Fairbridge kid really) from 27th May 1963 to some time in 1969, arriving during the period in which Fairbridge was only taking in children from one-parent families. My Dad had died before I was four years of age so my mum had to do whatever it took to keep us going and coming to Australia was one of those things. There must have been lots of brave mums in those days.

 

Settling In

 

Arrival at Fairbridge was much the same for many of us. Off the ship (“Fair Sky” in our case); find your possessions; watch your sister, sitting on a mountain of luggage, having her picture taken for the front page of the West Australian; get in the Principal’s car; brief tour of Perth and head south. Enter via the memorial gates, staying on the last remaining stretch of bitumen until the inevitable turn off to your assigned cottage – Belfast for my sister – Kitchener for me and my brother. A trip to the hospital to get weighed and measured; next door to Mrs Fry so you can be given your supply of clothes. Two of everything, winter kit and summer kit. Upon seeing my skinny frame, Mrs Fry remarked, ”Isn’t he thin! But don’t worry we’ll soon fatten him up.” (Those who remember Mrs Fry will be amused at her description of me) – but I tricked them and have remained somewhat skinny to this day. Following your “measuring”, your clothes were selected a couple of sizes too big so that you could grow into them. Most of us wore out the clothes before growing into them and new clothes were again, two sizes too big. We copped a laugh or two from our peers at high school over that issue. I imagine some of our peers copped a punch or two as a, “Thank you for sharing your humour with us,”

 

The next few weeks were mostly spent learning not to feel deserted (make sure you weren’t crying when someone could see you); coping with mozzie bites; toughening the soles of our feet (no shoes except on special occasions, Sundays for church and going to high school) and learning how to avoid “stubbing your toe”; and trying to adapt to a new way of life.

 

Life Goes On

 

Adapt we did and eventually we learned to enjoy our lives. There was school, cottage mothers, chores (and “task”), letters to your parents, sport, weekly movies, monthly socials (and haircuts), expeditions to the river or the hills on the farm and other distractions. Our diet must have been healthy because I don’t recall being ill, (except once when I faked a stomach pain to escape the dreaded, weekly swimming “carnival” – but that doesn’t count does it?), and there was very little restriction on where we could go in our free time – during daylight hours – so we were generally healthy and happy. Up early every day, chores, school, chores, free time, dinner at the communal dining room, homework (in the dining room if you were in high school), free time, bed – much the same every day with variations for weekends and school holidays.

 

Some silly public servant at Australia House in England had told us how wonderfully sunny it was in Australia and …”You won’t even need a rain coat!”… but Mum knew better …Thank goodness! Some of my first experiences of rain in Australia were intense. I recall it bucketing down harder than anything I had experience back in Nottingham . Anyway we still had raincoats.

 

My biggest concern, as a child, had been, “Do they have toys in Australia ?” because I had sold a magnificent Meccano set before we departed the mother country. There were many doubts about how life would be but it turned out to be more of an adventure than a worry.

 

School

 

Primary school was my first significant distraction from the initial shock of separation from Mum. I was thrust into grade five with Mr Frank Blackwell. He was a great teacher but had a tendency to take things personally so we suffered the occasional flare of temper. I always enjoyed the time when he would read stories to us while we dreamed of better things in our futures. Fairbridge Primary school was a government school but was on site as part of the farm so all the primary kids only had to walk (run) to school and between there and the main dining room for lunch. We had a dedicated choir in our primary school and one year we were invited to sing on a TV show called, “Children’s Channel Seven”. I managed to get left behind in the waiting room when our cue came, because I had gone to the toilet. After some moments of panic, that I might miss my 15 seconds of fame, I was re-united in the studio with the choir and I guess we are still on a black and white tape in an archive somewhere.

 

High school brought expanded horizons and “prep”. Prep was always after dinner and held in the main dining room. It was usually supervised by one of the primary school teachers who had quarters on the farm. In those days it was first year, second year, third year and so on. We were obliged to stay for longer amounts of time each night, as we progressed through the school years with the fourth and fifth year students being left to supervise themselves and lock up the building after the teacher reached his time limit. We generally had a further 30 minutes to an hour to ourselves. We did spend time doing homework but it was an opportune time for anyone who happened to have a romance partner in the same group. Read what you like into that but it was all very innocent as far as I remember.

 

Cottage Mothers

 

Most of these good souls must be long gone by know so there must be no harsh words here. Our cottage mother was “Aunty Gibson”, always known as “Aunty”, or “Aunty Gibby” (real name Anne Gibson) and, of course, I saw her as a barrier to my intentions but the majority of our time with her was ok. She was strict but fair and certainly taught us to fend for ourselves on the domestic front. Gibby was Scottish and believed in good solid standards of behaviour and education. She always did the chores with us and equally shared in the fun things. As I grew older I found communication more difficult with more frequent disagreements, which must be put down to adolescence, but I am sure she always meant the best for us.

 

Occasionally a cottage mother would need a holiday and we would have a relief cottage mother. These women ranged from tyrants to mothers and I remember one particularly nice lady who was either Indian or Polynesian and we all thought she was terrific. She played guitar and we had sing-songs around the lounge fire at night.

 

Chores

 

Endless rounds of chores were not too tough once you accepted that the work was always there so you might as well get on with it. Endless raking and weeding in the garden compound – as it was known. Endless cleaning of the floors. Polishing on Saturday morning with old socks wrapped and tied around our feet. I enjoyed the cooking roster. I turned out to be good at cooking eggs. I could cook an egg in just about any way another boy requested although the most common method was frying. Another boy my age was very good at porridge. We all took turns and were given jobs according to our age and ability. Riding my bike to the dairy to ride back carrying a one-gallon billy full of milk was an achievement. Chopping wood, lighting the copper fire for bath water and later the Braemar heater for the same purpose, doing small amounts of your own laundry and scrubbing the bathroom floor were just a few of the things we learned. Cleaning out the grease-trap was not a welcome chore but luckily it only came around about once a week and then it was shared around anyway.

 

On attaining the elevated status of “high school kid”, our lives shifted into a new domain. “Task” entered our lives and it had a payment attached to it. That was really exciting! We were paid one shilling into our bank account and one shilling in our hand at the end of each week. I usually spent the shilling in the shop – minus one penny for the church collection plate and one penny for the Saturday night movie. One of the “task” jobs was to help serve, stock shelves and make up orders in the shop. Mr Bill Pettit was the storekeeper and he was always very amiable. I made myself popular with the younger kids on Saturday mornings by slipping an extra lolly into their white paper bag as they parted with their pennies. Mr Pettit may have advised me that I might have to use some of my pennies to account for the shortfall in stock but I don’t recall it.

 

There were some other interesting jobs for the “task” force. Some I remember were…

 

· Washing the coke – I think it was used in the main kitchen for heating/cooking – a gruelling, filthy, suffocating procedure but we seemed to like the challenge.

 

· Gardening at the Staff Kitchen for Mrs Stevenson, the staff cook, – Adrian Benstead and I spent hours there hacking out a particularly vicious geranium infestation. One day, when I thought she was away, I was snooping around peeking through the almost continuous windows and was startled to see that she was merely having a day off and was in bed reading! A lesson learned.

 

· Working in the communal vegetable garden, down by the river, under the supervision of Mr Mihovilivich (apologies if not spelled correctly) who some referred to as “Duncle”. It was an opportunity for would be smokers to have a surreptitious fag away from the prying eyes of staff. I am thankful I was never able to handle smoking.

 

· Manning the dairy – smelly and sloppy work but still did not seem to bother those who scored that one.

 

· Working in the laundry – girls only so I don’t know much about that. I did hear a story about one of the girls being ribbed for “romantically” laying her boyfriend’s pyjamas on top of hers in the ironing press. (If this is you – own up and tell us your story!)

 

· Chopping wood at the girls’ cottages – I would think that all the boys were quite happy to do that one. I know I was.

 

Trying to outsmart the authorities (staff) was a constant game as we grew older. One such event was the attempt by myself and Adrian , during fifth year at high school, to get ourselves excluded from what we saw as excessive sport. We claimed to John Line that we needed that time for extra study so he agreed to ponder the matter. About a week later we discovered, through the school notices bulletin, we were omitted from the task roster and therefore excluded from the “pay”. We protested to Mr Line about this oversight only to be informed that we had thus been granted more time for study without having to reduce our sport time. At the time we felt betrayed but of course looking back now it was quite amusing. I hope John Line had quite a chuckle when he saw our looks of realisation though he didn’t let us know it. Another lesson learned.

 

Letters To Your Parents

 

Friday brought letter writing night. We diligently wrote to our parents. Gibby read our letters – to “check the spelling” – and returned them to us for sealing in the envelope and then gathered them up for posting. A good procedure, I suspect, to ensure that no complaints got through. It probably taught us to only tell about the good things and therefore focus on the better aspects of our lives.

 

Sport And Other Exercise

 

I never did get used to the constant, urgent need of our sports/house master (Noel Wishart) to inflict interminable exercise through sport. We had football, hockey, basketball, cricket, softball, weekly athletics carnivals and weekly swimming carnivals according to season and gender. Running with spiked shoes was the one thing I took a liking to because it was the one thing I could do with a bit of success. We were fortunate to get some tennis courts and a basketball court and I managed to develop a liking for tennis. There were occasional flash-in-the-pan schemes to help us “grow” and probably intended more to keep us occupied and therefore free from the idle hands problem that you’ve heard about. One such scheme was fitness training in the gym (now the museum in the clubhouse) which came to be known as “belly training” – you can make your own guesses as to the source of that name (chances are you’ll recognise the title and why it occurred). It was fun and did actually help our fitness but I don’t remember it going on for very long. One day John Line showed up as deputy principal or something and decided to use his army experience to give us “initiative training”. Again we went to the gym and had to solve problems like how to cross a make-believe ravine with a clubhouse bench, some rope and a team of buddies. It too was fun but didn’t last long. Most likely the constant change was to prevent mutiny.

 

There was a brief period in my Fairbridge life when I became one of the “older boys”. This might have brought some privilege but I don’t recall it as such. I probably thought it just meant extra responsibility or on-going punishment. One thing it did bring was more difficulty in accepting the way of life. Girls were more attractive than ever and the corresponding restrictive influences grew tighter. I found myself more often at logger heads with authority.

 

The most memorable change was that I became captain of my sport team in all manner of things at which I was totally inept. I captained a footy team, a cricket team and a swimming team without any trace of qualification to do so – except that I was able to make a speech after the game and I could organize little kids. It was another learning experience but I did not really deserve the role. Nevertheless I did find plenty of enjoyment in our sporting/social exchanges with Swanleigh School and I know we learned some valuable social skills.

 

The annual cross country run was an event worthy of record. There were many stories to be told and while I dreaded it I made the most of it by getting into the spirit by squelching through the muddy bits, dawdling in the river bits and pretending I had struggled to get to the finish line.

 

Movies

 

Every week, on Saturday night, we paid one penny to get into the clubhouse for a movie. Noel Wishart generally ran these sessions and we had a magnificently clattery old 16mm projector. We sat on backless, wooden benches. Girls on one side of the aisle – boys on the other. Most of the movies were ok but some were so bad that we got more entertainment from counting down the seconds to the start of the new reel. Do you remember the clock device that wiped out the number and revealed the next one? Then suddenly the next part of the movie would start. Occasionally the film would jam and overheat and we hooted at the projected scene melting into a white hole as the film blistered into nothingness. The high school kids always new the title of the week’s film before the “School Notices” came out because it was collected from the railway station by the school bus driver on Friday mornings. One lucky kid would be appointed to actually run down the platform and pick up the film box. He would get back on the bus and everyone would yell out, “What’s the movie?” There was a period when the kid who did this was obliged to yell back, “Toby Tyler!” because it had been a frequent, less than exciting, visitor to our theatre. I can’t even remember what it was about but I know I roared with laugher, along with everyone else, at this lame joke every time it was made.

 

Black and white TV arrived at some time but it was mostly junk even then and very few of us had access. TV became a sore point with some of the cottage mothers when one had a TV and the other didn’t so she would “lose” her boys to some other woman! I don’t know if this happened with the girls. When Gibby got a TV she (and some of the boys) used to watch the wrestling, with “Killer Kowalski” and other such heroes, and she would get really wound up as if those guys were right there in our lounge and could hear her yelling at them. I preferred “Bandstand” or whatever was the equivalent at that time.

 

Monthly Events

 

Monthly haircuts were always a source of great amusement and serious ribbings for the boys – especially the high school boys. Haircuts were invariably inflicted after dinner and so there was no escaping the jeers or whistles as you arrived late and made your grand entrance into the homework session. We lined up to take turns at George Elliot’s house – whipped off our shirts, sat on a wooden crate, and he promptly slashed a hair trimmer straight up the sides and rears of our heads. It seemed as if he didn’t ever touch the front or top because some boys could comb their forelocks back to cover the ghastly cold patch on the back of the neck. I don’t think my childhood, front wave has ever recovered. Didn’t stop me from being a “long haired type” in the 70s though.

 

Monthly socials were an absolute highlight and were usually supervised by Noel Wishart. We had elected prefects who had the responsibility of decorating the club house and organising catering and music. I think we were lucky to have Marlene Roberts in our era because without her we probably would not have had supper properly organised. The boys had to bring a bottle of soft drink and the girls had to bring a plate of food. These events were always anticipated with nervousness and excitement. “Will I get to dance with…?”; “Who’s got a tie I can borrow?”; “Will my shoes be trendy enough?”; “Will we get some good music?”. The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction” was always popular. In those days most of us knew how to dance holding our partner. The last dance of the night was always the most exciting because it was now or never, and we would pluck up the courage to ask the right girl for the dance. Someone would turn off the lights so we could dance in the dark and Noel W. would flash the lights on and off without warning just to make sure nobody was kissing! No doubt our kids would find it quite lame nowadays but we loved it.

 

Another monthly event was often referred to as “boarders’ weekend”. I was never involved so I have doubts about the accuracy of this. Kids would pack for a weekend and get on the school bus – affectionately known as the “Yellow Submarine” – and head for Perth to stay with their parent(s). My mum was always way out bush, cooking for a farmer somewhere. Eventually she married one of those farmers so we acquired a new dad. That farm was still too far away for a weekend visit in those days.

 

Money

 

We were rarely allowed to withdraw money from our bank accounts and then only after a grilling by the Gestapo to ascertain the direction of our spending. Consequently I only tried once to access money and that attempt failed miserably. I tried to withdraw money to buy a present for my Mum but the Gestapo officer didn’t believe me when I told him the date of my Mum’s birthday as Bob Mitchell’s mum had a birthday the same day and therefore I must have been trying it on!?!? At the time it was harrowing but looking back now it seems the process might have been merely a misguided attempt to educate us about money management.

 

I am still curious about one thing. If I had several years of one shilling (later 10 cents of course) per week being deposited to my account – and little or no money taken out – why, on the day I left, did I receive a total withdrawal of the grand sum of only five or six dollars?? Many years later I heard a disturbing explanation for it but it would be unwise to repeat that in print without evidence. We certainly learned about earning money but I don’t think the savings lesson was well managed.

 

Expeditions On The Farm

 

A much anticipated event was any expedition within the farm boundaries. There was “Welley Pool” and the general region known as the hills but more specifically, “Happy Valley” and of course the swimming pool behind the weir (in the river – not that concrete box that some of us hated due to interminable swimming “carnivals”).

 

Welley Pool was wonderful. The water was clean and fresh and you could live your life there as a kid. There were marron to catch, boats to sail, a natural platform to jump off, a rope to swing on and endless water fun. I lost a small, battery-powered, motor boat, I had received as a gift, when it got sucked into a tiny underwater cave which went deeper than anyone’s arm length. I was devastated. That boat was a miniature of my futuredream.

 

Happy valley was exactly that. Summer weekends or holiday excursions there were a kid’s idea of bliss. We had a tremendous, long, mud slide that ended with a mighty splash in the river so you could run back up dripping wet and do it again! We usually went in great groups of several or all cottages together, but sometimes you could go with just a couple of mates. At the end of the afternoon it was invariably, “Aw, do we have to go now? Can’t we just have one more slide?” Just the walk to the valley and back was an adventure of its own. Some people could balance along on the water main – even at places where it crossed a deeper than usual dip and even with others pushing from behind. Whose turn is it to carry the billy or the picnic stuff? Who can get away with playing a joke on the cottage mothers that wouldn’t work elsewhere? Could you hold hands with your secret sweetheart while straggling behind a little? The day invariably finished with that glowing, exhausted feeling after showers and dinner in your own cottage.

 

Other Distractions

 

Some kids had musical instruments to play. There was one boy, Martin Wall, who was very good at guitar and he entertained us on many an occasion. I acquired a piano accordion but I was always banished to the laundry for practice as I made too much noise. I eventually gave up trying – probably lacked the drive. Learned guitar later in life anyway and have had considerable enjoyment with hundreds of children while I was teaching in primary schools and made some income playing pubs. Some kids got quite good on the recorder – you know, that whistle thing that was always taught in Grade Four.

 

There was an outbreak of Scarlet Fever which was very exciting because we were quarantined and could not go into Pinjarra to attend high school. In spite of the quarantine there were not many actual cases of scarlet fever. That event would have provided ammunition for the one or two high school kids who “hated” Fairbridge kids.

 

Mandurah camp was always great fun in the Christmas holidays. The only thing that spoiled it was latrine duty but even that was tolerated in the usual Fairbridge way and, as far as I know, no one picked up any diseases by getting accidentally splashed from a huge bucket of blended urine. The open air dining room was a treat and there was always some fun activity in camp or at the beach. I think we even had an outdoor movie or two.

 

Pushbikes were a source of endless activity. Noel Wishart used to drive somewhere with a trailer and come back with a load of bike frames and miscellaneous parts. There was a pecking order, based on age, and the best quality parts went to the first in line. If you missed out you just had to wait until Noel’s next trip. Some bikes had to be seen to be believed! Mismatched gears and chains would cause a sudden jump and a frequent, ungainly, unintended dismount. Front forks at the wrong angle would make steering an advanced skill. Lack of brakes would be really exciting! Cushioned saddles were strictly for wimps. Cow horn handlebars were scarce but some boys modified theirs by filling the tube with sand, heating it over a bonfire and bending it into the desired shape. Ingenious!

 

My bike frequently got me a, “Tut! Tut!” from the nursing sister when I reported to the hospital for bodily repairs. Once she even confiscated my bike so that I could complete one set of repairs before generating a fresh injury. Eventually that bike was killed by some woman who accidentally drove her car over it outside the dairy. That day I had to carry the billy and the bike back to Kitchener .

 

As we became bolder with our riding skills we entered the “broggy” competitions. The object was to start riding at the church, gain as much speed as possible as you raced down the hill towards the dining room and hit the brakes, or force the “fixed wheel” to lock, as soon as you hit the gravel. The longest skid mark resulted in the rider being held in awe by the admiring onlookers and fellow competitors.

 

One Christmas we were all extremely impressed when a boy in our cottage received, from his mum, a brand new Malvern Star bike – with gears and proper brakes – worth twenty-six pounds, nineteen shillings and sixpence!

 

Christmas was always special and great fun. We had a visit from Santa who arrived on a trailer pulled by the tractor. He gave out gifts (from your parents) and lollies. This was, on one occasion at least, actually the brother of Mrs Fry (matron). Some years later I was told that this man was the well known politician, Kim Beasley (snr) and therefore, I assume, Mrs Fry was Aunty to the current Kim Beasley – politician.

 

Many Leavings

 

At any time it could be a surprise, a relief or a sadness to discover that some family was leaving Fairbridge to go off and re-establish their family unit in the city or a country town or even another state. Very occasionally they would be giving up and returning to England , only to find it was not how they remembered it. It was always hard when a close friend left and we lacked the means or the sense to keep in touch.

 

Embarrassed hugs and, “See you around,” were generally the best I could muster. I sometimes later cringed with guilt at having made parting comments intended to be amusing but turning out to be sarcastic through youthful inexperience. I am sure that some potential life long friends were lost in those brief moments of emotional ignorance.

 

Sometimes there would be staff changes and the inevitable, all important question at primary school: “Who will be my teacher next year?”

 

During the latter part of 1969, my mum and, recently acquired at the time, step-dad got fed up with my complaining and paid for me to board in Pinjarra for the last part of my high school leaving year. Neil Armstrong said wise words on the moon and some bloke won a brand new Valiant Charger (from radio 6PR maybe) for guessing nearest to the actual minute Neil stepped onto the lunar surface. We passed our exams and went out to face the world as independent souls, establish a source of income and our place in society and maybe raise families of our own.

 

Yes, it was a long trip from Albany to Fairbridge to attend a re-union but it has been a much longer, and equally enjoyable, journey from Fairbridge to Albany over the thirty-six years since I left. My memory may not match yours, may even be incorrect, but I don’t mind – we all age – and that’s how I remember it.

 

Note: Much of the above story was deliberately written as if being spoken aloud and some comments may seem derogatory. They are intended to be amusing and from the point of view of a young child through to a teenager so please don’t be offended. Any one who feels the need to communicate with me can e-mail me at: js1@westnet.com.au.

 

If you can find the time I, and many others, would really like to read how you remember your time at Fairbridge. Please add your memories to this archive.

 

If you’ve read this far I appreciate your patience. My ego is now soothed.

 

Reunion – 17th July 2005

 

Everything appeared somehow smaller – even the church.

 

I did enjoy the re-union and it was great catching up with friends from my cottage, and other people I would count as friends even though we rarely get together. I even found an old flame – not that she is old, just a flame. As with all these occasions I found there was not enough time to really listen to any one person. I would have liked to have had more time with everyone who had a story to tell.

 

I was disappointed that very few people from my era brought their families to Fairbridge (including myself) but I guess that’s just the way it is. I was impressed that some people recognised me even though I didn’t recognise them. “You haven’t changed!” was flattering but amusing. I don’t think I had a beard, glasses or a larger waistline than I should have, when I was a Fairbridge kid.

 

While there were lots of people on site I was greatly enjoying the visit but I found it quite different after everyone left.

 

I wandered around by myself taking more pictures. That old weir was looking very forlorn. The diving board was trying to drown itself for lack of children to play with. The dairy was feeling abandoned. The hospital was very ill. While I was capturing photograph memories around Kitchener , I was shocked when I looked inside and discovered the changed layout. The same happened when I started visualising the old compound, noting the total absence of what we called a garden and our privet hedge “fence”. The pomegranate tree was no longer. The wood heap was just an old oleander bush – probably the same one that was there forty years ago. As a kid, I had planted peas in a small plot next to the woodheap but over fertilized them so they grew frantically for three days – then died! I glanced at the roof – no longer tiled but corrugated iron. I visualised hanging some washing and swinging off the cross poles – the old washing line was gone. Then I stood on the back verandah and saw myself constructing or repairing a pushbike. Suddenly I was swamped with an overwhelming sense of sadness and an urgent need for a handkerchief (followed by hurriedly donning my sunglasses in case anyone should appear round the corner).

 

I guess it was a sense of loss at what I perceived as destruction of part of my personal history (a bit self-centred really). Not that I hadn’t expected major changes but change is rarely experienced exactly as it is imagined it will be.

 

I had to sit down for a few minutes and get myself together again. Muttering things like, “I really don’t need to be here.” It was a totally unexpected re-action.

 

After a few minutes I was OK again and no-one appeared so I continued taking pictures around the farm – wondering about life’s abundant capacity to confront us with new lessons. I packed up my camera and headed off to spend the night at my friend’s house in Mandurah, and refresh myself for the trip home to my family and the present.