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Bringing them Home - Jennifer story


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

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

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.