My family went to
Cherbourg. They volunteered to go there during the Depression. So I would
have been about 6 months old when grandfather, who was, I mean, he was
independent. He had eight kids all birthed out in the trees you know,
under the stars. My mother spoke her own language. She had me with the
promise to marry my father. And then when the Depression came they talked
to the policeman. He said go to Buramba. When things get better come back
out again. He was the Protector so he sent them there. The thing is though,
when we got there you got caught up in the system. You weren't allowed
The decision that
my grandfather made at the time, he didn't know that that would split
his whole family up.
My Dad was away.
He thought we had died. He didn't know what had happened. No-one else
seemed to know where we had disappeared to. The whole family went to Cherbourg.
Mum said when they got there they were immediately split up. Mum said
the superintendent said, 'Agnes, you can't live in the camp with your
small baby and you have to go into the dormitory'.
Mum thinks that's
just ... She won't talk about it. She's in denial. She said they did it
for our good because there was no room in the camp. But I said, 'You lived
in Ayumba with your old people when you was outside. Why would it now
be different that you didn't want to live with them?'
She said, 'Well,
they offered the dormitory to me, so I took you there'. I was 6 months
old. Because the dormitory is such a big place and it's made up, you know
... it's split that way [in half] downstairs with your women that side,
your girls that side.
I stayed with my
Mum for 4 years on that side with the other mothers. The boys went into
the boys' home - my grandfather's sons. And he had Mum's younger sister
and younger brother - they stayed with the old people. But the rest of
them - the boys - were put in a home. Mum was put in the dormitory.
I stayed with her
until I was 4 years of age. You slept with your mother because there was
basically no room for a cot or anything and for the 4 years you're there
living with her.
But when I turned
4, and because I was such an intelligent child, sneaking off to school
because all the other kids are going .. matron made the decision that,
'Peggy has to go to school'. And so immediately that decision was made,
I was transferred over to this section. I was taken away from her. Separating
her from me was a grill. There was chicken wire across there. That was
the extent of how far you could go to this [other] side.
Once you were separated
from your Mum, you're not to go back to her again. Absolutely no interaction.
You have a bed on your own. No contact during the day. I'm out of her
control. She is no longer actually my mother type of thing. So you go
under the care and control of the Government. That's what happened.
No-one said anything
to me. No-one said anything to her but everybody else in that section
knew that this is what happened. And most of those women, my mother tells
me, kept their children on the breast for a long, long time, because that
bonding was going to be broken at some stage and so keeping their children
close to them was the only thing that they had. I've always been an angry
child. Very angry. I don't remember much about this section with my mother.
I remember nothing. It embarrasses me when she talks of me running to
her for cuddles and she'll say, 'I fed you on my titties'. And I get rather
embarrassed because I don't remember that time with her.
I can remember
sitting here at this grill...
But I can remember
sitting here at this grill on that side waiting for her to come out of
the door of one of these wards here so that I can just see her. She wouldn't
come out because it hurt her to see me over this side. I turned 5 around
about July. I went to school, but then she had to go to work. So we had
that removal from our grandparents, her family, then I was removed from
her and I then became the victim.
She ate on this side
and I ate on that side. Birthdays were arranged. No, I never saw her on
birthdays. I got a cake every birthday that was arranged by the Government
- only because she fought for it.
I didn't get to know
her. To me she was just the woman who comes and goes. When I was 5 she
went again. They sent her out to work. I remember the night the taxi pulled
up to take her.
Again, there was
nothing emotional because if you were a little girl on this side you got
into trouble for crying. You couldn't show emotion. Here at this wire
grill I could just hear the director of the management call out to me,
'Is that you Peggy?'. They could just see my little form there sitting
at the wire grill.
'You don't get to
bed, you'll be punished!' And so, go to bed. If I'm crying at night, 'Is
that you Peggy, crying again?'. And so it just went on. You've got about
60 or 70 other kids there, so why cry for your mother because kids are
going to look after you and think 'she's crying for her mother'. You got
to show your anger some place.
I remember that night.
We had to sing prayers at night, and I could catch up, I mean, it didn't
take me long to know what the system is all about. You're better off living
within that system rather than out of it. You go with it. I remember singing
prayers that night:
day is over
Night is drawing near
This always upsets
me because at the end of singing that prayer, I couldn't remember the
words. 'Cause I've got a very high voice - a lot higher than a lot of
the kids - they'd hear me first.
of the evening
Creep across the sky
La la la la la la la la
Getting higher and
Baked in a pie.
That ended the prayer
and the old lady called out, 'Is that you, Peggy? Get out here'. And I
had to kneel on the floor till everyone went to sleep.
It was all about
control, reform. The bald head was part of the dormitory system for punishment.
If you had lice, you had your head shaved. But you could have your hair
cut off for being naughty, doing anything naughty. It didn't matter what
it was: speaking back, not doing your chores. Cold baths, getting your
hair shaved off if you didn't go for wood in the afternoon so you could
warm the baths up.
You also got the
strap and you got put into jail. There was three components of the punishment
that you got. You could even be left without any food. Go without your
meal. Stand in the middle of the dining room there while everybody else
finished. Many times I stood there. Humiliation, because when you got
your head shaved we were not allowed to put a beret or anything on our
heads. Not allowed.
So you walked to
school like this and the camp kids made fun of you and that would bring
us closer together as a group. As a group [dormitory kids] we were able
to fight off the other kids and their insults to us.
We were called the
dormitory girls. But the kids who slept out on the verandah - they break
my heart and it still upsets me: they were the pee-the-beds. They were
called nothing else but pee-the-beds. Maybe you'd pee the bed one night
because you were upset tummy, fear, no electric light just a flickering
light of an old hurricane lamp. It would scare you because old people
have the habit of telling you there's people walking around here at night
time. All these 'woop-woops' around the place. And you didn't want to
go to the toilet and you may wet the bed. It may only have been a one
night occurrence, but you transferred from your bed out onto the verandah.
You slept on a mattress on the floor and all you were called was pee-the-beds.
'Tell the pee-the-beds they've gotta get their mattresses in off the line.'
'Tell the pee-the-beds they've gotta put their blankets out.' 'Tell the
pee-the-beds it's time to get up.' No identity at all. Absolutely nothing.
These kids were just grouped together.
I was talking to
a young girl the other day. I said, 'Your mother never peed the bed but
her sister did. She had to go down there to sleep with her sister because
the kid was crying. She needed her sister with her'.
I could see them
on a morning, a winter's morning. No ceiling. Just when the sun hit the
tin roof. 'All you pee-the-beds gotta get up!.' And they would get up
out of their wet clothing and all you see is steam coming off them. It
was absolutely dreadful and I grieve for those kids, honestly. We were
404, Queensland, 1930s. Peggy's story appears on page 82 of Bringing
Last updated 2 December 2001.