Waifs & Strays

There are pansters and plotters. As a panster, I begin my novels by taking the germ of an idea, a starting point, and just start writing, allowing the story to develop naturally as I go (writing by the seat of my pants). I never quite know where the journey might take me, or what characters I’ll meet along the way. My new novel – Black Bones, Red Earth – started in this way, with just the hint of an interesting tale.

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I never quite know where the journey will take me

The seed from which my new book grew, was, in fact, a part of my mum’s own life story. Mum stunned everyone when well into her eighties, she revealed that she had been brought up in an orphanage, a secret she had kept for over 80 years. Apparently, my maternal grandmother had died of TB when Mum was just four years old. Mum and her sisters, aged two and seven, were sent away to an orphanage on the Cumbria coast, by my grandfather. He was serving in the army at the time, and it just wasn’t done for men to raise little girls. This was the thinking at the time.

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Mum (right) and her sisters, little orphans

It’s hard to imagine how traumatic it must have been for the three little ones to be uprooted, packed away after only just losing their mother, thinking their father didn’t want them anymore, and finding themselves amongst strangers. The orphanage in Whitehaven was run by the Waifs and Strays Society, later to become the Church of England Children’s Society.

But why had my mum hidden her past for so many years, and why had she invented a different childhood that omitted the orphanage altogether? She told us that she had been too ashamed to tell the truth. The stigma of being an orphan in a small English town had been difficult to bear, especially during school years, when children at the local school would make fun of the orphan kids who lived in the home for strays. I can only guess at the cruel taunts from those children. But Mum was a fighter, and she quickly learned to look after herself and her sisters.

Ashamed of being an orphan

Mum survived her time in the strict establishment, where children rose between three and four in the morning to begin chores before school. The home’s overriding mission was to prepare children for employment, and so they were put to work with a lengthy list of daily duties. Mum said she was never mistreated, but that life was hard for the little girls in care. On her thirteenth birthday, Mum had to leave the home and was sent into service, shipped off in the goods department on a train to the coastal town of Hythe in Kent. “I had a name tag hanging around my neck, like a piece of baggage,” Mum told us. There she became the parlour maid for a doctor and his family, and was again singled out as ‘the orphan kid’. Mum vowed from then on that no one would ever know about her past. She joined the army when she was eighteen, her father’s regiment, the Green Howards, and served throughout the Second World War. Mum said she made peace with her father, but I’m not sure she ever forgave him.

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Irene Lee (Mum) 1918 – 2015

Mum’s revelation explained a lot about her character. At five-foot-one, she was as tough as they come. She took no-nonsense and would stand up for, and to, anyone. It also explained why she was so passionate about kids who needed help, working tirelessly for many years raising funds for children’s causes, especially the Church of England Children’s Society, and overseas charities, all while raising five kids of her own.

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British child migrants, courtesy Molong Historical Society

The idea for my book started with an English woman, like Mum, in the twilight of her years, her secret orphaned childhood revealed. That’s about where the similarities end, but it set me on a path that eventually led me to explore the traumas of child migrants, orphaned children shipped to Australia after the war. During this line of research, I also discovered the hardships suffered, under the name of child protection, by Aboriginal children – The Stolen Generation – who were separated from their families and placed in mission homes. These two stories came together to form the backbone of my novel.

Black Bones, Red Earth, is in the final stages of editing and should be released before Christmas.

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