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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A Special Kind Of Lady

When Gundungurra Aboriginal Elder, Aunty Val Mulcahy, describes her life growing up on a mission reserve, she’s not complaining, she’s merely telling it how it was. And neither will you find her feeling sorry for herself; she’s a fiercely independent and proud Australian woman.

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Velma (Aunty Val) Mulcahy at the Order of Australia Awards

I first met Aunty Val after seeking help with the cultural aspects of my new novel, Black Bones, Red Earth. Set in 1950s rural Australia, the story follows the life of Katherine, an English child migrant and her relationships with Aboriginal station hands. I never intended this novel to be about black Australia; it is, after all, the story of an English orphan. But I soon found similarities between Katherine’s story and those of the Aboriginal stolen generation, and that led me to learn more. As the writing progressed and characters emerged, I found it impossible to overlook the hardships suffered by Aboriginals as a result of government policies. As a result, the novel delves into a traumatic period in the lives of First Australians who were taken from their families and separated from their ancestral homes by British and Australian governments.

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Aunty Val (right) with family at La Perouse mission

Eighty-four-year-old Aunty Val was born and raised under protection law on the Aboriginal mission at La Perouse, south of Sydney. After being taken to live on the mission, the Protection Board separated Aunty Val’s mother, Ida, and her children from her husband, Reg. He was arrested and beaten every time he tried to see his family. Val saw her brother ejected from the mission when he reached 18 years of age. Life on the mission was difficult, and racial prejudice rampant when the residents strayed beyond the reserve.

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La Perouse mission reserve south of Sydney

‘We had different rules to white Australians,’ Aunty Val told me. ‘We didn’t have freedom of movement. We didn’t have a vote. We weren’t allowed to go to see a doctor or go to the hospital until Thursday. If you were very sick and it wasn’t Thursday, you died.’

If you were sick and it wasn’t Thursday, you died

Aunty Val says that babies died in numbers on the reserve because of gastroenteritis. ‘Women were not allowed to breast-feed on the mission. Instead, they were given bottles of milk to feed their babies. But they didn’t teach them how to sterilise the bottles, so babies got sick and died. Schooling was inadequate. We got to paint pictures, listen to bible stories, and sing hymns. There was no reading or writing, and we were not allowed to talk our own language or talk about traditional ways.’

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Aunty Val’s parents Ida Amatto and Reginald Russell in the 1930s.

Aunty Val had no idea why she and her family had to live on the mission. ‘My mum told me we had to stay because we were special. It was only when I was older that I learned the truth and that we had been forced onto the mission. I was sent out to work when I was thirteen, and that’s when I discovered we were treated differently to white kids. Even at work, we had different rules; we had to give all our wages to the mission, and they gave us sixpence back.’

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An early photo of the La Perouse mission house

Despite coming out of the mission, ill-equipped for the world, Aunty Val vowed to gain a university education. She was fifty years old when she achieved her dream, studying at the University of Sydney for her degree. Aunty Val worked in Aboriginal health and services and is passionate about educating others. ‘Education is the key for our people if they are going to thrive. If you’re not getting children educated, they will always be disadvantaged.’ Aunty Val has seen too many kids coming out of school, unable to read or write. ‘They need jobs, but they don’t stand a chance if they’re not getting educated.’

My mum said I was special

Aunty Val was awarded the Order of Australia for her work in the community, but she says there’s so much more to be done. I asked her if she was bitter about the treatment she and other First Australians have suffered. ‘I’m not bitter,’ she says. ‘but I get angry at governments that refuse to move the country forward. We can’t change the past; what’s done is done. We’re not stupid; we know we can’t turn the clock back. But Australia needs to recognise the truth and admit what happened in the past. This land was not empty when the whitefellas came. It was our country and had been for thousands of years. What happened was an invasion, followed by genocidal attacks on our race, segregation and outright discrimination. The protection laws were brought in to breed out our Aboriginal blood. Until Australian history recognises what really happened, and until we start teaching it in schools, we can’t move on, and our people will continue to suffer. We need a treaty, and we need to be recognised in the constitution. Then, maybe, we can have a chance at reconciliation and start to heal.’

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Having a yarn with Aunty Val at the community centre she helped create

Aunty Val would be the first to say her story is unremarkable; she’ll tell you that every Indigenous Australian has a story to pass on and that there were a lot worse off than her. But after listening to her tales, and learning of her past and her accomplishments, I can say without a doubt that her mother was right, Aunty Val is indeed very special.