‘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 her body or where she was buried’.
Auschwitz? Belsen? Dachau? No, Cootamundra.
The words are those of Jennifer who was among 535 indigenous people who gave evidence to the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal children from their families during 11 months of gruelling hearings.
— Debra Jopson, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 May 1997
The Bringing Them Home report did enormous damage to the reputations of all those people, white and black, who had worked in Aboriginal child welfare throughout the twentieth century. The media had a field day in reporting the horrors the report exposed. According to the Canberra Times, the Human Rights Commission’s inquiry ‘uncovered horrendous abuse of children by churches, foster parents and government authorities’.
Most of the examples given in the press of these abuses came from submissions and personal testimonies. Reporters never told their readers that these claims were untested by the Human Rights Commission. It never tried to verify their claims by research into the welfare files of those who made them. It never cross-examined those who made these claims. It uncritically accepted hearsay — more accurately, malicious gossip — long removed from the source of the allegations.
For instance, the story told by Jennifer about the girl tied up and beaten to death at Cootamundra, which Debra Jopson reported so luridly in the Sydney Morning Herald, should never have been given the imprimatur of approval by an official government inquiry. Jennifer’s story was about events that occurred sometime between 1915 and 1920, that is, long before she was born. She said she had been told it by her mother.
It is certainly true that a number of girls admitted to Cootamundra in the 1910s and 1920s did die, but all suffered from tuberculosis or another infectious disease. They were invariably transferred to the local Cootamundra Hospital or one of the state’s tuberculosis sanatoriums before their demise, and their deaths were all duly recorded in the Ward Registers. No girls was ever recorded, however, as having have died from physical violence.
Had the incident recounted by Jennifer really occurred, it would have been a terrible crime that would have been impossible to keep quiet. Someone on the staff or some of girls at the time would surely have leaked it to the police or to one of their confidants. Yet they never did. No one ever mentioned it at the time or later in any written or oral memoir about the home. It did not find its way into any of the archival documents, or else it would certainly have been reported by Peter Read, who assures us he examined them all. Margaret Tucker never told this story either, even though she was at Cootamundra in 1917, and two of her sisters were there in 1920. Tucker later became a Communist Party activist and wrote an influential autobiography in which she tried to portray both the home and the removal policy in as bad a light as possible, yet she was apparently ignorant of the biggest scandal of them all that occurred virtually under her nose. Coral Edwards lived at the home from infancy in the mid-1940s to her teenage years, that is, probably longer than any other girl, and she never heard this story either, so it was obviously not part of the folk memory of the home. Had she had any inkling of it, Edwards would almost certainly have retold the story, since her bitterness about her upbringing gave her ample motives to do so. Apart from Jennifer, no one else ever seems to have heard of it.
On these grounds alone, Ronald Wilson and the Human Rights Commission should not have taken this submission seriously. Indeed, in publishing it they have criminally defamed the matron of Cootamundra at the time, Miss Emmeline Rutter, a devout Christian who devoted many years of her life to the Aborigines as a teacher at Burnt Bridge Station, as matron at both Warangesda and Cootamundra and, in the 1920s, as one of the board’s home-finders for apprenticed girls. She is long dead, of course, and can do nothing herself to rescue her reputation, and Wilson is now dead, too. But it is not hard to imagine how incensed Wilson’s descendants would be if he were similarly accused, on the basis of such dubious evidence, of permitting and then covering up the murder of one of the children at Sister Kate’s home for Aboriginal children in Perth when he was that home’s chairman.
Apart from her story about the girl beaten to death, Jennifer was also an unreliable witness about the discipline and punishment regime at the Cootamundra home when she was there in the 1950s.
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.
Similar claims were made by other disaffected former inmates in Anne Deveson’s 1983 ABC television program on the Cootamundra "Cootamundra" home. They said management tried to terrify disobedient girls by locking them in solitary confinement in the room known as ‘the morgue’ because it had been one in the old hospital. A second room, known as the ‘box room’, was also used for solitary confinement.
Lola: … where they used to store all the canned goods, dry goods and that, was the Morgue, and the name stuck. That was where we were locked up when we really misbehaved ourselves. But we didn’t mind because they had all the dry goods, all the biscuits and the cookies and, ah, the sweets. I was pretty young when I first got locked up.
Coral: The association of the word ‘morgue’ and being locked up in a morgue. That’s just (breathes), you know.
The matron at the time, Ella Hiscocks, lived long enough to respond to these accusations. She did not get any right of reply on the ABC, let alone the Human Rights Commission, of course, but her side of things was recorded in Merryl-Leigh Brindley’s MA thesis. Hiscosks said that while some girls were sent to the box room, the claim in the Deveson program that they were confined in the old morgue was a ‘wicked lie’. She also disputed the claim by Jennifer that girls in the 1950s were punished by ‘caning’ or ‘belting’ and showed Brindley the policy manual that forbade the only other staff member in charge of the girls, the assistant matron, from administering corporal punishment.
How were they punished, dear? Well, if they were doing wrong I would give the child a slap, just as any mother would give a slap there and then. They would be denied TV but we did not have corporal punishment. When I arrived there was a strap hanging in the office — I don’t know whether previous matrons had used it but I certainly didn’t.
If they did something really bad — odd occasions one would run away, or steal or that, they would be shut in the box-room to think it over. It’s a wicked lie to say they were shut in the morgue. That was my ‘shop’ where I kept all my supplies. If they were shut in the box-room they used to throw everything around — that’s why that was the last resort — they made such a mess. I’d never shut them in my shop — imagine what they’d do to the stores! I wouldn’t have been so stupid. I can’t answer for the other staff of course — some of them may have hit the girls but they signed a form when they came that said no corporal punishment. This was paragraph (3) in the statement of duties:
(3) exercise such discipline as is necessary for the well-being of the children of the Home generally. It must be understood that the discipline must be firm but kindly. Under no circumstances is the Assistant-Matron allowed to administer corporal punishment to a child inmate of the Home. All cases requiring correction must be reported to the Principal who will take whatever action is considered by her to be necessary.
When we got TV the best punishment was to stop them watching it. Before that we occasionally sent them to the box-room — you couldn’t send them to their rooms if they were naughty because they were open dormitories. It’s easy to criticize but people have problems disciplining three of four children — I had over forty. You just had to be firm and have rules and stick to them or we’d never been able to manage. Just like a boarding school I suppose — you have to have a routine.
No one familiar with the kind of discipline and punishment that prevailed from the 1940s to the 1960s in both public and private schools in Australia will find any of this unusual or especially oppressive.
In the entire history of the Cootamundra home, only one credible charge of physical violence was ever made about it. In 1928, a former employee of the home wrote to the Aborigines Protection Board with a complaint of this kind. Peter Read provided his version of this accusation in his book A Rape of the Soul So Profound:
In 1927 [sic] Mrs Curry, a former employee of the Cootamundra Girls Home, alleged that girls had been flogged by staff, slashed with a cane across the shoulders and generally treated with undue severity and lack of sympathy. The use of the cane, she alleged, was a daily occurrence. The report was not acted upon due to ‘a lack of corroborative evidence’.
The actual sequence of events was that Mrs Curry wrote to the board and it ordered an investigation by its inspector A. W. Green. The report by Green was considered by a board meeting in April 1828, though the details of what he said were not recorded. On the basis of his report, the board decided:
In event of further inquiry by Mrs Curry inform her that her allegations were thoroughly investigated and found to be baseless.
Nonetheless, the board subsequently invited Mrs Curry to come to Sydney to address it in person. The minutes recorded the meeting as follows:
Upon being received by the Board Mrs Curry was invited by the Chairman to amplify her written complaints by any verbal statement she might wish to make. This she did by reading extracts from letters written by her to her husband while at the Home. She also alleged that the children were ‘flogged’, slashed with a cane across the shoulders, and generally treated with undue severity and lack of sympathy, the use of the cane being a daily occurrence.
Mrs Curry stated that she had had no experience of Institution work & having arrived from England only thirteen months ago had not previously been in contact with Aborigines apart from three months in Bomaderry Home, where she was engaged in serving duties.
After a thorough questioning by the members the Chairman informed Mrs Curry that as her statements lacked corroboration they must be regarded as unfounded and unjust. Mrs Curry then withdrew.
Now, at this distance in time and, given the reputation which institutions for children have today, most readers of the evidence presented here, which is all we have to go on, would probably side with Mrs Curry. The board and its inspector seemed to be looking for reasons to dismiss her complaint and did not even consider her motivation, even though she apparently had nothing to gain from acting as whistle blower. It is difficult to dismiss her concerns. There probably was a disciplinary regime in place at the time that involved physical punishment through the regular use of the cane.
However, even though the Aborigines Protection Board might seem here to be overly concerned about defending its officers, it plainly did not approve of the kind of practices Mrs Curry alleged. Moreover, it took seriously enough the word of a woman who was only a servant to order an investigation into her charge and to interview her in person.
It s also worth repeating that this was the only credible charge of such practices made in the entire lifetime of this institution. The plausible oral history of later periods, from the 1930s to the 1950s, does not mention any undue physical violence and its use was expressly forbidden by the regulations.
Hence, none of this justifies the hyperbole that Peter Read deploys in The Stolen Generations about institutional life for Aboriginal children. Since corporal punishment was the normal experience of disobedient white children throughout the entire first half of the twentieth century, when it was practised on a daily basis in public schools throughout the state, Mrs Curry’s descriptions of what took place at Cootamundra does not make its administrators in the late 1920s abnormal, let alone warrant Read’s terms of ‘psychopaths’ and ‘monsters’. His description of the home’s approach to discipline as ‘barbaric in its execution and indefensible in its intent’ is ludicrous. The most appropriate analogy for the Cootamundra home is not a Nazi death camp but a typical country boarding school for girls.