Airing the dirty linen
For girls who had nowhere to go, the Home of the Good Shepherd was a sanctuary. Or was it? Pam Casellas speaks with some women who lived and worked at the Catholic Church home.
“Give us a girl before she knows what prison life is and we have a much better chance of reforming her than is possible after she has served a prison sentence.”
That was the motto of the Home of the Good Shepherd in Leederville’s Mother Provincial, as reported by the Catholic newspaper, The WA Record, back in 1902 when the first dozen children at the home had celebrated their first Christmas.
None of the children, said the Mother Provincial, had been forced to the home by the legal process but rather they “submit themselves to the compassionate guidance of the Sisters… fully and entirely of their own accord”.
In truth, most of them had nowhere else to go. The brutal reality was that many of them were unwanted. For the next 70 years, the home continued to fulfill its Christian duty by providing care for needy children and young women. At its best, the Home of the Good Shepherd was a sanctuary for the homeless, the troubled and unwanted.
At its worst, it will be remembered as a place of misery and despair where those locked up for their own good spent long, silent days washing and ironing the dirty laundry of Perth society and from the city’s poshest hotels.
The Home of the Good Shepherd has been part of the State’s history for more than a century. Hundreds have passed through its doors, staying for weeks, for months, for years. But what of those who, in the course of the home’s long history, found themselves within those forbidding walls? What are their memories?
More than 20 women contacted Weekend Extra after a single request was published in the paper’s Can We Help You section for those who had been at the home, and particularly those who had worked in the laundry.
They were willing, even eager, to talk about their time there. Some spent just a few weeks, others much longer. Their experiences stretched from the 1920s to the Good Shepherd’s final years as a children’s home in the 1970s.
Some were happy to admit that they were no angels. They’d been in trouble, one way or another. Perhaps they’d run away from home, perhaps they’d fallen in with “bad company” and were deemed to be at risk. Others were there because their families couldn’t, or wouldn’t, look after them.
The various Homes of the Good Shepherd around the world catapulted into focus last year when one in Ireland was the setting for a shocking film called The Magdalene Sisters.
Its work was well regarded. There was a saying at the time: “Bad girls do the best sheets.”
It was about the women dubbed “laundry slaves” who were treated harshly by Catholic nuns as part of a system which used delinquent or at-risk girls to work in profit-making commercial laundries. It was notable for the harshness of the nuns and for the miseries endured by the predominantly young women regarded as “fallen” or, at the very least, in moral danger. They worked in what were described as Irish gulags, were paid no wages and worked long hours in gruelling conditions. There is no suggestion that Perth’s Good Shepherd laundry was as bad but the work was hard and heavy, particularly in its early days before the equipment was modernised. And many of the women who contacted The West Australian believed they had been treated cruelly by some of the nuns.
The laundry did its first wash in 1902 and its business expanded in a growing and racially aware city where the only option had been the Chinese laundries. The home had been established with the strong support of Catholic community leaders, and its work was well regarded. There was a saying at the time: “Bad girls do the best sheets.”
But the legacy of life at the Home of the Good Shepherd continues to be felt just as there is a legacy for many of the thousands of other Australians raised in care.
It is almost 40 years since a Perth woman we will call Paris (because, as she says, she never got there) started working in the laundry but the pain that tore at her 14-year-old heart remains as intense as ever. She’d carried the newspaper request with her, she said, for weeks, before summoning the strength to make the telephone call. Revisiting that period in her life still reduces her to tears.
The three years she spent in the home were, she believes, so deeply marked by fear, betrayal and loneliness that they affected the rest of her life. She is not alone.
Paris came from a strict European background. At home, the doors were locked at night and she was forbidden to associate with Australians. She harboured the dream of escape and she’d heard that if she took herself off to what was then the Child Welfare Department, she would be found a place in a hostel.
One night the back door was left open. She grabbed the chance and ran away to pursue that dream. She persuaded someone to take her to the juvenile detention facility, Longmore. “I rang the bell, I went inside and they locked the doors.” That was the beginning of her teenage nightmare.
Paris’ story is, in many ways, not much different from the others who responded to the request. Many felt they had done almost nothing wrong, but were still locked up. While their lives were not, generally, as grim as in Ireland, some still report a bewildering degree of unhappiness. It is true, however, that their lives before going into the home were not perfect, either.
“All I wanted to do was live an Australian life,” says Paris, her distress at the memory very evident. A nun from the Home of the Good Shepherd collected her from Longmore promising her, she says, “a nice home with a swimming pool”. The reality was that, at 14, her schooling was over and she was about to start work in the laundry.
“I was watched over by a nun like Hitler and ironed millions and millions of shirts. To this day I cannot iron a man’s shirt. “Any tiny crease meant she had to do it again. Behind her was another girl working a steam press. “It was like a scene from (the television series) Prisoner.” The girls were not allowed to speak.
She doesn’t know if her parents were contacted when she ran away but presumes they were. “But they were Europeans who wouldn’t have understood the system anyway.”
They would have agreed with what ever they were told. The girls, she says, were slave labour. “Why didn’t anyone know this place existed?” she asks. “Why did no one help us?”
The other women tell similar stories, often spiced with remnants of the rebellion which got them into trouble in the first place. They are intimate portraits of what life was like, right here in WA, before social welfare blunted the edges of neglect and people were no longer locked up for their own good.
Mary de Sales came to the home from St Joseph’s orphanage. Her mother had remarried and her stepfather didn’t want her around. She went into the home at 14, after running away. Now 83, the memories have not dimmed. “It was a bugger of a life,” she says robustly. “The nuns were cruel. They belted us, hit us with bunches of keys and put us in straitjackets like Chinese dolls.
“I’m still deaf in one ear after a belting. I cut my plaits off so they couldn’t pull me up by them.
“I was very miserable as a child,” she adds, with deep understatement. “I’ll never forget it.”
Another veteran of the home is Doris Dyer, “80 next birthday”. She worked in the laundry, and lost her right arm in an accident with a mangle. Imprinted on her memory are two dates – June 19, 1942, when she went into the home at the age of 14 and July 3 the same year, when she lost her arm. “I didn’t go out to it,” she says, with bleak pride.
Ms Dyer is another who was made a ward of the State because she ran away from home. She can barely remember why now but she only did it once. Perhaps curiously, her memories of the home are kinder.
She does remember, however, that there were some naughty girls there and those naughty girls were locked in the storeroom for their transgressions. With some glee, she recalls how carefully the girls searched the pockets of trousers. You never knew when you’d find a wallet left there by accident.
She thinks the nuns treated her well after the accident, organising for her to receive a pension and helping her learn how to manage with one arm.
Irene Harrison, now 73, was given the name, Marjorie, when she went into the home at the age of 12 in 1941 after the death of her mother. One of eight, her older sisters couldn’t look after her. She still remembers, with some wonder, the cruelty of the nuns.
Born to a tragic life
“I was sent flying right across the room more than once,” she said. The laundry work was heavy, with the girls dragging baskets of laundry so heavy that the delivery men (not allowed-into the home) could only watch in wonder. Her family, she said, didn’t know where she was until she wrote a letter, on toilet paper and with an old pen, and a fellow inmate smuggled it, in the top of her stocking, to her brother and made him post it.
In her time, the girls had to be up and dressed by the 6am Angelus. Anyone who spoke before Angelus lost their ration of butter at breakfast. They were at work by 6.30am.
“My father died six months after I went in and we were in retreat. Another girl comforted me and we got belted,” she recalls. She left at 15 and, in another common response, was married within six months. “I do think about that time (in the home) a lot,” Mrs Harrison, now blind, said. “It’s stayed with me a long time.”
Daphne Hunt was put in the home, also in the 1950s, by the CWD and stayed for three or four years. She had become an orphan at the age of six or seven and also came through the Mt Lawley Receiving Home. She was sent to work on a farm near York at the age of 13 and then ended up at the home.
One of her rebellions was against the thick brown stockings they were required to wear. “I refused,” she says with no small degree of pride. “So they held me down and put them on me.”
There was no meat on Friday, of course, and she also remembers being whacked across the backside with a walking stick and working from 7.30am to 4pm every day. “But I survived it,” she said cheerfully.
Christine Adams, who was there in the 1970s, in the final days of the children’s home, has much more positive memories. Her mother was single and worked as a cook, so she was often away. But her children could go home at weekends. She recalls a system of discipline which saw the girls administer punishments themselves to the errant. Often it meant a loss of privileges or “the silent treatment”.
One of the most poignant memories, albeit a brief one, was provided by Barbara Mundy, who thinks she was in the home in the 1920s for less than a week at the age of seven. Her family had just arrived from Britain. They were members of the Group Settlement Scheme, and her mother was pregnant with her fourth child, and unwell. With no relatives to care for the children, and her father unable to find work, they were sent temporarily to the home.
Mrs Mundy recalls her excitement at the thought. “I’d had a picture of the Good Shepherd on my bedroom wall.” He was kindly figure. But if he was ever at the Home of the Good Shepherd, “he was on long service leave when I was there”. Her week at the home was, she says, a horrifying experience.
Two incidents stick in her mind. “On the Saturday we had to strip off our clothes, fold them neatly and put them in a big basket. I was the kind of child who was always anxious to please but as I dropped my singlet in the basket it flopped back (and became unfolded), and my number (each child was given a number) was revealed. “33 – I’ll never forget it. My number was called out and I was caned until my hand bled. I was only seven.
“My father, who was on sustenance, came to visit us and the nun in charge told me to keep my hands behind my back.” But her father saw the injury “and it’s a wonder the heavens didn’t hear him.” He removed his children forthwith.
She recalls, too, another incident of cruelty when a girl with whom she shared a room was clearly ill with a high temperature and couldn’t get out of bed. “A nun yanked her out of her bed by her plaits. I’m not making it up, I promise. . .”
Dianne Snell remembers birthdays at the home – “a boiled egg and a holy card” – and the requirement that everyone be dosed on Sunday night with Epsom salts. She remembers too, that there were different bedspreads when visitors were expected. And she remembers that the laundry washed linen from the Perth Dental Hospital, long before there was any knowledge of blood-borne disease. And, yes, she did get hepatitis.
She had trained as a shorthand typist and did some clerical work at the home, which helped her escape form the laundry when she was sent there at the age of 15 or 16.
Donna Nicholls spent two years at the home from 1972. Her first year, she says, was tough but after that she had a caring group mother and is grateful for the education she received there.
Lynnette Kluck was at the home in the early 1950s, also working in the laundry. She was a ward of the State given the name of Rosary. She admits she left knowing a lot more about the Catholic faith than when she went in. “I had corns on my knees when I came out of there.” But the work was no harder in the laundry, she said, than it was in other commercial laundries where she worked later.
The Catholic Church was approached for comment, but did not respond.
Traumatic legacy of ‘care’