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I, Gwendoline Laura Shipp, was a boarder of W. R. Black Girls Home at Chelmer, Brisbane from 1955 to 1960, from the ages of eight to fourteen.

Firstly, it should have been called a house, not a home. The only time we were allowed inside was for bed, meals or our daily jobs.

I was an only child, and my parents were not in a position to care for me.

My mother, after her nine month stay in a TB hospital, was discharged and had nowhere to go. I do not remember my parents ever being friendly to each other, and although living in the same rented housing commission home until TB struck, it was only because of me they were in the same house. They rarely spoke to each other. She refused to go back to live with my dad after she was discharged but the house was no longer available as the government took it back when we were not living there because dad had to put me in the Home. He had lost touch with his Western Australian family, and my mum’s family had no room for another child. My mother was then placed in Goodna mental hospital because she was vague, had no idea what to do, so was sent there.

When I was taken to the Home by my dad, I was immediately petrified to be left at this large house and wondered if I would get lost inside.

The matron was cruel both mentally and physically.

I had the job of setting the staff table at mealtime. One day, I accidentally put a dirty cup on the table. Matron saw the dirty cup and asked: “Who set this table”?  On hearing my name, she yelled in a loud voice,

Well, what can I expect when Gwen Tyrer (Tyrer is my maiden name) has a mental mother, and she has the same symptoms and will also end up in a mental home!

It wasn’t only me. A girl I got friendly with and her two sisters were there because their mother committed manslaughter. One of the sisters was in trouble for something minor, and matron told her she would be making an announcement at the tea table so everyone would know what their mum did.

If occasionally the matron walked through the dormitory after lights out and heard voices, the light would be turned on and everyone awakened. We had to go out to the lounge room, where each of the twenty-four girls in the room would get hit with a piece of wood, then have to stand facing the wall with hands held above the head (that gets painful) for a couple of hours. If she saw your hand go down, it was another hit.

There were many more such instances of matron’s violence.

Some new girls didn’t realise they would get worse punishment if they didn’t cry when hit.  Some tried to just be strong, but got taken to another room and came back crying, saying their head was banged on a wall.

I never found the matron to smile and be friendly to anyone, she was a woman entirely unsuited to her position. I was there only two weeks when my dad visited (my mum had been admitted to Chermside hospital for the allocated time of nine months as she had TB and children were not allowed to visit). I cried when his visit of two hours was up, and when the matron saw me crying and asked why, I said, “I don’t want daddy to go.” She then said,

“Well! He won’t be upsetting you again, as he will never be allowed to visit you again.”

I was so sad and miserable for two weeks until he did visit again and I told him what matron said. He did not realise the significance it had for me, but just said, “Of course I will keep visiting you.”

We wore navy uniforms and white blouses, which meant we stood out when we went to the local Graceville public school which did not have a uniform. Plus, our hair was cut extremely short.

Matron checked our hair for headlice periodically. One unlucky girl was found to have lice, thus matron shaved all her hair off and she had to go to school bald and be ridiculed by fellow students. We were all frightened when our hair was checked that this would be our fate too.

The other pupils and the staff treated us differently to non-home girls.  We were not allowed to take out library books (as who would pay if we lost, or ripped one?)

We were programmed robots. Arose 5.15 am and did chores until breakfast—very cold if your job was picking up leaves and raking the large yard, in a cotton dress and light cardigan. Cardigans were only allowed in the actual calendar winter months; unseasonal weather did not allow for the cupboards to be opened if you felt cold.

I lived with my dad from the age of fourteen, and although he was nice to me and provided me with a place to live, life’s necessities, and a high school education, because I only, from the age of eight until I was fourteen, saw him at the allocated fortnightly visit of a Saturday, he was not a close parent and there was little communication between us. We never just sat and chatted, because I had been brought up to only speak when spoken to by adults and not engage in general conversation.

In the Home, we did not learn about love, relationships, and life in general. We were told to do what staff told us, and ask no questions, so our outlook on life was very vague, there was a significant lack of life’s lessons.

Ray and I married in 1967, just after my 21st birthday and after knowing each other for less than four months. We met through people we both knew in the same suburb and were looking for accommodation and thought it not right to live with the opposite sex without marriage.

I was excited about us renting a two-year-old house, and I wanted a family as this was a life I hadn’t experienced.

Ray was one of ten children (a combination of his aunts, uncles and half brothers were being raised by his grandparents). He didn’t want a family until we had our own home… so we both worked and saved for 30 months to get a $2000 home deposit for a $8000 home. We were earning only about $70 a week between us in those days. Even though Ray had left school in Year 5 (about age ten) and had only known occasional abattoir work, he studied and became a meat inspector. By 1985 we were mortgage free and we sold and moved twice.

I had worked as a public servant in the Works Department as a typist until I got married and was forced out of that job. Then I went to an office at the markets and did typing, as well as working out payments to farmers providing potatoes, pumpkin and onions for sale. This was followed by two years as a shorthand secretary for the chief inspector of the egg marketing board until I went on maternity leave to have my three children—Michelle (1970), Jason (1972), and Darren (1978).

Ray and I had plenty of disagreements over the years because of our different lifestyles and, with little in common, we just kept growing apart. In 1991 I went with my daughter Michelle (lost to a sudden heart attack in 2019) and visited my dad who was living in Western Australia whilst Ray and our sons, Jason and Darren, stayed home. Ray was asked to go rock-n-roll dancing with his brother-in-law, something he loved as a teenager. There he met a widow who had returned to her old love of dancing after her husband died. Ray left our family to live with her and dance.

I put in a lengthy report to the Forde Commission of Inquiry (1998-1999), and I was interviewed face-to-face in the Lotus Place office, before receiving the apology from the Commission in 1999, and compensation through the Redress Scheme (2007-2010).

I retired from the public service in 2010 after thirteen years in the Department of Fair Trading, which included time in registering of businesses, charities, community purposes organizations. I also handled the limited partnership registrations and enjoyed a year working with the Births, Deaths and Marriage Registrations.

I still have some contact with a few of the older girls (some in their eighties) from whom I have heard more stories of their experiences.

The photo included was taken about a month ago, outside of the old W.R. Black home. It has been amazingly transformed and is a private home now. About fifteen years ago, a group of us past residents were kindly given a morning tea there when, after viewing it in a newspaper article, we asked if we could visit, and the new owners agreed. This time, a friend who was in my class at Graceville school, but not in the home, decided she would like to do a nostalgic tour of the suburb as she hadn’t been to Graceville (a suburb beside Chelmer) for over thirty years. It was a day well spent seeing the many changes to the suburb and an outside visit to the houses we once lived in.

References:

“W.R. Black Home (1928-1965).” Find & Connect, 2018. https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/qld/QE00057

“Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions (1998-1999).” Find & Connect, 2021. https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/guide/qld/QE00269

“Goodna Aslyum for the Insane (1880-1898).” Find & Connect, 2019. https://www.findandconnect.gov.au/ref/qld/biogs/QE00598b.htm

Lotus Place. https://www.lotusplace.org.au/

Image supplied by Gwen Shipp.