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Louise Henry

My curiosity began with a small detail in my grandmother’s eulogy; that she’d spent time in an orphanage as a child. When I asked my father about it, he said she never liked to talk about it, she’d say, ‘You don’t want to hear about that, it’s too sad’. My father and his siblings were under the impression that she had been at the orphanage for only a short while, maybe a year, maybe two. She was close to her family, and we knew our family tree, all sides, going several generations back, so it can’t have been too disruptive, they thought. But they were aware that she had had a difficult childhood, that her mother, their Nan, was considered flighty, and couldn’t always look after her children. She had been married at fifteen and had her first (surviving?) child at seventeen, and two more in two-year gaps after that. Her husband was a miner, a drinker, and they lived out in the dry, scrub-covered savannah landscape of far north Queensland, over the range west of Cairns, near Chillagoe. This was where there was money to be made in mining for gold, tin and wolfram – but not that much, and not for much longer around the time my grandmother was born. He was in his early thirties when they married and given their circumstances there were many possible reasons as to why they split up. But this seemed to be the catalyst for Grandma, her older brother, and younger sister, to have been taken (placed?) into care, at seven, five and three years of age.

I had an idea of writing a novel around the early lives of my two grandmothers. Born just four years apart their lives covered the early years of two young nations, Australia, and New Zealand. Their lives spanned an era of great change in the first half of the twentieth century. They also represented two very different social experiences, that of the poor in North Queensland and the wealthy in Otago. Putting representations of their lives on a page, side-side, I thought, would make for a fascinating examination of the lives of girls and women in this era. It was this that propelled my research into my North Queensland grandmother’s past.

My grandmother was born in 1913, in Mareeba. It is fortunate that Births, Deaths and Marriages keep records, as the hospital she was born in burnt down in the 1960s and all their records to that time went with it. This was indicative of the difficulties of looking for evidence of past lives in the archives, so much is missing, or never recorded. What details, apart from the spare government records that I had to work with, were the fragile scraps that get remembered and passed on by word of mouth.

~ spent time with her father’s sister in Mackay

~ mother worked in various menial jobs in mostly small regional settlements across North Queensland

~ under the care of a Salvation Army woman at some point who would take Grandma onto the streets of Brisbane to collect money

~ first job in a factory there at thirteen years of age making mattress buttons from old leather suitcases

~ later worked in this hotel or that café, or general store, following the itinerant life her mother led before her

But my first focus was to find out where she spent time in care, no-one seemed to know exactly. From the electoral rolls I was able to find out that her parents had split up while living in Nebo, west of Mackay. And so, I thought she was most likely to have gone into care there or Rockhampton, being the two closest large towns. Except, my father reminded me, Grandma had talked quite a bit about attending Central State School in Townsville, so that was an option as well. Her own mother had come from Townsville originally, and it was probably assumed that the children had been with her mother when she was attending school. No-one questioned it, but perhaps that assumption was wrong. It was also possible she had been to more than one orphanage.

A visit to the State Archives in Brisbane unearthed the school enrolments for Central State School – the school, I had found through research, had been located a block down the hill from the orphanage and was the school all Townsville Orphanage children attended. On endless microfiche containing a series of faded, water-damaged school rolls, I found my grandmother’s name. Proof. And beside it, all the dates of entry and exit from the school, no doubt mirroring the time she spent in the orphanage and out of it. There were many listed. It had not been one or two years; it had spanned nine years taken together.                                                                                             

Time spent in and out of Townsville Orphanage

I had found a few rolls of the inmates of the Townsville Orphanage at the Heritage section of the Council Library in Townsville. But none of the years matched those when she might have been there. They did, however, have a photograph of the orphanage taken in the year of her birth, so not long before she would find herself living there. Several other photographs of the orphanage from different times were also accessible and provided a small window into her past world. There was a list of the duties of the Matron at the orphanage, maps of the site on which it was built, and a couple of newspaper articles discussing its establishment back in the 1880s. There was also a publication celebrating the centenary of the Central State School which mentioned the association with the Orphanage and its ‘orphans’ in it. Like Grandma, many inmates had surviving parents and relatives, just none that were able to care for them.

At the State Library of Queensland was a report written by Dr Raphael Cilento in 1923, director of the Australian Institute of Tropical Medicine, on the treatment of a Hookworm outbreak at the orphanage in Townsville. This was archival gold, with drawings of the layout and descriptions of various aspects of the orphanage with photos and general information about the current inmates there. It all helped to build a picture of this particular orphanage, about which very little information remains. And, yes, according to the Central State School roll, she had been there during the time of the Hookworm Campaign of Dr Cilento’s report. She was one of the statistics.

Townsville Orphanage, 1913

It can be assumed that the times listed in the school roll correspond with those times when she was in the care of family members and when she was in the care of the state. The regularity of returning to Townsville and to Central State School points to this. We know that she and her siblings had been fostered out to their father’s sister at different times, and spent time with their own mother, as well. Where this was at the time is unknown, however, she never stayed anywhere long. There were times when they were fostered out to other, unrelated, foster families. We know, that for Grandma, she wasn’t successfully fostered out to these other families, unlike her younger sister. She was a bedwetter and would always be sent back to the orphanage shortly after an attempt to foster her out. That was another scrap of information she once let slip to her own children. Once you start rattling the cage of memory, it is surprising what ends up falling out.

It was considered a shameful thing, once, to have been in an orphanage; not something you wanted people to know about you, and probably another reason Grandma didn’t talk much about it. But occasionally she did. Another thing she once said was that ‘they would really whack us in there. There was no love, no affection’. Her mother, meanwhile, also gave birth to two other children during this period, one of whom was given to a childless couple to look after with the understanding that she would always have access. But they left Mackay one day with the baby and no way to contact them and that little boy disappeared from their lives, forever untraceable. The other boy stayed a part of their family, somehow (I am not familiar with his story), and all four siblings remained very close for the rest of their lives. The two boys went on to serve in the Second World War in North Africa, later marrying and settling into lives in Mackay. Grandma’s sister married young and went on to have a family of her own in Mackay, with children and grandchildren.

My grandmother and her sister in Mackay, age and date (sometime in the 20s) 

After years of short-term jobs in hotels as a chambermaid, a shop girl in a general store, and a waitress in cafes in various small regional towns and villages, Grandma came further north in 1938 at the age of 25 to work as a chambermaid in a hotel that catered to business travelers and the workers of the growing sugar cane industry. By this time, she had been working for around half her life; and in a society that was short on women and tall on men probably had many opportunities to marry before then. But it was here in this hotel that she met her husband, my grandfather, a local cane farmer. She said that she ‘liked the way he spoke’, according to one of her daughters. No doubt she would have met her share of rough sorts over the years, but she was a reader and had learned for herself something of the world through books (and probably through hard won experience as well). Those years at Central State School had given her this valuable gift, and as great good fortune would have it, Grandpa was also a reader. Together they brought up six children, and it was these years that Grandma always said were the happiest years of her life. She may have been stuck out on a farm where she didn’t know how to drive, living in a farmhouse with a partially dirt floor and with no electricity, and bringing up three boys and three girls, but she was happy. She had her own family now, all together.

Her children were devoted to her, and her many grandchildren loved her and her enveloping hugs. She was kind, and the least judgmental person I have ever known. And now that my awareness of the kind of early life she had is so much greater, I admire her even more for the generous attitude towards others and life, that I see now, she actively cultivated. We are surrounded by extraordinary people hiding in plain sight, and she was one.

Dr Louise Henry has a PhD in Creative Writing and is a Tutor in the Division of Tropical Environments & Societies at the Cairns Campus of James Cook University. She is interested in uncovering and listening to the voices of ‘everyday’ women in Far North Queensland who have contributed to the history of the region but whose lives have received little attention. Louise has published widely, including in Social Alternatives, TEXT, and the Queensland Review.

The image of Townsville Orphanage is from the Queensland State Library and is also available from the Regional Council Library of Townsville. Other images have been supplied by Louise Henry.