School for scan­dal

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Hence, he had lit­tle per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence of the trauma of oth­ers. He tells a story of the tough Cock­ney kid, re­garded as a bully, who ap­proached him not to fight but to ask: ‘‘ What’s it like to have a muvver?’’

Though a high achiever in sev­eral walks of life, this is Hill’s first book. It is beau­ti­fully writ­ten in clear, non- aca­demic prose, and is tightly edited. Hill’s own story takes a back seat.

The ma­te­rial gleaned from Bri­tain, much of it al­ready re­ported in this news­pa­per, re­veals a sorry ( but pre­dictable) pic­ture of scan­dals and cover- ups, go­ing far up the so­cial chain, even to roy­alty. This alone would ex­cuse the harsh­ness of his words, along with his dis­cov­ery — through a re­quest for re­sponses to a ques­tion­naire — of the ap­palling level of lit­er­acy of as many as half of old Fair­brid­gians alive to­day.

The Fair­bridge Farm schools — the first was at Pin­jarra in West­ern Aus­tralia — owe their ex­is­tence to a young Rhode­sian- born ad­ven­turer, Kings­ley Fair­bridge, who took as his per­sonal cru­sade the twin goals of pop­u­lat­ing the em­pire and solv­ing the prob­lems of Bri­tain’s mount­ing army of poor and ne­glected chil­dren. He took a hands- on approach to the prac­ti­cal­i­ties ( dig­ging in the dirt along­side his young charges) and took a spe­cial in­ter­est in Aus­tralia, be­com­ing a school­book hero in the man­ner of Flynn of the In­land.

Fair­bridge died in 1924, aged 39. The farm school at Mo­long, near Orange in NSW, was opened in 1938.

The schemes were well- in­ten­tioned, as Hill points out. Their spon­sors, mostly from com­fort­able English back­grounds, al­most cer­tainly packed their own chil­dren off to board­ing prep schools at the age of about seven, so what was wrong with send­ing or­phan kids to the colonies?

Clearly, some­thing went wrong along the way. A long- time prin­ci­pal at Mo­long was Fred­er­ick Kyn­ner­s­ley Smythies Woods, a South African­born Rhodes scholar, nick­named the Boss or Woodsy. Sto­ries abound of the man’s phys­i­cal prow­ess and charisma. An old boy who en­joyed his time at Fair­bridge has a men­tal pic­ture of ‘‘ this great big man in the swim­ming pool, swim­ming up and down; a kid hold­ing on to each fin­ger, tow­ing them along like a mother hen’’. Hill re­mem­bers watch­ing in awe as Woods lifted out a tree stump that had de­fied the com­bined ef­forts of a dozen boys. An­other re­calls how he made light of a crick­et­ing in­jury, and how when it rained, Woods would keep the kids in the bat­tered Fair­bridge bus while he was out in the wet, try­ing to start the en­gine.

That’s one side of the coin. A fea­ture of life at Mo­long were the rit­u­alised Sun­day morn­ing thrash­ings ( Woods care­fully se­lect­ing his cane) on the ta­ble in the main hall which, only min­utes ear­lier, had served as the al­tar for morn­ing prayer. Such prac­tices were known to the par­ent body in Lon­don, which asked Woods, in­ef­fec­tu­ally, to stop. One big­wig sug­gested the regime at Mo­long might ben­e­fit from the ex­am­ple of the ri­val Chris­tian Brothers’ in­sti­tu­tion known as Bin­doon: an odd sug­ges­tion, as the lat­ter or­gan­i­sa­tion was far worse. ( The Brothers them­selves con­sid­ered the Protes­tant or­gan­i­sa­tion to be soft.)

There is no doubt Woods was ca­pa­ble of ap­palling phys­i­cal vi­o­lence. A story not told in the book con­cerns a home­sick child who, hav­ing been taken with other Fair­bridge chil­dren on a rare sea­side hol­i­day, saw the wa­ter and thought: ‘‘ All I’ve got to do is find a boat and I can row back to Eng­land.’’ She had started to climb into a small boat when Woodsy spied her. Ret­ri­bu­tion was swift. ‘‘ I had been given a bucket and spade for Christ­mas, and had it with me. Mr Woods picked me up by one leg, held me up­side down with one hand, swung me round and round like an aero­plane, belt­ing me with the spade which was in his other hand. He then threw me down in the sand.’’ Some 50 years on, the scars are with her still.

Alan Gill is the au­thor of Or­phans of the Em­pire.

Cold com­fort: The com­mu­nal din­ing room at Fair­bridge Farm School in Mo­long, NSW, where Bri­tish child mi­grants were starved of af­fec­tion and of­ten abused

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