School for scandal
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