Book Review by Dee Michell
Kate Shayler is one of my Real Life Super Heroes. Her mother died when she was 4 and Kate went to live at the Burnside Presbyterian Homes for Children, located in North Parramatta, New South Wales. Burnside started life in 1911 as the Burnside Presbyterian Orphan Homes, and was founded by Sir James Burns (1846-1923) who migrated to Australia from Scotland in 1862. He initially made money as a storekeeper supplying Queensland goldfields but branched out into trading in the Pacific Islands and into a diverse portfolio which included insurance and shipping.
Burnside was a pioneer of cottage homes in Australia, taking the lead from the development of these in the UK. Cottages homes were an alternative to the large congregate style of accommodation for orphaned children and those from impoverished families. Rather than all children being housed in the one building, children were separated into smaller groups and cared for by adults, often called a ‘house mother’ or ‘house parents’ when a married couple was employed.
At Burnside there were 14 cottages, all quite large and housing up to 50 children, according to Kate Shayler. Plus, there was a farm which supplied the cottages with food and milk, a hospital, swimming pool, and gym. Kate writes: “During the period Burnside existed as a residential care facility, approximately eleven thousand children passed through its doors, with up to five hundred living there at any one time” (p. v).
The school at Burnside—Burnside Public School—was built in 1922 to “overcome the problems of transporting the Burnside homes children to North Parramatta School”and until 1962, provided education up to the “intermediate level”, or about Years 9 and 10 now.
Not all students at Burnside Public School was Burnie kids. Richie Benaud (1930-2015), a highly esteemed Australian cricketer and cricket commentator, was there too, as his father, Lou, was a teacher at Burnside.
After 12 years of living at Burnside, Kate Shayler left, moved home with her father and took up paid work as an administrator. She later went to university and became a teacher, work she thoroughly enjoyed for 20 years. In 1996 Kate retired after she met her partner, Dave, who had also grown up in an institution, and 3 years later she published The Long Way Home. The Story of a Home Kid (Random House Australia).
Kate received an unexpected response to The Long Way Home, including from former Burnside children who were not there because a parent had died—as she had assumed—and who had a much more difficult time than Kate. In turn, Kate decided to publish a book of stories from “ex-Burnie kids” and advertised for participants.
“A few agreed to but when it came to reliving the pain, they withdrew their offers. A few said their spouses were going to write their stories as best sellers one day. Many have no contact at all with Burnside now and would not have seen my requests”, Kate writes in the introduction to Burnished: Burnside Life Stories.
For Burnished, Kate Shayler has gathered together the life stories of 25 people who at one-time lived in Burnside during the 20thcentury. Most stories (17) are from men and they are placed in the book in chronological order, beginning with George who was born circa 1917 and ending with Dee, born in 1961.
George went into Burnside because his mother—effectively a single mother since his father was an alcoholic—could not continue to look after her 7 children. Mum and the eldest daughter took the 2 youngest children to the onsite hospital to be “checked over before we could be accepted” and disappeared. After he left Burnside, George went on to do a range of work, including serving in the Air Force during WWII and working on Sydney trams and driving buses. He raised a family with his wife of 60 years and was actively involved in his local RSL (Returned & Services League). George was, as Kate Shayler says, a success.
The remaining stories follow a similar format (except for Roy’s (b. 1942) who writes little about life during and after Burnside except to say that after 9 years of living in Burnside with 30 odd boys, he prefers the company of women). We learn why children ended up in Burnside – most often placed their voluntarily (rather than through state intervention) because of poverty, but also because of the desertion of fathers, no single parent pension, abandonment of children, being shipped to Australia from Scotland, ill health of parent/s, death of parent/s). We also find out something about their post-Burnside lives—paid work, relationships with friends and family, and their reflections on their time in Burnside. Some of the ex-Burnie kids thought there were benefits to living there; it made George self-reliant for example. Others, such as Michelle, were left with high levels of conformity and compliance they were still struggling against decades later.
There were 3 themes I found striking across the 25 stories.
First, even though siblings went together into Burnside, they were often separated and did not know each other. Analise (b. 1946) writes:
Frank and I were put into different homes. He went to Reid Home, away up the road from Ivanhoe, where I was, so I could never be with him. I couldn’t bear that sometimes. I’d look into the distance and see a little dot that could have been him. Remembering that still upsets me. I just had to watch him from a distance for eight years. I hardly saw him at school, either, because he was in the Infants school and I was in Primary and those departments weren’t allowed to play together at recess. (p. 183).
Children being beaten is the second theme, girls and boys.
Peter (b. 1938 in Estonia) says:
“You learnt fast. The alternative to ‘whack’ was being sent to get the ‘sock’. The ‘sock’ was a razor strap applied to the bum or the backs of the knees with enthusiastic strokes. How many strokes? It depended on your crime. Alternatively [house parent] Ma might tell you, ‘Go and stand in the hall,’ or ‘Get the polishing cloths and polish the hall,’ or some other senseless task.” (p. 117).
And Stan (b. 1938):
“This man was cruel and in his ‘care’, there would be boys lined up for the strap every evening at bedtime. He would make you bend over the bed with your pants down and flog you several times on the bare backside. It was so bad I had bruises and broken skin for up to two weeks. I would show my mother when she visited but she was terrified to say anything for fear of repercussions.” (p. 135).
Food is the 3rdtheme. Children were forced to eat whatever was on their plate, even if the food made them sick. Michelle writes:
“Eat everything on your plate or you will get it again for the next meal. If you vomit up your Brussels sprouts you will still be made to eat them and the vomit, too. Still to this day I cannot eat broad beans or Brussels sprouts. I got to the stage where I would sneak them onto someone else’s plate and let them get into trouble for not eating their veggies.” (p. 244).
Children were also resourceful in filling up empty bellies with whatever they could find outside, reminding me of Jae-Dee in Goodwood Orphanage in South Australia.
Helen (b. 1942) tells of eating ‘plum puddings’:
“They were the tiny bulbs of a particular weed for which we searched diligently. We sucked them and ate them and some were really sweet.” (p. 156).
And Stan (b. 1938) writes:
“When we were hungry we used to eat a lot of strange things that nature provided: sour grass, plum puddings, which were small pods growing in the lawns, lilly pillies, nasturtium leaves and the gum from the wattle trees. The Moreton Bay fig sap provided us with excellent bubble gum.” (p. 130).
Even George, for whom Burnside was largely a positive experience, says that the food (or absence of it) had an ongoing impact as “the only bad effect Burnside had is that I still knock food off whenever I can.” (p. 13).
Burnished: Burnside Life Stories is an important addition to the stories about Burnside we have in the 2004 Federal Government report on Australians who were in institutional care during the 20thcentury, and the Forgotten Australians and Former Child Migrants Oral History Project. Because these are life stories, we can appreciate that, despite the stigma and low expectations of ‘home kids’, and despite their negative institutional experiences, the ex-Burnie kids are, as Kate Shayler says, “all successes”. They have made invaluable contributions to the Australian community through their paid work—as technicians, trades people, running businesses, teaching, and administrators—and through their unpaid work of caring for families and volunteering in their communities.
Burnished: Burnside Life Stories is recommended reading for anyone interested in the history of child welfare in Australia and in making cross-country comparisons. It is also a significant challenge to those who think kids who have been out of home care do not amount to much.
Thanks to Kate Shayler for a review copy of Burnished: Burnside Life Stories.
Dr Dee Michell is an academic at the University of Adelaide. She was made a Ward of the South Australian State in 1960 and remained in foster care for 15 years. She worked as an administrator for a multi-national corporation before going to university in her 40s, when she combined study with primary care for her three children. From 2013 to 2016, Dee worked with Nell Musgrove (Australia Catholic University) on a 3-year Australian Research Council funded project on the history of foster care in Australia. Their book, The Slow Evolution of Foster Care in Australia. Just Like a Family?, was published in 2018.
Follow Dee on Twitter: @DrDeeMichell