|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: November 27, 1996
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
This was your first big organisational job, where you were heading up a large number of people. How many people were you responsible for who were actually working in that section of the service?
Oh, I couldn't tell you the exact number, but there'd be thousands. And that would be not just officers, women officers, but all the staff members in all the hostels. You name any big town in Britain and there would have been a hostel or a centre for the Salvation Army. No, it was a very wide field of responsibility. And I, I had … was fortunate to have a very good man on the financial side who could claim from the government every last cent, or penny. So we were doing all right financially. And I think I was challenging the Salvation Army that though we could do quite a lot ourselves financially, they better fork up a bit more money from the -- what we call the Red Shield Appeal here in Australia. You know in Britain they have a big appeal just like that. And so I said, you know, 'You -- even if we do fairly well, you, the people, are giving for the kind of work that I'm involved in. Therefore you should make sure we get our share of that cash as well.' So I was always very interested in the money side.
And you were good at it? You were a good financial manager?
I think I am, yes. Strong sense of accountability. I think money is functional. Its value is what you're doing with it. And if you're doing something good with it, you always find you get it. A strange thing. But that's how I believe God supplies. You know, when I used to read Salvation Army books when I was younger, and read, you know, General Bramwell and General William Booth, they always got money just when they needed it, you know, by some kind of wonderful answer to prayer. Well, when I became a leader I found the same thing.
So, when you were doing this, you said that you had not had any experience of the social service side of the Army. Does that mean that when you were a young officer in a bonnet, you weren't one of the people reaching down into the gutter to pick the drunk out, which is the image that was so often associated with those young Sally women in their bonnets, helping people?
No, no. I was in the Salvation Army until I was about 13, then from 13 to 18 I didn't go at all. And then I went to Africa fairly soon, so I never was in the situation of being deeply involved in community programs, and so forth. And those surprising stories about the woman in the bonnet, kneeling down in the gutter, I mean it's absolutely true, because they don't get made up. That's because it actually happened. And I was once dining at the Australian Embassy in London, when Her Majesty The Queen was there. She was about to come to Australia to open our House of Parliament. And they were sitting at the table with us, about eight of us, eating at this table. And there was an English lord, Lord Willis. And he was expatiating about how much he loved the Salvation Army, you know, to Her Majesty, and saying, 'When I used to be preaching my socialist doctrine on one corner, the Salvation Army was having their street meeting. And one day, I saw this beautiful Salvation Army girl in that lovely bonnet, kneel down and wipe the sweat off the brow of this drunken man in the gutter.' Honestly, it was so moving, it must have happened. I mean, you know, sure. No, that's 'specially from our past, because now you don't see so many drunken men falling in the gutter, although I did in Scotland see that a lot. But those stories are really symbolic of the fact that the Salvation Army went and helped people whom they used to call down and out. People that nobody else wanted to know. We don't mind knowing them and we don't mind helping them. But no, I didn't, I hadn't done that.
What did you bring to the job, do you think, that had been spotted by your leaders, that placed you there? What qualities did you bring to that period of your life?
Well, I think one of them would be inspirational leadership. Most of the staff were women and many of them were working in places that were often very depressing. And so I think I inspired them to see that what they were doing was so important and so valuable. I think also I encouraged the workers to see that what we were doing was significant in the social development of Great Britain. I could also speak out in committees and conferences, you know, about the Salvation Army's position. I became an advocate for people. So I also, I think, was quite good at spotting other leaders. That's been another gift that I've had, bringing on people into leadership who had gifts and abilities. I remember somebody came to me once, many years afterwards, and she had been a Salvation Army officer at the time when I was the leader of the women's social. And she said, 'Oh, you know that what you did for us was you gave us an injection of hope.' I've always cherished that because that's tough work, and sometimes you get your love thrown back in your face. So you know, to feel you're doing something of value, and to feel that it's valued right up to the top, makes people feel much happier about what they're doing.
You said you were in this job for a fairly short period. How long did you...
... Only 18 months.
But you made a big difference?
I feel I made a contribution.
The question of how we look after our poor and how society deals with the fact that there are unfortunate people who have been disadvantaged in life, is really a political issue of great concern in Britain, which divides political parties. How did you position yourself in relation to the political context that you were working in?
Oh, well, definitely, I had to challenge anybody and everybody I met to really take care of the poor. You see, in Britain there are so many homeless people, and so often the government's provision for them would be maybe to find them a bed, what they call 'bed and breakfast'. But then they'd give them nothing to help them find a job, or find a solution to that particular problem. And in the end they drift off and sleep in the streets. So that the Salvation Army then was very keen to do something for the unemployed, the homeless and the poor. Strangely enough, you know, when William Booth lived in London in the 19th century he wrote a very definitive book called In Darkest England and the Way Out. And it was sort of based on [Henry] Stanley, you know, who went to darkest Africa to find [Dr David] Livingstone. And William Booth was showing that Britain was a dark place for those who were disadvantaged. And he set up certain programs. And the three great evils that he pointed out were poverty, homelessness and unemployment. And here we were, all these years later, nearly 100 years later, and still having the same problem. So whenever I had the opportunity I would challenge on that. And I didn't later really hold with Margaret Thatcher's position, which seemed to imply that, you know, if you worked hard you'd pull yourself up by your bootlaces. But so many people who are disadvantaged don't have any chance to pull themselves up.
And they certainly don't have bootlaces.
No, that's right.
Why, given that you were making such a success of this, did the Army decide-- and I assume again it was the Army decided --that you should move on?
Well, they didn't tell me exactly why, but the General at that time was the same General who'd appointed me to the women's social work. And there was coming up in the near future a High Council to choose the next General. And whether he thought, 'I should have a few more women there, and who is a woman who could take a position of leadership in a country so that would qualify her for membership at the High Council' -- that could well have been a sort of motivation. Because I was very young. I was only 47, and I became the Territorial Commander of Sri Lanka. And I was the youngest member of the High Council since the very first one. So I was extremely young in Salvation Army mind. Don't know what the men thought about it. But then the General said, 'I'm sending you to Sri Lanka to be the Commander.' So that was a big job.
Now, women who were appointed at a young age above men who might actually quite like the job, often find themselves in a peculiar position, which means that they come in for a lot of criticism. Is everybody in the Salvation Army so good that none of them expressed any resentment of this young girl racing through their ranks at this kind of speed?
I didn't hear it myself. But I know there were some men who thought that perhaps I was getting too much too soon. Not so much of the men who had seen me at the college, because I think they all felt that I was destined for leadership in the movement. But one thing was, I went to Sri Lanka, and most of the other leaders in that area, in India, Pakistan, were Indians, Pakistanis so they were very happy to have to me there. So, I didn't find that kind of jealousy, if you might like, or feeling that I was getting too much too quickly, from the Indian leaders. They accepted me very readily. And we had a lot of conventions, sort of discussion groups, conferences, in India while I was the Commander in Sri Lanka. And I was wonderfully received by them.
And so you were off, once again, to an exotic country with a whole new set of things to learn. How did you approach that?
Mmm, it was, it was a whole new set of things to learn, because I'd never lived in Asia before. And I think I felt that I would be able to transfer into Asia the many experiences I'd had in Africa, cross-cultural experiences, identification with the people. And it's true that some of those generalities were possible but when I got there I discovered that cultures are so different that, whereas we often say, you know, east and west, I can now say Africa and Asia. They're different from each other as is the east and west. So I then had to enter into another culture altogether, and try and learn. I had to study more about religions because, unlike Africa, Sri Lanka is a country with long established religious groups. The majority were Buddhists. Then quite a large number were Hindus. Then quite a lot were Muslims. And then another group were the Christians. So then I had to really think about other religions in a way that I hadn't -- I had studied a little about it but now I wanted to, needed to, see it up close. And I think one of my amazing experiences was that I was invited to speak on the radio, which was called Thought for the Day, which I think they have in lots of places. And that was on the English radio because Sri Lanka was Ceylon, a British colony. They'd had -- another thing -- they'd had so many colonial powers. They'd had the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. And now they were independent. That's another thing that, you know, I had to understand, what they felt about non-Singhalese people. So I was quite pleased to be given this opportunity and so I thought I better find out what they do, you know. And normally I was away on Sunday morning preaching so I got somebody to tape these programs for a few weeks so I could learn what they do. And to my great surprise, I discovered that they had four thoughts for the day, one after the other. Five minutes: Buddhists, Hindu, Muslim and Christian. And you know, when I was listening to them, I said to myself you know, they don't sound very much different. Because really, the speakers were talking about ethical standards of life and a good Buddhist is a very good person. A good Hindu is a good person. So I said, what do I have to say, why am I even here, if what I say is exactly the same as everybody else? Surely I have something different to say. And then, as I contemplated this whole matter of religious freedom and what one religion has to give to the other I, you know, realised that what the Christian faith has to give is that Jesus Christ is not just a good teacher, but that he is God. And that he's alive, and that he's not just a way to follow in a book. But he is the living way who is with us. Because I had a very strange experience one day in Sri Lanka. I was visiting a Hindu [who] had invited me to lunch when I was visiting a certain part of the country. And he had a big picture on the wall, and there were four people in this painting: Moses, Mohammed, Buddha and Jesus. And I said, 'Oh, what a beautiful painting.' He said, 'I had that specially done myself.' So I said, 'Oh, why did you do that?' 'Oh,' he said, 'because I admire them all.' He said, 'You see, they were all founders of great religions, Jewish, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity, you know, and to me they all have equal value.' And I said, 'Well, I agree with you that they were great men and worthy to follow and they were great founders of religion, but I can't agree with you that they're all equal because Mohammed and Buddha and Moses died. But Jesus arose from the dead and is still alive and therefore his teaching has a validity that I find more powerful than the others.' So those kind of experiences were quite different than Africa because African people had no other religion than their animistic faith, their primitive type of thinking … [INTERRUPTION]
Go on … African people ...
The African situation was so different and that was an illuminating experience for me. And I came to be, I believe, tolerant of other faiths, but at the same time believing that what Christ had taught was the guidance that I believed in and wanted to teach. So it was a valuable experience. We did a lot of social work with the poor. The beggars, we had homes for beggars, and we'd have meals for people sleeping on the streets. We had centres for children who … poor children as well as orphans, and community programs for people where they could come and do some schooling with us in the day time because they couldn't go to school. We had a beautiful home, which had a lovely name. It was called The Haven, where we had women who'd been cast out by their families because possibly they'd had a child illegitimately or something like that. And then we looked after babies. And quite a lot of the babies were just left on our doorstep because many poor families knew that they'd be looked after well with us, and so they'd just given up their child. We could never find the parents -- if we could find the parents we would. But other than that we looked after those children and brought them up. Many of them became fine citizens of Sri Lanka.
You brought them up in some sort of institution? I was interested that you were of the opinion that fostering was overrated as a method of taking care of children …
Well, what I meant was -- I don't underestimate fostering. It can be beautiful. But what I think is that children in a home environment -- we call it an institution, but the Salvation Army would call it a home -- now many of the children who've lived with us in our homes have been very happy. And, you know, some children just do not settle in foster homes, and then they present back to the Salvation Army. And then they're fostered again, and then they're sent back to us, because they haven't been able to get on with -- it's a certain type of child who settles quite happily into the group home and as long as the people in charge are loving parents -- and that's why many children's homes now have become villages rather than one big building. They'll have a number of houses in the grounds and then they'll have what we call house parents looking after the children. And many of those children have been happy, very happy, in that home. And in fact, I heard only the other day -- in Sydney we have a reunion every now and again, of children who've been in our big children's home up in Stanmore area, and even some of them are coming back after 30, 40, years. They loved it and they loved the officers who cared for them. So I think you can't set one kind of policy and expect every child to be able to fit into that policy. I think the government is doing better now, they're realising that some children do not fit into the foster situation.
How long were you in Sri Lanka?
Three years, about three years.
And what do you think you achieved there? Was it a time of change?
Well, it was the beginnings of the time of difficulty between the Tamils and the Singhalese. Even during my three years we had one of those times of uprising and Tamils were really persecuting -- sorry, the Singhalese were against the Tamils, especially in Sri Lanka -- ah, in Colombo where I lived. There was an Indian family just near my home, and when this sort of disquiet arose and they had to run for their lives I went round to try and help them and they'd hardly got away when the house was burnt down. And the Salvation Army was able to do quite a lot of work in the refugee camps. They set up camps for the Tamils, especially in the Singhalese areas like Colombo and up in Kandy mountain area. Since then, of course, the matter has escalated into a real war. Also at that time, too, I helped, I think, to give the Salvation Army a public name, because we had a terrible cyclone in the eastern part of Sri Lanka, when all the coconut tree plantations were decimated. And we went up quickly with clothing and food for the people. And our Singhalese Salvation Army officers were remarkable. They worked so hard for them and I think got a lot of coverage in the newspapers and helped the people to see that the Salvation Army was not just a proselytising church, but that we were there to be involved with the people at their times of emergency and need. And at that time there was a lovely editorial in a newspaper about myself, which said, you know, 'You may think this is a white woman coming from a foreign land, but look what she did and how she helped us.' And I didn't count that for myself but I felt for the Salvation Army that was very important, because we were quite a small church and our social and community program was much bigger than we were as a church itself. I often say, too, in that cyclone, we all learned great lessons in life. In that terrible cyclone, you know, the coconut trees were absolutely just blown over, and that was the livelihood of the people. And we were in a coastal area and I saw a man and his three sons, his family, taking this coconut tree that had fallen down and were making a boat out of it. Because obviously their boat had been destroyed in the cyclone. And I thought, you know, I mean I'm glad to help you, but you are helping yourself. And I've found that a great deal in life. I've never thought of the Salvation Army just handing out things. You also encourage people to help themselves. And when you see them helping themselves, you're more willing to help them too.
Within the Salvation Army community in Sri Lanka, were there Singhalese and Tamil officers?
And was there any problem between them?
No, not really. But we … most of our Tamil officers worked in the north, which then became the area where the Tamil Tigers were fighting against the Singhalese. And we had a children's home up there and several centres. So we mainly sent our Tamil people up into that area. because you could often feel there was tension. If some Tamil got a very high position, more than a Singhalese, then there would be some people who would be jealous. But during the war, our children's home was almost destroyed. And now we've begun work again there up in that area. Now that things are a little bit quieter.
What do you feel will happen?
I don't know what's going to happen. Because every time a politician, like the present Prime -- no, she's President now, isn't she [Chandrika Kumaratunga] (her mother's the Prime Minister) --she wanted to make some efforts towards reconciliation, but it really hasn't worked. I mean I wish I could help the Tamils to see that they could live together with the Singhalese. But there you are, they feel they must have a separate state. It's such a small area and such a small number of people, how they would manage economically. So you might say one solution would be to let them have their own country and then see how they manage. But Sri Lanka's very small geographically. It's only about 150 miles across and a couple of hundred miles long. It's very difficult to see how the people will be reconciled to each other. In the Christian church there's far more reconciliation, because when I was in Sri Lanka there was a bishop elected who was actually a Tamil. And he was in Colombo in the very much the Singhalese area. So there were opportunities for the Christian church to show that they were willing to work together as brothers.
You were taking on this job of being a territorial commander without the support of a wife, which is what most of the men in those positions would have. And I imagine that it would be a huge organisational job, that job of leadership. How did you manage?
Well, I hadn't had a wife before anyway. But I think it was a very big challenge to me. And I wanted to really see how best to organise the place. I was fortunate in [that] physically I was well cared for, because in the home where I lived there was a cook and a girl who looked after the house. That was quite common in Sri Lanka, so many people without work, so that to live in a house and domestic service, people are very thrilled to do that. So I didn't have worries like that and it was just as well, because my salary was so small: in the Salvation Army we don't get much salary. And if … my cook would go and buy all the food, you see, and therefore she'd buy it at the Sri Lanka prices. If I'd appeared at the market, I'd have had to pay enough for one or two things that would have taken my salary for a week. So I had those kind of physical help, which I found very valuable. And therefore I could devote myself entirely to the work of organisation. And I also, I think, had good people around me who were willing to support my leadership. At boards and discussion around the table, I think they felt that I had some good ideas coming up.
Were your cook and housekeeper Salvation Army?
No, the cook was a Buddhist actually. And she was a very good Buddhist, because she went to the temple very regularly. She had been the cook for the Salvation Army Commander for nearly 20 years when I went there. So they hadn't converted her to Christianity. But she was a single elderly lady. She used to tell me what she did at the temple and so forth.
Did you try to convert her?
No, I didn't.
Well, no, because I felt by that time of her life she had settled into what she believed and she was very happy. And she did it most sincerely. And I knew that God looked upon her as somebody who had found a way of life that really she felt was good and right. In fact, she was sometimes better than me, because one day in the house I killed a mouse. She didn't speak to me for a fortnight. Because as a Buddhist I shouldn't have killed this poor little defenceless creature. She was a very sweet lady. And the girl in the house had been a girl in our children's home. And when she had finished at the home she was given a job working for the Commander.
So even though you've described your firm position, that you felt that Christianity was the superior religion of the religions available, you didn't feel that it was vital for somebody to actually shift an allegiance from one of the other good religions to Christianity?
Well, we … I would preach in the street. We had street meetings. And I would make known the message of Jesus Christ. And we did have people who became Christians from other faiths. Sometimes they were not very sincere people of that faith. But then they would become Christians and we would accept them and train them in the faith. But in the case of Alice, as her name was called, I felt that she had so long been settled in her faith that she would have found the whole experience too traumatic. I still communicate with her at Christmas times and send her a few dollars to help her.
And now, what brought this period of your life to a close, apart from an order. But what was the reason for that?
Well, that's just the reason. You know ...
Hang on, just before I get to that, there's another question I wanted to ask … You went to your first Council of all the Heads, your equivalent of the College of Cardinals, during that period, did you?\
High Council … During the time that you were in Sri Lanka, the time came to elect a new world General, and you went as this relatively young woman to your first High Council. What was that like?
Oh, that was an amazing experience and it was quite early in my time in Sri Lanka. I think it was about April 1977, yeah... so I had to travel to London and we go to a place outside London, which belongs to the Salvation Army, and we're virtually locked in there. And we spend a great deal of time in prayer, in discussion about the purposes of the Salvation Army. Then we set up a series of questions which we think are important, which we would want to ask from those who are nominated. So there's a nomination period and then a secret ballot time and so forth. So I was really excited about going. But because it was my first time I kept a low profile. I was very young so I thought, no, I'm just going to do the listening this time. I've got more High Councils coming up ahead.
[end of tape]