Australian Biography

Lowitja (Lois) O'Donoghue - full interview transcript

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What were the two ladies who ran the home like?

Well it's very difficult. Sister Hyde, the matron, was very strict and stern. Sister Rutter, not so stern, but ... So really, they were there to bring us up as good Christian citizens, and to prepare us for life out in the world and so on, and they took their job very seriously.

Do you think they were fond of you?

Oh yes, I think they were. I mean, I guess, growing up that fondness didn't show, and I guess one of the reasons for that was because if you were to ask many of the other children that were in the home, they had, what we called, their pets. So there were the favourite ones and I wasn't one of those.

Why not?

Oh you'd have to ask them that. [Laughs]

But were you a naughty girl?

Well, no I don't think so, but I ... I stuck up for my own rights and for ... for those of my sisters in particular, of course who were all older than me. And so it's difficult to know whether in fact I was a ... was a cheeky child or not. But it would appear that those in fact who became the favourite ones were children who arrived as tiny babies. Now while I was considered a baby, that I was two, I didn't go in a ... as a small child. So as I look back on it, I think the favourites were those who came in as ... as children and there were I guess about twelve of them, and not one person would not know who they were. So they had their favourites. It was only as we grew up and left the home and saw them in later life, I think that they did have quite a genuine love of us and they seemed to get quite a lot of pleasure out of seeing us grow up and take on positions of leadership in the community.

Perhaps outspokenness wasn't regarded as a Christian virtue.

Yes, that'd be right.

And you were very outspoken even as a child?

Yes, I was. I was. In the home I was, but on the other hand when I left, I was very shy. And those, of course, who trained with me in nursing and so on ... and I remember when I did go out of the home into domestic service, not entering into any conversations at all and [I] remember for about two years that I was in domestic service only answering yes or no to any questions that were put to me.

Did the two ladies live to see your later success?

No, they didn't. [INTERRUPTION]

Did the two ladies live to see your later success?

No, they didn't. I mean, they lived to see me get into nursing and to train and to graduate, and to get into Aboriginal Affairs, but not the more recent success.

But ... so they were a little bit proud of you?

Oh yes, I think so.

Now you valued the discipline that was offered in the school, or in the home. What do you mean by the discipline?

Well I mean we were totally regimented of course in everything we did and we were expected always to ... to go to school every day and, of course, attend church three times a day on Sunday. We had prayers after every meal and, you know, it was just that kind of regimentation and the fact that we were always expected to do well at school and so what I say is that that didn't hurt and even in fact some of the ... what was really corporal punishment I guess in those days, wasn't only administered by the missionaries in the home. It was administered at school and all our friends, who were non-Aboriginal people, of course, who lived in the town, they experienced the same kind of discipline and punishment for wrong doing as we did but often, of course, we felt that we sustained greater punishment than most others. But looking back and having had discussions with those people that we grew up with I think perhaps the life in the home wasn't a lot different from what was the norm at that time.

Do you remember being punished yourself?

Oh yes, many times.

For what sort of things? Did you get beaten?


What with?

Well with a strap mostly. The straps were straps that were soaked in water and in fact we saw them, and then allowed to dry and so on and they were really ... they were really hard and of course you'd get great welts on your legs and on your body and so on when those ... that punishment was ... was meted out.

And what did you ... do you remember any specific instances?

Oh for not coming straight home from school, or going to school. I mean many times we were ... we were Aboriginal kids, whether you liked it or not, and at Quorn there were kangaroos and emus and we were meant to go straight to school, you know, in a group. We saw kangaroo or emu, we'd just jump the fence and just chase it and, you know, we were just side-tracked. We'd do things like take our hats off and hide them in the bushes alongside the railway line and then, of course, the railway workers that were called 'navvies' would come and burn the grass and we'd find at the end of the day all our hats had been burnt. And the other things we'd do is to remove our shoes and hide those and go to school without shoes and ... and perhaps wag school and the ... Sister Hyde and Sister Rutter would get to know about that. So we were punished for doing those childish things, I think that most children do.

And yet you value that? Some people would think that would have been a terrible life, to be regimented and punished like that.

No, well I value it from the point of view that I think that when I eventually went out into the life, out into life ... I was on my own of course, we had nothing to turn back to. I mean at the age of sixteen all the girls at the age of sixteen went into domestic employment and the boys went out bush, became stockmen and we were on our own, so I think it was good to think back, not on the punishment, but to think back on the fact that we were disciplined and I think that really we were able to survive out in the ... out in the world.

Where did you go to school? Was there a special school for you?

No not at Quorn. We went to the public school at Quorn and we ... as Colebrook children, were very well accepted in the small town of Quorn, which was a railway junction and a railway town. It wasn't until we left Quorn to go to Eden Hills, in the city, that we experienced racism and that we understood, I suppose, for the first time, we were ... we always understood we were Aboriginal children, but there wasn't any racism apart from the childish things that happen at ... at school we were called 'niggers' and ... but somehow we seemed to, you know, sort of have a fight over that and we were able to put it behind us. But when we went to Eden Hills we weren't accepted in the ... in the primary school and for the first two years of my primary education I went to school at the Colebrook Home, Eden Hills, where we had Red Cross women come in and teach us. In later years, the Education Department provided a ... a headmistress to the school and it was after about three or four years we were finally accepted into the ... into the local primary school. But I was nearing the end of my primary education, did my final year, which was the Seventh Grade in South Australia and sat for my Progress Certificate two years after I went to the city and then moved on to high school.

So at Quorn you didn't have any sense that being an Aboriginal was in any way a disadvantage in life?

It certainly wasn't a disadvantage to us in ... in the school. Many of our ... the children from the home, of course, did well. Dux of the school and we in fact competed with ... with the other children in the school. We were by far the best sports people and we ... we competed very well in the education system.

So it wasn't just in sport, it was also in academic things that you were excelling?

Oh yes we were. I mean I can't say that of myself personally because I think any ... anything that I've done I've done really since I left school. And I guess looking back on a few reports that I have been able to see, which I looked at when I was Australian of the Year ... I went back to the Quorn school on a visit and they showed me some of the records at the Quorn school and my ... my marks weren't all that brilliant. But I held my own, but I guess I took life much more seriously when I ... when I left school.

But you actually had quite a lot of fun when you were at school?

Oh yes, I really enjoyed life at school.

And how, in the home, were you conscious of your Aboriginality? That whole theme of what you'd left behind and who you'd left behind and what that identity was that you weren't allowed to develop or practice ... Did you have any little signs of that coming through to you, while you were in the home?

Ah yes, only in so far as that there were new children coming in all the time. So they were coming in fluent in the language. They knew about who we were once we said, you know, that our mother was Lily. 'Where is she?' you know. 'What is she doing and what's she like?' and so on. So we were able to get snippets of information from the new children coming in ... into the home and so we were always fully aware of course that we were Aboriginal children, and that we'd come from a traditional group of people, even though we didn't know much about it. We would occasionally see there were several of the children whose parents did visit the home, and ... because they were in a position to do so. And so there were some who came through and who visited and so we were able to talk to them and then, of course, there was a tribe of Aboriginal people who were from around the Flinders Ranges called the Antakarinja people, who were visible in the town of Quorn - not many but there were, and so we were able to see that there were Aboriginal people, who lived close by, who practised the traditions and we related to that, but not in a very open way.

Were the parents of the half-caste children in the homes, who could come to see them, were they encouraged to?

Some were encouraged to and I think that it was only those who were in a position to be able to. I mean when you consider we came from the north-west South Australia, transport was very, very difficult, because the missionaries went out by camel and so ... but the Ghan, of course, the old Ghan ran through Oodnadatta.

The train?

Yes. But people had to get in from very remote areas to Oodnadatta to get on a train and so it wasn't difficult to get around in those times. So it was those who ... who were in jobs, who were able to, who had camel teams, who were really able to move around and there were very few. I can only remember Mr. Hayes and the Lester family's father and so there were only about two that I remember who did come through, and I have no knowledge of them not ... them being denied access to their children.

Now, you were saying your own academic record wasn't so brilliant but that there were some Aboriginal children who were dux of the school. Yet the expectation for those children was still only that they should go into domestic service or become stockmen. Was there no alternative offered? What about the very bright children? Were they encouraged at all to go on?

No, no encouragement whatsoever. I mean by the time I left the home at sixteen I'd had my Intermediate Certificate, which of course was ... what would they call it now - Year ...

That would be the end of Year Nine now.

About Year Nine now.

Three years of high school.

Yes, three years of high school, so, yeah, three years of high school. So Intermediate Certificate, which was considered, of course, a good educational standard for those times but on my sixteenth birthday, I was told I was going into domestic service.

And what did you think of that?

Well of course I ... I wasn't very happy about it at all. I wanted to, in fact, make sure that I did leave on my sixteenth birthday. We at Eden Hills, of course, were in a much stronger position because we were closer to the city. We had contacts with the older girls who were out in domestic service, who'd come and visit us in the home and give us perhaps a telephone ... money for a telephone call and so on to them. So we were able to make some contacts on the outside world, which I remember doing but, of course, the mission authorities weren't aware that I was making virtually my own arrangements, and in so far as that I was ringing the older girls saying, 'Do you know who wants a girl?' That's what we used to say. 'Who wants a girl?' and that is somebody to work for them in domestic service, and that was the way the mission authorities referred to it: that so and so, some doctor or some lawyer wanted a girl and that you were now sixteen and you were going out. So I attempted to make my own arrangements to actually leave the Home and that was really the first I understood, that the missionaries felt that I was the sort of person that might get into a fair bit of trouble when I got out of the home, and I think that was mainly because I ... I stood up for myself and for others and they felt that when I got out of the home that I'd be one of these people who, perhaps ... But getting into trouble for them meant that within the first year of being out you'd be pregnant and that you'd be caught up with the wrong ... wrong element in society and so on and so all my attempts to actually get out into domestic service into the city, where I could meet the other older girls ... because we had an arrangement in the city that those girls, who were out in domestic service, would all attempt to get Thursdays off, [and] would meet at Beehive Corner, which is in Rundle Street - still there - at midday, go to Myer's basement for lunch and then head up to Colebrook Home to see the younger children, and perhaps that night go to the pictures on the way back. So, of course, for me, I'd hoped that I was going to do that as well, but what came back to me from the mission office was that, 'No she's not going to work in the city, she's going to the country'. So I found myself at Victor Harbour, which is a coastal town, a very nice coastal town, but of course fifty miles from the city, which was a long way in those days, and out on a farm, out from ... from Victor Harbour, and my only leisure, I suppose, outside of working for people by the name of Mr. and Mrs. Swincer was to look after the six children on the beach front while they did their shopping on Fridays. And then into church on Sunday. So I had no ... no opportunity to get up to mischief anyway.

So what did you actually have to do when you were in service to a family?

Well when I arrived, of course, Mrs. Swincer was ... was one week from going into hospital for her sixth child. And that was really quite a shock to me because if I ever remembered seeing - remembering of course I was brought up in a children's home and the only contacts we had, of course, was the maiden ladies, the missionaries in the home - and I couldn't ever remember seeing a pregnant woman before and I found that in a week ... in a week's time, I was totally in charge of that family, which meant that I was responsible for the ... for the cooking, for the cleaning and for the caring of those five children and that was meant getting them off to school and receiving them when they got home and ...

Did you go out and buy a bell?

No, I didn't buy a bell. I was really very pleased to [laughs] get away from the bell. But on the other hand it was a fairly regimented family as well but not one that answered to the bell.

So how did you cope as a sixteen year old girl suddenly with this huge family to look after?

Well, I managed, even though I was never in charge in the ... in the home I was never in charge in that way. We were certainly all rostered but not totally in charge of the menu and we would just be doing either the setting of the table, or peeling the vegetables and stirring the porridge or something like that. But apart from that, but ...

You did know how it was all done?

Yes, and I got a quite good report when I left.

So how long were you there?

I was there about two years, and in the time that I was there, I attended a Baptist fellowship, because they belonged to a Baptist fellowship in Victor Harbour and attending the Baptist fellowship was Matron Tuck, the matron of the South Coast District Hospital and I'd made contact with her and had placed my name on ... on the waiting list.

For what?

To become a nurse.

What made you decide you wanted to become a nurse?

Well I think the ... the really ... the main thing in my mind at that time was that it would provide me with a home and it would also provide me with a ... with a regular wage. So I think that was the thing that really drew me to nursing. However, I ... I enjoyed my time nursing and I believe, as well as has been confirmed of course by references and so on, that I was really quite a good nurse.

During the time that you were living with this family, those two years, were you paid a wage then?

Yes I was. I was paid. My wage was thirty shillings, that's one pound ten shillings. I received ten shillings and one pound went into a trust account for me in the ... in the state office of the United Aborigines Mission. Now, there's a long story to that. When I left domestic service, I, of course, needed uniforms and you would always receive, of course, what your standard clothes ought to be to go into nursing, and from memory it would be half a dozen aprons and, you know, frocks and so on, and, of course, I needed, you know ... I needed money to do that. But, of course, by this time I was eighteen years old. I made my way to the city, to the Mission office, who obviously ... and I wasn't aware but obviously was still, in a way, accepting some responsibility for us. While there was no contact with me in the time that I'd been in domestic service, I'd gone there to actually access my trust account, hoping that I'd be able to ... and, of course, the request was that I should open a bank account and that I would go and purchase my requirements to start nursing. With that I was told that I couldn't have access to the trust account until I was twenty-one. So I never, ever did see the ...

The money?

... any of that money.

Did you try to get it when you were twenty-one?

No I didn't. I resolved that they could have it.

You were so angry?

Very angry, very angry.

Did you also feel angry when you were trying to get a place in the city and they just decided that you were to go to this place in the country? Did that make you angry?

No, I can't remember having been angry about that, because I was really ... I mean my real ... my real quest I suppose was at that time to actually get out of the home, and it didn't really matter much to me where I went. I thought it would be nice to be able to have contact with those older girls, who, of course, I all regarded as my sisters, and ... but really what was uppermost in my mind, to get out, get in domestic service and then get into nursing as quickly as I could. So I can't feel ... I can't say that I felt any anger, real anger about that. But it stays in my mind so I guess there was a little bit there. But I was really angry about not being able to access my ... my trust account. And I think remember saying, 'Well stick it', you know, 'and that I'll make it anyway'. So I remember having, being able to purchase ... I think I could have ... I know I could have purchased all of those things if I'd have had the mission authorities come with me to the store and buy all those things for me. But I wasn't about to subject myself to that. And I thought the indignities of it, anyway, because the head of the mission office was a Mr. Samuel, a blind man, who, of course, insisted that he would escort me to the store and so on to do that, and there was no way I was going to subject myself to that sort of ...

Being watched over?

Being watched over.

To make sure you didn't spend it on drink or something?

Or something else. So I decided that I would go into nursing. I had ... I had two aprons and two uniforms as such, frocks and ...

How did you get ... how did you get the money for that?

Well I was getting ten shillings and, of course, I wasn't, wasn't going anywhere. I was only looking after the children so I had ...

That was ten shillings a week?

So that was ten shillings a week that I was receiving. So I had ... I had that and I was able to buy only two, which meant that I had to buy my shoes and stockings, which, of course, was black stockings, black shoes and the uniform for that hospital. So there was two. So I spent the first months, of course, washing continuously - washing my clothes when I was off duty, of course, and ... but it wasn't long before each pay-day I was able to buy a few more things and I put that behind me fairly ... very quickly.

So how long were you nursing there?

I was nursing ... what I'd hoped, of course, that I would nurse for two years at the South Coast District Hospital and I'd transfer to the Royal Adelaide Hospital, which was the only major teaching hospital at that time.

So you had to go there if you wanted your certificate?

I didn't ... Yes I had to go to the Royal Adelaide if I wanted a certificate. I could have started at the Royal Adelaide Hospital but, of course, there was no ... The hospital didn't accept Aboriginal girls at that time.

So despite the fact that you had the educational qualifications, you were barred from training at the Royal Adelaide because of your race?

Yes, well I wasn't barred at that time because I didn't attempt to enter the Royal Adelaide Hospital to begin my training. Because I was at Victor Harbour, I was on the waiting list, I was accepted and ... but if you were trained in a country hospital, you did two years at the country hospital and then you automatically transferred to the Royal Adelaide Hospital to do another two years. Then you graduated. When I came to transfer to the Royal Adelaide Hospital that's when I ran into my ... my first problems.

What happened?

I went to see the matron of the hospital and in those days, of course, I guess, even today, of course, I haven't subjected myself to an interview situation for many years now, but of course in those days we ... we used to make sure that you wore a hat, you wore gloves, and you really, you know, presented yourself in a proper manner for an interview. And I had a interview time, saw the matron. Matron didn't invite me into the office for the interview. She stood me up in the corridor outside of her office and just told me very bluntly that ... that I should go to Alice Springs and nurse my own people. Alice Springs, of course, being a place that I had never been to, and my 'own people' being a people that I didn't know. So, of course, that really hurt me. But I didn't give up. Matron at the South Coast District Hospital agreed that I could do another ... that I could stay on at the hospital and in fact Matron Tuck was a cousin to the Premier and the Premier of South Australia at that time was Tom Playford. Well known, of course, Premier of South Australia. Was in office of course for many years. And she herself had made contact with Tom Playford and so here I was on my days off heading down on the bus from Victor Harbour to Parliament House with appointments to see the Premier, Tom Playford, and any other member of parliament that I could possibly get an appointment with to somehow open the door to my entry to the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

[end of tape]

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