Grace Bennett – Domo Girl 1939 to 1948

Grace Bennett was a small child when she was placed in the Cherbourg Girls’ Dormitory. In this video she tells of her experiences in the Dormitory, her family, her isolation and then of her later life and how she married and moved away from Cherbourg, her people and her former life.

Grace Bennett Interview 22nd September 2015

 

  1. Childhood, Roots, Family, Coming to the Dormitory
  2. Life in Dormitory
  3. After Dormitory, Healing

 

 

1. Childhood, Roots, Family, Coming to the Dormitory

 

Aunty Sandra:

So you remember being in the dormitory?

Grace:

Yes. Yes I do, I remember, I never knew my mother of course, and she died when I was three years old and I didn’t know I had a little brother, and he was two years old. And he was sent down to Royal Brisbane Hospital, he had an accident in Cherbourg, and then they didn’t send him back to Cherbourg because there wasn’t anyone there to look after him.   He was still weak from the operation and had to be looked after for a while, so they kept him down there at the Montrose boys home, and he stayed down there.

Aunty Sandra:

So did you ever get to see him again?

Grace:

Well I did, they bought him back to Cherbourg to die from tuberculosis. That’s what my mother died from.

Aunty Sandra:

So you really can’t remember much about your mum being around you?

Grace:

No, no way. No motherly person around me really. My stepfather, he remarried and he and his wife didn’t want me. So I can still see him walking down into the dormitory, and I was about 4 ½ then, and I had a few things in a small suitcase, one of those little tiny ones, kids ones we used to use, and Granny Nancy was there, I think Ruthy was there too you know, having a look to see what was going on.

Aunty Sandra:

So you were there under my Nana’s care.

Grace:

Yes, see my stepfather knew Aunty Hazel, because he used to teach you know at the school at Cherbourg, my stepfather. And she was there, because he probably asked her to be there. So he asked her to look out for me and settle me in, and Granny Nancy said, “yes, we’ll do that”, and that’s what happened. I was 4 ½ years old then.

Aunty Sandra:

So how was your feelings about like, family? You felt abandoned?

Grace:

Abandonment, yes, I was moved, well you know after my mother died, my stepfather he was still young, everyone had to go out to work, you know, so he left me first with Uncle Vincent Law – he was a lovely man, Uncle Vincent. That was my stepfather’s uncle, so he was always uncle to me, and his wife, it was his first wife. They looked after me, and then, I was passed onto Granddad George Law, that’s Uncle Vincent’s father I think, and he kept me for a while, and then my father came back for a visit, back to Cherbourg, and he took me down to Uncle Wally Phillips and Aunty Maudy, Maudy Phillips. See Uncle Wally came from the Nebo people, and that where my Grandfather and my Grandmother.

Aunty Sandra:

That’s your connection there.

Grace:

That’s my connection there, very lovely people. They looked out for each other on the settlement you know. All the people bought down there.

Grace: Sandra… I was um, well by the time I was 8 I got to know a lot of people then. My Aunty Mary, was my mother’s sister, she used to visit me occasionally, but she used to work as well.

Well I still didn’t know… well Aunty Kiddy Fisher, she knew my mother, and she used to tell me what she was like, no one else ever told me what she was like. I wanted to know what my mother was like. She was a lovely person, Aunty Kiddy Fisher.

Aunty Sandra:

So you were pretty much hurting all the time.

Grace:

When the visitors used to come, you know, some of the others had family; they had either a father or a mother, or cousins and aunties and uncles. I never had anyone. Well Aunty Mary, but she only came down occasionally, and I used to run away and hide, I used to hide because I didn’t have anyone to visit me. They were awful days. It was usually Saturdays or Sundays that they visited. And then I suppose I just settled down then, once I got towards 10 I suppose, and that’s when I met my little brother too. He was, they found out he had tuberculosis. He had it from my mother, because they didn’t know that the milk from the mothers, babies could get tuberculosis, and they did. They found out much later that could happen. And so matron called me. She said, “Gracie, I’ve got some news for you”. This was at the dormitory and I was about 10

Aunty Sandra:

Who was the matron at that time?

Grace:

Was it matron Garvey? No no, she came later…

Aunty Sandra:

Crawford?

Grace:

No she was very into it, you know, she used to whack us whenever we were naughty. I can’t think of her name now. But she called me and she said, “You have a little brother”. And I just stood there, you know. It just went over me because I never knew. She said, “You have a little brother and he is going to be bought back to the settlement” and bringing up from Brisbane. And she said, “We are going to let you see him when he comes”. And she said “Aunty Violet Albert’s is going to look after him”, because they didn’t want to put him in the boys dormitory because he still wasn’t really strong, because at that time he had tuberculosis, and I think they bought him back to the settlement to die. That’s what I think.

Aunty Sandra:

So he’s buried in Cherbourg is he?

Grace:

Yes, don’t know where. He was buried on the outside of Aunty Violet Albert’s family, Church of England I think they used to call that then. And I went back when Gordon and Leanne came with me, after being away from the settlement 32 years, I went to have a look, I could still see where the graveyard was and everything. It wasn’t there, they had moved it to another, well they didn’t move anything I don’t think, but they had a new, they started to build a new cemetery I think.

Aunty Sandra:

So he was buried in the old cemetery?

Grace:

In the old one, down, not the really really old one where my mother was buried. Aunty Mary used to point that one out to me, but couldn’t find anything there either.

Grace:

I found out a lot later then, yes, when I became a teenager. Aunty Mary didn’t say much to me, she was at that age when no one would let us know really, you know, about family, because of what they went through too, and you know I didn’t know that Aunty Mary and mother, when they were little girls, they were dormitory girls too, did you know that. They were dormitory girls. Because the grandparents, their mum and dad, they died in the flu epidemic in the 1920’s, and so they were orphans, and they went into the dormitory as well. And then I went in and so did Gracie.

Aunty Sandra:

It’s sad some of our people never ever talked about things like that.

Grace:

Because I would have come back you know, to find out a few things while Aunty Mary was still alive. .

Aunty Sandra:

Not knowing though, you didn’t know where to reach out to.

Grace:

No

 

 

2. Life in Dormitory

 

Grace:

…I used to run away from the dormitory because I wanted, I needed Uncle Vincent. I needed family, and I never had any, so I used to run away from the dormitory, every Sunday just about, and I was caught out, and Granny Nancy, she thought she would teach me a lesson, and she put me in the jail. I came back about 3 O’clock. Someone told on me, one of the other girls, I don’t know who it was then, and so she said, “I’m going to put you in the lockup Gracie, because you are not supposed to be running away like you do, we have go to stop you”. They put me in there and they forgot about me. I was teatime and I could hear everyone in the dining area. It was getting dark and I was banging on the door, and screaming out, you know, “let me out, let me out”.

Aunty Sandra:

So you stayed there all night?

Grace:

No, no, well I don’t know, just probably would have been in a faint or something, it is so scary, because the girls used to tell us ghost stories, you know, about the spirits and things. So one of the girls came out down the stairs and she must have heard me because I put my lips in the key hole, and I just screamed, I saw her look up and she came over and she said “Oh Gracie, you’re still here, I’ll run and see Granny Nancy”. She gave the key.

Aunty Sandra:

The windows are pretty high in the jail.

Grace:

Yes, and that big door. I didn’t think anyone would hear me, I banged as loud as I could, and Granny Nancy said, “Well I hope that you were taught a lesson Gracie!”, and I went without my tea too, I was hungry.

Aunty Sandra:

Did you run away again?

Grace:

Yes I did, I used to sneak down the back, to the tool yard gate, and down around the boys dormitory, behind the post office, all the way up that way. I had a way where I could sneak without anyone seeing me.

Aunty Sandra:

Never ever got locked up again?

Grace:

No, no. I was older then, had a bit of sense I think.

 

Grace:

We were starving – this was during the war years – and we used to go to the rubbish bins, and we would get anything that they would throw out from the kitchen, like the outer leaves from the cabbages, and the skin from the pumpkin, and the seeds, we used to eat the seeds, and now the seeds are, you know.   Behind the girls toilets they used to have a fire going to burn a lot of rubbish, so after a while it would die down and we would keep it going, even though we weren’t allowed to, we used to keep the fire going, and we used to find tins that were opened and thrown in the bin with all the food taken out of it from some of the foods we ate, and we used to get them and bits of fat off old bones and that they used to have for the soups and that, and we used to tear off the bits of fat, and we used to put it in the tins, and put the tins on the fire and let it melt, then we used to put in the potato peels, pumpkin peels, and even the cabbage leaves, and we used to feed on that

Aunty Sandra:

So were the other girls

Grace:

Oh yes, I had a little group of friends myself you know, Cathy Kelvins and Ruth Warner and Sally, Sally Anderson, I don’t know if she used to come there. But one day I was there, I was bent down, kneeling I suppose, and one of the girls moved the piece of wood with my tin on, with my food in, and over it went, all on my legs, and I’ve still got the scars. I ran up behind the laundry, around to the front, screaming my head off. I think it was Doreen, Doreen Balmer. She ran out, and grabbed me and took me into the kitchen, and threw flower all over me, from my toe, all the way up to here, because I was bending down and we had short dresses and it splashed all over my leg.

Aunty Sandra:

Did you get into trouble?

Grace:

Oh yes, I was rushed up to the hospital of course, I was told off. “That’s what you get for being naughty, playing with fire”, yes it was always “Playing with fire”.   The better food was down at the school, in the bins there because the school kids from, what we used to call it the camp, where the families were you know. They used to get really nice food, and I used to find a half eaten apple, and banana skins, we used to eat banana skins, and sandwiches, sometimes a whole sandwich, because I used to think they were spoilt you know, they didn’t eat a lot of their food

Aunty Sandra:

I used to think the dormitory lot were better off than we were in the camp.

Grace:

That was after the war years, we had all that lovely yeast bread, butter and milk and it was really good then, fruit, we used to get fruit down at the school then.   I don’t know if I got diphtheria from that, but I was very ill with diphtheria, and in those early days, that was a really bad disease for a child, or sickness for children to have. I was not in a coma, but I used to be asleep, I used to sleep sleep sleep. And my stepfather, he was in the army, air force then, and he was asked to come up, because I don’t think they thought I would survive or something. And he had time off, leave they used to call it, to come up and see me, and I was always asleep, and the nursing sister used to say, “Your dad been here Gracie, and he has left you some nice fruit for you too”. And he would always leave some fruit for me. But I came out of that ok.

Aunty Sandra:

And was there much violence in the dormitory, like fighting one another.

Gracie:

Gracie had a fight with someone. Betty Hart, she gave me a black eye because she knew more about fighting than I did.   Burma Beckett, she gave me a black eye too. But there used to be other fights there too. Aunty Nancy used to say well there was only one way to stop you children from fighting each other; she used to let them fight.

Aunty Sandra:

That was the thing in the old days.

Grace:

That was the thing in the old days. I learned my lesson. I don’t know what it was over, but I gave Maudy – she didn’t give me a black eye – Maudy Hopkins. I don’t know if she will remember me if she is still around.

 

Grace:

And the good times. We used to love playing cowboys and Indians of course it was from those movies. We used to walk into the Murgon, remember.

Aunty Sandra :

Under police escort

Grace:

Yes that’s right, we used to be taken from the dormitory in a truck, and that was for the Saturday morning matinees. So we used to love our westerners, our western movies. We used to run around late at night, before we’d be told bedtime, you know, bedtime, and we loved that, and we used to play red rover, red rover. We would hide and the person would have to come around and look for us, and if we could get past this person who was supposed to catch us, we would get home ok, but then some of us used to be caught out and stay out too long. There used to be a lot of grass outside there in the front of the dormitory.

Aunty Sandra:

That’s where all the boyfriends used to come down

Grace:

Yes, boyfriends used to come down with the older girls.

Aunty Sandra:

And sit along the front of the fence.

Grace:

I was too young then so

Aunty Sandra:

I remember the days when we had the old tank stand outside of our place, and on weekends they would come up there and smooch along the fence, and gran used to always say, “Don’t knock my fence down” all leaning on the fence. That was nice, and walking home from the pictures.

Grace:

Yes, that was lovely because we had a nice walk and we were in a group, and we would all be talking about what we saw in the movies, how beautiful our, my special actress was called Maria Montez, and she was always in technicolour movies, that’s why I loved her I think. But we used to go down and get mussels when we were hungry down at Barambah Creek. We used to love the mussels.

Aunty Sandra:

There were special times when you were taken down; you couldn’t just freely go down to the creek.

Grace:

We used to sneak down; this is one who always sneaks out of the dormitory you know and get into trouble…   Yes and we used to play down there with the dorm boys, some of them, and

Aunty Sandra:

Down the duck pond.

Grace:

Down the duck pond mainly, we used to swim too, we used to go down there swimming, and sneak away for swimming, and have you heard of the snotty gobbles? We used to climb those trees you know, I was a real tom boy because I used to love climbing trees, really, I used to love climbing, and we used to get those little fruit that grow on the tea trees. I forget what they called those kind of plants, no I don’t know, remember they were little seed type fruit that used to be on, they were yellow. They were green, and then they would turn yellow, and we used to pick them, and you know why we used to call them snotty gobbles? They were like whey, and they were sweet and then we would spit out the seeds. We used to suck them.

Aunty Sandra:

From the silky oak?

Grace:

From the, well they are tea trees down by the creek, Barambah creek.

 

Aunty Sandra:

So you had some special friends in the dormitory that you bonded with.

Grace:

Yes, yes we did, Kathleen Clements, Ruth Warner, Sally Anderson, and some of the girls came from, they were sent there from that place, what’s that, Purga mission, and I had a couple, can’t think of their names now. Yes and we had lots of fun, and getting into mischief of course.

 

Grace:

 

I didn’t know much about our history. We never knew about our history, and I was just an orphan, I suppose, you know… an Aboriginal girl, just being an orphan, and I had no relatives, no.   I thought it was just part of life, you know, I did. That’s all I thought. Nobody cared for me, so they put me in the dormitory to be looked after.

 

3. After the Dormitory, Healing

 

Aunty Sandra:

So after all that hurt, that you still carried it for years and years, and you felt that you had to do something about healing.

Grace:

Yes

Aunty Sandra:

How was it for you to come back to Cherbourg when you did?

Grace:

There were lots of tears of joy really, to see all my old friends. Mixed emotions.

Aunty Sandra:

So what, ah when was that?

Grace:

Ah, Gordon had just married Leanne, so that was in 1990 I suppose, or 89, something like that. Yes and Gordon and Leanne, they took me up there, and it was mainly to go and see the dormitory girls, but there wasn’t any dormitory girls, no dormitory there, by the time, by the time I went back

Aunty Sandra:

That would have been in the 90’s.

Grace:

Yes it was in the 90’s. After 32 years I think, I went back

Aunty Sandra:

What was your feeling driving into Cherbourg?

Grace:

Oh, I was excited, and I was saying, “Look Gordon, there’s that, and there’s so and so and there’s the house where my father’s friends used to live”, the Meredith’s, in the old farm on the road there. They used to look after me too. They were friends of my stepfather. And I got all excited, and I said, “You will come to the big gates soon”. I always remember the gateway there and driving. I got in touch with Gracie, and it was Sunday we came out, the church service was there so I went, and Gordon and Leanne, they stayed sort of in the back seats. And I was invited up to, when all the aunties, people our age, were going to sing a song, you know a special hymn, and Grace says, “come up, come up Grace, come up cuz, come up cousin”.   Well um “won’t you join us”. And I joined in all those lovely hymns we used to sing. And afterwards, when I walked back down to my son and daughter-in-law, my daughter-in-law, she had tears in her eyes. It was the first time I had seen her with a bit of emotion, with the indigenous side of things, so you know.

Aunty Sandra:

So that would have been a bit healing for you too.

Grace:

Yes

Aunty Sandra:

Be come down and be a part of

Grace:

Part of the group again, the dormitory girls.

Aunty Sandra:

Although it was sad at times, but when that bond between dormitory families, you know I have seen years, over and over, and it is a special bond.

Grace:

Yes it certainly were then. You know the elder girls did look after us

 

Aunty Sandra:

… all the years that you stayed away, it was hard for you to come back to, until Gordon asked you.

Grace:

Until he came out and doing, becoming well known as a painter and all about indigenous. All the things that happened to the indigenous years, right from when Captain Cook discovered our country, and he started doing his paintings about that – the hurt and things – that was all in his paintings, and when he used to do the paintings, he was always in tears.   He was always in tears because it was hurting him.   He was very sensitive Gordon was.

Aunty Sandra:

So that was the only indigenous thing that he knew – was through the arts?

Grace:

Yes and hearing things from me

Aunty Sandra:

But you couldn’t tell him much yourself?

Grace:

No, only a few, you know some things about what happened to me.

 

Grace:

well my husband was English, and he was white, he was white, he was English. He didn’t know anything about the indigenous people of Australia, and I never spoke to him about it. He never asked me, but I met him at the Royal Hotel in Monto see, and he was working there with his company, came out from England.

Aunty Sandra:

And he knew you were indigenous?

Grace:

No, no he didn’t, because I didn’t tell him. So in those days, we used to keep it a secret. It was the only way we used to get on, living with the white people. It hurt me to do that, because I was ashamed to do it. We had a good life you know, and people used to think I was from, I don’t know why they chose Maoris over our indigenous people to like, they used to like Maori people, so I used to say I came from New Zealand, or other countries with dark, Indonesia, they thought I came from Indonesia, and any other place, like parts of Italy where there’s dark and there’s light people.

Aunty Sandra:

You would have passed too, because you were very beautiful.

Grace:

I used to be very, very fair, living down in Victoria because I was never out in the sun a lot down there too.

Aunty Sandra:

And at the same time it was still eating at you that you were in denial of

Grace:

Yes, yes it was. It did hurt to me, and I did hint to him that I had indigenous family, but his job took him all around different places, and it always scared me that I’d come across someone who would insult me in his company, and I didn’t want him to do anything, like hit someone or, so I was hoping no-one would see that I was indigenous. And we went out west too, out west, Blackall and those places. No one knew, because I was still fair, you know, and up in north Queensland.

Aunty Sandra:

So did he ever find out that you were indigenous?

Grace:

Yes, yes he did, after a while, I told him. And where it really showed me that he cared, was in the year 2000 when they had that big march across the Sydney harbor bridge, everyone wanted to unite with white. Australians wanted to unite and they all held hands walking across the bridge, and we were watching it on television, and he saw me with tears in my eyes. And when we saw the march, everyone holding hands, it was a wonderful sight to see that you know, after all the racist taunts we used to get from, in Murgon, going to the pictures, even though we were kids, they calling us monkeys, you little monkeys, you stay there, don’t you come in the back seats, things like that, and there they were marching across the bridge, and my husband, he had tears in his eyes, and that’s the first time that I noticed that he did have feelings you know, for us, and then later on, he did tell me that he saw things, up north, up at Mosman, when he first came out from England to Queensland, Australia, their first job was up there at Mosman, and he used to see the way the indigenous people were treated. It shocked him.

                                                                           

Aunty Sandra:

And how does it feel now when you have to go back to Cherbourg any time? Is there still mixed emotions?

Grace:

It still makes me sad, and um, and straight away I see myself as a little girl that I was then, and um…

Aunty Sandra:

Still a lot of pieces missing from

Grace:

Just say, yes, there’s a lot of pieces missing in my life, and um, having an understanding husband in my life after that, it was good. We were closer, husband and wife, you know, after I told him. What we went through there, he was more understanding at the dormitory.

 

 

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