Joan West – Domo Girl 1953 to 1963

Joan West was brought to the Cherbourg Girls’ Dormitory with her mother and a number of her siblings from where they lived on stations in the Eidsvold area. Life in the dormitory was a regimented existence and difficult for a child who loved her freedom. In this video she chats with Sandra Morgan down on the banks of the Barambah Creek, telling of the hard times and the good times. She describes how she cried as she watched the Dormitory building burn to the ground.

Domo Girls

Interviewee: Auntie Joan

Interviewer: Auntie Sandra

Date of Interview: October 2015

Joan: Oh we had heaps of fun down here, just got away from up there, where there was all these rules and regulations, you know.. it just sort of do something to your young mind, but when you’re down here, you’re just young… healthy, young person, you know…

Sandra: Free…

Joan: Kids… just bein’ kids… you know? Up there you just couldn’t do anything right, it was law and order, even in the playground, but down here it was our own little peace of mind and our own little place…

Sandra: Yeah, all day…?

Joan: Yeah, you could play here all day, unless somebody come and sing out up where the fence is… ‘oh, Auntie Maudie want you…’ (laughs).. and kill all the fun we had.. you know..

Sandra: So, from the duck pond… you used to swim around this area?

Joan: Oh, not so much here…

Sandra: Why, you were kind of scared of…

Joan: Well, this was classed as ‘the deep end’ of the creek and they reckoned there was a mundagarra in there, and we couldn’t go to that part of the creek, so up the narrow way there there’s a place called ‘the crossing’ – we used to jump off the trees there, and dive down and bring up sand to show we hit the bottom… yeah…

Sandra: And what about this area? This area over here? Remember this, over here?

Joan: This area, we used to go over here when it was flood time, mind ya, but the water used to come in like that, so us kids was always wandering around there… but some parts you got a lot of leeches, you know.. of this was.. ugh, weird, you know.. yukky, but us kids were just happy to be outdoors having fun… yeah…

Sandra: So you remember why you were in the dormitory? How old you were?

Joan: Well… I was four and a half years of age when I came here to Cherbourg and my…

Sandra: Where’d you come from?

Joan: Came from Eidsvold but my Father’s from… born and bred on Auburn Station, Chinchilla and my Mother born on Hawkwood Station, Chinchilla. My Mother was given to my Father, and…

Sandra: Promised…?

Joan: Promised… Yeah… My Father was forty and my Mother was twenty, and well, with all us kids and that, I don’t know… we couldn’t go to school out where the Station… and we used to talk broken English and used to talk lingo… my Mother and Father always spoke lingo…

Sandra: You still know any lingo today?

Joan: Nothin’ much now… but when we came here they used to say, now Joan you can’t talk like that anymore, you gotta talk English, so… I put that out of my mind then and…

Sandra: You wish you would have hung onto that?

Joan: Oh whoa, I tell ya what… I’ve got heaps of friends of different nationalities, all down in Sydney and everywhere where I travelled, and they so beautiful, Italianos, you know, Maltese, and Greeks and that…

Sandra: They’ve still got their language?

Joan.. and you know.. people will come from afar, South Americans and so… and I just sit there and listen to them and say, oh, you know, if only I had my own language, you know… yeah, but that’s it.. its so beautiful and it does somethin’ for your nature for your character.. it does somethin’, you know, its really sad that we were forbidden to talk our language, you know, its really sad. But when you listen now to the Indigenous people, the traditional people, singin’… making records and singing, you know, in their language, you know… where do we start? You know? And its… they have something about them that they never lost. That’s why they say about the earth, you know, the earth that’s been here before man, you know… and we don’t own the land aye, the land own us, you know…

Sandra: So it brings back… this area here… it brings back a lot of memories for you?

Joan: Yes. Too many… it was a sense of freedom, you know… and I couldn’t understand that, we were only children, but as I grew into an adult, I couldn’t understand why they forbid you from doin’ this and doin’ that, you know, we sorta. I noticed the difference between the dormitory children and the children from the camp, who lived with their Mother and Father and Grandparents… they had their Aunties and Uncles around, and they had family support, and that support is really in regard to their faith and you know… who they belong to and that… so…

Sandra: So, you would have wondered at times why your Mum was right there and yet you couldn’t be…?

Joan: Well, my Mum, I went to her one time with a problem. I don’t know… must be kids fightin’ ya know, and she said ‘oh look Joan’, she said, they took it all out of my hands now, I can’t do anything for you anymore’… just like that… and I would have been under ten years old…

Sandra: Yeah.

Joan: Yeah, well the day I left here, Cherbourg, it was on my fourteenth birthday, 27th of December, 1962. I left school, we had our school up here, and I left school up in, and I was home for a week, they said ‘Joanie, you gotta go to the store and get a brown suitcase and some clothing, because you’re going out to work’. I didn’t know where I was going to work. Next minute they give me a letter to ‘Who It May Concern’, and that was on my fourteenth birthday, and the yellow cab came from Murgon, picked me up right outside the gate, took me in to Murgon, and as we were goin’ in, I noticed a lot of people was walkin’ down to the Bogan Hole… over that way… my school friend had drowned that night and they was all the community was all…

Sandra: And you remember that because that was on your birthday?

Joan: Yeah, and another thing I’d like to say is about how the camp children was different from us in the sense that they were more outspoken, and they had love! We had no love! We just had each other, that’s how the boy domo’s became our brother, even though we had our… my brothers there… but we became brothers and sisters, you know, never anything more than that. You know, you would never hear the dormitory girl marrying a dormitory boy, because that’s how the bonding was… but that’s how it was anyhow, but the children from the camp, they were outgoing, and I don’t know… they just had, they had love within them.

Sandra: So whats your feelings on why the dormitories were there? What do you reckon… why?

Joan: Well, apparently, where my Mother was born at Hawkwood Station, they were trying to get all the Aboriginal people to residing there… and there were a lot of people who came here to Cherbourg, who were settled there, at Hawkwood Station, Chinchilla, and the Government used this place here, Cherbourg, because… it was like a resettlement area, and not only did people come from Eidsvold, or, you know… they come from everywhere, you know.

Sandra: Do you think that was a good thing or a bad thing, or?

Joan: Yeah, I think it was a bad thing, because they took people away from their, from their families, you know.. but in regard to our family, I think there might have been a welfare problem there, but every other Mother was doin’ the same thing… my Mother didn’t know much about Mothering, like a lot of other Mother’s too, but she didn’t have the support there, you know…

Sandra: And your Mum being there, and your brothers and sisters, still wasn’t the same? Like you say… the camp kids had their Mums and Dads you know…

Joan: Yeah.

Sandra: But she wasn’t free to give you’s love?

Joan: Nah, nah… There was… you know, and we used to go to holidays, to our Father in Auburn Station there, and my Father was a strict man, you know, he was a stockman, like all his other brothers… His Father was Irish, and that… I think he had a dash of (inaudible) in him too. He originally from… well, he was Irish, but he came from Kangaroo Point, and I don’t know much about him but he’s buried on Auburn Station with my Uncle Murphy, and yeah, my Father used to come here and visit us, but you know…

Sandra: What was the feeling when your Dad came? You loved him and… hugged him and…?

Joan: Well, when I was a lot smaller, I used to, but then I started growin’ up and getting’ a bit older… I… you know… I don’t know.. My Father he was a strict man, like I say, you know, they’re very strict people, you know, and… I don’t know how he would have went if we lived together as a family…

Sandra: Have you ever had answers from your Mum, why you were all brought here?

Joan: No, the reason? No. And when they brought us here, we was in Murgon. You know how you gotta have a permit to come onto this settlement in those days, my Mother and all of us kids, we had to stay in Murgon, until we got the okay from Brisbane, Main Office, Natives Affairs…

Sandra: You stayed in a hotel there?

Joan: No, we just stayed in the park until we got permission to come out, can you believe it, aye?

Sandra: How many children?

Joan: Well, there was Robert, Ronnie, Me, Owrie, Georgie and Millie. Yeah. And my eldest brother, Tommy, he must have been out workin’ somewhere; he didn’t come with us. But all of us kids there… Goodness me, I don’t know if we had a feed that day or what…

Sandra: Can’t remember anything…

Joan: Can’t remember anything…

Sandra: There were good times?

Joan: There were good times… Yeah. We used to have Christmas celebration with the hall. We had the biggest Christmas tree, and we had our Santa Claus and we had sort of, gates out there where there was closed off, like not everybody could just walk in, and there’s Santa Claus there sing out your name, or someone else, and everybody would come, oh that was beautiful, you know, you had, you know, you just, thought of the time then, you know… all the rules and regulation went out the door, you know, you just had a happy time, you just didn’t think about it, you know. It was just a good time…

Sandra: So it was special back in the dormitory building for Christmas you reckon?

Joan: Yes, oh we had the most beautiful Christmas. The dining room, the tables, everything done up, and the night before Christmas we’d put the decorations up and we had our own little Christmas tree there, and we all get presents. We all have to say our ‘grace’ before, all together, before we sat down to eat… and…

Sandra: And you still remember that grace you used to sing?

Joan: Oh, I can’t remember it. (laughs) I know be present at the table Lord .. yeah.. and..

Sandra: You remember the night the dormitory got burned down? I got a phone call as I was out of the community… they said the dormitory was on fire.. do you remember at that time?

Joan: I was up in the camp then at that time, and I was standing there outside the hospital with everybody else, lookin’ down at the dormitory burning down, and I was standing there lookin’ and I was saying, ‘ohhh…’ you know, and I shed a few tears mind ya, and people was standing around me, and they were sayin’ ‘oh look at Joanie cryin’, there la.. and I said ‘hey, that was my home, that..’..

Sandra: Mmm..

Joan: Yeah, and I had a good cry… and they said ‘oh, never mind, Joanie, you know..’

Sandra: Although there were bad feelings sometimes, they were..

Joan: That’s right.

Sandra: … that really hurt you to see it going up in flames…

Joan: Yeah, I said, we worked really hard there, we polished that … we got down on our hands and knees, put polish on the floor, and then we went back and rubbed it up with an old cloth, you know, blanket cloth, and when we used to have visitors, they used to come upstairs, and they used to say ‘geez, how did they get that floor that shiny?’ they said, ‘oh they get down on their hands and knees and polish it up’ and there would have been about, like maybe three or four girls in the big ward…

Sandra: Yeah. Any other dormitory girls were around when that went up in flames?

Joan: No. I can’t remember who was present but it was sort of like late in the afternoon, and in the evening when it eventually burnt down and… Oh well, I seen it like from the bottom floor, you know, and I was lookin, and I was you know, I know others would have said ‘oh I’m glad to see that go’ but it didn’t even cross my mind. I just said ‘you know, hey that was my home there…’ And even when I first went out to work, and I put twelve months out on the Station, and then when I came home, I went straight back to the dormitory. I didn’t go up to the camp and… I had family up there, where I know I would have been welcome, but I just came back home… (laughs) to the dormitory…

Sandra: So what you think today, though?

Joan: Yeah, I, I just don’t know why, maybe it was the companionship or the girls, you know the bonding of the girls..

Sandra: The memories of…

Joan: … you know the girls who have passed on, and how we used to get up and make our beds and go down for breakfast, and then we had to have a shower to get ready for school. How we had to do our chores before we went and had our shower and things like that, and that was our regular basis for the whole year, til school finished… Even when the school holidays were here, we still had to do our chores, but as I was watching the… I wasn’t even thinkin’ bad, I just thought about, ‘that was my home’…

Joan: Oh well, it’s all started there, where the right hand side, down the bottom, where the kitchen part there.

Sandra: Yeah.

Joan: I remember the flames coming from there. And we…

Sandra: No fire brigade was around then?

Joan: No fire brigade was around… And we all stood back. But just I can’t remember exactly well, if.. the fire brigade would have ended up comin’ but I remember I was… that’s how far away we were standing, up where the hospital, where the old tree used to be, where they have, used to have open air meetings. We all standing around that vicinity, and we just stood back, and said ‘yeah, that used to be my old home there..’ Yeah… And it did make me sad, you know…

Sandra: So… why… being in the dormitory and being controlled and that, do you think you would have experienced any damage?

Joan: Ohh… psychological damage? Well, I’ll tell you an incident now that happened when I went down to Sydney, I was about seventeen… around about that age, and I met a lady down there from Cherbourg too. Her name was Mrs Malone, Auntie Cynthia, and it was a guest house where we, where we were stayin’ at Glebe Point Rd, and anyhow she said to me ‘Joanie, I’m taking you out to work on Monday, and I said ‘oh well, I’ll be in that’ and she said ‘it’s a bag factory at Alexandra’. I said ‘yes, ok.’ So anyhow, first thing Monday morning we get up, go get the bus, get the train, and she said ‘I’ll go over there where the factory, you go over there where the office’. I said ‘ok’, and I was standing there, and that lady askin me questions, and I felt really… I don’t know what came over me, you know, I’m really a ‘get-up-and-go’ person, and that, you know… but all of a sudden she was askin me questions and here I am, waiting for someone else to talk up for me… wasn’t able to do that before, you know.. that’s the only damage what I can recall, but it wasn’t really permanent damage. But once I learnt to speak up for myself, that was it, you know.

Sandra: That wasn’t too soon after leaving the dormitory and that, you still had that…

Joan: Over time, yeah. Over time, and like I worked in welfare, and like my last job was down in Sydney at Mullawa Woman’s Prison, I worked there for three years as a welfare prison officer, and…

Sandra: That would have gave you a lot to think about… helped you heal…

Joan: I was… a lot of things came home too… and when I went, and I was living over in Toowoomba there and I was studying psychology at USQ there, and I’ve got five more units to do it, to complete it but a lot of things got in the way, and its sorta, sorta just drained me… and…

Sandra: Yeah, so you’re very proud of how far you’ve come after being controlled…

Joan: Oh yeah, a lot, and yeah, the interaction with people with a higher standard of education, oh its so rewarding, you know…

Sandra: Yeah, after… after leaving here, and you experienced a lot of things in you opened your eyes, so how did that help you in life, later on… made you feel stronger within yourself that you were able to speak out, like you said you couldn’t do before, and all that would have been part of your healing, that and feelings, you know, about loving and… ?

Joan: Yeah, well, when I went away from here, I felt like I had a complex, you know, I couldn’t look people in the face. I was… I just didn’t know how to talk, how to communicate… But as for me interacting with other people and that, I just couldn’t communicate… When I got the train, the Westlander from Brisbane, to go to Charleville, this is for my first job… Mr Wallace, Uncle Mickey Wallace was sittin’ with me, and he said ‘come on Joan, we’ll go to the dining car now, to have something to eat’ and I just sat there all that time and I don’t know how that old fella got me in the dining car… I was… just couldn’t…

Sandra: Yeah…

Joan: I just couldn’t just… I wasn’t afraid or that, its just I didn’t know how to do it, you know like…

Sandra: You found it hard to communicate and talk?

Joan: Yeah! I didn’t know how to just… be myself, I just sort of sat there…

Sandra: And you think life in the dormitory would have been the impact of what was happening to you at that time?

Joan: I think it had, had something to do with it, but they taught you how to be clean and proper with yourself. Even today I’m like that, you know, like on the weekend, you might rest, or you do your washing.. things like this, and then on the Monday you start sweeping out or you know, mopping out…

Sandra: So you’re saying there were some good intentions that came out of…

Joan: Yes. Yeah.

Sandra: … being in the dormitory…?

Joan: Yeah, and the thing is that when we go to the ‘golden oldies’, we always look around to see if there are any domo people first and we head for their table! (laughs) Yeah!

Sandra: So that bond you now have the dormitory families…

Joan: Yeah, oh yeah, just the same, like I see Ayleen Watson or Daisy Alberts, you know, yeah, we just head straight for them… (laughs)

Sandra: So that’s something special for all of…

Joan: Yeah, something special, yeah…

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The Cherbourg Memory is an initiative of the Rationshed Museum and brings together the photos, videos, oral history recordings, documents and other artifacts of our lives on this settlement. It a website, an archive, an educational resource, a recording project, a research data-base, a store of the people’s stories and an interactive space for comments and engagement. We encourage the people of Cherbourg, the Indigenous communities in Australia and others who have experience of our settlement to help us create a living archive of Barambah-Cherbourg. So find out a little more about the Cherbourg Memory, view the Interactive space, discover how you can Participate, or find out how you can Contribute to the development of the Cherbourg Memory.