Studying Under the Streetlamp

studying under street lamp

It was the early 1960s. Australia was the second richest nation on earth.

Even labourers owned their homes and could put meals on the table every night. Pop built a house at Tarragindi for his wife and children, in hopes of a new beginning. Then disaster struck. The State of Queensland had openly voiced their dislike of Pop, who, they said, was ‘crying poor’. The State began to pursue him for the Orphanage fees. Did you know that orphanages charged fees? In 1951, the Basic Wage was 8 pounds per week. Yes, there was a basic wage back then. That’s why even humble labourers could support their families.

But although he worked so hard, Pop had a disadvantage. He was a ‘wog’, and not just one of the palatable types of ‘wogs’ like the Italian and Greek migrants, who would achieve such success in their new country. Pop was a Macedonian Yugoslav. This kind of migrant was disliked in Queensland, (although they did prove that kanakas were not the only people who could withstand the extreme conditions in the North Queensland cane fields). In a Courier Mail article about tax avoidance, Yugoslavs were at the bottom of a list of ethnicities thought to be more likely to avoid paying tax. I’ll try to find the article.

Pop worked hard, but the mechanized cane harvester was introduced, work became harder to find, and the young family struggled as their mother grew ill. The State, far from being a support to them, took it upon itself to complete the family’s destruction. Pop, who had little English and was functionally illiterate even in his native tongue, was presented with four documents to sign, one for each child, when they became State Children. Their mother was in hospital, Pop didn’t know many people in Tully, North Queensland. A neighbour – the ‘well-meaning’ Mrs Angel (you couldn’t make it up), reported to the police that these children were being neglected.

The idea that Pop would deliberately harm his children would be challenged, even in Department letters, where it was admitted that he seemed close to his children, and that they had been obviously well cared for. This did not prevent the State of Queensland from taking the children beyond their parents’ reach, to Rockhampton Receiving Depot, and then St George’s, run by the Anglican Church. For the privilege of allowing their abuse in these and other institutions, the children’s father needed to sign an agreement to pay One Pound per week each. This amount, half the Basic Wage, seems to me to have been enough to pay a housekeeper. If the State had not taken these children from their home in Tully, and a housekeeper had been found, I would not be writing this blog today.

The children were in and out of care for about ten years. Their mother, who suffered post-natal depression following a stillbirth, and prejudice from her own family and other people in Tully for marrying a ‘wog’, ended up in Goodna Asylum for many years. She was not insane; she simply lacked any kind of support. When she was released, and the children were released from ‘care’, the house Pop built at Tarragindi would have been a new beginning for all of them, had the State of Queensland not decided, after ten years, to attack them yet again.

Pop had been unable to meet the payments of One Pound per week for each child, and was in debt to the Department. Letters from Nanna to the Department would accompany the periodic payments of One Pound they were able to scrape together. She sounded completely coherent in these letters as she begged for clemency. The State denied this, and Pop was declared a Maintenance Debtor. He went on the run. Whenever the State found him, his pitiful wage would be garnisheed to pay a ten year old debt. What a way to help a family get on its feet after a decade of illness and crisis!

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Government, to whom the family applied on Nanna’s behalf for a Widow’s/Deserted Wives Pension, granted the family 2 Pounds per week, barely enough to prevent starvation. They did not believe she was without her husband’s support. Between them, the State of Queensland and the Commonwealth of Australia condemned a family to terrible and avoidable penury, as their neighbours flourished in Australia’s affluent 50s and 60s. Pop was excoriated by those who thought he had abandoned his wife and family. It was not until the Department sent us a file in 1993 that the truth was revealed. By then Pop had been long dead.

Not long after Lewin, the youngest of four, was released from the orphanage, the older children left home and found apprenticeships. Yes, that was still possible in those days, even for shit poor families. The younger two children looked after their mother and tried to avoid being taken back into care. This was difficult; there wasn’t enough to eat, and the power was often cut when bills couldn’t be paid.

Lew was determined, when he left the last Home, to become educated. This, he believed, would lead to enough success in life for him to help the other Home kids. He had learnt all of his high school chemistry curriculum by the end of Year 8. At 15 he would invent a new class of chemicals, (which became patented by someone else, but that’s another story). When the power was cut off, he would take his textbooks out to the street, and study under the streetlamp. I wonder if anyone is still alive who lived in Northview Outlook, Tarragindi in the 60s, where a boy used to study under the streetlamp?

Cheers,

Sylvia

(Illustration above designed by Joe Sieben from Spicy Company Imaging, Gold Coast, Australia (www.spicy.com.au)

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