In 1936, when he was four years old, Alan Coleman arrived at St. Joseph’s Home in Ballarat as a Ward of the State. He remained there until he was thirteen, and under the care of the Sisters of Nazareth in Geraldton until sixteen. When the Senate convened, from 2003 to 2005, an Inquiry into Children in Institutional Care, Alan made submission number 471. This story is taken from that submission.
Initially, Alan was in the nursery, but when he was six, he went “downstairs” to the school-age group of six to thirteen year olds. He realised that he was “in for a very hard time” because downstairs was “run like a prison.” Each child was assigned a number which was marked on his clothes. Alan was number 96.
The nuns delegated a great deal of authority to what Alan describes as “bully boys,” who were each in charge of from eight to ten younger boys. They had authority to administer some punishment and to refer offenders to the nuns to be given up to twelve strokes, or even more, of a long cane which had “pins in the end.” The peak physical punishment was being stripped naked, held down by four of the bully boys, and flogged from shoulder to calf with a thick strap. If you twisted over, the strap was applied to stomach and genitals. Sentences were up to a hundred lashes. Alan himself received this punishment at the hands of Sister Blandina, “the worst offender,” “sadistic and puritanical.”
In winter the boys were always cold and always hungry as, in Dickensian fashion, there were “never any seconds.” Any caught stealing food were punished either corporally or by being “made to stand in a dark passageway up to six or seven hours.” Saturday was weekly bath day. Three tubs and three towels served one hundred boys, youngest to oldest, in the same three tubfuls of water. Modesty was preserved by canvas towels worn round the waist. Only when it came to the bully boys turn were the tubs emptied and refilled with hot water.
In spite of the boys’ numbers, names were still important. Another Alan Coleman of the same age was sent up from Melbourne, so one had to change his name. The new boy became Joseph Coleman, and in spite of the fact that, in contrast to Alan, “Joseph” was not very good at school and did not play sport, Alan gradually assumed the role of his protector for as long as they were in care together.
In Year 7 of school, Alan injured his hand while working in the laundry. He was six weeks in Ballarat Base Hospital, and though he had no visitors, he basked in the compassionate attentiveness of the nurses. After this stay, and a longer one due to rheumatic fever, he started to have visits at the home from friends made at the hospital. It’s a comment on his likability.
Alan’s eighth grade class, the last year of his primary schooling, was taught by Sr Blandina. The class was being prepared for an exam to determine the two pupils who would be eligible to attend St. Pat’s College the next year. Alan, to Sr Blandina’s dismay, topped the class and the eligibility. However, he heard a rumour that the Brothers at St Pat’s “could do what they liked” with the orphans, so he withdrew.
It appears that, after the school years, the boys went into either the farm boys’ quarters or the smaller group of college boys. The first allusions to sexual behaviour in Alan’s submission involve the farm boys offering personal instruction in masturbation. Alan and Joseph went to the college boys, who let them stay. “[W]hile I was upstairs we had no idea this types [sic] of thing happened…we kept this from the nuns because we were taught never to put anyone in.” That’s the extent of sexual abuse experienced, or heard of, by Alan Coleman at St Joseph’s between 1936 and 1945.
It was 1945, and orphaned farm boys from St Joseph’s were being sent to Nazareth House in Geraldton (apparently an old people’s home) to work in the kitchen. In Geraldton, similar invitations to mutual masturbation were extended by the other farm boys and particularly the “manager,” a nineteen year old. The only more disturbing incident involved a visiting priest to whom Alan was sent on suspicion of “misbehaving.” The priest masturbated and asked Alan to “touch it,” but he refused. The refusal was accepted, “any way he was so excited he pilled [sic] out a large handkerchief and wiped it he told me not to say anything.”
Alan’s strong moral code and his moral courage shine through in these events: his protection of his adopted “brother;” his sacrifice of further education; his lonely refusal of the culture of masturbation among the farm boys; and his “no” to a priest. Alan’s life subsequently was that of a man adrift. He only settled at the age of sixty, in the Philippines, with a Filipina wife who bore him a son, although he still accused himself of an incapacity to show affection.
This is a picture of life for an orphan in St Joseph’s orphanage between 1936 and 1945, and it serves as a baseline for another story, or set of stories, about the same orphanage between 1943 and 1959.