Fairbridge: school of hard knocks?: Locals speak about their experiences at 'farms'

REUNION: David Hill and Goulburn resident Lawrie Reid at Mr Reid's house on Tuesday.
REUNION: David Hill and Goulburn resident Lawrie Reid at Mr Reid's house on Tuesday.

GOULBURN man Lawrie Reid recounts vividly his days as a youngster at the Molong Fairbridge farm school - a school that was part of a harsh educational regime for child migrants from Britain.

He said his first memory of the place was crying for his mum, then somebody whacking him saying: "We'll give you something to cry about."

When being interviewed last week at his home by former ABC boss and fellow Fairbridge student David Hill for a research project, Mr Reid said it was a tough place, but that he "didn't know anything else" because he was so young when he arrived.

Mr Hill, who attended the Molong Fairbridge farm school from 1959 to 1961, is conducting a series of interviews of former Fairbridge students across the country in an effort to help write a book and stage an exhibition on the Fairbridge system.

Mr Reid was his first interview last Tuesday.

The Fairbridge farm schools (at Molong in NSW and Pinjarra in Western Australia) emerged from Kingsley Fairbridge's vision to care for child migrants from Great Britain.

Fairbridge, a Rhodes Scholar from Rhodesia, was appalled at the conditions of thousands of under-privileged children in England who faced a life of poverty and probable degradation.

He wanted to transplant such children to the "wide-open spaces" in colonies.

Some critics labelled his program as a form of social engineering.

With support from well wishers at Oxford and elsewhere, he founded the first Fairbridge Farm school at Pinjarra in 1912.

The school at Molong was founded in 1937.

The first party of 28 migrant boys arrived at Molong in March 1938.

Altogether, about 1200 children passed through the Molong Fairbridge farm school from the 1930s to the 1970s when the school was closed down and sold.

Mr Reid spent 10 years at the Molong school from 1950, arriving at the facility when he was just seven.

He did say that he made a lot of mates there over the years.

After his schooling (from age 14), Lawrie worked as a trainee at the farm.

He worked from 7am until 9pm, ploughing fields, crutching sheep, driving tractors, mowing grass, bailing, as well as rotating through the bakery, kitchen, and piggery.

"I remember getting out of bed at 2am to milk cows," Lawrie said.

"But learning about the farm was of no benefit to me because I didn't want to go on the land. I'd had enough of farming."

He wanted to be a bricklayer and the school got him a job as a stonemason in Sydney.

He later found a job as a pastry-chef and then a car-detailer before moving back to Orange and working on the railways.

He transferred to Goulburn with the railways in the 1970s.

Mr Hill said the Fairbridge slogan in the school song was: "Boys to be farmers and girls for farmer's wives."

"They were only trained to be farm labourers, never given the capital or wherewithal to become farmers and very few ended up owning a farm," he said.

"What's coming out of these stories is that the kids were denied the semblance of a decent education, which meant for the rest of their lives they were struggling against the odds.

"This is one of the many criticisms levelled at Fairbridge.

"In the interviews some former students say that Fairbridge was the best thing that happened to them, but overwhelmingly it is not a happy story.

"The kids' stories are painting a far less rosy picture than has officially existed before."

Mr Hill said he was one of the lucky ones.

"I did it easy because I came out at age 12 with a twin and an older brother, which was collective security, but most importantly my mum followed us out and I was in there for less than three years," he said.

"I'm not representative, Lawrie is. It was a tough school by any standard."

Mr Hill is completing an historic record of Fairbridge because "it is falling to bits."

"I am collecting the physical history and also human history, which is the story of Fairbridge through the eyes of the children that lived there and this has never been told," he said.

Another local former Fairbridge boy, Valance (Vance) Connor came to Australia in the 1953 after 12 years in British orphanages and children's service.

Of Roman (Gypsy) heritage, he says that despite the shortfalls of the Child Migrant System it could not compare to the often-sadistic nature of the British child-care system.

"If an adult is shaped by his childhood them I am fortunate not to be a bigger bastard than I am," Mr Connor said.

"A beautiful family in a great country certainly helps."