Order of Australia Recipient June 2021
It was the Fifties. I couldn’t wait to leave school. I wanted to be an adult. I started working in the local cannery, and using this as a base, I then worked on the itinerant track as a teenager, roaming up and down the East Coast of Australia, and occasionally inland.
The jobs were menial, but at least I got paid (most of the time) while my general education continued in its own way, although I didn’t realise now much I was learning about life at the time.
I learnt that taipans only bite you if you annoy them, followed by information on how not to annoy them – don’t stand on them for starters.
As an 18 year old, while trying to talk a pregnant teenager down from a cliff where she was going to jump to a certain death, I learnt that we do not always have a choice between right and wrong. Sometimes there is no right choice available, and we have to choose the least worse option.
Then, along with a girlfriend, I got a job with a squatter family on the Darling Downs. This taught me to be wary of ‘nice’ people. There were two positions available, one as a cook and one as a housekeeper. As neither of us could be described as capable in a kitchen, and our housekeeping efforts at home had also been close to non-existent, despite how we might have described our qualifications on application, we arranged to share the jobs.
We were informed that the last servant had left as she had stolen two shillings and sixpence from Miss Elizabeth’s piggy bank. “It’s not the money. It’s the fact that she was a thief”. We were also informed that we would eat our meals in the kitchen, after the family had been served.
We worked for nearly two months, seven days a week, including over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend, never leaving the property which was isolated out in the Darling Downs. We were not allowed to be familiar with the children, themselves teenagers, so the only rational and/or fun conversations we had were with the family dog.
It was clearly time to return to civilisation. We resigned, expecting to get a nice payout. Wrong! Our wages for the duration, were kept to pay for our keep, apart from enough to purchase a train ticket into Brisbane. The oldest boy, Master Alex, would drive us to the station to catch the train into Toowoomba, where we could transfer to the train into Brisbane.
What station? Alex drove us to the railway line. He gave us instructions to flag down the steam train from Jondaryan, which would arrive within the next two hours, then disappeared over the horizon. Only the odd bird looked down as two teenagers, with a suitcase each, sat in the Queensland sun with barely a tree, or the occasional cow, to break the monopoly. Then the train came. Climbing on this monster was not easy for two vertically challenged girls. The driver helped us get on board.
I made one farewell gesture. The train was like something our of a Wild West film, with a small observation deck at the back. It was the time of the full starched petticoats. Miss Elizabeth had one. I had stolen it and now pulled it out of the suitcase. I twirled it around over my head and launched it into the air. That was one for all the previous servants who had been labelled thieves.
At Toowoomba, we caught the midnight special train from St Georges, and continued into Brisbane. It was full of miners. We partied all night, as they handed around the beer. We joined them loudly singing country and western songs.
We had arrived safely into Brisbane but without any money to get a room for the night. I rang the union to report receiving no wages for working long days over many weeks. “We don’t cover domestics” a male voice told me. My dad was an old union man. He had told me about Jondaryan and how the shearers strike was precipitated from the woodshed there. Frustrated, I yelled this information into the phone before slamming it down.
We then fronted up to the Salvation Army. Yes, they would provide us with a roof over our head, but it came with a long lecture about how irresponsible we were for roaming the country without any funds.
Strangely, the behaviour of the two groups who should have helped us, hurt more than that of the squatters, who were clearly in the wrong. The helpers had reinforced our lack of worth; they were pure – we were not. It was in itself, a strong lesson. Helpers good – receivers not.
Not long out of my teens, my itinerant life ended. I stopped in St Kilda to help look after a young brother who was starting an apprenticeship. We were staying in a rooming house and this rolling stone then gathered some moss. I got pregnant and the father went on his own itinerant track. I was in despair for a while, then moved to action. I checked in at the hospital and, as an unmarried mother, had a compulsory visit with the social worker.
My track experience, reinforced by warnings from others in the rooming house that the help I may receive could lead to the baby being taken from me, had prepared me. I told her that I didn’t need any help as the baby’s father was providing everything. Then I got a job at six months pregnant; because I was small, it didn’t show as I wore the ubiquitous shirt that grew. I worked until the week before she was born.
Baby Wendy, whom I had not been allowed to touch at birth or breast feed, was placed in intensive care. I was discharged at one week and could come in every day to look at her through the window. I was finally allowed to take her home when she was two weeks old; that was the first time I touched her. They put me in a taxi and gave me a bottle of formula with details on how to make more.
The women at the boarding house supported me in many ways; when another girl got pregnant we share child care between us. In a different hospital they told her if she loved her baby, she would not take her home as the baby was ‘entitled’ to two parents. She was distraught. We helped her and the new baby back to the boarding house where she and baby thrived. The help we gave each other was reciprocal and not based on a helper and helped model. Later I rented a house in Acland St – it became an open house in which everyone helped everyone else.
Then I met Rosemary West and became a founding member of Council for the Single Mother and Child (CSMC). At last! Somewhere that provided help with dignity. Previously, women who were divorced or separated could get pensions, but there was no pension available for moths of ex-nuptial children, as it was believed this might encourage them to have more, with “Illegitimate” stamped on the babies birth certificates. Wonderfully, we eventually got this changed, and it also covered males who were bringing up a child on their own. It was amazing, reinforcing the lessons learnt on the track.
Later, as Vice President of VCOSS, I was lucky enough to head the Committee of Self Help Groups. The self-help model works both ways. It not only helps those who, for whatever reason are in need, but, having someone who has experienced that situation, now being a helper, they can provide invaluable information to the organisation.
So a big thank you to all those who shared experiences on the track and for those continuing to do so in Port Phillip. Those who’ve laughed with me and those who’ve cried. You’ve taught me so much.
By Brenda Richards
In the 2021 Queen’s Birthday honours, long time U3APP Member Brenda Richards was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for service to the community through social welfare organisations.
Brenda has kindly written this story for us, detailing her journey from leaving school at a young age and taking up varied casual work along the east coast of Australia, through to settling in St Kilda where her daughters were born, then into a life of service helping those in need. One thing she omits in her story is that after this adventurous start to “adulthood”, she completed high school and gained a degree at Monash university, before taking up a post as a Psychiatric Social Worker in the Children’s Court Clinic.
Some of Brenda’s extensive service history includes:
- Founding Member (since 1969) and inaugural treasurer of the Council of Single Mothers and their Children
- Member (1976-1980s), former board member and Vice-President (1981) of the Victorian Council of Social Services
- Board Member, Australian Council of Social Services, 1981.
- Supporter, Victorian Adoption Network Information and Self Help Group (VANISH), 1990s.
- Chair and Member, Project steering Committee (1977) Collective of Self Help Groups (VIC).
- City of Port Phillip: former Member, Multicultural Committee/Forum & former Member, Seniors Festival Sub-Committee.
- Senior Psychiatric Social Worker, 1977-2003, established, Step Family Program (for parents whose children were before the courts), 1985-1986 – Children’s Court Clinic
Brenda also includes in her busy life being an advocate for adoptee rights, a member and advocate of Veg Out Community Garden, Number One Ticket Holder, St Kilda City Football and Netball Club and Ambassador for Women, Labor Party of Australia.