It was a great life. It stood me in good stead.
With these words Vern Williams sums up his years at Burwood Boys’ Home in the 1940s – sentiments that may surprise some used to hearing horror stories of institutional life.
Vern sits back and recalls with a smile some of his experiences. Originally placed with his younger brother as Wards of the State at Minton Boys’ Home, his description of arrival at Burwood hints at the bewilderment of a small boy at the behest of government bureaucracy.
“Nobody ever told you anything: one day I was at Minton, and then I was at the Royal Park Receiving Depot. After a couple of days there my brother and I ended up at Burwood Boys’ Home. Nobody told you the rules; you just followed and found them out”. Vern and his brother were classed as “little kids”, which meant that they were allocated a particular dormitory, and had lighter duties than the older boys. With a laugh, Vern remembers, “My brother wet the bed the first night we arrived, and that meant he had to go to the “wet the bed” dorm. My brother wouldn’t go unless I went, so I became one of the “stink the bed” kids. They had mackintoshes on the beds, and used to wake you up at some ungodly hour of the morning to go the toilet: then back to bed”.
Eventually he moved to Kiel wing, where the older boys slept. With seniority came a corresponding increase in duties. The wood-fired boiler had to be started early each morning. There were cows to milk, morning and night; then separating the milk and cleaning the equipment.
“My favourite job was getting a wheelbarrow and going all around the home to pick up the rubbish, then wheeling it up to throw it in the dam. This also meant cleaning the grease trap outside the kitchen. It was about six feet long and four feet wide and would get all this scum on top which had to be removed, put in the wheelbarrow and taken to the dam. You were walking on a four to five inch catwalk to do the cleaning, and the number of times I fell in was unbelievable! But it was my favourite job because, being a cunning kid, I wanted to get kitchen duties. I couldn’t get into the kitchen until I was a certain height, because you had to be tall enough to reach the sink to wash the dishes and to use the bread slicer. I kept measuring myself, until I was finally tall enough and kitchen duties almost became a permanent job for me. What the cook, Miss Livingston, didn’t know was that I knew where she hid the key to the pantry!”
Although they were the war years, the boys at Burwood were only vaguely aware of this. One thing Vern remembers somewhat ruefully, however, was Italian POWs being transported past the Home down Warrigal Road hill, “hanging on to the great big GMC trucks. With their grey coats and their long faces”. When the boys heard the trucks coming they’d lie in wait and throw cow manure, rotten vegetables, pine cones – whatever came to hand – at the POWs. The Australian soldiers driving the trucks knew what was coming, and would roll their windows up to avoid being hit. “That was our contribution to the war effort!”
Life at the home was certainly Spartan but Vern recalls that “It never worried us. We played football against other homes – Tally Ho, Salvation Army, etc. Of course the teams talked, and we quickly realised how well off we were in comparison”. At Burwood they were well looked after – fed three times a day and showered every night. And there were plenty of times to remember fondly. Warner’s, the local Nursery, used to organise and pay for the Home kids to have a day out. The boys would pile into a furniture van for the trip to Mordialloc beach and a day of games, a picnic and all the usual joys of the seaside. And the Home always received church support, in particular from the local Methodist church. “We’d get leftover food from harvest festivals, etc. People would often take us home for tea after church; they really adopted us”.
In life, one plays the hand one is dealt. Vern observes that one of the results of growing up in a Boys’ Home is: “I’ve never been able to stand sickness. You never got sick in a Boys’ Home, because that was considered a sign of weakness – and you never showed any weakness”. He feels it affected his ability to be the father he would like to have been to his two daughters. “Still, they’ve grown up well, so I can’t have been too bad a father”.