The Irish Nazarene nuns who ran the English orphanage ‘sincerely believed in thrashing the kids to get the devil out of them’. Because Avrill was a left-handed redhead with ‘a fiery temper to match’, she had ‘all the evidence’ that the devil was inside her. ‘So they’d belt the hell out of me. And I would not cry. I’d stand up there, and I’d just scream and scream in their faces.’ Despite Avrill’s resistance, their conviction became ‘ingrained’ in her. ‘I really, really believed that I belonged to the devil', she said.
Avrill and her sister Pearl were illegitimate, and placed into care when their parents separated. After a number of years, in the 1940s, the sisters, who had ‘never bonded’, were sent to an orphanage in South Australia. During the voyage, Avrill was digitally raped by a ship steward. Rumours at the time said that the man was sent back to England and jailed, but that the ‘Catholic Church had covered it up’.
The orphanage was run by the Sisters of Mercy. Pearl was ‘a very good girl’ who lived and worked separately from Avrill, and kept her distance because Avril ‘was always getting thrashed and that reflected on her’.
Avrill worked in the kitchen ‘which was great’ because she could pinch food. ‘I had knickers that would be bulging with dates and figs and everything I could get … And we used to have parties in the bathroom at night … You made your own fun.'
However, the woman in charge was ‘an absolute brute’ called Mother Christopher. When she blew her whistle, everybody had to stop. If a child didn’t listen, she would belt them. If a nun intervened, she’d threaten to send her back to the mother house. But ‘she was no worse than the nuns in England', Avril said.
Avrill was beaten by Mother Christopher when she disobeyed an order and wrote to her mother. ‘She got me down on the floor in her office. She got a nun to sit on my feet, she got another nun to sit on my shoulders, she pulled my knickers down, and she belted me black and blue. Black and blue.’
Avrill was put in charge of a toddler who couldn’t speak English and just wept and wept for her papa. She gave her a hug ‘at every opportunity’. ‘I just adored her. Mother Christopher caught me one day giving her a hug in the courtyard, and she called me over and said, “The next time you do that, I won’t thrash you, I’ll thrash her”. And I never hugged that little girl ever again.’
One day, Avrill refused to go to the chook shed because Lorenzo the gardener ‘does rude things’. Mother Christopher said, ‘stop telling lies’ and ‘good Catholic men don’t do that’, and threatened to belt her if she didn’t go.
Lorenzo surprised her as she was leaning into a wheat bin. ‘My knickers were pulled down and I was digitally raped … I was screaming my head off. And I had flashbacks to what happened to me on board the ship.’ With the dipper that was still in her hand, she started hitting him. ‘All the flashbacks, all the memories … I just couldn’t stop. And I wanted to kill him … There was blood everywhere, and I didn’t give a damn.’
Avrill told a nun who made her wait in the chapel. When she returned, she said ‘tell nobody’. They prayed for Lorenzo. ‘I really thought I’d killed him. I really did. And I thought … I’ll be hanged until I’m dead.’
Lorenzo attended mass the next morning with a head wrapped in a bloodied bandage. He kept his job, and the police were never called. Children could only go to the shed under the supervision of a nun, ‘but we weren’t allowed to talk about it’, she said.
On another occasion, a taxi driver tried to molest Avrill while she was on an errand. Witnesses took her to the police and made a statement, and the matter went to court. Because Avrill had told him she was 15, older than she was, Mother Christopher gave her a hiding and said, ‘for your lying, a person is going to jail’. Because she had lied, Avril felt responsible for this third assault.
When she left the orphanage, Avrill became withdrawn. She married a good man, but the marriage was ‘hopeless’. She enjoyed working as a nurse and helping people, but thinking that ‘there was only one way out’, she stole sleeping pills from her patients. ‘But I couldn’t do it because suicide was a mortal sin, it was the worst sin.’ The couple eventually divorced, but were reconciled later in life. ‘I had a fondness for him. It wasn’t his fault. I was such a lousy wife’, she said.
In her 40s, a doctor wept as he listened to Avrill disclose her abuse for the first time. She then had hypnotherapy which revealed her guilt over the death of a child she had shared a cot with. ‘I was blamed for that other kid dying and it wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t my fault, but they said it was because I belonged to the devil.’
With the encouragement of the Child Migrant Trust, Avril has spoken out now about her experiences because ‘people have a right to know what happened in these institutions’. She went before a senate inquiry, and sought redress from the Catholic Church who settled the claim for the physical abuse, but not for the psychological or sexual abuse.
Now in her 80s, Avril is as feisty as ever. She puts her resilience down to a ‘determination to fight’, and ‘this fierce thing inside that everything had to make sense, and it had to be fair’.
Avril would like to see the British Government set up an inquiry into the abuse of child migrants. She also believes that no child should ever be institutionalised. ‘Never take a child away. Deal with the parents. Give them the skills to be able to nurture their children to grow up healthy adults. Don’t take them away. Don’t force them to go to another country.’