At the age of three, Ethel was made a ward of the state, and spent nine years during the 1940s in a children’s home run by the Presbyterian Church in Victoria. Until the age of 21, when she was released from care, she also spent time in a Catholic Reformatory and in foster care.
It was several years before Ethel discovered by accident that one of the other girls at the children’s home was her sister. When she complained about this to Matron Gallagher, the woman in charge, she was ‘locked up and I got the biggest flogging I’ve ever had in me life I think.
‘Matron used to belt me something terrible. She did often say to me “I’d like to kill you” and I said to her “Well, it’s a funny thing isn’t it, because my mother said the same thing”.’
Ethel told the Commissioner she was sexually abused by two men at the children’s home. ‘The abuse began when I was nearly 10 years old … I knew nothing about sex.’
A photographer had come to the home and ‘after he had taken some photos he took me to an empty house on the … property. He said “I have something to show you” and I had no reason not to go with him. He started touching me and mucking around with me and I said, “What are you doing to me?” Then he had sex with me and he then threatened to kill me if I told anyone’.
When Ethel told Matron Gallagher what he’d done, ‘she told me I was a liar. I got a flogging with a belt and she hit me across my face and left strap marks’. She then went to the dormitory in tears and told the older girls what had happened. They told her she’d been raped. ‘They had to explain to me what that meant. I understood then what had happened to me.’
For two years Ethel was repeatedly raped by a gardener who worked at the home. ‘I can remember the gardener banging on our windows in the dormitories at night and I used to cry and scream and tell the girls to come and save me. And then I’d walk to the bathroom and he’d be trying to get in the bathroom door …
‘In the end I just thought I have to get off this earth, you know. I can’t put up with this any longer.’ Ethel told the Commissioner that she was so depressed at the home that she attempted to take her own life with pills, and also cut her wrists.
Ethel ran away with another girl and they were found by the police at a local shopping centre, begging for money. They told the police, ‘The gardener’s raping us and Matron Gallagher does not believe us’. Even though the police went to the home and spoke to the gardener, Ethel is unsure whether he was charged or not, as she believes she left the home shortly after this.
After the children’s home, Ethel was sent to a Catholic reformatory and when she told one of the Sisters there what had happened to her at the home, the Sister just said, ‘It usually happens in homes’.
When she was 15, Ethel asked if she could work with horses, and she was sent to work for the Harrington family. Ethel lived in a bungalow away from the main house.
‘After about three weeks, Mr Harrington came to the bungalow. He said, “I just want to sit on the bed and talk to you”. Then he started to muck around with me. He said, “No screaming. No yelling. I’m going to have sex with you”. He had sex with me nearly every night for the most of my time I was there.’
Mr and Mrs Harrington had three sons, who knew what their father was doing to Ethel. ‘I heard them ask him if they could have a go too.’ Ethel told the Commissioner she didn’t know what to do. ‘When it first happened I didn’t know what was going on. Because I was dumb. I was stupid. And when he threatened to kill me and throw me out in the bush so no one would ever find me … I couldn’t do much.’
When she told Mrs Harrington, she ‘told me I was a liar. So I couldn’t do nothing. And I didn’t know what I had to do meself, because I wasn’t taught to do anything’. Ethel eventually ran away and was returned to the reformatory, where she remained until the age of 21.
Ethel was disappointed when she gained access to her records. ‘There’s nothing in them.’ There are whole years when nothing was written down. ‘It’s really upsetting to think after all these years, look what’s happened to all us girls. And they got away with it. I don’t think that’s very fair. I really don’t.’
Ethel told the Commissioner she hasn’t had a good life because ‘I can’t mix with people. I can’t have a conversation with people. I try, but I just can’t. And I don’t like crowds. And I don’t like men coming near me’.
Ethel never learned to read or write. Before attending the Royal Commission she was determined to read out a written statement to the Commissioner, and with the help of a support person, and one of her grandchildren, she learned to read. She told the Commissioner, ‘I’m still not sure of a lot of words’, but she practises every day.
‘All I wanted was for Matron Gallagher and the Welfare to have believed me and shown me some respect. They should have looked after me.’ Ethel told the Commissioner that if a report is made, ‘Listen to the child’.