‘I was told I was a nobody, when I went to get married. I wasn’t on anybody’s register. I wasn’t a state ward, I wasn’t fostered and I wasn’t adopted.’
Hester was born towards the end of World War II, to a teenaged single mother. ‘She went to hospital and gave birth to me. And she left the hospital before me.’
After a few weeks in postnatal care, Hester was taken to a privately-run children’s home in the southern highlands of New South Wales. ‘I take it there was no support, financial support. And people didn’t want that shame of “my daughter’s pregnant”, you know? And I think this is how it all evolved.’
The home was a cruel place where, from the age of seven, boys and girls were put to work doing chores. They were not allowed to talk or interact with each other, and they were often physically abused and humiliated.
Hester recalls being very young and watching fires in the surrounding bush. ‘You’re a little child just reaching the window and you could see horrific flames and everything’s bright red. And no one ever put their arm around you and said, “Look, it’s a long way away, you’re safe, we’re looking after you”. We just got belted and put back to bed.’
The owner of the home, Davis Meikle, had strict ideas about diet, and many meals consisted of nothing but raw vegetables. He also believed in flushing out the system, so enemas were regularly administered to the children.
Meikle had a distrust of modern medicine, too. ‘We daren’t get sick as children,’ Hester said. ‘Someone brought you up the fruit juice at noontime on a tray, and that was it. No one came near you to see if you had a temperature. You didn’t get sick because it was so scary.’
And even though the home was operating with the full knowledge of the government, no one from a welfare agency ever came to check on its residents.
In her early teens, without explanation, Hester was moved to a convent in Sydney’s inner west where life consisted of two things: working and praying. The nuns would also watch the girls in the shower.
‘We were locked up like being in jail,’ she said. ‘I wasn’t allowed to speak, I wasn’t allowed to ask any questions. It was the most scariest experience. I just used to lay in bed and cry because I thought, “What am I doing here? Why?”’
Years later a staff member at the children’s home told her, ‘We paid the nuns to look after you’.
After about 18 months Hester was again given away, this time to a woman who owned a property in the Riverina region. When the Commissioner asked if she was a foster carer Hester said, ‘No, no, she was a wealthy farmer that wanted a maid’.
There was more abuse here, both physical and sexual. In particular, Hester remembered the woman’s adult son. ‘He did once, he got his hands on me once. He’d come over … he’d try to get me and I’d go, “I’m going to scream, I’m going to scream”. “She’s not going to listen to you, she’s going to believe me,” he used to say.’
Hester quickly learnt how to stay away from the man. ‘I constantly had to watch him. Constantly.’
In one way or another, the children’s home controlled Hester’s life from the day she was born until her late teens. When she finally left its reach she got a job, the first room of her own, ‘and freedom’.
In later years she became a wife and mother, raising her children alone when the marriage broke down. But she never sought compensation. ‘I was a child slave yes, and I wasn’t treated very nice but at the end of the day, compensation isn’t going to change it.
‘Life has been a constant struggle but … I’m proud of where I’ve got.’
She has no interest in support groups or counselling, either. ‘I think the less you talk about it the better, but the opportunity was here to tell my story. And the reason I’ve told my story is because I just really and sincerely hope this never, ever happens again.’
Hester also came to the Royal Commission in the hope of finding out more about her early life and the mother she never knew. In a written statement she asked: Was the home legally responsible for the children in their care? What right did they have to send children to live in a convent or work in a private home? What government agency had responsibility for keeping an eye on the children?
But first and foremost Hester wants to know, ‘Who I am – where did I come from – what is my history – why would the registry say I was a nobody?
‘I believe I am entitled to and deserve to know the answers to these questions, as are my children and their children. To know why their mother and their life was the way it was.
‘Most importantly so does the little girl in me. She above all is entitled to answers, an apology and an explanation of why things were the way they were and why in the “lucky country” she had it so tough and was robbed of her childhood.’