Hugh was a child migrant, sent from the UK to Western Australia in the 1950s. He was seven years old when he stepped off the boat, carrying nothing but the clothes on his back. From there he was immediately shipped off to an independently run children’s home where he lived for the next seven years.
When he first arrived at the home, Hugh was a shy, frightened boy. ‘It was all new and strange to me’ he said, ‘and I was terrified I can assure you’. His fear was not misplaced. Hugh copped physical abuse from male staff members and the cottage mother (‘a vicious, malicious woman’) and sexual abuse from a fellow resident named Michael Nash.
Nash, who was about seven years older than Hugh, attacked him on several occasions. ‘Once when I was asleep this hand came out of nowhere’ Hugh said. ‘And another time when he trapped me in the toilet near the dining room.’
That abuse ended when a staff member got hold of Nash and ‘sorted him out’. Nash left the home and Hugh never saw him again. He didn’t think about him either. Hugh blocked out all memory of the sexual abuse and got on with the task of surviving the daily brutalities inflicted by the staff.
Soon the shy, frightened boy grew into a fiercely resilient teenager. He recalled one time when a staff member took him aside for a caning. Hugh asked him:
‘“How many is this worth?” I don’t know whether he thought I was insolent. But anyway he said “You’ll get ‘em until you cry”. My comment was “Well, good luck”. It didn’t happen the first night and it didn’t happen the second night, and the third night his wife came out … to say “You’ve had enough. Leave him alone”. And I went back to the cottage and I never spoke to the man again until the day I left.’
At 16 Hugh was out of the home and on his own.
‘I left with just the clothes I was standing with and that was it. No preparation for anything. I’d never spoken on the telephone … I was terrified of going into a public toilet. I’d never had a haircut. I’d never been on a bus and paid a bus fare. I got on the bus the first time, the guy said “Where’s your money?” [I said] “Oh, what do you want money for?”’
Hugh said he had few ‘life skills’ and ‘no idea’ how to deal with the opposite sex. But these handicaps didn’t hold him back for long. ‘I had a job within seven days, and I’ve never been unemployed since that, and I retired last November.’ He married in his early twenties and he and his wife are still together today.
Raising children was a particular challenge for Hugh.
‘I was very concerned that my idea of bringing children up would be based on what was experienced by me as a person, you know. I remember I smacked my son once and I went and cried. And I thought “Geez, you can’t do that. There’s got to be a better way of doing that”.’
Early in the relationship Hugh told his wife about some of his childhood experiences but never mentioned any details of the sexual abuse. Hugh himself didn’t remember the details until the 1990s when he saw a newspaper article detailing how Nash had been charged with sex offences against children.
‘It affected me so much that when I saw the article in the paper my first reaction was not what one would expect from me. I was going to kill him.’
Hugh then approached the Child Migrants Trust and spoke to a counsellor, disclosing his experiences for the first time. As the memories came back to him he became increasingly angry, not just at his abuser but at all the staff who knew what Nash was doing and yet never intervened.
Hugh now works closely with the ‘old boys’ network, providing support to other ex-residents of the children’s home. He considers them ‘family’ and, despite the horrors of the past, he looks back on their shared childhood with fondness.
‘I’m very happy to be here, and hopefully I’ve contributed to realising some of the bad things but also there were some very good things. And camaraderie is one of those things I learned down there. You know, stick by your mates.’