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Philippa's story

Philippa’s father often walked around the periphery of the orphanage in the hope of catching a glimpse of his children. He’d been barred from seeing them and if he was noticed in the area, the children were locked away out of sight. There was no apparent reason for preventing him access, but Philippa said most things about the government-run institution made little sense.

Children received no schooling and were put to work doing laundry and cleaning and other tasks in the orphanage grounds. They weren’t allowed to talk to each other and if they did, were severely punished. Whenever Philippa was caught trying to speak with her two brothers, she was strapped and locked in the cellar. ‘I’ve got a phobia about spiders because of that.’

One of Philippa’s jobs was to scrub the floors. Staff members, as a matter of course, would bang her head against the wall or floor as they walked past. ‘The physical abuse was horrendous. No reason for it whatsoever. You dared not answer them back.’ As punishment for bed-wetting, each morning Philippa was marched to the bathroom with the wet sheet draped over her face. ‘They’d fill the bath with freezing cold water and push your head under until the bubbles stopped and you’d get the razor strap prior to that. And that was just for wetting the bed.’

Philippa told the Commissioner that she was in the orphanage for 10 years until she turned 16. Over the years she made numerous attempts to escape but was brought back each time by the Victorian Police. In the early 1950s, aged nine, she was sent from the orphanage to a hospital and given shock therapy. She wasn’t sure why, but thought she might have said or done something she shouldn’t.

‘You were awake and the waves were just going through your head. It was a big metal contraption.’

She later saw the ‘contraption’ on display in an interstate museum.

When she was 12 years old, Philippa was ordered to the superintendent’s quarters to iron his shirts. The superintendent’s fondling of her soon progressed to rape, and the sexual abuse continued weekly for months. ‘I don’t know why it stopped. I don’t know if I just got older.’

At night, women staff members - ‘faceless ones’ - came to the dormitories and sexually abused children while they were in bed. ‘You would lie there petrified, “not me tonight, not me tonight”.’ Philippa said that at 72 years of age, she still slept in the foetal position, as she had done back then.

At 16, Philippa was sent to a girls’ home and she continued to run away. On one of her escapes she became pregnant and when sent back to the home, pressure was placed on her to relinquish the baby after its birth. Each time staff presented Philippa with papers to sign, she tore them up. She gave birth to a baby girl whom she breast-fed and bonded with immediately. ‘In the after-care they’d have pumps on me all the time for other babies.’ A few days after the birth, Philippa’s daughter was taken from her and Philippa was sent back to the home.

Years later, Philippa reunited with her daughter who was living overseas. ‘She had a loving family and I’ve been over there to have a bit of time together, but it’s not the same, that bonding is not there.’

In later life, Philippa also reconnected with one of her brothers which was ‘wonderful’. During their visit together, her brother disclosed that he’d been severely sexually abused for years by one of the kitchen staff in the orphanage. ‘He couldn’t even walk properly.’

In recent years, a community organisation has helped Philippa retrieve her files from the orphanage and girls’ home. Reading them brought back terrible memories of ‘the house of horrors’. ‘I cried a lot but it was good to have them - that there was proof of me being in all these different homes … They didn’t put the abuse in or anything, they don’t do that as you know, but to have my files was really good.’

Philippa said that every year she attends a reunion with other orphanage ‘girls’. With them she can speak freely and they understand each others’ childhood lives. She’d once seen a counsellor but he ‘tried to get onto me, so that was the end of that’. Rarely will she talk with others about her early years. ‘People don’t want to know, they don’t believe it. You have to survive. That’s what it is: survival.’

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