At the age of nine, Thomas arrived in Sydney as part of a small group of post-war child migrants. His parents had separated and he and his younger brother had been in care, as their father could not look after them properly while he worked.
At the state-run residential care facility in New South Wales, where he spent the next seven years, Thomas was sexually abused by both the school’s barber, an unmarried man in his 20s called Peter Clarkson, and an older student.
He was also physically abused by the maintenance man, Floyd Messenger, and his wife, Beryl, the ‘cottage mother’ who was in charge of the dormitory-style housing. The couple were heavy drinkers, both ‘vicious’. Beryl Messenger was ‘psycho … she was absolutely bonkers’. ‘If she was on fire you wouldn’t pee on her’, Thomas said.
Peter Clarkson held a variety of roles that included helping Floyd Messenger with maintenance and cutting the boys’ hair. He initially lured Thomas to his quarters where he sexually abused him. Clarkson would repeatedly abuse Thomas there, or in the cottage bathroom, over a two to three year period in the 1950s.
‘He would be cutting your hair behind you then he’d grab you and twist you around to face him, one arm around your shoulder and one arm around your waist and have sex with you front on … When he … obtains, satisfaction or contentment, he then holds you for a few seconds, and then go on cutting your hair.’
Clarkson would warn Thomas ‘not to say anything’.
Thomas was also sexually abused by Alastair Angus Stuart, about five years his elder and the headmaster’s favourite student. But while he and Clarkson treated Thomas in an ‘identical way’, Stuart’s abuse was worse.
‘It was like one had trained the other. One was sort of a rubber stamp of the other.’
During outings to the pool Stuart would put his hand in Thomas’s pants and grab his genitals. ‘I like you very much, you’re mine’, Thomas said the older student would tell him while ‘forever putting his arm around me’.
Stuart also abused younger male students on the school grounds but it was never, ever, discussed.
With no talk by anyone, Thomas could not tell the Commissioner whether sexual abuse was rampant at the institution. But physical abuse was, particularly with Beryl and Floyd Messenger.
The Messengers and Clarkson were close friends and on their day off would go into town ‘and get on the booze’.
Beryl, Thomas recalled, was ‘such a vicious woman … would just whack anyone’, with her favourite strap - a porcelain jug cord with plastic ends. This occurred usually on a Thursday or Friday when she was drinking or hungover.
Her husband would give Thomas an occasional thump, just one punch ‘straight in the guts’. But during one of Messenger’s rages, when Thomas was about 13, he was attacked, in front of Beryl and two others in the cottage, with no provocation. He still doesn’t know why.
‘I was bashed by him unmercifully – I don’t know how long it was – in one whacking. It was witnessed by [two other boys] and [they] reminded me a few years ago. [One said] “It’s the worst bashing I’ve ever seen in my life”.’
That episode was so extreme that Messenger paid one of the boys two shillings a week until he left the following year, to prevent a report to the principal.
Thomas never reported Clarkson’s abuse. ‘You can’t get away because who are you going to complain to? [The principal would] say “Go away, you silly boy. People don’t do that”.’
When aged about 15, Thomas heard a loud shot while walking in the grounds with another boy. ‘So we ran like hell, get through the fence and there’s [Freddy Jones] just shot himself.’
Freddy was younger and had been ‘friendly’ with Clarkson.
‘The good news is the bastard [Clarkson] died last year.’
Thomas, married for more than four decades, is now retired after a successful career. He describes himself as homophobic and ‘extremely cautious of people’, and he has little empathy with his family.
The experiences with Clarkson ‘altered my life’. They made Thomas feel weak and like a ‘wimp’ but, in another way, stronger and able to survive alone when he left the facility.
It wasn’t until relatively recently that he joined a class action and wrote to the law firm disclosing the abuse. And it wasn’t until 2015, when he attended a private session at the Royal Commission, that he had told anyone – ever – in a face-to-face setting.
He has not yet told his wife or children, and feels he is still ‘too raw’ to consider counselling.
If he disclosed the abuse, Thomas is sure people would see him differently.
‘See, I don’t want people to assume I have been sexually penetrated by a male – which has not happened. What I am concerned about is that if I tell my wife, there could be an assumption that these sort of things happened. Therefore I think it’s best left unsaid.’