Racial Relations – 1923 Style

AuthorEnid Fulton (nee Westcott)
Time7 min read

When I was nearly 5 years old it was decided that my mother and baby Dick, Nell and I should spend the three hot months of the year at Yeppoon, and that it would be good for me to go to school there and have the company of other children.

My gregarious mother was becoming alarmed at my appalling shyness when visitors arrived with children of the same age, as I still remember that I used to collect all my dolls and myself and hide under the bed and refuse to come out. What she didn’t know, and I didn’t tell her, was that “Bobby” was usually amongst those children. Bobby had a bully face and mouth turned down at the corners and was always full of fight. Brought up with numerous brothers she had learned to look after herself, and as soon as we were alone she would punch me in the stomach as she said, “Just to show who was boss”, and that she was going to do the same to all my dolls. To me my dolls were living companions, so from the age of about three I lived in dread of Bobby’s visits. Mum and Mrs Spence were great friends and somehow I thought I wouldn’t be believed if I explained matters.

So it was to be school for me at Yeppoon. I didn’t mind. I liked having friends (except Bobby) so I was quite happy with few qualms to be taken off and left at school that first day. After the bell rang we all assembled around the flag and after that ceremony we were marched to our various classrooms. We had to file in one by one to our desks and mark time facing the way we’d come in (we were not to turn and look forward). I had heard all these instructions and understood them but the sight of so many kids filing in and marking time was so novel to me that I had (typically) forgotten what I was supposed to do and had about-turned and watched what was going on with great interest. Suddenly a hard bony hand and fingers pressed into my upper left arm and wrenched me viciously around to face the correct way. “Do as you’re told madam or I’ll get the cane to you”, said a voice, and I had a glimpse of a very big nose and thin ugly face and all the stories of witches that I’d ever heard came into my mind. We were finally told to “left turn” and “sit down”. To my dismay the big nose and thin face was standing in front of us. She was to be our teacher.

She had a sort of wispy stick – made of lots of bits of small long rushes tied together as a cane. It made noise when applied to the table so was probably more effective than one that hurt more. I was doubtful–was it part of a broomstick? What she really a witch? I’d ask Nell when I went home. In the meantime I’d be very careful. I was very unsophisticated at 5 –straight from the back blocks remember. We got straight down to work. Luckily I was good at whatever we learnt to do or write so I avoided trouble. Luckily also I was a right-hander because my left arm had become stiff and sore and I couldn’t use it. When I arrived home and my mother saw the bruising on my left arm and she asked me what happened. I told her and she and Nell were extremely indignant and angry. Mum marched into the bedroom to put on her hat saying she was going straight to the school to speak to that dreadful woman. We all know my mother was a bit precipitate by nature and did things she regretted later, so Nell and I tried to talk her out of it. Nell’s argument that it would only make matters worse for me finally prevailed after she had pointed out that Mum could have a quiet word with the headmaster later and suggest he could keep an eye on this teacher, as now that she was approaching retirement she may not be suitable to handle children in their first year at school– straight from the nursery environment really. I was very thankful. Young as I was I could see no advantage for me in Mums proposed action!

Well I enjoyed school and made a very good friend called Star. She had lovely goldy-brown hair and great big brown eyes and I thought she was just beautiful. We had similar natures and whenever trouble loomed from other children’s quarrels or resentments or wrong ideas we’d just slip away to a quiet spot and enjoy our own company. She had brothers and she promised me that she’d get them to teach us to “track”. I was absolutely thrilled. This was wonderful. I often heard of how black trackers could track down lost children and baddies and now we would be able to do the same thing! Wasn’t I glad I’d met up with Star! She promised she’d get them to take us the next week. One afternoon I asked her to come home with me for a while after school and we’d see how much of my picture books we could read now.

Nell gave us cakes and drinks for afternoon tea and we settled down with our books on the lounge room floor. My mother was away with some friends. We were having a very happy time when she returned with her visitors. Now my mother was a very warm hearted woman – and emotional. She had been brought up in a wealthy environment with servants for every possible task – servants who knew their place. She’d also known Kanakas in the cane fields living in their own huts and well behaved. When she married a grazier in our part of the world she knew what she was going to experience and sensibly and happily settled down to the new way of life. She had made many compromises, but apparently she hadn’t quite adjusted to one. She had never quite dispensed with the colour bar. She had never expected to see her daughter sitting down in her own lounge room with a half-caste. She wasn’t prepared for this and apparently she cracked and acted strictly in accordance with her nature–to react first and think later.

”What are you doing there child? Go home at once”, she said to Star. Chaos reigned. Poor little Star. She jumped to her feet and just ran – she ran like a deer down the stairs through the gate the road and out of sight. It was as if a wraith had been with us and had now disappeared. Mum sat on the couch with her hands up to her face in the grip of remorse – the visitors looked extremely embarrassed and undecided whether to stay or not. Nell said exactly what she thought, “What a shame – that’s terrible – you shouldn’t have done that Elsie”. I burst into tears and tried to tell Mum that Star was a good little girl and hadn’t been doing anything wrong. (I had never heard of a half-caste and didn’t know that Star was one). I knew her brothers were black but so what? It didn’t matter to me. No one ever told me why Star had been sent home. I had to gradually come to an understanding of the position much later. Next day at school was awful. I went up to Star and try to tell her how nice I thought she was but she wouldn’t talk to me – nor did she ever talk to me again. I had to do with the company of others who were not like Star and I was very glad when the three months of school were over and we could go home.

I felt so guilty and so sorry for Star. What’s more, I’d been deprived of those tracking lessons and that really rankled. Nell had got potomac poisoning from eating oysters and Dick was grizzly from having to get onto Lactogen so somehow it was never suggested again that we should spend time at Yeppoon, much to my relief. Being taught by Nell with the aid of correspondence lessons was jolly good – correspondence lessons were very pleasant with their colourful pictures and absolute clarity of meaning and description, and I spent a couple of HAPPY years being educated that way.

There is a strange footnote to this story. Before I left Yeppoon School I had become the teachers pet. She even praised me to my mother, so naturally she and Mum became on very civil terms. But I could never like her. However my life long earnest desire for a peaceful life was gratified and I could see that things were much better this way than they could have been earlier. Nell must often have had a quiet smile though. She had assured me firmly that there were no such things as witches. Witches were only in storybooks and what Nell said of course was to be believed. I still thought that our teacher must have had a nature like a witch though, and was glad I never met her again!