Alfred Fletcher and Adele Chynoweth, 1 September 2011
ALISON WISHART: Hello everybody and thank you for coming to another staff seminar. We are really privileged today to have a special guest who has flown down from Brisbane to talk to us, Alfred Fletcher, and his mate Kev Swift is here as well. Both of them went to Westbrook Home and they will be talking about some of their experiences there, which Adele will facilitate for us. I think you all know Adele Chynoweth who, along with Jay Arthur, is one of the curators on the Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions exhibition. I am going to hand over to Adele now, and then I will run the question time towards the end of the seminar. We are recording this session so we will pass the mike around at the end.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Thanks, Alison. It’s wonderful to have Al here today. I made three promises to Al: one, I wouldn’t make a big song and dance when I introduced him, which is very hard because I think he’s worthy of a big song and dance; second, I promised him that he wouldn’t be on trial today. Al has been on trial most of his life since childhood so he’s not here to be on trial. And the third promise was that I will let him out for a smoke at half past one so we will stick to time.
The reason we are here today is in conjunction with our pending exhibition Inside: Life in Children’s Homes and Institutions, which opens on 16 November here at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra. That exhibition will look at the three groups of children who were in homes and institutions: the 50,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, many of whom identify with members of the Stolen Generations; also about 7000 former child migrants who came to Australia; and of the 500,000 who were in homes, most were Australian non-Indigenous children, and it’s that group that Al is a part of and that we are focussing on today.
Also as a way of introduction is an understanding that, to put it quite simply, there was a two-tiered system in institutions. There were children’s homes but there were also reformatories, detention centres, institutions for those children who were deemed to be uncontrollable. But what’s really important to understand is that children could be incarcerated not for committing a crime but merely for being a status offender - for being a run-away, for example - and of course no-one asked those children why they were running away or from what circumstances they felt the need to run away from.
As I said, we are not going to ask Al why he ended up in Westbrook because, as I said, he’s been on trial and he’s a bit sick of it. Perhaps the best way to introduce this is in Senator Andrew Murray’s own words when he talks about the children from Westbrook outside of Toowoomba as ‘inmates’:
I use the word ‘inmates’ because they were treated as if they were actually the most dangerous or malicious of criminals rather than the vulnerable kids they were. However, having said that, I could not even condone the atrocious and heartless treatment meted out to Brook boys even being meted out to hardened criminals. Even though some of these boys had committed minor misdemeanours and were regarded as delinquents, most came from disadvantaged families where alcoholism, poverty and neglect were the norm. Like Crow - and that’s Al’s nickname - and as the Forgotten Australians report reveals, many children found themselves in a court of law where they were ultimately charged with being a neglected child and sentenced to institutional care - in itself a frightening experience. But what lay ahead for many was far more terrifying.
Just about Westbrook and then I will hand you over to Al. Westbrook was a state-run institution. It emerged from the Prosperine, which was a boat that was moored in the Brisbane River, which was a reformatory for boys in the late 1900s. That was then transferred on to land, the facility at Litton, and then in 1900 the Westbrook Reformatory for Boys was set up in Westbrook, which is a small area outside Toowoomba, Queensland. In 1919 it was named the Westbrook Farm Home for Boys; in 1966 it was renamed again as Westbrook Youth Detention Centre; and it closed, finally, at the end of June 1994.
This is Al Fletcher born in 1945 in Brisbane, author of the book Brutal: Surviving Westbrook Boys Home as told to Cheryl Jorgensen. As he said, he doesn’t want a song and dance; he just wants to say he’s alive; he’s here and happy to be at the Museum. This [shows book] you can’t get any more. This is the third edition by New Holland Publishers that is sold out. But it’s soon to be made an e-book through Amazon so I would really commend it to you. It’s a fantastic and enlightening read. Do you want to talk about why Westbrook was closed down at the end of 1994? How did that happen, Al?
ALFRED FLETCHER: They had more trouble in Westbrook again, and I believe they had another inquiry. I think they realised it was time to close it down because they had one inquiry in May 1961, and they spent a lot of money having this inquiry, the Schwarten inquiry. Apparently they didn’t learn by the Schwarten inquiry and the Queensland government, if they had let the inquiry out to the people to read it - not making it a closed inquiry - it might not have progressed on the way it did if it had been released as it should have been released by law, but they kept the document from the public.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: What year were you sent to Westbrook, Al?
ALFRED FLETCHER: June 25, 1960.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: What was your involvement in the Schwarten inquiry in 1961?
ALFRED FLETCHER: I had quite a bit of involvement in Schwarten inquiry. I went down on three occasions. I told them exactly what was going on in there and I was not very popular over it all. Also the food I presented where the grubs were rooting in the food. The food was found unfit for human consumption by government analysts and many other things - the brutality they dished out to innocent people.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Thank you. We have some archival film footage of Westbrook, just two minutes. This was shot in 1950. Now Westbrook became infamous when Superintendent Roy Golledge arrived in 1952. What was his nickname? What did they call him?
ALFRED FLETCHER: Many names – ‘Big Jim’, I think they used to call him. He was about 6’6” tall and a very big man.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: This is before Golledge; this is Superintendent McMillan. The way the Museum treats heritage footage and photographs about institutions is we don’t necessarily see it as a reflection of truth and reality. I suppose it would be used akin to what we call marketing these days so it really reveals how the media was used to construct a certain image about homes and institutions. We will have a quick look at 1950 Westbrook, a couple of minutes, and tell me what you think of it.
[Video film played]
ADELE CHYNOWETH: What do you want to say about that, Al?
ALFRED FLETCHER: Under McMillan I do believe he was okay from what I heard. But then it went into another era under Golledge and his mob. That may have been the case how they are talking there then, but it was still very bad. But I can assure you none of that rubbish was going on when Golledge and his mob were running the place, and the state government backing the superintendent for all that he wanted to inflict on anybody in this place. I think that will answer that the best I can.
KEVIN SWIFT: When I went there in 1956 the buildings were still the same, the gardens were still the same, but, you know, it’s all bull. Al is sort of being a little bit diplomatic but it was just rough. And that is just propaganda.
ALFRED FLETCHER: That is correct. That is the greatest bit of propaganda I have seen. And I am not anti because I was in there. I am only saying what I experienced in the place.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: We also have a couple of photos. [Image shown] This is taken from the 1999 Forde inquiry these photographs were published in the newspaper but they were reprinted as part of the 1999 Forde inquiry in Queensland entitled ‘The abuse of children in Queensland institutional care’.
KEVIN SWIFT: Those photographs were taken in 1957.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Anything you want to say about those, Al?
ALFRED FLETCHER: It’s a different photograph to when I was in there because they took that thing around the post there and made a post in the middle. They used to run them around there until they dropped on the ground - children. They run them around there until they dropped.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Why would they be forced to run around the pole?
ALFRED FLETCHER: You might have been talking in line or you might have been smiling or laughing or having a joke - that was frowned upon. You weren’t allowed to laugh. You had nothing in that whole yard of balls or pads - you had nothing. You got one toothbrush when you got in there. You got no more but you never had enough toothpaste. That is what the place was like.
KEVIN SWIFT: One of the reasons for your punishment could stem from the garden beds they showed you too because you could be so hungry that you would eat your own vegetables.
ALFRED FLETCHER: So you would be flogged. You would be flogged if you were caught eating any vegetables from the patches. Now them patches – I had a couple of blocks of land there myself. They still owe me about $200 from the few years that I sold all my goods. But I ran away in the end, so they lost my money. I worked the hell out for a couple of years, if you know what I mean. Myself and many more never ever received our pay - and that’s proof. What I am saying is all in proof. It’s not from me; it’s the proof.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: [Image shown] This is Queensland parliamentarian John Mann who initiated the Schwarten inquiry in 1961. Is that anything you would like to say about this bloke?
ALFRED FLETCHER: Yes, I would like to say something about that. There was a boy there by the name of X. I think he’s passed away now. I have seen Golledge shove a bowl of castor oil down his throat and break his teeth, a full bottle down. And naturally he got the runs all day, as you can imagine from it. Caster oil treatment was quite a regular occurrence up there, if they were in one of their silly moods, as I put it. Luckily I never got the treatment. But there was one case where one boy was supposed to have suffocated from the castor oil treatment and was taken to the Toowoomba General Hospital, and I think from there they put him in the loony bin. He was a boy for the loony bin job. That was another thing they did. I tried to get myself admitted in there and unfortunately – I am glad I suppose - they said I was sane. That’s how the word ‘Crow’ came about, because I ran away and hid up a tree.
But many of the boys ended up in Willaburn and in mental hospitals around Queensland at the time. And a boy by the name of X, an Aboriginal boy. He’s come from out the bush and, you know what I mean, he wasn’t used to the white man’s ways or anything like that. He died in there. He went through - not the inquiry – the Boggo Road incident and everything else but he died -
KEV SWIFT: Willaburn -
ALFRED FLETCHER: No, in one of the mental hospitals. His mate X, an Aboriginal boy also, he died very young from it all. I am only going on a few cases and many, many suicides. I can mention the names but -
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Thank you. There’s a painting here [image shown] done by your mate Robin Parnell and this is a painting of you. Would you like to tell us what that painting is about?
ALFRED FLETCHER: It was Robin’s way of doing the best he could. He couldn’t talk on the matter. He’s a good artist and he has done three paintings and he gave them to me. This one here in the belting is what happened to me after he ran away. I was talking to Robin Parnell before he ran away so I was naturally a part of the scene. I got flogged when he ran away and I was put on the path, which is say approximately the length of this room with a post at one end and post at the other. They had several of these posts and you had to march up and down all day long, all your spare time up and down, up and down. If you didn’t march fast enough you copped the lash. I was there for four months because he ran away. How could I go up and say, ‘I know this man is going to run away’? I was only a boy; I had only been in there a few weeks. I am talking about myself, but there were many more that went through this same treatment.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: And that’s a photo of you on the path?
ALFRED FLETCHER: Yes, that is right. I would like to say that they sent them insane, and truly I want you people to get the real, true history of this. And what they did to the Aboriginals was nothing more than disgusting. You wouldn’t treat a dog like it.
KEVIN SWIFT: The reason Al would have finished up on the path is that with Golledge it was guilt by association.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: There is something you have prepared for us to read. Do you want to read that out?
ALFRED FLETCHER: I would like to. I will do the best I can. Excuse me if I get a bit upset here.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: It’s very courageous of you, because we know how hard that is. Thank you.
ALFRED FLETCHER: Today I am going to try to outline what really happened in this boys home, the effect of what it did to society, and the effect of what it has done to the remaining people that are still alive through this.
I hope I can do justice, for the ones that are not here, for the many that suicided, for the ones that entered into mental asylums from Westbrook Boys’ Home, for the ones that are in jails, caused by Westbrook Boys’ Home, and for the ones that are mixed up two people, and for the ones that are missing and maybe never to be found again.
Yes, I have been in Westbrook Reformatory for Boys and Boggo Road Jail and Silky Oaks Religious Home and Riverview Salvation Army Boys Home. Yes, I have attempted suicide and have gone through life as if two people in one. The real me is what you are seeing now. The other is still suffering from Westbrook. This wasn’t the way to break children in those days. It was accepted in those days. But in my opinion it wasn’t accepted - not everybody was doing all this to their children. It was only in the 1960s.
This kept on going on for many, many years. This was straight out the fault of the Queensland government that allowed this to continue. Shame, Queensland, shame.
I witnessed suicides, murderers, bank robbers, rapists - the lot. What caused these boys to do these awful things? The boys I am referring to are the Brook boys. What went up there for years and years, you came out there very sick. You see they were flogged, raped. The food was unfit for human consumption. Half didn’t even own a toothbrush and one set of clothes per week, no underwear or singlets etc. You worked in them, and that’s all you had for the whole week - and you stunk. That’s all you had. You had no lockers where you could put your clothes in because you had none. You put it at the end of your bed.
Laughing was frowned upon - caught flogged. After a few years of this and much, much more as I could not say here today as it would horrify you people. You then became two people. When escaped or released you couldn’t mix with normal people or hold down jobs. You were an outcast.
I was sick and many, many were very sick. I should have been treated for insanity and the rest with me after they made us this way. All of what I have said is proven beyond all doubt. There are some matters I cannot talk about owing to legal matters, especially when I was first sent to Westbrook by Judge Andrews as this would affect too many people. The Queensland government are the guilty people there. They sanctioned and allowed all these horrors to happen. The state children’s department gave the okay to all requests by the superintendent to inflict his insane ideas upon us innocent boys in Westbrook. We were no - how would I put it? - we didn’t deserve this treatment. This didn’t do anybody any good. It just wrecked them mentally, and they came out and wrecked society with it, if you understand what I mean. It wrecked their lives and they couldn’t settle down to life in general. We were too screwed up in the head.
The Queensland government came up with this great idea to send 16 boys that run away in the mass break to Boggo Road prison in Brisbane all under the age of 16 years. Now out there is only two alive today and the rest are long gone. I am one of them, thank goodness.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Al, can you tell us about the mass break, when that was, what the mass break was and why was there a mass break?
ALFRED FLETCHER: The mass break was roughly early 1961 - not that early, a few months before the inquiry - it was the biggest mass break at the time in world history. About 60 or 70 boys ran away in one go. A lot of them they rounded up and said they were chased so nothing happened to them. But the ones that got away, that thought they got away, they may have stole a car or something to get out of the Toowoomba Range because there are no cars or buses. You couldn’t walk that far. I had one attempt at that and it was too far, to be honest. Or they might have took food. I took food from the local hospital. I snuck inside and stole some food out of there and some clothes because all I had on, I think, was a pair of dungarees. So I was then charged for that crime and put before the courts - Carny was his name - and then sent to Boggo Road. The others had done misdemeanours, some of them were very small things, but the ones that done anything at all, they rounded them up and they said they were all the ring leaders. But half the ring leaders were back in Westbrook. They had to make a show of somebody so they sent us down to Boggo Road.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: We have a picture here of Boggo Road jail [image shown]. This is what was called the Black Peter. You were put in this in Boggo Road jail. How old were you when you were put in this?
ALFRED FLETCHER: I was 16.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: And what year was that?
ALFRED FLETCHER: 1962.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: This is what was called the Black Peter in Boggo Road jail. Can you explain what this is?
ALFRED FLETCHER: I must admit I was only in there for a couple of hours. But being a young boy it’s not very nice to be threatened that, when you come back in here, you are going to do plenty of time down here under the ground. They put me in there for a couple of hours and locked the door, probably to scare me not to talk no more about what was going on.
KEVIN SWIFT: It’s just a concrete wall.
ALFRED FLETCHER: Yes, I will explain it: you go down the stairs and it’s just a big cell under the ground with nothing, pitch black, and they used to give you a loaf of bread a day and a mat on the ground. That was your food and a pannikin of water. They would only leave you in there for up to seven days.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: That’s all right then.
ALFRED FLETCHER: So they had to let you out for two days every seven. A very close Aboriginal friend of mine that’s in the book [Brutal] that just died recently, he done 21 days down there. How he lived to 72, I will never know, but he made it. The place was full of ex-Westbrook boys because nine out of 10 when they got out of there they ended up in jail. Nine out of ten people did. They had fantastic rate. As for this reform and children by bashing them and brutalising them - forget it, it doesn’t work. I am saying too much.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: No, it’s very important, Al, thank you so much.
ALFRED FLETCHER: I had that about the bird cage too.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Do you want to talk about the bird cage in Boggo Road?
ALFRED FLETCHER: Yes, I will get that out of the way. I was put in the bird cage in No. 2 division and I was in there for about three weeks.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: How old were you, is this 16?
ALFRED FLETCHER: I had just turned 16. I must admit the officers were really dirty against all this, they didn’t like what was going on, and neither did the criminals - or the crooks, we will say. They all treated me with respect and all that there, but I wasn’t allowed to speak to nobody. I had a mat on the ground. I was on half rations and No. 2 division is a notorious jail in Boggo Road jail. It was for all the murderers, lifers and all that situation. I was fed half rations. I was handcuffed in the morning. When everyone else went to their jobs, they would come in and handcuff me, one on each side. One on each side of an officer at 16, I never went out and fought people or bashed people. They took me down there, but the officers would always give me a smoke under the shed so no-one could see it. You know, they had their job to do, and then they would put me in the bird cage. I would stay there for an hour or two, and then taken back to the cell, which was all padded up so no-one could look in, if you know what I mean. You couldn’t look out. You could look out through a few little spy holes. Then after the dinner break they would take the other lot out and they’d come back and do the same thing again. So I was pretty well locked up about 21 hours a day all told for three weeks.
The superintendent used to like coming over. His name was X and I don’t mind saying his name. He used to say to me, ‘Have you had enough?’ I said, ‘I shouldn’t even be in here. I’m quite peaceful with what is going on here.’ No-one was hurting me. It was better than Westbrook - an awful thing to say. Anyhow that is that on that. He eventually let me out. Then he put an Aboriginal boy in there. He came from out the bush where I could probably take it better than an Aboriginal boy. That always affected him very seriously. Anyhow he’s dead now. He died very young. I hope I have help you out somehow there. I will read it out from here.
My own treatment was the bird cage in the notorious No. 2 division plus on half rations plus many times in the pound - the pound is a lockup. You do seven days in there half rations, you know. You had a bible to read if you wanted to read it. And once in the Black Peter. I have here: what a good kill rate, Queensland - remember this. The government - what a beautiful rate. The Queensland government are the guilty people here.
Now the worst part about when you got out of Westbrook is that you were very mixed up. I called it the lunatic asylum. You weren’t cured of anything but very hurt, mixed up mentally, all sorts of problems by the Queensland government-run boys home.
I was sent to Westbrook three times by the judge. That is escaping and then they would just send you back. So you ended back - if you had no record. I had a little record and when you left there you had a record that big. The last sentence I received was two years straight. That’s after I had already done about two years. The rest were released or did six months in that new security compound built in Westbrook.
The reason I received the two years is that I spoke out on three occasions at the Schwarten inquiry about Westbrook, and I was not very popular with anybody in the government and the warders in Westbrook home - in my opinion it was payback time for me. No-one else got the two years, just me. What did I do so different from anyone else? Someone had to be the goose to make it look good.
Luckily for me I escaped from the compound and didn’t do the two years. One of the main reasons that triggered me off writing the book Brutal was the injustice I and the rest received, plus the judge originally that sent me through all this Westbrook show admitting to me, which I have evidence, that you should never have been in the Brook at all. But I went through all that before all this came out. Plus the withholding of parcels and letters from my mother, father and sisters. You see I blamed my family for not writing or coming to see me over them years. Some 47 years later I received my mail under the Freedom of Information Act, and the Queensland government agreed to stop all visits or any communications to me. I have the proof of what I have to say here. I have it.
As children we were young Australians, not men, not capable of understanding fully what was going on. It’s too late. My family are all dead for me to forgive them for something they didn’t create.
Another reason the terrible floggings three Aboriginal boys received. It horrified me what I witnessed and it has never left my mind. You see, the Aboriginals received twice as much floggings as the white boys did, and 90 per cent did nothing wrong to end up in this lunatic boys home.
Also I could say with accuracy 80 per cent of boys should never have been in this sadistic place. The book Brutal which was written explains as much as is possible and also outlines quite a lot, and the copy of the Schwarten inquiry in the 1960s is worth reading. By the way finally they released it, only because it was proven to them that it was illegal withholding this inquiry from everybody.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Who pointed that out but our own Denis French. Al sent me a copy of the Schwarten inquiry which was embargoed until 2061. He can explain if he wants to how he got a copy. That’s up to him to say.
ALFRED FLETCHER: I suppose I don’t care now because I have copped more police threatened that if ever I go to court and bring out this inquiry that I had that I would be charged from where I got it from. I did smuggle it out of Parliament House and then gave it to many politicians in Australia over the last many years.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: So Al sent me a copy, and I said to Denis from our copyright and publishing section, ‘I would love to publish this on the Internet. I know we have a snowflake’s chance in Hades but what do you reckon?’ Dear Denis, because he knows his job so well, found that it had an embargo on it until 2061 but, dear Denis, that didn’t stop him. He then did more digging in the Queensland parliament and found out that it was tabled in parliament in 1961. And of course we know through our democracy that if something is tabled in parliament it then becomes public so it had been illegally suppressed for 50 years. When the Queensland parliament found out that the National Museum knew this, they then for the first time in 50 years published it. So we now do have it on our exhibition website - published. You can download what they say is the full Schwarten inquiry.
ALFRED FLETCHER: It is not, but one day you may read the end of it. There is another part to this, but I don’t think they can ever release it. There’s too much badness in this. I don’t think it would be good for the Australian public to find out just what we were running in this place – what our governments were running. Anyhow, I will get on.
The book Brutal which was written explains as much as possible and also outlines quite a lot, and the copy of the Schwarten inquiry of the 1960s is worth reading. One boy did eight years there for letting a horse out of the pound. You see the horse was going to be killed and he loved animals and he thought ‘I will let him out.’ He done eight years there, had no education - we only buried him two weeks ago - or anything. He was unfortunately illiterate. He just worked on the farm.
On a brighter side, things have improved since the Bligh government took over. She closed Westbrook down and allowed the Forde inquiry to investigate the homes - I bet she wished she never did - plus small compensation to the victims. Many things have changed for boys put in institutions in Queensland, so one must not blame the Bligh and Beattie governments for what happened in Queensland homes. I am not blaming one government, as all governments were involved in this along the many years that lunatic asylum was operating. My mother’s situation and my sisters and father’s situation when they sent me the mail was one of the reasons for writing the book Brutal.
I will answer what questions I can but anything to do with, including myself, what they were sent there for or any crime they committed, I am not answering. They are not going to be on trial here today, as we have been on trial since we went there and when we got out. When you applied for a job, if they knew you were from Westbrook you would not get that job. If you went to court for any misdemeanour or small thing, you would always say you were in Westbrook and then you ran away, and charges kept accumulating. So I suppose the judges looked at it and thought he’s a criminal. These all accumulated while you were in Westbrook, all these things against you. I hope I am explaining the best I can.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: You are doing a great job.
ALFRED FLETCHER: You are a second-rate citizen. So we are not on trial here today. How I survived this whole mess, there is only one way I can answer it all. I pray to a higher power, ask for guidance and I know I have received it.
I am not mad or hold any grudge against anybody involved in Westbrook. I know that plays a big part in my survival today. A lot, unfortunately, are not in my situation. There is a quote from me from the book Brutal, [slide shown] which can be obtained in your library or New Holland Publishers in Sydney. I must thank Senator Andrew Murray for his foreword to the book Brutal, Karyn Walsh from Micah Projects in Brisbane, and all you good people that came here today to listen and learn. I hope that, if anything of this goes into history, don’t doctor it up to suit our society as the saddest thing about all that was inflicted to Australian children was that it was by Australians themselves. This was not a prisoner of war camp; this was an Australian prisoner of war camp against their children. Without forgiveness there is no growth. Thank you everybody. [applause].
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Thank you, Al.
ALFRED FLETCHER: There is so much I could say and show you people what damage it’s done to society. This has done tremendous damage to society. It’s cost the society untold money. I mean they pensioned me off. They tried to put me on a pension when I was 26. I wouldn’t take it. Hundreds all ended up on pensions. Then they got married and their wives couldn’t understand why they were the way they were. They had good wives but they could only put up with this for a certain time. I still sleep in my own bed in my own room. I have a very wonderful wife, a very good wife. Unfortunately, my first wife was in a home for eight years herself, so the two of us together weren’t really a good mix and I couldn’t show love at all. I have three wonderful children, and none of them have ever been in trouble. I can’t really show love.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Thank you for your courage and honesty. I know that by retelling it to a certain extent means reliving. The courage in wanting the truth to be heard is greater than the difficulty in reconnecting with those feelings - you are held in high esteem here, Al, and we are very grateful for what you have taught us today.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, that was really moving. Thank you for coming along today. One or two things that I picked up on. You talked about one of the guards offering you a smoke and you talked about having a bible when you were in Boggo Road jail and you talked about the horse issue with X. Then right at the end you talked about ‘without forgiveness there is no growth’. Did you have that conviction all the way from young childhood? What was the turning point for you to forgive?
ALFRED FLETCHER: I suppose you had to try to look for something better than nothing when you were in these situations. You tried to have faith in something. The older I became, I would say I did get help from a higher power. I pray for something to help me. I say that with honesty.
Naturally I went through the stages where I believed in nothing. I had to watch myself that I didn’t let it eat me up too much. When I got out of there - I couldn’t see it then but I can see it now - there was a hatred in me, and I am not proud of it. All I used to do was get drunk all me life to forget it and just go down the town and work wherever I could get work. As I got older, I have understood what has been the cause of me being what I was or what I am or what I feel. That is the lucky part about it. But many others can’t grasp that. That was the cause of our problems. I hope I have answered that somehow.
QUESTION: My name is Barbara. Thank you very much for sharing with us today. In the book Brutal that you wrote, when it first came out in 2006 what was the response you got from not only friends and family around you but from government and other people? What kind of response did you get to that book being published and released?
ALFRED FLETCHER: It did a lot of good for the families that didn’t understand their father and the children. They wondered why their father was a bit funny - what we classify as normal. I don’t think the government liked it first up but they didn’t do anything about it. They had to accept it. It was released. It did a lot of good for the families and the children of these people from Westbrook because naturally the families couldn’t understand their father. He would have some strange ways. There’s a lovely letter written from a woman to me, and I gave it to you. It’s really worth while reading what she and her sisters what she went through from her father. When he died, she then realised what this was all about and then she knew her father but he had died. She could forgive her father for some of his insanity, I suppose.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: Al got letters of gratitude from loved ones of ex-inmates of Westbrook.
ALFRED FLETCHER: Even some from the Royal Brisbane Hospital where the superintendent wrote letters saying if he would have only known this because he treated a lot of boys from Westbrook. They used to put you in Ward 16, the rat part. They would lock you in saying they are nutters. But we weren’t nutters. If you told the story what was going on up there, he’d say ‘nutter’. They didn’t want this out. They all went out of their way to hide what happened. I suppose the reason being they were too ashamed of what they had really done. I hope I have answered that somehow.
QUESTION: Al, thank you for telling the story. My name is Phil. I am wondering if anyone has been held to account for what has happened to you?
ALFRED FLETCHER: No, I can answer that for you quickly. No-one has been held to account for any of this - no-one. The only one that has been held to account is the poor victims.
QUESTION: Have you thought about what you would do if you were the government, what could be done?
ALFRED FLETCHER: If I was the government right now - there’s not many people left - I would at least offer them some proper medical instead of us paying for it all. I have had broken ribs and I am still suffering today from a kicking from the superintendent. I get the pension but still have to pay all the extras, extra $50 for the doctors. Why can’t they at least pay for the extra cost on medical fees? Excuse me for saying it, if I got in a row boat and rowed across here, I would be getting paid if I had any injuries caused in the row boat. But apparently we can’t pay the victims - it’s not going to cost them a million dollars They just refuse to do this situation. I hope I have answered that the best I can.
QUESTION: Just a comment I suppose, I just wonder why we haven’t learnt and we are still locking people up people who do get on boats who have done nothing wrong.
ALFRED FLETCHER: I wasn’t having a go at them. I was putting it in a category. I am an Australian citizen. I have been here a long time and the rest of me mates, we were brutalised by our own people and the Queensland government knew about it. Why can’t the ones that you are finding out your real history about, fix them up? It’s no big deal. It’s not going to bankrupt us.
QUESTION: I couldn’t agree more.
QUESTION: Al, my name is David Arnold. Following on from Phil, how do you feel now a couple of years later about Kevin Rudd’s apology? Do you feel that it has really carried any real weight? What do you think the consequences of it have been?
ALFRED FLETCHER: It was very good of him to do that. It’s a credit to him. It had to happen. It should have happened a long time ago. Regarding myself, you can apologise all day long but it means nothing to me. I can’t feel it. But there’s a lot of people that it did much good for. As for myself, it means nothing. It’s too late, and nothing has been done about it. I could apologise all day long but, if you don’t do something about it, what’s the good of apologising? It was nice of him and good of him to do it. I find it very hard for me to really give an answer on that. I could give the answer on myself but I cannot talk for the other people. But it would have done a lot of good to a lot of people. I’m probably just got too hard from it all.
QUESTION by Margo: This is the quick part of a long question. How many kids went through Westbrook overall - you said that in the breakout there were 60 or 70 - over the years it was open which was a few decades?
ALFRED FLETCHER: It would be thousands and thousands. There were 160 boys – sorry - 139 boys in there when the mass breakout happened. But once they got into it, they let 60 or 70 go then. It went on for all those years from say the 1950s right through. It was always full of boys. You are talking about thousands and thousands of children.
QUESTION: There were other homes around that were doing the same?
ALFRED FLETCHER: Yes, they were. I was in them too - something called the lunatic asylum.
KEVIN SWIFT: Somebody asked before if the book had done any good. Well, I can tell you for a fact that it did, as I am one of the boys that it helped. I am an old boy now, but my family is a very extended family. I have 11 brothers and four sisters and many nephews and nieces. They all didn’t understand their father, uncle or anything. They do now. They have read the book. They understand. I have received phone calls from many blokes who have read Al’s book and they all said the same. My family does now understand me. I have had that from people who live in Malaya, England - all over. Al’s book has done a lot of good.
ADELE CHYNOWETH: So has Al’s talk today. Could you please join me in thanking Mr Alfred Fletcher and Mr Kevin Swift.
Disclaimer and copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy. Some older pages on the Museum website contain images and terms now considered outdated and inappropriate. They are a reflection of the time when the material was created and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Museum.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–23. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.
Date published: 01 January 2018