Margaret Coyen, a small wiry, fiery woman of fifty has a gold painted plastic trophy on the mantelpiece presented to her by childhood friends and allies, for surviving the systematic, physical, emotional and sexual abuse she suffered while under the ‘care and protection’ of the most powerful institutions of society – the Government and the Church.
In 1950, six year old Margaret Coyen was brought out to Australia under the Child Migration Scheme from Nazareth House orphanage in Birmingham, England. I met Margaret via my enquiry to the Sisters Of Mercy in Albury who had run St. John’s orphanage from 1867-1967, as it was there that my mother too, had been transported too, as a Child Migrant at the age of nine.
I had grown up hearing many incredible stories of her time there and I wanted to place it in my minds reality. The nun put in charge of such enquiries always directed them to Margaret. We met at the wrought iron gates of St. John’s Orphanage, Thagoona, 7kms out of Albury. It was like we had known each other for years – not just because we had the same taste in clothes – but because when I said my mothers name – she bent over, broke into a fit of coughing, “I knew your mother! We shared the same cabin in the ship together! Oh yes, I remember her!”‘Coyney’ as the ‘girls’ who still live in the area, call her, said all the abuse mum had told me about was true. I also learned that the long-term affects to their internal and external life experiences were similar; a culture of domestic violence, depression, suicides, substance abuse and family break-downs, and all carried over to the next generation – including mine.
Margaret and mum’s story is a reflection of a patriarchal society which blamed women for societies ills, especially for having children out of wedlock. In a time of little contraception, the pill a long way off, the need for working class women to work, especially as part of the war-effort – many unwanted pregnancies occured.
As with its convicts Britain found a way to get rid of its unwanted children in collaboration with its old colonies, still part of the Commonwealth, and the religious and child care agencies. The contempt which these children experienced is still felt today, similar to that experienced by ‘The Stolen Generations” of Australia’s indigenous people.Education was not a priority in the history of this scheme. Margaret and Mum were trained for domestic and farm labour by being forced at a young age to be up at dawn to milk the cows, iron the heavy black pleated nuns skirts, scrubbing and polishing and even guard the dead. Margaret said how every time someone died Sr. Rita assigned girls to kneel and pray around the coffin all night long.
There was a constant battle of wills but hunger and torture were part of every day life and Mother Superior always won in the end.Common punishments and methods to break the spirit of the children were to put you in a sugar sack and lock you in isolation without food, dressing you in red cloth and placing you in a field with a bull, and if you dared pluck your eyebrows like mum did, have all your hair hacked off in front of everybody and smear your brow with gentian violet.Not all nuns were cruel of course,(bless you Sister Ruth), and mum said they did get to see a movie occassionally like Tyrone Power, in the Mark of Zorro, and she loved to sing. They even got to sing on an Albury radio station, but mostly it was work, and when you turned eleven you got sent out to a cattle or sheep station to help the farmers wives with the house and kids.
I always felt a sense of trajedy growing into my teens that mum had never had the chance to go to a proper school full-time because she showed a love of reading and maths. It was like I could always see her potential and felt sad that it wouldn’t be fulfilled, because she didn’t believe in herself that much; she was a factory worker, a cleaner, a cook, a bar-maid and that was all she was destined for. She thought that about her daughters too and encouraged us out of school early and into the factories too.However, there were some significant differences in Mums and Margarets childhood: Margaret said she was raped at the orphanage, became pregnant and sent away to have the baby and put it up for adoption. It had only been recently that her son had found her and they were developing a relationship.
The desire to know your origins is at the core of many of us. In the late 1960’s, with the aid of the Salvation Army, Margaret found out she had a family in Ireland including a ‘full-bloodied’ brother. Saving the money from her various cleaning and ironing jobs she returned to Britain to find out who she belonged to.
When she arrived at Heathrow Airport, London she was unprepared for the reception she received, “You should have seen them at the airport. There was a bus load of them! Holy Moley – they’d all come over from Ireland, all in their Gypsy gear…Oh, what an embarrassment! And Uncle Louie, he had the violin going,” she laughs.
They all “broke down” as they told Margaret she was the “spit-in-image” of her dead mother. She says, “My Grandmother had put me on that boat because I was a disgrace to the family over there…they(the family) didn’t know I existed. She never told them.”
The greatest shock came when she found out her natural father was alive and went to visit him at the Repatriation Hospital in Dover: “Oh he was all battered up – he had a patch over one eye, half his ear missing…he thought I was the ghost of my mother coming in to take him upstairs!”
Margaret’s father said he had wanted to marry her mother but he couldn’t “tie her down”. When her mother did marry eventually to another man she did well, but Margaret adds, “She was a naughty girl for a long time”.
Still she didn’t let her Grandmother forget her part in abandoning her and keeping the fact a secret, calling her a hypocrite to her face: “She had Our Lady standing in the window with two vases at her feet with little flowers. I asked her if she was praying to the Lord now, that He’s gonna forgive her before she snuffed it!”
Even after the big going away party and the sense of knowing where she came from, Margaret couldn’t wait to return to Australia. She has mixed feelings about how her life turned out. Although bitter about the Catholic Church and the government for what they did to her, she’s also glad she didn’t grow up with her natural family: “We all got on well but they’re so clicky…and you’ve got to watch your purse with them all the time!”
As Margaret sits in a small, run-down weatherboard house opposite the Albury railway line, snatching a glance at her trophy she insists she is at Home: “When you look at the poverty, the shit they live in – at least I’m walking around here somewhere – y’know, a little bit better class than they are.”
Reference: FORGOTTEN AUSTRALIANS – A Report on Australians who experienced institutionalised or out-of-home care as children – Community Affairs References Committee, Aug 2004 www.aph.gov.au/senate_ca