Tuesday, October 03, 2006

David Henry Drummond and the Importance of Compassion

Photo: David Henry Drummond

The discussion between David and myself in the comment section of the last two posts has raised some issues that I need to think about. In the meantime, I want to talk about a man.

Did you know that the US now has more people in jail on drug crimes than the total EU jail population? Or that the Australian debate on law and order and the increase in penalties has been associated with an increase in the prison population that bears no statistical correlation with the official crime statistics?

My point? I sometimes fear that today we live in an increasingly harsh and fearful society, one in which increasing controls and laws designed to protect us from harm have the opposite effect. To illustrate this, I want to talk about the early life of one man.

Almost totally deaf, this man yet managed to get elected to parliament. Leaving school at twelve, he became a publicist and writer and arguably the greatest Australian minister for education of the twentieth century. A Country Party politician, his friendships spanned political divides from Mary Gilmore to Gough Whitlam. And yet, he was also marked as an uncontrollable child and became a ward of the state. His experiences here gave him a compassion that marked his whole life.

This man was my grandfather. He influenced me enormously. I ate my porridge with salt because he did. When I was being bullied at school he taught me to box. He told me stories of his life, gave me books and educated me in the cooperative movement. If Earle Page was the agitator who gave the early Country Party its political form, Mick Bruxner the administrator who helped give the NSW Party its political substance, Drummond was the political theoretician who articulated its beliefs.

Many aspects of his beliefs remain my core philosophy today, including my belief in the ordinary Australian. I thought, therefore, that I would share a little of his early life, using his own words as much as possible.

David Drummond was born in Sydney on 11 February 1890. In May 1892 his mother died in childbirth. In 1895 his father, Morris Drummond, married again, only to die the following year leaving his new wife pregnant, without money and with three young step-sons. Between 1896 and 1900 David was farmed out to relatives, attending no less than seven schools.

In 1900 the boy was awarded a Presbyterian Church scholarship to attend Scots College. Finding the work easy, he used to loaf, playing hookey to go swimming at Rose Bay.

This more settled life ended quickly. Late in 1901 or early 1902 he had an operation for tonsils resulting in complications, leading to progressive deafness. Then in May 1902 his scholarship was abruptly terminated probably because of lack of work.

This was a devastating blow for the family. His step-mother was bitterly disappointed and it was agreed that he should start work at once: "overnight I became 14 years of age and ... an office boy on the princely sum of 5/- per week"

David then lost this job in unfortunate circumstances:

"Some years previously while staying ... at Sunny Corner with an uncle and aunt I saw a lad but some lollies with postage stamps. It came back to me when I was handling stamps in my new job and often at this growing stage, hungry ... for probably 2 months I did not hunger.It never occurred to me that using stamps in this way, rather than on letters, was stealing."

His employers took a different view and he was fired. Brother Morris then arranged a job for David in the office where Morris worked. As part of this, David had to carry small sums of money round the city to pay minor accounts:

"One afternoon I discovered - or thought I had - that there was a surplus of 1/-. I checked and re-checked and then had a good feed of cakes and ice cream. Returning to the office and checking there it was apparent that I had somehow made an honest mistake. Stamps were one thing, but money was another."

Desperately unhappy, the boy returned home and tried to kill himself: "Luckily Mother arrived at that moment, filled me with salt and water, and that was that."

The relations between David and step-mother Martha had not been good for some time. This was the final straw. The following morning Martha

"gave me a letter to the head of the Child Welfare Department and bade me farewell. In October 1902 I called on Inspector White, a kindly bearded gentleman, presented my 'credentials', and without further ado became a ... 'Ward of the State'.

Another letter was handed to me which I duly presented to the Officer in Charge at Ormond House, Paddington, which was a depot for receiving orphan or neglected children. A few days later, with several other boys, I was sent to another depot at Maitland run by two kindly middle-age sisters and then to a ... vineyard at Pokolbin. "

The NSW child welfare system that Drummond now entered had been established by Sir Henry Parkes in 1881. Prior to that date neglected children, orphans and some juvenile offenders were confined in large institutions under what was known as the Barrack system. Parkes' State Children Relief Act introduced boarding- out. Where the child was under twelve, the new parents became foster parents and were paid a subsidy for their new responsibilities. Over twelve, the child was apprenticed out.

This was not apprenticeship in the traditional industrial sense in which the apprentice spends a specified time with an employer in order to gain a trade qualification. Instead it was a placement scheme in which the ward was placed in the home of an employer and worked for him/her in return for a specified but small wage, part of which was paid directly to the apprentice and part deposited with the authorities to be kept in trust until the ward came of age. The employer was expected to supervise the ward's education and moral training as well as provide employment.

This system worked reasonably well, but left the State Children's Relief Board with a problem with "those lads ... whose persistent misconduct renders them unfit for service under ordinary conditions; that is, those given to frequently absconding from their masters without cause, petty thieves or the habitually indolent."

The law prevented state wards from being admitted to industrial and reformatory schools until a court committal had been first secured. The Board was very reluctant to do this in part because of the stigma attached, in part because the Board had no authority over such schools, so that it lost control of the child following committal. However, by 1901 10,000 children had passed through the boarding-out system so the Board had a continuing and substantial problem to which some solution needed to be found.

To resolve this problem, the Board established a Probationary Farm Home at Cessnock to receive such boys on a private farm of forty hectares, including four under vines and four used for agricultural purposes. In return for ten shillings per week each, the owner agreed to receive four lads initially, providing them with separate sleeping accommodation while treating "them in every respect as members of his family." Once the boys' behaviour improved sufficiently, the master was to find them suitable employment. The Board recognised that the move was experimental and imposed strict conditions; these included a warning that "reform is expected to result from moral suasion, and by inculcating a feeling of self reliance, not from the severe application of corporal punishment."

By the end of 1901 the Board was convinced that the move was a success. A new home was opened at Dora Creek for Roman Catholic boys, thus allowing Cessnock to be used exclusively for Protestants.

In adopting farm homes as a solution, the Board had been influenced by a long and deeply held view within English society of the country, in Raymond Williams' words, as "a natural way of life; of peace, innocence and simple virtue". The Board fully accepted this view. As much as possible it tried to place children in country districts, and it also saw as the major virtue of the Cessnock location that "it takes the boys at once into agricultural districts; it secures wholesome surroundings, and a more natural way of life."

David Drummond came to share fully the Board's view of the virtues of country life. He did not share the Board's positive view of the Probationary Farm Home at Cessnock. He found it awful.

"Thus began my practical education in child welfare. It included a knowledge of spies who urged lads to run away and then betrayed them to those in control. There were good reasons for running away, but I trusted no one ..."

This caution was understandable, for absconding was a risky business. Section 22 of the State Children Relief Act of 1901 provided that if a ward absconded he could be whipped with a birch rod or cane and given bread and water as a punishment. Further, of the four boys who had absconded from the homes up to April 1902, three had been subsequently arrested and committed to the Reformatory.

Drummond made his his break after seven months along with three others. He laid his plans carefully:

"A number of us were sent to church at Cessnock, some 4 miles walk. I simply said let us run away & avoiding detection arrived at the Maitland Depot & were received kindly. I told the good ladies some of the reasons for our actions, indeed sufficient to bring my old friend Mr White hot foot next day to interview our group. At this time an Uncle (presumably on his step-mother's side) was Managing Director of of one of Sydney's biggest firms and had been kind to me in many ways. I did not scruple to use his name as a hint of what might happen if the abuses were not checked."

Accepting that these are the view of a man looking back, David Drummond was seventy five when he wrote these words, but it's still a remarkable story for a twelve year old. Among other things, the decision to run away to another part of the child welfare system to complain effectively reduced the chances of the boys being treated as absconders.

Whether Drummond's threats had any influence is unclear. What is clear is that the complaints must have been treated seriously, for the Cessnock home was closed.

David Drummond may have won this round, but the experience had marked him deeply. "One of the most cruel things", he wrote many years later, "is the repeated axiom 'The Boy is the father of the Man', for this means that if a young adolescent is guilty of theft or untruth he is predestined to be a thief and a liar though life. ... how many bright lads have taken their own lives in despair as a results of similar axioms?"

I will talk more about David Drummond in later posts. For the moment, I would simply say that Drummond's life demonstrates the importance of compassion, of cutting people some slack so that they can go on to prove themselves.


Anonymous said...

That last paragraph gets to me: such a contrast with the present!

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you Neil. That was exactly my point.