Life at Lady Northcote

About 80-years ago, Wilhelmina ‘Mina’ Caldwell (Adamson) left England on a steamship with no idea of what her future would hold for her.

She was the fourth party of migrant children who disembarked in Melbourne on January 6, 1939, following a six-week journey. She was just nine-years-old.

Mina was transported by private car to Lady Northcote Farm School at Glenmore, near Bacchus Marsh, which she called home for the next seven years.

The initial plan was to journey with her younger brother David and older sister Elizabeth Ann, however, in the days leading up to her departure, young David cried and cried, until it was decided that he would stay home in England.

Mina never said goodbye to her little brother, who went off to school unbeknown to the fact that he would not see his sister for another 50-years.

The voyage to Australia holds wonderful memories for Mina, despite the first three-days leaving her feeling “sick as a dog”. She recalls the steamship passing the Rock of Gibraltar at night time and eventually docking in Melbourne, where William Angliss and G. J Coles, among other important trustees, met the migrant children and transported them straight to Glenmore in the Rowsley Valley.

The summer of 1939 was one of the hottest and driest summers on record. Mina recalls there being very little water available at Lady Northcote, so after only a few days of residence, children were placed in trucks and transported to Ocean Grove, where they lived for around three-weeks. The children slept in tents, with beds made from hessian bags stuffed with straw.

“The seeds would stick through and poke you in your sunburnt skin, even at 88-years-old I can remember how uncomfortable that was,” Mina said.

Once the summer school holidays were over, Mina returned to Lady Northcote. Upon arrival, a school was yet to be established in the area and Mina, who commenced her education in grade-five, took classes inside one of the dorm cottages. In a matter of weeks, she was relocated to Glenmore State School, which was later moved in part to the Main Street of Bacchus Marsh – a site that Mina viewed from her back veranda many years later.

Glenmore State School was located about a quarter-mile from Lady Northcote. Students travelled back at lunch-time to enjoy a hot lunch.

Mina recalls being a happy child, who was quiet and read a lot. Her sister was quite the opposite – a boisterous young girl who found herself in a lot of trouble.

During their spare time, children were fairly free to do as they wished, with plenty of activities to take part in. Mina enjoyed going for long walks in the bush, horse riding, and netball. She was in charge of the Lady Northcote library, which she loved, and would often knock off at the end of the day and play tennis with a friend.

During the summer, children would swim in a dam located on the farm, where a wire used to transport the children halfway across the water before dropping them in.

“You either sunk or swam,” Mina said.

“I hated swimming, but my sister loved it”.

During the drought, children also used the dam to wash. In 1939, Mina remembers the whole of Victoria being ablaze, with children watching the bushfires, which from a distance looked like an assortment of bright lights.

Lady Northcote Farm School was, according to Mina, very strict and run like the military. A one-armed ex-British Grenadier guard called Colonel Heath was a strict disciplinarian that used a megaphone to address children. Seven days a week Mina was woken early and made to do military style exercises before school or duties that included maintaining the neatness of the farm and gardens.

At the age of 12, Mina left school after just three-years. She hoped to gain a scholarship in order to continue her education, but only one girl was chosen among 26. Instead, she spent another year attending classes with Mr Menzies, who created a grade nine especially for her and formed a friendly relationship that later saw him give Mina away at her wedding.

Following her schooling, Mina worked in the Lady Northcote laundry seven-days a week. She later commenced work at the White House, where principal Mr Brown lived with his wife and children. Mina cooked for the family and looked after the children – a job she did so well that she ended up staying there right up until she was 16-years-old.

Her following employment included work on a Myrniong Farm, where she was expected to milk cows as well as perform household duties. A welfare officer from Lady Northcote was in charge of her wages, with half of her weekly earnings put away in order to help her save until she was 21-years-old.

Mina later commenced employment in mother craft nursing at the Presbyterian Babies Home in Camberwell, followed by a rehabilitation centre for child polio in Hampton.

At 17, the principal of Lady Northcote rang the centre to inform Mina that her mother had died, aged only 53.

Mina stayed at the rehabilitation centre until she was 18-years-old. She entered general nursing and spent about two years training at the Ballarat Base Hospital, before returning to Bacchus Marsh, where she has called home ever since.

Married and with four children, Mina saved like mad and returned to England in the early 1970s, where an emotional reunion took place with the family she had long left behind.

It had been 50-years since she had seen her younger brother David, who said he thought he would never forgive her for not saying goodbye, but after finally being reunited, he did.

Mina has been a regular attender of Lady Northcote Farm School’s annual reunions – an event she said allowed her to reminisce and catch up with old friends.

At the anniversary of 50 years, she was reunited with women that were also part of the fourth party of children who disembarked in Melbourne in 1939.

At the recent 80th anniversary, held at the farm, she was flooded with old memories as she visited House 12, a building located on site that was recently restored by the Old Northcote Association.

Mina says she has no regrets in life, and while she wished she had received more of an education, she was always grateful that her mother made sacrifices in order to give all of her children a better life.

“I never blamed my mother for sending me away. I am grateful for the life I have”.

First appeared in The Moorabool News, August 29 2017

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