As Shane Pinnegar sips his beer and gazes upon South Terrace in Fremantle one senses he’s allowing himself a slight sense of pride, but mostly a feeling of relief.
He did what he set out to do. As he was growing up the Kalgoorlie-based writer and chef often pondered the varying moods of his beloved father, Tony, a good man with some anger inside and no intention of pinning any excuses on anything that had made him feel this way. Shane would often ask his father about coming to Australia from the UK with his brothers to settle at Fairbridge Farm School but there were no answers forthcoming. Firmly so.
“He just wouldn’t go into detail,” Shane says, “would not talk about it. Sometimes he’d get angry and have an argument rather than talk about it just to change the subject, I think. So it was obvious something was there, and something was broken.”
A cancer diagnosis with its long-term treatments (chemotherapy, radiotherapy and a long list of medications) and the passing of the years seemed to unearth a feeling in Tony that a personal history captured is invaluable for – at the very least – a family to share. When, in 2017, Shane found a handwritten speech that Tony had just given to his beloved local Rotary Club branch about coming out from England as a child migrant it was a catalyst to at last begin conversations not only about the journey Tony and his younger brothers Christopher and Garth took, but the harsh life experiences that awaited them at Fairbridge.
They had conversations on this topic – some more successful than others – over a period of four years. Tony passed away on February 24, 2022. Six months later Shane completed the book. It was published on Sunday, January 8, the 70th anniversary of Tony walking out of Fairbridge and being taken up to Perth to begin his life anew… but not quite unshackled.
The book is called All That Was Taken From Us: A Child Migrant’s Story, by Tony and Shane Pinnegar. Both the title and a shared authorship credit say a great deal indeed.
“We started getting bits of information out of him,” Shane recalls, “and for every little bit of information that he’d reluctantly give up I would then have 10 more questions. Some of which he would deign to answer and some of which would just make him grumpy again and not want to talk.”
Shane persisted and eventually recording and formal note-taking came into play. Conversations were notarised and emails collected but the focus being that however reluctantly expressed, this was Tony’s story.
“I don’t own that story,” Shane says, pointing to the book. “I don’t want to take credit for that story. I just did my best to present it as honestly as I could.
“Bearing in mind that it’s difficult when so few people wanted to talk about it… and it was 70-plus years ago. So that’s why the credits are the way they are and it’s a sign of respect. As I said it’s his story. He’s never going to write a book now, obviously. So if there is an afterlife, then I hope he’s looking down and is a little bit proud of it.”
Shane notes that Tony was a very proud man who was protective of his negative experiences to the point of disassociation – preferring to move on with life as though they never happened. As such, there are parts of the book that he may not have been entirely happy with in the final result.
“I’d had a couple of months to really mull that over after he passed,” Shane says. “It was important for me to present the good side of him as well as the bad side because that’s what the British and Australian governments did to him. That’s what the effects are of being forced into being a child migrant and forced into those few years at Fairbridge did to him because he had some problems. He had some temper problems and some issues. And that was a by-product of the life he lived without having any say in those decisions that were not made for his benefit.”
Tony Pinnegar and Shane
Tony Pinnegar was initially christened Anthony George Blood, born on September 22, 1936, in Stourport-on-Severn in The Midlands of England. His mother, Molly Pinnegar, had five children between 1936-44 to a married man named George Blood, who initially was a regular visitor to Stourport delivering petrol and oil products and then, during World War 2, became an RAF Sergeant.
Two of the siblings were adopted out as infants and Tony only ever met his father twice. George Blood returned to his wife and their children at war’s end, having never made good on promises to join Molly. Tony was told that his surname would be changed to Pinnegar at around 11 years of age.
If it sounds dysfunctional at this point, it wasn’t helped by the fact that Molly was less than maternal, wont to wander off at whimsy (which was often). In the 1930-’40s it was regarded as poor form to have an affair, or to have a child out of wedlock, let alone five of them to a married man.
“Molly was never going to win any mother of the year awards,” says Shane. “She was very single-minded. Very, what we would call today… selfish. They were different times but I still can’t fathom how anyone would treat their children like that. She showed very little love and affection to her kids.”
As such, Tony and the younger brothers, Christopher and Garth, were on unsure footing with the rest of the family and then within wider society. The three boys were shuffled around between family members, foster parents, and children’s homes, at the end of the priority line in all circumstances, and made to do chores beyond their years in each. All during wartime, as if the terms weren’t already harsh enough. ‘The Williams’ – the last foster family he stayed with – wouldn’t allow Tony visits from his mother or any other family members, and seemed to barely tolerate his very presence. Quite possibly his presence benefitted them financially.
One day a Catholic priest – unusual given that the family was Church of England – visited Tony and asked if he wanted to move to Australia, stating that his younger brothers had already agreed to do so. At this stage, the younger boys had been separated from Tony and were at a children’s home. It seems unlikely that such a decision to enter the Child Migrant Scheme would be left to boys aged between 7-13, but this is what had been stated as the case.
From the family’s point of view, it was believed the boys had been sent to Australia at the behest of their (always) disapproving grandmother Florence; however the ensuing years revealed that Molly was complicit in this. To add another sting in the tale, Molly married a man named Ted Mitchell merely months after her children were sent away.
British children sent to Fairbridge had to be approved by a psychologist. While this may sound like a duty of care, there were more sinister undertones.
“The whole thing with the Child Migrant Scheme was ‘Good White British Stock’,” Shane explains. “So they wanted to send the best to populate the colonies and there was a line in there about doing that in order to outnumber the indigenous people. That was part of it. It was steeped in racism and was just a horrible thing. And there was no care or anything about these kids’ feelings and no affection shown to them.”
The four weeks aboard the ship proved to be an exciting experience for the reunited brothers and 31 other children, but they were to be short-lived salad days for most. Upon arriving in Fremantle on June 24, 1950 – and subsequently reported in The West Australian newspaper two days later – the boys were billeted in Rhodes Cottage (then later, Cook House) at Kingsley Fairbridge Farm School. Each house had a Cottage Mother, but again the maternal aspect was absent, as Shane notes in the book…
‘As if the ignominy and emotional confusion of their childhoods weren’t enough, now the children were placed with sometimes tyrannical and vicious overseers, often as quick to snap and dole out punishment as to assign endless chores’.
The reality was quickly felt. The carers and staff had no truck for niceties, let alone affection for children whose dysfunctional lives had been upended. Essentially they were there to provide child labour in order to keep the farm going, and suffered physical and emotional abuse for the slightest of (often misperceived) wrongdoings.
Instances of sexual abuse at Fairbridge by teachers – and horrifically by that of local men allowed access to the grounds and the students – has been documented in books such as Ron Hutchinson’s Two Birthdays and in numerous personal histories related over the last four years to Shane. He is unsure if his father was sexually abused, but the nagging doubt persists.
“Imagine there’s a core of the truth,” he posits. “So we burrow in there and bang, we stop. And we burrow in there and bang. And we burrow in more and bang, we stop. There was that sacred bit in the middle which he was never ever going to crack open. I think it would have been too much for him to do it.
“A few times over lunches he cried because we got a little too close. And that was that was the end of that. ‘Let’s change the subject now’. He’d get angry so much, ‘it just doesn’t fucking matter anymore, Shane!’. We could have talked for another 10 years and I don’t think he ever was going to get to that bit.
“He may not have ever been sexually abused, because he was also older. So he may not have been as easy a target as some of the younger kids. I’ve spoken to a couple of the kids who he was at Fairbridge with and they got abused. They got fiddled with and raped, in one instance.”
The abuse was rife. The dentist that visited the school was allegedly the head of a paedophile ring and would take boys down to the beach in Mandurah during holidays were they were sexually assaulted by his ‘friends’. A young student reported being abused by an older student – possibly echoing their own treatment – and was caned for ‘dobbing’. The elder student was let off scot-free. Newspapers reported a case of a young woman accusing the Deputy Headmaster of rape, and of another being raped while helping tend to the farm animals by the livestock manager.
“This stuff was endemic,” Shane says. “It went on over years and years and there’s no way in the universe the powers that be had no insight or understanding. They had to know what was happening. Girls were sent out to do work experience on farms, and gang raped by the bloody guys at work there. And then came back bawling their eyes out only to be told, ‘well, you must have led them on’.
Tony Pinnegar RIP
Five months to the day after Tony Pinnegar passed, Shane and his wife Trulie, his mother, along with his surviving uncle Christopher and his partner Diane visited the school site for the Old Fairbridgian’s Founder Day Service. A plaque for Tony had been installed on the Remembrance Wall, but when his name was read out during the service he was cruelly snubbed of any meaningful description or memory. For Shane, it was another in a long line of hurts perpetuated by Fairbridge against his father. He recognises that some Old Fairbridgians may have had a positive experience at the school, but for those who did suffer daily, the years of white-washing represent yet another form of abuse.
During one emotional writing lunch with Shane, Tony began to ponder what he didn’t have. Sure, there were his own memories of a tough upbringing, but no photos, no school reports, no records of anything from his childhood. The UK government had by this time paid out 20,000 pounds to all surviving child migrants. As he understandably allowed some bitterness to line his words, Tony inadvertently came up with the title of the book he would not live to see published.
“He looked at me,” Shane reflects, “and said, ‘is 20,000 quid enough to compensate for life without parents, without cousins, without aunties, without uncles, knowing that they’re all living their lives where you used to be, and you not having anything, any kindness or anything?
“‘No! It’s bugger all next to all that was taken from us’.”
Shane says that as a rule his father could not normally bring himself to criticise people or institutions for things that hadn’t gone right in his life. He even recalls being amazed at how Tony and his uncles fawned over Molly – despite all she had done to them but hadn’t done for them – when she visited Perth from the UK in the late ‘70s, still bringing with her a steely and distant outlook.
She was, of course, their mother. As was their way, the Pinnegar brothers would focus on the fact that their lives were ultimately better because they left the UK.
“Christopher and Dad both insist their lives would never have turned out as good as they did had they stayed in England,” Shane says. “They were very happy with the lives they’d forged here.
“So there’s that duality. You don’t want a kid to be treated like that and to go through what they had to go through, but they also don’t want to deny the fact that they made the best of it in the end.
“They had to go through a tunnel of fire to get to that point, of course.”
Shane Pinnegar has been nominated in the ‘Literary Category’ for an Artgold Award, celebrating Goldfields artists and creatives. All That Was Taken From Us: A Child Migrant’s Story is published through Bark Side Books and available via shanepinnegarwriter.com. Having launched the book in Perth, Shane will be having a Kalgoorlie-Boulder launch on Thursday, March 2, at Artgold (tickets available from ArtgoldPinnegar.eventbrite.com.au).