Professor David Divine who is pursuing doctoral studies at Durham University on the resilience of young people in a care setting, shares excerpts from his recent book, Aberlour Narratives of Success. While orphanages are usually portrayed grimly in popular media, David found through his ethnographic research, including interviews with former residents and staff at the Aberlour Orphanage, along with his own childhood experience there, that personal sense of resilience and community within these institutions allow young people to eventually lead successful lives as adults.
In the second of a series of posts on the subject of personal resilience, David shares the story of a former resident of Aberlour Orphanage, including verbatim extracts from interview.
Billy P. was born in a slum in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1933. His mother had died in childbirth in 1936 when Billy was three years old. Billy’s father, who was a merchant seaman, had custody of him and his elder brother who was two years older. Billy recalls that in 1938, around the time of the Great Depression, when his father was unemployed, being told by a ‘matronly lady in a grey uniform’, that he and his brother ‘were going on a day trip into the Highlands’. The ‘matronly lady in the grey uniform’ took the boys on a train from Glasgow to Aberlour railway station, about half a mile or so from the Orphanage buildings:
We didn’t know we were going to an Orphanage. We were just told that we were going on a day trip to the Highlands. Papers I’ve seen since tell me that in fact what happened was that (our father) handed us over to the Orphanage in the hope that he might be able to retrieve us at some unspecified future date, but in fact he never did. That was the last we ever heard of him, so he just disappeared from our lives. Never had a Christmas card, never a birthday card, absolutely no contact whatever and I’ve not heard to this day, any information or advice about what happened to him. I wasn’t aware then and I’m still not aware now of any other family members, any uncles or aunts or cousins or anything. We were completely on our own.
But there were many boys who if it was possible, were in an even worse situation. They had been dumped on the doorsteps of the Orphanage by whoever had taken care of them, and some of them didn’t even have names. And the Orphanage made up names until they established their identity. There was a space at the Orphanage at that time for very young children under five years of age, called the ‘Nursery’. There were always, for the twelve years I was there, there were never fewer than twelve infants there. That’s children from a few weeks old to about five. They were then separated and put into houses, either a girl’s house or a boy’s house. The children had absolutely no contact with any parent.
The only time Billy was placed together with his brother was for the first few days after arrival at the Orphanage, in the infirmary. Thereafter, Billy and his brother lived in separate boys’ houses as children were placed in different houses at the Orphanage according to age and gender. Girls had their own section in the Orphanage. During Billy’s time at the Orphanage:
Boys were split into the wee kids who were five to seven-year olds. And then there was a Mitchell Wing and then there was a Mount Stephen Wing, named after a Canadian philanthropist, Lord Mount Stephen. And then we were split up, again, at the age of 11, into two houses for the big boys, Jupp’s and Gordon’s, and they were from 11 to 14 which was the leaving age, and then in 1945, 11 to 15. In 1945 after the War they changed the school-leaving age to 15. And then in exceptional cases and I was one of them, we stayed on until we were 17, and that was only a handful of boys who did that.
Occasionally you stayed together with pals of the same age as you progressed through the houses. Billy spent ten years living in the company of a number of friends:
We slept in the same dormitory, we were in the same class in school, we played football and cricket, we went swimming together. My brother was two and a half years older than me so he was always one house ahead of me, throughout my whole time at the Orphanage. And then because he left school when he was 14, by the time I was in one of the senior houses he was gone, he was working on a farm.
Other memories of the Orphanage include the schooling. The school building separated the boy’s wing from the girl’s wing and the classroom was the only setting where a boy could sit next to a girl.
But as soon as the school bell rang, four o’clock, end of school, they went back to the quine’s (girls) wing and we went back to the boy’s wing, and we didn’t see each other. I have pleasant, even fond memories of nearly all the teachers, which I don’t have of the domestic staff, the Housemistresses and Housemasters, some of whom were quite unfitting for the responsibility of small children.
Some were ‘floggers’ says Billy and one teacher in particular:
…was a notorious flogger. Corporal punishment was common both in the home and at school. As a boy I copped it a few times. You had to hold your hands out, both hands, palm upwards, and then he lashed you across the palm, and it might be three or four, you know, if it was perceived as a serious misdemeanour and you’d have these welts across your hand and up your wrist…red and then it would turn blue and you could date the punishment from the colour of the stripe on your wrist. We just accepted it I suppose. It was part of our upbringing. Sometimes a cane would be used.
Applying the standards of today, you could say that it was fairly harsh just having the corporal punishment and the segregation. But by the standards of the time, the 1930’s, it was quite good.
On leaving at seventeen years of age, the Orphanage found Billy a job with its’ own auditors, based in London, because Billy was good at figures and with words. In fact, Billy was the first Aberlour Orphanage boy who graduated from Aberlour Village High School with the Scottish Highland Leaving Certificate. Billy was kitted out with two suits and shirts and other clothing and was provided with a suitcase and boarded the train at Aberlour on his way to London, on his own. A hostel had been arranged for him to stay on arrival. Shortly afterwards Billy had to do his National Service for two years and then did a number of temporary jobs on discharge, and then by chance discovered an advertisement in the Edinburgh Evening News for experienced clerks in Australia for the Victoria Railways. He applied and got one of the jobs and went to Australia in 1956 by sea in a six-week voyage, at the age of 23. Over the next ten years Billy did a number of other jobs around Australia and discovered by chance again, an advertisement for a journalist which Billy again managed to get and from there went to Reuters News Agency, and then decided to undertake a law degree at 35 years of age and reached the top-tier of the legal profession, retiring in his seventies as a salaried Crown Prosecutor.
Billy believes that Aberlour Orphanage gave him the chance to be educated:
I look back and I think if I hadn’t had a good education, if they hadn’t sent me to the High School, if I didn’t have a Scottish Highland Leaving Certificate, then I could not have achieved what I have in my life. I’ve worked long enough. It is time to retire and relax now.
Billy is 78 years old and living in Australia.