Indigenous elder tells court of 50-hour work weeks at New Norcia Mission

Australian Broadcasting Corporation - ABC [Sydney, Australia]

July 9, 2022

By Sam McManus

Glenys Yarran says she was 12 years old when she was taught how to clean maggots from a sheep’s head so it could be placed in a big black pot and made into soup for lunch.

Key points:

  • Ballardong woman Glenys Yarran gave evidence in New Norcia as part of a stolen wages class action against the state government
  • Ms Yarran described working 50-hour weeks as a teenager at the mission for no pay
  • Her sister, Gloria Bennell, said she used to steal apples from the chickens for additional nourishment

The Whadjuk Ballardong elder is now a great-grandmother of six, but this week she cast her mind back to when she spent five years living under the supervision of nuns at a Catholic Mission in the West Australian town of New Norcia.

Ms Yarran gave evidence on Friday as part of a class action against the state government over an old policy that allowed 75 per cent of an Aboriginal person’s wages to be withheld.

Over the past fortnight the Federal Court heard from more than 30 witnesses from across the state.

About 10,000 people have now signed up to the action.

The Benedictine community of New Norcia, 126 kilometres north-east of Perth, is notorious for allegations of historical child sex abuse at the hands of priests.

Institutions were set up for Aboriginal children in the mid-1800s, where they were taught practical skills under the “complete control” of the monastery.

Ms Yarran said she worked long days doing laundry and mending clothes for those inside the mission during the 1950s and ’60s.

“We were living in a camp outside Northam before we came here,” she told the ABC outside the hearing.

“We were better off camping than being in here.”

Ms Yarran said when she first arrived she attended classes at the school building until 3pm before heading down to the sheds to work until supper at 5:30.

She remembers being taken out of school when she was about 13 and being made to work 50-hour weeks.

She told the court that if she spoke while hanging out the laundry she would get a belting from the nuns.

She said her hands were covered in cuts from labouring in the workshop.

“We never got paid for nothing,” she said.

Stealing food from the chooks

About 30 other girls stayed in the same dorm as Ms Yarran, including two of her sisters.

She said they were allowed to wash once a week on Saturdays, when six girls shared the same bath.

Ms Yarran’s younger sister Gloria Bennell told the ABC they were forced to find other sources of nutrients due to their diet of three servings of sheep-head soup per day.

“We stole apples off the chooks,” she said.

“A lot of them think we weren’t treated like that, but we were.”

Ms Yarran told the hearing the girls would wake up at 5am every day to pray in the chapel and to polish the kitchen floors until they were shining.

None of them recall being given shoes or fresh clothing and say they were confined to their working and sleeping quarters by large brick walls.

They said communication with the boys was not permitted, even if they were relatives.

Locked up for running away

Life inside the mission became too much for Ms Yarran, who told the hearing she tried to run away with two other girls.

She said she only managed to get a few kilometres up the road before she was taken back inside and locked in a room for three days as punishment.

After the hearing, Ms Yarran said sharing her story was an important step in acknowledging the injustices of the past.

“I felt calm — it was good to give evidence to the judge about how I lived here,” she said.

“It’s not only for myself, it’s for other people that have registered on the lost wages [class action].”

Hearings for action, which is being brought by Shine Lawyers, have been held in the Federal Court over the past two weeks.

Aboriginal stockmen in the Kimberley have also detailed what they experienced prior to the 1970s.

Applicants are hoping to be compensated for what they say are stolen wages.

The matter may be resolved through mediation later this year.