• Thousands of Aboriginal girls ended up at the Cootamundra Girls Home after being forcibly removed from their families. (NITV News)Source: NITV News
It seemed like a regular day at school for Elaine Hughes until a policeman arrived at her class in Grafton, NSW. She was 10-years-old at the time but even now, at the age of 72, she’ll ‘never forget’ what happened next.
Hannah Hollis

The Point
4 Apr 2016 - 6:58 PM  UPDATED 4 Apr 2016 - 7:02 PM

Elaine Hughes was sitting in class when a policeman came to the school.

“Back then we didn’t have Department Of Community Services (DoCS) so it was a policeman in uniform who was a welfare officer- the ones who take children away. He came to class and the sisters called me out and then I was taken to the police station and charged with being a victim of neglect,” she says.

Under the Aborigines Protection Act 1909 the Aborigine’s Protection Board (APB) had the power ‘to assume full control and custody of the child of any Aborigines’ if a court found the child to be under the Neglected Children and Juvenile Offenders Act 1905.

Elaine didn’t know it at the time, but she would never see her father again.

Arriving at Cootamundra Girls

Elaine travelled overnight from Grafton to Cootamundra.

“That night the welfare officer came and took us from point A to point B,” she says.

“When I got there I had long, lovely black hair and when we walked through the gate that’s the last time I ever had long hair. We called it a basin haircut.”

She says all the girls arriving at the home had to have their haircut to make sure head lice didn’t become an issue.

“We were fitted out with clothes for the home, and we then became a-girl-of-the-home.”

Elaine says all the girls she met had been taken from all over Australia and all the girls ‘embraced’ her.

“We had one girl from the Northern Territory, she was 4-years-old.”

“There was a big cement well at the home and we used to sit on that waiting for someone to come and get us and take us back home, but it never happened.”

A day at Cootamundra

“We’d get up at 6am, and at 6.30am we started work like washing the floors on our hands and knees, using a towel cut in half. After the floor was dried we had to get back on hands and knees and polish the floor to make it shiny,” she recounts.

“We were to be trained as maids for farmers and they got that from England.”

Everything had to be done by 7.30am in time for breakfast.

After washing up all the plates, knives, forks and spoons for all 78 people, the girls had to get ready for school.

“Rain, hail and shine we went to school. Sometimes we would walk to and from school.”

The new school was intimidating and Elaine’s marks dropped as a result.

“I was called into the principal’s office and he questioned my grades. I told him I was scared and he helped me. Six weeks later my school work got better.”

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The afternoons at Cootamundra were mostly free, and the girls played marbles and they made hammocks in the trees.

“Sometimes they would take us down to the pool for two hours, but we had to shower and wash our hair before getting in,” she adds.

Other jobs included cleaning the chook yard and scrubbing the bricks.

“On our hands and knees, no knee pads, we’d use some soapy water and a rag. We were allocated to different jobs every month, like doing the laundry and the kitchen,” she says.

Elaine said her favourite meal of the week was Sunday dinner.

“The food was lovely, the girl who was the cook used to be a girl at the home too but she was there in the 20s and 30s. She made lovely food, Sunday dinners were beautiful.”

“The sago though, we used to call it frogs eyes, I’ve never eaten it since,” she laughs.

According to The NSW Office of Environment and Heritage, the Home was planned according to early twentieth century social welfare policy, housing the children in dormitories according to age. 

“There was the long room and the isolation room. The long room was for the primary school children and in the dormitories were for the older girls. The isolation room was for the little children."

Cultural dislocation

Elaine says they were never, ever allowed to talk in language.

“We were caned if we got caught. I received six on one hand and six on the other for doing it.”

But the cane wasn’t as bad as the alternative.

“It was an old hospital so they’d lock us in the morgue for talking in language. We’d be there for hours and hours and hours.”

Elaine says if you were caught talking during assembly you’d go into ‘the box room’.

“They didn’t take us by the hand either, they dragged us by our hair.”

Elaine says it was a traumatic time in her life and her memories are clear.

“We haven’t got over it, I’m an old woman now and I was there from a young age.”

Talking about her life at Cootamundra now brings up mixed emotions, and says that she drew strength from the other girls, who she now calls her sisters.

“It was a very traumatic time but we have survived. It made us so close - we talk, we laugh because we came out of there as beautiful young women."

“We support one another, we all get together, we talk about what we experienced in the home.”