Fairbridge taught Keith to stand on own two feet
By Ieva Tomsons
DEWARS Pool couple Jenny and Keith Willgoss (pictured) both migrated from England as children in the early 1950s but their upbringing is poles apart.
Jenny arrived as a two-year-old with her ten-pound Poms family, and Keith was one of 4000 child migrants shipped to Australia after World War 2.
Keith was the youngest of six children and born in 1943 near Bangor in north Wales in 1943 during the war when English cities were being bombed and civil servants such as Keith’s dad were moved to safety in Wales.
Keith’s parents split up when the war ended, and the four girls remained with his mother while his father took the boys, Keith (5) and David (10).Read more
Moved ‘from pillar to post’
“Dad couldn’t cope with us,” said Keith (pictured left with his brother David behind).
The boys were moved “from pillar to post”; minded by housekeepers, then stayed with aunts, uncles and a foster family.
Eventually they ended up in the Fairbridge House system which transported orphaned or ‘unwanted’ English children to under-populated former British Colonies to be trained as farm labourers and domestic servants. Few were actual orphans and many were lied to about their family circumstances.
By the time Keith’s mother applied to get her boys back, it was too late – they had already been shipped to WA.
“She didn’t know,” said Jenny.
Keith was seven and David 12 when they arrived on passenger liner The New Australia in Fremantle in 1951.
The month-long trip is a blur for Keith but he remembers going to Kings Park before being bussed with David and seven others to Fairbridge Farm School near Pinjarra.
For the journey and arrival the children were dressed in school uniforms of neat dresses and hats for the girls, three-quarter woollen pants, vest, long socks and ties for the boys.
‘Pants itched like hell’
“The pants itched like hell,” laughs Keith.
As soon as they reached Fairbridge, the uniforms were taken away and the boys were issued with shorts, tee-shirt and a jumper for winter.
There were no shoes for everyday life.
“During the summer you’d jump from shady spot to shady spot,” said Keith who remembers kids putting their feet in fresh cow pats to keep them warm in winter.
Ten to 12 children were accommodated in segregated cottages run by cottage mothers with varying dispositions.
“There wasn’t much love,” said Keith who nonetheless adapted to the strict regimented life at Fairbridge.
All children remained the property of the Fairbridge Trust until they turned 21 and they were expected to work hard maintaining the farm’s policy of self-sufficiency.
From the age of seven Keith learned to clean floors, stoke the copper and chop firewood which wasn’t for their showers – they were cold.
Keith went to the farm’s primary school and attended Pinjarra High School. At 16 he was sent to work for an old couple on their wheat and sheep property in Lake Grace – he was leaving the world that he knew and all of his friends.
“Half of my wage went back to Fairbridge, and I can say that the 12 months I was there – before I left without a word – was the loneliest time of my life, I didn’t know anyone.”
In the nine years Keith lived at Fairbridge the kids formed strong and lasting ties.
“On the weekends we were free to catch rabbits, swim and go to the pictures. There was pocket money of sorts – a penny for the pictures, a penny for the (church) plate and a penny to spend.”
Birthdays weren’t celebrated but at Christmas they received a small gift. The highlight of the kids’ year was a two-week summer camp in Mandurah where they didn’t mix much with other children.
“We stood out because of our uniforms but if you took one of us on, you took on the rest.”
Keith has no regrets about his time at Fairbridge. “I wouldn’t say it was all happy but you learned to stand on your own two feet.”
Adaptability and a practical nature led to Keith to establish a piggery on the couple’s property in 1981 while he worked as the shire building maintenance officer (22 years).
“Everything at Fairbridge was gravity fed (water) and I laid the farm out the same way,” said Keith who had also learned a lot about pigs at the farm school’s piggery.
The Willgoss’s first pigs came from Fairbridge – they were starting up as the school’s piggery was closing down.
As you walk around the immaculate Willgoss property with its orchard, vegetable beds and neatly arranged gardens hemmed by stone walls built by Keith, you can’t help but be transported back to Fairbridge.
As they say: “You can take the boy out of Fairbridge, but you can’t take Fairbridge out of the boy”.
Footnote: Keith lived for a while with his father when he migrated to Perth but their relationship wasn’t close. Keith did not meet his mother before she died but has met his sisters and extended family on visits to the UK. He is a member of the WA Old Fairbridgians’ Association and periodically catches up with former residents.