Sleeping under budgie cage and pelted with rocks
By Ieva Tomsons
RETIRED Julimar biologist and educator Sarah Dudley’s childhood and youth were scarred by emotional and financial deprivation, rejection and family dislocation.
Her accountant father ‘married’ five times and Sarah was born at home to his third ‘wife’ during the middle of World War II in Surrey, England.
“There was a lot of prejudice about illegitimacy in those days,” said Sarah whose parents never married and split up when she was less than a year old.Read more
Her mother remarried and Sarah’s new family moved several times around Surrey.
Five days before her ninth birthday her mother died from a melanoma – a complete shock as Sarah didn’t know she was dying.
By this time her father had remarried, and she went to live with a father she barely knew and a surly stepmother.
“She was the proverbial mean stepmother as I represented his love for another woman.”
Two weeks after her mother’s death her father enrolled nine-year-old Sarah in a Dickensian-style boarding school which was run solely for profit.
“In the two years I was there I learnt little and the only good thing my father did was to transfer me to a cheaper Catholic convent in Kent.”
The convent nuns were highly educated, and Sarah immersed herself in learning and “fell in love with the liturgical music of the Gregorian Chant”.
Her father paid school fees but refused to pay any maintenance.
From the age of 11 Sarah would spend some of her school holidays in Belgium with her maternal aunt who had married a naturalised English Belgian.
“I had to babysit my three cousins who were trilingual, speaking English at home and also Flemish and French so I developed a good ear for French.”
Alone on ferry
The five-hour unaccompanied ferry ride to Belgium cost seven pounds and it was always touch-and-go to see which side of the family would stump up the fare.
If both sides dug their toes in, Sarah would spend her holidays alone at the convent.
“I dusted the library to within an inch of its life,” jokes Sarah.
A few years later when she was 14, some of her holidays were spent at her maternal grandmother’s one-bedroom flat in Chelsea, London where she slept on the floor under the budgie cage.
It was around this time that Sarah decided she wanted to become a Catholic, but she needed the approval of her father, aunt, and staunchly Scottish Presbyterian grandmother.
Her father shrugged her conversion off with a quip about “having no steak on Fridays” and eventually her aunt and grandmother relented and she was received into the Catholic faith.
When she was 15, her grandmother died suddenly as a result of the London smog and her holidays were now spent with her grandmother’s sister upstairs in her one-bedroom flat in the same building in Chelsea.
“I was sleeping under the budgie cage again. There was no money and I only had my grandmother’s clothes to wear.
Sarah, however, was gaining some of the recognition she craved by achieving academically and at 17 this need to belong somewhere led to her asking to become a nun.
She was told she was too young and went on to study for a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree through London University.
One month into her tertiary studies she was hospitalised with suspected appendicitis and spent a month in hospital.
Towards the end of the second year of her degree, she became ill again and spent a full year in hospital recovering from operations associated with her now-diagnosed Crohn’s disease.
Sarah eventually got her B.Sc. honours degree, which she followed up with a post graduate degree in teaching.
Africa first came up on Sarah’s radar in the mid-1960s when Biafran-Nigerian students were studying in London escaping the civil unrest which resulted in millions starving.
Sarah also started to learn about apartheid in South Africa, something that would have a massive unexpected impact on her future life.
Her first posting was to Manchester’s Notre Dame High School. “The kids were hilarious and thought I spoke TV English. I loved it.”
When she was 24, she flew to South Africa to work as the head of science at a Catholic boarding school run by nuns in Kroonstad in the Orange Free State.
“I naively turned up with a microscope and thick winter coat,” laughs Sarah.
The school adhered to apartheid principles of racial segregation and there were no black African students which didn’t sit well with Sarah’s sense of social justice.
Four years later she became principal of the first high school for local Swazi students in Swaziland’s capital Mbabane where she worked with staff, most of whom were exiled anti-apartheid African National Congress (ANC) party members.
During Sarah’s seven years in Swaziland, two of her students were killed in ritual murders in which body parts were harvested to supposedly attain better luck or health for the person consulting the witch doctor.
“The Kingdom of Swaziland practises polygamy and the female students feared having to perform the reed dance for the king who would select another wife who would then be isolated in his kraal (compound).”
To work in Swaziland, non-residents were subject to a ‘localisation clause’ which meant they had to resign if a Swazi became available for the position.
Sarah was suddenly asked to stand down for a Swazi teacher in what was clearly a political decision.
It was a devastating blow to Sarah who rebounded in turmoil becoming pregnant to a refugee black South African colleague who was high up in the ANC.
Sarah was 34 years old and travelled to a ‘white’ clinic in South Africa for a check-up as there were no gynaecologists in Swaziland.
“They asked for a family tree which I invented.”
Sarah returned to England when she was four months pregnant.
It was several months after the birth of her son* that she secured a permanent home.
This was found by her now life-long friend Sheila who was working as a social worker at the hospital.
With a roof over her head and her son in day care, Sarah completed a Masters in Education in Developing Countries and by now was desperate for a job.
A position as a lecturer at a teachers’ training college in Madang on the east coast of Papua New Guinea (PNG) came up.
Madang is now viewed by expats as safer than Port Moresby or Lae but when Sarah arrived in 1979 it was a different story.
In her first week she was pelted with rocks while driving through a coconut plantation to pick up her son.
“The fellow was as they say in Pidgin – ‘long long’ (crazy).”
It was a very hostile environment with many different tribes on campus and Sarah didn’t enjoy her two years in PNG.
“Maggie Thatcher was Prime Minister of England, so I applied to go to Australia. It was ‘as easy as pie’ to get in then. All you needed was money, a job and not have TB (tuberculosis).”
The first stop was Townsville in Queensland where she worked for a year at James Cook University. This was followed by deputy principal at a Catholic school before settling in Shepparton Victoria where she was deputy and taught biology for seven years.
Both in Victoria and later in WA at John XXIII Catholic College in Mt Claremont, in two specific years her biology students achieved the highest marks in the state.
In 1995 Sarah returned to England to try to reconnect with her family but she missed her son, the sun, and the Australian culture.
She moved to Tasmania in 2002 where she taught science and became involved in environmental campaigns.
Her last job, before she retired in 2009, was teaching secondary students in Darwin.
“It was a frustrating experience as the curriculum was totally inappropriate for these kids, some of whom were Aboriginal.”
From Darwin, Sarah returned to WA and bought her 4.5ha (10-acre) in Julimar largely because there were three ecosystems on the bush block.
Since retiring Sarah volunteered for six years at Kanyana Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Lesmurdie and has made significant contributions to the local ambulance and Friends of the River.
Her latest project is fostering rescue dogs for Saving Animals from Euthanasia (SAFE Perth) and she’s showing no signs of slowing up on activities that benefit people, animals and the environment.
*Sarah’s son is now a father in his mid-forties and lives in the Perth Hills.