The free-standing laundry at the Leonora District Hospital was crudely constructed from sheets of galvanised iron and a couple of empty window frames. It was away from the hospital block, behind the kitchen, and just along from the natives’ wards. The laundry backed onto the rocky scrub and was unprotected from the sun. It had a plank wooden floor, running cold water, a large ironing table and two concrete rinsing troughs with a hand-turned wringer in between. The troughs were so rough they rook the skin off your knuckles if your scrubbing hand slipped. The second cold water rinsing trough was dipped with Reckitt’s blue, a laundry whitener to stop old linen turning yellow. The huge boiling copper was set in bricks. Jack Cudini was the yardman, and every morning it was is job to light the fire in the copper and to stoke it throughout the day. In summer the temperature in the laundry reached as high as 125 degrees.
It was also Jack Cudini’s job to wheel the occasional body to the morgue on a six-wheel trolley. The yard was stony, which made for a bumpy final ride. Jack was somewhat taken aback one day when the supposed corpse of Mr Adamini sat bolt upright. ‘Jack, where are you taking me?’ he asked. Only later did they tell Jack it was a joke.
Jack had a pronounced stutter which Beria could not resist mimicking. With her back to door in the staff dining room she was in full flight on one occasion, and the more the girls laughed the more Beria continued. She didn’t realise Jack was standing behind her, watching. ‘You bloody bitches. Why didn’t you tell me he was standing behind me?’ Beria argued with Steve and handed in her notice after thirteen months.‘No, bugger you,’ she yelled at him. ‘Why should I work and pay for everything in the house with my money, and you keep all yours so you can drink and gamble?’ On Beria’s last day Matron Stokes made her a personal gift of ten shillings.
Gwalia was a designated mining precinct which, by law, banned Aborigines. That changed in 1944 when the government decided to give citizenship rights to some Aboriginal people if they promised to give up their traditional ways, prove they had severed all ties with extended family (except parents, siblings and their own children) and friends, were free from disease, could speak English, had been ‘civilised’ in behaviour for two years, could manage their personal affairs, and were industrious in their habits.
Any white person could make a complaint to a magistrate, and their citizenship could be revoked if they were found guilty of rejecting ‘civilised’ life; were convicted twice of any felony; found drunk; or had contracted leprosy, syphilis, granuloma (small nodules that are seen in a variety of diseases), or yaws (a tropical infection of the skin, bones and joints).
British law didn’t recognise Aboriginal laws and practices, or their right to own property. Legally, these citizenship certificates meant they were no longer Aboriginal, and while the black fellas pejoratively referred to the certificates as ‘dog tags’ or ‘dog licenses’, it granted them voting rights; allowed them to go into hotels and shops; provided for their children to go to state schools; and removed them from the restrictions of the stringent State protection laws. In Gwalia, those with citizenship papers lived in the town in rented properties, but they were not allowed to swim in the pool, and weren’t encouraged to be part of the community. It was illegal to sell black fellas alcohol, and even those few in possession of citizenship papers were discouraged from joining the white men in the public bars.
Aborigines without papers were controlled by the Commissioner of Native Affairs. Summarily, they could be tried for a range of criminal offences, could not press charges at law, were not permitted to give evidence in court, and could not vote. If they tried to enter a banned area everyone chased them, shouting, ‘Get out of here!’ calling them ‘boongs’ and ‘black bastards’. They could be forced to live on reserves, and had no access to social welfare. Some were employed full-time on sheep stations as stockmen and domestic staff, often in exchange for sub-standard accommodation in the natives’ quarters, and meagre weekly
rations – usually meat, flour, sugar, and tea – and the right to keep their families together. If they were paid it was at a lower rate than their white co-workers.
The nomadic Aborigines lived in bark, tin and scrap-metal shelters in the bush, or under the trees on the fringe of the town. They wandered around by day but had to be gone by four o’clock, and could not return until nine the following morning. Those caught after hours were locked up for the night, regardless of the explanation.
The district hospital was segregated. Even those natives with citizenship certificates were not hospitalised in the whites-only wards, and expectant Aboriginal women were denied access to the labour or maternity ward, except in a medical emergency. A full-time Aboriginal wards maid was not allowed to sleep in the white staff quarters. My sister Joan was born at the Leonora hospital. When they brought her to Beria for the first time her face was hidden from view. Beria lifted back the bunny rug and discovered an Aboriginal baby. The nursing staff and the other women in the ward laughed. Beria did not like the joke being at the expense of an black baby. They were surprised that she did not share their laughter.
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