Slavery on the sly, South Australia

Slavery on the Sly

This article was published in Frearson’s Monthly Illustrated Adelaide News on 1 December 1883.

Phoebe Cook, of Donegal-street, Norwood, writes us an affecting letter, in which she details at great length certain circumstances in connection with the management of the Industrial school, which appear to us to call for immediate and searching enquiry. She states that on the 4th November 1881, she brought her son, Phillip, before Mr S Beddome, SM., as an uncontrollable child, her sole reason for so doing being that the boy associated with Norwood lads of the larrikin type, and had got into the habit of staying out late at night.

In all other respects young Phillip Cook seems to have been a pleasing and clever little fellow. His mother doubtless thought she was acting for the best in bringing him before the Magistrate, who ordered him to be sent to the Industrial School for a period of twelve months.

In that establishment young Cook, by good conduct, seems to have gained the approbation and good will of the officers in charge, and both the nurse and the matron informed his mother that he was a very good boy indeed. On the 30th October, 1882, i.e., when the boy's term was within five days of expiration, his mother made what she supposed would have been her last visit to the institution, her heart yearning to see her son, and to congratulate him on his approaching liberation.

To her surprise she was informed by the nurse that her boy had been away from the institution since the 15th October, just three weeks before the date when his detention should terminate. The mother anxiously enquired where her son had gone; in reply she was advised to go to the office of the Destitute Board, in the city.

She went there accordingly, and was told by those in charge of the office that Mr TS Reed, JP, the Chairman of the Board, had gone away, but that she had better call on the Thursday following, that being the day when the Board would hold a sitting. On that day Mrs Cook called at 9.30 a.m., and waited patiently till 12 (noon), when she was fortunate enough to see Mr Reed, whom she informed of her desire to takeaway her boy, whose time was now expired.

Judge of the poor woman's astonishment when that gentleman coolly informed her that her son had been sent up the country under a three years' engagement to a farmer. Here was an extraordinary incident, one certainly not to be expected to occur within a boastedly free country— a child of 12 placed in servitude under a farmer for a period of three years, and that without his parent's consent ever having been asked. Mrs Cook — poor helpless woman — was not adapted by nature to battle for her rights.

Though well-nigh broken-hearted, she made no appeal to the authorities against the monstrous injustice to which she was subjected. Her gentle feminine instincts probably recoiled from making any public fuss concerning this over-riding of her natural rights.

And so she waited, and waited. At length, in the month of May, 1883, there came a letter from her darling boy. It bore date May 4, 1883, but there was nothing on the face of it by means of which his whereabouts could be ascertained. The probability therefore was that the poor boy had written the letter to his mother under the scrutiny of his master, whoever that might be.

This is what he says: —"Dear Mother — I now sit down and write these few lines, hoping that you are all well. I have had a letter from Mr Reed. He has been saying that you made enquiries at the Destitute Board office. We bought a cow from Mr Knut, and we thought that she would calf in a fortnight, and we have had her three weeks.

For my master has taught me to scarify and harrow. We had finished that on last Tuesday. Now I am helping him to do some grubbing at the back of the stable paddock. I will send you some cards down, and you must send one of them to Louie, and give one to John, and keep one for yourself. I'm your affectionate Son, Phillip Walter Cook.

On June 22, 1883, he again writes, saying:—" On Friday, we had some fine rain; the wheat is showing up well. I hear that John was very ill, and that he could not write to me very well. I have got three more years to stop where I am. I'm getting 4d per week. The writer endeavours to explain that he has to receive 1s 6d per month the first year, 2s per month the second, 2s 6d the third, and 4s the fourth.

A trace to the boy's whereabouts is fortunately to be found in the concluding sentence of his letter, where he mentions that he had seen two wild dogs, and ads: ‘One of them was on the dam and the other was at the Black Rock.’ By inadvertence, probably, on the part of those who had the custody of young Phillip Cook, we are enabled to glean the fact that he is illegally detained by some farmer in the neighbourhood of Black Rock.

Should any of our readers — and they are pretty numerous thereabouts — notice this article, we shall feel deeply indebted to them if they will urge Phillip Cook to send us, without delay, his address; and on his so doing, we shall see whether we cannot find a means of putting a stop to the unwarranted detention of children beyond the period of time ordered by the sitting Magistrate.

We are well aware that there are many similar cases of injustice perpetrated with a quiet disregard of parental or any other rights. Why, it was only as late as the 23rd November that we noticed in the columns of a contemporary the touching narrative of Jane Thompson, of Alfred Street, Adelaide, which was a case of almost identical character.

She said:—I am a widow, having lost my husband on board ship coming from England in 1876, when I was left with four boys, and had to go to work to support them. They got led astray by bad companions, and staying out at night. I therefore took three of them before Mr Beddome as uncontrollable children, the eldest being sentenced until he was sixteen years of age on board the Reformatory Hulk.

His term having expired on August 10, 1883, I made application to Mr Reed, the Chairman of the Destitute Board, for my son, and was politely told by him that he was indentured out for three years, being seventeen months over his time. I think in future it would be well if Mr Beddome, in sentencing, would say, to be kept until Mr Reed should think fit, as it seems he has more power than a Magistrate.

I always thought that when a sentence had expired the prisoner was set free; but it does not seem so in regard to the Destitute Act. I think that it is quite time someone had a thought for us poor heart-broken mothers, for is it not enough to part with our children, expecting to see them once a month? But that we do not, for they are not left on the hulk or in the school —they are sent up country, perhaps it may be hundreds of miles, and we do not know where, until they write to us.

Further, this is not enough; when I expect to get my boy, I am to be kept waiting till it shall please the Chairman of the Destitute Board. I should like to know if this is justice, because it does not seem so to me. It appears to me that laws are made here, one for the rich and one for the poor.

I think consideration should be shown when a boy behaves well for over three years, so as to gain the approbation of all the officers on the hulk, likewise the Superintendent of the Destitute Board, who told me so when I went to see my boy two months before his time had expired, he having been brought to town to see the doctor, having had his wrist broken.

He was kept here three days before I was aware that he was in town, as Mr Reed did not inform me. I asked Mr Lindsay if I could not have my boy home for an hour or two, when he kindly told me that I might, as my children had all turned out well.

Finally, we wish to state emphatically that, in our opinion, when a farmer can obtain the services of a growing lad, to work his plough, his harrow, or his scarifier, and otherwise perform farm duties, at rates of wages varying from 1s 6d to 4s a month, for a period of four years, there is something about the arrangement which demands a searching investigation.

Hard to believe, isn't, but very true. Luckily somethings have changed for the better.


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