It was an emotional trip back in time for Campbelltown man John Clarke when he visited the former Berry Training Farm on Wednesday.
It was 58 years since Mr Clarke, now 68, walked out of what used to be a home for wards of the state.
Now the property is home to the Berry Sport and Recreation Centre.
Instead of being the last resort for young boys, it is now a place where children stay in a camp environment and enjoy the many different facilities.
It is certainly a far cry from how John Clarke remembers it.
He lived at the boys’ home for more than 12 months in the 1950s - a tough, disciplined home where children who “mucked up” got in trouble and were “often bashed”.
“It never happened to me [being bashed] but I know a number of the boys were. I was about 11 or 12 at the time. There was no love or affection. There were probably about 100 odd kids here at the time. We all slept in a big dormitory, probably about 30 of us.”
He said he became aware of the location again after his granddaughter attended a camp there.
“She started describing the place she went to for the camp and I knew exactly where she was. She was at the boys’ farm, where I had been,” he said. “I freaked out.”
He remembers looking after the cows on the farm, which was part of their education designed to teach wards of the state the dairy trade.
“I was in the big cow shed one day and the cow was going to poop, so I thought it would be a good idea and easier to put a big shovel underneath it and catch the poo but all that did was splatter it all over me,” he said.
“I didn’t leave the centre very often. I do remember going to high school in Nowra. One of the boys stole something from the kitchen and we were all hauled out of bed in the middle of the night. We had to strip and remake our beds until the culprit came forward. We must have made the beds about 14 times.”
He remembers some of the boys trying to run away, swimming across nearby Broughton Creek, only to find staff waiting for them on the other side.
“It was like we were criminals, but we weren’t. In my case I just didn’t have anybody else to look after me,” he said.
Manager Bill Lyon met Mr Clarke, his daughter Jenny and her children, and showed them some of the historical photographs from the farm’s early days and took them on a tour of the centre.
Recalling some of the old buildings, such as the dormitory and kitchen which have all been converted into modern facilities brought Mr Clarke to tears.
One cattle shed is now a workshop and the other an activity centre housing a maze area for visiting students.
“It looks the same but has been modernised,” he said. “It was a horrible experience but it made me a better parent.
“I remember walking out of here all those years ago and it wasn’t a happy place. I’m so glad to be able to see it now, with children here having fun enjoying themselves.
“It makes me feel good. It now is a happy place. Seeing that is worth a million dollars. “I can walk out of here happy. Being a child is supposed to be the best time of your life. I missed all that,” he said, breaking down.
“Kids are supposed to be happy. Coming back was confronting and upsetting but worth it.”
As a boy John Clarke lived at South Nowra with his parents and older brother Herbert, who was four years older than him but also had a slight disability.
His mother died when he was about five or six and soon after authorities took his older brother from Falls Creek School, which they attended.
He would not see Herbert or know of his whereabouts for another 32 years.
When he was about seven he was sexually abused by a man at South Nowra but despite his pleas for help no one would believe him.
“Not long after my dad, Frank, who was well known in the Nowra area, sent me off to live with people at Yanco,” he said.
“I don’t know the connection - I was just sent there. It was terrible. I was bashed, starved. No one ever came and checked on you.”
Eventually he came to the attention of authorities but spent two weeks living in a police cell at the local station before welfare officers could pick him up.
From there he passed through a series of institutions including Thornbury Lodge and Yarra Bay in Sydney and Woodford in the Blue Mountains where he survived a fire in the home, before arriving at Berry.
He left Berry when he was fostered by a family at Lakemba.
“I don’t think people who fostered kids always had the children’s interests at heart. I think a lot of them were just in it for the money,” he said.
“They were horrible people. I was so frightened. There was no one I could talk to or confide in.
“They eventually moved to Ingleburn and Campbelltown and then to Nowra – by then I was 17 and decided to start my own life and remained at Campbelltown.
“But it was tough as the way I had been treated. I didn’t trust people.
“Looking back it was a real kick in the guts, your dad didn’t want you and the people who were supposed to look after you didn’t.”
He eventually discovered his brother had been set to a place called Peat Island on the Hawkesbury River and managed to reconnect, getting to know the older brother he never had.
Years later he returned to Nowra and spoke to people who knew his father who revealed he had never mentioned that he had two sons.
He had remarried and John discovered he had a half-sister who also met but tragically lost both his brother and sister within six weeks of each other.
He said the strength of his faith helped him survive.
“At 17 I found my way to the Salvation Army and found faith in God.” he said.
“He’s the father I’d never had and he looked after me and my faith has got me through a lot of things.”
Despite his “rough” early start to life, John Clarke went on to an “interesting life”.
His first job was with Sir Warwick Fairfax, working as a gardener at his property at Narellan.
“I got to know him and he was a nice man,” he said.
“I lived about four kilometres away and he would send the chauffer driven Rolls Royce out to pick me up and take me to work.
“My first pay was 10 pounds 17/6, I still remember that – it was a lot of money back then.”
Then followed a job in a pottery factory before eventually working for State Rail for 25 years in the rail fire brigade, later transferring over to the XPT section.
He married Pam, who passed away 17 years ago, and they had two boys and a girl.
He now has eight grandchildren and five adopted grandchildren.
“Pam was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
The land on which the Berry Sport and Recreation Centre is located was originally part of the Coolangatta Estate.
It was then used as an experimental farm before become the boys farm in the 1930s, designed to teach wards of the state the dairy trade.
It remained in operation until the 1977 when it was taken over by the Department of Youth and Community Services and used as a holiday location for wards of the state, before eventually being taken over by the Department of Sport and Recreation in 1991.
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