TO some, they were the “forgotten” children of Newcastle.
Young children with intellectual disabilities whose families, bound by the social mores and government policies of a bygone era, placed them in Watt Street Mental Hospital, Stockton Centre and other institutions.
For three Novocastrians who worked as nurses behind the high walls of the Watt Street hospital in the late ’40s and ’50s, these children are not, however, entirely out of mind.
Not those children who reserved a special twinkle in their eyes for them as they did their rounds.
And certainly not the babies whose bodies they washed and dressed with care before they were taken to the mortuary.
“Most of them were forgotten about,” says Roma Lee, 88, who with fellow nurses Gwen Adler, 87, and Kay O’Hearn, 93, lived at the Watt Street hospital today known as James Fletcher Hospital.
“It was just the thing that was done back then [families leaving children in institutions]. I can only remember one little girl, Rosie, whose parents came … possibly monthly.”
Roma, Gwen and Kay still meet each month, their near 70-year friendship forged at the Watt Street Mental Hospital, where they worked for three to five year stretches before each falling pregnant and leaving.
Their memories are being recorded by Gina Andrews, a senior policy officer with the federal government doing her PhD on a cohort of 12 children who were admitted to Watt Street Mental Hospital in 1952.
As part of her research, Ms Andrews is interviewing those who worked behind the walls at the hospital over the course of the past 70 years.
Ms Andrew’s brief is professional – to examine the experience and impact of institutionalisation and changes in law and policy through the course of their stay.
It is also deeply personal.
Ms Andrews was eight when, sitting on her grandfather’s lap in Sydney, she pointed at a sepia photo of her mother and a young boy.
Asking who the boy was, she was shocked when her grandfather told her it was her mother’s brother, John Richard Gowlland, known as Ricky, who was six when he was sent to the Watt Street facility.
“Ricky had an intellectual disability caused from a virus my grandmother had when she was pregnant – he had hydrocephalus, when you have too much fluid on the brain,” she says.
“So my uncle was a part of the generation of families that were institutionalised, and when I say that I mean it as in the whole family, because the whole family went through the process of … losing that family member and relationship connection.”
Ms Andrews, a career bureaucrat who was seconded as a senior policy officer to the Royal Commission into institutional responses to child sex abuse, has so far done 30 interviews as part of her Phd.
Among her subjects are David Richmond, who in 1983 released the Richmond Report which recommended deinstitutionalisation, or moving patients out of psychiatric wards to be cared for in the community.
She estimates about 4000 children were admitted to Watt Street Mental Hospital from the turn of the century until its closure to children in the 1970s.
In 1952 alone, 86 children were admitted and the peak periods of “scheduling” children were in the ‘50s and ‘60s before the opening of Grovernor Hospital in Sydney alleviated demand.
Sydney-based Ms Andrews met Roma, Gwen and Kay in Newcastle recently to get an idea of life for the staff and children at Watt Street Mental Hospital.
The three women, gathered in the neat brick and weatherboard home of Gwen, who fusses about offering her guests curried egg and tinned salmon sandwiches neatly cut and stacked on a plate, were barely out of high school when they arrived at the facility.
Their status as young women still finding their way in their world may explain why they coped so well in demanding circumstances – working 12-hour shifts to care for children and patients in five wards.
These included the nursery, accommodating up to 40 infants, and Ward 3 and Ward 4, both home to up to 40 boys aged from 5 to 14.
There was also Male 1 Ward, housing “higher functioning” men, and Female Ward, home to the “helpers” or support workers with mild intellectual abilities.
Of the 12 children Andrews is investigating who were sent to Watt Street, three died within 18 months. One boy was taken by family in New Zealand and five others were later sent to psychiatric facilities on Peat and Milson islands on the Hawkesbury River.
Three girls were taken to the Stockton Centre facility, as was custom for pre-pubescent females.
Roma recalls arriving at the Watt Street Mental Hospital after hearing a concert that was recorded there on her local radio in Taree.
“I had to come down in the bus and I had my own room, which was a big thing because I was one of five children and I’d never had that,” she says with a smile.
“We just went there to care for the children – we bathed and washed them and took them out [into the yard], there was nothing nasty about it.”
Arriving just after Roma, Gwen worked mainly in the nursery, where many infants were bedridden.
The nurses bathed the children, many incontinent, multiple times during the day, lifted their increasingly heavy bodies onto potties, served them a daily hot lunch and made them dinner, typically sandwiches or eggs.
“You got attached to them,” says Kay, who worked there for five years, of her charges.
The women recall there were often four nurses looking after between 30 and 40 children per ward. They were helped by the young intellectually disabled women in Ward 1 with their chores.
It was uncommon for the children to leave the hospital confines, however older ones were occasionally treated to a show at the Lyric Theatre in Wolfe Street.
“The only outings I recall were taking some patients to Morriset [mental hospital], and I remember the day one pregnant lady ran away and I had to chase her up Church Street,” recalls Roma.
Some of the older children worked in the laundry and kitchen without payment, helping the nurses with their preferred “pets”.
With the permission of their superiors – either a “charge nurse” or medical superintendent – nurses would occasionally take one of the children home to enjoy a family meal.
Sidy Coleman, a psychiatric nurse who worked at the Watt Street site from 1958 to 1973, often took children home on her days off, according to her husband Colin.
“One particular child became an accepted part of our family,” she says. “Where possible our family always attended the Watt Street kids' Christmas party and I am proud to say that all of my children (now adults) have a soft spot and an understanding of some of the problems caused by intellectual disability.”
Gwen, Roma and Kay say patient visits were rare.
“It just wasn’t expected – the child was placed there and left,” says Kay.
Former patient Kim Walker recalled parents were often discouraged from visiting.
In a People With Disabilities newsletter, she wrote about her mum taking her out for a milkshake.
“I have letter that says that she sent me money, presents and clothes, but the staff at Watt Street wrote to her and told her it was best that she stay away from me,” wrote Walker, who arrived aged two and stayed for 11 years.
“When my dad was away working on a ship, he sent me a cake. “The staff wrote to my dad and told him not to do this because it would make the other children jealous.He apparently came to see me every so often but I can’t remember this.”
Ms Walker, whose disability occurred at birth when the umbilical chord twisted around her neck, became a respected disability advocate. She died in 2012.
Most of the Watt Street children were diagnosed with a congenital mental disorder without epilepsy. Many also suffered from epilepsy.
Roma, Gwen and Kay’s first experience of disability was confronting. They feel some children with milder disability “should not have been there”.
Nonetheless, they recall by and large happy children.
“It depended on their disability. Children with Down’s Syndrome were happy and lovely but if the child was bedridden, you talked to them but didn’t know if they were responding,” says Kay.
Adds Gwen: “You didn’t know how [your work] affected them, but you hoped you made them happy.”
The women recall a school operating on site and a doctor visiting daily to read nurse reports and check whether any child required medicine. They say little medication was administered. None of them recall the children being asked to clean their teeth.
Kay, whose maiden surname was Stone, was dubbed “Killer Stone” by colleagues after more than one child died on her watch.
“There were plenty of kids who died and we used to lay them out ourselves and take them to the mortuary,” she says. “We used to wash their bodies and find something nice for them to put on. We’d notify the doctor and then it would be out of our hands.”
In Ms Andrews’ study of the 86 children admitted in 1952, some 19 had died during their stay. Deaths were noted in the daily nurse’s report and, according to the trio, a separate patient report was not requested. Still, in the patient files Ms Andrews has read, deaths were noted “with a degree of seriousness” and it was indicated a nurse was with the child at the time of death. Many passed in the still of night.
The three nurses saw no evidence of sexual abuse against the children, something they attribute to the almost all-female staff who “were predominantly kind”.
NSW Health gave Ms Andrews access to their Watt Street files. She is seeking Department of Family and Community Services permission to see the adult files of those in her PhD cohort.
The Watt Street children are, she says, a vital part of the Novocastrian story given the site’s relevance and role as a key regional employer.
Ms Andrews wants to better “understand and anticipate” the human consequences of social policy interventions.
“I hate to say it, but the National Disability Insurance Scheme is one of those [social policy experiments] in progress,” she says.
“The irony is that we are closing the large residential centres and institutions and we don’t know what the unintended and intended outcomes are. The NDIS is great for those with a physical disability who are or have a competent advocate. Where it is a social policy experiment is for those with complex disabilities who don’t have stable guardianships. How will they fare?”
Ms Andrews visited her uncle Ricky often before he died in 2012. She says his institutionalisation was not right, but the “done thing”.
“Would I do things differently? Absolutely. Thankfully today people have more options,” she says.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.