I was 26 when I left my work as a country parson to take up the prestigious position as the Minister Cheltenham Church of Christ Victoria. This Church had the reputation of being a very large and alive Church. But that was a mirage. The reality was quite different as this young country parson was soon to discover. The life of a suburban Minister has some real surprises.
And not the least of these real surprises concerns some of the old families in the Church. You see, Cheltenham was a market growing area. They grew vegetables for all of Melbourne and there were large stable families in the surrounding areas.
In our Church we had more than a dozen families who were fifth generation in the area. These old families had settled here in the 1840’s among the first flush of immigrants. They settled on the fine sandy loam and made beautiful vegetable gardens. The soil had been good to them over the years and it had grown vegetables beautifully. The market gardeners were all much the same, they tended to be muscular, lean and slow. They wore big boots and always had mud upon their hands and up their finger nails no matter how hard they washed their hands. They were hard working people. I have seen them on their knees going up row after row after row making holes with one finger and putting in the seed, moving onto the next, then another, and another, and another – working all the time, bending their backs pulling out the weeds and growing lots of vegetables. Why, there were onions, celery, cauliflower, lettuce, parsley (I guess parsley was the most labour intensive vegetable I had ever seen) and paddocks and paddocks of cabbage.
I remember the first time I went out to George Morrisset’s place. He was growing plenty of cabbage and I said “My word, Mr. Morrisset, you do have a lot of cabbages in here.” “No, I haven’t” he said, “These are not cabbages, these are cabbage”. I looked at him as if there were some difference. “You do not call them cabbages. You say you have been to University – this is a paddock full of cabbage, not cabbages”. “Oh” I said and I would always remember the difference.
George Morrisset was a big fellow, he had not thought a great deal. In fact I remember one sad day after talking to him about his troublesome daughter, as we walked down a long row of cabbage that he said to me “You know the trouble with me?” and I said “No George”. “I have not had a new idea in 40 years” and I believed it.
Many of the families round about had intermarried. It was very difficult to say anything about anybody without realising you were actually talking to so-and-so’s daughter-in-law’s mother’s uncle or someone else in the family.
Some of the people who had come to the Cheltenham Church of Christ and who were not market gardeners declared that there was a real genetic problem among some of these families. They had intermarried so often there was an inherited dullness.
Well that certainly seemed to be the case when Leila Morrisset married Horace Baillieu. Baillieu was a French name but they were as Australian was anybody. Old Horace himself, not old in age but old in attitudes and years, was a good worker. You knew he would never really make it in life somehow and Leila, she was much the same. Both of them were slow, both of them were in their late twenties when they were married and both of them would inherit acres of land in a rapidly developing suburban area.
You see the farmers were selling out for housing blocks and slow dull farmers who could not keep up their way of life suddenly became millionaires over night and they would frequently just pack up and go to Queensland and live on the Gold Coast in some fabulously wealthy apartment or some beautiful place on a lovely canal. But mostly, they just decided to keep to their way of life and plodded wearily along.
I did not marry Leila and Horace Baillieu but they came to me one day to ask me to help them. It was a strange request. Leila said to me “Would you help me get some babies?”. I sort of coughed a little and looked back and said to her “Leila, Horace, in all the talk about, um, um, marriage and preparation for marriage, did anyone speak to you about how to have children? I mean you both grew up among the cabbage didn’t you?” They did not see the joke. No they could not get children. They had tried, but there were no children coming, they told me. “Could you help us adopt a couple of children? We will love them greatly and promise we will always look after them.” Well I said I would try.
It was possible to adopt children and there were a lot of children awaiting adoption. So it was that I wrote off a letter for them to the Department to see if somehow or other the Department of Children’s Affairs and Youth might have a child that they could adopt to the Bailleaus.
Someone said to me one day a little after “Did you hear that Leila was sick?”. “No I hadn’t”. “Well you had better go and see her, she is not well at all.” I visited her in her home. She was in the bedroom when I called so I knocked on the backdoor and called out. She called “Come in” and I came in and made my way up to the front bedroom. It was an old fashioned bed with four posts and a top and an end on it. There was no chair in the room so I sat down on the bed beside her. She was looking pretty crook indeed.
Then I noticed. From each of the four posts there were four leather straps. After a while when she was chatting and it was quite obvious that her illness wasn’t terminal, I just asked her “what are these straps for?” “Oh” she said “Horace uses them to tie me up.” I said “Leila, this is most odd. What do you mean he ties you up?” “Well of a night time, he ties me up.” “Leila … I … I don’t want to pry into your family affairs…” “Oh, it is alright” she said “all the family knows he ties me up. He can’t do it, you see, he can’t do it, but he likes to just undress me and then tie me up to the bed”. I said to her “Is this part of the problem that your husband has about having children?” “Yeah … he … he can’t do it.” “I mean … do you mean … is he impotent? Have you spoken to the doctor about this?” “Oh, yes, they have told us he can’t do it. That’s why we’re got to adopt.”
That was my introduction to a very difficult situation. There were times when I suddenly realised there was another aspect to Leila. Sometimes she got very frustrated, not that I blamed her, but she worked out her frustration in a most amazing way. She simply walked out the front of her house, picked up some bricks around the house and smashed every window in the place. I used to have people ringing me up, saying “Come quickly, I understand you have worked in an asylum – Leila’s gone mad. She’s off her head, she’s smashed every window in the house and we’re worried she might come round to our house”.I would jump into the car and race round to the court in which they lived. That happened many times. She would keep smashing windows until every window was smashed or until I, or a member of her family, arrived. I recognised that she was crying out for help. Poor Leila, she desperately needed help and the only way she could do it was though smashing glass.
One day I was out when the neighbour rang me. There was no answer in my study. She called again. Leila went round smashing every glass window in the house and because I did not come she came round to the Church and started smashing the stained glass windows in Pine Street.
It was just as I arrived home that I saw her standing beside the road with a bunch of stones in her hand. As soon as she saw me she picked one up and threw it. Smash – straight through a stained glass window! I pulled up the car, jumped out and ran over to her. I physically wrestled with her and got rid of the stones in her hand. She started screaming violently. I got her to a psychiatrist on that occasion. He spent some time talking to her, gave her some tablets and I took her home. So long as she was taking the tablets she was okay but her husband Horace still tied her up in the bed at night and she was still getting very frustrated.
I tried to divert her attention. I got her to the Opportunity Shop run by the Church and she helped down in the Op Shop. In fact, she liked helping with the Op Shop. She liked people coming in. She liked working with the clothes. In fact, getting her into the Op Shop gave her a new opening on life and seemed to help her. So long as she kept on the tablets and worked in the Op Shop then Leila was all right.
And Horace – he played with electric trains. He had a couple of rooms full of them, hundreds of dollars worth.
And then eventually I got a letter from the Department. Yes on your recommendation we will make possible a young daughter, a girl approximately eight months of age, parents unknown, and so on it went. They were delighted. Leila and Horace found a wonderful new life as young Jasmine came into the family.
For two years there was a perfect marriage. Mind you, they weren’t the best of parents but then again, they were kindly and considerate and really Leila had settled down and all was well.
It was then that she came up and said “C..Can you help me to get … get a second baby? I want a boy for Jasmine – she needs a brother.” I thought very long and hard. I tried to explain to her that boys were hard to get, that there was now a shortage. I doubted if it would be possible for her to have two children and anyway perhaps two children might be just too many and Jasmine was getting a little older now and she would be more difficult and perhaps … I grasped round for all kinds of reasons. But Leila had it in mind she wanted a boy and after talking with one or two other people who knew them well and with her local doctor, I decided to write to the Department rather hesitantly but suggesting they might like to conduct a survey and perhaps a baby boy might be in order.
Well little Max came into the family and they were delighted. And Leila – Leila struggled.
You know they say that children can be smarter than parents and you get the idea that children might have to be teenagers before they’re smarter than their parents. But I saw within just a very few years, indeed even before they went to school that Jasmine and Max were smarter than Horace and Leila.
Oh, when they did go to school, it was a sad story. The kids went without socks in winter. Leila always had a good rational reason for why the children didn’t have socks in winter or why they wore plastic sandals in the middle of a freezing winter. I would speak to her. Some of the women from the Church would speak her. She used to look at you and say “We never had socks when we were kids and it never did us no harm.”
There was no immunisation. Letters came from the Council and from the Health Centre and they weren’t opened, just dropped in the bin. The Tax wasn’t paid. Oh, that was a yearly problem. Horace would just get his tax bills and look at them and screw them up and throw them out. They just weren’t coping. They really needed someone alongside them.
I asked for some people from the Church to help. I knew a couple of mothers who were good. They refused. I asked a man if he would go down and help Horace with his tax and he refused. I still hadn’t learnt what some of the people in the district really knew. If you really tried to interfere with any of these old families, then the old parent would hit the roof. Someone said, “I’m not helping them. Not on your life. Help the Bailleaus – not on my life would I help them. Their parents would hit the roof, the old man would come round with a shot gun. No thanks mate. I’ll help others. They’ll get on all right. Don’t you worry. They’ve been here for generations. They’ll survive.”
And then the official letter came. “In reference to your previous application etc, etc, etc. Would you please do a report for the Department of Children and Youth Services concerning the children in the event that an approach should be made to a court order to make these children subject to the Department’s protection.”
I realised what was happening. Someone had been speaking about them and describing them as very inadequate parents. I wrote immediately. Yes they were inadequate parents. Yes they didn’t do it exactly the same way as us, and yes the kids did not have socks in winter. But they were caring, loving parents. They did care in their own way. It wasn’t the way I would like children to be cared for but they were trying and with a little bit of help….. But it was to no avail. The Department had given them time, had written them letters, had received no reply. Formal requests for interviews had been sent, but the letters were just screwed up and thrown into the rubbish bin.
And so the day came when someone rang me. They were in a desperate situation. “Come quickly, come quickly, she has gone off her brain again, she is smashing all the windows”. I got in the car and raced round. There were three people present. A young social worker had some papers in her hand. She walked over to me and gave them to me. It just said “Mrs. Morriset is regarded by the Department as unreliable, incapable of parenting and it is recommended that the children should be made wards of the State”.
There was noise everywhere. They had these papers and two big women who physically had the two screaming children in their arms. Leila was screaming. She was smashing windows, tugging at the women, tugging at the children. Leila grabbed the metal stake and suddenly swung it and hit the social worker in the head. She went down on the ground bleeding from her head. Leila just went around on her smashing business. She was wanting to get stuck into a car with the metal garden stake. I literally grabbed her in my arms and cradled her holding her arms close to me until the cars backed out of the drive and went on their way with her two children. It was terrible. It was terrible!
A few mornings later, very early, long before 6am I heard loud crying from outside our manse. It had been pouring with rain all night. It was still pouring. Leila was out there walking backwards and forwards in front of our house and in front of the Church. The rain was coming down, she was in a skimpy nightdress that clung to her wet body.
We brought her into the house. My wife got her a towel and dressing gown and we rugged her up and set the gas fire going. We got her a cup of tea. What had set her off? The Police had been round at 5am and had given her a summons to appear in court. She was being charged with aggravated assault.
I went to the court. I spoke. I offered to see that she looked after herself, that she got access visits to the children. I promised that we would check that she would keep on her medication. Her mother did not come to the court, neither did her father. She was a shame to the whole family. They had lots of children. This was the first time any of the children had ever been taken away from any members of the Bailleau family.
And Horace – he came to the court and sat there reading a railway hobby magazine. The magistrate listened. He asked me a few questions, he did not allow me to elaborate, he then asked me to sit down. He then read the psychiatric report, and then the report from several Departmental Officers. Then two custodial officers stood up and gave evidence and then the social worker gave evidence and then the magistrate closed off the presentation. He wrote for a while on his paper, looked up a book, wrote a few things down, looked up and said. “The evidence in this case is overwhelming. I believe there is nothing I can do. This was definitely a case of aggravated assault. I think the minimum sentence in this particular case should be twelve months jail in Fairlie Womens Prison but with remissions. Do you understand what I am saying to you Mrs. Bailleau? With remissions you should be out in approximately eight months time. I am sorry but this cannot be allowed to continue.”
I was devastated. This was unjust. And she started to cry as a policeman went over to her and just led her from the court. I stood up. “Mr. Brown! Mr. Brown! Excuse me, please sir, please. I believe you are doing something quite wrong. This lady is not wicked, she is sick. Mr. Brown, I want you to…..” “Sit down Mr.Moyes. Sit down. I remember I needed to speak to you on one previous occasion for this outburst in court. You had your opportunity to say all that you had to say. No, sit down I will not allow you to speak. I will ask the Detective Sergeant or perhaps the prosecutor here to just acquaint you with the facts of contempt of court and what might be done to you. Would you please in future when you are visiting my court, speak when you are spoken to you and make no other sound. The case is closed.”
A couple of days later I went Fairlie Women’s Prison. It was a terrible, terrible mess. And Leila – she came out smiling and happy, just delighted to see me. “I made friends here”, she said “I got a couple of friends, you wouldn’t believe it. Two of them are murderers and one is a prostitute.” And she went on to tell me about her friends. Actually eight months in prison did not harm her.
Horace did nothing in the house. The gardens were overrun. He just left the dishes stacking up knowing his wife would eventually come home and wash them.
There were families who just avoided their house. The neighbours would not say a word about them. And as for the old Bailleau family and the rest of the market gardeners they did not come near the place. Some of the windows had still not been repaired. The rain came in and wet the carpet and the couch, but Horace didn’t mind, he played with his railways tracks.
I went and visited her again, and again. She was happy. She was in the sewing department, making clothes and she wanted me to send the clothes to the children, if I could find out where they were in protective custody.
Well, eight months went by. We got a team of men to clean up the garden and cut the lawns. A team of women went round and cleaned up the inside of the house. We got the windows repaired and flowers were put in to welcome her home. She came home wearing a new dress. She was on a new dosage of tablets and she settled down well. The women welcomed her back into the Church group. Several went out of their way to make close friends with her.
Every now and then she would become quite agitated. We would notice it, her leg would start to jig up and down, her hands would jig up. And as soon as we began to see her physically getting agitated we knew that she wasn’t on the correct dosage of medication.
The kids grew up in a series of homes over the next twelve years. At fifteen young Jasmine was a single mother herself. The son – well Max did Year 12 at high school and we had great hopes for him. Then he just dropped out and I’ve never heard of him since.
And Horace – Horace played trains. And then thirteen years later the time came and we left Melbourne.
Well she still keeps in contact with us, does Leila. She tells us she is down in the Op Shop working away and she seems to be quite happy and all is going well. She now knows where the children are and she has contact with her daughter although no contact with her son.
Proceeds of the sale of the parents’ properties have eventually come down to them. Both of the grandparents have died on both sides of the family and they inherited actually a fortune. They are wealthy people. Leila lives simply in the same house. And I got to thinking about her the other day because, here in Sydney I received a letter just prior to Christmas. She closed by saying “And $50 to help the children you are looking after in Sydney”. Poor Leila. Poor Horace. But then again Horace is happy, he’s still got his trains.
I remember that first night.
I spent some time in my study writing up my journal and looking out of the window at the never ending stream of cars stopping at the traffic lights at the corner of Nepean Highway and Chesterville Road, that wide intersection that was dominated by the lovely white Church with the high white tower noting down the events of another day as a suburban minister.