Category Archives: Writers

The children of Coorah

BRAVE FACES The children and staff at Coorah c.1942. Yvonne is first on the right in the girls' row.
BRAVE FACES The children and staff at Coorah c.1942. Yvonne is first on the right in the girls’ row.

Two Writers collaborate on a hidden story.

THE years of research I’d undertaken on the historic home Coorah in Wentworth Falls took an interesting turn in 1995 when I was contacted by the current owner of the house, the Blue Mountains Grammar School, about a visitor who’d returned to Coorah after fifty years.

Yvonne Waters lived at Coorah during WWII, after it was gifted to the Bush Church Aid Society by the estate of the home’s original owner, Robert Pitt. In these years, Coorah served as a children’s home, a period of the building’s history only previously recorded in Anglican Church records, which related rather saccharine stories about the ‘happy days’ of the residents.

Because of its personal nature, it took many years of ruminating to bring Yvonne’s story to a wider audience. Inspired by the journey to justice started by the national apologies to the Stolen Generations and the Forgotten Australians, Yvonne’s account of her time at Coorah, as told to me during a searching interview, was published in Blue Mountains Life magazine in 2011, and related a very different story to the church records.

It is published here with Yvonne’s permission, inspired by the honesty of those who are beginning to tell their stories to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.

Family, Interrupted

Yvonne Waters on her time at a Blue Mountains childrens’ home.

During World War Two many of Sydney’s children were evacuated to the Blue Mountains in the wake of the 1942 Japanese attack, but writer Yvonne Waters and her brothers found themselves in a Wentworth Falls children’s home in the winter of 1942 in the midst of a different kind of war.

“As we set out to walk to school – I was eleven, my brothers eight and five – suddenly our Dad, whom we hadn’t seen since he’d left home five months previously, darted from behind a corner,” Yvonne recalls.

“Herded into the back of Dad’s car, we were driven to our paternal Nana’s house. Later that afternoon Mum arrived. She had been to work, and on finding us not at home with our Great Aunt she had guessed what had happened. After numerous court cases, the court had cowardly decreed that if Dad could manage to take us from our mother, he could keep us. I will never forget my last glimpse of our Mother crying, after being told she would never see us again.”

Yvonne’s parents had separated at a time when public interest in divorce resulted in a family’s trauma being played-out in the tabloid media, and since both had settled with new partners, neither was granted custody of the children.

After being moved between the Central Coast and Western Sydney, Yvonne says – “Dad informed us he had found vacancies in a children’s home. With tremendous relief he pointed out how lucky we were, as all the other homes were full.”

Recalling their arrival soon after, she says – “The pines in rows like soldiers guarded the red gravel driveway which curved suddenly, revealing a Victorian two storey building. Dad pulled over to the entrance, and motioned for us to get out”.

CHILDRENS' HOME Coorah, an historic home in Wentworth Falls, once a private home, a childrens' home, and now part of Blue Mountains Grammar School.
CHILDRENS’ HOME Coorah, an historic home in Wentworth Falls, once a private house, now part of Blue Mountains Grammar School.

“He urged us up the nine stone steps to the verandah of the forbidding, silent building. Rattling the brass knocker on the huge oak door, he then turned to avoid seeing our stricken faces.

“Heavy footsteps on the other side signaled time was running out. A key turned in the lock. The door swung open to reveal a large, severe, grey-haired woman, dressed completely in black. She smiled, but the smile didn’t reach her eyes.

“‘Kiss your father goodbye!’The woman we later knew as Matron ordered. The door was shut swiftly behind us and we were locked away from those we loved.”

The young trio had arrived at Coorah, an imposing home by the highway at Wentworth Falls. Once home to the Pitt family, the property was held by the Union Trustee Company after the death of Robert Pitt in 1935, with a stipulation that it be charitably gifted for the benefit of children.

The house was eventually given to the Bush Church Aid Society, an Anglican organisation which ran a number of children’s hostels, with a remit to provide accommodation for children living away from home for their education.

Just how three children in custody limbo (whose mother had no idea of their whereabouts) ended up at Coorah remains a mystery. Whatever the case, the shutting of the door changed Yvonne and her sibling’s lives forever.

Separated from her brothers on arrival, and forbidden to speak to them, even at meal times, Yvonne remembers – “We girls were allotted the job of kitchen chores and washing up after twenty-four children. The dining room floor would have to be scrubbed on hands and knees, and no girl would ever finish that mighty chore without reddened and bruised knees”.

“Twenty four lunches had to be made before breakfast and Matron would stand behind me when it was my turn. Woe betide you if you tried giving anyone any extra.

“I think the teachers at the local school were aware of the conditions we lived in, as the headmaster asked me privately if we had enough food to eat – he’d witnessed one of our boys eating scraps from the school rubbish bin.”

Power struggles amongst resident children routinely resulted in abuse. “One frightening incident will never be erased from my mind,” Yvonne recalls. “An older boy in the home attempted to molest me. When I appealed to Matron for help, her answer shocked and hurt me.”

“‘You are a child of sin. You come from divorced parents. I would never believe your wicked lies!’ Today, I can still smell that boy’s dirty hands pressed against my mouth to stifle my screams. Only for the protection of a sympathetic older boy, I shudder to think what would have happened to me.

“I remember one boy was whipped with the buckle end of the strap, accused of laughing when saying grace. We were all still kneeling and I was opposite one of my brothers. Matron stood behind him and her temper seemed to be out of control. My look must have deterred her, so she moved onto the next victim.

“The feeling was high that evening. We all inspected the boy’s welted back. We were hurt and so angry.

“One girl and I retaliated to the cruelty by going on ‘strike’ and not doing the washing up. I’m amazed that we had the courage, for we were very afraid of the woman who controlled our lives. Arm in arm we ambled through the long grass to the edge of the paddock near the train line. We talked about the unfairness of everything and how we couldn’t wait to grow up and tell everyone about the treatment. Before we knew it, dusk was upon us! When we arrived at the back door Matron had locked us out.

“Matron baffled and hurt us when she accused us of being with the boys. Her face was contorted with fury, and she was not at all interested in the truth.”

Yvonne believes the issue of boys and girls being housed together led to her eventual release from Coorah after eighteen months, when sent to an all-girl home in the Southern Highlands. Despite trying to write to them at Coorah, she lost touch with her brothers.

“I finally met them again before I was sixteen,” Yvonne recalls. “We smiled shyly at one another, but had nothing to say. It was a meeting between strangers.”

Fifty years after leaving Coorah, Yvonne was on a day trip to the Blue Mountains with her writing teacher, who encouraged her to pay a visit. The property had been owned by the Blue Mountains Grammar School since the 1950s.

“Not wanting to repeat the horrors recalled at that front door, I found a side door. A pleasant lady called Sandra answered my tentative knock. I suddenly couldn’t wait to look through my old dormitory window. The stairs were carpeted now and at the top we entered a room with computers and some workers.

“Everyone moved aside as I walked to where my bed had been. Standing in front of that window, I was eleven years old again, waiting for the sight of an occasional train and praying for my Mother to find me. Those brightly lit carriages appeared to carry toy figures to their homes, and conjured up mine being a little closer to me.

“My thoughts raced back to a freezing day when a girl called up the stairs, ‘Yvonne, your Mother is here.’ I’d thought how cruel she was to joke.

FAMILY REUNION Yvonne, her mother, and one of her brothers the day their mother found them at Coorah.
FAMILY REUNION Yvonne, her mother, and one of her brothers after their mother found them at Coorah.

“The ground was heavily carpeted with snow. There, at the side of the building, was my Mother. She smiled and held out her arms to me. I tried to reach her, but my feet sank in the mush and I collapsed. My frozen body was lifted, and she held me close inside her warm coat.

“Nearly blinded by tears, I turned to face the people in my room of memories. They were gathered silently in a corner, some wiping their eyes. I felt as though I had been released from a lifelong jail sentence.”

At a distance of seventeen years since she first revisited Coorah, Yvonne is philosophical about what happened to her family. Writing about the journey has helped lay some ghosts to rest, and also the recent acknowledgement of similar separations wrought on the Stolen Generations and Forgotten Australians. “I can really feel their hurt,” she explains.

“My story is not to seek anyone’s sympathy,” she adds, “only to tell the truth of what actually happened under the cloak of religion. Today we live in a more enlightened age. Thanks to the Family Law Act, no blame is attached to either party in a divorce case”.

“I believe I had to go through so much to learn, and I have been able to help people when they’ve been unable to talk about bad things that have happened in their lives.

“Returning to the ‘scene of the crime’ helped to release my pain,” Yvonne adds.

Yvonne’s recollection of her time at Coorah has links to other elements of the property’s story, particularly the acres of daffodils around the house, planted by the original owner Robert Matcham Pitt (1849-1935).

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

Merle Oberon – ours, or theirs?

3628cWas Hollywood’s Merle Oberon a girl from Tassie, or was she from the streets of Calcutta? On the eve of screening her film ‘The Trouble With Merle’ at the Blue Mountains Short Film Festival, Marée Delofski spoke with Michael Burge.

DOWN a leafy laneway more reminiscent of a country town than the faded ‘honeymoon capital’ style of Katoomba’s main drag, Marée Delofski talks of her love for The Blue Mountains.

“I write best here,” she says, “I get very good mental space”. Such feelings are not uncommon amongst local artists escaping the speed of the city, so I ask if there is a deeper connection to the local landscape?

Like one of the many people interviewed in her hour-long award-winning documentary The Trouble With Merle, Marée is on the brink of a journey to answer a question that cannot be addressed in a minute. The real answer is about an hour and two cups of tea away.

Marée Delofski is a very open person – this must be how she extracts such personal depth from her subjects. Indeed, The Trouble with Merle is a personal journey to the heart of a mystery, the kind of mystery common in the Australian experience – the kind that may never be solved…

CREATING WAVES209 of 1010 words. Unlock the rest of this article by purchasing Michael’s ebook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.



The tale of a legend

STONE SISTERS The Three Sisters rock formation abive the Jamison Valley, Echo Point, Katoomba, Blue Mountains, Australia (Photo: JJ Harrison).
STONE SISTERS The Three Sisters rock formation above the Jamison Valley, Echo Point, Katoomba, Blue Mountains (Photo: JJ Harrison).

A long look at a tall story.

WHEN I arrived back in Australia after living in the UK for most of the 1990s, I was attracted back to the region where I did most of my growing up – The Blue Mountains, a World Heritage wilderness only 100 kilometres west of Sydney.

I eventually settled there and fell in love with the place all over again, embarking on a research and writing cycle that would continue for the next twelve years.

This all began with the news that the region’s ‘original’ story, the so-called ‘Legend of the Three Sisters‘, which had been taught to generations of Australian children as a genuine Aboriginal myth (and sold to millions of international tourists), had in fact been made up by a non-Aboriginal man.

I was eventually given the opportunity to publish a feature article on this subject in the December-January 2011 edition of Blue Mountains Life Magazine (Vintage Press).

Legends, Interrupted

How the Aboriginal legend of the Three Sisters trumped a tall story.

Across the Mountains of the late 1970s wonders were common – a witch’s shadowy profile cast across rocks, colourful mountains devil ornaments, and a train ride straight down a cliff. My young imagination also lapped up a legend told on postcards, tea towels, a fountain, and an illustrated book.

The legend told of three Aboriginal sisters who disturbed a bunyip in the valley and were saved by their father who turned them into stone using a magic bone. He transformed himself into a lyrebird to escape, but in doing so lost the bone, leaving him to search the undergrowth (as lyrebirds do) so that one day he might find it and turn them all back into human form.

This story held more intrigue for me than explorer’s achievements, which were taught with a sense of pride at school. But there was a silence on local Aboriginal heritage, and I grew to assume there was little to know about the tribe in the Three Sisters legend.

Fifteen years later I attended a reconciliation meeting and met Gundungurra and Darug people mobilising to work on Native Title claims. Around that time a story hit the local media that the Aboriginal legend of the three sisters was created by a non-Aboriginal man. In the fallout, even that claim turned-out to be untrue – the first fake was actually written by a caucasian schoolgirl with a rather apt surname – Patricia Stone.

SIXTIES SISTERS Lyall Randolph's water sculpture of the Three Sisters graced the entrance of the Scenoc Railway from the 1960s to the 2000s (Photo: Tim Driver).
SIXTIES SISTERS Lyall Randolph’s water sculpture of the Three Sisters graced the entrance of the Scenic Railway from the 1960s to the 2000s (Photo: Tim Driver).

“None of that was a revelation to Gundungurra people around here,” Gundungurra Elder Sharyn Halls says at Echo Point this year. “We always knew what the tourists were told was a made-up story. Many of us thought it was quite funny what visitors were willing to believe.”

The day is just dawning and already flocks of tourists are arriving to take in the panoramic view which is one of the Blue Mountains’ biggest drawcards.

“My father Lenny McNally used to stand me and my siblings here and tell us the stories about the land all around,” Sharryn says, sweeping her arms from east to west. “The story of this place is much, much more than the Three Sisters, from here you can see all the waterways and pathways of our traditional land.”

Sharryn grew up in Bankstown, but spent weekends and holidays in the Blue Mountains. “We’d go camping out to the Megalong Valley with Dad and our immediate and extended families. After a while we realised we were only being taken to places that were important, we were being shown our country. During those trips I learnt how to catch and gather food, and other skills to do with family life, from my Nana Lindsay.

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE Gundungurra Elder Sharryn Halls.
LOCAL KNOWLEDGE Gundungurra Elder Sharryn Halls.

“Dad liked to travel, to the Southern Highlands and out to Jenolan. He was a jockey and he’d round-up the wild brumbies from the valleys. In the Megalong he’d break them in, then muster them into Camden for sale.

“He knew the best way to get there through the mountains – he’d been taken out there with the old men who still spoke traditionally, and they knew the routes between all these places. But Dad wasn’t taught his language, only bits and pieces. Unfortunately he and his generation had to change to survive.”

Survival for Gundungurra people meant making difficult decisions when forced to leave their country.

“People ended up in Katoomba in a place they already knew and used called The Gully,” Sharryn relates. “They made a conscious decision to come, because there were resources here, and they could avoid the mission system. If you ended up in a mission you were only encouraged to settle down. The movement of Aboriginal people was restricted right into the 20th century.”

Gundungurra man Ron Fletcher recalls: “Our family lived for two periods in The Gully in about 1940 and 1949. Everyone got on really well down there because we were all battlers”.

“Our Aunty May and Uncle George Hannah, and Uncle Jack Brooks were still living in The Gully when they built the Catalina Racetrack,” Ron recalls of devastating events in 1957, when Gully residents’ homes and community were demolished to make way for a commercial racing development.

“It wasn’t until 1988, when they put up a memorial at the old Megalong cemetery, that my sister Dawn was reminded that our great grandparents were buried down there. That got her curious about our Aboriginal heritage. Dawn was never a backwards kind of person,” Ron smiles. “She felt very strongly about that side of her, and many people with Aboriginal blood were starting to take notice of how things were changing.”

Dawn Colless (1932-2003) became ‘Aunty Dawn’, elder of the Katoomba Clan of the Gundungurra at a time when local indigenous people began reclaiming their place in the Blue Mountains. One point of focus was The Gully, where the Catalina racetrack had long since fallen into disrepair.

An excellent speaker heard by many giving Welcomes to Country, Aunty Dawn told anyone who would listen about the significance of Gundungurra places and sacred sites. She was also the keeper of a secret she’d been entrusted with as a girl by her mother and grandmother – a legend about the Three Sisters.

“Our Aboriginal family had to be very careful when telling us about the old ways – they were frightened we would be taken away,” Dawn’s brother recalls. “I can remember the inspectors coming to our house twice,” Ron smiles, “I think when they saw we all looked well-fed, that we were being looked after”.

“Not many people realised how ill Dawn was in her last years,” Ron remembers. “She was determined to do what she could in the time she had left. Not long before she died, she agreed to meet some visiting indigenous women. They told her the Three Sisters were linked to the Seven Sisters, and a sacred site as important as Uluru.”

In 2002 Dawn told what she knew of the legend of her mothers to the Gundungurra Native Title hearing. Local authorities began to consult with Gundungurra people about public versions of the legend of the Three Sisters. The Gully, or ‘Garguree’, was proclaimed an Aboriginal place in the same year.

Sharryn Halls is adamant that: “It’s about time the traditional people of The Blue Mountains take a leading role in tourism here, to get out there and understand their country, to be independent, not reliant.”

“So much information about our stories has been lost because we didn’t really have anyone to ask,” Ron says. “We are the last to remember our Aboriginal side. It was always in me, but I was very reluctant at first. Dawn was so passionate about Aboriginal affairs that she inspired me.

GULLY GUIDE Gundungurra Elder Ron Fletcher showing local dignitaries the entrance to Guragaree, 'The Gully', Katoomba.
GULLY GUIDE Gundungurra Elder Ron Fletcher showing local dignitaries the entrance to ‘The Gully’, Katoomba.

“Sometime I go to The Gully to interpret it for visitors as part of the Reconnecting to Country project, with some of the other Gully elders. I’ve been on trips down to the Burragorang, and it makes you feel strong, and you feel they’re walking with you, your family who have been there long before you.”

Today, many tourist destinations in the Blue Mountains assiduously avoid interpreting the Three Sister story at all, but a public version of the Gundungurra legend is available. What’s interesting to note is the inclusion of Patricia Stone’s names for the sister – Gunnedoo, Wimlah and Meenhi – the result of a variety of spellings over the years.

“Because of what happened to Gundungurra people, the continuity of our stories was broken. Our stories were diluted with other stories. The structure is there, but it’s in a different form,” Sharryn Halls outlines. “The important thing is that you don’t interpret someone else’s story on their behalf, you only tell your own. Patricia Stone’s story is one version, many people don’t really care it got told so much”.

“The legend of the Three Sisters is just basic practical education for youngsters not to stray from the safety of their home. It’s a thread that runs through all the versions I know of,” Sharryn explains. “Some of the names are a bit strange,” she laughs, “but nevertheless people have used them. I believe one hundred percent that’s what the legend is.”

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

TALE FOR SALE Victor Barnes' 1972 Golden Book.
TALE FOR SALE Victor Barnes’ 1972 Golden Book.

Secret Means Business

Milestones in the commercialisation of the fake Aboriginal Legend of the Three Sisters.

1931 The Sydney Morning Herald publishes ‘The Three Sisters’ by Patricia Stone (who visited Katoomba c.1925). The names ‘Wimalah’, ‘Meeni’ and ‘Gunedoo’ first appear in print. The sisters are giants turned to stone by Yooma (a tribal wizard) to protect them from a neighbouring tribe during a battle.

1949 Outdoors and Fishing Magazine publishes ‘Legends of the Mountains’ by naturalist Charles Melbourne (‘Mel’) Ward (1903-1966), who moved to the Mountains in 1943. Patricia Stone’s version is used uncredited in reworded form, including her names for the sisters.

TALE TELLER Naturalist Charles Melbourne ('Mel') Ward was resposible for disseminating the fake legend of Katoomba's Three Sisters.
TALE TELLER Naturalist Charles Melbourne (‘Mel’) Ward.

1950’s Mel Ward distributes Legends of the Mountains from his museum in the grounds of the Hydro Majestic hotel in Medlow Bath, claiming to have been told the legend by Aboriginal people.

1967 Bondi Mermaid sculptor Lyall Randolph’s Three Sisters fountain is installed at The Scenic Railway, telling a variation of Stone’s legend with coin-operated narration punctuated by water spouts. The money is donated to charity.

1972 Golden Books publishes The Legend of the Three Sisters by Victor Barnes, a new illustrated version of the transformation of the three sisters into stone by their father to save them from a bunyip.

1997 The Blue Mountains Gazette published ‘The Three Sisters story Untrue?’ in which linguist Charles Illert proposes: “The story behind Katoomba’s Three Sisters may be a myth created by white men with large imaginations.”

2000s A new (as yet incomplete) sculpture by Terrance Plowright replaces Lyall Randolph’s at Scenic World (formerly The Scenic Railway) in Katoomba.

2013 Various non-Aboriginal versions of The Three Sisters legend still disseminated in written form to Blue Mountains tourists.

ROYAL INTERPRETATION The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with Anthea Hammon and Randall Walker at Echo Point.
ROYAL INTERPRETATION The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge with Anthea Hammon and Randall Walker at Echo Point.

2014 During the 10-minute visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Echo Point, local business identities Randall Walker (interim CEO of Blue Mountains Lithgow and Oberon Tourism) and Anthea Hammon (joint managing director of Scenic World) interpret the Jamison Valley for the royal couple.

Gundungurra and Darug elders and tourism representatives meet the Duke and Duchess but are not visibly seen to interpret their traditional lands for the visitors.

(Source and further reading: ‘Aboriginal Legends of the Blue Mountains’ by Jim Smith, Den Fenella Press, 2003).

CREATING WAVESFor present-day tours of The Blue Mountains with Gundungurra guides, check out Mugaddah Tours.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.