Sunday, December 19, 2010

Nicola Woolmington & the Forgotten Australians

Sometimes I do get annoyed with the Armidale Express! The Express of Friday 10 December carried a rather good story by Janene Carey that has been excluded from the on-line edition. Fortunately I found an on-line copy, Close to home, posted by Janene to the National Museum of Australia  web site.

Nicola Woolmington is an Australian documentary film maker and the adopted daughter of Jo and Eric Woolmington. I spoke of her parents back In January 2008 in More UNE Passings - death of Jo Woolmington.

It is many years since I last saw Nicola. Then I remember her mother talking about Nicola's desire to be an actress.

From Armidale Demonstration School she went to Armidale High and then studied drama at the University of New England. After completing her Dip. Ed in Melbourne, she tried out for the stage but found that it did not pay the rent. She then enrolled at Swinburne Film and Television and began a long career as a director.

Her first documentary, Searching (1992), in part tells the story of her search for her own natural mother after she was given up for adoption in the 1950s. Since then, she has  produced a number of films including Where Angels Fear To Tread (1997), Paying for the past (2000) and Einstein's Wife (2003).

Nicola's latest documentary, The Forgotten Australians, screened on SBS Television in November. Nicola began working on it in 2004 when hundreds of stories of people from people brought up in institutionalised care came to light during a Senate inquiry.

Armidale had two, perhaps three, orphanages. I say perhaps three because I am not sure whether the third was an orphanage or a residential hostel. The biggest one, St Patrick's, occupied a large gothic style building occupying a prominent hill to the south of Armidale. There four to five nuns looked after up to one hundred children. The Woolmingtons used to take out children from St Patrick's, while Nicola's discarded toys went there.

Nicola feels that she acquired her social conscience from her mother. If you look at my post on her mother, you can see why that might well be.

I haven't seen Nicola's film. However, it aroused a degree of controversy in Armidale with some former residents feeling that St Patrick's had been unfairly treated. I can't comment, beyond noting that my own research into the NSW child welfare system makes me well aware of the type of injustices that can occur in any form of institutional care. If you look at Drummond's life chapter 1 - A troubled child: family life 1890-1907 and then again at Drummond's life 8 - Return to Education: the Minister 1932-1936 you will get a feel for what I mean.

Armidale's orphanages have long gone. Nicola attributes this to Gough Whitlam's decision to pay pensions to un-married mothers, meaning that they could now keep their children. I am sure that's partially true, but I also think that the pill, as well as changing attitudes to pregnancy out of wedlock, also played a role. By 1972, the social pressures that used to be placed on un-married women to give up their babies had greatly diminished.

In all, it's another example of the type of social changes that I have been talking about over the second half of the twentieth century. 


Anonymous said...

I watched that program and came to the conclusion it did not reflect Forgotten Australians at all. Only orphaned children.
As an FA I thought Nicola's insight into the lives of FA's was narrow and self serving. I hope she got her cheap thrill.
Nicola should not have been given funding at all to make such a documentary that does not convey the realities of what Forgotten Australian's are or face in our every day lives.
Emotional Vampires we already HAVE. We certainly do not need anymore.

Mark Bellamy said...

I remember Jo Woolmington well from my time in Armidale in the 80's & 90's. Was very sad to read about her death, even if it was sometime ago.
I remember St Patricks well, we used to go up there and break in but one night the cops busted us big time.
I don't know if I could live in one of the apartments that it became subdivided into, I always found it a creepy looking building.
My wife was adopted and her birth mother tells the story of a horrendous 36 hour birth in the early 1960's in Waitara where she was told repeatedly that she was paying for her sins.
We have also had a similar controversy in Grafton over the Cowper Orphanage where various people have applauded/revivled their time there.

Jim Belshaw said...

Those are pretty savage criticisms, Anon. As I said in the post, I haven't yet seen Nicola's documentary, so am not in a position to from a judgment.

Very interesting Mark. We coincided in Armidale - I was back there from mid 87 to early 96.

Stories from our misspent youth! I got busted once for things; there were more that I perhaps should have been, although looking back there was degree of innocence in it all.

Interesting, too, to hear of your wife's birth mother experience and of the Cowper controversy. I haven't checked the Examiner, so don't know if anything is on line here.

Denise said...

My two sisters and I were in this home in the 50’s and it was not a nice place to be left in I do have bad memories from there the nun’s were very cruel.

Jim Belshaw said...

My apologies for my slow response, Denise. I'm sorry to hear that.