In 1950, eleven-year-old Ronnie Sabin and his brothers Eddie and Joey were living a dismal life in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, England. They had spent most of their early years in the notorious Rochester Dwellings, one of the worst post-War slum areas in the city. The boys were always hungry and never warm. They had to scavenge, beg and steal to survive.
Their mother worked twelve hour shifts as a bus conductress to try and support them and they hadn’t seen their father, a Regimental Sergeant Major in the British Army, since 1943. In 1947 their mother moved them to a better area of Newcastle but the boys’ destructive and dishonest behaviour continued. They were cheeky and insolent; they trashed houses and stole anything that wasn’t bolted down. The authorities eventually rounded them up and their mother agreed that they should be sent to Australia as child migrants under the care of the Fairbridge organisation.
Ronnie spent six years at Fairbridge Farm School Molong, in rural New South Wales, under the care of its commanding principal Mr Woods and his gentle wife, Ruth. When Ronnie left Fairbridge, ‘Woodsy’ told him that bringing him up had been like ‘trying to tame a wild horse’. But tame him, they did.
Ronnie is convinced that he would have ended up in jail or worse had he stayed in Newcastle. He credits the guidance of the Woods and the discipline and value of hard work that they instilled in him for turning his life around and enabling him to make a success of it, both as a family man and businessman in Australia and New Zealand.Often hilarious, sometimes heart-wrenching, Ronnie’s memoir adds a positive perspective to the Child Migrant Scheme debate. It pays tribute to the Fairbridge Organisation and details Ronnie’s delight at finally taking the long journey home to be reunited with his family in Newcastle.
Read this extract from The Long Way Home …
“The new house was certainly an improvement on the dwellings but there was no more money for food or heating. With empty bellies and even less supervision than before, our wild, destructive behaviour continued to spiral out of control. As we grew older stealing wasn’t enough to keep us amused and we became hell-bent on vandalism as well.
The local council tried to build a block of pre-fab houses in our street in which to accommodate the poor and we thought that it was great sport to try and demolish them as quickly as they were being built. We trashed them, breaking all the windows, smashing the toilet pans and ripping off the doors and cupboards.
We simply had no respect for people or their property and were known as the most destructive kids in the district. By this time we had also built quite a reputation with the local police who questioned us regularly about all manner of misdemeanours. Eddie was developing a glib tongue and as the eldest, he had become our spokesman although we were all adept little liars.
Eventually, in 1950, the police and local authorities had had enough.
The worst children, which included the three of us Sabin boys, were rounded up and declared Wards of the Court.
The details of what happened next are still unclear. It is probable that the powers-that-be decided it would be good for the whole of the country if we were transported to the colonies under the Child Migrant Scheme, and that they discussed the possibility of us being assessed by the Fairbridge Organisation with our mother.
It has been difficult to get a clear picture of what happened next as our mother has told family members several different versions of events over the years.
One story was that our father turned up out of the blue when she was at work and that he convinced our grandmother to sign the papers that would allow us to be sent to Australia.
“I think he brainwashed me mum. He turned up with lots of photographs of Australia and told her he was going to train racehorses and that the boys were going to be with him. He convinced her that they would be better off with him. He was a regimental sergeant major and a good talker. I think he talked her over. Me older sister Betty agreed with me mum as well and thought it would be better for the boys. They didn’t know the life I had before and there was no way I wanted them to have that life again. There was a bit of a dispute between me and me mum. I wasn’t there when she signed the papers in my name because I was at work. I tried to go to court to keep the boys in England but lost the case and the boys were sent anyway. As far as I knew their father had gone to Australia too.”
We have no recollection of our father apart from his visit in 1943 and by this time we had been led to believe that he was dead, so it is an unlikely explanation.
Whatever the case, we were duly assessed by the Fairbridge Organisation which consisted of a medical examination and an IQ test. The medical comprised a urine test and we were all asked to pee in a bottle. Eddie and Joey had some difficulty with this, but I had no problem at all, so I poured a bit of mine into each of their bottles and we were all declared healthy.
For the IQ test we were shown a picture of a bicycle with the front wheel missing then a separate drawing of a wheel. We had to tell the assessors what was needed to complete the drawing of the bicycle and budding Einsteins that we were, the three of us passed.
With a clean bill of health and being boys of undoubted intelligence, the Fairbridge Organisation was willing to take us on.”
Here’s what the media had to say about The Long Way Home:
The Press (Christchurch, New Zealand) feature story READ HERE
Essence magazine (North Canterbury, New Zealand) story READ HERE
Essence magazine social pics from book launch VIEW HERE
Central Western Daily (Orange, NSW Australia) newspaper article READ HERE
Central Western Daily follow up story after Australian launch READ HERE
Ronnie and Jo were interviewed by Angela Owens on ABC Radio Central West (Orange)
Click on the following link then scroll down to the story ‘The Long Way Home – one man’s experience of Fairbridge’ posted 28 April 2010 to listen
Ronnie and Jo were also interviewed by 2bs radio, Bathurst, NSW Australia