A Stolen Life: The Bruce Trevorrow Case

A Stolen Life: The Bruce Trevorrow Case

by Antonio Buti


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On Christmas Day 1957, Joe Trevorrow walked through the blistering heat to seek help for his sick baby boy. When relatives agreed to take Bruce to the hospital, Joe was relieved—his son was in safe hands—but, within days, Bruce would be living with another family, and Joe would never see his son again. At the age of ten, Bruce was returned to his Indigenous family, sparking a life-long search for an identity that could never truly be known and a court case that made history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781925815115
Publisher: Fremantle Press
Publication date: 10/01/2019
Edition description: None
Pages: 292
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Dr Antonio Buti is a member of the Western Australian Parliament, Honorary Fellow at the Law School at the University of Western Australia and Adjunct Professor at the Law School of Murdoch University. He was educated at the University of Western Australia, Australian National University, Oxford University, and Yale Law School. He has written extensively on a wide range of issues and his biography of Sir Ronald Wilson, A Matter of Conscience, won the 2007 Western Australian Premier’s Book Award for non-fiction and the Premier’s Prize.

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The little boy sits in his cot, staring with wide brown eyes at strangers passing by. The cot is like others in the ward at the Adelaide Children's Hospital. He is thirteen months old. Still a baby, just. But of the age when a baby wants to be noticed. Of the age when a baby first understands that, if they make the right sign, a person — the target of the sign — will respond with a smile.

But the passing strangers don't notice. Each is a target for some other love, in some other cot. Making just the right sign. Each target responds. The little sign maker gets their reward.

Not this little boy. There is no target for his love. But he does want to be noticed. Where are his targets? Why don't they come to see him?

Across the ward, a father, for a moment distracted from his own little daughter, as if divining the thoughts of the little dark-skinned boy across the way, realises with a vague disquiet that in all the days he has been visiting this ward, nobody has been to see this little boy. He feels a little stab of anger and speaks to a harried nurse. Why, he asks, does nobody visit this little boy? Don't his parents care, he wants to know. The nurse knows that, for little Bruce's parents, visiting is not a short drive from a nearby suburb — if they had a car, that is. Nor is it even a short tram or bus ride. They live in a shack at One Mile Camp, of which this man has probably never heard, near a town called Meningie on the Coorong. They have no relatives in Adelaide and no way of getting to the city. But she offers a polite, conversation-ending observation, 'It is not easy for them.'

Bruce is far too young to remember that he has been here before. He was transferred here ten days after his birth on 20 November 1956 at Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital. Born with neonatal sepsis, he was very small, underweight at five pounds three ounces. His delivery into the world was unremarkable, yet he cried continuously and his hydration was not good. It had been a difficult pregnancy for Thora, who suffered, as she did with all her pregnancies, from severe pre-eclamptic toxaemia, a potentially life-threatening condition. Bruce was discharged after twelve days at Adelaide Children's Hospital. He had not put on much weight but otherwise was in good health.

At the end of 1956 the USSR performs atmospheric nuclear tests. It is a prelude of sorts to the British government in 1957 carrying out nuclear testing at Maralinga, exposing UK servicemen, Australian soldiers and civilians, and the Anangu people who live in the area, to radiation. The Anangu call it 'puyu' or 'black mist'. Other national events in 1957, both ephemeral and enduring, excite some and pass unnoticed by others, but each in some way contributes to the warp and woof of the fabric of Australian society. Patrick White publishes his award-winning novel Voss. A love story based on the disappearance of explorer and naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt, the novel is an indictment of British imperialism in the nineteenth century. In the entertainment world, television icon Graham Kennedy begins his career. Port Adelaide wins the SANFL premiership. Melbourne beats Essendon to become VFL premiers. St George wins the Rugby League grand final in New South Wales. Straight Draw triumphs in the Melbourne Cup and Lew Hoad becomes Wimbledon champion. To complete its tennis triumph, Australia beats the USA to win another Davis Cup title. And on 21 September, Mrs and Mr Rudd welcome the arrival of baby Kevin, whose life will fleetingly brush against Bruce's some fifty years later at Parliament House at the National Apology to the Stolen Generations.

For now, little Bruce Trevorrow has no idea of the significance of these events. His past few weeks have been eventful enough. He sits in his lonely cot in the middle of a busy ward, crying. He has nearly recovered from his stomach upset, bacterial gastroenteritis, that brought him to the hospital on Christmas Day. That is not why he is crying. He is crying for his mummy and for his daddy. He is far away from home, too far away from his mother's tender love, too far from his dad and his fun-loving older sister.

'Come on, Brucey. Come on, Bruce.'

Wide-eyed and beaming, Bruce places one baby foot in front of the other. One wobbly baby step at a time, just as big sister Hilda has commanded. She is facing Bruce, matching her backward steps to his baby wobbles, and all the while holding his tiny fingers in her outstretched hands. Bruce knows Hilda will not let him fall. She is family. With baby instinct, he trusts her. Hilda is nine years old. Bruce has just turned one.

Thora looks on contentedly as she does some sewing repairs to the pocket of Frank's school shirt. Everyone calls Frank by his middle name, George. No one knows why; they just do. He is two years younger than Hilda. Then there is Tom, born in 1952.

Thora and Joe (particularly Joe — no one calls him Joseph) are fussy when it comes to school clothes. Joe demands that school clothes be neatly folded on the edge of the children's beds when they arrive home from school. School shoes have to be cleaned and polished. Joe collects suet from the local butcher shop for this purpose and makes the kids clean and polish them until they shine.

Joe and Thora are mindful that the family's shack — too basic even to be called a hut — must be as tidy and clean as possible. The welfare officers could appear without warning for an inspection. The camp residents call these unannounced welfare inspections 'raids on the camps'.

Only a few months back, at the request of the Aborigines Department, Sergeant Liebing, the officer in charge at Meningie Police Station, visited the family after Thora had left the shack to stay with some friends on the Coorong. She was away for a few weeks before returning to Joe and the family. After his visit Liebing wrote a report for the Aborigines Department about Joe's financial position. He noted that Joe had been working for W. Dollard and Co for some time and that his take-home weekly wage was twelve pounds, seven shillings. During periods when there was no work with Dollard, he tried his hand at fishing. The report notes that Joe had no reserves in a bank account and owned no property apart from the family shack at One Mile Camp and another at Three Mile Camp, where he had two dilapidated motor vehicles.

The family alternates between the two shacks. Sometimes the cars actually run. Money is tight but Joe and Thora do their best to care for their children. Thora is always on the lookout for sales and often sends orders for clothing from catalogues she has collected. Free school supplies make things a lot easier, as do the rations of flour, sugar and tea. The ration tickets are available at the Meningie Police Station.

On this day, George and Tom are playing out the front of the shack at One Mile Camp, throwing stones into the swamp. It is the beginning of December; the days are getting warmer and longer, making playing outside more inviting. On this late afternoon, a cool sea breeze picks up from the Southern Ocean and blows over Lake Albert, part of the Coorong waterway, towards One Mile Camp.

They call it One Mile Camp because that's how far it is from the small town of Meningie, on the Princess Highway, 150 kilometres southeast of Adelaide and 300 kilometres from Mount Gambier, the South Australian town on the border of Victoria. Meningie, surveyed in 1866, was developed as a service centre for the surrounding pastoral properties and as a staging post on the main route to Melbourne. The town site on the shores of Lake Albert gained importance as a post for sailing and steam vessel transport, and for communication between other lakeside holdings and isolated sheep and cattle stations. Regular steam vessel travel on Lake Albert and the adjoining Lake Alexandrina slowed down after 1910 and came to an end by around 1930.

Thora's and Joe's families have strong connections with the Coorong area. Thora's parents, Rose Watson and Steve Lampard, both Aboriginal, have long resided in the area. Joe's white father, James Trevorrow, and his Aboriginal mother, Alice Walker, lived at Salt Creek, a small settlement on the Coorong.

Inside the shack, Hilda has tired of playing baby steps with her brother. They now sit on the sand floor that is covered with clean hessian bags, playing with spoons and cups. In a year or two, the sand will be replaced with pipeclay from the same swamp into which George and Tom are now throwing stones. The clay will be tamped to make a firm floor for the combined living and cooking room. There are also two large bedrooms, which in future years will have concrete floors. One of Joe's many cousins, who used to be in the Army, will help him lay the concrete. This is the family home. A three-roomed shack made of sheets of iron from 44-gallon drums left in the area after roadworks were completed. Joe has flattened the drums to make the outside walls and roof. He has also used flattened drums to partition the rooms. Wheat bags and wool bales from Mr Dollard's sheep farm provide the interior walls. Joe has also built an outside toilet and bathroom.

Joe is a good worker. During the downtimes on the Dollard farm, he does a number of other jobs to provide for his family. He fishes with heavy nets and assists other fishermen with their nets. He lays traps for rabbits, which provide meat for his family and income from those rabbits he sells. Today Joe is working at Dollard's, which is southwest and within walking distance of One Mile Camp. Joe helps with fencing, burning off paddocks and other jobs on the farm.

He will be home soon. Hilda has done her homework. George doesn't have any and Tom has not yet started school. Thora has read a story to the boys. Mum and Dad are strict with homework. It has to be done, with Thora often assisting with the reading and writing. She also teaches Hilda how to sew and cook. Thora is a keen and good cook of any produce Joe brings home. She is also creative and resourceful. Even when the cupboards are low, she is still able to use what food is available to cook up a stew, and her damper is a reliable staple for the family.

Thora picks up Bruce and cuddles him as she feeds him a bottle of milk she has warmed up over the wood stove in the corner of the room. The shack has no electricity. Kerosene in old Salvital tins with wicks and candles supply the only light. Thora tenderly strokes Bruce's hair as he sucks on the bottle of milk. She looks into his eyes, talking softly and lovingly, 'Hi darling Brucey.' She bends over, gently kissing his forehead. 'Drink, drink sweetie. Help you grow.'

Thora loves this time, mother and baby together. Now approaching thirty years of age, at least twenty years younger than Joe, Thora has only a basic education but she knows, with a mother's instinct, how important this bonding time with Bruce is. She has done this before.

She moves him to shift his body weight onto her other arm. He takes a rest from sucking on the bottle and smiles at her. Wrapped in the warmth of his mother's love, baby Bruce is conscious only of now. He does not know that, over the next few weeks, his life will change forever.

Nor does Thora or Joe.



'Are you my dad?'

The question lobs into the Trevorrow shack at One Mile Camp on this otherwise unremarkable mid-December day, as explosive as it is unexpected. One look at Joe's face shows that this verbal missile, hurled by an unheralded stranger, does not bring good tidings. Thora can see that the stranger is no blessing for the Trevorrow family.

The stranger reveals himself as James Clarke, better known as Jimmy, and says he has travelled from Victoria searching for his father. One look at his face and then at Joe's is enough for Thora to confirm the answer to his question.

Into the stunned silence that follows, Jimmy demands, 'Well, are you?'

Nine-year-old Hilda knows the answer. Joe stands there, mute.

'Who the hell is this?' Thora screams at Joe.

With nowhere to hide, Joe surrenders. 'It was a brief relationship,' he pleads.

'How brief? Thirty minutes? Less?' Thora asks sarcastically. She is not in a conciliatory frame of mind.

Joe does not attempt to defend himself. 'She was from Dimboola,' is as much as he will concede. As if to mitigate a rare lapse of judgement, he assures Thora that Jimmy preceded his other children from another relationship: the one Thora knows about.

Joe fathered three children to his former wife, Annie Hason. Joseph, Rita and Alice have at various times stayed with Thora and Joe at One Mile Camp, but as youngsters they had mainly lived with their mother. That they sometimes stay with them is fine with Thora, although those kids have been a handful.

Joseph, or Joe Junior, who his family sometimes calls Chum, is now twenty years old. He lives and works in Bordertown for the Highways Department, but he has not always been a model citizen. He drinks heavily, has run afoul of the law and recently spent eight weeks in the Adelaide Gaol.

The girls from Joe's earlier relationship have also had their share of troubles. Rita is three years younger than Joe Junior. The Aborigines Department had placed her with a family in Woomera as a domestic servant, but earlier in the year she'd had a nervous breakdown and overdosed on pills, and had spent some time at Tailem Bend Hospital and then at Royal Adelaide Hospital. Then there is Alice, who is now in Vaughan House, an institution for girls who have been in minor trouble with the law or charged with antisocial behaviour. The Department sent Alice there after she absconded with an older girl from her workplace in Meningie.

Thora does not want any disruption to her life. She has four children of her own. Hilda, George and Tom are boisterous but well-behaved kids. Brucey, although not yet as healthy as she would like, is just Brucey. Adorable. This stranger is a bolt out of the blue. She feels betrayed. Why has Joe kept this secret from her? He has told her about the others and she knows them. But now? This stranger? It is just too much for her.

Thora quickly packs a few belongings for herself and Bruce and then she is gone from One Mile Camp. She drops Bruce off with her brother, Steven Lampard, and his wife, Mary, at Three Mile Camp. He will be all right there for a while. She needs to get away. Needs to think. She knows she can stay with her good friend Katherine Gollan at Tailem Bend. There is no way to let Kathy know that she is coming but she is a friend, she will understand. She will let Thora stay for as long as she needs to.

Bruce does not stay with the Lampards for long. When Sergeant Liebing visits the Trevorrow shack about a week before Christmas, he sees Bruce and one of his siblings lying on the unmade double bed. He doesn't notice anything to suggest that Bruce is sick or that his family is not properly caring for him. Life seems normal and Joe does not say anything to the Sergeant about Bruce's health. He does not see Thora's stranger — Jimmy, Joe's son — at the shack, nor does Joe mention him.

Thora does not return for Christmas Day. Christmas has no special meaning for the Trevorrow family; it is a tradition from another culture. Early that morning, Bruce is crying. He has been crying for the past few days, more intensely and for longer periods with each passing day. Today Joe is more worried. Little Bruce is arching his back as he cries, clenching his fists and bending his arms and legs into his belly. Joe knows as a father that Bruce needs help beyond what he can give. He needs a doctor; he needs to go to the hospital. But Joe has no way of getting there.

By lunchtime, Bruce is crying in agony. Joe is in despair. He knows he must get help now. So, wrapping Bruce in a blanket and cradling him in his arms, he sets off on the one-mile walk to Meningie. It is not a long walk. But it is the middle of the day, and it is hot. Joe realises Bruce does not need a blanket. He has a fever. He is dehydrated. Joe tries to rearrange the blanket as a shield to keep the midday sun off Bruce. Fortunately, he has a bottle with water in it. He gives silent thanks to Hilda. Such was his concern at home he had started to leave without the water bottle but Hilda reminded him. She is a good kid and she loves Brucey. She will be worried but she will be all right. And she will take care of her brothers until Joe gets back.

Joe stops under the shade of a tree to give Bruce some water. He does not want to take it; he is crying. Joe wets Bruce's lips with a little water from the bottle and starts walking again. He picks up his pace and none too soon, as he rounds a bend, there is Meningie just down the road, shimmering in the midday sun. Joe goes straight to the police station. Liebing is there. His house is attached to the police station so he is never off duty, even on Christmas Day.


Excerpted from "A Stolen Life"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Antonio Buti.
Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Preface 6

Prologue 8

Part 1 Stolen 11

1 Before the pain begins 12

2 A disruptive Christmas presence 18

3 A new baby, no questions asked 23

4 Chasing a moonbeam 29

5 'I will lose my friends and my bike' 33

6 Tick a box, slam shut a file, case closed 45

7 Give me the child and I will give you the man 59

Part 2 The Champions Gather 65

8 Bruce meets his warrior champion 66

9 'They know they broke the law' 76

10 'We're on our way' 92

11 The judge 100

12 The barristers 106

Part 3 The Trial 117

13 Burnside opens the attack 118

14 Playing it as it is 135

15 'All sitting around, having a feed and a cuppa' 151

16 Experts go in to bat for Bruce 171

17 Walsh opens for the State 202

18 Closing 225

Part 4 The Judgment 251

19 Preparing the way 252

20 Judgment day 258

Afterword 266

Glossary 268

Notes 272

Bibliography 275

About the author 280

Acknowledgements 281

Index 283

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