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Mary Barton

April 9, 2010

Personal papers are a marvellous thing. Often they are heavily edited before making it to the archives, but on occasion they contain material that provides a wonderful insight.

Fred Schonell, best known as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland during the 1960s, was also president of the Queensland Sub-Normal Children’s Welfare Association from its inception in 1953, until his death in 1969. Schonell was integral in the Association’s establishmeny, encouraging Mr. and Mrs. R. C. Hooper to visit Crowle Home, the flagship “Occupation Centre” of the New South Wales Association, before starting their own school, located on their verandah, and attended by their daughter and nine other children, all hand-picked by Schonell.[1] The Hooper’s backyard school was the genesis of the Queensland Association. It was also Schonell who encouraged the Queensland Council of the Australian National Association for Mental Health to prepare a report on “ineducable” children in Queensland a few months later, giving weight to the Hooper’s efforts.[2] Schonell then arranged funding for Bowen House, the replacement for the Hooper’s residence, and engaged Thelma McConnel, the Association’s first full-time employee and headmistress. Nationwide, Schonell popularised the idea that the mothers of “subnormal children” were like “a twentieth century slave with the burden of the child all day, every day.”[3] He often emphasised that groups such as the Queensland Association helped the parents as much as the children, and that such parents were under terrible strain:

A strain which had been too great for some, and for whom breakdown had given temporary relief.[4]

It was interesting, then, to find one such breakdown woven through a number of files in his papers, located in the University of Queensland’s Fryer Library. Unfortunately, like so many archives, his documents only capture a few years of his life, in this case from his appointment as Vice-Chancellor in 1960, until around 1965, when his Hodgkin’s Disease appears to have become more debilitating. The bulk of the Schonell papers concern University matters, but a handful of files document his work with the Sub-Normal Association.

Amongst these papers are scattered half a dozen letters from Mary Barton, mother of twelve-year-old, “sub-normal” JoJo. Clearly, these are only some of Mary’s letters, and Schonell’s part in the correspondence is entirely absent. On the surface, Barton’s story is a familiar one: at some point she had emigrated to Queensland from Glasgow. Joe, apparently an “ineducable” subnormal, was excluded from state education system, and Barton cared for him at home. Then, for reasons unclear, her husband left. Barton tried to hold down a part-time job, but found this difficult whilst caring for her son, a “sensitive boy” who refused to be left alone. In 1961 she contacted the Welfare Association, having some across a booklet on Schonell House and its activities.[5]

The booklet was presumably an earlier version of the one entitled “Schonell-House Parent Guidance Centre,” held in the National Library. The booklet advised that the Association trained sub-normal children at Bowen House, where they would “be observed by the Principal, Mrs. T. S. McConnel, and her trained staff.” “All Parents” would be given “Further Aid.”[6]

Barton approached the Association;  this is where the usual narrative breaks down. Instead of finding help at the Centre, Barton found that her JoJo was deemed ineligible for training. The ensuing correspondence, between herself, Schonell, and McConnel, reveals much about the dynamics of power exercised by the organisers of welfare groups.

According to Barton, one of the “observations” undertaken by Mrs. McConnel and her staff was an I.Q. test. Apparently, the Bowen House Training Centre only admitted children over a certain intelligence level:

to my amazement I discovered that certain women executives (senior) connected with the Association are only interested in the educable (according to Occupational Centre requirements) Sub normal children, and openly show their ‘near’ hostility to any suggestion that the others should have some thought and consideration also. Their parrot like excuse muttered over and over again – is the statement that ‘Government will only subsidize ‘educable’ Sub Normals – so ‘nothing can be done about the others.’

Barton not only found her son excluded from normal schools, but also from the “special” school she thought had been set up for JoJo’s welfare.[7] She told McConnel, not mincing her words, that “UNLESS THE ASSOCIATION MADE SOME EFFORT TO HELP THESE CHILDREN THEIR TITLE OF ‘QUEENSLAND ASSOCIATION SUB NORMAL CHILDREN’S ‘WELFARE’ ASSOCIATION’ WAS A MISLEADING LIE, AND SHOULD BE CHANGED TO SOMETHING LIKE THIS:- ‘ASSOCIATION FOR AIDING ‘EDUCABLE’ SUB NORMAL CHILDREN ONLY.'”[8] Worse, she claimed that “PUBLIC MONEY WAS POURING IN TO THE ASSOCIATION (AND BEING SUBSIDIZED POUND FOR POUND BY THE GOVERNMENT) UNDER THE MSICONCEPTION THAT ‘ALL’ SUB NORMAL CHILDREN WERE BENEFITING AND NOT ONLY A ‘PRIVELEGED FEW’ WHO PASSED MR CHARLES’ ‘I Q’ TEST!!!!”[9]

In further correspondence, it is revealed that there was a seven-month long waiting list for admission to Bowen House, even for eligible children. According to Barton, these parents, too, felt their “LIVES WERE BEING ‘WASTED AWAY’ WITH NO ALTERNATIVE HELP WHATSOEVER FROM THE ASSOCIATION.”[10] When, in 1961, the group received a generous bequest to open “Schonell House” as an extension to the Bowen House centre,[11] Barton claimed such parents

FELT A RENEWAL OF HOPE… THINKING (a) THIS BIG BUILDING COSTING APPROXIMATELY £15,000/- WOULD AT LONG LAST SET AN EXAMPLE FOR THE OTHER SUB NORMAL CENTRES TO FOLLOW BY PROVING THE DESPERATELY NEEDED ‘DAY’ CENTRE FOR THE TERRIFIC NUMBER OF ‘IGNORED’ SUB NORMAL CHILDREN WHO HAD NO WHERE WHATSOEVER TO GO EVEN ONCE OR TWICE A MONTH![12]

Instead, the Association opted to operate Schonell House as a short-stay hostel for country families, who could travel to Brisbane for a period with their subnormal child, receive training, and return home with a copy of McConnel and Schonell’s book, The Sub-Normal Child at Home.[13]

The waiting lists continued. As a result of the shortage of places, wrote Mary, parents would do anything to keep their child at Bowen House once they had been admitted. “Many parents are very upset at the way… [Mrs. McConnel] has treated the children,” Mary told Schonell, “and altough [sic] you may only meet a certain group and think that ‘Everything in the garden is lovely,’ I can assure you the parental discontent is widespread, apart from my own upset over my child.”[14] Despite their alleged discontent, parents would

PANDER TO… [Mrs. McConnel] AND FAWN OVER HER [they] HAVE TO DO SO IF THEY ARE TO HANG ONTO THEIR JOBS OR HANG ON TO THEIR CHILDREN’S PLACES IN THE OCCUPATIONAL CENTRE AT SCHOOL – BECAUSE (AS ALREADY TOLD YOU) SHE CAN GET RID OF A CHILD MERELY BY SENDING WORD THAT SHE CANNOT HAVE THE CHILD ANY LONGER BECUASE OF BEHAVIOUR PROBLEMS! FOR SUCH POWER TO BE HANDED TO SUCH AN INDIVIDUAL IS OUT OF ALL PROPORTION TO THE JUSTICE WHICH ‘ANY’ ‘WELFARE‘ ORGANISATION NEEDS.[15]

In short, claimed Barton, parents and teachers were “DEAD SCARED” of McConnel.[16] Rumours were rife amongst the children’s parents about the running of the school, the aims of the Association, and, particularly, about McConnel herself. It was said that her American qualifications were not recognised in Australia and that, as a result, her “abilities were hardly, if any, better than any of the young teachers… at the school.”[17] That a car had been provided to McConnel using funds earmarked for a school bus.[18] That she was miserable on account of an infected leg (“parents are asking if perhaps a clot of blood has not travelled up to her head the strange way she has been behaving lately”).[19] That she had “broke up a Sub Normal Child’s home – then married the child’s Father when the divorce was through – later putting this little girl away.”[20] Yet, despite these rumours, parents persisted in sending their children to the centre.

This of course, made perfect sense to Barton. Regardless of whether the centre was ideal, parents felt that their children needed to be cared for by someone outside the home, both for the benefit of the child, and for the relief of the parents:

SUPPOSING YOU WERE THE SOLE BREAD WINNER OF THE HOUSE AND YOUR SUB NORMAL STEP DAUGHTER HAPPENED TO BE YOUR VERY OWN CHILD WHO LIVED COMPLETELY ALONE WITH YOU IN A HOUSE – HOW WOULD YOU HAVE LIKED ANYONE TO HAVE KEPT YOUR CHILD OUT OF SCHOOL…?[21]

Barton made approaches to Schonell, and, at his urging, JoJo was admitted to Bowen House as a matter of priority. Once again, Barton claims that McConnel bullied the child out. She narrates events on the morning of JoJo’s arrival in a letter:

the first thing she said directly to either of us was (pointing to a table in the corner of the room) ‘Get under that table JoJo until I can find time to place you in a classroom’ —- the child looked amazed at being told to get UNDER the table – and thinking I had misunderstood and wishing to help the child, I pointed to the chair before the desk and said ‘Sit on this chair JoJo and wait until Mrs McConnel is ready for you’ —- whereupon Mrs McConnel snapped back ‘I SAID UNDER THE TABLE, AND NOT ON THE CHAIR.’[22]

Eventually Barton left JoJo in McConnel’s care, but, within days, JoJo, exhibiting his own agency, began running away from the school. When he had first attended the Centre for assessment, Mary wrote, “he always returned happy.” This time, he despised it: “for the first time in his school attendances – [JoJo] cried when I dressed him for school this morning,” she reported a few days into his attendance.[23]

Things came to a head after Mary received a telegram from McConnel advising that JoJo could not be found. By the time she arrived at Bowen House, JoJo had been located, and Barton and McConnel sat for a chat. According to McConnel, Mrs. Barton ” appeared very thankful for any help that we were giving Joseph” and they “talked very amicably about Joseph’s progress.”[24] According to Barton, McConnel’s “COLD TREATMENT” of JoJo was ” DONE DELIBERATELY SO AS TO GIVE… [her] SOME EXCUSE TO KICK THE CHILD OUT OF THE SCHOOL ALTOGETHER.”[25]

To be continued…


[1] “Centre for Subnormal Children to Start in QLD,” The Sunday Herald, 5th April 1953, 21.

[2] Queensland Council of the Australian National Association for Mental Health, An Investigation into the Care and Treatment of Ineducable Children in Queensland (Brisbane: [The Council], [1953?]).

[3] See: Fred J. Schonell, “Australia’s ‘Colossal Ignorance’ of Problem of Subnormal Youth,” SMH, 8th July 1955, 2;Fred J. Schonell et al., The First and Second Survey of the Effects of a Subnormal Child on the Family Unit (Brisbane: The University of Queensland Press, 1959).

[4] Schonell, “Australia’s ‘Colossal Ignorance’ of Problem of Subnormal Youth,” 2.

[5] Letter from Mary Barton to Fred Schonell, 25th January 1962. Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library, Papers of Sir Frederick Schonell, UQFL197, Box 9, Folder Labelled “Queensland Subnormal Children’s Welfare Association;” Letter from Mary Barton to Fred Schonell, 26th April 1962. Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library, Papers of Sir Frederick Schonell, UQFL197, Box 8, Folder labelled “QSCWA Bowen House Correspondence.”

[6] QSCWA, Schonell House Parent-Child Guidance Centre (Brisbane: Read Press, c. 1962), 5, 7.

[7] Letter from Mary Barton to Fred Schonell, 25th January 1962

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, emphasis in original.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Undated flyer (c. 1964) entitled Sub-Normal Children: Exiting Strides in Sub-Normal Welfare, Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library, Papers of Sir Frederick Schonell, UQFL197, Box 7, Folder labelled ” QSCWA – Art Unions, Appeals and Publicity.”

[12] Letter from Mary Barton to Fred Schonell, 26th April 1962, emphasis in original.

[13] Fred J. Schonell, J. A. Richardson, and Thelma S. McConnel, The Subnormal Child at Home (London: Macmillan & Co, 1958).

[14] Letter from Mary Barton to Fred Schonell, 26th April 1962.

[15] Ibid., emphasis in original.

[16] Letter from Mary Barton to Thelma McConnel, 6th June 1962. Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library, Papers of Sir Frederick Schonell, UQFL197, Box 8, Folder labelled “QSCWA Bowen House Correspondence.”

[17] Ibid.

[18] Letter from Mary Barton to Fred Schonell, 26th April 1962.

[19] Letter from Mary Barton to Fred Schonell, 21st May 1962. Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library, Papers of Sir Frederick Schonell, UQFL197, Box 8, Folder labelled “QSCWA Bowen House Correspondence.”

[20] Letter from Mary Barton to Thelma McConnel, 6th June 1962.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Letter from Mary Barton to Fred Schonell, 21st May 1962.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Letter from Thelma McConnel to Fred Schonell, 13th June 1962. Fryer Library, University of Queensland Library, Papers of Sir Frederick Schonell, UQFL197, Box 8, Folder labelled “QSCWA Bowen House Correspondence.”

[25] Letter from Mary Barton to Thelma McConnel, 6th June 1962.

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