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The laneway up to the coffee shop at Colony 47 in Davey St is one of the most important I have walked, impacting on all the paid and voluntary work that I engaged in for the next 40 years, and yet I stumbled across it, almost by accident. 

In 1970 I had become, by default, and overnight, what was then known as a “remedial teacher” at Brooks High School, replacing a highly experienced teacher who left suddenly.

I was only 21, a few weeks into my second year of teaching, with no specialist training, but absolutely no-one else wanted the position, so I was told I had no choice, because I was the last teacher appointed to the staff that year. I was unskilled and it was a tough job, but I soon grew to love my students and the work. Soon after, I travelled to England. For a time, I worked at a special high school at Brixton, in London, where I witnessed evidence of how the accident of birth can be used to isolate the poor and the “other”. Like a couple of other teachers at Brixton, I became a passionate devotee of the work of Paolo Freire who was advocating for lifelong literacy learning, in particular, as a way of overcoming disadvantage. (At 75, I’m still a fan.) 

When I came home, I went back into the school system. In 1974, at a union meeting I heard of the Whitlam Govt’s Karmel Innovations Program – co-incidentally at the same time that I was providing voluntary literacy tuition at night to a young man in danger of losing his apprenticeship. I had been forced to turn away other pleas for help from young school refusers and adults in trouble. When I looked elsewhere to try and find help for them, I discovered that the only tuition available was for fee paying group classes at Adult Education.

I was currently enrolled in part time postgraduate studies at no cost to me and the disparity was so obviously unjust I remember being enraged. So, for months I looked around for a place where I might provide free classes, meanwhile writing a submission for Innovations funding, arguing there was nothing else like my proposal anywhere in Australia that I could discover (and definitely not in Tasmania). I had real trouble finding a suitable location, so when I walked up the lane at Colony that first time I expected yet another disappointment.  

At that first meeting with Jim I was, however, jubilant. I thought I had found an ideal site, with loads of young people dropping into the coffee shop every day, providing me with an immediate pool of students. Jim was, very sensibly, wary of my impulsive naïveté. He asked me to do weekend volunteer work at Colony, while Marg Colville and himself, as well as the Management Committee, looked me over and decided whether they would take me on.

Even though Colony desperately needed money, Jim and the committee had already turned away people who didn’t share their view of how the place should be run, so it was no done deal that they would accept me and, in any event, it was highly unlikely that I would be funded. (Jim always says that, at first, he balanced the rent I would possibly pay against my tendency to spend a fair amount of time prosing on about radical educational theories.) 

In 1974 the financial situation at Colony was already dire, but by mid 1975 it was in danger of folding. For months I was a member of a sub-committee working with Jim trying to come up with ideas to attract more funds and by November ‘75 I was a member of the Management Committee. (I seem to remember continuing as a member until I resigned in December 1979.)

Financial help came just in time from The Playgroup Association, which rented rooms for some months and then, to my surprise (and that of many others) in early 1976 it was announced that my Karmel Innovations submission had been one of two Tasmanian projects chosen for funding in that round. I had asked for my full time salary ($8,500 per annum) and rent for two small rooms at  Colony for $1,000 per year – which was significant, as it was one third of the total rent Jim was paying to the Church each year.

For Jim, Marg Colville and the rest of the Management Committee (including my mentor, Tom Errey) I had by now proved myself to be trustworthy and the prospect of that reliable rent for two years elevated me (briefly) to the position of saviour. 

So in April 1976 the Colony 47 Reading Unit was born. Once again, I was jubilant and once again I revealed my blinkered reality, because most of the “Colony kids” (probably because of the off-putting name, with its connotations of school) distrusted the Unit’s aims and possible influence. Obviously, the “kids” (named that way by their choice) cared little about the rent and more about their relatively lawless and very safe sanctuary being obliterated by rules other than those already in place and well known. 

I went from being an occasional face around the place, the third “Marg” after Marg C & Marg R, from someone who laughed at and hugely added to the raucousness of the coffee shop, dances, weekend camps etc., to a new and negative identity, with the nickname of “Teacher”. 

I needed a saviour of my own and, thankfully, Marg Rushton, the powerhouse of the coffee shop, told the kids that she approved of me. That was enough for the hostility to disappear (although only a few of the kids were prepared to own up to learning difficulties). “I could’ve told you” was mentioned by Marg Rushton many more times than once.

My memories of almost five years at Colony are so entwined with what I learned from Marg R.  I’ll always be grateful for her intimate knowledge of each “kid”, but also for the fun, the blaring jukebox, the singing/dancing, the friendship and the steadfast loyalty. Just as importantly, Marg R taught me when to draw the line and when/how to bend the rules when they mattered less than the fate of one of the desperate young people.  

Jim was as fierce a champion of the kids as Marg R, but he had added responsibilities. He was the face of Colony 47. From him I learned how to use “the system” to advantage people who were usually downtrodden by it, how to use the media (while distrusting its inclination to use our work to create celebrities), how to withstand the critics poking away at every mis-step in order to prove us wrong, how to stand alongside and give sworn evidence for someone shaking with fear in court, how to help hide the abused from their abusers (including organisational ones), when to lead from the front/disappear to the back – and how to develop ulcers about the next lot of funding.  

And, of course, from the kids (and the older people who very soon hugely added to their numbers in the Unit) I learned lessons that that I’ve never forgotten. I learned about resilience and to acknowledge/admire the skills and knowledge held by people with little or no academic learning. And I was confronted, for the first time, aged 26, with first-hand testimony that shook me. I learned, for example, about couch-surfing and homelessness, about vile sexual abuse, including rape of both boys and girls by family members, by older, powerful inmates in prison and even community/school/church leaders.

It’s only 50 years ago, but I think it’s important to emphasise that, at the time, victims/survivors were almost never believed when they told these stories – but inside the walls of Colony 47 the opposite happened. They were listened to, they were trusted and believed. This is just one reason of many why “kids” who had been tortured by evil abuse, as well as the subsequent and cruel disbelief, saw Colony as their “safe place”. 

Even though it was also initially tempting for me to shelter inside the safety of Colony, the demands of my funding and the need to attract more in the future forced me to look outside it for connections and students.

In the next four years I trained about 40 volunteers to help me do this, too many to mention (including the ones who dropped out because of the “unacceptable language” coming from the coffee shop). The most stalwart volunteer was Sally Liggins, who was still at Colony when I left in December 1979. She proved to be a transformative teacher. 

In 1978 I was also granted NEAT funds to pay Liz Edwards, a trained teacher, who worked exclusively with unemployed young people trying to find work. And in 1979 I received funds (from I remember not where) to pay two part-time teachers, Natalie Bowden and Carole Loveder. All of the funding was short-term and precarious.

Even though I seemed to spend gazillion hours writing applications, in all cases I was never able to gain it for more than one or two years. Without these paid and unpaid helpers, however, I would never have found time to create and produce literacy materials that met the needs of adults (there was none available for purchase at that time), meet with agencies, to talk to service organisations and professional associations to garner support and funds, as well as engage in what I saw as an equally essential role – to speak to everyone who invited me, in order to challenge mistaken assumptions/biases about the skills and capabilities and expertise of people with less than functional literacy and numeracy. 

All of the funds I attracted were attached to reporting requirements. I’ve only found a copy of one of them. According to a report I made to the Schools Commission at the end of 1977, in the first 18 months of operation many people rang with enquiries, but never walked up the lane.

  • Of the 96 people who began lessons, 73 individuals came regularly, usually once a week, beginning solo and gradually moving to groups no larger than three. The Unit operated on three evenings a week, in order to work with people who couldn’t make it during the day.
  • Of the 73 students, 33% were female and 67% were male. Over time, there were a number of drop-outs, but there was always a waiting list. Most of the students came from Hobart and its suburbs, but some 15 individuals travelled each week from diverse locations – Swansea, the Midlands, Cygnet and Snug.
  • Over 50% of the students were aged 13-20, with another 25% aged 21-30.
  • About 12% of the 73 were existing “Colony kids” and just over 23% came because of press/radio and TV interviews given by me in that 18 months.
  • All of the others were referred by organisations that I had approached/met with/ made presentations to, beginning in the first week of the Unit’s operation. They were: Lifeline, Probation Dept., Adult Education, Tasmanian Aboriginal Education Officer, Hobart Women’s Shelter, Tas Technical College, the Tas Youth Support Unit, Migrant Education, Psychiatric Unit Royal Hobart Hospital, Dept Social Security, a private psychiatrist, a local GP, Tas College of Advanced Education, Gore St Maternity Clinic, Sister Cathy Smith from St Monica’s in Chigwell and three local high schools.
  • In the first 18 months only five students were born overseas – from Greece, Croatia, Hong Kong and Eire.  

Every one of the 73 students in those first 18 months, as well as the many more who came in the following two years, earned my respect for their courage. At the time, little was known about illiteracy levels in the Tasmanian adult population. Even now, when the percentages are regularly mentioned publicly, to my mind it is often done in a way that objectifies the people who bear this burden.

Fifty years ago the shame and desire for secrecy was often overwhelming – walking up the laneway at Colony 47 was a huge challenge. We undoubtedly failed some people, but hopefully, for many, taking control and walking up the lane changed their lives for the better.

Many years after I left Colony I was called to reception where I was working in Launceston to find an ex-student who had tracked me down. He had just been appointed as a State Manager in his place of work and came to thank me. More recently, I’ve been contacted via Facebook by another ex-student who also wanted to share with me the successes in her happy family life. So, even though I don’t know what has happened to most of our students, I know we changed some lives for the better. 

I will always be grateful for the five years I was involved at Colony 47. I wish it well for the future. 

Photo Credit: Tasmanian Archives: NS4024/1/412, Remedial Reader Mrs Margueritte Scott outside Colony 47, Mercury Historical Collections, State Library of Tasmania 

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