Childhood Memoirs Of China
By Mary Gorman
I, Mary Gladys Katherine Gorman, was born on 4th July 1916 to John Joseph (Jack) Gorman and his wife, Anne (nee Houston). My mother died two days later. I believe it was a difficult birth which probably caused a severe haemorrhage. Dad rarely talked about my mother but I remember hearing him tell someone that he had to waken a chemist at 3am to take and oxygen tank to the hospital to help my mother. Of course it would be unheard of these days.
Before proceeding further I shall just give details of my parents’ families. The Houston family consisted of Charles, Mary, Anne, Randall, Pat, Tom and Gladys (Aunty Darl).
· Charles died in his thirties from diabetes, in those days insulin had not been discovered. He had one son called Randall – just don’t know what happened to him.
· Mary married Harry Cross and they had two children – Patsy and Joe
· Pat married and had four boys – Maurice who died a few years ago, Desmond, Kenny and Jim
· Tom remained single and died in his fifties
· Randall did not marry either. He enlisted in the First World War and returned home a nerve case. I remember him as a kind, quiet man. He went out to one of the stations as a bookkeeper and no one ever heard from him again.
The Gorman family included William, John, Stephen and Mary.
· William married Elizabeth Maher and had two children – Kathleen and Tom (who went on to become the first Queenslander to Captain the Australian Rugby League team, 1929 – 30)
· John – my father
· Stephen was unmarried and was killed in a railway accident
· Mary married William Curran and had four children – Jean, Jack, May and Bill.
After my mother’s tragic death, my wonderful dad had the task of rearing a baby girl with no assistance from relatives who were many miles away. He was fortunate he was able to employ and excellent Amah (a Chinese nanny) who cared for me until I was four years of age. I believe the first few months of my life were a nightmare for dad. I cried day and night and it was discovered I was underfed, then to compensate for this, I was overfed and ended up in hospital! I was also born with a Rye neck which caused me to hold my head on one side. I had to have a couple of operations to rectify the problem. Nowadays an operation is not performed, instead intensive physiotherapy is used successfully.
I can’t remember anything of those four years excepting being in a park in my little car, after the pedals had been greased, to discover my clean white socks had turned black.
While dad was rearing me in Tientsin, my Aunty Darl was living with her husband Oliver Clark in Shanghai. They were married in 1915. Aunty was six months pregnant with Mason when she received news of the death of her sister, Mary Cross, in Australia, and a fortnight later she was told of my mother’s death. Needless to say, Mason nearly didn’t make it but he was obviously made of stern stuff and arrived on 27th December 1916. Twenty months later, Olive was born, followed by Joy another 20 months later. Tragically, six weeks after Joy’s birth, Aunty’s husband – Oliver Clark – died after a bout of pneumonia. This was in May 1920.
Immediately dad received the news of Oliver’s illness, he travelled to Shanghai (me too! As I was his pride and joy, thoroughly spoilt of course). Anyway, I believe dad helped Oliver to make his will before he died and afterwards organised funeral arrangements. He applied for leave to take aunty back to Australia with her three children plus you know who!
While on leave we stayed for a while with Aunty Lizzie in Toowoomba and later dad and I went to Mackay to be with Aunty Mary. I believe I was very demanding at that time, understandably as an only child with no mother and being in a strange country. I didn’t believe in walking and wanted a rickshaw. I spoke in ‘Pidgin English’. Would start with “Whaf for I no can have curly hair” etc etc.
When it was time for dad to return to China, he had ideas of leaving me with Aunty Mary, as he had realised how difficult it was for a man on his own to rear a child. But I put paid to that idea by fretting so much he had to take me, mind you, he was just as upset at leaving me, so off we went together.
Dad’s new posting with Customs was Hankow (now Wuhan) which was situated on the Yangtze River, three days travelling by river steamer from Shanghai. We arrived at our destination early in 1921 and lived in House No. 1 situated in a compound of three sets of five terraced houses surrounded by a high wall with iron gates at the entrance. A Chinese watchman was on duty day and night. I can remember some of my fifth birthday. Dad always had a party for me. The children invited all lived in the compound.
Dad had four Chinese servants – a cook, a house boy who did the house cleaning, a yardman (jack of all trades), and my beloved Amah who looked after me. Our house was a two storied brick building with top and bottom verandahs which were screened. It consisted of two large bedrooms on the top floor, plus two bathrooms and lounge and dining room on the bottom floor. There were separate quarters for the servants.
I started school in that year and of course, being a Catholic, went to the Convent. Being a British Subject I was eligible to attend the British School, however, the Convent was for me. Unfortunately there were no British children Catholics and I was the only one there amongst French, Italian, Russian, Portuguese and Eurasians. Still, the English language was taught and spoken and we were taught well by the Canossian Sisters. Being the only British child at the school, plus having a very fair complexion, I stood out like a sore thumb, however, I had some happy years there.
Our main transport around the town was by rickshaw. The summer months in Hankow were June, July and August and they were very hot indeed. School holidays were held in those months and European husbands sent their wives and children up to the mountains or seaside for the holidays. Not having a mother, dad would send me off with family friends, of course my amah went too.
The first year when I was six we went to a resort called, “Chicken Sand” (that is not the correct spelling, but is how it sounded). The wife was a White Russian married to an American Customs Officer. I think there were two children, a girl my age and a younger boy. She was a very excitable, nervous woman, and wasn’t the kindest to me so my Amah would take my part and she was sacked, and another Amah was sent up. She was quite good, but not as good as my first Amah. Although strangely enough, she was a Catholic. Dad came up as soon as he could and took me home. I remember we had to travel a long way in sedan chairs to the Railway Station.
I made good friends with an English girl about my age called Edna Mottram. Edna’s father worked in the Customs as well. Her mother was quite an attractive youngish lady and Edna had a brother about three years younger called Roland. Edna and Roland attended the British School so we could only play together after school. The Mottram family lived in the compound also.
When I was seven, I made my First Holy Communion. It was quite a preparation. Myself and five others had to board in the Convent for three days retreat before the great day. There were three boys and three girls in our group. I stood out as I was the only white girl, the others were all Eurasians, but being children, we didn’t take any notice of colour. The nuns sure gave us strict training and we all became very holy during that period! I can still remember my first Confession, I returned home in a rickshaw, sitting there with my arms crossed across my chest, a look of bliss on my face – just couldn’t wait to get to heaven and only just seven years of age!
In the summer months before my First Holy Communion, dad had the worrying task of trying to find someone suitable to care for a motherless girl when the women and children went to a holiday resort during the sweltering summer. He was friendly with an English couple and the wife who had two children offered to take me along with my Amah. So off we went again up high in the mountains, we travelled by sedan chairs to a place called Kuling (now Leshan) and stayed in a fairly large hotel. This holiday was more disastrous than the previous one. The wife was a most unkind woman and my Amah as usual took my part and, as usual, she was sacked. My health deteriorated – my tongue and gums were ulcerated and I couldn’t eat.
Dad had ordered special cakes etc for my birthday party and I wasn’t even allowed to sit at the table as guest of honour. Was I mad – at that age I felt it very much indeed.
Eventually some other holiday makers at the hotel sent dad a telegram to come and get me or he wouldn’t have a daughter for very long. Poor dad had to get leave from work to come up and collect me, apparently was quite shocked when he saw me and rushed me to the local doctor. I know it was a few weeks before my mouth cleared up and I was able to enjoy a meal once more. And who was there to welcome me home but my original Amah and she was really upset to see her “little Melly” in such a bad way. I was pleased to see her too as we really loved each other.
Life proceeded happily along the next few months. Dad played a lot of lawn bowls and used to take me out to the Racecourse Club where I’d meet some of the other children and we would play while the adults played their sport. It really was a lovely complex at the Club, as it also contained a Racecourse, plus indoor swimming pool. Dad also had a share in a couple of racehorses and we would often go around to the stables. Besides being a member of the Racecourse Club, he was the Secretary of the Customs Club and organised many functions during the year, not the least, the Children’s Christmas Party with Santa Claus. Dad was a champion Billiards player and he won many trophies in Billiards and Bowls.
As I have mentioned before, Dad was a really wonderful father. A fortnight before Christmas he would ask me to write a letter to Santa and ask for the toys I wanted. We would sit opposite each other at the little table in front of an open fire, he would then get me to fold it up and help me put it up the chimney without the fire burning it. That apparently was the secret of Santa Claus getting the message! I believed that until I was at least ten years old. I might add that everything I asked for was there on Christmas morning. I guess dad was trying to make up for the loss of my mother. Eventually I believed the school kids that there really was no Santa Claus and that it was your parents. So I mentioned it to dad and his answer was “Thank the Lord for that as I was going broke!”.
When the summer months came along once more, dad decided he couldn’t trust anyone to care for me so I was sent to board in a Convent at Tsingtao (now Quingdao), a seaside resort for 12 months. We had to travel on the river boat for three days to Shanghai and then two days by sea to Tsingtao. I was brokenhearted when dad had to return to Hankow and I knew I wouldn’t be seeing him for many months.
The Convent was run by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters. Everything was quite new to me and I had to make all new friends. By this time I was about eight years of age. We used to have a bath once a week and wash our hair. The rest of the week was face and hands. Undies were changed twice a week! Most of the nuns were kind and I was happy enough although very homesick. In the holiday period the nuns had a smaller Convent situated close to the beach, and we went in swimming when the weather permitted. Dad came up to see me during his holidays and I didn’t want him to leave. I made my Confirmation in Tsingtao at the age of eight. After 12 months in Tsingtao dad decided to bring me home to Hankow.
On arrival at Hankow I was made a boarder in the Convent and remained there for about 12 months. By this time Chiang Kai-shek had started stirring up the local Chinese against the Europeans. My friend Edna Mottram transferred to the Convent and became a boarder also. She was given the bed next to me in the dormitory probably because we were the only Britishers among the French, Italian, Russian, Eurasian.
Towards the end of 1926, during the winter months, when the river was shallow and large ships could not travel from Shanghai, Chiang Kai-shek decided he wanted to get rid of the foreigners. I remember we were all in bed in the dormitory which consisted of about 14 beds – seven each side, when we heard yelling and banging on the Convent gates. We were all rather frightened but Sister walked in and told us not to be silly and go to sleep at once. I might add the Canossian Sisters had two Convents in the same compound. One for us and the other for themselves and the Chinese girl babies they rescued from the river banks, reared and educated and taught beautiful embroidery so as they could eventually earn their living.
The next day dad called to tell the Sisters and myself that he would be taking me home that evening. Dad looked a very worried man, his face was absolutely colourless and he wore a red armband over his Customs navy blue uniform. The red band was to allow him to get about without being attacked by the increasing crowds, just for how long was the $64 question!
The sisters helped me pack my suitcase and I was ready for Dad’s arrival. Dad took me home in a hired car. He was late in arriving as he had been stopped about four times in the short distance from his office which was the Customs House to the convent. We were again stopped by the soldiers twice before we reached home. It was all rather frightening particularly for a ten year old. Dad was away most of the night helping European women and children to evacuate them to Shanghai as the situation in Hankow was becoming dangerous for Europeans particularly Britishers. Miraculously for us all, the rain poured down all that night causing the Chinese mob to disappear – this gave us a chance of escape to waiting ships.
I slept at home that night and in the morning a very tired looking father looked at me with sad eyes and said I would also have to leave, so he took me to a ship which was anchored in the middle of the river. It was waiting to pick up any latecomers. The Captain told Dad his ship wouldn’t be leaving for a few days so Dad left me in his charge and said he hoped to be able to come with me to Shanghai. We said goodbye and that was the last I saw of Dad for over a week. Apparently, when he got back from the ship, he was told that all European men had to go to a large insurance building for their safety and they were locked in there. You can imagine how he felt as he was worried about me with no mother.
In the meantime, while I was on the ship, more and more women and children were arriving including quite a few people I knew. That evening another ship pulled up alongside ours and the ship’s officer said we were all compelled to transfer over to his ship leaving for Shanghai that night as the situation was dangerous. The Captain of the ship I was on asked if I couldn’t stay behind as he had promised my father he would look after me until Dad’s return. The answer was a definite “no”. So I had to go over to the already overloaded ship.
You can imagine how I was feeling. I hadn’t seen Dad since he left me that morning and I was worried something had happened to him. I had no mother and certainly didn’t know anyone in Shanghai. At ten years of age I was a very lost and lonely little girl. When I crossed over to the ship which had berthed alongside us, I notice it was much smaller than the ship I was leaving and it was absolutely crammed with people all with the same idea of escaping to Shanghai away from the revolutionaries. I had a pleasant surprise, however, when I landed on board as my best friend Edna Mottram, her mother and young brother welcomed me and I shared their cabin. We were lucky to have a cabin as many of the people had to sleep on the deck.
It took us three days to arrive in Shanghai and we were fired upon most of the day by Chiang Kai-shek’s soldiers who were on the riverbanks. Edna’s mother was worried as she didn’t know anyone in Shanghai either.
When we finally arrived at Shanghai I was standing on the deck not knowing what was to become of me when a middle aged lady came up to me and asked if I was Mary Gorman and I said that I was and she said her husband worked in the Customs Office and they were informed of a motherless girl arriving from Hankow and they were prepared to give me a home until such time as my father arrived to make different arrangements. Needless to say, I was very grateful. I remained with them for a few months. The family consisted of husband, wife, a daughter a little younger than I was, and a two year old daughter. They also had an Amah who was very kind to me plus a Chinese cook and a “boy” – he was a young man to do the cleaning etc.
Naturally I was very worried about Dad and what had happened to him. In the meantime, this family (I can’t remember their names) who were English, took in another woman who was a refugee from Nanking which was half way between Hankow and Shanghai. She was a Dutch woman and was anxiously waiting for news of her husband. My Godfather, William McKenny, was also stationed at Nanking.
About a week after my arrival in Shanghai, one evening the door opened downstairs and I was peering over the rails upstairs to see who was coming and I heard the husband say, “I have a surprise for you Mary – guess who I have brought home with me” and there was Dad. I sure ran down those steps and into his arms. I still remember that wonderful feeling even to this day. Dad told me he had been locked up in this big building for a week with all the other European men for safety. He received a message from the Captain of the ship I was on that I had been transferred to Shanghai. Needless to say, he was frantic about what would become of me.
Eventually he was allowed by the British Navy to board one of the ships going up to Shanghai to look for me. When he arrived in Shanghai he went straight to the Customs Office and asked the men there whether anyone knew of a little girl called Mary Gorman and this chap stood up to say that I was staying with his family. Poor Dad, he never really got over that experience as his health deteriorated and two years later he had to retire through ill health. In the meantime, he was able to get a transfer from Hankow to Shanghai and stayed at a hotel for a while until he was able to get into a boarding house which took me in as well.
While I was living with the family, we received news of a ship coming from Nanking with a few survivors. I remember the Dutch woman was so excited and went to meet the ship only to be told her husband was killed by the Chinese while trying to escape. It was a dreadful shock for her. My Godfather, William McKenny, was on the same ship, he had a very harrowing experience escaping. He told us he and a few others were running towards the wharf where a British Navy ship was waiting for them. As the Chinese were getting closer the navy fired overhead to give our chaps a chance and my Godfather had to climb a wall and drop down the other side clutching a rope to ease his fall. He was a very big man and in his fifties at the time and in his hurry he slipped down the rope and had severe burns on his hands. I remember his hands were all bandaged up. Still he was glad to be alive although he lost everything he owned. My Godfather never married and died in Hong Kong in 1929 never having returned to Australia.
We also lost most of our belongings and had to start from scratch again. Dad and I lived in Shanghai for about six months in a boarding house when he was transferred back to Tientsin where we remained for about two years. Dad lived in a hotel and I was boarding in a Convent. Dad was now suffering from a tropical disease called “Sprue” and decided to retire in March 1929 when we left for Brisbane. Am pleased to say after a few months Dad was cured. He died on 30th June 1946 at the age of 72 years in Mackay living with his sister, Mary.
When dad first arrived in China he was sent to Ichang which is about three days further up the river than Hankow. I know he contracted Small Pox and nearly died but thankfully survived.
To me he always looked so handsome in his Customs uniform which was like the navy uniform, with the peaked cap and the white uniform in summer with shoulder epaulettes and a white helmet. He was of medium height, had brown curly hair in his youth and grey eyes. My aunt told me when he was a young man he was called “Handsome Jack”.