Peter Goers on ABC Radio

Peter Goers interviews John Smith about St Francis house


P: One of the books of the year last year was Ashley Mallet's book The Boys from St Francis and he looked at the lives of many eminent and many Aboriginal boys who were down at that home which was run by father Percy Smith an Anglican Priest. Charlie Perkins was there, Gordon Briscoe, John Moriarty, Vince Copley, and there's Les Nayda etc. and now religious institutions have in recent years got a lot of stick and in some cases rightly so for mistreatment of young people in their care, particularly Aboriginal young people, so it's good to highlight when it was well done and I really salute the life of father Percy Smith who was hugely regarded for his work in the sphere. hHs son is John Smith is in the studio. Hello John

J: How are you?

P: I met your son down there and encouraged him to write about Father Percy and when did this website start

J: Well after the book launch we sort of became more aware of the sort of broader aspects of this story and of it's various implications and my son and I sort of got together and said well we've got a lot of information and material about St Francis House and about Father Smith

P: And you had collaborated on the book hadn't you, with Ashleigh Mallet

J: We had collaborated on the book absolutely and he said well we've got so much material that perhaps may now be of interest to the wider community and it might be worth creating a website

P: Which you've done

J: Which we have done and we completed that last week

P: I looked at it today and it's superb it's a credit to you all. It's Anyone interested in aboriginal affairs will be interested in this, anybody interested in welfare but particularly people of the western suburbs around that area who remember these boys at St Francis don't they. They're going to Ethelton Primary and Lefevre Tech I think it was

J: Lefevre Technical Boys, Technical High School

P: I was remember Kevin Crease telling me you know he grew up throwing rocks at Charlie Perkins across the sand dunes until one day they thought why are we doing this and they become mates which is entirely fair enough. What ware he like you father?

J: Father Smith was a very humble man, he was he was quietly spoken, he was gentle by nature he was unassuming, he was retiring in his demeanor, he was highly principled, he was dedicated to the priestly life, he was a person who saw his role as one of service and I think as the priest of the church he viewed service to others as a privilege given to him by God and that's how he approached what he did and that's how he approached the Aboriginal people he encountered when he went to Alice Springs in 1933. But having said that, with this gentle unassuming man there was a great unbending determination to do the right thing in terms of whatever he encountered in his priestly life.

P: He was well supported by your mother wasn't he?

J: Absolutely yes and the role of women in a lot of spheres is important and in the past has not always been acknowledged and my father when he married my mother and she supported him in St Francis House and he always said without her he couldn't have done what he did

P: He was working with Aboriginal youth in Alice Springs wasn't he?

J: Yes

P: And he developed this idea to bring them down didn't he?

J: Yes

P: And found St Francis House?

J: He began his ministry at The Bungalow in Alice Springs which was the government institution where stolen children were placed and that's where he began his connections with Aboriginal people and got to know the children and the Aboriginal women who worked there like Hetti Perkins and others from there he developed good relationships with these people and developed a concern for these children

P: Which was what it was about and some of them were stolen, these boys, and some weren't, some were sent willingly and voluntarily by their families, because the families perceived that it would be a good opportunity for the boys and it certainly was. I think one of the great benefits that your father offered was it their Aboriginality was never denied

J: Correct

P: And in fact it was respected and they became good citizens and they became and so many of them went on to eminence so many of them went on to public service in one way or another didn't they?

J: Yes they did

P: They following your father's example. But he left after, how long was he there?

J: At St Francis House, he left in September 1949 and returned to Alice Springs to be the Archdeacon of the Northern Territory and to continue, he had already established a hostel in Alice Springs and called St John's Hostel which was for bush children, that means all children and there was no sort of discrimination in terms of ethnic origin and he went back there to sort of refurbish that project and it was from there that he then the selected suitable Aboriginal boys to go on to St Fracnis House

P: Right. But how long was he at St Francis?

J: He was at St Francis House, 1945 when he brought the boys down until 49

P: Then what happened? Did he stay in Alice Springs? What's the rest of his story?

J: He stayed in Alice Springs until 1954 and as you can probably appreciate given all that he did and his absolute input he was a spent force. He had given 21 years service and he just had to leave and he went to a parish in Queensland

P: When did he die?

J: He died in 1982 in Adelaide and he was 79

P: And your mother not until 2002?

J: Not till 2002

P: What age was she?

J: She was 88 when she died

P: She was considerably younger than him

J: She was 11 years younger

P: And where were you born John?

J: I was born in, well at St Francis House

P: Oh I see

J: So that was St Frances House was my first home and I grew up there with the boys and I was only a baby and a toddler because I was about, little more than two when we left. The boys used to play with me and they used to make trouble

P: Do you remember that?

J: Not really because I was too young and apparently I pushed and one of them down the cellar stairs once and I don't remember that

P: John Smith, my guess the son of the Reverend Canon Percy Smith and Isabel Smith, Percy and Isabel ran St Francis Boys Home and did a wonderful job but don't you agree it's good to highlight the religious who have done great work in this field because we hear so much of the negative John don't we?

J: Yes, well, in some ways that's the malaise of the media in our society it's so easy to focus on bad things

P: There have been a lot of bad things

J: There have been a lot of bad yes and have been terrible things, some of those things done to Aboriginal people are just

P: It's not the media doing that, it's the media highlighting it

J: Highlighting it, that's right

P: I think, so that it's good when the media highlights some good things

J: Yes, Father Smith was you know one of many people with a Christian background who in good faith did good things for Aboriginal people across the board

P: A lot did

J: A lot did

P: I think often the missionaries you know get a bad rap but they did a lot of good things

J: They did, that's true

P: I mean as we say there would be far fewer Aboriginal languages extant if the missionaries hadn't translated the Bible into those Aboriginal languages, you know we've kept the languages alive in many cases. What's your story? What have you done, what's your work being John>

J: I was a primary school teacher

P: Ah yes, where?

J: In Adelaide, I taught at Maitland and I taught at Point Pearce Aboriginal School on York Peninsula

P: In what period?

J: In the 70s. you know which

P: At the time of that murder in Port Victoria? You were there then?

J: I was actually there when that happened and actually the next day I had to go to the school and I was meeting with some parents to discuss various things and I was pretty nervous walking around from the various houses after something like that

P: Two boys were shot in Port Victoria

J: That's right, yes

P: I think they were attempting to break into the pub and the publican shot them, it was a nasty scene. Point Pierce is much different now isn't it.

J: I think quite a number of things have changed, yes, although I haven't had a lot of contact in recent times

P: Your own son, I was impressed by him

J: Mark

P: And you must have been pleased by the book Ashley Mallets: The Boys From St Francis and by the enormous regard in which those boys now, you know, elderly men themselves held your father and mother

J: Yes, especially Father Smith because for a lot of the boys he was the father they never had. A lot of them knew their mothers

P: You call him Father Smith

J: Yes

P: Your own father?

J: Yes

P: Did you call him that?

J: I only call him that in sort of a formal sense, it was just dad like father and son is any cases

P: You've done a marvelous job of this website John it's: and wouldn't your parents be proud indeed. I'm glad that it's getting attention and I wish it well. There's a book in this as I said to you, to your own son and you have one

J: There is a book in this

P: And have you done one?

J: But I wrote it 20 years ago

P: I didn't know, I had no idea of that. Good luck, where can people get this? Is it still available John?

J: Yeah at the moment they can only buy it from me because it was privately published and so I didn't have the advantage of the publishing network, it got some good reviews, 20 years ago and anybody who's interested can get a copy from me

P: Thank you, and the first page I open there's Dr. Charles Duguid whom I knew very briefly. Thank you very much John, I'm thrilled by this and good luck to you and your family thank you and and may you continue in the example of your own father and mother. Thank you

J: Thanks very much