The formal beatings on the landing
7.93 Many complainants spoke of the ordeal of being sent to the landing outside the nuns’ rooms for punishment. The system was initiated by Sr Bianca, and was also a feature of life during Sr Alida’s time. Children who had done something that the staff deemed to be wrong were told they were to be punished that evening. They had to line up on the landing at bedtime, after they had changed into their nightclothes, and wait to be beaten. The landing was cold and dark. A witness described the location:
… where we used to have to wait was off Sacred Heart dormitory and there was steps down and there was a big gap and there was a statue. The nuns used to sleep in kind of an alcove off the landing and the nun would come up and hit us, hit me.
7.94 Many complainants told the Committee how they stood sometimes for hours in the cold with bare feet. They were not permitted to sit down. Some of them described this waiting as worse than the beating itself.
7.95 One complainant in Goldenbridge from 1950s to the early 1960s said that, after Sr Alida became Resident Manager:
… she took over and you were put on the landing when you wet the bed or when you did anything else bold, but mainly for wetting the bed. I was all the time one of those people. She would leave you on the landing until she was ready to come up and smack you, and you could be there for a long time.
7.96 She explained:
To me, I think we waited two or three hours sometimes. We were just there, it really got late and we were falling asleep, and pushing one another when we heard her coming. You heard her coming eventually, but it wasn’t only an hour or a half an hour, she would never come too soon it was always like you were there for ever, it seemed like forever … it wasn’t in her office, we were hit on the landing, smacked on the landing … just her stick, the one she had everywhere with her. She just used to just bash you, just literally turn you around and wallop you. Sometimes she would hold out your hand, it depended.
7.97 Another complainant from the 1950s recalled being punished on the landing quite a few times, although she did not know why she was there. She said Sr Alida would sometimes smack them on the landing, but sometimes forget about them and leave them standing there for a very long time. She said she was frightened of the landing.
7.98 When cross-examined on the issue, she insisted that she was, on occasion, left all night on the landing. She said that Sr Alida would find her when she got up early the next morning and then sent her to bed, but that would be at about 6.00am.
7.99 Another witness from the 1950s told a similar story of waiting for hours for Sr Alida to come to bed. It was cold and dark, and they were not permitted to sit down. When she came up, she would not question them on what they had done wrong. She would proceed to punish with a stick, which she kept on a ledge on the landing. She would hit them on the hands and buttocks, usually 10 to 12 times. Sometimes, she used her hand rather than the stick. If it was very late when she came up to bed, she would tell them she would see them in the morning. The next day, she would beat them in front of her class. Waiting on the landing in anticipation of the punishment was, according to this complainant, worse than the actual beatings.
7.100 A complainant from the 1950s and early 1960s said that she was very frequently sent to wait on the landing. She said that she could not recall specific reasons. She added:
They seemed to be very very menial things, like maybe you stole a slice of bread or you ate out of the rabbit’s cage or you drank water out of the toilet … There wouldn’t have been anything, except my dress tore one time and that was another thing that I remembered.
7.101 There could be up to six or seven girls waiting on the landing when she was there, and she said that the bigger girls would push the smaller ones in front of them. She could not explain why:
Why would anyone push someone in front, we knew we were going to be beaten anyway. Who wants to be beaten first? We would do that. Then she would, in rotation, she would beat us all.
7.102 When asked what she disliked most about waiting on the landing, she replied it was the fear and the cold. She said that they knew when Sr Alida was coming because they would hear a knock on a hatch at the bottom of the stairs, and someone opening it to give her water for her hot water bottle:
We would hear her. As soon as we heard the knock on the hatch we knew that was her that was coming. We would all jump up and push the smaller ones in front of us.
7.103 She described how they tried to cope with the cold while waiting:
We would be down on our hunkers trying to keep ourselves warm with our nightdress and try to rub our hands together so that they would get warm so that the slaps wouldn’t – for some reason we thought the slaps wouldn’t hurt if our hands were warm.
7.104 A witness from the 1950s and 1960s used to wet the bed, and so was sent to the landing from a very early age. She said:
When you wet the bed you had to wait on the landing. I don’t know how many times I waited on the landing, I don’t know whether it was every night or once a week or twice a week. You were hit for wetting the bed. I was a very young child, it might have been 10 minutes, to me it seemed like hours. I don’t know the length of time I waited on the landing. You did get hit and you used to have to protect yourself.
7.105 She continued:
I was scared. You had to stand still, it was a very boring place to be. I just can’t – I think the older ones – I probably did the same when I got older, the older ones pushed us to the front so the person that was hitting us her anger would be gone by the time she got to the bigger people … I remember being shoved up to the top to get hit.
7.106 This explanation for pushing the younger children to the front, so that it was they who took the hardest hits, was put forward by another witness from the 1960s. She described the line of girls on the landing:
You would be weak, terrified, anxious, shivering and shaking, and trying not to lean against the wall … because you would be afraid, you weren’t supposed to do that, you weren’t supposed to rest, it was punishment. You wouldn’t sit down. You wouldn’t risk falling asleep. There you stood.
7.107 She continued:
When you knew for sure she was arriving, there would be pushing and shoving about who was going first. Honest to God this is terrible, there would be younger children than you and you would be pushing them to get them to take the beating first. You didn’t want to be the one to get the first of the strength. I am sorry, it was horrible, you had to do what you had to do. The screaming of children, the screaming of children will stay with me for the rest of my life about Goldenbridge. I still hear it, I still haven’t recovered from that. Children crying and screaming, it was just endless, it never never stopped for years in that place.
7.108 Girls were affected by what was happening to others:
Whatever way they were going to be treated was no concern of mine but it did personally affect me … I watched [a girl] sit on that landing on many occasions waiting for her beatings and I heard her screams and her shouting.
7.109 One witness, from the 1960s, described the distress she felt at seeing others being beaten:
The fact that I had to witness all those beatings, I had to stand there, they would be in my group, for example, and they were beaten. I would see them being slapped. There was a cross on the wall with INRI on the wall above the crucifix. I don’t know how I learned to do this, but I would look at INRI and make up words, so that I wasn’t there, so that I didn’t soak up what was going on … We were helpless people and the helpless ones were the ones that were not bright. I met one or two of them in the survivors’ meetings in London and I stopped going to the survivors’ meetings because it was too traumatic for me.
7.110 The anguish of those to be punished was increased by long periods of anticipation and by witnessing other girls’ suffering. The landing became associated with fear. This system of punishment was cruel and abusive and it contravened regulations.