A huge fireball ignited by two cans of petrol engulfed the Whiskey Au Go Go nightclub in Brisbane's Fortitude Valley on March 8, 1973. The fireball and its lethal gases killed 15 patrons at the popular nightspot. It became one of Australia's worst mass murders resulting in the arrest and conviction of James Richard Finch and John Andrew Stuart. The firebombing also left an indelible impact on my psyche. It was an impact I documented in my book Intractable because it was a significant turning point in my life story.
At the time of the Whiskey Au Go Go firebombing I was doing time for armed robbery. I’d already been classified as an intractable prisoner following an attempted escape from Parramatta Jail and was transferred to Grafton Jail. It was there I observed a recurring pattern. It became a familiar pattern over the next 35 years. It was a pattern that created dire consequences for society as a whole. And it was a pattern I strived to avoid.
Men like Finch not only experienced the institutional brutalisation concept of Grafton Jail as an adult prisoner they also shared another common denominator. They had been raised by the State of New South Wales as children.
The formative childhood years of Finch, and men like him, had been secretly nurtured by institutionalised violence at Tamworth Institution for Boys in northern NSW. It was the mini Alcatraz of the NSW juvenile justice system. An institution cloaked in secrecy by the NSW Child Welfare Department.
It was 1973 when Archie “Mad Dog” McCafferty became Australia’s answer to Charles Manson after he graduated from Tamworth boy’s reformatory during his teens. McCafferty received three life sentences for leading a ragtag gang of drug-crazed teenagers on a thrill-kill rampage through Sydney’s western suburbs.
It resulted with the indiscriminate murder of three people. During the 1980s McCafferty formed part of a prison execution squad dubbed the “Grim Reapers”. Each gang member had a tattoo of the grim reaper somewhere on their body. They were responsible for at least three prison murders.
William John Munday was another graduate of Tamworth boy’s reformatory. He was also member of the “Grim Reapers”. Munday received a life sentence for the 1981 prison murder of bank robber and prison escapee Steve Shipley.
At the time of the murder Munday was serving 58 years for a violent rape rampage throughout Sydney. In 1979 he escaped from the Morrisset hospital for the criminally insane with John Cribb. The pair kidnapped two teenage girls and held them as hostage sex slaves until they were recaptured.
Peter Schneidas was a Lithuanian child migrant who became a school truant because he couldn’t speak English. The State of NSW made truancy a crime and Schniedas was swallowed up by the NSW Child Welfare system that eventually placed him in the Tamworth Institution for Boys for running away. Schneidas was a non-violent offender.
In 1979 Schneidas bludgeoned a Long Bay prison guard to death with a hammer in a senseless, unprovoked and motiveless attack. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and served 20 years, mostly in solitary confinement, before being paroled in 1998. He died from a heroin overdose shortly afterwards.
Perhaps one of the most notorious graduates from the Tamworth Institution for Boys was Arthur Stanley “Neddy” Smith.
Smith murdered and exploited the corruption of Sydney police in an unprecedented and violent rise to the top of Sydney’s organised crime milieu. Smith was a major player in the Sydney underworld wars during the 1980s but he received a life sentence for the unprovoked stabbing murder of a tow-truck driver during a 1987 road rage incident. He was later given another life sentence for the murder of Sydney brothel-keeper Harvey Jones.
The parallels between the brutalisation processes of Tamworth as a child and Grafton as an adult were inescapable for me. Men like Finch, McCafferty, Munday, Schneidas and Smith had experienced both. Their lives and crimes were significant components of my excursion through the NSW prison system during the 1970s. They also became warning beacons of how institutionalised brutalisation can turn a man into a pressurised time-bomb waiting to explode on an unsuspecting public once they were released from prison.
I finished writing Intractable during 2006 and submitted the manuscript to my publishers. It was around the same time Keith Higgins contacted me.
Keith still has a vivid recollection of Tamworth boy’s reformatory. He was sent there in 1961 and 45 years later he is still gripped by nightmares and uncontrollable bouts of depression as a result of that childhood experience.
“It was a brutally cruel place. The screws were sadistic animals and attacked without warning. We were bashed and starved for no reason whatsoever.” Keith told me. “I remember one time I was forced to stand with my nose touching the wall for some minor infringement of the rules. My arms were outstretched in a crucifix. After an hour or so my arms got tired and began slipping down. The screws got stuck into me. They bashed me every time my arms slipped. They eventually knocked me out and dumped me in a cell.
“They used to take our meals and halve them as punishment. Sometimes we didn’t get a meal at all for 48 hours. Bouncing they called it, or being unprivileged. We were always hungry.” Keith paused reflectively.
Tamworth Jail opened its doors for business on March 10, 1881. It was used to house convicts sentenced to imprisonment in northern NSW. In 1883 the cat-o’-nine-tails was installed and was first used in March 1886. At different intervals Tamworth Jail also hosted the hanging of five convicts; Michael Connolly, Dan King, John Cummings, Alick Lee and George Taffts. On March 25, 1943 the Australian army took over the jail and used it as a military prison.
On June 6, 1947 the then NSW Premier proclaimed the jail to be an institution for “the reception, detention, maintenance, discipline, education and training of children and young persons committed to such institution” and that such institution be named “The Institution for Boys Tamworth”.
During April 1948 the first inmates were transferred from the Mount Penang Training School for Boys at Gosford. Thus began one of the most secretive and shameful episodes in the history of juvenile incarceration in Australia.
Keith Higgins began the institutional trek to Tamworth when he was made a Ward of the State and placed in the Mittagong Boys Home as an eight-year-old. He ran away shortly afterwards and authorities reported: “He is a new admission and absconded because he was homesick and wanted to see his mother.” On another occasion Keith ran away because he was accused of stealing lollies from another child and was scared of being punished. The death of Keith’s mother increased the frequency of his absconding.
A 1957 psychological report described the little boy’s emotional turmoil at that time: “Keith is a quiet, rather serious little boy, who lacks the normal spontaneity and light heartedness of the normal boy of his age. He still shows, even three years after her death, quite a strong attachment to, and dependence on, his mother. He has few really constructive influences in his life at present and therefore has some difficulty in adjusting to the world after so long in sheltered institutional life.”
Repeated escapes from Mittagong earned Keith a two-year sentence and transfer to Mount Penang Training School for Boys at Gosford. It was there he learned his father had died. On March 8, 1961 he ran away again. It was this escape that earned Keith a transfer to the Tamworth Institution for Boys.
“When my mum died I felt lost and alone. I grieved for a long time but when my dad died the remainder of my world just crumbled to dust.” Keith said. “The Child Welfare Department showed no compassion whatsoever. They just said: ‘Get over it. They’re dead. You have to move on’. So I did. I ran away. Running away seemed the only thing to do.”
At Tamworth, the young absconder rebelled against the harsh and brutal discipline. He was repeatedly bashed and thrown into solitary where he was given an iron bar called a “dolly” that had to be dragged across the bars without pause. If the noise could not be heard by the screws they would respond with another beating. The institutionalised brutality and mind-numbing, nonsensical rules carved a lasting impression into the young mind of Keith Higgins.
“They called us brothel-bred bastards.” Keith Higgins said. His voice faltered. “That’s all you were to them. A brothel-bred bastard.”
“You had to stand six feet from a screw or another inmate. If you came anywhere within that no-go zone you were bashed.” Keith recalled. “You had to snap to attention and yell out; ‘REPORT TO YOU SIR!’ for everything you wanted. If you wanted to blow your nose or scratch your head you still had to ask for permission. If you didn’t, they bashed you.”
“They had toilet parades. Stand ups and sit downs. There were no doors on the toilets. No privacy. The screws watched you the whole time.” Keith said. “They rationed out three squares of toilet paper for a sit down. If you ran over the quota and asked for more, you got bashed for being wasteful.
“We weren’t allowed to talk to each other at Tamworth. That was a privilege.” Keith told me. “They had a 15-minute talk parade every day for those kids who earned good conduct points. If you were caught talking outside that daily talk parade you were bashed senseless.”
Keith Higgins remembers the intense psychological pressure each boy was forced to endure inside Tamworth.
“We were only kids for Christ sake, but we lived on our nerves the whole time we were there.” He said, “One day I’d decided to stab another kid in the throat with a fork. I figured it would get me out of Tamworth and back to another boy’s home or a mental institution. I was so desperate to get away from the place. I was hungry and scared. There was violence all around me. The place was getting to me but luckily I snapped out of it.”
Keith Higgins was eventually transferred back to Gosford boy’s home in November 1961. It was there he noticed the changes in all the boys that had been through Tamworth with him.
“I knew Jimmy Finch and Neddy Smith before they went to Tamworth. They were normal kids. Easygoing kids. They weren’t violent or anything like that.” Keith explained, “When they came back they were different. We were all different. Tamworth changed us forever.”
Keith Higgins made his last bid to run away when he joined Harry Swanson and James Finch in an attempted escape from the Metropolitan Boy’s Shelter in Albion Street, Surrey Hills, on June 5, 1962. Finch made it over the wall but Swanson and Higgins were caught.
The following day Magistrate McCredie ordered both boys transferred to Long Bay Jail claiming they were too unruly to remain in a juvenile facility. Keith Higgins had finally escaped from the NSW child incarceration process. It was an escape accompanied with memories of a childhood past and a place called Tamworth Institution for Boys. They are memories that continue to haunt him today.
“I remember tallying up all the kids I knew who were sent to Tamworth. Out of all of us, over 20 received life sentences for murder when they became adults.” Keith Higgins paused thoughtfully. “I was one of the lucky ones. I eventually got married and settled down. I never went back. But I’ve still got the memories. They never go away.”
In 2004 the Australian public got a rare glimpse of the memories that haunt people like Keith Higgins when the Federal Government handed down a Senate Committee Report Forgotten Australians. It was a report culminating 17 months of investigation into Australians who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children. During that investigation The Community Affair References Committee compiled volumes of evidence from the victims of institutionalised abuse.
On August 30, 2004 Senator Jan McLucas, who chaired the inquiry, choked back tears at a press conference when she spoke of the harrowing tales of abuse suffered by children in care from the 1920s to the 1970s.
Unfortunately, the veil of secrecy that enveloped Tamworth Institution for Boys remained intact and Senator Lucas and her committee never heard the stories of Keith Higgins. Or Neddy Smith, James Finch, Harry Swanson, Archie McCafferty, Billy Munday, or Peter Schneidas. They are stories consigned to a shameful history that remain buried in the dark recesses of their owner’s mind.
Tamworth Institution for Boys remains the Frankenstein monster of a bygone era. It was a monster the NSW Child Welfare Department cloaked in secrecy to brutalise and emotionally scar children in its care. It served no other useful purpose.
The end-products of that institutional process continue to occupy Australian prison cells and mental institutions today. The brutal child minders employed to overseer the process escaped detection and possible legal retribution. They all retired to lead productive lives as respected members of society.