(T) CF0118

 

Dr. John Coleman
interviewed by Craig Fees
2 November 1994

 

Craig Fees

Right. Now, chronologically, the Hungarian refugees came first.

John Coleman

Yes, that's correct.

Craig Fees

Now in my mind for some reason, and I don't know quite why, perhaps .... Canada comes first, in a way. But perhaps I wouldn't be very fair on you to work backwards that way.

John Coleman

Well, I think the refugee experience was very important, and I think probably chronologically we do have to start with that, because at that time I think I still wasn't clear about what I was going to do at university, and so I was - I see that year, that gap, what's now called the gap year, between school and university, as one in which I was really trying to work out where I was going and what I was doing. And I'd always thought I was going to read English, and - I don't think that was right - and so I think the experience in Austria was very, very important for me because it was then that I decided that psychology was what I wanted to do. And it was - it was a very interesting experience, I mean thinking back on it it was completely different from anything I'd ever done. It was because we were working as an international group, there were half a dozen of us from all different countries. I mean I was the only British person. There was an American, Swedish, Dutch, a German and an Italian, I think, and me, or something like that anyway. And it was just a really exciting group to be working with. So there was that, and there was this challenge of trying to understand and help people who clearly were in considerable difficulty, partly because of political events, but also partly because of their own difficulties, and a lot of the young people we worked with - I mean what happened after the revolution, Hungarian revolution, was that, you know, the ones who had things to offer were very easily accepted by Australia or Canada or wherever, and so the group when I got there, which was '58, by that time the group that were left in the camps in Austria were on the whole the much more difficult to place people. And so we visited a lot of the camps where there were - I mean it was really - I mean it was my first experience of, you know, displaced people - so that was very upsetting, and also very striking for me, but the young people we worked with, who were in a smaller setting, I mean they were kids who'd been in trouble with the law in Hungary and who'd dropped out of school, and who hadn't got any qualifications or whatever. And they were a pain, and they were a problem. But they were also extremely charming and attractive and, you know, - And there were all the problems of working with a group, not actually dissimilar to working with kids in care here. You know, they went off and earnt money in the stone quarries and then came back, and we were struggling with the issue of, you know, should they be allowed to have all their earnings, which of course on Friday night they went and spent and got totally smashed out of their minds, and, you know, we had this - I remember sort of locking all the doors on Friday night and we all had to stay up all night in case they came back and tried to smash the doors down and stuff like that, you know. And it was all very exciting and challenging and, you know, very - sort of being in a sort of situation where all your skills were sort of demanded, and I felt really good about working there. And I think I did make some very good relationships with these young people. And in fact some of them I stayed in contact - some of them came to visit me in England years later. So it was very good, and I also stayed in touch with all the other volunteers, or many of them, for quite a long time, although not in touch with any of them any more. So I think - I don't want to perhaps spend too much time on it, but it was - it was the first time I'd done something which really hooked me, which really got me feeling that I was where I wanted to be, and I was using the - whatever I had - to the fullest capacity, I suppose. And I think when you leave school and you honestly don't know what you're going to do, and your father says, "Oh, you should be a solicitor", you know, "you should read law." And I thought, "Oh, this seems so boring." You know. Read English, and did I really want to do it, you know, little English and go back and do more Blake and Chaucer and stuff like that, which is all I knew from, you know, 'A' level. And it was all boring, and there wasn't anything that really - and then I sort of found this experience which I thought, this is really interesting, this is really what I want to do.

Craig Fees

This was I.V.S.?

John Coleman

Well, it was actually run by the World Council of Churches, W.C.C., and it was all completely coincidental, you know, I mean, as these things always are. I had a cousin - I was sort of floundering around really for things to do, and fill my time, and I won't bore you with all the other things I did during that year, but anyway, I think after Christmas I ran into a cousin of mine who had been, here in Britain, involved with the World Council of Churches, and she had a friend who had recently gone out to Salzburg and was working in the W.C.C. offices there, and she said, "Well, I know that they're running these refugee camps, and they're looking for people to help." And I said, "Sounds great." And she said, "Well, I'll arrange for you to meet - I think the guy's name was Arthur Foster, I can still remember. And I met him in London and - I mean, it wasn't much of an interview, he just said, "Well, are you free, can you come, do you speak German?" I said, "No." So he said, "Oh well, I suppose it doesn't matter. All right, we'll send you a ticket." And that was literally what happened. And I remember it was terribly funny - well, there's lots of funny stories, but anyway one of them was - of course, when you go, you know, you have all sorts of expectations. And I got to this place and they said, "Oh, we're very pleased to see you." They said, "There's a thousand beds that need painting." And I said, "Oh!" This was not what I expected. And they took me out to this huge - they had behind - the setting was absolutely wonderful. It was an old sort of I suppose - sort of early nineteenth century maybe, house, on one of the lakes about fifty miles from Salzburg, in the ........ Absolutely staggeringly beautiful. And this house was just wonderful, overlooked the lake and everything. But in the back they had these huge great - which I suppose used to be, I don't know, agricultural store houses or something - and there were these beds. And they said, "That's what we want you to do." And I just felt just - I thought, this is ridiculous, you know. I've come all this way, I do not - And anyway, so I think we painted about fifty, but by then things began to hot up and we got more of the refugees in, and we never painted the rest of the beds. So that was quite funny. The other funny story - oh, well, no, perhaps it's -

Craig Fees

It does convey an awful lot. Just in that particular anecdote there are things that come out. That was the site of the refugee camp, this house?

John Coleman

This house had - I can't remember how many, I think we had about fourteen there, fourteen youngsters. I mean they were - these were kids who were going to be - in fact I think they were all going to the U.S. or to Canada. And so the idea of them being here, which was a transition, being at Autbach was that - not Autbach, Steinbach, it was called. Steinbach, was that they would - our job was to teach them English. So what they were doing was working in the day, and then we were running English classes at night. But of course it didn't work like that, because half of them didn't go to work, and half of them didn't want to come to English anyway. Most of them thought that they were going to learn English on the plane, and didn't think that it was particularly important to be learning English. You know, I mean this is the sort of experience one has. But actually we were incredibly busy, because there were all the things that had to be done. I mean we were rushing them about. I can remember rushing them back and forth to hospital and going into - I had to - I did quite a lot of escort stuff, and so there would be - I'd suddenly get a call. We'd get a call, you know, someone has to go to Linz, which is about five hundred miles, you know, in the south of Austria, and collect someone. And so, you know, they'd look round and say, "Well, who can go? Oh, John. You go." And, you know, so - like you were saying, "Oh, right, fine, OK." And, you know, I had no idea how to - I remember very early going to Linz. I had no idea how to get there, and they just said, "Well, you just, you know, we'll run you into Salzburg, and, you know, you just get yourself there anyway. Get to Salzburg in the afternoon, you'd find there was only one train to Linz, you know, and it doesn't get there until one o'clock in the morning, and so off you go, you know. And then you arrive in Linz, and you think, well, what am I going to do now? You know, can't go to the - collect this kid now, so, you know, sleep in the station, turn up next morning and - oh, then lots of fun and games, you know, because this kid doesn't want to come of course. And so how do I - you know, all sorts of things. You know, escort stuff, you know, what do you do if he wants to go to the loo and all that sort of - oh, God! Lots of fun. Things like that. But I saw a lot of Austria. And we used to go round, we used to go, you know, and talk to people in camps and so on, to see, like we would vet - well, not vet, but, you know, look at - see if they were appropriate. That x individual, you know, was appropriate to come and stay with us for two months before he was going across the Atlantic, and whether he was interested in learning English, and that sort of thing. So I saw a lot of Austria. And we did lots of other things. We used to take them - I mean the idea was that we would, you know - teaching them English wouldn't just be sitting down in a classroom, but we'd actually take them on trips and things and, you know, do, you know - we went on quite long hikes with them, with those who wanted to go. So, you know, it was actually incredibly busy. I remember, you know, never having any time at all, staying up very late at night. But it was very good. Anyway. I don't know if that all makes sense.

Craig Fees

How did you organise yourselves - I mean speaking of authority within the house?

John Coleman

Well it was simply - I mean it was very democratic. It was really in terms of seniority, in terms of the length of time you'd been there, and this guy Arthur Foster, who was in Salzburg, he used to descend about once every two or three weeks and say, "How are you getting on?" And we used to speak to him on the phone. But basically the oldest person, who was woman called Pauline Volkelar, who was Dutch, really ran it. I mean we sort of seemed to take decisions, you know, on the hoof as we - And I mean, you know, talking about we didn't speak any German - I mean, you know, I think after my bed painting episode, that was the first few days, but after that I sort of suddenly found myself answering the telephone. And of course I didn't speak, you know, didn't speak any German, so it's amazing how quickly you learn, you know, in those sorts of settings. And actually within a month I mean my German - I'd learnt a hell of a lot of German, and I was able to speak on the phone, you know, get myself around, and so on. It was great, very exciting.

Craig Fees

Yes. One's notion of a camp is of course a camp.

John Coleman

Yes. Well there were, there were lots of those. There were lots of those. But this was, as I say, this was a transitional place, which was run by the - I mean it was just like a voluntary organisation here, you know. The government was running the camps, and then places - sorry, organizations like the churches, were trying to do something to help those who were - those who were still able to emigrate, or immigrate, to a new country, to prepare them. And this was one of the projects that W.C.C. had set up.

Craig Fees

So the young people you had there, the young men you had there - because they were all young men.

John Coleman

Yes, they were all young men, yes.

Craig Fees

Fourteen or so - were not really dead end. They actually had something in front of them.

John Coleman

They did. Oh yes, they did, yes. Oh yes they were all on their way somewhere.

Craig Fees

Yes.

John Coleman

But they were all problems actually.

Craig Fees

Yes, yes.

John Coleman

But they were on their way, yes.

Craig Fees

Right. Of course that modifies, that increases the number of carrots you have, in a way, perhaps, working in that situation.

John Coleman

Well that's right. It's interesting because I was thinking - I mean we didn't ever have - I mean I don't remember ever being, or thinking about saying, "Well if you don't behave, you know, you won't go" sort of thing. I think actually a lot of them had very mixed feelings anyway, if I remember rightly. I'm not sure that going to Canada was necessarily, you know - you know what refugees are like. I mean they were displaced, and actually what they wanted to do was go back, you know, go back home really. So I'm not sure that it was much of a carrot actually, when I think back to it, because it was very much more about trying to hold on to - there was lots of sort of painful stuff about, you know, someone had a photograph of some little village or whatever, and a lot of talk about home and what was happening at home, and the effects of the political change, and communism and all that stuff. There was a lot of that. So actually I remember - it's all coming back now - much more of that, and a lot of - I mean understandably - enormous fear of the future. I don't think they particularly wanted to go. Although, of course, I mean they probably found Hungarian communities - I mean in Canada, or the States, obviously there are lots of Hungarian communities, and so they probably found - well, it depends what they brought to it themselves. But not all of them went. I mean there was one Yugoslav guy - because they weren't all Hungarian, that was the other - I mean it was terribly muddled really, it wasn't straightforward. There was one - two Yugoslavs, actually, who ended up as waiters in London hotels. And for at least two or three years afterwards they were always ringing me up and asking me to borrow money, and to borrow money from me, and turning up on the doorstep. My mother had to deal with them, I remember. I mean they were just charming, absolutely charming, but complete rogues, complete rogues, you know. Steal £5 off a dying grandmother, you know, if they could. But they were lovely. Anyway, there you are. So that was Austria.

Craig Fees

And did you live among them in this house?

John Coleman

Yes, we were all together. No, no we were all together. Well, I can't actually remember exactly where we - no, we had - do you know, I can't - I'm just trying to visualise it. I don't remember. I don't remember sleeping in a dormitory. Maybe there were two of us in a room. Do you know, I can't actually remember that. I don't know where - I don't remember where we slept. I do remember about locking the doors. There was all this stuff about alcohol and everything. I'll try and - I don't remember that, you know, that's all gone. I don't remember that.

Craig Fees

I mean the whole area of sanctions, and your memory going on about locking the doors. Presumably they were coming back -

John Coleman

Drunk.

Craig Fees

Drunk, and not letting them in sort of thing.

John Coleman

Well yes, absolutely. Well, the fear that they - I mean of course we did let them in, you know, but we wanted to be there when they came - you know, we wanted to make sure we were there to see them in and see them into bed and so on. That was all very lively. And they used to bring other people back of course. That was the other thing. You know, other drunken louts from the village, who weren't anything to do with our project. That was another - well, of course that's another residential care issue, isn't it?

Craig Fees

I suppose yes, the whole sex issue must have raised its head.

John Coleman

Yes, they did have girls. They did definitely have girls around, but -

Craig Fees

Was it a very difficult thing for an eighteen year old to be thrown into?

John Coleman

I loved it. There was no - no, I don't think I had a single moment. I mean apart from the painting the beds, and the actual travel there. Can I just tell you about the travel there, because that was quite - that was very funny. I know it's going off on an ...... but - they sent me the ticket. Anyway, two days before I was leaving, I had this call to say that there was a sewing machine they wanted me to take out there. I thought, a sewing machine, fine, you know, that was all right. Anyway, so it was arranged that I would turn up at I can't remember where it was, some office at Victoria Station to collect the sewing machine. I was going from Victoria, I was going on the train. And so I turned up, and this sewing machine was not a portable sewing machine. This sewing machine was - I can't - I mean, it was sort of - well, it was virtually as tall as me. It was one of - a sort of industrial sewing machine. And I thought oh my God! Anyway, so I had to live with this sewing machine all the way to Salzburg, which was an absolute nightmare. I had to get a porter and all that, you know. We actually had two porters to move it and everything. But the final crowning glory was that no-one had told me that the day that I was arriving in Salzburg was, although it wasn't a weekend, it was a national holiday. So I arrived at Salzburg station something like three o'clock in the afternoon, and there wasn't a soul there. There were no taxis, there was nothing, and all I had was this address, which was Asbergasse 13. I can still remember it. And I had this bloody sewing machine! And there was nothing, there was no-one there, it was just completely deserted. And so - and I didn't speak any German of course. And I remember sitting on this sewing machine on the station, and thinking this is really the end of the world. What on earth am I going to - because I didn't have anywhere to stay or anything. I mean it was just assumed that when I got there I'd phone up - actually I thought someone would be there to meet me, and of course they weren't. I'd phone up Asbergasse 13 or whatever, which was the W.C.C. office, and of course they were closed. There was no-one there. So that was my introduction. I shall never forget the sewing machine. That sewing machine and the beds were the two things that - anyway, so apart from that, you know, I really enjoyed it. Anyway.

Craig Fees

What did you do?

John Coleman

What did I do. Well, I didn't know what to do. In the end I was - I mean like people are - I was incredibly lucky, because someone took pity on me. And he was actually - he spoke reasonably good English, and he actually came up to me and said - I can see him very clearly - and he asked me, he said, "What are you doing?" So I said, "Well, that's a very good question." So I explained. So he told me that no-one was going to be in the offices or anything. And what he did was, he arranged, he helped me to store the thing in the station. So that was an enormous burden off my shoulders, that I just left it at the station. And he took me to a little pension. And he said, "Tomorrow morning you phone up Asbergasse 13." So that's what happened. So the next morning at nine o'clock I was on the phone saying, "Hello, I'm here. And I've got a sewing machine for you." Oh dear. Anyway, so. So shall we move on?

Craig Fees

Sure. And that lasted - what - six to eight months?

John Coleman

Oh no, four months. I was there four months. But a fairly important time, really.

 

 

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PETiTathon2015! Day One

PETiTathon2015! Day Two:

2.1 Renewing Barns Centre: A Story in Pictures

2.2 Oral History: Dr. John Coleman (1993/1994)

2.2a Oral History: Dr. John Coleman, recorded 13 September 1993: General Background

2.2b Oral History: Dr. John Coleman OBE, recorded  2 November 1994: Working with Refugees and Displaced Persons

2.3 'Blackout, Austerity and Pride: Life in the 1940s', by Roger Atkinson, OBE (2015)

2.4 'Dr Alfred Fitch', from Maurice Bridgeland, "Pioneer Work With Maladjusted Children" (1971)

2.5 'Report on visit to Barns School, Peebles & Dunnow Hall, Cheshire", Frank Mathews (1944?)