John Ian Wing: Methodist Children’s Homes and the Olympics 1956

John Ian Wing. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

I was born in Windsor, Melbourne Australia on the 18th November 1939. A few months later my mother died. My father, at the time, was running the Kwong Tung Café at 16 Bourke Street, just a few doors from Parliament House. There were very few Chinese cafes around and so it was always busy. My father had to look after my sister Pearl who was 14 and my brother Peter who was nearly two. He never finished work until one in the morning, and it was impossible for my sister to look after two babies and so it was decided that I should be placed in the Methodist Babies Home in South Yarra.

I have no recollection of the Babies Home. My earliest recollection of my life was being in an iron cot in a large room with about 10 or 12 other children of 2 or 3 years of age at the Methodist Children’s Home in Cheltenham. I have always had difficulties in sleeping and I remember this lady who suffered from epilepsy, would come around at night to see if we were alright. On a number of occasions she would collapse onto the floor but after a few minutes would get up as if nothing happened. One night she collapsed and hit her head on the side of the cot, but this time she did not get up. I never saw the lady again. I remember being awake when Father Christmas was delivering toys to all the children and he noticed I was not a sleep and didn’t leave me any toys. The next morning when I woke up, my toys were at the end of the bed; lucky for him or was it a Mother Christmas? By the time we were four, we moved to another part of the house and had our own beds to sleep in.

If looking at the main building from the street, the right hand side was for the girls up to about 10 years of age and the left side was for the boys, and underneath the boy’s bedrooms was the main dining room. Older boys and girls ate somewhere else. When I look at the dining room scenes in Harry Potter films, it reminds me of the dining room at the Children’s Home though not as large and grand, but it did have atmosphere. Even during and after the Second World War, we never went without food. This was due to the generosity of the Australians who would donate food for all the children who lived in Children’s Homes. Balconies had been built around the girls and boys bedrooms at the first floor level. The balconies went halfway around the building, the bottom part was enclosed and the top part was covered in a wire mesh so we couldn’t climb out. I think these were built to accommodate sick children. When there was an outbreak of measles and chicken pox, the sick children always slept outside. Of course every boy wanted to be sick; it was so much fun sleeping outside. There was a medical room situated under the girls section and a nurse was always on hand. I use to suffer from hives, but we never knew what caused it. My whole body was covered in sores and the nurse would rub this pink lotion all over my body, this lasted for many years. No one ever noticed that I suffered from insomnia and I would go to school with only having about 4 to 6 hours sleep most nights. I know I had learning difficulties when I was young but I now know this was down to not having enough sleep. Downstairs near the front entrance was a clock that would chime every half hour and many nights I would lay awake whilst everyone was fast asleep and I would hear the clock chime once for half twelve, once for one o’clock and once for half one.

Bickford Wing at the Methodist Homes for Children at Cheltenham. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

We had our own school at the Home, and at 4 years old I started in the baby’s class which was fun because you didn’t have to learn anything, just play. I don’t seem to remember much about my schooling or going to Church and Sunday School. I do remember we all had to get dressed in out best clothes and we would walk in a line down the road in the direction of the train station. I always wondered later in life, why were we dressed in our best clothes and marching down towards the station. After doing some research recently, I discovered that every Sunday, we all went to Church in the morning and Sunday School in the afternoon. School and Sunday School did not have a big impact in my life at the time.

Methodist Church, Charman Road, Cheltenham 1977. Courtesy Leader Collection.

During school holidays and maybe long weekends, many of the children would go and stay with families and we always looked forward to these holidays. It was the only time we ever got out of the Home to see the world. There were three sisters who worked at the Home, Evelyn, Peggy and the third I cannot at the moment remember her name, and I was invited to their home many times during the school holidays. I remember the house very well; it was at 100 Park Street Moonie Ponds. My father hardly ever came to see me and I was told that the superintendent of the Home Mr and Mrs Hobson were my parents. They were so kind to me and I always believed they were my parents.

There were plenty of playing facilities at the Home; we had large play areas, a sand pit and a paddling pool. Toys were plentiful and there was always someone having a birthday party. My first birthday party that I remember, I had a chocolate cake made into a ship and invited everyone.

In the old days we were made to wash our face, hands, feet and our ears, and brush our teeth before going to bed, then once a week the older girls would take us to the laundry room where there were about six large concrete tubs for washing the clothes. These were filled with warm water and two boys would get into each one and the girls would bath us.
It was like a mad house but so much fun.

Once a year at Christmas time, the children would put on a concert for their families which was held outside on the open lawns next to the tennis court. I would make it a point to watch the workmen put up the large platform on which the children performed. The large planks of timber were painted blue with red edging and there were always steps at both sides to get onto the stage. Apart from the Christmas songs, we would also sing Rule Britannia and other songs for the war. We would sometimes see fighter planes fly overhead and hear cannons fire which use to frighten us all. Small groups of children would be taken to the military hospital to see the wounded soldiers to cheer them up. Being so young, we had no idea what it was about. I remember on Victory Day seeing planes fly over in a big V and all the ladies came out waving at the planes. They were so happy and started to dance and sing.

When I look back to my days in the Home, I consider myself to have been very lucky. During and after the war, there were thousands of children all over Australia who were living in poverty. Fathers were sent overseas to fight and many never came back and the mothers had to struggle to feed her children and buy clothes for them with very little money. I am so grateful to all the people who took care of me during my stay at the Methodist Children’s Home.

During my stay at the Home, all the children were friendly to each other and there were no big fights amongst the boys. There may have been disagreements but these were sorted out very quickly. I can never remember any of the young children being given corporal punishment by the staff. I made many friends during my stay and being the only Chinese boy there, the ladies made a big fuss of me.

One day I was told I wouldn’t be going to school and that I was going to see someone and I would have to wear my best clothes. One of the ladies was taking me and as we were leaving the Home, Mr and Mrs Hobson were standing outside and waving goodbye to us. We must have walked down to the station to catch the train. I remember arriving in the city and catching the tram. I was so excited as I looked out the window and saw all the people, the cars and the big buildings. Then we went to a café and as we sat down some other people came and sat down with us. My father had remarried and now I had a little step sister Grace who was about eight months old. No one had warned me that I would now have to leave the Home and live with my parents. After about one hour, the lady who had brought me to the café said she had to leave and I would be staying. The shock of it all was too much for me and I screamed the place down. I cried all night. The move was so traumatic that it took ten years for me to get over it. Here I was with a family who looked different from the family I had back at the Home, they talked different, ate strange food and used two sticks to eat with.

Back at the Children’s Home was a little boy about seven or eight who was my friend, we played together and sat together at meal times. I was upset because I never said goodbye to him. He would have seen the empty seat next to him while he had his meal, saw the empty desk at school, the empty bed or when he went to the playground I was never there. Did anyone tell him what happened to me? Did he cry? As one gets older, the memory fades slightly and I have forgotten the boy’s name, but I have not forgotten him.

I went to Rathdowne Street State School for about a year, then we moved out to Balwyn and I went to the Balwyn State School, after that I went to Swinburne Technical College in Hawthorn. Whilst going home on the tram from college, a girl got on from the MLC and she asked me if I was Ian Wing, she told me that she had been staying at the Home at the same time as me, her name was Rosemary McKenzie. We stayed friends for a while but then we lost touch as we grew older. I would love to know what happened to her. I enjoyed Swinburne and made many friends there. I had learning difficulties at the college because I was still only getting about 4 to 5 hours sleep each night. Maybe teachers and parents should look at that rather than saying the child is not very bright.

I stayed on at Swinburne to do my carpentry apprenticeship in 1956, which was the same year when the Olympic Games came to Melbourne. I played an important part in those Games but I will just briefly describe to you how it all happened. [1] The Olympics suffered its first boycotts when a number of countries pulled out of the Games, as a protest against Russia invading Hungary and also of the Suez Crises. During those Games, athletes from some countries had been ordered not to mix with other athletes in the Olympic Village and towards the end of the Games, Russian and Hungarian player fought each other during the Water Polo match. By now, the IOC and the Organising Committee had given up all hope of trying to get all the athletes together. The Olympic Movement was being torn apart.

I had been reading all what was happening and I had a solution for them, but the big problem was how to present my “idea” to the President of the International Olympic Committee. Then I remembered an old saying “The pen is mightier than the sword”. If I write a letter I will be able to present my case to them much better. I had just turned 17 years of age and I thought that was good because I was not a boy anymore, and wrote that I was Chinese because I thought they might think that I was wise, but I decided not to put my name or address on the letter in case they thought it was a dumb idea. It was the Wednesday night when I wrote my letter and the Saturday was to be the closing ceremony. The office for the Organising Committee was in Little Lonsdale Street, so I dropped my letter into their letter box late at night making sure no one saw me. By Saturday morning, I had not heard or read about any changes to the closing ceremony so I went to the movies that afternoon. When I came out, there was a crowd of people watching the television in a shop window, so I went over to see what they were watching – in those days very few people owned a set – I saw the closing ceremony and all the athletes had come together and intermingled as one nation, and were marching around the track laughing and waving to the crowd. There were no papers on Saturday evening or Sunday, so I had to wait until Monday morning to read the papers. There on the front, back and in the middle of all three papers was my story and letter. I wrote a second letter to Wilfrid Kent Hughes with my name and address to thank him for approving my suggestion; I also asked that I remain anonymous. Thirty years later, a student named Shane Cahill was doing his thesis on the 1956 Olympic Games and he came across my second letter amongst the papers of the late Kent Hughes. The authorities were notified and I was tracked down living in London. I was flown back to Melbourne for the opening of the Australian Gallery of Sports at the MCG. Whilst in my hotel I received a phone call from one of the ladies who use to work in the Children’s Home and asked if I would like to meet her and her two sisters again. Two days later, I was around their place for afternoon tea. What an exciting day it was for me, it was one of the greatest thrills of my life. I even met Mr and Mrs Hobson’s grand daughter. I kept in touch with all three ladies until they all passed away. It made me very sad but I was so glad we met up again.

During the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, I was honoured by having the main street leading from the Olympic Village to the Olympic Stadium named the John Ian Wing Parade.

Newspaper Headlines, 1956. Courtesy Kingston Collection.

I was christened John, but at the Children’s Home there were so many boys called John, they decided to call me Ian. This name stayed with me until I went to live in the UK. There you have to hand in your passport when you get a job and it had me listed as John. As I was only going to be staying for a couple of months, I decided to keep the name John rather than try to explain how I got the name Ian. I have lived in the United Kingdom since September 1969 and everyone knows me as John but my family and friends in Australia still call me Ian. In 1986, I married an English lady and we were together for eight years, we are now divorced but had no children. Since retiring I have attended college to learn all about computers.

John Ian Wing outside a British Pub, c2007. Courtesy Kingston Collection.


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John Wing
14 November 2010
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