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The Presbyterian Berhampore Children’s Home degenerated into a hellhole of emotional, sexual and physical abuse. (Image: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, photographer S C Smith. Additional design by Tina Tiller)
The Presbyterian Berhampore Children’s Home degenerated into a hellhole of emotional, sexual and physical abuse. (Image: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, photographer S C Smith. Additional design by Tina Tiller)

The Quarter MillionJuly 12, 2023

The beasts of Berhampore

The Presbyterian Berhampore Children’s Home degenerated into a hellhole of emotional, sexual and physical abuse. (Image: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, photographer S C Smith. Additional design by Tina Tiller)
The Presbyterian Berhampore Children’s Home degenerated into a hellhole of emotional, sexual and physical abuse. (Image: Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections, photographer S C Smith. Additional design by Tina Tiller)

Established with lofty Christian morals, the Presbyterian Berhampore Children’s Home degenerated into a hellhole of emotional, sexual and physical abuse. Decades later, the survivors are still picking up the pieces. 

This article is part of The Quarter Million, exploring the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in State Care. Read the introduction here and illustrated first person narratives here.

Content warning: This feature describes physical, sexual and emotional violence, child abuse and neglect. If this is difficult for you and you would like some help, these services offer support and information: Auckland specialist service Help, 0800 623 1700; specialist men’s service Male Survivors Aotearoa, 0800 044 334; and Snap (Survivors network of those abused by priests). Please take care.

It’s said all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family reaches that state in its own unique way. Even at the age of 70, Peter Morgan isn’t entirely sure what flipped his family from small-town, 1950s happiness to a later state of misery and chaos. He’s spent much of his life running, he says. Never thinking about certain chapters of his childhood. Never analysing his fear of relationships, or the strange dark images that still weave their way into his dreams.

Peter’s earliest memory is of riding a cow. That was in Motueka where his parents had a farm. Later they moved to the military town of Waiouru where his dad worked as an accountant for the government. “As far as I knew we were a happy family,” said Peter in his testimony to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care. To me, on the phone from his home in the South Island, he snatches at untroubled fragments. “I can remember running around and playing outside in a gas mask.”  

Peter’s father was a WWII veteran. He’d been in an army truck when it exploded, killing a close friend and leaving him, Peter suspects, with “shellshock” or what would now be termed PTSD. He believes his mother also struggled with her mental health. But he isn’t entirely sure. To him, for the first six years of his life, they were just a loving mum and dad to himself and his three siblings. 

“Next thing I know, our mum took us away, down on the train, to Wellington. She took us to her parents’ place — they were quite wealthy, it was a big flash house. But my grandfather didn’t want to know us. I can remember climbing up the stairs with my younger brother Steven and my grandfather saying ‘get those kids out of here!’ He kicked us out and so my mum turned up at Berhampore.”

The Berhampore Children’s Home, a looming old building on the corner of Wellington’s Morton St, had been established decades earlier with charitable intentions, although from the outset its child-rearing approach was far from gentle. In a 2015 book, Berhampore: Stories of a School and Suburb, early residents recall harsh punishment from both male and female staff members including beatings with straps and wooden spoons, and being locked in a coal cellar. 

When the Morgans arrived in 1959, Peter’s older sister Rose was swiftly taken to the girls’ section, his brother Keith to the older boys’ section, while Steven they later learned was placed off-site in the care of a foster family. After that, any meeting between Peter and his elder siblings was covert — he and Keith would sneak down a fire escape and call for Rose who’d slip out and meet them. “But we were always getting told on,” says Peter. And discovery led to punishment — the cane for the boys, the strap for Rose. 

And so Peter found himself alone in a place that, in his recollection, was run by three men: the savagely violent Mr Brown; a sexually deviant man he believes was Mr Lake (although to the Royal Commission he named only Mr Brown) and one other unmemorable man; and there were also a couple of white, brown-haired, not very nice women. “It was a horrible institution,” says Peter. “We weren’t people, we were just nothings.”

Peter recalls material hardships: baths taken in cold, shared, dirty water; lumpy, repulsive food; trainee dental nurses who practised on the children. And then there was what would now be called a culture of bullying — at its most extreme. Mr Brown cultivated an entourage of older boys who followed him around the home, beating up children at their master’s bidding. “He ran the boys,” says Peter. “He had the boy team.”

The Presbyterian Berhampore Children’s Home became a notorious site of abuse (image: Tina Tiller)

Peter was very much not a part of that team. “Staff and other children didn’t like me,” he told the Commission. He was small for his age; he had a lazy eye and a broken pair of glasses that had been stuck back together with elastoplast. He was relentlessly teased about a long scar across his lower back (the result of an operation as a baby) which was often visible because he was frequently forced to be naked; like when he queued in the hall for his weekly bath, while one of the staff — Lake or Brown — made a point of ridiculing his penis. “He used to say ‘you’ve got a very small diddle!’ That’s what we used to call it. Diddle.”

And Peter was naked when he stood in the bathroom, in front of a jeering crowd of “Brown’s boys”, washing himself and his soiled clothes after the one incident that still gives him nightmares. “Under the stairs they had a cupboard where they put the bucket and mops,” he says. “One day they locked me in there in the morning and I was in there all day. I wet my pants and pooed myself and all that. Eventually Brown came and got me out and he said, ‘you’re a dirty, dirty person, look what you’ve done to this room in here!’ And he slapped me across the face.” 

An equally searing memory is of a public caning inflicted not on Peter but on his brother Keith, supposedly because he’d fought with the boys who were bullying his little brother. “At meal time in the dining room they got Keith up on the stage and Brown caned him on his bare bum and his back… I saw the blood. All the kids watched it. My brother was put in the infirmary for a couple of days after that. And I wasn’t allowed to see him.”

It’s one of the few Berhampore incidents that Keith and Peter have discussed as adults. “I thanked him very much for sticking up for me,” says Peter. Keith hadn’t forgotten the intense physical pain. “It wasn’t half pie, they really laid into him.”

The past is not a place the brothers dwell. “We had one day of talking about everything so it would be over and done with for him,” says Peter. “Keith’s a Christian and he just said ‘I’ve forgiven them all now.’” 

Of course, Lake, Brown and the rest of the crew at Berhampore were Christian too — Lake, in particular, was fond of quoting the bible. He would do that on the occasions when Peter was summoned to his office for mysterious medical examinations which involved lowering his trousers and bending over to touch his toes while Mr Lake inserted his finger in his anus. “He’d say, ‘what I’m doing to you now, has to be done. It’s normal,” says Peter. 

What happened to Rose

It was by foot, with their mother pushing a pram, that Rose remembers making the hurried journey from her hostile grandparents’ house to the enormous house on Morton St. 

Aged eight and a half, Rose’s first impressions of this mysterious residence were favourable. “It looked like heaven on earth,” she chuckles. “There was this big staircase, it looked flash to us. And there were all these things to play on.” She and her two brothers happily ran off to amuse themselves, with no notion they’d be there for more than a visit. “And the next minute they were searching through our clothes.” Their mother, saying something about a holiday, left with Steven, and Rose was taken to the girls’ section of Berhampore. “One minute I was in a family and the next minute I was all alone and I didn’t even have my brothers.”

It didn’t take long for what had looked like heaven to reveal itself as hell. “I kept trying to run away and the reason was that I was being sexually interfered with,” says Rose. “I think it was that fellow Lake.” (Like Peter, she didn’t specifically recall her abuser’s name and has concluded it must have been Wallace Lake.) “I can still have nightmares about it.”

The abuse was isolating although, even at the time, Rose knew she was far from the only victim. “He interfered with quite a few girls there. We’d be walking along by ourselves and he’d grab us and take us to different places like a closet. You’re talking about an eight year old having to do adult things.”

With such incidents rife, Rose describes an unnerving, sexually charged atmosphere that didn’t just exist between the adult abuser and the children but between the children themselves. “The girls would jump into your bed at night — the older girls. They would touch your vagina and masturbate you. It was awful and I kept running away and when the police asked me why, I thought, what was the point in telling them?”

More than once Rose was found on nearby train tracks, trying to get back to Waiouru. She remembers Mr Brown picking her up from the police station, reassuring the officers; then afterwards “he really hit the roof,” she says.

An unusually kind teacher at Rose’s primary school noticed her subdued demeanour and questioned her. “He was a tall, young person, just starting out, and he cared. He could sing a bit and we would sing together and I used to be very quiet and on my own a lot and he said, ‘what’s wrong? I know you’re in the Home…’ And so I told him.”

As a result, questions were asked of those in power at Berhampore but they were quickly deflected. “They said, ‘Oh she’s full of lies,’” remembers Rose, who always suspected the incident had something to do with that teacher’s subsequent vanishing from the school and from her life. “I think he was sacked. He disappeared.”

There was nowhere to turn. And meanwhile, between the night visits, the closet horrors and her aborted attempts at escape, ordinary life at Berhampore continued and was grim. “So many things that would be frowned on now, ” says Rose in an understatement. “A couple of times I had to eat the food from a plate that I’d vomited on.”

Like the boys, Rose was regularly subjected to brutality in the name of discipline. “They would use whatever they had: their hands, a cord, a strap. You’d have to pull your pants down and they’d belt you.”

But while the rules were hammered home, the children would be spared essential information about their own lives. Like where their parents had gone. Or whether they’d ever be back. Or even the fact that they’d died.

“I can remember one girl who would wait by the window every Sunday, waiting for her parents to come,” says Rose. “And no one ever told her that they had passed away. It was so sad.”

The mystifying case of Mr Lake

Until he was in his 80s, Wallace “Wally” Robert Armstead Lake was considered a bona fide pillar of society. Born in 1920, he served in the air force in WWII for which he was awarded an OBE in 1986. 

By that time he’d married, had children and grandchildren and enjoyed a stellar career in the public service. The position he took in 1959 as director of the then Presbyterian Social Services linked him closely to the Berhampore Children’s home and he would soon become director. But Lake’s apparent sense of compassion didn’t stop with vulnerable kids — as evidenced by three hours of ageing cassette tape, now housed at the National Library of New Zealand. Interviewed by a historian interested in social welfare, an elderly Lake outlines his involvement with a vast range of causes, from benefits for deserted and battered wives to hostels for Māori girls moving to the city, opportunity shops, Marriage Guidance, the Old People’s Welfare Council and the Crippled Children’s Society.

Essentially, where there was need, there was Wally.

But it was on the topic of orphanages that Lake expressed the strongest opinions. He was a powerful advocate for eliminating the strap as a form of discipline.

Lake’s progressive views on corporal punishment would have come as an eye-watering surprise to Michael Brown, who was part of a large group of 16 former Berhampore Residents who came forward in the early 2000s to lodge complaints with Presbyterian Support about the abuse they suffered at the hand of Lake in the 1960s.

Speaking to the NZ Herald in 2005, Michael recalled one especially bad beating Lake gave him as punishment for taking apples from a tree when he was seven. “He used a dog collar with spikes all over it and I couldn’t sit for a week after that.” 

Michael was one of another trio of siblings, two boys and a girl, who found themselves at the Home when their family fell apart. In their case it was because their mother died of cancer and their father, unable to cope, headed for the UK. Michael’s sister Shona, aged nine when they arrived, became a sexual target. Lake assaulted her frequently, she told the Herald, following her around the Home, touching her breasts and genitals. “He ruined my childhood,” she said.

Opening of a Presbyterian orphanage in Berhamphore, Wellington. The Press (Newspaper) :Negatives. Ref: 1/1-008533-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Only five years after he was immortalised in the history records as a child protector, a very different view of Lake was taking shape. Police were poised to charge him with a long string of child sex offences when he died in 2004, sparing himself public shame and possibly jail, if not the fleeting knowledge that his facade had been destroyed.

But it was only after Lake was dead and an entire TVNZ documentary about him called The Monster of Berhampore aired in 2006, that Presbyterian Support hired one Dr George Barton QC to investigate the 16 former residents’ complaints. These allegations involved Lake abusing both boys and girls, aged 5 to 17, sometimes violently, mostly sexually, and five of the allegations included rape.

Dr Barton, who has since died, was in his 80s at the time and his interviewing style was investigated in turn by the Royal Commission last year. For example, he asked one woman: who had opened her legs before the alleged abuse, Lake or herself? Why hadn’t she run from the room when he suggested a game that involved removing her clothes? Of an incident alleged to have taken place in Lake’s car, parked at the beach, Dr Barton reportedly said to the complainant: “Normally in a motor car things like that are a little bit difficult to organise if you’re going to have a sexual encounter. Not always but sometimes.”

As for the physical abuse (think, beatings with a dog collar) Dr Barton concluded that it “probably did happen but was not consequential in context with the standards of discipline acceptable at the time.”

Presbyterian Support eventually settled with that group for an undisclosed amount in 2007. But that was more than 20 years after they (along with the police) had brushed aside the first official complaint against Lake. Back then, in 1985, all it took was for Lake to deny the allegations. In his 60s, he was still considered a pillar, and with his pro-children, anti-strapping pallaver, he’d worked up an excellent smoke screen around himself. He received his OBE the following year. 

Not that everyone was fooled. The Royal Commission heard that, even before the 1980s, while Lake was still employed at Berhampore, several of his colleagues had raised concerns about him with the church, but no action ensued. One former matron at the Home, quoted in Berhampore: Stories of a Suburb and School, recalls being struck by the contrast between Lake’s apparent concern for children and the loathing long-term residents had for him: “They really detested him and I always wondered why that was.”

The outfit that employed Wallace Lake to oversee the lives of vulnerable children now goes by the name of Presbyterian Support Central (PSC) and espouses a “survivor-centric, holistic approach to redress, which involves not only financial compensation, but also other forms of redress tailored to the needs of the individual.”

“We are always deeply saddened to hear that for so many survivors their memories still hold much trauma for them and their whānau,” says the group’s former CEO Pat Waite in an email. In May he had attended a meeting in Wellington with Peter, Keith, Rose and their lawyer. 

“Meeting with survivors gives us a chance to listen, to learn, to share any records we hold on file about their time at the Berhampore Children’s Home, and to unreservedly apologise for any harm and resultant pain they have experienced,” he says.

Does he believe the Morgan siblings?

“It is not our place to judge whether the recounted experiences of survivors are true or not, as we were not present or involved in the Home during the relevant periods,” he offers. “As far as we are aware, there are no longer any living staff members nor Board members who worked at Berhampore Home during the 1950s and 1960s.”

As none of my email questions had specifically mentioned Lake, I called Waite to give him the opportunity to comment on the man’s role within PSC. But Waite reminded me that Lake’s numerous crimes are “alleged” and said he had no further comment to make.

Uncovering all the rubbish

Peter, Keith and Rose were deeply disappointed by their meeting with PSC. Peter says his heart sank as soon as they were introduced to Waite, him being the organisation’s retired CEO, rather than its current one. “I thought they were trying to get away with as little as possible.”

Peter says it was stressed in the meeting that there were no living staff members from that time, and the Morgans were each presented with, and have rejected, an offer of financial compensation they considered insulting. 

Waite also apologised to the Morgans, agreed the experience would have affected their entire lives, and presented them with some records that contradicted some of their memories. For example, Peter had thought he lived at Berhampore for two years, while the records show it was only for 6 to 7 months. (His exaggerated memory of his time there is, frankly, understandable.)

And, while the Morgans’ time at the Home did overlap with Lake’s tenure, PSC have no record of a Mr Brown on staff, although Waite says it’s possible his presence was unrecorded. Or maybe the children misremembered his name? They’re adamant they didn’t; that Mr Brown ran the Home and lived there with his wife and young daughter.

Some of the records the PSC shared with the Morgans insulted them. There was a mention that their clothing had been ragged, which may have been the case when they left the Home, says Rose, but was certainly not on their arrival. “My mother was a seamstress. She was also a nurse. She wasn’t someone who didn’t know what she was doing. She gave us beautiful clothes.”

The siblings left Wellington angry and disheartened. Peter felt guilty for having instigated the process and dragged the others through it. Keith, who has avoided the topic of Berhampore all his life, broke down and cried in the meeting. And Rose is again grappling with ancient demons. “It brought it all back,” she says. “It would have been better never to uncover all the rubbish.”

The Morgans’ parents only came to visit their children at Berhampore once but, for Peter, it was a wonderful memory. Firstly, they were together. They were attempting a reconciliation, he says, and during that time they conceived a fifth child. And even better, they brought brand new clothes and presents including a state-of-the-art doll for Rose. 

Peter and Rose are absolutely certain that visit occurred at Christmas time (Waite says no, they left in November). But one thing is certain: soon after that visit the children left the Home. Their parents’ reunion having failed, Keith went to live with his mother in Wellington, and Peter and Rose (and eventually Steven) in the relatively nurturing, if far from perfect, South Island home of their father. 

As a teenager Peter played rugby for Otago and slowly began to see himself as something other than the small, shamed boy he’d been at Berhampore. He moved to Australia for a period and got on with his adult life. But lasting relationships, he says, were impossible and he regrets never having had children. “Every time I would purposely put the kibosh on it, I’d ruin it. I realise now it was my own doing. Stupid.”

He believes Berhampore left him with a life-long inability to trust people. “I think it made me run all my life.”

Rose left the Home with a habit of bolting, and it didn’t take long before she fled from her father’s house too. From there she ricocheted around some lousy relationships, including two marriages, one emotion dogging her perpetually. “Fear. They used to threaten me at the Home. You’ll be out on your own, you’ll have no place to go to. It caused a lot of fear.”

As for the sexual abuse, “it plagued me,” Rose says. “Once you’re sexually interfered with at such a young age, it does your head in. It affected my relationships. I put up with abuse. I put up with being beaten. To this day I dislike men.”

But Rose had strong survival instincts. She became a hairdresser, got her own salon and work became her saviour and her vice. “I stayed away from the alcohol; I don’t drink, I don’t smoke. I used to work all the time, constantly. In a way it was good but in a way it meant all my time was spent working rather than on relationships.”

That is, relationships with men. But all her adult life Rose, now 73, has embraced the opportunity to care for kids. “One thing about the Home, it gave me a better understanding of children,” she says. “I only had one girl, and I adopted one boy. But I’ve also whāngai-ed about 17 children in my lifetime. Kids who came to live with me because their parents couldn’t look after them. It happened a lot back then.”

If Berhampore had one good outcome, it must be this — the haven that Rose went on to provide for vulnerable kids. Who better to take them in and keep them safe than someone who knows the kind of people who might be out there. The kind of people they never want to meet. 

Pat Waite encourages anyone who has experienced harm in the care of PSC to contact him at “We also encourage any survivor of abuse to approach the New Zealand Police, and PSC would be willing to support anyone who wishes to do so.”

Peter, Rose and Keith Morgan (who used pseudonyms for this story) are continuing to pursue their case via the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care.

Keep going!