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Sunday, 19 January 2014

The Barren Branch

Willy (left) and John Burton McGovern
      "Oh, don't be Uncle Willy!" was an expression I occasionally heard from my mother, as an alternative to, "Don't be silly!" But, obviously such a rhyming slang expression could have originated only in a family which had a real Uncle Willy.
     For some reason, I never heard Mum refer much to her uncles and aunts on the Dennis side. Perhaps, because they were mostly older than her father, she did not have much connection with them. Nevertheless, when I pressed her, she was able to list their spouses and most of their many offspring in glorious detail. She related, for example, how her Uncle James (1867 - 1938) had the unfortunate inability to find wives of sufficient longevity. After nine years, and six children, his first wife died on him. A few years later, he married a second wife, who gave him two extra offspring, and then also died on him. Finally, in old age, he took insurance against a lengthy widowerhood: he married a beautiful widow 30 years his junior. But the following year, she done died on him too. But he still managed to avoid a lengthy widowerhood, because the following year, he too shuffled off his mortal coil.
     The McGovern side of the family was a different matter. I am afraid I heard very little about their life in England. There is a story about Grandma as a girl going for a walk and finding a dog struggling to get out of the water. She pleaded with a passing gentleman to let her use his walking stick to assist it, but he refused. Ultimately, if my memory is correct, she used her own umbrella for the purpose.
     Captain McGovern's sister, Ellen was married to William DeCosta, whom we met as ship's cook in the last chapter. My grandmother apparently didn't get on well with her; she always referred to her as "Mrs DeCosta". Her brother, the Captain, used to say that she was the sort of woman who would not leave a burning house unless her hair was done that way she wanted it. In those days, men wore detachable collars, because they were the one part of a shirt which got dirty quickly, whereas the rest of the garment could be worn several times (in a cool climate such as England's). Instead of getting her own son's collars washed and starched, she found it easier to send for those of her brother's sons, for the McGovern family had a washerwoman to do the laundry. She had a small son who would come in after school and stay with his mother until she went home. He would always get a slice of bread and jam from from great-grandmother, just as did her own children when they returned from school. The washerwoman later had another baby, but it did not last long. As I said before, life was precarious for children in the bad old days.
     You must understand that, in this period, it was common for middle class families to have servants who did not live in, as did those of the upper class, but came in once or twice a week to do their tasks. And thereby hangs a tale. The two eldest McGovern children, Willy and Ada had tickets for a special children's variety show in 1883, but the nurse/nanny who was meant to escort them failed to show up. They must have been bitterly disappointed. Their chagrin would have been short-lived, however, when they learned that they had also missing the debacle at the end of the show, which became notorious as the Great Victoria Hall Disaster, in which 189 children perished. But among the bodies removed from the crush was that of their cousin, Louis, son of William and Ellen DeCosta. As he later described it:
I was picked up out of the Mass and laid among the dead. My parents were part of the excited crowd looking for their little ones among the dead. The maimed and the dying, some had one to lose, some two or three, some even four. One of the doctors in some way felt that there was a spark of life left in my little frame. I was rushed to the hospital where before long I fully recovered much to the amazement of many and the joy of my parents. In the list of the Dead, published in connection with the disaster the name of Louis De Costa still remains. [It is not on the list I read.] Death was cheated of me that time and seems to have borne a grudge against me ever since.
     Indeed, Louis was to cheat death many times again, in a career quite as adventurous as his uncle's, first as a seaman, and later as a diver in British Columbia, where that side of the family still resides. How do I know this? Well, the previous chapter on Captain McGovern was also published on my home blog, and one of Louis' descendents - a distant cousin - found it when researching his own ancestors, and contacted me. Isn't the internet wonderful?

     But I digress. Not only did Mum have much greater contact with the McGoverns, but unlike the Dennises, they were indifferent breeders. Clarrie, with her nine children, was the exception, of course - but she married a Dennis.  John Burton, the middle McGovern, begot two daughters. And that was all.
     As for Ada, whose photograph as an old lady graced my mother's room as long as my memory ran, she married a widower called Tom Alexander. Here is a photo of their wedding, apparently at home, and not taken by a professional. The happy couple are on the right. Ada's youngest sister, Norah is standing next to her. The father of the bride, Capt McGovern is standing on the left, in front of the post. The little girl in front is my Aunt Olga, while the little girl peering out at the back is my mother. Their father, Alf Dennis is the man with the moustache at the far left.
     The photo has been printed as a postcard, and I shall quote the message verbatim:
The 'appy pare & others. Seems a good old sort & has made Alex's home very comfortable. Got to go & toil so farewell  Love from Tom.
     Update: I have just received a letter from my Aunt Hilda, the last surviving member of the family, now almost 89, and shall quote it verbatim.
     I think Aunt Ada said she did the catering for her own wedding. I thought she had cooked the corned beef (?) in the copper [ie the big vat used for washing clothes]. I wish she was still around so that I could verify that. There must have been other food to eat as well. It is correct, though, that the wedding took place in Uncle Willy's shed. It would have been quite new then and very presentable for a country wedding.
     Your mother, as a little girl, was at the wedding. She said that at the wedding reception, when the speeches were made and the guests rose for a toast then resumed their seats it was just like a flock of galahs feeding along the roadside. If you have ever studied galahs feeding you would realise that it was a very apt description.
    Unfortunately, Tom and Ada's only child, a boy, was stillborn. Nevertheless, Ada let it be known that any nephew or grand-nephew named after her husband would not be forgotten in her will. However, my own first middle name is Thomas, and as far as I can see, it never did me any good at all. Also, one of the little Dennis girls - I think it was Aunt Lil - used to stay with them a lot, and it was seriously suggested that the Alexanders might, well, take care of her permanently - perhaps even adopt her. They didn't actually offer to buy her, but they did indicate that the family might be economically convenienced by the changeover. But ultimately, the parents said no.
     "Why didn't you let me go?" asked Lil when she was older, not because she was sorry it didn't happen, but because she knew she would not have minded at the time.
     "Oh," said her father,"you just don't give away one of your children."
     "I always thought," sighed Ada, "that I would get one of Clarrie's children."

Ada, aged 18 (top), Clarinda, aged 11 (left) and Norah (8)
probably taken just before they left for Australia.
    Willy and Norah, the oldest and the youngest of the family, never married. Willy had gone to sea as a midshipman, but he found the ship's captain very strict. No doubt he was just a perfectly normal captain, but Willy, as the eldest in the family, didn't like the discipline, so when they returned to shore, he took his sea chest and decamped. Would you believe! The ship was lost on the next  voyage. So Willy came back alive, but with two keepsakes from his days at sea: a couple of spots near his thumb from an incipient tattoo which his father forbade him to continue, and an ability to beautifully darn his socks, for the ship's captain had insisted they do it.
    You will remember it he who was sent out to set up the homestead in the first place at the age of 19. "I sacrificed myself for my family," he declared. It wasn't the only sacrifice he made. At one stage he was courting a girl called May, who also had a rival suitor in the person of one George Seary. Apparently, Willy decided that he himself had fewer prospects and - who knows? - perhaps he was getting tired of the girl, for he took George aside and told him, "You step in; I'll step out." But it seems May continued to have feelings for him. My cousin Christine remembers how, when she was a child, she and her Aunt Olga were returning from a visit to Norah's when they stopped in at the Seary family store at Currawarna. Suddenly, a heavily made-up May Seary ran up to Olga with the cry of, "Willy's niece!" and gave her a hug.
     But although his career as a farmer took off to a bad start, it must have turned out well. When he was forty-something, he had an operation for appendicitis, took stock of himself, and determined that he had enough money to last him the rest of his life, and so he retired.
     There is a reason why the word, "avuncular" - like an uncle - has entered the English language. Most people have fond childhood memories of their uncles and aunts, especially those who have no children of their own, for the obvious reason that they are not responsible for the children's discipline, and so can afford to indulge them. As teenagers, my mother, along with her brothers, Alf and Halley, would go over and stay several days at a time with their Uncle Willy, hoping that Grandfather would be away when they arrived. Willy would buy them chocolates and other indulgences, and let them get away with anything - even smoking his good meerschaum pipes. My mother, who was never otherwise known to smoke, managed to consume 2½ pipefuls of his tobacco, and claimed it failed to make her sick.
     Willy eventually left his entire estate, which included the farm, "Park Terrace", all bank accounts, and furniture, to Margaret and Marion, the daughters of his brother, Jack McGovern. Apparently, however, arrangements had been made for her to continue in the house for the remainder of her life, although the profits from the rent of the farmland went to the estate.

     Norah herself also had a romance, which failed at the engagement stage, and my cousin Jan, Halley's daughter now has the wedding dress. Willy and Norah whiled out their latter days at Park Terrace, brother and sister, an old bachelor and an old maid together. It was Willy who did the cooking - and 'most everything else. He once offered to pay Norah to act as housekeeper, but she declined because it would mean she would have to work, and Norah was lazy.
     However, as this blog is about The Way Things Used to Be, I shall describe in detail my impressions as a boy of my two visits to Great Aunt Norah's place.
     For a start, it existed in two parts: a kitchen/dining room, and the living quarters. My cousin in Melbourne, Christine, described Governor La Trobe's Cottage as "like Aunt Norah's place done up". Very done up, in comparison. The kitchen/dining room featured a sign which I remember verbatim:
Tobacco not allowed on Park Terrace.
Alcohol not allowed on Park Terrace.
Cards not allowed on Park Terrace.
     But what our elders did find in that room was an ancient phonograph, complete with its big trumpet, and next to it, a box containing a record. They read it out: "Who Will Care for Mother Now?" The title stuck in my memory, and left me wondering, but I had to wait another half century, and for the rise of the internet, before I could discover the lyrics.
     And now I shall make a wide digression, because this blog will, hopefully, be read by young people long after it is published, and they will want to know The Way Things Used to Be. Most people born before the turn of this century will be aware that, before there were CDs, there were tapes, and before there were tapes, there were records. But many of them will never have seen a record or, if they have, have never seen one played. A record was a flat disc - which is why the professional who played them was called a DJ, or "disc jockey" (not because he plays compact discs). The disc was inscribed with a continuous spiral groove starting from the outer perimeter, and moving into the centre. You placed the record on a turnstyle, switched on the power, and the disc began to revolve. A needle, or "stylus" dropped down onto the record, and was caught up in the groove. But the groove was not uniform in depth, but continually varied, and as the stylus moved over the hills and valleys of the groove, it produced the desired sound.
     Records was sold in a cardboard sleeve, or envelope, embellished with the title of the song. However, since a record could be grooved on both sides, the artiste would record some secondary song on the "flip side" (you may have heard the term) just for the sake of completeness. Occasionally, the singer was most surprised to discover that the flip side song had become a greater hit than the main song. Such was the case of Slim Dusty's "The Pub With No Beer", which was on the flip side of "Saddle Boy", which is mostly forgotten, except by afficionados.
     By the time I started collecting records in 1970 (and assumed they were here to stay), they were made of vinyl, which rendered them flexible, and almost unbreakable. But earlier records were made of a hard, brittle plastic, which would shatter if dropped. You've probably heard the expression, "sounding like a broken record", but have never had the experience of listening to a broken record. Well, a broken record cannot be played. What they mean is a scratched record. A shallow scratch will produce static, as the stylus moves over it at every turn. But a deep scratch will catch the stylus. It cannot get past the scratch, but is "stuck in the groove" (another expression from that time) and, as the disc revolves, plays the same phrase over again ... and over again ... and over again.
     Well, such were the records I knew and loved - although I never possessed any as a child. But Aunt Norah's record was a cylinder. I had never heard of such a thing. I had never imagined such a thing could exist. It must have entered the home during the 19th century. Nevertheless, although the Wikipedia article says they ceased production in 1929, my Aunt Hilda (born 1925) remembers the Dennis household possessing one during her younger days - powered by batteries, or a kerosene generator, of course. Playing back my tapes of Mum's memories, I realised that she had also mentioned this. It turned out that Clarrie had purchased the phonograph from Willy. It came with a packing case of cylinders, but they broke easily. Mum reported that her mother then bought an Edison phonograph just before the Second World War, and that it came with unbreakable cylinders. That strikes me as a bit unlikely, but so be it. In any case, the spring got broken when the grandchildren came and mucked around with it. "Mum, why did you let them do it?" my own mother asked. "They do it behind my back," she replied. And so I, who was one of the later cluster of grandchildren, never got to hear or see it.

     But enough of this long digression! Returning to the living/dining room of Park Terrace, the feature which struck me most was the clutter, disorder, and dirt. Housework was obviously not Norah's forte. And the cats! They roamed all over the premises, and their faces were disfigured with sores. Then my brother and I crossed to the other section of the house, and wandered into a bedroom. Out of charity to the householder, I will assume it was not her own room, but a spare bedroom. On the wall above the bedstead hung a painting of a style which is difficult to describe, but which appeared to be popular in Victorian times. It depicted the famous story of Pope Gregory the Great finding some Anglo-Saxon youths in the slave market, and declaring they were "Not Angles, but Angels". But the bed! It was covered with feathers, and there were chickens roosting on the bedstead.
     "Not doubt about it," commented my Uncle Alf. "If she were alive several hundred years ago, and her neighbours' chickens started dying, she'd have been burnt as a witch, as sure as fate."
     And Great-aunt Norah herself? "Come again soon, Harold," she said, as the family was about to depart. Our Uncle Harold (we knew him as "Halley") was her favourite; the rest of us didn't matter. But Harold himself was the one who had a genuine affection for the old lady, and nobody really objected when she left all her property, including her money, jewellery, and her father's house at Coolamon, to him. But by devious means, the albums with the 600-odd postcards the Captain sent her during the early days of the century ended up in my mother's hands, and now they are in mine.
     But I wonder what happened to the phonograph and the cylinder record. [But see the Addendum, below.]

Now let's read about the animals in the next chapter, or go back to the index.

Addendum: Again, my Aunt Hilda has provided further information, much of which I have included in the text. However, I shall use this section to quote her words on the gramophone:
     The old cylinder gramophone? I remember one at home when I was very young. [Hilda was born in 1925. Norah and Willy were still alive at the time.] Apparently Mum bought it from Uncle Willy? That could be so. I remember it as a small box with a winder on the side. What happened to it? I suspect it ended up in brother Jack's place. He had a fascination for such things.
     Later, probably just before the war, my mother bought a "Sonora" gramophone. It was a very attractive, highly polished piece of furniture when the lid was closed. It stood on four curved legs and had the same manual winder on the side. My mother gave it to Hazel [Olga's daughter] when she was a teenager. It ended up in Melbourne.
     I think you might be confusing this gramophone with the first wireless (radio) that Mum bought. It was definitely in three parts.

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