Sunday, 26 January 2014

Meet the Riverina Girl

Margaret Clare Smith née Dennis (21 May 1909 to 12 July 2006)
    The world is changing so rapidly, that I seriously urge you to talk to your parents, and especially your grandparents, before it is too late, because they represent a window into the past. Already, the world I was born into in 1949 will seem strange and mysterious to the up-and-coming generation. How much more, then, the world of my own forebears! Because both my parents married late in life, I was able to tap memories dating back longer than those of most of my readers. I was, for instance, able to flesh out the story of my paternal grandfather, and have put it on record.
    As for the other side of the family, my mother was born more than 100 years ago, and grew up on a farm about 14 miles [21 km] outside of Wagga Wagga, in the Riverina. For years, I used to hear tales about what it was like then. So, when I finally purchased a tape recorder in 1979, one of my first missions was to get the stories on record. This blog, more than 30 years later, is the result - though, even then, it does not do justice to the tone of voice, laughter, and exuberance with which she told it.
   And here she is! And here is lesson no. 1 in the course of The Way Things Used To Be. You no doubt have a camera, and no doubt it is digital, and fully automatic. If you were born before (say) 2000, you probably know that, originally cameras used film. You inserted a roll of 24 or 36, took your photo, and had to wait until the film was used up and developed before you found out how it turned out. It appears film is still available, but who knows for how long? But, in any case, during the final decades everything was automatic; you simply pointed the apparatus, pressed the button, and all the settings were made by the apparatus itself.
    However, the cameras I used when travelling overseas in the 1970s and 1980s were manually operated. You had to wind the film on, set a dial for the speed of the film, and then for every photo, manually adjust the lens and shutter for distance and light intensity, before pushing the button or pressing the lever. After that, you had to manually wind the film forward - otherwise, you would end up superimposing the next picture on top of the first. If you wanted to use a flash, you had to attach a battery-operated flash device, and manually adjust it as well. It was a pain, but you got used to doing it all very quickly, and there were even a few tricks you could produce which automatic cameras do not allow.
    However, the sort of cameras used by the ordinary non-professionals in the period between the World Wars - and they were by no means cheap - were far more primitive. They were simple boxes without any ability to adjust for distance and light. You looked in the (often very small) viewfinder, aimed, pushed the lever, and hoped for the best. The result is that most of the few photographs I have from that era, and much later, are not-so-impressive black and white images, and rather small - often 3½ by 2½ inches, sometimes only 2½ by 1½ inches.
    It was for this reason that, at the age of 31, my mother went to a studio and had a professional photographic portrait taken, to be kept in her room for the rest of her life as a reminder of what she looked like when she was young. (The slight cloudiness you see is due to the scanner light on the glass covering. After 70 years, I was not game to remove it from its frame.) And, no, it was not done on colour film. I doubt if they even had any in Australia in 1940. The photo was tinted by hand. That's what used to happen in The Olden Days.
What's In a Name?
    A lot, if you don't like its abbreviation. Once Mum commented that, when signing Christmas cards, she had to remind herself under what name she was known to the recipient. Her friend, Aileen (my godmother) called her Margy, with a hard "g". Her brother, Alf was the only one who addressed her as Margaret. It is a pretty name, but she could not stand the sound of the abbreviation, Maggie, which she used to utter in a tone to suggest she was clearing her mouth of a foul taste. So, sometime in her 20s or 30s, she adopted her middle name, Clare, by which she was known to everybody except her family of origin. To them she was "Girl", the first daughter of the family. It was so well established, that even the daughter of her youngest sister, Hilda always called her "Aunt Girl". At least I never called her mother "Aunt Babe", which was her family nickname. Indeed, when they found themselves together on an overseas package, Mum made the proposition: "I won't call you Babe if you don't call me Girl." However, the agreement appeared to be limited to the tour, in order to avoid confusion among the other passengers.
    And while we are on the subject, here is a hand-drawn card inscribed, "GREETINGS from Babe and Lil", received when she was boarding with their Aunt Ada in Wagga. (Ada is the one on the left.) To really appreciate the artwork, you have to know how accurate it is, and remember that it was drawn from memory. Aunt Hilda, who was obviously responsible, always was talented in that way. It must relate to the period in the early years of the war when Mum was working in the munitions factory at Wagga, because Aunt Hilda commented: "I was probably about 15 or 16 when that sketch was made. I never thought that it would live on and on."
    Do you want to know what it was like growing up on a farm in those far off, distant days? Then please scroll down. The next post will be about the setting up of the farm more than 100 years ago.
    Or else you can click here.

Saturday, 25 January 2014

Meet the Forebears

     The Dennises came out to Australia in the 1850s, and bred like fruit flies. So prolific were they - with a preponderance of sons, to advance the family name - that I might be tempted to hail any Dennis from southern New South Wales as a distant relative. Perhaps I should do so in any case. Most surnames originate from the founder's trade (Smith), appearance (Brown), location (Townsend), or father (Jackson), and as such, tend to sprout like weeds independent of each other.  However, Dennis - which is first attested from Staffordshire in 1272 - sounds like it originated only once. That would mean that all the Dennises in the English speaking world are related to one another - as well as to their offshoots, the St Dennises of Ireland, and perhaps the Tennysons.
    One twig of this vast, ramifying family tree were agricultural workers around Hail Weston, Huntingdonshire, in England. In 1796 James Dennis married Sarah Thompson, on whom he fathered seven children, beginning with James the following year. James, in turned, married another Sarah, this time a Richardson, in 1818, and produced another five offspring. Huntingdonshire, by this time, was getting a little crowded. The increased population due to the agricultural and industrial revolutions, combined with a shortage of land, led to many to seek their fortune in the cities or the colonies. The whole area was desperately poor, and on several of the Dennis' baptismal certificates James was listed as a "pauper". But since 1835 there had been an assisted immigration scheme (the forerunner of the "ten pound poms") for mechanics, tradesmen, and agricultural labourers, providing they could  produce a reference from a magistrate or clergyman as proof of good character, and a baptismal certificate as proof of age.  
    So, in 1851, their eldest son, James no. 3, migrated to Australia. Students of history will remember that this was the year that the discovery of gold was announced, so there may be a connection. In any case, what he acquired was land, or at least work, at Braidwood, N.S.W. On the other hand, James Dennis was not an uncommon name, and there is also evidence that James no. 3 actually came out in 1842 as a convict. He had previously been listed as a military deserter in 1840, and once in Van Diemens' Land his conduct failed to improve, even leading him to a three year stint in the recidivists' hell hole of Norfolk Island. Just the same, he managed to obtain a conditional pardon in 1860.
     Be that as it may, his married sisters, Elizabeth and Eliza, with his married aunts, Elizabeth and Frances arrived the following year on the Wilson Kennedy. That must have been quite a voyage. According to the passenger list my cousin, Christine dug up, Eliza and the two Elizabeths each lost a child on the journey. Two of Frances' six children also died, but a seventh was born on board ship. Of the family members who started the voyage, a fifth perished before they reached land. Life was cheap in those days.
       Finally, in 1855, when he was already a widower of 58, James Sr himself took ship aboard the Bengal with his four other sons, of which the oldest were the twins, George Henry and Charles, aged 23. The eldest daughter came some time later. One wonders what the situation must have been like at home for half the family to migrate.
     Charles was already married, but once in Australia, George met Louisa Jane Woodham. This lady has been a source of much frustration for me. She is the only one of my eight great-grandparents to have been born in Australia, but she existed during a period of poor or scattered official records. I have been totally unable to obtain any official certificates concerning her. However, it appears she was born in Maitland in 1841 or 1843, and passed away at Sydney on 13 January 1912.
     We had to wait until 2021 for what appears to be the story of her origins. It turns out the original spelling of the surname was Wadham. Her father, George Wadham, was born in 1807 in London, and in 1828 married Eliza Davies (1803-1851) in Shrewsbury. 5 foot 11 inches in height, with  fresh complexion, at various times, he was recorded as being a copper plate and letter press printer, a compositor, an artist, and, at his trial at the Stafford Asssizes in  July 1830, a burglar. An old offender, of sullen disposition, he was recorded as having a character and connections which were very bad. So, off to New Holland with him! On 15 October 1830, he departed England, arriving at Sydney aboard the Lady Harewood in 1831. It is not often realised that the British transportation system, first to Virginia and then, after the American Revolution, to Australia, was one of the world's great criminal rehabilitation systems. It was brutal, of course. If you bucked the system, it would grind you down. However, if you behaved yourself, and especially if you had a useful trade, it would lead to a "ticket of leave" (parole), and eventually a pardon (early release). Great-great-grandpa George appears to have taken the second option.
     Meanwhile, on 7 January 1840 the Alfred arrived with a load of free settlers. Included among them was a tailor from Tipperary, Ireland called Pat Ryan, and his wife, Mary (born 1819), from Kilkenny. The next we hear is George Wadham requesting permission to marry Mary Ryan in 1843, and being refused on the grounds that he already had a wife in England. (Something similar happened to a convict ancestor on my father's side.) From this we can deduce that Pat Ryan had died, and his wife had commenced cohabiting with George, and borne him Louisa. One presumes, however, that they were legally married once Eliza was known to be dead. George received his pardon in 1847, and they are known to have had more children.
     It was through  Louisa that this branch of the Dennises became nominally Catholic. I had been told that she was married to George Dennis at Gundaroo in 1859, her father being listed as George Woodham, compositor. Then it transpired that the marriage actually took place in 1857 at Queanbeyan, and her husband was not George Dennis, but a certain Samuel Jones, who then left her a widow in 1861. It turns out her wedding to my great-grandfather was not until 1866, by which time they had already had two children together, the first being in 1861! The most likely series of events is that 1859 was the year she and George began cohabiting, and that they had to wait seven years before her husband could be officially declared dead.
George Henry Dennis (1833 - 1896)
    In any case, their marriage was long and productive, for they raised 11 children who survived to adulthood, and at least two, maybe three, others who didn't. Not only that, but one of the farm hands, who had a son, but no wife, occasionally went off to look for work elsewhere, leaving his son behind. After one such expedition, he never returned, so the son ended up being fostered by the Dennises. Poor Louisa must have imagined herself the old woman who lived in a shoe. Furthermore, their second son, Jim had the bad luck of having three wives die on him. Upon the death of his first wife in 1895, his mother, now almost 50, had to temporarily take in his six motherless children.
     Since George died in 1896, and Louisa in 1912, my mother obviously never met her grandparents. However, she told me that George was fair and handsome, as the photo at left would appear to confirm. I was told that he was unable to read or write properly, but that his wife could. (In those days, it was not uncommon for the girls to get the education while their brothers worked on the farm.) However, it appears that he was recorded as being literate at the date of migration. They were said to be a very refined couple.
    Louisa herself was slim and genteel, who used to hunt the bees off the flowers because, once they were pollinated, they would die. But she was also a very hard worker, who never complained. Well, perhaps she did once. According to my mother, she complained about having to carry water from the spring or creek in a bucket, and was shocked when George responded by making a shoulder yoke for her! She was said to have eventually succumbed to nose cancer, having first been compelled to wear a handkerchief across her face like a Muslim lady.
     Offspring no. 9, born at Gundagai  in 1878, was my grandfather, Alfred Australia Dennis who, in later years, would be piqued when some people, presumably from the old country, and unfamiliar with the Australian accent, would record his name as "I. I. Dennis". When he was 6 weeks old, he mother rode side-saddle for 50 miles (so it was said) to have him baptized. (Presumably by a Roman Catholic priest. Louisa was a nominal Catholic, George nominally a member of the Church of England.)
    Alf Dennis particularly remembered the smell of apples and pears upstairs at home. He loved children, and was quite affected by the death of his little sister, Lilia. She was born in 1881, and died the following year, when Alf would have been only four. He wanted to keep her little feet as a memento.
    He was also fond of poultry, and often stood around to watch the chickens hatch. He was even known to help them out of the shell in order to see what colour they would be, until he discovered that the assistance was likely to prove fatal.
     At some stage, half way through growing up ie about age nine or ten, a piece of wood went through his foot. No-one went to hospital in those day. Instead, he was simply carried around on the back of his brother, Herb, who was four years younger, but hefty, until the wood came out.
     In the same general period of time, he was sent to his older brother's place to help take care of the twins, whose mother had died in childbirth. On the way home, he ran into some wild cattle, and was forced to take refuge in a hollow log for an extended period. (But see Aunt Hilda's version in the second addendum below.)
    As mentioned before, often the sons of a family missed out on an education, but times were changing and, in any case, when you are offspring no. 9, there are probably already enough hands to do the work. Grandpa, of course, was very smart, and went to school until he was 15. Towards the end, the occasion often arose on Monday mornings, that his teacher, Mr Kelly (it was presumably a one-teacher school) would present with a foul hangover from a weekend  bender, would ask his star pupil to take the class.
     It was probably to the following few years that the following anecdote relates. He was working in town when - wonderful to relate! - a rare snowfall occurred. All the others went outside to build a snowman, but not Alf Dennis. He stayed inside and got on with his work. Nobody could ever accuse him of having a soul! (It was always assumed that this took place in Wagga Wagga, but according to newspaper reports the first instance of snow in that town occurred in August 1899. Perhaps he was employed somewhere else. That's the problem with oral history!)
    Finally, at age 19, he set off to seek his fortune, with two horses provided by his father, and whatever money he had saved. If my information is correct, this would have been the year after his father's death - which was probably significant. But it was also the beginning of the great Federation Drought, and thus an inauspicious time to try setting up on one's own. He brought a property, and built a house with a real wooden floor.
         Then disaster struck, in the form of "rheumatism", which he blamed on sleeping in wet clothes after fighting a bushfire. Rheumatism was a term used in those days for various joint and muscular pains, and attributed (incorrectly) to exposure to damp. At the same time, he had to contend with crows. According to popular opinion - which, as a qualified zoologist, I cannot endorse - they are a danger to lambs, and they are extremely difficult to shoot. On the assumption that, should the wily crows see him emerge from the door carrying a gun, they would promptly decamp, he decided to sneak up on them by climbing out a window. Unfortunately, the gun discharged accidentally, and he ended up in hospital with a bullet in his liver (so I was told). How he managed to reach the hospital in such a dire condition would have made an excellent piece of drama, if anybody had thought to record it. Anyway, his rheumatism then resolved, though whether the gunshot wound cured it, as family tradition insists, is something I am not prepared to endorse.
     Update: My cousin, Christine found a report on the incident in a number of newspapers. This one was from The Scrutineer and Berrima District Press, Wed. 7 January 1903, page 6:
A Shooting Accident
    Wagga, Saturday. - A serious shooting accident befell Alfred Dennis at Currawarna, 20 miles from here, on New Year's Day. He wet to shoot crows with a pea rifle, and whilst walking along with muzzle pointed upwards, the weapon went off. The bullet entered between the lower ribs and travelled upwards through the right lung, on top of which it lodged. Dennis retraced his steps to his house near by, where he lived alone, and waited six hours for some one to pass by and assist him. He was conveyed to the Currawarna Hotel in a very low condition, owing to hemorrhage, which was with difficulty stopped by Dr. Burgess. Dennis is progressing favorably.
     You can see now how the use of telephones - especially the mobile type - has reduced the dangers we face. Imagine what would have happened if no-one had passed by! And why should they? But the medical conditions had taken their toll. On the advice of his neighbour, he sold up. Round one of the fight to make a living had been lost. (Just the same, it should be noted that throughout the years 1904-6 the newspapers carried regular advertisements from my grandfather offering the services of a stud trotting horse called Paradise at Currawarna.)
     Even so, he was still on crutches when he first met Clarinda, the daughter of Captain McGovern - about whom we shall hear more later. (Here there is certainty; all the McGoverns in the world really are related to one another - and to the O'Connors, of whom they are an offshoot.) So, every second Sunday he would go courting. It is said that she and her sister, Ada had a discussion about who would take him. (As usual, the fellow has no chance.) Anyhow, having first arranged for a neighbour to feed his horses, he would get in his sulky and drive the 27 miles to the McGoverns' residence, arriving about 11 am and departing ten hours later. When about to leave, he would allow Clarrie to come out to see him while he was yoking his horse, and she apparently regarded this as a concession. He certainly would never take her off alone where they might be compromised.
     Here you should understand that, although my grandfather was completely irreligious, he was nevertheless a product of his times: a strait-laced Victorian. In later years he once refused to accept the prize in a "chook raffle" because he could not remember buying a ticket. My mother remembers how a friend of the family was once taking his girlfriend home when the car broke down, and they were forced to spend the night stranded on a deserted country road. Their peers though it rather amusing, but Grandpa's comment was: "You'd think he'd get engaged to her after that."
     I presume that my grandparents' wedding was delayed while Alf sought to establish himself - a second round in the struggle to make a living. According to family tradition, in an area known as Tooyal North, about 13 miles [21 km] from Wagga Wagga, a large property was being broken up and put on sale by the Government. So he entered a ballot, and won the right to purchase an allotment. Since Clarinda had been born at Sunderland, in county Durham, the farm was christened "Dunelm", an old name for Durham.
     No doubt there is more to the story. According to a booklet by Phil Sheather and Patricia Galloway, called Malebo Memories - of which more will be said in another post - the district contained at least two huge ( 100 square miles) selections under a single owner: Gobbagombalin and Tooyal. In 1894, the Government resumed part of Gobbagombalin, and in 1900 the selection began sharefarming. Then, under the Closer Settlement Act of 1906, the Government purchased the whole of Gobbagombalin and many of the sharefarmers were able to purchase their properties and work them for their exclusive profit. My guess is that the same thing happened with Tooyal. However, Grandpa was not sharefarming on the site at the time. His marriage certificate of 24 January 1906 reveals him to be a farmer at Berry Jerry, a locality close to Coolamon, and Tooyal could not have been broken up before the following year.
     Be that as it may, they were married  at the home of the bride's parents, near Coolamon. Clarinda was prepared to have the wedding in a Catholic church, but at the time, the priest was on a retreat, so Alf said, in effect, "Hang it all! The Presbyterian minister can do it." And here they are. This is a professional photo, of course. Nobody in our family owned a camera before at least the late 1920s - or would have been able to take such a good shot if they had.  You might note that Clarinda's waist is rather narrow. In fact, it was only 20 inches (50 cm), and Ada's was an inch smaller. And the wedding dress is still in existence, but Clarrie's teenaged great-granddaughter, who was slim and petite, was unable to fit into it. She obviously would have needed Clarrie's corset.
    After ten months, my grandmother moved to Wagga to be delivered of her firstborn. In those days childbirth was "secret women's business"; it was not expected for the father to be present. (That only came in, slowly, in the 1970s.) But it was considered a big concession that Alf took a day off work to visit her, for it was in the middle of the harvest, when time is of the essence.
     She also received, either there or at home, a visit from the priest, who told her that, because they were not married in the True Church, their marriage was not valid in the eyes of the church, nor their son legitimate. When the news reached Alf, he was not amused, but that was what we had to put up with before Vatican II.
    Over a period of 18½ years, they produced nine children. (Click on the button marked, Who's Who in the Family, at the top of the blog.) The arrival of Hilda, the youngest, was met with a mixed reception. With her mother's hands full with the new baby, and her father's with the farm, my own mother was sent to town by herself to purchase a stroller, and at 16, she found it a bit daunting. Olga, aged 14, saw herself being again conscripted as a carer, and commented that: "You only finish with one, when another one comes along." The second oldest brother, Alf was "ashamed"; he was 17, and at high school, and his mother was still having babies. However, Lil, aged 9, later told her little sister that she was glad she had been born.
    "I had ten bosses," said Aunt Hilda. Nevertheless, there are certain advantages to growing up in such an environment. You can always find a playmate, soulmate, carer, or co-conspirator, and at the same time you learn tolerance and forbearance, because any incipient bullying, bossiness, or bad attitude can be thwarted by weight of numbers. Hence my mother's comments on bringing up a large family:
    "It's not so difficult. You don't have them all at once, and you get the older ones to take care of the younger."
     Also: "Five couldn't have been any more trouble than the two I had." (I'm not prepared to dispute that.)

     My grandfather did, however, have a number of rules of thumb regarding farming. The first was that profits go back into the farm, rather than the home. "Fools build houses for wise men to live in," was a favourite maxim of his. (And he had been a fool once before.) So the house he brought his bride back to was constructed of the cheapest materials available: galvanised iron, backed with hessian, and covered with wallpaper. Grandma used to say that she lived in a sardine box for the first fourteen years, but she was happy because they were going ahead. That sardine box consisted initially of a verandah, plus just three rooms: a bedroom, a living room, and a scillion ie a combined kitchen and storeroom with a dirt floor. He wasn't going to risk the luxury of a wooden floor like his first house. However, my mother informed me that a wooden floor had been added to the scillion by the time she was old enough to remember.
     This brings me to an anecdote told by my cousin, Christine:
     "I was listening to a speech by an Aboriginal women, who complained that she grew up in a house with just a dirt floor. And she was most indignant about this. But I thought: Well, my grandparents had a dirt floor. She was just a generation or so behind the rest of us."
     Another of Grandpa's maxims was that you can make a go at farming if you are lucky enough to start off with three good years. Just the same, all sorts of problems arose at the beginning. He was so poor that, for his first planting season, he could not afford a drill, and had to sow the wheat by hand. His four horses were reduced to three by the unusual occurrence of a snake bite. And to add insult to injury, when he set poisoned baits on a post for the foxes which threatened his turkeys, it was the turkeys who ate them. Finally, when he was drilling for water, an unplanned additional expense forced him to stop, at least temporarily, before a sufficient water supply could be achieved. That additional expense was the birth of offspring no. 3: my mother.
     His third maxim was that his shoulders were broad enough to bear the worries and concerns of the farm without sharing them with his ever-patient wife. She had enough on her plate taking care of the house and the children. I don't suppose she was prepared to argue with that.
     Perhaps she might have been more concerned if Alf Dennis hadn't been such an excellent farmer. He knew how to balance a budget, to estimate the markets, and pick the time to change focus. The major crop was wheat, but when skeleton weed invaded the crops, and pushed some farmers to the wall, he introduced fat lambs. They moved through the paddock like mobile weed hunters, returning with their muzzles all covered with dirt, adhering to the sticky exudate of the skeleton weed they had eaten to the roots. Thus the wheat was saved, and the lambs went to market for extra income.
     And as the farm prospered, and the family grew, so that "sardine box" was extended into a large, spacious, and comfortable homestead, surrounded by a cluster of outhouses. They even grew so prosperous that Grandpa gave himself the luxury of purchasing trotting horses.

    My brother, Warren and I used to visit our grandparents' property when we were very young, and they were very old. We were amazed at the vast paddocks, dry and bare except for the random trails made by the hooves of the token sheep, and marveled at the mail box so far from the front door that one needed a horse to get there. We gazed at the windmill - which was actually a wind pump - and kept obediently away from the large pools, known as tanks, kept for the livestock. We wandered around the outhouses such as the bathroom, toilet, and milk separator room. I explored the big, empty rooms at the rear of the house, and fell in love with the verandah wrapped around two sides of the dwelling.
     Things were more primitive, we learned, than in the city. Drinking water came from rainwater tanks. As for the toilet, we weren't surprised that it was in a separate outhouse, a "dunny". Heck! We didn't even have sewage in Brisbane in the 1950s. But in the big smoke, at least the refuse accumulated in a pan, to be collected once a week by a council worker. Here, the toilet seat was poised over a deep hole, which looked like it had been dug aeons ago. And newspaper was substituted for the familiar white roll.
     On the other hand, they had a telephone, which was more than we had - and thereby hangs a tale. About 1925, Grandpa acquired a property down near the Murrumbidgee, which had a tendency to flood. He then discovered that the only way he could obtain news of the flood levels would be to ride the 13 miles to Wagga Wagga to check the river gauge near the post office - or get a telephone. The young technician who came to install it looked at baby Hilda in her stroller, and commented that he had a child of the same age at home. And that is how Mum remembered the date. Originally, it had been on a "party line", that is, a single line serving several homesteads. A call for one meant the telephones rang on every farm on the line, but you could tell when it was meant for you, because every telephone had its own specific ring - in their case, one long and two short.(On the other hand, if you were a stickybeak, you could eavesdrop on other people's conversations. If too many people did it, it would slow down the reception, and you would tell them to get off the line.)
    But no power lines extended to the property. Lighting at night was provided by kerosene lamps. Firewood heated the stove and the external bathhouse. A pile of it stood at the gate in front of the house, ready to be chopped whenever it was needed. But until now, it never occurred to me to ask where it came from - certainly not from the property itself. As for the refrigerator, it ran on kerosene. I am informed that, for  short time in the 1930, the house was graced with a wireless set ie a radio, which came in three parts: the radio receiver, the speaker, and a kerosene-operated generator.
Alf Dennis in later years.
     This lack of electricity was not just an example of an elderly couple refusing to keep up with the times. Even their son's farm, which was closer to the city, required a kerosene generator. But there was one feature of modernity they neglected to take up: they had no car. Neither did we, for that matter, but we were poor, and we lived closer to public transport. But in the country, you would expect the need to be more pressing. Nevertheless, for us boys, one of more interesting features of Dunelm was that you went everywhere on a horse-drawn sulky.
    Grandpa I remember as a crusty old codger with not much patience for young whippersnappers like you-know-who. He was slim and spare, with bright blue eyes, snow white hair and moustache, and his cheek heavily scarred from skin cancer surgery. Grandma was by now rather stout, and I remember her principally huddled in front of the wood stove. No-one told us she was quietly dying of cancer. She eventually passed away in 1961 at the age of 78.
     After that, the widower lived alone, but no-one would be game enough to suggest the old man leave the house where he had lived all his adult life - any more than they would suggest the same to his daughter, 40 years later. One of his quirks was that he did not sleep in a bedroom, but on the verandah, though I gather that, in winter, he repaired to a bedroom.. Then, one cold night in July 1965, when he was two months off 87, the end came. I shall quote the account given by my Aunt Hilda:
     It must have been a very lonely life. Uncle Herb was already dead, so he was not calling in -  although, if I remember rightly Dad, had got annoyed with Uncle Herb and told him not to come any more!
     One Sunday afternoon in winter, Jack [his eldest son, who lived on the farm next door] called in to see Dad. We presume that Dad had decided to change his clothes and to have a wash. Jack found him naked on the bedroom floor. He apparently had had a stroke. If Jack had not found him perhaps he would have just died of exposure and cold. As it was, he lingered on in Wagga Hospital for nearly a week. He died just four years and one day after Mum died.
    An era had ended. The property was dispersed among the heirs. One by one, all of that large family have drifted off the land. But a couple of decades ago, a member or friend of the family went back to the old homestead at Dunelm, and found it a decaying building on somebody else's property, and a dead sheep on the floor which once echoed to the running feet of many children. It was rather sad.

    If you want to find out what life was like for those children, read on. Or return to the index.

Addendum:  I have just received feedback from my cousin, Christine (Hilda's daughter), who is a year and a half older than me and, being based in Melbourne, visited the patriarchal home more often. She said:
    Grandfather did go inside to sleep when grandmother was not well. So for the last few years he slept inside.
     I am sorry you did not know grandmother. She used to come to Melbourne each winter up to the last few years of her life. She used to tell stories of her girlhood in Sunderland and Australia. I was very attached to her. I still can remember the embarrassing time I boasted to Hazel that I was her favourite grandchild. Hazel abruptly put me right and told me that she was the favourite grandchild.
     The main light was the petrol lamp in the kitchen. This was lit as it became dark. I remember grandma pumping it up. Years before they had gas lighting. They were a form of fixed petrol light. They were in three rooms. The canisters were on the veranda where I said. If I remember they were in three rooms. The last person to bed turned them off on the veranda. They were working when my mother was young. The gas bottles were still on the veranda near the formal front door near the blue room. Electricity did not come to the area until the 1950s. I remember there being no electricity at Uncle Doug's place. Uncle Jack had a generator. The grandparents felt they were too old for electricity. My mother is still not keen on electricity. I remember when I was little at Aunt Olga's place trying to explain to grandma that you need to keep the power on for the toaster to work. She said it had had enough electricity. She did not have her hearing aid in so she could not hear me.
     Uncle Doug used to bring wood for grandfather. I am not sure where he got it from.  Remember that bull ants nest near the wood heap. It was good fun to jump up and down on.

     Uncle Hally's children call my mother Auntie Babe. My mother said you were brought up properly.

     I thought the inability to read belonged to our great grandmother not great grandfather. I think there were schools in England which would have given him a basic education.
    Great grandmother's advice to our grandmother was 'begin as you would end'. So our grandmother never got up to get grandfather's breakfast.

     I have better memories of grandfather. With me he just automatically took me with him as he would have his own children. I remember being on the back of his horse riding around the paddocks. I remember going down to look at the chooks and milking the cow and separating. My secret shame was that I felt I could never put a separator together. I knew that I could never marry a farmer. When aunt Lil pointed out eligible farmers in the district I knew that I could not marry them because of this inability.
     Uncle Jack persuaded Grandfather to buy a car. Grandfather complained that the man teaching him to drive stuttered and that is why he could not learn. Uncle Jack therefore became the driver. Unfortunately this gave him power which he should not have had. It meant that they came home from the The Show etc when Uncle Jack wanted to.
     As for grandfather being crusty -- yes he was a growler like a lot of the Dennises. I remember being in the home of his grandson and hearing growls emerge from the back -- his great grandchildren.  The growling passed down the generations. Now if you remember you were big for your age. Grandfather used to get angry at you because you were not doing what he thought you should for your size. I can remember trying to tell him myself you were younger than you appeared. Remember when you were 3 and 1/2 , I would be 5. You did stand up in a sulky which grandfather growled at. One of the stupidest things you did was roll a car tyre at Lorna's pony. It took fright  and galloped up the paddock. I remember this clearly because I was riding her at the time and I was not that good a rider. I can remember grandfather teaching you, Warren and I to make bows and arrows so he did have a bit of a heart.

Addendum No. 2
     Now Aunt Hilda herself has come up with a long screed of corrections and additions. So, at the risk of lenghthening this post to the point of making it unwieldy, I shall transcribe her letter. (That's what comes from publishing a story while there are still people alive who know the truth.)
Riverina Babe's version of Riverina Girl
     Dad was No. 10. [Perhaps the list I consulted missed one of those who died in infancy.]
     No. It was not Dad who had the trouble saying "A. A. Dennis." It was Mum (Clarinda) who was actually born in England. In her attempt to refer to herself as "Mrs. A. A. Dennis" the person listening to her would think she was saying "I. I." or even "E. E." Dennis. It was very embarrassing for her. [This seems strange, because the broad Australian "a" tends to be heard as an "i" by other Anglophones.]
    I did not know about Dad with the piece of wood in his foot.
    Referring still to Mum's pronounced North of England Brogue, I thought someone said that when the oldest ones first went to school they also were speaking like Mum but it was soon knocked out of them when they mixed with other Australian children. [Mum said they used to pronounce the vowel in jug like that in bull.]
     Apparently Grandmother Dennis allowed the older girls to choose the names for the last few children. These girls were responsible for
     Alfred Australia (!)
     Lylie (don't really know her name) [My source says Lilia.]
     Herbert Sidney Earnest,
     Arnold Augustus,
     Claudia Veronica.
     When I first came to Melbourne I was in the city one Saturday morning in one of those old lifts which had an operator. [There were still a few left in the 1970s, after which all became automatic.] An older lady was also in the lift. Someone started a conversation between us and the lift operator. When we reached the ground floor this lady spoke to me. She asked me whether I was a Dennis. She said I sounded like a Dennis. She turned out to be Auntie Claude who worked in Sydney as a buyer for her firm. What did a Dennis sound like? Was it a compliment or the opposite?
     I have a different version of the time Alfred, at age nine, was chosen to look after his brother George's animals. This is my mother's version of events:
     George was Dad's oldest brother. He was married and had three children the youngest of whom was still a baby or perhaps a toddler. The two older children became seriously ill. I think it was diphtheria or something like that. The parents took them to the hospital and left the youngest one in the care of a friend. The baby also started showing signs of illness. The tragic outcome was that the three children all died and Uncle George almost went out of his mind with grief. No doubt both parents did.
     While the parents were at the hospital with their dying children, young Alfred had the responsibility of looking after the farm animals - attending to the horses, milking the cow? feeding fowls, cooking his own food. There was an old man who lived some distance up the road. If he needed help he was to go to this man.
     It really was a big thing to ask a nine-year-old boy to do. The to meet up with the wild cattle on the way home! They grew them tough in those days.
     Dad was obviously very bright as a schoolboy. I remember how good he was at mental arithmetic. No doubt the teacher's benders were part of the reason why Dad did not become a student teacher as he then wished. His brother Arnold was more fortunate several years later. It was a system whereby a student could become a qualified primary school teacher learning from his own teacher. There must have been examinations along the way.
     I am sorry, Malcolm, but you are wrong. Just to check I asked Adrian [Aunt Lil's son] and he agreed with me. Crows will pick the eyes of a sheep. Not a sheep in good health but one that has got "down" for some reason and is not able to defend itself. [Correct as far as it goes. However, it just confirms the findings of systematic research: crows are not responsible for stock deaths; they can only hasten the demise of one already on the way out.]
     Dad was always a bad rifle shot. I wonder where that bullet ended up in him. It was supposed to be still there when he died.
     Just what his father gave him as a dowry when he left home [that's assuming his father was still alive] was never really agreed on. Brother Alfred said he went with a team of four horses coupled with full harness. I thought he went with one draught horse complete with harness but rode a light horse. I thought it was your mother who said, "Of course he did not have a light horse. He rode the one draught horse from farm to farm!"
    Perhaps I had forgotten about the arthritis. Perhaps as the last of the family I had just never heard about it.

Friday, 24 January 2014

"A Lovely Day for the Funeral"

     Nowadays, if someone dies in his prime, or in childhood, everybody asks, "What went wrong?" But for most of human history, the reverse was the case; if anyone survived to ripe old age, everyone knew he had beaten the odds. Life was precarious in the Bad Old Days, and never more precarious than when it had just begun. You don't need to read much of early literature before you come to the death of a child. Or history, for that matter, for early death was no respecter of rank. Neither Henry VIII nor Charles I, for example, were ever meant to be king. They attained that rank over the grave of an elder brother - and I don't suppose being royal made the family tragedy any less distressing.
     You have already read about Grandpa's feelings on the death of his own little sister. The same occurred in my own father's family. Of eight children, two passed away in their first few months, and another in early adulthood. It was a good rule of thumb, that if you had a lot of children, on the balance of probabilities, you would lose one or two.
     So you may be surprised to learn that all of Alf and Clarinda Dennis' nine children grew up to full maturity. But it wasn't as if they didn't flirt with death. My mother laughed when talking about how she, and others, strolled around barefooted in the building where a sheep had died of tetanus. And, of course, it scarcely needs to be mentioned that a vaccine for the disease was not available in those deficient days.
The three eldest children, approximately 1912:
Margaret, Jack (centre), and Alf
     Alf Jr, son number two, initially suffered from prolonged and severe diarrhoea. He was "three years in nappies", according to repute. Indeed, so emaciated did he become, that his intestines could be seen through his skin. (I am only repeating what I was told.) Just the same, his mother was quite horrified to overhear her own mother say, "Well, at least Clarrie will have a lovely day for the funeral."
     But Alf came of sturdy stock, and he lasted till the age of 83, when he ran his car off the road one evening while returning home from a sister's birthday party.
     Next it was my mother's turn, when she was taken to Wagga Wagga Hospital suffering from pneumonia. This was soon after she started school, when she was only six years of age. Alone, scared, her life hanging by a thread, with only a pencil for company, and too young even to count properly, she drew a dot on the wall for each day of her exile: one, then another beside it, then two below them, then "one in the middle" - five in all. Then it started again: four dots, and one in the middle. It had been ten days before she was well enough to go home.
     Remember: this was 1925: three years before the first antibiotic, penicillin was discovered, and fifteen years before anyone worked out how to produce it in quantity.
Up to 1935, the physicians were merely witch doctors. . . . In the early thirties, over 50 per cent of the drugs in current use had been employed by Arab-speaking physicians in the Middle Ages, and two-thirds of those had been known to the later Greeks.(Medicine and Man, by Ritchie Calder, 1958)
     So you should not be surprised that the treatment my mother received in hospital would have had the sole result of making her stay more miserable. Those were the days of the hot bread poultice, although her own mother insisted it be allowed to cool a bit before being applied to the chest. By some means or other, it was expected to draw out the inflammation in the lungs down below; one can't imagine how. When her own father visited her, he himself went home with "an enormous plaster" with him. She also referred to a special white paste which used to be applied in wads of lint. It was very strong, and was supposed to "draw" the inflammation. And this was in the nursing textbooks she studied in 1931! I tell you, it was the Dark Ages back then.
     She was not completely bereft of visitors during that ordeal but, realistically, home was a long way off, and parents cannot be around all day. Her teacher visited her. So did her father. By doing so, he lost a whole setting of chickens almost ready to hatch in an incubator. But, as my Aunt Hilda put it: "What value chickens when your child is seriously ill?"
     How it affected the older children can only be left to the imagination. Brother Alf, older by 13 months, never mentioned that incident explicitly. However, I did hear him say to Mum in my presence, "I never expected you would live to be fully grown." She was to outlive him by 15 years.

Continue to next chapter, or go back to the index.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

The Golden Years of Childhood

     In a corner of our lounge stands a box of toys, and five minutes after the grandchildren arrive, they are strewn all over the floor. And they are only toddlers! Things were somewhat different a hundred years ago.
     My mother had a doll, but little brother Charlie broke it when she was about twelve, and it was never replaced. Well, at that age, what would have been the point? But when she was very young, she had a teddy bear. How young? Maybe three or four - she couldn't say for sure. I suspect she might have been a bit older, because most of us have only fragmentary memories of that period. But certainly it was one of her earliest memories that she had that teddy bear, and it must have been well loved, for it was worn out and falling to pieces. Then one day, her mother was washing clothes in a copper, and heating the water on a wood fire, and she suggested to Mum that the teddy bear should be added to the fire. My mother clung tightly to the teddy, but her mother's pressure, despite her kind words, was firm. Eventually, she gave it up, but with extreme reluctance. Not only was it heart breaking, but her two older brothers laughed at her, and her parents would continually bring it up about how she didn't want to give up that wornout teddy. I've since discovered that quite a few people recall similar childhood tragedies about the loss of a beloved toy. (And don't get me talking about my own teddy!)
     The story of the feather hat also belongs to a pre-school memory. She possessed an enormous hat which, in hindsight, she believes was probably worn out. At any rate, she decided its appearance would be improved by the addition of a large number of white feathers collected from the fowl pen. It must have been of straw, or some similar woven material, and into the interstices between the weave the little girl painstakingly inserted the shafts of the feathers vertically. So now she had a marvellous, wide brimmed hat decorated with concentric crowns of feathers. To childish eyes it must have looked delightful, as she paraded around the house. Mr Hughes, the next door neighbour, was present, and sat down at the table, presumably for tea or a meal, and my mother came over, wearing the hat. Her father, very kindly, told him: "Mr Hughes, Girl has this nice hat, and she doesn't want to take it off."
     Toys? Forgetaboutit! No-one had toys in those days. You had to improvise. She found three sticks, one half-dark, another lighter, and a third piebald, so she called them her "horses", and set them up in their stable ie leaned them against the fence. Much to her dismay, her father walked up to the fence and disturbed them. Couldn't he see they were horses?
     Otherwise, they could be pretend to be horses themselves. In summertime, the paddocks were littered with the tough, dry stalks of thistles, as I very well remember. They would cut two of them to act as forelegs, then make a tail out of grass or, if they were inclined to take the extra effort, unravel some binder twine to produce a more realistic appendage, after which they would camper and gallop about as the spirit took them. The game apparently developed a long tradition, because my Aunt Hilda, 16 years younger, remembers it as well.
     Or else they would make mud pies, and dry them in the sun.
     I regret that I never thought to ask my mother how Christmas was celebrated. Nevertheless, my Aunt Hilda (16 years younger, remember) was able to provide a few details. When she was very young - probably pre-school - a doll's pram and some doll's paraphernalia turned up for her. She believes they originated from her mother and her Aunt Ada respectively, but her brother, Halley, 12 years her senior, assured her he had heard Santa Claus and his reindeer. However, she suspects that Santa wasn't a frequent visitor when the older children were small. A tree? Forgetaboutit! But they did get the occasional Christmas treat. Aunt Hilda remembers receiving a special type of biscuit - probably something very common on the supermarket shelves these days - and walking around the pepper trees in front of the house thinking what sheer delight it was to have such a biscuit. Not only that, but Christmas was the one time their father relaxed his ban on alcohol in the house. He would even purchase a small barrel of beer. Once my mother and her mother found themselves saddled with all the housework at Christmas, so Grandma put aside a bottle of beer for them to enjoy afterwards. When the work was finished, she was outraged to discover that somebody else had consumed it. It probably wasn't even cold.
     The games played at school could be adapted to the smaller team at home, but the farm had other attractions. For example, when my grandparents were first married, the bride planted those two pepper trees beside the front gate. (These were common ornamental trees then, but are now classed as pests.) As boys, my brother and I used to climb and play in them. So did the Dennis children before us. Their father even constructed a roofless log cubby house, with more than one room, and set it in one of the trees. "No-one disturbed them," said Mum. "They knew better than to disturb our cubby house." But Mum herself was disturbed when she was a teenager, and one of her tasks was to sweep the dirt path leading from the gate to the house, because her younger brothers used to climb up on the pepper trees and knock down twigs and leaves.
     As noted before, the fact that all nine survived to maturity had nothing to do with natural caution. There was a corrugated iron shed whose sides, I suppose, stood on a certain angle, because the children used to run up and down the sides until their parents put a stop to it because of the damage to the corrugated iron. Potential damage to the children would also have been on the cards. Once Halley, aged three or thereabouts, attempted to emulate his older siblings, but fell while running up the side. Only the fact that his clothes caught on a nail, and left him hanging, prevented him from serious injury, if not death.
     "Didn't you kids have any serious accidents?" I asked Mum.
     "No," she replied. "We did not. We were lucky."
     Climbing up on haystacks was also a commandment honoured as much in the breach as in the obedience. Sparrows used to make their nests them, and the children would insert their hands and pull out little hatchlings.
     They were also not supposed to frequent the place where the seed wheat was stacked, but Mum and her older brother Alf went anyway. They definitely weren't supposed to climb up on the stacks, but that's what Mum was doing while Alf, for some reason, had his hand between two bags of wheat. As we learnt in school, a bushel of wheat weighs 60 pounds (about 27¼ kg), so when Mum accidentally dislodged a bag, Alf could easily have been killed, except that it merely glanced his arm.
     Now, large families have an inviolate rule: what happens in the playground stays in the playground. The worst offence of childhood is to snitch to the grown ups. The mafia code of omertà has nothing on the code of honour of a large family of kids. So when they got home, Alf merely told his parents he'd hurt his arm, but their father wasn't deceived. "You've been up on that stack of wheat, haven't you?" he said.

    There was a sort of ladder in the hen roost, and Mum and her sister, Olga used to hang from it, head first. The fowl manure didn't bother them.
     The same two girls saw nothing strange about sharing the livestock's food - such as licking the rock salt used for the cattle and horses. Also, the milk cows used to slurp with gusto the mixture of chaff and molasses provided by their owner. This molasses came in 4 gallon (18.2 litres) tins, and after Grandpa had opened a second tin, a hole was left in the top. This gave Mum and Olga an opportunity. They acquired a couple of straws, and sucked up the molasses, day after day, until it had been lowered maybe six inches. "It was really horrible stuff," she told me. "If we'd been told to take molasses, we wouldn't have had it. That's the terrible things kids do."

     On daytime rambles, they would search for, examine, and sometimes collect, grubs, processionary caterpillars, and grasshoppers. The latter would have their legs pulled off. And there were the spiders. Trapdoor spiders could be found on the lane leading to the well. It was great fun poking a stick into the hole and watching the angry occupant scurry up to the entrance and pull the lid down with its front legs.
     "Of course, we took no notice of the red-backed spiders," she said. "They were always around. We used to watch their little web cocoons hatch out into hundreds or even thousands of pinhead sized spiders - a mass of tiny little spiders as big as pinheads." (She got very excited while describing the scene.)
     "Didn't your parents ever warn you about this?" I asked.
     "Oh yes, we weren't supposed to do it."

      But, of course, the golden years of childhood always have a shadow. They had to go to school.

Go to next chapter, or return to index.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Reading and 'Riting, and 'Rithmetic

     My mother had eight years of schooling, from the ages of 6 to 13, which would cover the years 1915 to 1922. Of the older children, only Alf went on to high school, because he was "brilliant", and then to law school. (He was actually the dux of New South Wales; I have seen the newspaper reports.) So did Hilda, the youngest, and Doug, the second youngest, but only for 18 months. Since the nearest one was in Wagga Wagga, they were forced to board with relatives in town. Obviously, by the late 1930s/early '40s it was becoming more in vogue, but in the early days it was exceptional. In those days, high school was only for the affluent few, nor was it considered necessary. At age 14, a boy was expected to go out and find work. TAFEs did not exist, but the school leaver might take an apprenticeship, gaining training while earning a little money.  And, of course, if he lived on a farm, he worked for his father. Australian schoolchildren assume that the long holidays in December and January is because of Christmas, but their fellows in the Northern Hemisphere enjoy similar "summer holidays" in mid-year. It was originally all about getting the sons home to work on the harvest. Even when my Uncle Alf returned from high school, he was given just one day's relaxation before being consigned to farm work. According to some informants, this was generous.
     Malebo School, according to my mother's recollections, was situated about 6 miles (9-10 km) from her home, and 8 miles (13 km) from Wagga Wagga itself. Its single classroom, along with the adjoining teacher's cottage, was constructed in 1883, the year my grandmother was born, although the lessons had been provided in a tent for more than a year beforehand. The enclosed photograph, along with the one further down this post, was copied from a 95-page booklet entitled, Malebo Memories, back to Malebo celebration 1997, edited by Phil Sheather and Patricia Galloway. To quote from the publication:
The first permanent school opened with 24 children and by 1920 there were 33 enrolled. In those first 40 years, the enrolment was never more than 40 children.
Getting There
     How do children get to a school six miles away? Well, in those days there were no school buses, and farmers and their wives ran no children's taxi service. The only recourse was the horse. Sending a six-year-old child six miles to school all alone? Well, by that age they were all expert riders. Just the same, Jack, the first-born was held back a year. His parents were reticent about sending him off until the second son, Alf was also old enough to go. They rode off together, presumably bare-backed in tandem on the one horse. Even so, an older boy from a neighbouring farm was asked to accompany them the first year. The following year, my mother joined them. Two years later, when offspring no. 4, Olga came of age, that it was decided to purchase a sulky.
     The family now possessed two sulkies: a good one for the parents, with good rubber tyres, and a lesser one for the school children equipped with steel rimmed wheels. Despite what you might think, this did not lead to an excessively bumpy ride. However, over time the metal would expand, and become loose, at which stage the wheel would be soaked in water as a short-term fix. That allowed the wood to expand to fit the metal, until such time as the wheelwright could tighten it by removing a strip. Also, the boys had the responsibility of applying axle grease to the hubs.
     At the same time as the sulky was acquired, so was Darkie, a half-draught horse, with a glossy black tail. Like all the horses appointed for the children, he was quiet and slow. He took a good hour to reach Malebo, so I presume the horse's pace was simply double that of a sprightly adult. Eventually, as many as five children were squashed into that sulky, like sardines. It could get awfully boring on that twice-a-day ride. The boys often rode on the back of the sulky, although they were not supposed to, holding on to the back of the seat, while their feet rested on the spring. At times, they would cling firmly spread-eagled to the wheel, and allow themselves to whirl them in a complete circle. (I don't suppose they told Mum and Dad about that.) A simpler passtime was the game of counting white horses, the aim being to see who could first catch sight of a white horse in the distance. But if a pied horse appeared it meant disaster: their white horse tally would be reset at zero, and they would need to start again. Meanwhile, as she grew older, my mother developed the habit - which I've also acquired - of reading everything she could lay her hands on. She read while driving the sulky. The girls were provided with veils to protect their skins from the sun, and were told not to read in the sun, as it would damage their eyes (a myth I also grew up with). So she read the books under her veil. When her younger siblings, Olga and Halley complained that it was her job to guide the horse, she tied the reins around her foot, and kept on reading.
     And while we are on the subject of reading, you may ask where the books came from in the country. When I lived in the country for a short time in the period 1957-8, a mobile library called the "Bookmobile" used to do the circuits of the schools every week. In Mum's day, the visit was once a month, and she would take two books home over the weekend to ensure that she had enough. To ensure a sufficient variety, the teachers would send away for certain books. And, of course, when she got older, she would visit the library whenever she was in town. Her all-time favourite novel was The Coral Island, by R. M. Ballantyne, which she and her sister, Olga read over and over again while lying in their room - a story I often heard, and which inspired me to read it myself. (I would highly recommend it.)
     In those days, there were no school uniforms; they went dressed in regular, everyday clothes. Even in winter, the boys wore short pants, but with long socks. But in winter it was terribly, terribly cold. They donned their heaviest coats, and packed themselves into the sulky under heavy horse rugs.  Entering school, they would hang their coats up in the lobby, ashamed at all the rain water dripping onto the floor. Their clothes were always frozen.
     The school and its playground amounted to about two acres, or a bit less than a hectare, but attached to it was a 28-acre (11 ha) paddock for the horses. Some of the children let their horses run loose, but that would mean catching and harnessing them again at the end of the day. The Dennises preferred to tie them up under the pine trees, with the sulkies. It must have been pretty boring for the horses. "What did they eat?" I asked. "Horses don't have to eat," replied my mother. "You wait till they get home." Apparently, however, here was a "dam" or two to provide water, but who watered the horses, and cleaned up after them, was something I neglected to ask.

 Fun and Games
     So, what did they do for fun during recess? Essentially, what schoolchildren have been doing during recess since time began. There were some currajong trees on the grounds. They used to come in useful as forage for the horses during drought years. They also came in useful as playthings, because some of the branches were just low enough for the children to grasp and swing on them.
     There was hopscotch: the familiar game of hopping around squares, except that they added a variation of kicking objects, such as stones. It was not popular with the parents, as it tended to wear out the shoes faster than they would be grown out of.
     They used to play rounders. For any Americans reading this blog (I should be so lucky!), rounders is an English game very similar to baseball. The major difference is that the fielder who catches the ball throws it at a moving target - the runner - instead of the catcher. It is a children's game in Australia, and baseball has never caught on here.
     But the game referred to most often by Mum was "Sheep, sheep, come home", which must be a perennial school favourite. My generation called it "Red Rover"; yours may give it a different name. One of its advantages lies in the fact that there are no teams, and no size limits; in a small school like Malebo it would be possible for every pupil to join in. No only that, but individuals could join or depart as the whim took them. They would assemble together into two lines of roughly equal size, spaced an arbitrary distance apart, except for one standing in the middle. He/she was the "wolf". When all was ready, the wolf would shout: "Sheep, sheep, come home! The wolf's away, and won't be back for seven years." (In my day, it was the much simpler, "Come over, Red Rover!") That was the signal for both lines to dash helter-skelter across the field to the opposite side, while the wolf attempted to seize anybody who passed. Whoever was thus captured, joined the pack of wolves, dedicated to catching someone else on the next run. Pretty soon, the wolves would outnumber the sheep. Eventually only a single sheep would be left to run the gauntlet of a whole school of wolves. And, as often as not, that sheep was Margaret Dennis, who was very fast, and very cunning, adept at veering away from the hands of the catchers at the last minute.

     Before school,  they would be lined up on parade outside. "Show hands!" cried the teacher. "Clean hands, clean handkerchiefs." Perhaps they sang, "God Save the King".
     You notice I said, "teacher", not "teachers". There were, after all, only 20 to 40 pupils to manage. Readers in remote rural areas will not be surprised, but I can hear a number of city slickers crying, "How can a single teacher manage an entire school?" Well, I attended one such school in the years 1957-58, and the answer is: with a lot of juggling. Sometimes he would give a lesson to two classes at once, and after teaching a lesson to one class, he would give them sums, or some other exercise to do, and then move on to teaching another. Of course, that meant pupils could finish their work early and listen in on the higher classes' lessons, if they were clever - and, of course, the Dennises were. (Mum recalls how, when one new nephew or niece was expected, or had just arrived, some relation said, "Wouldn't it be awful if they were just ordinary!" No danger of that!)
     I'm afraid I neglected to ask Mum about her lessons. I must have just assumed that they were basically similar to what I experienced - and I am sure they were. Having started school in 1955, I am more a child of the school environment of 1905 than of the era of computers and calculators. For a start, modern children will find it absolutely incredible that, when my parents and I started school, we wrote on stone! I am not kidding. It was a flat slab of slate called, appropriately, a "slate", encased in a wooden frame. We would scratch our lessons on the slate with a pencil made of soapstone or pressed clay, and then wipe out the marks with a soft cloth.
     By now several generations of parents have been reading A. A. Milne's book, Now We Are Six to their children. When they come to the poem, "Twice Times", there is a drawing of the "Bad Bear" jumping up and down on something he has broken. I wonder how many modern children know what it is. I wonder how many of their mothers know. It is not a picture; it is his school slate.
     From slates, they graduated to pencil and paper. From pencils, they went to nibbed pens. For this, you need a container of ink called an "inkwell", which fitted into a hole in the front of every school desk. Or else, they could bring their own bottle of ink to school. Girls who wore their hair in long plaits ran the risk of having their tips dipped in the ink of the naughty boy in the seat behind. Or so I've been told; I never saw it happen in my school. But to continue: to use a nibbed pen, it is necessary to dip the nib into the well just far enough to pick up sufficient ink for writing purposes. A larger drop of ink will end up smudging the page, and most children's pages were pretty well smudged before they fully acquired the skill.
     I don't know whether Mum graduated to fountain pens while she was at school. I certainly did. But, in either case, the result was the same: a page covered in wet ink. To dry it, a special paper called "blotting paper" or a "blotter" was used: a sheet of very porous paper which would soak up the surplus ink if you pressed it gently on the wet page. Press it too hard or at the wrong angle, and the ink would smudge. But finally something remarkable happened. I have a collection of old magazines from the immediate post-World War II years advertising the all new, super-duper, revolutionary writing implement: the biro. I have recently discovered that nobody in the United States has heard the term. In the British Commonwealth it is a synonym for ballpoint pen. László Biró lodged the British patent in 1938, but at first they were expensive and temperamental, but now ... In the old days, every writing pad you purchased came with a blotter as its front page, so that you could blot your letter as you wrote it. I haven't seen such a thing for decades.
     As for writing, a nib pen works best if it is not lifted from the page until its drop of ink is exhausted. That means running the letters together in cursive script. Everybody in the old days was taught what was known as "copperplate" script: beautifully, carefully formed cursive letters, copied carefully from a special book until it was perfect. It requires a great deal of attention, and is slow; very few people continued with it into adulthood. It was the ideal from which our rapid scrawls degenerated. But at least we knew how to write clearly if we had to. One day all this will be a thing of the past. Apparently, there are some schools which are no longer teaching cursive writing - only printing, as befits the age of word processors. No doubt the process will continue until cursive script completely disappears. After that, historians and other scholars will need to learn the separate skill of reading old manuscripts.
     I assumed she had been taught to read by the phonic system, but she denied it. At any rate, she learnt it well, and reading soon became her passion. As I said, the school children could avail themselves of the circulating library. Meanwhile, her mother had joined a library in Wagga, and after Mum had finished school, she herself used to attend the library when she went to town to study music. I never knew her to play a musical instrument, but when she was young, she was afraid that she would die before she read all the books in the world. (And so she did.)
     Mum told me that when the Methodist missionaries did their rounds, they used to stay at the teacher's cottage, and they provided very interesting lectures on foreign countries.
     As for discipline, this was enforced with the cane - usually applied to the miscreant's hand, but sometimes to the bottom, at the teacher's discretion (which was seldom contested by the parents). Was this a good or a bad thing? It is controversial today, and obviously the effect depends on the individual. I remember a woman of my generation stating that it would completely intimidate her daughter, but that it was the only punishment her son would understand. But the big picture is fairly clear: no-one can suggest that the generations born in the first half of last century - the ones who weathered the Depression, and made the world safe for democracy with their blood - were more mixed up, violent, antisocial, or less law abiding than the ones brought up under a less strict régime.

The Teachers
    According to Malebo Memories, the teachers whose service overlapped Margaret Dennis's period of education were:
  • Alfred Carroll:     April 1900 to 14 May 1916;
  • Algar Y Burns:    27 June 1916 to 6 October 1917;
  • Norman Lynch:   6 October 1917 to 3 January 1918;
  • Alexander Jennings: 3 January 1918 to 16 September 1922; and
  • Charles McClellan:  30 September 1922 to 14 December 1933.
    The last one must have taught my mother for only a couple of months.
    "What were the teachers like?" I asked.
     "What do you mean, 'awful'?"
     "He was very bad, the one we had for six years."
     Well, they weren't all bad. Mr Carroll was very nice. He once took the sulky eight miles into town to visit her when she was in hospital, fighting for life with pneumonia. Tragically, he died in office - of a brain tumour, my mother heard.
     Next came Mr Burns, who just couldn't cope. Under his supervision, or lack of it, the boys in particular got very bad, cheeky, and rowdy, as well as taking to smoking on the sly. According to Malebo Memories, he was transferred to Canterbury school. Of course, the pupils were told nothing of his fate at the time, but Mum later heard from her own mother that he had had a nervous breakdown, and was "put away" somewhere. He had been heard to say that sometimes the children got so much on his nerves that he just wanted to tear their heads off.
     He was replaced by Mr Lynch, a young, newly married man, who quickly set about "tuning them up". He caned them left, right, and centre. He seemed to be wielding the cane every time he turned around. Mum saw the boys with their hands "chopped up" with the cane. He even caned the girls. You will note that he was there for only the last two or three months of the school year. Mum thinks that they got out of control under Mr Burns, and he was sent by the Board of Education to put them back on track.
    It was Mr Jennings who stuck in Mum's memory as being bad. She said he was there for six years, though it was really only four and a half. His less endearing trait was walking out of school to talk to passers-by. But first he would give an instruction, such as: "Fifth form, go and teach third form!" The older pupils were then expected to go over and instruct the younger ones. On hearing of this, my grandfather was naturally furious, but what could he do?
     But Mum was shrewd. As soon as these orders were given, she would zero in on one of the smarter kids in the lower grades - one of those who needed no instruction. That way she (Mum) could get on with her reading. However, her plans were often foiled by one of the two pretty Jennings girls, Beth and Ena. As often happens when a teacher's own child is in the class, Mr Jennings used to forestall any accusations of favouritism by cutting his daughters no slack. They therefore had a special incentive to learn, and since they were not naturally clever, they would latch on to an older girl who was: Margaret Dennis.
     Mum's older brother, Alf was also very clever, and when he would pose questions, Mr Jennings would say: "Ask your father. He can show you how to do it."
     Needless to say, Alf Dennis Snr was not amused. "That's the teacher's job," he would wail.

     Nevertheless, they did manage to acquire an education. Alf went on to law school. The others left at age 14. The sons worked on the farm, initially. The daughters loafed. No, I am not joking; this was Mum's own assessment. Just the same, she wanted to get away from home and become a nurse, so in her spare time she read up the equivalent of a high school education in order to apply.
    Then, one day in their late teens, she and her brother, Jack were going to town, when they discovered that the school and the teacher's cottage had been burnt to the ground. It had happened about midnight Sunday 18 September 1927. The fire was thought to have started in the kitchen, and Mum heard that the fire ran up the walls of the house because the interior had been freshly painted. The teacher, Mr McClellan managed to save the piano.
     The school was eventually rebuilt, and it operated until 1968.

Go to next chapter, or return to the index.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Friends and Neighbours

     If you live in suburbia, the odds are that you do not know the people at the end of the street. If you do, it is probably because you both have children, for children, being more natural animals than adults, quickly find age mates with which to socialise, and their parents are forced to follow suit. I could write a long dissertation on the loneliness of the crowd, and the terrible atomisation of society in the big city, but it wouldn't be completely accurate. It is true that, in large urban areas people can fall through the cracks, but most of us are not socially isolated. It is just that the dominance of the automobile has allowed the network of work, church, social club, and family activities to extend over wide distances. We have just as many social links as before, but just not within our immediate neighbourhood.
     On the other hand, the rural community in which my mother grew up extended over equally wide distances, but it was a close knit community. Everybody knew everybody else, by reputation, if not by direct contact. When a new teacher arrived in the area, everyone soon knew everything about him: what sort of family he had, what his recreations might be, how often he went to the pub, and anything else which might impact on his ability to be a proper role model for their precious children. I also never ceased to be amazed at how, 50, 60, even 70 years after my mother left the farm, she could bring up in casual conversation the names of people she knew at the time. I only ever managed to record a few. Perhaps they will suffice.
     We will start with the farm hands. They came and went according to agricultural necessity. My grandfather might have employed two or three at any one time. They stayed in a "shed", though their former quarters were never pointed out to me when I visited the place as a boy. Some of them went home on Sundays. Obviously, this sort of work would have provided an excellent opportunity for a teenaged boy or young man to get a toehold on the financial ladder, but the life of a casual agricultural labourer must have been rather precarious. Employment was available for only a limited time, and often the workmen were forced to be itinerant. Not everybody who carried a swag was a loafer. In those days there was no holiday pay, overtime, or long service leave.
     The hired hand whose name always arose in conversation was Larry O'Shannessy. He was a bachelor, who had once come into a legacy and, instead of using it as seed capital, lived a life of idleness staying in a hotel until the money ran out. Ultimately, he was forced to go on a pension, which meant he was "no good for his country" in Grandpa's estimation. But, apart from the occasional lapse of a weekend bender, he was very reliable, and would be employed for extended periods - even six months at a time - in successive years.
     Larry worked various other farms as well, in particular, that of the Lindsays, which must have been some distance away, because the Dennises never met them. The Lindsay children were really terrific, according to Larry; they were clever, they were expert horsemen, they were good at practically everything. "It got to the stage," said Mum, "that we really hated those Lindsay kids, even though we had never met them."
     Eventually, when she was older, she did happen to meet one of the Lindsays, who told her an interesting story. "Larry O'Shannessy was always talking about how wonderful the Dennis kids were. You know, it got to the stage where we really hated those Dennises, even though we had never met them."

     Then there was the time the word went out: "Kitty Kees has fleas!" Kitty was a girl who one day turned up at school with an infestation of what sounds like head lice, but which Mum always referred to as "fleas". You could see the little vermin running up and down her hair. In the natural course of progression, they quickly spread to most of her associates. At last, in frustration, the Dennis parents cured their children by washing their hair in sheep dip - something which is unlikely to be recommended by modern physicians.
     Of course, no community would be complete without the village idiot or, in this case, the district idiot. "Poor old Bert McCarthy had no brains," Mum always used to say. He was about the same age as Aunt Lil ie seven years younger than Mum, and suffered from Down's syndrome. They must have lived nearby, because the McCarthies used to collect the Dennis's mail at the same time as their own.

     For the final anecdote, you need to know the method of producing jam jars in the old days. Jars were not as common as nowadays, so the usual procedure was to take an empty bottle, and tie around it a rag soaked in kerosene. The rag would then be set on fire, and promptly immersed in a receptacle of cold water. The sudden contraction brought on by the change from heat to cold would cause the top of the bottle to fall off with a clean break. After that, it was necessary only to fill the "jar" with home-made jam, and seal it with greaseproof paper bound around the edges with string.
     Now, enter Thelma Cheney [chee-nee] and her brother, from a family "too poor even for cow cockies". My grandmother claimed the name originated in England, although it sounded Chinese, but my own mother claimed they looked rather oriental. In any case, she sneaked a look at their report cards, and confirmed her suspicion that they were of limited intelligence. They must have been because, having watched their elders doing the jam-jar-making trick, they decided, "Why don't we see whether we can get our heads to drop off the same way?" Why anyone would want to make one's own head drop off is anyone's guess, but it obviously wasn't a terrible lot of use to either of them. So, they went out to where a trough of water stood for the fowls to drink, soaked some rags in kerosene, tied them around their necks, and got out the matches for an experiment to give the phrase, "losing your head" a whole new, literal meaning. Of course, the experiment failed, and the first one to try it came back to school with a bandage around his or her neck.

     Now, before we return to life on the farm, let us take a look at a few of the interesting characters in the family.
     Go to next chapter or return to the index.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Captain McGovern

    My mother's maternal grandfather passed away when she was only 20, but she never stopped talking about him.
    He appears to have been a genuine "character" so, lest his memory perish, let me introduce him to you, starting with his obituary in the Coolamon-Ganmain Farmer's Review of 20 December 1929.
He was born in Sunderland, England, in 1846, and was one of a large family.
    Well, maybe. The story I heard - but which the man himself always denied - was that he came into the world in Dublin, but his family moved to Sunderland when he was six weeks old, and his birth was registered there.
     One would assume that his family would know his correct age. Just the same, it should be noted that, when he applied to be examined for the positions of first mate, second mate, or master, he always gave his date of birth as 14 September 1844 - except that, after the Clarinda disaster (of which more later), when he may have been overwrought, he quoted 1845. If it is of any significance, the great Irish potato famine commenced in 1845.
    Be that as it may, two things are certain. The first is that the McGoverns are an ancient sept of the O'Rourkes, originating in County Cavan, Ireland, and that, according to his wife, "You could see Jack McGoverns roaming all over Dublin."  The second is that he was a patriotic British subject "who would kill you if you called him Irish".
    John appears to have been blessed with no middle name. To his friends, he was usually known as Jack, and he pronounced the first vowel in his surname as in "job", rather than in "govern". His parents were Charles and Margaret (née Eastwood), and they provided him with at least four brothers and two sisters. It is noteworthy that, when Jack himself eventually married, his late father's occupation was listed as civil engineer, so he could not have been too poverty-stricken.
    But to return to the obituary:
His father receiving only a small wage, he early had to fend for himself and at the age of 13 he went to sea, signing on as a member of a crew of the small sailing ship, Alpha, of only 268 tons, engaged in the Mediterranean trade.
    This is not the only case where family tradition appears to be contradicted by the official records. When applying for certificates as an officer, my great-grandfather would list the ships on which he had served - or at least those for which he had full records. He did, however, note that he had several other vessels. The first on his list was the Harrison from 20 June to 25 August 1860, followed by the Clifton Hall, 20 August 1861 to 17 January 1862, and only then on the Alpha from  February to 9 September 1862. All of these were registered at Sunderland, and on all of them he served as an ordinary seaman. Nevertheless, he did say that he first went to sea in August 1859. Was that, perhaps, on the Alpha?
     As an aside, one wonders whether this was the same Alpha, whose crew, on 30 May 1849, happened to see what was described as a monster twenty feet [6 metres] wide in the ocean south of Australia. Dr Heuvelmans, in his book, In the Wake of the Sea-Serpents, suggests it may have been a giant ray.
    In any case, even bearing in mind the hardships of his childhood, one can only imagine the trauma of such a young cabin boy, separated from all who loved and cared for him, being thrust into the tough and merciless life of the windjammers, where life was nasty, brutish, and frequently short, where you grew up strong, or not at all. Once, at the end of a long watch, when the cook sent him to fetch rainwater from a barrel, he was so utterly exhausted, that as he reached into the cask with the dipper, and his chest rested against the lip of the barrel, he fell asleep - until awakened by the cook's boot on the seat of his pants. Nevertheless, he learned to read and write as a cabin boy. Believe it or not, the merchant navy did accept some responsibility for the welfare of its youngest recruits, and provided primers and text books for their education.
Three years later, a well-developed lad, keen in his vocation, he was able to take a position as Ordinary Seaman on the Clifton Hall, a sailing ship of 354 tons, in these days a mere cockle shell. A year later he reached the status of Able Seaman, in which capacity he signed on the ... Princess Alexandra of 291 tons.
    The Princess Alexandra voyage was from 15 June to 19 November 1863. In this general period  that the celebrated incident of "McGovern's duff" probably occurred. For a description of "duff", one can do no better than quote Richard Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast, some quarter century before:
This is nothing more than flour boiled with water, and eaten with molasses. It is very heavy, dark, and clammy, yet it is looked upon as a luxury, and really forms an agreeable variety with salt beef and pork. Many a rascally captain has made friends of his crew by allowing them duff twice a week on the passage home.
    But the cook made no friend of Able Seaman McGovern when the latter came in, stiff and cold, from a late watch on the icy deck, to find his duff sitting isolated on the table, stone cold and rock hard. Great guffaws rose from his shipmates at his dismay, but we were not told of their reactions when he heaved the duff at the cook, who caught it on his stomach, and promptly fell unconscious. Jack McGovern was flung into the brig for the offense, but at least it gave him a great story for later years. Later, when he was in a position of authority, he would always insist that his crew had proper food, with the adage, "Work won't hurt anyone if he is well fed."
    In his list of ships, he added that he had served on other vessels for a total of about seven years. The longest gap was the three year period from the start of 1864 to the end of 1866. Therefore, it would have been about this time that the following adventure occurred:
During his early career he left his ship in California and went to the Diablo gold diggings, where with a companion he worked with fair success until his mate decamped with their earnings and he had to return to the sea.
    It sounds like the sort of thing an impetuous youth might do. But the California gold rush had effectively petered out by 1864, and long before then, most of the diggings had been mechanised, and the day of the free-lance prospector was almost at an end. Sailors, I might add, have a tendency to move between ships, not infrequently involving themselves in various escapades in the intervals - especially during gold rushes.
In 1867 he was on the Glenaris (679 tons), the first ship to take wheat from Australia to England [sailing from Port Adelaide]. His next voyage was in the same ship to the pirate infested Chinese seas, where the ship just eluded capture. In 1869 he was Boatswain (Bo'sun) on the Coral Nymph, which was wrecked somewhere in the East, the crew saving themselves with much difficulty and danger.
      He sailed on the Glenaris from January to May 1867 as an Able Bodied Seaman, then rejoined  it on 5 July 1867 as bosun, continuing until 24 April 1868. He does not appear to have had much time in port, for he sailed in the Elizabeth Katherine from  12 June 1968 until 18 January 1869. The Coral Nymph incident must have occurred in 1869. Obviously, there is a fascinating story here, if one could only access it. But the vague reference to "somewhere in the East" is a clue that the details failed to be passed down to the family. It may have happened near Batavia (modern Jakarta). All my mother could remember was that they were several days in a lifeboat, and he developed sunburn  in the corner of his torso where his shirt was torn.
He secured his Second Mate's ticket in 1870 on the Sleeve Danard of 1298 tons, sailing to Bombay, Calcutta and Mauritius.
    He certainly recorded that he had served as Second Mate on the Sleeve Danard from 13 January to 28 August 1870, but when he returned to England in September 1870 he applied for, and was granted, a Second Mate's certificate. He stated that his previous certificate had been "only colonial" - which may say something about the way the system worked then.
    In the intervals ashore, he had time to woo and, on 17 July 1871, marry Marget Ellen Amiss, the daughter of widowed Captain William Amiss of Sunderland.  He got her on the rebound. It is said that her chief motive in accepting his proposal was to avoid becoming an old maid, for her fiancé, Tommy Wallace had been drowned at sea, and she kept his love letters all her life. Be that as it may, there appears to have been genuine affection between them, and the union produced five offspring: William ("Willy") in 1874, Ada in 1877, John Burton (named after a close friend of that name) in 1880, my grandmother, Clarinda ("Clarrie") in 1883 and, finally, Norah in 1886.
He was promoted to steam in 1872, on the Clarinda, and [sailed] in the Genoa, East Indian, South American and Baltic trade.
    He was always proud to have been one of the first to go into steam, but it wasn't on the Clarinda. His first was the S.S. Chambeze of Sunderland, on which he served from 1873 to 1875, with few breaks. The longest period he had at home was six months (and what did he earn during that time?). It was no wonder that he called a seaman's life "voluntary exile".  After the Chambeze came the Callisto Park in 1876, and then the Clarinda in 1877.
     The S.S. Clarinda, at 1075 tons, had been constructed in 1871, and operated on both steam and sail. It was 67 metres long and 9 metres wide, with a single screw driven by a 98 hp two cylinder compound engine and two boilers. With a good ship, a good wife, and a growing family, Jack McGovern always said that his eight years on the Clarinda were the happiest of his life. It was not for nothing that he named his second daughter after her.
He was enrolled in the Royal Naval Reserves. He passed his examination for First Mate [on 7 September] 1879 at Hong Kong, and passed for Captain at Cardiff in 1885.
     Wrong! He passed his examination for First Mate in March 1873, upon which he joined the Chambeze. It was on 20 September 1875 that he gained his Master's certificate, after which he took command of the Callisto Mark. It had taken him just 16 years to rise from the rank of uneducated cabin boy to ship's captain.

The Last Voyage of the Clarinda

    Jack McGovern had reached the pinnacle of his career. Life was looking up. To be sure, there were some hiccups. In March 1880 she broke her crankshaft during the height of a gale, and had to be towed back to port. And at the end of December, 1885 the ship lost her propeller off Piperi Island, Greece, and had to be towed to the port of Salonica by the French steamer, Europa at the cost of £250, which was a lot of money in those days. But these were the natural hazards of shipping. The crunch came ten months later.
    On 17 October 1885, he shipped out from Cardiff on the Clarinda with a crew of 17, heading for Kronstadt with a cargo of coal.   Probably the last thing on his mind was what happened next. In a northeasterly force 3 wind (otherwise known as a "gentle breeze"), 13 miles off the Isle of Wight, the Clarinda collided with a passenger steamer, the S.S. Tern, and sunk. Jack McGovern reached shore with just his life, and the clothes on his back. Everything else, even his cat and canary, had been swallowed by the ravenous maw of the English Channel. He had to find his way home with clothes provided by the Seamen's Mission.
    Mr David Wendes, the diver who located the wreck of the Clarinda in 2003, has kindly sent me copies of two newspaper reports, from the days when newspapers were much more interested in ship movements than they are now. The first was from the Soton Observer and Winchester News of Saturday 24 October 1885, on page 5:
     SHIP SUNK OFF ST CATHERINE'S POINT. - On Sunday morning the s.s. Tern, of Cork, from Liverpool for Rotterdam, brought into this port the crew of the s.s. Clarinda, of Sunderland, Cardiff for Cronstadt, laden with coals, which she had been in collision with, and sunk, about 18 miles off St Catherine's Point on Saturday evening. About seven o'clock the Clarinda was overtaken by the Tern, and on the latter endeavouring to pass, the Clarinda was struck amidships, and sunk about an hour afterwards. The night was a bright moonlight one, and both shops were distinctly visible to each other. The crew of the Clarinda (16 in number) were immediately transferred to the Tern, and conveyed to Southampton. The captain of the sunken ship made a deposition at the Board of Trade offices, and immediately proceeded to London, and the crew were sent to their various destinations by the local agent of the Shipwrecked Fishermen's and Mariner's Society, after being attended to at the Sailors' Home, at this port. The Tern sustained some damage, and was docked for repairs.
    I should explain that the reference to a crew of 16 does not include the officers ie the mate and the captain. It does, however, include the 14 year old nephew of the captain's sister, one William de Costa (1870 - 1950), who had enlisted as an "engineer's steward", which I suspect is seaman's lingo for "cabin boy". His wages were recorded as 16 shillings.
    The circumstances of the collision were rather peculiar, as was revealed in the subsequent court action, as recorded in The Times of 30 November 1885, on page 13:
    This was an action brought by the owners of the steamship Clarinda against the owners of the steamship Tern, to recover damages for the loss of their vessel by collision, on the night of 17th of October last in the English Channel, off St. Catherine's Point. The plaintiffs' case was that the Clarinda was steering east by south, and making from seven to eight knots and hour, when the Tern, which had been gradually overhauling her, passed along her starboard side, and crossed from her starboard on to her port bow. The helm of the Clarinda was thereupon ported a little to give the Tern more room and then steadied, but, instead of remaining on the port bow of the Clarinda, the Tern ported her helm as if to recross on to the starboard bow, at the same time slackening her speed, and causing danger of collision. The engines of the Clarinda were at once reversed full speed, and her helm was put hard port, but the Tern with her starboard quarter struck the Clarinda on the port bow, without, however, doing her any damage. The engines of that Clarinda were then stopped, and the Tern having passed on to her starboard bow to a distance of about a quarter of a mile, was also stopped. Shortly afterwards a flare light was burnt on board the Tern, and the engines of the Clarinda were set half speed ahead, and her helm was put hard starboard. When the Tern was by this manoeuvre brought broad on to the starboard bow, the engines of the Clarinda were stopped, her helm was steadied, and her lifeboat was ordered away. Some few minutes afterwards, however, the Tern, which was by now nearly abeam of the Clarinda, and about a ship's length off, was seen to be coming astern; and though those on board the Clarinda hailed her to go ahead, she continued to approach stern first, and crashed into the Clarinda's starboard side, doing her so much damage that she sank shortly afterwards. The defendents' case was that the two vessels had been in company for a considerable time, the Tern, which was on an east three-quarter south course, being on the starboard beam of the Clarinda. Some time after sunset the Clarinda was seen to be closing in on the Tern'sport side, and shortly afterwards the Clarinda opened her red light and crossed under the stern of the Tern. The helm of the latter was then starboarded slightly to give the Clarinda more room and then ported a little to bring the Tern back to her original course. The Clarinda, however, then steered to port, and though the helm of the Tern was put hard starboard, the port bow of the former struck the latter on the starboard quarter, doing considerable damage. After the first collision the engines of the Tern were stopped as soon as the vessels were well clear, and steps were taken to examine the damage with a light. The Clarinda, which was now on the Tern's port quarter, passed across to her starboard quarter, and again approached showing her masthead and green lights. The engines of the Tern were then put full speed ahead, but the Clarinda, with her engines still going ahead, struck the Tern with her starboard side.
    The defendants counterclaimed for the damage sustained by the Tern.
    Mr. Charles Hall, Q.C., and Mr. J. Gorell Barnes appeared for the plaintiffs; Mr. Bueknill, Q.C., and Dr Raikes for the defendants.
    MR. JUSTICE BUTT was of opinion that the Tern was the faster vessel, and that the courses being slightly converging, she had drawn ahead of the Clarinda and on to her port bow. He found that that first collision was caused by the action of the Tern in porting her helm when in that position. With regard to the second collision, he was of the opinion that it was caused by the Clarinda going ahead too long, when approaching the Tern with the object of rendering her assistance. As, however, he was of the opinion that the master of the Clarinda was trying to save life, and was probably excited by the first collision, which had been caused by the negligence of those on board the Tern, he (the learned Judge), did not consider that the owners of the Clarinda were to be held responsible. He therefore dismissed both claim and counterclaim.
    Nevertheless, the captain's reputation was sufficient to permit him to command ships across the seven seas for the next decade. Since he did not always return to his home port, his wife once crossed the country to wait for him at Cardiff. She remembered watching a ship force its way into harbour in the teeth of such a dreadful storm, that an onlooker commented that, "Only Jack McGovern would try that." She even accompanied him with 5-year-old Norah to South America, where a stevedore gave the little girl some amethysts on a necklace. However, when my cousin, who now owns them, took them to a jeweller's shop, she was told they were glass. It was probably on this voyage that Margaret called attention to a dead body floating in the broad Rio de la Plata. "You didn't see it!" cried her husband. He knew that if he reported it, the ship would be tied up in port indefinitely while investigations were underway.
    As for eldest son, Willy, he wanted to do everything. He wanted to be an engineer but, being too young, he became a midshipman.

Leaving Home
    Now a midlife crisis caught up with the captain, and he resolved to migrate to Australia. According to his own account, his reasons were twofold. Firstly, he did not want to see his children die of consumption (tuberculosis), as had two of his wife's sisters. Nor did he like the high taxes in England. (He would be appalled at the current taxes in Australia!) However, we may surmise that, as middle age overtook him, the downside of his chosen career began to loom larger. "Voluntary exile" he called it. His children were growing up while he was away. When he returned, he would sink into his armchair, and his wife would tell them not to disturb their father - although he would have loved the children to "disturb" him. And as he sank into the armchair (upholstered in masculine leather, rather than the feminine chintz his wife would have preferred), he may have considered that life at sea is spartan at best, even for a ship's captain. He may also have reflected that the sea is both cruel and capricious. Twice he had narrowly escaped when its treacherous tentacles had reached out and dragged his ships under. His wife had almost lost a husband, as she had once lost a fiancé. When the congregation sang, "For those in peril on the sea," he could take it personally.
    Now, an old friend, Mr Isbister, a former ship's chandler (supplier) of Sunderland, had moved to "Park Terrace", a property at Cottee, a district close to Wagga Wagga and Coolamon. Why a citizen of a northern English harbour town would choose a new home in the Riverina is anybody's guess, but that was where he ended up, and when Jack McGovern heard that Park Terrace was again on the market, he decided that that was where he also wanted to end up. Now, Willy had once expressed a wish to become a cowboy, as teenagers will, so at the age of 19, he was sent out by his father across to the other side of the world, to set up the farm all by himself. Considering that Willy had no experience at farming, not even in his home country, it was amazing he ever got started.
    The family followed in 1895, the younger son, Jack Jr making his first and last voyage as his father's cabin boy. The Captain did not give charge of the money to his wife, but to his 18-year-old daughter, Ada, who considered it an unwelcome responsibility. Margaret herself was not too enthusiastic about the voyage, but young Clarrie was very excited about going to a new country where the house was a mile wide. Alas! It was only the property, not the the house, which possessed that dimension, but even so, it must have appeared very large - and hot, and dry, and isolated - compared to Sunderland. Park Terrace's glory days were well behind it when I visited it as a little boy, but I remember it being divided into two sections: a long kitchen-cum-dining-room-cum hall, with the sleeping quarters separate. It was a bit like La Trobe's Cottage in Melbourne.
    Not only were they not farmers by nature, but they had picked the wrong time to migrate. The property had been purchased during the end of a period of heavy rainfall. Now the worst drought in the country's history, the Federation Drought, set in. At one point they had no milk whatsoever to add to their tea, so Margaret attempted - presumably only once - to substitute egg white. My great-grandfather saw no recourse but to go back into voluntary exile.
    Fortunately, he possessed not only a reputation, but also shares in the shipping company, so in 1901 he was able to take command of the 1900 ton S.S. Viola. All went well for two years, and then came the events of 19 September 1903. With a crew of 20, and a cargo of 2600 tons of iron ore from Spain, he was setting a course for Middlesborough, England, while attempting to give the rocks outside Whitby a wide berth. Unfortunately, the fog which surrounded them was becoming progressively thicker. The sea was rough, but the watch saw no sign of broken water, before they suddenly ran up against the reef at Kettleness Steel. The engines were run astern for half an hour, but to no avail. Water was flooding in. A coastguard boat set out from the coast, and took off the crew, but the captain, along with his engineer and first mate resolutely refused to abandon ship. But as the weather worsened, they themselves eventually were forced to accept rescue. To add insult to injury, they were charged £22/7/- for the service.
    Whether any cargo was salvaged, I cannot say, but two weeks later, the ship broke her back, and was completely lost. At the subsequent enquiry, Captain McGovern was found to have been at fault for neglect in the use of the lead, and was suspended for three months.  Therefore, his obituary was incorrect in stating that he was second mate at the time, and implying that it happened in 1870 or 1871. Whoever provided that information to the paper had been sugaring the pill.
     Nevertheless, he continued to ply the seas as captain for another six years. Hundreds of post cards continued to arrive home from as far afield as Paris, Antwerp, Istanbul, and Rosario, and the vast majority date from the period 1903 to 1907. (I may share some of them with you some time.) Margaret is believed to have accompanied him at times. She is known to have delighted the cook - and incurred her husband's displeasure - by requesting a second helping of his soup. Probably the cook at the time was the another William de Costa, the husband of the captain's sister. Once, when the captain ordered "all hands on deck!" during a severe storm, he found de Costa trembling on his knees, praying to a religious item called the Virgin Mary's Slipper (perhaps a reference to the Slipper Chapel). With a roar, the captain kicked him in the butt and threw the slipper overboard. On another occasion, he told his wife to go below during a storm so as not to hear the strong language which was likely to be used when he gave his orders.
     In 1909, he finally came "home from the sea" as a passenger on the S.S. Persic. By that time, the drought had ended, and good times had returned. In 1905 the family had purchased a second property downriver, at Currawarna. And in 1910, he decided to sell it and retire to a house in Coolamon with his wife and youngest daughter.

A Colourful Character

    For a start, the grandfather my mother knew was the classic patriarch, a commander of men. Whenever he visited Clarrie's farm, her nine children could be sure of being whipped into shape like a crew, and allotted tasks: "All hands to the pump!" "Sweep the deck!" and so forth. "Keep your wings in!" he would roar, if he caught one of them spreading his or her elbows at mealtimes. "On a ship you'd have no more than 18 inches at the table." So impressive were the words, they were passed down verbatim from his granddaughter to her sons, when she was training them in good manners. "What if you were more than 18 inches wide?" I asked. I never got a straight answer to that, but the lessons stuck, and they have proved invaluable during economy class in-flight dining. At least we didn't get our hands rapped with the edge of the breadsaw. Nor did we face laughter at school because our hair had been cropped short by a grandfather who had appointed himself barber.
    Once when he turned up at Clarrie's, he decided to rope the children into working on the chimney. Alf announced that he had to milk the cows, and the girls somehow got out of it, which left "Halley" (Harold), aged perhaps six or seven, to do the job. The girls looked on, and made faces at him, but Halley was a willing worker. Unfortunately, his grandfather became frustrated, and gave him an undeserved clip over the ear. Later, the task finished, and the old man now filled with both gratitude and remorse, gave his nephew a ten shilling note as a reward. That was, in my mother's words, "a fearful lot of money in those days". (In fact, it would have been a day's wage for a labourer.) When the little boy handed it over to his mother for safekeeping, my mother led a delegation to insist it be shared among his brothers and sisters. Don't think it was something easily forgotten. More than forty years later, Uncle Halley brought it up in my presence, albeit with a jocular tone.
    The Captain was also a raconteur. My mother remembers a dance where some of the boys went missing. A careful search revealed them to be outside, listening raptly to Jack McGovern's tales of the sea. He could tell of piles of currants waiting to be loaded in Spain, while bare-bottomed children slid down them. He could tell of buying shovels in England for a shilling each, and selling them in Russia for three times that amount. He could relate the custom at Archangel, Russia, north of the Arctic Circle, whereby if you saw a stranger with a speck of white developing on his nose, you would stop and, without uttering a word, begin rubbing his nose in your hands, for the spot was indicative of frostbite. And he could also explain to the boys that, when you get involved in a dockside brawl (how many had he experienced?), you put your boot in, and fight dirty. You can't afford to fight clean.
    His travels had left him with certain opinions about various nationalities. He did not like the Dutch; they didn't abide by the maritime rules. They once forced him out of Batavia when he entered to take on water. His experiences in southern Europe and South America left him with a prejudice against Roman Catholicism. He liked to tell about the couple with a wayward son. When he later asked how the son was getting on, he was told everything was all right now: he had entered the priesthood! (The possibility that the young man may have seen the errors of his ways did not, apparently, occur to him.) For this reason, he insisted his family attend the Methodist church, rather than the Church of England, because it was "too Catholic". (This was during the heyday of the controversy over Ritualism.) But Ada, apparently, used to return to the Anglican church as soon as his ship had sailed.
    He believed that you shouldn't buy anything unless it was the very best. He smoked the occasional cigar, and would take a cane and a pair of gloves when he went for a walk. At times, he would don an Astrakhan hat, or a tasseled fez, both acquired in his travels. He wore silk shirts, and used to go around with a cummerbund of Assam silk (red for special occasions). But he was adverse to rolling up his sleeves, because he was embarrassed by one of the mementos of his youth: his arms were covered with tattoos, including the Union Jack, and a large crucifix. Indeed, when he discovered that Willy, as midshipman, was about to follow the custom, he quickly put a stop to it. For the rest of his days, Willy carried two little dark spots at the junction of his thumb and forefinger, where a tattoo had commenced.
    He had peculiar, seaman's ways. His bed stood on the veranda, and against its sides he had upright planks (of the best New Zealand timber, of course) fitted to give the comforting, familiar feeling of a ship's bunk. His house was the only one in the neighbourhood painted white (to keep it clean), and with the veranda tarred (to make it last longer). The raised section of the house was connected to the lower part, not by a short flight of stairs, but by a gangplank. From a flag pole waved a Union Jack.
    He was intensely patriotic, and during the Great War spent a lot of time and money assisting soldiers. He was a Freemason from his early days in Sunderland, and in his new home, an enthusiastic member of the Overseas Club, as well as the Cottee Tennis Club.

Later Years

    All this time, Park Terrace was being managed by Willy and Ada, both unmarried. But when the latter held her wedding there in 1914, the family descended on the site. Now, Willy was the apple of his old mother's eye, and she thought this would be a good time to stay there and keep house for him. "If the Captain doesn't ask me back," she said, "I won't go." He didn't.
    Margaret herself finally succumbed to type II diabetes in 1921, at the age of 72, just before insulin was introduced. Urged by friends and relatives, who insisted he should not live alone, the widower agreed to join William and Norah at Park Terrace. However, he refused to share their house, and settled into the hut originally intended for the farmhands. At other times he stayed with Ada and her husband.
The death occurred at the age of 83 years, suddenly, on Saturday morning last [ie 14 September 1929], on his son's farm at Cottee, of Captain John McGovern, a well-known figure and a respected resident of this district since 1906. He had been in town the previous week and had met many friends at the Coolamon Show, all of who he informed that he was feeling exceptionally well. After breakfast on Saturday last he complained of slight indigestion and said he would lie down for a little while. His son looking into his room shortly afterwards, found him dead. Medical opinion was that death was due to heart failure.
    Friends and relatives gathered from miles around for the funeral the following day. In a coffin shrouded with the Union Jack - as befitted a Royal Naval Reservist - they bore him to his last resting place in the Methodist portion of the Coolamon cemetery. A long life of adventure and achievement was over.
    Great-grandfather, you really should have written your memoires!

Now, let's go to the next chapter to read about the other relatives, or simply click on "Older Posts" below.
Othwise, return to the index.

Addendum. Again, my Aunt Hilda (going on 89, and the last of the family) has come up with some new information about her grandfather's last days. I shall quote it verbatim.
     I shall start with Uncle Willy's shed - as I remember it as a child. [This was the "granny flat" where the Captain spent his last days. Hilda was only 4½ when he died.] It was very large, closed in on one side and on both ends. I also remember looking in the window, once with Doug when we were very young or perhaps it was later once with Lil. The only things I remember seeing where the two end sections of a single iron bedstead pushed up against the wall. There also seemed to be an atmosphere of mystery about it. Perhaps we weren't meant to be looking around.
- - -
    Towards the end of his life Grandfather McGovern must have been living at "Park Terrace". Every Saturday it had become his practice to mix up a special plum pudding, tie it in a bag ready to boil up on Sunday morning for the midday meal. He did this as usual on that last Saturday. Grandfather then retired to his bed up in the shed. Remember I said there was a bedroom up there in the shed. Later in the afternoon Uncle Willy checked up on him and found that his father had died in his sleep.
     Now, what did they do way back in those days when someone died of old age at home? Who laid them out? This was out in the country. Mrs. Gowland, the neighbour and close friend of the family laid him out.
     My mother came as soon as she heard that her father had died. Mrs Gowland was apparently still there. She tried to console my mother my saying how distinguished, etc, etc, he looked in death. Mum, telling the story many years later, declared that to her he looked more like an old tom cat! [Speaking from experience, I would say that gazing at corpses is a much overrated pasttime. I remember how shocked I was at the appearance of my father in the coffin, and I was afraid I would never remember him any other way. To their credit, however, the undertakers did a good job with my mother.]
     That pudding recipe. Uncle Willy, many years later, said he regretted not getting the recipe for the pudding. It obviously stayed in his mind as one of the highlights of the week.
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