Sunday, December 9, 2012

Who Am I?

 Well, my name is Malcolm Thomas Alfred Smith, as this is what I looked like the day before I turned 40. Since then, I have acquired a few grey hairs, some wrinkles, and a pair of spectacles.
I was born on 6th May 1949 in Sydney, N.S.W., the first of two sons to Sydney George Smith and Margaret Clare Smith née Dennis. However, I have spent most of my life in Brisbane, Queensland.
      According to accepted definition, a "nerd" is someone combining high intellectual development with low development of the social skills. At school, I was the class nerd, before the term was even invented. Moving on to the University of Queensland, I gained a B.Sc. in zoology then, for my M.Sc. thesis, performed groundbreaking research into the behaviour of koalas. It is my sole claim to academic fame, so I have written about it in another blog.
      How matters would have turned out if I had been able to follow my chosen career is anyone's guess. Alas, only one in 20 zoology graduates ended up with a placing, and I was one of the other 19. So, in 1978, while waiting for a real job to come along, I decided to sit for the public service exam, and found myself in the Department of Veterans' Affairs.
     That took care of the next 30 years. By the time I received a voluntary redundancy in 2008, I was acting as an advocate for the department before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal - a pretend barrister in front of a pretend court. When I had been recording the scratches and squabbles of koalas, that was one thing which never entered my mind!
    Although zoology was neither my first, nor my only, love, I did keep up with it to some extent. I was a member of the now defunct International Society for Cryptozoology, and I wrote a book on the subject, Bunyips and Bigfoots.
     Also, safely ensconced in a government job, I found myself free to use my annual leave to travel the world - to 83 different countries, as far afield as Greenland, Madagascar, and Easter Island (twice). I have walked among gorillas, hunted with pygmies, and stood, barefoot and shivering, in the Yukon rapt in gaze at the northern lights. I have been places millionaires never visit.
      Then, in 2000, everything changed. To the complete surprise of everyone who knew me, I got married - to Esther Philippi, a pastor's daughter 8 years my junior, born and bred in New Guinea - and lived happily ever after.
       Life has not turned out as I planned it - whose does? - but it has turned out well. I now live in retirement, with leisure, affluence, health, memories, and someone I love. In this life, a man is blessed if he can achieve any combination of the above.
Surely goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life,
And I expect to dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
      I have a very wide range of interests, and over the coming months and years, will endeavour to share them with you in a wide range of blogs, which will be listed below.

29 going on 30
   

 OTHER BLOGS
      
      HUMOUR  This pretty much speaks for itself.

      CRYPTOZOOLOGY This involves research into animals not yet officially recognized by science. Initially, I shall be translating foreign articles, but later will move onto actual sightings in Australia.
(There is an article about me on another cryptozoological website here.)

      ANOMALIES UFOs, apparitions, the paranormal, and much more. Essentially, this covers all manner of things which don't fit into the scientific paradigm.

    REPAT RACKET. The book I wrote on the workings of Veterans' Affairs legislation has now been put on the web.

    STRANGE BUT TRUE. Quirky stories which I come across, and which just beg to be preserved and shared.

    RIVERINA GIRL. These are the stories by mother told me of growing up on a farm in the years 1909 - 1930.

    MISCELLANEOUS Anything that does not fit into the other blogs: history, science, religion, politics, literature, languge - you name it; there will be something for everybody.

A Skeleton in the Family Closet

     It doesn't do for an Australian to dig around the roots of his family tree if he is afraid of what might be unearthed.
     When my paternal grandparents, H. F. Smith and Amelia Skelson were married, the bride's father was recorded as Samuel Skelson, miller. Since the wedding took place in 1890, the assumption might be that, like my maternal great-grandparents, they arrived during the great migration boom in the middle of the nineteenth century. But assumptions can be - well - presumptuous. It turned out that my grandmother never actually knew her father, as she was the daughter of his (relative) old age, and she was still only a baby when he died.
     Samuel Skelson was born in Loughborough, Leicestershire in England in 1816, and in 1839 married Elizabeth Robson (b 1814) at St Margaret's Church, Leicestershire. Their daughter, Mary Ann was born the following year. He was a Protestant, a stocking maker by trade, and able to read and write.
     Then in 1841 he and his 19-year-old accomplice, Joseph Hurst were brought up before the Leicestershire Quarter Sessions and found guilty of highway robbery, with the theft of a 5 shilling pocket book and pen knife. Sentence: 15 years' transportation.
     Fifteen years for stealing five shillings! The law was tough in those days. Even 100 years ago, you would still go straight to gaol for crimes which would most likely lead to being "bound over" these days. Perhaps we have gone too far in the opposite direction. But let's apply a bit of perspective. The classic pay for a soldier used to be "a shilling a day". Five shillings used to buy more than 50c does today. But, in any case, it was highway robbery. Assailing people on the Queen's highway and demanding money with menaces is not just a peccadillo, no matter how slight the pickings. However, it does illustrate something which is still true today: crime is a mug's game - in economic terms, a high risk, low yield venture. Not long ago it was reported that only one in six house break-ins is Brisbane were solved. This, I'll agree, is pretty tough on the victims. But look at it from the point of view of the thief: he has one chance in six of being caught every time he does a "job" - and anything he gets must be "fenced" at a fraction of its real price. He'd be better off getting a proper job.
     But to return to the story: after the chaos of the First Fleet, transportation was normally restricted to repeat offenders. British justice operated a two-strikes-and-you're-out policy; first offence: you went to gaol at home, second offence: you joined the great colonial empire-building program on an involuntary basis. In this case, Mr Hurst had received his first strike when he stole a pork pie. Great-grandfather Skelson had already notched up a month for a misdemeanour, another month for assault, and two or three fines for other assaults. It is a telling record. Stealing a pocket book might have been an act of desperation, but assault? He was clearly on the road to a life of petty crime, if he hadn't already reached the destination.
     On 6 April, 1841 he departed from Sheerness on the Layton II, along with other 249 involuntary colonisers. Past Tenerife, and around the Cape of Good Hope they sailed, arriving at Van Diemen's Land on 6 December, 1841. The ship's surgeon recorded his height as 5ft 5½ inches, and his character as "good". In a double tragedy, his little daughter, born the previous year, passed away the same year of his conviction. It was also effectively the end of the Skelson marriage; husband and wife never saw each other again. Elizabeth remained in England, neither widow, mother, or maid, until her early death in 1854 - two lives ruined by a thoughtless deed.
     The prison system in Van Diemen's Land, and in Australia in general, was brutal, but also efficient and fair. As Coultman Smith (no relation) pointed out in Shadow Over Tasmania, it formed one of the world's great criminal rehabilitation programs. If you bucked the system, you went down - to the whipping post, the chain gang, the outer hells of Port Arthur and Macquarie Harbour, and finally the gallows. But if you behaved yourself, you went up - to lighter work, ticket of leave (ie parole), early release, and finally a chance to either return home or (more likely) to start a new life in a new land far away from the slums and evil influences that originally led you there.
     Sam Skelson obviously decided on the second course, because on 3 November 1849 ie just over halfway through his sentence, he was granted ticket of leave. He could now seek work, or start his own business, in the colony, under certain restrictions. And on  28 August 1852, with four years of his sentence still to run, he was recommended for a conditional pardon.
     Then, on 25 February 1853, he applied for permission to marry another convict, one Mary Donavan of the ship Maria. However, no more is heard of her, so we can deduce what happened next. It was quite common in those days to obtain a "geographic divorce" ie not tell anybody that you were still legally married to someone else on the other side of the world. However, when it came to seeking permission through official channels, the powers that be almost certainly looked up their documentation, and found that he was recorded as being married. Without any evidence of his wife's death, they would have had no option but to decline the request.
       1855 found him in Sydney. As this was the height of the gold rush, no doubt he decided that was the best place to go, even if he declined to join the rush himself. Also, by then he must have been notified about the death of his wife, because in 1856 he remarried.
     Ann ("Annie") Lownds was 13 years younger than San, having been born at Pitterton, Cheshire on 2 October 1829. In 1854 she had arrived in Sydney aboard the Plantaganet with her husband, Edward Prosser (b 1830) and their two children, Maryanne (b 1849) and George (b 22 December 1850). Then disaster struck. The following year, her husband died, leaving her widowed and stranded in a strange country with two very small children.
     The very next year, she and Samuel Skelson were married. There were obvious advantages on both sides. The widow now had a breadwinner, and a father for her two children. The rehabilitated convict, pushing middle age, and with life passing him by, now had a young wife and a ready-made family. They went on to add two daughters of their own: Eliza ("Beth") on 19 February 1861 and Amelia on 5 November 1867.
     Then, on Friday 28 August 1868, the Sydney Morning Herald carried the following item:
SUDDEN DEATH. - An inquest was held on Thursday, this instant, at the residence of Mr. P. Bale, Cornwall St., before Mr. Alfred Lardner, J. P., coroner, and a jury of twelve, touching the case of the death of one Samuel Skelson, who had expired suddenly the day previous. The finding, as reported in the Clarence Examiner, is as follows: - John Govett Smith deposed: He was a legally skilled medical practitioner residing at Grafton; he knew the deceased, but he had not been under his medical treatment, though he had supplied him with a box or two of ... pills; he was sent for to see the deceased today, who he was informed had dropped dead; upon his arrival at the deceased's residence, he found life extinct; the circles of the body quite warm and resilient, and lividity of the countenance; from the evidence he had heard, and the appearance of the body, he could be of no opinion as to the cause of death. Mrs. Bale stated that she shent for Dr. Croft yesterday, at the request of Mrs. Skelson, but not being at home, Dr. Smith was summoned, he at once attended, but deceased had expired before he had reached the place. Ann Skelson deposed that her husband told her that when consulting Dr. Purdle, some time back, he (Dr. Purdle) had informed him that he thought his (Skelson's) heart was touched but with care, he might live for years, but that deceased should not undertake hard work, or any heavy lifting, nor had he done any work for that day. Dr. Smith said that the latter evidence went only to show that deceased was troubled with disease of the heart. The jury, without retiring, found - "That the deceased, Samuel Skelson, had died from natural causes, probably heart disease."
     He was only 52 years old, Amelia just 9½ months. And for the second time, Great-grandmother Ann found herself a widow with young children. Fortunately, her son, George was almost a man, and was probably already earning a living. She appears to have taken in washing, because she is described as a laundress in 1871, when she gave evidence at a trial. Finally, after weathering 41 years of widowhood, and almost attaining her 80th birthday, she passed away on 19 July 1909.
     So, what does it mean to find a convict in the family? Not much. For some it is a blemish on their escutcheon; others regard it with a species of pride, as something linking them more closely to the country's history. Perhaps I am in the second boat, or I would not have published this post for the world to see. But ultimately, both pride of ancestry and shame of ancestry are conceits, for you are neither a better or worse person for either.
     My thanks are extended to my cousins, Nev Robertson and Christine Downie, who provided this information. (Christine also has forebears who arrived on convict ships, but they were administrators.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Why Is There a Silent "l" in "Malcolm?

    In Alaska and the Yukon, I noticed, they have, to put it politely, an idiosyncratic attitude towards spelling. When I asked the attendant at a local museum in Skagway why the cattle yoke was labeled a "yolk", she replied, "That's how it's spelt", with the nonchalant tone of one who can't imagine why anyone would want such self-evident information. And who was the Malcom So-and-So who donated the old telephone. He was an elderly resident of the district. Is that how he spells his name? "Yes," she replied, as if to ask: Why would you ever imagine anything different?
    Well, he is an exception to the rule. Most of us Malcolms are rather sensitive to strangers leaving out the second, silent "l" in our name. It could be worse, of course. My wife, Esther objects to being called Ester, as if she were a chemical, or Esta, or Estelle, or Easter or, in one notorious case, Eisthe.
    But it nevertheless begs the question: why does the name contain a second "l" if it is not pronounced? Essentially, because it was once longer. In the Domesday Book of 1086 it is recorded as "Malcolum", and I presume that was also how the contemporary Scottish king spelled his name. Even then, Scotland was divided between the English speaking Lowlands and the Gaelic speaking Highlands. The original Gaelic form was Máel Coluim, and is now Maol Choluim.
    The first part represents the Gaelic word for "bald". (It also occurs in the Mull of Kintyre, the Mull of Oa, and the Mull of Galloway, all of which are "bald" ie treeless, headlands.) However it had a secondary meaning of "slave", because the Irish slaves were shaved on one side of the head. Not doubt St Patrick bore this tonsure when he served as a slave in Ireland. The Irish priests therefore adopted the same tonsure as a symbol of the their servitude to God and the people. In fact, it was to become an issue between the Celtic missionaries to England and the Roman missionaries, who were tonsured in the form of a crown of thorns. The word therefore developed the tertiary meaning of "priest".
    The second part refers to St Columba (521-597), the Apostle to Scotland. An Irish prince, he copied a book by hand, and was outraged when a court awarded the copy to the monastery which owned the original. Indeed, he was so outraged that he took a band of armed followers, and reclaimed the book after a bloody fight. Afterwards, repenting, and faced with the threat of excommunication, he agreed to go into exile, vowing never to return until he had won as many men to salvation as had perished in the battle. As it turned out, he went further, establishing the great monastery at Iona, and for more than thirty years tramping over the barbarian kingdoms of the Scots and Picts, converting thousands and laying the foundation of Christianity in Scotland.
    Thus, a priest who followed in his train was a Malcolum, a priest of Columba and, since the Celtic priests were, as often as not, married, the name was propagated. (Hence such other surnames as McPherson, "son of a parson" and McTaggart, "son of a priest".)
     No, I don't have any Scottish ancestry. I was called Malcolm, and my brother Warren, because our family name is Smith, and every Tom, Dick and Harry is called Smith.
     At least it is a noble name. But you would never guess it from watching the movies. In the 1986 Australian film, Malcolm the titular character is slightly mentally retarded, or at least, decidedly odd. In one of the Miss Marple movies, Malcolm is the name of the village idiot. Bumbling clowns were always the stock characters of Jerry Lewis, and in Hollywood or Bust, the nincompoop he played was called Malcolm Smith! You will look in vain for any cinematic depiction of any macho character, any hero, any wise elder - indeed, any positive character at all - named Malcolm. The film industry treats with contempt and derision a name that  four kings were once proud to bear.
    Obviously, we need another King Malcolm to restore the balance, and I shall raise the issue with Will and Kate when they come to dinner.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

H. F. Smith (1862 - 1948)

      How transitory is earthly renown! My paternal grandfather was a wealthy and prominent citizen of Brisbane, and his shop a major city landmark for more than half a century, but now both have been completely forgotten. Perhaps this blog will rectify the situation to some extent.

      Harry Frederick Smith was born in Middlesex, England on 3 December 1862 to Richard Smith, the foreman of a glass warehouse, and his wife, Emma née Goodwin. It is possible that his first name was actually Harold. His father died in England, and his widowed mother brought her children out to Australia on the Woodlark in 1875. Of course, it is impossible at this distance to guess her motives, or why she chose Brisbane - which was not exactly the centre of civilisation in 1875. The semi-tropical climate must have come as a bit of a surprise. Harry was totally unimpressed with the first banana he ate. It was only later that he was told the skin needed to be removed first.
    Probably Emma hoped that there were better prospects in Australia for a family without a male bread-winner, but the situation must have been pretty grim. It is said that she kept the wolf from the door by sewing. Also, it is likely that his late father's title of glass warehouse foreman suggests a higher status than it actually entailed. Family tradition has it that the children, and possibly the mother, were illiterate. Some women in Brisbane taught him to read and write, and sent him to school. On Sunday he used to read the Bible to his mother's friends.
    At some point, he gained a position with C.A. Brown, jeweller, whose shop stood on the north side of Albert St, between Elizabeth and Edward Sts, approximately where Albert Lane now debouches onto the footpath, and from him he learned the skills of jeweller and watchmaker. Later, he was also able to add optometry to his repertoire.
    Then, on 16 July 1890, he married 22-year-old Amelia Skelson, a Grafton-born beauty employed decorating cakes for the Hirons, then well-known biscuit-makers in Toowong. Grandma's own family background was rather interesting. She was said to have been a kind lady, who gave money to the needy, and would lend a coat to a maid going out for the evening. From this union came eight children: Millicent (1891), Harold Flood (1893), Harry (1894), Ruby (1896), Victor (1899), Beryl (1902), and lastly, my father, Syd in 1906.
    Millicent contracted polio at the age of two, and was left partially lame. Much to the envy of some of her schoolmates, she used to be driven to school by the family's groom. Harold Flood acquired his unusual middle name by virtue of being born at the height of the Great Brisbane Flood, which required his father to row the doctor and midwife to the home. The day before he was born, the river reached its peak of 23 ft 9 in [7.24m] above the mean spring tide level - far worse than the floods of 1974 and 2011. Unfortunately, he lived only 50 days. We tend to forget how high the infant mortality rate was in those days. His brother, Victor survived only 15 days. And Beryl was only 23½ when she passed away. We Smiths either died young or married late, and those eight children produced only seven grandchildren.

 Smith's Corner
    In 1893 Grandpa lost, not only his son and heir, but also his job. After the devastation of the flood, Charles Allen Brown could no longer keep him on. In fact, he had gone bankrupt, owing what was then the exorbitant sum of £5,000. In response, Harry Smith took the bold step of striking out on his own and setting up business on the corner of Queen and George Streets, opposite the Treasury Building, which now contains the Treasury Casino. Smith's Corner, as it eventually came to be known, soon expanded to cover the whole corner of that block, and became a landmark which the Brisbane City Council still quotes as an example of verandah signage. Bearing in mind that he was dealing in what are essentially luxury items, that the population of the whole of Queensland was only 500,000 at the time of Federation, and that a recession hung over the last years of the 19th century, he must have been a superb businessman. By 1900 he had already opened further branches in both Ipswich and Toowoomba.
    Harry Smith had "arrived", and in 1901 he celebrated by commissioning portraits of his three daughters by the state's leading painter, Oscar Friström. As explained in an earlier post, the 50 guinea fee for each of them would have represented six to twelve months' wages for his staff. One of these paintings is now in the Queensland Art Gallery, one is in Newstead House, and the other was destroyed.
    In 1906, he opened another branch at 480 George St, Sydney. This was some months before my father was born, which was why he was named Sydney George Smith. Over the following years, the outlying branches were gradually closed as being too much trouble, leaving Smith's Corner in Brisbane as the jewel in the crown.    
    Here is a postcard of it, from 1916. And thereby hangs a tale. For as long as I could remember, a set of small family photographs stood on the mantelpiece, or in the display cabinet, at home, and one of these was a photograph of Aunt Beryl, my father's sister, who died in 1925. For some reason, my mother never removed it after she became a widow, even though she had never met Beryl. When I finally took possession of it, 35 years after my father's death, I removed it from its frame and - lo and behold! - there was the postcard underneath. My father had never mentioned it; he probably never knew it existed. Not only that, but the writing on the back revealed that it had been sent to 14-year-old Beryl from Egypt, by a friend in the A.I.F.

Marriages
    The broken half-photo at right is the only picture I have of my grandmother. Unfortunately, in 1909 Harry and Amelia were estranged. Why, no-one can say. "Who knows," said the Roman sage, "where the shoes pinches but the wearer?'
    The story I heard from my mother - and therefore third-hand - was that Grandpa informed his lawyer that she "wasn't a wife to me" (whatever that means). In those days, you needed a good reason to get a divorce, and public opinion held he institution of marriage in high regard. The lawyer flatly refused to get involved. Eventually, he found another lawyer to serve divorce papers on her. However, when he knocked on the door, it was answered by one of the older girls, and a small tribe of children were playing all around. His immediate reaction was: "What's this nonsense about not being a wife to him?" and he promptly made his departure.
    The rumour also had it that he was interested in another woman at the time, but I don't know what to make of it. If it were true, it is surprising she never made an appearance anywhere else in the story. Also, if he wanted to marry his mistress, settling for a legal separation rather than a divorce would be pointless, so I can only assume that their differences were more fundamental. In any case, it was arranged that Amelia would go to live in Sydney on an allowance. The fact that she was prepared to leave her six children behind should tell us something, but at this distance I can't say what. The tragedy, of course, was that my father hardly knew his mother, whose role had to be filled by a nursemaid and his sisters, especially Ruby. I find it terribly sad that, when he filled out his own marriage licence application in 1947, his mother was recorded as Millicent Kelso. He didn't know his own mother's name!
    Nine or ten years later, the couple were reconciled, but by then she was sick. She passed away on 1st August 1919 at St Helen's Hospital. Aunt Ruby specifically remembered that a mysterious knocking occurred in the room that day, and the nurse commented, "It won't be long now, Ruby. Someone's come to take her." (The same "someone" also knocked six years later, just before Beryl died.)
    In later life, Harry married his housekeeper, Emma. It is recorded in his prayerbook, used at the service, that it took place on 12 February 1927 at St Michael and All Angels Church at New Farm. However,of this second marriage I know nothing, except that she was very unpopular with all the rest of the family. Apparently, he too found her a source of irritation, for he called her, "my blister". She appears to have predeceased him.

At Home with the Smiths
    The family seems to have moved around a bit. When first married, he was living at a place called the Ironside Estate, Toowong, and their first child was born there. (An old house with a veranda at 62 Ryans Rd, St Lucia, was once pointed out to me as the original home. It was part of Toowong at the time.) Harry Jr, Ruby, and possibly Dorothy were born at St Lucia. Then, towards the end of the century, they moved to Kangaroo Point. To quote a local historian:
In Shafston Avenue a two-storied wooden dwelling built by Mr. Pearse, afterwards owned by H. F. Smith, jeweller, and later by Major Carter, son of Hon. A. J. Carter, became the Women's College of the University, with Miss Freda Bage as Principal.  [p 609]
    I therefore conclude that it stood close to the present site of the University of New England Shafston, and that it no longer exists today. It was not a mansion; they were rich, but not millionaires. But the big house on Kangaroo Point is remembered as a buzzing beehive of children, servants, and pets. To tend the household they had a housemaid, a nursemaid (for my father), a cook, a groom, and a gardener. Even so, Harry insisted that his unmarried daughters take off one day a week from the shop to practise housework "in case you marry a poor man" - which, in fact, is what they all did.
    Then there was Willy, an affable houseboy in his late teens who was mentally retarded - the sort one would send out to buy some striped paint. Probably he suffered from Down's syndrome, for he had a speech defect, as in his oft-quoted description of his inability to catch a tram to Fortitude Valley: "The quam was full up to the quop, and I had to walk all the way to the Balley."
    Amelia possessed two black horses, Harry a piebald horse. A sequence of possums were converted into household pets, for in those days there was no law against keeping native animals. Nor exotic pets, for that matter. Readers of the old Ginger Meggs comics will remember that the eponymous hero had a pet monkey. The Smiths owned three - probably not all at the same time. No doubt they were Latin American capuchins, the standard organ grinder accessories at the time. They must have made life rather interesting, not only by their normal inquisitive and mischievous nature, but also because nobody has ever succeeded in toilet training a monkey. When my father was a baby, the resident monkey purloined his bracelet, then scampered up to the chandelier where, with the household clamorously trying to coax him down, he swallowed it. The little rascal also got his bottom smacked for stealing my father's milk, left out in a bottle to cool.
    The final anecdote I was told concerning the monkey was its run-in with poor Willy. In those days, the city was not sewered. Even the rich were required to repair to a wooden hut in the back yard. Once a week, an honest workman, considered to be of even lower status than the garbage collector, would open a flap in the rear, remove the full pan, and replace it with an empty one. On this particular occasion, Willy entered the outhouse without realising that the lavatory man had not yet inserted the empty pan, and the flap was still open. This was too much of a temptation for the monkey, and its encounter with the trousers-down Willy is best left to the imagination.
    As can be seen from the cartoon below, by 1915 the family had moved to West End. Later, he purchased one of two identical houses standing side by side in Clayfield, owned by two sisters. Now, Harry Smith had no sense of direction; it was said he could get lost walking around the block. Also, in those days (long past!) householders did not feel the need to lock their doors. One day, he walked inside, put down his stick, sat down at the table, and enquired about dinner. Much to his surprise, it was not Mrs Smith who answered, but Mrs Peters. He had gone into the wrong house!

From Queenslanders As We See 'em 1915
by the Newspaper Cartoonists Association of Queensland
 
What Was Harry Smith Like?
    Well, on the one hand, h was the archetypal English gentleman: dressing for dinner, using a walking stick when going for a stroll, belonging to all the right clubs and societies (as shown in the cartoon). In his professional capacity, he successfully agitated for a bill to require the registration of optometrists.
    At the Tattersalls Club he consorted with Sir James Blair, MP and High Court judge, who "helped him spend his money". (Out of respect for his descendants, I shall forbear to tell what I heard about Sir James.) He also used to gamble at cards with Archbishop Sir James Duhig, who would lose with the words, "Don't worry, I'll get it off my parishioners."
    It is interesting to note that, although my mother, who was a country girl, always called her father "Dad", I never heard my father refer to his dad as anything but "Father".
    Nevertheless, it was generally agreed that he was selfish. "I think," said my father, "that he became selfish as he grew older, and he realised how his money could influence people." Certainly, it seems incredible that  his younger son would have entered the trade of pastry cook. I can't complain, because it was a path which eventually led to his meeting my mother, but just the same . . . "I should have done more for you, Sydney," he admitted to him shortly before he died.
    At the same time, probably because he had risen from the ranks, he was a supporter of unions (but not necessarily the Labor Party) because "they were all the working man has to protect him." Also, he was completely free of snobbery. As I said, he had no sense of direction. Once, after going astray, he hitched a ride home on the garbage truck, or lavatory truck, I forget which.
    My father also related how, as a teenager or young man, he and his father were going for a stroll, dressed as toffs (how else?), when they encountered the garbage man. Grandpa struck up a conversation with him, and turned into the pub with him for a drink. After they had gone their separate ways, Dad, who had been brought up with money, made some negative comment about the sort of friends his father mixed with. "Listen here, Sydney," his father rebuked him, "if it weren't for people like Mr. X buying my watches and jewellery, you wouldn't be wearing those fine clothes you've got on."

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
     Of course, all good things come to an end. On Monday 30 August 1926, on page 6, The Brisbane Courier carried the following item:
Smiths Leave Their Corner.
     The Smiths have gone from Smith's corner, one of the best known meeting places in Brisbane, and at the departure of the genial H. F. Smith, the jeweller, from the famous corner shop at the intersection of George and Queen streets, there will be many regrets. Mr. Smith shut up shop on Saturday after having occupied the premises for 35 years [sic]. Coming as a boy for 13 from England he entered the jewellery trade in Brisbane, and later started out for himself at Smith's corner. He has seen Brisbane blossoming into a great city, and no citizen has been more keenly interested in its growth than he. In late years he was assisted in the business by his daughter, Miss Ruby Smith. In a chat recently Mr. Smith said that the break would be a big one for him, and that beyond knowing that he woud take an extended holiday he was as yet uncertain of his future intentions.
    He was a few months off 64, and no doubt felt it was time to retire. Apparently, one of things he did during his "extended holiday" was remarry 6½ months later.
    I once asked my Aunt Ruby ("Miss Ruby Smith") how Grandpa lost his money. She told me that he had made a fire sale of his assets, contrary to her advice, which was to continue the business. I always assumed that this was during the Great Depression, when the bottom would have fallen out of the market for luxury items like jewellery, or even watches. However, now it appears he closed down three years before the onset of the Depression.Why? Why did he not continue the business under a manager (? Miss Ruby Smith) and retire on the profits? My guess is that he simply decided that living off the proceeds of the sale, plus his saving, would make better financial sense to himself, irrespective of the interests of his family, or his now unemployed staff. (I told you he was selfish.)
    How the company would have borne up under the Depression is anyone's guess but, in any case, that was the end of the family fortune. There was certainly nothing left for the heirs, who would have to shift for themselves.
    But it was not the end of Smith's Corner. The name remained on the building for another thirty years - long enough for me to view it as a little boy. Only with the remodeling of the city in the 1960s did the last traces of the shop disappear.
    Nor, surprisingly, was it the end of his working life. He simply shifted to a more modest office on the first floor of the Hibernian Building in Adelaide Street, where "H. F. Smith, Optometrist" became a feature of the landscape until the first couple of years of the war. He must have been close to 80 when he quit. My cousin, Joyce, who knew him as a little girl, remembers him as "a lovely old man". "Very charming", said my mother. He eventually succumbed to stomach cancer on 5 October 1948, just two months off his 86th birthday. None of his offspring were to last so long.
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    I was born with a tarnished silver spoon in my mouth: a lower working class boy whose family had once been wealthy. I also arrived eight months too late for our lives to overlap, so I never met "Grandpa Smith", as he was known. However, I grew up listening to stories about him, and the days of the family's past glory, and I wrote them down while those who knew him were still alive. But I never heard from either my father or his siblings any words of regret or resentment at the way fate had unceremoniously dropped them from their former station in life, nor I was brought up to think that it mattered. From shirt sleeves to silver tails, and back to shirt sleeves in one lifetime, my grandfather cut his own way through life. The same should be good enough for his grandsons.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Little Girl in the Painting

 Please accept my apologies for the poor quality of the illustration. The photograph on which it is based, printed on cardboard,  is over 100 years old, and has been exposed to much deterioration. However, you can view the original oil painting at Newstead House, Brisbane. The volunteers there will be able to tell you the name of the artist, and the subject, but probably not much about who she was, or how it managed to arrive there.
    It was painted in 1901 by the Swedish-born Oscar Friström, the most celebrated portraitist in Queensland at the time, and it represents my aunt, Ruby Isabel Clarise Smith (later Boyle) at the age of five.
    She was born at St Lucia, Brisbane on 3 August 1896. As I shall describe in the following post, my grandfather, Harry Frederick Smith was a wealthy jeweller, whose shop was a well-known landmark in the Brisbane CBD. By 1901 he had already established two new branches in Ipswich and Toowoomba. He had "arrived", and apparently decided to celebrate by commissioning  portraits of his three daughters (at the time): Millicent (9), Ruby (5), and Dorothy (3).
     Why his son, Harry Jr was not included is anybody's guess. Perhaps a fourth fee of 50 guineas was too much even for Harry Sr. To translate that into decimal currency ($105) is to lose sight of reality. Both the cost and standard of living were much lower in those days. Contemporary records reveal that the wages of skilled workers, such as manufacturing jewellers ie her father's staff, varied between £1 and £2 [$2 to $4] a week, and they probably did not think themselves hard done by.
    Growing up, Ruby lived the privileged life of the daughter of an upper class home. I regret to say, however, that although she and I were very close - she often lived with us, and I stayed at her home every school holiday - I never thought to ask the questions which would connect the dots of her life. I don't know, for example, where she was educated, or for how long. Unlike my father, she never told anecdotes about any private boarding school - except for one. Her parents separated when she was 13, and my father 10 years younger, so she was provided with a separate room in a convent boarding school in Ipswich where she could take care of him.

Dressed for a part in "The Toreador", aged 18.
      Nor, for that matter, do I know much about her life on the stage. I gather that she and her brother, Harry were involved in amateur dramatics. Indeed, it may have started when they were young children, in view of a family photo of them dressed up as young children. "I could kick my legs as high as a chorus girl," she once said. (Even in old age, they were shapely.) However, the theatre has its seamy side, and she was ultimately advised to give it up.
    Nevertheless, I suspect that Harry continued his association with the stage for much longer. He was associated with members of Sir Benjamin Fuller's vaudeville company, such as Roy Rene ("Mo"), who used to call him. "Young Harry", after his sidekick of the 1920s, and he had a short-lived marriage with one of the team's performers. My brother and I were often entertained by Uncle Harry's renditions of the old music hall comic songs. He and Ruby used to get free tickets to Mo's shows when he was in town. Aunt Ruby also vetoed Dad's proposed joining Fuller's company as a singer, because of his youth.
    She used to be the official escort for her father on vice-regal occasions, and she was one of the society ladies chosen to be presented to the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, during his state visit in 1920. Just two years younger than the playboy prince, she may well have been the most attractive of the women lined up to meet him. He gave her a wink as she was presented to him. We often heard that story, "But," she added - bearing in mind that she was no longer a society lady, but just another old age pensioner - "I never tell this to people outside the family, because they would think I was 'romancing'".
     She also showed us a small newspaper clipping about she had clobbered a shoplifter in a store where she was employed. But that was probably much later. "I was half my life in the jewellery trade," she once said. She assisted in the family business up until 1926, when her father decided to retire and close up shop, and she advised unsuccessfully against it.
     For nine years or so, if I remember correctly, a boyfriend kept her strung along, but when she finally realised he was never going to propose, she dumped him. In 1935 she married Charles Boyle. He was recorded as a salesman on the register, and she as a saleswoman, and it was said there wasn't a wholesaler in Brisbane who failed to send them presents. They became poultry farmers in Brisbane, first at Rocklea, and then at Eight Mile Plains. However, in 1948 they sold up and moved to Sydney to join my newly married parents' bakery business. When I arrived, I became the substitute for the child they never had. Charles turned to piano tuning when the partnership broke up, but it was reformed when the family moved to Glen Innes in 1952. But a couple of weeks after arriving there, Charles suffered a fatal stroke - in our house, on her birthday.
As I knew her, aged 64.

    Returning to Brisbane, she used her background to obtain a sales position with Wallace Bishop, jewellers, which position she occupied until she reached pensionable age. She finally passed away on 12 November 1976, at the age of 80. She had seen a lot of changes in her life.

What About the Painting?
    Wherever she lived, either in our home, or her own, it always occupied a place of honour. In my memory it looms much larger than it really was, because I was little myself at the time.
    The crunch came in the second half of the 1960s, when she announced to the family that she would soon have to leave the flat she had occupied for the last decade. Questions were raised as to what to do with her furniture, and in particular, the painting.
    Now, she had several times taken me to Newstead House which, at the time, served as headquarters for the Queensland Historical Society. Half of the building was taken up with displays of the society, including two beautiful portraits of Aborigines by Oscar Friström. (They are now on display at the Queensland Art Gallery.) "Why don't you," I suggested, "donate it to Newstead House."
    All agreed it was a good idea. It was even suggested the Newstead House might be able to have it restored, for some of the paint was beginning to peel. (Unfortunately, that turned out to be a vain hope.)
    The upshot was that, shortly afterwards, she and I arrived at Newstead House without any prior announcement, and handed over the painting. They got her to sign the book reserved for important visitors, and I, with my teenaged hubris, added my own. That was how the portrait came into the possession of Newstead House - but I would need to pore through my teenage diaries to find the exact date. The House decided to use it as the start of a collection of childhood artifacts in the Girl's Room.

What About the Other Paintings?
    Aunt Dorothy did not like her portrait. She burned it. Aunt Millicent's portrait devolved to her daughter, Betty Dunn. Betty had no children, and I always assumed that it had disappeared when she passed away in 1994. However, recent information is that her friend, the sculptor Rhyl Hinwood, recognizing its historic value, arranged for it to be donated it to the Queensland Art Gallery in 2000. It has since been conserved and reframed, but is not currently on display.
    But a record of Aunt Ruby's girlhood is on display at one of Queensland's most popular stately homes, and will probably remain there long after she, and the family, have been forgotten.
    And at least I can boast some small part in its being there.

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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Captain John McGovern (1846 - 1929)

    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. If so, it would have been at the height of the Irish potato famine.
    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.
    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.
    It must have been on this ship, or the next, that the celebrated incident of "McGovern's duff" 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."
    Perhaps it was 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. The ships he served on were almost certainly not limited to those listed in the obituary.
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.
    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.
    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. The S.S. Clarinda, at 1075 tons, had been constructed only the year before, 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 13 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.
    Thus, at the age of 39, after just over a quarter of a century at sea, the former illiterate cabin boy had reached the pinnacle of his career. Life was looking up. 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 was cut in two. 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. It is amazing it did not destroy his career for, according to official information, he was in command at the time. It must have been his very first command after receiving his ticket.
    Nevertheless, his 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 William Da Costa, the husband of the captain's sister. Once, when the captain ordered "all hands on deck!" during a severe storm, he found Da 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!

Note: I have copied this article to another blog, where I have included some additional information on his last days, as reported by my Aunt Hilda, the last surviving grandchild.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Bunyips and Bigfoots


Bunyips and Bigfoots. In search of Australia's mystery animals. (Millennium, 1996)

   This book was originally published in 1996, and is now out of print. Since then, the value has gone up exponentially. At the time of posting, good used copies are being offered on the US branch of Amazon for $999 US (which I think is extraordinary). In fact, as of November 2013 some-one was offering it for sale at £3,000 (that's pounds, not dollars!), but more often the price runs in the region of $100 to $150. However, I still have some copies in brand-new, mint condition, and can provide them at a discount - autographed, if you wish, and with a small corrections/addendum sheet. If you want one, you can e-mail me by clicking here, and make me an offer. Readers outside Australia should note that I will need to factor in a high postage fee, and foreign exchange commission.

What's it about?
    For a start, don't believe the claims of some Amazon vendors that it is a hardback. It is a high quality trade paperback.
    As you will have read on my home page, I took my degrees in zoology. I have also long been interested in cryptozoology: the investigation of alleged animals not officially recognized by science, but whose existence is suggested by native tradition, eyewitness reports, footprints, or other traces. Long ago, I decided to produce a book on Australia's mystery animals, and as I delved, the evidence accumulated - far more than I expected. It hasn't stopped yet, but this book is the result. And, being a scientist, I have provided references to every statement and report. Maps and illustrations are also included.

Details about the chapters.
Introduction. 3 pages
1. The Passing of the Bunyips. Everyone knows that the bunyip is the mythical monster of Aboriginal tradition, but what isn't known is that it was taken seriously by white settlers, and sightings were reported by them every 20 or 30 years until the 1970s. This chapter sets out the evidence, and makes some attempt at an explanation. 22 pages + 52 references.
2. Yes, Virginia, There Are Sea Serpents. A comprehensive - and probably definitive - catalogue of sea serpent sightings along the Australian coast, along with some anomalous carcasses washed ashore. 40 pages + 83 references.
3. A Legend Stalks North Queensland. This covers the famous "North Queensland marsupial tiger", which has never been caught, but had actually been listed in two classic Australian mammal guides. 23½ pages + 33 references.
4. The Thylacine Moves to the Mainland. We all know that the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, became extinct in Tasmania last century (or did it?), and it became extinct on the mainland a few thousand years earlier with the arrival of the dingo. What bothers me is that a lot of people are reporting seeing the animal on the mainland - and many of those reports are not so easy to dismiss. 20 pages + 59 references.
5. The ABC of ABCs. The initials stand for "alien big cats". All over the south and west of the continent, people have been seeing huge cats, regularly reported as black panthers or cougars. Massive stock losses, bearing all the hallmarks of cat attacks, have sparked interest by state parliaments. The material on this topic is extensive, and even this large chapter could not cover it completely. 24 pages + 60 references.
6. Apes Down Under? This chapter covers the yowie - the "bigfoot" in the title - a huge ape very, very similar to the sasquatch or bigfoot reported in North America. It is something which definitely should not exist in Australia, but the evidence appears to be overwhelming. I started this chapter as a non-believer, and halfway through, I became a believer. 24 pages + 58 references.
7. A New Zealand Mystery. This covers the waitoreke, a mysterious small mammal reported from New Zealand for the earliest days - in a country which has no known land mammals. 7 pages + 14 references.
8. Odds and Ends (Mostly Odds). A miscellany of strange reports,including the Ompax hoax, questionable stories of diprotodonts and giant goannas, and some more credible sightings of crocodiles far south of their normal range. The chapter also includes some extraordinary sightings of animals like nothing on earth. 9 pages + 29 references.
9. So, Where Do We Go from Here? In this final chapter, I give my opinions as to how unknown animals ought to be investigated in Australia. 8 pages.

Any Similar Books?

No, I don't mind giving free advertisements to the "competition".
   Out of the Shadows, mystery animals of Australia, by my friends, Tony Healy and Paul Cropper, was published two years before Bunyips and Bigfoots, and bears a similar price on the secondhand book market. The two books are sister works, with about 50% overlap in content. The best way to describe them is to say that one has greater breadth, and the other greater depth. Shadows covers the same ground, but in more detail, as chapters 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 of B&B ie bunyips, mainland thylacines, alien big cats, the north Queensland tiger, and yowies. It does not include all the cases in B&B, but it covers extra ones, and has many more illustrations. Nevertheless, it does not include the waitoreke, or the odds and ends, and it has nothing on sea serpents - its major deficiency. However, if you want to know about the search for the Tasmanian tiger in Tasmania itself, then Shadows is the book, for its absence is the major deficiency of my work.
   Moving to books which are still in print, and which each cover one aspect of the mystery -
   The Yowie, the search for Australia's bigfoot, also by Tony Healy and Paul Cropper (2007). This must certainly rank as the definitive, and most comprehensive, review of the evidence concerning the yowie.
   Australian Big Cats. An unnatural history of panthers, by Michael Williams and Rebecca Lang (2010). Although it is not as comprehensive as the previous work, this is only because the amount of material is so vast that no book could encompass it fully. At 434 pages, it provides an enormous amount of information on the subject, especially that which has come to light in the last decade, as well as copies of many official government documents.
   Of course, these cover only two of the mystery animals described in Bunyips and Bigfoots.