Wednesday, March 18, 2020

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. To modify the words of King David:
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

      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.

    A ZOOLOGIST LOOKS AT SCIENCE FICTION. In which I explain how science fiction writers' ignorance of zoology affects their work.

    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.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

The Adventures of Leon and Theophila

     The first time I met Esther Philippi, she told me how she had been born in New Guinea of missionary parents and taken home from the hospital in a string bag, and I was so impressed, I married her. I knew that her parents came from two different nations, and that they had had extraordinary experiences, but I didn't realise just how extraordinary until I was called to be M.C. at their fiftieth anniversary celebration.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Why I Am a Christian

     The short answer, of course, is that I was blessed to have been brought up that way. I have always felt God's guiding hand on my shoulder. I have always lived in His presence, and known the peace of mind and the exaltation that brings. But when you grow to man's estate, and it is obvious that what you were taught is rejected by many, it behoves you to determine whether it can be justified intellectually as well as experientially.
     For myself, my degrees were in science, with particular emphasis on zoology. But over the decades I have sought to satisfy my curiosity about such fields as history, anthropology, and psychology. A cynic once declared that I have read widely, but not deeply. By that as it may, it provides an advantage over those whose studies have been intense in a single field and limited in others. It has always appeared incongruous to me that any educated person could be a non-believer - especially if his field is astronomy or ancient history, when he must face the issues head on.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

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 a mere 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 in 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, nor 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 Sam, 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 nor 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.
     I also possess two other documents from my father's estate, one of which is enigmatic. They are certificates from the Queensland branch of the Church of England in the same standard format. One is straight forward, and states that my father was baptized on "1A:VI:07", which I suspect means 14 June 1907. However, the second declares that Harol [sic] Frederick Smith had been baptized in infancy, was confirmed in the High School Chapel Southport, Queensland, and had his first communion on Advent Sunday 1908. This would have been the appropriate age for my Uncle Harry to have been confirmed, and he did attend The Southport School. However, his middle name was Goodwin, not Frederick. Also, it seems strange that this document would have ended up in my father's possession. I think it really refers to my grandfather, who apparently decided to get confirmed late in life, at the same time as his son.
     If Harry was actually short for "Harold", this would make sense of two other facts. His first son was named Harry F. Smith, and when he died, the next was called Harry. This sounds like a determined attempt to perpetuate the patriarchal name.

   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!
What Was Harry Smith Like?
From Queenslanders  As We See 'em (1915)
by the Newspaper Cartoonists' Association of Queensland
    Well, on the one hand, he 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 later 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. When my cousin, Joyce, was a little girl she used to stop at his shop on the way back from her domestic science class and present him with the scones she had just baked, and for which he gave her a threepence. She 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.
    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. According to Thom Blake's calculator, it would have been equivalent to $7,665 in 2016. 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.