The Werriwa property is located at 866 Tarago Road, 10 Km north of Bungendore in southern NSW. The drive in from the road takes you through a parklike entry, along an avenue of English oaks and elms.
Whilst Werriwa has its own tiny railway station, Butmaroo (the Aboriginal word meaning “Deep Creek”, which runs near the siding), the nearest real station is at Bungendore. Further south on the rail line from there are the adjoining communities, Queanbeyan and Canberra. To the north are the townships of Tarago and Lake Bathurst, and then the city of Goulburn. There used to be rail services to Bombala and Cooma as well, but in later years they were closed down.
In 1955, Alan and I would get to know the railway line between Butmaroo and Goulburn very well. We had moved again. Mum and dad now had new jobs working for the owners of Werriwa but, during school terms, Alan and I boarded in Goulburn during the week so we could attend Goulburn High School. We travelled to Goulburn on the XPT train on Sunday afternoon and returned to Butmaroo after school on Friday evenings.
Butmaroo station was there because the government had created it in return for compulsory acquisition of land for the railway line. It was barely longer than the sign declaring its name. Under the sign was a large timber box with a lid, into which things such as bread, milk, mail and newspapers might be left. Every time we boarded the XPT (after notifying the rail authorities that we would be boarding at Butmaroo) we copped the same jokes about the tiny size of the platform. When we caught the return train on Friday evenings, we had to speak with the guard so he knew which compartment we were in. He would then tell the engine driver and ensure our compartment stopped adjacent to the Butmaroo platform (by waving a red flag or red light to signal to the driver). If either of them forgot, we would have to stay on the train until reaching Bungendore and then return to Werriwa by taxi (at NSW Railways expense) – it did happen!
The journey from Goulburn to Butmaroo on a Friday evening was interrupted when we pulled into a siding at Tarago to wait for the XPT to pass going in the opposite direction. When the XPT was running late, we would sit in that siding until it turned up and then be late ourselves. In Winter months it was freezing on that train. The only heating was a metal container for each passenger filled with hot water when we left Goulburn but stone cold very soon after. We usually had the compartment completely to ourselves, as patronage was not high.
The name Werriwa derives from a local Aboriginal name, Weereewa, for Lake George, which is very close to the property. The name is also used by the Canberra-based Werriwa Regiment, part of the Citizens Military Force (CMF), which was the forerunner to the Australian Army Reserve. Weereewa is believed to be an Aboriginal word meaning ‘deep water’ or ‘sick crawfish’. And Lake George (which is actually a shallow body of water) was located in the Division of Werriwa, an Australian electoral division in the state of New South Wales, when it was first established in 1901.
The historic garden at the Werriwa property where mum and dad worked was considered to be one of the best in the area. Dating back to 1882, it is a traditional country garden of mature trees, expanses of lawn and drystone walls. It was established by the Gordon family, members of which were still the owners in 1955. Established boundary tree lines provide shelter from the region’s hot, cold and drying winds and the stone homestead offered a level of frost protection for garden beds. An old fashioned La Reine Victoria double pink climbing rose on the Western side of the house, together with white wisteria, endured tough climatic conditions and provided shade in Spring and Summer. Purple wisteria and white clematis on the Eastern verandah, and Virginia creeper on the Southern wall, provided delightful colour in Spring and Autumn respectively.
On weekends and during school holidays I was able to go horse riding again. One ride was almost disastrous when my steed reared in fright as we passed over a tiger snake’s nest occupied by several babies. Thankfully, I managed to stay on the saddle as the horse bolted away.
We boarded in Goulburn, initially with a family in Clinton Street very close to the main shopping street. They were rough and ready and, so, our parents soon found us another place. It was with an elderly lady in a house near to our school. She did not feed us well and only wanted us to have an inch or two of water in the bath, with us taking turns using that water. We found a way to run extra hot water into the bath from the chip heater by attaching a piece of cloth from the outlet so that it could run quietly into the existing water without her hearing what we were up to. We dealt with our hunger by running into town after school to purchase some hot chips in newspaper and eat them whilst we quickly returned to her home. The challenge was to get to town without her seeing us (as her house was on the most direct route) and getting “home” as soon as possible after school finished so that she would not worry about us being late – all whilst obtaining and devouring the chips!
At the start of the 1955 school year at Goulburn High School, we (and all other new students) were auditioned for the choir. The process was that the choir mistress moved around and listened to each voice whilst we all sang a piece all knew the words to, God Save the Queen. She then told the lucky ones of us that they were in the choir. I was amongst the chosen. However, my boy soprano voice broke soon after making it nigh impossible for me to hold a tune.
I also found myself in a French language class taught by a woman, and where every student (other than me) was female. I visited the headmaster trying to escape from this “dreadful” situation, but my bursary rules did not allow it. I returned to the classroom only to be further embarrassed when the French teacher asked if I was leaving them or staying. When I responded that I was staying, she said “oh we are so pleased, aren’t we girls?” Despite that, my exam results for French remained good as they had been during my year at Hamilton High.
Realising that our boarding was not working out, mum and dad resolved to move the whole family into Goulburn. Firstly though, they needed somewhere for us to live. They registered for allocation of an NSW Housing Commission house. In those days the waiting list was extremely lengthy and getting to the front of the list would have taken years. However, that was not the system – instead ballots were conducted every so often and, incredibly, our name was drawn in the very first such ballot after joining the list. We were allocated a brand-new house at 32 Wyatt Street in the new West Goulburn area. When we moved in, we found several teachers from Goulburn High School amongst our neighbours, since teachers were also allocated NSW Housing Commission properties.
Our journey north from Bundoran took us through many country towns. Dad had mapped out the shortest (in terms of distance) route without concern for road qualities, rivers, mountains, or anything else really. His various driving experiences – including being the lead driver for British Army truck convoys on narrow mountain passes at night without lights during World War II, driving double-decker buses in London, and driving the first coach operated by Reginal Ansett (of later Ansett Airlines fame) in Australia – would have meant he was well equipped to undertake any road journey.
I don’t remember where we crossed the border into New South Wales nor the precise route we took. I do recall a long stretch in southern NSW with just one railway crossing around the halfway point providing the only bend between two towns, later passing through Rylstone and Kandos, and then finally approaching our destination via a ‘Dry Weather Only’ road not long after there had been considerable rain in the area.
Our destination was a property called Greenhills located somewhere south of Little Jacks Creek on the road between Merriwa and Willow Tree. That road remained one to avoid in wet weather for many years. When we arrived the owners and others at the property were astounded that we had travelled the route we used.
Amongst the other residents at Greenhills were mum and dad’s friends, Len and Marge Payne and their children Joyce and Rob. Like dad, Len had played piano in London clubs. His job at Greenhills included putting ferrets into rabbit burrows as part of getting rid of the rabbits. He used to walk around with a pair of ferrets inside his trousers!
Together with Joyce, my brother and the other kids on Greenhills, I learned to roll a cigarette and smoke them. One of the girls was easily able to get hold of the makings from her chain-smoking father’s cache and all of us would climb to the top of the haybales in the shed, roll ciggies and smoke them there after school. Somehow, we avoided ever starting a fire in the hay! We hid our supplies in a hollow. But, attracted by whatever we used to cover it, mum found them and our days of smoking were over.
I also learned to ride a horse that I could not control whilst living there. I recall being in the saddle one day when the fast-galloping horse, doing what it was trained to, thundered along perilously close (in my mind) to a high fence with barbed wire – to overtake and bring back some cattle that had left a pen. I had neither the knowledge nor the skills to do anything to get the horse to alter course or stop until it was ready to do so on completion of its task.
So, we had moved to northern NSW and to rugby league instead of Aussie Rules – another brand of football that I was hopeless at. Through 1954, I studied second-year high school by Blackfriars Correspondence while sitting in a one-teacher Willow Tree primary school.
There were two girls, including Joyce Payne, doing first-year high school by Blackfriars also at that school. The idea was that the teacher would assist we three high schoolers whilst also teaching everyone in the primary years (including brother Alan).
As the “senior” student our teacher would use me to “control” all the others whenever he wanted to pop outside for a smoke. He also used me to try and show the younger children a thing or two. On one occasion he had set me the task of memorising “T’was the night before Christmas” so I could recite it during the end of year Christmas event. When I told him the very next morning that I had memorised it, he asked me to practise reciting it before all the students whilst he turned his back to me. When I finished, he turned and said to the assembled students that he thought I had read it well. They all said no sir, he didn’t read it he didn’t look at the book. That gave the teacher his opportunity to say well look what is possible when you put your mind to something.
At another time he suggested to mum and dad that the best thing they could do was to sign me up to the Navy as soon as I was old enough – which I think was at age 15 or thereabouts. I’ve been forever pleased that they did not take his advice.
Whilst at Willow Tree school I participated in a range of activities with the younger students. I recall doing country dancing, including Strip the Willow. I was partnered with a girl who sort of became my girlfriend. She lived in a house beside an open railway crossing that we drove over every time we travelled north from Willow Tree to Quirindi for special shopping. Her dad was employed by the railways to manually close and then reopen the gates at the crossing whenever a train was passing through. Inevitably, the rest of the family would tease me about my girlfriend each time.
At the age of 12 I joined a club. The Argonauts Club was an Australian children’s radio program. According to Wikipedia the program was first broadcast in 1933 on ABC Radio in Melbourne. The show was discontinued in 1934 but revived and broadcast on ABC radio stations nationally (except to Western Australia) on 7 January 1941 as a segment of the Children’s Session. From 6 September 1954 it was called the Children’s Hour, running from 5 to 6pm. It became one of the ABC’s most popular programs, running six days a week for 28 years until October 1969, when it was broadcast only on Sundays and was finally discontinued in 1972.
The Argonauts Club was open to Australian boys and girls aged from 7 to 17. It proved hugely popular with young Australians: by 1950 there were over 50,000 members, with 10,000 new members joining each year through the 1950s (national membership reached 43,000 in 1953). Applications for membership (and subsequent contributions) were made by post. An enamelled badge and handsome membership certificate with the Pledge (brought over from 1931):
Before the sun and night and the blue sea, I vow
To stand faithfully by all that is brave and beautiful;
To seek adventure and having discovered aught of wonder, or delight, of merriment or loveliness,
To share it freely with my comrades, the Band of Happy Rowers.
and the new member’s allocated pseudonym (Ship name and number) were sent out to the new member. With no indication given of age, sex or origin, the only comparisons that could be made were between contributions; the members’ only competitors were themselves.
A card system held the member’s real name and address and Club name and number, together with a record of contributions and awards. The Club encouraged children’s contributions of writing, music, poetry and art. Contributions from members were awarded Blue Certificates (worth 1 point) or Purple Certificates for particularly impressive work worth 3. Members reaching 6 points redeemed the tear-off ends for a book prize. Higher targets were acknowledged on air (by Ship Name and Number): The Order of the Dragons Tooth for 150 points and The Order of the Golden Fleece for 400 points. A further award Golden Fleece and Bar (for 600 points) was instituted later to cater for particularly talented and industrious Argonauts.
The segment was opened and closed with a specially commissioned theme written by Elizabeth Osbourne and Cecil Fraser and sung by Harold Williams and the male members of the ABC Wireless Singers:
Fifty mighty Argonauts, bending to the oars,
Today will go adventuring to yet uncharted shores.
Fifty young adventurers today set forth and so
We cry with Jason “Man the boats, and Row! Row! Row!”
Row! Row! Merry oarsmen, Row!
That dangers lie ahead we know, we know.
But bend with all your might
As you sail into the night
And wrong will bow to right “Jason” cry,
Argonauts Row! Row! Row!
A further touch was a call to sick members: “The Ship of Limping Men”, as notified by parents. On Saturdays a major segment was the Argonauts Brains Trust. From December 1944, the ABC Weekly carried an Argonauts’ Page devoted to selected contributions from members and relevant news items. Annual ‘live’ productions of the Children’s Session (and Argonauts Club) were a feature of Royal Shows in each State from 1947.
Members of the Argonauts Club who later became prominent public figures included:
Tim Fischer (National Party politician, Deputy Prime Minister, diplomat, died 2019)
Kate Fitzpatrick (film, TV and theatre actress, world’s first female Test cricket commentator)
Rolf Harris (painter, entertainer – conviction in 2014 of the sexual assault of four underage girls effectively ended his career)
Barry Humphries (actor, artist, author, comedian and satirist)
Clive Robertson (journalist, radio and television personality)
Peter Sculthorpe (composer)
Dame Joan Sutherland (dramatic coloratura soprano)
As you’ve read earlier in this piece, at the time I joined the Argonauts and was an avid listener, I was living on Greenhills near the small township of Willow Tree in northern NSW. I did not become a similarly prominent public figure (although I did much later in life have a reasonable public profile in my home city of Canberra).
In November 1954 one of the Argonauts Club’s monthly competitions for members required entrants to submit the then Governor-General’s style, name and decorations, with the prize being awarded to the correct entrant who gave the most interesting way of finding out what the answer was. Long before Google, I had no idea. My dad came up with the idea of my writing to the Governor-General and asking him. I did that in a letter dated 24 November 1954. On the 29th of that month, the Official Secretary to the Governor-General replied on his behalf, providing not only the answer but a set of biographical notes that he thought may be of some help to me with the competition.
I submitted my entry and, when listening to an episode of the Argonauts which announced the results, was delighted to hear my Ship Name and Number announced as the winner. (I wish I could remember my Ship Name and Number). Thanks dad.
The prize that I won was a book by the famous Australian novelist and short story writer, Frank Dalby Davison. I still have that book. Whilst several of Davison’s works demonstrated his progressive political philosophy, he is best known as “a writer of animal stories and a sensitive interpreter of Australian bush life in the tradition of Henry Lawson, Joseph Furphy and Vance Palmer.” His most popular works were two novels, Man-shy and Dusty, and his short stories.
I am not sure why Davison’s novel, Dusty, was the competition prize in 1954, given that it was actually published eight years earlier in 1946. However, it was the prize and, as an avid reader, I was delighted to win it, and read it. At one level the story of a half-kelpie, half-dingo sheepdog which becomes in turn a champion worker, a killer and a wild dog, Dusty has also been read as a meditation on many of the political issues which animated Davison in the early 1940s (coincidentally when I was born); among them his fascination with the rebel and his ambivalent attitude towards the promised new social order following victory over fascism. The novel, Dusty, also won first prize in the Argus competition for novels. In 1983, it was made into a movie, also titled Dusty, starring Bill Kerr, Noel Trevarthen and Carol Burns.
Mum tried hard to help me with the homework that arrived by post from Blackfriars. I recall an art assignment that required me to send in a painting I had done of two eggs in a frying pan, that should not look like two eggs in a frying pan. This mystified both me and mum and, try as we did, we could not produce anything that we thought met the requirements.
By the end of 1954 I had only managed to get to the halfway point of the full year’s correspondence lessons, so a decision was made that I would repeat the second year of high school and attend the Quirindi High School not too far away; but necessitating me to board again.
Arrangements were made for me to board with Reverend Harry Brentnall, the Minister of the Quirindi Methodist church, and his family. The church was in Henry Street, where the building still stands today. Its foundation stone was laid on 4 July 1882. Though no longer used for church services, it is the oldest and only original church building remaining in Quirindi and has the honour of being the first brick church in the town. The Methodist Central Hall was built next to the church in 1911. Elmswood School and Kindergarten was established in 1912, utilising the supper room of the Central Hall and continued to the end of 1922. A brick residence, the Methodist Parsonage was also built in Henry Street for the use of the Minister so that is where I boarded.
As soon as I moved into the parsonage with the Brentnalls, I was introduced to the organisation known as the Order of Knights, which used secret handshakes and the like (a little like the Masons I think). The Order of Knights group may have met at the Methodist Church or the Central Hall. I didn’t like OKs so was fortunate when we moved again not long after.
The Central Hall was moved in 1977 and relocated behind Pollock Hall in North Avenue. The church building and grounds became available for the establishment of the Elmswood Hostel. The Methodist Church donated their land and the building to Quirindi Retirement Homes Ltd, on the stipulation that they would be used for age care. The former church building was used initially as a dining room for the Elmswood residents and was later refurbished as the Whitten Room, in memory of the Whitten Family, devoted members of the Methodist Church.
Mum and dad applied for, and I was awarded, a bursary. In return for the financial support received, I had to study certain subjects until completing the NSW Intermediate certificate after three years in high school. The subjects had to include a modern language and the only such language taught at Quirindi High was French, so that was the one.
Heavy rain owing to the influence of La Niña had been occurring over the catchment of the Hunter River since October 1954 when, on 23 February 1955, an extremely intense monsoonal depression developed over southern Queensland and north-east New South Wales and moved southwards. The very strong and extremely moist north-easterly airflow meant that over the basin of the Hunter and parts of the Darling River, rainfall amounts for a 24‑hour period were the highest since instrumental records began around 1885. Around Coonabarabran, as much as 327 millimetres (over 13 inches) fell in a single day, whilst falls in the upper part of the Hunter Basin the following day were generally around 200 millimetres (8 inches).
Both Quirindi High and the parsonage where I was living are high on a hill, so we were safe from floodwaters. Indeed, I believe we could see the flooded areas clearly from both vantage points. The railway bridge over the river was damaged with one pylon sinking so that the rails broke and there was a significant drop part way across.
By early 1955, mum and dad had decided to move again to new jobs elsewhere. We travelled on the first train out of Quirindi, slowly across a temporarily repaired bridge, then south to Singleton where we transferred to a coach which took us to Maitland as that stretch of the railway was still unusable. We saw a lot of the devastating flood damage as we passed by.
Then it was on to Sydney where we arrived too late to take the next leg of our train journey. We were allowed to stay and sleep overnight in a carriage parked at Central Station. The next day we completed our journey South – our destination being another property called Werriwa just north of Bungendore. It had its own railway station called Butmaroo, which we reckon was the smallest station in the world being just longer than its name sign and having nothing more on it than a large box under the sign where deliveries of things such as bread were left. More of that in the following chapter of my story.
Our new Australian home on Bundoran was a brand-new cottage, bearing absolutely no resemblance to the house we had left behind on the other side of the world. The Bundoran property was located about ten miles south of the main highway from Melbourne to Hamilton. The turn off was between Glenthompson and Dunkeld. Glenthompson was the closer town to us and was where we went for minor supplies, to the Presbyterian Church and Sunday School, and to scouts. For school, however, Alan and I had to travel to Dunkeld on the school bus. Sometimes we joined the Browns at the Methodist church in Dunkeld.
Another English family named Cox (with one daughter and five sons including David and Peter who went to school with us and Michael their youngest) also lived on Bundoran and, later, the Browns moved there.
The Cox’s cottage was half-way towards the Wilsons’ home (owners), the other side of the ‘creek’. Initially (for most of 1951) the Browns lived in the Shearers Quarters, then moved into a new weatherboard cottage built for them. We Ropes lived in an old cottage near the dam.
Before they moved to Bundoran we would visit the Browns in Victoria Valley, traveling in a borrowed ute with Alan and myself riding in the back of it. I recall some trips in darkness with just our heads above the zipped-up canopy covering – no such thing as seatbelts or safety laws then! David and Peter Cox, David Brown and I became the four members of one pack in the Glenthompson scout troop, which had Tony Wilson as its scoutmaster.
Mum worked for the Wilson family as their homestead cook and housekeeper, whilst dad was their jackaroo. When the Browns moved to Bundoran, Uncle Tom became the Wilson’s gardener. Part of his role included regularly raking the large circular gravel driveway at the front of the homestead so that it showed no evidence of having been driven on.
There were, of course, animals on the farm and I recall being bailed up by an aggressive ram one afternoon as I was walking back from the Dunkeld school bus. I climbed into a tree stump and called to mum to come and help.
The nearest other property to Bundoran was Bri-Bri. We sometimes mixed socially with the families who lived there, and mum and dad remained in touch with the Kellett family for the rest of their lives.
On my ninth birthday – 3 March 1951 – mum and dad gave me my first camera – a Baby Brownie. Soon afterwards they purchased the necessary items and, together, we taught ourselves how to develop black and white films and make contact prints from the negatives, using the sun as our light source. Some of my earliest photos were taken at a school excursion to Nhill for a sports carnival. Not long after they purchased a home processing kit and, together, we learned to develop film and make contact prints. It was, for me the beginning of a lifelong passion for photography. I did not become a professional photographer, but an enthusiast amateur.
Late in 1951, on 2 December to be precise, our family grew by one with the birth of my sister, Gillian Eileen Rope. Her arrival was somewhat exciting. Mum left it rather late to say she needed to go to the hospital. Dad drove her to Hamilton Base Hospital in a utility with her seated between him and Aunt Mary. The driver’s door would not stay closed, so he held it shut with his elbow whilst steering with his other hand. Traveling above the speed limit, he attracted the attention of a policeman and had to tell him the situation. That resulted in a motorcycle cop escort. As they pulled up the matron appeared to take mum quickly inside. Dad collapsed on the hospital steps and lit a cigarette. He had not finished it when matron reappeared to tell him he had a daughter and to abuse him for bringing mum in so late.
At some point, Dad acquired a 1933 Hillman Wizard car. It had a glass windscreen, but soft plastic side windows that could be easily removed then put back on. It also had a large timber box attached to the outside back, in which all manner of things could be transported. As many as nine of us from the Rope, Brown and Kellett families sometimes piled into it to go for picnics.
Uncle Tom also had a car for a time, famously getting his licence by driving into Dunkeld, finding the local policeman at the pub and then driving him to the police station straight along the dirt side of the road just a short distance, where the necessary paperwork was completed. He was not the best driver and had the good sense to give up driving after a relatively short period.
Dad’s car also took us on trips to places such as Warrnambool, Port Fairy and Lake Bolac, and to various local towns when dad and Alan participated in “penny vote” concerts. I recall times when the locusts were so bad that they almost completely covered the windscreen in their smashed remains, whilst some managed to get inside the car causing screams as they flew into various occupants.
Dunkeld State School Number 183 began as a National School on 22 October 1855 and gained the 183 number in 1863. Alan and I started there in 1951, joining our cousin Margaret and also Valerie Kellett there as students. Initially I was placed in 3rd class, but within a few days had been moved up into 5th class. This reflected differences between English and Australian schooling in the early years at that time.
The other students quickly asked me which VFL team I supported, so I had to choose one and plumped for Collingwood for some reason. The students also gave me the nickname “Binder Twine” (the type of rope used to bind bales of hay harvested in the district) showing the classic Australian humour. A friend I made years later during my working life suffered a much worse nickname at his Victorian school. Also a migrant, and having the surname Van Dijk, he became known as The Moving Shithouse (derived from moving van and the colloquial name for outdoor toilets – the dyke).
At school, I was a target for bullying because I was so short and a fair-skinned pommy who spoke differently to the locals. But a tall boy decided he would appoint himself as my personal protector threatening to physically deal with any student who picked on me. I’m pretty sure he did it to boost his own status, rather than for my sake, but it certainly helped me.
In 1952, at the age of ten I completed my primary education – as Dux of Dunkeld State School No. 183.
A Group School was formed in 1952 and this changed to a Consolidated School at the beginning of 1956. Buildings first used were on the old site (3 rooms), the Methodist Sunday School Hall and from 1953 some buildings at the present site on Victoria Valley Road. Although the school is still a Consolidated School it is now only Prep to Year 6. When I visited Dunkeld Consolidated School many years later, the principal could not find the old school’s honour boards, so I was unable to see my name on them.
In February 1953, I became a 1st year student at Hamilton High School, after mum and dad fought a successful battle. Apparently, there was great resistance to enrolling any student younger than 12 (and I wasn’t quite 11), but the school principal was persuaded that there was no value in my repeating the final year of primary school after having completed it as Dux.
Hamilton High conducted weekly spelling bees for students in each year and I soon found that I could spell well enough to win the 1st year contest each week. I think it was around this time that I also got involved in concerts, usually playing the role of a girl in pantomime productions because of my beautiful boy soprano voice – so I’m told – sadly there are no recordings for me to hear.
My results in that first year at Hamilton High justified my enrolment having been allowed.
The move to high school resulted in a new home for me too, since travelling from Bundoran to Hamilton and back each day proved too much – for both dad and Uncle Tom, who had to drive me, David and the Cox brothers to and from the highway to the high school bus route each day, and also for me (as I faced two long and tiring trips and very lengthy days). Whilst waiting for the high school bus with three or four other children, we formed a large “circle” and threw a ball around it to each other. Initially, I had no idea how to catch a ball and one of the older girls had to explain to me the need to draw my hand backwards as the ball reached it so that it would not bounce off my rigid hand.
After a time, to avoid the daily travel to and from the bus stop, I went to board with some friends, the Kearns family, on a small land holding adjacent to the highway and a little closer to Hamilton. I stayed there on weeknights and returned to Bundoran each weekend.
My memories of living with Mr and Mrs Kearns and their children – who were younger than me, include learning to chop firewood and to eat “strange” foods that I had never had previously. The latter included bowls of beetroot covered by what seemed to be pounds of sugar, as part of the salads served with an evening meal.
The years in Victoria were a great adventure for me, learning many new things and seeing so much that was different from my previous life in London. I moved around the paddocks standing on the running board of the utility, jumping off to run after and catch rabbits moving slowly as they succumbed to myxomatosis so that we could end their lives more quickly. (Myxomatosis was introduced to Australia in 1950 to reduce pest rabbit numbers. The virus initially reduced the wild rabbit population by 95% but since then resistance to the virus has increased and less deadly strains of the virus have emerged. The initial release of the myxoma virus led to a dramatic reduction of Australia’s rabbit population. Within two years of the virus’s release in 1950, Australia’s wool and meat production recovered from the rabbit onslaught to the tune of $68 million.)
I also travelled in the back of the same ute when we went with our scout master camping in the Grampians or with dad when visiting the Browns before they moved to Bundoran. On at least one occasion Alan and I huddled under the utility’s tonneau cover whilst an electrical storm flashed lightning all around us as we journeyed through the Grampians.
Mum and I learned to milk a cow by hand.
I learned about playing cricket.
I participated in Australian rules school football – well sort of, as a timid and short of stature youngster I tried my best to stay away from the action and the much taller kids who were good at it.
The Browns moved on to ‘Pollockdale’, just 3 miles north of Glenthompson in late 1953. David thinks it was in November. We too left Bundoran late in ’53. David recalls his mother being upset at losing her brother and sister-in-law.
Dad’s Hillman Wizard transported our family of five from Victoria to a property near Willow Tree in northern NSW where he had taken a new job. Dad worked out the shortest route (in miles) to drive to the new place and we set off on another adventure. We have often remembered how Jill’s teddy bear went out the car window and Alan had to run back down the road to retrieve it, and also how we had to push to help dad turn the car around on a narrow road when we took a wrong turn, and the reverse gear was not operational.
In 1955 the Browns moved again – to Ballarat. We visited them there a number of times whilst we still were children so had more youthful adventures with our cousins then.
I have previously blogged about my entering this world here and about migrating to Australia here.
This piece is about an interview I recently did for a project called New Humans of Australia. That project seeks to reduce discrimination towards migrants, especially refugees, through the powerful medium of storytelling. Inspired by the iconic Humans of New York, New Humans of Australia was started by Nicola Gray, an Australian writer, who wanted to share the many fascinating stories she heard while working with refugees and migrants. The people behind the project believe it is becoming more and more important to tell the true stories of migrants – the difficulties they overcome and what they contribute – in order to celebrate multiculturalism, and to make new arrivals feel welcome on our shores. Any person who migrated to Australia is welcome to contact the project and offer to tell their story.
Nicola Gray spoke with me on 21 July this year via Zoom from her current home in Portugal. It wasn’t so much an interview as an opportunity to tell my story, with Gray asking a few questions along the way. I enjoyed the experience very much. The process took almost one hour and was video recorded. After the audio is transcribed, Gray produced a short version of what I said and emailed it to me to check for accuracy and to suggest any changes. It is meant to be as short as possible, and to sound like the person telling their story is speaking not reading.
The next step usually is to have one of their photographers take a photo of you. Looking at their list of photographers I saw a Canberran whom I know and thought it would be likely she would get the assignment. However, because of another story falling through at the last moment, Gray needed my photo quickly and asked if I could have a family member take one and send it to her the next day. Regarding the photo, the requirements were “landscape, not portrait (meaning you have to turn the phone to the horizontal position), outdoors, preferably with a tree or a bush behind you but not essential, no sunglasses, not too dressed up smiling, or thoughtful.”
Being home alone at the time, I opted to take a selfie. I headed outside into the common area of our townhouse complex where I could stand before some bushes high enough to be behind my head. Battling blustery winds, I quickly took a few shots. Back indoors I realised that my glasses had darkened automatically in the bright sunlight so had effectively become sunglasses. So, after they had lightened up, I put them in my pocket and went back outside intending to put them on at the last moment and repeat the exercise. Some more quick selfies and back inside – only to realise I had forgotten to put the glasses on before taking the shots! Back out for a third time, then I called it quits and sent Gray three shots with and without glasses for her to select from.
She chose to use the image without glasses – almost didn’t recognise myself having worn specs for so many years!
The next step was for me to provide some old family photos to Gray. I sent these nine images from my family archives:
For her finished story, Gray chose these three images:
Gray also produced a short video clip of me speaking from the interview. I posted a link to it on my Facebook page here.
Eventually my story will be published in one of a series of books that New Humans of Australia is publishing. I have acquired Volumes 1 and 2 which are available now at https://newhumansofaustralia.org/shop/. Volume 3 is nearing completion. Volume 4 (which is where my story is likely to be) is probably a couple of years away yet.
You can read all about the project at https://newhumansofaustralia.org/ and can even become a patron or express interest in telling your own migration story. All patrons receive a free copy of one book and get all new stories emailed direct to their inbox.
This is a description of the journey when I migrated from England to Australia in 1950
Our human family had not increased when mum and dad took what I consider to have been a most courageous decision to emigrate to Australia, where they hoped their sons would have better future life opportunities.
A Document of Identity in lieu of a passport was issued to dad for travel to Australia as an approved migrant accompanied by mum and their two children, myself included.
So, late in 1950, we sailed from Liverpool on the MV Cheshire, a ship which had seen service as a troop transport in World War II and, later, was to be used in a similar role during the Korean War.
So, for around five weeks, my home was on the seas. We travelled south past France and Spain, with a majority of the passengers including me being horribly seasick for the first several days. The ship had no stabilisers, so it rolled horribly in the waves. Then we went past Gibraltar and through the Mediterranean Sea, through the Suez Canal, the Gulf of Suez, and the Red Sea to Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), and across the Indian Ocean to Australia.
My memories of life on board are again fragile. I know that dad, Alan and myself were in a cabin with five other men, whilst mum was elsewhere with a group of women. I also know that the children were given bread and jam as a treat each day. We rushed to line up for ours then took them to mum and dad so they could have them, before returning to the queue for a second time.
We stopped at Port Said (Egypt), where locals in small boats rowed out to our ship and plied their wares of fresh fruit. Purchases were hauled up in baskets that were then lowered back down empty. As we passed through the Suez Canal, we passed a ship going the other way, and some of its passengers were disgruntled British people who had tried Australia and called out to us that we were making a mistake.
We stopped again in Aden (Yemen).
We also stopped at Colombo (Ceylon) and took a short land trip south of there to Mount Lavinia.
When we crossed the equator there was a fun ceremony to mark that. On other occasions we wore fancy dress for events that brightened the journey.
After completing our crossing of the Indian Ocean, our first Australian port was Fremantle. Some people, including friends mum and dad had made on board, disembarked at Fremantle to begin their new lives in Western Australia.
Our destination was Melbourne, which we reached on the fourteenth of December. We were greeted by a wild storm which almost prevented the tugs from getting us to the wharf. As a result, we – and the rest of the Melbourne-bound British migrants still on board – did not disembark until the morning of the fifteenth. Some continued on to Sydney.
Melbourne’s Sun newspaper told the story on page 2 of the tugs’ difficult task:
The passenger lists held by the National Archives of Australia show the four of us. They also show the four members of the Pfur family, with whom we remained in contact for many years:
After disembarking, we were met by my aunt Mary & uncle Tom and cousins David & Margaret, and by Tony Wilson – a member of the family that was to be mum and dad’s employers and who had sponsored us as assisted passage migrants.
We were driven by Tony what seemed an incredible distance in the Wilson’s Armstrong-Siddeley utility to our new home on their property of Bundoran, near Glenthompson and Dunkeld in the Western Districts of Victoria. That was all the more remarkable for me, as I had always suffered travel sickness even on London buses with mum breaking journeys into two so that I could have some time not moving before boarding a second bus.
Before settling into this new home and jobs we were to spend a short period, including Christmas of 1950, with dad’s sister, Mary Brown, and her family on another property in nearby Victoria Valley, in the Grampian Mountains. Aunty Mary and Uncle Tom, plus cousins David and Margaret, had themselves migrated in 1949, having in turn been enticed to join Tom’s brother Charles, who had come to work with the Methodist Church and had become its Minister at Dunkeld.
One of the things I brought with me from England was a copy of “Bobby Bear’s Annual” – a book given to me by the Browns inscribed “With love and best wishes to dear Brian from Uncle Tom, Auntie Mary, David and Margaret. Dec. 1949. Just as we were leaving on ‘SS Raneli’ for Australia”. Minus its front hard cover, that book remains in my possession.
Not too many years later, although I don’t remember the date, I received another bible. It was a gift from a grandmother, but the inscription is in my mother’s handwriting – not doubt because she would have purchased it in Australia on behalf of grandma nanny still living in England.
The home address mum gave when registering my birth on 12 March 1942 was 39 Fairview Road, Tottenham, London, N15. I don’t know whether we ever lived there. I do know that during World War II mum and I spent a lot of time living with mum’s sister Nell Ridley and her eldest children, who were also very young, but I’m not sure at whose house that was. Mum was evacuated a second time to Bragborough Hall, Northamptonshire for the birth of my younger brother Alan James Rope (on 9 June 1943) when I was just 15 months old. I presume I went with her. Dad got army leave again at that time.
When clearing out mum’s last independent living residence at the time she moved into residential care in 2016 we came across my baptism certificate and a letter written at the time. It revealed I was baptised in our local Congregational church on 22 March 1942 (just 19 days after birth), whereas I had previously heard a story about being baptised in a Presbyterian church close to where my dad’s sister Mary lived one day when we went to visit her.
The Minister, Rev Henry Donald, wrote out some words by the abolitionist, author, and Congregationalist clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher and provided them to mum and dad at the baptism.
I believe this to be an architectural drawing of the Stamford Hill Congregational Church:
Below is the earliest photograph I have of myself and I wonder whether it was taken on the day I was baptised.
Here are some other early photos of me (at least I’m pretty sure they are of me and not my brother):
My first memory of a home where all four of us lived as a family relates to 60 Ravensdale Road, Stamford Hill, London, N16. The house at that address has long since been demolished and replaced by housing commission bungalows. When we lived there it was a large, somewhat ugly, building with three families occupying different floors, despite an internal staircase via which each family could freely move into their neighbours’ apartments. We had the basement and ground floor. The view from the basement’s rear windows was straight into a wall, into which was set a flight of steps leading up to the back garden area. This image taken from Google maps shows 63 Ravensdale Road at the left. It and the adjacent houses look very much what I imagine our house was like.
Although we lived at this address until I was eight years old, I have only a few memories of it and suspect they only relate to things I was subsequently reminded of by mum and dad. There is a story of a big Guy Fawkes Night bonfire in the back garden area when someone’s nylon stockings were set on fire by a lit jumping jack. And I know we had pets, including a golden retriever dog that got distemper, and a couple of goldfish named after two of my uncles. There also were pet mice in a “house” with installations for them to exercise and play on.
Whilst living here I attended the Craven Park School. I started there on my fifth birthday, which apparently was the practice in England at that time. I’m told that Mum walked me to school that morning through a couple of feet of snow. My reports show that I was a good student, placing 1st in my class in both December 1949 and July 1950.
This latter report also records that my Religious Knowledge was “V. Good.”
I do not consider myself to be a bible scholar, although it has been a part of my entire life. Here is a montage of inscriptions in my various bibles overlaid on a photo I took of another youngster reading a bible and an illustration from one of mine:
I do not know when I would have been given my first bible but, no doubt, it would have been an illustrated version considered most suitable for a young child at the time.
I certainly received an illustrated bible when I was just 7 years old. The Ravensdale Road Methodist Sunday School that my brother, Alan, and I attended presented me with one in 1949. As we lived in Ravensdale Road we didn’t have to go far to Sunday School. The sticker inside the front cover records that I got 43 marks, presumably in some sort of bible test. I don’t know how many that was out of – if it was 100 my knowledge wasn’t so good, but if it was out of 50 then I wasn’t doing too badly.
I received another bible just one year after the Sunday School prize. In 1950 our family left London and sailed from England to Australia as migrants. The 177th London Life Boy Team, of which I had been a member gave me a bible as a farewell gift.
So, that is when I left England heading towards a new life in the Great Southern Land known as Australia.
On 3 March 1942, temperatures stayed below freezing over much of the Midlands and Southern England.
My birth certificate indicates that I began my life outside of the womb on 3 March 1942 at Matlock.
In fact, I was born at Willersley Castle in Cromford, a few miles down the road from Matlock, the births registration centre sub-district which takes in Cromford. This is in the county of Derbyshire in England, on the edge of what is known as the Peak District.
My birth certificate records that my dad, James William Rope, was Gunner 1076690 Royal Artillery (Laundryman) at that time. My mother was Eileen Elsie (nee Davey). So, the first days of my life were spent in Willersley Castle. Dad was in the army at that time but not overseas, so was able to obtain leave to come and visit mum and meet me.
Of course, at the same time as I emerged into the world, another far more significant event was happening – World War II. On the day I was born, a supplement to the London Gazette announced “The KING has been graciously pleased to approve the following awards: — Distinguished Flying Cross. Wing Commander Henry Neville Gynes RAMSBOTTOM-ISHERWOOD, A.F.C. (29116). Squadron Leader Anthony Garforth MILLER (90088), Auxiliary Air Force, No. 134 Squadron. Acting Squadron Leader Anthony Hartwell ROOK (90071), Auxiliary Air Force, No. 81 Squadron. The above awards are for gallantry and devotion to duty in the execution of air operations.”
3 March 1942 was also the night of a major RAF raid on the Renault works in Paris.
Annotated vertical taken during night raid on the Renault works at Boulogne-Billancourt, west of the centre of Paris. The largest number of RAF aircraft sent to a single target at that point in the war – 235 – were despatched, dropping a record tonnage of bombs. A significant development was the mass use of flares to illuminate the target (‘1’ and ‘2’). Smoke and flame from exploding bombs can be seen on the factory (‘3’), and also on the Ile St Germain (‘4’ and ‘5’). Only one aircraft, a Vickers Wellington, was lost during the raid, which was judged to be a great success.
Another event on 3 March 1942, but on the other side of the world in a country that was to become my future home, saw Japanese fighter aircraft, fresh from their victories in the then Dutch East Indies, attack Broome in Western Australia. Nine Japanese Zero planes strafed the town, planning to destroy the aerodrome and American planes. With no notice, the townsfolk could only put up minimal opposition and in an attack that lasted only an hour, almost one hundred men, women and children lost their lives. Not a single operational aircraft remained in Broome. The town itself was reduced to ruins. The full story of this has been told in “The Ghosts of Roebuck bay” by Ian W. Shaw, a Canberra writer.
So, I was born a “pommy” and, later, became an “aussie”. To start at the beginning and explain why I was born in a castle, it is necessary to provide some relevant history.
Once upon a time there was a famous Mothers’ Hospital in London. It traces its origins to the work for unmarried mothers begun in the earliest days of the Salvation Army. ‘Refuge Homes’ for poor and destitute women were provided in private houses in various parts of London. As part of this scheme the Salvation Army established a home at Ivy House, Mare Street, Hackney in 1884. Many of the women seeking shelter there were pregnant, and in 1888 the Salvation Army decided to dedicate Ivy House to the confinement of unmarried mothers.
Although maternity hospitals had existed in Britain since the eighteenth century, these were almost entirely reserved for married mothers only. This was the first time that maternity hospital facilities had been combined with a ‘Home of Refuge’.
The hospital trained its first student midwife in 1889 and more than 250 pupil midwives graduated from the school during its eighteen year’s existence at Ivy House. During this period, the hospital continued to expand, and more buildings were bought.
One of the later developments was a mother-and-baby home called Cotland, based at 11 Springfield Road, Upper Clapton. It existed between 1912 and 1920, and many of the women mentioned in the records of the Mothers’ Hospital gave Cotland as an address.
Finally, the Salvation Army purchased land in Lower Clapton Road, London E5 in order to build a hospital dedicated to unmarried mothers. In 1912, the foundation stone for the new Mothers’ Hospital was laid by Princess Louise, daughter to Queen Victoria, and the Hospital was officially opened in 1913. Designed for 600 births per year, it soon outgrew its facilities and various extensions were made over the years.
The new hospital continued to uphold the teaching tradition of Ivy House and midwives were trained to the standards of the London Obstetrical Society and of the Central Midwives Board (CMB). Pupils attended classes for Parts I and II of the examinations of the CMB and gained experience both on the wards and in District work.
The First World War meant that the hospital opened its doors to both married and unmarried women. Soldiers could not always send enough money to their families and the loss of many lives often caused acute poverty. Therefore, it was decided that the hospital would be allowed to admit married women whose husbands were in the Army or Navy or had been killed. So, then the hospital began to accept both married and unmarried mothers.
Between the two World Wars, many improvements and additions were made. In 1921, the new Nurses’ Home and Theatre were opened by Queen Mary. By the 1930s, the number of births had risen to 2,000 per annum. The hospital suffered damage during the Second World War, but fortunately there was no great loss of life.
Although the hospital remained in service throughout the war for those who did not leave London, arrangements were made for evacuations to Willersley Castle in Matlock, Derbyshire and to Bragborough Hall, Northamptonshire.
Willersley Castle itself has a most interesting history. Its construction began in 1790, commissioned by Sir Richard Arkwright, the great industrialist who developed the Water Frame which revolutionised the cotton milling industry in this country and all around the world. In 1791 a fire broke out causing severe damage to part of the interior of the castle, a major setback in construction. The damage was repaired, but sadly Arkwright died in 1792 before completion of the building. His son, also named Richard, moved into Willersley Castle with his family in 1796 and the family continued to live there until 1922.
Sourced from Internet – author unknown
In 1927 a group of Methodist businessmen bought Willersley Castle as a Methodist Guild Holiday Centre and opened its doors on the 5th May 1928. It became a popular location for young Methodists, with its tennis courts, bowling green, games field and organised excursions in the Peak District proving a real success.
As I’ve already described, during the Second World War the Castle was used as a Maternity Hospital by the Salvation Army. Over four thousand babies were born at Willersley between 1940 and 1946.
Many of the original features could still be seen when I visited Willersley Castle in 1978 and, again, in 2006. In 1978 it was a place where young underprivileged girls were given holidays. I chanced to visit on an Open Day and managed to sneak in through the gate without an invitation ticket but could not get inside the building.
I had better luck in 2006, by when it had become part of a chain of temperance hotels operated by Christian Guild (a trading name for Methodist Guild Holidays). It was, and still is, a popular hotel. In addition to providing holidays, it also catered for residential conferences, day conferences, coach parties and group meals.
It is now possible to visit without staying there. Willersley is open every day, 365 days a year, for coffee and lunch and afternoon tea. Management says that l inks with the past are never far away: a special break every year sees the return and reunion of Willersley Babies – those like me who were born there when it was a maternity hospital.
‘People kept visiting and saying, “I’ve come here because it’s on my birth certificate”. So, we investigated a bit and put it out there and said, why not invite them? Some come just once, some come every year. It’s lovely.’
I did not stay there but did go inside and have a look around and speak with staff about having been one of the 4,000 babies born there.
The most striking feature is the Well Gallery, an oval gallery with a glass dome situated in the centre of the building, with cantilevered galleries on the first and second floors. An Adams archway leads through the building towards the Well Gallery, whilst the Music Room, Drawing Room and Dining Rooms all contain their original Adams fireplaces.
I arrived in Canberra on 2 March 1959, along with others in the first ever group of Statistics Cadets selected by the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The first group of Cadet (Statistics) March 1959, I’m standing on the far left. Official photo, photographer unknown.
I was meant to move into the new wing of Narellan House in Reid, but it wasn’t quite ready. So, we were put into the Hotel Kurrajong on the southern side of the Molonglo River which flowed through the sheep paddocks between the northern and southern suburbs of Canberra.
Heavy rains soon flooded the paddocks, rising so close to the deck of the original Commonwealth Avenue bridge that it was closed for safety reasons. The only route from our new digs to the Canberra University College where we were to partake of Orientation Week activities was via Queanbeyan. But none of us had cars or even bikes, so we could go no further than the swollen river and look across to the northern side.
A week later, our rooms in the brand-new wing of Narellan House were ready and our first tertiary education lectures commenced as we embarked on our quest to gain Bachelor of Commerce degrees from the University of Melbourne.
But this story is more about Narellan House.
On 11 March 1947, Federal Cabinet approved a program to construct 3500 homes in Canberra over the next five to seven years, with an annual allocation of £1 million. Nevertheless, between 1946 and 1950 only 1147 houses were built.
In the meantime, the government resorted to other measures. It built a series of guest houses and hotels to accommodate public servants and enlarged some existing facilities. New facilities included Lawley House and Turner Hostel. Lawley House was located at Barton and opened in 1949 (it is now a training college for the Australian Federal Police). Turner Hostel, located at Acton, also opened in 1949 (it has since been demolished). Later facilities included Reid House (1950) and Havelock House (1951).
The government also recycled former defence facilities. The first was Mulwala House, built in 1947 from Air Force materials relocated from Mulwala in the Riverina district of New South Wales. Eastlake Hostel, which also opened in 1947, was a former Air Force camp near the present railway station. Narellan House, located at Reid, opened in 1949. It was built using defence materials relocated from Narellan, south-west of Sydney. Riverside Hostel, located at Barton, was also built from former Narellan materials.90
The buildings initially used for Narellan House started life as part of a vast military camp near Camden during the days of the Second World War. Narellan Military Camp was built beside State Route No.69, the Northern Road, running from Narellan, NSW, to Richmond. It was established at the turn-off to Cobbitty.
At the end of the war, the army huts of Narellan were a blot on good dairy grazing land. The Chifley Federal Government brought the huts, asbestos and all, on five semi-trailers for storage in Canberra.
Narellan House, on Coranderrk Street in Reid, became one of the Government Hostels in Canberra, housing 49 guests and a staff of 8. At Narellan it was ladies in the north wing and gents in the south. It survived all the other hostels and, with the addition of a new wing in 1959, became a residence for tertiary students, including me.
Derrick and I spent a lot of time in my room listening to my newly acquired pink mantel radio and devouring massive quantities of delicious potato crisps that his mother made and sent to him on a regular basis from her home in Queensland. We listened to the 2SM Sydney Top 30 hit parade broadcast weekly by 2XL Cooma trying to win a prize for accurately predicting which songs would fill which positions the next week.
Having stood in its tranquil setting in Reid in a tranquil setting, just across from Glebe Park, since 1949, Narellan was demolished in May 1992. The last historic link with Narellan Military Camp near Sydney was severed. The site was redeveloped as an apartment complex, now Monterey apartments.