Autobiography, Personal Story

Early years in Victoria

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 two sons David and Peter, also lived on Bundoran and, later, the Browns moved there into an old cottage only a couple of hundred yards across the paddock from us.

At the gate entrance to Bundoran (Left is cousin Margaret, at right brother Alan & me; the others are probably Peter & David Cox)

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.

Brian the Boy Scout

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.

Jill (as she has always been known) as a new baby with Alan (holding her) and me.

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.

David, Margaret, myself & Alan enjoying the beach at Warrnambool
Alan, Margaret, David and myself having some fun at Lake Bolac.

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.

Dunkeld 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.

Dunkeld Consolidated School

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.

Me as Little Bo Peep

My results in that first year at Hamilton High justified my enrolment having been allowed.

1953 Hamilton High School Report

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.

Mum milking our cow at Bundoran.

I learned about playing cricket.

Our Bundoran cricket team

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.

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Autobiography, Personal Story

My Family’s Migrant Experience

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:

Mum wearing her London bus conductress (clippie) outfit in 1941
Dad, mum, me (left middle), brother Alan, sister Jill (born in Australia in December 1951)
Children playing cricket at our first Australian home, Bundoran, Western districts, Victoria in 1951

The finished story can be read on https://newhumansofaustralia.org/stories/ or on https://www.facebook.com/NewHumansOfAustralia/. There have been 126 comments about it on the Facebook page and 37 people (myself included) have shared it on their own Facebook pages.

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.

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