Autobiography, Personal Story

1954-55 – Sojourn in Northern NSW

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.

Willow Tree Public School, photographed by me in October 2015

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).

Willow Tree Public School 5 & 6 students in 1954 – image found on Internet – can’t see Alan in it

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.

This rail crossing, photographed by me in 2015, is in the general area.

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,

Adventure know,

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.

The GG’s Official Secretary’s Response

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.

My composite image telling the story about Dusty

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.

Quirindi High School, photographed by me in October 2015

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 sojourn in Northern NSW had come to its end.

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