Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Brief word Portrait of Emily Elizabeth Harper's life in Australia 1916 to 1949 - Part 1

A Brief word Portrait of Emily Elizabeth Harper's life in
Australia 1916 to 1949

Written by Philip Harper (Emily’s son)

Emily Archer

Emily Harper (nee Archer) arrived in Melbourne in June 1916, as a passenger on board the RMS "Orontes". Of course this was the worst year of the European War with the dreadful Battle of the Somme soon to rage in France, not to mention to enormous number of British ships, which were being sent to the ocean bottom in a furious campaign being waged by German U Boats.  

She came to Australia in this desperate year of the war, with a view to becoming married in Sydney, to an Englishman William Spare, to whom she bad been engaged for a period of approximately three years. Because of "bad advice" being given to Mr. Spare at a Masonic Meeting in Sydney in the year 1916, Mr. Spare, with the best of intentions decided to sail back to England to "fetch his bride to be", not realising for some reason which is not clear, that the "bride to be" was well and truly on the water sailing towards Sydney Town.  Nothing could have been worse for her, because Emily Archer did not know a living sole in Australia, and she found herself in a large strange commercial City named Melbourne, and in her hand was a cable from Mr. Spare reading the central thought "Returning to England, store luggage if necessary, love Will".  

Emily Archer came from a very united and loving family which aspired to middle class style of living, so it could be well imagined how desperately lonely she felt standing at the Cable Office in Collins Street Melbourne, with her luggage still on board ship, and a man standing at her side who she met en route to Australia aboard the "Orontes".   There was no question of improper behavior on her part in her relationship with William Harry Harper, who was returning to Australia after visiting his Mother in Tamworth (Staffs). He was aware that she was engaged to be married and acted accordingly.   Fortunately for Emily Archer, Mr. Harper was familiar with Melbourne having worked in that City for several months, and who had board and lodging in one of its inner suburbs at Drummond Street, Carlton.  

Mr. Harper immediately realised her desperate position, and by gallantry took a "big brother" approach to the situation. He took her out to his "digs" to meet his Landlady, a kind but rather shrewd Irish woman named Elizabeth O'Brien. Mrs. O'Brien with the perceptive thoughts of a woman recognised what was to her a serious situation for Miss Archer, and shrewdly "put in a good word" for Mr. Harper.    After some deliberation, and doubtless anxious thoughts on Emily Archer's part, she agreed to be "shown around" the sights of the City of Melbourne. At the end of this period of some days, Mr. Harper made a proposal of marriage to her, which after some deliberation on her part, she accepted.   A Special Licence was arranged with the Congregational Minister at the Bridge Road Richmond Church, (Rev David Hennessy), to marry the couple.   This occurred in late June 1916.  

Mrs. Harper was now to face a completely new type of life. She had married a coal miner, who had worked both in the Staffordshire Mines with his four brothers and his Father, and also at the Wonthaggi Mines from Year 1913 to his departure for England at the beginning of Year 1916.   One needs little imagination to try and envisage how Emily Harper would react to her new environment at the Wonthaggi Coalfields. This was little past its Pioneer stage, having been founded from a bush wilderness in November 1909.   The housing generally was of poor quality, and furthermore there was a desperate shortage of houses. The best accommodation that could be found were two furnished rooms with a Miss Washington at South Dudley. This was approx. 1 1/2 miles from the centre of the Township. This of course meant that it had some lonely aspects being a small settlement within itself of some 35 to 45 houses.  

Within six months of their marriage a Strike occurred at the Mines and the young married couple found themselves on "Strike pay", a meagre allowance. To add to their rather unhappy plight, a horse owned by Mr. Harper, a somewhat crazy beast, rolled over him when he was unharnessing the animal, which badly fractured his right leg.  My Mother was now in the classical "cleft stick" situation. She however, was a woman of resource and determination in her tribulation period. She was also a very lonely person being severed by a distance of twelve thousand miles from her loving family in Britain.  In one of her lonely moments she decided to have a picture framed of her new husband, which of course meant a walk into the new Township's centre to a good class General Drapers and other merchandise run by a Russian Jew Mr. Ludbrook. While she was talking to the head saleslady at Ludbrook's, a Miss Scott, she revealed that she was new to the Township, and that her husband was out of work.  Miss Scott, a woman of some breeding and perception could see that my Mother was "no mere ordinary mortal", and took sympathy on her in her plight.  

Miss Scott announced that she was leaving Wonthaggi at the end of the month to take up a new position in Melbourne. As my Mother had worked at Doulton's, and later at Warner's in Kennington Park Road, London for over two years, her experience in the commercial world was not meagre.  Fortunately she had good references from both Doulton's and Warner's which she showed Miss Scott. The latter referred them to a Mr. Harry Day, who was the Manager of Ludbrooks at that time.   Mr. Day viewed the references with some enthusiasm and after an interview with my Mother, decided that she would be eminently suitable to fill the vacancy created by Miss Scott.  With the end of the month at hand, my Mother started in her new position.   This she said, was one of the most joyful periods of her life in Australia because not only was she a woman of breeding and good manners, but the townspeople quickly recognised her talents and worth.  Some people stood back from the counter if any of the other Salesladies approached them and said with a soft voice "No thanks I'll wait for Mrs. Harper". This included the Mine Manager's Wife and the Wife of the leading Chemist in the Town. Also the Town Clerk's wife, a polished person named Mrs. Strickland.  

I recall as a child being stopped in the street by several lovely old ladies who said to me " Are you one of the Harper boys?"  The affirmative answer brought the comment "Oh I remember your Mother at Ludbrook's she is such a lovely person".   The farmers living on the outlying farms from the Township at Archie's Creek, Ryanston, Lance Creek, Blackwood Forest, etc used to regularly invite my Mother with her husband to spend the weekend with them at the farm properties. Here of course true country hospitality was lavished on them both, and Mum always told how she and Dad returned to Wonthaggi in the horse and jinker with roast chickens, seasoned rabbits, numerous home made jams, and preserves.  These were the lovely friendly people of Australia of those days, regretfully a much passed and bygone era. 
After approximately 18 months at Miss Washington's my parents bought their first marital home in Bent Street, Wonthaggi. The deposit for the house, readily accepted by the vendor, was a "Red Indian" motorbike and sidecar. Mum always told the story of how she had to scrub bare floorboards until they had the money to put better floor coverings in the area. She also told the story of how she went to the outdoor laundry one day to find a black snake curled up on the floor. Doubtless a hasty retreat was made.   As Mum was required to work the business hours of 9 a.m. to 6 p.m there was little chance for her to conveniently prepare an evening meal for her husband.  This led to arrangements to have the evening meal at Mrs. Martins Boarding House at the end of the days work. Mrs. Martin was a lovely kind family person with about six children, a devout Irish Catholic.  She took an immediate liking to my Mother, and that friendship was upheld for the rest of my Mother's life in Wonthaggi 1916 to 1938.  

My father was still working at the "coal face" and was in what was regarded as one of the best working parties at Shafts 9 and 10, headed by a dour but reliable Scot Angus McDonnell. My father developed a strong friendship with Angus, the latter having three sons of his own who entered successful careers.   To fully understand my Mother's life in this era at Wonthaggi it is necessary to emphasise that this Township was composed mainly of people who had migrated to Wonthaggi from the earlier deep lead gold mines of Victoria, such as Ballarat, Bendigo, Maryborough, St. Arnaud, Etc. These people were warm people, who had lived relatively simple lifestyles in the old gold mining townships. They had large families as a rule, but the paramount feature of their character was their honesty, independence, and proudness.  They were people who rigidly adhered to the traditional way of life of that era of Australian history. Sunday School for the children and no labour to be undertaken on the Sabbath.  They loved their sport, be it football, tennis, basketball, or cricket. Pre marital intercourse was frowned upon with considerable displeasure. If a girl fell an unfortunate victim to an unwanted baby, the matter was quickly "hushed up" or the victim was discreetly removed from the town by relatives and friends.  

Among the half dozen or so people who worked under Mum at Ludbrooks was a girl named Julia Mathieson.   Julia formed a very close association with my Mother and the friendship lasted until her departure from Wonthaggi in early 1938. Julia never married, and was one of five children of a Scottish Catholic family. This is an interesting point which emerges from reviewing my Mother's early life at Wonthaggi, that being the friendships formed with Catholics. As my Mother had been bought up as a strict Anglican, the association is harder to understand. However, this does not for one moment detract from the good character of the persons involved in such a friendship, quite the contrary.   The War was a long drawn out event, which not only made a mark on the number of young lives which were extinguished by its dastardly events in bombing, shelling, and open trench warfare, but also the reactions of individuals in the Township was of some note.   One woman, a Mrs. Brunt, the wife of the local Solicitor, marched into Ludbrooks one day demanding to know if my Father had joined the Armed Forces, and if not, why not.  My Mother being a person of considerable composure and grace, quietly looked up at Mrs. Brunt and said "When your husband sees the Recruiting Officer, my husband will not be far behind him in the queue".  Needless to say Mrs. Brunt uttered not a single word.  

The hours at Ludbrooks although long, were enjoyable to my Mother as she immersed herself in the daily tasks of a demanding position as head saleslady.  She not only supervised the half dozen or so under her care, but also made visits to the Melbourne warehouses in Flinders Lane, to buy up all manner of dress materials, manchester, millinery, etc for the Ludbrooks store. Mr. Day generously combined some of these "buying missions", with my Father's annual holidays, and all expenses at the Melbourne hotels was borne by the firm.  This of course, was Mr. Day's recognition of the worth of my Mother, not only as a talented saleslady, but as a person of dignity and tact.   One of the more direct comments made by my Mother in her career at Ludbrooks, involved no less a person than Stanley Melbourne Bruce, who was then Prime Minister of Australia.  Stanley Bruce visited Wonthaggi at the invitation of Mr. Ludbrook who he knew in his earlier career with the firm of Paterson, Laing, and Bruce, who were large drapers in Flinders Lane.   Mr. Ludbrook introduced Bruce to my Mother, and his response to her was the engratiating comment "Lovely to meet you Mrs. Harper, and how do you like living in our wonderful country Australia".   Bruce's query caught her in a somewhat less tactful mood, as her response was "The only thing we will ever own in this country is the dirt under our fingernails".  I would imagine that Mr. Bruce would not have furthered the conversation.   However, to add perspective to the scene, it must be understood that Bruce was a pompous and patronising person, and was later the only Australian Prime Minister to lose his seat in the 1929 General Election.  

Just at the time that my Father and Mother got their Bent Street home to a very comfortable standard of living, my Father got very restless. Doubtless the reason for his "ill at ease" mood was the more difficult coal mining conditions, which had now intruded into the Wonthaggi Coalfields. After some careful and quiet deliberation in the matter, the two decided that it would be a good idea to "sell up" and return to England.  It does seem rather a pity that this course was embarked upon, because my Mother was so happy in the Ludbrook's environment.  However, be that as it may, they sold up and returned to England.My Grandfather (Archer), had died in the four-year period 1916 to 1920, and Mum was sorry that she was not with him in his illness.   They first went up to Tamworth, after a short stay with my Grandmother in London, who was then a widow, with few of her children now living at home.  Mum shared a room with one of her sisters-in-law, which she regarded as somewhat strange, given the fact that she was a married woman.  Furthermore, she was annoyed at the fact that this new found relative had a penchant for chocolates, and used to munch them to her heart's delight while my Mother was trying to get to sleep. Dad worked again with his four brothers in the Staffordshire Mines. My Grandmother (Harper) insisted on cutting all the men's lunches, and that Emily was "not to mither herself" i.e. to trouble herself, about Harry because his loving Mother had his complete 'welfare at heart. Soon after their arrival in Tamworth, one of my great uncles unfortunately took his own life. He owned and ran a successful!) dairying business at the time, and the  police were at a  loss to determine why he would take his own life- given that he was only a man in his early 40's.  

Mum assisted Grandma Harper with the "catering" arrangements after the funeral, and this was an occasion, albeit an unhappy one, for her to make wider acquaintance with the Harper clan. My Grandfather was a rather ordinary man of mild manner and simple pursuits in life, but he recognised very quickly Mum's charm and good breeding.  A pleasant friendship immediately was aroused between the two people, and although Mum only stayed in Tamworth a little over four months Grandpa Harper was one of the people who she was sorry to bid a last farewell. He died prematurely in 1924 at the age of 54 years, being the result of injuries he had sustained in the Mine workings. Mum then returned to Kennington, London, where she spent a number of weeks with her Mother who was then in considerable pain, as she was suffering from gangrene in her right foot.  The poor lady used to sit in a rocking chair and "nurse" her afflicted leg, every now and then saying "Glory be to God".  

Doubtless by Mother's presence, and that of other members of the Archer family, was a great comfort to her at the time because she died not many weeks later. Mum always said in later years that she was so happy to be back in England, not only to see her family and friends again, but more importantly to have been with her Mother at the time of her death. This event, together with the "unusual" arrangements at the Harpers of course crystalised their thoughts about future life in England, and all of a sudden the "vision" of Colonial Life took on a brighter hue.   They both decided that it was time to come back to Wonthaggi and pick up from where they had left off in earlier 1920. During Dad's stay with his brothers and family the message was clearly delivered to him that he could not spend his whole working life "at the coal face", and that study would be necessary to achieve his Mine Manager's Certificate.                             
After some cogitation on the subject, he decided to offer himself at the night classes, which were conducted at the Wonthaggi Technical School by the Mine Manager, John McLeish. He was doubtless encouraged by my Mother in this venture. At about this time the accommodation problem was still bad as Wonthaggi in the Years 1921 and onward, was taking in a very large British migration under the "Assisted Passage" Scheme. This of course made the housing situation worse at Wonthaggi where the few housing opportunities were quickly snapped up. The best they could do was a converted "front of a shop" owned by Mr. Cronk, until such time as they could build their own house. The money left by my Grandmother was the core of the moneys used to build their second Wonthaggi House, being located in Watt Street, near the Wonthaggi Technical School. Stan and Jack Knox who had migrated to Wonthaggi from the Creswick Goldfields, built this house for my Father.  Mum had to give up her job at Ludbrooks in early 1923, as she had my twin brothers Harry and Jack "on the way". Mr. Day and the staff reluctantly bade her farewell, and rather sadly, Mr. Day died at the end of the same year.  

Dad got back into Angus McDonnell's working Party, which was some satisfaction to him. With the new babies arriving in November 1923, life in Wonthaggi for my Mother took on a completely new perspective. Gone were the days of the visits to the outlying farms, the lovely friendly smiles of the Ludbrook's customers, and the quiet confidences shared by them with Mum. She developed a sense of deep trust with a number of her clients.   This was now a time for "two hour feeds" for two little babies who were badly underweight at birth.  She always told the story of how she ate a whole packet of biscuits while sitting up at night to give the babies their next two hourly feed. Dad at this time fell under the influence of a shrewd and canny Scot named James Scotty who espoused Communism as the panacea for all the ills of the world. Mum was very displeased with this turn in his political thinking, and made little effort to disguise her disapproval of the new found friendship.   She objected most of all, to the fact that Dad agreed to allow Scott to spend some of his evenings at their home in Watt Street, typing and preparing political material even when he was on "Afternoon Shift" 4 pm to 12 Midnight. Scott as a person, was not a bad man, it was his political views that Mum found very distasteful.  

The twins quickly achieved better weight levels under my Mother's loving care and attention, and one of the stories she used to tell was her weekly shopping visits into the Township with the twins in the pram. The quarter mile journey to the main shops took over an hour, simply because many people wanted to have a look at the new babies, and have a chat with the popular Ludbrooks figure.   Dad in the meantime was occupied with his night studies, and it is without doubt a credit to his endurance and tenacity that he worked a tough eight-hour shift at the "coal face", and then went to Night School to attend his studies with Mine Manager McLeish. He of course was with a number of his workmates, and it is ironic that most of them were migrants from the British Mines. The only person with whom he formed a close association outside of the British group was a Roy Saundersy who later became Secretary of the Deputies Union at the time Dad was President.  

Their life at Watt Street was a happy one despite the much needed care and attention which involved two small babies. Mum took the twins for a morning walk in the pram and later as "toddlers", and the chats with the friendly local people was one of the charming events in this period of her life. Dad grew vegetables very successfully in the rear of the property, with Mum attending to the "flower side" of the equation.  The soil in Watt Street was clayey and heavy so work was hard in developing flowerbeds.  Also steep slopes on the front of the block called for careful planning of drainage.   During this period 1923 to 1926, My Aunty Mary Anne (we called her Aunty May), came from England and it was necessary to build a small sleepout in the back garden for her use as Mum's home was only a four-roomed dwelling.  Two bedrooms, a Living Room, and large Kitchen, with Laundry etc detached. Aunty May stayed with them for a number of months until she "sorted herself out", and then left for Melbourne to go "into service", i.e. as a housemaid, etc in some of the more affluent homes of Melbourne.  Aunty May was noted for not only her wit, but also a quick tongue in other situations.  The latter of course on occasions could lead to some "tight" situations.  The jumped up Colonials did not always appreciate this point.  

When the writer was born in April 1926, Mum and Dad realised that the Watt Street property was inadequate.  As a first measure Dad got Stan and Jack Knox to quote on an additional bedroom and other minor adjustments to the house. The resultant quote was somewhat staggering, and they therefore decided, instead of seeking other quotes, to look for another property.  In retrospect this was not a wise move.   After some weeks of searching around they came across a property at No 36 Merrin  Crescent, which was owned by a Mr. Jim Blundell.  He was a miner but in his spare time played the Clarinet in the local Dance Band. Blundell got an offer of a position with a Melbourne group. Dad bought the property and called in the Knox Brothers to "go over it " for construction faults.  It must be understood that some of the Wonthaggi properties were built in haste, by less than qualified tradesmen, and a spirit level would have "squirmed" on many occasions if applied to some of the "tradesmens" work.  

One of the biggest surprises was that the back wall was resting on jam tins, so it could be well imagined that quick work was necessary by tradesmen to correct this serious situation. Knox Brothers brought the house up to a very livable standard, having that precious "third bedroom", which was lacking at Watt Street.   Dad developed a very lovely garden on this property, which was more level than the earlier one. The English lawns and standard roses were a delight, and the flower beds of annuals such as Salvia Bonfire, Asters, Ranunculas, Anenomes, Dahlias, and bedding Begonias were a delight for my young eyes as a child.   Dad had qualified for his Mine Manager's Certificate in 1926, and was then appointed Deputy or "Shift Boss" at Dudley Area Mine, which had just been opened in the previous year.  He was then the youngest Deputy on the Wonthaggi Coalfield, being 34 years old.  He was a confident man, with rather quiet manners, but had a quick temper like the writer. The men had immense respect for him, as he had previously worked at the coalface, and was a member of a well-respected working party of four men.  

His life was now to change rather dramatically, as he now gave direction, to the workmen rather than taking advice, as was the case before.  In his spare time he had the responsibility of the President's position, which not only involved attendance at all the Union Meetings, but any major event involving industrial relations as it affected the Deputies of the Mine, called for his presence.  At all the Coronial Enquiries into the deaths of fatal accident victims he was present to guard the interests of the Deputies, and give comment and advice on working conditions at the Mine, if required.    
He also joined the Mines Rescue Brigade, but this enrolment did not last long.  Mum showed her not inconsiderable talents with her three small children apart from day to day care, but also her "needle and thread" abilities. Most of the children clothes were "cut out" and made up by her, with good friends providing a home knitted garment from time to time.  Wonthaggi as a Township had now changed in its social structure. In the Years post 1920 a large number of British migrants entered the Town, together with a small segment of' Italians, who isolated, themselves at the West end of Hagelthorne Street.   The British were what we called "Geordies", i.e. Northumberland, Durham, Newcastle, etc.   Mum viewed them with considerable disfavour. Perhaps one story most perfectly illustrates her attitude to the "new arrivals" at Wonthaggi in the 20's just before she left Ludbrooks. One large group of the new British migrants was in the shop carrying their little ones in a shawl type structure over their shoulders and viewing the merchandise with slitted eyes and pouted lips.  

Mr. Day made the enquiry to Mum "What do you think of your countrymen"?. To which she made a curt and caustic reply "Mr. Day, they are not my countrymen".  That antipathy to the "Geordies" remained for the rest of her period at Wonthaggi. On the other hand she accepted the Scottish migrants without disfavour, and she formed close friendships with several Scottish families, including Robert and Mary Allan who were our neighbours in Kerrin Crescent.   Mary Allan was one of the kindest persons who ever came into my life, and after we left the Township in January 1938 I was invited by the Allans on several occasions to spend my School holidays with them. This was always accepted with considerable pleasure. With her three small children now attending School from Year 1928 onwards, she was now a Housewife in the truest sense of the word. She kept her home spotlessly clean, and her good taste in furniture and soft furnishing was always in evidence. At strategic points some of her Doulton pieces were placed, to catch the admiring eye.   She always told the tale of how we as little ones at the earlier grades of School caught a lot of colds, including whooping cough.  It must be understood by the reader that Wonthaggi was sited on a flat low coastal plain exposed to the open sea of Bass Strait, a 200 mile expanse of water, with prevailing SW Winds.  It was also in a 33-inch rainbelt, a very high rainfall regime for Australia.  

We all enjoyed our schooling years at the Wonthaggi Primary School and some of the Teachers were people of considerable humanity, talent, and sensitivity. One in particular, the Infant Mistress Miss Schaeffer, was a particular gem, who on occasions kissed the writer on the forehead. My Father belonged to a Discussion Group with whom, she was also associated. The Group discussed Philosophy, Literature, etc. and it could be safely said that it included some of the more talented people of the Township.  My Mother was a person with a very orderly mind, very rarely got flustered, and had a deep sense of understanding of plights of people in less fortunate positions than herself. I remember one occasion when a group of children at night time ran along Merrin Crescent throwing stones on the roofs of the houses.  One stone unfortunate came through one of the bedroom windows.  As Dad was on afternoon Shift, she with her deep sense of property pride, gave chase to the children among others, and "baled them up" some half mile or so down the street.  She demanded that they provide money to fix the smashed window. Among the culprits was a boy from an unfortunate family who lived in Stewart Street, whose father was a drunkard. The family had no less than five children.  Mum went inside to talk to the Mother about the window incident, and quickly by her sensitivity recognised the poor soul was in an unenviable family situation.  She not only tried to provide comforting words to the boy's Mother, but also so waived any claim on expenses for window repairs.  I know the incident because I was playing on the swing under the tree whilst the discussions took place between the two parties.    

One of the great delights of my childhood was when Mum decided to do a "Day's Shopping" in Melbourne. This involved an 86 mile railway journey to the big city, and my delight at the big buildings, trams, cars, etc. could not be measured.  She would shop between 11 am and 1 pm, then we would have a quick lunch, and go down by electric train to Port Melbourne, where Aunty May then lived. These were the years 1934 to 1937.  Aunty May lived in a small single fronted weatherboard house in Albert Street, and although many years have passed since these visits I can still remember going into its rather dark passageway and weaving myself down to the Living Room at the back of the house.  Needless to say all manner of family chatter was exchanged, and Mum and I would catch the train back to Flinders Street, with a quarter hour to spare before boarding the steam train for the return journey to Wonthaggi.  

Saturday afternoon was always reserved by Mum as her "baking afternoon" further evidence, of her good organisational sense. My brother's and I would go to the Saturday afternoon Matinee at the local theatre, to see Hopalong Cassidy, Tom Mix, or whoever else Hollywood had created in film form for children.   On our return I saw the results of the baking afternoon lined up on the Kitchen benches. Lamingtons, raspberry shortbread, cream sponge, known as "light as the air" sponge.  Iced queen cakes, etc.   It is a wonder that we did not end up like Fatty Arbuckle.   She always cooked a hot meal for midday Saturday because Dad had to work 6 am to 12 Midday in those times.  She would wait until she heard the "click" of the front gate lock before serving out the vegetables and hot meat so carefully prepared. Saturday night was more of a "scratch meal. Sunday midday was always roast dinner, and after the greasy dishes were washed and put away, we then went for a four-hour drive and roadside stop in the car we owned at the time.  The latter comment of course raises the question "what car?" Dad purchased a 1928 Ford Tower in Year 1931 for the handsome price of £100, the previous owner having fallen into hard times in the catastrophic 1930's Depression. We kept this car until the end of 1933 and then changed to a Wolseley "Wasp".   This also had a relatively short life, as Dad bought a new Dodge Sedan in September 1935.  I can still smell its new upholstery to this day.  He was the proudest driver in the Township.  

Mum, Dad, and we children journeyed to the nearby beaches in the warmer weather where we spent many happy hours swimming, gathering sea shells, and eating cakes and fresh sandwiches.  We had a kerosene Primus stove on which the billy was boiled for the magical taste of the "roadside cup of tea".  These are among my happiest childhood memories, because here we were all as a group with Dad and Mum to chat to, or share a problem with.  To complete the picture of the adventures along the yellow gravel roads of South Gippsland, it would be remiss if I did not mention our first major road journey to Lakes Entrance in Easter 1933. Additional to Mum and Dad and we three children was my Mother's friend Julia Mathieson. To journey from Wonthaggi to Lakes Entrance, some 170 miles distant, involved a torturous journey across the Strezieoki Ranges, which rose some 1800 feet above the coastal plains.  The twisting and turning roads, narrow in width, and the tight corners called for the skill of an experienced driver, Dad had his licence only a matter of 18 months, and adding to our problem was a heavy fog enshrouding the Ranges at the time of our crossing.  

On our return journey in the bathing light of the afternoon sun we gasped when we noted some of the steep gullies along which we had earlier passed. I can see our canvas water bag, which was fixed to the front bumper bar, all covered in wet yellow gravel slime.  Mum always said that the journey down the steep hill into Lakes Entrance was one of the delights of her life in South Gippsland, The sun was sparkling on the dune type lakes with the open sea to the South, and the bower of tall eucalyptus trees on the roadside forming a lovely frame to our view.  

We spent a very happy Easter at Lakes Entrance in that Year 1933 and this among other events, gave my Mother opportunity to "wind down" after the household responsibilities of her daily life.   At the end of this Year 1933, a talented man by the name of Thomas Johnston came into the Township. He was recruited by the Mine Management as the new General Manager of the Mine, when John McLeish would retire in approx eight years. My father's close friendship with Tom had a big social impact on our family.   At the end of Year 1933, Dad was promoted to the position of Overman, which added greater responsibility to his daily tasks. By explanation, when the Mine Under-Manager was lifted to the Mine surface after his routine inspections, the Overman then assumed responsibility for the good running of the Mine. Dad would have about 180 Miners in his charge in this circumstance, as well as the Deputies.  
For Mum this was a new era, with Dad now in a more influential position, more "entertaining" came into her daily lifestyle. Not only had Tom Johnston's Wife now entered her group of friends, but Mum was also introduced into the latters group of contacts. Mrs. Johnstone, an attractive woman, native of West Hartlepool, UK, was a woman of much junior years to Mum. In 1933/34 Mum was nearing her 48th birthday, whilst on the contrary Mrs. Johnstone was a woman in her early 30' s. This age gap showed up in the difference of the two lifestyles of each respective family. Ours of relatively simple, family orientated happiness, against theirs of a more "social climber" brand, with parties and very chatty bridge afternoons with the ladies. Mum said she never slotted into this scenario and later said that when it came to an end on my Father's death in February 1937, she did not wistfully wish it to return.   Also in the Year 1934 my Father had been involved in an unfortunate accident in the Mine, having been caught between "two skips" full of coal. The lower part of his body was badly bruised and the Ambulance driver insisted that he was a "hospital case". Dad was equally as determined that he would not enter hospital. The result was that Mum had to Nurse him, and as she had no medical qualifications this was indeed a difficult task. Dr Goodman however, instructed her on how to handle the situation, and she as a devoted Wife and Mother carried out those instructions.  I can see Dad's workmates walking up the passage to the front room ushered by my Mother, to have a chat with Harry, and find out how much progress was being made. These were men of strong character, tenacity and purpose, and it was to me as a child a wonderful insight into what made up the character of those people who chose coal mining as their livelihood.  

Towards the end of 1933, just before Dad got his promotion to Overman he was asked one day whilst on Afternoon Shift, would he do a special job for the Under Manager, Bill Gidney. Gidney was an egocentric Englishman, and Dad s request to him was to let his family know that he would not arrive home from work at the usual time of about 12 Midnight. Gidney failed to convey any message to my Mother about his delayed departure from the Mine. Mum waited until about 12.30 pm and started to fear the worst. She walked over the road to the corner house where Jim Rove a Deputy at Dudley Area Mine resided. Jim assured her that he was very much "alive and well" when he noted Dad's presence in the Mine earlier in the night. Time pressed on, and still there was no sign of our Father. My twin brothers sensed that something rather unusual was afoot, and came into the Living Room attired in their pyjamas, to ask "What's wrong Mum"?  By this stage she was in tears, and my brother Jack, in an effort to reassure her, said manfully despite his tender age of ten years, "Never mind Mum I'll go out and work for you".  Fortunately, for us all Dad arrived home at about 2 pm to find a houseful of crying people. It would be saying the least to comment that he was not impressed with Mr. Gidney.   Little did my Mother know, that within three and a half years of this incident, that "the real thing" would present itself into her life, but let's not have a sneak preview of this tragic event.   What must have been a joy to my Mother in her life in the Mining Township, was the warmth and friendliness of her friends, and most of the Townspeople towards her. It would be difficult to name each person, but suffice it to say that with the exception of the Johnstone's, they were all "her type", friendly family people.  It also was not unusual in these hard and troublous times of the 1930's Depression, for a child to come to the back door of our house, with a pleading note, and I can still see my Mother bending down to open the door of her preserves cupboard, to wrap up in a brown paper bag, several items of Jams or preserved fruit. This of course emphasised her sense of deep humanity, and I venture to say that others in Australia were called upon to perform similar acts of charity given the hard times.  

It must have also been a comfort to her to know that her children were not difficult in encouraging attendance at School, and she said in later years how much it was appreciated. The Management of the Mines had changed in August 1932 with the death of Mr. George H. Broome, a native of Leicester, UK who had been the Mines General Manager since 1910. Mr. Broome was a man of considerable decorum and gentlemanly manner, and his authority and presence were sadly missed in the Township on his passing.   His successor was a tough Scotch-Australian named John McLeish who had come from a very humble working class background, and now through study and practical experience found himself as General Manager on Mr. Broome's death. Needless to say the "game of rules" changed somewhat after August, with a new tough line and somewhat intransigent attitude being exerted towards the Mine personnel. McLeish believed that there was only way of handling personnel under his authority, that being a hard line taken on most issues. Humanity and sensitivity was not a strong point in his makeup. The reader could well ask "Well so what?"  

This of course would expose a serious weakness in judgment, because as my Father was on the Managerial staff during his working life, if a "tough day" had been put in by him at the Mines, there would be repercussions in the Home environment. Fortunately for us as a family, my Mother always managed to keep "the boat on an even keel".   When he walked in the back door after his days work, I used to look up into her face to "get the signal".   If she moved her eyes towards the door that meant "Righto" Son make yourself scarce", and play outside. I can recall quite clearly sitting on the street corner of Merrin Crescent and Billson Street, sometimes in very cold weather, watching the clouds scudding by and listening to the wind whistling through garden shrubs and trees thinking that this is crazy. After about a half hour had elapsed I would return to the Kitchen door to "test the water". Fortunately most of the return visits produced a more stable and peaceful atmosphere. However, it would be remiss of me to paint this as the usual scene on the domestic front, because these occasions would only occur once or twice in a typical month.  

My twin brothers always had to "watch their step" more closely than I, because for some reason, not quite known to myself, my Father took a very kind approach to me. I was a bright confident child, who could talk at ease with both adults and children despite my tender years at the time. I spent many happy hours talking to Mary and Robert Allan next door, among many others.  

When Grandma Harper came to Australia in July 1936, I ran and hopped the fence to tell Mary Allan, such was my sense of priorities.   In the 1930's decade children were expected to "make their own fun', and of course the Harper children were no exception to the rule. I recall many times "going into the bush" with some of my closest playmates to spend time catching frogs, looking for birds nests, just to see the eggs therein, if any, and also gathering wild flowers with groups of children usually on a colder Sunday afternoon, when Dad decided not to take out the car. I can still here my Mother's voice calling as I left the security of the home "Be careful son, and watch out for snakes".   There was a lot of maleleuca scrub around the perimeter of the Township in those days, with a lot of tufted grass and also sword grass, which could give you a nasty cut.  

My Mother was an avid reader, and fortunately for the writer the reader disease has been passed on to the writer. I read the usual children's books up until about ten years, and then Mum would introduce the "better books", such as Charles Dickens, etc. Before I was 14 I had read Oliver Twist several times, David Copperfield Tale of Two Cities, and Great Expectations. Added to this were adventure and travel. My Mother took a particular fancy to some of the books she read and one I recall with particular clarity was "Sorell and Son" which was made into a Movie in 1935. Needless to say Mum, my Brother Harry and I were taken to the local picture theatre to see "Sorell". As I was only nine years old at the time, the impact of the story passed right over my head. "Mutiny on the Bounty, "Clive of India", "David Copperfield", "The Barrets of Wimpole Street", were among the films we were encouraged to attend with our parents. In those days tickets cost one shilling and sixpence for adults, and seven pence for children.   Christmas Holidays were always regarded as a great time for relaxation, and of course Mum got a lot of extra work in this period. She did not like the Australian Summer weather of December to end of February, and would stay indoors as much as possible when the temperatures soared up into the nineties and sometimes over the century Fahr.  

On two occasions I can recall she left we three children in the care of our kindly neighbours while she and Dad went on "camping holidays" with some of Dad's mining management friends. I did not react very favourably to this "arrangement" which of course was no reflection on our neighbours. It was essential that Dad with a responsible position get a complete period of relaxation in this two weeks period at Christmas. One of Dad's friends was always amused about an incident, which occurred during this holiday period.   Mum and Dad were away with the Bonnars, and one of Dad's old friends called in from Melbourne to renew old acquaintance, I assured Mr. Wilton and his wife that my parents were holidaying but "Would they like to be shown around the garden?" They accepted the invitation, and later chuckled many times on the assuredness and confidence of their escort.   Mum of course did not have the amenities in her Wonthaggi home that exist today, as all the laundry work was hand washing with "Velvet" soap, and a scrubbing board.   Sheets were boiled in a fuel charged "copper", and the sheets were removed from the boiling water with a copper stick, to be pinned on to a wire line strung across the backyard. Mum always kept Monday morning as her laundry day, like the good Puritans way back in 1620 when they landed in Massachusetts, USA.  As a small pre school boy I used to sit near the pole or prop holding the line firmly and say to Mum if the day was not windy. "I'll wiggle the pole to make the sheets dry more quickly".  

My Mother being an observant and sensitive person always knew that a "holiday with Aunty May" in Melbourne was something viewed as "out of this world", because country boys were given the opportunity of seeing the bright lights of the City of Melbourne, which was then a large dignified and conservative city, unlike the present one.  

If a child was observing discreetly, it was noted that Mum would open her purse, remove some banknotes and discreetly hand them to my Aunty. Doubtless this was the "board" for the enthusiastic young country boys. The Twins always went first up, and then I would follow as a "solo act". We went shopping in town, to the movies, etc. My Mother's relationship with her sister was on the whole cordial, but there were some "crisis" periods, when my Aunty made some rather less tactful comments. My Aunt was a friendly witty person on the whole, but could also make "cutting comments". Mum always told the story that the Archer family became somewhat tired of her temperamental outbursts, after the parents died, and this is borne out by the evidence, as my Aunt was well and truly on terra firma in Australia by 1923. Mum got Aunty May a job at Warner's just before the First World War, the reason for Mr. Warner agreeing to employ Mum's sister, was Mum's sterling work at Warners. Regretfully the Warner's soon noticed difference between the two sisters dedication to their daily tasks. Warner's as I said earlier were Drapers in Kennington Park Road, London.  

Mum always spoke with fondness of her days before departure from UK in 1916 with her brothers Philip and John, Sister Lena, and to a lesser extent Aunty May. Philip, May and Mum, together with Will Spare in this period spent much time together, doing the live theatres, with plays and musical comedies etc. Mum even remembered the last live play she saw in London before her departure for Australia. Emily Pollini in "My Lady's Dress". Mum always looked upon Uncle John as the "fatherly figure" of the Archer family after her parents died. He was the "authority" in her judgement. It was fortunate that he lived a long life, for the sake of his own family, and as a point of enquiry and reference during her 33 years in Australia.   Mum looked upon the average Australian of those days as being uncouth, but she always regarded the Australian women with considerable favour. I do not think that she was a feminist, but rather that she recognised clearly the difference in the two groups.  

As earlier mentioned my Grandmother Harper came to Australia in July 1936 to visit her son and daughter in law.   This news came with great excitement to us all. We as children were to see in the flesh, our only living grandparent. This to a ten year old was charged with apprehension and curiosity. Needless to say, although the house was always kept in spotless order, Dad had to go "that little bit further", and re paint one of the front bedrooms, buy a new bed, and generally smarten things up, so that his Mother was assured of a warm welcome and good impression.  

Mum reacted to the visit with "mixed feelings", because she knew that all the extra work would fall into her bailiwick. Dad was the most undomesticated man in Australia, and believe me there were a lot of them at the time. She had three school children to look after also, and floors had to be washed and polished with "Fisher's Wax", and brass switches etc with "Brasso". As I said earlier she made all her own cakes and preserves, so she did not take the easy way out.   My Grandmother was a quietly spoken woman of some grace, being only 5 ft 3 inches in height, I felt quite important standing next to her. She stayed with us for three full weeks, and my Mother with the "extra work" fell victim to a severely infected throat. A kind neighbour used to come in to "paint" the ulcer infections in the throat. My Grandmother spent the last week of her four weeks visit with Aunty May at Port Melbourne, and departed for England on the "Larg's Bay" (Aberdeen and Commonwealth Line), on Saturday August 1st 1936. We all came down to Melbourne for the farewell, needless to say. He boys were woken up at six am on the Saturday morning, so you can imagine what sleepy yawns greeting our bother's call for action, the ship sailed about midday, and we spent the afternoon with Aunty May and her husband, departing for Wonthaggi in our "Dodge" sedan, about 5 p.m and arriving back home in darkness.  

Regretfully, within a month of my Grandmother arriving in England from her Australian visit, she died. My Uncle said at the time that she "died talking about Harry, and the children ''living in the bush in Australia".  
The rest of Year 1936, passed somewhat uneventful, but when Christmas came they, my parents, decided that we would as a family visit Albury a large provincial Township on the border of   New South Wales and Victoria. In earlier months the Hume Reservoir had opened on the Murray River, and of course in a drought stricken country like Australia this was a major capital works undertaking. We stayed with some relatives of Julia Kathiesons, at Albury, which of course gave Mum and Dad a break: from routine, and for we -three boys an Insight into a new lifestyle in this large prosperous Provincial town. It was a distinct contrast to the coal-mining Township from whence we came. Mum spoke for several weeks after the visit of the "lovely Township Albury".  

Little did we realise as we sat one night in the local Park listening to the local Brass Band playing marches etc by Sousa and others, that within six weeks of our return to the mining township, tragedy would strike separating us from our Father, and for Mum a close relationship of the previous 22 years. Monday morning, February 15th, 1937 was a day our whole family will never forget. It was a hot day with northerly winds blowing across the Mining Township. The Miners were on strike over some trivial matter and Dad with other supervisory personnel were doing maintenance work at No 20 Shaft. Overmen, Deputies and Pumpers were the main personnel 14 in all.   Mum was of course doing her ritualistic Monday morning's washing, and a neighbour on the west side Mrs. De Voogd, called over the fence about ten thirty "Oh Mrs. Harper, I think there has been a fire at 20 Shaft Mine". Mum said she found her strength suddenly leaving her body, and she did not know whether she was "pegging out" or what in the laundering process. She waited for some confirmatory comments, and it was clear and apparent by about 11 am on that morning that something very serious was afoot in the Township. People and cars were moving in hasty scatter and the atmosphere was charged with apprehension.  

I came home from School for lunch at about 12.30 pm to find my Mother crying bitterly with her two neighbours Mrs. De Voogd, and Mary Allan trying to comfort her in what must have been a terrible hour.  Mum told me not to go back to School that afternoon, but the Twins went to school after lunch. I cant even remember if we ate anything, such was our dilemma.  That afternoon about 3 p.m Mrs.Johnston came to the house and after providing Mum with the latest information of the Mine situation, decided that she would walk down to General Manager McLeish's residence some quarter of a mile distant.  I accompanied her, and can distinctly remember being told to stand outside the gate, while she entered to glean information.  Later I was allowed to pass, and Mrs. McLeish looked at me with obvious feelings of pity and sorrow.  That evening Harry and myself were taken from Merrin Crescent to stay with the Johnston's until the matter was resolved. In all we stayed about ten days at their house in Graham Street. What happened at home in this period is not clear; because of my absence I cannot recount it.   One of the neighbours Vic Moskos came into the house the day Dad's death was confirmed, sat down in the couch and cried like a baby. He kept repeating, "I'll never see Harry again".  

To be continued

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating story. I look forward to the next episode.