212. The Shire of Alberton unveils a memorial to its soldiers

Post 96. Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial gave a brief history of the monument in Commercial Road, Yarram. This post examines in detail the local politics leading up to first the construction and then the dedication of the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. As for the previous post on the establishment of the Diggers’ Club in Yarram, it also highlights the nature and degree of the tension in the local community in the first few years after the War.

The decision to erect a memorial to the soldiers of Alberton Shire was taken at a council meeting on 13 May 1920:

A Soldiers monument (sic) be erected in Commercial Road,Yarram, cost to be referred to next year’s estimates, form and price to be decided at next meeting.

This was just after a presentation by the Melbourne firm of Corben & Sons. The actual cost indicated at the time was £550.

While the Shire’s decision appeared clear-cut, the way forward was to prove difficult.

To begin with, the editor – A J Rossiter – of the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – was keen to influence the debate over a suitable memorial. Indeed, initially at least, Rossiter had an entirely different proposal, which he promoted in the pages of the paper. In a sense, it was all a case of deja vu, as the previous post highlighted similar efforts by Rossiter to push his proposal for a grand, commemorative civic hall over the returned men’s wish for a more exclusive and lower-key Diggers’ Club. This time, Rossiter was keen on ’swimming baths’. Prior to the Shire’s resolution of 13/5/20 on the construction of the memorial on Commercial Road, outside the Post Office, Rossiter had been pushing his ‘public baths’ proposal. An editorial on 10/3/20 – two months before the council meeting – outlined his proposal. It began with an acknowledgement that his previous ambitious proposal had been rejected; but, as far as he was concerned, that was no reason to hold back from yet another bold, public venture:

Since the bold proposal of a public hall, embracing a soldiers’ club, did not find favor, why not a public memorial in the form of swimming baths? We have before advocated swimming baths for the rising generation, and have pointed out the necessity for every child to be taught the art of swimming. The old Mechanic’s Institute was at one time suggested as a suitable site, because of a natural watercourse that intersects that property. The public might well join issue with the Shire council in establishing public baths as a memorial to district soldiers, and the donor roll could be placed at the baths, instead of being hid in a comparatively obscure place in the shire hall which so few enter. Public baths as a memorial would be far before a granite monument in the main street or at the shire hall, because of their utilitarian character. Whatever is done by the shire council must cost a fair sum. No paltry donor board would suffice as a district memorial to the soldiers who fought for their country.

As matters progressed, the call for the memorial swimming baths appears to have slipped away. However, Rossiter had yet another proposal to replace the baths – the extension and refurbishment of the Shire Hall so that it could accommodate 1,500 people. In another editorial on 2/6/20, Rossiter raised the £550 figure for the proposed memorial in Commercial Road, and claimed that it would represent money ‘thrown away’. He wanted … something better done with the money. He had a far more beneficial and utilitarian proposal:

The town does not possess a hall worthy of the name, and none has the facilities which the public are justly entitled to. The proposal we have in mind as a fitting memorial to our soldiers is to re-model the shire hall, and build at the rear a balconied hall to seat about 1,500 people.

In the same editorial, Rossiter called for a public meeting to discuss the whole issue:

A memorial, in the form suggested, would for all time commemorate the deeds of not only the fallen, but those who have been spared to us. If remodelling the shire hall find favour amongst our readers, in place of the proposed monument, we would suggest that a public meeting be called as early as possible.

And there was yet another option. The third option focussed on the so-called (Soldiers’) ‘Memorial Park’.

When a new cemetery had been established at Yarram in 1902, the graves from the ‘Old Yarram Pioneer Cemetery’ had been relocated to the new site. In 1911, an act of the Victorian Parliament had provided for the old cemetery site to be converted to a park. Subsequently, from August 1914 several, local Friendly Societies – the local branch of the Australian Natives’ Association appears to have been the major player – undertook to turn the ‘old local burial ground’ into a ‘pleasure place for the populace’ . The details appeared in the local paper on 21/8/14. The Friendly Societies were to take advice from Shire personnel and organise working bees. The plan called for … the planting of palms, trees and shrubs in preference to flowers, and suggested a large grass plot in the centre where children could play, and where a bandstand could be erected. It was recognised that the amount of work involved was considerable and that a time frame of at least 2-3 years was required.

Over the period of the War, not a great deal of remediation work in the park was undertaken. Then, in mid 1918, a public meeting was held to consider … the question of beautifying the old burial ground, south of the town, and form a memorial park. By the end of October that year, there was a formal committee of the ‘Yarram Memorial Park’. There was also an agreed schedule of work to be undertaken by volunteer organisations, including the ANA, the Returned Soldiers’ Association, the Soldiers’ Fathers Association, the IOR and the local Traders’ association. It was all detailed in the local paper (25/10/18). Again, the scope of the remediation work was extensive. In fact, the scope was arguably too ambitious. In June 1921, in the South Gippsland Chronicle (1/6/21), the ’Soldiers’ Memorial Park’ was described as a ‘carefully fenced thistle patch’. The account described how, after an enthusiastic start, the effort slipped away:

The area was cleared and graded, the paths were laid out and gravelled, a fence was erected, and then – Yarram’s short-lived energy “petered out”

So, in mid 1920, the third option for the district soldiers’ memorial was to focus efforts on what was being described as the Soldiers’ Memorial Park and, potentially, include in the park a dedicated memorial of the kind proposed for Commercial Road. The Shire President at the time (J J O’Connor) was a strong backer of this proposal.

Given the range of proposals and what appeared to be strong community interest, the Shire council undertook in June 1920 to defer the decision on the soldiers’ memorial for two months, on the understanding that in the interim there would be a public meeting to canvas views in relation to, at least, the three proposals being put forward. The meeting was scheduled for 21/6/20. In the ads that appeared in the local press there were calls for a large attendance:

A large attendance is requested, and relatives of fallen soldiers are specifically invited to attend.

It is relevant here to point out that in the lead up to this public meeting on the soldiers’ memorial, the local paper was again targeting the politics associated with the Diggers’ Club. The point is that in the background to the local politicking over the soldiers’ memorial, there were ongoing charges being made against the local returned men. This situation could well have affected the locals’ interest and involvement in the whole business. As we will see, hardly anyone attended the public meeting on 21/6/20, despite all the publicity on how important it was.

In an editorial on 26/5/20, Rossiter had been almost gleeful in reporting trouble at the Diggers’ Club. He commenced with,

Has the Yarram Diggers’ Club so soon met trouble?

He then retold the story of how the returned men had held themselves ‘aloof’ from the local community by insisting on their own club rooms. He also argued that the resulting Diggers’ Club, as it was set up, was supported by local subscriptions; and those who had contributed financially understood they were contributing to a facility that would be available to all returned men, with the only restriction being a ‘small members’ fee’. The previous post revealed that, in time, the membership was also extended to include fathers’ of men who had served and also those men who had been ‘rejected’ on medical grounds.

Rossiter then claimed that there were significant divisions within the club over the very issue of membership. There was a ballot system to determine membership and Rossiter claimed that ‘certain rejects’ had been ‘black balled’ in the ballot process. This in turn had led to the resignation of the ‘chief officers’ of the club’s management committee. There were no further details on the men denied membership, nor on the fate of those said to have resigned from the committee. Obviously, the issue of which ‘rejects’ would be admitted to the Diggers’ Club was always going to be contentious. Rossiter was quick – and also keen – to point to the potential outcome for the club. He warned that … the public will be quite alienated, and the club too soon become a white elephant.

Overall, in the lead up to the public meeting on 21/6/20, the background politics associated with returned soldiers had become both public and contentious.

There was a detailed account of the public meeting in the local paper on 23/6/20. As indicated already, the attendance was very small. In fact, the number given was only twelve, ‘including one lady’. The paper claimed it was ‘farcical’ to suggest the meeting was either ‘public’ or ‘representative’. In any event, the meeting proceeded and the Shire President outlined the three proposals:

The three proposals that had been made were a monument in the public street, to cost about £500; the completion of the public park and the erection of a smaller monument in it; and the erection of a memorial hall.

The President declared that he favoured the second proposal – the Soldiers’ Memorial Park – but acknowledged that the Shire had already settled on the first, the monument in Commercial Road. He doubted that the memorial hall proposal would receive public support. Rossiter then spoke to his proposal of the hall, pointing out the benefits for the wider community. However, he also made the point that should his proposal not win support then he would finally quit his ‘effort to get a public hall for Yarram’. This was to be his last effort for the commemorative public hall for Yarram, which he had been pushing from the end of the war.

Councillor Barlow was obviously perturbed by the whole business. He argued that such a small meeting could hardly make any decision of import. Further, he maintained, the basic issue related to the whole of the Shire of Alberton and the narrow focus on Yarram – for the hall proposal – was inappropriate. Further, in relation to the same proposal, he had trouble reconciling what he saw as a business venture – the Shire would take out a loan and then seek to repay it by charging usage costs etc – with the commemoration of the soldiers’ sacrifice. He even went as far as accusing the backers of trying to … make money out of the lives of their fallen soldiers’ lives that had been given for their freedom. It was a strong claim. Barlow was obviously not about to change his support for the Shire’s initial vote to to establish the monument in the main street of Yarram, where the total cost would be covered by the Shire.

There followed further discussion over the merit of even considering alternative proposals if the councillors’ minds were already made up. In the end, the meeting closed without any motion being put. From that point, Rossiter’s proposal for the memorial hall in Yarram was dropped.

After the agreed two months for public discussion had passed, the matter was taken back to council. At the meeting on 12/8/20 the discussion focused on whether the monument was to in the park or in the main street. Incredibly, the vote was tied at four each way. The deciding vote of the President determined that the monument would be erected in the park. So notice was then given that there would be a vote to rescind the original council resolution of 13/5/20 – the one that had the monument in Commercial Road – at the next meeting. However, at the next meeting (9/9/20), the resolution to rescind the original vote was lost. At the same meeting, the following resolution was passed:

That the design for [the] soldiers’ memorial, submitted by H. B. Corben & sons, and numbered 5, to cost £550, be adopted; that it be surrounded by a bluestone and chain railing at an additional cost of £50; and that it be erected in Commercial Road, Yarram, opposite the post office.

Finally, there was a definite decision on the form and location of the soldiers’ memorial for Alberton Shire. It would be dedicated just under one year later. The back story to this decision highlights simmering divisions in the local community over the key question of ownership of the business of commemoration.

The unveiling of the memorial

The Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial was unveiled on Wednesday, 10 August 1921. The ad for the event specified that it would occur … immediately after arrival of train from Melbourne (about 3.30 p m). The train station at Yarram had been opened earlier the same year (February 1921). The event was written up in the local papers – both Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative and South Gippsland Chronicle – on 12/8/21. The number of locals who attended was put ‘between 400 and 500 people’.

The two dignitaries presiding at the unveiling were the local Federal member G H Wise and Major-General C F Cox. Cox had served on Gallipoli, and then throughout the Sinai-Palestine campaign, with distinction. After the War he was elected to the Senate as a Nationalist.

The account in the local paper noted that the Shire President – John Barry – opened the proceedings by referring to the 700 men who had left the district to fight and the 80 who had died. In his comments, Senator Cox described the memorial as … a credit to the district and a fitting tribute to the boys who saved the country.

For his part, Wise was more political with his remarks. He was keen to refute the claim – it was most commonly identified with Archbishop Mannix – that the War had been waged for merely economic reasons or, more specifically, over trade. Wise insisted that … Those people who thought the past war was a trade or financial was were making a great mistake. For Wise it had been a war to check German power and militarism. It had been a war … fought to end all inhumanities and guarantee freedom and liberty. Arguably, the most significant point here was that Wise felt the need to make the comments. Wise also referred to what he saw as the ‘levelling’ effect of the War:

One of the aftermaths of the war was that it brought all classes on a more equal footing.

At the actual unveiling of the memorial, the Last Post was played. And at the conclusion, B P Johnson gave a ‘hearty vote of thanks’ on behalf of the community.

That night, there was a formal dinner for Wise and Cox and other invited guests in the Yaram Club Hotel, put on by the Shire President, John Barry JP. Prior to the event, newspaper articles had made it clear who was to be invited:

Invitations are being issued to members of the soldier land settlement committee, the repatriation executive, and representatives of the Returned Soldiers’ League.

In the Archives for the Shire of Alberton there is a list of those who were invited. The actual list runs to approximately 55 guests but there is no corresponding list of those who did actually attend. It was an all-male affair. In the write up in the papers the number who were present was described thus:

Between 40 and 50 of the most representative citizens sat down to the dinner at the Club Hotel that would have done credit to a city caterer.

What is clear though is that the single largest group of invited guests consisted of members of the Soldier Land Settlement Committee. There were 18 of them. The second largest group – approximately 15 – would have covered all the Shire representatives: councillors, Shire Secretary, Shire Engineer, Clerk of Works, Treasurer … There was also a small number from the local repatriation Committee. Finally, in terms of distinct groupings of guests, there were approximately 10 returned men. Presumably, they were all associated with either the Diggers’ Club or the local branch of the RSSILA; although it does appear that one or two of them might also have been soldier settlers.

What this all means is that the returned soldiers themselves were a definite minority at the function. Precedence was given to what effectively was the previous generation, the very one that that committed the men to the War. It was something of a classic example how even the commemoration of the War was dominated by the earlier generation. Further, as we will see later, the local Soldier Land Settlement Committee exercised considerable authority over the returned men or, more specifically, those who tried to set themselves up as successful soldier settlers. Not surprisingly, many of the returned men would have felt that everything was skewed to the interests of the previous generation, the one that had not done the fighting.

At the formal dinner there were the usual toasts – ‘The king’, ‘health of the federal Parliament’, ‘the AIF’ … – and B P Johnson appears to have served as MC.

Wise spoke again at the dinner and it was evident that he was defensive over the range and intensity of disquiet in the community about the Government’s management of post-War expectations. For example, he referred to what he saw as the folly of the ‘public indignation meetings’ that were increasingly being called across the country. He defend the Government’s record on ‘soldier service homes’ and claimed the Government had ‘done their best’. And there was criticism of those – he referred to the ‘wealthy’ – who attacked the Government over the level of the War debt.

Another speaker that night was William G Pope. Pope had been a prominent Imperial Loyalist during the War and a backer of the returned men’s push for their own club rooms after the War. He was responsible for the toast to the AIF. His comments reflected those of Bean in that he saw the legacy of the AIF becoming a driving force in Australian history. He acknowledged that the AIF had officially ceased to exist, but then launched into the following, mutli-themed panegyric:

… it [The AIF] will live in Australian hearts and have a beneficial influence on our national life and character for all time, as in every true Australian heart the glorious deeds of the A. I. F. are enshrined for ever. There imperishable glory is the beaconllght on the hill, to which in future all who love and would serve Australia must turn for inspiration, and in the men who lighted it are the descendants of those men and women of British stock whose never-failing courage has laid the foundations of that Commonwealth or British nation, which is the hope of the world.

Returning to a more mundane level, Pope finished with a critique of those upset about the level of war indemnity or reparations that Australia was not going to receive from Germany. The background here was that there had recently been reports -for example, South Gippsland Chronicle, 20/7/21 – that Australia’s share of war indemnity had been reduced from £30M to £400,000, compromising overall repatriation efforts. Pope dismissed the concerns, arguing that the potential of reparations was hardly the reason Australian had gone to war.

It is interesting that even at such formal, commemorative events, the general disquiet in the community about the overall situation in Australia, just short of three years after the Armistice, kept intruding.

For his part, Senator Cox did not have much to say. He was full of praise for the 700 men from the Shire who had all left as volunteers. But even he finished with a call for a significant increase in immigration, as a matter of urgency.

There were several letters touching on both the unveiling ceremony, and the formal dinner, published in the local press immediately after. Predictably, there were complaints about the guest list for the dinner. A letter (12/8/21) from ‘A Dinkum Digger’ intimated that not only were the diggers generally under-represented but some of the diggers invited were not ‘genuine diggers’:

… I would like to ask who was responsible for the issuing of the invitations? Why was it that several Diggers were invited and partook of a hearty meal (and doubtless felt the effects of a bad head the following morning), and other real Diggers were quite overlooked? Why this state of things should be is puzzling. We hear of a dinner and on looking round the guests we see people with no claim to a seat as a Digger, and we also see many with no claim at all as a guest on such an occasion. What was the controlling influence in the choosing of the guests? Did it not count that a man who had really seen service for 4 1/2 years, from first to last, and who had ‘borne the burden and heat of the day,’ should not be asked. Why was it that so many of these real Diggers were not invited, while there were guests with no such record partaking of the good things and ‘eating the fatted calf.’ It seems evident that the same old trouble, class distinction, must have crept in. It is painful to think of such a thing after hearing the address of Mr Wise in the afternoon, when he commented on the fact of how the war had done away with this, and instanced a case of where he had seen hundreds of men on a transport all on an equal footing. Surely it must have pricked the consciences of some of the guests last night when they must have noticed the absence of some Diggers, men perhaps not holding ‘soft jobs’ or clerkships, but Diggers all the same, and justly entitled to a seat at the festal board.

The idea of the ‘genuine’ digger had history. For example, Johnson himself had fought off claims earlier in the War that his son had a secured a position away from the front lines. The AIF had regularly sought to ‘comb out’ men involved in clerical and support roles to reinforce those at the front. But, more generally, there was always the question of whose service in the AIF counted the most or, at least, for more than others’ service. Clearly, in this instance the claim was that some of he diggers at the dinner did not have the same entitlement as others who had served throughout the entire War. Perhaps it was a criticism on those who had taken on positions of responsibility in the local organisations to do with returned men. Clearly, there was politics associated with the operation of the Diggers’ Club. It was always going to be a vexed question. There were even shades of the same dilemma in the case of those ‘rejected’. For example, how many formal attempts and rejections did it take it take before someone became a genuine ‘reject’? Arguably, the more important point here is that the issues of entitlement and status were being raised publicly. The point was being made that not all diggers were ‘equal’.

It was not only the local returned men who were put out by events associated with the dedication of the memorial. One other criticism was that the local school children had not been sufficiently involved in the unveiling ceremony. In the South Gippsland Chronicle of 17/8/21 there was a letter from the head teacher (A M Parratt) of the Yarram State school. He was obviously upset that the children had not been asked to have a formal presence at the ceremony. There was some important history here. All through the War, the then head teacher, A E Paige, had ensured that the school children were always available, even at short notice, to attend formal and semi-formal functions. For example, Paige would quickly organise for a group of school children to attend a farewell organised for a departing recruit. The school children had become a feature of all such public occasions. But, on this occasion, they had been passed over. The new head teacher made the point that … the school was never asked to attend. Had there been an invitation, the school, most definitely, would have been there. In fact, it had a right to be there, and at the dinner as well:

The teachers and children were all willing to march down had we been asked. After all that the children did for the soldiers we were conceited enough to expect an invitation; we also thought that the schools of the district might have been represented at the dinner, either by a teacher or a member of the school committee, but those in authority thought otherwise.

There were even other letters with advice on how the whole ceremony could have been better staged.

The critical observation in all this was that even the acts of commemoration were capable of creating and stirring division. And while some of the tension and division was superficial, manufactured and even trivial, there were other issues that were deep and serious.

The last point to note is that when the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial was unveiled on 10/8/21, the actual names of the dead had not yet been added. Provision had been made for the names of 80 dead to be inscribed. But it was to be nearly another 10 years before the names were added. This detail will be the subject of a future post.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
South Gippsland Chronicle

Archives, Shire of Alberton

Minute Book October 1913 – April 1921

File: 285-292

Box: 377

 

 

211. Club rooms for the returned men or a memorial hall for the Shire?

The next few posts look at the men returning from the War and taking up life again in the Shire of Alberton.

The posts will make it clear that the ‘Peace’ at the end of WW1 continued to feature a significant degree of conflict and division in the Australian community. Sectarianism, which had become more pronounced during the War over the issue of conscription, continued to be very divisive in the community after the War. There were also the lingering questions over conscription itself and, most importantly, the standing of those who had chosen not to enlist, particularly now that the volunteers had returned, many of them wounded and broken. The fear of the ‘alien’ and the ‘outsider’ which had driven paranoia during the War certainly continued after it. The common perception was that the White Australia Policy remained just as threatened, notwithstanding the fact that Hughes on his return to Australia after Versailles, boasted that he had ensured its survival. There was also the pressing issue of ‘repatriation’ and the inevitable conflict between what the returning soldiers had been promised and what the Government could realistically deliver. On this score, the potential for failure and despair was effectively unlimited. There were also the ongoing effects of the fundamental political divisions which had been created by the War, most notably the schism within the ALP. And, to round off the bleak picture, in the immediate aftermath of the War there was the scourge of the Spanish Flu.

Against this broad background, the following posts focus specifically on events in the Shire of Alberton in the years immediately after the War. As the focus is at the ‘local’ level, it is easier to see other important themes that emerged at the time. Arguably, the most significant of these was the dynamic of how the returned men re-connected with their previous life and re-integrated into the community they had left. What emerges very quickly is that these were somewhat fraught processes and the source of significant tension in the local community. In a real sense, the ‘boys’ were not prepared simply to take up their old lives and accept their prior status. There was a significant generational divide between the returning ‘boys’ and their parents and ‘betters’. It was also very much about the tension between what they had been promised and what they in fact received.

Club rooms for the returned men or a memorial hall for the Shire?

This first post in the short series examines the conflict in the local community from the perspective of one fundamentally critical question: who was to decide what represented the best interests of the returned soldiers?

The building featured here is a drawing for a grand ‘Memorial Soldiers’ Club with Public Hall and Civic Club’ to be erected in Yarram. But it was never built. The background story of why it was never built is one of multiple levels of disagreement and division within the local community.

The essential backing for this grand proposal came from the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative. The editor – Augustus John Rossiter – had been a most vociferous Imperial Loyalist throughout the War. He would have assumed that he had established his right to talk on behalf of both the returning men and the community as a whole. He proposed a grand civic building which could incorporate a memorial for the fallen soldiers, a club room for the returned men, and a public hall for the community as a whole. Rossiter organised a shire-wide fund-raising appeal and he commissioned initial drawings of the proposed building which he then published in the paper on 25/4/19, Anzac Day. The initial plans or drawings were prepared by G de Lacy of Parkville, the architect responsible for the design of the very recent Holy Trinity Church (Anglican) in Yarram which had been finished in mid 1918.

The essential feature of Rossiter’s proposal was that the one, major new building would serve several interests. It would serve as a memorial to those who had served and those who had fallen. Further, it would incorporate amenities for returned soldiers living in the Shire of Alberton. But, as well, the proposal represented a significant, additional piece of civic infrastructure: a new and contemporary public hall. Obviously, the proposal would be expensive but Rossiter saw it as a fitting tribute to the returned soldiers and a major and justified exercise in civic commemoration. In fact, there were many such memorial halls built by local governments, both urban and rural, post WW1.

In the description of the proposed building, included with the initial drawings, Rossiter emphasised how the three building elements – ‘Soldiers’ Club’, ‘Civic Club’ and ‘Public Hall’ – were both separate and integral:

The proposed buildings have been designed so that the Soldiers’ Club, the Civic Club and the Public Hall can each be vested in separate bodies of control and managed and maintained as though they were three isolated structures. Although they are reached by a central common entrance, for purposes of convenience and effect, they are quite separate buildings in that fire-proof and sound-proof construction and parapet walls separate each from the other.

The overall building was a large, two-story structure. It included a comprehensive set of common-use facilities including library, reading and correspondence room, smoking room, billiard room and a shared, spacious entrance and foyer. The facade was Italianate in style and it incorporated space for ‘memorial tablets and inscriptions’.

However, in the same edition of the paper, Rossiter acknowledged that there was some opposition to his grand proposal. Strikingly, the main opposition was coming from the returned men themselves. Rossiter noted that there had been a recent public meeting in Yarram at which the returned soldiers – or at least a group of them – had dismissed the grand proposal and, instead, had called for a completely separate club rooms. Rossiter’s frustration was evident:

The demand by the men for a detached club created a barrier, and frustrated the good intentions of the public.

But now, with the detailed plans and drawings published in the paper, Rossiter attempted to increase the pressure on the men to give up the call for their own separate club rooms and get behind what he represented as the general community’s intention:

We this morning produce a facsimile [of the plans], and to clear the air, ask the soldiers, without delay, to state if a building erected on these plans will meet with their approval. The public want to know, for their intention is to build a memorial hall of service to the district wherein will be seen the photographs of all who enlisted, also those and records of the fallen. We parted with the boys as one family, worked for them while away, and longed for their return. What has made the difference that they should hold aloof now they have come back that their hours of pleasure must be spent amongst themselves, quite apart from former friends. A warm hearted public wants an answer. Will the soldiers consent to detached club rooms, with a clear title, under the roof of a memorial hall?

The emotional blackmail is evident: this particular group of soldiers is being ungrateful and, in effect, setting themselves against the very community that has supported them so faithfully through the long years of war.

The warnings to the soldiers were explicit:

The soldiers, unfortunately, lost much public sympathy by their defiant action at a public meeting in the shire hall; yet boiled down, the cleavage came from a very small section of the returned men. Prior to this the whole district was in the mood to go to any length towards a memorial hall for the fallen. Now, the hand is stayed, and until the soldiers say they will consent to a club under the roof of a memorial hall, there is little chance of getting either building such as would be an ornament and a credit to the town and district.

The public meeting where the soldiers had expressed their preference for their own club rooms appears to have taken place in early March 1919, just over one month earlier. At the time, there was a brief report in the local paper (12/3/19) of the meeting:

It was the returned men’s idea to build memorial rooms to be used as club rooms. They could invite anyone they wished to their club. At present they had no place whatever to meet in – unless they went to the Yarram Club, but returned soldiers were likely to be “black-balled” there. (Laughter.) If the public wanted to build a big hall there was no earthly reason why they shouldn’t.

It appears that this initial plan by the soldiers for their own private club room arrangement was not taken too seriously because by early April 1919 a fund – Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial Fund – had been set up … to build a memorial hall and soldiers’ club rooms in Yarram, in memory of the fallen. The editorial that described the basic arrangement (18/4/19) noted that 1,000 circulars associated with the fund-raising effort had already been distributed through the shire. Plans for a related gymkhana were also already under way. The same editorial effectively dismissed the concerns of the soldiers and expressed confidence that the combined proposal would be accepted by them. It also had a passing shot at their intransigence.

The decision of the returned men, in favor of detached club rooms, gave rise to comment, and was not favorably entertained by the public. The plan before us presents no obstacle in that respect. The soldiers’ quarters are embodied in a comprehensive plan, not absolutely detached, yet will, we feel sure, meet with the approval of previous objectors. there really seems to be no obstacle in the way of the public and the soldiers uniting in one great movement, and if the response is on all fours with what the people can afford we see no reason why a very fine hall should not be erected in memory of the fallen, and of the brave deeds of the returned men. We ask for liberal response.

But the backers of the grander proposal did not get the ‘liberal response’ they requested. The grand proposal was dropped within not much more than one month and all future effort went in to setting up a separate club rooms.

The formal commitment to a separate (Diggers’) club rooms came at a public meeting the end of May 1919, about one month after the local paper published the drawings for the combined proposal. A report of the meeting was written up in the paper on 30/5/19. The meeting was chaired by B P Johnson, another Imperial Loyalist who had been an outspoken champion of the War effort and who, arguably, had the highest profile as a supporter of returned men. Interestingly, it was in this role as a backer and supporter of the returned men that Johnson came out very strongly in favour of the separate Diggers’ club rooms. There was this strong sense that even if he did not believe that theirs was the best proposal, he would always back the men’s wishes.

This meeting at the end of May was called to accept or reject, once and for all, the local paper’s proposal ‘to erect a memorial hall and club rooms for the returned soldiers of Alberton Shire’. It was clear from the start that the soldiers wanted to go their own way. Speakers noted that the appeal for the combined proposal – memorial (public) hall and soldiers’ club rooms – had been running for nearly one month but that very little had been received. In fact, the response had been so poor that the local branch of the ‘Returned Soldiers’ Association’ had now decided to pull out of the proposal for the combined facility and opt instead for their own, separate club rooms. Johnson, as chair, immediately backed the men and declared that the matter had to be settled at the meeting. Johnson argued that one of the problems with the combined proposal was that many locals claimed that they did not see the merit in building another public hall in Yarram:

Many of the residents had used the dual appeal as an excuse for withholding donations. Some had said that they were prepared to assist an appeal for club rooms, but were opposed to building another hall in Yarram.

Johnson’s logic was that an appeal specifically for club rooms for the returned men would attract a higher level of financial support from the locals. As events turned out he was proved wrong. The same argument was taken up George F Sauer another key Imperial Loyalist and backer of the returned men. He also claimed that people felt Yarram already had too many public halls. Implicit in this argument was the view that residents of the shire who did not live in Yarram could hardly be expected to contribute to a facility which they would not use. Benjamin Couston, local bank manger and yet another key Imperial Loyalist, declared that whereas he had initially supported the double proposal, he now supported the soldiers’ club rooms’ proposal. He also noted that the appeal over the past month had ‘failed dismally’. It was Couston who formally moved:

That this public meeting now assembled agrees to relinquish the double appeal for a memorial hall and soldiers’ club rooms, and now pledges itself to support the Returned Soldiers’ Association in building club rooms for the returned soldiers of the shire.

The motion was passed unanimously and the meeting also determined to write to those who had already donated to the initial appeal and ask… whether they were prepared to allow their donations to be handed over, to the direct appeal for soldiers’ club rooms. The new appeal was to be The Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial Fund. The appeal would be supported by a gymkhana which would be held later in the year, in early November.

The last business of the meeting was to set up a committee to mange the appeal. Johnson became the president, Sauer the secretary, and Benson the treasurer. There was an executive committee which was made up of several returned men (E T Benson, W A Newland, Dr J H Rutter) and a number of local business men who had all identified as Imperial Loyalists during the War (W C Growse, E L Grano, W G Pope). The local Church of England rector – Rev S Williams – was also on the committee. This committee would work closely with the local branch of the RSSILA.

Johnson closed the meeting with a warning – rather prescient as it turned out – that if the new appeal proved a failure, then Alberton Shire … would be eternally disgraced.

Not surprisingly, Rossiter was annoyed that his far grander proposal was rejected in favour of the separate soldiers’ club rooms. His annoyance was evident in an editorial that appeared a few weeks later (20/6/19). Despite what he wrote, the public meeting had indeed formally decided to drop the memorial hall proposal and go with the club rooms:

If what we hear be true, the members of the Yarram branch of the Returned Soldiers’ Association have determined to disassociate themselves with the memorial hall movement, towards which some subscriptions have been received. The intention is to appeal for a soldiers’ club solely.

Rossiter was also prepared to challenge the real level of support for this decision and suggest that a soldiers’ club rooms would hardly constitute a suitable public memorial for the fallen and returned men:

It would be interesting to know the total number of returned men in the district and the number on the roll of the Association [RSSILA], in view of ascertaining if it be the will of the majority to stand apart from the public proposal.

But if Rossiter and others were annoyed that the returned men had scotched their grand proposal, the returned men themselves were concerned by what they saw as the lack of support from the local council for their proposal. There was another public meeting held in mid July – reported 18/7/19 – to drum up support for the soldiers’ club rooms. This time there was an organiser from the Victorian branch of the RSSILA who came to speak on behalf of the proposal. This person noted that there were no local councillors present at the meeting and claimed that … It is a general rule for them to attend meetings of this description. He continued:

Many of the councillors made promises of what they intended doing for the men who went to the war, but, unfortunately, the same men have turned out to be nothing more than lip-loyalist. (Laughter).

Johnson was again chair of the meeting and he made some attempt to cover for the absent councillors, but it was evident that there were clear divisions in the community on the specific issue of the club rooms, and the broader question of how the returned men were being treated in the Australia for which they had fought and sacrificed so much.

In mid September 1919, the executive responsible for fundraising for the soldiers’ club rooms purchased a two-story building in Yarram. It was on the corner of Bland Street and Commercial Road. It was purchased from C J Allin for £1,000. Allin had purchased it a few years earlier from Councillor Barlow. Later there would be suggestions that the soldiers paid too much for the property. The executive then set about making necessary changes to the building and intensifying the fund raising effort. The date for the gymkhana was officially set for November 12, 1919.

In early October there was a formal welcome for the returned soldiers of the shire in Thompson’s Hall. The report of the function was in the local paper on 10/10/19. It was a full house and the chair for the evening was the Shire President, J J O’Connor. O’Connor touched on all the then current themes: the debt of gratitude owed to the returned soldiers; the need for the soldiers to ‘stick together’ and become organised through their association (RSSILA); the enormous challenge of repatriation and the need for the returned men to be patient; the glory of the dead; the greatness of the Australian soldiers and their acknowledged status as ‘among the best soldiers in the world’; the decency of those who had tried to enlist – many times – only to have been rejected and, equally, the disdain for … ‘disloyalists’ in our midst; and, of course, the greatness and power of the Empire. Amongst all this, the chairman … made a stirring appeal for contributions towards the establishment of soldiers’ club rooms in Yarram. He declared:

The club rooms were required, and the appeal provided an opportunity for residents to show their gratitude for what the soldiers had done for them.

But the money was not forthcoming. Residents did not contribute to the appeal; and this, of course, created more division and rancour in the community.

Johnson had a letter in the local paper on 22/10/19. He pointed out the cost of the clubrooms (£1,000) and noted that to that point the total raised was under £200. He insisted that people across the shire knew about the appeal. He concluded that there was … no excuse save selfishness and base ingratitude for neglect to subscribe [to the appeal]. He declared that:

It is no wonder that the boys feel that the lavish promises which were made to them when they went away are not going to be honored, and that most of the people have forgotten the war and all that was done for them.

In a real sense this was vintage Johnson as the classic, high-profile, Imperial Loyalist, in that the appeal to moral righteousness and, critically, the attempted shaming of all who fell short, was so characteristic of all the previous appeals – from 1914 on – to support the War, smash Germany, defend the Empire, encourage enlistment, and, of course, support the introduction of conscription. There were no shades of grey, and no ambiguities, inconsistencies or opposing views in this world view. So Johnson held nothing back:

The soldiers have now purchased a building, and are now fitting it up for occupation, and after all they have done and suffered, it will be an everlasting shame and disgrace to the whole of the district if they have to find one penny of the cost. I venture to say that there are very few men in this Shire who cannot pay £1 at least to in some way show their appreciation of the soldiers’ wonderful deeds. It is all very well to turn up at welcomes, where the admission is free, and cheer and wave flags, etc., but the proper course is to sacrifice something. Don’t calculate how little you can give – the boys offered all, and nearly 60,000 of them paid in full – but see how big you can make your contribution, for, after all, the man who gives as little as he can, or who fails to subscribe, really puts a price on his womenfolk and himself. Let every man realise that everything he owns he owes to the soldiers, and, then this disgrace will soon be removed.

But now, one full year after the War, the local community was clearly sick of being told what to do by the likes of Johnson. Nor did they appreciate his attempts at moral blackmail and his superior tone. But he was not about to give up. There was another letter on 5/11/19. Johnson this time published the full list of individuals and groups that had contributed to the appeal. The total came to less that 70, with about 65 individual contributions. Clearly, there was not widespread support for the appeal. What was equally clear was that while previous attempts to shame people into contributing had not worked, Johnson had no other strategy:

It will be seen that a few pounds have come in since I last wrote, but the response is still an absolute disgrace to this magnificent district. Have the people as a whole no sense of gratitude? Some, I hear, will not subscribe because they cannot agree with the soldiers that club rooms are required. Such people surely forget what they owe these men. They want the rooms and it is little enough to do for the people to give them. It is anything but pleasant to be ashamed of the place one lives in.

In the end, the gymkhana generated a significant profit – over £500 – and the funds required for the club rooms were realised. Perhaps people had intended all along to support the gymkhana and had rationalised that that support would represent their contribution to the soldiers’ club rooms. At the same time, the number of individuals, across the whole of the Shire of Alberton, who did subscribe to the formal fund set up for the club rooms was very small.

Doubtless, there were many reasons for this lack of support. As already argued, many would have taken exception to Johnson’s tirades. Locals had tired of being told what they must do. There was also the question about whether the soldiers’ proposal was actually inferior to the one put forward by Rossiter and his paper. And sitting behind this question was the suggestion that the soldiers should not be ‘selfish’ and want just their own club rooms. There was also the view that the returned men should not be deliberately withdrawing themselves from the wider community and setting themselves up in their own exclusive facility. Surely, the thinking ran, now that the ‘boys’ were ‘home’ again, they should be fitting back into the community and they should be grateful that the locals were keen to give them a facility, within a much grander public memorial to both them and their fallen comrades. And if the returned men could not see that, then why should anyone support their proposal. Moreover, the soldiers’ club rooms were hardly a memorial so would it not be better to wait and contribute to a proper memorial when the shire finally decided on one. As already noted there were also questions on who was actually representing the returned men’s interests and were the returned men speaking with one voice. So there were any number of reasons why locals could have convinced themselves that contributing to the fund for the soldiers’ club rooms was not essential.

The rooms were opened on the first anniversary of the Armistice (11/11/19). However, the division and recrimination did not end with the opening of the soldiers’ club rooms. The editorial in the local paper at the time made it clear that there was still considerable disquiet over what had happened.

Quite frankly, we say that the building is not what the public desired the returned men should have. It is not good enough nor is it in the true sense a memorial. A memorial is something of a more stable character, and worthy of the great and gallant deeds done by our boys in the recent war. It should be something in memory of the dear departed. Instead, the League has purchased a building that is like a reed shaken by the wind. It sways in a moderate gale, and the time cannot be far distant when radical and costly alterations must be made if stability is to be any desideratum.

The paper continued its list of concerns, claiming to speak on behalf of the community:

We are voicing the opinion of the great majority of the people when we say that disappointment is expressed at the purchase [of the building for the soldiers’ club rooms]. It may serve its purpose in a way, but with large hearts and determination to do something grand, the public had in view a building which would be a credit to town and district, and a much more fitting memorial of services rendered – a building that would provide much more than the men themselves asked for – a building in which the public would be perennially interested, and upon which would have been lavished care and attention by a warm-hearted public in memory of those they loved. The present building cannot command the same attention because the deep sentiment that was assured does not invest it. There exists a sort of feeling “Well, boys, you have so decided; we will do what we can for you.

There is no way of knowing if in fact the local paper was representing the view of the majority of locals. However, what is true is that people at the time would not have seen the soldiers’ club rooms as any sort of formal, public memorial to all those men from the Shire of Alberton who enlisted and served and, more critically, the dead. The soldiers’ club rooms, or the ‘Diggers’ Club’ as it was also known, was a facility set up exclusively for the use of the returned men and as a head quarters of the local branch of the RSSILA. This meant that the question of the Shire of Alberton’s formal, public memorial remained unresolved. We will see later that the Shire decided on the cenotaph – featuring the list of the dead – which stands in the main street of Yarram. But, again, this decision was also marked by more division. For example, the local paper again called for something more utilitarian, even a public memorial swimming pool.

Another concern of locals, sitting just below the surface of public debate, was the question of what the soldiers would do in their club rooms. As we have seen in previous posts, there was a very strong temperance sentiment in the Shire. Local clergy had been active in trying to restrict wet canteens in the Melbourne army camps, and the dangers of drink in the AIF were constant preoccupations, as was the push for prohibition and ‘early closing’. Another social evil very much on the community’s mind was gambling, and previous posts have shown that this fear extended even to chocolate wheels at fetes. The possibility that the soldiers might drink and gamble to excess in the privacy of their ‘club’ was a concern and, in fact, the backers of the proposal gave public assurance that the club would not seek a licence and that gambling in all forms would be strictly prohibited.

Even after the club rooms were opened, the high level of criticism continued. For example, in an editorial published on 3/12/19, not even one month after the official opening, Rossiter questioned whose interests were being served by the facility:

A soldiers’ club having been established in Yarram, for ‘members only’, it is important that all returned men should join. The public liberally responded at the gymkhana, presumably for something of benefit to all Alberton Shire soldiers, not to a small proportion. It is felt that the Yarram branch of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers’ Association is not the ‘live wire’ it ought to be!

The paper suggested that too often key decisions were being taken by just a few of the returned soldiers. It called for all returned men to become involved. Also, there was another issue at play here, because the reality was that club rooms in Yarram were not going to be as accessible to returned men who lived in the outlying townships and settlements of the district. A soldiers’ club rooms in Yarram was always going to serve, principally, those returned men who lived in Yarram.

The formal meeting that saw the transfer of management from the committee that raised the funds for the club rooms to the Yarram sub branch of the Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League (Australia) took place in early December 1919. It was written up in the local paper on 12/12/19. The business of the meeting was the report from the ‘Building Committee’ (Johnson’s committee) and the approval of the constitution for the club rooms.

According to the constitution adopted, the name of the club rooms was fixed as the ‘Diggers’ Club’ and the facility was for the use of all returned soldiers in Alberton Shire. Importantly, the returned men did not have to be members of the RSSILA:

All district soldiers, whether belonging to the League or not, are eligible to join the club. The procedure is by ballot. All soldiers who fought with the Allies in the great war, or any previous wars, are eligible to join.

The Yarram sub branch of the RSSILA had been set up mid 1917. See Post 148. Returned Sailors’ and Soldiers’ Imperial League (of Australia) for more background, including local tensions over its creation.

At the end of the War, local membership of the sub branch was approximately one hundred. At the end of 1919, Dr Rutter was serving as president of the sub branch. E T Benson, a local bank manger, was treasurer and W A Newland, who had earlier served as the local recruiting sergeant, was secretary. All committee members were obviously returned men.

The relationship between the Yarram sub branch of the RSSILA and the Diggers’ Club was not perfectly clear. The public’s perception at the time would have been that, effectively, the two agencies were the same; and, certainly, it appears that the sub-branch ran the Diggers’ Club as its property. However, the constitution of the Diggers’ Club clearly stated that membership of the RSSILA was not a prerequisite for membership of the club. Moreover, the same constitution stated that the ‘property’ of the club was vested in ‘three soldier trustees’ – members of the club – and that, if membership was ever to decline to the extent that the club was no longer viable, the trustees had the power to hand over the property of the club to the president and councillors of the Alberton Shire. Presumably, this arrangement reflected the fact that the money for the Diggers’ Club had come not from the RSSILA but from the local community, in fund raising overseen by civic leaders and formally supported by the Shire.

At the end of 1919, the auditors appointed to the local RSSILA sub branch were B P Johnson and B Couston. Presumably, this was to maintain a link with the committee that had been responsible for the fundraising for the Diggers’ Club. This link with the civic leaders who had supported the push for a separate soldiers’ club rooms was strengthened when there was an amendment to the Diggers’ Club membership rules in mid December 1919 which provided for ’soldiers’ fathers’ – both Johnson and Couston, for example – to join the club. There was also broad provision for ‘honorary members’. These membership changes effectively highlighted the distinction between the Diggers’ Club and the local branch of the RSSILA.

The Diggers’ Club – the building, at least – was destroyed in a major fire in March 1923.

Overall, it is clear that the establishment of the Diggers’ Club in Yarram at the end of 1919 represented many levels of the community division and social disquiet that sprang up when the ‘boys’ came home. In fact, the common use of the very term ‘boys’ goes to the heart of so much of the division and disquiet. For many locals, the simple story was that the ‘brave lads’ or ‘boys’ had enlisted from a sense of duty, fought with courage and earned the praise of the nation and the rest of the world as amongst the ‘greatest soldiers in the world’ and now, still ‘boys’, they were home again to take up the life they had briefly given up. Everything and everyone would go back to normal. In the world to which the soldiers returned, their parents’ generation and ‘betters’ were still there to tell them what to do; and they were expected to simply fit back into the previous social order. They were to be feted as heroes but it would all be done on the terms of the ‘old order’. They could have a dedicated clubroom but it would be within a much grander, memorial public hall which would benefit the whole community.

But many, if not most, of the returned men did not see it like that. Their years in the AIF had changed them profoundly. Many had had their heath compromised, if not completely ruined. They were all mentally and emotionally scarred. Many were profoundly disillusioned and desperate. They were anything but ‘boys’. True they were glad to be home and they looked forward to their future but they wanted it to be on their terms. They also expected that the countless promises made to them would be honored. They did not want to be ‘mucked around’. They desperately wanted to hang on to the sense of camaraderie or ‘mateship’ that had characterised their time in the AIF and they saw this soldierly mateship as exclusive in nature and reserved for those who had been there. They needed to be together by themselves or, at the very least, those they chose to be with. They were not about to be told by their parents’ generation how they should fit in and what the social boundaries were to be. If they wanted a separate club rooms for their exclusive use and that annoyed the rest of the community and left them open to claims that they were selfish, stand-offish and ungrateful then so be it.

It is worth finishing on yet another editorial from the local paper that once again found fault with the attitude of the returned men. It was a plea from the editor for the men to live up to the high ideals in which the local community held them. For people like Rossiter, there was this picture of the returning heroes of which the heroes themselves needed to be reminded. As mentioned, the gymkhana in early November 1919 was the key fund raiser for the Diggers’ Club. It was a large event with over 1,200 people in attendance. On the day, there was a procession led by the Yarram Town Band to the showgrounds. The returned men were invited to march. But not too many did. This lack of enthusiasm was not lost on the editor who, in his editorial immediately after the gymkhana, could not resist some criticism:

What few soldiers “processed” looked warriors every one but if the number of returned men be 400 in the district, 40 was not a good proportion. Even if the League members’ roll number is 120, then there were two-thirds elsewhere. We would like to have seen the full strength of the returned men in uniform on Wednesday. Those who turned out were so soldierlike in appearance but it made the others conspicuous by their absence.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative


Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria

210. Rev George Cox and his ‘Notes on Gippsland History’ (2): versions of history and the question of race

Rev George Cox deserves recognition for his very earlier research on the history of (European) Gippsland. At the same time, while Cox definitely saw himself as a practising historian, he did not write any definitive history of either Gippsland or any specific location in Gippsland. Cox was more the researcher of history than the writer of history. It is critical to appreciate this different emphasis. Anyone reading the articles Cox published in the local paper from 1912 onwards was obviously extending and deepening their understanding of the history of Gippsland – outcomes Cox was obviously keen to promote – but their understanding was being formed in an episodic, piecemeal and even disjointed and contradictory manner. Cox never wrote his final, coherent, single history. Rather what he did was publish, on a regular basis, primary sources touching on several themes to do with Gippsland history which he then critiqued, with the intention of trying to uncover the historical truth. The period he covered stretched from the 1840s to the 1860s. Cox did provide considerable commentary and opinion along the way and he certainly did see himself as building the picture of the history of Gippsland, but there was no final history, for example in the style of Adams – From these beginnings: history of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria) – who, as we know, relied to a significant degree, on the articles Cox had written 80 years earlier.

Any assessment of Cox’s work has to focus on the sources he used. For Cox, it was all about uncovering primary resources – including those found in folk lore, and collective and personal memory – and matching them with what was already known of the history. There were often inconsistencies, contradictions, and different emphases encountered in the various sources and there had to be attempts to reconcile such tensions and make informed judgements. The other critical perspective was that, as Cox himself had argued, the history of Gippsland had been neglected. As already seen, Cox gave several reasons for this, including a general reluctance for locals to dwell on its earliest lawless period. The effect of this ‘neglect’ was that any sources Cox did present to his readers effectively served to tell the story for the first time. It was a case of Gippsland history being ‘discovered’ by Cox for his readers.

Cox himself described his central focus on primary sources. His very first article (Article 1, 31/1/1912) emphasised both the range of primary material he was trying to cover:

The sources of information are numerous, and of many kinds. Parliamentary reports, official correspondence, Road Board and Shire minute books, contemporary newspapers, Church minute books and reports, private correspondence, maps, legal documents and private diaries, have been generously placed at the disposal of the writer, and form the principal channels of information, such being supplemented by personal reminiscences of old residents, after careful enquiry.

It also presented the open-ended nature of his work and the potential limits of his approach:

But the writer is deeply conscious of two things, – first that he has by no means exhausted the storehouse of information, and secondly that he is not by any means possessed of such gifts as would preclude possibility of error. In connection then, with the first shortcoming, further sources of information will be most gratefully welcomed: and for the second criticism, and correction where needed, will be thankfully received.

This is very much a claim about ‘history in the making’ via a careful and sustained historical methodology. Overall, Cox saw his considerable effort as work-in-progress; but he saw this reality as a strength: history was being written, tested and refined through the dialectic. This was the proper function of a historical society. As noted, he also saw himself as providing research material for others who would follow.

At the same time, Cox obviously saw himself as offering more than critical insights on historiography. He definitely saw himself as ‘teaching’ the locals their (European) history. Moreover, he wanted them to understand, identify with and celebrate their history. For example, he took pride in the fact that his material was used at the local school for lessons associated with the celebration of events such as Discovery Day. As he stated (Article 26, 9/4/13):

Friday, April 18th. will be observed as Discovery day in State schools, therefore this and the succeeding article will be devoted to the subject of the early exploration of Gippsland.

Cox was also proud of the popularity his articles enjoyed and the fact that readers requested back copies. He made efforts to meet the demand. For example, he wrote the following introduction in one of his very early articles (Article 21, 20/11/12):

Before proceeding to the consideration of the subject matter of this paper a foreword about the paper itself may be advisable. In the first place, many requests have been received for back numbers of these papers which unfortunately cannot be supplied. But as special interest attaches to the subject of Count Strzelecki’s journey, it being included in the State school curriculum, and some additional matter of considerable interest has been received, it has been decided to republish portions of an article already in print, together with such additional matter. [The additional matter was material relating to the wreck of the Clonmel, in early January 1841.]

After the War was over and he had finished his service in the AIF, Cox resumed his series of articles and in Article 71, 25/11/21, he offered himself some degree of self-congratulation when he stated that his articles … have proved useful and have been recognised as a reliable authority by those engaged in historical study. He was keen to take up the work again and he committed to new material:

The compiler, since his discharge from military service, has had exceptional opportunities for research work in connection with the early discovery and settlement of the province, which will enable him to add considerably to the articles already published, and provide much new material as well.

Again, he pointed out the difficulties in reproducing earlier articles. He also indicated where such earlier material could be accessed:

Copies of all previous articles should be available for reference at several places locally, probably the Shire Hall and Mechanics’ Library, as well as the “Standard” office; while students further afield will find them in the Public Library and Historical Society’s Office, Melbourne, and the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

Cox’s attempts to generate interest in his work and have the locals, particularly the ‘pioneers’ who were still alive, engage in discussions and debate were successful. Cox definitely did focus the attention of his local community on its (European) history. In fact, there would have been few regional communities in Australia at that time who were as well served, in terms of their local history, as the Shire of Alberton. Moreover, this interest in local history – and, as noted earlier, Cox always saw his history as more than merely ‘local’ – was occurring at the very outbreak of WW1, the time when the new nation was preoccupied with its national identity or character.

As just the briefest example of Cox’s basic approach, consider the issue of exploration and what Cox saw as the competing claims associated with the vexed question of ‘Who discovered Gippsland?’ It was a question that preoccupied him. In fact, this very question first served as the title for an article in April, 1913 (Article 27) and the same question was still serving as the title of articles in 1922 (Article 80), 1923 (Article 81) and 1924 (Article 101).

The nature of the controversy related essentially to questions of motivation and transparency. On the one hand, there were dedicated ‘explorers’ who were either tasked by authorities, or took on the responsibility themselves, to chart ‘unknown’ territory and determine lines of travel or communication between the ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ districts. They had to ‘explore’ the coastline and ‘discover’ various overland routes. Count Strzelecki was the name most identified with such ‘exploration’. This group tended to write detailed accounts of their treks. On the other hand, there were opportunists – most commonly, squatters coming into Gippsland from NSW – who, in the pursuit of their own material interests, pushed into and exploited the same ‘unknown’ areas. But this second group did not necessarily want recognition, or, at least, not immediately. Their more self-interested motivation was to limit competition for the same new pastures. The name most associated with this second group was Angus McMillan. The efforts of this second group often went unrecorded, and often this was deliberate on their part. Of course, the major qualification in this particular ‘discovery’ controversy is that the areas were ‘unknown’ ‘un-mapped’ and ‘un-named’ only to Europeans. Indeed, there are numerous references in the various primary sources examined by Cox which highlighted how the Europeans relied on ‘blacks’ or ‘black fellows’ as guides and protectors in their travels in Gippsland.

Obviously, the theme of European discovery, exploration and occupation is tied absolutely to the critical theme of the dispossession and subjugation of the Indigenous population (Ganai/Kurnai). Yet this is not a theme covered by Cox. He touches on it, alludes to it, refers to it in passing but he does not present it as a critical historical theme in its own right. For Cox, this fundamental issue is more something that just happened, via a ‘natural’ process. It might have had some regrettable dimensions to it and there may well have been cruel excesses but, for Cox, the overall process to ensure a more productive and profitable use of the land, the establishment of settlements and towns, and the creation of a secure, civilised and God-fearing White community was both inevitable and justified. It was what ‘colonisation’ meant. Moreover, by the time that Cox was writing, the ‘foundation years’ and the ‘early days’ had well passed and there was little memory of and scant interest in them. In fact, certain frontier memories were repressed.

It is possible to see how Cox handled the issue of early contacts between the European ‘occupiers’ and the Indigenous population by looking closely at two episodes to which he was particularly drawn. The first was labelled the ‘White Woman of Gippsland’ and the second involved the death of Ronald Macalister and the subsequent massacre(s).

White Woman of Gippsland

In mid 1912, Cox wrote 2 articles on the White Woman of Gippsland. He was responding to several pieces which had appeared recently in The Mercury. The material covered … the oft repeated story of a white woman in the early days having lived in captivity amongst the blacks of Gippsland. Cox represented his work as an exercise in determining the real history in the romantic saga.

In his first article – Article 6, 22/5/12: The “White Woman” and other matters (1) – Cox gave the details of the essential narrative. The claim was that there had been a white, female survivor of a wreck on the Gippsland coastline in the early 1840s who had been captured by the ‘blacks’. Subsequently, over the next few years, there had been sightings of the woman by various European parties but none of these had been able to catch up to her captors and rescue her. There were variations on the basic story. One had the woman escaping her captors and making it all the way back to Sydney. Another had the ‘white woman’ as nothing more than a ship’s figurehead, painted white, which the local ‘blacks’ carried about with them.

At this point, Cox believed that, while the basic story made for ‘interesting reading’, it was ‘not exactly history’. He pointed to all the inconsistencies, contradictions and factual errors in the basic narrative and, finally, dismissed it. He came down on the side of the painted ship’s figurehead and concluded, She is dead – let us bury her.

But, clearly, the idea of a white woman being captured by and forced to live among the ‘blacks’ of Gippsland was a story bound to appeal to the public. It was one not easily dismissed.

A few weeks later, Cox had another article – Article 7, 5/6/12: The White Woman (2) – on the same topic. He began:

It was thought that when the last paper was written that this subject as disposed of, but it has since been disclosed that there are still some who believe in the story as fact. In the “Argus” of 25th May last an article appeared under the name of “Historicus” containing much valuable information not otherwise accessible. The writer being known to the compiler of these notes, permission was sought and readily granted for its reappearance in this form for the benefit of those who believe and for the interest of all others.

Cox reproduced the article from The Argus (25/5/12) in its entirety. The article focused on another key primary historical resource: Journal of an expedition which started from Melbourne on 6th March, 1847, in search of a white woman, supposed to be detained amongst the aboriginals of Gippsland. In fact, there were two expeditions – one in late 1846 and the other in early 1847 – and the journal Cox relied on was the account of the second expedition.

Again, the basic story outlined was that the woman survived a shipwreck and was captured by the ‘blacks’. She was seen by various parties and even left signs of her existence. It was a compelling narrative. As the writer of the piece, ‘Historicus’, explained, the Victorian community was deeply affected:

A white woman detained as a prisoner, or worse, amongst the savage natives of Gippsland, and she, poor soul, putting out signals of distress, hoping against hope that she may be released from her terrible captivity. This surely, was a circumstance demanding, not inquiry only, but prompt and energetic action. Thus it presented itself to the community of settlers who then formed the citizens of Melbourne.

Historicus then outlined how the two expeditions were conducted. No captured woman was found but, again, the explanation based round a ship’s figurehead came up. When the second expedition finally caught up with the ‘tribe’ reported to have been holding the ‘white woman’, the promised handover went as follows:

On the appointed day there was brought into the camp and handed over to the party a white woman indeed, but one carved in wood, and bearing a trident in her hand. The natives had long ago found on the beach the figurehead of the Britannia wreck, and had carried it about with them as the incarnation of one of their deities.

Then at the very end of his article, Cox reintroduced himself to say that yet another article had appeared in The Argus (20/7/12) and that after having read another primary historical resource referred to in this article – NSW Parliamentary Papers for 1846 – he was not sure that that there was not some truth to the basic claims. He was no longer definite that he was dealing with a ‘myth’. He concluded:

My attitude now is that of suspending judgement until a more favourable opportunity of fully discussing the matter.

Several years later Cox again returned to the white woman saga. In Article 70 (19/7/18) he referred to yet another story that had appeared in a magazine called Life in August 1913. The story was entitled, The Broken Honeymoon. An Extraordinary Tale of a White Woman among the Blacks. According to this story, a newly married woman had been abducted by ‘blacks’ from the Stockyard Creek gold diggings (Foster) in the 1860s. Rescuers tracked the woman to the ‘neighbourhood of the Gippsland lakes’ but then, at the point of her liberation, tragedy struck:

… the rescuers were doomed to disappointment, for while crossing one of the channels, when the police boat was not far distant, the woman stood up to appeal to them to hasten, and whether her movement upset the canoe or split the bark of which it was composed, the fact remains that it sank in view of the would-be rescuers, and the woman sank with it. A strong ebb tide was running, and the woman was not seen again.

After the article appeared, Cox wrote to the magazine and challenged the basis of the story. He claimed the story represented yet another version of the earlier 1840s saga. He pointed out that the gold diggings at Stockyard Creek dated from 1870 and so the time frame for the story had to be incorrect. Cox’s letter was published in the magazine. Then followed reply and counter reply between the author – George Hermann – and Cox over several editions. Cox insisted that while Hermann’s account was … a most interesting and romantic story it was not historically accurate. One of the claims Hermann had made was that the … white woman was being carried about by the Port Albert tribe. This was supposed to have been in the 1870s – Hermann did subsequently revise it back to the 1860s – but Cox argued, using primary sources, that by the 1870s there was effectively no ‘tribe’ left in the vicinity of Port Albert. Conversely, by another public set of data, in 1874 there were more than 1,000 settlers living … within a radius of ten miles of Port Albert. Moreover, Cox also argued that even as early as the 1850s the Indigenous population (Brataualang) had virtually disappeared from the local area.

The correspondence between Hermann and Cox appeared to run though to the end of 1913 when the magazine stopped publishing Cox’s letters. Cox’s criticism, based on primary sources, of Hermann’s story appeared valid. It represented credible historical argument which, of course, was what Cox claimed to practise. But Hermann was not impressed by such an approach. His attitude to the newly emerging historical societies and their historical craft was fairly negative. He had a more personal and open approach to history:

Historical Societies are properly precise and exact, but they must not fall into the error of holding that only tales which have been recorded in ancient records, chiefly official, can possibly be true. I wrote the tale with the intention of giving information which I possessed, and which I knew had not been recorded, and which was unknown to any but possibly two or three persons. Because it was unknown and unrecorded and strange, does not take way from its accuracy.

In the 100 years since Cox wrote on the topic, much more has been written on the ‘white woman of Gippsland’. For a background, see The La Trobe Journal, No 63 Autumn 1999, The Great “White Woman” Controversy. Interestingly, a good deal of the piece in the journal covers the tension between formal academic history and local history, particularly oral history which is passed down the generations. There are distinct shades of the very argument made by Hermann in 1913 in his defence of his ‘tale’. It is also important to note that historians today see the various versions of the ‘White Woman’ saga that circulated back in the mid 19C as having served as a general justification for intensified attacks on the Indigenous population.

What do we take from Cox’s interest in the White Woman? Why did he devote so much attention to the issue? One answer is that it provided a perfect example of all the critical boundaries between romance and reality, fiction and fact and myth and history. The role of the emerging historical societies and their backers, including Cox, was to write serious, fact-based history based on primary resources. The task was to uncover truth through research. Hearsay, folk lore, the tales of pioneers, collective memory – all of these could be considered and it was important to gather and record them; but there were definite limits and all these forms had to be tested against primary written sources. So, in a real sense, the various tales surrounding the white woman represented a natural and very rich focus for Cox and his methodology.

But I think it is reasonable to argue that there was another significant motive at play. Wittingly or otherwise, Cox was tapping into and giving voice to the deep-seated attitudes and fears of the first Europeans in Gippsland. His readers, over 100 years ago, would have been close enough in time to recognise those same attitudes and fears in their forebears. The occupation and settlement of Gippsland were still within collective memory. The story of the white woman served as a kind of essential fable. It sat at the edge of memory and represented the fear that from this strange and dangerous landscape, the original people – described as ‘blacks’ and ‘savages’ and completely ‘alien’ and ‘primitive’ – could reach out and exact some sort of vengeance by taking and abusing a ‘white woman’ who represented all that was ‘innocent’, ‘pure’ and ‘vulnerable’. Effectively, by dwelling on the story, Cox was rationalising the experiences and actions of the first generation of Gippslanders.

Death of Macalister and subsequent punitive expedition(s)

In Article 15 (25/9/12), under the heading, ‘Bloodshed’, Cox gave his first account of the death of Ronald Macalister. He stated that … the first murder of a white man by the blacks occurred early in 1842. His findings appear to have been based on recollections of local people.

Ronald Macalister was the nephew of Lachlan Macalister, a local squatter. Lachlan Macalister had land at … what is now Alberton East, south of the Brewery Road near the Tarra as a camping ground in connection with the shipping of cattle. On the land, there was a ‘bark hut’ which later became the home of Parson Bean.

Cox also described how there was a ‘party of blacks’ camped near Alberton and how when the men of the group were away hunting, stockmen of Macalister … in sheer wantonness, took a little blackboy from the camp and made a target of him. Cox then describes how when the men returned from hunting they … determined naturally on revenge. The nephew, Ronald Macalister was targeted:

Young Macalister riding from the hut at Alberton East to go through the bush to “Greenmount” had not proceeded far when he was set upon by two blacks and speared with ten spears, the body being badly mutilated.

Cox then explained the inevitable consequences:

This led to a punitive expedition on the part of the settlers, and a great massacre of the blacks followed.

Cox was keen to identify exactly where this massacre had taken place. He had three possibilities and he appealed to the local readers to come forward and provide more information. This was an excellent opportunity to involve the locals and draw on their folk memory:

No less than three different sites have been indicated as the scene of this massacre, viz Warrigal Creek, Gammon Creek, and Freshwater Creek. Between these the writer [Cox] is unable to determine. Perhaps there are some among the readers of these papers who can give the information. Those who escaped massacre were chased as far as Merriman’s Creek, and one who escaped death, in explanation to Mr. Lucas, stated he did so by ‘shaming dead’.

Mr. Lucas was one of the key sources for Cox’s account.

It is generally accepted today that all three locations mentioned saw killings, specifically in relation to punitive actions after Macalister’s death.

The first article on the killing and subsequent massacre created interest and response and so, not surprisingly, there was soon another article (Article 16, 15/10/12). Cox highlighted correspondence from the head teacher of Woodside State School, Mr W H Thomas. Thomas and a friend (Mr Lamb) gave details of a find they had made – ‘a quantity of human bones’ – buried in the sand on the beach near Warrigal Creek. The two men examined the skulls and concluded that the … remains were those of aboriginals. The men also noted that … all the skulls were fractured, a piece being broken away at the base of the skull, as though caused by a blow from a tomahawk. The men also noted that in conversation with a Mr Chas. Kuch, senior, they heard that there had been … a massacre of blacks in that neighbourhood. Unsurprisingly, they made the connection to … the massacre which took place in revenge for the murder of Ronald Macalister.

Cox then offered his opinion on the information provided by the men. First he argued that the remains pointed to ‘tribal warfare’. His view – naive and, arguably, convenient – was that Macalister’s men would have used firearms, and only firearms. Second, he was now fixed on the idea that the massacre had occurred at Freshwater Creek. This position appeared to be based on additional conversions he had had with the previously mentioned Mr Chas Lucas.

There was another article later the same month (Article 17, 30/10/12). Clearly, Cox’s articles on the topic were stirring interest, long-held memories and stories passed down the generations. This time there was different account of the reasons given for Macalister’s murder. It was clear that even though he reported it, Cox did not find the claim credible.

… the cause of the murder was, that when the blacks came too freely about the camps of the settlers and stockmen, and became a nuisance, the whites scattered about hot coals from their fires, and the blacks burnt their feet. The murder was in retaliation for this.

Also by this point, Cox had firmed on the idea that the massacre had not taken place at Freshwater Creek but at Warrigal Creek. His chief source for his change in position was a certain Mr Walpole. Cox quoted him:

I always understood that Warrigal Creek was the locality where the blacks were overtaken and killed. In fact, about 41 years ago [this would have made it round 1871, and 28 years after the massacre], when stockriding on the Warrigal run, I remember, close to the ’Sunville’ boundary gate, near Red Hill, there was a portion of a human skeleton, said to be the remains of one of the blacks killed. How much truth there was in the the report I am unable to say, but on the Red Hill the remains of several blacks have been uncovered by cattle scraping the sand way, and the action of the wind, etc..

Walpole then added:

As far back as I can remember there were all sorts of tales in connection with this killing business, and it seemed to me everyone was more or less ashamed of the affair.

Cox concluded his article by noting that given the ’natural reticence’, it was hardly surprising that it was proving so difficult to uncover exactly what had happened.

In September the following year (Article 33, 24/9/13), Cox again took up the investigation of Macalister’s murder. This time he quoted extensively from a story he had uncovered in the Port Philip Herald of the 29th July 1843. In the story, the claimed date of the killing is later than the one previously cited by Cox. Cox appeared to accept this revision – July 1843 is now accepted as the date – and he described the material he quoted as ‘more authentic information’:

Extract of a letter from Port Albert to a mercantile house in town [Melbourne], received by the ‘Jemima’ cutter, and dated the 20th instant: – “The blacks have commenced fresh outrages, and a few days since killed Mr. Kenneth (sic) Macalister, within half a mile of his station at Port Albert. He was on horseback at the time, and armed with a brace of pistols. This marks five persons murdered within little more than 12 months.”

The extract quoted by Cox did not offer any detail of the circumstances leading to the killing. Nor was there reference to any subsequent ‘punitive expedition’:

It is reported that Mr. Macalister was decoyed from his station by a party of blacks on pretext of having found a flock of sheep that had been missing, and that having got him to a spot favourable for their murderous purpose, they set upon him with their waddies, and despatched him under circumstances of the utmost barbarity.

The same extract decried the fact that the settlers were obliged to pay ‘licences and assessments’ but they received ’no protection from the Government’.

For his part, Cox corrected Macalister’s name – Ronald not Kenneth – and he noted that … other accounts of this murder state that he [Ronald Macalister] was speared.

There is one final article worth looking at. It was number 37a and it appeared on 6/2/14. Again, Cox quoted extensively from the Port Philip Patriot (21/9/1843) but the article itself came from the The Sydney Morning Herald of 6/9/43. Cox did not provide any commentary or criticism of the material presented. His readers read it, presumably, as a factual account; although the introduction did describe the statements to be ‘highly coloured’. The Indigenous population is described as the settlers’ ‘most bitter enemies’:

‘Crimes are as openly perpetrated as the sun at noonday. And such is the force of habit that since the departure of our police magistrate the public look upon these occurrences with indifference- as matters of course.’ For instance, Mr. Macalister was dragged off his horse and cruelly murdered in the township of Alberton, his head being so totally disfigured that his countenance could not be recognised amongst his most intimate friends (this outrage being committed) by these harmless, innocent denizens of the wilds of Gippsland, bearing the anomalous cognomen of Her Majesty’s most liege subjects (we give it as our gratuitous opinion, most bitter enemies). Nor is this the only instance of the sacrifice of Christian blood by these liege subjects. Since we last did ourselves the honor of addressing your Excellency, a servant in the employment of Mr. Foster, a settler here, was killed, his body mangled and some of its members carried off, making in all within the last eighteen or twenty months the number of five precious lives sacrificed at the shrine of the implacable savages, besides a variety of hairbreadth escapes by flood and field all gone down the stream of oblivion without one question asked or given on authority.

Cox did not pick it up, but the last reference in the quote appears to be a cryptic reference to some sort of ‘frontier justice’ at work, given that the authorities were not present. Indeed, the next section of the article goes on to describe a very lawless and dangerous frontier. Alberton, specifically, was full of ‘lawless villains’ and the ‘most lawless rogues’. Highway robbery was rife and the whole place was full of sly grog shops.

Cox does not use the Macalister death and subsequent killings as a lead-in to examine the whole question of frontier conflict. He does not, for example, focus on the immediate and background reasons for the killing of Macalister. Nor does he attempt to catalogue the various killings on the same frontier. Rather, he writes about the Macalister episode as a single, isolated event. For Cox, the effort is to uncover primary sources and, to the extent possible, have the readers contribute to the discussion. The focus is on the methodology rather than the critically important history that the methodology is uncovering. Moreover, there are concerns about the methodology itself. While it is true that Cox looked at a variety of primary sources, there are other sources that he did not use. A good example is George Dunderdale’s The Book of the Bush which had been published in 1890. Dunderdale included an account of Macalister’s death and the subsequent killings, but Cox did not refer to him.

One interesting note here is that Cox certainly knew of Dunderdale’s work. In fact, he had already criticised Dunderdale’s writing. He used Dunderdale’s work to demonstrate the difference between what he saw as the two extremes of ’romance’ and ‘history’. In Article 18 (8/11/12) both Cox and ‘A W Grieg, hon. sec. Historical Society of Victoria’ had used ‘historical facts’ to expose ‘untruthful statements in Dunderdale’s “Bush Tales”’. Admittedly, there were errors – dates, places, names – in Dunderdale’s work and his style did tend towards over-writing. At the same time, his detailed description of the bloodshed and savagery on the Gippsland frontier is impossible to ignore or gloss over. Consider, for example, the following account of the operation of Tyers’ ‘native police’:

There were now ladies as well as gentlemen in Gippsland, and one day the commissioner [Tyers] sailed away in his boat with a select party. After enjoying the scenery and the summer breezes for a few hours, he cast his eyes along the shore in search of some romantic spot on which to land. Dead wood and dry sticks were extremely scarce, as the blacks used all they could find at their numerous camps. He was at length so fortunate as to observe a brown pile of decayed branches, and he said, “I think we had better land over there; that deadwood will make a good fire”; and the boat was steered towards it. But when it neared the land the air was filled with a stench so horrible that Mr. Tyers at once put the boat about, and went away in another direction. Next day he visited the spot with his police, and he found that the dead wood covered a large pile of corpses of the natives shot by his own black troopers, and he directed them to make it a holocaust. (p 276)

The following is Dunderdale’s account of Macalister’s killing and the events that followed:

At this time the blacks had quite recovered from the fright occasioned by the discharge of the nine-pounder gun, and were again often seen from the huts at the Old Port. Donald Macalister was sent by his uncle, Lachlan Macalister, of Nuntin, to make arrangements for shipping some cattle and sheep. The day before their arrival Donald saw some blacks at a distance in the scrub, and without any provocation fired at them with an old Tower musket, charged with shot. The next day the drovers and shepherds arrived with the stock, and drove them over Glengarry’s bridge to a place between the Tarra and Albert rivers, called the Coal Hole, afterwards occupied by Parson Bean. There was no yard there, and the animals would require watching at night; so Donald decided to send them back to Glengarry’s yards. Then he and the drovers and shepherds would have a pleasant time; there would be songs and whisky, the piper would play, and the men and maids would dance. The arrangement suited everybody. The drovers started back with the cattle, Donald helped the shepherds to gather the sheep, and put them on the way, and then he rode after the cattle. The track led him past a grove of dense ti-tree, on the land now known as the Brewery Paddock, and about a hundred yards ahead a single blackfellow came out of the grove, and began capering about and waving a waddy. Donald pulled up his horse and looked at the black. He had a pair of pistols in the holsters of his saddle, but he did not draw them: there was no danger from a blackfellow a hundred yards off. But there was another behind him and much nearer, who came silently out of the ti-tree and thrust a spear through Donald’s neck. The horse galloped away towards Glengarry’s bridge.

When the drovers saw the riderless horse, they supposed that Macalister had been accidentally thrown, and they sent Friday to look for him. He found him dead. The blacks had done their work quickly. They had stripped Donald of everything but his trousers and boots, had mutilated him in their usual fashion, and had disappeared. A messenger was sent to old Macalister, and the young man was buried on the bank of the river near McClure’s grave. The new cemetery now contained three graves, the second being that of Tinker Ned, who shot himself accidentally when pulling out his gun from beneath a tarpaulin.

Lachlan Macalister had had a long experience in dealing with blackfellows and bushrangers; he had been a captain in the army, and an officer of the border police. The murder of his nephew gave him both a professional and a family interest in chastising the criminals, and he soon organised a party to look for them. It was, of course, impossible to identify any blackfellow concerned in the outrage, and therefore atonement must be made by the tribe. The blacks were found encamped near a waterhole at Gammon Creek, and those who were shot were thrown into it, to the number, it was said, of about sixty, men, women, and children; but this was probably an exaggeration. At any rate, the black who capered about to attract young Macalister’s attention escaped, and he often afterwards described and imitated the part he took in what he evidently considered a glorious act of revenge. The gun used by old Macalister was a double-barrelled Purdy, a beautiful and reliable weapon, which in its time had done great execution. (p224)

Clearly, in terms of a primary resource, Dunderdale’s account is a critical reference and one of which Cox would have been aware and could have included. In fact, Dunderdale did explicitly comment on the conflict on the frontier. For example, there was this insight of Tyers’ approach to the ‘troublesome blacks’:

The blacks were still troublesome, and I heard Mr.Tyers relate the measures taken by himself and his native police to suppress their irregularities. He was informed that some cattle had been speared, and he rode away with his force to investigate the complaint. He inspected the cattle killed or wounded, and then directed his black troopers to search for tracks, and this they did willingly and well. Traces of natives were soon discovered, and their probable hiding-place in the scrub was pointed out to Mr. Tyers. He therefore dismounted, and directing two of his black troopers armed with carbines to accompany him, he held a pistol in each hand and walked cautiously into the scrub. The two black troopers discharged their carbines. The commissioner had seen nothing to shoot at, but his blacks soon showed him two of the natives a few yards in front, both mortally wounded. Mr. Tyers sent a report of the affair to the Government, and that was the end of it. (p. 265)

There was also this revealing detail:

This manner of dealing with the native difficulty was adopted in the early days, and is still used under the name of “punitive expeditions.” That judge who prayed to heaven in his wig and robes of office, said that the aborigines were subjects of the Queen, and that it was a mercy to them to be under her protection. The mercy accorded to them was less than Jedburgh justice: they were shot first, and not even tried afterwards. …

The white men brought with them three blessings for the natives– rum, bullets, and blankets. The blankets were a free gift by the Government, and proved to the eyes of all men that our rule was kind and charitable. The country was rightfully ours; that was decided by the Supreme Court; we were not obliged to pay anything for it, but out of pure benignity we gave the lubras old gowns, and the black men old coats and trousers; the Government added an annual blanket, and thus we had good reason to feel virtuous.

When every blackfellow in South Gippsland, except old Darriman, was dead, Mr. Tyers explained his experience with the Government blankets. They were now no longer required, as Darriman could obtain plenty of old clothes from charitable white men. It had been the commissioner’s duty to give one blanket annually to each live native, and thus that garment became to him the Queen’s livery, and an emblem of civilisation; it raised the savage in the scale of humanity and encouraged him to take the first step in the march of progress. His second step was into the grave. The result of the gift of blankets was that the natives who received them ceased to clothe themselves with the skins of the kangaroo, the bear or opossum. The rugs which they had been used to make for themselves would keep out the rain, and in them they could pass the wettest night or day in their mia-mias, warm and dry. But the blankets we kindly gave them by way of saving our souls were manufactured for the colonial market, and would no more resist the rain than an old clothes-basket. The consequence was that when the weather was cold and wet, the blackfellow and his blanket were also cold and wet, and he began to shiver; inflammation attacked his lungs, and rheumatism his limbs, and he soon went to that land where neither blankets nor rugs are required. Mr. Tyers was of opinion that more blacks were killed by the blankets than by rum and bullets. (p 268)

Equally, there were other accounts of conflict on the frontier for example, G H Haydon’s Five Years Experience in Australia Felix (1846), that Cox could have used. Cox obviously knew of Haydon’s work because he used it in other of this articles. But Cox was not, as it were, pulling all the threads together. He was not attempting to highlight the theme of frontier conflict and the violent dispossession and subjugation of the Indigenous population. Rather, his series of articles was offering anecdotes: individual and self-contained stories about notable events from the past. Possibly, Cox sensed that there was a ‘dark past’ but he did not set out to expose it in any great detail or depth. Nor was there any attempt to explore the fundamentals of the conflict, nor hold anyone or any party responsible. It was more a case of ‘these things – some truly evil and wrong – happened in the past but there is no direct link between that past and our present’.

Of course, it can be argued that criticising Cox for issues that his approach, 100 years ago, failed to address, is at the very least problematic and presumptuous. However, the basic tension does highlight how history comes to be written and what people choose to draw from history.

Cox’s pioneering work in the local history of Gippsland 100 years ago is very important. He certainly deserves recognition for his efforts in setting up the first, regional sub-branch (‘centre’) of the (Royal) Historical Society of Victoria. The essential methodology he employed, with its focus on uncovering primary resources, assessing such resources against each other and incorporating memory – both personal and folk – as a historical resource, and recognising its limits, was ground breaking. His ability to popularise and promote the study of (local) history and his success in having the locals become involved were also very significant. He did the locals a sense of their history.

At the same time, it is essential to locate Cox within his own history. As indicated in numerous posts, he was a staunch Imperial Loyalist, arguably the most significant one in his community at the outbreak of War. He saw the strength of the British Empire as the high point in European history. And he saw the settlement and rapid and successful growth of Gippsland as a micro manifestation of the greatness of the same Empire. For Cox, ’settlement’ – in this instance, the settlement of Gippsland – brought prosperity, progress and civilisation. Occupation and settlement as features of ‘colonisation’, were natural and proven phenomena. The sacrifices and struggles of the ‘pioneers’ would sustain the future generations. Colonisation itself was a proven model of human improvement that ‘Great Britain’ – and other European powers – had employed on a world-wide basis. Essentially, the (white) European world claimed ownership of ’new’ land and proceeded to develop it for its own interests, pushing aside, marginalising and effectively eliminating the (non-white) Indigenous population. There could be violent and cruel side-effects as this process unfolded; but the process itself was natural and inevitable and the final – as opposed to interim- outcomes were overwhelmingly positive.

As a Christian minister, Cox additionally saw the ‘hand of God’ at work. Working from a strongly narrative lens, Cox was particularly interested in uncovering and describing the role played by the Church in the settlement of Gippsland. There was a strong emphasis on how the Church laboured in the young, raw and challenging environment of Gippsland. Coincidentally, at the time he started writing – just prior to WW1- many of the local churches were celebrating their 50th anniversaries. Several of his articles focused on these celebrations: For example, Article 24 (5/3/13) covered St. John’s at Port Albert and Article 34a (8/10/13) St. Luke’s at Alberton. For Cox, the Church had survived its infancy in Gippsland, thanks to the efforts of the first clerics – ministers like the famous ’bush parson’, Rev Willoughby Bean – and was embarking on its formative phase.

As the War progressed and the focus on ‘national character’ and ‘national identity’ intensified, Imperial Loyalists such as Cox crafted a strong relationship between the ‘pioneer’ and the ‘Anzac’. As already noted, the link was made repeatedly at local farewells for those who had enlisted.

Not surprisingly, Cox was not about to look to the history of Gippsland to call into question or critique the very theoretical supports that defined and shaped his world: the greatness of the British Empire, the strength of the Church in a new and challenging environment, the pursuit of the (unique) Australian character, and the White Australia Policy. Like everyone, he was a person of his times. Cox was an agent of the Lord, in the service of his flock, researching the European occupation, settlement and development of Gippsland, in a White Australia that was an integral component of the British Empire.

References

Cox, G  1990, Notes on Gippsland History, Vol 1- 6, ed. Adams J D, Port Albert Maritime Museum.

Dunderdale, G 1898, The Book of the Bush. Containing Many Truthful Sketches of the Early Colonial Life of Squatters, Whalers, Convicts, Diggers, and Others Who Left Their Native Land and Never Returned. Ward Lock, London.

Haydon, G H 1846,  Five years’ experience in Australia Felix, comprising A short account of its early settlement and its present position, with many particulars interesting to intending emigrants. Hamilton, Adams & Co., London
See Chapter VI, Narrative of a journey from Westernport to Gipp’s land, with extracts from the journal kept on the route.

For more contemporary research on the frontier clash in Gippsland, one readily accessible source is the website of Peter Gardner, historian from East Gippsland.

Another readily accessible source is the University of Newcastle’s site Colonial Frontier Massacres in Australia, 1788-1930 and its map of massacre sites.

209. The White Australia Policy: always in the background

Before returning to Rev G Cox and his quest to uncover and present the history of Gippsland, immediately prior to, and in the first few years of, WW1, it is important to consider the reach and strength of the White Australia Policy. At that time, belief in and commitment to this national policy were essential, taken-for-granted realities.

Much has been made of Cox’s commitment to Empire and his determination that Australia had to fight for and with Britain to defend the Empire. Defence of the Empire was the defence of Australia. But within this simple formula, defence of Australia more specifically meant defence of White Australia.

At the time, White Australia was very much a work-in-progress. Much had been achieved and more was promised; but there was always the existential threat that the protective shield of the Empire – or, more specifically, the Royal Navy – could disappear and, left to itself, Australia and its dream of White Australia would fail.

By the outbreak of WW1, it was possible to see signifcant elements of the White Australia Policy in place. To begin, the dispossession and subjugation of the Indigenous population – most commonly simply referred to as the ‘blacks’ – had been achieved. Australia had been made white by eliminating the original inhabitants. As we will see later with Cox, this was a particularly violent process on the frontier in Gippsland. However, at the time, no one was keen to dwell on the violence. It was more a case of simply accepting the end result as an inevitable and desirable outcome. A ‘natural’ process had taken place. What had happened in Australia was not unique, merely another expression of Imperial policy, the economics of colonisation, European theories on race, superior technology and any number of beliefs – many of them religious – to do with manifest destiny and the ‘white man’s burden’. What was unique about Australia was that by the start of the 20C the subjugation, marginalisation and effective removal of the Indigenous population had been so complete and so effective that (white) Australians conceived of their land as one that had been, effectively, unoccupied. In comparison to other nations, Australia was a ‘new’ nation – still in its infancy –  with the promise of true greatness ahead of it.

By the time of federation, the focus of the White Australia Policy had settled on the issue of immigration. The universal political drive was to keep Australia white, even at a time when Imperial support for such a singular focus on race was becoming increasingly problematic, particularly given the rise of Japan. The theories that underpinned the highly selective immigration policy – the natural intellectual and moral superiority of the white (British) race, the inherent advantages of a homogeneous or mono-cultural society, the grave dangers of miscegenation, the industrial threat of cheap, non-white labour … – were reflected across all aspects of society, and Australia entered WW1 fully committed to its White Australia Policy. Moreover, it emerged from the War still committed to the policy. PM Hughes was feted for saving the White Australia Policy.

The critical point is that at the start of WW1, and the time that Cox was writing his history of Gippsland, the ideal of White Australia was uncontested. It was a reality that had been created by the settlers and pioneers and it now needed to be protected and enhanced, principally via a highly selective immigration policy . The dream that Australia could come to represent the ultimate flowering of the British race – in the style of C E W Bean’s writing on national character – was tangible. As a consequence, the defining attitudes to race that were integral to the White Australia Policy were commonplace and accepted as everyday realities. They were as common as people’s identification with, commitment to and belief in the Empire.

The following is a simple exercise intended to highlight such attitudes and world views. It takes short pieces from the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – over the period of WW1 and uses them to reveal just how common the attitudes to race that underpinned the White Australia Policy were. The reporting at the time gave no sense that the attitudes revealed were remarkable, controversial or in any way contested or disputed.

The first is a short article that appeared in mid 1914 (29/5/14). It featured a brief note on the number of “black fellows’ tomahawks” (stone axes) that people had been finding on burned-out ridges in the district (Bulga). The writer noted that the number of such artefacts found were so numerous that virtually every local household had them. They then raised the question of why that particular area had had so many ‘blacks’ and even suggested that the local historical society – this was, of course, the newly established group that Cox had set up – could investigate:

Possibly the local branch of the Historical Society could throw some light on the matter. Information regarding a tribe that has so completely passed away, and left such a number of relics behind, would prove highly interesting.

The Indigenous population – the ‘tribe’ – had ‘completely passed away’. That part of the district’s history had vanished, to the extent that it was just a passing curiosity.

There was another apparently unremarkable reference to former ‘blacks’ in the district in April 1917 (25/4/17). It was as short account about a very tall – 100 ft – tree which had recently been felled on Turton’s Track. People had noted that about 30 ft from its base, ’tomahawk incisions used for climbing’ had been cut in the tree. The question was who had made them: the ‘blacks’ or ‘white settlers’. The writer concluded that the marks were most likely the work of early settlers because they were said to be 20-30 years old whereas the ‘blacks’ had been gone some ‘fifty years’. By this reasoning the Indigenous population had ‘disappeared’ by the end of the 1860s. Again, there is this sense that even though the historical period is relatively short – some ‘fifty years’ – an entire population has simply ‘disappeared’ and virtually nothing is known about them.

Often, an ‘in memoriam’ for an old pioneer would touch on the issue of ‘disappearance’. For example, there was one on 16/6/15 for Mrs Peter Hunter who had died at 95 yo. She had been born in Scotland and arrived in Port Albert in 1858. The detail makes it perfectly clear that the settlers took over ‘occupied’ land. The Indigenous population was dispossessed. The ’success’ of ‘settlement’ saw the ‘blacks’ disappear.

They (the Hunter family) acquired property on the Sale road, where they lived to the end of their days. When first settling on their homestead they lived in a tent, and it was no unusual occurrence to have a visit from the notorious aboriginal King Morgan and members of his tribe. These blacks would come in and make themselves quite at home. The swamp on the property was the common camping ground of the blacks. These hardy pioneers successfully passed through the difficulties of early settlement, and lived to see more peaceful times.

There was another tribute to an old pioneer in the paper on 27/2/18. The deceased was Charles Thomas Lucas who died at Stradbroke in February 1918. The family had had strong connections with Yarram. The headline for the tribute described Lucas as ‘The Oldest Australian Native’ :

He was, at the time of his death, the oldest Australian native, having been born at Launceston, Tasmania, in 1822, and died in his 96th year.

The use of the term ‘native’ was employed to describe a long-standing association with the ‘new’ land of Australia and with the first colonists or early arrivals. At the time, the term was increasingly being employed to denote a sense of ‘national authenticity’, as in the Australian Natives’ Association (1871) whose membership was originally restricted to white men born in Australia. In a real sense, it was a term being re-interpreted.

Charles Lucas was described as the grandson of a public figure who came in the First Fleet. His father – one of 15 children – had moved to Tasmania where Charles was born in 1822. The family moved back to NSW in 1834 and subsequently moved into Gippsland from Omeo as ‘overlanders’. They eventually settled on 300 acres on opposite sides of Tarra Creek at Yarram. Charles Lucas married in 1856 and by that stage he was living at Bruthen. He subsequently moved to Stadbroke.

The article suggests Lucas was important because of his family’s rich history as original pioneers in so many locations and, obviously, because of the distinction of being, supposedly, the longest surviving link right back to the First Fleet.

Interestingly, in the detailed account of the family’s pioneering history, there is a reference to the dangerous sea voyage from Tasmania to Sydney in 1834. The boat had to be abandoned at Twofold Bay and the survivors had to … travel over 300 miles of wild country, infested with blacks to reach Sydney. Further, they nearly perished at the hands of the same ‘blacks’ who captured them and had … agreed upon a feast, and decided the whites should be killed at break of day. They were saved thanks to the intervention by one the ‘blacks’ … who had had dealings with early colonists, and had picked up a little broken English. The brief commentary serves as a reminder of the dangers faced by early settlers at the hands of the ‘blacks’. Before they ‘disappeared’ the ‘blacks’ had ‘infested’ the bush and posed great risk.

There were other pieces that focused on the ‘natural’ inferiority of the ‘black race’. For example, on 29/5/14 there was a piece which appears to have been taken from one of the metropolitan dailies under the headline, Life in Rhodesia. Victorian Woman’s Views. Black Servants. It detailed the opinions of a certain Mrs W E Dick who had .. . spent years in Southern Rhodesia before coming to live in Melbourne. In the piece the interviewer asks, Do you think the Kaffir makes a good servant?

Her reply was characterised by attitudes that were clearly unremarkable for the time:

Certainly; that is if you train him yourself. The first boy I had was an awful stupid, and could not do anything correctly. One morning, instead of filling the water jug with fresh water, as I told him, he pored the water into the milk jug and spoilt the day’s supply. Soon afterwards another boy presented himself, looking for work, so I engaged him, and dismissed the other one.

Similar attitudes appeared in soldier’s letters during the War. The long voyage to Great Britain served to confirm the sense of racial superiority. One such letter was from Gunner Percy Rendell. It appeared in the paper on 28/2/17. Of the transport’s stay in Durban, he wrote of some entertainment the troops had at the expense of the ’natives’:

The natives were very funny and we used to throw pennies to them and they would fight like bulldogs for them.

His impressions of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, were not favourable. It was certainly not a place for white people:

The streets are not formed, and the natives squat down in the street and sell their wares, fruit, etc., while the picaninnies crowd round a fellow and ask for pennies. The population is practically all natives, and you could count the white population on the fingers of one hand. The climate is very unhealthy, which is the reason so few white people live here. After a long and tiring time of 15 days in this undesirable place the troopship got orders to put to sea…

There was also the issue of non-white labour in Australia itself and the role of the trade union movement in protecting the interests of white workers. The issues could be complex and loyalties divided. For example, in the edition of 5/2/15, there was commentary on labour disputes on the wharves in Fremantle. The issue was that some of the workers in the union there were ‘full-blooded negroes’ and, as unionists they were being given preference over white non unionists. Obviously, the implication of this arrangement was that it undermined the White Australia policy. The piece noted:

Now, it would seem that the negro can be and is in the union; and that if a married white man does not belong to a union the ‘nigger’, who does, ought to have preference.

There were also views on Australian ‘blacks’ as workers. The edition of 7/8/14 featured a description of tin mining at Bamboo Creek, 40 miles north of Marble Bar in WA. The article claimed that the ‘gins’ were employed to clean the ore while the ‘bucks’ were working on the local stations as ‘outriders, shepherds, bullock-drivers etc.’ It also noted that they … take to it fairly well, being in physique a better class than most aboriginals. There was further patronising commentary:

When left to themselves the bucks make the gins do all the work outside of hunting and fighting. They imitate the whites in dress and sport, and in many cases have acquired the art of dressing neatly.

It is also worth pointing to the number of times a direct relationship was drawn between the White Australia Policy and the protection and support of the Empire. In a piece (26/5/15) on the local celebration of Empire Day, the Rev Walklate, another key Imperial Loyalist in the local community, made the direct link between the White Australia Policy and the strategic importance of Great Britain:

People sometimes ask the question, what is the use of Empire Day? I want you to think what would Australia have been today without the help of Great Britain. Without British prestige behind us our White Australian (sic) Policy would have been impossible.

Walklate even alluded to Australia’s great fortune in this endeavour, as other jurisdictions that had attempted the same policy had failed because of the intricacies of international relationships. He cited the case of California as one example:

California could not carry out a White California policy; there would have been war with Japan.

Similar claims had been made by Senator McColl at Yarram at very start of war. The local paper (7/8/14) quoted him telling a local audience, at the same time as he announced Australia was to send an expeditionary force of 20,000 men, that Australia’s White Australia Policy was under threat:

The nations of the earth would object to our holding Australia unless we could fill it, and the Government proposed to meet this problem by bringing suitable white people here who could assist in developing the country, opening it up and defending it. The only thing that kept this country for us was the British fleet and if anything happened to it, then good-bye to a White Australia.

The preoccupation with the need to increase the population to protect the White Australia Policy was a constant. For example, this piece was from just a week earlier (31/7/14). It was on the celebration of Australia reaching a population of five million:

We reached our first million in 1858, soon after the discovery of gold showed itself an influential factor in bringing about the rapid settlement of the country. The second million arrived in 1877, the third in 1889, and the fourth in 1905. Droughts delayed the fourth; there is always a close relationship between plentitude of food and plentitude of life: prosperity means more Australian babies, more adult Australians for the future. A period of unexampled prosperity has hastened the five millionth, and he should be here in the record time of nine years from the fourth.

The five millionth baby was expected later in 1914. The need for population increase both to hold Australia and to keep it white was emphasised through the War and used as a means of recruiting. But, equally, there was a counter argument pushed by anti-conscriptionists: white Australians were being killed at an unsustainable rate and this shocking loss of life represented some sort of race catastrophe that threatened the very basis of White Australia.

As an example of the appeal – from all sides – to protect the White Australia Policy consider comments written in the paper at the time of the unveiling of the honor roll at Devon North State School (25/5/17). The claim was that people were prepared to talk ‘White Australia’ but they were not prepared to defend it. Presumably, the ‘coloured nations’ is a reference to, primarily, the Indian troops fighting as part of the British Army:

There were fit men at home talking White Australia, yet they would not fight for it: they let the blacks fight for them. The time would come when the coloured races – those who had fought for our nation – would become the inhabitants of our fair land.

There were related claims about one month later (27/6/17). This time a letter from the Creswick Advertiser – was reproduced. It was from an Australian soldier who attacked those back in Australia using the White Australia Policy to justify the No vote in the 1917 conscription referendum. The use of abusive racial stereotypes to drive home the message is taken as a given:

… we are being butchered by the people for whom we are fighting. I saw a vote ’No’ card over here, and it was ‘Keep Australia White’. Oh, my God, they ought to; if Australia was filled with men like the Ghurkas it would be a lot better off than it is at present – overrun, as it is, with such a lot of ‘Dirty Skulking Curs’. … The lowest breed of nigger is better than the majority of Australia’s present population. They don’t mind staying at home and letting us fight for them, yet the won’t come and give us a hand. What would happen if we gave up fighting?

The last example is taken from an editorial in August 1919 (27/8/19) at the time PM Hughes had returned to Australia. The editorial gave a brief account of the tumultuous welcome Hughes was given in Perth. It was taken from a longer piece in The Age (25/8/19).

When he returned to Perth, Hughes was feted. Two hundred soldiers literally pulled his car through the streets of Perth. He was the returned troops’ hero and protector. In the speech reported in The Age , Hughes acknowledged that the returning soldiers would take a while to settle back into civilian life and would almost certainly create trouble. But he declared that he was inclined to look at such transgressions with a ‘very lenient eye’. The War was over but Hughes was still attacking those who had not volunteered. He declared that it was really only the returning men who truly knew what war was like and they were the only ones who had saved the nation and kept it white.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Hughes) was enthusiastically welcomed to Perth last Saturday. Soldiers dragged the car in which Mr. and Mrs. Hughes were seated through the streets. In the course of his speech he said, vide “Age”: – The great bulk of the people of Australia know nothing of war, and very many of the people of Australia have done nothing towards bringing the victory about. (Cheers.) But for the men who went out from this country to fight, Australia would have been in chains. (Cheers.) Australia is free to-day, and is white to-day. (Renewed cheers.) It owes nothing to to those who being able to fight remained behind, but it owes everything it has to those who being able to fight went out and fought. (Cheers.)

All the above are only the briefest, local examples of the extent to which all the elements of the White Australia Policy, and all the associated attitudes, were integral to any sense of national identity, national debate and national interest at the time. By the conventional standards of our time, 100 years later, the policies and perspectives appear crude, dangerous and, of course, inherently racist. However, that was the history; and any understanding of Australia’s involvement in WW1 that does not acknowledge the influence of the White Australia Policy is manifestly deficient. Equally, for present purposes, the White Australia Policy was a significant lens through which Cox, writing at the time of the War, researched and wrote his version of the history of Gippsland.

References

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

For Bean’s writing on national charcater, see:

First World War Official Histories
Volume 1 The Story of ANZAC from the outbreak of war to the end of the first phase of the Gallipoli Campaign, May 4, 1915 (11th edition, 1941)
Chapter 1 Australia’s position At The Outbreak

208. Rev George Cox and his ‘Notes on Gippsland History’ (1)

 

Rev G Cox, courtesy of Yarram & District Historical Society

Several previous posts have covered the importance of the the Rev George Cox, the Church of England rector who was appointed to Yarram in 1911. Cox was one of the most important Imperial Loyalists in the local community.

Prior to his own enlistment in 1915, Cox had been actively involved with the local Rechabite Lodge and he spoke at local temperance meetings. He had supported the local Boy Scouts and had served on the committee for Yarram State School. When the War broke out he helped establish the Belgian Relief Fund Committee. Most significantly, he was very involved in the local Recruiting Committee.

Even when he was serving with the AIF, Cox maintained a connection with Yarram and his former congregation. For example, in November 1917 he returned to Yarram to preach. In his sermon, he pointed to the differences between the ‘shirker’ and the soldier in the trenches prepared to sacrifice everything. He reminded his congregation that he had always supported the ‘voluntary system of enlistments’ and he declared that he still believed this was the best method. But now, faced with such peril, Cox urged everyone to support the Hughes Government in ‘any measure brought forward which would compel the shirker to do his bit.’ That night he gave a public address in the Shire Hall to young men on the topic of ‘The National Peril’. The National Peril was the scourge of ‘venereal diseases’. There was a write up of Cox’s visit in the local paper on 21/11/17.

Cox enlisted in September 1915. In fact, Cox had tried to enlist one year earlier in late September 1914 but was rejected by the local doctors. Most probably his age would have been a factor. He was born at Edinburgh in Scotland in 1871 and was then 43 years old. Even after he enlisted, his health was still an issue and he was actually discharged (May 1916) – rheumatic fever – before he re-enlisted, but only for home service. He served with the Australian Army Medical Corps at both the Isolation Hospital, Langwarrin and the Clearing Hospital at Broadmeadows. He held the rank of a/sergeant and he was formally discharged in January 1919. Cox’s determination to enlist and, equally his determination to continue to serve in the face of poor health, would have served as a striking example to the local community.

Cox was one of the most important advocates of support for the Empire.  He used his pulpit to promote the righteous cause of the Allies, remind everyone of the greatness of the Empire and the dire challenges it faced and, in a very practical gesture, make a strong call for volunteers. For a reminder of how Cox effectively fused Christian teaching – for example, the ideal of Christian sacrifice – with support for the War refer to Post 26. Soldiers of Christ.

Another striking example of how Cox presented the Empire of Britain and the Empire of God as overlapping and mutually dependent came in the sermon he preached at Yarram on Sunday 23/5/15. It was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 26/5/15. It was just before Empire Day and it also coincided with the feast of Whitsunday (Pentecost). Cox saw the British Empire as the civil and temporal manifestation of the Heavenly (Christian) Empire:

Tonight we are met for a two-fold commemoration. We stand on the eve of Empire Day, that day on which we commemorate the birthday of Her Most Gracious Majesty, the late Queen Victoria, and we commemorate her memory because of her life and character. She has left us an ideal of what a Christian ruler ought to be. And it was during her life that the British Empire received its greatest development, and was consolidated and established. And today, Whitsunday, we commemorate the birthday of the Christian Empire.

As well as offering both Christian legitimacy and active support for the War effort, Cox provided the local community with another considerable asset. From 1911 when he arrived in Yarram to 1915 when he enlisted, Cox provided the locals of the Shire of Alberton – and the broader community of Gippsland – with a running presentation of the history of Gippsland.

Previous posts that looked at recruiting drives and formal farewells and welcomes home have examined the themes that were commonly employed in speeches on such occasions and the theme of the young soldier as a worthy descendant of the original pioneers was very common. Possibly, even without Cox’s efforts, this theme would have been paramount but there is no question that Cox had provided both the background detail and the renewed interest in the early history of the local area and that there was a natural synergy between his history articles and support for the War effort. In Cox’s world view the success of the European settlement of Gippsland mirrored, admittedly only on the small scale, the inevitable success and greatness of the British Empire. Cox and his readers also saw the very real threat of defeat in the War as the denial of the very British virtues and strengths that had enabled the successful colonisation of Australia. Defeat would represent the very reversal of Australia’s history.

Cox’s efforts as a local historian were considerable. His articles on Gippsland history – Notes on Gippsland History –  which were published regularly in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative were detailed and extensive. As indicated, they ran from 1911 to September 1915 when he enlisted. In that period there were approximately 65 articles published. The articles recommenced in 1921 and continued to 1930. In this instance I am only looking at the articles published prior to and during the War, although this also includes a handful (4) that he wrote after he enlisted.

Interestingly, the articles were written and published in the style of a contemporary blog. Cox often revised earlier texts in view of additional research on his part, or in response to comments or criticism from readers or other researchers. He actively encouraged comments on his work and appealed for additional resources. Also, the topics on which he wrote were ordered somewhat randomly and the various threads and themes in his work were not handled in a strictly sequential manner. The work was definitely in the style of a ‘work in progress’ rather than a finished history. At the same time, the overall scope and detail of his work was very impressive and he gave the community a significant picture of its history, albeit from a particular perspective: the triumph of British colonisation.

John Adams wrote a formal history of the Shire of Alberton in 1990 and in his preface he acknowledged the value of … the many articles published by the late Rev George Cox in the Gippsland Standard. The value of the articles as resource material was always recognised, and in 1997 the Port Albert Maritime Museum re-published all the articles in a 6 volume work. John Adams also wrote the introduction for the series and, again, he acknowledged the significance of Cox’s work – These articles have for many years proved to be important research material for students and historians of Gippsland history … – and also presented an overview of their scope:

From 1911 to 1930 there appeared in the Gippsland Standard, Yarram, a series of articles which went under the heading of ‘Notes on Gippsland History’. These articles, many of them up to 2000 words in length, were the result of detailed and painstaking research on the early history of Gippsland by the Anglican minister, Rev. George Cox. They covered the explorations of Gippsland, the settlement of Port Albert and the subsequent development of Alberton and Tarraville, the early squatters and the cattle trade, the first overlanders in Gippsland and the beginnings of churches and schools in the Alberton area, concentrating to a large extent on the first twenty years of Gippsland.

The other significant feature of Cox’s work was that it was undertaken under the auspices of the (Royal) Historical Society of Victoria. The society had been established only recently in 1909 and, in fact, Cox established the first branch outside Melbourne, at Yarram, in 1911.

Cox addressed the local Australian Natives’ Association (ANA) branch at Yarram in September 1911 – the paper he presented that day became the first of the published articles in the local paper – and revealed his motivation for setting up the first ‘sub-centre’ of the (Royal) Historical Society of Victoria. He was concerned that there was no definitive history of Gippsland and that the challenge was time critical because the essential material resources were fast disappearing. As well, the ‘pioneers’ were dying. He wrote often about ‘our few remaining pioneers’. Recording the past efforts of the pioneers and celebrating their successes were of paramount importance to Cox. In the same paper, he explicitly referred to the duty of honouring the pioneer generations:

Let it be clearly understood between reader and writer that this is a national work, a work of public interest, in which all may take a share, for the honouring of those – our pioneers – who have borne the heat and toil and burden of the day, and for the instruction and inspiration of those who shall come after.

This was history with a high moral purpose, a history that could teach future generations of the enterprise, values and success of the original European pioneers. It was hardly surprising that the theme of the young soldier following in the footsteps of the pioneers became so common in local recruitment appeals.

Cox’s comments ascribe a ‘national’ dimension to the work. While the history Cox pursued was definitely focused on Gippsland, he was at least conscious of the need for a sense of Australia’s national history. Also, it is reasonable to argue that in focusing on the local history of a particular area in Victoria, he was consciously offering a model for other districts and regions to employ. All such work would thus contribute to the overall national history. This idea that a national history was required and that it could be realised, at least in part, by the work of local history groups such as the one Cox had formed needs to be seen in the context that, at the time, both the idea and ideal of an Australian Nation or Commonwealth were in their infancy. Australia has just reached the end of only the first decade of Federation. Truly national history was in only its infant stages. Of course, as matters turned out, WW1 – and particularly the Anzac Legend – would come to claim an extraordinarily powerful place in the national history.

At another meeting, this time to the (Royal) Historical Society of Victoria in Melbourne in June 1914, Cox gave a rationale for the focus on Gippsland and highlighted some of the difficulties faced. The paper was covered in an article published in the local paper on 24/7/14. Cox made the case for what he referred to as ’Neglected Gippsland’. In his view, the history of Gippsland had been omitted from what national history there was at the time. Critical explorations in Gippsland had been ignored and … the opening up of the interior of this magnificent pastoral country half a century later does not seem to have been considered worth mentioning.

Cox gave several reasons to explain why the history of Gippsland had been ignored. The issue of geographic isolation was key. In fact, Cox detailed how isolated Gippsland still remained by describing how long it had taken him to reach Melbourne that very day for the meeting. In other articles Cox emphasised just how isolated the early settlements in Gippsland had been before there was an ‘overland’ route to Melbourne. This was one of the main preoccupations in his history of exploration. Another unique feature of Gippsland’s geography that had complicated the issue of identity related to the way that the focus of the settlement changed so significantly. The centre of settlement had proceeded from Port Albert to Tarraville to Alberton and finally to Yarram and Sale. As Cox put it:

The other feature which creates much difficulty lies in the fact that instead of one place forming a permanent pivot around which settlement has developed, place after place has become the centre of an ever widening and progressive area.

Cox also gave another reason why there were such significant gaps in the history of Gippsland or, from another perspective, why there was only limited enthusiasm for uncovering the past, particularly the very early European past. There were episodes and characteristics there to which people did not want to draw attention. At the same June 1914 meeting, Cox spoke about … the fact that for several years of its early existence as a pastoral settlement it [Gippsland] was a sort of no-man’s land, its inhabitants a law unto themselves, the government apparently having neither men nor money to spare on its administration.

Interestingly, Cox himself was not a local yet he took on himself responsibility for providing the local community with its history. At the time he undertook his series of articles there was effectively no readily available, written history of the area. As Cox himself noted, the history was an oral one and there were locals who knew this oral history and who, as it were, held it in trust on behalf of the community. Cox was keen to access the oral history, match with it primary sources, identify and resolve the inconsistencies and contradictions and come up with a more definitive and critically-tested, written version of the history.

Cox knew his work would stir controversies and upset vested interests but he incorporated this tension into his basic methodology, pointedly acknowledging the different perspectives. Cox would have been able to draw on his status as the local rector to add status and gravitas to his work. The fact that Cox’s version of the history of the local area presented such a glowing vindication of European settlement – set against a background of Imperial expansion, the spread of ‘civilisation’, the ‘opening-up’ of the land, and the innate superiority of White Australia – reinforced its appeal.

This is the background to the extensive series of articles that appeared in the local paper from 1911. A future post will consider the scope, emphasis and omissions of the history.

References

Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

207. Complete list 6 (T-Z)

This is the final list of all those, with an association to the Shire of Alberton, who enlisted. It covers 86 individuals with surnames T to Z. This takes the overall total to 816. Strictly speaking, there were 813 men and 3 women, all nurses (Alice Cocking, Elsie Engbloom and Ethel Horton).

It is also important to acknowledge 3 additional names:

  1. John James Lord
  2. A B Nuttall
  3. Ernest George Mitchell

These men left the Shire of Alberton to work as munition workers in the United Kingdom. At least two of the three – Lord and Mitchell – had been previously rejected for the AIF on medical grounds.

The overall figure of 816 men is dramatically at odds with the total of 446 names for the Honor Roll of the Shire of Alberton (Post 24. Honor Roll of the Shire of Alberton).

Overall, there appear to be 3 critical reasons for the discrepancy. The first is that the current list includes all those identified on the many honor rolls of local state schools. Obviously, there were cases where former students had, by the time of the War, left the district and enlisted outside the Shire and even, in some cases, in another state. Notwithstanding the fact that such individuals were no longer ‘local’ in the strict sense of the term, they were clearly still sufficiently  ‘local’ to be included on the school honor roll, which sought to honour them as past students of the ‘local’ school. It is also relevant in this context that, given the young ages of enlistment for many of the cohort, even if they were no longer living in the Shire of Alberton, their association with the Shire was often very recent.

The second critical consideration is that this current list includes all those who initiated the enlistment in process in Yarram – most commonly with a medical and the signing of the attestation papers in the presence of the Shire Secretary – and who were then recorded as having been given a railway warrant to travel to Melbourne to complete the enlistment process. Often there were men in this group who were itinerant workers and who were not well known in the district. They might have only been there for a short period of time. It is often very difficult to uncover background information on such men. At the same time, they were definitely there in the Shire and must be included for an accurate overall picture.

The third main reason for the discrepancy relates to the accuracy of the original Honor Roll of the Shire of Alberton. There are many cases where this record failed to pick up someone who was ‘local’. For example, men who lived and worked on the boundaries of the Shire – for example, Gormandale – were sometimes omitted, even though the local paper featured a farewell or a welcome home for them. Equally, there were cases where a young English immigrant, who had been working for a local farmer for a year or less, enlisted and went overseas. Some, but definitely not all, slipped from the collective memory of the local community, particularly if they opted to be demobbed in the United Kingdom. It is also important to note that, at the time, across Australia as a whole, attempts to compile the local tally of all who enlisted were often ad hoc and not as rigorous as they needed to be. Also, after the War there was a degree of ‘war weariness’ that compromised such local record keeping.

The extensive data set that sits behind this list of 816 names is very significant. As far as I have been able to pursue the research, the data set represents the complete and comprehensive picture of the AIF involvement of the total male population of one regional area of Victoria in WW1.

This final list features the 5 Willis siblings from Alberton. Two of the brothers were killed – David and Henry – and another brother – Sydney – received a medical discharge (gsw 2/10/17).

206. Complete list 5 (P-S)

This is the continuation of the complete list of all those, with an association to the Shire of Alberton, who enlisted. It covers 165 men with surnames P to S. This takes the overall total to this point to 730.

While most of the links between the individual men and the Shire of Alberton were straightforward, in the sense that their names appeared on one of the many honor rolls or memorials, there were instances where the association is less apparent and more tenuous. For example, Harold McCheyne Raymond was born (1892) in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton. He attended Church of England Grammar School in Melbourne and Geelong College in Geelong. When he enlisted in Brisbane in 1915 he gave his occupation as bank clerk. On the face of it, there is no connection to the Shire of Alberton. However, his father was Rev. Arthur Rufus Raymond and in January 1917 this clergyman was appointed to Yarram as the Church of England rector. Rev Raymond stayed at Yarram until September 1918 and just a few months after his appointment, news reached him that his son had been killed in action (9/4/17). The details of the death and expressions of sympathy were published in the local paper. While Harold Raymond probably never  visited Yarram, his service in the AIF and his death were very well known to the people of the Shire of Alberton.

Another family – Steward – in the following list demonstrates just how involved patterns of family movement could be. Fred Steward was born in Newcastle Upon Tyne in 1886. But then the family must have emigrated to Australia because a sister – Jane – was born in Victoria in 1889 and the younger brother – Mac –  who also enlisted, was born in Drouin in 1897. At the time both sons enlisted, the family was farming near Gormandale. This example of family immigration in the 1880s stands in marked contrast to all the other young, single immigrants from the UK who came to Australian as farm workers in the years prior to WW1. The 2 Steward brothers survived the War.

As always, if there are issues with any of the names or details I would appreciate hearing from you:

pcashen@bigpond.net.au

205. Complete list 4 (M-O)

This is the continuation of the complete list of all those, with an association to the Shire of Alberton, who enlisted. It covers 130 men with surnames M to O. This takes the overall total to this point to 565.

As for the previous post several characteristics stand out:

  • the number of siblings
  • the number of immigrant (UK) workers
  • the extent of mobility featured across the overall cohort

The case of John Ledger illustrates just how complex the issue of identifying individuals can be. Someone who identified himself as Francis George Moore was issued with a railway warrant in Yarram in late August 1915. At the time he said he was 19 yo and that his parents were deceased. He was a farm labourer in the district.

The enlistment was completed in Melbourne and Moore served overseas right through the War until he was discharged at the end of August 1919. One month before his discharge, Moore signed a statutory declaration stating that his real name was John Ledger and that he had enlisted under F G Moore because at the time he was under 18 yo.

With only these details, it is not possible to track John Ledger in Births, Deaths and Marriages Victoria. However it is possible that the person was Harold John Ledger, born 1899. If it was this person then he would have been about 16 yo when he enlisted.

As always, if there are issues with any of the names or details I would appreciate hearing from you:

pcashen@bigpond.net.au

204. Complete list 3 (H-L)

This is the continuation of the complete list of all those, with an association to the Shire of Alberton, who enlisted. It covers 136 men with surnames H to L. This takes the overall total to this point to 435.

As for the previous post several characteristics stand out:

  • the number of siblings
  • the number of immigrant (UK) workers
  • the extent of mobility featured across the overall cohort

As always, if there are issues with any of the names or details I would appreciate hearing from you:

pcashen@bigpond.net.au

203. Complete list 2 (D-G)

This is the continuation of the complete list of all those, with an association to the Shire of Alberton, who enlisted. It covers 122 men with surnames D to G. This takes the overall total to this point to 299.

As for the previous post several characteristics stand out:

  • the number of siblings
  • the number of immigrant (UK) workers
  • the extent of mobility featured across the overall cohort

Note also the locals who served in other armies: Italy, Canada and New Zealand.

As always, if there are issues with any of the names or details I would appreciate hearing from you:

pcashen@bigpond.net.au