- Written by Brian O'Brien
Published: 08 June 2013
This article was provided by the author after having first appeared in the Hamilton Spectator.
FAMOUS author, Patsy Adam Smith died on September 20 2001. She came to Penshurst when she was just 14 years old in 1938 and left three years later, a period remembered in both of her autobiographical books, Hear The Train Blow and Goodbye Girlie.
BRIAN O’BRIEN picks out some of the more interesting extracts from the books that involve Penshurst and district.
EVEN though a mere slip of a girl, Patsy Adam Smith remembers vividly the 1930s depression, and how poverty was normal for the average working class family because there was little work available. Good times were rare but that didn’t stop young unemployed men with too much time on their hands, and youthful spirits, from playing up. She remembers one particular incident from her time in Penshurst. Just before Anzac Day in 1939, they (dole boys she called them) crept out just before midnight and decorated Penshurst’s war memorial with cabbages they stole from the priest’s garden. "I don’t see what the caterwaulin’s all about," the old Irishman said the next day when the ‘desecration’ was being decried all over town. "After all, they were my cabbages, and I’m not complaining. If it gives the boys a bit of fun, surely they get little enough of it. "I wonder if the citizens of that little town ever look at the new names on the ugly little stone memorial and remember the boys who prematurely decorated their own tombstone that year with cabbages." She describes her impressions of the town near the end of Hear The Train Blow. "Penshurst itself grew up beside the crater of a dead volcano, Mt Rouse. It was quite a big town by the standards of anywhere else we have lived (Gippsland, Mallee) . There was a grocer, two butchers, a baker, a cafe, one hotel and two banks as well as indication to us of its size, a railway station master. Sheep everywhere. "It was sheep country. The wealth of the district was in a score of sheep stations spread across the rocky countryside. There were no passenger trains through Penshurst, only steam-hauled goods trains. I went along to the local state school. It was a big school, at least 80 children; a frightening rabble it seemed to me, used as I was to a maximum of 20 schoolmates. The headmaster could offer me no more than a desk if I wished to do correspondence lessons there. Money seemed scarcer than ever here . I went out to work. I was 14. At first I kept the books and did the accounts of a butcher, and in this way learnt the practical application of accounting. The town’s policeman offered to teach me typing and shorthand. Each day at 5pm I would tramp to the police station and apply myself to this dullest of all trades taught to women but, as I knew, one of the few occupations in business open to them. "The local priest offered to teach me Latin, surely the most beautiful of all languages. On Saturday mornings I would cycle up to him for a two-hourly lesson. "We had been at Penshurst for a few weeks only when mum came hurrying home from a progress association meeting.
"There is an excellent teacher comes here once a week," she told me. "I'll send her to you." Madame Sherman was not only talented, she was a fanatic. Music was her whole life.
"She lent me a squeaky, cheap violin and each morning and evening as well as most of each weekend I practised these two instruments. I was as indefatigable as Madame. We punished each other with our perseverance and labor.
"Because the work I had begun was tedious and because I wanted to earn more money than the 15 shillings week offered to book keepers, as well as wanting more time to study, I set up in business of my own. Mum advanced me the money for a secondhand typewriter and with this I tendered to do the monthly accounts of three shops; two butchers and a baker. At 'peak periods' such as Friday nights and Christmas week I worked for a newsagent, a fine chinaware shop, and served at the bakery.
Playing in dance band
"But the best means of earning money was playing in the dance band. The New Mayfair Dance Band was, when I was invited to join, composed of four cool sophisticated male musicians. I still wore my school clothes, my hair was dressed in shoulder length curls, I wore cotton stockings and lace-up shoes. Our engagements were usually only on Saturday nights at the local hall, but during the shearing season we'd get several bookings from the shearing sheds for dances, the social event of the sheep country year, held in a cleaned-up shed to celebrate the end of shearing on each station.
Dressing was formal, the women in floor length gowns, and a certain distinction was lent by the presence of an 'official party' consisting of the matron of the local hospital, the doctor, squatters and their wives, a bank manager or two, and the local councillors. But all this respectability could not dampen a shearer's hop and it was the bales of wool set around the walls for seats that set the atmosphere for the evening. Sometimes they danced until dawn. We were paid to play until 2am".
Coleraine ‘cut out’
"The first ‘cut out’ ball I played at was in a shearing shed near Coleraine. At 2am the shearers decided the evening had only begun so they started to take the hat around. When the hat came to him, a ‘smart’ gun said, ‘Aw, that!’ and slapped a 10 shilling note on top of the old piano. Half a dozen followed suit. The little pile of money shook and trembled there near me all the while I played.
"The best shearers were often the best dancers and almost always the best dressed, but they were also likely to be the wildest. Sometimes dancing by the big, open doors at the end of the shed you could see white shirt tails flapping as men fought in the light of the big fire built of tree trunks. One night my partner told me there were three fights going at the same time and that four of the fighters were ‘gun’ shearers.
"I was book keeping, studying piano and violin, learning Latin, taking six school subjects, playing in a dance band, and now I took music pupils. I was a good piano tutor, but I was not a meticulous book keeper and I was constantly employed thinking up quick answers to irate customers. But it was worth it. One week during which I played with the dance band for two engagements I brought home six pounds from my various projects. Mum bought herself a new pair of lace-up corsets and the sight of those formidable stays filled me with pride.
End of Old Nip
"At this time (in Penshurst) we lost a dear old friend. Old Nip, the dog, who had been for so long one of the family, died at last. This morning when dad called him as he went out the gate on the way to work the old dog didn’t respond. ‘Cone on, boy!’ he said, and whistled. But the dog couldn’t rise. His beautiful brown eyes were opaque with pain.‘Poor old feller, ‘ Dad said. ‘My poor old mate.’ "He tried to help him but the dog was beyond help. He then went and got a gun from Joe Page, a fettler. Dad picked up the grizzled old dog in his arms and carried him down the line away from the town."
Patsy Ends "Hear the Train Blow" on a Sombre Note
"It was the evening of Sunday, 3rd September (1939). We were in front of the fire listening to the radio. The static crackled, but the words were clear. We were at war.
"None of us spoke until after playing of God Save the King had ended. They had never done that before. In a play or a speech, whenever he heard the call, 'three cheers for the King!' Dad would grin and we knew he was thinking of his navy days when the traditional lower deck reply was, 'Bugger the King!' Now he stood for the playing of the anthem, leaning on the mantelpiece looking into the fire so that it would not seem affected.
"Bob (her sister’s husband) and his mates were standing at the street corner the following day when the newspaper truck came in. They had heard the announcement on the radio, but this was different. The written word was the seal to the statement and there it was, on the poster on the side of the truck. One word. War.
"Within a month there was hardly a young man left in town. The boys were all 'jumping the rattler' in one direction now: Bob and his mates were on their way to the city to enlist."
The Penshurst years also begin her second book of autobiography, 'Goodbye Girlie', with a chapter called The Dancing Years.
"There were many railway platforms in my life, but the most joyous day I had was when I stood on the platform in the tiny country town as the train carrying away my parents gathered momentum, At last they stopped waving because we couldn't see one another in the distance and I jumped on my bicycle and pedalled pell-mell back to the little room that was mine alone in the baker's house.
"And there I took my corsets off. It was the war that got those corsets off me. I dug a hole out the back of the bakery and buried them.
"Mr and Mrs Forrest, the baker and his wife, good catholic church goers of course, would let me board on their house at the Penshurst town bakery. I could have my piano moved into their 'front' room to enable me to practice for the future exam.
"I can honestly record that this fortress (corset) my mother has erected single-handedly was never broached in the 10 months I was obliged to wear it. Once at a dance, a boy's hand slipped tentatively below my waist and when his fingers came into contact with the castle wall he whipped his arm back as if he had been bitten by a dog.
"It was the dancing years. There were great tunes and even greater words to sing to. Even in such a small town as Penshurst where the majority were poor, there was a dance at least once a week in the Mechanics Institute Hall, an orchestra played and crowds of people came along. There was even a debutantes' ball in which I took my place, although I was too young to be with such a group.
"One night we were just finishing the dancing, the music was playing and we were singing "Goodnight sweetheart, til we meet tomorrow, goodnight sweetheart, goodnight', and just as those words were hanging in the air, we realised there was huge rumblings out in the street and, oddly, a clarinet playing.
Light Horse to Hamilton
"We raced outside and there was the army going by. Well, not exactly the army, but it was the Light Horse on the way to train in Hamilton. They had trucks and had stopped to check the horses.
"It seemed that suddenly we were remembering "Oh, yes, that's right, the war is on". It had been a phoney war until that time, but here were men training and ready and outfitted to go to war. That night I recall many of us walked back into the hall and when we came out again we were much quieter.
"At daybreak we heard the rumble of men moving and they went right down the main street, very slowly, and everyone was out to watch them. The clarinet player threw an artificial flower to me. I always wondered if that man came back. The memory of him laughing and playing the clarinet out in the street stayed with me.
"With Dad's transfer to Gippsland, like many a family in wartime we were split up for the first time, and forever."
Patsy Adam Smith enlisted as a nurse in the army soon after leaving Penshurst. She went on to achieve fame as an author of 32 books including The Anzacs and The Shearers. Hear the Train Blow is described as a classic tale of growing up in Australia during the Depression. It's also been called a celebration of the 'ordinary' people of Australia and evoked a way of life that no longer exists. Not one station where her mother was station mistress still stands.
A SATURDAY Magazine feature in October highlighted the early years of noted author Patsy Adam Smith in Penshurst. That district and Dunkeld also strongly feature in her classic, The Shearers, published in 1982. BRIAN O'BRIEN picks out some of her fascinating stories about the men from this district who worked and played hard, and who were a vital cog in the country's prosperity when wool was 'king'.
DUNKELD and Penshurst were the home of many Victorian shearers who would make the 'long run' to Queensland and back down the east coast, often away from home for eight months or more.
"In winter they had a job to get a football team together in either town because most of the young men were away shearing, she recalls. "When I was 14 years old and living in Penshurst (1938) , I was alive to the devil-may-care air of the boys who went shearing. "In a town that had stagnated for 15 years during the depression they were a whiff of adventure, freedom and excitement; they travelled to far-away places; their speech rolled along on the names that were still legendary outback to us before World War Two. "Sometimes they left on their long, dusty journey unheralded, almost unnoticed in the lethargy of those hungry, fearful days when there was no work for men in a town that had no industries and depended on the grudging support of the large and wealthy sheep stations surrounding it. "Other times, those of us who had brothers and boyfriends breaking out from the zombieland of no work, no tucker, no funds, no joy, and rushing northwards to the sheds, well, we knew, and the heightened excitement rippled round the crossroad of the little bluestone town.
It' s shearing time
"One Sunday, mass half over, when Father Glennon was in the middle of his sermon, the congregation were all half-dozing on the hard wooden pews and I was sitting on the high stool at the organ in the choir loft waiting to burst into Gloria, there was the roar of three cars out the front of the church door. There were hoots of laughter and jostling and in tramped 10 young shearers. It was the boys on the way north to the sheds at Cunnamulla. While they might have worked hard, they also partied hard. Adam Smith recalls that before the annual migration from Penshurst began there was a formal ball and when they came back six months later, another ball. "We knew who rung the sheds, who were the guns, who had blown his cheque and who hadn't, and who had left the girls weeping from Hughenden (Qld) down through the eastern states on the grand shearing route back to Penshurst in the centre of the Western District.
The Riddle family from Dunkeld features prominently in the 400-page book. There had been four generations of shearers and contractors when Smith wrote her book 20 years ago. She interviewed Percy Riddle who shore for 50 years and whose father, Ted, was one of seven brothers who were shearers, and whose grandfather was a blade shearer. "My father was at Mt Sturgeon when machines came in. There were 32 stands there and, like my father, every one of the shearers thought the machine would put men out of work, he told her. In 1939 at Golf Hill there were nine Riddles on the boards out of 18 shearers. The nine were Bert, Normie, Archie, Ganger, Agga, Ray, Percy, 'Old Spud' and Andy. In 1927, Bert Riddle shore 303 in a day at Ned's Corner while Percy said when he was in good 'nick' he could crutch between 400 and 600 a day. "There weren't many holidays, he said. "We worked Good Fridays for instance. Things were crude I suppose. The meat was hung up in a tree in a sugar bag, or in a Coolgardie safe. At Mt Sturgeon, because it was no distance away, we took beer where a man could afford it. There was an underground tank there, so we put the beer down it, suspended in a sugar bag. A man ought to go and dive in that tank, I bet he'd find a few!
Percy Riddle said he was never strong on voting to declare sheep too wet to shear , about five times in 50 years. His mate from Dunkeld, Tom Duckmanton, a rouseabout, gives an amusing account of when it's very convenient to have wet sheep, like when you want to go to the Melbourne Cup."Nobby Templeton and I were rousies at Mt Sturgeon once and when the Melbourne Cup was near, we wanted a holiday so we could go to Melbourne. Nobby and I sneaked over to the shed in the dark that night with a bucket and a watering can and sprinkled the sheep in the pens. Holiday tomorrow, Nobby assured me. But it never came off , the shearers voted them dry! Being a rouseabout, Tom Duckmanton neither ate nor slept in the same quarters as his shearing mate."I was getting 12s 6d a week at Devon Park in 1925. Didn't have showers in any sheds those days. We'd boil water in a tin over the fire and wash in it and then wash our clothes in it. There was always a fire outside and some huts had a fireplace inside. Mt Sturgeon had an open fireplace eight feet wide. Three men would carry a tree trunk in each night and put it on to burn, and we'd dry our clothes each night. Penshurst shearer and Grazcos contractor, Fred Cottrill, told Adam Smith times were extremely tough when he started at 15.
"We didn't have showers, anything, early on. Carried our own blankets whether we went on horse, bike, or by train or car ; the men couldn't take beer out because of the weight, so they would have O.P. Rum and were damned because of it.
"Before my day they did one and a half to two hours shearing before breakfast. But even in my time we still had the old lamps, a slush lamp (a wick stuck in a tin of fat); a bag of straw to sleep on; 20 to a room. We cut a kero tin longways to wash in and boiled water on a kero tin for hot water. "We would leave Penshurst, ride our bikes to Dunkeld, catch the train up to Mildura, then ride the bikes to wherever we were going. Some Penshurst men drove their horse and cart to the Riverina."
He remembers another Penshurst shearer, Divil (Bill) Ryan arrived at a shed once carrying his pushbike because the mud had caked its wheels solid! "Divil Ryan was a fair terror; a good man to have on a team, he was funny, could laugh at himself, and was a great shearer. When he was 70 he could shear 100 sheep a day. During the shearer's strike, Clive Cameron, the politician who used to be a shearer , Divil and I walked 20 miles to Kalgoorlie. " Divil and Chips, top Australian film star of the 1940s, Chips Rafferty, also shore with Fred Cotterill. "Divil didn't know this. He only knew Chips from the movies so when Chips came to see me at Moyne Falls, Divil says to him, "Have a go, mate, winking at the other shearers. "Chips set to and shore the sheep quick and clean.
"Divil could get upset though. He was shearing well one day until the owner came in and sat on top of the pen. I noticed Divil was being clumsy, seemed to be shearing side on. At smoko I asked him why. I don't want that old bugger looking at the backside out of my seat' he said. By 1942 Fred Cottrill was overseer-expert in charge of more than 200 Grazcos shearers in Victoria and the Riverina. He remembered the great sheds, and the many who didn't fit that description. One place killed old rams for the shearers to eat. "You could smell it from the sheds. Stinking old rams. It caused a few rows.
Other district people mentioned in The Shearers include Jack Sparks (Penshurst), the Ritchie family (Penshurst), Jack Hutchins and son, Herb Hutchins (Hamilton), David Ryan (Hamilton) and Peter Archibold (Penshurst). Fred Cottrill on donkey with shearing mates at Coonamoona in the Flinders Ranges. Peter Archbold of Penshurst lived to 86 after a lifetime of shearing, both with blades and machine. Divil Ryan watches as actor Chips Rafferty shears a sheep, unaware the actor had spent time on the 'board' before treading the boards'.