Memories of Margheramorne - Sue Milliken [In progress]
The Milliken family were among the pioneer settlers of Darawank, on the Wallamba River on the New South Wales mid-north coast, in the 1880s. James Milliken, born in 1857, the youngest son of James Milliken and Eliza Miller, of Islandmagee in County Antrim, left the damp climate and limited horizons of Ireland in 1882, when he was 25, and took a ship to the other side of the world. He was a classic immigrant seeking a new life in a new country.
James scoured opportunities to take up land in the New England and Peats Ferry districts of New South Wales. For a time he seems to have worked as a policeman. "You have all heard what I am doing," he wrote to his brother Thomas in Islandmagee on 30th October, 1884. "I am on police." It is believed that James was a policeman in Northern Ireland. His stature at six feet seven inches tall would have equipped him well for the job. Finally he took up land on the lower Wallamba River near the settlement of Failford.
It was a hard life to start with. He wrote to Thomas on 26th April, 1887: "I am on the begging line." But he was already looking for chances to expand. He told Thomas he had his eye on an island in the Wallamba, opposite his original holding, that was to be sold at auction for between £2.10.0 and £6 ($5 and $12) an acre. "There is very little good land now in New South Wales; it is all taken up; it is getting of more value every day so if we don't make a strug[gle] now we won't get it again." In his earlier letter, he also reported scornfully on the power of the squatters over new settlers like himself: "...there has been a land bill pas[sed] that is a great barrier to the settler; it is in favour of the squatter; there is a great many of them in power so the[y] make the laws to suit themselves like the landlords of Ireland."
James eventually bought the island. Located upstream from the coastal settlement of Tuncurry, it was an ideal bridgehead for his farming ambitions At first, like other settlers, he worked drawing logs for the sawmills that were opening up at Failford and Forster. As the Great Lakes Historical Society has noted, the mills provided work for the pioneers while they cleared their properties and prepared for the day when they would become full time farmers. James wrote Thomas an account of getting himself established:
"I intend to stay all the time on the farm now. I was drawing logs in the summer which I made a little but it is hard work. I got the forty acres measured the other day. I am now getting fencing stuff to put up the fence; the great advantage the island has there is no fencing to be done and you have no vermin to contend with; they are a great nuisance in this country. The weather has been so wet since Christmas that there has been nothing got done. We have had scarcely a dry day; this country is a great deal worse than at home in wet weather; you cannot get about anywhere, the roads are so bad and the country is so low around here." James bought four bullocks for between £10.10.0 and £13 ($21 and $26) each for ploughing: "There is a great deal of labour attached to the clearing of new ground."
His Aunt Margaret Milliken, one of his father's eight siblings, was also planning to get out of Ireland and go to America. James asked that she go to Australia instead. He needed someone to take care of his domestic chores while he got on building a farm out of virgin land. "I wish she would come to me but it is a long way but I could give her a good home," he wrote to Thomas. "She would suit me very well; she might not care for so quiet a place as farming in the bush of Australia. I do all my own cooking; it takes up a good deal of my time; she would be comfortable and would like the climate very well and I believe her and I would get along very well; if she is not gone away you might see what she would think of it; she will think it rather unkind of me never writing to her." [Note: James Milliken's frequent spelling mistakes have been corrected for the sake of the narrative in these selected quotes from his correspondence, although the grammar has not been corrected. The unedited and uncorrected text of the letters appears later.]
Aunt Margaret did not come out. But around this time, several other families also moved into the Darawank district. According to the Great Lakes Historical Society: "Between 1885 and 1900 pioneers who were destined to play a big part in the history of Darawank settled on their selections. Families like the Chapmans, Millikens, Meads, Elliots, Browns, Ralstons, Wests and Ned Haggen on Gowack Island were people who would play a big part in the history of Darawank." It appears James already knew Ned Haggen from Ireland. He wrote to Thomas in April 1887: "Ned Heggen [sic] is in good health; he and I had three days riding in the bush at Easter." And in August: "I never see Mrs Haggen; she is in Sydney. I am never there."
Having established himself in Australia, James Milliken later returned briefly to Ireland. There were suggestions that the purpose of his trip was to find himself a wife. If so, he succeeded. He married Helena Hill, 15 years younger than him and one of eight children of William Hill and Mary Templeton, also of Islandmagee. They returned to Darawank, built a house on the island farm they called "Sunnybank" and raised nine children. According to 'The History of Failford and the Wallamba River District', written and compiled by Daryll (Dick) Moran and published in 1988 by The Wallamba and District Historical Society (now The Greatlakes Historical Museum) Darawank was considered locally to have the aboriginal meaning of 'dark waters'.
The eldest, Mary, was born in 1893. Then came Anna in 1895; William (Bill) in 1896; James (Tim) in 1898; John in 1900; Robert (Bob) in 1902; Thomas (Tom) in 1903; Helena (Jean) in 1907; and David (Dave) in 1909. There was a tragedy when John died at the age of 11 from septicaemia from a wound when he was pierced by a farm implement.
In the 1920s, apparently to take advantage of improved roads to Tuncurry and Failford, and of new telephone communication links through the district (electricity came later), the Millikens built a new house on the "mainland" side of the Wallamba River and moved there. They called the new house 'Magheramorne' after a place near the original family home in Islandmagee. The solid brick country house - with high ceilings, a large kitchen, a walk-in pantry, an L-shaped hallway, four bedrooms and verandas around all sides - still stands today. There was a rambling, two-storey wooden barn, where they stored farm machinery below and corn from their own crops above, a dairy and a cooling room for the milk and cream - all since demolished, except for a separate creamery, a whitewashed structure with wire sides to keep the cream cool overnight until collected for the factory. This structure has been preserved.
This first generation of Australian Millikens did not venture very far from their home district, as was the pattern of life then. Bob and Tim grew up to carry on the farming. Between them they expanded the family's holdings in the Gloucester district, Firefly, Bunyah and Nabiac. Bill and Tom ran the cream boats that served the farms along the river, taking their produce to the butter factory that opened in Tuncurry in 1920 - the Cape Hawke District Co-operative Dairy Co. Ltd. In the early years, James Milliken was appointed a director of the Dyers Crossing Butter Factory and later was instrumental in establishing the butter factory at Tuncurry and became a director. Bob also held the position of director of the Tuncurry Butter Factory. Mary became a schoolteacher in Taree and later travelled to Europe, when she stayed for a time with the family in Islandmagee. She returned to Darawank, where she and Anna spent the rest of their lives helping Bob run the farm. Anna was a tireless worker around the farm and at the kitchen stove, remembered by everyone for her generosity and love of animals. Dave joined the Bank of New South Wales and worked in towns from the Hunter Valley to northern New South Wales (he was based at Coffs Harbour when James Milliken died) and the Northern Tablelands before settling in nearby Wingham - see Wingham Page.
James Milliken was a tall man (six feet seven inches) who retained his Irish accent long after he settled in Australia. He died at the Mayo Private Hospital in Taree on 31 December 1935 aged 78 and is buried in the cemetery between Failford and Nabiac on 1 January 1936. James left an account of his pioneering days in Darawank in letters to his brother Thomas in Islandmagee - three of which miraculously survive thanks to (James Henry) Shaw Milliken, an Islandmagee nephew, who donated them to the Public Record Office in Belfast in the 1950s. See 'Milliken Letters below.
Helena Milliken, James Milliken's wife, was also born at Islandmagee in County Antrim, in the year 1872. She died at the home of her daughter, Mrs Paton Breckenridge, (Helena Margaret Milliken) at 33 Tillock Street Haberfield on 21 October 1944. Helena and James were married on Islandmagee and arrived in Australia on 26 January 1893, the year their first child Mary was born.
James Milliken, having immigrated from Northern Ireland in the 1880's, eventually settled at Darawank and three letters he wrote to his Brother Thomas Milliken in Islandmagee, are reproduced as follows.
A facsimile of the letters (four pages to each letter) appears first, followed by a typed version making certain gramatical corrections (shown thus: [XXXX]) but noting that spelling errors have not been corrected. Select the links at each page to take you to the original letter.
Letter One - dated 30 October 1884
Select the link to view the original handwritten letter.
Letter One - Typed version
Description of letter:
J. [James] Milliken, Peats Ferry [Australia] to his brother T. [Thomas] Milliken, Loughead, lslandmagee, Co. Antrim., Ireland. Letter criticising the land system which favours squatters and mentions the possibility of returning to New England or returning home.
30 October 1884
"Dear brother, I am in receipt of your letter of September 16th by which I see you are all well. I am glad to see that you are geting on so well. Their is very little strang[ers] here at present.
Mr. and Mrs. Hay are in good healt[h] and H. A. Steel; the[y] are the only friends that I have any correspondence with. The weather is very hot here at present, the seasons are changeable; the[y] are ether to dry or to wet; as regards the farming I had a notion of going back to New England about February or March but there has been a land bill past that is a great barrier to the settler. It is in favour of the squatter; their is a great many or them in power so the[y] make the laws to suit, themselves like the landlords of Ireland, but if I went back to New England there is a mate or mine their, we would have leaced a run and put cattle on It but It is very chancey for your cattle dying in a dry season.
As regards Sam Houston I would like you to fully understand me not to think that I am covetous an regards his place. I would like very much to live with my friends if' it was going to be sold I would like to [be] the purcher rather than see the Donnens have it and I think the[y] are covetous but I would be very sorry to see Sam going to the bad; he is a good harted felow; lf you were sure that it was going to be sold and could be got at a reasonable price I would like you would secure it but if you thought it would go over its value I don't care fore going into much det. I can make a very good living out here but It is a very wild country; you might know a little or Sam[']s mind by the time you got this so that you could write back by return or post to let me know if we could get it; if so I could let you have £50 if I would not go home but if not get it; I would want £200 or £300 soon to make start some way or the other. I would not wish to put you to any truble In geting money or put on heavy interest. Perhaps you were thinking or buy[ing] it for yourself; if I read your letter aright; if so what money I have down would do me for some time.
You have all heard what I am doing. I am on police. I was intend[ing] to leave them and go up country again in February but if I were going home I might not leave so soon; if you did not want me I can save a good bit or money. Write as soon as possible as I would like to let my mate know what I am for doing.
H. A. Steel was saying that Sam and W. J. Steele was not doing very well. Give my best wishes [to] uncle and aunt and all my old friends. Hoping you are all in good health as this leaves me at present. With kind regards for all.
Yours truly [signed] J. Milliken."
Description of letter:
James Milliken, Failford, Lower Walamba River [Australia] to his brother
of friends and asking for the loan of money to buy some more land with detailed description of his method of farming.
Failford, Lower Walamba River
26 April 1887
"Dear brother, you will think that I am geting very thoughful of you by writing so soon but I am on the begging line. I suppose times are so bad that I need not be disappoint[ed] if you canot send me any. 1 was thinking of buy[ing] some more land; there is a island oposit the place 1 bought; if it dose not go up at to high a price I would like to buy it; it is to be sold by publick auction; there is about a hundred acres in it; it is to be measured some of these days; there are some very good land on it and some of it is low and swampy; it would suit me very well. I consider it would be cheap at £2 10s. [per] acre; if times were good it would go at £6 [per] acre. 1 think it will go at a very reasonable price for It would not suit anyone to live on it; there is no water on It and the people that lives near it has got no money now; the most of them is in the timber line drawing logs to the saw mills; there have been very low prices for timber this some time back; the summer has been so wet that there could be no loges drawen the hole summer; there is only the summer months for drawing, the ground Is to soft for the winter; there is very little good land now in New South Weals; it is all taken up; it is geting of more value every day so If' we don't make a strugly now we won't get it again. I have got a hundred pounds in the bank yet but I will want some of It to bild a house and some other things 1 want. I entend to stay all the time on the farm now. I was drawing logs in the sumer which 1 made a little but it is hard work. I got the forty acres measured the other day. I am now geting fencing stuf to put up the fence; the great advantage the Island has there is no fencing to be done and you have no vermin to contend with; the[y] are a great nuesance in this country; the weather has been so weat since Christmas that there has been nothing got done. We have had scarely a dry day; this country is a great deal worse than at home in weat weather; you canot get about anywhere, the roads are so bad and the country is so low around here. I was very much surprised at seeing in the paper that case of' suicied. I never heard of William Donnan marriage. I doubt he has been the cause of her drowning herself; he ought to have been tryied for manslaughter; she was Miss Orr of Forth Hill. Mrs. William Hay has got a nother son; there hase been a great many changes around Broad Island of late. H. 0. Steele in gone to Queensland; he is In good health since he went there; the last letter I had from R. Cameron the[yl were all well. Ned Heggan is in good health; he and I had three days riding in the bush at Easter. Give my kind love to Kirker family, hoping the[y] are well and all my old neighbours; hoping S. Steele is all right again. No more at preasent hoping this will find you all in good health as this leaves me at present.
Yours truly [signed] James Milliken.
P.S. Write soon when you get this.
Letter Two - dated 26 April 1887
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Letter Two - Typed version
Description of letter
James Milliken, Failford, Lower Walamba River [Australia] to his brother (T. [Thomas] Milliken, Loughead, Islandmagee, Co. Antrim, Ireland]. Letter acknowledging receipt of money and asking that aunt Margaret and "Doley" might consider coming out to work with him; discusses farming, difficulty of clearing the ground of trees particularly in wet weather; refers to friends in the neighbourhood.
Failford, Lowe Walamaba River
29 August 1887
"Dear brother, I received the money you sent me all right, thanks for It. I did not expect it so soon. I don't know when the Islands will be sold but I think before long; the land on the Island in not as good as I thought it was; if it don't go very reasonably I won't have anything to do with It; there is a great lot of leabour attach[ed] to the clearing of new ground. I have been clearing and fencing this some time but the weathour has been so wet that I canot get either done. Where I have the fence to put up is on low ground; there has been water on it this some time and for burning off, the timber in so wet that it won't burn; have about an acre ploughed. I thought I would have had a good many potatoes planted by this time. I bought four bullocks for ploughing with. I payed £13 for two of them and £10 10s. for the other too; the[y] are the best for working new ground; the[yl are slow and steady. I was thinking you would [have] been married by this time, that you could have send Doley out to me. Ned Heggan was saying that It was near time I had my speal of her; you were saying that Aunt Marget is going to America. I wish she would come to me but it is a long way but I could give her a good home. James is married and William will be in lodgings; she would suit me very well; she might not care for so quiet a place as farming in the bush of Australia. I do all my owen cooking; It takes up a good deal of my time; she would be comfortable and would like the climat very well and I believe her and I would get along very well; if she is not gone away you might see what she would think of it; she will think it rather unkind of me never writing to her. H. A. Steele is in Queensland and I think is geting better health. I don't know what in come on R. Cumeron; he has not writen me this long time; had a letter from William H. Cameron; he is in Melbourne; you can let the people at "bogham' (?) [know] that I am well. You were asking me for some money in aid or a mance for Mr. Steene. I never see Mrs. Haggen; she is in Sydney. I am never there. I might send you too pounds one for myself and one from Ned Heggen. W. Hay is the onely one around here from home and I don't care fore going to strangers; it Is such a small sum to go so far. John was asking me for some to[o] but I have not writen him yet; he will think that I have forgoten him; let him know that I am well; give my kind wishes to all your neighbours; hoping Kirker family are well; it would do me good if you would correct more of my bad spelling.
Hoping you are all well as this leaves me.
Yours truly [Signed] James Milliken.
P.S. You were speaking of interest on the money. I will leave it to yourself whatever you can pay. J. M.
Letter Three - dated 29 August 1887
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Letter Three - Typed version
Link to Wingham Page - Not yet completed 030119
The Unknown Author
The following letter was written by an unknown person, apparently a young girl at the time, who with her mother and brother, would visit the Milliken family at Darawank during school holidays, possibly during the 1930's. We are attempting to determine who this person might be. The letter found its way to the Great Lakes Historical Society at some stage and was typed and stored for future reference. It is possible that the letter is incomplete with perhaps a missing subsequent page as it tends to end rather abruptly.
Text supplied by June Wright of Great Lakes Historical Society
Tuncurry NSW in January 2003
following a request by David Milliken of Mount Colah NSW
for information on the Milliken Family
Name of Author of Letter unknown
When I was a small child my brother Geoffrey and I spent our school holidays at the farm at Darawank which belonged to James Milliken. He was one of the early settlers. We stayed in the large brick home which is still there. Mr. Milliken, Mrs. Milliken, whom we called Ma., and their grown up children who were of similar ages to my mother. The house was a lovely home. The kitchen was a large room with a large table and a large fire rang[e]. The fire was set back in a small alcove with a stool on one side. It had a copper hot water tank down the fire box side with a tape [tap]. There was always a good supply of wonderful cooking. Mr. Milliken liked bread and butter with garlic with his morning cup of tea. I tried a piece and liked it very much so we used to have it each morning until one day my brother Geoffrey ate some when I hadn't and I found out that it made my breath like garlic!
There was a lovely dining room and when guests came for a meal the table was set with beautiful fine Irish Linen. There were verandahs all around the house and on the southern side there were wide shelves hinged on to the wall which hung down but during a flood they were put up so househol[d] goods and furniture could be put out of flood reach. Outside there was a lovely garden. I can remember when they planted the big white Magnolia Tree and the first flower was sent down to my mother. Lots of violets grew in patches here and there and when I went away to college and would return for holidays mostly there would be a posy of them on my dressing table. A wide path went down from the back steps to the river. On one side there was a laundry and a storage room. A large barrel was there where they cured their bacon. I haven't ever tasted bacon as delicious. There was a big vegetable garden and lots of fruit trees. Anna and Mary made wonderful jams and when I was given a Kitchen Tea before our marriage they gave me a collection of jams and each jar had a label with a verse on it. A brown eyed girl, a good looking young man and cooking and housekeeping were all there! Mary and Anna worked for the show at the lunch room and were always ready to help when ever needed.
The whole family liked a joke and teased us when they had the chance. Mrs. Milliken would dress up in a black coat and hat and carry a big umbrella. She would knock at the front door and we would be sent to see who was there and as soon as the door opened she would chase us waving the umbrella. We thought it great fun no matter how many time we did it.
Memories of Margheramorne
Every summer, pretty much from the time I was born in 1940, until the mid 1950's, we would have Christmas dinner at home, which was the Wingham Hotel, and on Boxing Day we would load up the Vauxhall ("We'll have an early breakfast and get away about lunchtime" my father used to say) and drive to Forster. Making this trip, a distance of thirty miles, was a major expedition, fraught with incident and tension. My father was in charge of packing the car, my mother was in charge of deciding what was to be taken. What was to be taken always exceeded the space available by a factor of two. This resulted in building pressure throughout the packing of the boot, as my father became more and more silent in the presence of my mother and the muttered swearing as he contemplated the impossible task became more and more colourful.
Eventually we would drive away, waved off by Jenny, my mother's sister, who would run the pub for the six weeks we were at the beach, and who, having no children, would take off for her holiday in her Flying Standard when we returned in time for the start of school at the beginning of February.
The Vauxhall with its dicky seat, much loved by me and my friend Michael, was exchanged for an early Holden around about 1951 or 2 by the time Robert was big enough to sit up on the back seat on his own. The trip was always slow and hot at the best of times, but with the arrival of Robert another element was added to the journey, that of car sickness. He couldn't go ten miles without throwing up. My mother kept a stack of clean nappies on the floor of the car by her feet, and as soon as the inevitable whoop-whoop-whoop began and I called out "Mum, Robert's being sick" my father would pull up by the side of the road and my mother would go to work with the nappies, depending where the vomit was at that moment still in his mouth, down his front or all over the back of the car. I was lucky, I never much suffered from car sickness, but sometimes I would pretend to, because that would get me the very desirable front seat.
The temperature seemed never to be below 100 degrees and was often accompanied by a dry westerly wind. The Holden was navy blue and attracted the heat like a magnet. We travelled at thirty miles an hour, driving down the hill from the pub, across the Cedar Party bridge, over the level crossing and past the golf course on the left and Tommy Gollan's house on the right - about where Robert usually had his first vomit. There was nothing but bush then until Happy Valley, a tiny settlement of small weatherboard houses lined up along one side of the road just outside Taree. I have a feeling these houses were built during the Depression, but I can't be sure.
Once through Taree we crossed the kilometre long bridge over the Manning River and passed dairy farms on emerald river flats studded with jersey cows.
Next came Purfleet, the Aboriginal settlement, about three miles from Taree. In my first memories Purfleet was a collection of humpies made of rusting corrugated iron sheltering under tall eucalypts. Later, the humpies were replaced by cheap little wooden houses. My father thought it was terribly funny to pretend that he saw me and Robert in amongst the "darkies". He would call out "Hello Susan. Hello Robert". He did this to stir us up, and always enjoyed his own wit. We were supposed to object to being associated with the ramshackle mob of Aboriginal kids. It was good natured and not maliciously intended, but it was unthinking and indicative of the attitudes of the time. I never heard my parents intentionally make a racist remark. Their opinion of people was always based on character.
Once Purfleet was out of the way there was just monotonous, breathless bush, and an interminable winding, dusty dirt road which I called the gully road, because of its narrow bends and steep inclines. The dual lane highway of today bears no resemblance whatever to the road that existed in the years after the second world war. Eventually we reached the open paddocks and the bend in the Wallamba River which signalled the stop at my father's family home, the farm at Darawank.
Set on a broad reach of the Wallamba, "Margheramorne" comprised a wide and low brick homestead with verandahs around all four sides, and a little further along the river bank, a large wooden building which I think had once been whitewashed, containing cowyards, bails, creamery, machinery shed and up above, an expansive hayloft. Between this building and the house was a whitewashed cool room, with wire screen walls and a concrete floor, under a lofty Moreton Bay fig, which kept the sun off the roof and the cream cool between the evening milking and the morning cream boat, which picked up the cans at the wharf by the dairy. In my first memories, the milking was still done by hand. Later, a milking machine was installed.
The house had been built in the twenties, when the family was established enough to move from its first home, across the river, to the more convenient position beside the track which led from Taree to the villages of Tuncurry and Forster, at the mouth of Wallis Lake. By this time James and Helena had produced nine children. The house had four large bedrooms, and the overflow kids slept on the broad side verandah, which was shaded by a wall of orange trees. These trees bore luxurious amounts of sweet oranges.
There was a formal living room which so far as I am aware was used only for church one Sunday afternoon a month. Life was lived in the big kitchen with its double black range, lino-covered table and walk-in pantry, and the dining room. The dining room had a fireplace and comfortable old chairs and a sofa under the window, and an oak table which would seat ten at a squeeze. The sofa had shelves built into each end which were the home of a growing collection of National Geographic magazines which we kids would lounge around and read in the quiet period after lunch when Uncle Bob was back outside and the Aunts were snoozing in their bedrooms.
There was an L-shaped, windowless hallway which led from the front door to the back of the house. Your eyes had to adjust to the darkness as you entered from the bright sun outside. In the bend of the L was the telephone, a cumbersome wood and bakelite affair, which was operated by turning a small handle and lifting the earpiece to your ear, and speaking into a bakelite funnel attached to the wall. Beside it was a line of hooks on which lived old coats, drizabones and a collection of hats in various stages of disintegration.
Just past the telephone, off the hall, was a smaller, even darker, hall which contained the linen press - a wall of cupboards in which, many years later, after everyone was dead, we found Grandma's ashes, still wrapped in their crematorium brown paper, and a paper thin, decomposed rat, both residing comfortably under a pile of doilies, serviettes and antimacassars.
The bathroom, located at the end of the linen press hall, which also led to Aunty Anna's bedroom, was a spartan affair. The floor was of pressed lead, there was a large tub on claw legs, a very small corner washbasin and a heath-robinson kind of water heater which produced a trickle of hot water while doing its best to electrocute the bather.
The contents of the house were arranged to survive the floods which affected the Wallamba at infrequent, but predictable intervals. Every few years after periods of intense rain the river would rise, sweeping around the bend and across the Margheramorne compound, entering the house. The family would gather and lift all the perishable furnishings "up" onto stools or boxes or tables out of the reach of the water. They would stay as long as it was safe, and then either navigate the cream boat or a series of rowing boats to safety. In one of the last of these cataclysmic events, the water rose so quickly that the aunts were stranded, themselves "up" on tables, the water swirling around them, for what must have been a very long night and a day. The highest it ever came was just under the window sills. If you knew where to look, you could see faint water marks under the kalsomine.
"The girls", Anna and Mary were at this time in their late 50's and early 60's. Mary, the eldest child, we always thought of as a typical schoolteacher spinster. Tall, thin and angular, her auburn hair worn short, she had an opinion on everything and was inclined to lay down the law. Nevertheless she was kind, and patient with the nieces and nephews who came to stay. I always felt that Mary had missed out on a life. Born in 1892 she was of the generation of girls who came of age during World War I, when so many of the young men were lost in the War. After a short time as a schoolteacher in Sydney, and a trip to Ireland in which she became engaged to a first cousin and soon after mysteriously disengaged, she returned to the family home and lived out her life in a way that seemed less than fulfilling for someone of her intelligence and education. The garden was her domain.
Anna, on the other hand, lived a rich and fulfilled life. Although she never married, it could almost be said that it may never have crossed her mind. Her world was the kitchen and the farmyard. She could milk a cow with speed, force and pinpoint accuracy, she loved her chooks and her poddy calves and in later years a succession of little dogs. Animals, children and adults loved her. She had a plain, kind face, on which on special occasions a little red lipstick would be applied hastily and not always exactly on the lips, and an array of unruly brown hair which made its way determinedly out of a hurried knot at the back of her neck. Her hands betrayed a lifetime of manual labour. They were broad and splayed, with toughened, workworn fingers. She mostly wore a floral dress, a cotton apron and heavy stockings which billowed at the ankles. She could cook like an angel and her touch was that of a creative chef, not something learned by rote. It was useless to ask her for a recipe because she could never be precise about what went in and how. She just did it by feel. She was a dear person and I doubt an unkind thought ever crossed her mind in all her life.
The third resident of Margheramorne at this time was Uncle Bob. Somehow he had wound up with the family farm, which he ran with the assistance of Mary and Anna, but with total authority, although he would occasionally complain of "petticoat government". He never lifted a finger in the house, and the girls waited on him like some Eastern potentate. When he came in at the end of the day he would have a bath, and change into clean trousers, a shirt with the sleeves worn long but the cuffs undone, and shoes without socks. He never did up his shoelaces. Bob was a batchelor until well into his fifties, when out of the blue he built the first motel in Tuncurry, began courting the widow next door and married her, remaining a constant and devoted husband until her early death. He was fond of me and I of him, we enjoyed each other's company although there was never a great deal of conversation. He taught me to drive.
When we arrived for visits on these long-ago summer expeditions, we would park outside the white picket fence with its flame trees and camphor laurels, and make our way up the long path through Auntie Mary's garden, an expanse of lawn with a magnolia tree, date palms and shrubs and, in front of the verandah, flower beds of hydrangeas and violets.
Mary and Anna were always excited to have visitors, and there would be lively chat as we were ushered into the house and into the kitchen while afternoon tea was prepared. After a polite interval I would sneak off outside and down the long back path past the chookyard and the outside dunny to the river. The dunny was only three or four feet from the water, and from its comfortable wooden seat you could contemplate a million dollar view of she oaks and the dark sweep of water and the green paddocks on the far bank.
The river held great interest for me. It was wide and deep, and the bank was high, with little sandy beaches at the water level. You could clamber down and stand on these narrow strips of sand, at risk of getting your feet wet, and smell the mangroves and the mud and observe the river creatures, small crabs, tiny fish, mudworms and the ugly toadfish. Somewhere along the river bank was the skeleton of an old rowing boat, sinking into the sludge, and, near the dairy, a little wharf with a functioning "pull boat". Sometimes when I stayed at the farm during other school holidays I was allowed to take this boat out by myself, and I would row out into the middle of the river and across to the other bank. I never beached the boat on the other side and I have never set foot on the far bank, I don't know why.
When tea was ready I would be recalled to the house, and we would all adjourn to the dining room. A clean tablecloth would be laid on the Bebarfalds table, and the good china set out with the implements of the tea ritual, now as obsolete as the virginal marriage the milk jug under its beaded d'oyley to keep the flies out of the milk, the silver tea strainer, and the polished silver tea pot. There would be oatcakes, scones and jam, and one of Aunty Anna's sponge cakes which defied gravity and was intersected by a thick layer of cream from the dairy. Uncle Bob would appear, having washed in the tin dish at the tankstand under the fig tree behind the kitchen. He would take his place at the head of the table, and Mary and Anna would serve his tea. When there were no visitors, this activity took place at the kitchen table. Conversation would usually be about the activities of local identities, and excursions taken by Mary and Anna to Taree, Blackhead or Tuncurry. Bob usually said very little, ate and drank in silence and then stood up, got his hat and stumped out the back door and back to whatever mysteries he was undertaking outside.
After tea and a decent interval we would take our leave, and set out on the next leg of the journey, to the punt at Tuncurry.
The punt was, not to put too fine a point on it, a total nightmare. It held six cars, jammed in two abreast and bumper to bumper. The cars front and back dangerously overhung the hinged timber flaps and the safety gates would be swung in on the protruding vehicles, a bit of rope closing the large gap where they failed to meet due to the vehicle overhang. The punt was propelled by a motor launch driven by one of the red-headed, freckle faced Blows brothers. In peak summer periods such as the one we always travelled in, Boxing Day, the queue to get on to this inefficient and unpredictable water transport could be dozens of cars long, stretching back up the road, past the Wrights' sawmill, almost to the shops. It took about an hour for the punt to make the round trip, and the wait in line could take six or seven hours, creeping forward six cars at a time. The men would usually repair to the Tuncurry pub, leaving the women to keep an eye on the kids and put the car in gear for the 20 yard crawl when the punt arrived back from its leisurely journey through the sandbars. The kids would head off to the little beach beside the road, and depending on the state of the tide, would end up back in the car either sunburned or soaking wet, or both. By the time one's turn to board the punt eventually arrived, the men would be pye-eyed and in no shape to drive.
The journeys across the lake which occurred at high tide and in daylight were usually reasonably straightforward, but as just as many took place in the dark and/or at low tide, the trip often involved drama. The most common occurrence was getting stuck on a sandbar. There would be a revving of the boat engine, a grinding, a swirling of sand clouding the shallow water, a shuddering, and a stop. This was followed by groans from the passengers who knew this could mean anything from one to three or more hours waiting either for the spare boat to be brought over to help pull the punt off, or for the tide to rise.
Considerably more exciting was a trip out around the bar, just inside the lake's entrance, which took place when the dredge could not keep up with the shifting of the sandbanks and the direct route was silted up. This happened often, as the dredge was even less efficient than the punt and unequal to the task. Speeding around the mouth of the lake with a full tide running out, it was touch and go whether the punt would arrive in Forster or Auckland. In spite of the, in retrospect, appallingly cavalier attitude to safety, I can only recall one occasion when a car missed the punt altogether. Probably due to a momentary distraction the punt was not secured to its white post. The car boarded and in doing so, pushed the punt out into the channel and the car followed it, ending up in six feet of water. No one drowned.
The punt was eventually replaced by a bridge, but not before years of desperate lobbying on the part of the locals, and years of indifference from the authorities. What finally pulled it off was a visit by an important delegation from the NSW Public Works Department to inspect for themselves the need for a bridge. "When we take these VIP's across to Forster tomorrow the punt is going to get stuck on a sandbank," Charlie Blows is alleged to have told David Klineberg. It did, and the important delegation was stuck for quite a long time, without either refreshments or a toilet.
Forster got its bridge.
But this was several years in the future. By the time we had negotiated this endurance test, on top of the packing the car, the dusty drive in the heat, the visit to the farm and the queue for the punt, it was always dark and we were always tired, cranky and tense when we eventually arrived at Monotone or Metritone or Melotone, Manning Blanch's fibro excuses for holiday cottages. The tension was made worse by my mother's irritation at the number of beers my father had consumed in the Tuncurry pub, and his subsequent reduced capacity to contribute to the unpacking, getting some dinner and the kids to bed.
And so ended Boxing Day.
In the 44 years since the bridge opened (1959), history has repeated itself. During the Christmas-New Year week of 2002, Robert drove from Nabiac to Forster, to be confronted by a punt-era queue of cars trying to cross the bridge, stretching through Tuncurry's main street back past the Bellevue Hotel, (since rebuilt) where the men used to pass the waiting time all those years ago. Forster needs a bigger bridge. Perhaps it's again time for some enterprising local to come up with another strategy.