Amherst years 1926 – 1931

The Duncan family, Andy, Jane and Rene, lived in the cemetery lodge, a long, cream weatherboard house with 3 bedrooms, dining room, kitchen and long corridor. A large, old pine tree dominated the front yard, giving welcome shade in the hot summer, but making the house dark and cold the rest of the year. Probably behind the house Andy set up long clotheslines where Jane could dry the hospital laundry.

Jane was soon active in town life, baking and serving tea at fundraisers and working bees (volunteer work parties).

At the September 1926 Christ Church Jumble Fair the refreshments stall was run by Mesdames Gane and Duncan (The Gane ladies also worked as laundresses at the hospital. Jane would have known them quite well).

In October there was a working bee at the Amherst cemetery. Jane no doubt organised the group of ladies who provided afternoon tea.

At the April 1927 harvest thanksgiving the church bazaar tea rooms were in charge of Mesdames Duncan, McAlpine, and Miss Philippi.

Andy and Jane were regulars at local euchre tournaments, both winning prizes quite often. (Euchre is a trick-taking card game most commonly played with four people in two partnerships. Tournaments such as these were common between the wars in Australia, and were held as social events and fund-raising activities).

Andy’s work at the cemetery continued to be irregular and insufficient. In April 1927 Andy reported to the Cemetery Trust that he had not been able to get payment from several families for maintenance work on the graves. The Trust advised that it had no power to pursue payment. Unemployment in Australia was rising and some families were already finding it tough to pay their bills. The local newspaper commented on the depression that is existing all over and noted that although local employment prospects were quite good, in other towns the unemployment question is very acute.

In July 1927 Andy joined the town in the annual wood-chop working bee to provide wood for the Amherst Hospital. This was a major tree-felling operation.

[Fifty men with] axes and drays, lorries, waggons, etc., soon settled down to their self imposed task, and with quick despatch, born of long experience, soon had trees felled, cut into lengths, loaded on the vehicles, carted, and stacked in the hospital yard. Talbot Leader newspaper, 2 July 1927

A working bee organised for the cemetery in October 1927 was less well-attended. Nonetheless the ‘Talbot Leader’ reported that Mr Duncan has considerably improved the appearance of the cemetery of late. Andy had rebuilt and reinforced the fence to stop the rabbits getting in, and repaired graves damaged by rabbits burrowing and heavy rain.

Amherst Cemetery gates, with the fence that Andy repaired in 1927. The Sexton's cottage on the left. Reproduced courtesy of the Talbot Arts & Historical Museum Inc.
Amherst Cemetery gates, with the fence that Andy repaired in 1927. The Sexton’s cottage is on the left. Reproduced courtesy of the Talbot Arts & Historical Museum Inc.

In mid-1931 Andy supplemented his Sexton’s income with an appointment as Registrar of Births and Deaths at Talbot. With clerical experience in the British army and the A.I.F. Andy had already sought a position as Secretary of the Cemetery Trust, but the trustees had felt it inadvisable for Andy to hold both Sexton and Secretary positions. Now, with the sudden removal from office of the previous Registrar, Andy was an obvious choice for the position.

Victoria Government Gazette. No. 183. 19 August 1931. State Library of Victoria
Victoria Government Gazette. No. 183. 19 August 1931. State Library of Victoria

Then just four months later Andy resigned as Registrar of Births and Deaths and left the Sexton’s cottage without formal notice.

Victoria Government Gazette. No. 291. 23 December 1931. State Library of Victoria
Victoria Government Gazette. No. 291. 23 December 1931. State Library of Victoria
Talbot Leader, 5 December 1931
Talbot Leader, 5 December 1931. State Library of Victoria

What could have caused this sudden departure? As Andy neared 50 perhaps his shrapnel injury made it increasingly difficult for him to continue labouring work – was it worth it, when the work was intermittent and he had to chase families for payment?Perhaps Jane’s elderly parents in Beaufort needed support (Jane’s mother was 73 and not in the best of health; her father was 87). Perhaps the beginning of the Great Depression and the announced closure of the Amherst Sanatorium made Andy and Jane reconsider their options. 

Whatever the reason, in 1932 Andy, Jane and Rene were back living at the Stewart residence in Beaufort.

Sources

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 11 Sep 1926. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 30 Oct 1926. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 16 Apr 1927. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 11 Jun 1927. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 2 Jul 1927. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 17 Jul 1927. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 15 Oct 1927. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 26 Nov 1927. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 10 Dec 1927. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 24 Mar 1928. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 5 Dec 1931. State Library of Victoria

Victoria Government Gazette No. 183. 19 August 1931. Page 2288.

Victoria Government Gazette. No. 291. 23 December 1931. Page 3489.

1928 ‘UNEMPLOYMENT.’, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 – 1954) 17 July 1928. Trove, National Library of Australia

1930 ‘AMHERST SANATORIUM.’, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957) 27 August1930. Trove, National Library of Australia

Brewster, B. 2003. Amherst District Hospital 1859 to 1933: The Story of a Gold Rush Hospital. Maryborough, Victoria, Australia: Talbot Arts & Historical Museum Inc.

Featured image: Sexton’s cottage, Amherst Cemetery. Reproduced courtesy of the Talbot Arts & Historical Museum Inc.

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Once in a lifetime – The Descendants Project

Invited by a prize-winning artist to sit for a portrait. How often does that happen?

A portrait to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign and honour the memory of my great-grandfather, Sergeant Andrew Stewart Duncan. A once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I have the privilege of participating in The Descendants Project, an exhibition of twenty portraits by Mertim Gökalp of Australian and Turkish war descendants, exploring the understanding of peace between the two nations.

Each subject shared an object that had once belonged to their ancestor, along with a hand-written letter explaining their feelings about the project.

Andrew Palmer by Mertim Gokalp. © 2014 by THE DESCENDANTS PROJECT. Reproduced with permission of the artist.
Andrew Palmer by Mertim Gokalp. © 2014 by THE DESCENDANTS PROJECT. Reproduced with permission of the artist.
In my letter I wrote:

For the portrait sitting I was very fortunate to be able to borrow Andy’s fob watch. I only learned of its existence in 2013, when I made contact with a distant relative. To be able to hold Andy’s watch, to run my fingers over the engraved initials, “A.S.D.”, was very special. Andy had bought the watch in England in 1917, then posted it back to his wife Jane in Australia – probably after he learned he would soon rejoin his battalion on the Somme. For me holding the watch in 2014, I felt it still contained Andy’s hopes and fears from 1917.

The exhibition launched on 10 April. Of course I had to fly to Sydney along with my son to be part of it. Meeting other descendants that night made me realise how well Mertim had captured their essence in his art. Learning the Australian and Turkish stories gave a human face and an intimacy to the countless acts of sacrifice and heroism on both sides.

More sobering still is the realisation that the lives commemorated by The Descendants Project are a mere twenty out of the hundreds of thousands who fought at Gallipoli.

The Descendants Project exhibition is at The Rocks Discovery Museum (3rd floor) Sydney, 10 April – 3 May 2015

Fire-fighting skills desirable

February 1926 was the height of bushfire season. It was a hot, dry month without any rainfall to speak of. A number of bush and grass fires had already been reported in the Amherst district. Far away in the south-east of the state bushfires raged through the Yarra Valley and Gippsland, reaching their climax on “Black Sunday” 14 February, when 31 people were killed.

Andy Duncan commenced duty as sexton the week before Black Sunday. Amherst was surrounded by tinder-dry bushland. The cemetery itself was overgrown, with dry eucalyptus leaves and pine needles crackling underfoot.

A fire broke out. With no-one to call for assistance, Andy contained the fire and put it out before any great damage was done. The Talbot Leader reported that Mr Duncan “really saved the place”.

Did Jane fight the fire alongside Andy? Or did she keep 3 year old Rene at a safe distance?

Sources

1925–26 Victorian bushfire season – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 2015. [Accessed 05 April 2015].

Australian Geographic. 2011. The worst bushfires in Australia’s history. [Accessed 05 April 15].

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 20 February 1926. State Library of Victoria.

Featured image: Amherst cemetery 2015. From the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.