Not afraid of ghosts

On her 80th birthday Rene talked about her early childhood to her daughter Marilyn.

Rene’s earliest memories are of living in the sexton’s lodge at the Amherst cemetery. The house’s long corridor was perfect for 5-year-old Rene to run through. An old pine tree carpeted the front yard with pine needles. Rene would collect them and make them into play houses.

Behind the house was the cemetery where her father Andy would dig graves and direct mourners to the grave sites.

The cemetery was not a fearful place to Rene; she didn’t give any thought to ghosts. But the snakes in summer did worry her. She was glad her mother Jane kept a big stick at the back door in readiness for a snake killing.

Talbot Leader 17 Oct 1931. State Library of Victoria
Talbot Leader 17 Oct 1931. State Library of Victoria
School

Rene attended Talbot State School. She regularly walked 40 minutes from home to school.

The Duncans did their grocery shopping at Wildings General Store. Milk was delivered from Talbot by Ken Whittaker in his horse and cart. The milk was in large cans and had to be ladelled into each customer’s own billy (a lightweight tin used for boiling water and cooking on a campfire or open stove). Mr Whittaker would give Rene a lift to school if they met on the road.

Rene could also get a ride to school on Hendrickson’s lumber trucks, which transported large felled trees to the timber yard. The Hendrickson girls attended Talbot school with Rene.

These lifts were welcomed particularly in Spring as Rene was scared of swooping attacks from nesting magpies.

Rene Duncan second-back row, far right. Reproduced courtesy of theTalbot Arts & Historical Museum Inc.
Rene Duncan second-back row, far right.
Reproduced courtesy of the Talbot Arts & Historical Museum Inc.
Andy became involved in the school once Rene was enrolled, joining the State School Committee. In 1928 he participated in Anzac Day observance at the school:

Mr A.S. Duncan, returned soldier, gave a resume of events from the 4th August, 1914, to the landing at Gallipoli, the relation of which was naturally interesting … It is worthy to note that Tuesday was the first occasion on which returned soldiers have taken part in these gatherings, namely, Mr A.S. Duncan (an original Anzac), Mr. R.J. Kerdel (air force) and Mr Geo. McWilliam

Talbot Leader newspaper, 28 April 1928

In the school holidays Rene would travel by train to stay with her Uncle Ern and Aunty Lucy Stewart, Jane’s younger brother and his wife. Ern and Lucy lived in the Yarra Ranges, Victoria, some 350 kilometres east of Amherst. Rene remembered a long-since-lost photo of her, standing in the snow at Woods Point on one of her holiday trips.

Woods Point, Victoria c.1920.  The Biggest Family Album of Australia, Museum Victoria. MM 003633
Woods Point, Victoria c.1920.
The Biggest Family Album of Australia, Museum Victoria. MM 003633
Ern was a train fireman, later an engine driver, and would arrange to be working a particular train line in order to meet Rene at an interchange station and take her back with him. Lucy was a good seamstress, and Rene often returned from her holiday with a new dress.

Amherst hospital

The hospital was memorable to Rene – that is where her broken arm was plastered and her tonsils were removed.

Rene broke her arm falling from their house verandah onto white gravel. She was on her way to help the two McKinstry boys bring in their cows.

Doctor Watson visited the lodge to examine Rene’s throat. He’d had to chase her and corner her in the long corridor first. There was the chance that the sore throat was the symptom of an infectious disease – perhaps Jane’s work at the hospital made her more aware of that possibility.

Before her tonsillectomy, Rene recalled “bellowing her lungs out” even though she already had a sore throat. She knew she was going to hospital as the family had made a special trip to Maryborough to buy her nightwear – a special blue nighty with brown teddy bears. Matron Roper at the hospital bribed Rene to be a cooperative patient with the promise of a bunch of pansies from the garden. Rene still “roared like a bull”, but she did get the pansies and her tonsils in a bottle to take home.

Sources

Adapted from an interview with Rene Palmer (nee Duncan) by her daughter, Marilyn Tulloch, June 2002

Ancestry.com. Australia, Electoral Rolls, 1903-1980. Victoria, Division of Flinders, Subdivision of Ferntree Gully 1917

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 28 Apr 1928. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 9 May 1931. State Library of Victoria

Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 4 Jul 1931. State Library of Victoria

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

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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.