When the Second World War broke out, little did Andy Duncan know that he would uncover a plot on Australian soil.
The grave news came that Great Britain and France had declared war on Germany, and it was received with a stoical calm by the majority of Australians, who realised that the Empire and its Allies were facing the inevitable
Riponshire Advocate 9 September 1939
Andy was determined to do his bit for the Empire once more, even though he knew he was medically unfit: he still carried shrapnel from Gallipoli, his mangled toes were a legacy of German interrogations, and he had increasing periods where he was bed-ridden.
A War Veterans’ Defence Corps was proposed for Beaufort, to be made up of men who had fought in the 1914-18 war. Andy voted for it without hesitation. A unit was formed with Mr. C. H. McKay Commanding Officer, Mr. W. Cheeseman Second-in-Command, and Mr. A. S. Duncan – Andy – Adjutant.
As part of the home defences a communications bonfire was built on Camp Hill. It was to be lit if Beaufort was in danger of enemy attack.
The Defence Corps was a part-time affair, with weekly muster parades and drills. The rest of the time Andy continued his work as paymaster for the forestry workers on Mount Cole. Each fortnight he would ride out to the timber cutters’ camps to issue their wages.
While making payments Andy overheard a small group of migrant workers speaking in German. They were planning a night raid to set the communications bonfire alight. They were then going to take advantage of the confusion to target the state-of-the-art Wotherspoon store and steal from it and other retail shops in Neill Street and Lawrence Street.
The German workers thought that they could plan in secret if they used their mother tongue, but Andy had picked up enough German during his time as a prisoner of war that he understood the plan.
A few nights later, when the would-be looters arrived at Camp Hill to light the communications bonfire they were surrounded by members of the Defence Corps and the military – and interned until the end of World War II.
The men involved in this event kept it secret as Australia was at war. It was only years later that Andy told the story to his grandson.
Adapted from a family story told by Andy Duncan to his grandson, Robert Palmer
The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.: 1848 – 1957) 12 Aug 1940. National Library of Australia
Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, Vic.: 1874 – 1994) 9 Sep 1939. State Library of Victoria
Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, Vic.: 1874 – 1994) 29 Jun 1940. State Library of Victoria
Featured image: Camp Hill Beaufort. Looking across the railroad tracks to Camp Hill.
In 1936 Rene reached the school-leaving age of 14 and was sent to learn dressmaking with local identity, Miss Connie Russo. It was probably her mother Jane who arranged this loose apprenticeship. Jane’s own work as a laundress had given her independence and allowed her to travel. It was still helping to put food on the table. It is easy to imagine Jane impressing upon her daughter, “A woman has to have a livelihood”.
In her spare time Rene took violin lessons, also from Miss Russo. Rene played violin at the Beaufort Methodist Church, and as part of the Beaufort Municipal Band.
1931. In the hot, dry heat of a goldfields summer Andy, Jane and Rene Duncan returned to the Stewart family home in Beaufort.
The 100-mile post marked the edge of Beaufort township. It also marked the middle of the Stewart’s triangular strip of land that stretched from the town limits along the Ararat Road into Eurambeen parish. The Stewart house fronted the highway at the Beaufort end of the triangle.
Did it occur to Andy that his circumstances echoed his father’s, all those years ago in Scotland? John Duncan had married Elizabeth Stewart and they had lived with Elizabeth’s grandmother on “Stewart’s Land” in Newton-on-Ayr. It was where Andy had been born. Now 50 years later and on the other side of the world, Andy was once again on Stewart’s land.
Andy quickly became one of the Stewart family fold. Sadly one of his first duties was to be pall-bearer at the funeral of Jane’s niece, Madge Loo, in February 1932. Madge died at the age of 21. She had been delicate from childhood and death was due to heart trouble, reported the Riponshire Advocate.
Madge’s funeral was carried out by H. Evans & Son of Ballarat. By April 1932 Andy had become the funeral director’s Beaufort representative.
Riponshire Advocate 23 April 1932. State Library of Victoria
Andy’s health was starting to fail. When the shrapnel pieces in his back moved he would take to bed for days. He slept separately from Jane in his own room, which suggests that while the shrapnel tormented him physically, he endured mental distress as well.
Mental trauma was often accompanied by sleeplessness and dreams which could arouse the household … In some families, the nocturnal anguish of returned soldiers was such that couples chose to sleep in separate beds.
Marina Larsson, Shattered Anzacs, quoted by Christopher Wray in Pozieres: Echoes of a distant battle
Andy was hospitalised at the end of 1932. The newspaper reported his return to Beaufort in February 1933 after several months in the Caulfield Repatriation Hospital.
Andy looked for work less physically demanding than the sexton’s position he had left in Amherst, but his clerical skills were not in high demand. In a town like Beaufort, in the midst of the Great Depression, you had to wait for someone to retire before those kind of jobs opened up.
Andy Duncan (left) with nephew Clarrie Stewart c.1932. The upturned handlebars on the bicycle allowed Andy to cycle with the minimum discomfort from the shrapnel in his back. From the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.
Jane was able to find work doing laundry for two large local homesteads – the Beggs family of Eurambeen and the Russell family of Mawallok. Laundry was delivered to the Stewart house once a week, and quite often the washing would arrive with a handout of surplus vegetables or meat.
Jane would do the washing by hand in a big copper pot and mangle behind the house. Six rows of washing stretched the entire width of the block. Once the washing was pegged to the line, Jane would insert y-shaped gumtree branches at intervals to lift the line up and keep the clothes off the ground (Blog site A Rebel Hand has a wonderful photo of this kind of wash day). Jane would then iron the sheets on a large kitchen table, using a flat iron heated on the stove.
Jane’s mother died in November 1934, leaving Jane to run the house and stretch the family budget.
Andy re-established his civic and social interests in Beaufort. He joined the local branch of the Returned Soldiers’ League and became a committee member, representing the men of the town. He became the secretary-librarian of the Beaufort Mechanics’ Institute, and Jane helped with the upkeep of the Mechanics’ Institute hall.
In January 1938 the newspaper announced At the annual meeting of the Beaufort Cemetery Trust, the resignation of Mr. A. Parker as secretary after 30 years of service was received with regret. Andy was appointed to the position, with an annual payment of £20. The money would not go far when the average wage was around £3 a week, but it would help make ends meet.
Then in June 1939 the same Mr. A. Parker resigned as Registrar of Births and Deaths. Andy was first acting Registrar, then appointed to the position.
Appointments. Victoria Gazette no. 225, July 5, 1939
Jane’s father John Stewart and Andy built an office for Andy’s Registrar duties on the front verandah of the Stewart’s cottage. They cut the logs and split the wood to make the weatherboard sidings. Considering that John Stewart was in his 90s at the time, he must have been in robust health.
Perhaps John Stewart also helped Andy build the shed behind the house. It was a very simple construction: four tree trunks rammed into the ground to form the corners of the shed, then corrugated tin sheeting for the walls and roof. Here Andy kept a trunk with his Anzac memorabilia.
1861 Census for Scotland Parish: Newton on Ayr; ED: 24; Page: 1; Line: 4; Roll: CSSCT1861_82
1875 Duncan, John – Stewart, Elizabeth (Statutory Marriages 612/00 0015)
1939 ‘COUNTRY NEWS.’, The Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 – 1957), 5 June, p. 4 Gawler, O,
1934. Victorian Year-Book 1932-33. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: H.J. Green
Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, VIC: 1863 – 1994)9 January 1932. State Library of Victoria
Riponshire Advocate (Beaufort, VIC: 1863 – 1994) 20 February 1932.State Library of Victoria
1939, Victoria Government Gazette, no. 225, 5 July
1939, p. 2498. State Library of Victoria VPRS 16171. Regional Land Office Parish and Township Plans Digitised Reference Set. Eurambeen -1 Parish Plan, Imperial measure 2605. Eurambeen-1(Psh)LOImp2605.pdf. Public Records Office of Victoria
Wray, C., 2015. Pozieres: Echoes of a distant battle. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Cambridge University Press
Featured image: The Stewart family home, Beaufort, 2015. Andy’s Registrar’s office was where the verandah table sits. From the author’s collection. Copyright Andrew Palmer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Then just four months later Andy resigned as Registrar of Births and Deaths and left the Sexton’s cottage without formal notice.
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.
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