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.