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
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.
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
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?
After a brief return to Beaufort Andy, Jane and Rene moved to Amherst (pronounced “AM-erst”) in 1926. Jane knew this part of Victoria well from her travels during the war.
Andy became the sexton of Amherst Cemetery in February 1926. Andy was in need of work and the Cemetery Trustees were desperate to find a sexton and grave-digger.
The cemetery had been without a permanent sexton since early in 1925, when Mr T Matthews had resigned. Matthews had sought a guarantee of more regular work along with higher remuneration, neither of which the Cemetery Trustees could provide. Matthews’ replacement lasted only a few months before having his employment terminated.
Without a sexton the cemetery had become overgrown and overrun with rabbits. There was no-one to dig or tend the graves.
For a considerable period the trustees of the Amherst Cemetery have been without a permanent sexton, and at times have experienced some difficulty in obtaining the services of any person to do the grave digging. Last week a dead end was reached, inasmuch as the trustees were unable to secure anyone to open up a grave. Finally, two of the trustees volunteered to carry out the work, which they did in a satisfactory manner, but they were not anxious to take on the vacant position.
Talbot Leader newspaper, 30 January 1926
The cemetery was not far from the Amherst Hospital and Sanatorium – a 30 minute walk. The “fully equipped and up to date” Sanatorium was regarded by many as Victoria’s foremost institution for the treatment of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, typhoid fever, scarlet fever, measles and influenza.
You might think that Andy would have had plenty of grave-digging work come his way from the hospital, but that was not the case. The Sanatorium was proud of its cure rate – 225 cures from 331 patients in the 12 months to March 1928.
Andy was employed part-time, and sought other work to support his family. Jane took in laundry from the hospital, and probably had more regular work than her husband. Perhaps it was Jane who got Andy odd jobs at the hospital:
Brewster, B. 2003. Amherst District Hospital 1859 to 1933: The Story of a Gold Rush Hospital. Maryborough, Victoria, Australia: Talbot Arts & Historical Museum Inc.
Hockley, A. 1996. ‘History of the Amherst Hospital’. Avoca and District Historical Society Newsletter No. 139 July 1996.
Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 21 Mar 1925. State Library of Victoria
Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 11 Jul 1925. State Library of Victoria
Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 24 Dec 1925. State Library of Victoria
Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 30 Jan 1926. State Library of Victoria
Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 20 Feb 1926. State Library of Victoria
Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 7 May 1927. State Library of Victoria
Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 28 Mar 1931. State Library of Victoria
Featured image: Talbot Leader (Talbot, VIC: 1863 – 1948) 13 Feb 1926. State Library of Victoria
Extract from a damaged copy of the Western Star and Roma Advertiser, 11 November 1922
The soldier settlers (at) Mount Hutton have had a very (difficult) time … 10 months’ drought … Very little dairying … done for some time, and some … settlers never knew where they (were) going to get the next crust … a lot of settlers ran them(selves) short to feed their horses … Cows … died everywhere.
I forgot to mention that … few of the settlers have been in (a) position to pay rates, let alone the (interest) on the loan of £625.
Everyone is suffer(ing) … alike. When cream was a good (price) everyone was just starting, and (then) cream was plentiful and the price (came) down to 6d. per lb., – on top of (that) came the drought.
If you want to get away from your in-laws, then moving over 1,700 kilometres from one end of the country to the other is definitely one way to do it. By mid 1920 Andy and Jane Duncan were just north of Roma, Queensland, where Andy took up a perpetual lease on the Mt. Hutton returned soldier settlement.
Soldier settlement schemes were established by Australia’s state governments to open up land for returning servicemen. In Queensland perpetual lease provisions were that no deposit of rent or survey fee were required up-front, and during the first three years only a peppercorn rent was charged. After the first three years the survey fee and rent increased.
Why did Andy apply for the Queensland soldier scheme rather than the Victorian one? Did Mt. Hutton feel closer to his pre-war Broken Hill life than Beaufort? Did he have army mates who encouraged him to join them in Queensland? Did he really want to put some distance between himself and his in-laws?
Or did a family connection influence him? Andy’s great-aunt, Jean Murray (nee Stewart), had emigrated to Queensland in 1862, living in Rockhampton and later Ravenswood. Another great-aunt, Mary Taylor (nee Stewart), and great-uncle, John Stewart, followed in 1884. Mary Taylor settled in Georgetown. John Stewart re-established his stonemasonry business and became a city alderman in Brisbane. Andy would have grown up hearing stories of his Stewart relations’ successes in relocating to Queensland.
One thing is clear, though: when the Queensland newspaper announced Andy’s successful lease application on 11 February 1920 the Beaufort soldier settlement scheme was still just an idea under discussion. Andy had taken the first chance he got to apply for a land lease.
By August 1920 Andy and Jane had moved from Beaufort to Gunnewin. Andy had secured 638 acres, which he named Bonnie Brae Farm. The land was poor, but Andy threw himself into making a go of the lease, establishing a dairy farm. The soldier settlers had a hard time of it.
In May 1922 Queensland newspapers reported on conditions at the settlement
Signs of drought were noticeable on the blocks, but the ex-soldiers were found to be battling well against great odds to make a success of their farms.
There is hardly a living at dairying at the present time on account of the dry weather and the low price of cream.
The Queensland government seemed unaware of the actual situation. The Minister for Lands claimed there had been “very few failures” on the settlement, and rather uncharitably explained that they were “due to the inadaptability of the settlers concerned”.
For Andy the struggle with the land was made harder by the shrapnel he carried in his back. It prevented him from horse riding and when the shrapnel moved he had to take to bed. But he was determined to make a success of his farm.
Andy’s civic-mindedness was still strong, as was Jane’s. Andy was appointed Secretary of the Gunnewin Bush Nursing Centre and in May 1922 he became a founding member of the Mt. Hutton sub-branch of the Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League. He was appointed secretary and treasurer. Part of his role was to lobby for an increase in the returned soldier loan from an insufficient £625 to a hoped-for £1,000. The League sub-branch also sought State Government assistance to build new facilities at Gunnewin including a School of Arts, library and soldiers’ meeting room.
On 8 May 1922 the Governor of Queensland, Sir Matthew Nathan, visited the soldier settlement. Jane Duncan assisted with serving a luncheon to the official party.Perhaps she baked her famous scones. The Governor was welcomed to the district by the settlers’ representative James Thorne, who pressed for government support. Thorne spoke of
the very serious time through which the settlers were passing, and expressed the hope that eventually the markets would be stabilised so as to give them a fair and reasonable return for their labor, and enable them to win through.
The Governor’s response suggested that fortitude and perseverance were the keys to improving the settlers’s situation
His Excellency, in thanking the settlers for their address of welcome, said he believed that the great majority of the returned soldiers would win through. After all, those that went, those that volunteered to undergo the great risks, the exhausting sufferings and the extreme discomforts of war were the best of the land. Some, no doubt were weakened in body and will by what they went through. But he did not believe that this applied to the great majority, and he was sure there were some who were stronger and not weaker for their experiences. It was a new proposition that they had come to here, but that he was sure did not frighten them. Soldiering was a new proposition to most of them, but they made none the worse soldiers for that. They were having a difficult time at the start, but they had a difficult time at the start at Gallipoli and in France, and that did not prevent them winning in the end. He felt sure they would win in the end here.
One can only imagine Andy’s feelings as he watched the Governor’s party disappear down the dusty road.
The settlers battled on. The School of Arts, library and meeting room were built, along with a recreation hall. The men were prepared to put their own savings towards developing Gunnewin, but there was little money to spare. Fund-raising activities and social events were planned, for community morale and to encourage Roma residents to visit. Jane organised a coin evening and dance at the new Gunnewin hall in October. But fund-raising in an increasingly impoverished community was not easy, and the hall still had not been paid for a year later. The ex-soldiers felt somewhat marginalised and did not want to be perceived as a burden on the Roma community. Andy would have felt this keenly.
Andy and Jane had put their all into Bonnie Brae Farm yet there was no improvement in sight. There was no money to pay the increased survey fees and rent that were about to come due. They made the difficult decision to leave. At the start of 1923 they returned to Victoria with their new daughter, Mavis Irene “Rene” Duncan, born 20 June 1922.
NAA:J34, C40547 DUNCAN, Elizabeth Jane beneficiary of DUNCAN, Andrew Steward – Service Number – 157. National Archives of Australia
RiponshireAdvocateJanuary – March 1920. State Library of Victoria
1922 ‘Alleged Unlawfully Killing a Calf’. Western Star and Roma Advertiser (Toowoomba, Qld. : 1875 – 1948), 15 November, p. 2. [ONLINE] Available at: http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article98189472 [Accessed 10 August 2013].
Featured image: ‘Discharged Soldiers’ Settlement at Mount Hutton, near Roma, Maranoa District, South-Western Queensland’. From The Pocket Queensland 1924, published by Queensland Government Intelligence and Tourist Bureau. State Library of Queensland collection. [ONLINE] Available at https://archive.org/details/ThePocketQueensland