Tragic Times

The South African War - the Boer War - ended on May 31, 1902. Of the 262 Victorians who lost their lives, four came from this district. A substantial red marble memorial bearing their names was originally erected on the corner of Point Nepean Highway and Chesterville Road and is now located behind the RSL building in Centre Dandenong Road [1].

Entries of death on Boer War Memorial, Centre Dandenong Road, Cheltenham.

There was worse to come in the first quarter of the century.

In August 1914, the cable from the British Government to the Australian Governor-General which had notified the outbreak of the War also sought the immediate provision of 20,000 Australian troops. Throughout the conflict the enlistments exceeded 400,000, although that huge figure did not fulfil the requirements of the Mother Country.

The News, on 20 November 1915, reported that the aim of the Moorabbin Show, held on the Cheltenham Recreation Ground, was to raise £100 for the benefit of the Australian Sick and Wounded Soldiers Fund. The Minister of Lands opened the Show and noted that he was “proud as a Victorian and an Australian that they had determined to devote the proceeds to the relief of our wounded soldiers, and glad to know a general invitation had been issued to the heroes of Gallipoli to be present. Nearly all had relatives at the front, and when they looked at these heroes as their own kith and kin, he felt glad to be an Australian.”

Lance Corporal McKenzie, responding for the sick and wounded soldiers, said he “could not resist the opportunity of trying to impress on the young men the advisability of enlisting for active service.” He said that, out of the first 30,000 who had enlisted, 15,000 were out of action, and he asked was it right for those present to lag behind. The pioneers of this great land had bravely tackled the depths of the wilderness of New South Wales, Queensland and other parts. They had no fear, and neither should the young men present, of taking up their duty. The men who had gone had done everything asked of them. They had never vacated a position, and never refused an order. In fact what they had done was unique in history. In Serbia, even the women were taking up arms to defend their country, and was it right that any able bodied man should shelter himself from the fray. Every able bodied single man should go; they would not suffer fear. It was the women who were left who would suffer, but they would not be sorry to see their men do their duty. There was only one certainty and that was victory, which was only a matter of time.[2]

At the conclusion of the speech making about sixty soldiers and motor drivers were entertained in a marquee by the committee of the society and members of the Dingley Social Club, who were looking after the refreshments.[3]

Destruction and death during World War One.

Alf Priestly's father was 21 when he went to the War in 1917. Afterwards, he didn't really want to talk about it. Alf felt that his parents had a general concern - a sort of National interest - and saw the War as a necessary part in keeping the world, as far as they were concerned, going along the lines it should have been. [4]

Herbert Charles Organ and Studley Organ were cousins. Their fathers were two of Joseph and Eliza Organ's thirteen children. Herbert was born in Cheltenham and was unmarried, aged 22 years and 2 months, when he enlisted in the A.I.F. on 3rd August 1915. In April 1917 he was wounded in action and died in the field five days later. His Will, drawn on 16th May 1916, left the whole of his property and effects to his mother.

Studley, a market gardener, was born at Heatherton and he was unmarried, aged 24 years and 7 months, when he enlisted as a private soldier in the A.I.F. in South Australia on 24th August 1915. He was on leave in England for a fortnight in August 1917 and was killed in action in Belgium on 9th October 1917. He had been promoted Second Lieutenant in July that year. His Will, made in June 1917, bequeathed his personal estate to his mother, Mary, of Cavanagh Street, Cheltenham.

Mary wrote to the officer in charge of Base Records, Victoria Barracks, Melbourne four years after the death of her son requesting information about the location of his grave and asking for an application form to gain a next of kin badge. The officer replied indicating the location of the grave was unknown although an intensive search was being made to locate isolated graves so that the remains could be interred in the nearest military cemetery. [5]

A later letter from Victoria Barracks asked who was the nearest blood relation to Studley for it was to that person war medals were distributed. The fact that Mary was the sole beneficiary in Studley’s will was irrelevant unless the medals were specifically mentioned there. The letter stated that such mementos were handed over in the following order - “widow, eldest surviving son, eldest surviving daughter, father, mother, eldest surviving brother, eldest surviving sister, eldest surviving half brother, eldest surviving half sister.” Mary’s reply was short. “George Organ, father of the late 2nd Lieut. S Organ, 17th Battalion is still alive and resides at Cavanagh St., Cheltenham, Victoria.” The note made on the letter at Base Records was “War Medals Etc. to Father.” [6]

Mary Chapman's Uncle Frank contended “these wars are started by three old men sitting in high chairs in parliament - somewhere in London - making up these wars, so as they can make a fortune. Made up by rich, rich men to get richer.” Her elders thought that conscription for overseas service was very wrong. [7]

The trenches in Belgium during World War One.

Although Joyce Peterson's mother was born in 1900, she never referred to the War. “The big thing they mentioned - one of the big things - was the warships coming up the Bay, and I don’t know what year it happened, but it could have been after the First World War. We had a big pine tree and I can remember my uncles saying they climbed up this and they saw all the warships. The American Fleet, it was.” [8]

After Prime Minister Hughes returned in July 1916 from several months abroad, he became a very strong advocate of conscription - and was strongly opposed by, among others, Dr Mannix, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne. Referenda were held on 28 October 1916 and on 20 December 1917, with relatively small majorities for the 'No' vote.

Dr Mannix, Roman Catholic Coadjutor Archbishop of Melbourne.

In Phillip Coffey's family there was little talk of the War. Phillip says, “My Father didn’t go to the First World War. He was, I think, a conscientious objector. He didn’t squib it. I’m not saying that in his defence. But, you see, I was born in 1919, the youngest of three children, so therefore, Father had a young wife - I think ten or eleven years his junior - and, as I understand it, he felt it was his duty to look after his wife and children.” [9]

Few people today have personal recollections of those terrible times, but, for instance, May Keeley knows that the flu epidemic occurred straight after the First World War, and that it killed many people. But she tends to link it with her memories of droughts and bushfires that occurred during her lifetime.[10] In fact, the global epidemic of pneumonic influenza caused more deaths in 1918-19 than the First World War.

Sylvia Liddell’s Aunty Dolly died of the flu in 1919. “It was a dreadful flu,” she recalls, “in New South Wales and here. They had people out at Heidelberg and in the Exhibition Buildings, to get people isolated from those out in the community. Children lost their mothers. People died on ships at sea.” Queenie, Sylvia's father's cousin, lost her two little girls in it. “They were about seven and nine. It came back with the troops.” It affected everybody, Sylvia recalls, because they were so frightened.[11]

In Australia, more than 800 deaths were reported in 1918, but the number rocketed to 11,500 in 1919. World-wide, it is thought, the epidemic of pneumonic influenza probably caused more deaths than the Great War. Despite its relatively sparse and scattered nature, the Kingston area did not escape. It was a ghastly aftermath of the War. Memorials are dotted throughout the community as tokens of commitment to the war effort and as a grim reminder of the ravages of the ‘war to end all wars’.

Drought and flooding were disasters of another kind, with crippling consequences. Len Allnutt is able to draw on the experiences of his father and grandfather when he describes the situation. One of the early problems of this district was water, he says. “The early settlers dug wells to get water. It was a real problem. It was about 1924 before reticulated water was available. At Cheltenham they had a standpipe at the back of the Mechanics’ Hall on Charman Road. A big pipe with a hose on it. People would come up and put their tanks there to get water - particularly in the 1914 drought.” [12]

Major flooding occurred in February 1904 when the banks of the Mordialloc Creek and Patterson River broke, leaving a ‘track’ of water seven miles wide and nine miles long, reaching to half a mile of Frankston. Further flooding occurred in 1923 and 1924, prompting the provision of further Government funding for flood prevention. [13]

Flooding on Point Nepean Road, Aspendale 1934.

Len remembers the floods. “They used to grow vegetable crops - mainly potatoes, cabbages and pumpkins. The Carrum Swamp used to flood. There were times when they lost the whole crop. It was caused by the Dandenong Creek flooding. I've heard my grandfather tell the stories. When the creek was starting to flood they would get down to the swamp and start getting the spuds out as quickly as they could, and get the cattle away to higher ground. Finally, after a lot of deputations to the government they put in banks first, but they weren't high enough and then eventually they did the job properly. But by that time the vegetable growers had gone. Down on the swamp it was a pretty precarious living. In a good season they would get gigantic crops, but, when the floods came, they would lose everything. My grandfather told the tales of those who went broke down the swamp.” [14]

Fire was an ever present hazard, particularly during the Summer months. A fire on the beach front in 1900 destroyed a large area of the foreshore before a thunder storm fortunately put it out. But, on December 21, 1913, about 64 houses and 100 holiday camps were destroyed before a firebreak was cut near the Chelsea Store, saving the township. Only 12 houses remained standing between Bank Road, Aspendale and the Chelsea Store. One new home, completed only weeks before at a cost of £2000, was destroyed. [15]

There were, of course, personal tragedies in the district throughout the first quarter of the 20th Century. Len Allnutt called, “There was a blacksmith in Cheltenham, named Albert Guest. We were in the 3rd Grade at school and his son, Jacky, was in the same grade. It was a wet day and we were coming from school, walking home along Charman Road. Crossed over the Highway and said goodbye to Jacky Guest, and he went up to his father’s blacksmith’s shop. I will never forget this as long as I live. At half past eight that night someone rings my Dad. It was Wally Rose, saying that Jacky Guest has been electrocuted and they are burying him tomorrow and the Scouts are going to march and six Cubs would be chosen to be pallbearers at the funeral. We were pallbearers. What happened was that Jacky Guest and another boy were kicking a football and they kicked it up on the roof of the blacksmith’s shop and Jacky got up to get the football, touched the wet wires and I think he must have yelled out, because his father dashed up and touched him. He was bowled over with the shock, but he still had the presence of mind to get a tyre and he threw the tyre over Jacky to haul him back, but he was dead. His father went to the funeral, but he was in a bad way. Not only was his son dead, but he got a charge of electricity. The unfortunate part is that he never recovered from it. He seemed to go down and down and he split up with his wife, took to drink, and it was a sad story.” [16]

Wars, personal tragedies, floods, bushfires and the consequent financial losses - these have ever been the lot of mankind. But in a sparsely populated, close-knit community the impact of disaster is shared. And so it was in this district.


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27 June 2018
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