My Mother’s Memories of Country Life Last Century
Around 1968 my mother Jean (1911-1996) wrote some of her memories of her father, Roy Christison, a country school teacher in NSW from pre World War I through much of the first half of the 20th century. I would like to share some of it with you. You may find her account of events from 1940 to 1952 here. See also About the Christisons for my grandfather’s family story.
This page is now complete. It now carries the story back further to 1902 when Roy Christison began teaching, to 1906 when he had his first appointment at Spencer on the Hawkesbury River, probably then not much changed from the earliest days and accessible only by boat, then to the early part of World War I at a place near Gunning NSW called Felled Timber Creek.
Note that a new set of my mother’s memoirs is now available.
Milton Public School on the NSW South Coast in 1907, one year after my grandfather began his career. He would become Headmaster here from 1925 to 1928. My Aunt Beth, who passed away at the age of 92 at the end of September 2007, taught at Milton in 1938.
Braefield NSW 1916 – 1923
It was January 1916, and he was to continue his career, this time in another small school, this one in the North West of NSW.
After puffing its way up the Liverpool Ranges and panting down the other side through the darkened night, the train paused for breath momentarily at a medium sized country town [Quirindi], and the young man, his wife and family climbed stiffly out. This town, built on a series of hills and flats and having a charm of its own, was to be home for the next two months as there was no government residence alongside [Braefield] school. An enterprising farmer was building a house on an acre and a half of land, just opposite the railway siding which bore the name of the school where he was to toil for seven years. With the cottage completed, the stage was set.
The Breeza General Store near Quirindi. See Upperhunter.org for more history of the area.
It was a tiny place, neither village nor hamlet, just a group of three Railway cottages where lived the men who tended the platform, a store, and a post office of sorts, the house for “Sir”, and down the road a piece (a dusty road in dry weather and a black soil bog in wet) on a narrow strip of land between the railway line and the road were two small buildings, the old slab school and the new building of weatherboard with cypress pine linings and the inevitabe tin roof. One could glimpse here and there small houses scattered far and wide, each on its own acreage, each representing pioneer folk who were farming this very prosperous wheat and sheep district. Here lived most of the 40 pupils who were to make up the enrolment of the six classes in the one teacher school. Some children came miles each day on foot, or on horseback, two or three to a horse, or very affluent ones in a sulky driven by the “eldest” in the family.
It was quite a challenging task to teach forty children in one room over six classes with ages ranging from 5 to 15. A deal of thought, of preparation, and great organising ability, were needed to keep each section actually engaged in quieter activities. Much has been said for and against the standard in these small schools, but I feel that given an earnest and sincere teacher the pupils gained much more than they lost, and the students of this particular school proved in the years to come that they could take their place in any field of commerce, profession, or industry, without apologising for their humbler beginnings. [NOTE: one such student was Sinclair Hill, famous for his Polo connection with the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles, among others. The story goes that his parents kept him at Braefield, rather then sending him to a private school for his early learning, because they so respected my grandfather as a teacher.]
In this building the younger children were taught to read, to write, to spell, to add, subtract, multiply, and all that is learned in any Kindergarten or Infants section of a modern school. To the older children in the upper classes the concept had to be more attractive and more challenging; their interest had to be aroused.
The worlds of History, Geography, and our spoken language, English, were wells of untapped splendour waiting to be opened. To these bush children it was a fascinating exerience to learn, and they were avid for knowledge. A lover of poetry himself, my father instilled in his pupils enough of the splendour of the written word to make them long to find more for themselves, which is so very necessary. He introduced them to Shakespeare, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Byron, Burns, the Brownings, Coleridge, Longfellow, Scott, Stevenson, Dickens… As for Australian poetry, it seemed to find an echo in the very hearts of the bush children, as Lawson, Kendall, Paterson, Adam Lindsay Gordon, Dorothea Mackellar, George Essex Evans, Bernard O’Dowd, and anyone else who had found a place in the Treasury of Australian Verse, wrote of things and places the children knew. Such was our heritage, to store in our minds for all times.
The old school building was the social centre of the community. It was used (with the permission of the Education Department) as meeting hall, church hall (all denominations), dance hall, and polling booth, so its walls echoed to much, and its floors were trodden by many feet.
In the year 1916 from this farming community so far removed from the centre of a world-shattering war farmers’ sons were fighting overseas and the busy farmers’ wives found time to meet, to knit, to sew, to send gifts and packages; the old school was the headquarters. Each boy going overseas was given a farewell and presented with a gold watch, and each gallant lad who returned was given a Welcome Home and an engraved gold medal. This typified the Australian spirit at its best.
There were other functions too. Breaking up at Xmas for the school itself, fund-raising affairs for the local Cricket team. Oh yes, the lads played a neat game of Cricket and “Sir” could bowl a mean ball. Most functions were held when the moon was full so that there would be more light for the merrymakers to get into the centre for these socials. They came on foot in family groups carrying the old friend of country folk, the hurricane lamp to light the way. They came by horse, in sulkies, on drays, and very occasionally by motor car. The old building would soon be filled to overflowing and long forms outside would seat the rest beneath the trees in the full moonlight, quite a romantic and beautifully peaceful setting.
Soon the “music men” would stand and the dancing feet would fly. I can see those “music men” now. Father leading with his silver toned harmonica, a poultry farmer with his fiddle, and a railway fettler with an accordion. Eyes closed, feet tapping, heads swaying, they would slip from waltz to Schottische to polka, anything that kept the throbbing, lifting lilt of the dance. Beautiful, tender, simple pleasures, earned by hard work and enjoyed to the utmost. From early evening to the wee sma’ hours the musicians played and when after a supper such as country women alone can provide, the tired feet walked lightly and happily homewards, it had been so worthwhile.
We came to know this district well, knew it in drought, in flood, in good seasons and bad, in spring when the good earth was covered in sweet green grass, and golden wattles bloomed in the distant hills and young wheat grew straight and tall, when parrots and parakeets wove gaily patterned circles in the sky above and the promise of the future was good and free and clean. We knew it at harvest time when the ripe golden wheat lying in sheaves filled the air with an aroma all its own, and the whirr of the harvester broke the stillness of hot languid days. We knew it in autumn when soft winds blew, giving welcome relief from summer’s intense blistering heat, and in winter when the snow caps of the Liverpool Ranges sent overnight temperatures to freezing point, and thick white frosts lay on the ground, to give way to more golden sun-filled glorious days with skies of deepest azure, the full circle back to spring again.
Tragedy was there too. Dry years when the dust was blinding, the water nonexistent, and the sheep moved slowly along the road as the drovers looked vainly for fresh feed, and the poor sheep lay dead and dying.
And, oh! it’s a terrible thing to die of thirst in the scrub Out Back. (“Out Back” — Henry Lawson)
This Australia of ours is a land of such contrasts!
Even in our semi-isolation the fingers of death came suddenly when the pneumonia flu raged in 1919. One by one the whole community was stricken. The schoolie was the only one of his family still on his feet. He nursed his loved ones tenderly, and as medical assistance was hard to come by, he was called in to many homes to advise, to help, to administer, to comfort when comfort was needed, and to sustain and strengthen flagging and saddened hearts — a friend indeed.
Came 1920 — January 26 1920 — and in the early hours of another hot summer morning “Sir” and his family alight at the siding which is home. They had been away six weeks by the sea. There were four of us now — had been since 1917 — and in the winter of the year the little Mother with the lovely brown eyes would give birth to her fifth child. But the unborn babe was born dead, and the lovely brown eyes were shadowed for many a long day.
The drought still held and that January day was hot. Father harnessed the horse and left for town to get much needed supplies; it was Anniversary Day, but public holidays mattered little then. The Mother had much to do — clothes to unpack, things to sort and ready for the year ahead. It was a funny day, everything so still, so breathless: Dorothea Mackellar’s “hot gold hush of noon.” Father returned about 2 pm. The sky to the west was frightening. Black rolling clouds, streaked with purple, rose high into the heavens obliterating the sun, covering the earth with a deep purple tinge. The sensation of time suspended, of threatening catastrophe, of the unknown more frightening always than the known. The clouds rolled closer, ever closer, uncannily closer. The soft west wind changed. The stillness changed to a gurgling sudden roar, as the wind rose to gale force bringing with it the dreaded enemy of the inland — the dust cyclone. Everything was dark as midnight as the cyclone struck.
Above: clouds lour over Quirindi district in 2000: image from Australian Severe Weather.
The little house shook, as a quarter of a century later houses shook under Nazi onslaught. It rocked and swayed as Father guided his family to shelter under a stout oak table [NOTE: I well remember that table, which was in the home of my childhood in Sutherland; a matching bureau is in my living room to this day. — N] in the dining room. Minutes passed, terrifying. Faintly through the wall came a tapping and a neighbour’s voice: “Are you all right in there?” He was a no account man, and yet medals have been given for less. He had run 200 yards from his home through dark and dust, falling iron from the roof, splintered, shattered branches of trees, and death and destruction at the shoulder, to give assistance if needed.
Twenty minutes later and the storm had passed leaving in its wake across the plains utter desolation — huge stout-trunked deep-rooted trees blown out of the earth and splintered as if by a mighty axe. The little house that had been a home was completely and utterly wrecked, except for one room — the dining room in which the family sheltered. God’s guiding hand? Perhaps.
The warmth and kindness of the folk who took the family in, gave them clothes and food, were a beacon of light, and the grazier who fixed and altered a disused farm house for this family which he had taken into his large heart, until the shattered home could be rebuilt — to them our everlasting gratitude and thanks.
The drought broke and the grass grew tall. Once again this loved country of ours was showing its softer side and became again a land of promise.
Father still laboured among his flock, respected by all who knew him for his unfailing devotion to his daily tasks of teaching not only during school hours. He coached older children for higher exams during evenings to help them to a better life. His was truly a labour of love, for he never accepted monetary pay for his efforts. Beside this the midnight oil burned as he studied for his own Grade Exams so he could obtain promotion for himself, his wife and family. To sit for his own exams he walked four miles to the town railhead to get the Night Mail — the mail trains did not stop at our siding — to the District Inspector’s Office over one hundred miles down the line, where from 9 am to 6 pm he tackled examination papers, then back on a northbound Night Mail to walk four miles again and arrive home in the early hours of another day, school as usual and the long anxious wait for results.
Another year slipped by so quickly, as years have the habit of doing. More young ones beginning their education, some older ones leaving, mostly to help on the farms, to become good solid citizens with kindly thoughts always of the man who had guided their thirst for knowledge so expertly.
In the summer of 1921 when the grass was waist high everywhere and dry as a tinderbox one of the Railway men was burning off some rubbish on a clear, still day. Suddenly there was one of those unexplained freaks of nature which happen on the stillest of days: the whirlwind lifted the rubbish fire and neatly deposited it in the middle of the paddock surrounding the house where she of the brown eyes was alone, apart for her sister who was on a rare visit from the city. The fire spread, and with smoke billowing across the road fettlers left their job, the night officers left the railway station unattended, and Father and the older boys from the school came running. Mother packed everything she could into cases and carried them to safety, and Auntie, well she swung an axe like a veteran, cutting green saplings to beat out the fire, and beat it out they did, stopping it just as it scorched the foundations of that small house. Fate? I wonder.
About this time too one of the senior boys had gone home early to find his mother had been bitten by a deadly snake. He rode his bike back for “Sir” because he knew here he would get help. Sir did not fail him either, but taking the bike rode the two miles to the boy’s home, shouting instructions to the Railway officer on the way to contact the Doctor; the Railway had the only telephone. After applying first aid, he took the woman at breakneck speed in a sulky toward the distant town and hospital. Halfway to town they met the Doctor’s buggy — he too was on his way to give help — and the mother’s life was saved.
At the beginning of January 1923 word went round the District: “‘Sir’ was leaving.” He had been given his first Headmastership further down the line in a much more thickly populated area, and only a mile from a very prosperous and beautiful town. It was almost like going to Heaven for Sir and his family after nearly fifteen years of severe apprenticeship. (That was Dunolly, near Singleton in the Hunter Valley. From there Roy Christison went on to Milton, then Shellharbour — where my mother and father met — and finally to Caringbah in Sydney’s famous Shire, whence he retired in the late 1940s.) However, they did not begrudge one year of it, because they felt they had achieved much.
On another hot January morning, exactly seven years after that first long night trip, the good folk of the District gathered at one of the bigger farm houses, where there was ample room for large gatherings, to say farewell to their beloved “Sir”. They came from the town four miles away, they came by sulky, by dray, on foot, and they came miles just to be there and sing “Auld Lang Syne”. So ended an era.
Truly, as Adam Lindsay Gordon wrote in “Ye Wearie Wayfarer”
Question not, but live and labour
Till yon goal be won,
Helping every feeble neighbour,
Seeking help from none;
Life is mostly froth and bubble,
Two things stand like stone,
Kindness in another’s trouble,
Courage in your own.”
The school buildings have been demolished. The young he taught are now  grandparents, scattered far and wide. I wonder if they remember the one eyed man* who moved among them, doing at all times his best.
I think they do.
* My grandfather lost an eye in a childhood accident. My memory of him has him always wearing an eyepatch, but apparently when younger he had a glass eye.
My father commenced his teaching career as a pupil teacher at Croydon Park Public School in August 1902 at the age of sixteen. In those days teachers were not educated and trained as they are now. As a pupil teacher he taught classes during the day and received his training after school. Having acquitted himself more than creditably during a four year period he was given his Teacher’s Certificate and was therefore eligible either to start his career as an assistant teacher or to take charge of a small country school. He chose to ask for a small school because the money was slightly better and he had his mother to keep. Also it was a greater challenge, so early in May 1906 he received his first appointment. It was to a small school with eighteen pupils and his salary was a princely nine pounds [$18] a month.
It was not terribly far from Sydney really, on the upper reaches of the Hawkesbury River, but in those days Spencer was a very inaccessible spot. There was no road, only a bush track along the river bank, and that led to nowhere. To get to his future place of work he had to go eleven miles up river from Brooklyn by rowing boat. A trading boat also operated along the river, as nestled among the hills in the scrubby wooded country were families descended from early settlers. Some were orange orchardists, but most were fisher folk.
He was lucky enough to get the lease of a small cottage on an abandoned orange orchard where someone had tried to earn an honest living and failed. The small slab-built school where he was to labour for eight years was just up the track.
Spencer early in the 20th century
In 1908 he married his dear love, Ada Hunter, a dainty brown-eyed lass from his home suburb in Sydney. Actually he had been born at Hinton in the Hunter Valley in the 1880s but after returning with his family from a trip to Scotland he spent the rest of his young life in the suburb of Lewisham. His bride had been born in Goulburn but her family had moved to Sydney when she was young. She did not know the bush, had never known the aching loneliness of isolation or the hard conditions of bush life where comforts were few and amenities very poor, especially in the early 1900s. [My grandfather told me once that the locals thought he was mad when he built the first toilet in Spencer, a pit affair; they were content to use the river.] She was sustained and strengthened by an inner will to succeed, by the love she had for the man, and by the help she received from Sophia Jane, his mother, a remarkable woman who years later at the age of 94 could still read without glasses. [She could also write a good hand at that age; I have a letter she wrote at that age.]
From 1906 to the end of 1913 he taught school amongst these good folk, sending several of their sons for Bursaries and Scholarships so that at the conclusion of their primary education they had the opportunity to further their studies. It was his proud boast that one of “his” boys gained the first Bursary awarded in NSW to a pupil from a one teacher school. From these humble beginnings came a Doctor of Divinity in the Catholic Church, several Macquarie Street specialists, a Mother Superior, several nuns, and many others who made their marks in time. [It seems much of Spencer was Catholic; my grandfather, an agnostic as far as I know, was Presbyterian in background. He told me that when he first arrived in Spencer the boatman asked: “Are you a Carthlick, Mister?” When my grandfather said he was not, the boatman replied, “Thank God for that!”]
A sanatorium on the Hawkesbury c. 1910.
By then he was the father of two children (Eric, and my mother, who was born in 1911) and Ada taught needlework and some of the refinements of a natural-born lady to the young girls, and helped in any other way she was able. For the births of the two children my father, a month before the due date of birth rowed her the eleven miles to Brooklyn where the two women — Ada and Sophia Jane — caught the train to Sydney; but being an unpredictable type, I saw the light of day the night my mother arrived at her parents’ home.
Their pleasures were few. My father played a neat game of Cricket, the team travelling by water. He acted as parson when conditions on the river were such that no minister was able to attend the burial of some poor unfortunate soul. They visited among the local families, often crossing the river by boat to do so.
At the end of 1913 he received his second appointment, which took him away from the wide Hawkesbury.
Another family of this locality
Little did my mother know when she wrote this, and even less did her family know one hundred years ago, of another family of the Hawkesbury area: my sister-in-law’s family. See A Guringai Family’s Story by Warren Whitfield.
Felled Timber Creek 1914-1915
Of course during these years and later at Braefield (see above) the nation was caught up in World War I. My grandfather, having only one eye, was ineligible for war service but that did not prevent him once being sent the dreaded white feather. Those who knew him of course supported him. Apparently the glass eye he had in those days was so convincing not everyone realised he had a disability. He was also famous for being able to spot unruly behaviour even when his back was turned while he was writing on the board. There were some pupils who were not above trying to exploit his “blind side” once it was known, but it never worked. They were amazed apparently, but the truth was he arranged framed pictures in such a way that the class was reflected in the glass and he could spot movement in the reflections.
At the beginning of 1914 my father took up his duties at a small school at Felled Timber Creek out Yass way. It was eighteen miles from the nearest rail head at Gunning. I have vague recollections of arriving in the stillness of a January evening at this township where a horse coach took us the rest of the way to the lonely place that was to be home for the next two years.
The Telegraph Hotel, Gunning NSW
On the way the coach forded seven creeks which at this time of the year were only gullies, but they could be a great hazard with the coming of rain or a summer storm further up the valley.
The nearest hamlet was six miles distant with three creeks between. Father used to walk to town twice a week for supplies, wet weather or fine. The hot dusty gravel playground was surrounded by pine trees which when the west wind blew made a sound like a woman in labour. It was a funny little square house we had there, four rooms and the external verandah at the front. Some distance from the main house was a slab-built kitchen with a wide open fireplace. There was no bathroom or laundry and very little water. The washing was done with two kerosene buckets suspended the open fire or in an iron boiler over an open fire outside. Bathing was accomplished in an old iron tub in the kitchen. It was not bad either, especially in winter by the nice warm fire.
The small school was next door. Here about twenty young Australians at a time, children of small and not so small farmers, followed the course of learning.
Summers were hot and dry — and dusty. Somehow that dust always seemed to arrive in a dense cloud at meal times when the food would have to be quickly covered so everything would not taste of the good red earth.
Sunday afternoons we would all get dressed in our best clothes and go out. Leastways we would walk single file down the bush track to sit in a secluded spot on the broken limb of a great high tree and look at more great high trees. Sometimes we were lucky enough to see a snake or two slithering for shelter, or hear the melancholy call of the magpie or the laugh of the kookaburra, and I think he was the one who really had the right to laugh. It was indeed an isolated place.
The nearest neighbour was an old woman who lived by herself a mile up the track. She smoked a clay pipe and always had a pot of tea on the hob.
The only time my mother saw a car was when the doctor was visiting and that was most infrequent, for he had to come from Gunning. In this remote corner of NSW my sister Beth was born early in 1915. In that year also there was a very bad diphtheria outbreak. No immunisation was available that year. The Grim Reaper had a merry time taking a child from here and a child from there and sometimes the parents were left completely childless. The school had to close for several weeks. It must have been a worrying time for my parents in this lonely outpost of education, with two small children and a babe in arms.
Diphtheria Ward at Melbourne Hospital 1900: National Library of Australia image
At the end of 1915 my mother’s health was not good so father asked for a transfer to a place with perhaps a little more comfort and a better position. So when school closed for the Christmas vacation we left to go whither we knew not.
Braefield was of course their destination, and that concludes this memoir.
# See also about the Christisons and About the Whitfields. Some more of my mother’s memories are on Loss: to World War II, my birth, and my sister’s death.
August 29, 2006 at 2:23 pm
Neil, this is fantastic. I wanted to be the first to comment, even if quickly, simply to say this. I will comment properly when I have absorbed the material. Please continue.
July 17, 2007 at 7:35 pm
I’m a cousin (well my mum is your first cousin actually)…I’m really interested in the Christison family history.
July 17, 2007 at 7:37 pm
Helen and Jim, I assume? Give them my love.
I seem to remember your Uncle Ray did some very thorough work on the Christisons — more thorough than mine.
January 21, 2008 at 4:37 pm
This is just wonderful. I am a Christison from Scotland, now living in NZ and have compiled the Christison family tree which you will find on line in at WorldConnect. I have now attached this information which is invaluable. Very many thanks. According to my software, Roy was my 6th cousin!!!