About the Whitfields: loss

Continues from About the Whitfields.

Loss: to World War II, my birth, and my sister’s death

My father experienced the worst of losses on January 15 1952 when my sister Jeanette died of gangrene of the bowel. Obviously it affected all of us, not least my older brother who was 16 at the time. I was 8, but can still vividly remember many details of that time, including my last sight of Jeanette as she was taken to hospital. A card she gave me at Christmas 1951 is still in my possession and is beside me as I type this. For my father it was especially hard. Jeanette was the apple of his eye, tall, blonde, pretty, intelligent, and a promising athlete. She was also a peacemaker with an instinctive understanding of my father’s demons.

How it must have taken him back to the losses of his own childhood and adolescence I can only imagine, as he never talked about this. There were five sons in my father’s family, and a daughter, Ella. The oldest son, Aubry (or Aubrey), died in 1906 at the age of twelve. Then another brother, Colin, died probably around 1915 at the age of about fourteen; I have heard this story, but am not sure of dates; I know when I was at school I used an algebra book belonging to Colin from around 1914 at Wollongong High. Information provided by Bob Starling in April 2005 has clarified this.

  • WHITFIELD Aubrey R 1893-1906 (13)
  • WHITFIELD Thomas W L (1906-1906)
  • WHITFIELD Colin C 1901-1915 (14)

So one died in infancy, and another accidentally. A third son died as a teenager nine years later. I was told one died in a riding accident, the other in a shooting accident. Certainly, my grandmother Henrietta went mad, and, among other things, chased my father round with an axe at one time, and another time tried to burn the house down. She died in Parramatta Asylum in 1931. Curiously, I was able to ascertain in the 1970s that she had died of tertiary syphilis, of GPI (General Paralysis of the Insane) as it was then called; my father was in the 1970s being checked for Huntington’s Chorea, an hereditary form of dementia, and this fact came to light. Fortunately it was also established that my father did not have this problem. Evidence for all this came from the specialist at Prince Henry Hospital who actually tracked down the doctor, still alive at the time, who had signed my grandmother’s death certificate.

It appears, from what I have been told, that my grandfather tended to blame his wife for the death of the first-born son, and that this compounded with the death of the second. Her decline into madness coincided with my father’s childhood and adolescence, but was not his only problem. My father was apparently quite a talented artist, and I have seen evidence of this from World War II, when he sent a number of sketches home from Papua. One was of a Scotch thistle and was drawn especially for my sister. There was a colony of well- known Sydney artists who frequented Shellharbour at that time and they encouraged his talent, and indeed wanted him to go back to Sydney with them. Well, his father was having none of that, and demanded that he destroy all his artworks and paraphernalia. He in fact hid a lot of it in a cave on Native Dog Hill (now Mount Warrigal), where it may well be to this day. He was also taken out of school at the minimum age, and apprenticed to his father. My father told me these stories at various times.

My mother tells me that even after she and my father married in 1935, my father had one day made a set of window frames involving some very fine finishing work. He was very proud of them and showed them to old Tom, who promptly told him they were shit, smashed them, and got him to start over. Later my mother, who refused to be cowed by the old man, said to Tom that they seemed good to her. “They were,” old Tom said. “They were fine, nothing wrong with them, but I don’t want him getting a big head.”

So after such childhood experiences, after such a family, after the Depression and the struggle to establish himself, after the Second World War, my father’s dreams in some ways died in the grave with my sister. Or perhaps he dreamed more fiercely and more strangely..

My mother has told the story better than I can myself. About 1968 (during the Vietnam War) she took to writing down some of her memories. Today, nine years after her death, I am very glad she did. The pedant in me wishes at times she had not been so fond of Dickens, but the son is quite happy to bring back her voice in these pages.

Memories of Jean Whitfield in her own words

The night was still. The stars and the moon shone brightly on a troubled world. War in Europe; the second time in a quarter of a century. France was again echoing to the sound of German guns and the rest of the world paused waiting–for what? In an Australian city the young woman was waiting also–for the commonplace, the everyday miracle–the coming of a wanted child.

The curtains stirred as the wind whispered gently and everything seemed poised listening. The child in the womb stirred, waking the sleeping woman. The whispers grew stronger and she knew this day her babe would be born. What did life hold for this child already loved? What lay ahead, not in the dim distant future, but in the now–the immediate, with this world so shatteringly troubled. The mother trembled and prayed for peace in this babe’s time and a better world for the young to live and grow in bodily and in spirit… Of all the miracles of science in this twentieth century none can surpass the miracle of begetting and the birth of a wanted child…

That day in 1940 the child was born–a girl–bringing with her all the tenderness of love that one small babe has brought over so many hundreds of years.

Shortly after, the father in the full flush of manhood with hundreds of others became a number in the R.A.A.F. The next six years held strife and fear, home-comings and leavings, waiting, hoping, praying while free peoples everywhere struggled to regain seemingly lost power and prestige against overwhelming odds. He, the father, served his country faithfully and well through the long dreary years. At home his small daughter grew, and, as it is with children, accepted the world around her. Mummy, Grandpa, Grandma, her big brother, and the baby brother who came later, and the father who appeared sometimes.


RAAF Kittyhawk fighters such as those my father worked on in Papua

Then in 1945 the guns of War ceased. We hoped so vainly they had stopped for all time–and the father came home. The next few years held struggle of a different kind for the young weary parents whose lives, like so many, had been so deviously interrupted. To return to the normal, the everyday, does not perhaps seem difficult, but it is so very difficult, as so many found. Everything had altered, values and concepts had changed. One thing sustained this young family–the love of man for woman, of woman for man, of man and woman for their children. To hope, to pray, with faith, that some day, sometime, there would be a better world for all to live in. Again the years went swiftly–two years, four years, ordinary troubles, measles, mumps, broken arms, children’s hurts to mend–the guiding, the helping, the encouraging, the children growing, the joys, the laughter.

The babe of 1940 was now a slight, fair, lovable schoolgirl of twelve. So proud were the parents of this so dear a child who held the promise of the future in her clear blue eyes. The dreams they had–the dreams she had–such lovely dreams, such beautiful golden dreams.

The father and the mother bought a house, their first “own” home. Just an ordinary house in an ordinary street, in an ordinary suburb, in an Australian city. A house with room enough for the children to grow in to live in, to be “home” in all its true and good meaning. Moving day came with all its pressures, its turmoils, but with happiness in the hearts. The unseen figure in the shadows moved closer and struck, taking with it back to the shadows the beloved child, the child with so much promise, so many dreams–the child whose very presence had helped the mother’s war-torn soul through the years and whose sparkling nature had helped the father through the rehabilitation period. The beloved blue eyes were closed to this world forever.

* * *

More years have gone, again so swiftly. Again the war guns boom and the world pauses listening. Must this always be so? The miracle, the wonder of Birth, the living, the miracle–yes, miracle–of dying, and with all, the ghastly hovering fear of futile horrible War.

Life’s full cycle–what does it really mean? When and where does the cycle end? To those who have returned to the shadows and to those who live in the shade of the shadows, perhaps the knowledge of why is clearer. We can only hope and kneel to pray–still for a better and a peaceful world. Let’s not pray in vain.

So there is the second part of my puzzle, my attempt to know better the man I hardly knew. I should add that my mother was not educated beyond grade six, but loved writing and loved books–something I may have inherited. The greatest curse of her last year of life was virtual blindness. She died in 1996.

Read more of my mother’s memories

My Father’s Own Words: A Letter from Sixty Years Ago


14390 Cpl. Whitfield J. N.
Group 833

My Darling Wife

I came to work this morning thinking it was just another day, another hot steaming day, after a terrific thunderstorm last night. About nine o’clock a chap came in with some demands that had to be attended to and on dating them the realisation struck me, this was no ordinary day to me, but a very special one, the anniversary of the day when I made my very bestest pal in all the world mine for keeps, for worse or better. You notice I put the “worse” first, because I am sure many, many happy days lie ahead for us. Yes, we have had more than our share of worries & I have at times very selfishly added to them, sometimes quite unintentionally, because there really wasn’t any need for you to worry at all. I’m a bit of a tease really.

Anyway I promise you darling that I will try to make you just as happy as ever I can. I only hope that I am able to maintain a decent living standard for you & the kids. You are entitled to the best of everything by virtue of the fact that you have always been such a loyal pal always to me. If I can I will try to get some other sort of business going as well as the building so that we will be secure in our old age. Anyway dearest one I will try to do as you wish me to in everything. I have caused you enough heartaches. I can’t always help this of course, but I fully intend to try and make up for any short comings I may have. I can never repay the debt I owe you for giving me three such lovely children. I love them very dearly, and am exceedingly proud of their nice appearance & manner.

Dearest girl, I can only pray that we are spared to celebrate many anniversaries — together, as indeed an anniversary should be celebrated. If, as I hope, I shall be with you next wedding anniversary I will see to it that I have some leave to take & we will go away for a few days together. I am sure someone would take responsibility of the kiddies for just that few days. We could book in at one of the mountain hotels. I will send you home the money as an anniversary present in a week or so & you can save it on one side as a special little cache for no other purpose than to give us our certainly overdue holiday away together. [This did not happen until about 1951, and we kids went as well!] Do not put it in the Bank and then you will not notice it as drawing it out & leaving a depleted sum. I suggest that you put it in your special “precious box.” My! I am looking forward to it, even now, all that long way ahead.

I am sure [my mother’s then unmarried sister] will look after the nips for us, if she isn’t married. … I wonder does she know what she’s missing. [She married in the early 1950s and subsequently gave birth to twins.] To me marriage is worth any sacrifice, having to do without some things that do not matter very much in any case, & learning the hard way self restraint & moderation certainly enriches the character of a person (particularly a woman) [Ouch!] and makes her something understanding–self-sacrificing–grasping eagerly every chance to go out and enjoy life with her loved ones. Yes, I think she becomes, provided she is in the first place a true & not a fair-weather friend–an exalted and beautiful creature. Darling a chasing after rainbows is a horribly empty sensation that causes one to be a frustrated cynic, taxing the patience and at times occasioning the dislike of everyone.

Darling, I am glad you married young, I should have hated you to be like that, instead of sweet & gently, and yet I think I would have been patient and understanding.

Anyway, dearest one, you have with you on this our wedding day my every best love and a very real longing to be with you. I think maybe you’d better be extravagant & use up some of those “packets”. I can sympathise with you–& wouldn’t blame you in the least.

Well, all the very best of luck darling, from your loving Husband


It was their tenth anniversary, that one.

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