The Last Weekend


My grandmother had been running a knocking-shop in the city: this explains why she was living in Carlton on the last weekend before the Great War. Her business went bust when two plainclothes constables, Burke and Stokes, made a night call to the city slum house and arrested everyone, except a customer. At the City Court she and the man she was married to, who left my father and me with our religion and names, were charged with “keeping a house of ill-fame”, and the two women with them of “having insufficient lawful means of support”. All pleaded innocence. Selina, my grandmother, denied the charge and told the magistrate that other women “of bad character” her police accusers had seen visiting had only been there because she was ill. Her husband represented himself as an honest labourer supporting his family. The two women denied the charge against them, one producing a supposedly financially supporting husband and the other claiming to be employed as a servant. Police Magistrate Cohen was disbelieving but lenient. Instead of prison all were released. My grandmother was ordered to close up the house and one of the women was promised a further uncomfortable investigation of her supposed employment.

A week later the real reason for their freedom was revealed when Selina gave birth to a boy, my uncle, in the Knox Place house—today the site sits under the Melbourne Central Shopping Centre. Surprisingly perhaps, he would later adopt the name of the young athlete living next door when he was born. My uncle’s life was marked by the kindness of others: saved from being born in prison by a compassionate judge, he would afterwards spend years as a Japanese prisoner of war in Singapore and Siam (under his adopted name) kept alive by a compassionate Weary Dunlop.

Michael Connor appears in every Quadrant.
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In August 1914 my grandmother and some of her fractured family (it is a complicated story) were living in Ievers Terrace, a Carlton slum running off Cardigan Street. I remember another aunt and her son who also, much later, were living in a surviving Carlton slum—what is not evident in old photos of dirt and poverty is the smell. When the drama of the Great War began my family were actors from the underside of Marvellous Melbourne, though without speaking parts, named roles or Equity memberships.

The Argus suddenly stopped publishing in 1957—until then it had always been our family newspaper. Its pages, in the early part of its history, were a comfortable chaos of advertising and reportage which in odd ways throw up names and places meaningful in our personal histories. Wandering through its pages, exploring that last weekend of peace, some of my own story appears in connections that have nothing to do with grand narratives of world history.

August 1914 began on a Saturday morning so heavy with Melbourne fog that some suburban trains were cancelled, and there was a fire at Sunshine station. Queen Victoria Market was busy and in Bourke Street there were savings to be found at Myer’s Bargain Basement. The Argus front pages of the period were packed tight with columns of advertising with just a small white space on the top left for capitalised news headlines which led to articles deep inside.

British biographical accounts of the beginning of the Great War, often told with upper-class accents, describe with nostalgic longing a golden last summer of youth and peace. August in Melbourne is the month when winter overstays its visit.

On Friday, to prepare for a tense and dramatic weekend, the Argus offered the latest news and analysis of the “Austro-Servian War”, explained Home Rule in Ireland, revealed how colds are caught, had artist sketches from the dog show, football gossip, nature notes and reviews of new books. One literary reviewer took issue with the painter Kandinsky: “he loses his skill in art when he tries to explain art”. A federal election, our first double dissolution, had just been called; voting would take place on September 5. The Commonwealth Electoral Rolls, established and maintained after Federation, are a virtual map of my family’s travels through the cheap pubs, lodging houses and slums of Melbourne at the opening of the twentieth century to where Selina had now come to rest in Carlton.

Unlike my grandmother, neither of the leaders of the two major parties in this breaking-war election was native born. Prime Minister Joseph Cook led the Liberals and came from England. His Labor adversary Andrew “Andy” Fisher was born in Scotland. The two men came to Australia in 1885. Both sides of my family arrived during the gold rushes.

Days from the beginning of the war the Argus was a political seismograph:

“All the Great Powers are preparing for war: and the situation contains all the elements of a tremendous upheaval.” And even before decisions had been made, the language of the Australian political leaders was decided. At a public meeting in Horsham, Prime Minister Cook set out Australia’s position in case of conflict: “I want to make quite clear that all our resources in Australia are in the Empire and for the Empire, and for the preservation and the security of the Empire.” At a meeting in Colac, Andrew Fisher promised that if Britain went to war, “Australia will stand beside our own to help and defend her to our last man and our last shilling.”

Horsham, where Joseph Cook had spoken, is a memorable part of our family history. It was here in John Wilson’s hut on Christmas Day 1854, just weeks after Eureka, that Selina’s parents, my great-grandparents, were married. It may have been one of the earlier settler marriages in the district and also may have been—I don’t want to brag—Horsham’s very first shotgun wedding. Great-grandfather James was thirty-eight, and my great-grandmother, also a Selina, was fifteen. Her parents were living in the goldfields town of Avoca and some months later, when this Selina’s thirty-nine-year-old mother died in childbirth, and the twin girls were stillborn, Absalom cut any mention of their elder daughter’s existence from his wife’s death certificate.

As well as the two political leaders, the Argus reported words they claim to have heard repeated when people talked together on Melbourne streets: “If war is to come it might as well come now as in ten years’ time.”

The pages of the Argus, advertisements and reportage, represent their Australia as a patchwork of colourful but ill-fitting swatches of narrative fabric. The past, in its pages, is a chaos from which bits of history are carefully extracted by writers constructing their books and articles. But there is so much more which is discarded as waste, though Geoffrey Blainey would discover treasure.

In Queensland a bushman wandered into a hidden valley containing the skeletons of twenty-four brutally killed horses: the brief account reads like the basis for a novel. Anti-militaristic miners in Broken Hill were banning young military cadets from taking part in the opening of a hospital ward in August. Drunkenness could be cured by a “secret home treatment: registered by Government”. Wolfe’s Schnapps was widely available. At the Berlitz School of Languages, German was taught by German teachers. Russia was mobilising. German-made pianos were readily available for good money. Mrs Daisy Bates stated that full-blood Aborigines were diminishing in numbers. The opium trade in Hong Kong and Shanghai was controlled by Jews.

The Argus is history without a connecting narrative. The Central Flying School was offering instructional courses for officers. There was a rebellion in Borneo after a Chinese burgomaster was killed. When the rebels marched on the capital they were met by Dutch troops and “defeated with heavy loss”. International rules for the “game of war” were discussed by a newspaper expert. There would be a special excursion on the bay steamer Edina to Geelong and Portarlington on Sunday with a band on board. A two-up school was raided in Footscray. A new German cargo steamer, the SS Pfalz, arrived in Melbourne from Bremen on Thursday. It was scheduled to continue to Sydney the next week. The level of the Murray rose three feet, river trade recommenced and a newly-built paddle-steamer was launched at Koondrook—this is where my great-grandparents, Selina’s parents, settled, brought up their family and are buried in lost grave sites.

Charity played a part in my family story, and criticisms of some institutions that appeared in the Argus are chilling. At the Royal Park Children’s Home where “diseased and half-witted children were allowed to mix with healthy and mentally sound children” the death rate among the children had doubled. It was blamed on bad treatment and the changing of nurses. Not all charity is so harsh. When my father was twenty-three days old, he and Selina had been cared for at the Victorian Infant Asylum in Berry Street, East Melbourne. It probably saved his life and that of his future siblings, for Selina was taught how to care for a new-born child. Possibly the twenty-five-year-old mother had been discovered in a piteous state before being helped. This assistance was only provided the first time and my grandmother was set on founding a dynasty.

Then, at the other end of life, there was the Melbourne Benevolent Asylum for the old: “The pensioners mostly did not seek admission until, through sickness, they could not manage outside any longer, and when they arrived at the asylum they were mostly in a deplorable condition, many arriving in a dying state.” Another great-grandmother, on my mother’s side of the family, ended here, a strange end for a woman who had had nine children. It would also be a step, when he was old and blind, in the life of Selina’s husband—I find it hard to call him my grandfather as he only appeared in her life three years after my father was born.

On Saturday when the fog lifted it was a beautiful day, which August Franks might not have noticed. The previous night he was saved from burning to death in his bed when policemen broke open the door of his room and “doused him in water”. The fire had started when he drunkenly knocked over a kerosene lamp. After a night’s accommodation at the police station the Williamstown court fined him five shillings for being intoxicated. “Franks expressed disgust at the police ‘making such a fuss’ about a man getting drunk.” Still, there was a touch of spring in the day, a fine afternoon for the near-lynching of the umpire at the Essendon–Collingwood game.

Imperial German mail steamers were advertising sailings from Australian ports to Germany from Friday August 8 until April 30, 1915.

In Perth, a humanitarian presented the state government with a solution to the mosquito problem. He proposed importing bats from Italy and was personally prepared to build a roost and supply 2000 of them. If his experiment proved as successful as he claimed after three months, he asked only to be paid 900 pounds for his work. After deliberation it was decided to import one bat and have “experts decide whether it is likely to become obnoxious”. Also in Perth, several Chinese men were sentenced for possession of opium and being idle and disorderly. It was also noted that “girls were being taught Chinese and opium smoking”.

On that day in Pittsburgh, USA, Australia defeated Germany in the Davis Cup doubles. There was some surprise when, during a break in the match, our tennis star Norman Brookes rejected an offered glass of champagne in favour of water.

Russia was continuing mobilisation, Germany was protesting. Everywhere public meetings were being held and planned for the election. Prime Minister Cook took a motor car from Ballarat to address a meeting in Colac on the Saturday afternoon. The Australian Women’s National League was also advertising a meeting.

In Sydney the war excitement brought people into the streets and “at times there appeared to be a danger of racial feelings asserting themselves”. The German Consul refused to believe there would be war between Germany and Britain. There were reports of “great joy in St Petersburg” at the approach of war. Our warships were called to Sydney. The federal government called an emergency cabinet meeting to be held on the Monday in Melbourne at 3 p.m.

Someone lost a talking galah, and someone found a motor wheel with a Dunlop tyre. And a few someones got divorced.                                  

That Saturday afternoon, in the Lacrosse Interstate Deaf Mute Match, the South Australian team defeated Victoria and were then entertained by the Melbourne Adult Deaf Society at Sargent’s Café. A local centenarian, born in 1810 in Aberdeen, died. Lee Sam, Grand Master of the Chinese Masonic Society, also died and a large funeral was planned.

Several days previously an elderly pedestrian had also died in an accident. A horse-drawn baker’s jinker crashed into a tree in Lonsdale Street. The horse broke loose and bolted, ran down and killed the old-age pensioner, before colliding with a tram with such force that it was derailed and the horse’s back was broken. It was shot.

Foreign cables revealed that terrorist suffragettes had exploded a bomb in Ireland’s Lisburn Cathedral, and French socialist leader Jean Jaures, who Andy Fisher had met on a trip to Paris, had been murdered.

There was sport that day: billiards, gun clubs, hunting to hounds, horse racing, a cross-country championship, golf, hurdle racing and football. Carlton defeated Geelong at Carlton and, though that was the major match, the Essendon–Collingwood clash at East Melbourne was more memorable. Alan Belcher, the Essendon captain, was kicked in the head and received seven stitches: four more than when he was kicked in the head a few weeks before. Returning to the ground he was groggy and Collingwood player Dick Lee taunted him. Belcher turned his back—he couldn’t afford to be penalised for another on-field fight. At half time Lee was leaving the ground when a boy in the stand threw a clump of earth “which struck Lee in the nose. It was a painful blow, and Lee was righteously indignant.” In 1921 Belcher, aged thirty-six, died in the Kew Hospital for the Insane; Dick Lee died in 1968, aged seventy-nine. Essendon won, and after the match the umpire was almost lynched.

On Saturday evening at 5.15 the Argus received a cable with news of German mobilisation.

When the news was received the adult members of one part of my family may already have been drunk in a Carlton pub as, on the other side of the family, preparations were being made for a Methodist church-going Sabbath in Portarlington. Wherever they were, I doubt any of my family would have been in a nearby theatre watching a highly-paid international superstar wearing a kilt.

The idea of war was very present. The King’s Theatre was packed and as the applause died away for “Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep”, the Scottish singer and comedian Harry Lauder spoke: “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, twenty-nine British Dreadnoughts have steamed out into the cradle of the deep. They have gone out, maybe to fight. Aye, and they’ll be able to fight all right if they have to.” Someone interjected that they might not all come back, but Harry Lauder brought down the house by saying, in his decided way, “But they will come back.” The Argus writer captured that moment and his paper had already reported that when the British fleet sailed from their base at Portland the bands were playing, people cheered and women in evening dress were there to farewell their husbands and lovers. During his visit to Melbourne, Lauder also performed, without payment, for the “old folks” at the Benevolent Asylum.

All about the city the theatres were doing good business. That night The Mikado opened at Her Majesty’s. A Royal Divorce, a play about Napoleon, was on at the Theatre Royal. Leonard Borwick gave a piano recital. The season of The Burglar and the Lady continued at the Princess Theatre. The Tivoli was packed for variety which included references to the European news: “A forceful picture of Germany being surrounded was very gratifying to the audience.” Tait’s Saturday Pops were popular. Both Hoyt’s picture theatres were full and the new 4000-seat Hoyt’s Olympia just over Princes Bridge was sold out well before 8 p.m. The variety show at the Bijou featured performing bulldogs and bull terriers, and female impersonator Ray Lawrence was very well received—his soprano singing voice was particularly good.

Sunday morning, just after ten o’clock, the Argus received the news that Germany was at war with Russia.

It was foggy again in the city and particularly heavy out in the bay. On the water the Edina, with her band and holiday makers, was motionless waiting for the fog to clear. She was three hours late arriving at Geelong and Portarlington—my mother may have been out of Sunday School by then—and without radio contact those awaiting friends were concerned for their safety. Back in the city on this unusual Sunday the Argus published special slips for the crowds that had begun coming in from the suburbs and were gathered outside their office; their numbers mounted when the churches emptied of those who had prayed for peace and now came to hear the news. Amongst this assembly of ghosts I imagine my father. I would have been there and I believe he too would have found the city excitement irresistible. Perhaps that morning he had served as an altar boy at St Patrick’s Cathedral, one of the few shared stories of his childhood. Or perhaps he was imprisoned in a caring institution for neglected children, or had he already been sent to Gippsland to work for the cruel farmer from whom he ran away?

Andrew Fisher was in the country speech-making at the Mechanics Hall at Bacchus Marsh. Two days after promising to fight to the last man and shilling he was interrupted when he promised not to borrow money for defence.

Voice: “Money is pretty tight just now.”

Another voice: “So are you.”

Mr Fisher: “There are two kinds of tightness.”

At the Argus office, the news was updated during the day and into the evening until the last trams and trains carried the suburbanites back home—you wonder how many of the young men who were there that day would die on foreign ground in the next few years—and then my father would have walked back to Carlton. Dad always liked walking.

The last weekend ended where it began, in exciting indecision about a possible war and waiting for the next morning’s newspaper.

The usual number of days passed and then it was Wednesday. There was an unexpected bang. My aunt (my mother’s side of the family) looked up from feeding her three-year-old son. It was after midday and somewhere before one o’clock and they had just heard the first shot fired by the British Empire in the First World War.

My aunt was at home in Queenscliff, later to be my town, at the entrance to Port Phillip Bay. The single shot she heard was fired from the artillery battery just over the water on the other side of the Rip at Point Nepean. A warning shot was fired to halt the SS Pfalz from slipping out to sea just hours after London declared war on Germany. The ship stopped, obeyed imperative shore signals, and turned back to captivity in Melbourne. The child with my aunt was my cousin Arthur, who I only know from a framed photo, but this was not his war. Some twenty-eight years later when he again heard guns firing they were never warning shots. He was a radio operator on HMAS Perth and died when it was sunk by the Imperial Japanese Navy in Sunda Strait. His death was recorded in the Argus.

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