Professor John Hull's mother wrote this fascinating account of her experience as a newly qualified teacher in the Australian outback, for the benefit of her family, in the 1960's. It records how the young Madge Huttley spent two years in the 1920's living and teaching in primitive conditions in a logging settlement. It includes the dramatic story of a very destructive bush fire, as a result of which a new winch driver was needed in the area. The job was taken by an itinerant English sawmill worker called Jack Hull. The story ends with her worrying that she, who was also the local Sunday School teacher, was falling in love with this atheist; but he subsequently became a Methodist Minister! Jack Hull's own memoirs were published in 1984, as 'Yarns of Cowra Jack'. Madge died in 1987 aged 82, and Jack in 1990 aged 91.
The persons mentioned by Madge at the beginning are Alison her elder daughter, and Keith her younger son. Mildred Treloar was a fellow student at whose Melbourne home she lodged while training, who became a lifelong friend. Beenak and the town of Cockatoo (named after the local Cockatoo Creek, a haunt of these birds) are in the hills to the east of Melbourne. The Grampians are a mountainous area in western Victoria, not far from Stawell, where the Huttley family lived.
Some relevant Aussie background: College and school years run for the calendar year, with the summer break over New Year. Iron on the roof means corrugated iron sheets. Skiting is Aussie for boasting. Kerosene is paraffin. Euchar is a card game for four players. March flies have a vicious bite.
THE BEENAK STORY Madge Hull
One weekend in November of 1964 during our Long Service Leave, Alison and Keith paid us a visit at Noonameena. On the Saturday we had a trip to Beenak, about 18 miles from Cockatoo. This brought back again many memories of years gone by, for it was at this historic spot that Jack and I met. I am attempting to write the story at Alison's suggestion, and hope when I finally get to the end you will be able to read it. Quite likely I shall get sidetracked with all kinds of reminiscences as the story unfolds, so please be patient and skip over what does not interest you. Maybe I will revise it later.
I went to Beenak in 1925 at the age of 20 - or more accurately Mount Beenak as the school was called. This was my first appointment after having trained as a Primary Teacher at the Melbourne Teachers' College. I had spent some weeks of the vacation at the Grampians. Mildred Treloar was with us and must take some responsibility for my being landed in such a place.
In those days the powers that be didn't worry much about sending women teachers to lonely or unsuitable places, and we were faced with a long list of vacancies, most of which were mere names, and required to apply for about 30! I forget just how many. So as Mildred had been to Yarra Junction, she knew there was some lovely scenery, and Beenak was only about 56 miles from Melbourne (weekend trips in mind) and I therefore included Mt. Beenak in my list. I expect I was the only applicant, so I got it, and like Abraham I went off to the far country, not knowing whither I went or what I was going to find. But it was all rather exciting. (What a lot teachers miss in these comfortable days!) I duly wrote to the Correspondent of the School Committee re my appointment, and expected that suitable board and lodging would be provided, even though I didn't expect the town band to be out to meet me.
Train journey from Stawell to Melbourne, Melbourne to Yarra Junction, Yarra Junction to Three Bridges, and get out at a little timber siding called a 'station’. This ‘timber’ train was of the Puffing Billy category, travelling from Powelltown to Yarra Junction loaded with timber and one passenger 'carriage', and returning with various commodities. Just about every township and settlement was connected with the saw-milling industry. The bush was the real Australian bush with towering gums, and in many parts the undergrowth was so thick that one would have to hack one's way through it, and scattered through this area were sawmills with their workers' huts and a few houses for families and sometimes a school, and not much else, and no fire protection. From Yarra Junction the 'stations' along the valley were Gladysdale, Black Sands, Three Bridges, Gilderoy, and Powelltown.
I dragged my suitcase along with me and inquired how to get to Beenak. "Up the Bump, but you'll have to walk as there won't be a truck now." So I left my case to be put on the next timber truck and started to walk the four or five miles to the Beenak settlement. 'Settlement’ was a new name to me. I thought it should be at least a 'township’ or a 'village' or something! This was a walk that was to become very familiar to me during my two years' stay.
As I had climbed fairly extensively on the Grampians, the Bump was not a menace, but it certainly was steep going - straight up following the tram track, stopping to get one's breath every now and again. The first mile or so from Three Bridges was easy going and horses were used here to haul the timber trucks, and again at the top of the Bump along to the settlement. In between a steam winch was used to raise and lower trucks attached to a strong steel rope. Alongside was a wire which when pulled blew a loud whistle as a signal to the winch driver. If a traveller were lucky he or she might strike a truck ready to leave either way and so would have the privilege of a box carriage seat on top of the timber (going down) or the groceries, meat and papers (going up). I confess I was a little apprehensive the first time lest the steel rope should break and I should have a fast ride to the bottom mixed up with the timber (or the meat etc.). The truck driver would have been company at least, but it didn't happen. The third stage of the journey was quite pleasant walking, the tram track winding around through the bush was picturesque and teeming with bird life, not to mention snakes etc.
Suddenly the 'settlement' came into view. There were about six 'houses', a number of huts, a shed or two, and that was all. The school was out of sight a quarter of a mile beyond, and the mill another quarter of a mile further. Inquisitive eyes peered at me round the corner of huts but quickly disappeared as I drew near. I suppose running off to tell mum the new teacher was here, and a lady at that. Quite a novelty as they had never had one before.
Well, no one to meet me - even the children were too shy to come near enough to be spoken to. So I knocked at the door of a house, which turned out to be a 'boarding house' where the men working at the mill obtained their meals - the single men that is, or the unfortunate divorced or separated ones who had no other home. Quite a few of this type seemed to find refuge of a kind in the bush. Mrs Luther was a kindly woman and took me in. After some inquiries it seemed that there was no place arranged for me, and nobody who wanted me, but I could stay there till I found somewhere. It was a nightmare. I slept(?) on the edge of a double bed with two children. No clean sheets. Breakfast was a line up of men either side of a bare board table, who stared curiously but were friendly enough. I forget what I ate, if anything.
A search for accommodation resulted in a room to myself in the settlement's only high class house - it actually had a fence, a verandah, and a small garden but like the others had never been painted; the chimneys were wooden and the roof made of shingles or pailings. The occupants were Mr and Mrs Richardson and their boy Sam (12), and they were clean and cordial enough; though Mrs R. did not have good health and did not get on with me very well for other reasons, so after some months I moved.
One of the memories of Mrs R's was a weekend Mildred spent with me. We had to set the alarm for about 4a.m. in order to reach Three Bridges in time for her to catch the morning train back to Melbourne. It was a particularly loud alarm and we couldn't stop it and finally muffled it up in layers of blankets and clothes to deaden the sound. The R's were not pleased!
The school building, really a hall rented by the Education Department from the Northern Timber Co., was pretty rough with the very bare necessities. A few desks, a blackboard on an easel, cupboard, table and chair. A vision of the model country school in the College grounds where we were trained to cope with one teacher schools rose up before me as a trick of the imagination. Here was reality! But it did have some iron on the front part of the roof. A small room at the rear held supplies of wood etc., and here I was told the previous teacher camped at times.
In the cupboard were a minimum number of set textbooks, the usual roll and account book, and very little else. Ink, yes, but not a sign of chalk. I was told by the children that Mr T. always used lumps of pipe-clay. They were quite ignorant of the existence of coloured chalk, but the older ones had seen some white chalk at one time. The monthly accounts of supplies included large quantities of chalk, ink, etc, etc, (apparently imaginery). When I later provided disinfectant, in the nature of phenyl for toilet use, I used to find the bottle out in the grass or bracken, the explanation being they "couldn't stand the stink of the stuff".
There was no fence round the school but the Committee later provided one, and also fenced in a special part for a school garden which the children quite enjoyed, and I remember some fine dahlias we produced. This also provided an outlet for the boys' energies as there were not enough to play football and I couldn't teach woodwork etc. They did play cricket of a kind, the whole school.
There were about 8 or 9 children on the roll, 5 of these in one family. The father was an American negro and spent his life playing and drinking. I wondered if they ever had any proper meals sitting down at the table, as at all hours members of the family could be seen running about with large slices of bread and jam etc. The eldest at school was the only girl. I never saw such a variety of colouring and looks in a family. Red hair, brown eyes and brown skin. Fair hair and skin, blue eyes and freckles. Fuzzy hair. Straight hair. The boys scampered all over the bush in bare feet to my astonishment, but they got into boots for school.
I had a rather tough time with a 13-year-old boy who had a very bad temper and took some taming. I had one of those torture instruments, a strap, always in a handy place, and another in a secret place for times when the first one 'disappeared’. It was quite a necessity, as I had to be 'master' somehow. Once he tried kicking me but each time the leg came up, the strap came down - till we were both about exhausted - but he gave in first, and after that we were pretty good friends. Also I earned some respect from the community.
I was the only single girl in the place. There was not a person of my own mind that I could make a friend of. The greatest number of married women there at any time would be 6 or 7. There was not a hall (the school being used for everything) nor a shop (all supplies came from Powelltown or elsewhere as ordered). The Post Office was at a farmhouse almost five miles distant. A girl of 15 rode a horse across and returned with the bag of mail two or three times a week, and we sorted it at the school. There was no church service at this time, nor anywhere to go to get to one.
After sizing the situation up those first few days, or even after the first day, I would have been perfectly justified in returning and telling the Department that it was not a suitable place and I was not prepared to stay. I almost got to the point of doing this but then I remembered that I had committed my life to Christ and had believed that his hand was upon my life, and that even here in this, as men called it, 'God-forsaken' place there was some work for me to do and some ultimate purpose. So I stayed.
I am absolutely convinced that had I not been a Christian I could not have stayed. And I found that not only was it not a 'God-forsaken' place - no place is - but that in the loneliness (I had always had plenty of friends) there was the opportunity to read and study and spend long hours walking and exploring the country; and the opportunity for service in the little community of needy people. I had a Friend indeed, and who became 'nearer than breathing' and 'closer than hands and feet'. This is not pious talk but reality with a capital R, and I often now think that if young people had experiences such as this they would emerge with a stronger faith.
In all good time I met the Secretary of the School Committee, named Charlie Harris, a man I suppose in his fifties. He was an enthusiastic little man in more ways than one - with a certain persistence in matters which were not included in his School Committee duties! He became an ardent admirer and didn't hesitate to show it when the opportunity came along and so was quite a nuisance, though he was certainly very helpful and a staunch supporter in school affairs. At one stage his attentions were so obvious that some of the boys playing outside were frequently guilty of chanting at the top of their voices, "Charlie, Charlie, here comes Charlie" etc, etc, (use your imagination).
When I moved to the Brann's house where I established a small library for the men, Charlie used to change books as often as possible, and when Jack came on the scene Mrs Brann who had a great sense of humour used to have her eye on the window and inform me from time to time: "Ere comes yer young man!" or "Ere comes yer ole boy!". Sometimes it happened simultaneously, much to her delight: "Ere come's both yer boys!"
I was quite a while getting the school in order. The previous teacher had been a heavy drinker and rather neglectful of many things. According to talk, the children used to go and wake him up to get him to school. Poor man, he was a returned soldier and perhaps had more personal problems than anyone knew about.
When the first coloured chalk was in use the children were quite fascinated. They had never been taught music in any way and had no idea of singing, so I started off with a tuning fork, which caused howls of laughter when produced. Finally they were able to sing 'doh' somewhere near the right pitch and we proceeded to learn one or two simple songs. Later when C. of E. preachers began services they brought up a small folding organ, which they allowed me to use in the school. This became a great source of pleasure to me, and also the children really did get nearer to the right tune. But imagine the outcome of the mixed voices of boys 14,13,11,8,5, one girl 13 and 2 or 3 little girls - approximately. The climax came when the Inspector arrived.
According to records the Mt. Beenak School had never been visited by an Inspector. It was too difficult of access and Mr T. didn't want him anyway. But I worked quite hard with those children, and in those days promotion depended on inspectors' reports and I felt it wasn't quite a fair deal. Therefore I wrote to the Department and said so. I guess if I'd been more experienced I'd have kept quiet. In most country districts Head Teachers would have some idea usually when an Inspector was about, but no hope here.
It was 'Bird Day', a day usually observed in some special way, often with expeditions to the bush etc. So I had arranged for the children to bring lunches and we would go off to bird watch and have a picnic in general. We were just set to leave when a horse-drawn vehicle appeared, and out he stepped. Rain coat, umbrella, rug, and a hooded vehicle - looking very displeased at having been brought to "such a place". Complaints about the time it took and how rough the road was etc. I couldn't help saying that if I wanted to get out I had to walk down the Bump. Psychologically very unsound, considering that it was 'Bird Day' and there was nothing in the way of lessons prepared. Well, we had to put it aside, get out books etc, etc. To cap it all, he wanted to hear them sing. I was quite pleased with the effort. But he said "Now we will have it without the aid of the teacher and the harmonium please". Which after a valiant start ended up so hilariously that everybody (except the Inspector) collapsed with laughter, and he entered in the marks column, bitterly, "Singing, 0". The kids skited about that ever after. He couldn't have pleased them better. I was glad to see him depart, and rather maliciously glad it was raining! He also pig-headedly put the blame on me for all the false records of the past. But the next visitor from the Department was a friend indeed. We had our 'Bird Day' next week.
My 21st birthday fell in March of my first year at Beenak. It was rather a contrast to the 21st most girls have these days. My parents gave me a portable gramophone and some records. It was contained in a wooden case, and had a winding handle, and a place in the lid to hold records. When I had the chance of a trip to Melbourne I bought a number of children's records, marches etc. So the instrument was carried back and forth quite a bit and brought great joy to the children. As my birthday was the month after I arrived at Beenak, I spent it there -just an ordinary day, except for some special letters. Letters were very precious, and I spent quite a lot of evening hours writing.
After a few months at the Richardson's I moved to the Brann's house as star boarder, paying £1 per week. It wasn't worth any more. I can't remember what my salary was, but we had to pay back to the Education Department the 9/- per week we had been given as an allowance during training. Of course, that was all the money trainee teachers received except what their parents supplied extra, but we had free board. My first cheque was quite something! I remember I spent a good part of it on a Schofield Bible, which I still have somewhere, all in pieces and which I should burn but it would be like burning a very old friend.
Mr and Mrs Brann were a kindly couple in their sixties somewhere, I guessed. He was a big strong man who had worked in the bush as a tree feller and paling splitter all his life. Mrs Brann was very deaf, but I could manage to make her hear by speaking clearly and slowly, much better than he could by yelling at her. When she finally got the gist of his communications she would often shout back, "Well, yer don' 'ave to yell all the time". I suppose he had enough of cutting wood at work all day, as she used to do most of the backyard chopping, unless I took a hand, which I did sometimes.
I didn't get very exotic meals but had plenty. I have vivid memories of watching her patiently picking off the bits of newspaper stuck to the meat. It got a rough passage, especially in hot weather, coming from Powelltown and then up on the timber truck. When the latter arrived and pulled up in the middle of the settlement, children etc. gathered round to collect their goods, and the trucky called out the names as he handed over the parcels. The horse-drawn trucks, six horses in single file, traveled along tram tracks with wooden rails. Mrs Brann had one cake recipe - a fruit cake which was always burnt. We had a newspaper table cloth always. If the walls of these houses were papered at all it was with newspaper. One man, Tom Nott, the mill blacksmith, brought his young bride here later, and "talk about a flash house" (the boys said). "They even had proper wallpaper."
The Brann's house had four rooms. One bedroom, lounge room(!), kitchen, and my little room at the back. It was so small I could, when standing in the centre and reaching in each direction, touch one after the other all the walls and the ceiling. There was a tiny window which had to be propped open with a stick, and when it rained I had recourse to three or four jam tins to catch the water. Mrs Brann could never understand why I wanted the window open at all. Mr Brann put up a couple of rough shelves for books, and a heavy piece of timber balanced on two crosspieces with a curtain attached for a wardrobe. This fell down on me, and I mean on me, the first day of its use, whereupon he produced a few nails, very apologetically. My dressing table was one of those old fashioned washstands with a hole in the middle. This was my writing desk as well. I managed to find something to cover the hole, and then put a Weekly Times open across the top. When I wanted a clean cover it was very simple, just turn over the page.
I used to contrive to have a hot bath once a week, in atub which was just big enough to kneel in with one's toes turned up a bit. And when I managed to get in, half the water went over the floor. However it was only a board floor with a bag for a mat and it was an easy way to wash it. I would step straight on to the bed to dress, and then carry the tub out on the bench outside (where one normally washed in a tin dish) and wash my clothes in what was left. The only water available was carried by the person needing it, in a kerosene tin. A pipeline from a spring connected to a barrel-shaped tank in the middle of the settlement was the community water supply. I carried a tin-full every Saturday for my washing purposes, and heated it on the kitchen stove - another source of wonder to Mrs Brann.
There was no evidence that she ever used the tub in a similar way, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt. But I was certain he was too big to get in it, and one day ventured to remark that I didn't know how Mr Brann managed to have a bath. She just stared at me in amazement and said with great emphasis, "Im! 'E never 'as one. Only when 'E goes to town". Which was about once a year! In my simple faith in the cleanliness of humanity, I concluded that he got into the creek occasionally!
The first Saturday I was there I papered the walls and ceiling of my room with clean newspaper, taking trouble to use the Age Supplements for the part near the bed, so I would have some spare reading matter. I had a little red tin kerosene lamp, one of those with a reflector at the back, which I hung on a nail near my bed. Also another nail to hold a mirror and one for a calendar; and I was right to start life at Mrs Brann's. Most of my clothes stayed in a suitcase.
There was a decent sized table in the 'lounge room' which I used for the gramophone, books and so on, and Mrs Brann didn't mind. In fact I think she quite liked having me. It made life a bit more interesting and she had a good sense of humour and called me 'The Maid', and I grew quite fond of her. There was a huge fireplace lined with kerosene tins, and we had some lovely big fires - part of the enjoyment of which is to poke. Mrs Brann chided me once - grabbing the poker out of my hand - "Yer allas pokin’ at it. Yer gits on my nerves". The room was very draughty with three doors opening into it and plenty of cracks. Also the winter was cold as it was at a fairly high altitude, plenty of rain and snow at times, so a good fire was a necessity, if other comforts were not, and people mostly had bare necessities. Which excluded comfortable chairs. We had three hard straight-back chairs.
I spent a good part of Sunday and Saturday afternoons exploring the district, mostly alone. The banking of cheques and other business took me to the P.O. fairly often. It was about five miles away. Gembrook was about 12 miles distant and a pretty rough road, but the only way out of the settlement apart from the wooden tramline down the Bump. There were other mills: Worley's 2½ miles, the Big Mill on the Bunyip River, Russell's mill about 4 miles. There was a tin mine deep down in a gully, and plenty of wonderful ferns if you could get down to them. Once Jim Hunter, a son of the postmaster, took me to see a picturesque waterfall. He killed a tiger snake on this trip. He also obtained a beautiful piece of fiddleback blackwood which I had made into a magnificent walking stick for Mildred's father, who was blind.
I was for some months under a Collins Street specialist for the skin, and worked in my regular visit to him with a weekend away. I always stopped at the Treloar's - it was a second home. Once leaving early in the morning I had the privilege of seeing a lyre bird dancing, and hearing its glorious music at quite close range - an absorbing spectacle. The birds are extremely shy and cautious but there were plenty about, and they could be heard imitating not only other bird calls but such sounds as dog's barking, the possum's gruff sounds, the axe and cross-cut saws to perfection.
There was a near riot in certain quarters when it was made public news that the school would not have Cup Day holiday. This was optional for country schools and as an alternative they could have a special holiday for school sports etc. They had "always had not only Cup Day, but Cup Week". However I could not see any sense in it, not wanting to go myself, nor did any of the children. I envisaged Mr T. going off for a whole week. The past rolls showed no evidence of this.
I got into trouble with parents occasionally. Once one mother informed me that certain things were being done and said by children out of school hours, and I should be doing something about it. After I had pointed out her duty in the matter she became enraged and came down to the school next day armed with a stick to have it out! These occasions required quick thinking and calm defence. Mrs S. and I later became quite good friends when I helped her out at one time during an illness. Was that house dirty! I don't think the mattress had ever been turned, and when disturbed the dust was choking. Once she offered me a cup of tea and scones. I knew the dog always slept on the bag of flour, so the scone was not easy to get down. Her youngest was named Horatio and called Rashi. He was subjected to being christened at the age of six and was for a time subject to further frequent 'christenings' in the race beside the school by the older boys with great pomp, ceremony and glee. I managed to end the ritual. The race was a channel about a foot wide, to convey water to the mill.
I mentioned earlier that the only books in the school were a few textbooks. The Committee agreed to co-operate in forming a library, and organised a series of card and dance evenings to raise the money and gave me a free rein to buy books. So we had a school library going before long. Then I wonder what could be done about the men. So it developed into an adult library, which I managed to keep in kerosene boxes at Mrs Brann's. I picked up mostly Zane Grey, Conan Doyle, and adventure yarns. After a time, when the men found the books were not 'sissy' nor 'religious', they used them quite freely and could come any evening to exchange them.
For some time after my arrival there was no visiting preacher. Then the Methodist Home Missionary began coming once a month from Yarra Junction. Mr Holman was a sincere though ungrammatical preacher. He walked up the Bump and back, arriving sometimes wet through in the rain and other times with his coat over his arm, mopping up the sweat in bucketfuls. It was hard work in more ways than one. By this time I had started a Sunday School which we held in the school at 2pm. All the children came. Church followed at 3pm. I managed the S.S. in two groups, using some one-teacher school methods. Irena Fordham was a great little help with the tiny tots. She really appreciated having a lady schoolteacher, and we became very good friends. She had black fuzzy hair and shiny brown eyes with dark skin. She had no companion near her age at all and was the only girl in a family of five boys. Later she sincerely and simply accepted Christ as her Saviour. I gave her her first Bible.
A Mrs Richmond had attempted to carry on a S.S. for a time some years before, but could not keep it up. She was a strong, rugged unusual character who was now visiting Beenak from time to time with a shop on a bike. Her husband was an invalid unable to work, and to earn a living she carried on this most courageous business on foot, and pushing a man's bike over miles of rough tracks in all weathers often at night, alone and unafraid. The bike had various attachments for carrying goods - including food, biscuits etc, haberdashery, clothing, socks, shirts, children's wear, and must have been no light weight to push. Sometimes she should appear with a pair of boots dangling from the handlebars. She was suitably clothed for her travelling with high boots etc. I used to love to hear her talk, for she was a Christian woman of strong faith, and I think talked to people in their homes of the things of God. She certainly lived out 'The Lord is the strength of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?'
15th February 1926 'Black Sunday' goes down in history as one of the terrible days when bushfires took tremendous toll of mills, forests, settlements, and human life in many parts of Victoria, particularly in the Powelltown area including Beenak. But though we experienced much of the horror of it, I thankfully record that no lives were lost at Beenak. It is not exaggerating to say we had a rather miraculous escape.
I had only just returned from the summer holidays and had appreciated life in a more civilised way for six weeks. Now the weather was fiercely hot and the country areas tinder dry. For a day or two smallish fires had been burning around in different directions. Sunday dawned hot, and worse with a very strong north wind. We knew we might expect a really big bush fire. Even so many of the men had gone off for the weekend. By midday the bushfire smell was really strong, and a few burnt leaves were falling. A couple of the boys called up to see if there would be any Sunday School. I said "Well, do you want to go? Are you game?" They answered with definite head shakes, "Yes". So we went and all the older children turned up. But it was so hot and smoky that we didn't stay long - just long enough to talk about what might happen and to pray for safety and presence of mind and courage. They joined in and then we raced off home. In another hour all the women and children were ordered to pack just a few valuables and get down to the only clear space - in front of the school, the small area used for games. It was pathetic to see Mrs Brann trying to concentrate on what to take - he was away - and finally we struggled off with our cases and joined the others. All the remaining men put every effort into saving the mill and the homes. The boys joined in and did a marvellous job.
The fire reached us about 4pm. It raced up the Bump at 50mph. You could hear the roar when it was still miles distant. But meanwhile another fire was approaching from the south side, not so fierce. This swept up the gully and met the 50mph one just at the head of the settlement, destroying our water line; but the bad fire was turned off along the hill about 50 yards above the Brann's house.
However, the fire raged everywhere all night. The houses with their rough timber walls and roofs would have gone up like match boxes, but the men and boys kept climbing up putting out the fires as soon as one started, using buckets and filling them from the barrels of water people kept at their back doors. A shed in the middle of the settlement and most of the wooden tramline went. I think the kids really had a great adventure.
We, sitting in the open space trying to comfort the little children and the old people, were running backwards and forwards to the water race, wetting handkerchiefs to put over one's eyes, watching the great tall trees come crashing down, with the sky looking like millions and millions of stars and the smoke getting unbearable. The bracken all around was burning fiercely and we decided that it would be better inside the schoolroom. I remember dragging the little organ outside, the only item of furniture worth bothering about, and running around outside with a bucket of water putting out small fires.
Then, as the hours crawled by, the women were getting more and more anxious about their men-folk. What were they doing? Were their houses still standing? Were the men still alive? What was happening? Somebody should go and find out! Naturally I was ablest and most independent and so I went. I made my way cautiously up the track where the fire had passed. There were still burning branches dropping off trees at times, and once a couple of tiger snakes reared up in front of me. I stood still till they passed, probably to a fiery death, and finally reached the settlement. Somebody told me that all was well and the men had won the fight but were standing by.
From time to time the few men trying to save the mill would come stumbling up the track, almost overcome with exhaustion. We would get to work with water and handkerchiefs and dig the cinders out of their eyes, and then after a long drink they would be back to their mates to continue the fight. At last by about 3am. somebody came down and said we could go home. Mrs Brann and I made tea – the only water was the race water, now dirty and full of all sorts of rubbish, but it was good tea.
The men who were returning from their weekend asked at Three Bridges how Beenak had fared and were told "We don't know what you'll find, if anything. The fire went up there at 50mph and nothing would stop it". They could scarcely believe their eyes when they finally got through. There was every house and hut standing and not one lost - not even badly burnt.
Gradually news filtered through of tragedy all around. At Worley's Mill 17 people burned to death and every building razed. At Russell's Mill every building gone but the people saved their lives by lying flat in the creek. At the Big Mill all buildings gone, but two men saved themselves by getting into a hole and placing a sheet of iron over them.
Our school was closed for a fortnight. It was used as a morgue. All the bodies from Worley's had to be carried across on stretchers and left in the school till arrangements could be made from Gambrook. I wrote to the Department explaining the situation and was given 10 days or so leave. I spent some of the time at Treloars' and was several days getting over puffy eyes etc. Then a few days home in Stawell. My parents must have had a very anxious few days, for it was some time before we could get any communications out and I can imagine their relief when my telegram "Safe and well" arrived.
On my return to Beenak I surveyed the devastation. There were smoking trees around for weeks and that everlasting burnt small everywhere. The insects and reptiles that had managed to escape now came into the houses. I had a plague of fleas in my bedroom, a snake in the wall, and every night before getting into bed I went round the walls with a shoe killing spiders, centipedes, and whatnot. But we were thankful to be alive.
The next Sunday a big crowd turned up for Church! Some of the men apparently thought once was enough to come along and thank the Almighty for their deliverance. They didn't come again. There were times, however, when the little congregation reached 25 or 30. The children always stayed on after Sunday School, and I played the organ for C. of E. or Methodist as the case might be.
When it was safe after the fire, I walked across to Worley's. All that remained of the houses and huts of the settlement were sheets of iron blackened and twisted, a burnt tin truck with its contents unrecognisable except for one penny. The earth was a shiny black bare expanse. I went on down to the creek which the people had failed to reach before the fire caught them and round the bend to the sawmill. Here was the same spectacle. Sheets of roofing iron lying about on the bare ground, and reaching out from under one of them a man's hand. I turned back feeling rather sick.
My parents were now getting very anxious about my remaining there, and Dad, being on the Stawell Technical Council, had the opportunity of speaking to the Minister of Education about it on some special occasion at Stawell. Without my knowledge he arranged for the lady Welfare Officer to pay me a visit of inspection. To my great surprise, one day when I had remained at the school to correct papers there was a knock at the door and there she was. Dripping wet, tired out, her first words were, "Whatever sort of place is this?" I still had a fire going, so she had a dry-out and we talked. Where could she stay the night? Was there a boarding house? Unfortunately there was not even a spare bed anywhere I knew of, or would care to send her to, and she could not possibly go back, so I took her home and she just had to share my single bed.
It was all rather funny, but she was a lovely person and after a while saw the funny side of it herself. As it happened it was one of those occasions when the jam tins had to be used and the cake was burnt worse than ever and Mrs Brann seemed never so deaf. We talked half the night and became good friends. Her name was Miss MacNeil and her job was to visit schools from which girl teachers had made complaints (sometimes because they did not have a long mirror in their bedroom!) and size up the situation. She said that she had never been in as bad a place as this and would get me a transfer straight away if I wished. But if I thought I could stand it till the end of the year, she should see that I got any school I applied for! I agreed to the latter. I hadn't asked her to come, after all, and I had applied for the school and expected to stay the usual two years. I think her visit would have been in July, 1926.
By mid-1926 we had collected quite a nice little children's library, and the youngsters were quite keen on reading. Nature study was always a favourite lesson and they used to bring along all sorts of specimens they found in the bush. Once we had a beautiful Emperor Gum Caterpillar which we fed in a boot box, watched the spinning of the cocoon, and then the emergence of the moth. I still remember the wonder in the eyes of a five-year-old.
In the March fly season we were absolutely plagued. No fly wire screens on any windows, and they entered in droves. Sometimes a child appearing to be concentrating with rapt attention on what one was saying was sitting absolutely still waiting for the fly to settle on his bare leg, then suddenly Smack! The dead March flies scattered over the floor, attracted lizards which darted about devouring them and providing much greater interest to children than multiplication tables. They had their own pet lizards (skinks) named and kept in boxes, produced at recess times and lined up for races.
When the Northern Timber Mill Co. took stock of the bush fire damage, it was decided not to recommence work at the Big Mill down on the Bunyip River, but to get out the machinery which was not harmed. This meant getting the steam winch and boiler on top of the hill in order to haul it all out. For this labour was required, including a winch driver. Jack was returning by train from Beech Forest, from a job which had not lasted as long as was expected, and happened to be in the same compartment as the Company manager, who mentioned the Beenak job; which he took on the spot.
We met the day of his arrival as he was coming down the tram track and I was going home from school. In the evening he was knocking at the door of the Brann's home, having found out that they were there the only people he knew. He had worked with Bob Brann at Gilderoy some time earlier. It was some time in September that he arrived.
He became a frequent caller, much to the chagrin of Charlie coming to change his books, read or unread, and to Mrs Brann's interest and discomfort at times, as she felt it her duty to sit up till he went. She usually dropped off into a fitful sleep, sitting up in a straight-back chair which was not the most comfortable place in which to sleep. After a while she gave it up and hoped for the best, leaving us alone. We sometimes went off for a walk - otherwise played records and talked. I soon discovered that he was not quite the usual type of mill worker, being well educated. He told me of his relations in England, and something of how he had spent his years in Australia going from job to job all over the place.
He was amazed to learn that I, a school teacher and presumably with some intelligence conducted a Sunday School, went to church, and was in short one of those misguided people called 'Christians' and believed 'all that stuff'. Whereas Christianity was the opium of the people and no real progress could ever be made anywhere till it was quite discarded for a rationalistic approach to life.
I was somewhat horrified to discover that he was indeed an atheist - having read quantities of atheistic and rationalistic literature and thereby 'knowing all the answers' he talked of the Bible in a blasphemous way. So we entered into many discussions and arguments, he lending me many of his books to put me on the right track. I admit most of the atheists' arguments were difficult to answer, at least to his satisfaction, especially when he had not read anything on the other side. There were some arguments from me that he could not answer to my satisfaction.
We would often meet after church and go for a walk. By this time the children had changed their 'Charlie' tune to another! He had a wireless set and would bring it over on Sunday evenings so that I could listen in to Wesley Church and Dr Benson. He even got interested enough to listen in himself and sometimes we would discuss the sermon.
About halfway through the three months of our acquaintance I was rather horrified to find that I was falling in love with an atheist who did not come anywhere near any ideals I might have - not that I had ever given much thought to the idea of getting married, but had been thinking along the lines of missionary work in the islands. With Mildred I had frequently attended the South Sea Evangelical Mission meetings in the city and had become gradually rather absorbed in the idea that after completion of the two years required with the Education Department I might offer for the Solomon Islands.
The School Committee was now organising monthly Euchre parties and dances to raise funds for the school and adult library, and generally taking quite an interest in things. We arranged a Sports Day for children and adults instead of Cup Day. The whole population for miles around came. I was unpopular on one score - I would not allow the barrel of beer on the school ground so they had it hidden away somewhere.
The afternoon was given over to wood chops, races, and the usual program for bush sports days. I was never forgiven for winning the ladies' race, as Mrs R. had always won it and was much put out, as she could not bear the 'humiliation' of being beaten. At night there was the usual dance in the school with the usual music, piano-accordion.
Now there came out of the blue a long letter from Miss Lil. Waite who was working in the Solomon Islands, pointing out the great need for teachers as they were now attempting the education of girls, also describing some of the conditions and the sacrifices involved, including the possibility of not getting married. I chewed this over for some time. Quite evidently Miss Waite had felt guided and impelled to write to me. Meanwhile here was an atheist on my doorstep. Suddenly my prospective mission field of hundreds of brown-skinned girls was reduced to and revolved round one solitary man. I wrote to Miss Waite telling her that I would give the suggestion prayerful consideration, but at that stage I was not at all sure of my future. It occurred to me, perhaps as a compensatory thought, that if I did get married maybe I would have a daughter who would take up missionary work with brown children!
Meanwhile the time was approaching for me to leave. I had been watching the Education Department Gazette month by month for a suitable vacancy for which to apply. I had been away from home for four years and felt I owed it to my parents and in fact would like to live at home in Stawell again. I think it was in the October copy - glancing down the vacancies, as if in bold relief though not actually, was 'Concongella 3m Stawell HT Class 5'. I knew this was for me, so sent in an immediate application, and as promised by Miss MacNeil, I was appointed to commence in January 1927, much to my parents' relief and joy.
Charlie got busy with preparations for giving me a good send-off when the end of the year came - collecting for a presentation - but apparently he met with some opposition from some of the womenfolk - Mrs R. being the leader. When he told me I immediately reacted, of course, and told him he could just call it all off and tell them I didn’t want any presentation and would not accept anything. Which he did. So the climate was rather uncomfortable and it looked like a 'Cheerio, glad to be rid of you' style of farewell. But I was in for a surprise. I was invited along to the school when the time came, as the men just wanted to say farewell. It was the funniest farewell party. A tin of biscuits set in the centre of the bare table, cups of tea, and lots of speeches, one after another saying nice things about the library and the S.S. and school. It was nice to know of their appreciation - so spontaneous too. I think practically all of the men in the settlement were there. Finally there came the presentation, a collection among the men amounting to about £18 and an invitation to buy something I would like. I really think they appreciated putting one over the women who had been told they were not invited. Most of the women were quite nice to me really. It only needed one poison tongue. When I left, I went round the homes to say goodbye and try to leave no unpleasant feelings, but Mrs R. would not even shake hands. She was not a happy person and I felt sorry for her. So ended my two years at Beenak.