My father is in the front row second from the left looking remarkably like his grandson Simon.
After leaving school at Form Four he thought he wanted to work on the newly-electrified Victorian railways and went to the senior tech school in Echuca with a lot of servicemen returned from the Great War (‘not altogether for our good’ which could mean anything between smoking in the toilets to attempted murder). But the workshops burnt down (possibly, were) and he went back to the farm (14 acres, seven kids, NO money) deciding he wanted to be an ‘agriculturist missionary’ in the western Pacific. ‘But the church authorities stressed the value of doing theology as well, or instead.’
He wrote about the group of twelve above in luminous terms as ‘quality men’, his friends for life. ‘I don’t think I have ever known (apart from my own immediate family that is) anyone as loyal, self-giving, straight and ‘dinkum’ as George Douglas Brimacombe.’ That’s my father talking. I can hear him. ‘Twelve men, nine Presidents of Conference, two President-Generals, one (and only one ever — him) a Bishop, three College Principals.’
After they dispersed to their various appointments they formed a book club, each person buying a book in January. These were circulated on a roster system so that at the end of the year each had read the same 12 books which were discussed via an extensive correspondence. Those were the days.
During their two-year probationary periods (in his case spent at Nyah West on the Murray) they weren’t allowed to marry, so my parents conducted their six-year pre-nuptial courtship almost entirely by correspondence. After Beth died Dad found a box containing every letter she had ever received from him. (The fact that he didn’t know she had them is somewhat indicative of the way he lived his life, just an inch or two above the ground.)
April, 1932. After just one week of marriage my wife and I found ourselves disembarking at Burnie in the rain. The ship had been the old Oonah, noted for her sturdy sea-worthiness, her slow speed and her smell. It had not been a particularly smooth trip, and we were unused to ocean travel.
At 7 am our train duly left for Zeehan, an 88 mile trip which took six hours. … Through forests of eucalyptus, myrtle, blackwood and all kinds of lesser trees and scrub our train steamed on, forever changing direction with screaming wheels. A driver told us that on one section of this line there was not one straight rail for six miles — and it was easy to believe him. This was our introduction to the magnificent forests, turbulent rivers and wild mountain scenery of the West Coast. In those days there was no way into Zeehan other than rail, unless you walked along the railway track which I did a good deal of.
Zeehan in its heyday, 1926. Methodist church in the foreground, with the parsonage just behind it. This building burnt down in 1956 and was replaced by the building below, also burnt down. There was no reticulated water in Zeehan — so much fell so often from the sky. In case of fire you just put an axe through the next fellow’s tank and formed a bucket chain from the stream … Obviously not always successful. Zeehan’s history seems to lurch from one razing to the next. During our second year at Zeehan we were awakened early one morning because of a fire in the house second from us. The neighbour’s house also caught, and it was feared that ours would go too. So about half of Zeehan trooped in to empty our house of all its contents. They pulled down the light fittings and pulled up the floor coverings — all of course in the spirit of helpfulness. They even dismantled and removed the iron chain on which one could swing a kettle over the open fire.
The man who really saved our place was Tom H. He was the only man game to go in between the buildings, prop sheets of iron against the windows and throw water where the paint was blistering. Tom reputedly also had the lightest fingers in town, and sure enough he was back there at the break of day scratching round through the cinders in case of a find.
They travelled between their two churches by train. In their second year another fire burnt out the rail bridge over the Little Henty River between the two towns. All the rolling stock was left on the northern side of the river, so for the three months it took to rebuild the bridge in order to get to Strahan they travelled to the river, got out and crossed it on a log, my mother heavily pregnant for most of the time, and climbed aboard an Abt engine running backwards for the rest of the trip. The Abt engine had virtually no tender so at every water course all male passengers got off and formed a bucket chain to top up the boiler. This took most of a day. There were times when he just walked.
I would like here to acknowledge my plunder from the West Coast Pioneers Museum in Zeehan’s main street partly housed in the old Gaiety Theatre where Nellie Melba once sang; still there, still lurching into life from time to time. Below in living colour is the site of the church today.
At that time Zeehan was in the depths of depression. Once a city of 10,000 it now had a population of 900. [In 2011, 728] Mining had long since ceased, and most things spoke of dereliction. Our great wooden gable church, stayed against the gales (but not enough to stop it moving when they blew) seated 600. Our congregations were more usually around 20.
I was responsible for Zeehan and Strahan, 26 miles south, the only connection being a narrow-gauge meandering railway. Later, we opened a week night service at timber-milling area in between.
So my bride commenced her married life spending ten days each fortnight in a rather down-at-heel parsonage in Zeehan, three in an old and very cramped vestry at Strahan where she did her cooking over an open fire, and the fourteenth at a bush worker’s hut infested with rats at Koyule. And she loved it all.
Maybe she did. Maybe she didn’t. I mostly remember her talking about how hard it was to get washing dry.
Their first child was born there and some parishioners were famously of the opinion that she should be named Zena. But she wasn’t. She was Dorothy and, when the time came, she was equally famously restored to the mainland in a fruit box.
This is a mine’s worth of workers from this area in the late ’20s, Zeehan’s ‘Oonah’ silver mine. Some of them could barely be into their teens, but apart from the variety in facial decoration you know all these faces. They are our familiars. More worn than the polished young men in the clerical collars above, but just as real.
Geoffrey Blainey made his name via The Peaks of Lyell, a history of mining on the west coast focused on Queenstown where most of the action was. The main street and the peaks themselves are above. As he notes in the preface written in 1954, copper worth more than £170 million (today’s equivalent, $5.38 billion) had been won from these mountains. The fifth edition of the book came out in 1994, the year the primary subject of the book, the Mt Lyell Mine and Railway Company, which had clung on for 101 years, closed. The mine is operating again today owned by a subsidiary of the Indian company Vedanta. (As of 2014 they had quit too.)
The Peaks of Lyell, the first half of which was Blainey’s Master’s thesis, is a terrific book, a very fine account of what mining is like, although perhaps more accurately what conducting a mining operation might be like. The museums of Zeehan and Queenstown teem with a different sort of information, not from the pulpit or the board room, more from the pub. Stories of mine pranks for example. Great hilarity over someone tipping over a mechanical loader into a chute. No wonder the list of work rules could basically be summarised as ‘do what you’re told’ and ‘don’t muck around’.
But there are many other snatches of loneliness and fatigue, what it was like, for example, driving home in driving rain after midnight from ‘The Blow’ a huge open cut about five k.s from Queenstown after a 12 hour shift navigating round the endless bends and readying yourself for a shift starting at six next morning. Letters from sweethearts who never visited or from those who left never to return. The museums are like the forests in their disorderly profusion and their tangled thickets of information, but collectively they build their own very human mountain of lives lived close to the bone.
‘WTFA’ stands for Western Tasmania Football Association which over time had ten clubs each with several teams. But the distinctive aspect of the WTFA is that all games were/ are played on the Queenstown oval which has a gravel surface. We ran into an ex-Smelters football hero who may have played a season or two with Melbourne in the big time who described picking stones out of his elbows and knees after the game just like all the other players.
Queenstown still has a bit of kick in it. Artists come and go. This rather elegant building houses a gallery as well as a home. What the folks are looking at is clever usage of what were formerly wooden pipeline staves of King Billy pine. Like this in fact.
There are dozens of reminders of past glories. I liked this one, a former home of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes with its encouraging brick facade, now the workspace of Jim Young Electrical.
But Zeehan not so much. It once had a stock exchange, but now has rows of empty barrack-style accommodation. You can get a room for $10 a night in the hotel below. Maybe the one with the broken window.
We’ve been to Zeehan three times now and, despite the excellent feed at the Heemskerk Motel, Myrna thinks that’s enough. But I’d go back again just to see if there was something I’ve missed, to check on adventures which were still adventuring, to see how the women get their washing dry. Maybe for the rhododendrons.