Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sepia Saturday: A fire at Mitiamo

It was late October or early November 1943. Annie and Roy Phelan at Mitiamo were trying to maintain normality for their business and family while the country was at war in the Pacific and Europe. Their general store was a successful business in a small country town and they were very active members of their community. Their only daughter, Joy, was at school in the town and looking forward to her ninth birthday in a week or two and Douglas was away boarding with an aunt and uncle in Boort while he finished his Merit Certificate. The Phelan's oldest son, Neil, was away from home, serving with the Royal Australian Air Force in Milne Bay and their second son, Keith, had enlisted when he turned 18 a few months earlier and had been told to turn up for duty in Royal Park, Melbourne in mid-November. 

On this particular day Roy's brother Gordon and his wife Phyllis were visiting, and Roy had gone to Boort to bring Douglas home for the weekend. As Roy and Douglas travelled home they commented on the smoke on the horizon and discussed what could be the origin. They arrived home to find their shop and their home next door had both been consumed by the fire.

Sims Bros shop and home, Mitiamo, destroyed by fire in 1943. The business was operated by Roy and Annie Phelan. [Click to view large]
I have searched the online newspapers at Trove to find reports of the fire but the local papers for the year 1943 have not yet been digitised so I am relying on family stories and letters for details. The letters are particularly detailed because Neil was serving in Papua New Guinea and he was being told all about it by both parents. Luckily Neil has kept those letters, all except the first one where he was initially told about the devastating fire. Neil wrote about that time in a recent book telling the stories of men and women from the Kerang area who served in the airforce: 
My orders [in Goodenough] were to go to Ransford...I travelled with a couple of other airforce chaps. We reported in to Ransford, and they gave us leave. I went home for a few weeks. I was pleased to get home - a decent shower, decent food. This was in January 1944. Things had changed at home. My parents' house and shop had burnt down and they were operating another shop in town. I had lost all my personal possessions as well. It was a shock when I got the news in a letter in Milne Bay [Ploughshares and Propellers, compiled by Bruce Anderson, 2009, p416]
Apparently the fire started in a cafe (under the same roof as the shop) that was operated by Martin Dee. A faulty refrigerator was the cause. The fire got out of control, burned the cafe, the shop itself and then the house that was attached next door. The local people were able to rescue some things from the shop (including Roy's account books) and some furniture and items from the front rooms of the house. Annie and Roy detail some of these items in their letters to Neil, below.

After the fire there were two working bees to help clean up the site of the fire - knocking down damaged walls, stacking bricks and so on. The local ladies rallied to collect some items the family would need and there was a cheque presented to the family after donations were collected from the community. Annie and Roy were embarrassed by the cheque because they really didn't need the cash but were very touched by the thought behind it.

Roy wrote to Neil that his suppliers were very understanding and luckily there was another smaller shop in the town that the family owned so they were able to get the second shop up and running within a few weeks. Roy and Annie made the decision to stay in Mitiamo and operate the business on a smaller scale and rent a home several doors up from where they had been living. In a time of war it was very difficult to restock the shop infastructure and refurnish a home so they were very busy organising it all.

To further complicate matters their son Keith had enlisted and had been ordered to sign on so within a week of the fire they travelled down to Melbourne with him and stayed with Roy's father in Preston while he settled in and Roy sorted out more shop supply matters. They were also trying to get Keith exempted from service because of the fire - they argued that he was needed at home - and because of his health - he passed his fitness test despite the fact that he was completely deaf in one ear.

And yet another complicating factor was that Roy's unmarried sister, Ina, who lived with her father, had to go into hospital for several weeks for an operation and Annie was the only person who was able to stay and care for the father. Annie herself was not coping well with the shock of the fire and states that her nerves were bad - she had gone to stay with her sister Lilia for a few days to recuperate but then had to herself become a carer. [I'm amazed that there was no-one else in the family who could volunteer to do this!] Joy stayed in Mitiamo with Annie's sister Elvie.

I publish here some extracts from various letters:
...They had an afternoon for you on Friday Anne. I didn't know until Mrs Wallace rang and asked could they put the parcel in the house...Mrs Wallace said to tell you there was 14 tea towels & 2 table cloths, so don't buy more tea towels. There's also jams etc. There was another working bee yesterday, also V.D.C. & the ladies had a bee on the croquet court & then at afternoon tea. There was only 13 men at the fire bee, so not much done... Ede said she'd bring cutlery & tablecloths but I told her not to for the present, so she is bringing a couple (of) saucepans. I guess she'll have more than that tho. Ede said she had a brush for you.Well Anne I'm glad Lilia can manage you & I do hope the rest has helped you. I'm truly sorry I couldn't have done more for you I seem to be such a drone when it comes to helping people. Hope to help you settle in tho. Freda is anxious to help clean up & June too, & are waiting for me to say but I feel you'd sooner be there too so haven't set a day yet...
Elvie  [Letter to Annie, recuperating in Melbourne with her sister Lilia, from her sister Elvie]
Thursday Nov 4th
My dear NeilYou will see by the address that we are with Aunt Lilia for a few days. Keith had to go into camp last night so we brought him down. Father is trying now for his release. Since our calamity we really need him home, just now he would be a wonderful help for father & he is quite justified in asking for exemption. However we must just trust & hope all will be well. Aunt Lilia has put me to bed to try & pick up, my nerves are all to the pack, but hope to get a tonic to pick me up. Daresay father will be very busy with new plans &b arranging for the future, & I know everything will work out alright, if father keeps well. I wonder sometimes just how he stands up to all his responsibility, but pray God will give him strength for all his needs.At present he has varied ideas about business so as time moves on he will decide better.
Charlie's shop is not altogether suitable, but is serving well at the present. It is surprising how quickly they got stock again, & father will have a better chance of buying down here.We have decided to live in Hardiman's home, and think it will be much more convenient for us & give us more bedrooms. When we go back Mr Taylor is going to build some cupboards for us to replace the suites, now we only possess one wardrobe. We wouldn't buying furniture until after the war is over, even then for sometime everything will be very scarce & expensive.I must tell you what we really have rescued from the fire - think I mentioned the two front rooms were cleared, giving us the lounge & bedroom suite & two carpets. The sideboard contained all my crystal & wedding presents also my treasured needle-work. The Auto Waggon also had teapot, jug & basin, cake forks & tea-spoons, My cutlery cabinet was also in the front so I am very pleased to have these possessions which I value so very much. The wardrobe contained quite a few double sheets of mother's & new pillowslips etc & also two tablecloths. I really think I can manage to go along without replacing linen. The two wireless sets & four bridge chairs from the back dining room also mother's electric stove, but all other electric appliances I lost.We rescued your gold watch but lost Keith's. Chas lost his good camera too. My watch & engagement ring too are gone. All the bed clothing from three double beds came out, so that means we got six good sheets from them, also good blankets. The passage robe & carpet was saved, also father's tall-boy, so that gave dad his clothing. The old back room and wash-house remained untouched after all the fire was over so we got a lot of useful things from there. Later the walls collapsed and damaged the old buildings so they have since been demolished. Last Saturday about 50 people turned out to the working bee & cleaned up a lot of stuff & I believe they are repeating the performance this week-end. People have been most sympathetic in fact too much so, we are getting parcels & clothing etc & really things unnecessarily, however we are glad folks are feeling for us. You will get all the details when you come home Neil, & by then we will be more reconciled to everything & be able to relate the funny side too.The same afternoon I spent doing up a comforts fund cake for your Xmas so that too was burnt, however the ladies soon replaced that & sent it off. It may not be packed just so good, but hope it reaches you soon. I am hoping you may soon be back, so not worrying about parcels at present.I think most of the plant from the shop was saved, cash register, scales, typewriter & Evelyn's machine, & I think dad saved all the necessary books, except one day's dockets, so the situation could be worse. Poor Martin Dee didn't have his refrigerator insured so his was a big loss & he also lost all of his books.Father has just walked in & says he has had a big day but actually hasn't done very much. These times it takes so long to get far. Keith has gone through from Royal Park & tells us he has gone through his medical test & classed as A2, & is just mucking around now, don't suppose he is very happy about things yet.Uncle Gordon returned home today, rather a pity he should be with us when the fire took place. We thought it may be upsetting to his nerves but as yet he has stood the test. I think this was the first visit to us since our married life. I don't think he had much opportunity of looking around. They arrived from Melb the night before about 12 oclock & then 9 am next morn set off for Birchip. He intended to spend the following day sight-seeing.Now dear Neil I must finish up. You will see my paper is not air-mail, & my fountain pen missing as well, but as we can substitute I do hope your health has improved & those cysts taken up.See you bring home some cat's eyes & we can have some more sleeve links made with our oddments of gold.Keep smiling & come home soonCheerio, may God bless & keep you in His loving careFondest love & kissesxxxxxx from mother [Letter to Neil from his mother Annie]
Dear Neil
A matter of a few days & great are the changes. Little did we think when you left us that we would be burnt out. However it has happened & it is now on us to set about reconstruction. We certainly have lost a lot of personal belongings & odds & ends that money won't buy but will have cash to start up again & that is something.
We have talked about leaving Mitty & now would be our chance but I think will set up again on a smaller scale so that if the time comes that we do want a change we will be able to get out. The merchants are treating us pretty decently so that I think will be able to build up the grocery stock without much trouble. As regards drapery & hardware will not worry so much about it for a while.

As Keith had to go in to Royal Park last Wednesday we brought him down & dropped him out to the camp in the evening. ... Well Neil I think this is about all for the time. Ask questions on what we fail to tell you.

Still looking forward to the day when you say you are on the homeward run.
Love from all
Dad [Letter to Neil from his dad, Roy]
Ivanhoe N21
Nov 9th Tuesday 
My dear Neil
I have two homes down here, just working between the two. I am having my teeth fixed with Mr Yates so just work in with his appointments. Ina went into hospital for a minor operation today, she has a hernia, and will be in there for a fortnight.
We are looking after Grandpa whilst we are here, so tonight father and he are together. We do want to get home very soon, so I am hoping someone will come along & take care of Grandpa, otherwise I will have to remain down for a few days longer.
We had a nice letter from Uncle Gibson today & he was so shocked about the fire & suggesting he help dad financially, but think dad will manage to go along. Building is quite out of the question just now & after the war we can plan accordingly. You may even want to leave Mitiamo Neil.
We had a letter from you today No.14, but as yet you have not made comment on our fire. Your letters are coming from home, so are somewhat delayed.
It is a very difficult time for buying kitchen utensils etc, & crockery is almost unprocurable - however I think we will get sufficient to go along. Today father was trying to get some linoleum, so hope he succeeds. He is having a very busy time ... [Letter to Neil from his mother, Annie] 

Dear Neil...The school breakup was last Friday & as you may guess the kiddies had a good time. We burnt up Santas outfit but they substituted somehow or other & believe George Doffey made a very good Santa. Well Neil the time comes to close down again so love from all & best Wishes for Xmas which is getting close on.Dad
3 Tintern Ave 
West Preston N18
Sunday Nov 21st 1943
My dear Neil
I received your last letters from home on Saturday & in No17 you replied to the fire.
It was a pleasure to read your letter Neil, I'm so glad you have the fighting spirit & as you say we can smile through it all & be thankful for what we still possess. I said to one lady, it takes a fire for us to realise what  good friends we have. When father arrived home, there was a beautiful letter containing a cheque also. I would like to have you here for a guessing competition, well Neil it was the big sum of 197 pounds. I will give you a copy of the letter.

It was with great sorrow & sadness of heart we learnt of your great loss by the recent outbreak of fire. More so in connection with your home & personal effects. As a token of the high esteem in which we hold you we enclose a cheque which will express our sympathy in a practical manner and may help you to replace some household articles which is our desire. We shall be amply repaid if you accept this in the same spirit as we tender it. With all good wishes for a happy future
believe me to be

yrs sincerely

M. Wallace
On behalf of your Mitiamo & district friends. 
Well Neil as you know, we would rather not accept money from our friends & hope in some way to be able to return it.
We do appreciate the kindness of the people.
I'm spending the last few days here with Grandpa before returning home at the latter end of next week. Father & Joy will arrive down tomorrow, just for a few days. When I rang last night both Father & Joy were at Kendall's celebrating the birthday. So again you see the kindness shown, Mrs Kendall evidently tendered a party for Joy. She will tell you all about it. I quite forgot her birthday until I read your letter saying you had sent her a butterfly. Father said she was overjoyed. ... [Letter to Neil from his mother]
 This week I've rather rambled on more than I usually do for a Sepia Saturday blog but I think the letters are so interesting I couldn't leave them out. The theme image this week was a collage of four photos I suggest you visit the Sepia Saturday webpage to see what images other bloggers have chosen to write about.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Trove Tuesday: In which the Sims holiday in Hepburn Springs

In the 1930s Charles and Euphemia Sims were living at Mitiamo and had operated a busy general store there as well as a farm and store at Pine Grove. They dabbled in other business enterprises as well - an ice store, a butter factory, providing electricity, running a cafe and selling icecream at the Mitiamo railway station.

They and their family were very busy in work and community activities in the farming community on the hot plains north of Bendigo. So it is natural that they would look to the cooler climate of Hepburn Springs in central Victoria when they purchased a holiday house and there was the added attraction of the mineral springs that abound in the Hepburn Springs/Daylesford area. It was a popular health resort. Maybe they had holidayed there a number of times before they decided to purchase - we'll never know - but at some stage they bought a house in Church Avenue and called it 'Mitiamo House'.

'Mitiamo House', Church Avenue, Hepburn Springs
I didn't know what street the house was in until I found several advertisements using the resources at Trove. 'Mitiamo House' was advertised as a holiday rental during the 1930s and early 1940s. I found out that it accommodated four to eight people, was furnished, had all conveniences including electric light, sewerage, had a garage and was situated in a favourite position in Church Avenue near the springs. It was also next to the Grand.

From a tourist folder: 'The Grande' guest house, Hepburn Springs
The Argus, 5 August 1933
The Argus, 22 January 1938
The Argus, 27 April 1940
The female Sims were meticulous and proud housekeepers so there are stories of the daughters having to travel down to Hepburn Springs to clean the house after the holidaying tenants had departed. There are also stories of fun times when the family holidayed there themselves.

Family members at one of the springs, 1937
From a tourist folder: Locarno Springs, Hepburn Springs
From a tourist folder: Wyuna Spring, Hepburn Springs
From a tourist folder: The suspension bridge, Hepburn Springs
Joy Phelan on the suspension bridge, Hepburn Springs
The Blowhole, Hepburn Springs
Ina, Neil and Doug Phelan at The Blowhole, Hepburn Springs
Some time in the 1940s the house was sold. Reluctantly and resentfully. Apparently there was a government regulation about holiday houses that had to be complied with but I have yet to identify what that regulation was.

The house still exists, and so does 'The Grande' next door. Both have been altered but not so that they are unrecognisable.

The former 'Mitiamo House', 5 Church Avenue, Hepburn Springs. [Google Maps, Street View, 2014]

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Sepia Saturday: Pinnacle Point

The Phelan's holiday to Tasmania in 1937, mentioned several times on this blog, has provided yet another photo for the Sepia Saturday themed posts. This week the theme photo shows men at a height but seemingly unaware of the dangerous position they are in.

Well the Phelans weren't in danger but they were at a height. This photo was taken from the top of Mt Wellington above Hobart in Tasmania, at a spot called Pinnacle Point. The views from there are spectacular because it's a very beautiful harbour. Their car must have been chugging a bit on its way to the top! The mountain is 1271 metres (4179 ft) high and the 7 km road had only just been built. It was opened in January 1937 and had been a government project during the depression years to provide work for unemployed men. Prior to that the only way up was by foot. (Charles Darwin climbed it in 1836.) I wonder if the graffiti on the rocks in the foreground is still there. 

View of Hobart from Pinnacle Point on Mt Wellington, 1937
This is a recent photo from about the same spot. Note that the city has now spread to the other side of the bay. For most of its life the city didn't have a decent bridge across the Derwent River so it wasn't until after the Tasman Bridge was built in the 1960s that residents started to populate the eastern side.

Hobart as it is now. 
If it's danger you want you can see all manner of more dangerous activities over on the Sepia Saturday webpage.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sepia Saturday: Of droughts and flooding rains

The theme photo for Sepia Saturday this week shows old fences, a flood and a barge or ferry with cars aboard. I was tempted by the ferry idea because I have a few photos in that category but settled on the flood. I hope they're not too ho-hum:)

We Australians all know a verse of a poem published in 1908 called 'My Country' by Dorothea Mackellar, but strangely it's the second verse we know, not the first. And part of it is most appropriate for this week's theme:
I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
My husband grew up in northern Victoria where it is very flat and, for the most part, dry. But when it rains a lot the water just spreads out over the land and eventually drains north to the Murray River. It can take weeks to drain and is very inconvenient to residents, especially in past years when roads were just dirt that turned into mud. But of course kids love anything out of the ordinary so they're out to play in the flood waters.

Mologa in flood in the 1950s provides a fun experience for kids.
Mitiamo in flood in the 1950s. The Phelan kids are having fun and at least Neil is there to make sure they're safe.
An aside: One of the first things I do after I download my photos of the camera is straighten the horizons. But actually when I see the two photos above with their sloping horizons I think it adds to rather than detracts, but if I was to photoshop them I would straighten the horizons because they're 'wrong'. And I note that the younger generation taking selfies by the hundred don't worry about horizons at all! Call me old-fashioned but I prefer a straight horizon.

Toolamba Post Office in a flood in the mid-50s.
When he was about seven years old my husband's parents ran the Post Office and Telephone Exchange at Toolamba in central Victoria. It's not far from the Goulburn River that runs north to the Murray. Many, many rivers eventually drain into the Murray River - it has a huge catchment but the river mouth is continually dredged because mostly the flow is so meagre the sand continually blocks it. (Of course, irrigation and water storage complicate the issue now but it has always been a very seasonal river.) But I mustn't get myself side-tracked. In about 1955 the land around Toolamba and the Goulburn River flooded and the house/post office was surrounded by water.

Auntie Lena Larkin, Kooloonong, after it rained.
Auntie Lena lived in the mallee, nearer to the Murray River and in an even drier area. So when it rained after years of dry it was worthy of a photo. Here she is standing on an island in a flooded area that would have been dry and dusty the previous week and years.

Wyllie farm in flood, about 1960.
I grew up on the south coast of Victoria in a much wetter environment, on a farm where my dad had a herd of dairy cows. He didn't need to irrigate like they do in northern Victoria because it rained regularly and he had a permanent creek on the property that provided drinking water for the stock. But even so, a flood was an event that had to be recorded on camera. This is the view from my mother's garden, looking towards the track we used to get to the school bus each day. I remember her making sure we had our gumboots at the bus shelter (that dad had built for us) if it flooded while we were at school, or we would wear them to wade through the water and then change into our school shoes at the bus shelter. In our area the water soon drained away because it was undulating country.

This anecdote is more of a rain event rather than a flood. In the summer of 1969 my two friends and I travelled to Sydney to attend to NCYC, National Christian Youth Convention. I took my car and we camped at Nowra on the New South Wales coast on the way. The first photo below shows our camp set up for the night. The second photo shows the same tent after it rained two inches (about 50 mm) during the night! Everything was wet, wet, wet. Just as well we were in accommodation for NCYC because it took all week to dry everything out.

Camp at Nowra, January 1969
 Joyce Turner and helper, with our tent the next morning.
And finally, one that is interesting but doesn't belong to me. I have been scanning old photos for the Genealogical Society of Victoria's Flickr page and this was one I processed this week. It's a Fiat car bogged to the axles, somewhere in Victoria, in the 1920s. I wonder how he got the car out? I'm guessing he walked to the nearest farm and asked the farmer to bring his horses down to tow him out. But I'm glad he, too, thought to take a photo.

You can see what others have made of the theme photo over on the Sepia Saturday webpage.