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.


  1. I kept reading to see if Keith had been released from his service obligation in order to help his folks get back on their feet, but didn't see anything to indicate that he had? In time of war I can imagine it might have been somewhat tricky? What an awful experience, but the ultimate outcome seemed positive?

    1. No, no luck there. Keith served overseas for a few months on Bougainville Island, east of New Guinea - it had been occupied by the Japanese.

  2. "... he has had a big day but actually hasn't done very much" That sounds familiar - I think I've had a few of those.


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