The Early Years

AuthorEnid Fulton (nee Westcott)
EditorMary Westcott
Time23 min read

Information for the Centenary Celebrations at Catumnal Station in 2012. Contributed in December 2001 by Mrs Enid Jean Fulton (nee Westcott), eldest child of Mr & Mrs Herbert Spencer Westcott

My father Bert was born a fortnight before his own father, Thomas, died of consumption. As can be imagined, when his father’s physical state of health at the time of Bert’s conception is considered, he was a very frail baby. His mother was bereft and in no condition to cope with a young baby needing all her attention. She was nursing a dying husband, the bread winner, whilst trying to look after the five other children. Bert, therefore, was “put out to a wet nurse” for some time. Grannie also asked an old friend of the family to name the new arrival. In view of the baby’s appearance, high forehead and large head and small body, he appeared to be well endowed with intellect so the old gentleman was moved to suggest the name “Herbert Spencer”. Herbert Spencer was the notable English philosopher of the day. Grannie (Priscilla) thought this name very suitable so Herbert Spencer Westcott first started life in Ballarat, Victoria in 1884.

In time, after Thomas’s death, his father Isaac bought Priscilla a large house at Mt. Waverley in Melbourne which she was able to use as a boarding house and here five children were brought up under her strict but loving tutelage. The sixth, Uncle Lew, was taken in by Mary and Willie Westcott, her sister and brother-in-law. and lived with them until he finished his course in engineering at the Ballarat School of Mines. He always spoke fondly and respectfully of Uncle Willie and Aunty Mary.

I remember my grandmother as a rather awe-inspiring old lady, regal and confident in manner and extremely respectable. Yet she had the saving grace of a sense of humour. In my childish thoughts, I used to envy her because it seemed she never did anything wrong. She always knew what was right. We all had to watch our P’s and Q’s – even my mother. Mum told the story of one session at the mending basket when, taking up Dad’s pants, she remarked that it was a bit of a nuisance that Bert was out of proportion as she always had to take up the legs of his trousers. Grannie was affronted. “ My Bertie out of proportion – never. Bertie has a beautiful figure”. Dad used to love this story and I remember him telling it over and over to numerous audiences. There were numerous audiences as Bert and Elsie had hosts of friends and relatives who visited and, I realise, looking back, that we lived a wonderful social life in those days at Catumnal. There were convivial friends everywhere and frequent passers-through who sometimes (usually) stayed the night and no distance seemed too great to prevent tennis parties, cricket matches, swimming when the creeks were full, bush race meetings and gymkhanas etc.

My father had not lived with his family at Mt. Waverley for very long. His less-than-good health continued as he had “a bad chest”. In the fashion of the day, it was considered desirable to send children with “bad chests” to sea as that did them good. So at a very early age, about 13, my father found himself an Apprentice, a Midshipman, (like Hornblower) an apprentice officer, aboard a sailing ship. It seems incredible to us in these days that a child could have been consigned to such a harsh service as the Merchant Service at such an early age but in the late 1800’s perhaps the hard facts were glossed over by assurances that the apprentice would be “looked after” and protected by the officers who of course were supposed to be “gentlemen”. Of course, there must also have been memories of his father’s chest problems influencing the decision to send him to sea. I sometimes wonder if my father’s silence about his youth (compared with my mother’s frank and frequent stories) stemmed from experiences that he didn’t wish to repeat. However, he survived and rose in the service and gained his Master’s Certificate and was acting-Captain on some Queensland coastal vessels for a time. There was a very serious strike amongst the sailors at this time and all shipping was tied up. The owners immediately laid off all hands WITHOUT PAY including the officers who had no part in the strike. Dad found himself ashore with very little money and was furious. He vowed there and then that he would never go back to sea – a vow that he certainly kept.

At first, the only work he could find, he told me, was shovelling sawdust. He got the job from his brother Lew who was Underground Manager at Many Peaks or Mount Perry. Well, from the bridge of a ship to shovelling sawdust certainly was not good for soft hands, Blisters caused him agony and it was not long before he was turning his mind very actively towards a better career. Also, he nearly caused a strike there because, being used to sea discipline, he expected men to do as they were told – to put their shovels back where they were supposed to be and all to be left “shipshape”. Apparently, he had some sort of authority – perhaps in charge of some gang – but his manner of expressing himself did not go down too well with the landlubbers or the good unionists. Whether he was “moved on” or not I do not know. But the next incident I heard about was after his arrival at “Brookwood” as a Jackaroo. He went to “Brookwood” (owned by Sir Norman Brookes) to gain experience in sheep management in the hope of balloting successfully for some sheep country. At this time the largest blocks of land were being cut up and handed out for smaller settlement. Westcott Brothers’ initial block was cut from Lerida owned by Mr White a wealthy owner of properties all over Australia. At “Brookwood” his rise was meteoric. He had to spend a lot of time collecting the manager, who was not of sober habits, from the Muttaburra hostelry after his latest “bender”. When the owner became aware of this the manager, of course, had his services dispensed with and my father was made Overseer with full responsibility (presumably with the aid of the book-keeper) for the management of the property – this after only 3 months experience. Dad not having much money, had proposed to his brother Lew that they should jointly enter a ballot for land and if Uncle Lew could provide the bulk of the mandatory 300 pounds to be deposited he, Bert, would provide the residence requirements and work the place and do the compulsory boundary fencing etc. Well they won the first ballot they entered for and I do not remember if Dad served his full 12 months at Brookwood or not. He became possessed of a sulky, two smallish white part Arab horses called Peter and Dick and a blue waggonette with which he set off for his new property.

Our “Catumnal “ was called after his family’s property near the Murray at Kerang in Victoria. In the last year of his life, Thomas Westcott had become Shire Clerk of Kerang as he had been unable to continue work on the family wheat farm. Our family has a beautiful Illuminated Address presented to Thomas on his retirement as Shire Clerk not long before his death thanking him for his services.

My father’s journey to Catumnal as one of the members of the newly-formed Westcott Bros. must have been quite a sight, As he was the only driver available for two vehicles the blue waggonette was hitched up behind the sulky with the two horses pulling in front, one between the shafts of the sulky and one harnessed out in front. The waggonette was painted blue, a medium-light vehicle with 4 wheels, 4 high sides giving it good deep carrying capacity and the driver perched high in front with a moveable “swingle-bar” attached to the two smaller front wheels out in front. Well back on the waggonette were two quite large back wheels – all made with iron tyres and wooden spokes. It had curved iron arm rests and a couple of bags on the seat. I feel inclined here to mention Lennie Lower, the humourist who used to write in the North Queensland Register (illustrated by Wep) telling of his journey to a friend’s farm by sulky. The friend had a coil of barbed wire on the passenger’s seat with a chaff bag thrown over it to make it comfortable. Luckily Dad’s sulky was better upholstered. Dick the leader out front was young and flighty and he had never seen a rumbling vehicle before let alone pulled two, but Peter was much more adaptable and quiet and as solid as a rock. (All Dad’s and Uncle Lew’s children learned to ride on Peter). The waggonette and sulky were still in use when I was a child.

One story of the journey was Dad’s falling in with a French Chef who was walking along carrying his swag. He said, “Can you give me a job boss?” The poor fellow looked ready to drop so Dad fed him up with damper and jam and corned beef and he recovered enough to cook the next meal which was fricasseed sheep’s head which was out of this world to someone fed up with damper and corned beef. Needless to say, he stayed with Dad until they reached “Catumnal” where he got a lift to the railway line. Why didn’t I ask where they got that sheep’s head? It didn’t occur to me. I was so young and I expect I just accepted stories as they were told. So many times in old age I’ve longed to ask questions – all too late. After first youth come babies and then children’s education and activities. It seems that there’s no time for musing, reflection, or stirring of curiosity about the past until one’s in middle age. By then families are scattered and the necessary leisurely and lengthy conversations with the previous generation seldom occur.

Bert’s first camp at journey’s end was a tent by a Thornville Creek waterhole. He must have been very lonely and overawed when contemplating the task ahead of him. Later he moved to the higher country (where the homestead was eventually erected) and built himself a weather-proof shack with a rush-covered verandah. This was photographed later by Uncle Lew with his Graflex slide camera. My father met my mother, Elsie Winifred Gibson of Bingera Sugar Plantation Bundaberg, at either Many Peaks or Mount Perry when she went to stay with her sister Kate who was Lew’s wife. Eventually, Dad had a nice homestead built and they married in 1916.

My mother was a good companion, a gifted raconteur and she played the piano and sang beautifully so their home was never lonely. A neighbour told me that if they felt depressed by circumstances she would say ““Oh, let’s go over to Catumnal after tea and ask Mrs Westcott to tell us the story of the Blue Grotto and that will cheer us up”,

That story of her experiences on her travels never palled and we all laugher ourselves nearly sick whenever we heard it or another of her fund of wonderful anecdotes. .She used to correspond with some of Dad’s relatives in Victoria during the Second World War when I was away with the WAAAFs. When I met these relatives much later they told me how much they enjoyed receiving her letters. The recipient would ring and tell others that one of Elsie’s letters had arrived and they would all gather together for the reading which would cheer up their spirits greatly. Mrs Cliff Blainey, Hilda, also told me a lot about my father’s family and the very early days in Victoria. She did not live very long after we had met and her death was a very sad blow to me. We owe Hilda such a lot in her provision of early photographs and details of life from those days. She, of course, knew all Dad’s early family, aunts and uncles and friends. Her own grandmother was an aunt of Dad’s Her son is Professor Geoffrey Blainey and their connection to us came from our first ancestor in Australia Isaac Westcott., who was Dad’s grandfather and Hilda’s great-grandfather. Isaac Westcott arrived in 1840 as a free settler and did very well indeed. Non-convicts were in great demand in those days when crowds of land-owners waited on the wharves for the migrant ships to unload and to snap up the services of hopefully honest men and women. Listed as a builder and brick-layer on the ship’s manifest, Isaac found himself in charge of a sheep property near Geelong. The owners were delighted with him and the property still has the name Westcott on the gate. One night Isaac in his house on this property heard a cry for help. He went outside and swung a lighted lantern back and forth and presently a lost traveller on horseback rode up. He stayed the night and they talked. One of the stories concerned a certain Judge Willis who was very unpopular with the population. He was being sent back to England which fact interested Isaac greatly. Isaac had come out on the migrant ship with Mary Ann Maynard who was emigrating from Northern Ireland to Australia and they had become engaged on board the ship. However, they had quarrelled about religion so Isaac quitted the ship at Geelong and Mary Ann went on to Melbourne. Here, Isaac knew, she had been employed by Judge Willis. Now, he feared, she would probably be departing for England with the household and he’d never see her again. So next morning very early he saddled his horse and rode at top speed to the Willis’s abode on the far side of Melbourne. It must have taken him all day but they had not left and he once again proposed to Mary Ann. She was not averse but all her clothes and possessions had been sent aboard the sailing ship. He said, “Never mind, they can be taken off in Adelaide when the ship calls there”. This was arranged and Mary Ann stayed to what must have been an interesting life. Isaac was variously a farmer, who has left behind his jam factory for his descendants to see, the churches and buildings he built which are now in the National Trust and in particular, the church and church hall at Black Lead near Ballarat which still house the photos of him and his wife and children who were stalwarts of the church, which he also built. In Black Lead he owned a shop and sold tools and other things to the miners. Thomas, his eldest son, married Priscilla Moyle. They, the Moyles, were well-respected farmers and before professional legal men arrived in that district Priscilla’s father was treated as the local dispute-settler purely because of his character, sense of justice and strength – stature I expect it would be called. These are some of the facts I learned from Mrs Hilda Blainey who introduced me to the officials of the local historical society at Black Lead. What a thrill it was for me and my daughter Louize to tread this ground, see the Moyle house still standing, sit as welcome guests beside a wonderful fire and be regaled by delicious food and stories of the “early days” and, best of all, to see the photographs of our ancestors. I’ll never forget those kind folk. and always be so grateful to them.

In about 1919 Uncle Lew’s health had deteriorated due to underground mining and it seemed a good idea for him to come west to Catumnal’s dry climate which was expected to benefit his “bad chest”. To accommodate his family he bought a very nice house from Charters Towers obtained at a very reasonable price as Charters Towers was declining as a gold producer by that time. It was tongue and groove timber which was dismantled, board by board, each board being marked to aid re-erection and transported by long waggon or waggons to Catumnal. I saw a photo of its arrival of only one waggon with many horses pulling it. I counted a lot of horses, about sixteen I think. I don’t feel the whole house could have been on one wagon – perhaps it was. It was a big house with large verandahs all around. This was added to my father’s and mother’s house by a “midway” consisting of a double verandah. The combined house was huge. It was also very architecturally harmonious because the whole effect looked good with roof, gables etc. just right. Someone in the two families – or maybe the contractor – must have been suitably artistic.

Catumnal had beautiful dark black soil with Mitchell and Flinders grass, ideal for sheep and, with sufficient rain, was a paradise of green grass and wildflowers but unfortunately, that area was subject to dreadful droughts. These blocks that were cut from Lerida were 20,000 acres each. Many long years later, when the climate was much drier, there was a strong push amongst the local selectors to have an extension of area granted to them. Mr Joe Lyons was the Australian Prime Minister at the time and, when passing through Corfield, he met Paddy, a kangaroo shooter from our district. He asked Paddy “And what do you think, Paddy, about this extension of the area for the locals. Don’t you think 20,000 acres is enough?” Paddy, bless his heart, said: “It wouldn’t feed a bloody goat!” Well, not long after this Catumnal received an extension of the area of another 15,000 acres nearby, which my father named Jindaroo, so it has always been felt that Paddy’s remark might have swayed the Government.

Good seasons had not persisted after Uncle Lew’s arrival; drought took over and it became obvious that Catumnal would not support two families. Uncle Lew, who had recovered, thought he would be better off going back to mining and after a year’s transition period of strawberry farming at Victoria Point an opportunity occurred and he did go back to mining; eventually becoming General Manager of the Mount Morgan Gold Mining Company after Mr Boyd’s retirement. Mr Boyd settled at Emu Park and I remember seeing what was probably the first solar hot water system in Queensland, being a network of black hoses on the flat roof of his big white house at Emu Park. He was very proud of it and all visitors had to go upstairs to “have a look”.

Life went on at Catumnal with many more visitors coming to stay, mostly Dad’s young nephews and their parents providing fuel for more of Mum’s stories. What a pity that she was never encouraged to become a writer. Any normal day’s incident could become a wonderful story in Mum’s hands, full of humour and perceptive personality assessments, her own asides and mimicry creating great entertainment. She was quite irrepressible and inimitable in her prime. There was the story of the plum duff and Bert Locke a happy young nephew-jackeroo who as a joke placed the pudding at the gauze door of the lunchroom to hold it open and the cook was offended and gave notice – the same Bert who placed Mum’s expensive crockery on the huge black wash-up tray so that it overhung the table edge and looked as though it was about to crash down but had been counter-weighted at the back with Mrs Potts irons so that it was fairly safe. But every person who walked in the kitchen door nearly had a fit – to Bert’s great satisfaction. Tom Westcott, Ralph Broad and Aubrey Locke, young nephews on holiday rigged up the whole house with string telephone lines and empty jam-tin telephones and set up a railway express service with me aged two as the passenger in the train (express wagon). They’d ring up the next station and tell the time of arrival in official language. “She’ll be in at 4.10 pm, Bert” and of course a meal would be ordered for the passengers (me) and when we arrived I was expected to eat biscuits and drink tea (water). This was great until I couldn’t eat or drink anymore. Then there was trouble and Nell Wilson had to be called in as the umpire.

No story of Catumnal would be complete without the “Wilson Girls”, Nell and Jean Wilson, cousins of Mum who were part of the family for most of our time at Catumnal. They were wonderful people and to Nell, I owe most of my upbringing and attitudes I’m sure. She and Jean and I slept in the Lew Westcott’s end of the house and somehow I didn’t seem to see so much of my parents as Nell took over my care completely and looked after me. Jean took on the cooking and we were so lucky to have her abilities and to eat so well. Dad always had a garden when it wasn’t too hot for plants to survive and I’ll never forget those old strawberries that he used to grow. There is no strawberry these days with a taste faintly resembling my father’s strawberries. I still remember the smell of pea bushes from when I used to crawl through them pretending to be a Red Indian. He always covered his tomatoes in winter with thick woolpacks, rolled up on round stakes which he’d unroll to cover the tops and sides of the tomato plants against frost every night. Neighbours would bring baskets with them and return home with a basket of vegetables. We had a lovely orchard at first with oranges, lemons and mandarins but drought and the increasingly necessary use of bore water did not agree with them and they gradually died, one by one. The tennis court was made of ant-hills carted there by Dad and tended with a couple of home-made rollers. By the time I was old enough as a school girl to take an interest, lots of stones were coming through to the surface. I made it my task to remove them and fill the holes – a never-ending job

My father was always a hard worker and assiduous in his efforts to give the family good living conditions. I remember he adapted a steel tank with door and shelves and surrounded the whole with charcoal kept in place by a framework of wire netting and steel “star” fencing spreaders. The door must have been over a foot thick. This, when kept wet, was to provide cool storage conditions for butter and milk etc. It worked well at first but word must have got around amongst the wild-life that here was a good thing. Before too long it was infested by hundreds of cockroaches. When a hose was applied there would be a great rustling and commotion and the whole thing would heave with movement as the roaches scrambled out for air. We could not use the inside unless everything was put in screw-top jars or securely wrapped which was a great inconvenience. Eventually, the smell indicated it was more a cockroach settlement than a hygienic safe so a good idea had to be consigned to the rubbish dump. An Icy Ball followed – a gadget that I remember had to be heated over a primus so that the opposite end froze. This was then put into an ice box which held a small amount of goods. The Kerosene Refrigerator which followed was a godsend in that hot climate Our previous cooling safes had followed the principle that safes made of bagging when kept wet by many and various means meant cooler air inside. Dad’s efforts to emulate this Coolgardie Safe were quite successful and always looked beautifully neat and “shipshape”.

Being a girl of that time I was not exposed to the grimmest of facts of life as were the men who held the responsibility for survival and life for them must have been very hard – that is for my younger brother Dick and my father. But of course I was well aware of the facts and very upset by the suffering of stock and made a vow that I would never marry a “man on the land” – and I didn’t. I regarded drought as the Grim Reaper – always peering over the horizon if not actually present. I remember Dad sitting thoughtfully beside some of his wet concrete work one day. Presently he picked up a nail and printed into the concrete “Wool 6d a pound 1929”. Those were hard years of drought when his last (perhaps) 1000 sheep were sold to a neighbour 20 miles away for one shilling (10 cents) per head with the condition that they are delivered to his boundary gate. The horses were too poor to ride so Dad set off with the sheep on foot with a couple of dogs and Mum with the car carrying the camping gear; she camped out too. I also witnessed the “great flood” of 1933 when the rams were washed out of the ram-paddock by unexpectedly heavy rain. Most were found later, downstream in a neighbour’s property, hanging by the horns high up in trees lining Thornville Creek. The water from Thornville Creek and Cattle Creek, backing up from the Thompson, formed a huge lake miles wide. We could just see its southern edge far up Chesterfield rise and it wasn’t more than 50 yards from our cowyard on the north side. I think 12 inches fell between 3 p.m. and next morning and we had nearly as much again in the next couple of weeks. This was a surprise as the days when the monsoons “came down” seemed to have ended in the early 1920s – the real “wet seasons”. Stores for three months had to be ordered in November. This had some unexpected results. Before Dad married he had ordered a gross of junket tablets but the firm had sent him a gross of junket tablet bottles and when I was a teenager in the 1930s we were still using up Dad’s order of junket tablets from 1914. I remember the mailman had to dispense with his usual waggonette or buckboard and team in the really wet weather. He’d bring mail only on a couple of packhorses but was just as welcome.

Dick and I and the friends he used to bring home from school on holiday and also his neighbouring friend Doug Logan’s friends always got on well and had a good time. I did not see much of Dick because years of my young life were spent in Sydney under Nell Wilson’s care for the benefit of my education and when I returned to Catumnal, Dick was at boarding school. He took over Catumnal and its huge debt during the war years when our father’s health finally failed. He was released by the Air Force after about a year to look after the property. Very fortunately, wool prices sky-rocketed at this time which, undoubtedly, with Dick’s new management and new ideas, young energy plus accountancy training helped put Catumnal back on its feet.

Three Catumnal jackeroos, Bill Brooks, Geoff Wake and Dick Nicholson joined the 2nd AIF early in World War II. Bill, an ambulance driver because of a previous injury, returned safely. The other two became Officers but unfortunately, Dick Nicholson was killed in action. Both these boys came from Victoria, straight from Geelong Grammar School. They were good lads.

I left Catumnal at about age 21 in 1939 and returned in 1944 while my husband, Des Fulton, was away in the RAAF. He came to Catumnal for a brief leave later and has several clear memories of his visit. One day he examined a hay rake which had been standing near the front gate for about twenty years. The steel wheels had sunk about 6 inches into the soil and it seemed likely that rust had bound the wheels to the axles preventing movement.. During the early hours of the following morning a severe thunderstorm swept over Catumnal. The wind howled around the house and a tremendous noise was heard at the height of the storm. Next morning a large water tank was found in a lemon tree behind the house, having been carried by the wind from the shearer’s quarters about 400 yards away. The lemon tree was split from top to bottom. While airborne the tank had passed over a large shed before landing in the tree. The roof of the new shearers quarters had been torn off by the wind and sheets of galvanised roofing iron were wrapped around many fence posts in the direction of Burnside. A very heavy verandah post with a sheet of roofing iron attached was carried nearly half a mile towards Burnside before landing. Needless to say, most of the remainder of Des’ leave was spent on the roof of the shearers quarters nailing down sheets of roofing iron after straightening nails scattered around the quarters. As some of the homestead roof had been loosened by the wind numerous nails were also driven into the roof of the house. A narrow swathe about 100 yards wide had been cut through the trees along the banks of Thornville Creek and tree trunks had been twisted before breaking. This indicated that the damage had been caused by a mini-tornado. The wind had blown the hay rake about half a mile across country with its shafts ploughing the ground ahead of it, Des remembers a trip to Jindaroo with Dad where he was able to fix the telephone which had been unreliable for a long time. Increasing deafness cramped Mum’s style and depressed her spirits in later years. Although she had used numerous early hearing aids, none had ever proved very effective. At the end of the war, with a knowledge of electronics acquired before and during his war service, Des decided to make a really powerful hearing aid. Suitable components were hard to obtain but using assorted parts of varying ages he made a battery operated aid which enabled Mum to hear and enjoy conversation at the table. It was bulky with a box to be placed on the table and a telephonist’s earphone to be worn nevertheless it gave Mum much pleasure and very good service at Catumnal until better hearing aids became available.

I must leave recollections of later years to my nephews and nieces and Mary my sister-in-law who will tell the story of those later times at Catumnal and Jindaroo

H. S. Westcott born 4 July 1884 died in Brisbane in November 1951 aged 67 and his wife Elsie died in Brisbane on 20 August 1962.