Doing our bit

It’s strange how the contents of one old cigar box can bring to life a period of history. My mother didn’t even smoke cigars, let alone know anyone who did, but somewhere she found the cigar box and kept it because, “It’s made of good wood, and you never know when it might come in handy.” That type of thinking is common in my family.

Somewhere back in the mists of time I had a great aunt Edie, (or a cousin several times removed – my family tends to be fuzzy on such details), who lived in a rather posh English seaside town. She was the local eccentric and recluse. When Edie died, they found dozens of old tea chests all stacked and carefully labeled. It’s the labels that that worry me. All neatly penned and attached to describe the contents of each tea chest, the labels read things like : “Dust” and “String Too Short To Use.”

So “String Too Short To Use” has become my criteria for keeping things. Is it worth keeping, or is it STSTU? I guess I’m worried about turning into cousin Edie one day. But I do like little collections that tell a story, so here is today’s collection from my family archives, via the cigar box:

ITEM : A bookmark issued during WW II, printed both sides, urging women to help with war savings schemes.

“…Street Savings groups provide a pleasant and valuable voluntary type of work for women.” Sounds a bit patronising to me, especially considering the contributions Australian women went on to provide for the country in the areas of manufacturing and agriculture. I can just hear some male committee member on the subject, “The ladies, bless them, can have nice afternoon teas and raise money…”

ITEM: Three family snapshots taken in Glenorie, NSW c 1940.

The house behind the group was built during the Depression, when the owners found themselves homeless, but in possession of a block of land out “in the sticks”. It was an eco building before anybody ever heard of the term. They constructed the walls of the house from sandstone boulders grubbed out of the ground on the property and chiseled into shape. As a child I ran my hands over those walls, and marvelled at their uneven grittiness. They were nothing like the smooth, plastered suburbia I grew up in. Gum saplings provided trellises to shade the house and to grow grapes. Pioneer stuff. And the ladies (bless them) did much of the building.

Notice the problem with this photo? The motorbike owner worked in RAAF ground staff at Richmond Airbase, but no one was going anywhere on the bike that day judging by the state of the front wheel. It’s nice to know that in the midst of all the hard work and war shortages, there was still time for clowning around and posing for the camera.

Snapshot number three shows the family planting a field of potatoes. Many foodstuffs were in short supply during the war. With their vegetables, a fruit orchard (the huge mulberry tree was still standing when I was a kid) and a few chickens, this family lasted out the war with a reasonable supply of food. Which brings me to the next…

ITEM: a recipe for Turnip Cakes clipped from a woman’s magazine, and lovingly pasted inside the front cover of a 1928 edition of “The Commonsense Cookery Book.” Probably a family standby, because meat was rationed.

ITEM: A book titled “The Right Way to Treat Dogs and Cats in Health and in Sickness” which was published in Sydney during WW II.

The first page explains how to care for your dog in a bombing raid or gas attack. It illustrates the high level of threat that Australians were expecting.

ITEM: Two unused wedding invitations dating from WW II.

On thin flimsy cream paper, with minimal decoration, these two unfilled invitations are strangely poignant. Were they just surplus to requirements, or were they intended for absent friends?

And with that, I’ll quietly close the lid of the cigar box.


She scaled the heights: Freda Du Faur

What happens to a woman who dares to be different? It’s a question as relevant today* as it was in 1910, when a young Sydneysider became the first woman to climb New Zealand’s Mount Cook.

Freda Du Faur’s youth was spent scrambling around the cliffs of Ku-ring-gai Chase, which gave her a confidence in her own physical abilities experienced by few Edwardian women. On a trip to New Zealand, Freda saw her first snow-capped mountains and was enthralled. She undertook several short climbs with celebrated mountaineer Peter Graham, who agreed to take her high climbing on her next visit if he considered her fit for it.

On her return to Sydney, Freda worked out in the Dupain Institute for Physical Fitness (run by George Dupain, father of photographer Max Dupain) —one of the earliest known instances of any climber training in this way. It was here she met her partner in life, Muriel Cadogan, who taught rope techniques.

I was willing to take the extra risk, and the chance of failure it involved, rather than not make an attempt at all…

Between 1909 – 1913 Freda completed a remarkable series of climbs, including all five of New Zealand’s highest peaks. On her second ascent of Mt Cook, Freda and her party set a staggering record time of 14 hours return, including 2 hours on the summit!

I love Freda’s courage, and I love her refusal to be stereotyped. Here she goes to face the crowds after her conquest of Mouth Cook:

“…being perfectly well aware that the average person’s idea of a woman capable of any sport demanding physical fitness is a masculine-looking female with short hair, a loud voice and large feet, it always gives me particular pleasure to upset this preconceived picture. Consequently, I strolled out to dinner immaculate in my prettiest frock…”

This is my favourite photo of Freda in her climbing gear on the slopes. It gives more sense of the dangers she faced than the formal portraits of her. And yes, she climbed in a skirt.

Freda and Muriel travelled to England, from where Freda hoped to climb in Europe. WW I intervened, and she never climbed again. Muriel suffered a breakdown, and her parents arrived to take her home to Australia, but she died on the voyage home, possibly as a result of receiving electric shock treatment. Freda returned alone, lived a solitary life, but took her own life in 1935. It was a tragic end, but a remarkable life, nonetheless.

Freda Du Faur’s accomplishments are well-known and celebrated in New Zealand, but sadly are almost unknown here in her own country. If this whets your appetite to read more about Freda, her book “The Conquest of Mt Cook” has now been digitised and is available online here:


* I refer anyone doubting that it’s still relevant today to Bill Heffernan’s assertion that Julia Gillard was unfit for leadership because she was “deliberately barren”.

Lost boatshed at Bobbin Head

Some years ago while bushwalking at Apple Tree Bay near Bobbin Head, I found a large rusty boiler tank on the hillside above the track. Further hunting revealed stone steps, a drystone wall and a few rotting pillars in the water. Whose house was it? I had to find out.

Local historical society records showed that Edward Windybanks was leasing holiday houseboats at Waratah Bay at the north end of Cowan Creek as early as 1887. (More about Windybanks in a later post.) But my mystery ruins were far too close to Apple Tree Bay to be associated with the Windybanks establishment. But comparing the two locations did reveal that the sites had something in common: both were situated at the foot of walking tracks from railway stations on the main northern line. Windybanks built his boatshed at the foot of a track from Cowan station. And my mystery site was right at the point where the steep track from Mount Ku-ring-gai Station descends to meet the Cowan Creek track. Clearly, people were travelling there by train.

The State Library of NSW provided more information. A Bobbin Head Guidebook from the 1930s announced: “A mile below Bobbin Head is Woodnutt’s boatshed which may be reached on foot after a walk of a mile and a half from Mt. Ku-ring-gai station, or by road to Apple Tree Bay. Tackle and Tucker is available at boatshed stores.”
Several fuzzy photos in the Library showed Woodnutt’s Boat Shed and tearoom on the hillside right where the the rusty boiler now lies. Moored boats for hire once floated close to the spot where the rotting wooden posts and slipway rails are still visible in the water.
A Lands Department survey map confirmed that was indeed my mystery site. (my annotations in yellow.)

So I had a couple of faded photos of Woodnutt’s boat shed and a map, and there my information seemed to end. Who was Woodnutt? And why build a boat shed so far from Bobbin Head? Then last year I walked the Cowan track again, and discovered that the National Parks and Wildlife had erected an information board with a photo of Woodnutt’s. It spurred me to take up my quest again.

The unusual surname helped me to trace the Woodnutt family, who had moved to Queensland, where I was delighted to discover they still build boats today, and I had several long chats with them.
Francis Hall (Frank) Woodnutt (1887-1963) emigrated from the UK to Wellington, New Zealand, where he worked in the merchant navy and became a champion sculler. In 1915, Frank enlisted in the 2nd NZ Reinforcements, but he was wounded and invalided out. He later moved to Australia where he and his brother Alf bought and developed the Apple Tree Bay boathouse. The brothers couldn’t agree over the business and Frank took over alone, with the help of his wife, who baked dozens of batches of tea house scones every weekend, and his son, who remembers having to leap down that steep bush track from Mt. Ku-ring-gai to be in time to meet the bus-loads of tourists at Bobbin Head every weekend.
So my little lost boatshed finally has a history, and an owner. You can see more pictures here on my Pinterest board.



A Reading Primer from NSW, 1928

Are you someone who notices bits of the past, like a set of stone steps, or the faded paint of old advertising on a brick wall? Well, that’s me. I spend half my time with my head in the clouds of history, noticing old things and needing to investigate.

I grew up in a house with a Mum who was a compulsive keeper of objects from the past (you never know when they might be useful) and a Dad who was a book collector, so I’m used to the texture of old things around me, and love the story they can tell.

I started a Pinterest board to share my interests, but I want to be able to use words as well as images, and I want to be able connect material in a way that Pinterest doesn’t really allow.

So here I am, doing what I swore I would never do, writing a blog into the ether. Not because I want to write about myself, but because I think history matters, and I want to keep little bits of it alive.

My first offering is an old school reader from my collection:  Department of Education NSW Reading Primer Part 1, dated 1928. It’s a small books, so I scanned every page. I have limited space on this blog to add images, so I’ll link to my Pinterest pages.

One of the attractions is that some of the illustrations are by May Gibbs, which shows the high standard that the educators were setting. That quality of production values continues in other readers I’ll post later.

You can view the full reader here on my School Days Pinterest board:

Happy memories.