Wollongong High’s centenary, my family history, WW1

In December is the 100th birthday of what is now Wollongong High School of the Performing Arts.

WHSPA has a long and interesting history since it was first founded in December 1916. It was originally located where Smith’s Hill High School is now located before moving to its current site in 1957.

The original school was officially opened by the then Minister for Education Mr James and contained only six classrooms, a science room, a manual training room, a library and some offices. The founding Headmaster was Mr Frank McMullen who opened the school on 29 January 1917 with 140 student enrolments.

The original school motto from 1918, Age Quid Agas was later changed when it was discovered that it translated as “What on earth are you doing?” The school motto then became Age Quod Agis meaning “Whatever you do, do well.” – a fitting motto that exemplifies the expectations of students, teachers, parents and the school community to this day.

I taught there 1975-1980, with a hiatus for secondment to Sydney University 1977-1978. My Uncle Keith Christison and Aunt Beth Christison (Heard) went to WHS in the 1930s. I had an Uncle, Colin Whitfield, who was part of the founding intake. He was born in 1901, but I never met him.  This may be seen in Shellharbour Cemetery:

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For the sad story behind these see Neil’s personal decades: 20 – Shellharbour Whitfields 1905 and Neil’s personal decades 26: Whitfields, Christisons, and more — 1915.

In Shellharbour the home front for my family was a sad place in 1915, as posted in More Whitfield family history last year.

My uncle, Colin Whitfield

Obviously I never knew him, nor he me, though when I was in high school I used an Algebra textbook that was in our house, inscribed with his name. This is such a sad story. I had never before seen this detailed version, though it confirms the oral accounts I have had of that dreadful tragedy back in Shellharbour in 1915. Illawarra Mercury 9 April 1915.

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Not far away in Albion Park Cemetery you can find the grave of Bert Ernest Weston, an exact contemporary of Colin and no doubt one of the boys mentioned in that story. He passed away in 1996. Quite a man, it appears.

Bert Weston, who left the family farm to dig for gold in Papua New Guinea, and stayed there to distinguish himself as an engineer, soldier and aviator, died in Sydney on 14 October, aged 95.

Soon after arriving in what was then a remote part of the Territory of New Guinea, Weston emerged safely from a night attack on his camp by local warriors, feared as cannibals. He escaped by crawling along a dry riverbed. Later he survived an even more dangerous encounter with Japanese forces when his aircraft was the only one of three to return from reconnaissance operations during the Milne Bay campaign.

At various times Weston raced motorcycles, beginning with a 500 cc Triumph. He won his last race at the old Maroubra track on a 1000 cc Indian of 1923 vintage.
Bert Ernest Weston was a direct descendant of another fanner and soldier, George Johnston, who commanded the NSW Corps and deposed Governor Bligh in the “rebellion” of 1808.

Weston was born on 23 February 1901, in Albion Park, NSW, where his family had received a grant of land from Governor Macquarie. He attended the local school, about which he wrote entertainingly in the Herald more than 90 years later, and Wollongong High School.

Weston was supervising the building of airfields, lighthouses and various public utilities in New Guinea and on Nauru when World War II began. He was commissioned in the Royal Australian Engineers, and was often called upon to advise military officers in Papua and New Guinea about the terrain over which operations were to be conducted.

After the war Weston pursued a career as a civil engineer in Sydney, working on some major projects. He also found time to write extensively on local historical themes and issues in letters to the Herald. Even after he retired from business in his late 80s he continued writing. Earlier this year his short history, The Albion Park Saga, 1900-27, was published by the Albion Park Museum…

He wrote an account of Wollongong High School as he and Colin Whitfield would have known it.

The writer’s secondary schooling sat astride the four year segment before and after Wollongong High School was born, and also coincided with the 1914-1918 World War…

Two bursaries were allotted to the South Coast each year. I achieved one of them. This entailed automatic posting to the first year Latin class, which had no fixed home. For twelve months we averaged four shifts per day to a room from which the occupiers had gone to a science lesson, then to the weather shed, thence across the street to the old Technical College and finally to finish the day crowded on to a verandah. The following year we were housed in a portable wooden room where we remained until the start of third year saw the move to Smith’s Hill.

You will note that my Uncle Colin died in early April 1915, but Bert Weston witnessed this later in 1915:

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The Waratahs recruiting march, leaving Kiama, led by army personnel,on the way to Jamberoo.

Bert Weston has left an account:

Alan Clark in his book ‘The Waratahs – South Coast Recruiting March 1915’ gives this account of part of the journey from Kiama to Albion Park;

The escort to Jamberoo included members of the Mounted Police, the A Squad of the Illawarra Light Horse under the command of Captain Theodore Grey and the cadets under Sergeant Booth.

On the road from Jamberoo to Albion Park a milk wagon containing empty cans and carrying a number of school children, had a hair raising time when trying to pass the Waratahs. The four horses were startled by the noise of the band and the flags flying in the breeze. The horses dashed at a great pace and travelled a quarter of a mile before halted by the driver.

The Albion Park community gathered in the lowlands of the town and waited for the Waratahs to come around the heights of Mount Terry. The Mounted Police led the party, followed by the Light Horse and the Waratahs themselves.

There was an archway of flags along the road leading right to the Agricultural Hall at the Showground which was quarters for the night. On reaching the hall about 4pm they were welcomed on behalf of the residents and recruiting committee by the Mayor, Thomas Armstrong.

The Illawarra Mercury reported that plenty of straw was provided and the men had their beds made and time for a rest before the evening meal’.

Bert Weston was a boy living in Albion Park when the Waratahs arrived in 1915. He wrote some of his memories in a letter to The Sun Herald October 7 1990;

‘As a schoolboy, I remember when they (the Waratahs) reached our town of Albion Park. With only 60 more miles to go, they were a weary band clad in dusty civilian suits. Their first move, after unloading their gear from the accompanying truck was to be marched to the nearby Macquarie Rivulet for a skinny dip clean up. Quartered for the night in the Agricultural Hall, they filled their hessian sleeping bags with hay donated by the local farms and partook of a hearty meal supplied by the local ladies, which was followed by a concert and recruiting speeches. Several local lads came forward and volunteered to join up, and left with the march next morning.

Albion Park baker Mr Lowe cooked the meat in his oven and took it, still hot in time for dinner to the showground. Then the ladies took over and mentioned as carvers were Madams Collins, Lowe, O’Keefe, Chapple, Gower, Harris. Mrs F Slusher was in charge of dispensing the vegetables and many other district ladies assisted in the serving the meal.

‘The ladies were left to clean up as the Waratahs and local men assembled at the Town Hall to hear recruiting speeches delivered by Inspector Anderson and Sergeant Tickner. This was followed by a pianoforte solo from Miss Timbs who started with a National Anthem and the Marseillaise.

‘Recitations were given by Mr WJ Healey and Miss Fleet. There were songs from Gertie Corr and the Waratahs went on stage to sing a chorus.

‘The night was far from over as the floor was cleared for the dancing which was enjoyed until midnight. Miss Timbs provided the dance music, assistance came from Miss Corr and Mr S Condon and it proved an enjoyable evening.

‘Two young farm labourers joined the march at Albion Park; Edwin Bullock 21 had migrated from England; while Henry Timbs born at Berry in 1895 was a member of the 28th Light Horse Regiment.

There was an effort to keep the ‘Waratah’ men together when they went overseas; many left together on board the Makarini and served together as the 16th Reinforcements for the 1st Battalion on the Western Front.

They arrived at The Front in July 1915 during one of the most devastating months of the war when 5300 Australians were killed in Pozieres, France. What followed was the bloody Battle of the Somme. 15 of the 31 Illawarra Waratahs who embarked were either killed in action or died of wounds…

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