The coming week it is ten years since Sutherland drew me back…

Today I draw on my mothballed photo blog for inspiration. It was a sad event that drew me back to Sutherland.

Sad news from The Shire

Posted on  by Neil

Just had a call from my cousin Russell.

My uncle Roy Christison has passed  away. The funeral is on Monday in Sutherland.

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On the day of the funeral, having time beforehand, I made my way to the house in Auburn Street which was my first home, and also up to the late 1940s the home of my grandfather and grandmother Christison and also of Uncle Roy. Now Facebook friend Louise D’Arcens lives there!

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L-R: Connie Phipps, my sister Jeanette (d.1952), Gail McNamara whose front yard this was, Deidre Hawke — and in front me. March 1949. The house you will recognise.
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L-R: John H Christison (whose sister Joan was at the funeral), Eric, John’s father, Sophia Jane Christison (my great-grandmother), Roy Christison Senior, and finally my brother Ian Whitfield. c. 1941.
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My brother Ian, me, my sister Jeanette — 1944.
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November is a month of memories…

Of course at my age every month probably is…

Shellharbour figures in many of these memories — that is the Shellharbour that was, not the current one — of which here is a glimpse.

Rather, this image from the 1920s — which I have colourised:

My father’s classmates? Children on their way to Shellharbour Public School.

You see, my father (were he alive) would be 110 this month — 25 November in fact. He grew up in Shellharbour, went to school there except for a couple of years at Wollongong Tech High. Later — 1935 — he married the schoolie’s daughter at Shellharbour — 1935. It was still such a small place, as it was when I first knew it in the late 1940s.

Shellharbour 1936
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Shellharbour — the Headmaster’s residence, Roy Christison and his wife Ada — my grandparents

Roy Christison Senior took up his appointment at Shellharbour in 1930, having previously been in Milton. This is the Shellharbour they lived in — so rural!

In Milton they had a son — Roy Christison Junior, my Uncle Roy — born on this day in 1927. There is another memory this month, and also Uncle Roy’s passing in November 2011.

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His wife, my Aunt Kay, is still with us, living in the Sutherland house my father built to Roy Christison Senior’s design — where Roy, Kay and his family, my cousins Russell, Linda, Heather, Bruce and Julie, lived.

Various lockdown hacks and escapes — 26 — when your 6th Grade teacher’s son emails you…

Hi Neil, we chatted some time ago about my father, Edgar O’Neill, your teacher at Sutherland in 1955. I just posted a photo of the 1955 Year 6 class (as well as the 1953 cricket team). Are you in that photo? I thought I’d identify you as it’s your article on Eddie that the photo is attached to.

Muchael O’Neill enail 5 August 2021

He is referring to his family history page. There he reproduces an earlier version of my post Some reposts on teaching — 4 — we need to get back to thoughts like these. In that newer version I at least spell Michael O’Neill’s family name correctly! Here is his father, my teacher at Sutherland Boys Primary in 1954 not 1955 — in 1957 at Jannali School — where, coincidentally, I did my very first (unsupervised) practice teaching at the beginning of 1961! CORRECTION — Not so: he was at Jannali East, I was at Jannali.

Eddie on playground

I had said in my post what an outstanding teacher Edgar O’Neill was:

The thing about Mister O’Neill is that he had a class of fifty or so students, all in a portable class room that baked in summer. Hardly any of the boys had shoes. Cast-off bits of military uniform were fashionable; no such thing as a school uniform, or (I may add indelicately) underpants. There were a few quite talented kids in 6A; I was a bit up myself, I’m afraid, because even though I took every August off to have bronchitis, and also that year had mumps followed by orchitis (nasty) and pancreatitis, I still managed to top the class, despite my rather alarming (and continuing) innumeracy. He let us have our heads, really. We produced school newspapers, in which I wrote and illustrated serials that were rather like Biggles, and also devised crossword puzzles. Every Friday we “broadcast” our plays over the school’s PA system.

When I was selected to go to Sydney Boys High my parents were against it, mainly because of the travelling which, combined with my absent-mindedness that led to my once almost being run over at a pedestrian crossing, they felt would not suit me. I guess they were also worried about my health. My mother at that time, I might add, was invalided with a clot in the leg, so I was also cooking dinner every night, following instructions emanating from my mother’s bedroom. She used to say what I cooked for the dogs smelt more appetising than what I made for the family — chops and three veg usually. Can’t go too wrong with that.

Well, Mister O’Neill I found one afternoon when I came in from playing with the Dawson boys down the road sitting by my Mum’s bed in earnest conversation. Result: I went to Sydney Boys High. Apparently I had the highest IQ ever recorded at Sutherland Primary to that point… That may not be saying too much, of course, and I certainly found myself a small fish in a big pond at SBHS the following year.

But hats off to Mr O’Neill. Not only was he just a fascinating teacher, but so dedicated….

Michael O’Neill in due course sent me two photos, which I have colourised,

1953 1st Grade Cricket — Edgar O’Neill coach
6A 1955 — one or two familiar faces. Repeating the year?

In 1955 I was in First Year at Sydney Boys High.

Me in 1955 Vermont Street Sutherland in SHS uniform

Sadly neither I nor Michael O’Neill has a copy of the 1954 6A photo — my class. I do have 3A from 1952 though, and I am definitely in that one.

That is from a post called (appropriately) I fear I was a weird kid!

I was much more attracted to the Australian Museum –– indeed, even took my neighbourhood friends and classmates there, just a year or two after this was taken at Sutherland Public School — that is from when I was maybe ten years old, travelling by train by myself (or with said friends) to the city, walking across Hyde Park to the Australian Museum. Loved the place!

What really strikes me now is just how formative those years 1952-1954 at Sutherland Boys Primary were.

Does that say 1951 or 1952?

If I was in that class in 1952 — and it is definitely my class — then I did 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th classes in three years. That does gel with the memory I am slightly hazy about, that I skipped a class, for whatever reason. I know my Maths never quite recovered.

The other thing is that you could say I was away almost as often as I was there. Every August I could guarantee most of the month off with bronchitis, and there were the illnesses I mentioned in the extract above from my post about Edgar O’Neill. In 1953 I had my appendix removed and missed quite a bit of school then. I posted about that, and it concerns also the boy second from the left in the front row of that 3A photo — pretty sure that is Colin Dawson.

And I remember my neighbours in Vermont Street, Sutherland, the Dawsons. Facebook puts me in touch with first the next generation, and then, miracle of miracles, with one of the three brothers I knew in the early 1950s.

Colin and Jimmy [Dawson] probably saved my life once when I had a bursting appendix at school in 1952 or 3 — complicated by the fact my sister had died of something similar in January 1952. They took care of me and carried me home one lunchtime when I am afraid the teachers were not taking much notice of my case. I was in such pain. I have never forgotten what they did. The next day I was in St George Hospital.🙂

The youngest brother writes:

Hi I’m Graham Dawson, Jim & Col’s younger brother. They are both well & Jim lives here with me on The Sunshine Coast & Col lives in Bundaberg. I remember you from those times, I was just the little brother hanging around. Lol.

How wonderful is that, after all these years!

I gained quite a bit of my education at home in my room recovering from whatever illness but listening to all the schools broadcasts on the wireless — 2BL? — and other things there too, some wildly inappropriate to my age! There was also the ABC Children’s Session/Argonauts Club. And I read heaps. Comics not least — Captain Marvel, Superman, The Phantom…

Then there were the many many afternoons spent at my Grandpa Christison’s place in then Waratah Street West. The house is still there, and my Aunt Kay still lives there. My father built the house to Grandpa Christison’s design in the late 1940s.

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We would talk and talk, Grandpa Roy and I, and I would badger him with questions. He was the soul of patience, a retired headmaster. I now realise how those conversations are to this day the deepest source of my values and my view of the world. That is no exaggeration; I may elaborate in another post.

Grandpa Roy Christison and Grandma Ada — c.1944

One hundred and ten years ago today — my mother

Here is Spencer, on the Hawkesbury River in NSW, in the early 20th century. In those days it was only accessible by boat. My mother’s mother, Ada, and father, Roy Hampton Christison, were living here in 1911, along with the first-born son, Eric.

My grandfather was the schoolmaster. My mother many years later wrote her account of the place.

Dad [Roy Christison Snr] completed his training at the age of 20 and his first school was then a very small place called Spencer on the Hawkesbury River. It was eleven miles down or up river from Brooklyn Railway Station. In those days it was only accessible by water so Dad was met at the station and rowed by the mother of a fisherman to his place of work.

He was perhaps one of the luckier ones because he had his mother who at a very young age had been left to shoulder the responsibility of bringing up her family alone. To do this she took in boarders and she herself, a very refined lady, went out to work starting at 3 am to scrub and clean office buildings in the city. With two of her children married and the youngest daughter able to stay with her married sister, Gran was left free to go with Dad to become his Housekeeper. He felt he owed her his help and care now he was in a position to give it to her. I think his wage was about nine pounds a month.

He was able to rent a sort of cottage — slab built — which had belonged to a fisherman or an orange orchardist who had found life just too hard. In front of the house was a bush track which led to the school building — also slab built; and here a very dedicated and ambitious young man started his career as a teacher.

The school had an enrolment of about 22; the knack with small school teaching was to divide it into sections: 1st & 2nd Class; 3rd & 4th Class; 5th & 6th Class. Preparation work was very much the order of the day. One composite class had only oral work while the others were given History, Geography, Reading, Maths or English which “Sir” had already given details of on the blackboard, times and classes being clearly indicated. Tables charts, charts for grammar, charts for important dates in history with emphasis on Australian History, maps of the various states of Australia and of the World, with occupations carried out in different countries both here and overseas, were all in places where the pupils could learn of the world at large besides being taught the Three R’s.

Most of the pupils at Spencer came from the families of orange orchardists or fishermen. I think 10 of the 22 pupils were from one family. Some of them were rowed across the river and some walked along rough bush tracks.

At the age of 22 Dad married a lass from Sydney [Ada Hunter] who had been to “Ladies College” and had no notion of life in the bush. Gran, after helping the bride to settle, returned to Sydney and made a home with her younger daughter.  Mother was a dainty little soul, brown-eyed and dark haired, with an hourglass figure. She was a delight to the older girls, to whom she taught sewing — that was part of the contract, that the teacher’s wife taught sewing. Looking back, I do not know how Mother adjusted to the rather primitive conditions. Her only shopping was done from the Trading Boat — a paddle-wheel steamer that came down from Wiseman’s Ferry once a month. Dad had bought a rowing boat and became quite an accomplished oarsman.

About this time my father sent his first he thought ready for a State Bursary and the honour of the first state bursary ever won by a small schools pupil went to this lad [Austin Woodbury 1899-1979] who later became one of the heads of the Marists in this country. When he died this year — 1979 — at Toongabbie NSW there was quite a bit about Dr Woodbury in the papers. Following Austin, State Bursaries came the way of several other pupils, two of these brothers and sons of fishermen who after an education at St Joseph’s College Hunters Hill and Sydney University became doctors. One had a distinguished career in Queensland and the other became a Macquarie Street specialist. Some of the girls became nuns and rose to Mother Superior in the different orders of the Roman Catholic Church. My father was the son of a Scotsman and a Presbyterian, so religion had no bias in those days. [For my grandfather at any rate, who was really an agnostic, if a conservative one.]

Life meantime had brought to my father and mother a son [Eric]. Mum was sent to Sydney in the company of Gran — Dad’s mother — and what a tower of strength she was then and in the years following. My brother was born at my other Gran’s home in Dulwich Hill and when Mum was well enough she returned to her duties as wife and now mother. Later she was to repeat the journey and I arrived in the world [1911] — again born at my Grandmother’s home, only I arrived the night Mum arrived in Sydney and caused complications which nearly cost my mother her life.

The Dulwich Hill family — where my mother was born. This is during WW1. Eric is the boy with the boat; on his left with crossed legs is my mother. The baby may be my Aunt Beth.

Dad meantime had become part of the community — playing Cricket with a local team which consisted of quite a few school boys; conducting a funeral service on a very wet day when the priest could not make the trip to say the last rites by the graveside. He had also become known as an expert with the mouth organ and the old squeeze box accordion and was much in demand to supply music for the local dances.

He always remembered his seven years and seven months at Spencer where he had toiled long and hard, but he felt he had done some of his best work for those pupils.

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A letter my mother wrote from Braefield where they lived 1916-1923.
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At my graduation, Sydney University 1965

My mother passed away at Annandale in March 1996.

NAIDOC Week 2021 — Healing Country — 6

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My family on Gweagal land in Dharawal Country 1944-5 — I am front left, next to my sister Jeanette, my mother Jean, and on the right my brother Ian. In the back row are my Aunt Ruth, my Uncle Neil (born 6 July 1924) in RAAF uniform, and my Aunt Beth.

Yes, it is 9 July again. And that means I turn 78. Born far to the south in the same year, 1943, was this man:

What a great man he has become, and what a life he has had! Just this week his story was brought up to date by the TV program “Who Do You Think You Are?” on SBS.

The show is often emotional; delving into the past almost always is. But for an Aboriginal man, and moreover as a member of the Stolen Generations, that was especially true for Charles.

“(I’m feeling) overwrought, and a profound sense of loss. I’m really peeved,” he says. 

“It’s causing me to lose sleep. But that’s par for the course for a member of the Stolen Generation. If I didn’t have such a high profile, I would have never learned this, I would have remained in ignorance, that I was Wiradjuri man on my father’s side.”

Charles’ family story reveals a history of activism and resilience in the face of the brutalities of colonisation. But an unknown connection to the peoples of Tasmania on his mother’s side revealed a truly remarkable, and tragic family history. 

Charles is descended of an august line; his five-times great grandfather, Mannalargenna, was a highly respected Elder of his people, and acted as ambassador and emissary to surrounding clans.

Uncle Jack Charles — “Uncle” is a term of respect for an elder

Now a question I posed on Facebook earlier in the week:

Seems odd to say “way back in 2016” — but five years is five years, and I don’t get any younger. Well, five years ago I published the post linked to this, which in turn went back to five years earlier!

Question: Am I of Aboriginal descent?

Answer: Possibly, even probably. And no, I have not had a DNA test. But the story is in a way simple. I have (as you do) eight great-grandparents. I can account for all but one of them. In the case of my grandmother’s parentage — and a fine woman but troubled she was by all accounts — the father is unknown. That is, my father’s mother’s father.

The story — which I heard from my father and mother themselves — is that this grandmother was the daughter of an Aboriginal man, probably Dharawal (or maybe Yuin). We know nothing much about him.

But it is enough to make me look at Merrigong from my window with different eyes. The story was enough for Aboriginal actress Kristina Nehm, knowing the story, to always introduce me to Aboriginal people thus: “This is Neil. He is family.”

This is apart from the story of my brother’s wife, who is a descendant of the family of Bennilong.

Here is my story.

My grandmother, Henrietta Bursill.

And let’s finish with something we can all benefit from, speaking of healing — #NAIDOC 20121’s theme after all:

UPDATE

This effectively ends this series, having brought NAIDOC Week back home to my own life and family. Remember, the matter of our national truth and the absolute need seriously to consider the Uluru Statement from the Heart are matters for every week in this country.

Yes, we have learned, and are learning, much — but there are “miles to go before we sleep.”