The fresh earthy smell of the south-west forests in winter or after summer rain awakens fond memories, particularly when blended with a whiff of wood smoke from a kitchen-fire. And like a familiar painting emerging on a blank canvas, in my mind’s-eye I see glimpses of my early childhood – the cluster of small weatherboard-timber milltown houses nestling in the tree-lined valley, smoke curling lazily from chimneys to linger in the crisp still air, the medley of sounds from the nearby mill, thumping clanging noises, the peaking and fading whine of the twin circular saws slicing hungrily through huge logs, the piercing shriek of the mill steam-whistle signalling the start or finish of the day’s work, and the pervading smell of fresh cut timber and saw-dust.
I was born on the 10th January 1933 at Nannup Hospital during the Depression years in south-western Australia, and spent the first eight years of my life living in small mill-towns like this, whilst my father worked in the timber industry. Our family then moved to Carlisle, in the Perth metropolitan area, where I grew up as a teenager. The Great Depression was in full swing, and there was much unemployment. Luckily my Dad was never out of work, but times were hard and everyone ‘made do’ as best they could. I had an austere upbringing in keeping with the period, but my childhood was full of love and adventure. Back then children were allowed to be children, to take small risks, be taught values, to be disciplined and learn by their mistakes.
This is the story of my childhood, an experience so very different to that of modern children. Children today are generally more constrained in their activities. Many of our simple pleasures have been outlawed by progress – by population pressure and not least by far stricter health and safety rules. Many readers will, however, identify with incidents I describe and I hope that it brings them the pleasure it has given me in reliving it all.
My father William Dickie Primrose was a proud Scotsman with a broad accent, which he retained throughout his life. A small man, about 165cm tall and weighing less than 50kg, he walked with a swaying bow-legged gait, the legacy of childhood poliomyelitis. Dad had twinkling blue eyes, a ready smile and an open friendly disposition, and whatever he may have lacked physically he made up for in spirit. He had strong upper- body strength, a vice-like grip and a fiery Scottish temper, and became known as ‘Scotty’ Primrose throughout the milltowns where his fine tenor voice and love of Scottish ballads made him a welcome guest among the mainly Italian and Greek workers.
Western Australia must have seemed a completely new world to my Dad when he arrived as a migrant from Glasgow with his parents and other family members at Fremantle on the 7th January 1924 aboard the S.S. Benella.
Dad was 23yrs of age at the time, and unmarried. He’d served his time as a structural engineer in the bustling shipyards on the River Clyde, a total contrast to the tranquil Port of Fremantle. There would have been little shipping traffic in those early years, perhaps no more than two or three vessels docked at a time. These would mainly have been large sail driven craft, such as a barque or a clipper, with their cargoes of wood and wool for London. The arrival of the steam-driven Benella, with its cargo of excited migrant passengers, would have been quite a festive occasion.
However Dad soon found there was no available work for a skilled boat-building engineer, so he sought other opportunities and eventually found employment in the south-west timber industry, starting as a general labourer with Swan Saw Mills at Claymore late in 1924.
During World War I many of the small timber mills in the south-west were forced to close, because of labour shortages, but as the servicemen began to return at war’s end, the mills were gradually re-established, and Millars Timber and Trading Co had a major involvement in this redevelopment.
In 1920 Swan Saw Mills, a subsidiary of Millars, had taken over the leases of the old State Spot Mill near Claymore, reestablished the railway to the Government Railway siding 3km away and commenced operations.
There is now little to show of the Claymore mill and the small township, 33km north of Nannup and 21km west of Kirup, but in its heyday the community consisted of 30 to 40 houses, a single men’s boarding house, an office, store rooms and a hall which was also used as a school.
My mother, a third generation West Australian, named Cora Laurel Donnelly, met my father at Claymore when visiting her sister, whose husband also worked at the mill. They fell in love and courted by mail for over twelve months before they married in Perth, on September 1st 1926, then returned to live at Claymore. Mum was a level-headed, wise, caring person and a certificated nurse. She too had a lovely singing voice and our family home-life was often blessed with my parents singing – usually in harmony.
The trade skills Dad learnt working in the Glasgow shipyards were soon recognised and utilized by senior mill management staff, and he was allocated the responsible job of tallyman. This meant measuring the logs as they came in from the forest, calculating their timber content and recording the name of the man who’d felled them. It would not have been easy for Dad, with his physical handicap, to clamber over slippery logs all day as he measured them. However he kept at it and retained the trusted tallyman position throughout most of his working time with Millars.
The start of the Great Depression in 1928/29 saw a downturn in the timber industry. The problems this created coupled with a major mechanical breakdown caused Swan Saw Mills to close their operations at Claymore late in 1929. The workforce was transferred to the Sussex Timber Company mill – another Millars subsidiary approximately 9km north of Nannup, near Dellerton – and my Dad and Mum, with their first born son, my elder brother Colin, then aged 2 years, went with them.
However, the ongoing Depression took its toll of the Sussex mill too which closed within a year or two. But the company kept Dad on as their caretaker/handyman. They still had a large amount of sawn timber at Sussex and a major part of Dad’s work was to assist in its disposal. As each order came in Dad had to hand load the timber into an open rail wagon and shift the loaded wagon (on his own) to the rail siding at Dellerton 3km away. To get the loaded wagon moving downhill to the siding, Dad used a large pinch bar, lever-fashion, between the outer surface of one of the wagon’s rear wheels and the rail line. Then as the wagon gathered speed he’d clamber on at the rear and ride with it to the siding, applying the hand-brake as it reached the shunting yard. The loaded wagon would be picked up by the next train, and an empty wagon left in its place. Empty wagons had to be dragged back up to the mill for the next loading, with the aid of the draughthorse Millars provided. The work was difficult and dangerous and Mum must have agonised over the risks he took, knowing how their isolation meant it would be almost impossible to get assistance in the event of an accident. As mill caretaker/handyman, Dad also was responsible for the company’s 1925/26 model Superior Chev 4 tourer car, garaged at Sussex, and had to drive the senior mill manager, Tim Ryan, on business trips or when visiting other Millars’ sawmills operating in the area. However, as a bonus dad had use of the car when it was not required by the company.
It must have been a lonely life for my mother, particularly at night when Dad was away driving the boss about in the Chevy, as he often was. Many unemployed men stopped by as they passed through, looking for work – ‘humping their bluey’ they called it – but they were always gentlemen. Even so, Dad kept a small silver revolver loaded and hanging on the kitchen wall, near the door, for Mum to use in an emergency, whenever he was away.
Nevertheless, they were happy together and considered they were lucky to have employment and a roof over their heads when many others didn’t. They thrived, and over the next five years our family increased. My elder brother Ronald (their second child) was born on 26th September 1931, delivered at home by Doctor Andrews of Nannup. I followed fifteen months later. They named me Robert Burns Primrose – there was to be no mistake about my Scottish heritage – but I was never called ‘Robert’. In the family, I was always ‘Bobbie’ or Bob.
All that remains now of the busy Sussex sawmill and township is the concrete foundations where the mill’s twin circular saws once stood and the old machinery shed, in a location now occupied by the Cambray Holiday Farm and Sheep Cheese Factory. Although now gone, Sussex is where my life began and from the very beginning my maternal grandmother, Edith Anga Zephyr Gibbs nee Watson, was an integral part of it. Sadly, I knew her for only a short time as she passed away at age 62 when I was only 7.
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Grandma Gibbs was a strong-willed capable lady who taught us many things and told awe-inspiring stories from her family’s nautical background. In the mid 1800s and early 1900s Grandma Gibbs’ grandfather and her father both had significant roles in the formation and development of the Swan River Colony. Grandma was the daughter of Captain Charles Henry Watson, and her Grandfather was John James Frederick Watson. ‘Captain’ Charles Henry Watson, born in W.A. 3 August. 1844, commenced his education at Bishop Hale’s School (now Hale School) where he formed a lifetime friendship with John Forrest (later Sir John Forrest, Premier of Western Australia). His parents then sent him to London to further his education, and he subsequently qualified as a merchant seaman before commencing a distinguished nautical career. He became the chief officer on the barque Adur, the vessel commissioned to supply John and Alexander Forrest on his west-east expedition in 1870.
On 17th February 1874, the Royal Humane Society London awarded Charles Henry Watson a ‘Testimonial Inscribed on Parchment’ for his bravery on 27th July 1873, when he dived into the rough sea off Dover, Kent U.K, to rescue a drowning deck-boy swept overboard during a storm. He was 29 years of age at the time and Third Officer on the Hydaspis.
In 1875 Charles met and married Mary Augusta Jamieson, sister of Lady Grey, the wife of the Colonial Governor and explorer Sir George Grey. In 1876 he became the first native born West Australian to be granted a Master Mariner’s Certificate of Competency by the London Board of Trade and shortly after was appointed ‘Commander’ of the Barque Zephyr (one of Habgood’s vessels): said to have then been one of the fastest clippers on the ‘greyhound run’ between Fremantle and London. In 1878 Grandma was born on the Zephyr, whilst the ship was hove to near Cape Anga off the coast of Singapore during a hurricane in the Java Sea. She was delivered by her father as there were no other women on board, and the christian names her parents chose for her – Edith Anga Zephyr – encompasses the name of the vessel on which she was born and the nearest land-fall, Cape Anga.
From time to time, Captain Charles Watson was accompanied by his wife and daughter (Grandma) on the Zephyr and other vessels under his command. He is also said to have become the captain of several vessels working in the pearling industry on the north-west coast. During World War I he commanded a patrol boat off Fremantle. Charles died in Perth WA on 3rd July 1925 – at the time of his death he was being cared for by Grandma, Edith Gibbs.
Grandma Gibbs had a happy childhood. She was well educated and became an accomplished pianist and singer. However, after the untimely death of her first husband, Donnelly, and two failed marriages, her adult life was mostly difficult and unhappy. Her second marriage, to a man named Bentley, lasted only a short time, for he deserted her and disappeared leaving her to raise her four daughters alone. Grandma’s strong spirit prevailed. To support herself and her children, she turned to nursing, taking further training at the Fremantle Midwifery Training School, graduating as a registered midwife on 15 November 1911.
As ‘Nurse Bentley’, Grandma became well known in Fremantle and adjacent areas for her competent work as a midwife and, when her daughters later married and gave birth, she delivered many of her own grandchildren. Grandma eventually had her marriage to Bentley dissolved, and then married a man named Ernest Gibbs. However, Gibbs also treated her badly, and although there were two sons born of their union, she eventually left him. So she returned again to midwifery to sustain herself and raise her sons and younger daughters.
Grandma’s philosophy, passed on to my mother and in turn to us – was that life is far too short to dwell on the past; be grateful for what you do have and make the best of it – wise words that have served her descendants well.