When I used to visit my aunt, she would often get out an old globite suitcase which was full of old letters, photos and all sorts of memorabilia. We would while away many hours looking through these treasures. I always remember that she prized one particular envelope which was a collection of letters written by World War 1 soldiers to Colin Bell, her father. She would speak in hushed tones when she was looking at them and I built a picture of these brave men who had worked for, and been friends of, my grandfather and had gone to the Great War of 1914-1918 and died. I imagined their loved ones who would grieve for the rest of their lives for the husbands, sons, fathers and friends who never returned.
Australia joined the war on Britain’s entry into the fray on 4 August 1914 and many men rushed to enlist as they thought the war might finish before they got there! This enthusiasm was also due to ‘a sense of adventure combined with machismo, patriotic feelings towards mother Britain and motivation for food, shelter and companionship.’ However One Anzac told me that going to war had nothing to do with the English king or the mother country…it was a “bloody great adventure, a trip overseas with a bit of a stoush at the other end”. Much of the country was in drought and was not long out of a major Depression, so the trip overseas must have seemed attractive. “When we found out the bloody truth, it was too bloody late ….. So we just made the bloody best of it. What else could we bloody well do?”
About twenty percent of Australians who served overseas were from the bush. These bushmen were often assigned to the Light Horse because they could shoot and ride and, perhaps, were more familiar with, and able to tolerate, the harsh conditions. Enlistment trains were sent out into the country areas of Australia to encourage recruitment and men were given an enthusiastic farewell and the names of local recruits were published in newspapers.
At the outbreak of war my grandfather, Colin Bell, my grandmother Sibyl and their four children were living on a sheep station between Longreach and Winton called Westland which Colin had managed since 1906. Westland and a number of other properties were owned by the Queensland National Pastoral Company and, as Australia’s agricultural supply was vital to Britain’s war effort, this company and other wool producers prospered during the war.
Colin was too old to go to war but many of his staff and the managers of other Company stations enlisted. Rowan Jameson, who came to know Colin Bell well (he married Grace, Colin’s eldest daughter), wrote that 'apart from the high standards he kept and expected from his staff, under the gruff exterior he was a kind man and did many kind acts, usually covered up. Many young men going on to better jobs owed their advancement to him’.
Readers of Generation familiar with previously published stories about Sam Foo may remember the unfolding mystery surrounding Sam’s marriage to Hannah Lock, Hannah’s death seven months after the marriage and Sam’s deception in his application for Australian citizenship that they were living together in December 1885, a month after her death. The Aliens Act (Queensland)1867 required petitioners for naturalisation to be married and to have resided in the colony for a period of three years. The wife of the petitioner also had to be living in Queensland. Sam was obviously determined to become a British citizen ... he took liberties with the truth.
Several years down the track, Sam met Kate Lyons. They were partners for three decades, but the nature of their relationship was shrouded in mystery. No evidence of a marriage could be found; the births of their children were registered separately under each of their names, and the family narrative surrounding the fabric of their lives was so thin as to be almost non-existent.
After nearly three years of research, the reason that Sam and Kate did not marry is no longer a mystery. Kate was married at 18, in England, and deserted her husband and child for a new life in Australia. There was no divorce. It is doubtful whether Kate ever knew the ultimate fate of her husband and child, or enlightened her birth family with the details of her new life. If she confided details of her past to her own children, the information was not passed on to their children. Most likely Kate was not proud of her past; there was shame in being an unwed mother, guilt and shame in deserting a baby no matter how desperate the circumstances. Sam and Kate’s story needed to be pieced together in tiny increments through documentation and some blind luck. What follows is Kate’s half of the story.
Kate Lyons was born in Bacup, Lancashire in 1878, the second of eight children born to Michael Lyons and Bridget Walsh. Michael and Bridget were born in Ireland around the mid 1800s, when memories of the potato famine were imprinted on every Irish soul. The Irish emigrated in huge numbers to the United States, Canada, and Australia. England may have been the only refuge available to Michael and Bridget, both of whom were low-paid workers in cotton mills. They emigrated and were married in 1875 in Haslingden, Lancashire. Liverpool (not too far distant from the Lyons family lodgings in Burnley, Lancashire) was at the time the centre of the international cotton trade. Michael and Bridget found work in one of the mills in Burnley (there were six) or perhaps at Bolton Mill about 3 miles from Burnley. Michael was a weaver, Bridget a cotton winder. Between Kate’s birth in 1878 and her 13th year, her parents produced 6 more children, so Kate’s formal education likely ended out of economic necessity: she took a job as a cotton weaver in 1891.
Kate’s teenage years would have been unrelentingly hard and monotonous in the extreme. In Victorian times, marriage was the sole preoccupation of most women, as much to relieve hard-working parents and an overcrowded home as to ensure future security and produce the next generation. Kate was not likely to be bothered much about convention (not enough hours in the day!) but she may have viewed marriage as an escape from a humdrum existence.
The Scottish parish of Keig is set in the picturesque valley of Alford, through which the river Don flows and only twenty miles from Aberdeen City. On a ridge, just north of the river and looking down on the grounds of Forbes Castle a Gothic style church was built in 1834. When Mary Smith Benton was baptised here in 1835 her parents, William Benton and Margaret Joss followed Scottish tradition in the choice of her name. Her grandparents were James Benton and Christine Smith who had married in 1787 in Alford.
We can assume that Mary had a comfortable childhood as her father, William was a Veterinary Surgeon. As Scottish Education was well-established, the Benton children would certainly have attended the parochial school, near Forbes Castle. The 1851 census records Mary as 16 years old and her occupation as a Veterinary Surgeon’s daughter. Her siblings were William 17 years, John 12 years and Joseph 10 years.
Mary married John Green on the 24th August 1857 in the Keig Church where Mary had been baptised; mixed with the happiness and excitement was sadness and even apprehension, for John was a missionary and within days the couple were to sail from Liverpool, on the David G Fleming for Australia.
After arrival on November 27th 1857 at Sandridge, (now Port Melbourne), John took up his duties as a travelling Minister in the Yarra Valley. For Mary life would have been very strange, the harsh uncertainties and arriving as she did at the beginning of summer with its dust and flies, these being completely unknown to her.
The area was practically unexplored and sparsely settled, very hilly and heavily forested, covered with thick undergrowth of bracken and ferns. Living conditions were primitive, a home at best would have been a slab and bark hut. Movement on the rough bush tracks would be by horseback. William, their first child, was born in 1859 at Yering, quickly followed the next year by Deborah and in 1861 Zipporah.
John, the Missionary, constantly expressed his concern for the welfare of the Aborigines and with the establishment of The Board for the Protection of Aboriginals in 1860; John Green was appointed General Inspector of Aborigines. This necessitated John to travel throughout most of the Colony, often leaving Mary alone for long periods of time.
European settlement in Victoria was less violent than most colonies, one element was William Buckley, the convict who absconded from the 1824 Sorrento settlement and spent over a decade with the Aboriginals and acted as an interpreter for settlers such as Batman. Missionaries, from 1840, set up schools for the Kulin Aboriginal Nation. With the knowledge of the English language and the workings of the white system, these tribes of the Buninyong and Ngarrindjeri sought appeasement with the new settlers.