"Rugby is fortunate to have so many role models of the highest order. Stan Bisset is at the top of the game." —John Eales, former Wallabies captain
Kokoda Wallaby: Stan Bisset: The Rugby International Who Became a Kokoda Heroby Andrew James, Patrick Lindsay (Foreword by)
Stan Bisset was a real hero, both in battle, on the rugby pitch and in desperate armed combat against the Japanese during the Second World War. As a member of the ill-fated 1939 Wallaby touring team to England, he was a rugby legend. In the Middle East and on the Kokoda Track, he was one of Australia's most distinguished and heroic combatants. But above all else,
Stan Bisset was a real hero, both in battle, on the rugby pitch and in desperate armed combat against the Japanese during the Second World War. As a member of the ill-fated 1939 Wallaby touring team to England, he was a rugby legend. In the Middle East and on the Kokoda Track, he was one of Australia's most distinguished and heroic combatants. But above all else, he personified so many attributes of the Australian soldier: moral and physical courage, compassion, selflessness, independence, loyalty, resourcefulness, devotion, and humor. Stan Bisset's remarkable life story is told by former Australian soldier and Afghanistan veteran Andrew James. This is a truly inspiring book that crosses generations.
"Rugby is fortunate to have so many role models of the highest order. Stan Bisset is at the top of the game." —John Eales, former Wallabies captain
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By Andrew James
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2011 Andrew James
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When Stanley Young Bisset first came into the world in the back room of his parent's townhouse at 73 Grosvenor Street, Balaclava, on 27 August 1912, thoughts of sporting fame and the horrors of war were hardly at the forefront of George and Olive's thoughts. Stan was the fourth of their five children. Murray and Noel were considerably older, then came Thomas Harold, known to all as 'Hal' or later as 'Butch', then Stanley followed by Jean, who was known as 'Jonnie'. Both parents were heavily involved in the family business, The House That Jack Built, a well-known and long-established drapery store and workshop on Greville Street in the prominent Melbourne shopping district of Prahran.
The House That Jack Built appears to have produced one of those exceptional circumstances in which both husband and wife brought complementary attributes to the working relationship. George Simpson Bisset had spent his life in the drapery business. Not only was he a born salesman with an intimate knowledge of the industry, but he was also genuinely dedicated to his customers. George would stop at nothing to ensure that his clients received exactly what they wanted. Behind the store was a small workshop where half a dozen seamstresses worked during the week making tailored orders for clients and general stock for the shop, and George oversaw this process. Nor was his passion for distributing good quality dresses and drapery to the public limited to the store in Prahran. There were occasions when he would travel through the tracks of rural Victoria, the Dandenongs in particular, selling clothes and dress goods from the back of a one-horse jinker.
When Stan was a little older he sometimes accompanied his father on these trips and could recall some fleeting images — manhandling the heavy carrying cases, driving through raging bushfires and blinding rains, being stuck in muddy bogs and seeing poisonous snakes flicked into the air by the turning cart wheel — images of an Australia long past. While George was the born salesman exhibiting close attention to detail and a passionate knowledge of his trade, Olive was at the 'business-end' of the Bisset family partnership. She worked tirelessly to ensure that The House That Jack Built had orderly accounts, well-kept books and a generous supply of stock flowing from the workshop.
Stan's fondness for his parents became apparent late one afternoon in 1916. Stan had been sent to spend the day with his grandparents in Greenmeadows Gardens in nearby St Kilda so that George and Olive could spend a busy day in the shop. Fed up with the lack of interesting activities at his Nanna's and Pop's, four-year-old Stan casually strolled out the front door and down the road to the Balaclava tram terminus where, unnoticed by the station guards, he hopped onto the afternoon tram to Prahran and soon presented himself on the front doorstep of his parents' shop.
All in all it was a happy and profitable family partnership. Australia had suffered a severe depression in the 1890s but by the early 1900s Melbourne was experiencing a boom and the Greville Street shop was ideally placed to benefit from this bubble of economic good fortune. Prahran was turning into a busy, well-to-do shopping district for Melbourne's growing 'society' and the market for the Bissets' business was expanding rapidly. George and Olive were so dedicated that they rented a two-storey terrace near the shop where they could sleep over during periods of heavy work.
The outbreak of the First World War did not seriously impact on the business; indeed it was during this period that the Bissets decided to invest in a second home, close to the beach in the township of Black Rock. Just to the south of the bay-side suburb of Sandringham and now well and truly absorbed within metropolitan Melbourne, the Black Rock of the Great War era was a wild and largely undeveloped patch of coast. Only a handful of holiday houses were scattered amongst the tea-trees and dunes along the shore of Port Phillip Bay. The only way into Melbourne was via the single horse-drawn cable-tram that ran from Beaumaris to Sandringham and then a train to Melbourne.
The extent to which the three youngest Bisset children revelled in this wilderness environment was such that George and Olive enrolled them in Black Rock State School and took on a full-time housekeeper, Millie Pocock. While Millie and her daughter Hilda cared for the three children at Black Rock, George and Olive devoted all their energies to the business during the week. The children meanwhile led a barefoot existence, roaming free through the dunes and along the deserted beaches and seeing to the regular chores that each had to perform: mainly stripping and collecting tea-tree bark for fuel and feeding and watering the fowls housed in the backyard. Millie always rewarded these chores with big chunks of freshly baked bread coated with salty dripping, which was a common substitute for butter in those days.
Millie Pocock accompanied young Stanley on his first day of school at Black Rock, but from then on he and Hal had to make their own way. This involved a walk of several kilometres along narrow, winding tracks through the scrub. Stan and Hal found these tracks somewhat intimidating, because the scrub was a popular haunt for gangs of older boys who built themselves hideaways and would set about terrorising or 'capturing' the younger children. Some of the boys wore army-issued gas masks, giving them an even scarier appearance. Hal, in particular, a fair and somewhat sickly child, was terrified of travelling through the scrub in the dark. Stan, Hal and Jean had the added problem of also having to cross Mrs 'Mum' Ring's bull paddock. Unless they were prepared to make a mile-long detour, the children had no alternative but to cross the field, creeping across it as inconspicuously as possible.
After-school adventures included earning pocket money by scouring the backyards of hopefully empty weekenders to retrieve empty bottles they could cash in with merchants. The family had a bathing box, a wooden shed right on the beach, and Murray taught Stan to swim in the shallow waters of the bay. Generally, they roamed freely, exploring the rugged cliffs and rocky foreshores of Sandringham, Half Moon Bay, Black Rock and Beaumauris. Tree and rock climbing often came at a cost. In Stan's case, it was two broken arms and one broken collarbone, but these breakages had their compensations. It meant several weeks of convalescence in the workshop under the doting care of his adored seamstress. There, Stan learned to crochet, a favourite children's pastime in that era. Four tiny nails were inserted into the top of a wooden cotton reel, then the wool was wound around each nail and stitched in a special pattern, forming a long 'rat's tail' that emerged through the hole in the cotton reel.
George, Olive, Murray and Noel used to come down to Black Rock on weekends, and in typical Bisset fashion they would often invite staff from the shop. George and Olive were devout Presbyterians and would go out of their way to offer any kindness or hospitality they could.
In 1920 the Bissets sold the Black Rock property, much to Stan and Hal's disappointment. It was only a year, however, before they bought a new house in the bush at Warrandyte, twenty-five kilometres north-east of the city on the banks of the Yarra. Their house, which they named Glenmore, lay in a beautiful setting on an acre or so of land. There was even enough room for a tennis court.
While living at Warrandyte, Stan and Hal often spent weekends at Tremont in the Dandenongs in the family's newly acquired holiday home with its superb views overlooking Western Port Bay to the east and Port Phillip Bay to the west. The journey was all the more thrilling when they rode in the side-car of Murray's Indian motorbike. School holidays were spent at their uncle Frank's farm up at Christmas Hills, fifteen kilometres to the north-east near Yarra Glen. Stan and the boys loved to help out on the farm. More exciting still, they were allowed to go hunting and rabbiting all over the property. Stan and Hal soon became excellent shots and could fell a rabbit with a .22 rifle from a distance of fifty paces. Both boys, however, preferred the then popular practice of rabbiting with ferrets. One afternoon while waiting at a burrow entrance on a particularly steep slope with Hal and his cousin Stanton, Stan caught sight of a huge rabbit bounding up out of the burrow and through the nets. A flying leap sent Stan rolling head over heels down the long hill with his fingers clenched tightly onto the rabbit's ears and yelling back to Hal and Stanton, 'I've got him! I've got the blighter!' It was only when he reached the bottom of the hill, scratched and grazed, that he discovered that his grip was in fact fastened around the head of the dead rabbit already hanging from his belt, the prey of an earlier catch.
If Stan and Hal were unable to get away on weekends or holidays, there was no lack of activity at Warrandyte. They kept chooks, ducks and pigeons, grew strawberries and gooseberries and ate all sorts of freshly grown garden vegetables. Their backyard was the Australian bush, which may appear benign but is teaming with insects, lizards, snakes and a myriad of strange and often nocturnal native animals. The boys shared their bush adventures with a half-bred Labrador named Boy, who had been disinherited by his former owner for fighting viciously with every other dog he encountered. Boy took out his great store of aggression on the many black snakes that lurked in the undergrowth, especially during the hot, dry summers. Jonnie often joined the boys as they ducked through the rear paddock for a swim in the brisk-flowing Yarra River. The river provided a whole new world for the children. The bush may be tamed, but the river is an animate being, temperamental in character. During winter when the river was in flood, the swirling currents and eddies could sweep an inattentive child off his feet. But this was their playground and the dangers of the environment merely added to the excitement.
With Murray's help they built wood and kerosene-tin rafts, and on one frightening but memorable occasion Stan and Hal took to the river in full flood and Stan found himself swept out of control down the raging, foaming tide. After careening into an overhanging branch, Stan was tossed overboard and ensnared by the reeds and debris below the surface. Just as he was about to succumb to a state of panic, he felt the strong, sure hand of his older brother grasp him by the collar and pull his head clear of the current. It was only Hal's quick reaction that allowed the boys to use their combined strength to drag Stan's legs free.
The headmaster of the local two-teacher school had the almost impossible task of contending with the antics of the assorted collection of scallywags masquerading as his pupils. The many football and cricket matches played against local teams from Doncaster, Templestowe, Eltham and Ringwood were far healthier pursuits than the lunchtime smoking of 'borrowed' Magpie cigarettes behind the school's toilet block. Stink-bombs were exploded in classroom ink wells. Pranks like this were harmless in comparison to one organised by mates Alan and Cecil Houghton.
Warrandyte was originally a gold mining settlement and the area was littered with abandoned shafts and rusting equipment. One hugely exciting discovery was a hidden cache of gelignite, fuse wire and detonators. Surely it would be impossible for two healthy twelve-year-olds to refuse the temptation to wag school and find something really good to blow up? A eucalypt with a hollow V at its base, well within audible distance of the school, seemed an ideal target and half a dozen sticks of 'gelly' did a magnificent job on the tree. The shower of splinters and rocks took quite a few minutes to settle. A good caning, written apologies and oodles of extra homework were small prices to pay for so much fun. From then on it was only the poor, unsuspecting Murray cod and Yarra River blackfish that had to contend with the odd 'plug' tossed into the stream.
The hunting, trekking, climbing, rafting and swimming enabled the children to develop an instinctive understanding of the outdoors, a profound sense of its beauty and a healthy respect for the dangers that lay in wait for the unsuspecting novice. These naturally developed instincts were to serve Stan well in his later life.
After only a few years at Warrandyte, the family moved back to Balaclava and Stan and Hal took up their studies at a state school in Surrey Hills, an inner eastern suburb.
In this era, tertiary education was reserved for the wealthy elite and while bursaries were available, there were few of them and it was normal for young men to enter the workforce in their early teens. Many sought apprenticeships where they could join a licensed tradesman. Others took any work they could find, and if they were ambitious they studied part-time for some form of trade or professional career, usually at a college of technology. Hal was no different from the majority of his contemporaries and at age fourteen he found a position at Nye's, a local chemist shop. Ever keen to emulate his older brothers, Stan followed Hal into the pharmacy two years later. Full-time degrees in pharmacy did not exist in those days, so one sought an apprenticeship with the aim of doing several years of part-time study to gain a diploma.
The Bisset family members were strong supporters of the local St Margaret's Presbyterian Church near Surrey Hills and were among its most active parishioners. The five Bisset siblings found most of their social and recreational activities centred around the church. Murray ran a gymnasium out of the church hall, taking a group of local youths through sessions of weights, callisthenics, skipping and running. Stan's introduction to Murray's gym marked the humble beginning of a passion that was to consume him for the rest of his life. At the age of fifteen Stan became what could only be described as a fitness fanatic. After work in the chemist's shop and on every weekend he would spend countless hours training either in the gym or by himself: skipping, running or performing body-weight exercises.
By this stage, in the late 1920s, Noel had gone to work as a jackaroo on a property called 'Drivers' in the Riverina. Rural production had increased markedly after the First World War as many ex-servicemen took up soldier-settlement land-grants. By the mid-1920s, however, the harsh realities of life on the land began to take their toll and established pastoral properties like Drivers were constantly in need of new workers. Since Noel's letters home were full of enthusiasm for his new life he was soon followed by Hal. While Stan had always enjoyed good health, Hal had not been so lucky. No explanation was ever given for his lack of robustness — it was just accepted as being part of his make-up. But now, in his late teens and in this new and physically challenging environment, Hal virtually blossomed overnight from a pale, slim and somewhat fragile youth into a tough, robust young man.
Stan, still working in the chemist shop, was green with envy. The elder boys would arrive home tanned and fit on breaks from their work and Stan, always keen for adventure, longed to join them. When Noel moved to a new position on a cattle run in Western Australia and a spot became available at Drivers, Stan pleaded with his parents to let him go, but they insisted they needed at least one of their sons at home.
Doubly inspired not to fall behind his brothers in terms of fitness, Stan launched himself into his physical regimes with renewed vigour. He joined the YMCA and became a regular member of their basketball and gymnastics team. He also joined St Margaret's cricket team and it seemed every waking hour was consumed with some form of physical or sporting activity.
Stan also played tennis regularly throughout his teens, especially with his friends Colin and Maurice Long who had their own practice court. At the time, Colin was school captain of Melbourne Grammar and together with another friend, Alistair Righetti, they won the state schoolboys' doubles championship. Colin went on to have a long and wonderful career in tennis through the 1930s and in the late 1940s, after the war.
When he was sixteen Stan moved from the chemist shop to a new job as assistant accountant at the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV), again following in the footsteps of Hal who had joined the RACV before leaving to work as a jackaroo. Stan commenced an accountancy course through the Hemingway and Robertson Correspondence School. His new work role may have sounded somewhat dry and uninteresting but it proved to be anything but. Stan spent some of his day at work acting as a bodyguard for the club's accountant, or for one of the accountant's female assistants, as they made their daily visit to the bank with the club's cash takings. This role took on another level of responsibility when Stan was issued with a revolver. This necessitated his attending the local police station for training in the use of small arms.
As an adjunct to his new ad hoc role of bodyguard, Stan decided to take up boxing under the guidance of the former Australian lightweight champion, Sammy Grey. Stan's father had always been keen on skipping for fitness and would do up to 10,000 revolutions on the family's veranda every morning, a session that would take close to an hour. George had also taught Stan the skill and over a two-year period Stan gradually reached the point where he would do 20,000 revolutions in a non-stop, two-hour session. While Sammy Grey honed Stan's technical and tactical skills in the ring, his general fitness and conditioning training was overseen by former national sculling champion Jimmy Barton who, like the other coaches, was astonished at Stan's impressive stamina. Barton convinced Stan to take up sculling in addition to his boxing and general fitness routine.
While sport and fitness dominated his life outside the RACV, Stan was still able to find time for more cultural pursuits. The family was extremely musical. Olive was an accomplished pianist and gave lessons in her spare time. George was also more than competent and he could often be heard playing and singing hymns in his fine tenor voice. Family singalongs were a common form of entertainment and singing became a natural part of Stan's life. With his parents' encouragement, he began taking violin lessons with a family friend, Esther Rofe. Once described as 'the grand dame of Australia's composing community', Esther was a child virtuoso who had joined the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at age thirteen and performed on stage with Dame Nellie Melba. As a member of London's Royal College of Music, she was taught by Ralph Vaughan Williams, doyen of British composers.
Excerpted from Kokoda Wallaby by Andrew James. Copyright © 2011 Andrew James. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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Meet the Author
Andrew James enlisted in the Australian Army at the age of 18. He subsequently served on combat operations in Afghanistan. Following his military service, Andrew continued his studies at Sydney University where he read History and English. During his degree, he supported himself by working as an expedition leader on the Kokoda Track where his first became interested in Stan's story.
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