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Father of the House
The Memoirs of Kim E. Beazley
By Kim E. Beazley, John Bond
Fremantle PressCopyright © 2009 Kim E. Beazley
All rights reserved.
The cataclysmic event of my childhood happened in 1919 when I was two years old, but I was a decade older before my mother spoke to me of it. Once or twice I heard her mutter that the Shamrock Hotel had been Dad's ruin, but that was as far as she went. Never did any of her children hear her throw the disaster in his face.
The disaster was the collapse of my father's real estate business in the West Australian town of Northam. Dad had been secretary of the Church of Christ. But the racetrack proved more appealing and, to my mother's horror, he left the church and became secretary of the Northam Race Club. Soon he was gambling heavily and drowning his losses at the Shamrock. Financial ruin followed. At that time I was the youngest of my parents' seven surviving children; two had died in infancy.
We moved to Fremantle and rented a small house on the ocean front. Dad was unemployed and ill. Nine of us lived in four rooms with verandahs back and front. In wild weather, waves would hurl seaweed onto our front windows. Our back yard was so tiny that, unlike our neighbours, we could not keep hens. For the first two years we had no electricity. Our meals were the cheapest available, with dumplings to stretch them further. We often had rabbit — 'poor man's chicken' — and there was the occasional pigeon pie. Sometimes an older brother's fishing produced results.
Because of the congestion, my sister Jessie went to live with my Aunt Edie, who was married to a Fremantle dentist. From then on Jessie was virtually their daughter.
It was a nightmare for my mother, Mary Margaret Wright. She had been born in Jersey in the Channel Islands, the daughter of a ship's captain who moved with his family to South Australia when she was eight. They were comfortably off, and she had an adventurous streak. As a teenager, she was an enthusiast for the cycling craze of the 1890s, and cycled far and wide. As she passed, men would shout, 'The new woman! The new woman!' — a term of abuse at the time.
They moved to Western Australia when her father was offered command of a barque, The Rose, which took West Australian sandalwood to China. I remember him in retirement, walking along Marine Terrace in South Fremantle, immaculately clad in white duck, a telescope under his arm.
Mother became a teacher. As was common then, she taught without teaching qualifications, but hoped to go to Claremont Teachers College. Then she met my father, Alfred Beazley, and decided to marry instead.
Alfred was the son of a Northam carpenter. He had been a farmhand, but then came the Kalgoorlie – Boulder gold rush. Prospectors poured through Northam on their way to the goldfields and in ten years the state's white population rose from 50,000 to 200,000. When the rush settled down, there was plenty of demand for farms and residential properties around Northam, and my father saw his chance in real estate.
After the bankruptcy and our move to Fremantle he eventually found a job as a storeman and packer for Elders Smith, and stayed with them for the rest of his life. Sometimes they would put him on half-time, or lay him off entirely. At those times the family staple was bread and dripping — which I loved, but most of the family endured.
A portion of my father's wages would end up in the Seaview Hotel in South Fremantle, and he would occasionally arrive home drunk and morose. I dreaded those times. Once he came in threatening to cut our throats. I was eight at the time, and so scared that for some time afterwards I would go round our home hiding the cutthroat razors.
When sober, however, he was quietly good-humoured, and would sing cheerfully as he brought me a cup of cocoa in the morning. A favourite song was:
Oh listen you Dukes and you Duchesses
Oh listen to what I've to say,
Take care of your Irish prisoners
Or the Yankees will steal them away.
That was a song about the daring escape of six Fenian prisoners from Fremantle jail, which took place when my father was four years old. The Fenians were Irish rebels against British rule. In 1875 Fenians in America decided to free them. They bought a whaling ship, the Catalpa, and set out for Western Australia.
Some weeks before they arrived, a distinguished looking gentleman, seemingly wealthy and calling himself Captain Collins, landed in Fremantle. Keen to attract a potential settler, the authorities treated him cordially. They took him to the jail and showed him prisoners whom they could assign to work for him. No one noticed his clandestine conversations.
Only when six of the Fenian prisoners disappeared, and were seen putting out to sea in a longboat with 'Captain Collins', did the authorities realise they had been tricked. By the time they managed to send an armed steamer to intercept the Catalpa, it was outside territorial waters, proudly flying the Stars and Stripes. Captain Collins, they learned later, was John J. Breslin, an Irish Fenian who had helped many of his compatriots escape from British prisons.
Most Fremantle citizens regarded the Irish as political prisoners, unjustly transported to Australia. As the Fremantle Herald wrote, 'The general feeling was clearly one of pleasure' that the police had failed to recapture the convicts.
My father accepted his role as breadwinner. But apart from bringing home a portion of his pay packet, he abdicated all responsibility to my mother — a typical working-class attitude. Mother held our family together.
There was, in that community, a solidarity of poverty. Families struggled to make enough to keep food on the table and the rent paid. A barrow brought fruit and vegetables to the street. A 'bottle-oh' — so called from his cry — purchased empty bottles. Rabbit would be sold at the door by the 'rabbit-oh'. An Aborigine known as Jimmy Four Eyes sharpened knives and scissors with a pedal operated grinder. Milk was delivered at night by horse and cart. (Image 1)
Much of the transport was horse-drawn. Fine Clydesdale horses rattled past our home early each morning pulling drays; they belonged to breweries and wool firms like Elder Smiths or Goldsborough Mort. On Labour Day processions the horses were beribboned and the drays converted into floats. Trade unionists would follow them, carrying their large silken banners, emblematic of working class unity or the skills of their trade, and often highly artistic.
Our entertainment was the weekly cinema and until my early teens the films were silent. They were sometimes accompanied by a piano player, who would stop playing at dramatic moments. In one such moment in a First World War spy film, the execution of the brave Allied women spies was signified by a rifle shot, then a splash of blood on the wall behind each blindfolded woman. In the tense silence my sister, aged five, brought merriment to the audience by saying matter-of-factly, 'That lady made a bigger splash than the last one.'
The government provided little safety net for families in poverty. But there was a net, of a kind. The engine drivers got to know people in need and, as they drove past their homes, would push coal from the tenders. We were among the grateful recipients. William Watson, who started the Watsonia dairy products business, would arrange for food hampers to be left quietly at the doors of Fremantle's needy. When he stood for Fremantle as an Independent in the 1931 federal election, he defeated John Curtin.
The Friendly Societies were an important source of help. A number of Fremantle men had formed one which, self-deprecatingly, they called the Ugly Men's Association. They ran a fun fair called Ugly Land opposite Fremantle Railway Station, and raised large sums of money for widows and needy families.
The Fremantle of my early childhood had glaringly white limestone roads. Later these were covered with tar. In hot weather the tar produced bubbles, which when broken produced a satisfying 'pop'. Still later, the roads were macadamised.
Trams were the city's main public transport, and the tram drivers and conductors quickly became local identities. One driver, 'Curly' Molyneux, was famous for his charitable work at Fremantle Hospital. The City Council controlled the Fremantle Municipal Tramways, and in the council rooms was a photograph of the mayor, Lionel Samson, starting the first tram. Some years later another photograph was added, of Samson's son Fred, also mayor, driving the last tram. (Image 2)
Gas for households was produced by a local company and held in a large spherical tank on which the continents of the world were painted. Households paid for gas by putting money in a meter. My Aunt Edie had a shilling-in-the-slot meter. Ours was a penny-in-the-slot, and I was forever changing threepences, sixpences and shillings into pennies at nearby shops.
At first I attended South Terrace Primary School. However, I lived outside that school's catchment area, and in third grade I had to move to Beaconsfield Primary, which catered for some of the poorest areas of the city.
Our teachers were not highly educated, but many were excellent classroom technicians who treated literacy as a battle to be waged throughout primary school. We used the Temple Literary Readers and the Oxford Readers. A pupil would read aloud, with the rest of us following the text in our books. The teacher might suddenly say, 'Go on, Beazley.' Fighting down nervousness, I would stand up and read. I was in trouble if I had not 'followed the place'. Our sixth-grade teacher, Clem Jones, was outstanding, inspiring us to seek quality in our writing and encouraging our attempts at poetry.
My parents loved reading. By the time I was ten I would go to the Fremantle Literary Institute to borrow the Saturday Evening Post and the Delineator for Mother, and the Strand Magazine and Wide World Magazine for Dad. I would read these magazines too, with their stories of diplomacy, of espionage, and of detectives, by writers such as Conan Doyle and E. Phillips Oppenheim.
But my delight was The Magnet, with its stories of Billy Bunter at Greyfriars School. Access to the magical world of Greyfriars compensated for a sometimes drab existence. The stories were told in a surprisingly high standard of English, and I often used phrases from them in my essays. Later I graduated to the Boy's Own Paper, with its adventures set in British India, Canada, Africa — the Empire.
It was a Tory world and an Imperial world. In school our religion was Britain. One teacher, a dynamic little Scot, gave us dramatised lessons on Wellington's victory at Waterloo and Nelson's victory at Trafalgar, and would come back to a kind of refrain: 'Britain is only little, but she's powerful, she's powerful!'
We learned to recite:
Be it written that all I wrought
Was for Britain in deed and thought.
Be it written that when I die,
'Glory to Britain' was my last cry.
In 1927 the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) visited Western Australia. Perth's buildings were illuminated with crowns, slogans of loyalty and royal portraits. We lined the streets to cheer the procession. Those like me, whose families could not afford shoes, were placed in the back line. Our teacher had explained that it would never do to let our royal visitors see us barefoot. 'In England barefootedness would mean that you were poor,' she informed us. 'If the Duke and Duchess see that, it will make them sad.' So bare feet were firmly out of sight, and presumably their Royal Highnesses were not saddened.
We played cricket on Marine Parade, with kerosene tins as stumps that resounded loudly when a batsman was bowled. We carved boats out of rulers and sailed them in puddles on the road. We played tops and marbles. We swam in the sea. We stayed clear of the bullies, particularly the street gangs in South Fremantle whose rivalry sometimes turned violent, though never lethal.
Gradually we became aware of the tensions in the wider community. In 1928 there was a series of industrial clashes, and the Seaman's Union fought the police in Fremantle. One day a girl arrived at school white-faced and dazed with shock. Her father, a policeman, had been injured when the seamen hurled railway bolts.
At that time Australia was governed by the Bruce – Page Ministry, which was hated by many waterside workers — then known as 'lumpers'. In my class, a teacher asked the son of a lumper to name the prime minister. He replied 'Bruce', and none of the teacher's threats would induce him to say 'Mr Bruce'. When called forward for the cane, he fled through the door. We admired his defiance.
Although my father had left the Church of Christ, my mother remained active, and usually took us children to both morning and evening service. She taught in the Sunday school, which was held during the afternoon. The minister, Daniel Stirling, was a dynamic preacher. At the end of the evening service, those who wished to give their lives to Christ were invited to say so publicly. At the age of twelve, I was moved by a talk on 'the friendship of Jesus' and the following week asked to be baptised. This took place on a cold August night a week or two later. The baptistery was under the pulpit platform and became, when filled, a large pool about four feet deep. I wore a white cricketing outfit covered by a white flowing robe. I was profoundly moved by the event.
My sister Jessie won a prize for her Scripture studies. This was presented by Lord Stonehaven, the Governor-General, at a ceremony in St Andrew's Church, Perth. The whole family, except my father, went to see her receive it. Stonehaven was a Scot and, introducing him, the minister — also a Scot — made much of the 'bonny hills of Scotland'. Stonehaven began by saying that he had just come from Northern Queensland, where the hills were much bonnier than those of Scotland. The minister was dumbfounded at such disloyalty.
Mother was active in the Women's Christian Temperance Union — spurred on, no doubt, by my father's addiction. The WCTU ran the Sailors' Rest — a refuge for stranded seamen. At the annual Royal Show, they would have a large tent in which they served teas and lunches, which raised money for their activities.
My mother was also active in the Children's Protection Society, which provided accommodation for children and mothers forced by abuse to leave their homes. It was run by a Mrs Gover, who enjoyed shocking complacent church audiences by pointing out that her greatest support came from the Jewish rabbi. Rabbi Friedman and the Anglican Archbishop Riley were both well-known for their social welfare work, as was the Salvation Army. This work helped bridge the religious divisions of the time. At a reception, the Catholic Archbishop Clune said jestingly to Friedman, 'Can I give you a ham sandwich, Rabbi?' 'Only at your Grace's wedding,' replied Friedman
When the Depression struck in 1929 my father went on to part-time work. My brother Dick, an apprentice car upholsterer, was laid off by his employer. But my mother would not accept that. She took the matter to arbitration, appearing before the court as her son's representative and arguing that an employer had no right to lay off an apprentice. She was commended by the judge for the skill of her advocacy, and Dick was reinstated.
The Mitchell government came to power in 1930 on the slogan 'Work for All' — a dubious promise given that Western Australia depended heavily on its exports to a world in Depression. But the slogan won the Nationalists a large majority in the state parliament — and an equally large loss three years later to the Labor Party which, throughout the 1933 campaign, taunted the Nationalists with their 1930 slogan.
In those days campaigning was done with posters and rallies. The federal government posters in 1931 proclaimed: 'The Budget balanced. The corner turned. Let Labor carry on.' The United Australia Party, predecessor of the Liberal Party, replied, 'We are dizzy from turning corners.' In the deep anxiety of those days, the electorate struck down a series of governments, federal and state. In the thirties Western Australia developed a pattern of supporting state Labor and federal non-Labor.
My brother Philip, a truck driver, kept his job. But my other brothers, Conrad and Syd, lost theirs as the Depression deepened. Conrad went to the country to work as a farm labourer. Syd, a builder, went to New Guinea as a technical instructor for the Methodist Church. He was there when the Japanese overwhelmed Rabaul in 1942, and that was the last his wife Beryl heard of him; she had been evacuated when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Excerpted from Father of the House by Kim E. Beazley, John Bond. Copyright © 2009 Kim E. Beazley. Excerpted by permission of Fremantle Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe memoirs of KIM E. BEAZLEY: Father of the House,
'Rise up and struggle',
Country teacher, union leader,
The student prince,
The road to Caux,
My biggest mistake,
Her Majesty's permanent opposition,
Race and Australian politics,
Whitlam crashes through,
Changing cabins on the Titanic,
Power and conscience,
Back west and beyond,
Australia and a needy world,