The illustrious writer H.G. Wells visited Australia in January 1939 and returned to England, describing Prime Minister Lyons as suffering from 'delusions of sagacity.'
In April 1939, a second daughter, Jennifer, was born to Jack and Doris. There was no community hospital in Frankston then although there was a committee and a site and £8000 in trust. To build a hospital free of debt a further £2000 had to be raised. During May 1939 three hundred and sixteen infants attended the Infant Welfare centre. Thirteen new infants were enrolled.
It was not a propitious year in which to be born. Things went askew. Some Frankston families, but not all, had, in the next few years, their quiet lives totally destroyed.
Jack died at the age of thirty four, a young man, during one of those times that recur in history when to be young is a dangerous and risky business. He died cruelly, in violence and anguish, which makes him a much nobler person than I will ever be. He died for a cause. If anyone asked me to do that, I would laugh. The months he took to be put to death would explain my mirth.
'I will make it the last time I leave you,' he wrote to his wife in 1941, 'as the game sometime is not worth the candle.' He had by then taken refuge in understanding what might be about to happen to him. Was it a quick insight or had it been a long slow death of belief that help would come?
I believe that understanding the enormity of what might be coming was no consolation. At what point did he realise, not only in his mind but deep in his heart, that he and his mates had been abandoned?
Not only was 1939 an unpropitious year for ordinary people, but indeed the entire previous decade had been difficult. On May 12, 1939, The Standard launched a campaign to right, as the editor explained, 'a grievous wrong'. Publicity and a sensible debate 'would make the dole only a memory.' The editor was a man of firm opinions on both parochial and national issues. If 'millions can be found for warlike purposes' surely the unemployed could be found jobs 'paying a living wage'. The previous ten years of bitter struggle for some people were surely enough.
The Shire Council girded its loins for the debate. 'The abolition of sustenance in the Shire of Frankston and Hastings--one of the most momentous reforms ever discussed by that body--reached a further stage at the council table on Friday night.' This was the front page story of The Standard on May 26 1939. Councillors had spoken their minds. Wouldn't there be an influx of unemployed men into the shire if they could get more than the dole? Wouldn't subsidised men earn more than employed men? Wouldn't it mean raising the shire rate by sixpence in the pound? Wouldn't it be better to subsidise day labour costs?
Cr Miles realised the urgency of the case. '...wasn't it only logic to spend money to help the working man and his children live without starving...If the Australian people had greater purchasing power Australian butter would not be ten pence in England and one shilling and eight pence in Australia.' Cr Pratt remarked that an extra tax of three pence in the pound would keep sixty men in full time jobs. Cr Oates opposed an increase. Even though, as he said, 'some had even gone to the wash tub in order to keep their own homes' the real answer was in community farms. He was of course a local dairy farmer and not a wages man.
Sir Charles Brand, a Federal senator, was apostrophised by the editor on June 9, 1939. 'Your statement that in Victoria alone there are 38,000 unemployed is staggering. You say that the dole is sapping the manhood of the unemployed.....Australians are revolting against the sweating conditions under which thousands of their fellow citizens are working. It must stop.'
The solution to unemployment in Australia had always been strong leadership and sound economic policies. The editor called on people like Brand to provide the first, while local Labor Party members argued against economic conscription or, worse, military conscription. There was a heavy sense that Doris McRae's fears might come true.
Life in small towns like Frankston, Mornington, Somerville and Hastings, where perhaps people did not realise that they were soon to be at the mercy of remote politicians on the other side of the world, went on. O'Brien's, the grain and produce merchants, traded at the Public Market in Wells Street. V.S. McComb took over the management of Frankston Transport. A furnished cottage could be rented for fifteen shillings a week; a weatherboard home bought for about £550. Several domestic positions, live in or live out, were waiting to be filled at twenty five shillings a week. At Linton's nursery , fruit trees sold at one shilling each and seedlings at two and sixpence a hundred.
There was skating at the Wattle Cafe every Friday night, and at the RSSILA--'famous for conviviality'--an old time dance every Saturday night, admission one shilling.
At the picture theatre, 'Breaking the Ice' starred Bobby Breen and Charles Ruggles. The Walt Disney animation, 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs', was shown in June 1939. Dorothy Lamour was an alluring fantasy for the local lads in 'Tropic Holiday'.
Some men recognised their duty. There were sixty men in the military detachment at the Drill Hall in the Cranbourne Road Reserve. Letters about peace and war became more frequent in the Your Safety Valve column of the local newspaper. Bunker vehemently opposed Disgusted.
As if to emphasise the feeling of remoteness from world events on the one hand, and the inappropriateness of response on the other hand, an air raid precautions meeting was attended by only forty people in the town. Inclement weather was given as the official excuse for such a poor turnout. In reality, the town was unconvinced about the need for air raid shelters at present.
In May 1939 the National Registration Bill was introduced. All males from 18 to 65 would be required to obtain a card or be fined, or imprisoned. The suggestion of a National Register must have made even the most apathetic pay attention.
Mr Crofts of the A.C.T.U. suggested boycotting the process. He saw it as 'the first step to conscription.' The editor of The Standard replied that he had faith in Australia's political and military leaders.
'Never again, Mr Crofts, will it be possible (or advisable) to transport three hundred and fifty thousand of the flower of our manhood across the seas. Modern warfare would make it impossible, and from an Empire point of view it would not be demanded. We are not saying that small voluntary forces might not go, but wholesale emigration to fight on the other side of the world is too ridiculous to even contemplate with a potential army at our back gate'. He meant of course the threatening menace of Japan which had been on the move for the previous decade far away to the north.
Oblivious to this 'potential army' Miss Joy Carter sailed on a three week vacation to New Guinea in June. New Guinea was an Australian mandated territory at this time. The mandate had forbidden fortification which might be misconstrued by Pacific nations. Japan had ignored League of Nations instructions and had been fortifying its mandate during the 1930s.
E. Hobson of Mentone took the editor to task. Wasn't there an ominous undertone in the U.A.P. government introducing supply and development bills? The Prime Minister, Mr Menzies, appeared to favour conscriptive processes. The letter writer instanced the Transport Workers Act and the Crimes Act, 'and quite recently the Port Kembla workers were compelled to load pig iron for Japan- our so called potential enemy.'
Fairmindedness notwithstanding, the National Register Census was announced for the 17th to the 29th of July 1939. Personal and property cards were to be 'obtained and furnished.' Maybe it would come to pass that unskilled men, so called, and men on the dole would be drafted to be shot at, and skilled men drafted into wartime industries?
First aid classes were held. Dr Plowman conducted the Frankston class and everyone passed. Decontamination squads and evacuation corps were proposed. The editor felt that these were scarcely necessary, 'not likely to be called upon until the members have drooping beards - if even then'.
The Standard continued its debate about sustenance for the unemployed. It was felt locally, despite strong faith in him, that even the Premier of Victoria did not know what to do.
In July 1939 debutantes were escorted by militia men to the RSSILA ball. A smoke social was well attended by local men. Frankston High School held a grand gala ball at the Wattle Palais, and the new Yacht Club its second annual meeting. Amateur talent quests continued to be popular. The price of fish and the presence of stray dogs in the streets worried people.
The C.W.A. continued its good work and, in August, Miss Vesper staged her singing and dancing pupils' annual revue.
'The final sequence of events leading to the announcement that Australia was at war commenced on Thursday, 24th of August 1939.' There followed a week of anxiety and national preparations. Then came the weekend. 'Probably in the keen air and the mild sunshine of such a weekend most people forgot completely that a few days ago the Prime Minister had enjoined the people to make an effort to behave calmly. It was easy to be cheerful by pleasant circumstances.'
War is Declared
Australia was at war from September 3. On September 8 the editor, in an open letter to Mr Menzies, flagged the town's loyalty.
Australians feel particularly comfortable in the thought that you are at the helm in this hour of trial.....Australians accept your assurances of preparedness with full confidence that this country is defended to a higher degree today than at any time.
The Shire Council also assured the government of its loyalty.
One adept local trader showed initiative, or a willingness to trade on prevailing anxieties. 'Owing to the turn of International events, we believe that Sparks' opening cash sale...will be one of the last opportunities for residents to buy goods at less than regular prices. During the last war many commodities became almost unprocurable, and it is not known what the next costs will be.' Men's working trousers were reduced to five shillings and sixpence a pair, single sheeting to ninepence a yard, and pure white cloth pillowcases to sixpence.
To a small town like Frankston, battlefields were distant places, although one resident, Ossie Olsen, came back from his holiday with an exciting story of how the 'War Scare Brings Thrills To Tourists'.
Mr O.J.Olsen, well known Frankston resident, who returned home on Monday after a three week cruise to Rabaul in the Strathnaver, experienced....a succession of thrills not usually found on a holiday cruise. On the outward voyage from Brisbane to Rabaul there were persistent rumours of hostile submarines in the northern waters, and a strong lookout was kept. After being two days in Rabaul the master of the Strathnaver was ordered by the Admiralty to return to Australia without delay because of the uncertainty of the international situation.....It is understood that the Strathnaver will be fitted with guns while in Sydney.'
For the time being, people must carry on as usual. 'Business as usual' said the Shire President, Cr Heath. At the Wattle Palais, 'khaki and navy blue uniforms were seen in the crowd of dancers, and the orchestra responded with the fighting services' pet melodies.' A uniform sometimes impressed some of the local girls.
The editor of The Standard began referring to people as 'fellow Britishers'. At the end of September, one hundred and fifty ladies went to a public meeting to join the Red Cross.
Summer was approaching, with its annual influx of visitors. The absence of a public convenience in the main street became a priority. Around the town were excellent examples of rustic stone work done by craftsmen employed by the local council, and by stone masons like the Renders. Jack, to the misfortune of a five months old baby like me, had spent the last decade in a useful craft.
There followed a time of political uncertainty. To the majority, Prime Minister Menzies remained 'the outstanding man in Australian politics' and The Standard was prepared to endorse censorship. Allegations of incompetence were 'unfair', wrote the editor, and 'hamper business', 'creates panic' and 'shows little regard for the opinions of English statesmen who are advising the Federal Government.' A little forelock tugging can have a powerful influence in a small community.
A Comforts Fund was established for the young militia men who would be sent off for intensive training. Euchre and bridge parties were held, and wool, for socks, sweaters, mufflers, balaclavas, and mittens donated. At the Summer Gardens Tea Room, a concert of violin selections, elocutionary items and songs raised £4/2/6. To the Frankston detachment of the 46th Battalion, a cheque was sent for extra comforts.
The Horticultural Society was suspended 'until after the war.'
Frankston remained a place in which to booze on Sundays, even at the Soldiers' Memorial. In November there were rowdy scenes at the Wattle Palais at 12.15 am after a dance. Two hundred people milled around and children waited to pick up beer bottles. Extra police and a military picket at weekends might be necessary.
Recruiting for the 6th Division 2nd A.I.F, was announced, to take place from November 20th to 22nd at the Memorial Hall in Thompson street, from 9.30 am to 7.30 pm. Those 20 to 35 years old 'who are not employed in reserve occupations' were required to attend. Recruits would be provided with uniforms, necessaries, quarters and rations. They would serve for the duration of the war 'and twelve months thereafter' and go overseas if required.
In reality, it was all a matter of haste and unpreparedness. Young soldiers already at Puckapunyal were asking for basic items like washing and shaving soap, toothpaste, towels, handkerchiefs, reading matter, tobacco, cigarette papers, and sporting materials.
The editor of The Standard continued to espouse the official line, with eulogies like the following: 'Men of the Second A.I.F. are now in military camps in different parts of the Commonwealth. In six months they will be fully trained soldiers, and should the need arise may in battle add lustre to an illustrious name. Physically they are superb, and mentally they are of the type to master quickly the technique of the new mechanical warfare.'
In December 1939 townsfolk were assured that there was no horse meat in Frankston pies and that the new mercury vapour street lights would enliven the streets during the holiday season.
The names of local enlisted men were published in The Standard. Their families could be proud of them. The RSSILA proposed to host a dinner for those who would be sent to serve overseas. The Frankston branch of the Farewell and Reception Committee of the Shire of Frankston and Hastings met. With Christmas approaching, hampers for the forces were worth six shillings each.
When it was suggested that women become employed, the editor was horrified. 'Don't lend yourselves to such a subterfuge in the name of Patriotism, dear ladies.' But times were changing. Frankston militia men returned from camp with stories of being issued with shorts, 'a new and greatly appreciated innovation.'
From now on a tone of patriotic flattery imbued the newspaper. The too old urged on the young enough to fight. The nobility of the cause and the special and heroic qualities of fighting men were emphasised. 'Their military bearing was favourably commented upon.' This proved too much for one Frankston man. On December 22 came the first published letter of dissent. 'I am puzzled by the feverish anxiety of certain people to send our Australian men overseas to fight.' Use our people to produce food, ships, and planes, but do not send them away, he pleaded. His was too small a voice for the emergency.
© Jenny Evans, 2003