'Australians have an infinite capacity for believing bullshit.' Dr Peter Stanley on Phillip Adams' ABC program Late Night Live 2002.
My mother Doris told no stories about her early life with Jack. The grief and grievance of his death was not to be shared with me. Even as a small child, I felt that it was a peculiar way to be treated. My father was absent, but it was as if he had never existed. I was interested in stories and read a lot, yet there were no family stories told to me. Think about that. There were no family stories that began 'Your father'. And there were no family outings, no shopping trips, no picnics, no parties, no sporting events, no bedtime stories, no hugs, and no kisses.
The Renders were a migrant English family and the Frankston district a vastly different place from the Coverdale valley in which they had once lived. There were no stories about Jack's childhood, no stories about how he came to Australia, and no stories about his life before the war. He had gone away and had not come back. He has been missing presumed dead for over sixty years.
Doris and Jack met, and married on 17 June 1931 at Frankston Methodist Church. By 1934 the young family, of Jack, Doris and Joan, lived in The Bough at 37 Gweno Avenue, Frankston.
Frankston in the 1930s
In the 1930s Frankston was a small seaside town beside Port Phillip Bay, far enough from Melbourne to exist in relatively peaceful semi-rural seclusion. Townsfolk could be born, live and die happily in Frankston in those days, which was what many local families had been doing for over seventy years. It was a place in which to get a job, keep it, marry and raise a family, follow the footy team, go to church, and have hobbies like fishing and gardening.
People knew a great deal about their town and, by much observation of each other, a great deal about local reputations and relationships. On Oliver's Hill and at Mount Eliza lived a coterie of wealthy people on large estates. Small dwellings tended to be on the flat ground near the railway line and nearer the town, although there was some development along the gravel roads that extended out into the bush surrounding Frankston on three sides. The fourth boundary was the beach, a wide stretch of sand backed by dunes, with a pier and fishermen and a summer influx of holiday makers.
The shopkeepers and the professional people made middling money. There were white collar workers and skilled tradesmen who did not earn quite as much and a labouring class of mainly decent folk. Not everyone in the town had recovered from the dark days of the Depression. There were unemployed men and, at the bottom of the ladder, the eccentrics, the drunks, and the no hopers that any small town protects. There were scandals, which excited the gossips, but it didn't do to name names. Quite often The Standard newspaper reported local court cases, to the embarrassment of the participants.
It is recorded that on 6 September 1935 Frank Forde, Deputy Leader of the federal Australian Labor Party 'spoke strongly in favour of Australian aloofness from any impending conflict.' The League of Nations was in trouble over Italy and Abyssinia. Sanctions meant war and war meant foreign graves. 'There was no coherent, well considered foreign policy', and New Guinea might be retained or not according to various views. To follow Britain seemed correct to some. Others wanted 'absolute isolation and strict neutrality'.
The Plaza Talkies screened films every night of the week except on Sunday, which was strictly a sacred day. The Standard advertised coming attractions like 'Sweet Adeline', 'Over the Garden Wall', and a Laurel and Hardy comedy in April 1936.
Autumn must have been drier than usual that year for on April 9 the paper commented that 'the fine soaking rain which fell on Monday night and Tuesday was welcome to gardeners and fruit growers.' That sort of weather watching was important to its readers as there were orchards around the town and throughout the shire. The Standard circulated in Frankston, Baxter, Somerville, Langwarrin, Tyabb, Pearcedale, Mt Eliza, Mornington, Seaford and Hastings, rural communities with similar interests. With some pride, the local people realized that Frankston was the town that was really going ahead.
At the Frankston Autumn Flower Show in 1936, Jack Render exhibited in the amateur class, his main competitor F.R. Watchorn of Cranbourne Road. First for phlox, with F.R. second, the tables turned on Jack when F.R's fern was awarded first prize and his second. In the plant-in-bloom category, Jack triumphed with a first.
Jack Render grew his flowers in the garden of a small weatherboard house, once named Parkview, in Gweno Avenue. He had made a house name out of tea tree twigs and converted Parkview to The Bough. There was a small front garden behind a hedge, with a palm tree in the middle of the lawn, and, at the back, a long backyard divided in two by a pathway that sloped all the way down to a fernery and a small orchard. The clothesline was propped up behind the shed that housed the copper and the troughs, and on the other side, past a clump of tea tree twisted fantastically over an aviary, was the path to the lavatory. Eucalypts and wattles surrounded the property and there was a walk through the bush and down the cliff to the beach.
The Approaching War
On 17 April 1936, when Miss McCrae, senior mistress at Frankston High School, gave an address to the Frankston branch of the League of Nations Union, Jack was not there to listen to her wise words. The League of Nations had failed to fulfill the expectations it had aroused, she said, 'owing to each nation playing cautiously for its own advantage.' Sensitive and percipient, Doris McCrae sounded a small warning note about the fragile state of world peace. 'No protection has yet been invented that could possibly be used to combat the weapons of modern warfare, namely poison gas and bombs. Important people might be saved, but there would be no hope for ordinary individuals - that is, those who were the least desirous of war.' The repugnant thought had come to her that she was educating young people who might be sacrificed to folly. 'We must say that we want peace and must have peace', she avowed.
On a Monday evening in July, the Frankston Methodist Young People's Guild met and welcomed two new members. After prayers, the evening was given over to impromptu speeches, 'varying from opinion on the desirability of neck to knee bathing costumes to discussions on whether members should support war or not.'
At the Autumn Flower Show in 1937, Mr Jack Render triumphed four times. Three roses and a bowl of dahlias won him blue first cards, and a vase of gladioli and a bowl of zinnias scored him two pink seconds. On the blue cards he was Mr, and on the pink ones, Jack. It is a nice point. There was a code of manners among the important people in the community, the people who ran things. The rest mattered less. Ordinary people were not to be left to the peaceful pursuit of ordinary things.
Compulsory military training had been abandoned in 1929. The size of the Militia fell to below 30,000 before Prime Minister Lyons dramatically increased the Defence budget in 1938. Jack had been three years in the Militia, a citizen force, at the outbreak of the Second World War.
By 1937 the political attitudes of those in control had hardened against giving up the New Guinea mandate which Australia had assumed after World War 1. Labor leader John Curtin favoured national defence by an air force, but 'no international entanglements.'
After the 1937 Imperial Conference the Australian government maintained a policy of not fully involving the population in its strategic thinking. This attitude solidified in 1938. 'The government not only declined to provide information; it also wished to prevent vigorous public debate.' H. Thorby, the Minister for Defence, appealed early in 1938 to 'all loyal Australians' to avoid entering into public controversy on the international situation. The Labor Party, the Age, the Argus, and Catholic newspapers, appeased and appeased until December 1938, when, and at the insistence of Billy Hughes, defence spending increased and a recruiting drive began.
There was talk of Australia's mandated territory as 'a sacred trust.' Japan and Germany had left the League of Nations in 1933. Italy had invaded Abyssinia in 1935. In 1938 the Munich Agreement between France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom seemed to assure only a temporary peace.
There was coming a time when there would be no flower shows for Jack.
© Jenny Evans, 2003