Derek and Malagan


Arrival In Rabaul and the Rabaul Hotel

The Half House

The House

Toa's Message


The Office

The Town and its Environs




The Cinema







Return to Lost Lives

Rabaul in the 1920s A Child's Eye View
by Derek Westoby O'Dean


I believe the first aircraft to visit Rabaul was from the RAAF sent over on a bombing mission. The event that led to the mission was the spearing of four copper prospectors about sixty miles out of town. They had entered a hut regarded as tabu by the natives and lost their lives as a result. I remember their funeral, the largest Rabaul had ever seen to that time and attended by pretty well all the European inhabitants. I remember too, the feeling of tension prevailing with the hundred Europeans surrounded by about 60,000 potentially hostile natives. The bombing was in retribution for the killings, the bombs being of the homemade jam tin type popular on Gallipoli. They set fire to large areas of kunai grass while the natives escaped unscathed physically but no doubt suitably impressed and, perhaps, chastened.

The first aircraft I can remember seeing in Rabaul was an RAAF flying boat. I am not sure whether it was a Walrus or a Seagull that landed on the harbour and was hauled up on a slip at Malaguna for maintenance and repairs to a tailplane that had been torn in a collision with a schooner's bowsprit. This was such a rare and auspicious occasion we were given half a day holiday from school and taken to inspect this marvel. That plane was piloted by Flight Lieutenant McIntyre and visited Rabaul in October 1926.

The next plane to visit was piloted by Ray Parer with McIntosh as his copilot and landed on the racecourse causing great interest. On a subsequent landing with McIntosh at the controls it performed a somersault which probably caused even greater interest. Fortunately neither Parer nor Mcintosh was injured. Parer, of course, was even then well known and went on to rank with the greatest in Australian aeronautical history.


Rabaul in the mid-twenties was not exactly technologically advanced. Homes had no electricity supply, which was restricted to clubs, cinema and hospital, and powered by generators with their attendant noise.

In the home, kerosene lamps were the usual source of light with the odd pressure lamp with a gas mantle. There were no domestic refrigerators, fresh food being kept in ice boxes with the ice boy calling daily. There were no fans in the homes and certainly no air conditioning with even the hotel relying on punkahs in the dining room as previously mentioned.

Cooking was by fuel stove. Water was stored in corrugated iron rain water tanks and was, of course, plentiful due to the frequent and, at times, torrential rain. Food, except for the local produce from the markets, was mainly tinned, imported and expensive. Fresh meat was only available for a couple of days a fortnight after the BP ship came in. I recall oranges stamped 'Sunkist' imported from California and Libby's and Carnation tinned milk in particular. There were of course imports from China as Chinese ships with an 'eye' painted on the bow called on occasion and we almost invariably drank China tea with lemon. Lemons called 'mulies' and oranges were grown locally, the oranges being peculiar in that they were ripe and picked while still green.

There never seemed to be any shortage of grog which was duty free. Afternoon cocktail parties were all the go (the jazzy twenties) and I recall reports of our parson Freddie Bishop, a wonderful person with a very apt name, having fallen off his Harley Davidson motor bike after one such gathering, no doubt due to having encountered a lurking pothole. I can say that after her fall from grace at the hotel early in our stay in Rabaul I never saw or heard of my mother being under the influence of demon drink again and likewise with my father, who, though he enjoyed a drink, never overindulged, except on one memorable occasion when we were on furlough in Sydney and that lapse was due to exceptional circumstances which will be related later on.

None of the roads in or around the town were sealed but those to the main villages and in town generally had an excellent surface as they were constructed with crushed and compacted coral. However, in the outlying districts they were narrow, one 'bullamacow' cart wide and pretty hairy as to twists and turns and alignment. I can recall one of the better roads well out of town, which had two bridges spanning rushing torrents at the bottom of deep ravines. These bridges were of timber construction with pitched corrugated iron roofs to protect the timber from rotting in the incessant rainfall.


There were two clubs. The Rabaul Club catered for the upper strata, departmental heads, doctors, bank managers and the like as was the custom of the times in Australian country towns. It was situated on one of the cross streets not far from the burnt wharf, probably Namanula Avenue. From memory it was low to the ground, a long nicely designed building pleasantly framed in trees.

For the rest there was the New Guinea Club which was situated across Central Avenue from our home on the comer of Clarke Street and where it reopened after WW 11. Once again from memory it looked like a typical house, on stumps but much larger than the usual. There was one large room with a dance floor where the fancy dress ball took place. Naturally it had a bar at one end and there were other rooms off containing billiard tables and, no doubt, card rooms etc. Marc used to generally visit the Club after work and before dinner for a couple of beers and take me with him. I was, I think, the only child accorded this privilege and was regarded as an honorary member. While Marc had his beer I was indulged with a bottle of Sarto, a sweet sarsaparilla based soft drink which was my favourite tipple.

The Cinema

Fairly regularly there used to be silent film shows in what I remember as a large tin shed with a stage across one end with a screen above. The venue was somewhere between our house and Chinatown. The audience consisted of the 'boys' ( no 'marys' as I recall - discrimination in all its forms was alive and well in those days) sitting on forms down the front and Europeans on canvas deck chairs up the back (like some Queensland suburban cinemas as I found them in the 1940s). The natives thoroughly enjoyed these shows and commented enthusiastically among themselves. They are memorable for me mainly because of the ice cream, which was available at intermission - the only time I can recall sampling this delicacy in Rabaul. As for the films my only memory is of a scene from 'Captain Blood' in which a cannon ball smashed into a ship's boat tipping all the sailors into the 'soda water'. Inevitably for that period there must have been some Charlie Chaplin movies which would have been very popular but have completely escaped my memory.

Previous © Derek Westoby O'Dean, 2002
Online edition created by J & J Evans, October 2002