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


Furlough, as it was called, was generous, as it needed to be given the isolation, trying climate and lack of amenities and consisted of three months, whether after 15 or 18 months, I am not sure, with passage paid on Burns Philp ships to Australia, though some people, I believe, took their furlough in Singapore, Hong Kong and perhaps other exotic destinations.

It was eagerly awaited and, for us, meant a trip to Sydney. We had two furloughs during our time in Rabaul and travelled once in SS Marsina and, on the other occasion in SS Montoro, at that time the largest and most comfortable of the BP fleet calling at Rabaul.

In Sydney we rented a flat on Hopetoun Avenue, Vaucluse, which had a glorious view from the Heads to Bradley's Head, and was a short walk from my mother's sister's home in Olola Avenue.

Memory flashes from these trips remain with me, like sailing through what must have been the Whitsundays at dawn on a sea as calm as a millpond and very beautiful or, even more beautiful, arriving off Sydney Heads at dawn and entering the glorious harbour with my first sight of a tram, a pair of 'jumping jacks', as they were called, running along the heights of Vaucluse near the lighthouse, or, a third memory, jumping up and down in frustration at Circular Quay after disembarkation as Marc insisted on hiring a hansom cab (to carry our considerable luggage) instead of travelling by tram as I was demanding.

When we finally did travel by tram, to my great delight, we found it good policy to take Malagan or, later, Keepok, as then, everyone deserted our compartment. I think this conduct by the travelling public was inspired more by fear than racism as, then, Australians didn't know too much about the Islands except that they were inhabited by savages, many with cannibalistic propensities and Malagan, certainly, was a savage looking fellow.

On one voyage we called at Samarai, off Milne Bay, where the water was so clear there seemed to be nothing between the surface and the bottom in 30 feet with the ship's screw and undersides clearly visible. It was a beautiful island that could be walked around in 20 minutes and was called 'The Pearl of the Pacific'.

Steaming through the Buka Passage where, to my childish eye, the clearly visible coral reefs looked to be within ten feet of the ship on either beam, I remember being told that one BP skipper used to take his ship through there at night.

On Montoro I recall a huge mainsail being hoisted on the mizzen mast for a couple of days to benefit from the south-east trade winds. BP had a reputation for parsimony and the sail saved fuel by adding a knot or two to the speed but, more importantly from the passengers' viewpoint, steadied the ship and reduced the tendency to roll. BP's houseflag consisted of equal blue, white and red vertical bars with a green thistle on the central white.

On our first furlough Malagan came with us and Keepok on the second. They were most helpful and absolutely fascinated by Sydney but became involved in a few unusual incidents.

I only heard recently from Venour, my Vaucluse cousin, that, early in our first stay, while visiting my aunt and uncle, Aunt Nea called my father to the window, scandalised, as there was Malagan in the centre of the front garden, stark naked, having a most delightful reverse shower over the lawn sprinkler. Marc duly raused on Malagan who resumed his lap-lap and decorum was restored. This was in 1925 in the middle of Vaucluse and Sydney was a pretty stitched up place in those days.

In fact, shortly after that episode Marc himself was ejected from Vaucluse Park by a custodian. He had been for a swim at Neilsen Park and his crime consisted of attempting to walk through Vaucluse Park dressed in a perfectly decent beach robe over his swimming costume.

Keepok, on the other hand, caused Venour some concern. Venour was keen on a lass in the district and Keepok found out another chap was trying to cut him out. Keepok went to Yen, told him the results of his espionage and said 'You want me killum'. Venour was a bit taken aback and restrained Keepok from proceeding with retribution, which wouldn't have been as serious as it appeared to Yen. 'Me killum' in pidgin means to do injury to. 'Me killum finish' means kill. Keepok was, by the way, a pretty sophisticated chap; Malagan would probably have done the job and reported afterwards.

It was on our second furlough that Marc fell from grace alcoholically. The British submarines Oxley and Otway were visiting Sydney at the time and Marc received an invitation from Engineer Commander Freddie Hodgson, whom Aunt Nea had befriended, to come aboard. I think he tried to keep up with Freddie and the wardroom as they sank pink gins and was said to have a little difficulty negotiating the gangplank as he came ashore.

Keepok used to disappear from the flat from time to time and we eventually found that he had attached himself to two of my delightful girl cousins who lived in Coolong Road near Vaucluse Park, doing their housework and being paid in tailor made cigarettes. They also gave him a very garish plaster statuette holding a mirror. On our return to Rabaul, Keepok used to hold court like a king to his mates with his tales of Sydney, the statuette in the middle of the group in his room in the boy house while they smoked his cigarettes.

Because the Administrator lived high on the hill at Namanula in what was called 'Gubmin Haus' I think it was Malagan who said, when he first saw the impressive domed entrance building to the Taronga Park Zoo across the harbour at Mosman 'Him fella Gubmin Haus'.

Naturally I mastered pidgin at an early age .It is not possible to communicate in pidgin without using one of the great Aussie swear words and, when in Sydney, our relatives and friends used to take an evil delight in getting me gabbling in pidgin for their amusement in hearing a 4 to 6 year old swearing.


Of course, in the European population, everyone knew everyone else in Rabaul but my parent's friends were limited to about half a dozen couples of whom the following stand out.

Ernest and Bea (Beatrice) Williams were probably their closest friends. Ernest was in the Treasury at or close to the top of that department. They introduced us to Bea's sister who lived in Killara and whom we visited, when on furlough, forming a friendship, which continued after the death of my parents, and has lasted to the present between Evie's daughter and me. Ernest and Bea left Rabaul not long after us and settled in Melbourne, where, like us, they also ran into the hardships of the Great Depression.

Next came Mrs 'Billie' Baxter-Bruce and her husband who was a solicitor in private practice. Billie was a particular friend of my mother and had the distinction of being the mother-in-law of P.G. Taylor of aviation fame, his first wife, Twee, being Billie's daughter. P.G. was navigator to Kingsford-Smith on several of his epic flights and gave me an autographed copy of his book Pacific Flight.

Dr and Mrs Flood of Kokopo were also close friends. However as Mrs Baxter-Bruce and Mrs Flood were sworn enemies my mother had to be very careful to ensure that their visits to our home didn't coincide.

My mother, though fairly deaf by this time, an affliction not improved by our daily dose of quinine, and the humid climate, was a genius at entertaining and, though the foregoing were her particular friends, there were always afternoon teas and parties at home with many different people invited and obviously enjoying themselves.

My father was a friend of and worked closely with Dr Cilento, no doubt in connection with the hospital building program and his son Raffles and I were inseparable companions both at and away from school. Dr Cilento became a noted expert in the field of tropical medicine.

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