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


German New Guinea, which was administered from Madang on the mainland, was captured by the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force which landed first near Bita Paka about 30 kilometres from Rabaul at the onset of the Great War in 1914. Our first serviceman killed in action in that conflict fell there.

Subsequent to the Australian military occupation, shortly after the war, responsibility for the country was handed to Australia by the League of Nations and it became the Mandated Territory of New Guinea with Rabaul on the large island of New Britain as the capital.

I imagine that the choice of Rabaul as capital was influenced by its central position in the Territory and its superb harbour and, perhaps, the fact that it was the first centre secured by our troops during the war.

Papua, in those days, was a separate entity having been annexed by Britain in the late 1800s with its administration later being handed to Australia. Rabaul has a fearsome climate. It lies about 4 degrees south of the Equator and though the temperature rarely reached the old century, it was consistently in the 80s to 90s with high humidity. If it didn't rain for two days there was liable to be talk of a drought. It has always been, as has been tragically demonstrated recently, a centre of intense volcanic activity. Previously it had been devastated by the eruption of Vulcan in 1937, bombed flat in World War 2 and was flattened again by the recent eruption. I heard only recently, however, that the phoenix will rise from the ashes again, though on this occasion it is apparently proposed that the southern end of the town towards Matupit will be abandoned.

I arrived in Rabaul in 1923, aged not quite three, and left at the end of 1927, but still retain many vivid memories of an absolutely fascinating place and people, which I feel I should set down, as I would be one of the few left who lived there in that era.

My observations are based on childish memories and I apologise in advance for any misspellings (probably phonetic) of names but make no apology for any politically incorrect references, which would be true to the usage of the period.

Also, it is obvious that a child may not have known of or understood some of the detail in a few of the incidents I record. These I recall from conversations and discussions I overheard (small pitchers have big ears) or took part in with my parents and their friends after the events.

My father was 43 and my mother 37 when I was born, an only child, a Great War baby boomer. I was treated by my parents as a small adult, spoilt in many ways, certainly not subjected to the 'seen but not heard' mores of the times, but given a very clear idea of what was acceptable behaviour and what was not with great emphasis on good manners. I had been told that the first word I uttered was 'Marc', the short form of my father's name Marcus, and thereafter never addressed him in any other way, which was somewhat unusual in the 1920s.

Arrival In Rabaul and the Rabaul Hotel

My first memory of life is of my mother sitting with me on the deck of SS Mataram, a Burns Philp (BP) ship of 3300 tons built in 1909, while she made tiny paper boats and threw them overboard, no doubt to keep me happy and out of mischief.

We had left Brisbane on 19 October 1923 to join my father in Rabaul, where he had taken up the position of Architect in the Department of Public Works some time previously. Apparently married accommodation was scarce which had meant we could not travel up with him.

On our arrival accommodation must have still been unavailable as my mother and I stayed for a short period at the Rabaul Hotel. As far as I can remember, the Hotel was a large single storey timber building, T shaped in plan, with bedrooms giving on to a verandah along the head of the T and a large dining room with a verandah on one side of the stem of the T. Our bedroom was little better than a cubicle off the verandah with, I think, a double decker bunk.

It was in the Hotel we met the last two Germans handing over German assets to the Australian Administration through the Expropriation Board before being repatriated. This, I believe, was a sorry chapter in our history, as the Germans in New Guinea were basically decent people and they were sent home with little more than what they stood up in.

Of the two, Mr Muller was a very kind fellow who used to bowl an orange down the verandah to me before we went in to breakfast, while Mr Kramer (who always insisted he was not German but Polish) caused my mother's downfall with strong drink.

Up to then I think she may have had the occasional sherry but the story I heard many times later went like this. She was passing Mr Kramer who was at a table on the verandah drinking a gin sling. My mother was incautious enough to observe 'Mr Kramer that looks to be a beautiful drink.' To which Mr Kramer responded 'It is Mrs O'Dean. I have had forty and I feel like a devil but after my fiftieth I shall feel like an angel about to fly.' (I suspect a degree of hyperbole in that statement). Nevertheless, my mother said 'May I have one?' 'Certainly' said Mr Kramer. She had one and then another and shortly afterwards had to be assisted to bed almost certainly feeling by no means angelic.

I can never recall her being under the influence of strong drink thereafter despite the opportunities presented by the many cocktail parties which were a feature of the 20s, particularly of the social life of Rabaul. Strong drink taken to alleviate boredom and the savage climate led to the downfall of many. This situation, no doubt, was aided by the fact that grog was duty free and cheap.

Other memories of the Hotel are of the dining room being 'air conditioned' by large canvas punkahs. Even at that age, my social conscience must have been well developed as I can remember feeling sorry for the young 'boy' whose job it was, during mealtimes, to pull rhythmically on the cord which activated the punkahs.

Another memory is of a tragedy. One of the Hotel guests, Mrs Stoddart, had been matron of honour at a wedding. On the way to the reception along the Kokopo Road, the boy driving the bridal party went to sleep at the wheel. The car left the road, went over a cliff, killing the bride and injuring others including Mrs Stoddart. I recall, quite vividly, Mrs Stoddart coming into our cubicle shortly after the event to tell my mother the sad story and to show her bruises, some of which were in rather intimate places. What the small child notices!

That incident reminds me of how quickly the natives learned to use modern technology. My father didn't possess and certainly couldn't drive a car before his late fifties but there, in the early twenties, there were probably more boys driving cars than Europeans, while not long before they had been back in the Stone Age and had little or no contact with white men. Many years later, after World War Two in Port Moresby, I was interested to see boys driving bulldozers, operating duplicators and modern contrivances that I couldn't use. At the same time, adorned with a hibiscus flower behind the ear, they still 'sanded' floors by sitting in a line and using steel scrapers.

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