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


The Administrator
Brigadier Evan A Wisdom was the Administrator, no doubt ex-A.I.F. From all accounts he was a pretty decent chap and, though I no doubt saw him at various functions, most probably rigged out in the full colonial rig of white drill trousers and jacket with military collar and white topee with plumes in that fearful climate, I cannot bring him to memory.

On that score the normal office rig was long white trousers with white drill jacket with the close fitting military style collar fastened with brass hooks and as sparkling white as the wash-boy could get them. My father wore three sets per working day, one in the morning, one after midday siesta and one in the evening. On less formal occasions he would wear the white trousers with a silk shirt and tie and a white jacket with lapels or even on occasions a tussore silk jacket.

The Administrator's steam yacht, to my eyes, was a thing of beauty. She had been the German governor's yacht and was part of the spoils from the Great War, renamed Franklin. She had a white hull with a clipper bow and stem and a buff funnel. The Administrator sailed in her on his periodic trips of inspection round the Territory, which was spread over a vast area and contained innumerable islands with quite a number of main centres such as Kavieng, Manus, Madang, the old German capital, Aitape, Lae, where there was later talk of transferring the administration, to escape the volcanic problems of Rabaul, and Buka and Kieta in the Solomons to name some of the more important.

Ah Koon (my spelling)
Ah Koon, Chinese of course, of whom there were quite a number in Rabaul, owned the largest store in Chinatown, opposite the grove of rubber trees and near the native market. The ground floor contained the store and I assume that the first floor was Ah Koon's residence.

From memory most of the builders and carpenters in Rabaul were Chinese and they did superb joinery work using saws that they used to pull instead of push as is usual with European saws. Marc designed our sideboard and bookcases, which they made for him in which their craftsmanship was outstanding. The pidgin for saw was 'you pus im i go you pul im i come'.

Near Ah Koon's store, one day, I saw, to me, a mysterious gentleman named Mr Parch (my spelling). He was a tremendous size and reputed to be rich - a rarity, I think, in Rabaul at that time. He was being helped into a large and luxurious car by two of his boys and, it was rumoured that, because of his weight and immense girth he needed the help of two boys to get into his trousers.

Mr Komini
Mr Komini was the Japanese Consul and he owned and operated the largest shipbuilding operation and slips in Rabaul about midway along Malaguna Road. We were twice invited to afternoon tea at his home adjacent to the shipyard and sat on cushions on mats, legs crossed, in the time honoured fashion, sipping tea and eating nibbles presented in delicate bowls.

I think my father as architect cum engineer and the only technical expert on the construction side may have had business relations with Komini and the visits were in return for favours rendered - a polite form of squeeze.

Decades later I heard that when the Japs captured Rabaul in World War Two, Komini suddenly blossomed forth as Captain Komini of the Royal Japanese Navy, planted there with great foresight, shortly after the Great War, in a marvellous position to gather intelligence with his shipyard servicing schooners and other craft plying to all comers of the Territory. It could also lend a more sinister significance to our visits as my father, more than most in the Administration, made visits to the outlying areas of the Gazelle Peninsula and thus had first hand knowledge of its topography and communications. He was probably the innocent victim of discreet pumping.

There were several other Japanese in Rabaul, including some divers, no doubt associated with Komini, but the one I can best recall was the diminutive lady who used to cut my hair Jap style, for a charge of 5/-, which also covered a bottle of lollies for me to help sweeten the ordeal. She was, of course, dressed traditionally in a kimono and obi.

Gold Rush Personalities
In our few years in Rabaul the Edie Creek-Wau goldrush took place on the mainland with Salamaua as the jumping off place. This injected a great deal of excitement into the life of Rabaul through which many of the prospectors passed on their way to the fields. Some of them struck it rich and became well known, such as 'Shark-Eye' Park, the Royal brothers and others who later figured in Ion Idriess's book Gold Dust and Ashes, to say nothing of the great swashbuckler Errol Flynn who left behind him much ill will and a swag of debts from all accounts.

My only personal memory of the prospectors is of a gentleman named Banks who went to Edie Creek to try his luck, saying to Mrs Bruce before he left that he would bring back a nugget for her and this he did. Mrs Bruce showed me the nugget, about as big as a small grape. It was the only nugget Banks found after a 35 day trip from Salamaua to Edie Creek and 35 days back again and that was the only nugget I saw from all the gold won at Edie Creek and Wau.

Mr Page
Harold Page was Government Secretary responsible to the Administrator for the Civil Service and without a doubt the power behind the throne. He was a brother of Earle (later Sir) Page, for many years leader of the Country Party and briefly at one period Prime Minister of Australia.

A story I heard on many occasions was that Harold was sailing to Rabaul to take up the position of Chief of Police on the same ship as a gentleman named Grose who was coming up as Government Secretary. During the voyage the Conservatives, including Earle, gained power in the Commonwealth Parliament shortly after which a radio signal was received on the ship transferring Grose to the position of Chief of Police and Harold to the Secretary's post, the positions they occupied during our time there.

My father and Page, like his son Bob and myself, cordially detested one another. In my father's case I don't know why but perhaps it was a manifestation of the Aussie Pommie syndrome, though both Page and my father had served in the A.I.F. and my father was far from the usual stereotype of a Pommie, being well educated and widely travelled. It may even have been because my mother had spent her early years in Grafton as the daughter of the senior Inspector of Schools and where the Page family lived before and after they achieved prominence.

Due to his position of power Page eventually brought about my father's downfall through the fact that Marc had done some private architectural work while on furlough in the South and being too frank and open for his own good had made no secret of the fact. This, of course, flouted the Public Service regulations and gave Page the weapon he had been seeking to dismiss my father.

We arrived in Sydney at the close of 1927 just in time to meet the start of the Great Depression. In retrospect, though Marc endured a couple of lengthy periods of unemployment, I think my parents were relieved to be away from an unpleasant situation, the extremely trying climate and the unhealthy conditions in which we had all suffered from malaria, the delayed effects of which, I feel sure, contributed to my father's death at age 59 in 1937.

I was happy too as our departure saved me from being sent to boarding school in Sydney, a prospect, that as an only child, I was dreading. It was the norm for white children to be sent South at age 7 to boarding school partly for health reasons but mainly to avoid their supposed corruption by being exposed to the natives' more natural attitudes to sex. I learnt more quickly from my little mates in Sydney than I ever would have from the natives!

Harold and his son met sad ends. Harold was still in Rabaul when it was captured by the Japanese in early 1942 and, with other internees, was on his way to imprisonment in Japan on the Montevideo Maru when it was sunk by an American submarine with total loss of life among the internees.

Bob died a hero's death as an A.I.F captain, one of the Z Special Unit commando infiltrators of Singapore Harbour who were captured and beheaded by the Japanese.

Judge Phillips
On one occasion my parents and I were invited by Judge Phillips to dine at his home at Namanula. The judge was a bachelor and his boys were all German trained and therefore paragons. The cook boy must have been quite a cut above Lapan's slothful standards while the waiter boys stood like statues behind each diner when not anticipating their needs. Before dinner I wandered off, in my own inimitable fashion, to explore the 'offices' attached to the house and on opening one door I looked into a room populated with more spiders than I have ever seen before or since. They ranged in colour through the spectrum from vermilion to viridian. I was entranced but eventually returned to the adults unharmed and absence unnoticed. I'm sure that was part of his domain the judge never visited for, if he had, his house boy would have received a good 'rausing'.

As far as boys were concerned German trained boys were the most eagerly sought after, boys previously employed by Australians next, followed by boys straight from their village with mission trained boys being the last card in the pack, as the received wisdom was that, among other things, they had learnt to lie and steal for which counting, which they had been taught, was a prerequisite.

Other personalities I can recall are Mr Costello, the dentist, who had the loudest laugh I have ever heard, Judge Wanliss, Messrs Cardew, Savage, Perriman, Townsend, Scrymgour, Walstab, Chinnery and Dr Calov.

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