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


From the house I first went to school in early October 1925 aged about four and a half. This was preceded by a rare disagreement between my parents and on that occasion, my mother won the argument.

At the time, there were two schools in Rabaul, the Chinese School and the Sacred Heart Convent. My father, right or wrong, wanted me to go to the Chinese School. I suspect that this was so that I could learn either Mandarin or Cantonese which, with the pidgin I spoke fluently, would have been a useful accomplishment. My mother, however, couldn't bear the thought of her precious child being exposed to the influence of the 'heathen Chinee' so I was duly enrolled at the Convent.

In spite of our surname, my father and mother were Church of England, so I went to the convent during the week and to Sunday School and church at St George's C of E on Sundays. It could be said that I had a truly ecumenical upbringing.

I thoroughly enjoyed school. I remember having to write AMDG on every page and I adored the nuns, especially Sister Mary Immaculata, despite the fact that discipline was severe and it was a rare day when I didn't receive a couple of cuts of the cane. There was no nonsense; it was all learning and little play apart from lunchtime and recess. At first, in deference to my youth, I only attended for half a day, being escorted to and fro by Keepok the Tease. I can only remember two other children there among a total of probably twenty to thirty. They were my best friend, Raffles Cilento, son of Dr (later Sir) Raphael Cilento and older brother of Diane of film star fame, and my enemy, Bob Page. (More of the Pages later)

I remember several embarrassing episodes at school. My mother with her great skill with the needle used to make most of my clothes and on one occasion came up with some cut -away shorts; ideal, of course, for the heat and humidity. Regrettably, even at my tender age they were so cut away they must have allowed some of my essentials to escape which scandalised the poor nuns who returned me to base post-haste with a note of protest. Back to normal shorts.

Some time later I had occasion to go to the outside haus pek-pek in some haste but didn't quite make it in time. However with quick lateral thinking I turned my shorts inside out and returned to the classroom a very smelly little mess. Consternation, of course, ensued and I was again sent home in disgrace.

My third attempt to gain notoriety occurred at a school concert in which I was cast as Little Boy Blue. I can remember feeling a real Alec dressed up in a baby blue costume, run up by my doting mother, with my legs encased in a pair of Mrs Williams' silk stockings dyed blue to match. I obtained my revenge by chanting off key instead of saying my lines thereby reducing the audience, which included the Administrator, to hysterics in the process.

On another memorable occasion at a concert at the St George's Church Hall I was cast as a soldier returning from the wars complete with uniform and red pill box cap, again no doubt courtesy of my mother, to find I had become a father in my absence. The proud mother presented the bundle of joy to me centre stage. Apparently, I had been kept waiting in the wings for my cue long past my bedtime and was tired and cranky. On cue I shot on to the stage, snatched the baby (a doll) from my beloved's arms, dashed it on the floor and marched off. I can't recall the audience reaction to this dreadful exhibition.

The school was next to the Catholic Church which, for Rabaul, was an imposing structure, with a spire surrounded by a large gilded cross. It was sited on the landward side of Malaguna Road not far from town while St George's, a pleasant smaller building, was on the other side of Malaguna Road not far from its junction with Mango Avenue.

Apart from our quarter to three feet, another genetic defect I shared with my father was tone deafness allied to a complete lack of a sense of rhythm. When we sang in Church we could put a whole congregation off key in no time flat. (No pun intended)

The tuition at the convent must have been first class. When we moved to Sydney, I started school at North Bondi (now Bondi Beach) Public School at the beginning of 1928, a few days before I turned seven. I think the headmistress must have assumed that any child from New Guinea would be mentally retarded as I was placed in Kindergarten where I must have caused chaos, particularly in eurhythmics, where I invariably ended in hysterics and definitely out of rhythm. I was rapidly promoted to my level of incompetence, spending only one year in infant school and doing my Q.C. for the first time at age ten, too young to proceed to high school.

The Office

The Public Works Department office in which my father worked as the sole architect cum engineer was close to the old Nord Deutscher Lloyd wharf, commonly known as the 'burnt wharf'', built by the Germans and partially burnt down at some stage. This was where the Burns Philp (BP) and other steamers berthed. There was another fair sized wharf, not much used because of shallower water alongside, I suspect, about halfway along the harbour towards Malaguna where there were jetties and slipways for the many schooners, inter island craft and shipyards.

The office was a quite large timber framed building erected partly over the harbour on piles well sited to get whatever breeze was going. I can recall a large drawing office with a verandah along the southern side adjacent to the wharf. There was a small room at the harbour end of the verandah in which the draughtsman, Mr Fudge, a bachelor, lived a solitary existence. I have often wondered since if he had any social life or how he prepared or where he went for his meals as I can't recall any restaurants in our day though there may have been something of the sort in Chinatown.

My main memory of Mr Fudge, however, is a rather beautiful one. After work he used to retire to his room and play the saxophone, rather well in my opinion, and the mellow notes used to float over that glorious harbour in the fast fading evening light. As we were so close to the Equator, the twilight was short lived in Rabaul.

Hours of office work were eight to noon and two to four allowing for a siesta after lunch.

Apart from Mr Fudge and the hymns in church on Sundays, I have two other musical memories of Rabaul. The first is of haunting tunes, generally heard in the evenings, played on pipes which I never saw, having only three notes in a minor key. Secondly the much more robust beat of the tom-toms, used for passing messages, to which we didn't have the code and as the main source of music at the colourful sing-sings, some of which we were fortunate enough to witness, including the special privilege of attendance, with a few other Europeans at a meeting of the Duk-Duks ,a native secret society, whose members wore a wooden conical shaped headdress which obscured the features, as well as the other types of finery and ornamentation usual at sing-sings.

Occasionally I would be sent to the office for childminding as there were always a few boys about to care for me, if care is the right word. Nevertheless, the office and its environs were full of interest for a small child.

I remember being taken well out into the harbour in a lakatoi (a very fast dugout outrigger sailing boat), which was leaking like a sieve and just made it back to shore and some harsh words from Marc for the crew.

One event at the office that I didn't witness but heard a lot about, was the discovery of a nest of baby crocodiles under the building, the mother fortunately being absent at the time. These may have been the infants I recall seeing on one of our voyages south on their way to Taronga Park Zoo. They were about 12 inches long and had teeth like little needles.

On occasion the boys played soccer, which they adored and played in bare feet, of course. They played on the large paddock between the office and the wharf. I was watching such a game one day when a large dead tree crashed down over the ground right across the back of one of the players. I thought he was dead but in a minute or so, after the tree was lifted from him, he came to, got up and resumed playing. I can only surmise that a projecting branch saved him from the full weight of this massive tree.

Another time they suffered a much more serious incident when a full-blooded drive hit a wall and the ball was pierced by a projecting nail. The boys were as deflated as the ball as bladders were scarce and expensive commodities. I can only hope that some kind soul patched it for them.

As the boys mostly came from coastal districts, they were expert fishermen. They used fish spears made from a thin bamboo pole with three barbed prongs of fencing wire lashed to the business end. One afternoon I saw a boy with his spear near the office about knee deep in water. He was waiting for what turned out to be a sea snake, which he duly speared. I now understand that if these snakes are approached and they bite, they are lethally venomous but this one was quite beautiful, having a glossy black body with gold bands around it.

On another occasion while standing on the burnt wharf I noticed a boy swimming quite deep nearby and rubbing something between his palms as he swam. The substance discoloured the water in his vicinity and appeared to stun the fish that floated to the surface and were collected by his mate in a lakatoi. This was more effective and quieter than the grenades with which we used to catch fish off Finschaffen and Madang during the war.

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