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 Half House

After our brief stay in the Hotel, we moved into our new home which was a 'half house' or what is known in Sydney as a 'semi-detached'.

It was a timber framed bungalow shared with another family, Mr and Mrs Davis and their small daughter, who initiated me into the mysteries of 'vive la difference'. The great majority of residences were timber framed on tall stumps with galvanised corrugated iron roofing though some had sak-sak roofs made from the fronds of the sago palm. This form of construction possessed considerable flexibility and stood up surprisingly well to the almost daily earthquakes.

Our part of the bungalow consisted of a living room and bedroom and a small veranda but I can't recall anything about the cooking or bathroom arrangements or the boy's quarters which were no doubt under the house. There, we employed a boy, Malagan, whom I suspect was not long out of the bush, and who performed the functions of house, wash boy and nanny for me to whom he was very kind and patient except on one particular occasion. He was making me a boat, a very nice boat it was going to be, but I badgered him to hurry up and he became very cranky and snapped the boat over his knee. I, of course, went howling to my parents to report this rebellious behaviour but got short shrift as they judged that I had got my just desserts.

I imagine Malagan did get roused on (from the German raus) properly one night. He had been left baby sitting me while my parents went to a fancy dress ball at the New Guinea Club a couple of blocks from our half-house. In those days Rabaul had no street lights and moonless nights were as dark as black velvet. Malagan must have gone to sleep. I woke up and decided to join my parents, homing in on the noise and, eventually, the light from the club, and duly appeared about midnight, in my pyjamas, causing considerable consternation. I made a bee line for Marc who, though dressed as a Golliwog, (imagine wearing that outfit in that climate) I had recognised immediately due to the fact that we both shared a genetic defect similar to that afflicting Charlie Chaplin - our feet were put on at quarter to three which gave us the distinctive gait that made it easy to locate him in the throng.

Three other memories remain from the half house, first, falling from top to bottom of the external stairs but coming to not much harm, second, another older child conning me into rubbing chillies into my eyes and, lastly, having all my baby teeth extracted in one hit by a pair of doctors as Mr Costello, the dentist, was absent on a periodic round of the islands.

The job was done on the dining table with Malagan assisting. When I went 'out' to the anaesthetic Malagan thought the doctors had killed me and immediately wanted to kill the doctors until restrained by my mother and the marvels of anaesthetic were explained to him. So - Malagan must have been fond of me after all.

My mother was a born teacher and while we lived in the half- house at age 3 and a bit she taught me my twelve times tables by the time honoured sing song method, a little bit of French and some rudimentary sewing. She excelled at sewing and embroidery among other useful crafts and skills.

The House

Eventually we moved to a detached house on a flat site with a considerable unfenced area of lawn around it, with its own mango and coconut trees and other shrubs and trees. It was situated opposite the New Guinea Club and the site was later, according to World War Two maps, occupied by the bowling green.

It was a timber framed house comprising a living room and one bedroom surrounded by a beautiful wide verandah. I slept on the verandah and one of the delightful nostalgic sounds of Rabaul that I remember was of torrential rain on the corrugated iron roof. A roofed staircase led down to the boy house, a masonry structure, probably of coral blocks or rammed coral that was lime washed. It contained quarters for our three boys, the kitchen, bathroom, laundry and the 'haus pek-pek' (the earth closet) with a can which was collected by trusties from the 'calaboose' (gaol).

Malagan must have returned to his village when we left the half-house, no doubt much more sophisticated than when he had left it, as he had had a trip to Sydney in the interim (on which more later).

At the house we had graduated to employing three boys:

  • Keepok, the houseboy, was quite sophisticated, quick and intelligent.
  • Lapan, the cookboy, was slothful and indolent. My mother was a superb cook and, without her constant supervision and help, he would probably have poisoned us.
  • Toa, last but by no means least, was the wash boy. He worshipped my father, who was the only person who could handle him. I was very wary of him and my mother could not do a thing with him.

Keepok was an excellent houseboy and a much more reliable child minder than Malagan but when he got me on my own, he used to tease me unmercifully, probably for the amusement he got from seeing me jumping up and down and getting cranky to no avail.

Toa, besides the normal 'smalls', washed and ironed three sets of dazzling white tunics and trousers for my father every weekday. The tunic collar was military style and close fitting. Marc wore one set in the morning, another after midday siesta and a third in the evening.

The iron Toa used was a fearsome object. It was a large, hollow cast iron affair filled with glowing coconut shells which he used to burn to red hot on a sheet of galvanised iron. Another aid he used in ironing was a specially grown long right thumbnail with which I think he used to smooth the wrinkles out of clothes.

Toa's Message

Some months after we left Rabaul my father returned for several weeks in connection with a small business venture. When he disembarked from the ship at the old burnt wharf there was a boy waiting for him with a message from Toa to the effect that Toa was in calaboose in Kavieng, New Ireland 150 miles from Rabaul . Would my father get him out of calaboose and employ him as his boy while Marc was in Rabaul? This Marc duly did, but how did Toa know he was on that ship. ESP or telepathy?

Lawns were kept in immaculate condition by lines of boys sitting on the grass, moving forward on their bottoms and wielding lengths of sharpened hoop iron with cloth wrapped handles as they went.

From memory, our boys were paid two shillings a week (each shilling was called a mark from the German days) and given rations, mainly rice, which they used to cook in a kerosene tin. I have never seen or tasted better cooked rice. On their return to their villages they were given deferred pay.

If they wanted to go out at night, perhaps to the cinema, which they loved, or to visit a 'one tok' (a best or special friend) they had to have a pass to show the native police, of whom they were justifiably dead scared.

I remember my father sitting on the verandah writing out passes with his treasured red Parker 'Duofold' pen by the light of a kerosene lamp and speeding the drying of the ink by waving the pass over the glass chimney of the lamp. The only electricity in the town was provided by generators at places like the clubs, cinema and hotel. The one outside the cinema thudded away all through the movies but, as they were silent, this didn't prove to be the distraction it would have been once the talkies arrived.

One night we arrived home late to find Lapan the Lazy being chased around the boy house by the police. We had never seen him move so fast. Apparently, he had sneaked out without a pass but my father, who was good to the boys, took pity on him and shooed the police away.

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