Going to the Melbourne Cup

We’d parked our camper-trailer under wattle trees in full bloom, at Girraween National Park, on the Granite Belt.

camper girraween wattle pininterest.co.uk
Girraween wattle pininterest.co.uk

The tiny Coleman camper held two double beds, plus a single when we dropped the table down. It had a small fridge and gas stove, a sink with a pump tap, a hard roof and sturdy canvas walls with zip-down, screened plastic windows.

After spending the day walking with our three kids among the spring-time wild-flowers of one of Queensland’s most beautiful and popular national parks, we were lying in bed in the dark, telling jokes and laughing.

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Wildflowers at Girraween National Park

Suddenly there was the sound of a long, musical fart. “Who farted?” said Con, indignantly. Ironic, coming from the family’s master of flatulence.

“That wasn’t a fart”, said one of the kids. “That was a Girraween Giggle.”

That set everyone off with real giggles, and I happily put my hand on Con’s leg, under the doona.

Con was immediately distracted from farts, and we concentrated instead on a problem that all parents face when they share a camper with their children.

Tents are different. A tent might be the same size as a camper-trailer, but it doesn’t jiggle or squeak. Even with its jacks wound down tight under all four corners, a camper does. It’s not unusual, when walking through a caravan park or camping area, to pass a jiggling, squeaking camper.

From our home in Lowood, in the Brisbane Valley, we were now on our way south to go to the Melbourne Cup. We’d bought the lightest of camper-trailers, weighing just five hundred and fifty kilograms, because we didn’t know how to reverse a trailer and didn’t want to learn. For that whole trip, we pushed it into position by hand in every new caravan park.

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Our camper-trailer

We were driving the Golden Holden, the Kingswood we’d bought to replace the old blue and white HR Holden.

Con had just completed his duties as a volunteer at the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games.

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Con on duty as a volunteer at the 1982 Commonwealth Games, Brisbane

At the closing party, only two days earlier, his wallet had been stolen, and so we were travelling under a handicap. In those days, he received a salary, I worked casually, and we had little in the bank – only a Christmas Club account into which I put money occasionally. We lived from pay to pay, with a credit card (Bankcard) for emergencies.

Now the Bankcard had been stolen, plus Con’s driver’s license, his only form of identification. Both our Bankcards had been cancelled. New cards and license had yet to be issued.

In 1982, shopping for groceries or fuel on credit involved a phone call from the business owner to a Sydney number for verification of our Bankcard balance. It seems primitive now, but in those days it was an amazing service. And just as we were about to begin an extensive interstate road trip, this service was closed to us, because we had no card.

Con was on long service leave, and so fortnightly deposits would continue to be made into his savings account. He’d sent his signature to a bank in Richmond, Sydney, where we were going to visit family friends; but he would have no form of identification to enable us to withdraw funds before then.

We banked with the National Bank – now NAB. In those days there was a branch of the National Bank in almost every Queensland town, because the National Bank had taken over the old Queensland National Bank and its many branches throughout the state. In New South Wales they were less common.

Con visited the Lowood bank manager and told him of our predicament – we would be travelling interstate with no means of withdrawing money – and he gave Con a card with his signature on it to show along the way. Off we went.

On the long haul up to the Granite belt, at Braeside, south of Warwick on the New England Highway, the engine of the Golden Holden blew up.

When I first went to Stanthorpe, the road from Warwick was largely gravel, a winding, narrow road up the range where overtaking was impossible, and accidents were common. By 1982 that road was gone, replaced by a long, smooth ascent. Too long for the Holden with a camper-trailer in tow.

We were broken-down beside the road, with steam rising off a seized-up engine, three kids and a camper and very little money.

The RACQ towed us to Stanthorpe, and we arranged to have a new engine installed. Then we went to the bank. Contacted by the Stanthorpe branch, the manager at Lowood opened my Christmas Fund account and forwarded the funds. It was enough to pay for the new engine.

Two days later we were in Armidale. No National Bank there. I made rissoles for dinner out of the cheapest meat I could buy: sausage mince. Con put fifty cents on Kingston Town for the Cox Plate, and another fifty cents on Triumphal Arch in the Moonee Valley Gold Cup, and took the daily double.

In the caravan park we listened to the races on his little radio. First Kingston Town won. “He’ll win the Melbourne Cup!” said Con, with great excitement, “and we’ll be there to see it!”

Next, Triumphal Arch came in first, and Con, with delight, picked up nine dollars from the TAB. It was enough to get us through to Muswellbrook.

Muswellbrook had a CBC bank, which was tied in with the National. Con produced the card he’d got from the bank manager at Lowood and withdrew fifty dollars, enough to see us through to Richmond. It was a high old time that night in the caravan park at nearby Lake Glenbawn.

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Lake Glenbawn ezytrailscampertrailers.com.au

Con had some beers, and I drank a little bottle of Ben Ean. Ben Ean Moselle “Shorts” were popular in those days.

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Advertisement for “Ben Ean Shorts” theconversation.com

A couple of days later, at Richmond National Bank, our holiday was saved. There was a call from Lowood bank while we were there – the manager offering us an overdraft. A few days later our replacement cards arrived, and our financial life had been restored to as much order as we ever managed to achieve. On we went, to Melbourne and the Cup.

Kingston Town came second.

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Old poster showing Kingston Town being beaten by Gurner’s Lane, Melbourne Cup 1982 leski.com.au

Our camper served us well on that trip, and for several more years. By then, the kids had grown. The trailer seemed too crowded, and its canvas showed signs of wear. When I went back to full-time work, we traded it in for a second car, although we were sorry to see it go.

We never forgot the Girraween Giggle.

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The Golden Holden and the camper-trailer at Jerilderie, Vic.

Isabel’s Death

There’s a white cross on the grave, and the ground around it is bare and dry. Three people are buried here, the last dying a hundred years ago, in the great influenza epidemic of 1919. That was my great-grandfather, Frank Matthews.

 

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The first to be laid to rest here was my great-grandmother Isabel, in 1903.

Frank and Isabel and their children had been living in Sandgate, in the old Queensland National Bank building on Eagle Terrace, looking out across the Bay. In 1901, Frank received a transfer to Barcaldine, a thousand miles away by steam boat and train; a town that twenty years earlier had not existed.

Isabel Turbayne Matthews
Isabel Matthews

Isabel and Frank were both, like so many Australians then and now, the children of migrants who had travelled much further than a thousand miles to make a better life for themselves and their children. They packed up their goods and the children and Topsy the cat, and with Isabel’s sister Jessie to help out, embarked on the steamship going north, beginning a trip into the heat, hazards and discomforts of the Outback.

Isabel wrote home to her family.

A terrible choking comes in my throat, whenever I think of you all standing on the wharf, and our leaving you all for perfect strangers…

Phyllis, my grand-mother, was five years old. She helped to keep an eye on three-year-old James and baby Evie as they travelled north, the ship anchoring one evening in Keppel Bay, at the mouth of the Fitzroy River.

Here they trans-shipped to a tender for the trip up-river to Rockhampton, Isabel and Jessie laying the children to sleep in their clothes on the dusty bunks. Just before four in the morning the exhausted family got to bed in a hotel in the city, only to discover when they woke up that the weekly passenger train to Barcaldine had left the night before.

There was nothing else to do but travel by goods train, and we could not even get sleeping cars. It seemed as though we would have to sit up for two nights, but we were so tired we managed to curl up with the children and get some sleep. The train crawled along, and it took us twenty-seven hours to come from Rockhampton to Barcaldine.   

But since we arrived and had a good night’s rest, we have quite regained our good spirits.                                   

They stayed in the then-new Shakespeare Hotel, on the corner of Oak and Beech Streets.

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Several days later, they moved into the bank residence, a low timber building with the bank chambers at one end.  The bank house faced across dusty Oak Street to the railway line, but there were lattice-enclosed verandahs around the bedrooms and the back of the house, opening on to Willow Street, and a patch of lawn.

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Original Qld National Bank house, Oak St, Barcaldine

That summer, the countryside was in the middle of a dreadful drought. The grid of flat streets and simple houses that made up Barcaldine was lashed by westerly winds like blasts from a furnace. On the remnants of lagoons around the town, hundreds of birds perished from the heat.

On the sheep stations, men cut scrub to feed the stock until the land was almost bare.  The town was over-run by goats. Fire and infectious disease threatened constantly.

Isabel must have thought often of cool Moreton Bay breezes and the family she’d left behind.

Two years after they arrived in Barcaldine, she died.

According to one family story, she was dressing for dinner. Raising her arms, perhaps to pin up her hair, she fell down with a brain haemorrhage. Others maintain that she was having a shower at the time. It would have been a warm shower, more of a dribble than a gush, and as it was from the town’s artesian bore, the water would have reeked of sulphur.

Barcaldine’s Western Champion printed the story the following Saturday, revealing that Isabel had never regained consciousness.

Frank was not at home when she collapsed. As bank manager, he was often out of town, visiting sheep stations in the area. He went duck-shooting and patronised the local race-meetings, and he could “keep one down” with the best of them.

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Duck shooters, Barcaldine. Frank Matthews second from right

The night of Isabel’s collapse, he was at Dunraven Station, fifteen miles out of town. The doctor sent a messenger for him, crossing Lagoon Creek in the dark, riding through gidyea scrub and across the open downs. Frank was home by two in the morning, but there was nothing anyone could do.

Isabel was only twenty-seven years old when she died.

Two years later, Frank married Isabel’s sister Vida, who had come out to help Jessie look after the children. Frank was excommunicated from the Church of England for marrying his dead wife’s sister. It was a scandal.

Poor young Vida – coping with Frank and Phyllis and the little ones, and soon to watch her own first child, little curly-haired Janet, die of gastro-enteritis. Many Barcaldine babies did, back then, what with the heat, an uncertain water supply and the open drain that ran down Oak Street.

Isabel, Frank and little Janet share the grave under that white cross.

Nearly a century later, I began to research Isabel’s life and death: visiting Barcaldine, trawling through old newspapers on film in the State Library, and collecting family stories, letters and photographs.

Barcaldine, 1910 Jim, Frank, Phyllis and John, Vida, David and Evie Matthews
Frank and his second wife, Vida, in the bank house garden in 1910. My grandmother Phyllis is seated in the middle, holding Vida’s youngest.

In 2015 I went back to Barcaldine with my cousin Nadine, and on that bare grave we placed two little pots of artificial greenery, with loving messages written on the pots. Maybe they’re there still.

Afterwards, we walked up Oak Street for a pub crawl. It was Rugby League Grand Final night, with two Queensland teams competing, the Brisbane Broncos and North Queensland Cowboys. The epic game was played in Sydney, but Nadine and I watched it in five different Barcie hotels: Union, Railway, Artesian (“The Artie”), Shakespeare and Commercial. Some were cheering for the Broncos, but most were ardent Cowboys supporters – people in the regions supporting the regional team.

For the thrilling finish we were at the Artie, and with ecstatic locals we watched that moment when, in extra time, Johnathon Thurston kicked the winning field goal.

After a final Kahlua and milk, Nadine and I meandered back down Oak Street to our motel; past the Shakespeare Hotel, across Beech Street and Willow Street, past the spot where our great-grandmother Isabel had died one hundred and twelve years earlier in the long-gone bank house.

I have a great affection for Barcaldine, and not just because of its attractive old streetscape, its position in the centre of the state, its importance in Queensland’s pastoral and political history, its interesting museums.

I like it most of all because my family’s story links me to this place. Stories are powerful that way.

Tara Homestead 2000 shearing shed

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