Glimpsing Bradman

On Boxing Day, 1936, in a soft-topped Essex motorcar and towing a trailer full of camping gear, my father Maurice, his two younger brothers, his father, E.B., and his grandfather C.B. left Nambour to drive to Melbourne. The Third Test was due to begin in January 1937, at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, and they wanted to see Don Bradman bat.

It was to be a two-week road trip – touring, as they called it then – through New South Wales and Victoria. The family often went touring. They didn’t know this would be their last long trip together.

My Dad, Maurice, then an eighteen-year-old, kept a trip journal, full of details that seem quaint to travellers in the twenty-first century: border crossings, road conditions, camping, communications, access to funds along the way.

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Maurice’s trip journal 1936-1937

Now, in June 2020, the year of COVID-19, southerners are stopped at the border, not allowed to cross into Queensland without a special permit.

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“Long delays as Queensland-NSW border closed for first time since Spanish flu in 1919” The Guardian, 26 Mar 2020

In 1936, cars and trucks going from Queensland to New South Wales were stopped and inspected at border gates. New South Wales didn’t want Queenslanders bringing cattle ticks south with them to infest stock. They still don’t.

Queensland has always been seen by southerners as a wild, bizarre place, a frontier region with its own quirky rules. We are the state of cyclones, cane toads, crocodiles, cattle ticks and mad politicians, and we’re oddly proud of that.

In normal times in the twenty-first century, cars drive straight across the borders without a pause; but still, when I cross into New South Wales on the Pacific Motorway, speeding past the big red border sculpture along the Tugun Bypass, or down through the rugged border mountains near Mount Lindesay, or at Wallangarra on the New England Highway, or Goondiwindi on the Newell, it feels like an event, with a little sense of visiting a foreign country; and crossing back into Queensland feels like coming home.

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Qld-N.S.W Border, Tugun goldcoastbulletin.com.au

In 1936, Queensland travellers were advised to obtain an Interstate Motorists Permit before travelling south. Dad’s family crossed the border at Mount Lindesay, and in Armidale, their first stop in New South Wales, according to Maurice’s journal they sought the cop-shop, where a policeman was persuaded to come out and search for engine-numbers, chassis-numbers etc., and to give us an interstate pass and windscreen sticker.

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The Border Gate at Mt Lindesay Frank Hurley, c.1961

They slept that night on the floor of a fruit packing shed outside Armidale, on the property of a family friend. From then on, nights were spent in their tent in what were called Tourist Camping Parks, or at likely spots beside the road wherever it suited them, as you could do in those less regulated days.

In 1936, the population of Australia was less than six million. Now, over twenty million people call Australia home, driving nearly twenty million vehicles, and so we can’t just set up camp wherever we want to anymore.

Roads were narrow and often steep and winding. Even major roads were rough and unsealed in places. There were many railway level crossings on the New England Highway; and instead of speeding high over the Hawkesbury River on the M1 as we do now, travellers crossed by Peat’s Ferry. It nine years later when the river was bridged at that point.

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Launch of the new Peat’s Ferry, 1930 records.nsw.gov.au

Thirty-seven other cars went on the ferry with the family’s Essex, and as they waited in line to board, Maurice and his brothers ate a bottle of local oysters, sold to waiting travellers by enterprising boys. Hawkesbury River oysters. That hasn’t changed.

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Essex Super Six Model E, 1931 – probably the model used on this road trip commons.wikipedia.org

Road trip communications are different now, in ways that were unimaginable then. We use our phones to check directions and distances, traffic conditions and weather; to book accommodation, and listen to music, talking books and podcasts; all while travelling. To check weather conditions before heading to Mount Kosciusko, E.B. booked a trunk call to the weather bureau from Canberra Post Office, and to communicate with home they sent telegrams.

We’ve done over 100,000 kilometres in our Forester, with one puncture. We have it serviced every 12,000 kilometres or so. On highways, cruise control is set at 100 or 110 kph. Maurice and his family, on their 1936-37 trip of 3397 miles (5467 kilometres), changed three tyres because of punctures, stopped three times for grease-ups and oil changes, broke a spring, had the steering adjusted and repairs done to the trailer, and were pleased when on one straight road in Victoria they reached fifty miles (eighty kilometres) an hour.

As we all had to before the arrival of Bank Cards in the late 1970s, they’d sent specimen signatures ahead from their home branch of the Commonwealth Bank so they could withdraw money along the way. No ATMs or plastic cards then.

On 4 January 1937, Maurice and his group at last got to the M.C.G. to see Bradman. They arrived late. As Maurice put it, We went there on the day on which the world’s record cricket crowd – 87,000 – was present. We were among the 17,000 for which there was no room. We caught glimpses of the play – sometimes three quarters of a wicket keeper, or a single fieldsman and a patch of grass. One of the batsmen we could sometimes glimpse was Bradman.     

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Bradman at the crease, Third Test, second innings, Melbourne January 1937 20 Great Ashes Moments No. 4, The Guardian, 9 May 2013

Next day they had to leave for home. With no car radio, they stopped along the way to hear the progress of the Test: in a café in Wangaratta, and again in a park at Albury, where people lay on the bank of the Murray in bathers, listening to the broadcast description of Bradman’s and Fingleton’s fine stand blaring forth from a speaker hung in a tree in the park.

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The Murray River near Albury, 1930s. flickr.com

Next day, at a loudspeaker at a small refreshment stall at Hume Dam, we heard Bradman score the single which took his score to two hundred.

Bradman ended up scoring 270 runs – a record for a number seven batsman; and England lost the Test.

Sixteen days after leaving Nambour, Maurice and the family arrived back home. Maurice typed up the story, added maps and illustrations and had the journal sturdily bound.

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Maurice’s hand-drawn map of the journey through N.S.W.

A month later, he started university. Three years later, he joined the 2/26th infantry battalion. He shipped out of Melbourne in 1941, bound for Singapore, part of the troop build-up in the face of the threat of invasion by Japan.

The following February, Singapore surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army, and in 1943 Maurice was among the thousands of prisoners of war who were packed into rice wagons and taken north by train to work as slaves, building the infamous Thai-Burma railway.

In October 1945, twenty-seven years old, thin, jaundiced and exhausted, Maurice came home again to Nambour, to Mum, and to their little son.

At once, he bought a new car; and within two years, he and Mum were off on another road trip – the first of a new generation. My earliest memory is standing in the back seat of that little car, as kids did in those less regulated days, looking between my parents’ shoulders at a long, narrow road leading off into the distance.

My Dad got me addicted to road trips early. I’ve never gotten over it.

Cuddling in Magdalena

H.Q. 27 Aust. Inf. Bde.,

Malaya.    18 Dec 41

Remember how Magdalena used always to lead us to the riverbank at Kangaroo Point, whenever we went out at night in the faraway days before we were married?

We were very very much in love even then, weren’t we? We must have been, to go on like we did. Every time we went home, we made up our minds we would NOT go there again – but we always did.

Fortunately, “Magdalena the Second” – my army motorbike – has not developed any such bad habits…

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Dad and Mum sitting together on Magdalena, with Dad’s brother, at Alexandra Headland. Dad’s army cap on the roof.

My dad was twenty-three when he wrote this letter to my mum. War with Japan had been declared and the army in Malaya was at battle stations. Less than two months later, the defending troops would be forced back upon Singapore. With its surrender, Dad, with around 80,000 British and Australian troops trapped on the island, would become a prisoner of war.

With Dad overseas, Mum was living back home with her parents, at Annerley in Brisbane. She was twenty-one. They’d known each other for a year, been married for six months and apart from each other for four, since my father’s embarkation. My mother was pregnant; her baby would be born, premature, two weeks after the fall of Singapore. He would be three and a half years old before they saw each other again.

The Magdalena mentioned in Dad’s letter was his second-hand two-door Ford Tudor. Black, I think, but I’ve got only old photos to go on.

When they’d started courting, Dad was a lieutenant, “C” Company, 2/26 Battalion Australian Infantry Forces. He was based at the new army camp at Redbank, south-west of Brisbane. The 2/26th was raised in Queensland in late 1939, with most of its enrolment made up of men from southern Queensland and Northern New South Wales.

Dad was born in Nambour. Mum was a country girl from Barcaldine. She’d lived with her family in Landsborough before they moved to Brisbane, and it was on the Sunshine Coast, through mutual friends, that she’d met Dad.

Mum had a job at the Carlton Theatrette, in Queen Street. In the evening Dad would drive in from Redbank, pick her up from work in Magdalena, and take her home. They’d drive up Queen Street and across the Victoria Bridge to head out to Annerley. Via the Kangaroo Point cliffs.

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View from Kangaroo Point Cliffs 1950 State Library of Queensland

I doubt if they ever went far past first base, as the saying is. They were a conscientious young couple. I like to think of them there, in each other’s arms, whenever I take a stroll along the clifftops at Kangaroo Point.

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View from Kangaroo Point Cliffs today visitbrisbane.com.au

Dad’s battalion was sent to Bathurst for training, and when he came back to Brisbane on a short leave they went parking again in Magdalena, on Coronation Drive for a change. With the engagement ring already in his pocket, he asked Mum to marry him.

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Married at St Mary’s Kangaroo Point

Should they marry, with Dad destined to embark for overseas very soon, perhaps never to return? My mother’s parents had faced the same choice in 1915, in the First World War; and they’d made the same decision.

Dad and Mum were married at Kangaroo Point, in the old stone church of Saint Mary. I go there sometimes, to the quiet garden at the back of the church, to look at a plaque placed there by the family in their memory.

For the duration of the war, Magdalena sat up on blocks under the family beach house at Alexandra Headland. Petrol rationing meant that running an extra car was not feasible. I don’t know what happened to her in the end, because when Dad came home and he and Mum moved back to Nambour, they bought a cute little Morris soft-top runabout.

New life, new car.

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Dad and Mum, with her sister and mother and the Morris, Auchenflower, late 1940s

 

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