Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Harold Nicholls: returned serviceman and Labor Party member


252 Private Harold Nicholls, 7th Infantry Battalion, A Company, enlisted early – on 19 August 1914. He was one of the first Coburg men to enlist and took part in the march from Victoria Barracks to Broadmeadows Camp in what the local paper described as a ‘living stream of volunteers’. This was just three days after he enlisted and although the recruits seemed something of a motley crew, they marched to the cheers of a large crowd. (Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 21 August, 1914, 18 September 1914) You can read more about that march here.

He left Melbourne on board HMAT Hororata (A20) as part of the first contingent on 19 October 1914.



 HMAT Benalla (A24) on the right. HMAT Hororata (A20) on the left. Port Melbourne. 19 October 1914.
Image courtesy AWM. Image C02793.


Harold was a 28 year old letter carrier (a postie) when he enlisted and lived with his parents Samuel and Maria at their home in Willow Grove, Coburg. His parents married in Walkerville, South Australia but Harold and his brother Jack (who also served in the 1st AIF) were born in Castlemaine. It would appear that the family moved to Coburg some time during the Depression of the 1890s, after Samuel Nicholls’ hairdressing business went broke. Their father died before the war began, so it was their mother Maria who farewelled her two sons as they set off for the war.

Harold's war was a short one. He was shot in the right arm in May 1915 on the Gallipoli Peninsula and was sent to England for treatment. Unfortunately, many fragments of metal had lodged in his arm and after three months of massage treatment he was returned to Australia in November 1915. His brother Jack returned from serving in New Guinea around this time but soon made his way to the Western Front, where he served until the end of the war.

Before enlistment, both Nicholls brothers were active members of community groups. They were members of the Coburg Rifle Club and belonged to the Coburg branch of the Australian Natives Association, Jack serving as a trustee, conference delegate and metropolitan delegate. (Brunswick and Coburg Star, 8 January 1915)


Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society



On his early enforced return to Coburg, Harold Nicholls tried his hand at local politics, standing for Coburg Council in 1917 and 1918. In his 1918 campaign, he stated that his aim was to ‘break up the monopoly in the Council and put in men who really represented the people of Coburg, which was a Labor constituency, as had been demonstrated in Federal and State elections and the Conscription referendums.’ He was reacting against what he saw as the ‘state of stagnation’ in the Coburg Council. (Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 16 August 1918, p.3) 

His bid was unsuccessful, which is not surprising when you consider that those who owned property could vote according to the number of properties they owned, so if you owned two properties you got two votes. Three properties gave you three votes and so on. This definitely worked against the working man having a say in local politics. And Nicholls’ politics were probably too radical for what was still a fairly sparsely populated, semi-rural area in the years immediately following the war.

Harold Nicholls was an active member of the Coburg branch of the Australian Labor Party . Carolyn Rasmussen, in her Master’s thesis, ‘Labor Politics in Coburg 1919-1940’, University of Melbourne, 1978 (and available in the local history room at Coburg Library and online through the University of Melbourne’s digital repository) notes that Harold Nicholls emerged in the second half of the 1930s as a left-winger. During World War Two, he was actively involved in the Victorian Anti-Conscription League, later known as the League of Freedom. (Argus, 11 March 1949, p.6) He was a long time anti-conscription advocate and much earlier, in October 1916 just after he’d returned home wounded, he had attended a heated anti-conscription rally in Sale with Maurice Blackburn MLA as the speaker. (Gippsland Times, 23 October 1916, p.3)

By 1945 Harold was acting in the capacity of Secretary of the Blackburn and Mutton Labor Supporters’ Committee (Williamstown Chronicle, 27 April 1945, p.2) and in 1952 acted as Coburg MLA Charles Mutton’s campaign secretary (Argus, 18 December 1952, p.5) when Mutton stood as Progessive Labor. (Mutton represented Coburg in the Victorian Legislative Assembly from 1940 to 1967 as an Independent Labor man.)

Harold Nicholls continued to live in the family home in Willow Grove, Coburg and remained in the employ of the Post Office. He married Ruby Fowler in 1921 when he 41 years old. Ruby died in 1963 aged 74. Harold died in 1975 aged 89. His brother Jack died in 1970.


Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Robert Holtham Hardy, blinded and badly injured in France



2384 Private Robert Holtham Hardy of Coburg enlisted in July 1915 aged 18 years and 11 months. He was a jeweller by trade and lived with his parents John and Jane Hardy in Tinning Street, Brunswick.


Robert Hardy was wounded in France on 10 August 1916 and ten days later was admitted to the 2nd London General Hospital suffering from severe shrapnel wounds to both eyes, a severe fractured tibia and injuries to his side, neck and chest. His eyes were so badly injured that not only was he blinded but had both eyes removed before being admitted to St Dunstan’s Hostel for Blinded Soldiers in Regent’s Park where he remained until his injured leg turned septic and he was readmitted to hospital before being returned to Australia in July 1917. (Another great website featuring St Dunstan's can be found here.)

Immediately upon his return, the citizens of Coburg rallied to raise money for Hardy and the benefit (concert, supper and dance) held in November 1917 at the Coburg Town Hall raised £50.

Argus, 22 November 1917, p.8

Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 9 November 1917, p.3.


Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 30 November 1917, p.1.


Although the fate of a blind returned serviceman might seem dismal, Robert Hardy had benefitted from  an occupational massage training program set up at St Dunstan’s to help blinded soldiers rehabilitate and find a useful occupation and sense of purpose on their return to their home countries. It seems clear that Robert Hardy benefitted from this program, because on his return to Coburg (his parents were now living in Sydney Road) he set up as a masseur. (1924 electoral roll)

Robert Hardy after his return from the war. Found on The Stanley Low Legacy website.



In the middle 1920s Robert Hardy married a Coburg girl, Ada Clift, and they had a daughter Stella.  They lived firstly in Victoria Street, Coburg, but then moved to Caulfield where he died on 9 August 1931 aged only 34. True to his Coburg roots, Robert Hardy is buried at Coburg Cemetery. His father John predeceased him, dying in 1924. His mother Jane remained in Coburg and died there in 1952 aged 76. His wife Ada had a long life as a widow. She died in 1985 aged 93.

And just to show how one piece of research leads to another …



Recently a descendant of one of the Harder brothers of May Street, Coburg, contacted me to say that his grandfather was also a member of the Harder family, although he did not serve because of the end of hostilities. He was Dudley Grenfell Harder, known in the family as Dougie. He also told me that Dougie's brother Victor Harder had been persuaded to seek a commission with the British by his then-girlfriend’s father, William Hill. The girlfriend, Dorcas Hill, was a member of the local Red Cross Society and was there the night of the welcome home for Robert Hardy, as one of the entertainers. 

Being curious by nature, I wondered what happened to Dorcas. Like so many other young women of that time, her sweetheart did not return from the war. (Victor was killed in action on 26 April 1918.) However, she did marry – in the middle 1920s – a returned serviceman, Lieutenant Edgar Sherwen MC. He was a Wimmera lad, hailing from Kaniva near the South Australian border, and had been a State School teacher before he enlisted. He had by then completed one year of a Science degree at the University of Melbourne and on his returned gained his Bachelor of Civil Engineering, completed with Repatriation Department assistance. The young couple lived firstly with her parents in Champ Street, Coburg, but soon moved away from the area. Edgar Sherwen went on to work for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works and was at one time President of Melbourne Legacy.


Friday, 4 July 2014

World War 1 in photos

A friend just sent me the link to an amazing collection of images from 'The Atlantic: World War 1 in Photos: The Western Front Part II and Armistice'.


Here are two of the photos from the collection:

A wounded British prisoner being supported by two German soldiers, 1917.


A French town on 31 October 1918. The bridge was built by New Zealand engineers.
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The images have no connection to Coburg and some are quite confrontational, but it's an amazing collection and if you go back to The Atlantic's home page and type World War 1 into the search, you will find plenty of other impressive images. I was particularly taken with those in the collection World War 1: a century later



Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Dunbar Carey, Don Bradman, Amy Johnson and connections to Coburg



Image found at Anzacs Online



5667 Private Ernest Robert Dunbar Carey sailed for the war with the 17th Reinforcements of the 5th Infantry Battalion in April 1916 as a nineteen year old.

At the time he had no connections to Coburg, but as is the way of things, there were at least three men on board the ship who did, three men who died on the Western Front: brothers William and Edward Ashcroft and Daniel Angland (a member of the Coburg Harriers Club). The Ashcrofts’ brother Walter suffered a double amputation trying to rescue Edward, returned and settled in Coburg and spent the rest of his life working for disabled soldiers.


On his return, Carey worked for the Federal Taxation Department, but his great love was music and in the early 1920s he began to compose songs and conduct various suburban orchestras and was the director of the Malvern RSL Orchestra at one stage, styling himself Dunbar Carey. He also acted as a musical editor, adviser and arranger for Allans, Collins and Medley Music House at various times.

As a composer, he published a number of songs about high profile public figures, none very successful.

One, Just Plain ‘Johnnie’ was about the aviatrix Amy Johnson, who visited Melbourne to such acclaim in June 1930.

Image courtesy National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.mus-an6160987




Another was Take Off Your Hats to Bradman! Also written in 1930.


Image courtesy National Library of Australia, http://nla.gov.au/nla.mus-vn3353781




In 1932 Dunbar Carey opened a music and radio shop at 112 Bell Street, Coburg, in the block between Sydney Road and the railway line. With the Depression beginning to bite, it was the worst possible time to start a new business dealing in what were essentially luxury goods, so it is no surprise that by 1936 he had closed up shop and returned to the Public Service where he remained until he retired in 1953. He later left Victoria for Queensland, where he died in 1960.


Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society. 
Interestingly, the producer of this publication, Herbert Rouvray, was also a returned servicemen. 


Dunbar Carey’s brief career in the music industry forms part of an academic study on the music written about the great Australian cricketer Don Bradman, so if you have any insights you can offer on Ernest R.D. (Dunbar) Carey or on music written about Don Bradman, please contact me and I’ll pass it on.










Saturday, 14 June 2014

The Davis family of ‘Nassau’, Moreland


When I began my research into the various Davis families of Coburg I thought I would not need to search very far, as I had taken at face value the statement by Richard Broome on page 192 of Coburg: between two creeks that the Mayor of the day, Cr Albert Davis of ‘Moreland Hall’, had three sons at the Front.


Cr Albert Davis.
Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society



Those of you who have ever tried to research families with very common names like Smith, Jones, Davies or Davis will know that it is never easy to establish the truth and on this occasion the information contained in what is considered the Coburg ‘Bible’ is wrong. Cr Davis had only one son, Roy. (Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 4 June 1915, p. 2 mentions that ‘Roy Davis, only son of the Mayor, on Monday volunteered for service.’)

There was an extensive Davis family network in the area, however, and two of Roy’s relatives Richard Stanley Davis and Nassau William James Davis also served. I’ve yet to establish the exact relationship of Stanley (as he was known) and Nassau (often recorded mistakenly as Nassan) to Roy Davis, but I think that perhaps their father was the brother of Roy's grandfather William Davis of ‘Nassau’, Moreland Road, Moreland.
You might wonder how the following information fits into an account of Coburg during the First World War, but I’ve included it here to show one piece of research can lead to another and another and another … Besides, the Davis family became great fund-raisers during the War years and without them, the patriotic efforts of the Coburg community would have been much the poorer.
Irishman William Davis, his wife Elizabeth (nee Johnston) and their eleven children lived at ‘Nassau Villa’ in Moreland Road. Broome records that he worked for a short time as a warder at Pentridge but took up residence at ‘Nassau’ in 1866 where he raised sheep. He also operated a flock mill until it burnt down in 1894. The Coburg Leader (12 March 1898) refers to him as a collector for the Coburg Council and another article in May 1908 says he had a 40 year connection with the City Council, but when he died in 1900, his occupation was given as landowner and he certainly owned a lot of land.
In the 1890s he leased land between Albion Street and Moreland Road to the Melbourne Sparrow Shooting Club and although my research into this Club and sparrow shooting as a sport has led me down many paths, I won’t go into that here!
I will mention one other act by William Davis that speaks to his character as a generous and compassionate man:
Petty criminal Ernest Knox was 18 when he killed the owner’s son while robbing Michael Crawcoar’s  pawnbroker’s premises in Williamstown. He was executed at the Melbourne Gaol in 1894 and buried on site, the initials E.K. marking the place of his burial. In 1929 when the remains of those executed at the Gaol were being removed to Pentridge, a workman named Ted Baxter stole the skull he found there in the mistaken belief that it was Ned Kelly’s skull he had taken. That belief remained ‘fact’ for over a hundred years, but it is now known that the skull in question was not Ned’s but that of Ernest Knox.
Ernest Knox’s mother, a Mrs Webb, was left bereft and impoverished when Ernest was executed. William Davis stepped in and provided her with a small cottage for life. (Coburg Leader, 28 April 1894).
William Davis died in 1900 and the Nassau estate was soon broken up by sub-division, but William’s generosity of spirit continued in the fund-raising activities of his widow Elizabeth and their son Albert and his family during the years of World War One. After his wife’s death in 1927 aged 94 the estate was further reduced when land was sold for the construction of the Sacred Heart (now John Fawkner) Hospital.

Sacred Heart Hospital, Moreland Road, Coburg
Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society



Wednesday, 11 June 2014

When those left behind can’t cope


Occasionally I stumble over a family situation that adds another level of sadness to the World War One story.
In the past week I’ve been researching the seven soldiers from Coburg with the surname Davis. The first hurdle was to identify them all, because there are 999 men with the surname Davis listed on the embarkation rolls! I still cannot identify two of the men on my list, but I now have a clearer idea of who the others were. Three of them were cousins, one enlisted in Western Australia (although he was born in Coburg) and the other is the subject of this post.
2961 Private John William Davis, 9th Reinforcements, 5th Infantry Battalion, embarked on 10 September 1915. He was an old boy of Coburg State School and belonged to the congregation of the Coburg Methodist Church. Prior to enlistment he had been a Senior Cadet in the 49th Battalion for one and a half years and had served in the 60th Infantry Citizen Forces, North Melbourne for three years.

When he enlisted, he named his father Charles of 50 Munro Street, Coburg as his next of kin. However, by February 1916, his allotment was being paid to his step-mother Christina because his father was by then an inmate of the Kew Lunatic Asylum

Kew Lunatic Asylum, mid 1880s. Photographer Charles Nettleton. Image courtesy State Library of Victoria. Image H82.246/2.

The Kew Asylum Register (Available online from the Public Record Office of Victoria website) reveals that 65 year old Charles Davis was admitted to the Asylum as early as 3 October 1915, less than a month after his son left for the front. He was suffering from ‘mania’ and the cause given was ‘fretting about his sons going to war’. By that stage he had been unwell for two weeks already and I can imagine the distress in the household as John prepared to go to war knowing he was leaving his step-mother Christina behind to cope with his father’s fragile mental state. (Charles junior was living in Sydney.)
Things did not improve. Charles remained in the Kew Asylum and died there on 9 September 1916, almost a year to the day after John’s departure for the front. I wonder whether Charles knew that his son John received shrapnel wounds to his arms at Armentieres on 22 July 1916. There would scarcely have been time for the news to filter through, I think.
This family’s troubles did not end there, however. Although his wounds were not life threatening, John developed ‘wrist drop’ and was deemed medically unfit. He returned to Australia in February 1917 and lived for a short time with his step-mother at 34 Moreland Road, Coburg. I wonder, though, whether he was able to return to his trade as a mechanic or as a glass and china repairer, which was the other occupation stated on his war record. Unlikely, I think, given that he received a war pension on his return.

An example of the Memorial Plaque (often referred to as the Dead Man's Penny) found on Wikipedia.

At some stage after his return he married but the marriage was short lived as John died on 13 February 1921 aged only 26. His widow Kathleen remarried three years later. I have yet to discover a cause of death, but given that his widow received a Memorial Plaque and Scroll in his memory, his death must have been considered war related.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

The usefulness of church newsletters


You’ve probably already considered tracking down Honour Boards and other memorials in churches, sports groups, lodges and so on. There are certainly plenty of those in the Coburg Historical Society collection and I have used them to add to the information in my database of service personnel with Coburg connections.

However, it wasn’t until I stumbled on a single, rather fragile copy of ‘The Coburg Presbyterian Chronicle’ for July 1915 that I realised there’s another vast resource out there that I hadn’t really ever thought about: church newsletters.


I found only one issue of the local Presbyterian newsletter in the Coburg Historical Society collection, but it had quite a lot to tell me. I learned that church members Norman Hunter (he was there at the sinking of the ‘Emden’ in September 1914), J. Wallace Ross, John Ross, Dan Scott and Roy Yorke had just enlisted and that choir member J. Buchanan had joined up and was preparing to go to the front. I also learned that Victor Clark, Archie Fedderson, John Ross, J. Wallace Ross, A.C. Thompson and Don S. Walker had been wounded and read an account of Archie Fedderson’s wounding in his letter home. It also told me that Harold E. Baxter had died, as had C.B.J. McKay. 


Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society.



182 Sapper Harold Evelyn Baxter’s service record told me that he was a telephone mechanic at the time of his enlistment, but the newsletter added that he had worked for the Railway Department, something I did not know. Harold Baxter is remembered at the Memorial Avenue of Trees at Lake Reserve, Coburg and was allocated tree number 132 in the original planting.

An Australian cemetery on the beach at Anzac Cove. The grave at the far right is of 182 Sapper (Spr) Harold Evelyn Baxter, 2nd Field Company Australian Engineers.
Image courtesy AWM. Image C01435.


1157 Charles Bernard James McKay was born in Balmain, Sydney in 1885 but was living in Service Street, Coburg at the time of his enlistment. He served with the 7th Battalion and died of wounds on 7 June 1915. Like Harold Baxter he is remembered at the Memorial Avenue of Trees at Lake Reserve, Coburg and was allocated tree number 92 in the original planting.



Several pages from Charles McKay's service record, giving some family background. It is interesting to note that his 1914/15 Star ended up with his father's brother in Edinburgh. It would be interesting to know whether the medal was returned to a family member (his sister, perhaps?) in Australia after his uncle's death in 1945.


Of the others,Victor Clarke died  at Lone Pine in August 1915, just after this newsletter was issued, and John Ross died in France in August 1918.