Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Robert Norman of 'Normanville', Moreland Road, Coburg

The research for this story began when I was looking through the Duncan MacGregor Papers in the State Library's manuscript collection. (Duncan MacGregor owned the long gone mansion 'Glengyle', on the Merri Creek and is the subject of the book The Enterprising Mr MacGregor by Fay Woodhouse.)

'Glengyle' in the 1890s, courtesy Coburg Historical Society.

In among the many boxes of material in that collection, I came across a solitary letter written in pencil and dated 23 September 1915 from Bob Norman to his employer Jack MacGregor of 'Dalmore', Pakenham. It was written 'In the trenches' and he'd been at the Front for about a fortnight. 

Letter from Bob Norman to Jack MacGregor, Duncan MacGregor papers, 1857-1938,  Box 2.5, MS 12914, Manuscript Collection, State Library of Victoria.

Letter from 1560 Pte Robert (Bob) Norman, A Coy, 21st Battalion:
 ‘We had a bit of an experience coming over being struck by a torpedo... I am sorry to say the water cooked [?] the watch that you gave me but I still have it for old time's sake.’ ‘The Rev McRae Stewart* is our chaplain and I suppose you have heard from him all about it. I had a chat to him about Dalmore [at Pakenham] the other day. He is a fine Chaplain and well liked by all the men...We are in a very quiet part of the trenches at the moment although there are always shells and bullets flying about. The Turks trenches are about 200 yards away from us… We have been in the firing line ever since we lobbed here…’
*The Rev Donald Macrae Stewart was a Presbyterian minister married to Jessie MacGregor, one of the seven children of 'Glengyle' family. He was minister at Brunswick, then Ascot Vale then Malvern where he remained until his death. He enlisted as chaplain to the 21st Battalion and served on the Gallipoli Peninsula then France. On his return to Australia he was Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in 1918-19.

Robert Norman continues:
‘We are quite used to shells and bullets now and don’t mind them at all. You cannot catch them and chuck them back again. We sleep through it all when off duty. It’s marvellous. Before coming here if old Spots [his dog, maybe?] barked a bit I couldn’t sleep …’

'Southland', torpedoed 2 September 1915. Accession no(s) H2013.365/1-295. Fetherston family album. Gift of Mrs Audrey Houghton; 1990. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.

I have written about the torpedo attack on the 'Southland' mentioned by Bob before. You can also read about it here

From The Old Boys of Coburg State School Go to War, by Cheryl Griffin, pp 59-60:
As recorded elsewhere, old boy John McCormack was on board the Southland when she was torpedoed on her way to Gallipoli. Another Coburg soldier, Robert Norman, wrote a long and dramatic account of the events to his parents, which was published in the Herald. This is just a small part of his very detailed letter home:

We left port on Monday evening expecting to get here on Thursday. We zigzagged our course all the way, and kept a good lookout for submarines. Everything went well till Thursday morning, when we had just cleaned our rifles and were going to fall in for a bit of instruction. About 5 to 10am we were struck by an Austrian torpedo. We dropped our guns, and rushed downstairs for lifebelts, which were lying on the beds. Talk about shock – we nearly dropped with fright, but soon recovered our nerves, and went to our boat stations on deck.
Charlie and I stuck together, and when we arrived on deck one boat was full and lowered. When it reached the water it turned over, and they all fell into the sea, which had a good swell on at the time. About five of them climbed back on to the top of the boat and clung there. The next boat was let down by only one end, and shot most of the chaps into the sea. That was enough for me. We took off our boots, putties, and tunics, and went astern… We paddled away a bit from the ship, which we thought might sink at any minute. We passed by plenty of boats, but they would not pick us up. Talk about being shipwrecked.
We were on our rafts for about an hour, and were getting pretty cold. I never gave up hope, and kept my head all the while. It was everyone for himself. At last I decided to swim to a boat about 150 yards away… There were 40 of us in a canvas boat. We were in her for about three hours before we got picked up.
The Southland held together marvellously, and a volunteer crew got her into the harbor and beached her. I got all my kit back, and have only to get a pair of boots and putties. The crew went back to their ship on Friday morning, and looted all the officers and soldiers’ kits, stealing razors, etc. I left my tunic on deck when I went over the side, and all they took were my badges.
I was delighted to get the pocket Bible which mother gave me, also my diary. I lost my pipe and tobacco pouch when swimming; they got washed out of my pockets. It took us two or three days to get over the shock, and I am feeling fit and well again now. A lot of the chaps are still very bad; their nerves are gone. Some of the worst cases went back to Alexandria by hospital ship tonight.
From Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 16 June 1916. The letter is dated 23 September 1915, the same day he wrote to Jack MacGregor.

Norman was injured (head and shoulder wound) in France in July 1916 and he returned to Australia in February 1917. Among the belongings sent home with him is the damaged watch he mentioned in his letter.

(from Robert Norman's service record, courtesy National Archives of Australia)

On his return Robert Norman took up a fruit block at Merbein through the Soldiers' Settlement Scheme and lived in the area for the rest of his life. 
Robert died in 1971 and his grave can be found in Merbein Cemetery alongside that of his son VX131759 Staff Sergeant Herbert Charles Norman, 30th Infantry Brigade who served in World War Two and died two years after his father.

There is one more story I'd like to tell you about the Norman family. It's an extraordinary story and quite unexpected. It's bizarre and macabre and it relates to Robert Norman's paternal grandparents. 
Robert's father Charles Norman was a teacher of music and the records suggest that he was a man of independent means. Originally of Newlands, but for many years of 'Normanville', 75 Moreland Road (corner of Barrow Street), he died in 1922 aged 69 and is buried at Coburg Cemetery with other members of the family.
Charles Norman's parents married in Victoria in 1854. He was born in 1856. In 1869, his father William Gore Norman, a Carlton grocer, died in Fiji under extraordinary circumstances - he was eaten by natives.
Many newspapers reported the events. This is just one:
'Our readers will remember that a boat which left Levuka for Nasavusavu about twelve months ago, with 17 New Hebrides labourers, their employer, Mr. Norman, late of Sandhurst (sic), Victoria, and the aforesaid Jimmie, never reached its destination. The boat was thought to have been wrecked and all on board lost. Jimmie Lasulasu informed Captain Field that when on their way to Nasavusavu the natives took possession of the boat, compelling them to steer first one way and then another, and threatened to kill them if they did not land them on their own island. On the seventeenth day they murdered Mr. Norman, splitting his head open with a tomahawk. They cooked and ate the body, thrusting portions of his cooked companion into the face of Jimmie.' (The Manaro Mercury, and Cooma and Bombala Advertiser, Saturday 3 September 1870.)

Probate papers show that William Gore Norman had purchased a cotton [I think it should be coconut] plantation (Matani Kavika) at Wai Ruhu (Wai Ruka?). He had a Frenchman named Simonet Michel as his overseer. In a statement given for probate purposes, his neighbour, Thomas R. Shute, said that Norman had employed native labour and was doing well and doing business with his neighbours. Those men’s term was up so Norman delivered them home and at Levuka hired 17 Tanna men and paid for their passage. There was a disagreement about the cost of the passage so he decided to take them himself even though he was cautioned not to do it. There was another white man on board – a drunk – natives cooked and ate him. Shute didn’t know what happened to Norman. (PROV, VPRS 28/P0 Unit 88)
I wonder what seven year old Charles Norman was told about his father's demise?
His mother, Elizabeth (nee Webber), remarried in 1880 and had built up a considerable portfolio of property in her own name. She had sold the grocer's shop in Carlton after her first husband's death and began to accumulate property, but in 1889, as the era of 'Marvellous Melbourne' began to evaporate, she found herself in financial trouble and committed suicide in a quite gruesome manner. She was just 57 years old. Her son Charles was 33 and her grandson Robert and his twin brother Raymond, were yet to be born. 

It's not often that you come across stories like these, but I think you'll agree that they are quite extraordinary.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Fireman William Brown and his soldier sons

Recently I was going through some images at Coburg Historical Society and came across some interesting material relating to Coburg Fire Station and also to World War One.

This image was found in an envelope with several other photographs on unrelated subjects. It had been donated some time ago, possibly by George Williams, who was a fireman at Coburg Fire Station in the 1920s (and probably earlier). The photograph has written on the back ‘To George Williams, with best wishes, from W. Brown’ The donor has written on the back at the time of donation ‘Horse Stable at Coburg Fire Station with Capt W. Brown and son enlisted in 1914-18 war.’ 

Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society.

It took me very little  time to realise that at the time the photograph was taken (probably 1915 when his sons enlisted), Brown had already left Coburg and was stationed at Mentone, so it is almost certain that this photo was taken at Mentone.

Mentone Fire Station with Fireman William Brown sitting in the fire engine, c1918. Courtesy Mordialloc and District Historical Society. From http://localhistory.kingston.vic.gov.au/htm/article/412.htm

First Class Fireman William Henry Brown had been in charge of the Coburg Fire Station (then located in Victoria Street) from about 1908 to 1913. He and his wife Winifred (nee Whelan) had five sons and a daughter, the two youngest born while they were living in Coburg. As Roman Catholics, their older children probably attended possibly at St Paul's School in Coburg.

Staff of Coburg Fire Station, circa 1920. Note the almost identical placement of the fire truck to the Mentone image above. Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society.

The Coburg Fire Station staff prior to the motorised fire truck. Victoria Street Fire Station, date unknown. Image courtesy Coburg Historical Society.

Having settled to my satisfaction the location of the image of William Brown and his soldier son, I was now left trying to decide which of Brown's sons is pictured with him.  

The two older Brown boys, William Henry and Urban Henry Joseph both enlisted in 1915, WIlliam Henry in August when he claimed to be 18 years old and Urban in September when he, too, claimed to be 18. The Victorian birth indexes reveal that William was actually 17 and Urban was only 15.

William, who was working as a farm hand on King Island, Tasmania when he enlisted, survived the war, returned to Australia with gas poisoning in December 1918 and settled on the land at King Island for a few years before returning to Victoria where he worked as a fireman. He died in August 1974 aged 76.

Urban, a telegraph messenger at Mentone, was 15 years old (born 1900) and of diminutive build (5 foot 4 inches tall and weighing only 7 stone - 44.5 kilograms) when he enlisted. He set off with the 5th Battalion and arrived in France in April 1916. By the end of August he had returned to England with pleurisy and pneumonia and was sent back to Australia. The doctor's report on his journey home stated that 'Patient is a very young delicate looking boy', so perhaps they suspected that he wasn't as old as he claimed, although there is no notation to this effect on his service record.

Postcard written by Urban Brown to his parents from Egypt, March 1916. Image courtesy Discovery Anzacs website. (Original source unknown.)

By February 1917, Urban had recovered from his illnesses and decided to re-enlist. By now he was claiming to be 19 years 10 months, although we know that he was actually 17. He had grown four inches taller and was now 8 and a half stone (54 kilograms). He embarked with the 24th Battalion in May and was soon back in action in France. Slightly wounded in August 1918, he returned to the lines where he died of wounds received on 5 October 1918 and was buried at Templeux Le Guerard Cemetery, France.

Looking at the photograph at the top of this entry, my feeling is that the young man standing next to his father is Urban Brown. He is of slight build, very youthful and he's holding a crop in his hands, something Urban Brown did in several other photographs I've seen on the Discovering Anzacs website. I also think it's more likely that his father would send a photo of himself with the son who died back to his old fire station. I wonder whether you agree with my reasoning?

Finally, here's another photo that was with Urban Brown's entry on the Discovering Anzacs website. The contributor is unknown, but says that these are Brown family members. I think it must have been taken in November 1915 just before William junior embarked. (Urban left in December.) My guess is that the soldier on the left is Urban and that his brother William is holding their sister Winnie (then 5 years old). I can't decide whether the man seated in the front is their father William Henry Brown. I have found no evidence that he served in WW1, so perhaps it is another family member. Then again, this man has a splendid moustache and so does Fireman Brown in the first photograph! I think that the child holding the 'gun' at the front must be Eric Brown, born in 1908, so 7 years old at the time. 

These are all guesses, of course, and I would be delighted if anyone can fill in any gaps in the story I've put together!