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.

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