Sunday, 25 May 2014

Telegram Twitter

At a cost calculated by word, this was so much easier to compose than a tweet of 140 characters. Ross sent this to his father on 25th November 1939 from Port Kembla (which is part of Wollongong). His affinity for the water shines through. The promised letter was not written until 1st December 1939. I guess they were kept busy. In all his correspondence, there is a stress upon security and "loose lips".

Here is the envelope for the long-awaited letter. Note, in the bottom left-hand (LH) corner: "PS: Dad's first". The reverse of the envelope heralds: "QUIS NON SEPARABIT", which translates as "Who shall separate us?" At this point he knew he would sail for England the very next day, on a journey scheduled to last 70 days, 30 to Durban and another 40 to the UK. He was never to return. The Latin on the back of the envelope seems ironic down through the years.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Letter 1 - Traveling down the east coast

This letter is four foolscap pages in length, written on both sides, in a fountain pen using Indian Ink. The paper is that form of brittle parchment widely used at the time. As you can see, it does not reproduce well, mainly because Ross always used both sides of the paper. So I will not upload the full letter in each post, but rather provide access to the full letter in the RHS Page Gallery.

This letter is marked by Ross as Westernport, Sunday 15th October 1939. It gives details of those whom he visited in his extended family during the trip to Sydney to enlist. So, I think it reasonable to assume this was his first letter to his mother since he left Brisbane. He mentions no details about his enlistment at HMAS Penguin, which reads as though it might be a security issue. But he does mention family:
  • In Coffs Harbour, he had tea with Uncle Frank and Aunty Bubby. Frank is Jennie's brother, Frank Guy Ewings (1892-1969), four years her junior.
  • He went out to Grandma's (Sarah Annie Cole 1865 - 1945) for lunch, and Olive (Olive Sylvia Annie Cole 1888-1987) was the only other person present.
  • Sylvia (Sylvia Irene Veronica Cole 1895-1984) rang while he was with Grandma, as they had missed each other on the Hornsby platform.
  • At Sylvia's urging, Ross phoned her son (and his cousin) Gordon (Gordon Lewis Tonkin 1919-2011), but they do not seem to have had much contact through the years.
  • He heard from Molly (Molly Beirne, wife of Cyril's next-in-line brother, George, 1887 - 1959) out in Manly, and dropped in on Molly's daughter Norma (Norma Cole, 1924 - 1958) at Rose Bay Convent.

Then he is quickly onto his impressions of the Crib Point facility. He sent home a dozen small photos taken in and around the naval training facility.
He is very impressed with the facilities, and the layout of HMAS Cerebus. He just casually mentions that lights are out at 10pm. He mentions people whom I do not know: Keith Currie, Mr & Mrs McPhee, and a Miss Janott . He exhorts his mother to provide Miss Janott his address at Crib Point. He mentions some accounts and some allottments, casually. He was strong on investing his money.

Induction into a different world

Ross's Personnel Dossier, now held by The National Archives in Canberra, is only two pages long. He was in the Royal Australian Navy for less than a year. He joined up on 3rd October, 1939, and died on 17th September 1940. However, even those two short pages appear to be riddled with inconsistencies. The most obvious one is that his dossier states that he was serving on the "President III" on 17th September when he died. However, the "President III" is a land based facility on the Thames which is where he did his DEMS (Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships) training before being assigned to the "SS Tregenna".

So, here is how I think his time in the RAN was allocated:
  • HMAS Penguin (Balmoral, Sydney) - 3rd October to 8th October 1939
  • With 20 others, he took the "Spirit of Progress" to Melbourne
  • HMAS Cerberus (Crib Point, Westernport) - 12th October to 4th November, 1939
  • HMAS Penguin (Balmoral, Sydney) - 4th November t0 22nd November, 1939
  • Port Kembla, Wollongong - 23rd November to 2nd December, 1930
  • Unnamed vessel in convoy to Durban, Freetown, thence Liverpool (UK) - 3rd December 1939 to 12th February, 1940
  • Leave
  • HMS President III (Thames, London - 1st March to 30th May, 1940
  • SS Tregenna - 31st May to 19th September, 1940 (his death)

The first card of Ross' dossier is confronting, with that - DEAD - top centre. They were not to know that 75 years later these dossiers would be freely available on the internet.

I gather from something else I read, that Ross had joined the RAN for the duration of the war, making him a member of the Naval Reserve.

Friday, 23 May 2014

Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way

The full quote is "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". These are Tolstoy's opening words to his 1877 novel, "Anna Karenina".

This is the story of one such unhappy family, which I am trying to piece togther from the contents of a box found in the back of a cupboard of a deceased estate. The box contained photographs. It contained certificates. But mostly, it contained letters, nearly all of which were written in the 1940s.

This is a story of five people: Cyril, and his wife, Jennie; their children Irene, and Ross; and, Irene's daughter, Wendy. However, it is not their full story, just the part illuminated by the contents of a box which came into my possession in 2010.

The photograph shows the Cole family home, "Rossrene", c. 1924. It is where the Cole family lived from c. 1923 until 1958. It was in Emma Street, Kalinga, a suburb of Brisbane, QLD, Australia. It is no longer standing. Cyril is on the verandah. Jennie is at the top of the steps with Ross. Irene is partway down the steps. Irene is about 12 years old, and Ross is about 8 years old.