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Chapter One

1935 to 1945 - Early childhood and primary school

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I was born, as they say, at a very early age in Mosman in Sydney, Australia, the second son of Kenneth Drummond Chalmers, the youngest of eleven children of Scottish immigrant parents, a graduate of the Royal Military College Duntroon, and an officer in the Royal Australian Artillery, and of Brenda Beresford, nee King, a kindergarten teacher, an orphan brought up by her maiden aunts. My sister, Barbara, was five years old and my brother, Colin, was two when I was born in 1935.

My earliest memories are of a house in Superba Parade in nearby Balmoral.

My mother had a lady Ada Bidner come to help her look after her children, me and my sister and my brother.

I must have been three years old. I remember creeping down the stairs one evening while my parents were having coffee with guests after dinner and I begged for a small handful of coffee crystals from my mother.

I have some distinct memories from the time we lived in Port Moresby in what is now Papua New Guinea. My father, who was then a Major, had been posted there to oversee the installation of harbour defences in the expectation of a war with Japan. We lived there, I believe, from May 1939 until June 1940.

I remember the house we lived in was set on stumps a few feet high and had a wide verandah with a whole hand of bananas hanging under the eaves. We had a team of house boys, all Papuans with dark fuzzy hair and dressed in blue shirts and short blue skirts. They lived in an outhouse and would do military drill for the four year old me dressed in my smart red and white soldier suit.

I was given, presumably for my birthday, a toy tug boat made of painted tinplate and fitted with a clockwork motor. I remember taking it to the swimming enclosure in the harbour to try it out. Sadly it turned turtle whenever the motor was started.

We lived not far from the home the Officer Commanding the Royal Papuan Constabulary. My sister tells me that "Leonard Logan was an Englishman who served in WWI, met an Australian nurse, married her, and took a job as a Patrol Officer for the Administration of the Territory of Papua. He eventually rose to become the Commissioner of Police, a body of indigenous men trained to keep law and order in the territory. When WW2 broke out our father and Commissioner Logan got together and arranged for the establishment of an indigenous infantry group recruited originally from the native police. Titled the Royal Papuan Infantry Battalion Logan was appointed to lead it with the rank of Major." His daughter, Maureen, later went to school with my sister, Barbara, at PLC Pymble.

One day my sister, my brother and I were playing with the Logan children at the Logans place in Port Moresby. I remember standing in the middle of the tennis court when the others had run off somewhere and left me alone in the blazing sun in the middle of what was, to me, a vast open area. I burst into tears and when they came back for me, they realised that I was not well and took me home where I was found to have a malarial fever of almost life threatening severity.

My sister, my brother and I were first sent to the convent school in Port Moresby. My only memory of that place is of a black garbed nun berating me severely for choking on the peel of an apple which she insisted I should have peeled before eating it. To this day, I have little respect for nuns and I wonder at the complete lack of compassion exhibited by some of those who claim to be doing the work of a "loving" god.

I claim some kind of academic record for being sent down from school while I was still in kindergarten class. That may not be what happened but we three children were all transferred from the convent school to the public school. This was a one teacher school with children from 4 or 5 years old to 11 or 12. A couple of incidents stick in my mind.

One day a boy was unwise enough to swear at the teacher and was punished by having his mouth washed out with soap. I remember bursting into tears in sympathy for the miscreant believing this to be cruel and inhumane punishment.

On another occasion, I was playing on the school gate and fell onto a broken bottle wounding my leg quite badly. This wasn't sutured and I bear to this day a significant scar. I was off school for some time recovering from this. I know I later used to say it was six months but I'm sure it was only a few weeks.

I have vivid memories of a trip we all took to a hill station inland from Port Moresby past Rhouna Falls. The track from the falls to the hill station was only accessible on horseback. I think both Barbara and Colin had their own ponies but I rode on a cushion on the neck of my father's horse. I can still see in my mind's eye the cushion which was not much more that 16 inches square and which was covered in brick red cloth with a thin black check pattern on it.

We stayed in huts at the hill station and there is a story that my father, who was recovering from dengue fever, had to get up out of his sick bed to shoot a snake which was lurking around the steps of the hut in which my mother and we children were staying.

There is also a story in our family of an occasion when we were staying overnight in a hotel in Port Moresby just after we had arrived. My parents came back after dinner to the room where we three children were sleeping to find one of us missing. The hotel was searched and much panic ensued. It transpired that we had been playing with paper aeroplanes and one had landed on top of the wardrobe. Barbara and Colin bunked me up onto the top of a wardrobe to retrieve it and, being unable to climb down, I had fallen asleep up there. Since they were unable to do anything useful, Barbara and Colin fell asleep in their beds. It seems that my parents didn't wake them when they found that I was missing but they searched for me and, having no success, called out the police to search the town. The commotion of the search woke Barb up and she told the searchers where I was and the awful drama of the night was over.

When we returned to Australia, we went to live in Melbourne in a rented house in Caulfield. I remember going to hospital to have my tonsils out and being particularly distressed at being left there all alone by my mother. I seem to recall that while we were living in Melbourne the whole family including my mother went down with chicken pox. What a trying experience that must have been for her in a strange city.

In February 1941, my father was posted to the Middle East with the 2nd Australian Infantry Force to raise the 2/4 Light Anti-aircraft Regiment. My mother and we children move to a house in Hazelbrook in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney which had been organised by my father before he left for the Middle East.

Our two Great Aunts followed us to the Mountains to keep Mum company and lived at the Lawson Hotel. The Aunts were quite extraordinary people. Their younger brother, William, had been banished from the family for marrying a divorcee, Isabella Stewart Smith, and had gone off to live with her in North Sydney where they had a daughter, Brenda, my mother. Brenda's father died when she was only two years old and her mother died a year later leaving her orphaned and alone in the world. The oral family history has it that she was taken in by a local seamstress and that the Aunts found her and took her into their family home. It is certainly true that Aunt Lucy brought her up and cared for her until she married my father in 1929.

I first went to a private prep school in Hazelbrook but later went with my sister and brother to Lawson Public School. I remember that they dug zig-zag slit trenches in the playground to protect us from Japanese bombing. I know that they didn't contribute to our survival as we never suffered from bombing but I suspect that some kids suffered injury as a result of falling into the trenches while playing in the school yard. We had to travel to school by train and I remember to getting my fingers caught under the windows when they dropped and I lost several fingernails that way.

We used to play in the bush behind the house and I don't remember any of us coming to any harm. Many years later I was told by an English migrant that she was prepared to put up with anything Australia offered but she wasn't sure she could cope with snakes. I reassured her by telling her that I had lived all my young life in or near the bush and that I had never seen a snake. When we had been back in Australia about three months, we visited Brisbane and had lunch with her and her family in the Botanical Gardens. She asked me if I had been telling her lies about the snakes to reassure her but I insisted that what I had told her was the truth. I asked her why she had mentioned it and she told us that, at the migrant hostel in Wacol, where they were living, the sleeping quarters were some way from the ablutions blocks. She had become accustomed to carrying a stick with her whenever she went to the ablutions blocks because there were often snakes on the path. I have still only seen a handful of snakes in all my life and all of these since we retired and took to travelling round the country.

We three children used to walk in to Hazelbrook along the railway line to avoid the hills. This requires a climb down an embankment and we always checked if there was a train coming by putting an ear to the rail. One day I thought I heard a train and scrambled back up the embankment in some fright to escape from the monster only to find I had been mistaken and that my sister and brother had set off to town along the line and were already a long way away.

In August 1942, my mother died suddenly. My mother's last letter to my father says that I was ill at the time. I remember that I was in bed and my mother was reading to the three of us. She suddenly said "I feel funny", collapsed, and died. I can't imaging what it must have been like for my sister, who, at the age of 12, had to take charge of the situation, look after her two younger brothers, and get help. I guess she somehow got in touch with the Aunts who were living not far away.

These two remarkable ladies, one by then well in her late sixties and one in her late fifties, once again took motherless children into their home. They got rid of the tenants who were living in their house in Killara in Sydney and took us back there to live. They cared for us for several years until our father returned home at the end of the war.

Lucy, Ida, their mother Emma, and their brother, George, had bought the house in Killara which they called Currawinya presumably after the district in far west Queensland where their grandfather's second rural property, Weelamurra, was located. This house became the focus of the whole extended King family in Sydney.

George King, the grandfather in question, was a successful settler who had made both a name for himself in the colony and a considerable fortune. He owned 40,000 acres in a valley just west of Toowoomba in Queensland and had built the first concrete house in Australia.

During one of our family visits to Queensland, we visited the old house. The governess was very polite and welcoming because, I assume, of the family connection. We were looking round the house when the new owner returned home and hustled us out quite unceremoniously.

More recently, when I was in Toowoomba, at the Sunday morning market, I saw a stall selling Gowrie Mountain wine. I stopped to check it out and said to the fellow manning the stall that the address was that of my great-great-grandfather. He showed considerable interest in my relationship to George. He is the proprietor of the winery and had bought the old house and renovated it. He has a great interest in the history of the house and of the family. He was of a mind to put the King family coat of arms on the house and had tried to get in touch with surviving family members with little success. He extended an invitation to us to visit whenever we were in Toowoomba. I extended the invitation to my sister, Barbara, who is much more familiar with the family history than am I and she planned to visit when she was able.

A self published book called Euroka Revisited written by one of my cousins, Robert Moodie, has a chapter about the King family of which his mother and the aunts were members. It makes reference to "The Aunties Hilton" and describes with great affection the social significance of the house for many of his generation. I have appended an extract from the book.

I remember that each Boxing Day many of our Chatfield relations would attend a garden party there. Because two Chatfield sisters had both married King brothers, there were King cousins there as well. The house was large with several rooms downstairs and a wonderful cellar with various secret places to hide. We three would terrorize any unwary cousin who ventured into our traps and they would be imprisoned in one or other of these secret places.

The house was built on an enormous sloping block and there were steep concrete paths down either side. We had two tricycles, one with a large front wheel and a another little one with a detachable front wheel. We got at the larger one and turned the front assembly upside down in the head bearing to create a spectacular, low-slung speed machine. The wheel was removed from the small one and it was coupled to the rear axle of the larger one making a five wheeled thing capable of carrying all three of us at great speed, and at great risk of injury, down one or other of these paths into the back garden.

The garden was a great place for children with several very old, huge jacaranda trees which were good to climb. There was also a big chook yard which kept the house supplied with eggs. I slept on the back verandah protected from the rain by roll down canvas blinds. I remember once having a big huntsman spider fall on my bed from the wooden ceiling high above.

Across the road we had a neighbour, Mr Jones, who was a senior executive at one of Sydney's large department stores, Snows. One of the sons of the house was about our age and had, I recall, a gammy leg.

Every year the city held a billy cart race and the large stores would enter machines to publicize their business. One year, the Snow's machine, a magnificent thing with pump-up tyres, calliper brakes, ackerman steering and a beautifully painted fairing made of chicken wire and papier-mache, ended up in our street. We three commandeered it to race down all the steep hills in the district. The inevitable happened and the machine speared into a tree and was badly damaged.

I had a clockwork train which was so well loved and used that it had lost its bodywork but it still worked. One of the aunts thought it was broken and threw it away. When I revealed my unhappiness they tried to replace it but, as most clockwork toys came from Japan and were unobtainable due to the war, it was replaced with a toy truck. I remember feeling very badly done by. Some of my cousins lived in Cronulla on the opposite side of Sydney. As we had no private transport, we only occasionally to visited them but I remember that they had an electric train set which was the object of considerable envy and which made such visits very memorable.

We didn't always get on with the aunts. I remember very clearly an occasion on which we left home. We got as far as the end of the street before we realised that we had absolutely nowhere to go. We returned to Currawinya with our tails between our legs.

My first school in Sydney was a private prep school in Killara but I later moved to the Gordon Public School. I have few memories of it except that the 4th class teacher would cane any one who transgressed any of his rules. One hot summer's day, while he was wielding his cane with his usual enthusiasm, it slipped from his sweaty hand, hit the floor end on and bounced right up to the ceiling, much to the delight of all the kids.

In 5th class, I was give a place in the OC class for gifted children at Artarmon Public School. This was good because we did all sorts of extramural stuff that wasn't on the curriculum in the normal classes. I learned to play the piccolo there.

Colin joined the Boy Scouts and I the Cubs and later the Scouts in East Lindfield. We attended each Friday night and Saturday afternoon. I well remember the lessons in bushcraft which still stand me in good stead. We continued as members after we had moved to Epping, riding our bicycles every Friday Night and every Saturday afternoon over 20 km up to Pierces Corner in Waitara and down to Lindfield on the Pacific Highway. The traffic was not anything like as dense as it is today but, even so, it was, in retrospect, an extraordinary thing to do.

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Created: 29/1/07 and last revised, with help from my sister, on 14/7/09
Author: Robin Chalmers Copyright in all the material on this site is asserted by the author
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