Sorting through documents while researching our family history I found a section of one of my Uncle Laurie’s school copy books. It had been kept as a treasured memento by his mother after his death in WWII. Each page was dated; from May 3 1932 through to August 18, 1932. I could see the subject matter would appeal to my strict Methodist grandmother, as the Puritan work ethic was being instilled along with penmanship.
The first transcription was from a story by Maria Edgeworth called ‘Lazy Lawrence, or Industry and Idleness Contrasted’. It was about a boy trying to help his widowed mother by weaving mats from heath. In beautiful copyplate, eleven year old Laurie had written; ‘Twenty times he was ready to throw aside the heath, and give it up. But he kept on trying. Two hours he worked before he went to bed. Nothing truly great can be done without toil and time. All his leisure the next day he spent at his mat; which in all made five hours of fruitless attempts.’
Other moral virtues were hammered home in gloomy allegorical tales; ‘…the perch is a rogue and a thief, the pike is a monster of iniquity; the heron never misses a chance of gobbling up somebody, and as for the drake, for all his glossy neck and his innocent look, he is as ready to pick up anything as the rest.’ I can understand why my uncle occasionally lost concentration; occasionally transposing letters or omitting a word.
Mind you, his work was of a very high standard. On the first page his teacher had written the comment; ‘Too heavy’, but thereafter he took less ink on his pen and virtually every page was stamped For Good Work. Several pages were also stamped Worthy Work above the name G.H. Huxley.
I always thought my widowed Grandmother moved to Sydney from rural Tasmania in 1930. Laurie (her youngest son) went with her. My father, who would only have been 13, stayed behind. He had to leave school and was employed on a neighbour’s farm. What Dad perceived as rejection and more particularly the sudden end to his schooling, would trouble him throughout his life. He achieved the rank of sergeant in WWII, but believed his lack of education prevented further promotion.
I never thought to ask why my Grandmother chose to go to New South Wales, but have since discovered that she had an aunt in Sydney. She often spoke of working there as a housekeeper to a Dr Warburton, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. It occurred to me that if G.H. Huxley had been Laurie’s headmaster, the stamp might lead to the name and location of his school.
I logged on to the Internet and entered the name. Among some twenty results one grabbed my attention, though surprisingly not in relation to a Sydney school. The name G.W. Huxley came up in an obscure reference within the Tasmanian Government Archives. The next link took me to a series of documents produced by the Tasmanian Education Department;
Correspondence and associated papers relating to G.H. Huxley’s demotion and appeal, and also correspondence and associated papers about inspection reports at schools where he was headmaster. Start date 1st Jan 1911. End date 31st Dec 1936.
Mr Huxley’s record as a teacher was pretty damning; he had consistently blotted his own copy book! In January 1936 he was transferred from Ulverstone to the Glen Dhu school in Launceston.
Apparently Grandma had taken Laurie’s school book to Sydney, to show prospective schools the standard of his work. It proved that they had left Tasmania in 1932, not 1930. My father would have been closer to 15 than 13, but it does not lessen the emotional distress he felt at the separation, which in turn affected myself and my siblings.
How strange that even a tiny detail such as a school stamp can lead to such valuable information.
After leaving school in Sydney, Laurie was employed as a storeman in Anthony Horden’s giant department store. My grandmother was as proud as if he actually owned the building. She adored clothes and beautiful objects, and to her the store was heaven on earth. I have to say that Grandma was somewhat self-obsessed and never spoke about Sydney in a more general sense. The harbour bridge had just opened when she arrived, but she never mentioned it…or the harbour itself for that matter. Apart from stories of Dr Warburton and his nasty cook, the only the anecdote I remember was of a man in Darlinghurst inviting her to have a cup of tea with him. Oh the horror….‘Imagine what might have happened if I’d gone with him.’
On July 1 1940, aged 20, Laurie enlisted in the A.I.F at Haberfield, where he was living at the time. My grandmother returned to Tasmania soon afterwards.
The only other document I have relating to my Uncle Laurie is an undated, heavily censored postcard sent to his mother from a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Malaya;
In reality, conditions were appalling. Laurie and his fellow prisoners were far from healthy, and his mother had great cause to worry. She heard no more, and spent the next few years waiting and hoping. I can imagine Grandma weeping quietly whenever she came across the copy book, especially when she read the final page of transcription. It was an excerpt from Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies. The last line reads; ‘Down he went, like a brave little man.’
Quite apart from its value as a piece of social history, the copy book provided me with a touching insight into the life of an uncle who died before I was born. My older brother was named Lawrence in his honour.
Laurie is also remembered by the Methodist Church in his birth village of North Motton, outside Ulverstone.
NOTE – Laurie’s service record is incorrect. It states that he died in June 1944 aboard the ship Tamahoko Maru, sunk by allied fire enroute to a prisoner of war camp in Japan. My grandmother was duly informed, and this story passed into our family history. His name, with the incorrect date of death, appears on the Australian War Memorial in Singapore.
My grandmother’s most treasured possession was a beautiful gold watch she purchased with Laurie’s war gratuity money. She wore it every day. When she died in 1974 the watch was inherited by my older sister.
It was not until decades later that the true circumstances of Laurie’s death emerged. In a strange co-incidence, my father met one of his brother’s fellow internees at an Anzac Day service. This man was present when Laurie died of dysentery at the camp in Malaya in 1942. The reason why my grandmother had only ever received that one postcard was suddenly clear.
NOTE – Writing this piece has made wonder again what prompted my grandmother to leave Tasmania for those ten years. If Laurie had not enlisted I doubt she would ever have returned. Certainly it was during the Great Depression, not an easy time for a widow with children. But there was another factor too. In 1925 her second son Maurice had accidentally drowned in Ulverstone’s Leven River, aged 19. He was training to become a Methodist minister, and was her shining star. My father once told me that life for the family was never the same after Maurice died. It occurs to me that even seven years after the tragedy she was still completely grief stricken, and that in far off Sydney she hoped to find solace and distraction.