The Mount Barker township and district takes its name from the outcrop also bearing that name, which was bestowed on this distinctive landmark after the death of Captain Collet Barker at the Murray Mouth in April 1831. The circumstances of Barker’s death at the hands of Aboriginal people, considering his previous rapport with the indigenous people of Raffles Bay, east of present day Darwin in the Northern Territory, and at King Georges Sound in Western Australia, were particularly tragic, and other links on this website explore these circumstances, and reveal something of a life-long obsession that I have with his life and death, and with the mountain which bears his name. Fate has decreed that at the time of commencing this little summary of a life, I am again residing in the district, in the township of Mount Barker, while the sleepy little village of Littlehampton I loved so dearly as a child has morphed into sprawling suburbia, and like the original residence, is barely recognizable.
There was another move, before there was anything registering in my memory bank; to an isolated back-road residence a couple of kilometers from Littlehampton – a region called Shady Grove.
Shady Grove was a small settlement established by members of the Unitarian Society. The Unitarians, who still own the small church (which is still used at least four times a year) hidden in a bush block across the road from where we moved, are a small ‘l’ libertarian organization, who defy the literal constraints of most established religion. My Mother’s Father, Cecil E Smith, and his father before him, were involved with this church, and it was to a house owned by Cecil that we moved. My Mother, displaying the financial acumen she was to show throughout her life, negotiated with Cecil to rent the Shady Grove house at a modest cost, enabling her to rent out the Littlehampton residence at a profit – a useful way to augment her income while her husband, my Father, completed his army service and recuperated at Daws Road Repatriation Hospital. My Father, Donald Wilkie Innes, had spent part of the war years in the army at Darwin in the Northern Territory, which was bombed constantly by the Japanese during his tenure. On his return he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a not uncommon complaint among ex-servicemen of the period. Don had married my Mother, Dorothy Victoria Smith, who was six years his senior, in 1940, and by the time I was born I had been preceded by my elder sister Yvonne, born in 1940, and my brother Dean, born in 1941. A sister, Lynette, was born in 1949.
Whyalla photo. Clockwise, Dean, Me, Lynette, Yvonne 1949
Needless to say, I have no memories of this period of my childhood. When Don was discharged he resumed his pre-war job, driving a truck for Cleggett Bros Carriers, who operated a daily trucking service from Littlehampton and regions, to Adelaide and back. The family later moved to Whyalla, near the head of Spencer Gulf, an industrial town which processed iron ore, and which was a ship-building town. An isolated northern city in an outback climate mitigated by its proximity to the sea, Whyalla was an apex of the so-called ‘iron triangle’ consisting of Whyalla, Port Augusta, and Port Pirie. These industrial cities were established to a large extent because of the riches generated by the mining giant BHP, who virtually ran the towns. BHP, (Broken Hill Propriety Limited) prospered through the massive mineral wealth which was extracted from the mines of Broken Hill, – a remote location just over the border of New South Wales, – and from the iron ore mined at nearby Iron Knob, to the west of Whyalla. Don got a job driving a bus, a long route which took in the whole of the Eyre Peninsula to the south and west of Whyalla.
I do have some fleeting memories of Whyalla – just snatches of events and situations which lodged in my brain. A vague memory of playing with small cars with my brother Dean, and propping up the sheets in a bed with pencils to make a shed for the cars. – An evening with a brass band playing, and a huge shape slipping out of my view at an alarming rate (years later established as a probable ship launching). – Walking through thick scrub with my Father carrying a rifle, obviously hunting rabbits. – An air show. – My Mother chopping the head off a chook with an axe in the back yard, muttering angrily as she did it, and freaking me out terribly. – And one day being aware of a terrible pain in my hip. There are no more memories of Whyalla.
One of the clearest memories I have of my early childhood comes next, at the age of three and a half. I am in a taxi, pulling up before a granite-fronted building. It is the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, now known as the Women’s and Children’s Hospital. My Mother is with me, but later I am with strangers, who are attempting to amuse me with soothing words and cuddly toys. The Whyalla home, to which I shall never return, is 400 kilometers away. It is 1949, and 400 kilometers is a long long way.
The following years seem to be more of a bad dream (of which there were plenty) than a reality I have lived through. They were years lived with strangers. They were years of being bed-ridden, strapped from ankle to armpit in a steel frame, and years of incredible fears and discomforts. My memories are of being wheeled along sterile corridors, laid under giant x-ray machines, being surrounded, totally naked and vulnerable, by doctors, students, nurses, as they discussed the ‘case’ before them; of days of multiple injections, with the smell of the ether as the needles were prepared heightening the fear and trepidation; of constant enemas. I was by no means alone. There were others suffering from the same affliction I had, which was a TB infection of the hip, and there were numerous cases of polio. Many of these patients, like myself, were destined to spend their childhoods ignorant of the outside world.
I don’t know what it would be like, in the unlikely event that a child would be hospitalized for such a long period in today’s world. Certainly there is provision for Mothers to spend time at the hospital with the children, with living quarters provided, though that would never have been possible with my mother; she did have three other children to care for after all (and one to come). Changed attitudes would make it unlikely that a child would spend so much time away from their home, but distance was one of the obvious reasons, given the seriousness of my case, why going home was not an option. The busy lives of nurses, doctors, specialists of all kinds, and the many patients and duties they needed to attend to, meant that there was no-one ‘spare’ to tend to the fears and insecurities of a single child in my situation, and although there were isolated visits and many attempts to provide some comfort and entertainment for us kids, it was never enough to calm the torment we were experiencing.
There were moments of relief to some degree. Perhaps the limited pleasures one was occasionally fortunate enough to experience were magnified by the circumstances. Certainly there are highlights which linger in my memory to this day.
One much savored change to my situation, was to be moved to an annex of the hospital, an isolated and imposing building perched on sand-hills, with ocean in sight to the west, and a swamp to the east. Escourt House had been built, as I recall, by a retired sea captain and certainly the view was spectacular. It was not specifically built for hospital use, and in fact the eastern side of a large room was not even enclosed, but had curved brick arches open to the elements. Mosquitos were just one of those elements.
The isolation of Escourt House had other consequences. The nurses who lived and worked there were not under the same supervision as were those at the ACH, and there were times when they literally ran wild. At one time there was a young and very wild man who spent some time at Escourt House. Who he was, and how he came to be there I don’t know, but he carried a shanghai in his pocket, which he used to catapult rocks all about the place. One night as the time came to turn the lights out and us kids were being somewhat restless, the wild man took over and went along to every bed and gave each kid a slap in the ear. Another time he set a newspaper alight on the concrete floor, evoking a scream of fear from me. There was no real danger of a fire starting, as the place was all concrete and brick, but my lack of experience with fire had contributed to my fear. He cursed as he stomped the fire out with his rubber boots, and slapped me around the ear. On another occasion there was a real wild night, possibly involving alcohol now I think back to it. (I would not have known what alcohol was at that time.) There was a lot of running about in the darkness, with laughter and shouting, all of which we were aware of and excitedly relating to each other. This night culminated in the pursuit of one of the nurses across the outside yard, and a flying tackle by the stranger, which brought her crashing to the ground, knocking the wind from her and causing obvious distress. A day or two later, he was gone. No such excitement was ever likely to occur in the sterile environment of the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, which may have been better administered, but was not a patch on Escourt House for variety.
Other events which took place at EH added special memories to those days. The open space lent itself to a visiting movie show. The beds would be wheeled into position, a screen hung, the tripod and projector set up in the middle of the room, and we were introduced to the joys of Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, westerns, newsreels, and cartoons. These nights left indelible memories of course. There also seemed to be a radio going a lot of the time. Early in the mornings there would be country music, not of the kind one hears today, but the yodeling cowboy type, (I’m Gonna Tear Down th’ mailbox, Tear Down th’ mailbox, I never Get No Letters Anyhow) with artists such as Smokey Dawson, Tex Morton, and the various American singers they were emulating. Other popular songs of those days linger in memory. “Irene, Good Night” – “How Much is That Doggy In the Window?” – “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair” and dozens more. Also connected to radio were the visits by 5KA personalities “Uncle Jack (Fox) and Aunty Margaret,” who came on a regular basis to chat with each of us kids, who would send a “cheerio” to our relatives at home, which would be recorded on reel to reel and played on air later in the week. We would also be presented with a chocolate frog.
These memorable and enjoyable occasions, as pleasant as they were, were more than balanced by moments of fear and distress. As a child, there was always a place called “The War” which we were somewhat aware of through the medium of the many hundreds of comics which were readily available. The war, of course was something which happened somewhere else, but when I heard on the early morning news that “bombs are falling” (probably the Korean War) I immediately became fearful, and remained in terror all of that day. Every time I heard a plane fly over, I shook with fear. Finally, after darkness had fallen that night, one of the nurses noticed my distress. “What’s the matter Robert?’ – “They said on the wireless that bombs are falling.” I replied tearfully. – “Oh, don’t worry about that, that’s on the other side of the world!” And I was okay, but I had spent a full day in absolute terror before someone had time to notice my state. There were other times when visitors seemed to go out of their way to instill fear into us. Cretins who came expressly to put the fear of God – or rather the Devil into us, came into this category. We were told about the horrible consequences of hell and eternal flames if we didn’t live in perpetual fear, and Satan was lurking in much of my waking hours, and in particular the darkness – and my dreams. If there was any doubt about the kind of things the Devil could inflict on a sinful child, there was always the violence of the Punch and Judy show to reinforce it. After Punch beats his wife to death with a bloody great stick, he is dragged screaming into hell by the horned demon, who seemed to be constantly evoked to keep us in line. Him or the “Bogeyman”.
One of the worst of the days at Escourt House comes readily to mind. Because of the bed-ridden state myself and others were in, and the lack of exercise, there was a constant concern about our lack of ‘regularity’ and two of the less savory ways of dealing with this were enemas, or the administration of a foul tasting concoction called licorice powder. I absolutely despised licorice powder, and I put up a huge fight as three nurses held my arms, and my mouth open as they tried to force the vile mixture down my throat. Frustrated at my screaming and struggling, I was carried, strapped in my frame, out into an isolated section of the garden, and left there alone, with the assurance that the bogeyman would be along to deal with me in due course. Not wishing to make the acquaintance of the ‘bogeyman’ the Devil or any other perils of the creeping darkness, I determined to drag myself back to the ward, and still strapped to the frame I clawed at the ground with my scrawny arms, a foot at a time, across a lawn, past an astonished gardener sitting on the verandah, somehow negotiating a screen door, along some long corridors, and finally peering through the glass swinging doors to the ward, whereupon I was spotted, given a couple of slaps, and put back into my bed, the nurses somewhat shocked by my epic odyssey.
Despite the way these events appear when viewed on the page, it would be wrong to assume my life was all misery. Imagination was the tool which helped to steer myself and my peers through our days, and in the eventual absence of any memory of the outside world, our lives, to us, were normal. There was no television, no doubt to our advantage, but apart from the radio, to which I am devoted to this day, there was reading. I can’t recall any teaching taking place at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, but it was certainly there at Escourt House. I can remember a teacher called Miss Wilson, repeating the sounds of the letters to spell out a word. “Du..Rrrr..Uuuu…Mmmm – just say the letters slowly and hear the sound it makes……. ” and suddenly the sounds had formed an image of a drum in my brain, and the whole world was available to me in this magical form. We were read all the classic fairly tales, of Red Riding Hood, The Three Pigs, Hansel and Gretel, Three Billy Goats Gruff, (horror stories most of them) and we worked our way through the ‘primers’ of the day -‘the cat sat on the mat’ etc. But there was a lot of other reading matter, from the Noddy and Big Ears type books, to what must have been many thousands of comics.
Comics took me to the worlds of many diverse characters, from Felix the Cat, to the wide range if Disney’s world, to cowboys, Superman, The Phantom, The Shadow, and numerous other journeys of the imagination, many of whose characters have failed to survive. What ever happened to “Lash Larue” for example, who countered the baddies of the west with nothing but his skills with the whip – snaking out to expertly snatch the gun from the villain’s hand before he could fire, or “Ricochet Ross” who never shot straight at anyone, but cleverly bounced his bullets off rocks, trees, buildings, sometimes off two or three things en-route to his target, generally knocking the guns from the villain’s hand. (These goodies were so good that they never actually killed anyone, ‘though they were always ready to give the black hats a bloody good hiding). Other publications, such as the “Eagle” magazine, with its diverse characters, mostly English, were devoured with relish. So Dan Dare, with his off-sider Digby, would do battle through interstellar space with the evil ‘Mekon’ and his grotesque oversized forehead, while PC 49 battled with the street crims on his daily beat, with his traditional bobby’s helmet and clipped mustache. These, and many hundreds, if not thousands of other characters came alive in my world, and took me outside of the four walls which limited, to large degree, my physical world. One strong memory, buried at the rear of a traditional western comic, remains strong in my memory. It told a simple story of the ‘Indians’, much vilified in film and comics, before the advent of the white man to the shores of their country. They were depicted journeying on their canoes, through their beautiful country, hunting, singing, and relating closely to the nature around them. It was not so much a story, but a sympathetic description by some enlightened writer, more than fifty years ago, of another side to the story. The fact that I remember it would suggest that it was a view of the world which lodged in my brain. A seminal moment? Perhaps so. Another time I saw a black and white newsreel, which showed an Aboriginal man sitting on the sandy soil, and drawing circles within circles with slow sweeps of his fingers. It was a total mystery for me.
The time spent at Escourt House fills my memory much more than that at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, undoubtedly because it was much more stimulating, but possibly because I was there for more of the time. Other memories of Escourt House include some visits by Scottish pipe bands, including the sword dancers, and some kind of a wild west show, with a Buffalo Bill type character replete with buckskins, beard and mustache, and mounted on a white horse. I recall pondering such mysteries as to where the smoke from the chimneys goes, (and never getting a satisfactory answer) and I recall having the conviction (or delusion) that somewhere, sometime in the future, there would be a judge who would rule on the injustices which had been visited on me by unfair decisions by nurses or whoever – that whatever wrongs there were in the world could be righted. A travelling barber would visit to give us all a haircut, as he sang songs. Sometimes a person called my Mother would visit, though so irregularly, because of the distance from home, that I did not really know her at all. I don’t recall seeing any of the rest of my siblings or my father during those years. One day the nurses read me a letter to say that I now had a baby brother called Max. Another time (obviously before I could read competently) I was given a letter from my mother, and after hours of pleading to find a nurse to read it to me, to no avail, I tore it up in frustration. It torments me every time I think about it. Like all kids, I guess, we discussed the deep mysteries of existence, including such incomprehensibles such as “we live on a planet called earth, which is a big giant ball” and “the sun is another big round ball on fire, which floats around the sky and shines on us'” as well as other matters, such as atomic bombs, and racing cars. Sometimes we were asked (by teachers?) to remember the people who had died in the war, but I found that a bit hard, because I never knew them in the first place. Once I was placed on the floor in my frame as some nurses were making my bed, and found myself looking straight up their dresses as they stepped over me.” What can you see up there Robert?” they laughed and teased me, and I had to turn my head in embarrassment. Obviously another of life’s deep mysteries. One day a new nurse came to see me, and informed me that she was my second cousin. For the first time in my memory, I had a nearby adult who cared for me.
The nurse’s name was Dawn Towzer. She was the daughter of my paternal Grandmother’s brother, and for the first time in my memory, I had someone who was really concerned for my welfare. She would often spend time at my bedside, reading, talking, comforting. It is hard to remember specifically what we talked of, what we read together, or what it was that gave me a feeling of warmth and comfort, but it filled a huge gap in my young years, and the general memory and appreciation of her remains strong.
It is pointless to go through all I can remember of those days in fine detail – there are many many snatches of detail. I made some good friends, other kids I would meet up with in the hurdy gurdy shufle I underwent in those four and a half years. One was a boy called Peter Datsun, another very strong friendship was with a girl whose name I have forgotten. We would fantasise about the toys coming to life at night, about Peter Pan and Wendy, Robin Hood and Maid Marion, whoever else was in the comics or the movies. My obsession with the Walt Disney version of Peter Pan and Wendy, as depicted in the comics, was noticed by the nurses at the Adelaide Children’s Hospital when I was back there for a stay, and to my delight, in her own time, a nurse wheeled my bed to a nearby theatre, and I was able to view the full length cartoon in glorious colour.
Other highlights stand out during my hospital days. In 1954, the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth 2nd came on a visit to Australia, which was a really big deal. I can recall the morning in 1952 when we were told that the king had died, and it was a newly crowned and married Elizabeth who toured with her husband in ’54. I have three main memories of that visit. One is of being taken out on the lawn (in my frame) and spending a long time in the sun, waiting for the royal procession to pass by. I remember being frightened of the bees which were on the lawn beside me, and of getting a headache from being in the sun for so long, and I believe that it affects me to this day. I always wear a hat in warm weather, and get a headache if I don’t. After what seemed like hours, and certainly the sun had gone down, we caught a glimpse of the queen and her man going by in their black car, lit up by the interior light in their limo. One night someone, perhaps a member of the red cross, took me in a car trip to the city, and the whole of Adelaide was swathed in neon lights and decorations to welcome the new queen. That was the most memorable memory of the visit, though there was another very long day trip into Adelaide which is memorable once again for the long wait. I don’t recall seeing her that day. Every school child in Australia got a small bible to commemorate the coronation.
Other highlights of my hospital stay included being ferried into Adelaide to view the John Martin’s Christmas pageant, a large and spectacular event put on by the John Martin’s store to launch the Christmas buying binge. Marching bands, floats with fairy-tale figures, Disney characters, clowns, and at the end the appearance of Father Christmas, all combined to make a really memorable experience for us kids.
On 1st march, in 1954, a quite large earthquake hit Adelaide, but asleep in the ACH I was not aware of it. No buildings toppled, but there was considerable damage to buildings throughout the Adelaide and Adelaide Hills regions. One day I was told I would be going home. My parents had sold their house at Whyalla, and brought a house at the nearby seaside suburb of Grange, at 15 Sturt Street. I had no concept of what going home meant. One thing it meant was that I would soon rediscover the place which was my home at birth, Littlehampton.
There was no memory of Littlehampton for me when the ambulance delivered me to 15 Sturt Street, and in fact apart from the fleeting memories already described, I had no concept of what living in a house with siblings and parents would be like. Apart from the adjustment to a life-style unknown to me, there were further complications. I was still confined to a bed, albeit one with wheels. I was also strapped to a frame and practically flat on my back at all times. Sharing the house were, in the range of ages, Yvonne in her 14th year, Dean, a year younger, myself, about to have my eighth birthday, Lynette, born in 1950, and Max in 1952.
The house was of a solid brick and stone construction, with square brick pillars supporting a verandah which looked out on a sleepy street. There were houses across the road, and to the right, a kindergarden, and next to that a bowling green. A divorced man lived to our immediate left, and an older couple with a dog to our right. The next block along belonged to St James Anglican Church, but much of the yard at the rear of the church, which fronted our street, was wooded, and immediately christened ‘Sherwood Forest’ by me as I passed through a Robin Hood phase.
Every morning a baker’s van, pulled by a clysdale horse would clop along the street, stopping and starting to the simple commands of the baker, who would dart from one side of the road to the other to deliver fresh crusty bread from a large cane basket slung over his arm.
I recall being at home for some time before my Father put in an appearance. He had been away on a shooting-fishing trip, and entered the house with a .22 rifle slung over his shoulder. He seemed stern and distant.
The hero of my life was my brother Dean, at twelve going on thirteen, a font of knowledge, wisdom and derring do. The wheel-bed which could have been such a contained world for me, was wheeled everywhere by Dean. He would take me, sometimes with other friends of his tagging along, to the beach a couple of blocks away, to the movies, to the Royal Adelaide show. To get to some places we would need to ride the train, so my bed would be wheeled into the goods van of the steam trains which ran past our back yard. (An unkle of mine who drove the trains would give a hearty pull on his whistle whenever he passed our house.) Gangs of us would play in Sherwood Forest – I would even play hide and seek, closing my eyes and counting as the others hid up trees and among the bushes, and spotting them from my prone position.
Going to the movies was a major past-time. It was usually (if not always) the Saturday matinee. The Odeon cinema was some half a dozen blocks to the south, at Henley Beach. The standard fare seemed to be a cartoon or two, a gripping cliff-hanging serial, a minor film followed by intermission, then the major film. The proprietor wore a uniform akin to an American bell-hop, with a reddish/orange uniform with shiny buttons, and topped off with a little round cap at a jaunty angle. Dean would wheel me to the matinee while I was still in the bed, and the kindly proprietor would let me in for free. He sometimes had to come and take my toy gun off me, and ask me to quieten down as I rode with the goodies and shot at the baddies racing across the screen. The two years or so at Grange loom large in my memory, and seem to occupy a much longer length of time.
There were many situations which I found difficult to adjust to in those early days. Crossing a road (being pushed by Dean) would strike fear into me as I saw cars approaching, as I had no way of judging the speed at which they were moving, it being so new to me. Being wheeled out onto a jetty, and seeing the sea below between the cracks of the boards would frighten me, and in particular, being alone at night in my bed absolutely terrified me, perhaps because I was so used to having someone nearby in surrounding beds in the past years. I would spend hours imagining that someone was creeping towards me, particularly on hot nights which would get the floorboards creaking. I would be positive that an intruder had come right to my bed and was about to pounce, for agonising hour after hour and night after night. I always slept with my head under the blankets.
The mode of transport for our family seems unbelievable when I think back to it now. We had a 1952 Ford Prefect, for transporting five kids and two adults, but incredibly, I would still be in my frame for our trips. The top of the frame, which reached to under my armpits, would sit on the parcel rack in the back of the car, while the foot end would sit on the top of the front passenger’s seat, behind my mother’s head. The other four kids would squeeze amongst the remaining space.
One of the most enduring memories of my life was the first trip to the Adelaide Hills we did in the Prefect. We wound our way up the twisting Mount Barker Road, just a two lane road in those days, despite being the main route to Melbourne, around the hairpin of the Devil’s Elbow, grinding our way in second gear around the numerous curves, past the Eagle on the Hill hotel. The beautiful curving hills, the trees, and the sweeping views to the Adelaide plains below had my eyes popping from my head. I had seen such views in books, but did not realise such scenery existed in real life. It was literally like stepping into a fairytale.
We wound through wonderful country villages – Crafers, Stirling, Aldgate, Bridgewater, Hahndorf, and finally to the childhood town I had no conscious memory of – Littlehampton. Willow Bank was a fifty acre farm, perched on the side of a hill, and overlooking the picturesque village of Littlehampton a quarter of a mile away to the right, and surrounded by rolling farmlands. The long blue slope of Mount Barker Summit was visible over the brow of the hills opposite from the front verandah. A creek followed the other side of the road at the bottom of our driveway, and a railway line ran between the farm and the road. Long steam driven goods trains, passenger trains and rail cars would ply this line, which connected Victor Harbour to the south with Strathalbyn, Mount Barker and other hills towns; a slow trip through the hills via a few tunnels, and on to Adelaide.
The farm was occupied by Cecil E Smith, my mother’s father, and his wife Mina, whom he had married after the death of my Grandmother in the early forties. My mother had inherited Willow Bank on the death of her mother, but her father had life-long tenure. Though just twenty-two miles from Adelaide, (albeit a twisting and frustrating trip at times, as the road was shared by the semi trailers which plied the Adelaide-Melbourne route) the farm was a microcosm of local history, with sheds built from great slabs of red gum, a stone barn and house, a large hay shed, and in other sheds, horse drawn wagons, chaff cutters, seeders, and various other farm impliments of unknown purpose. There were a couple of clysdale horses, and some 1920’s era trucks and utilitys.
Although most of the land was cleared, the ‘top paddock’ behind the cluster of sheds still contained some magnificent towering gums. In short the region was a sleepy, sparsly populated patch of paradise, and returning to it really was tantamount to stepping into the pages of the books which had shaped my imagination for so many years.