Family Memories of Kate Millar

From Scotland – by Sea

When Kate Millar’s father, Pete, died, a diary written by her grandfather was found in a compartment of his writing desk. Previously unknown to any other family members, it records her grandfather’s impressions of their boat trip out from Scotland to Australia aboard the Onderlay, a coal fired ship, in 1906. Here are a few highlights from the diary, where the reader can see that although the journey was an improvement on that of the old sailing ships, it was still a mammoth undertaking:

Some shipping routes from London to Australia

‘We travelled by train to London … could not be put up at the Northumberland Hotel as had been arranged… spent the night at the Scandanavian Sailors’ Home instead… we had to leave early next morning for Kings Cross Station and thence to Tilbury Docks… set sail about 1 o’clock and it was very calm til we got to the Bay of Biscay… on Tuesday morning off Gibralta we saw the porpoises in their hundreds plunging along the sea…had a three hour stay in Gibralta Bay and a lot of the foreigners came aboard to sell lace table cloths, tobacco, cigars, trinkets, and all sorts of fruit cheap… when we came to Marseilles Kate and I (my grandfather) went ashore… 

‘Tuesday August 15th was a very rough day and many of us were sick, women and children gone at the top and the bottom end… the ship was running in the trough of the sea from early morning til night and the waves were breaking over us… forty feet high… Kate (my Grandmother) and Pete (my father who was about 6 years old at the time) and all were sick at the same time… 

‘… Naples… I was up on deck before 6am and Pete was throwing pennies to the little Italian boys in the water. They are fine swimmers and divers. I never saw water dogs like them. When they came up with money, they showed it to all and put it in their mouth. I am quite sure some of them had a shilling’s worth (12) of coppers in each side of their mouth. The Italian dealers were all around and on the ship selling all sorts of flowers, brandy, wine and trinkets, coral necklats (sic), and Camay bracelets. I don’t mean to make your teeth water but the three star brandy was only 2/- per half gill bottle. We lay in Naples Bay about nine hours taking on a cargo of coal. The stewardess was telling me last night we burnt 250 lbs worth of coal in the 24 hours so you have an idea how much we took aboard… the cabin Jack, Jamie, and I are in had eight beds in it and is only about 14 feet long by about 7 feet wide…Pete and his mumma have 6 beds in their cabin. It’s getting very warm at night. We have abundant food – more than we are able to eat… 

‘August 18th we came into the Gulf of Suez at 9 am. They tell me it is 70 miles long and the heat is excessive. Yesterday I caught a fine specimen of a moth aboard ship. It had a head like a rat and small beautiful fish eyes and long feelers like hair and a tail like a young bird. It was a silver blue plush colour. When I got it I stuck it through the head with a hat pin but found in the morning I had lost both moth and pin…

‘August 20thRed Sea… the heat is terrible… Pete and his mumma sleeping on the top deck…  I tried to sleep on my bunk but it was impossible with nothing on but a white cotton sheet. I was kept working all night drying the sweat out of my eyes… 

‘Monday, Gulf of Eden (sic)… we had a splendid day sailing, but rather warm til about 6 o’clock when a very fresh cool breeze struck up and got gradually worse til we were caught in a monsoon. The waves were breaking over the top deck and the ship rolling and heaving over thirty feet. Within half an hour most of the passengers were vomiting.  Kate, Pete, Jack, and I were all very bad. It was a sorrowful sight to see both mothers and infants both sick. That storm kept up all night and we thought we would be pitched out of our bunks. Jack involved in a pillow fight… In the Arabian Sea, still very rough and a terrible lot of people sick… 

‘Wednesday 21st August. When it became dark at night we saw large patches of phosphorus and small patches like stars in the water.

‘Friday, 26th August… We arrived in Colombo about 6 o’clock in the morning. We bought a hatpin and a pair of little black elephants (Kate shows them to me) for Peter. They are ebony and ivory. And a pair of silk handkerchiefs, and silk scarfs, and silk shirts, and half a dozen white shirts, and two pair of lined trousers, and a comb and a lot of fruit.’

‘Friday 26th August (continued). At Colombo we had a good look around… We got into a rickshaw and had a drive out to the public park, then to the museum, the Cinnamon Gardens, then the Buddhist temple. From there to the market (fruit and fish) and through the native quarters where I saw a sight I will never forget. They are a very dirty race. Narrow dirty, smelling streets. Back at the ship, they were taking on a cargo of tea, and the natives that were packing and carrying it into the ship were a wild and dirty looking lot of creatures. It was laughable to hear the sing-song they had when they were working. Pete was so frightened that he would not come out of his bunk until his mother came back. He was looking very white. But his mother took him out and they soon made friends with the darkies…

‘Monday 5th September. We were lying at Fremantle at 6 am waiting for all the passengers to be passed by the Fremantle doctors before landing. They were afraid of trouble amongst the children…but we all passed satisfactory so we got ashore. It was a lovely place – very fresh and clean. We were all ashore for a few hours. It was springtime, and there was a fine display of spring flowers, and beautiful plants. Lily of the Nile and Pansies. There was a great deal of excitement when we came back on board the ship because some of the sailors had become tipsy, and were ill using some of the flower sellers when some of the officers interfered. The sailors got the worst of it and one of them got his kit bag made up, threw it overboard, jumped after it, and swam ashore. There was a cry of “Man overboard!” and in a very short time a motorboat came alongside him and picked him up. There were just two men in the motorboat and they had a job keeping him in the boat as he struggled hard to get out again.

‘Wednesday 7th September. We are getting it just as cold now as it was hot. This morning it was bitterly cold. Any of them that got up on top deck had on their overcoats and did not wait long on deck at that time. We got into the Australian Bite (sic) at about noon today and we were getting it pretty rough. Jamie would not accept his prize that he had won for a race around the deck the week before because it was broken so the committee raffled it today. We are still getting very rough sea and plenty of wind and spray washing over the decks. It was so stormy that most of the women and children were sick and vomiting. It was the dirtiest day we had since we left Tilbury Dock. The sun broke through a little, but still it was patchy and wet.

‘Saturday 10th September. We arrived at Adelaide about 7 am and grounded in the port. We had to wait until 4 pm until high water and then we got into the port. We all went ashore to see Adelaide. It was a beautiful place with fine buildings and great wide streets. The pavements were 20 feet wide and covered with verandahs all along the street. They were wider than the widest streets in Glasgow. It is 14 miles from the port to Adelaide…

‘Sunday 11th September. The ship should have left at midnight but the incoming current was so strong that the tugs could not fetch her out. … we managed to get out of the harbour into the sea about 6 am Monday morning…

‘Monday 12th September. The ship is humming along to make up for lost time. We are getting a nice view of some bits of the Australian coast…

‘Tuesday 13th September. We got into Melbourne at 3 o’clock in the afternoon…

‘Friday 16th September. Sydney! We got into the Heads about 7.30 am and it was a splendid sight going right up the Harbour. We had a view of part of the Dutch fleet…

(The family disembarked at Sydney and then made their way up to Queensland where they settled for them remainder of their lives)

An Innocent Abroad (Japan and Russia)

To continue my jubilee quest of 50 years ago (see my previous post of 06.10.2018 – An Innocent Abroad (Hong Kong):

Stopover in Tokyo

After leaving Hong Kong I had a stopover in Japan. Unlike Hong Kong where street names signs were duplicated in English, Tokyo streets were all in Japanese. Understandably, they made no concessions to Australian tourists. Oh, how I wish that Google Translatehad been invented then! And there were no or Google Maps: not even an internetto share my frustrations with my Facebookfriends. So after spending two nights in Tokyo and Yokohama YMCA’s, I took the easy option and booked a bus tour to Mount Fuji and environs.

October 1968 – cone of Mt Fuji

The beautiful Japanese countryside was a welcome relief from the throngs of Tokyo and Yokohama.

Stopover in Moscow

After a rattling 10 hour flight across Siberia, the Russian Aeroflot airliner touched down in a chilly Moscow where the trees were wearing their autumn garbs, the skies were grey with clouds, the Muscovites were donned in their thick black coats, and their faces were already set grimly against the onset of winter. But it was not only the weather that was cold, for in 1968, it was still the Cold War with the West. I could still feel the excitement at arriving in an alien territory.

October 1968 – Moscow – Red Square crowds

Even so, Moscow was a beautiful city and one steeped in history. I again took the easy option and boarded a sightseeing tour.

Destination London

When I touched down at Heathrow, I immediately felt at home. I was greeted by friends who spoke Australian, and who introduced me to familiar sites that I had up until then only been able to read about in books and travel brochures. The first night I was taken to Piccadilly Circus and the statue of Eros. I have been in love with them ever since.

I hadn’t fully realized the solitude that necessarily accompanies the lone traveller. Nor the anxiety of travel: of having to deal with timetables and unfamiliar situations. It’s something the travel agent didn’t deem necessary to relate.

From the perspective of 2018, I wonder how I could have been so naive and unprepared for my journey – just throwing my clothes into a port on the morning of departure from Brisbane. No travel money, no travel books. I was focused on my destination in London. I forgot that travel, like life, is a journey not a destination. Young people today have it easy. All their travel information is online – so much so that they almost don’t need to actually travel at all.


Centenary of a Revolution

Grave of Karl Marx in London’s Highgate Cemetery (Photo courtesy Paasikivi)

When I was living in London during the late 1960s and early 1970s, I was intrigued by the huge bust of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery not far from where I lived. This was at the height of the Cold War between the West and Russia and just half a century after the Russian revolution. Feelings of angst were still running high then, and Karl Marx statue endured several bombing attempts.

Marx had hoped to incite the British workers to revolt, but this didn’t seem to be in their nature. It was left to the Russian peasants in 1917. Perhaps they were the more desperate and downtrodden.

This week I attended a lecture by visiting Professor Sheila Fitzpatrick to mark the centenary of the October 1917 Russian revolution. I was surprised to learn that the event is not being celebrated with any great enthusiasm, not even in Russia. An exhibition in London of Russian revolutionary inspired artworks seems to be the world’s major contribution to its memory.

The passion for revolution seems to have burned out and I don’t think even Karl Marx statue will raise the prospect of another explosion.

The Malcolm Frazer Experience

Collin Myers speaking to the Toondah Probus Club at their August General Meeting
Collin Myers speaking to the Toondah Probus Club at their August General Meeting

Our Toondah Probus Club’s August Guest Speaker was journalist Collin Myers whose topic was ‘The Malcolm Frazer Experience’. After leaving school Collin worked for the Courier Mail, then Reuters in London, then for Malcolm Frazer, and then headed corporate affairs at Mount Isa Mines. During his long career, he accumulated a long list of memories and anecdotes. Here are just a few:

‘After I left school I worked as a journalist for the Courier Mail covering the Queensland State Parliament. It was an interesting time then and I interviewed many of the political personalities of the day: Les Dipplock, who was the last Minister for Public Instruction (now the Education portfolio); Premier Vince Gair, who used to float ideas with the journalists before introducing them into Parliament; Jack Duggan, with the Mount Isa strikes, Colin Bennett, and Clem Jones. In 1965 my boss at the Courier Mail announced that there was a journalist’s job going in Canberra. I had visited Canberra in my final year at school, so I applied for the position. I was the first person to have actually asked to go there, so I got the job.

‘These were the Menzies’ Years, and I was impressed that he was always courteous and valued the Westminster System of Government. As Prime Minister, Robert Menzies was especially courteous to the Opposition Leader, Arthur Calwell, because he thought that as long as Arthur was the Leader, he would have little chance of being toppled. Menzies also removed threats to his leadership from his own party by appointing would-be rivals to overseas postings such as the High Commissioner in London.

‘In 1967-8 I worked for Reuters in London. I found the politicians there interesting too: Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, if he didn’t want to answer a tricky question, always spoke quickly in his Yorkshire accent; Margaret Thatcher, at that time spoke in a high pitched voice – unlike her later lower tone as Prime Minister. These were interesting times politically, too: the 1967 Falklands crisis, the Rhodesian crisis, Common Market membership. Interestingly in the House of Lords, Notice Papers were written in Latin.

‘I returned to the Courier Mail in the late 1960s and early 70s. At that time the so called ‘Ginger Group’ of pollies used to have clandestine meetings with the journalists; and journalists were able to walk in to Ministers offices unannounced.

Prime Minister Malcolm Frazier of Australia is welcomed upon arrival for a visit to the United States.
Prime Minister Malcolm Frazier of Australia is welcomed upon arrival for a visit to the United States.

‘Then I got a job in Canberra as Malcolm Frazer’s Press Secretary. In those days he had a staff of just 4 people in his office, whereas today there would be 15 to 20 on the Prime Minister’s staff. I became very close to the Frazer family and even had my own bedroom in their homestead, ‘Nareen’. Frazer’s electoral seat was always a marginal one and he had to work hard to keep it. I remember he once visited 36 pubs in a day during a campaign, and on another occasion in a small country town, he gave a policy speech to an audience of one (at the audience’s insistence!).

‘1972 saw the Aboriginal Tent Embassy crisis in Canberra, and Malcolm played a pivotal role in negotiations with them. I was surprised that when some of the Aboriginal Elders arrived from the Northern Territory, Malcolm knew them all by name.
‘Malcolm Frazer recognized my loyalty as a Senior Adviser, and on one occasion he asked me to cost the ALP’s election policies, which I did in a few days – much to the amazement of McMahon who had a team of economists working on it for three months.

‘And finally, another personality who I knew well was Tom Burns who liked to say ‘A politician is not worth two bob until you have made an enemy.’

London Bitter Sweet

Kensington Gardens
Kensington Gardens

Part of the idea I had when I came to London this visit was just to sit in Kensington Gardens and watch the grass grow while sunning myself in the gentle English light.

Oxford Street in the rain
Oxford Street in the rain

However the sunny weather Phyllis and I had experienced last week in the west of England sadly did not accompany us eastward to London. Yet in many ways reaching the capital felt like coming home: the overfamiliar landmarks, the crowded trains of the underground, the public Laundromat,…and the bleak cold weather that heralded in the first days of the English ‘summer’.

Tube station on London's Underground
Tube station on London’s Underground

Being back in London again after I first arrived here 48 years ago was a bitter- sweet experience: it was wonderful for us to tread the footpaths of the West End once again, but sad to realise that our bodies just couldn’t manage them as they once did so easily.

We visited our old Boots shop in Victoria Street where we had both worked but found it to be overrun by a mass of building work. As if to give a nod to the old days, some of the buildings’ facades were being preserved, but little else.

Facade in Victoria development
Facade in Victoria development

However Phyllis’ former flat at 33 Moreton Place, Pimlico and mine at 10 Nevern Square, Earls Court remain unchanged, still slumbering quietly as they have done in our dreams.

Travelling People

Travelling People album image
Travelling People album image

Recent speakers at my Probus club have reminded me of the travelling days of my more youthful times. They spoke of expeditions ranging from Lightning Ridge and Carnarvon in outback Australia to traversing the Sahara Desert in a Kombi van.

My own youthful travelling days were not nearly as exciting: I flew to London in 1968 on a working holiday. But I did meet my future wife, Phyllis! When I first met her, I was very impressed with a vinyl record album of hers by the Irish singing group, the Johnstons. Phyllis’ favourite track was called ‘I Never Shall Marry’ (I didn’t take the hint), but I loved the title track ‘Travelling People’ and, although I was not an Irish tinker on which the song was based, I certainly identified with the lyrics: ‘I’m a freeborn man of the travelling people, Got no fixed abode, with nomads I am numbered…’ It was 1968 after all!

As I write this week’s blog contribution, I am reminded of this song as I contemplate another sojourn away. Phyllis and I are once again returning to the UK and Ireland, probably for the last time; and although we won’t be using the traditional tinker’s mode of transport (and I don’t think they are now ether) I like to think that we are still travelling people, and at our time of life, it shouldn’t be any other way. For as the song ends… ‘Your travelling days will soon be over.’

A Merry Sharing Christmas


View from our flat at Ridge Road, London in 1969
View from our flat at Ridge Road, London in 1969

We all know that Christmas is traditionally a time when families get together, and I have always managed to achieve this for as long as I can remember. However there was one year, 1968, when this did not happen.

I had just arrived in ‘Swinging London’ (as it really was then – for young people such as myself, the centre of the universe), leaving my family behind in faraway Brisbane. I had set myself up sharing a flat with three young English men of my own age in Earls Court (known then as ‘Kangaroo Valley’ because that is where all the visiting Australians had their digs), and I had found work as a Pharmacist with Boots The Chemist at their Victoria Street store. I had even made a new friend with the Secretary there, a charming Irish lass by the name of Phyllis. In short, I was pretty well set up for the winter, before setting out to travel in the Spring.

However, when Christmas arrived, my three English flatmates went home to their respective families in the English countryside, and all of London seemed like my flat – cold and deserted. Even Phyllis went home to Ireland to spend Christmas with her mother in Co Cork. I’d never had to search for a Christmas dinner before, but fortunately there was a friend of mine in similar dire circumstances, so we resolved to share a Christmas dinner together. Of course, finding a restaurant that was (a) open and (b) not already booked out, proved to be a problem, but eventually we found a very ‘unchristmassy’ one to at least satisfy our hunger. After lunch, we celebrated the rest of Christmas day by doing our washing at the local Laundromat.

All this sounds a bit depressing even now, but I did have the thought of Phyllis to bolster my flagging fortunes. My faith in her return was rewarded the following Christmas when I was able to share it with her welcoming family as inlaws, and like icing on the cake, it even snowed!

I hope you all have someone in your lives to share with this Christmas, if not in person, then in your thoughts.