THE STORY OF MRS AENEAS GUNN
"THE DIGGERS' HEROINE OF MONBULK"(1)
When time is no more for her, her name will continue to echo and resound for many generations to come.
D. O'Donohue, President of the Monbulk RSL (May 1953)(2)
She was born Jeannie Taylor on June 5th, 1870 at a nursing home in Lygon St Carlton. Her Scottish father, Thomas Taylor, was the son of the Reverend James Taylor, the Minister of the Baptist Church in Collins Street, yet unlike his father Thomas opted to become a freelance journalist, working on most of Melbourne's papers before settling in a permanent position at The Argus(3). Jeannie was the youngest of the Taylor's six children and because of financial restraints was not able to attend school like her elder siblings. As a result her education was tutored to her at home by her mother. Mrs. Taylor however, obviously had a talent in this area as Jeannie was eventually successful at passing her matriculation, although an earlier attempt saw her fail, of all subjects, English(4) .
In 1888 Jeannie, along with two of her sisters, opened a private school in Hawthorn they called ‘Rolyat’ (a reverse of Taylor) which at some stages held an attendance of up to fifty and sixty pupils.(5) Past students here would include war correspondent Philip Schuber(6) and a later stalwart of the Monbulk community, Mrs. Kathleen Wellington, who later recalled that each morning: ‘her light springing footsteps could be heard first on the flight of steps from the garden, and then along the verandah outside the classroom’.(7) During 1896 the sisters agreed to close the school down and as a result Jeannie took up a position as a visiting teacher, working at a variety of schools and tutoring in a variety of subjects.
While she was undertaking this vocation an event occurred that would eventually effect and shape the rest of Jeannie's life. While staying with friends at Narre Warren, she and another girl decided to attend a New Year's Eve concert at the town hall. On arrival she was thrown from her buggy and straight into the arms of a ‘long-legged Scot' named Aeneas Gunn.(8)
Aeneas Gunn had been born in 1862, the son of the Reverend Peter Gunn, Victoria's first Gaelic preacher. By the age of thirty-nine he had already lead an adventurous life in a variety of occupations including naturalist, navigator, seafarer, journalist, cattleman and scientist, and had been for a number of years a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. He had spent much time in the outback, having explored the Northern Territory with his cousin, Joseph Bradshaw, and scientist, Alfred Searcy, and had helped to establish properties at Prince Regent River and on the Victoria River.(9) At the time he met Jeannie though, he had been back in civilisation for two years working as a librarian at the Prahran Library.
It was not surprising then that the Librarian would easily establish a rapport with Jeannie who was known for her great love of books. A relationship soon developed and eventually they married on the 31st of December, 1901 with Presbyterian forms at ‘Rolyat’(10) . Just before this however Aeneas had agreed to take up the position of manager at the Elsey Cattle Station on the Roper River, some three hundred and fifty miles south of Darwin. On the 2nd of January, 1902 he left Melbourne with his new wife on the SS Guthrie to travel to Darwin to begin his job as the station's new manager.
Jeannie had brushed aside well-meaning warnings about accompanying Aeneas to the harsh outback, but all five feet of her had always had a determined streak. A nephew, Dr Harry Derham, later recalled: ‘Once she had made up her mind about something, you might as well give in, because you weren't going to win’(11) , Jeannie had decided it was her duty to be by her husband's side in the Territory and therefore that's where she would be.
The Territory however had always been considered a man's world and news of her arrival in Darwin and subsequent travel to the station caused an alarm amongst the tough stockmen of the Elsey, who even attempted to stop this lone female invasion by forwarding telegraph messages to prevent her coming. This wasn't enough to discourage Jeannie from reaching her destination, but the ensuing wet season almost did. She was forced to travel most of the way by buggy carrying only her most essential items.(12) In fact her book collection had to be left behind and she was only able to take one of her books with her of which she thoughtfully chose The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.(13)
The Elsey Station was in a remote part of the Northern Territory known locally as the ‘Never-Never’. When she arrived the homestead itself was a run down, somewhat comfortless bush dwelling, made worse by a recent cyclone, which Jeannie set about trying to transform into a home for herself and her husband with the help of a good natured Chinese cook and a number of Aboriginal house girls. From the start she found all aspects of the station life absorbing and entertaining and did her best to assimilate into the lives of these forgotten pioneers who were dredging out a livelihood in a land which few Australians at that time even knew existed.
She took a genuine interest in the lives of the local Aborigines, who drifted into the station and had a true sympathy and affection for their way of life, which few white people expressed in those days. One native in particular she befriended was a young eight-year-old girl called ‘Bett Bett’ to whom she gave the regal title of ‘The Little Black Princess’. Bett Bett had a temperament Jeannie could warm to and a mischievous and superstitious nature which appealed to her sense of humour. She would study her frolics and adventures which she would then describe to those at home through her many and regular letters.
The stockmen however were not as easily won over. These strong, shy, retiring men who had chosen a career which withdrew them from civilisation had become intolerant of anything that wasn't an accepted part of their lifestyle, which included intrusions from women. But Jeannie's friendliness and humour as well as her personal courage and refusal to complain showed these rugged bushmen that she would, like them, accept and make the best of the conditions. It was this attitude along with her determination that would in the end earn for her their respect, admiration and lifelong friendship.
For almost twelve months Jeannie lived and learned a great deal about life on the outback station and eventually came to enjoy the experience. However an unfortunate aspect to life in the Territory was often tragedy and she would, like many of the Never-Never's bush folk, be greatly touched by this. On March 16th, 1903 Aeneas Gunn passed away after contracting a severe bout of malarial dysentery, a disease prevalent throughout the Northern Territory. His passing was mourned by the stockmen and Aboriginals alike who considered him a good employer, ‘the best Boss that a man ever struck’.(14) But none mourned more than Jeannie, her beloved husband whom she knew for only a short time. Aeneas Gunn was buried at Elsey Station and the following month she travelled to Darwin and eventually back home to Melbourne.
Arriving in Melbourne she moved into her father's home in suburban Hawthorn and tried to pick up the pieces of her now shattered life. In the city however she longed for the quiet bush life she had left behind and wrote: ‘We who have lived in it, and loved it, and left it, know that our hearts can never never rest away from it’.(15)
THE STORY OF MRS AENEAS GUNN - Jeannie & Monbulk
Her one solace came from travelling with her father to his property in the Dandenong Ranges at Monbulk where a group of pioneer settlers were struggling to establish themselves on small selections. Mixing with these families she soon recognised in them the same sort of pioneer spirit she had left behind in the Territory. A long-time friend, Mrs Hilda Lane, first came to know her during this period when she visited with her father. She recalled she had a ‘deep attachment for the early pioneers and as a teacher took a great interest in the children and their parents’.(16) She would often be seen riding about the hills, sometimes in the company of Robert Hughes the forestry ranger, and took part in ceremonies at the church and the school.(17)
It was around this time that friends and family began to encourage her to write down some of the outback stories she had so enthralled them with in her letters home. She started to do this by jotting down the experiences and adventures of the small girl who had enchanted her so much at the Elsey, young Bett Bett. Her first manuscript was entitled The Little Black Princess which she gave to Mr Leonard Slade of Kalorama, a man she would later refer to as her ‘literary Godfather’.(18) As Mr Slade was the manager of the book department of ‘Melville and Mullens' she valued his opinion. He in turn read the story to his children who enjoyed it thoroughly. Inspired by this she sent the manuscript on to a firm in London who published it on a half profits basis. This unfortunately later meant that in order for her to recover the rights for a larger distribution by an Australian company she would have to pay the London company £15.(19) Once printed however The Little Black Princess went on to become known as the ‘Peter Pan of Australian Literature’.(20)
It is also considered by many to be the first really sympathetic story of Aboriginal life. The Commonwealth Official Year Book of 1910 called it: ‘the most truly artistic and sympathetic description of an Aboriginal character ever written’(21) and the notable scientist Baldwin Spencer wrote: ‘only one who really understood and liked the natives; and who, at the same time, was liked by them, could possibly have written it’.(22)
In fact the main character, young Bett Bett, actually visited Mrs Gunn in Melbourne in 1907, not long after the release of the book.
At the time Bett Bett was working as a nanny for the Ward family of Darwin, who had brought her with them on a visit south.(23) Bett Bett begged Jeannie to allow her to stay with her at Hawthorn but, ‘I was afraid of the climate and all the difficulties here for her upbringing and her future’(24) and thus she returned sadly to Darwin.The sudden popularity of her book inspired her to sit down and write a second book, this time on her life and observations of her exciting year in the Northern Territory. Although classed as a novel, it is really a history of this period recreating actual events and her description of those involved with these events. At the same time the story shows her evolution towards both acceptance and assimilation of the conditions that came with life on this outback station. She chose however to cover the real identity of those involved by referring to the characters' nicknames, with the result that the Maluka, the Fizzer, Cheon, the Quiet Stockman, the Sanguine Scot, the Dandy, Mine Host and of course the Little Missus were to be given immortality on the pages of the book she would proudly title We of the Never Never. The finished product captures such an intimacy with these characters and leaves such a deep impression that the book can easily stand as a memorial to this generation of men who quietly, under extreme conditions, helped forge our nation.
She wrote the book between Hawthorn and Monbulk(25) and once it was completed she spent a number of years surprisingly trying to find a publisher for it. After six rejections We of the Never Never was finally printed(26) but not before the publisher forced her to use the more masculine title of ‘Mrs Aeneas Gunn', fearing a female author would not generate as many sales as a male writer. However as soon as it was published Australian readers en masse adopted the story as part of their cultural heritage. Eventually it went on to be considered an Australian classic and has the distinction of being constantly recommended as a text book for school students as well as being transformed on to the big screen as a feature Australian film. Today it is estimated 300,000 copies of The Little Black Princess have been sold world-wide while We of the Never Never has reached sales of 600,000 copies. Both have been translated into a number of foreign languages.(27)
During this time Mrs Gunn began to only feel at home in the wide open spaces and was soon spending more and more time away from life in Melbourne at Monbulk. Her niece, Mrs Margaret Berry, believed: ‘Monbulk thus supplied her need for a respite from city dwelling, and I think this is why Monbulk has always remained so close to her heart. She could write in the peace and calm of the country’.(28)
At Monbulk she enjoyed visiting the various settlers and their families and often stayed with the Simpson family who even referred to the room she regularly slept in as ‘Mrs Gunn's Room’.(29) Here she was a familiar sight, riding side-saddle around the district, on her favourite pony, Kit Simpson's ‘Jet’. On one occasion she came across a camp of disused buses which had been furnished and placed on the property of Mr John Roberts at Kallista. The ‘Bus Camp' had become a home for a number of artists and writers including C J Dennis, Hal Gye, Web Gilbert, Tom Roberts and David Low, and here she would sit for hours with these interesting men of the arts and discuss topics and swap stories.(30)
At the same time she corresponded with Alfred Searcy and encouraged him to publish a book on his knowledge and experience of life in the Northern Territory(31) and inspired and motivated a young John Flynn whose ideas of helping those in the outback through air travel developed into the Royal Flying Doctor Service.(32)
In 1910 she began to write a third book which was going to be called The Making of Monbulk. She travelled the area researching the details and took the information away with her on an overseas trip to Europe which was to last three years. She visited England, France, Belgium, Switzerland and Italy. Mrs Berry later recalled: ‘On the ship bound for England, she would rise early to work for an hour before breakfast, and again after breakfast till lunchtime. She worked for specified hours while staying in hotels in Italy and elsewhere. However she seemed to be having some difficulty in getting the right atmosphere and felt that she needed the ‘influence of the local environment' and the ‘scents and sounds of the bush' which only Monbulk could provide’.(33) The book unfortunately was never finished and the uncompleted manuscript was later lost.
Arriving back in Melbourne in 1913 she set up home with two of her sisters and to Mrs Berry's recollection: ‘the household consisted of three middle-aged very abstemious ladies’.(34) Jeannie however was the Aunt a young Margaret Berry had most fun with and always found her: ‘intensely serious yet full of humour, conservative while defying conventions, courageous but reserved. She could be up in the clouds, though practical and down to earth’.(35) Another time Margaret recalled to a reporter: ‘When she taught me the polka, Aunt Jane kicked out her heels in a way that was considered to be just a little daring for a woman in those days’.(36)
Later in 1913 summer bushfires swept through the Dandenongs leaving many from Monbulk injured and homeless. Among the first to arrive with help was Mrs Gunn who assisted the victims with food, clothing and money.(37) One resident whose family were a part of those pioneering days, Richard Bowman, remembered: ‘She was a very nice lady who helped a lot of people who were financially in need of help and had got into trouble. If they were down and out or in trouble she would help them all and would see them through. I don't know the exact details of those she helped as she wouldn't pass on the information anyhow’.(38)
This would not be the only time Mrs Gunn would come to the assistance of the people of Monbulk. In fact over the coming years as the ensuing ‘Great War' cast its dark shadow over the township, she would come to the fore to support and console the Monbulk community with such devotion and compassion that she would earn for herself a permanent place in the hearts of those who lived there.
THE STORY OF MRS AENEAS GUNN - The War Years
Mrs Gunn's attitude to Australia's involvement in the war was as deeply patriotic as her love for this nation. She readily donated an article she'd written on Bett Bett to be included in Melba's Gift Book to raise funds for the Belgian Relief Fund(39) and over the years provided her assistance to a number of worthy patriotic efforts.
Her energy and admiration however had always been directed towards the individual and as such in her own caring way she virtually adopted all the men who enlisted to serve in the war from the Monbulk District, the settlers and school children she had spent so much time with, and fondly referred to them as ‘My Boys’. She took a personal interest in every one of them and worked arduously in packing parcels, writing innumerable letters, sending photos, relaying news from home and knitting socks. Mrs Berry recalled: ‘She even had a sort of bracelet, which secured a ball of wool and which enabled her to knit while walking about’.(40)
One long-time resident, Esther Brockbank (nee Hill), related that: ‘Mrs Gunn use to knit socks and things for the soldiers and with my mother, and all the other ladies, use to pack parcels to be sent over to the men overseas’.(41) A Monbulk veteran, Fred Lane, recalled her parcels: ‘with wool balaclava, candle, soap and little gifts that were so useful to us on the Peninsula. Every month she sent them’.(42) She even sent some of them maps of the newer settlements that were being opened up around Monbulk while they were away to keep them well informed.(43)
At the same time, she kept a photo of every single one of 'Her Boys' on her mantel piece and often had them around to share a meal before they embarked for overseas. Margaret Berry claimed: ‘this was quite a concession, as guests were rarely invited to a meal. However, exceptions had to be made for the soldiers who were going to fight for us’.(44) In fact Richard Bowman was one of those lucky ones: ‘I'd been around to her home in East Melbourne and had dinner there a couple of nights. That was the first time I'd struck finger bowls being used on the table which was a little bit out of my depth’.(45) Mrs Berry also remembered: ‘She gave strict instructions to the maid never to turn away any of her soldiers, no matter how drunk they might be. They were to be shown into the drawing room and given strong black coffee’.(46)
In one interesting story her skills and influence as a notable author aided a young Richard Bowman when he enlisted just short of his eighteenth birthday. ‘I was at camp and was called out one day and told I was going to St Kilda Road along with the other 'war babies', which they called us under nineteen. I had to do as I was told and ended up doing guard duty on about every place around Melbourne until I got heartily fed up with the military. I got in touch with Mrs Gunn and asked her if she could do something for me to let me get away. She seemed to have everything at her fingertips somehow, she knew somebody, I don't know how she did it. The next thing I heard from her was I was going to go to Seymour to the Light Horse’.(47)
Also at the same time her sister, Lizzie Taylor, went to London and served at the Anzac Buffet, a place set up for the recreation of Australian servicemen while on leave in England. Between the two sisters the Monbulk men had a link with home and often were afforded extra comforts, guided tours and loans of money, every penny of which, Mrs Gunn later assured, was paid back.(48)
In 1917 her attention was briefly diverted back to writing when she met John Terrick, the son of one of the last of Victoria's Aboriginal Chiefs. She planned to write a book on the stories of Aboriginal lore as told by Terrick and spent time at Coranderrk, the Aboriginal reserve at Healesville, making rough notes for the work that was to be entitled Terrick: His Book.(49) In fact an interesting sideline to her stay at Coranderrk is noted in the manager, Maurice Roberts', diary dated 1st March, 1917:
We had a visit from Mr Greben and Mme and Herr Kuhner... Mr Greben looks a noble man and a cultured man, the other man is a Jew, I believe Austrian, poor Mrs Gunn who is knitting, knitting all the time and writing to seventy-three boys at the front felt it difficult to be polite to an Austrian!(50)
In 1918 she attended the State School at Monbulk where she proudly unveiled the School's Honour Roll of past students who had served in the war.(51) When the war finally ended she was a regular guest at many of the 'Welcome Home' receptions held at the Mechanics Hall and was present at a special picnic for the returned Monbulk soldiers and their mothers which was attended by not only herself and her sister Lizzie but none other than the Prime Minister of Australia, William Morris Hughes.
After the war finished, her work for the welfare of the servicemen took on a new role and for many of them she became an unofficial liaison between the Repatriation Department and those needing its help. Her talents and skills as a writer enabled her to deal successfully with the men's problems and entitlements as she had the ability to research thoroughly. She got to know the Repatriation Act almost inside out, and was able to express her ideas clearly. To the ex-servicemen of Monbulk she became their counsellor and they steadily came to her with respect and humility and in some cases she even gave evidence to boards on their behalf.(52) Mrs Berry remembered: ‘Once, when she had suffered a slight stroke, she insisted on getting out of bed, and against doctor's orders, went into the barracks. A difficulty in one of her cases had arisen. She knew she alone could solve it, with all the relevant information at her fingertips’.(53)
To many in Monbulk it was her personal hard work and dogged determination during this period that is dearly remembered:
Dot Tait (nee Larter):(54)
My father was in the First World War and like many returned men he said, ‘I've had it, I don't want anything from the Government' and then found later he couldn't get a pension that he had been entitled to. Like many Mrs Gunn helped him get a pension. Many people in Monbulk were in debt to her efforts. She was a wonderful old lady, she really was.
Esther Brockbank (nee Hill):(55)
Mrs Gunn battled hard and I tell you who was a close ally to her and that was old Mrs Lane, now she was an old battleaxe, but she and Mrs Gunn fought like mad for pensions and medals and such for people. Mrs Gunn did a tremendous amount for the district, she was wonderful.
She practically put a lifetime on the Monbulk men that was her main concern. She seemed to put all her time and effort into the men up there.
She was a very quiet and unassuming lady, very mild mannered and a very caring sort of a person. I think she saw the best in people most of the time; she always had a kind word or something for people. Anyone she felt was getting a rough deal from the Repat she'd delve into it and would get involved with all these causes. I think she was one of those ladies that could get her own way in a very quiet manner.
Many in Monbulk obtained benefits they might otherwise not have been able to have achieved had it not been for Mrs Gunn's help. In fact both Bill Lane and Richard Bowman were able to gain land under the Soldier Settlement Scheme thanks to Mrs Gunn. Richard Bowman recalls: ‘I applied for this block of land in Silvan through Mrs Gunn's help. I got a form and filled it in, which she helped me with, and she put in a good word for me’.(58)
She was known to also give assistance to the widows and the children of deceased men and for those who returned disabled or sick they had a ready friend in Mrs Gunn who, Mrs Berry remembered, visited them every Thursday without fail at the Caulfield Military Hospital: ‘I remember in particular her concern for Joe James, for him she would overstay her time, arriving home late for dinner. She felt she had her priorities right. The phrase ‘Poor Old Joe' was constantly on her lips’.(59)
In a letter to the Dennison family of Monbulk she compassionately wrote: ‘I knew Mr Dennison only in the Caulfield Hospital, and always grieved so for him in his terrible suffering there - for he was so uncomplaining and so very quietly courageous on to the very end’.(60)
In 1925 the Monbulk Diggers began to raise funds for the T.B. Sailors and Soldiers Association Relief Fund by holding an annual ball. They believed it would be fitting to have Mrs Gunn as their patron and for the next twenty-seven years she wouldn't miss one function. Even later in life when old age meant she could no longer attend the balls she always sent a donation to the cause each year.(61)
Ex-servicemen however wouldn't be the only ones to benefit from Mrs Gunn's generosity. In 1934 she contributed a story to Frances Fraser and Nettie Palmer's Centenary Gift Book(62) , which had been organised to raise funds for a 'Pioneer Women's Memorial' to be erected. As well she raised quite a sum of money from the sale of signed copies of her books, all of which went to building a proper water supply for the Aboriginal Hermannsburg Mission just outside of Alice Springs.(63) She was also a supporter of the ideals of Langford Smith from the Church Missionary Society who dreamed of reclaiming the portion of Australia north of the Roper for a great reservation for the Aboriginal people of the Northern Territory. Here, Mrs Gunn told one reporter: ‘The Blackfellow may grow up a good Blackfellow instead of a bad White’.(64) One of the most amusing stories ever told about Mrs Gunn comes from when We of the Never Never was translated into German and published as Wir Aus Dem Niemals. She gathered all the royalties she received from the sales of the book in Germany and with great delight spent it on a function at Monbulk for the ex-diggers and their families. Mrs Berry recalls it was her sense of poetic justice that had her proclaim: ‘The joke of it all is that I made the Germans pay for the tea!’.(65)
In 1937 she was awarded the King's Coronation Medal for her contribution to Australian Literature. She told one reporter she felt: ‘personal pleasure in having her books regarded as worthy of recognition’.(66) Soon after she was awarded a certificate and badge of merit from the Returned Servicemen's League and a certificate of honour from the TB Sailors and Soldiers Association of Victoria. In 1939 she was awarded the OBE by the King in the New Year's honours list: ‘in recognition of her services to Australian Literature and to the disabled soldiers and their dependants’.(67) Fairly soon though her efforts would be needed again as the sons of 'Her Boys' from Monbulk would go off to fight in yet another World War.
During the Second World War she continued her devotion to the welfare of all servicemen from Monbulk. Once again she wrote letters, sent parcels and kept many informed with what was happening back home. Some she wrote to had been 'Her Boys' during the First World War, having taken on a uniform once more, while others were sons of 'Her Boys', lads she had encouraged and often tutored on her many visits to Monbulk. One lengthy letter to Jim Cowey Jnr is typical of her loyalty to the men of Monbulk. While he was stationed in Darwin with the RAAF, she affectionately took time to relate to him stories she had collected regarding the Territory as well as some of her own personal experiences of the area and passed on news from local people she had been in contact with. It was in fact one of the last letters he received as he was posted missing not long after and the letter was found amongst his personal effects that were returned to his mother.(68)
Also during the war she attended a number of special functions held at Monbulk to raise funds for patriotic welfare causes. She also continued to assist any of 'Her Boys' who were in need of her help and guidance. In an incident that mirrored his father's situation during the First World War, Alan Bowman, the son of Richard Bowman, appealed to Mrs Gunn to help get him overseas.
I served my apprenticeship as an engineer, I was a toolmaker. I couldn't get into the forces because of the protected undertaking that I was in, they just wouldn't enlist you and I wanted to get in. In 1943 services for the RAAF were given number one priority and I said ‘Oh I'll join that’. So I talked it over with Dad and he said ‘I'll get Mrs Gunn to fix it for you’. Of course Mrs Gunn had fixed it for Dad back in 1916, arranging for him to get overseas. Anyway he said he'd go and see Mrs Gunn, she lived at Manningtree Road, Hawthorn.
Alan was in a position that was restricted and he wanted to get into the Airforce. He had to get out of his job so I got Mrs Gunn to get him out.
I'll never forget this, Mrs Gunn was a great friend of Essington Lewis who was the director of manpower and he was able to do it. The fact is I could not get into the services because I was in a protected undertaking and Mrs Gunn somehow got me in. I was quite pleased about that.
Mrs Gunn helped us again. Two or three times I've called on her to help my family out.
One Soldier that visited her at her home in Hawthorn during the war was the eldest son of Bett Bett, who had enlisted and was for a time stationed in Victoria.(73) In fact Bett Bett herself, now Mrs Dolly Bonson, had spent much of the war in a camp in Victoria having been evacuated from Darwin during the bombings.(74)
The war also enabled a number of Australian servicemen the chance to pay Mrs Gunn a unique and personal tribute. In 1941 while stationed at Adelaide River near Darwin a party of volunteers from the War Graves Maintenance Unit decided to create a memorial to the people they had come to know so well through the pages of Mrs Gunn's book. At his lone grave at Elsey Station they placed a plaque on the burial site of Aeneas Gunn and cultivated a cemetery around him. Foregoing personal leave over a period of eighteen months, they then searched forgotten graves throughout Australia in an attempt to assemble all the characters from We of the Never Never who had passed away at the cemetery. The Fizzer (Henry Peckham) was brought from Campbell's Creek, The Wag (Constable Kingston), Happy Dick (Jack Gager) and the Horse Teams' Jack Grant from Katherine, the Sanguine Scot (John McLennan) was discovered nearby while Dan, the Head Stockman, had to be moved all the way from Wyndham. By the end of the war six of the Elsey men were at rest beside the Maluka, Aeneas Gunn. Later Irish Mac, Lee Ken, William Neaves and Mine Host (Tom Pearce) were also buried at the Elsey cemetery which is now a National Reserve. At the same time as this was happening, engineers erected an impressive Memorial Gateway to the cemetery. The knowledge that her old friends were once more brought together was a great comfort to Mrs Gunn.(75) She treasured for many years an album of photographs the servicemen sent her and proudly told one reporter: ‘My Boys do not forget’.(76)
THE STORY OF MRS AENEAS GUNN - After the War
After the war she continued to help the younger servicemen gain pensions and entitlements. Purchasing a copy of the Medical series of the Official Histories she told local Cec Wellington: ‘I came on a chance reference on the result of over sweating in jungle heat - that won poor Frank Severino's case - I feel guided by this book. I could win any most difficult and elusive case now’.(77) She also helped some of the younger Monbulk residents find employment in the post-war period. She helped David Cowey find his first job with Lt Col Rex Hall in his 'Farm and Pastoral Supplies' business(78) and assisted some of Richard Bowman's sons as well.
I was going to Tech School and I wanted to be a carpenter but at that time it was pretty hard to get an apprenticeship, especially with a reputable firm. Dad spoke to Mrs Gunn and she organised it from there on. She had taught George Longford who was the boss of 'Plymouth Longford' the builders, so it was through her that George Longford gave me a job as an apprentice carpenter. She was a very nice lady, quite delightful. I worked at her home while I was an apprentice at Longford if ever she wanted work done.
Mrs Gunn didn't stop with Norman. Dad approached her re myself (in 1944 still a little difficult to get the right sort of a start in a job). She came up with W.S. Robinson, one of the big shots in the industrial world, who put us on to Jim Fitzgerald of the Zinc Corp where I spent six years. I met Meryl, my future wife, there so Mrs Gunn had a profound influence on my life. I can remember going out to her place to talk to her about jobs etc., a lovely lady.
In 1946 the returned servicemen of both World Wars who lived in the Monbulk district decided to form for themselves a branch of the RSL locally. No one was more pleased or supportive than Mrs Gunn who declared it would be a marvellous idea to establish a library for the club which 'Her Boys' could utilise. At the same time she was of the opinion that: ‘geographically Monbulk will always be the best centre for a good library’.(81)
Mrs Berry, her niece, believed: ‘this idea was engendered by one of her returned soldiers having to go to Melbourne to consult an Atlas. She was horrified at the thought that there wasn't one in Monbulk’.(82) Mrs Gunn herself claimed in a letter to Cec Wellington that it was ‘Angus Shaw longing for some sort of a reference library which started me going’.(83) In any case she set herself a task and spent a great portion of her time over the next ten years collecting books ‘to lay a sure foundation’(84) of a wonderful library.
One of the first people she contacted was Leonard Slade of 'Melville and Mullens', the man she had referred to many years ago as her ‘literary Godfather’,(85) to help her search out ‘all but the essential’.(86) Other second hand bookshops held aside interesting titles or recently purchased collections for her to peruse while some even contacted other dealers to help her locate what she wanted. ‘The various bookshops are so good and also most interested’, she wrote to Cec Wellington, ‘some good angel seems to be overlooking all our needs’.(87) She also often convinced notable authors to donate to the cause and had help from Mr H S Walt who forwarded books from London and the Carnegie Corporation who sent others from New York.(88) She even inspired H A Evans and Son to give her eighty books to go into the library.(89) Most of the books however were of her own donation including one particular one that held sentimental value for her. ‘For a long while I have been trying to get a nice copy of Shakespeare', she wrote in a letter to Cec Wellington, ‘but as they are all reprints I am sending my own copy that has done long and excellent service for I had it at the Elsey...I have another copy that will do quite nice for just me! Monbulk deserves the best as you know!’.(90)
Cec Wellington of Monbulk became the collator and repositor of the books that Mrs Gunn collected and it was to him she turned with ideas on what shelving and cases should be created for the library and what titles should be arranged under what sections.(91) All books were read by her before sending them on and many contain her own personal notations if she found something of interest to various members or references to Monbulk residents. One biographer claimed;
‘Mrs Gunn did not accept inaccuracy’(92) and indeed she would often correct books if she thought they had made historical errors.(93) At the same time any person who visited her at Hawthorn from Monbulk was always given a handful of books to take back. She even began a stamp collection complete with special albums to house them. However this was later destroyed in a tragic fire at the home of Angus Shaw who had taken the collection home to work on. His daughter Sandra recalls: ‘The loss of Mrs Gunn's stamp album was what he was most upset about’.(94)
By 1955 she had collected over seven hundred volumes for what she described as ‘a bonny little library...of which I am getting quite proud...one I couldn't improve on I am sure’.(95) However soon after this she decided there should be an art corner as ‘sooner or later some of your soldiers' children would really need them’. When Cec Wellington told her of the enthusiasm of the members in using the library she wrote back excitedly saying: ‘nothing could have pleased me more surely’.(97) In another letter she proudly tried to claim: ‘I'm thinking that by the time the Monbulk RSL have digested all these lives and histories they will be so very highly informed that I will feel a very poor ignorant little person before them’.(98)
In the finish she had amassed an amazing nine hundred volumes of books for the library as well as handing over one of her own bookcases to help house them.(99) When the library was finally set up in the RSL's new clubrooms she told Cec Wellington: ‘I do not think any one of us ever dreamed we would get together such a beautiful and interesting collection...You are all building up a great future for Monbulk and proud I am to have been privileged to have even my very small finger in the pie’.(100) The library continues to be a wonderful legacy for the Monbulk RSL members who even today look upon the collection with great pride and enthusiasm. Fittingly the Rev A Crichton Barr later remarked: ‘the library at Monbulk will always be a memorial to the greatness of her mind and soul’.(101)
During the time she was collecting the large array of publications that made up the Monbulk RSL library she had in mind a personal need to create a uniquely special book that would be a highlight of the Monbulk collection. In 1949 she began work on a new manuscript, a detailed record of the men from Monbulk who served in the Boer War (1899 - 1902), the Boxer Rebellion (1901) and the First World War (1914 - 1918). In a letter to Cec Wellington she was precise in what she wanted: ‘This is not an Honour Roll - it is definitely a record of each man's service to his country', and she felt: ‘we should include the Second War service to each man. Also a reference under the soldier's entry to sons who served in the Second War’.(102)
Over the next few years she researched the list of men and their service history from a variety of sources. She made a ‘general 'turn around' of enquiries’(103) among local people and sought out former Monbulk residents throughout Victoria. In a letter to Mrs Dennison seeking details on family members she wrote: ‘I was very anxious to get an absolute full and authentic record of everyone of our soldiers for the RSL records and I was also particularly anxious to have every necessary detail’.(104) She was even able to access military files not normally available to members of the public and received help in finding particulars 'of lads who did not return' from the War Graves Commission.(105) In one instance she sought out information from the Lands Office to verify if one of the men on the list had in fact resided in Monbulk.(106)
With the project finished she sent her handwritten manuscript to Cec Wellington to complete the ‘clerical side, as it needs not only a nice legible hand writing as yours always is, but a very exact mind behind it. In each and every detail’.(107) Eventually it was typed up and encased in a leather and gold embossed cover and presented to the club. Later she found a few extra names which were added, inspiring her to write to Cec: ‘we are now complete I think, which is quite a record’.(108) The handwritten manuscript and bound copy have remained with the RSL ever since.
The effort and devotion she showed to the servicemen of Monbulk created a lasting impression on both them and their families. A long-time member of the Monbulk RSL, Jack Sykes, recalls: ‘When I first joined the club the First World War fellows were in the majority and they were always talking about Mrs Gunn. She had been in touch with a number of them during the war and they thought the world of her’.(109) Likewise Dot Sykes, daughter of First World War veteran Bill Lane, remembers: ‘My father thought that she was just it and a bit, he really thought a lot of Mrs Gunn. Everybody looked up to her, she was thought of highly’.(110)
When in May 1951 the Monbulk RSL decided to lay a foundation stone for their new clubrooms they all believed it would be a fitting tribute to Mrs Gunn to have her perform the honour of unveiling the tablet. In the presence of over two hundred spectators the President, Dooley O'Donohue, in glowing terms stated Mrs Gunn had: ‘been the friend of every serviceman from the district in two wars, sending parcels, comforts and news from home. She had also been their guide and counsellor in many personal problems and a consolation to those who were bereaved’.(111) Upon officially laying the stone Mrs Gunn proudly told the crowd: ‘it brings me very great pleasure and happiness. It is more to me than laying a foundation stone. Written here is a long, long comradeship between me and all these Monbulk Diggers. I doubt if anyone has ever been more blessed and happy in this great comradeship than I and I am proud to say it is still mine’.(112) Finishing off she presented the club with a personally inscribed Bible and the bound copy of the book she compiled on the Monbulk servicemen. One journalist who later interviewed her reported: ‘it was for her the most important moment in her life. She was making a practical dedication to 'Her Boys', her spiritually adopted sons who were the soldiers of two World Wars’.(113)
In 1953 she returned to the site, this time to perform the opening of the newly built clubrooms of the Monbulk RSL. On this occasion she was loudly applauded when she received the key from Lady Knox and turned it in the front door.(114) In a likeminded ceremony she dedicated the memorial entrance gates that had been sponsored and presented to the RSL by the local ladies Kookaburra Club.
During Queen Elizabeth's Royal Tour of Australia in 1954 the Ladies' Auxiliary of the Monbulk RSL held an open luncheon party in the new clubrooms to which Mrs Gunn was the invited special guest. At this function her long-time friend, Hilda Lane, proposed a toast to Mrs Gunn and thanked her: ‘for the years of untiring service she had so generously given the Monbulk people’.(115) As a special tribute the ladies gathered at the front of the clubrooms where two silver birch trees were planted, one in honour of the Queen and the other in honour of Mrs Gunn.(116) At a later date Mrs Gunn presented the Ladies' Auxiliary with a 'Queen Elizabeth' bell for them to use at their meetings.(117)
Many Monbulk people have fond memories of her fleeting visits to Monbulk in this period and the friendship and kindness she showed to many individuals and families. Treasured are her gifts, letters of condolence and signed copies of her books that she presented to so many in this district.
Dot Sykes (nee Lane):(118)
She wrote to my brother and I when Dad died. In fact Dad had given her a brooch when he'd left for the First War with a little silk flag and when he returned from overseas he brought her back some foreign notes. When he died she sent both things to my brother and I with a letter.
I remember Mrs Gunn coming down and having afternoon tea with Mum at the Cafe often. She was a lovely lady. In the days of the RSL she always kept in touch and they'd invite her up for special occasions.
Dot Tait (nee Larter):(120)
Mrs Gunn was great friends with so many people in Monbulk and if there was anything official run she would always be there.
At one of the functions, after everything was over, we were all out the front, talking in groups, and I felt somebody tap me on the shoulder. It was Hilda Lane and she said, ‘I would like you to meet Mrs Gunn, Jack’. I turned around and was looking at my level and wondered where Mrs Gunn was. Then I realised she was only about four foot high and I had to look down. That has always stuck in my mind, I felt so silly. The way they'd built her up I'd imagined someone bigger’.
I met Mrs Gunn quite often, I mean she was always at the TB Balls and various things at the Muriel Peck Cottage where different groups would invite her up. She used to do a lot of walking around the district and quite often would turn up at home on occasions. Mum also often visited her at her home at East Hawthorn.
Esther Brockbank (nee Hill):(123)
My sister Hilda was a great charity worker and she worked in closely with Mrs Gunn, they were life long friends. My sister and I used to visit her at her home in Hawthorn, they had a funny sort of place, quite unique and certainly different. I always found her to be a lovely little woman.
THE STORY OF MRS AENEAS GUNN - The Later Years
Into her old age she lived a quiet, retiring life at 26 Manningtree Rd, Hawthorn enjoying reading from her extensive collection of books and tending to her ‘modest but ordered garden’.(124) One interviewer who visited her there wrote an illustrated description of the interior of her home writing: ‘A portrait of Queen Victoria hangs on a wall, heavy cedar furnishings and carved chairs finished with velvet fill the vastness left by that lofty nineteenth century ceiling. Bookcases filled with books...give to the walls that studious dignity one would naturally associate with a lady of letters’.(125)
And a 'lady of letters' she certainly was. Over the years she kept in touch with many of the real 'characters' she had so warmly portrayed in her books until in fact she became the last one left. As for Bett Bett, throughout the years Mrs Gunn continued to keep in contact with her and each year without fail they exchanged best wishes and Christmas greetings.(126) Although they had spent only a short time together Mrs Gunn had formed such a strong bond with Bett Bett that it was to last her lifetime. As for the Elsey, she showed no emotion when told it was up for public auction. ‘Why should I care tuppence?’ she asked one reporter: ‘I've got no interests up there now, and most of those I knew have passed on’.(127) She never returned to the Northern Territory and the land of the 'Never-Never' she had written so affectionately about.
Her sister Lizzie passed away in 1959 leaving Jeannie to live alone at their home. She was troubled by health problems and wrote to Cec Wellington when doctors ordered her to stay inside regretting not being able on Anzac Day ‘to go to my favourite place at the barriers to see you all go by’.(128) One of her Hawthorn neighbours, Mr F Kiefel, remembers: ‘many of the people in Manningtree Rd used to call at her home and listen to her talk of her early days at Elsey Station in the Northern Territory. She was a wonderful old lady, an alert mind and a memory that never seemed to falter’.(129)
Mrs Aeneas Gunn OBE passed away on the 9th of June, 1961 only four days after celebrating her 91st birthday. A few days later over two hundred mourners packed Scots Church in Collins St including relatives, friends, RSL members and representatives from Elsey Station Ltd and Angus and Robertson book publishers. The Rev A Crichton Barr told those gathered: ‘Mrs Aeneas Gunn was a modest, gentle and courageous lady. Some people will remember her for her books and others for her unremitting service to those who fought for Australia. She will be remembered by many people with gratitude and affection’.(130)
Jeannie Gunn was buried in a simple grave at the Melbourne General Cemetery alongside the two sisters she had shared a home with. Her estate, including book royalties, was estimated at her death to be over £12,000.(131)
This article is reproduced from AJ McAleer's Introduction in 'MY BOYS', A Book of Reflection written by Mrs Aeneas Gunn OBE and published by Monbulk RSL Sub Branch.