Three brothers, born in Collingwood.

One Friday afternoon around knock-off time in May 1915, my great-uncle William Barrett (Willie) and his mate John Band (Jack) were hanging around outside the Dyson Jam and Pickle factory in Wellington St, Collingwood. They were both 21 years old, labourers by trade but presumably unemployed, because the reason they were hanging around the Dyson Jam and Pickle factory was because it was pay day, and their plan was to roll someone for money.

Young George Hayes had just received his wages, a gold sovereign. Maybe he suspected there was going to be trouble, because he’d hidden the coin in his mouth. When he emerged from the Jam and Pickle factory, Willie and Jack fell in behind him. Willie asked for a sixpence and when that drew no results, for a shilling. Hayes said he had no money, so Jack said, “Do you think you have a man ‘on toast’?” and knocked him to the ground. When Hayes managed to get back on his feet, Jack pinned his arms against the wall, and urged Willie to go through his pockets: “Take the whole lot from him!” Willie rummaged through Hayes’ pockets but found nothing, and then some young ladies approached and began to remonstrate with the pair. So Willie and Jack took off, empty-handed. As muggings go, it was a debacle. But George Hayes was not going to let the matter rest: he went to the police, and within the week, my great-uncle Willie and his mate found themselves facing charges of assault with intent to rob.

How do I know all this? Well, one afternoon I tried typing Willie’s name into Trove, the digitised newspaper archive. Eureka! The sad little story came to light. It was exciting information for me because I’d only recently discovered, via ancestry websites, that I had a great-uncle William. It seems he was something of a black sheep because, inadvertently or otherwise, the Barrett family had kept his existence buried. My father, who grew up on the same tough streets of Collingwood, had died by the time I discovered this story, but I’m pretty sure he never knew that he had an Uncle William. His younger sister, my Auntie Vi, the only one of Dad’s siblings still living, had never heard of him.

Collingwood in Willie’s day was one of the poorest and most densely populated suburbs of Melbourne, its narrow streets crammed with two or three-room wooden houses, often derelict and infested with vermin. Willie was the eldest of the three Barrett boys; his younger brothers were Amos and Albert (Albert was my grandfather). Their father, Thomas Barrett, a Cornish tin miner who’d come to Australia in the 1880’s, had deserted the family years ago. No one knows what became of him. The family legend, the story my father had heard, was that he had a job that somehow involved turning the tracks for cable trams; he got drunk one night and failed to do his job properly, causing a terrible accident. He took off, never to be heard from again.

But family legends prove unreliable. Determined we would get to the bottom of it, my mother and I visited the Public Records Office of Victoria, where an ancient volume of tramway records was brought up from the vaults. Entirely hand-written, every employee’s record was documented in detail, no transgression seemingly too minor to record. Spotters were employed to spy upon workers and report back to the office:

“Gossiped with conductor the whole length of Domain Road.”
“One minute ahead of time leaving city terminus.”
“Knocked a boy down, not to blame.”
“When she remarked upon his rudeness, he threw her change at her and said, “Oh shut up.””
“Was seen entering Hunt Club Hotel at 10.30pm, remaining there till closing time. His cap was concealed, and he was smoking and had at least four drinks. His remarks concerning someone at H.Q. were audible and disgusting.”

Alcohol was clearly an issue: many employees were made to sign temperance pledges which were attached to their work records. Collisions – with horses, bicycles, motor cars – happened so frequently as to seem mundane. It all made for riveting reading, and we found ourselves becoming distracted from our purpose. But investigations soon revealed that there was only one Thomas Barrett to be found in these tramway records and his work history was relatively incident-free; there was no charge of drunken negligence, no terrible accident. In fact, he held down a steady job on the trams till he retired in 1930. Furthermore, he lived in Richmond: clearly, he wasn’t our Thomas Barrett. Our Thomas Barrett turns up in the Victoria Police Gazette, charged with having deserted his wife and family first in 1902, and then again in 1904. “Labourer, 45 years of age, 5 feet 6 or 7 inches, medium build, dark complexion, dark hair, small dark moustache only; wore a light sac coat.” And that’s as much as I know about my great-grandfather, Thomas Henry Barrett.

His wife, Florence Jones (Florrie), was of Scottish descent, born in Saddlers Creek, N.S.W. She had married Thomas at the age of seventeen, back in 1891, at the Victorian Free Church of England in Moor Street, Fitzroy, the ceremony presided over by the Reverend Nathaniel Kinsman. Kinsman is an interesting character. Known as ‘The Marrying Parson’, he has been variously described as an ironmonger, second-hand furniture dealer, auctioneer, teacher and lay preacher, and was noted to have performed in the vicinity of ten thousand marriages. It was a brisk business; the weddings conducted at short notice, at any hour and at exceptionally cheap rates. He was happy to supply witnesses and a ring; further, those that had been married before could pass themselves off as bachelors and spinsters, and Kinsman turned a blind eye. Consequently, his name often turned up in court cases involving bigamy, divorce or the unlawful marrying of minors. And certainly, my great-grandfather was not as truthful as he could have been on his wedding certificate. Thomas lists his age as twenty-two when he was in fact thirty-two. I sometimes wonder if there wasn’t another deserted wife pining for him back in Cornwall.

The Reverend Nathaniel Kinsman

How did Florrie survive when Thomas abandoned her, with a young family and no means of support in those days before social welfare? According to my late Auntie Alice, she went out and found a job, but what that job was, I don’t know. My grandfather Albert, four years old at the time of his father’s desertion in 1904, was sent to live with Florrie’s half-brother, George Cole, and his family in Black Rock. Apparently, George’s wife resented having another mouth to feed. “She didn’t make any secret that she didn’t want to be bothered with another child, and I think he was neglected,” said Alice, in an oral history we recorded over lunch one day. “He’d go to school with bare feet in the frosty grass.”

In 1909, Florrie gave birth to a daughter, Emily. On the birth certificate, Emily’s surname is recorded as ‘Barrett’, like her mother’s, but there is an empty space in the column allocated for “Father.” According to the electoral rolls of that year, Florrie was living as ‘Florence Buttner’ with a man named Henry Buttner. She married him in 1911, at the South Melbourne Town Hall (‘The Marrying Parson’ had by then long since passed away.) According to the wedding certificate, Henry Buttner was a labourer aged 53 years old, born in Hamburg, Germany, the son of a sea captain. Florrie meanwhile describes herself as a widow, although there is no death certificate to be found for Thomas Barrett.

Florrie went on to have more children with Henry Buttner, and they stayed together till Buttner died in 1932. I remember my father telling me that Buttner treated my grandfather cruelly. I think there were beatings but I’m not sure of the details, and Dad isn’t around to ask anymore. I know that my grandfather hated Buttner and referred to him bitterly as ‘German Harry.’

But back to Willie, our black sheep. In 1913, at the age of eighteen, he signed up for a four-year stint on the Cerberus, the naval training ship based in in Williamstown. He seems to have done quite well in his first year, but then he embarked upon a pattern of absconding. The first time he deserted, he did it with a couple of mates; the second time he absconded alone. Each time he appeared in the Victoria Police Gazette with a £6 reward for his apprehension: “BARRETT, WILLIAM HENRY, an ordinary seaman, 20 years of age, 5 feet 4 ½ and a half inches, dark complexion, brown hair, brown eyes.”  In December 1914, he was discharged, the letters SNLR (services no longer required) inscribed upon his service record. By then, the First World War was well underway and thousands of young Australian men were signing up to do their duty. But Willie’s services were not required: he was left to hang around with Jack Band on the streets of Collingwood.

A few short weeks after the failed mugging, their case went to trial. By then, Jack had got himself some legal representation, none other than Naphtali “Sonny” Sonenberg, a leading criminal lawyer who, in between defending some of the more sensational murder trials of the day, supplied his talents regularly in the Courts of Petty Sessions. Jack pled not guilty: the defence case being there was “no intent on his part to rob Hayes.” To judge from the newspaper reports, Jack had plenty of intent to rob Hayes; still, Sonenberg earned his fee, and the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. My great-uncle Willie meanwhile, unable to afford a lawyer, pled guilty and for that he received twelve months hard labour. He was packed off to Melbourne Gaol where Ned Kelly was famously hanged, then moved to Pentridge, and then finally in September 1915, he was sent to crush granite at Beechworth Gaol.

How did Willie feel about this, I wonder: the fact that he was breaking rocks while his mate got off scot-free, just because he could afford a lawyer? If Sonenberg argued that Jack had no intent to rob Hayes, does that mean that the lawyer pinned all the blame on Willie? Did someone advise Willie to plead guilty? Or did he hope, naively perhaps, that if he was straightforward and honest and pled guilty, they would take it easy on him? I wonder if twelve months of hard labour came as a shock to him. From the distance of a hundred years, it seems a pretty stiff sentence, given that the robbery attempt was unsuccessful, and George Hayes was apparently not seriously hurt. Anyway, for a while there, that’s as far as I got with the story of my great-uncle William. I left him serving his time for a bungled robbery at Beechworth Gaol.

How fruitful can be the combination of the Internet and an idle afternoon! To my delight, I discovered that the Public Records Office of Victoria had digitised an entire Register of Male and Female Prisoners from 1855 to 1947. Barely daring to hope, I typed in his surname. William’s file came up immediately (along with quite a few other miscreant Barretts, I have to say.) I clicked the link; it offered a pdf of his gaol record. I clicked again: in seconds, it began to unfold on my screen. Suddenly I found myself staring at Willie, and Willie was staring right back at me.

It’s a remarkable feeling to find oneself gazing at your kin, the long-lost black sheep, in mug shots taken over a hundred years ago. He is Prisoner 34013; his dark hair is slicked back from his forehead, and he has a slight smile on his face, like he’s bearing up okay to his new circumstances. He has a nice face, almost handsome. He wears a collarless white shirt under his jacket; in another photo, a profile shot, he wears an Irish flat cap, like Tommy Shelby wears in Peaky Blinders. There are other scraps of information that his gaol record offers up. He is single and can read and write. While still at Pentridge, he did 24 hours of solitary confinement for what I can best decipher as “deserting on Church Parade.” (The hand-written remarks are difficult to read in places.) In November 1915, he is taken to the Ovens District Hospital. The last remark, written in red pen and underlined, is this:

Died in Ovens District Hospital on 10.12.15.

He was twenty-one years old.

The Ovens District Hospital, Beechworth.

What had happened? What had become of him? Had there been an accident, a beating, a brawl? He had languished in hospital for five weeks before he died - was it one of the awful illnesses of the time: diphtheria, dysentery, tuberculosis? He’d served seven months of his sentence: only five to go and he’d have been back in Collingwood. I sent away for his death certificate: it arrived within weeks. The cause of death: disseminating sclerosis and exhaustion.

Disseminating sclerosis? A bit of light Googling seemed to indicate that that was an old-fashioned term for what we now know as multiple sclerosis. My brother, a doctor, did some digging in the medical library and found this definition in a medical text of the time, “The Principles and Practices of Medicine, by the Late Sir William Osler”:

Definition: A chronic affection of the brain and cord, characterised by localised areas in which the nerve elements are more or less replaced by neuroglia. This may occur in the brain or cord, more commonly in both.

Symptoms: The onset is slow and the disease is chronic. The patients are often emotional or even hysterical. Attacks of transient paralysis, suggestive of hysteria, may precede the onset. Feebleness of legs with irregular pains and stiffness are among the early symptoms….There is no weakness of the arms but on attempting to pick up an object there is a trembling or rapid oscillation. A patient may be unable to lift a glass of water to his mouth. The tremor may be marked in the legs and the head, which shakes as he walks.

“The onset is slow and the disease is chronic.”  William fell ill in late October and was dead by mid-December. There are no remarks in his gaol record that he suffers from tremors or problems with his gait. Besides which, for a young man brought up in poverty who was probably significantly malnourished by today’s standards, it seems to me that he looks remarkably well in his mug shots. He doesn’t look like a man struggling with a debilitating disease (oh, I know I’m extrapolating wildly!) The thing is though, it just doesn’t make sense. Surely multiple sclerosis doesn’t kill a twenty-one-year-old in a little under eight weeks, even way back in 1915? In the list of deaths in custody at Beechworth Gaol, William had been the first prisoner to die since 1907. I suspected a cover-up of some sort: something terrible had befallen William, an accident or a beating perhaps, resulting in crippling injuries.

“You can never underestimate the effects of poverty and malnutrition,” cautioned my mother. But surely there would have been a lot of men, young and old, suffering the effects of poverty and malnutrition, breaking rocks in the yard at Beechworth Gaol? And they didn’t die.

The Public Records Office of Victoria, within a keystroke or two, obligingly offered the inquest papers up to me. (It still amazes me the way these revelatory links to one’s past, so personal and intimate in a way, can be revealed to you in a matter of moments, while slumped at your desk, idly clicking links.) The inquest was held a day after Willie died. There were no revelations of anything sinister. It seemed simply that, at the age of twenty-one, Willie had been struck down by some terrible debilitating, degenerative illness.

The first to give testimony was Dr. Herbert Walker, Medical Practitioner:

“He was under my care from the date that he first took ill (21st October, 1915). I treated him for about two weeks, and then continued treating him at the Ovens District Hospital. His case was serious from the first, he gradually became worse until he died of exhaustion on December 10th, 1915. Cause of death was firstly disseminated sclerosis and secondly exhaustion.”

Terrence O’Donnell, Governor of Beechworth Gaol:

“Deceased was a well-behaved prisoner, he worked with other prisoners at stone breaking until the 21st October, 1915, when he took ill…”

Mabel Ruth Jarvis, Nurse (Night Duty):

“He gradually became worse and despite medical treatment and comforts and every care and attention died in my presence on the 10th December 1915 at 12.45 a.m. Deceased was a good patient. His mother visited him at the Hospital.”

A well-behaved prisoner. A good patient. A young nurse at his bedside when he died. How poignant these small details seem. I felt a wave of relief to see that Florrie had managed to visit him in hospital. It would not have been easy for her. It was an eight-hour train trip from Melbourne to Beechworth, and from the station, she would have had to find her way to the hospital. What did she bring her invalid son? What news from home? (Some big news: his younger brother Amos had enlisted.) Was she shocked at Willie’s deterioration, at his tremors; did he struggle to hold a glass? Did she realise, when she turned to leave, that this was the last time she would ever see her eldest boy?

The train timetables, published in the newspaper, reveal that Florrie would not have been able to return to Melbourne until the following morning. I wonder how she spent the night, a woman of such few means. I hope that Mabel let her stay at the hospital; let her sit by her son’s bedside and hold his hand; perhaps brought her a cup of tea in the morning. Or, more likely, did Florrie have no choice but to make her way back to the station to pass the night there, huddled perhaps on a bench seat? She was five months pregnant at the time with her son Ernest. It’s details like this that I find myself worrying about.

They wasted no time in burying Willie: he was interred a day after he died, on the 11th of December, 1915, at Beechworth Cemetery, a Presbyterian minister in attendance. How was Florrie notified: a telegram, a letter? In any case, I doubt somehow that she would have been able to get there in time for the burial. In the same pauper’s grave lay Edward Jones from the Ovens Benevolent Asylum, and Vule Windford, of the Beechworth Hospital for the Insane. The grave (Section D, Grave 183) is unmarked to this day.

“Rattle his bones, over the stones
He’s only a pauper that nobody owns.”

Back in July 1915, only six weeks after Willie was sentenced, his younger brother Amos Orlando enlisted. The enlistment age at the time was twenty-one years old, or eighteen years with the permission of a parent. Amos was nineteen years old, so he needed Florence’s approval. And here, courtesy of the AIF website, is perhaps the most heart-rending relic of the story:

A torn scrap of paper (folded and placed carefully in Amos’ pocket, no doubt, as he made his way to the recruitment office); the difficulty in spelling “expeditionary” ( a difficulty I seem to have inherited); the decision to sign herself as “Mrs F. Barrett”, as opposed to using her real surname, Buttner. Was there some anxiety that if Amos did not have the same surname as his mother, the permission would not be accepted? What kind of conversation had preceded this scrap of paper being torn out and signed? With her eldest son in gaol at the time, how had it felt for Florence to send her second son off to war? And yet what other prospects did he have, I wonder? Was Amos, as his brother Willie had been, rattling around the streets of Collingwood, unemployed and getting into trouble?

The confusion as to what surname it was best for Florrie to use as next of kin seems to have continued. On the first page of Amos’ recruitment papers, she is listed as Mrs Florrie Cole, taking her half-brother’s name. No doubt foreseeing problems ahead, her husband, Henry Buttner, born in Germany, had been naturalised as an Australian citizen on the 14th August, 1914, ten days after Britain and Germany went to war. Yet there appears to be a reluctance on Florrie’s behalf to use his surname, certainly when it comes to Amos’ enlistment. I have often wondered if, in spite being naturalised, Henry was sent to an internment camp, in which case Florrie would have been struggling on her own again. In any case, it must have been extremely difficult for her to have been married to a German at that time.

Here is a picture of Amos in his brand-new uniform; his cap seems to be worn at a slightly jaunty angle, or perhaps that’s how it’s supposed to sit. He is described in his enlistment papers as a labourer, five foot seven inches, blue-eyed, complexion fresh. How young he looks! After a couple of months training at the military camp in Broadmeadows, Amos applied to be moved from the 29th Battalion to the 5th Reinforcement/21st Battalion, “as I have friends there and I would like to join them.” His request was granted. In October 1915, not long after Willie had been moved to Beechworth Gaol, his younger brother Amos embarked on the troop ship RMS Osterley, bound for Egypt.

Amos in Egypt.

In late December 1915, only two weeks after Willie had died, Florrie received a telegram stating that Amos had been admitted to the First Auxiliary Hospital, Abbassia, his illness “not yet diagnosed”. Imagine what a Christmas Florrie endured, with her eldest son dead and another son sick in hospital on the other side of the world. But whatever ailed Amos, it can’t have been too serious – he was able to rejoin his unit on the 7th of January, 1916. On his medical sheet, among his AIF papers, his illness is described bluntly as “Nothing”.

In March, 1916, to add to Florrie’s worries, my grandfather Albert took off. He was sixteen years old at the time and had been living with his uncle, George Cole, in Black Rock. He makes an appearance in the Victoria Police Gazette under Missing Friends:

“Slight build, very dark eyes and hair; wore tweed knickers, blue serge coat, and dark blue felt hat; he may now be wearing a pair of long blue tweed trousers. It is thought he may try and get on a boat sailing for Egypt, where he has a brother.”

My grandfather, Albert Barrett.

A sixteen-year-old in tweed knickers. How desperate must things have got for my grandfather, with one brother dead and another brother gone to fight, that he concocted some mad scheme to get on a boat to Egypt to join Amos? At sixteen, Albert had no hope of enlisting – did he imagine that if he got to Egypt, he could somehow join his brother’s battalion? In any case, his schemes came to naught. He never got to Egypt, and at some point, hungry perhaps, he must have made his way back to George Cole’s place.

So much of my personal history, my knowledge of my forebears only a couple of generations preceding me, has been pieced together from items digitised and available on the internet: newspapers articles, AIF records, police gazettes, a gaol record, an inquest document. The Barretts of Collingwood lived in poverty: they kept no diaries for us to study, wrote no letters preserved for posterity. Florrie’s note granting permission for her son to join the AIF is ripped from what looks like an exercise book. There’s a hint of orange pencil: perhaps the exercise book belonged to one of her younger Buttner children. How quickly people can vanish, unable to keep any record of themselves. And does it matter? Not to everyone, but it matters to me. My grandfather Albert, beaming cheekily with a prop rifle above (probably from one of those dress-up photo booths popular at the time), turned into a violent abusive alcoholic and brought much misery upon his family. Finding out about his early years perhaps goes some small way to explaining it.

My father’s elder sister Alice moved into a nursing home: her family cleaned out her house and came across a box of what looked like memorabilia. My cousin Ann brought the box around one day and, given this lack of family artefacts, it was with a sense of uncovering long-buried treasure that we opened it up and carefully pulled out its contents. It contained items such as Albert’s battered stoker’s hat (he served as a stoker on the HMAS Melbourne, among other ships); Amos’ service medals; even his copy of the standard issue New Testament Bible, on which Amos had carefully signed his name several times, as if practising his signature: A O Barrett, Pte A O Barrett. There were numerous photographs of people we had difficulty identifying, dressed as cowboys or gangsters, obviously taken as a lark, yet the photographs were so battered it looked as if they had been carried around for years in wallets or breast pockets. But in amongst it all we found this, a birthday card from Amos to his younger brother Albert, written on the 3rd of July 1916, from Flanders:

“Please excuse in hurry on duty in 2 sec                            Write back Amos
Tell Mother not to worry over me I am all right
tell me something about Willie so as I can write to him
don’t forget.”

I was stunned when I read this little card. Willie had died over six months earlier and yet Amos knew nothing about it. Had they written to tell him, and the letter been lost in the mail? Was the mail system so bad that a six-month delay was entirely plausible? Or could it be that Florrie has decided to keep the terrible news from him; not to worry him when he already has so much to deal with; perhaps planning to break it to him when he returned home? But perhaps I’m extrapolating again. I wonder what my grandfather wrote back, now it was up to him to break the news. I wonder if Amos received the reply in time, or if he ever learned of his brother’s death, because less than two months after writing this card, on the 26th of August 1916, Amos was killed in the Battle of Mouquet Farm, France.

This description of the battle that day is from Les Carlyon’s book, The Great War:

“The attack began at 4.45 a.m… The troops of the 21st Battalion quickly became lost in the devastated landscape, overran their objectives and in some instances ended up under their own barrage. They fought running battles along the tracks leading to Mouquet Farm from the west. Some reached the rubble heaps near the north-west corner of the farm but could not get close enough to throw grenades into the dugouts. The Germans counter-attacked and the Australians retreated into shell holes. The Germans knew the Australians were cut off and called on them to surrender. Some escaped; sixty didn’t.”

During the attack of the 26th of August, the 21st Battalion lost 13 officers and 444 men, including my great-uncle Amos, twenty years old and a long way from Collingwood.

“Tell Mother not to worry over me I am all right.

Mouquet Farm, France. October 1916.

Initially, Amos was reported as “Missing In Action.” He was not reported as “Killed In Action” until almost a year later, in July 1917, after a Court of Enquiry. I imagine that for his mother Florrie, as long as Amos remained missing, there was hope, the chance that he may had survived. Perhaps he was badly injured; perhaps he had been taken prisoner by the Germans. To have received the news that Amos was killed in action must have come as a devastating blow to her. Several months later, in October 1917, as if to confirm her loss, she received a package of his personal effects, described on the envelope as “testament, card, letters.” But it seems that Florrie was unable to give up hope for him. In this undated letter among the AIF papers, comes this plea from Florrie:

“Dear Sir,
The reason I am sending these few lines to you is I have been reading of the released prisoners of War in Germany. Would you kindly let me know if any news as come through concerning my Son Private A.O. Barrett 2460 Missing since 26 August, 1916 of 21st Batt 5 Rein. C. Company.
Mother same Address
84 Islington St

The letter is undated, but I can only guess that she wrote it in late 1918, when the newspapers began to publish accounts of POW releases such as this one below (The Age, 27th December 1918):

I can imagine that if you nursed the possibility that your son might have been interned in a German prison camp all this time, these small joyful accounts (“arrived in London, well in health”) must have been a source of almost unbearable hope. Small wonder that she felt the need to write to the AIF in the hope of eliciting more information.

However, Florrie’s letter received this rather terse response:

I read this letter and I wonder: is it possible that Florrie had not been advised that Amos’ status had changed from “Missing” to “Killed In Action?” Could this brusque missive possibly be the first she knew of it? Or had her letter been a plea from a woman in denial, even in spite of the personal effects that they had sent her; a woman doggedly hanging onto the chance that they had it wrong somehow; that her son might instead be simply missing, marooned in a prison camp in Germany somewhere. In either case, I can imagine that this letter must have extinguished any last vestige of hope for her.

My grandfather, Albert Barrett.

In 1921, at the age of twenty, my grandfather Albert joined the Navy as a second-class stoker. According to Alice, he never drank before he joined the Navy; my father told a story about his mates holding him down and pouring booze down his neck. I’m not sure when that happened. But by the time he met my grandmother (they married in 1924), he was a hard drinker and a street brawler.

Elizabeth Howes, a dressmaker, had come over from Leicester after suffering from the Spanish Flu; the doctor said she would never survive another English winter. She got a job as a barmaid at the hotel of which her sister was licensee, the (since-demolished) Town Hall Hotel in Hoddle Street, Collingwood. My Auntie Alice told the story:

“So there was a commotion outside, and of course all businesses had a horse trough outside for the horses to drink. In came my father and asked Mum behind the bar if she’d mind his coat because he was having to be put in the lock-up overnight for fighting a man and kicking him in the horse trough. That was this wonderful meeting! (Laughs)… And he came back out of gaol on a Friday or Saturday morning to get his coat and they went for a walk over Studley Park, over where the asylum is, you know the big square towers… And my father was giving the inhabitants cigarettes, he always rolled his own cigarettes. And of course, the men thought that was marvellous… So it went from there. And they rented a little house down that way, down where the convent is now. And that’s when Mum’s misery started.”

My grandfather drank for many years, always on Friday and Saturday nights, after pay-day. He would give Elizabeth a pittance to run the house, and the rest he would spend on booze. A wonderful cook and seamstress, it was only due to her ability to make something out of nothing that she kept the family fed and clothed. His drunken rages were so terrible that she would take her four children and roam the streets of Collingwood; with the aid of the local Deaconess Christine Boyne, they would often find shelter for the night in the vestry of St. George’s Presbyterian church, in Wellington Street.

“I remember him being kept at the police station in Hoddle Street one Saturday night, drunk of course,” said Vi, the youngest of the four siblings. “And we were so pleased because we had that whole night of peace with him in gaol.”

Once he pulled out a hank of Elizabeth’s hair; another time, he ripped up all of Alice’s dresses. As a young man, my father would pile his drunken dad into the sidecar of his motorcycle and ride up and down Beach Road in the bitter cold, just to try to sober him up. My grandfather would lean back in the sidecar, his jacket flung wide open. “Let ‘er rip, son!” he would cry. “Let ‘er rip!”

Finally came some relief. Alice, the eldest, married Dick Askew; they had a baby, Christine (named after the deaconess Christine Boyne, who had helped them so many times.) Because of the housing shortage after the war, they moved in with the family at 95 Johnson Street, above a tailor’s shop. After a year of experiencing his father-in-law’s drunken rages, Dick had had enough. As Vi described it:

“Dick said, “This is madness. You can’t live like this.” So it was Dick that went to the chemist – or the doctor, but I think it was the chemist – and asked for help. And he was able to buy these tiny, tiny little – (they were) almost like hundreds and thousands. Very, very tiny. And Mum had to work out how to get it into him without him knowing. So she experimented in various ways. Tried it in his porridge one morning, and his porridge went purple. But she ended up working out that if she put it in the butter in his sandwiches, it worked… In the days of six o’clock closing, when there was that swill, the fumes would waft out into the street. Well, just walking past a hotel would make Dad violently ill. So he just couldn’t keep drinking, it made him too sick.”

Albert never drank again; the abuse stopped.


Albert had named his first-born son William Orlando after his lost brothers, William and Amos Orlando. But he never talked about them.

“He’d never talk about his family,” said Vi. “He had a favourite saying, something like ‘What’s on the table tonight’s got nothing to do with the next-door neighbour.’ Meaning: he didn’t want anyone outside the family knowing anything about the family.”

He’d probably not approve of me writing this account.

In fact, I’m not entirely sure why I’ve felt compelled to record this account, this little piece of family history. A woman loses two sons in quick succession: one to illness, one to war. The third son – farmed out to another family, neglected, beaten by a step-father – becomes an alcoholic and brings violence upon his own family. It’s a sad story but I doubt that it’s a particularly unusual one, given the time and the place. But the way the story has come down to me in tiny fragments (Willie’s mugshot, Florrie’s hand-written permission slip), pulled down from the ether (or at least the internet), combined with the memories of my aunts and the stories my father told me, has made me feel like somehow I had to write it down, for posterity.

I suppose I feel it’s partly as a way of bringing justice, or at least acknowledgement of some sort, to poor Willie lying forgotten in his pauper’s grave, sentenced to hard labour because he couldn’t afford a lawyer. (We went to visit his grave in Beechworth – my brother recited a poem, my mother brought flowers from her garden.) It’s also partly for my daughters, as a reminder of their roots in Collingwood with its history of grimy old boot factories and its cobble-stoned laneways. (A hundred years after Willie’s failed assault, I was working as a television director out of a production office in Wellington Street, Collingwood. Heading up towards Smith Street for lunch at one of Collingwood’s bijoux cafes, I’d walk those laneways and wonder which one Willie and his mate had scarpered down, empty-handed, after the young ladies remonstrated with them.)

But mostly, I think, I’m writing it in memory of my father, Leslie John Barrett, who died in 1998.

Dad (left) with his brother Bill

Dad trained as a fitter and turner. Before they were married, he and Mum, with the help of my Uncle Dick, built their first house in Box Hill from floor plans published in the newspaper. As a young married man, he suffered a terrible motorcycle accident in which he was almost killed. He came off his bike and was run over by a truck, his leg and arm smashed. He was in hospital for over six months and suffered numerous setbacks, including a golden staph infection. Having come so close to being killed at such a young age had a profound effect upon him - he found God, for want of a better way of putting it, and decided to become a Presbyterian minister. I think his interest was more social than spiritual – he saw the church as a means of doing good, of providing succour for those less fortunate. (The way the Presbyterian church had helped his mother may have had something to do with it, providing shelter when she was forced to roam the streets at night.) A quiet, serious man, not gifted at small talk, Dad was not really cut out to be a minister, certainly not of the glad-handing variety. In the mid-sixties, he was preaching in the seaside hamlet of Lakes Entrance and spoke out against the Vietnam War. Parishioners refused to shake his hand after the service. Some refused to come back at all. Fiercely idealistic, he became increasingly interested in the doctrines of communism; not a comfortable fit with the Presbyterian church. At one point, he had us kids learning Russian because he wanted to move the family to the Soviet Union. I remember us sitting around the reel-to-reel tape recorder, as a deep male voice intoned Russian phrases. (“Ya ne ponimayu.” “I don’t understand.”) As a member of the Australian-USSR Friendship Society, he’d take us kids to visit Russian ships when they were in port. I remember the thrill of climbing the steep wobbling gangplanks suspended from the side of the ships. The sailors would take us down to the engine rooms and turn on the emergency lights and sirens for our entertainment– it was fantastic, like something out of “The Poseidon Adventure”. They’d ply Dad with vodka, and he’d beam at us glassy-eyed as we tried Russian cigarettes and Russian chocolate and transcribed the lyrics to “The Candy Man” by Sammy Davis Jr for the sailors. Dad left the church and suffered a nervous breakdown, from which he never really recovered – he suffered crippling depression for the rest of his life.

Some Saturday nights, as I grew older, we’d sit at the kitchen table and drink beer, and Dad would tell stories about those Collingwood years; the times when his mother had nothing to feed the family; the nights spent roaming the streets to escape his father. He’d wipe away tears with the back of his hand, roll another cigarette, then ask me to sing something sentimental like “Blue Bayou” (Unfortunately I cannot sing “Blue Bayou”. You have to have a voice like Linda Ronstadt to sing “Blue Bayou.”) Piecing together this family history, there are moments when I’m overwhelmed by the longing to sit at the kitchen table with Dad one more time and tell him these small stories that had disappeared, stories that I’ve exhumed by virtue of diligent Googling, stories that he didn’t know about his own family. And I suppose it’s because I can’t tell him that I’ve written this account.


Dad with my sister, Karen, at the facade of the Ovens District Hospital, on a day trip to Beechworth in 1972. Dad had no idea that he had an Uncle William, let alone that he'd died at this hospital, back in 1915.

My grandmother, Elizabeth Barrett (nee Howes), who died in 1964. I was too young to remember her, but my sister Karen described her thus:

“I remember Nanny very well and with enormous affection. She was a very warm and happy presence and a good cook, in a very English tradition. I remember cakes with spices like mace, cinnamon and nutmeg. Every Christmas, she hosted a big family gathering with excellent food and lots of talk and laughter (no alcohol though), which was great fun for all the children. When she died, the families became much less close – I really felt the loss, not only of her, but the sense of being part of a big extended family.”

This is the only photo we have of Florence Barrett Buttner, and even then we aren’t entirely certain that it’s her - a frail little lady in the background at a wedding in 1940.

Shirley Barrett, August 2021