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)