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THE STORY OF MRS AENEAS GUNN - After the War

 

Elsey Cemetery Memorial GatesElsey Cemetery Memorial GatesAfter 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.

Norman Bowman:(79)

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.

Gordon Bowman:(80)

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.

Jeannie Gunn and Dooly O Donohue 1951 at RSL Foundation StoneMrs Gunn officially lays the Monbulk RSL foundation Stone with Dooley O'Donohue, 1951.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.

Stephen Skepper:(119)

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.

Jack Sykes:(121)

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’.

Peter Lane:(122)

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.
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