Bill and Freda Robinson’s House
With the imminent closing of the Community Op. Shop, I felt I must write about the origins of the house which was built by Ted and Bill Robinson. Back in the 1930s the professional fishermen would bring their families, their boats and their gear from Metung, Paynesville and Lakes Entrance to fish when the Top and Bottom Lakes were open. They always built temporary homes to live in during that time. First task was to cut poles from the bush to which they would attach wide sheets of bark for the walls and some cases floors. The roof was made from corrugated iron which had been safely left on the site since the ‘houses’ had been dismantled the previous year. Ant-bed was used to construct a fireplace for cooking. As I have written before, those homes were like little palaces, warm and cosy particularly when lined with hessian bags. The cretonne curtained cupboards made from packing cases placed long ways on top of each other, were covered with lacy, edged embroidered doilies from the women’s Glory Boxes and there was always a bottle vase of wild flowers on top. Freda Robinson was one of those women! Her father-in-law Ted (Pa Robinson) was a boat builder and as the years went by decided it was time for Freda to have a real home so the 3-bedroom house was built. The Robinson children, Brian and John attended our local school and their names are recorded on the School Roll. Brian 1949 and John 1951. My late husband, Rod was only a young teenager when he and his mother came to live in Mallacoota (their home was on the site of what is now Peter and Wendy (no relation to Bill). Robinson’s home.) Rod fished for many years with Bill taking the boat and gear up the coast to fish waterways almost as far as Nowra. He lived at times with Bill and Freda at Paynesville. Originally from Port Albert, the Robinsons became well known fishermen in the Paynesville area.
When Rod and I married Bill and Freda had decided to rent the Mallacoota home and we became the first tenants and our first two children, boys, were born when we lived there. Our daughter was born some years later when we built in Maurice Avenue. The third bedroom off the closed in veranda was always closed;. it stored Pa Robinson’s nets as he would come back to Mallacoota from time to time as he liked to ‘mesh’ mullet with Bill Bruce around the lake. The bathroom was in the middle of the house and we would either boil up hot water in cut down kerosene tins on the wood stove or cart it from the copper in the wash house at the back of the shed. There was no electricity in Mallacoota in those days so we used kerosene lights. Two local babies were christened in the house during our time there. Down the back of the yard near the back fence was the toilet, albeit’loo.’ Wonderful tall, green mint grew all around it and I used it profusely until one day it suddenly dawned on me why it grew so well! Our neighbours were Brita and Albert Greer (where Nicky Mitchell lives) and Ray and Doris Iggledon who had the butchery business. The house is no longer there and Carl Sholand and Mrs Gertrude Mattson (John Mulligan’s grandmother) lived at the bottom of the block (it is now the Strauss family home). At night we could always smell the delicate evening fragrance of the Nicotiana -tobacco flowers which grew outside the lunge window. We established a vegetable garden and over estimated the bean crop, we had so many that being tourist season I decided to ‘go into business’. With a small pair of kitchen scales, I set up on the front veranda. I cannot remember if it was profitable but I did enjoy talking to my customers from the Foreshore Camp Park. Some years later Ray and Joyce (Allan) Magnuson bought the house when they had the butcher’s shop (next to the original newsagency). The home built by the Robinsons has had many tenants and has become part of our history.
Perhaps my earliest recollections of Gabo was the booming of the rockets warning passing ships of the nearness of the Island. It was an incessant, ominous sound that I shall always remember and was associated with winter’s south west gales but mostly with the mist and heavy fogs of easterly weather. The latter I remember when the SS “Christina Fraser” was missing, though only 3 years old I can vividly recall clutching my father’s hand, whilst he shaded his eyes with the other one, peering into that pea soup fog. We were living at Mallacoota House at the time and in my child’s mind I fully expected it to come steaming up the channel to the Government Wharf.
Sadly the “Christina Fraser” with the Captain and seventeen crew members which had left Newcastle with a cargo of coal en route for Geelong was never found. It had been sighted south of Gabo hove to in a very strong gale and later wreckage was found on the beach near Lakes Entrance. At the Court of Enquiry it was suggested that all sea going vessels on the. Australian coast should be equipped with wireless. Down through the years I have often thought of that ill fated ship and realised what a treacherous coast line on which we lived.
WWII came with the establishment of over 100 RAAF radar stations around Australia’; RAAF 16 Radar Station on Gabo Island was one of only five in Victoria. The RAN also had a station on the Island. With conveys of supplies going north and the fear of a Japanese invasion it was imperative that surveillance would be full time from the Island. Mione’s and my father (Hugh Brady) had the contract to supply milk to the RAAF at the aerodrome and he also, with Albert Greer baked bread in the Bakery which was on the site of the ‘Lakeside Apartments’ next to the Hotel fence line. The RAAF then gave Dad the Contract for the transport of personnel and supplies to Gabo Island so the “Beatrice” commenced The Gabo Run.’ Years before my late husband, Rod had purchased the boat from Bill Maddison (Joe and Joanne Peel now own his house). It had been built by legendary boat builder, Ike Warren from Eden. Bill was never happy with the engine but Rod had worked out it’s idiosyncrasies and happily became the new owner. Later when he was in the Pacif1c theatre of war his mother decided to sell it as she was unable to look after it. bad became the new owner of the boat and called it “Beatrice” after our mother. It was a wonderful ocean going vessel and despite only having a petrol engine it made an amazing amount of trips to Gabo in all weathers. (Roger Bruce is now the owner).
Eden Cole had the Mail Run from Eden to the Island in those years. He was one of the most obese men I have ever seen and his eyes were like slits. He was a wonderful seaman but how he ever manoeuvred himself around the boat was nothing short of a miracle. Keith Banks who crayfished with him for many years once told me how they would cook the crays at Gabo in a 2,000 gallon tank. They had a ‘coff?’ a slatted wooden construction anchored in the Harbour in which they would keep the crays until needed, much like penning fish. Keith’s Dad was a lighthouse keeper on Gabo during the war years and he remembers the time when his father sighted what he presumed to be whales basking off the Iron Prince Reef and reported it to the Powers that Be. Three weeks later the midget submarines invaded Sydney Harbour. Perhaps the whales had been subs. recharging their batteries. Several ex-RAAF members have since told me of seeing submarines off Gabo Island which verifies the story related by Dad and Albert Greer of the night there was a a horrific south -wind blowing and tumultuous seas. They were told to leave the Island and were given a torch to make the appropriate signals should they have to return. With the threat of invasion they were mounting a machine gun; I believe it was a Vickers. Once when the “Beatrice” was headed to Gabo a whale dived under the boat and Dad recalled how Albert’s face was as white as chalk, Albert would tell the story saying Dad’s face had taken on the same appearance. It was with great relief they saw it surf-ace a safe distance away.
Back to the submarines the late Jim Palmer of Narrabarba often spoke of the time he was checking his cattle down on the coast and saw a sub with it’s crew apparently looking for water in from the shore. He hid out of sight til they had gone.
Operating the Gabo Run must have been a tremendous responsibility as not only was the inclement weather a problem but there was the worry of getting back to catch the tide as each week the bar was getting shallower. It finally closed and a ‘rail way’ track was built at Bastion Point from the shore right up near the trees; and many a night Dad stayed on the boat to ensure it’s safety during heavy seas. Later with horses and scoops (wartime meant no mechanised vehicles) the local men opened the Bar. It had become necessary to do so for the water was banking up as far as Genoa.
The “Beatrice” was on call by the RAAF and Navy so apart from the scheduled trips Dad recorded trips to bring ill servicemen to Mallacoota to either seek help from the RAAF Station or to catch a bus away. He not only carted food supplies, but camouflage paint, generators, films and because Garratts the contractors were working over there, timber, cement, iron rails, one item recorded was a saw bench, coils of netting and so on. One sad recording was Gipsy Point, a special RAAF trip and in brackets (bombs) and would have been when the RAAF plane crashed into the river there. Dad and Albert supplied bread for Gabo too and remember there was no landing strip on the Island in those days and if the boat couldn’t make it over, supplies and mail were dropped from an Avro Ansen stationed at Mallacoota. One poor fellow in over, supplies and mail were dropped from an Avro Ansen stationed at Mallacoota. One poor fellow in stationed at Mallacoota. One poor fellow in his eagerness to get Mail rushed out to grab the bags as they were dropped and was badly hurt. The RAAF had a wonderful vegetable garden as there was fresh water believed to be from when the Island was attached to the Mainland. Mrs Dorron was our Post Mistress during those years and when the RAAF or Navy rang to ask her if the weather was alright for the “Beatrice” to go over to the Island she would say, “The smoke is issuing freely from the Bakery, so I reckon it will be tomorrow!”
One story I remember from those years is when one of the men wanted to meet up with his Mallacoota girlfriend at a dance that evening, he soldered all his clothes into a tin and with a little bit of help landed on the far beach then walked down to the Entrance, lit a fire and waited to be picked upa true example that ‘Love will find a way’. Not long before he passed away, Frank Stubbs visited me with his son, a photOjournalist with Geelong’s paper, they had been wanting to fly over to the Island to take photos. Sadly after a week they had to go back and Frank died suddenly without re-visiting Gabo. He had some great stories to tell like they left the Island for Mallacoota about midday and a ‘southerly buster’ blew up from nowhere half swamping the boat and the petrol motor,. The sea were unbelievable and the little boat was tossed about as the men endeavoured to start the engine. Frank said he would never forget that intense cold and he thought “here I am at 19 years of age about to drown and I’ve never seen the war yet!” Hours later as they were about to hoist the sail, they finally got the engine going. On that occasion when the boat was over due the Mallacoota publican, Harry Bolton became concerned and arranged for anyone with torches to go down to the Bar. There were few cars in those days to provide light and Frank said he would never forget that little band of people with their flashlights guiding them through the blackness of the night. Harry took them back to the Hotel where a whisky revived them. He -said he could feel the heat of it hitting his ‘frozen body.’ Frank sailed passed Gabo many times in the Sydney-Hobart Races and always remembered that experience when he rounded Cape Howe!
Some of the Light house keepers had families who went to school in Eden or Mallacoota, boarding with local families. Max and Doug Huxley were two, who boarded with Mrs Bruce and I have kept in touch with them over the years. Doug remembers when the “Iron Crown” was torpedoed off Gabo Island and he and Max came to the unveiling of the Commemorative Plaque in memory of the 38 crewmen. It was provided by George Fisher who was one of the five survivors. and followed an official function by BHP at Newcastle after the war he was devastated that they had made no mention of their three vessels, “Iron Chieftain”, “Iron Knight” and the “Iron Crown” (the latter sunk off Gabo Island). So began George’s long crusade to search for information about the ship and the crew. The plaque at the Memorial rose garden is a result of his search and I believe is one of the few privately donated in Australia.
Many of the ex-Gabo servicemen have told how the penguins always made their way up to the light houses in the evening and how they would virtually have to ‘kick’ them out of the way when they were going on night duty. The first duty of the day was to retrieve the penguins which had fallen into the slit trenches during the night. one ex-RAAF recalls the night he was on ‘submarine watch’ in the alternator hut which had been camouflaged and built into the side of a sand dune. He was writing letters when he received a terrific blow on the back of his neck knocking him off his chair. The assailant turned out to be not a Japanese submariner but a large penguin which had fallen through the ventilator opening above his head.
When one of the aeroplanes from the aerodrome went down in the sea the “Beatrice” was on standby to search for any survivors. The weather was too rough for boats and
finally they sent a Navy Fairmile down from Eden. Thankfully the crewmen were found in their rubber inflatable raft three days later surrounded by albatross; their presence having alerted the Naval crew.
During those WWII years the “Beatrice” made many trips to Cape Howe for the PMG as they were renewing the lines to Gabo. Dad had recorded taking a truck, a tractor (on the punt), 12 poles. The vehicles were taken over quite often and PMG mechanics and materials taken to Gabo. Years before in 1928, our mother’s cousin, Bert Egan from Eden with his bullock team had brought the cable down to Cape Howe to be laid to Gabo.
I guess many wartime secrets have been revealed over the years and a retired solicitor from Ballarat who had been on Gabo in the RAAF told me that no drink was allowed on the Island and it always amazed each CO how at times there was so much merriment among the men. Strangely it seemed to coincide with the Beatrice’s arrival so they kept a watchful eye as it unloaded but omitted to watch it leaving. What they did not know was that in a large hook under the end of the wharf a bag was often hung, submerged in the water, so the contents were refrigerated, as well. Dad never told me this dark secret but the “Beatrice” not only supplied food but kept up the men’s morale.
For many years our family kept track of many of the ex-servicemen after they had returned to civilian life. One ex-RAN was William Fogarty who in the 1950s became a Footscray Mayor, was Footscray representative for the Western Bulldogs and for 15 years was MP for Sunshine. I hope they all returned safely to their homes after the War.