A sailor’s life – 40. Armistice day in Bunbury WA
Bunbury in Western Australia was not very impressive from the sea in 1918. A ring of sand hills round a blue bay, with a stone breakwater shielding a long wooden jetty, a lighthouse on stilts on a low hill and a glimpse of low red roofs between trees. It was a small seaside town, serving the local farms and sawmills. It had one cinema, the Lyric, and not much else. There was no crowd of sailing ship apprentices here, and no seamen’s mission.
There were also no tugs, so when the sailing ship Monkbarns dropped anchor in Koombana Bay fifty days out of Rio de Janeiro, lines had to be run out to the town jetty, and the men heaved away at the capstan bars to winch her alongside.
Out along the yard, busily furling the sails to a “harbour stow”, the seamen and apprentice boys looked curiously around them. A Norwegian barque, Auldgirth, and a small steamer already lay along the jetty. Out on the breakwater to seaward, a small locomotive was shunting trucks of stone about. It was Saturday November 9th – and from the shore hands they heard the news: after four years of war the Germans were negotiating surrender.
On Monday night, Bunbury came to life.
Dorothy Rumble had gone to the Lyric that evening, with her sister Phyl and two friends, to see the Hollywood heartthrob Douglas Fairbanks in The Man from Painted Post. Halfway through the film, she remembered, at 9.30pm, the screen suddenly went blank.
A disappointed murmur had rippled through the crowd, and then a hastily written message appeared on the screen:
The film was forgotten. Everyone stampeded out into Victoria Street, where firecrackers were going off – left over from Guy Fawkes’ night the previous week. “People linked arms and danced down the street. One or two motor cars – there were not many in Bunbury – were trying to drive through the crowd. They joined in the fun and started honking their horns. Others jumped on the running boards for the ride. Kerosene tins became instantaneous drums,” records her son.
People talked long into the night. All the bars of the hotels were crowded, according to Monkbarns apprentice Victor Fall, and all work stopped. Monkbarns and Auldgirth hoisted all the bunting they could lay hands on, but the boys didn’t know anyone, so the thanksgiving speeches, bands, parades and school treats over the following days were just “windy” and not very exciting, he said.
Dolly Rumble and Phyl, meanwhile, were enjoying a whirl of hastily laid on festivities. There was the thanksgiving service in the council chamber grounds and then a procession, all the way down to Haywards. Someone had suggested throwing a victory dance that night, so they spent all Tuesday afternoon helping to get the school ready, while their parents practised piano and banjo duets for a Soldiers’ Gift Concert in the council chambers that night.
Everyone felt a little tired on Wednesday morning, but Phyl was up betimes to cut sandwiches for the school treat next day. There, while serving tea, she would meet a young officer from the ship, Mr Chown, who was third mate and seemed very nice, she said.
She met him again, on the 20th, when the mayor of Bunbury, Mr Baldock, threw a party at his house for Monkbarns’ officers and apprentices.
‘Do you know,’ Mrs Baldock had told Dolly’s parents, ‘there are ten young lads on that ship, scarcely out of school? They say there was a mutiny on board at Rio de Janeiro and, to make up the crew, the company shipped these young lads out from London.’
The mayor had met Captain Donaldson at the Rose, Bunbury’s best hotel, where the Old Man was putting up in comfort for the duration. ‘With all these celebrations, I think it would be nice,’ said Mrs Baldock, ‘to give them a good time. They are all probably very homesick.’
Phyllis and Dolly had had to plead with their father to go to the party. Strict Mr Rumble felt they’d been out enough already that week. ‘And I’m not going to have my daughters going out with sailors.’
But by the day of the “do” they had permission and went over to the Baldocks’ to help with the cooking and the preparation, and that night – after a great party which everyone enjoyed – Dolly was walked home by 18-year-old Victor Fall, who seemed just what she had imagined a polite, quiet, refined young English gentleman would be.
The following Sunday Mr Chown and Mr Fall were invited to tea, which is how the Rumbles met both their future sons-in-law.
(With thanks to John Fall: In Search of My Ancestors)