My Dad Arthur Bertram Belling was a soldier settler on Mates Estate, Tarcutta. I was born on 28 April 1923 in a Wagga private hospital the eldest of five boys. The first child we played with was Nita Shoemark although that family moved to another property so we boys in our early years, didn’t have girls to play with. So I was rather shy in the presence of girls.
In the 1920s a lot of visiting took place. I remember with my Dad, Arthur and Mum – visiting the Shoemarks, the Hazelwoods, the Bromhams, the Brains, the McIntyres, the Fosborys and the the Burchers - mostly on a Sunday afternoon. These families were all on the land. We also had friends in Tarcutta who we called upon when we went shopping Saturday afternoons.
Dad was on the hall committee and Dad and Mum were both in the Parents and Citizens. Dad was a staunch supporter of the RSL. I think Dad and Mr. George Fosbery were the first secretary and president. They became very good friends but unfortunately he broke down mentally. I went with Dad to see him in the Wagga hospital where I saw him in a straight jacket strapped down. He eventually died in a mental hospital.
We had a very memorable trip down to Griffith where our Uncle Jim Hillam had an irrigation farm. On the way we struck a newly formed stretch of black soil road and it had rained. To get through Dad tied lengths of rope around the back wheels. The car went reasonably well but Dad hit a bad bump. Mum was nursing Roger and his head hit Mum’s jaw and burst a boil on her jaw. So there was puss and blood all over Roger’s head. It brought tears to Mum’s eyes. We made it – that is what I remember about that trip.
Occasionally we would go into Wagga Wagga sometimes for business or to see the doctor. Dad would meet some of his friends and have a few beers. He always reckoned the car went better after a few beers. There weren’t any culverts in the depressions on the road and when they were full of water a cautious approach was required. Well, the first one was usually okay but the second one caused Dad to yell – ‘No bloody brakes’. We literally hit the roof and that usually sobered Dad up. Wet brakes in those days meant no brakes!
Our Auntie Min visited us every Easter travelling by train from Junee. Auntie never married, she was much loved and had plenty of information about what our Junee relations were up to. We kids would love to listen in if we were allowed to and didn’t make a noise – otherwise it was outside to play. Auntie intrigued us as she smoked. Few women did at this time. I think they were Craven As packed in a flat red tin of 20. She also used a cigarette holder. Dad smoked a pipe which he charged with bits cut from a plug. It stunk a bit so perhaps that’s why none of the Arthur Belling boys smoked. We did try to smoke a pours tree root once, but it was too hot and of course – no nicotine.
We had very few bought toys – usually books at birthdays and toys at Christmas. One Christmas toy was a flivver which was a car a child could sit in and peddle. It lasted many years. Dad had some abandoned farm equipment which we spent many hours pulling to pieces and making our own toys.
The Keajura Creek, which formed our northern and western boundaries, was a wonderful playing place. We drank some terrible water when dry times set in. Mostly we could dig a hole in the sand and quench our thirst from filtered water. The hole was usually only a foot from the water’s edge and we often amused ourselves by catching leaches and putting them in our drinking hole. Our method of catching leaches was to sit in the water so our bodies were the bait. In the clear water one could see them approaching and we could catch them as soon as they tried to latch onto us. The dogs would often lie in the shallow water and the leaches that had taken hold, would fall off as soon as the dog stood up.
On another occasion when Dad was carting water from the dam for household use we caught some leaches, we wanted to take them home, so we wet our hats and hair and put them back on our heads. We didn’t feel any bights but when we took our hats off, there was a bloody mess.
Jim, the second youngest brother was a desperately sick boy with probable golden staph. I think he was 8 or 9 months old at the time. Mollie Shoemark, wife of Vic, would come over and comfort mum. She was only 17 at the time so we had a very soft spot for Mollie after that. Much the same thing happened when our neighbour Alf Brain was killed. The Brain’s house was on the road to Wagga but certain members of the community never called in to offer sympathy or ask if they wanted any thing from Wagga. I thought that strange.
We never went to Sunday school and only had scripture lessons when we went to school. First we went to the Church of England service which was usually evensong. Mum was Methodist and Dad was Presbyterian. We never went to a Presbyterian Church until 1933 when a Presbyterian church was built. I can remember going to an occasional Methodist service in Wagga.
I didn’t really do much school work until I was eight when Dad started the first bus service taking Bill, myself and the neighbour’s children to school. Bill and I were in the same class. I never liked school mainly because of the teachers. We had a very good teacher during my last year, but the depression was on and he had too many students. There were 32 of us who sat for the QC exam – six passed and only four went on to high school. When I decided I wouldn’t be going to high school I decided I would be a farmer. You didn’t need a high school education for that. I had previously had ideas of being a civil engineer. So when I turned fourteen – that was the last day of school for me.
Dad and Mum belonged to a library so books were always coming into the house. We had Arthur Mee’s children’s 10 volume encyclopaedia. We also got Arthur Mee’s children’s newspaper which gave us a wonderful world view of major world happenings – although we didn’t get it for long – probably a depression casualty.
Drought stalked the land. My first job was to cut scrub for cattle feed.
The depression was really a terrible time for my parents. Dad had to borrow money from his sister Minnie and also from his brother-in-law. He paid him back with lambs. Mum made shirts out of calico bags and we had dripping on our bread instead of butter on a couple of occasions. Mum also baked bread at the height of the depression. One year we had wheat gristed into flour which we sent to Wagga. The Whites took it in for us. We also got back pollard and bran which we mixed with milk and fed to the dogs. Trouble was … keeping the mice and weevils out of the flour.
Going to Tarcutta one day we counted 25 men and women walking to either Melbourne or Sydney – none of them were swaggies. Toward the end of 1903s priced for farm produce lifted a bit. Mum took rooms in Wagga so that the boys could go to high school. Dad and I ‘batched’.
We had sown most of the place to sub-clover which had to be top dressed with superphosphate which was spread with an old combine with all the floats off except the two outside ones. I would lower the tines going down inclines to stop it from running onto the horse’s heels. I would take the super out on a slide. I couldn’t lift a bag of super from the slide up onto the combine. I had to make 2 butts of it.
From the years 1936-1946 we only had two years of average rainfall, so it was cut hay one year and feed it out the next – then there were the years of no hay making and feed would have to be bought. I missed the worst because I went into the army in February 1942.
I took part in very little sport. One reason was that I was never taught at school, the other I had poor focus. I was no good at catching a ball or playing tennis or cricket but I could aim a rifle, so my sport was shooting – mainly rabbits and the occasional fox.
Dad allowed me to shoot with a pea rifle when I was nine years of age on the condition that I never took one of my brothers with me. In June while the ewes were lambing I would try to get up just on daylight to beat the crows from attaching new born lambs or a ewe that was down. I shot a wedged tailed eagle when I was eleven. It was a lucky first shot because of the distance the bullet dropped and got its leg then the broken leg got caught in the top barb. If I got a hat trick, I would come home and ‘crow’ about it. Dad had been a marksman in the army but neither Bill nor I could shoot as well.
The creek was a favourite spot with warrens in the banks and the young rabbits would be out on top of them. They were very good eating. The art was to sneak up to the bank edge and look over the creek to the other side and very quietly get a shot in before any sudden movement made them disappear. We had a rough paddock over the road and the rabbits would be out in squats, usually under clumps of sword grass. We had a dog by the name of Toby, a pointer or setter. In those days there were very few kangaroos. They couldn’t compete with the rabbits for feed. When the rabbits were in plague proportions they would scratch the grass roots out and climb trees and eat the leaves. They did untold damage to the environment. We trapped rabbits at an early age and the dogs were always with us but hardly ever got caught in the traps. We trapped rabbits for their skins in the winter when the fur was thick. We were getting £1 per pound of skins. In summer as many as 16-20 skins would make up a pound as they were lighter. The skin buyer then would pay us virtually nothing for them. We never made much money out of rabbit skins. I bought myself an overcoat with some money I made from skins and dead wool. Mum had tears in her eyes because they didn’t have enough money to clothe us properly. Sometimes we got rabbits out of hollow logs by poking a length of fencing wire up the log, then twisting it until it caught in the fur. We knew when the rabbit squealed it was time to pull the rabbit out.
Our school bus driver would threaten us if we misbehaved. He would say ‘I’ll get a piece of wire and shove it up your far away’!!
We also dug rabbits out on weekends and holidays. Dogs would chase bunnies into a burrow and madly start scratching. The dogs would usually indicate which offshoot to take, which was usually the first one. Only one dog could occupy the burrow at one time. When it wouldn’t get out of the burrow, I usually dug it out with a mattock. The dog would be covered with dirt. After that the dog learnt to stay clear when I cleared the hole out with a shovel, I would then grab him by the scruff of the neck and pull him out of the way so that I could determine which way the burrow was heading. Or, I could reach the rabbit by poking a stick up the burrow. The most I ever got out of the one hole was six, but on another occasion I put a hand up the burrow and got a hell of a fright as I had put my hand on a goanna.
Floods didn’t greatly affect us except there were five flood gates that had to be put up again after a flood. They were made of barb wire and netting. One side was fixed and the other would swing across to the other bank and hopefully not suffer too much damage. Because Keajura Creek was the boundary, half the creek was in our property with a thin strip of land on the other. On one occasion our milking cows were trapped across the creek. I had a canoe made out of a twelve foot sheet of corrugated iron and the dog swam across with me. We got the two cows to the crossing and rushed them across. The dog and I were lucky as I was nearly swept past the crossing. If I hadn’t made it, I don’t think I would be penning these lines today. We almost had a tragedy with Jim one day when after flood rains, four of us eldest boys went down to the gully that fed into the dam from the wool shed and stables. Jim stood on a bank that broke away and down under he went. It was Bill’s quick action grabbing him by the hair and pulling him to the side that enabled us to pull him out. I can only remember one occasion when we couldn’t get to school because of floods.
I learnt to respect fire at an early age when I was eight or ten years old. We would often burn the rough grass and the rushes around the big dam. Dad cleared dead timber and trees off future Lucerne paddocks. I learnt how to stove burn down a tree using a cross burner. I was eleven when I went to a bush fire. Dad drove into a burnt patch and I was told to stay in the car. I think the fire was started by lightning. To fight the file, water they was in an old square ship’s tank using a stirrup pump to put out the stumps. The fire was put out with wet bags and bushes cut from green trees.
Fires didn’t become life threatening until a few years later. I went to the meeting when the Tarcutta Fire Brigade was formed and knapsacks were issued. The fire season started around Christmas when the hills and ridges would burn. The dangerous period would come in January and February when the gullies would burn. They would act like a chimney and if you got caught in one of them, it was ‘curtains’.
We were burnt out in February 1941. It started the day before at a road worker’s fire to the west of us. The wind that day was coming from the north-east. The fire didn’t get very far at first and we thought everything had been put out but the next day at around 10am a gale spring up from the north-west. Although men were patrolling the fire area, a spark evidently jumped out right beside men having smoko. That front roared down the fence line between the Watson’s and the Brains’s farm. There were Lucerne paddocks on both sides of the boundary fence. When it reached the creek where I was, it got into a patch of variegated thistles which went up with a roar taking burning thistle heads, leaves and stalks high into the sky and dropping them hundreds of yards across the creek. A few minutes later when I got out of the creek bed the fire had reached the Hume Highway. The Lucerne paddock which had been cut for hay in the spring which we had thought wouldn’t burn was now starting to do so. Down the middle of the paddock were five or six stacks of Lucerne hay and a stack of clover hay. Dad managed to save one stack. Had I been there, we would have saved at least one more.
I could see men over on the side of the hill at Shoemark’s farm putting the fire out, consequently the sheds and homestead on the Shoemark’s place were saved. I went over to try and get help, but to no avail. I felt then I had deserted Dad … and I still do. I was undecided what to do and unfortunately I made the wrong choice. That fire burnt for a week or more in the Tumut area. A lesson I learnt was that it didn’t matter how strong the wind blew, the fire could be kept very narrow.