Milne Bay: Our Heritage Places Tour

One of our priority activities in Alotau was to hire a taxi driver to take us around the town to see our old familiar places. Eddie was educated as a health worker with a degree from the Divine Word University and his English was excellent (as well as probably being his third language) so we had a good chat along the way.

Before we start I should explain that in those pre-Independence days of the Australian administration of TPNG, the government issued specific houses to its employees, based partly on status, and partly on need. They also had full authority to move employees to wherever they were required –not unlike being in the military I suppose – so you could find yourself relocated with minimal notice….or rumours spread that you were leaving when you weren’t, come to that.

 FAMILIAR PLACES & MEMORIES

 Up Red Hill

 The main street up to Top Town, as it’s now known, is now called Tawara Hill Rd. Once upon a time it was unsealed, red clay through which your car or motor bike slipped and slid during the wet season. It was a killer-hill, very steep, so no surprise we didn’t walk it even though we had no car in those days.

 House #1: Top Town, Dalai Heights Rd, western end

The old Cass home in Top Town.

We were invited into the garden of my parents-in-law’s former house where they lived when Alotau first became the district headquarters in 1968. The story goes that my father-in-law, as District Superintendent for Education, stood on the deck of the Education Department trawler (the Kamonai) as it stood offshore, and selected their house block for its scenic outlook. Its proximity to the primary school at Red Hill where my mother-in-law taught was no coincidence either. Colonial days!

You can glimpse the mountains at the rear of the house. Sadly the hibiscus plants are no more.

The house is no longer the last in the street, but it was a thrill to see it once again. I remembered the covert disputes I used to have with Kaye’s haus boi, Jimmy, who insisted the heating pad for the slow combustion stove should be put up on the hooks while I’d been taught by my aunt that it needed to be down on the hot plates. A more experienced sinebada would have known better than get into a silly argument like that with long-term house staff. Every day Jimmy would bring one of Kaye’s beautiful hibiscus (some imported from Hawaii) into the house where they were placed in an upside-down fish pond thingy. They only lasted the day but were quite spectacular.

Thank you Vincent for your kindness and openness in letting two complete strangers come into your yard. He probably thought we were quite mad when Mr Cassmob mused on how his father had the driveway built at a particular angle, or the drainage he’d also had constructed. I, on the other hand, visualised the photo of my future-husband sitting in the open area beneath the house getting ready for his day’s work at Gili Gili Plantation.

 House #2, Top Town (Dalai Heights Rd, eastern end)

Not much to show of Cass house #2. In fact it looks like the remains of an Irish wall.

This one nearly stumped us as we hadn’t lived in it for more than a couple of months. Unfortunately it was largely obscured by the curved driveway lined with plants. We remember it for those mornings when we’d wake up to butterfly devastation by our cat Tabitha who was a balletic leap-er, who would then shred her catch, and the in-laws’ dachshund, Tinka, who loved nothing better than shredding a box of tissues. You can imagine the chaos on the floor.

Not to mention chopping wood for the slow combustion stove, and hence hot water for washing etc, while violently morning sick and observed worriedly by both cat and dog!

This house is also famous for the kerosene lamp which exploded early on New Year’s Eve morning, when I was many months pregnant. Mr Cassmob woke to a sea of glass and flames across the lounge room floor and eventually found me in the kitchen starkers as my nylon nightie had partially caught fire. One local responses: from the Agriculture man “Someone’s shot his wife”; another “why is Pauleen running down the street?” Short answer – to the health worker!

Masurina Lodge, Middle Town

Masurina Lodge, now owned by the Abel family but formerly a guest house started by Glyn Wort.

Once I’d seen the map of Alotau and its Middle Town area, I suspected that Masurina Lodge was formerly the Glyn Wort guesthouse where I’d worked briefly. Sure enough when we rocked up to reception and enquired, one of the staff was able to confirm my guess. Now much bigger and flasher it was weird to remember how each morning the cook would bring us fresh cake for our tea-break. Just as well that job came to an end quite quickly or I’d have quickly lost my then-thin appearance.

 House #3, Middle Town, Bagita St

The view over Sandersons Bay from opposite Cass house #3.

This was the house to which we were moved with a small baby, our final house in Alotau. We were a little miffed because it had limited under-house space where I could hang the baby’s nappies…rather important in the wet season when there was no such thing as dryers.  On the flip side it had a fantastic view over Sandersons Bay and Milne Bay in general, so swings and roundabouts.

We were living here when the government told us we were to move to Goroka. In the family folk lore this came about because the District Superintendent for Education in Goroka wanted a new district clerk (Mr Cassmob) while the DS in Lae decided he wanted a new executive chair more! On such whims are our lives changed <smile>.

Sandersons Bay in the early 1970s.

When we pulled up outside this house, with its little sales stall of drinks and betel nut/buai, we were amazed to be welcomed by the whole family who lived there. Astonishingly they had taken over the house only a couple of months after we left for Goroka (from whence they had come). The house had been their home ever since. When we left the house in a mad rush, having had only a week to get packing crates made and our belongings packed up and ourselves out of there, we’d made arrangements for our cat to be adopted by friends at the high school and her kittens to be also shared out. For 40 years I’ve worried whether that happened and whether the high school kids contracted to clean the house had done so.  Unless the family was sparing our feelings it seems my fears have been unfounded so it’s a concern I can now lay to rest.

We were all quite blown away by this coincidence and had a long chat with the extended family. One brother had also met Mr Cassmob’s brother briefly from when he’d visited while working on a short-term consultancy with the Eastern Star newspaper.  I have a great photo of us with the family but I won’t publish it here as I don’t have their permission. Thanks Jessie and family for greeting us so warmly!

 Cameron Club

The Cameron Club promoting everyone’s favourite tipple.

It was hot and we were tired so we only had a quick visit into the Cameron Club. Situated right on the Bay it was the setting for some fierce squash matches as well as our Friday night movie venue. With only 18 hour power we would finish the movies, jump into someone’s ute, race up Red Hill and switch on the kettle for coffee and light the kerosene lamp before the power went off at midnight.

 The Movie Theatre, the Government Offices and the Shops

Alotau’s main shopping street only held 4 trade stores in the old days: Chan’s, Cheong’s, Denis Young’s and ??

We suspect there’s an arsonist at work in Alotau as several large and important buildings have burnt down.  The Government Offices, opened in late 1970, burnt down a few years ago so there’s now a vacant block where they once stood.

Similarly the “new” movie theatre built by a man called Geoff Masters also burnt down…something of a mystery since we remember it as being besser block. It was built during 1970 and we remembered going to a “Ball” there as well as Mass every Sunday, the latter being interesting as the floor would be covered in buai spit from the movies the night before. Betel nut or buai is a popular habit, sort of like tobacco chewing,generally not appealing to Western eyes. When spat out it looks like blood on the ground. The movie theatre was eventually replaced by the new Catholic church, with the stained glass windows I posted about the other day. It wasn’t completed until either late 1971 or early 1972 after we’d left, but we reckon we might own one of the bricks <grin>.

The shopping precinct in those early days of Alotau comprised four trade stores – sort of like an old-time general store. It’s bigger these days but still restrictive in what’s available.

An early 1970s aerial view of Alotau with the approximate location of our houses marked.

Sadds Ridge Rd, Charters Towers (Qld) and WWII in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea.

This post is really about my husband’s family and some World War II history from Papua New Guinea (then Papua). This story shows how family history intersects with local history and each can complement the other.

Let him tell the story of how this all started:

From the late-1960s my family lived at Alotau, the District Headquarters for the Milne Bay Province, for a number of years and prior to that in Samarai also in the Milne Bay District.  Alotau as a town only came into existence in the mid-1960s but service men and women who were in Milne Bay during World War II may have known the location as Sanderson’s Bay, on the northern side of Milne Bay and to the east of Koiabule (KB) Mission. Sanderson’s Bay is near near where Corporal John Alexander French won his VC  on 4 September 1942.
During a university break in 1968 I was working as a supervisor on Gili Gili Plantation, a copra plantation near Gurney Airstrip. The plantation was essentially a very large clearing in the jungle which cover the ranges of hills surrounding the Bay and extend down across the coastal plains almost to the sea. In 1968, the stands of coconut palms on the plantation were still littered with bomb craters, wrecked military vehicles and other discards of war, including quite a lot of rusted-up weapons and unexploded ordnance; they probably still are!  I was overseeing a “labour line” or work gang using grass knives or “sarifs”, a sort of primitive hand-held scythe, to clean out overgrown parts of the plantation. I was nineteen at the time, the same age as many of the soldiers who had fought over the same country twenty-six years previously.
One of the workers took a chip out of the blade of his sarif on something metal which, when he uncovered it, proved to be a street sign, but not like any street sign I’d ever seen in Papua New Guinea or, indeed, in Brisbane or Melbourne. It was a blue rectangle with a white border carrying the name Sadds Ridge Road. I took the sign home and it has graced the many houses my family of origin and later my wife and I have lived in. While we often wondered where the sign came from, the occasional search of Australian street directories did not help, and we did not solve the mystery until March 2008, although my wife had previously seen an elusive reference to it among the Queensland pension indexes.

We now live in Darwin, and were driving to Cairns on holidays, calling in at cemeteries and Family History Societies along the way, as you do if you are relly-hunting. We stopped in Charters Towers because Pauleen’s great-grandfather Stephen Gillespie Melvin had well-known refreshment rooms and a chocolate factory in Gill Street. We saw a reference to Chinese market gardens at Sadds Ridge – and there you are! I gather the name of the Road was changed to York Street years ago, and this explains why we hadn’t found it previously.
The sign was obviously souvenired and taken to Milne Bay in 1942. While it must have meant quite a bit to someone to go to that much trouble, we have no clue as to their identity – someone who lived on the Road and wanted a reminder of home, or a soldier from somewhere else who wanted a memento of their time in Charters Towers?

So the mystery is: does anyone out there know of a soldier from Charters Towers (there were many) who served in Milne Bay during World War I? It would be intriguing to fill in the final part of the puzzle.

World War I discovery in Milne Bay, Papua

Sadds Ridge Rd sign