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The journey into my own lurid past started with Stephen Fry and a yellowing photo of a familiar stranger.
Stephen Fry gave a lecture of sorts in promoting his 2014 autobiography, More Fool Me. He made a point that stuck with me: we should all be able to name our great grandparents.
This seems like a reasonable enough task; these are only eight names. There’s a chance your parents know them, and there’s a guarantee that if your grandparents are still with us, they will know those names. So, short of knowing all eight names, I got involved in online genealogy, with a website which is based in the US state of Utah, and inasmuch seems to be owned by the Church of Latter Day Saints.
This kind of research sheds a lot of light on the kind of conditions and lives people endured in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some of my ancestors found their way to Western Australia when it was in its earlier colonial days. And they, as most people did, had real jobs. I’m related to merchant sailors, gold prospectors, tailors, tea merchants, lighthouse keepers. There’s a decided lack of “social media influencers” or “change management consultants” in my family tree.
The eight great grandparents I call my own are Jack and Addie Raitt; William and Alice Reddin; Herbert and Vera Searle; Frank and Lena Ware. Lena, my mother’s father’s mother, was born in Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein in 1881, and was the first child of 13. Frank’s life is reflected in two photos I’ve encountered.
Born Francis John Ware in Ballarat in 1874, his father (the regally named) John Bowhay Ware, was a miner, and eventually plied his trade manufacturing packing cases. His Melbourne Argus obit referred to him as “a colonist of 54 years” upon his death in September 1906. Frank had headed west in 1896, eventually moving to Kalgoorlie in 1898. At 31, he was elected to the Western Australian parliament, as a Labor member for the seat of Hannans.
The Western Mail wrote his bio on 11 November 1905:
Mr Ware is a man of modest and unassuming disposition… when he has taken office in the higher posts of unionism, and when he submitted himself to the recent Labour selection ballot for Hannans, it has only been at the repeated solicitation of friends and supporters who admire his sincerity as well as his ability. As a chairman of Labour Council meetings, he is credited with having a good knowledge of his duties.
Strange to say, Mr Ware had never addressed a public meeting in his life until he ran the gauntlet for Parliamentary honours. During his term of office as president of the Political Labour Council there were sundry mass meetings in Hannan-street at which he should have taken the chair by virtue of his position, but he always shrank from facing the crowd and induced others to act as substitutes for him.
Frank identified himself from the very beginning with the labour movement. He held various offices in connection with the Goldfields Trades and Labour Council, and was its president at the time of his election. All this from an apprenticed tailor from Ballarat, barely into his thirties.
The photo on the left is his official WA Parliament portrait, lifted from their online archives. My grandfather, Ray had this framed photo on his nightstand. Here he is at the turn of the century; a newlywed (he’d married my great-grandmother in Kalgoorlie in 1906), elected to parliament, decked out in his finest, self-made clothing. His eyes are optimistic. I can see my grandfather in these eyes. There are few things that bring this kind of process to life as much as a photo does. They’re hard to come by. It’s odd to consider the absence of a digital camera in every single person’s pocket.
Life was tough, but good… for the most part. They’d lost one of their children in a household accident in 1916, but the family was stable enough, from the point of my grandfather’s birth in 1919 onward. And then fate intervened:
The West Australian, Monday 15 August 1927
CITY MOTOR SWASH.
CAR CHARGES CROWD.
Seven Persons Injured.
One of the worst motor accidents recorded in Perth occurred shortly before 1 p.m. on Saturday, when a sedan car driven by a young woman got out of control and ran into a crowd of people near the north-west corner of Murray and Barrack streets. Seven persons were injured, one of them, a boy 14 years of age, having his leg almost severed above the knee.
According to eyewitnesses, the car – driven by Miss Esther Hannah Breckler, of Queen’s-crescent, Mt Lawley – turned from Barrack-street, into Murray-street at a moderate speed, and, swerving to avoid a pedestrian who stepped off the footpath near the Perth Hotel, knocked down another man. The shock of the collision apparently caused the driver to faint and she collapsed over the steering wheel. The car, being out of control, swerved at a sharp angle across the road, collided with a stationary vehicle, and headed for a crowd of people who were waiting for trams bound for East Perth and Victoria Park.
Shouting and panic stricken, people scattered in various directions. Owing to the congestion, however, many were unable to dodge, and were pushed before the advancing car towards the footpath. After knocking pedestrians right and left, and jamming others against a pillar separating Dobson’s jewellery shop from adjoining premises, the car came to a standstill.
Frightened people who had been knocked over, but were only slightly hurt, scrambled to their feet. Others helped Constable Atkinson to push the car lack, when the results of the accident were revealed.
After the accident Miss Breckler – whose licence was granted only last month – told the police that she remembered nothing from the time the car struck the man until she regained consciousness in the Perth Hotel, to which, she was removed by the police.
On subsequent examination, the brakes of the car, which was only slightly damaged, proved to be in perfect order.
Frank was among the seven victims.
The second photo, the one on the right, above, is a photo of him in 1928 or 1929. Sitting on a chair in the back yard of his house in Subiaco, holding a pipe, in what we can only assume are the final days or weeks of his life. The back of the photo has written, in a woman’s floral script, “53 years”.
It’s a sad photo when you realise what he’d been through. There’s a slight, crooked smile – almost a smile. Perhaps a grimace. He’s facing the afternoon sun, and this was either the year of, or the year before he died. It was definitely after the accident which ruined his life. The fire, the optimism, the joy in the eyes from that photo taken 25 years earlier, is gone. All that remains is this grey ghost, this sad, simple figure clad in suspenders and slippers, clutching a pipe.
Look at the photo and know he was in extraordinary physical and psychological pain. All I can think is, “You poor old bastard.”
It’s a difficult thing to consider, that this man who was born just over 100 years before me, had done it so tough, in tougher conditions. That health, creature comforts, nutrition and everything in between has made one’s countenance a great deal healthier, but this man in this photo is all of a decade older in this photo than I am now, and he looks at least 30 years older than that. This is an old man, and I can only imagine what he’s going through.
In late July 1929, Frank – or at least lawyers acting on his behalf – sued Esther Breckler for damages. In the Daily News, Frank’s lawyer is quoted:
‘Prior to the accident, (Ware) was a strong, healthy man, but he gradually deteriorated, and the fact that his wife had to go to work to support the home, evidently preyed on his mind.’
Ware sustained a fractured right thigh, and other injuries, and was laid up for three months in Perth Hospital, and was unable to work for 65 weeks. According to his counsel his condition preyed on his mind to such an extent that in April last Ware drank some poison, and after being treated at the hospital, was sent to Point Heathcote Reception Home, where he was still detained under observation.
On Thursday 1 August 1929, Frank was awarded £450, which in modern currency suggests a purchasing power of something in the range of $35,000 – nothing to sneeze at. But it was an award with little avail.
It’s fairly and broadly accepted that his injuries were treated, but the pain seemed to linger. Pain relief today seems as commonplace as sliced bread; 1929 though would appear to be a different kettle of fish. Frank’s leg was broken (and it’s presumed that his spine was also damaged), and he endured the pain of it all for a couple of years. Unable to make his living as a tailor for Foy & Gibson’s, funds became scarce. The pain wouldn’t go away. Something seems to have infiltrated his bloodstream and altered his thinking.
He died on October 13, 1929. The assumption is that it stemmed from the injuries he suffered in his accident, and that’s true – to a degree. Something my mother broached only recently was that this matter was something members of that family seldom talked about. He died in what one must presume is a torrent of unbearable, searing pain, both physical and psychological, at a sanatorium. In hushed terms, it was said that eventually, Frank killed himself.
It’s difficult to consider that this man, born just over 100 years before me, had done it so tough, in tougher conditions. This is an old man, and I can only imagine what he’s going through.
My mother sometimes reflected on it; the harshness of life that her father suffered as a result of his father dying, leaving the family to fend for themselves, and Ray being the only male in the house just shy of 9 years old; his four sisters had to get work, as did his mother. Then, his beloved sister Millie died in the mid-’30s from tuberculosis. The rest of his life was spent being extremely cautious around money, even after circumstances no longer required such caution.
The Breckler family were owners of the Betts & Betts chain of shoe stores; they were Jewish, and well-heeled. My grandfather from there on in had within him a (concerning, frustrating) tendency towards antisemitism. It wasn’t overt; it just popped up now and again. He eventually died at 92. Prior to that he’d graduated from UWA, served in the RAAF during the war, helped save civilisation, married, did his bit to build the middle class, fathered my mother and uncle, retired, played golf and was a grandfather, and eventually a great grandfather.
Ray got old, but he never looked as old as Frank does in that photo.
Perspective is quite a base upon which one can evaluate one’s own lot in life. Understanding the lives and fates of your eight great grandparents places much in perspective. It serves more than just knowing some people had it tough back in the day. We are what we are because of who they were. Make of that what you will.