Monday 8 November 2021

Jack Pleasants


Many of our stories, like that of the previous post, are based on information provided by family or descendants. However, there are other stories which may not get told, because there is no one to pass them on. Jack Pleasants' story would have been one of these, but for his name showing up on a ship's passenger list, with an unusual place of birth. By means of publicly available records, we've been able to piece together something of his life.

Jack William Merrilees was born in New York USA, on 10 November 1897. His mother, Jessie Merrilees, came from a theatrical family and, with her mother and two sisters, travelled to New York from England in 1894. She was quickly involved in stage shows, including Broadway, getting good reviews. A short-lived relationship with Max Gottlieb resulted in Jack’s birth. After a season in “The Telephone Girl” at the end of 1899, Jessie Merrilees with two-year-old Jack, headed back to England. In 1901, Jack’s mother was back on stage in Cardiff in Wales, then Glasgow and Edinburgh and London in following years. Travelling and being minded backstage would have meant a rather disjointed existence for Jack.

In 1908, Jessie married fellow music hall artiste Jack Pleasants. He was a well-known performer in UK, and his voice can still be heard today, thanks to discography sites on the internet. Young Jack promptly took the new family name. Given the peripatetic nature of his parents’ life, it was inevitable that Jack was sent to boarding school. He was educated at Margate College, in Margate in Kent.

With rising tensions in the immediate years before World War 1, and uncertainties about work prospects, the new Dreadnought Scheme looked like a good opportunity, and Jack applied to join it. He sailed on the SS Themistocles, arriving in Sydney on 22nd December 1913, aged 16. He was sent to Grafton Experimental Farm and spent the next four months in farm training. There is no record of where he was placed on leaving Grafton on the 21st of April 1914, but he worked his way down to the central western area of New South Wales.

In the second year of the war, he enlisted in the Australian Army, at Forbes on the 22nd of February 1916, aged 18 years and 3 months. Following basic training in Sydney, he embarked on the HMAT Ceramic on the 7th October and travelled to Plymouth UK. From there he was transferred to France in February 1917, joining the 17th Battalion at the Front on 19 March 1917. On 15 April he was listed as ‘Missing in Action’. He, with many others, had been taken prisoner by the Germans in the village of Lagnicourt. They had been trapped while defending it, and captured when their ammunition ran out. These prisoners of war were taken to Lille, where they were locked in the casements of Fort MacDonald for ten days with little food or water, then returned, “starving and reeling from the shock of capture”, to the 'Reprisal' area, that is, a German front-line area which was exposed to the British shelling, and where they were used to rebuild trenches and recover bodies. By 1 June 1917 he had been transferred to Dulmen Internment camp for re-allocation, and two months later was in Gefangenenlager Zerbst, Anhalt, in Germany. Jack turned 21 years-of-age in the Zerbst Camp. The blockading of Germany in 1917-18 meant food shortages across the whole country, and in Jack’s camp this led to a hard existence, rife with malnutrition and disease.

After the war, Jack was repatriated to London on 2 January 1919. He eventually arrived back in Australia in early 1920, but was in a bad way and was granted a war pension because of his incapacity.

Jack stayed in Sydney for the next few years, until his country of birth called. He migrated to California in USA and, by 1933, was living in San Francisco, working as a salesman with Wuelker Reflector Lighting Corporation. His Army pension was now being paid by the US Government and, in 1934, he decided to join the American Legion (the returned servicemen’s organisation). For that, he successfully wrote to the Repatriation Commission in Australia for a record of his Service, to replace papers which "had been stolen in 1922." Around 1938 Jack moved to Los Angeles and began work with W.E. Welborne, a lighting fixtures supplier, again as a salesman.

On 13 January 1939 at age 41, Jack married 33-year-old Martha Caroline Drake in Los Angeles. His employer was also now involved with heating equipment and, in 1942, Jack switched to the engineering side of the business. After World War 2 ended, Jack moved across USA to New Jersey, where his wife had been born, and where her parents were. In 1948, Jack was working as an engineer with the Aeroyal Manufacturing Company; he stayed in New Jersey until after 1967, when his wife’s parents had both died.

In retirement, Jack moved back to California, to San Diego. ​On 20 December 1976, survived by his wife Martha, Jack William Pleasants passed away aged 79 years. There were no children.

What a contrast between the early and later parts of Jack Pleasants’ life! His early life as a child of the theatre, the boarding-school boy, the Dreadnought Boy, then the prisoner of war, was certainly not a settled one; his was a life filled with drama and extremes. Little wonder that Jack opted for the quiet life, with steady employment and infrequent change, when back in USA.

Monday 13 September 2021

Gilbert Parker


Gilbert Arthur Parker, was born on 14 July 1906 in Bristol to Arthur Parker, a commercial traveller, and Helen (nee Burton). Initially the family moved to Liverpool, then to Manchester in 1911, and lived at 17 Hartington Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy. By mid-summer 1922, Gilbert had completed his schooling with good results, having the Leaving Certificate and the University Joint Matriculation Certificate, and an excellent reference from Manchester’s Central Grammar School for Boys.

He was interested in a career in engineering, but his parents could see no future for a young man in England in the 1920s, and enrolled him in the Dreadnought Scheme.

He sailed from England on 23rd March 1923 on SS Euripides and arrived in Sydney on 11th May 1923. Gilbert was one of 58 Dreadnought Boys who arrived, but the Euripides also carried the first 32 Bernardo girls and 110 nominated migrants. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the boys were ‘an exceptionally fine party and created a most favourable impression’ and were ‘amongst the finest types that have yet arrived’. The groups were met by a welcoming delegation and the New South Wales Minister for Labour.

From Sydney, Gilbert and the other new Dreadnought Boys were taken to the Skeyville Training Farm near Pitt Town, west of Sydney. After about two months training there, these boys were sent to farms around the country. Gilbert Parker worked at Morisset for 9 months, but then travelled to Stanthorpe in Queensland. In 1924, he worked at Diamond Vale dairy, on the Diamond Vale Road, east of Stanthorpe. Colonel Jones, the owner of Diamond Vale, was well-known for his upright posture while riding his horse, Gilbert later used him as the example for his sons, if their backs were less than upright. Across the road was the Knight’s orchard. Ted Knight was an English migrant who had arrived in Australia some years before. He had served in World War 1, and had established a successful apple orchard. The Knights were like parents to Gilbert and their close friendship lasted their lifetimes and on to the next generation.

Three years on, Gilbert was working further west in Queensland’s Darling Downs, mostly at Lyndley Hereford Stud, the Jandowie property of (later Sir) James Sparkes, doing cattle work and clearing. He also worked at Meandarra and Kumbia in the years to 1933, with visits back to the Knights in the course of those years. He celebrated his 21st birthday in 1927 at the Sparkes property. He was at the release of the cactoblastis insect that was instrumental in bringing the prickly pear scourge under control. Later in 1927, the Dalby Herald reported Gilbert’s trip to hospital after being thrown from a horse on Bunyan Bros Inglestone property. Apart from that incident, he kept a low profile.

In the 1933 Gilbert Parker was back in the Granite Belt, purchasing a rundown apple orchard at Thulimbah (12 km north of Stanthorpe) and, with the help of Ted Knight, bringing it back into production. In 1937, he married Gladys Esther Chalmers of Woodford. Two sons, John and David, were born. As World War 2 got underway, Gilbert Parker enlisted in the Australian Army and fought with the 25th Battalion in Papua New Guinea, most notably in the critical battle of Milne Bay in August/September 1942.

On discharge in late 1943, Gilbert returned to the orchard, dealing with its challenges and rewards over the next 25 years. He participated strongly in local community and church life, before retiring to Warwick. He died in September 1975, aged 69, and was survived by his wife, who died in December 1990.

 The Dreadnought Boys were to be  future farmers and soldiers – this was made crystal clear to the very first boys arriving in April 1911. Contributing significantly to rural production and serving his adopted country in war, Gilbert Parker was the epitome the Dreadnought Scheme’s ideal.

Wednesday 14 July 2021

George Verryck


George Thomas Verryck, was born in Liverpool, England on 2 July 1893, to Louis and Charlotte Verryck. George's father Louis was born in Antwerp, Belgium, and moved to England as a young man. He was an interpreter for the British Home Office at Liverpool’s busy port.

George had his early schooling in England, but his teenage education was at the College Internationale in Brussels. During these years he lived with his Belgian grandparents.

On his return to UK, the family moved to Dovercourt, Essex. His father worked at the port of Harwich for several years before returning to Liverpool. While in Dovercourt, George became apprenticed to an Electrical Engineer.

The new Dreadnought Scheme and the ‘good life’ the lads could have in Australia was being advertised, and eighteen-year-old George successfully applied to join. He sailed from London on the SS Orontes with nine other Dreadnought Boys, arriving in Sydney on 14 September 1911.

After his training at Scheyville, he went by ship to Ballina. From there he went up the hill to Tom Leadbeatter's farm at Uralba. His years with the Leadbeatters were good, as Tom and Martha treated him well. While working there he met Leila Green, from Alstonville. Leila was working for Charles Nuttall in his confectionary, fruit and refreshment room in Alstonville's Main Street.

World War I was under way and, in September 1915, George enlisted in the army. He served with the 47th Battalion in Egypt, France and in Belgium where, in October 1917, he was wounded in action — the severe gunshot wounds left a piece of shrapnel lodged in his spine at the base of the skull, where it could not be removed. He received extensive medical treatment in England and returned to Australia on the hospital ship SS Borda, arriving in Sydney on 1 June 1918. Discharged medically unfit on 17 July 1918, he returned to Alstonville.

In Brisbane Hospital, a head/body brace was made for him. It was designed to hold his head steady, and he wore this for some years, until a more comfortable thick leather collar was made. Eventually, he was able to manage without the collar.

George Verryck, showing part of his body brace. (Dreadnought Archives).

Recovery was slow and farm work was out of the question, so as soon as he able, George obtained a 1915 Studebaker Touring Car. The Department of Repatriation helped him with a loan. After a promising start, the hire-car business didn’t work out and George turned to other matters.

In August 1919 Charles Nuttall decided to sell his business, in order to start a news-agency across the road. George bought the business where Leila was still working. The following month George and Leila were married in St Bartholomew's Church of England in Alstonville. They took over the business after the honeymoon. In 1921 Charles Nuttall sold the news-agency to George and Leila, and they operated this business until they moved to Sydney in 1925.

In Sydney, they initially lived in Lewisham, before moving to Marrickville where George and his family lived until 1953. While in living in Lewisham in 1928, George joined with some other men that he knew from the Ballina area, to be proprietors of the Alston Iron Foundry in Leichhardt. This partnership only lasted three months, George having the task of looking after its winding-up. The ownership of the iron works passed to one of the partners, George Banks.

In 1929 George Verryck, now 36, took over a Billiard Saloon at 301 Illwarra Rd Marrickville. Very soon after, he got a rude shock when the Saloon was raided by police late one night. George Verryck was fined £20 ($1,600 today) for permitting the premises to be used as a gaming house. Patrick Lyden, who was running the game (called “5’s and 6’s”), was also fined £20; another 41 men were fined up to £1 each for being found in a common gaming house.

George kept the Billiard Saloon through the ‘Crash’, but in 1933 he was struggling and unemployed. Eventually, he got work as a lift driver in the city.

After raising four children and 34 years of good married life, Leila died in 1953, and George went to back north to live with daughter Noela Trevillion, in Broadwater near Ballina. He died in July 1957, aged sixty-four.

George Verryck did not have a long life, and much of it was not easy – but, he was a survivor who’d “had a go”!

Wednesday 12 May 2021

Leslie Butler


The Covid-19 pandemic which has been sweeping the world, with its savagery and endless tragedy, has reminded us of the spread and trauma of the Spanish flu just over 100 years ago. Dreadnought boys and their families were amongst the millions marked by that flu pandemic. Leslie Butler and his family in UK certainly were.

Leslie was born in Mexborough, Yorkshire, in September 1911, the elder son of Percy Marsh and Ada (née Butler). Growing up not far from the home of his Butler grandparents and their children, who in age were more like older brothers and sisters, his life in Mexborough was content. There were some difficulties in his early school years because of a bullying Victorian headmaster, as well as suffering from what we know now as dyslexia. But family, friends and sport made up for these.

When the world influenza epidemic reached Great Britain in 1918–19 Leslie was stricken with a severe attack, nearly losing his life - but he was nursed back to health by his mother. Tragically, she then caught this Spanish ‘Flu and died just after the Armistice was signed, on 21 November 1918. The family was devastated, and although father Percy tried to cope, he and the boys eventually moved in with the Butler grandparents, as part of their extended family.

Leslie had developed a strong love of cricket, became an accomplished cricketer for his age, and kept that love of the game all his life. He did well at school and on leaving received an excellent reference from his teacher. It ended by noting that Leslie was a boy who will grow up with a strong sense of responsibility and fitness for his work.

The teacher would be proved right. From school, Leslie was apprenticed at the L.N.E.R. Locomotive Depot in Mexborough in 1925, and settled into the trade, making many friends there. When his father remarried, a disastrous relationship with his stepmother ensued. Those final years were very difficult, and he looked at emigrating to Australia, eventually signing up to come to Australia under the Dreadnought Scheme, to make a new life.

Leslie Butler arrived in Sydney with 40 other boys on the SS Ballarat on 19 December 1927. With four others he was sent for training to Cowra Experiment Farm and in early 1928, after farm training, was sent to work on Wattamondara Farm, 14 km south of Cowra. This farm was part of the original Wattamadara Station which, at its peak, was a pastoral lease of 23,000 acres. It was broken up for closer settlement following the passing of the New South Wales Crown Lands Act of 1884.

                                        Cowra Experiment Farm office and accommodation block.
                                                                                                    (Dreadnought Archives)                                                
Leslie was to spend several years in “mixed farming” work (and cricket) in the Wattamondara area. Eventually, he travelled up to Campbelltown, then still a rural area outside Sydney, to work on Jock Laird’s pig farm. In Campbelltown he met and married Eva Emily Beasley in 1935.

They later moved back to Wattamondara to work on the land, by which time the Second World War had started. From 1941 to his discharge in September 1945, Leslie served in the Volunteer Defence Corps of the army, posted locally where vital food supplies were being produced. This meant that his base was close to the POW Camp at Cowra. When off duty he was still able to play in the Wattamondara Cricket Team.

The Prisoner of War Camp at Cowra was built in 1941-42, to house Italian POWs captured during World War II. The first ones were marched into Cowra in October 1941. By the end of 1942, the camp had over 2,000 prisoners and internees. Between January 1943 and August 1944, over one thousand Japanese POWs and internees arrived. But at 1.50 am on August 5, 1944, about 1200 Japanese prisoners launched a mass suicide attack on the Australian soldiers guarding them. Crudely armed and poorly protected, the Japanese threw themselves on to barbed wire fencing and into the lines of fire from machine guns. With buildings burning behind them, some 350 Japanese managed to escape. All escapees were recaptured during the following week. Altogether 107 POWs were wounded, and 234 prisoners and five Australian soldiers died, in the Cowra Breakout. A Japanese war cemetery and the beautiful Japanese Gardens in Cowra, now mark a very different international relationship.

Leslie Butler never discussed his farm life, and lost connection with his English relatives. It was only in the mid-1990s that those in U.K. discovered that Leslie was a Dreadnought Boy, but that no-one seemed to know him. In 1995, good news came to them from the Salvation Army - his Australian family had been found. Sadly, Leslie had died of cancer in February 1984, and his wife Eva had died in a car accident in 1991.

With the Australian Butlers being put in touch with their English relatives, a whole new Butler network was established, after a gap of nearly seventy years.

Sunday 28 March 2021

The Hawkes Bay Lads


This note appears in the ‘Remarks’ column for August 1914, in the ‘List of Ships Bringing Boys’ in the Dreadnought Boys Register. It seems to be the only Trust reference to them, and relates to a little-known aspect of the Dreadnought Scheme.

In the years prior to World War 1, the Australian state governments were strongly encouraging immigration. 1911 and 1912 were boom years, but during 1913 recruitment of migrants became more difficult and emphasis was put on bringing young people to Australia. New South Wales and Victoria had entered into a joint arrangement with the Commonwealth Government, in which the Commonwealth did the specific advertising for these States in UK. A lot of groundwork was done to ensure the flow of migrants, especially for agricultural work.

On 11 June 1914, SS Hawkes Bay left England bound for Melbourne, filled with 883 migrants recruited for Victoria. These included 430 lads listed as farm students, who were headed for farm placement on arrival. Of them, 53 had been successfully allocated to dairy farmers in the south and east of Victoria, but for the other 377 there was a problem.

From about April 1914, poor rainfall had given way to drought. This particularly affected the wheat growing areas of South Australia, the Wimmera and Mallee districts of Victoria and the Riverina in the New South Wales. This drought was to last until broken by good rains near the end of 1914. With no prospect of crops, with water shortages and limited income, the farmers in the wheat districts of Victoria were not able to take on additional workers. The 377 lads who were intended for these farmers, had nowhere to go.

The Victorian Government approached New South Wales about the lads and, on 13 July 1914, Premier Holman announced that New South Wales had agreed to accept the 377 boys who were coming on the Hawkes Bay. He noted that the lads would be treated as Dreadnought Boys. The NSW Government would be responsible for them, and they would be sent to Pitt Town Farm (Scheyville) for training. He saw no difficulty in finding employment for them in country areas, when they were ready.

When the Hawkes Bay actually berthed in Sydney there were only 352 lads aboard, because 25 boys were able to stay in Victoria with relatives or friends. The names of the 352  are known, along with the ages of most of them. There is nothing recorded about their subsequent placement.

The SS Hawkes Bay arrived in Sydney on the 4th of August 1914. On the very next day, news of the Declaration of War between Britain and Germany reached Australia. The first Allied shot in the war was fired at midday by Australian artillery at Fort Nepean on Port Philip, in Victoria, when the German ship Pfalz attempted to leave. It is little wonder that records of these boys are so hard to find.

Friday 12 February 2021

Charles Wells

 Charles Edward (Charlie) Wells was born in Kent in 1899. When just 2 years old, he broke his back as the result of a bad fall. The treatment recommended at the time was for him to be kept in a fixed posture to give his spine time to heal. To do this the family made up a wooden box, so that Charlie could be laid down with his movements quite restricted. After some years, and several boxes later, the spine healed and he was able to walk again. However, his education was severely set back.

 His older brothers worked as fitters and turners at the Chatham Dockyards; when war was declared in August 1914, they were classed as being in Reserved Occupations, and could not enlist. Charlie was too young to enlist, although drummers and buglers as young as 14 years old could join, but that was not for him. The Dreadnought Scheme provided another option for him, and with it, he left London in July 1915 aboard the RMS Osterley, bound for Australia.

 Trust records show that Charles Wells arrived in Sydney on the 10th of September 1915, with three other Dreadnought Boys - Sidney Bingle, Robert Raquet and Stanley Tiffin. Two other boys were meant to travel with them but had missed the sailing. The Trust records show that all four were sent "Direct to Employment". In Charles Wells case, this turned out to be on a large property called Arrawatta, on the Macintyre River, just north of Inverell in northern New South Wales.

 Arrawatta was a large sheep station, and when it was bought by Thomas Bowling in 1903, it had 8500 acres and was running 11,000 sheep. Bowling had a vision for a dairy estate, and by 1908 had begun to make it reality. He divided the property into smaller tenanted farms for dairying, and by 1912, he had built a cheese factory which processed the milk from 450 Dairy Shorthorn cows, and had integrated operations for the distribution of fodder to the farms. With more than 50 people on the estate, it was even necessary to build a school.

 Drought which hit in 1919 and 1920, jeopardised viability, and revealed the extent to which Thomas Bowling had over-capitalised the development of Arrawatta. He arranged for the New South Wales Government to take over the property for 5 years, during which time it would be used for farm training of new migrants. This was to include the training of Dreadnought Boys, and the first of these came in August 1924. Over the next 5 years, 277 Dreadnought Boys were trained at Arrawatta. In May 1925 a new Lang Labour Government was elected to power. It immediately tried too close the farm operation, but yielded to very strong local reaction and desisted until 1929, when the training farm was closed down, the property broken up and sold off at prices well below valuation.

Charles Wells’ placement on Arrawatta in September 1915 would have been with one of the tenant farmers. Charlie would get his farm training the hard way! Charlie did learn and he continued in farm work for some years, particularly in dairying. He had gone from being a kid with a broken back, to a strong fit outdoor working man. He was also trusted with milk deliveries to customers in Inverell.

Charles changed jobs from time to time, and during 1922 was employed by Hawke and Co, produce merchants in Inverell. On 31 October, he and a bootmaker next door had their bicycles stolen from where they were parked outside their shops. Police found the bicycles at Glen Innes - they had been stolen by two men, who were already well known to the courts for their thieving.

 Around this time Charles Wells had come know Laveen Campbell. Marriage was planned for the end of 1924, and with this in mind he took a job on Percy Buttenshaw's dairy farm in May that year; there was a cottage which went with the job. Charles did the milk deliveries for him as well as other farm duties. The working relationship deteriorated, mainly over the actual accommodation arrangements, and Charles gave up a week's pay in lieu of notice, finishing at the end of October - a week and a half before the wedding. Just days before the wedding, an irate Percy Buttenshaw took Charles Wells to the Police Magistrate's Court for breaching the Master and Servant Act in leaving his employment without reasonable cause. The case was dismissed, Charlie had done what was required.

 Charles and his wife initially shared a house with his brother-in- law. Later they had their own place in Evans Street Inverell, where they lived for many years and where their four children grew up. Charles Wells settled down to a generally quiet life, often doing labouring work. He died in 1958 aged 59 years, Laveen survived until 1966.

 Charles Edward Wells was no high-profile individual but, by looking into his life, we have been able to find a lot more information about Arrawatta, and its farm training role.