Monday 27 March 2023

Robert Adamson


Occasionally, the Dreadnought records fail to give us a clear picture about a boy's arrival in Sydney. Information about Robert Adamson is a case in point. Robert left England on the SS Barrabool, but when it arrived in Sydney, he wasn't aboard, even though the records say that he was. So, what happened?

Robert Adamson’s family knew little about his early life. His widow Isabel had a keepsake, a luggage tag, with the word Beltana on it. So, it was always believed that this was the ship he had come to Australia on! It was also assumed that he had come to Australia to join his older brother Alexander. But Alexander, 21, had sailed in early 1925, to Melbourne not Sydney.

Robert Adamson’s family never knew that he was a Dreadnought Boy. They thought his life story was all about his capture in Singapore, and then his brutal existence as a Prisoner of War on the Burma Railway during World War II. However, UK shipping records were found showing that Robert Adamson, of Banville Row, Lawrencetown, County Down, Northern Ireland, farm hand, aged 17, left London on P and O’s liner S.S. Barrabool on 25 February 1926. On that voyage were about 1,000 passengers, including 40 stonemasons on their way to work on the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and a party of 45 Dreadnought Boys.

The destination was Sydney, but there were to be stops at Las Palmas, Cape Town, Fremantle, Adelaide, and Melbourne. But Robert’s trip was to be rather different to that planned.

                                                               SS Barrabool

On 17 March 1926, the Barrabool responded to SOS signals coming from the New Zealand Shipping Company’s cargo ship Paparoa. It was on fire off St Helena, in the Atlantic Ocean. The Paparoa carried sixty-nine crew and five passengers. Barrabool passengers (no doubt including Robert) lined the decks for hours, watching people being ferried by lifeboat from the burning cargo ship. All were rescued safely, including six stowaways, two cats and a pedigreed fox terrier. Those rescued were disembarked at Cape Town.

When the Barrabool reached Adelaide on 10th April, the ship was quarantined with an outbreak of smallpox. The passengers bound for Adelaide and those who were ill, were taken to the quarantine station on Torrens Island, where they were disinfected, vaccinated, and placed in quarantine. The remaining passengers heading to Melbourne and Sydney were vaccinated on board before the ship resumed its delayed journey. Robert Adamson had contracted smallpox. The Admission and Discharge Register for the Torrens Island Quarantine Station Hospital shows that Robert Adamson had to be hospitalised. Arrangements were made for Robert and the other affected boys, when released, to complete their journey from Adelaide to Sydney on the S.S. Beltana.

On his arrival in Sydney on 18 May 1926, Robert was sent directly to "Windeena" Balladoran (near Gilgandra) to work for Geo.Plummer. His brother Alexander was on a farm at Annuella, Victoria, and  Robert did go to Melbourne in 1928. They subsequently moved to the Gympie area in Queensland, in 1929.

Robert Adamson married Isabel Rees in 1934 in Gympie, and they had three children. He worked variously as a labourer, a milkman, an insurance salesman, and, as his father in Northern Ireland had done, as a bootmaker.

He enlisted on 26 August 1941 in Gympie. He was working as an Insurance Agent at the time. After time on the Australian mainland, Robert Adamson was transferred to Singapore, arriving on the 24 January 1942. On 15 February, as Singapore fell, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and held in Changi Prison. A year later he was taken to work on construction of the Burma-Siam Railway. Eventually he was “Received from the Japanese at Siam” on 20 August 1945. Like so many others, he was to suffer ill-health for the rest of his life.

When his health improved enough after the war, Robert Adamson opened a Boot Repair shop. The family had moved to Maryborough and were living in a War Service home in Sussex Street. But it was hard going and, in 1952, he told the POW Trust Fund that the physical demands involved and the poor returns, which only covered shop rent and materials, meant that he would have to soon close the business.

Robert Adamson, lived to the age of only 56 years, and passed away in Maryborough, Queensland in 1965.

He is commemorated, along with other veterans, with a brass plaque in the Queensland Garden of Remembrance, a cemetery maintained by the Department of Veterans Affairs in the Brisbane suburb of Bridgeman Downs.

The Barrabool did bring Robert Adamson to Australia, but only to Adelaide. The Beltana took him the rest of the way to Sydney.

(With thanks to Barbara Adamson.)

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