WW I – Homefront


Beecroft and Cheltenham in World War 1: life on the homefront

At the outbreak of World War 1 on August 4 1914, the community of Beecroft and Cheltenham was still new. Following the opening in 1886 of a reliable railway service to Sydney, subdivisions had been created in an area dominated by small farms. The new residents were often better off than the pre-existing farming families and they were determined to improve the amenities of their district. Grand houses and more modest villas rose on the generously sized blocks close to the station. Churches were built and a new School of Arts became the focus for a large range of activities.

Throughout the war, the local newspaper, “The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate” (known as “The Argus”) reported in detail on the efforts of this community to support the war and show loyalty to the “mother country”. The Protestant clergy, the Beecroft Public School and local patriotic associations all strongly promoted the war effort.

Recruitment begins

Enlistment in the newly created Australian Imperial Force soon began. Two young men from Beecroft, Arthur Noel Meadmore and Harold Roberts were among the first to enlist but were soon joined by more. The Pennant Hills and District Rifle Club was formed and drilling took place on Monday evenings in the school grounds. The aim was both to encourage men to join up and to provide for home defence. Although Germany was far away, in these early days a sense of fear was abroad and the Wireless Station on Pennant Hills Road was put under guard.

Supporting the war effort

Regular patriotic shows began to be held in the School of Arts.  These included tableaux of the British empire in which women and children donned elaborate costumes representing the royal family or some imperial icon. Beecroft Public School children collected money for the Mayor’s Patriotic Fund to help children suffering as a result of the war and they also collected 27 dozen eggs from district coops for the Red Cross. In August a large number of Beecroft and Cheltenham ladies met in the supper room of the School of Arts and with Mr J.G. North presiding decided to form a branch of the Red Cross. Their efforts over the next few years provided “comforts” for soldiers on active service. Socks, woollen vests and other items were knitted and bundled together with brief notes, and despatched to men in the services. Women from the prominent local families took the elected positions: Mrs Rygate was President, Mrs Fearnley was treasurer and Mrs Holcombe and Mrs Dobbie were the honorary secretaries. Each lady, it was agreed, would make at least one article and donate what she could to a general fund. Mr Robert Vicars, a recent arrival, the principal of Vicars Woollen Mills, donated an initial hundredweight of woollen yarn and 500 yards of flannel. He soon became a leading figure in the district and their experience in the Red Cross was to provide an important role in local affairs for women in the district at a time when all the local organisations had been led by men.

In the early months of the war local events were held to raise money for “the beleaguered Belgians” as well as for men in the forces. One was a euchre party held in the School of Arts and a patriotic display by the “Swastika Club”, which was comprised of Beecroft schoolgirls.  At this event a Belgian flag was auctioned. A fete was held in the grounds of a private house, Oaklands, owned by the Nossiter family. The fete featured fancies, sweets, dolls, drinks, flowers and refreshments. Games (croquet, tailless donkey, aunt sally, skittles, quoits and “Smash the Kaiser”) were offered.

A round of parties at Christmas 1914 and the following New Year were celebrated but 1915 saw a change. On January 2 the first casualty was reported: the death from pneumonia of Corporal Arthur Noel Meadmore. However, as more young men enlisted, the Progress Association decided to create, in the School of Arts, an honour board listing the names of the district’s men serving overseas. By the end of the war it listed 126 names.

Gallipolli and the aftermath

From April 1915 while disturbing news came from the Dardanelles, the local activities in the district continued to be of interest. A good crop of fruit was harvested and transported to market; the Progress Association debated the placement of the new railway subway (designed to provide a safe crossing of the railway line); and tree plantings were planned to beautify the suburb. While fundraising continued, locals objected to the proposal for a fire station as not grand enough for its prominent position and complained about straying stock. The fire station was finally opened in December 1915. Soon afterward news came of the withdrawal from Gallipolli.  

As casualties grew, public sendoffs for the newly enlisted became regular events. Each young man was presented with gifts, usually a pipe, wristwatch, shaving kit, money belt and a small New Testament. These events might be held in the churches or the School of Arts. They included lengthy speeches in support of the war. Oratory was an art much applauded at this time. Sadly, the sendoff gifts were sometimes among the possessions returned to grieving relatives after the death of their son or husband.

Recruitment gains pace

In June 1915 the Pennant Hills and District Rifle Club joined with the Epping branch, to hold a parade of 45 members at Beecroft, followed by a religious service. The local ministers (Reverend Young from the Anglican Church, Reverend A.M. Ogilvie from the Presbyterian Church and Reverend Mr Doust of the Methodist congregation) gave addresses. In the same month local woman 35 year-old Amy Louise Faulkner of Beecroft joined the Army Nursing Service and embarked within two weeks to serve in the following years at  hospitals in Egypt, England and France.

Recruitment marches were a common method of influencing men to join up. A local recruiting committee was formed with Mr H. Little as president and Mr Holcombe as chairman. Others included were the local clergy and Dr Rygate, Dr Holt and Mr Forsyth. Mr Garland was appointed secretary. One recruitment march was organised from Hornsby to Beecroft, complete with bands and marchers from local militia, cadets, rifle clubs, mounted police and soldiers on final leave before sailing to war.

Grim news from the Western Front

From 1916 the focus swung to the battles in France and there were many casualties. Notification of death in action was normally delivered by the local clergy, so the sight of one of the reverend gentlemen, dressed in a black suit, driving their buggy or striding the streets brought a sense of dread. A year after he enlisted, the Blackwoods’ grand home Maraba received news of the death of talented young law student, James Blackwood, brought by Reverend Ogilvie. The Seale family of Cheltenham lost Frank Seale and two weeks later the heroism of his cousin Eric, of Boronia in Malton Road, a railway employee, was noted and he won the Distinguished Conduct Medal 

Local plumber, Corporal George Young, who had won the Military Medal at Polygon Wood was killed in the later stages of the war as was Charles Nixon, son of prominent local identity William Nixon. Florence Tucker, daughter of C.C. Tucker, who regarded him as the love of her life, never married. This was also the fate of Miss Sherring, who had won the sock knitting competition in 1915 and then handed over her prize of one guinea as a donation to the Red Cross. After her fiancée was killed  she lived on in Beecroft, well known as a popular music teacher. The terrible fear of bad news never left the area. The Murray family of Cheltenham wrote to the War Office to request that should a telegram come for them bringing tidings of the death of their son George Gilbert, missing in action in late 1917, “it would be a painful invasion” for the Reverend Young to be the bearer of the news. They had no liking for Young. Another local man from Murray’s battalion (men from the same district often found themselves after joining up serving in the same battalion), 21 year old Harry Lea of Cheltenham, a bank clerk before the war, lost his life a few days later.    

Later stages of the war

The slogan for 1917 and 1918 was “Carry on!”- very different from the tone of the earlier years. In mid 1918 a recruiting march of some 100 men marched from Parramatta, overnighted in the Beecroft School of Arts and then trudged on to Hornsby but seemed to attract only a few recruits, who did not see action, though some succumbed to the influenza epidemic.

Fundraising activities continued. There was a constant need for funds for the Red Cross or the Comforts Fund War Chest. There was an “Allies Day”, a “France Day” and a “Belgium Day” and when these focal days were exhausted, an “Australia Day”. Such days featured a succession of concerts, fetes, raffle tickets and displays. “Beauteous Maidens” and elegant ladies spent hours sewing elaborate costumes to wear in the popular tableaux, where on stage at the School of Arts they took poses symbolising the British Empire, Victory and Australia.

The end of the war

The grief outlasted the Armistice on November 11, 1918. Local veterans returned home damaged, among them Bruce Little who had experienced being shot, gassed and blown up in battle. Norman Hayward and Vernon Perry were two who had lost a limb. Stanley and Norman Livermore were chronically ill and this must have severely limited their ability to operate the family orchard near the Beecroft school. As the influenza epidemic raged the sense of desolation added to the grief of local women like Mrs Nixon and Mrs Blackwood, who always wore black.

On November 26, only two weeks after the armistice, a meeting in the School of Arts decided to erect a memorial to the fallen. A committee was formed under the leadership of Mr Robert Vicars and Councillor Chapman. The stone monument  stands near the corner of Copeland Road and Railway Parade (now Wongala Crescent).

(Material in this article is abstracted from ‘Beecroft and Cheltenham in WW1’ by Tony Cunneen, published by Deerubbin Press in association with Hornsby Shire Council 2006)