Over the River There Lies My Way
Contributed by Michael Hall
“I must onward and cross the river,
So long, mate, for I cannot stay;
I must onward and cross the river,
Over the river there lies my way.”
‘Down the River’ by Barcroft Boake (Bush Poet of the Monaro)
The ‘Cotter’ name is iconic amongst Canberrans. It evokes memories of picnics and barbeques, of play, camping, swimming, cycling, bushwalking and other things besides. The Cotter River is our main water supply and one of the main reasons Canberra was chosen as the site for the national capital. Its valley defines the physical shape of the ACT.
The river is named after Garrett Cotter, a ticket of leave man, who in 1832 was banished to live beyond the limits of occupation – at the time the Murrumbidgee River - after becoming embroiled in a dispute between Lake George landowners. Garrett married in 1841 and settled at Naas Forest, on the western side of the Murrumbidgee, where he lived with his family until he was conditionally pardoned in 1847. They then crossed the river and he lived out his life at Michelago.
In 1916, his son Michael was faced with a difficult choice. His own son Frank, Garrett’s grandson, wanted to enlist in World War 1.
Michael Cotter was already an old man when his first son Frank was born in 1896. Michael Cotter married in 1892 and shortly after the turn of the century moved his family from Michelago to his 600 acre selection on the Naas River. The Cotters lived in a typical selector’s house; a three roomed, slab home with a bark roof. Most of the property was rough, rocky and rugged country. By 1916 Cotter was into his seventies and he needed Frank to work the land. However, his nineteen year old son wanted to go to the war but needed his parents’ permission to enlist.
Frank had wanted to be soldier ever since he was a boy. He could have waited until he turned 21 to enlist without his parents’ permission, but Frank did not want to wait. It took him eighteen months to convince them to sign the enlistment papers. Three days later, on 8 September 1916, the 20 year old Frank Cotter joined the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) at Goulburn.
Cotter arrived in England in January 1917, and soon became a physical training and bayonet fighting instructor for the 8th Training Battalion and then trained as a machine gunner. He joined the 22nd Machine Gun Company in France in October 1917 and over the next few months fought at Passchendaele, Albert, Villers-Bretonneux and at other places in the Somme valley. In August 1918 Frank was promoted to Corporal in the newly re-designated 2nd Machine Gun Battalion just before the 2nd Division’s most famous battle of the war. On 31 August they assaulted Mont St. Quentin, a key position overlooking Péronne. Often working on his own initiative, Frank reconnoitered the best position for his gun, disregarding the danger. He would be awarded the Military Medal “for bravery in the field”, but it would be a posthumous award.
The end of the war would have been a relief to his parents, with the expectation that Frank would soon come home. It wasn’t to be. On 27 November 1918 Frank was admitted to the 61st Casualty Clearing Station at Bohain in France seriously ill with diphtheria. He had survived the fighting but disease would claim him. He died on 7 December 1918 at 22 years of age. It wasn't until Christmas Eve 1918 that Michael and Ellen Cotter learnt of their son’s death.
Michael was in his mid-seventies, barely able to walk, partly paralysed down the left side and with a second son, Cec, who was almost blind. It was impossible for him to run his property on the Naas River. Despondent about his and his family’s prospects he wanted to sell and move closer to his extended family at Michelago, but he was about to fight his own battle. The enemy was the Commonwealth.
In 1920 Cotter wrote to Austin Chapman, the Federal member for Eden-Monaro and de-facto representative for Territorians, that because of his age and ill health “it don’t suit me to live in such a backward place. My property here contains 600 acres of freehold land securely fenced and well watered, but I cannot sell it at its value owing to it being in the Federal Territory.” Cotter had a valuation for his freehold land of between £1200 and £1500 but the Commonwealth only offered him £810. Eventually, in April 1921, Cotter relented, “as the family is in poor circumstance”, and accepted the offer.
After selling his property on the Naas River, Michael Cotter moved across the Murrumbidgee to Black Flat near Michelago where he died in 1929. Both he and his father Garrett are buried in the cemetery at Michelago.
Bruce Moore, ‘Cotter Country’, 1999
NAA (A196) Holding 156
NAA (A358) Michael Cotter Holding 156 Booth District