Pioneer Family in Two World Wars
contributed by Michael Hall
With all the pomp and ceremony it could muster for a remote corner of New South Wales, the Commonwealth of Australia christened its new capital city Canberra on 12 March 1913.
As this ceremony signified the beginning of a new era in Canberra, the death a few weeks earlier of Henry Phillips in his ninetieth year represented the passing of the pioneering period of our history.
Henry Phillips migrated to Australia in 1853 with his first wife Emma, who died shortly afterwards. He arrived in the Canberra district in about 1860, working for the McDonald family at Uriarra as a sawyer, bookkeeper, teacher and postmaster. In January 1863 Phillips bought 50 acres of land at Uriarra. Legend has it he was acting as a ‘dummy’ for McDonald on a land selection, and later refused to give it up.
In April 1863, Henry married Eliza Dove, nanny for the Reverend Pierce Galliard Smith, at St. John’s Church in Canberra. Family lore has it that he worked on the roof timbers of the church which is perhaps how he and Eliza met. Together they built a home for their family on their acreage at Uriarra which they called Sherwood. Over time added another 442 acres to Sherwood and for 25 years Henry walked to Uriarra homestead each day to fulfill his duties as postmaster, doing so until his eightieth year. Eliza Phillips died in 1922 and is buried with her husband Henry, fittingly for two pioneers, on the slopes of a hill overlooking Sherwood.
Their son George became the mail contractor for the Uriarra district in 1897 as well as running a coach service. He had married Louisa Oldfield in 1896 and by 1901 they had three children; Harry, Vera and Bert. Tragically George was accidentally shot and killed by a ricocheting bullet fired by a family friend, H.F. Cox, during a wallaby drive at nearby Dingo Dell in 1902 and their children were orphaned when Louisa died in 1904. However, they lived with their relatives at Sherwood even after old Henry passed away in January 1913; members of the Phillips family continued to live there until 1926 when it was finally acquired by the owners of Uriarra.
When World War 1 began Harry Phillips enlisted as soon as he turned eighteen, joining the 53rd Battalion in France at the end of June 1916. His was an unhappy war. Regular attacks of scabies, as well as haemorrhoids, boils and piles caused by the unsanitary conditions of trench life saw him hospitalised on half a dozen occasions. Despite this, Harry served with his unit in battles at Beaumetz in March 1917 and Polygon Wood in September 1917. He was shot in the left thigh during fighting near Villers-Bretonneux in France in April 1918 but recovered and rejoined the 53rd Battalion in August 1918 just prior to the attack on Péronne. This time he wasn’t as lucky.
Harry was shot in both legs, the right one fracturing severely resulting in it being amputated to the thigh. A bout of diphtheria compounded his misery before he returned home. However, Harry sought to live as normal a life as possible. He married Dolly Rutledge in December 1921 and they raised their family at Port Kembla where Harry got a job as a clerk at the steelworks. His great nephew remembers how he would amuse kids in the family by swinging his artificial leg back and forth before sending one of them off to get some sewing machine oil. Then he would theatrically oil the hinge to remove the squeak and sigh, ‘Ah that feels better’.
Bert Phillips was a baby when his father died in 1902. Instead of waiting to be old enough to enlist in the army he joined the navy at fifteen only a few months after his brother enlisted. Bert stayed in the navy for ten years, including service on HMAS Australia, and then moved to Wollongong where he married, raised his family and worked as an electrical contractor.
Their sister Vera stayed in the Canberra area. In September 1918 she married Henry Nicholson who, like her father, had worked as a mail contractor in the Uriarra district before the war. She became the postmistress at Duntroon and he worked as a groom at the Royal Military College until it moved to Sydney in 1931. Nicholson was a veteran of the war having joined the 56th Battalion in the Flers sector of France in February 1917. How he passed the army medical is a mystery as he had fractured his skull in a pre-war accident when the brakes failed on a coach he was driving and he was thrown from the wreckage. His injuries left him with a metal plate in his head, poor eyesight, particularly at night, and a stammer. Nicholson’s war ended in May 1917 when he was wounded in the arm by shrapnel during the Second Battle of Bullecourt. Despite being wounded in the service of his King and country, Nicholson was denied compensation because of his pre-war injury.
After their marriage Henry and Vera Nicholson lived at Duntroon to raise their children Leila, James, Edgar and William, but by the beginning of World War 2 the family had moved to Ainslie.
Their eldest son, Jim, was an eighteen year old clerk in the Department of the Interior when he enlisted in the RAAF in 1942. After training in Australia he arrived in England in August 1943 with the rank of Flight Sergeant. He joined 158 Squadron (part of Bomber Command in the RAF) on 19 March 1944 as a rear gunner in a Halifax bomber.
158 Squadron flew regular sorties over Germany and on 31 March 1944 Jim Nicholson’s plane was on a mission to bomb Nuremburg. Around midnight, flying at 20,000 feet towards the target, his plane was attacked by a German night fighter. According to the German pilot, Fritz Lau, he fired when he was 100 to 150 metres behind the Halifax so it is possible that Nicholson, as rear gunner, would have seen the attack coming. There was not much that a slow moving bomber could do against an agile fighter plane. Lau saw the Halifax on fire and break into two. It crashed near Herbornseelbach about 16 miles north west of Giessen in Germany. Nicholson and all but one of the crew were killed. He is buried in the Hannover War Cemetery in Germany.
The effects of war can last a lifetime as Harry Phillips might have testified. So too could Vera Nicholson, wife and sister of veterans of the first war and mother of a casualty of the second. There is a photograph of her taken in August 1945 at the Australian War Memorial standing in the forecourt as Prime Minister Ben Chifley arrives. She seems lost in thought, perhaps even sad, yet she is there for a ‘Victory in the Pacific’ service, a celebration of the end of the war. Vera Nicholson never enlisted nor fired a shot in anger, but she and countless others bear a burden from wars that last for the rest of their days.
Information and images provided by Bill Chase (son of Leila Nicholson)
Bruce Moore, ‘Cotter Country’, 1999
Peter Procter, ‘Biographical Register of Canberra and Queanbeyan’, Canberra, Heraldry and Genealogy Society of Canberra, 2001 (p.238 entry for Henry Nicholson, pp. 255, 256 entries for the Phillips family)
Canberra & District Historical Society – Sherwood and Phillips family file