Postcards to the Cotter
contributed by Michael Hall
Sidney Marshall in Australian Imperial Force uniform. Source: Postcard - Our Queanbeyan Boys, number three.
Work near the Cotter Dam began in 1912 and attracted not only single men but also married men with families. The workers were housed in tents with separate camps for single men and those with families. The married quarters were probably near Cotter Bend, close to where the Cotter River joins the Murrumbidgee. Conditions were primitive and amongst the grievances of the residents that soon arose were that the presence of so many children required a school for their education. A tent school opened there in April 1914.
The first teacher at the Cotter River School was Sidney Gordon Marshall. Born in 1887 in Lidcombe in Sydney, Marshall enlisted in Liverpool on 17 July 1915 and left for camp a few weeks later, but he didn’t forget his former students, among them eleven year old Louisa (Loo) and thirteen year old Walter Bland. Sister and brother lived at the married men’s camp with their parents, Edward and Emily Bland. It was there that Louisa received a postcard from Marshall dated 4 October 1915.
“Have arrived in Melbourne after a very good trip. We leave for Adelaide in the morning. Was not sick. Received your letters OK. Thanks for good wishes. Have been off all day in Melbourne which is a very fine place. Kind regards to all from S.G.Marshall.”
Marshall embarked in Sydney on the RMS Moldavia on 1 October 1915 as a Trooper with the 6th reinforcements to the 12th Light Horse Regiment. After a brief stopover in Melbourne, his troopship berthed a few weeks later in Colombo in Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) where Marshall found time to write to his former pupils.
“I spent a day here & had a good look round. Had several rides in rickshaws and saw a couple of temples. Saw cocoa nuts growing also, cinnamon, camphor and mango. The kids are great beggars and ask for pennies all day long. They dive from the boat for coins. Kind regards, SGM.”
Marshall arrived in Egypt in December 1915 and marched into camp at Heliopolis near Cairo where he joined the 12th Light Horse Regiment in time for Christmas. He wrote on Boxing Day to “Dear Little Loo and Walter” who were staying in Queanbeyan.
“Just a P.C. while I am on the job. Have had a very good Xmas but today we are on guard & so haven't much spare time. How are you? I have thanked you all for the flowers you sent home in my card to Syl(?). Best of good luck and wishes from S. Marshall”
The following month he again corresponded with his former pupils at the Cotter from his camp in Egypt.
“I wrote you at fair length by last mail and have so little time now that letters will be possible only now and then. However I shall send plenty of cards and I know you will understand. We are still in Heliopolis and sick and tired of being kept here. We had to hand over our horses to 13th Regt today, but expect we will get others. This is a good picture of the Sphinx. I have climbed on to it and had my photo taken there. Kindest regards to you all and your parents. S.G.M.”
A few days later he found time to send another card to the children at the Cotter River School.
This is how the kiddies are taught over here - though even these 'classes' are rare. The old chap looks as though he could swing the rod a bit doesn't he? Does he remind you of me? We had to hand our horses over to the 13th Regt. and are now a dismounted unit. We don't like foot slogging. Received Loo's and Gladys' letter today. Was jolly glad to get them. Thanks. Kind regards to you all. From S.G.M.”
On the front of the card he wrote: “These kiddies are being taught in a mosque (a sort of temple).”
The 13th Light Horse Regiment was sent to France in early 1916 as mounted troops. Instead of riding their horses, the men of the 12th Light Horse were on foot on guard duty around the Suez Canal. ‘Gladys’ is probably Gladys Taylor, the 14 year old daughter of Daniel and Mary Taylor who also lived at the married men’s camp at the Cotter. Her brother Charles drowned while crossing the Murrumbidgee River in a punt on 31 May 1913.
Marshall was hospitalised with dysentery in May 1916 at Tel-el-Kebir in Egypt, but for much of the rest of the year the 12th Light Horse, now mounted, patrolled the Sinai. It did participate in a raid on Maghara, a Turkish stronghold in the mountains of central Sinai in October 1916. The final postcard was written ten months later on 23 November 1916 and sent to Louisa Bland in Queanbeyan.
“Dear Loo and Walter. Received your very nice parcel OK yesterday. Many thanks for the good things it contained. I still have the socks and mittens you sent me before. They are very handy in the mornings. We are all still 'spelling' here. Dick Shaw went to the hospital with a bad ear but I fancy he will be OK again shortly. Kind regards to Mr and Mrs Bland.”
‘Dick’ Shaw was Joseph William Conolly Shaw, a New Zealand born drover working in the Queanbeyan district, who embarked for Egypt with Marshall in the same unit. A week after this postcard was written Shaw was court martialled for using insubordinate language and disobeying a lawful command from a superior officer. He was sentenced to ten months imprisonment with hard labour which was subsequently reduced to 90 days field punishment.
Sidney Marshall transferred to the 4th Brigade Machine Gun Squadron in February 1917 and served with them in Palestine. His unit belonged to the 4th Light Horse Brigade, elements of which took part in the charge of the light horse at Beersheeba in October 1917. By February 1918 the light horsemen had reached Jericho in the Jordan valley from where they launched raids on the Turks at Es Salt and Amman in modern day Jordan. Following one of the raids in May 1918 Marshall injured his ankle while carrying a machine gun out of action. The Official History of the campaign in Palestine describes how, in September 1918, the 4th Brigade Machine Gun Squadron galloped “over ground swept by bullets” coming into action at the critical moment during the attack on Semakh on the shores of the Sea of Galilee to make possible by “their sure fire” the final charge of the light horsemen to capture the town.
Marshall accidentally injured his left knee a few days before returning to Australia in August 1919. He was discharged on 15 November 1919 in Sydney and married Mona Campbell at Picton in 1921. They were living at Dee Why on the northern beaches of Sydney when he died on 9 May 1971.
The Bland family left the Cotter around the end of 1915 and moved to a house in Isabella Street in Queanbeyan where Louisa went to school. Tragically Walter died in 1917 aged just 15 years, a devastating loss for the family which probably prompted their move to Goulburn the following year. Despite being a bright student Louisa left school at 14 to work, walking from one side of Goulburn to the other to care for three children. In 1920 her father Edward was offered a job as postmaster and caretaker at Molonglo which was being converted to a workers camp. Louisa assisted her father in his work until she married in 1927, but his health declined and he died in early 1928. She and her husband, Charlie Chalker, took over the running of the post office until a new postmaster was appointed. They lived at Molonglo with their three children and her mother but after Emily died in 1949 the Chalkers moved to Narrabundah. Louisa and Charlie Chalker both died in 1996.
Louisa’s grand daughter Janice Flaherty made copies of the postcards available to the Hall School Museum and Heritage Centre. This article was made possible by the assistance of the Museum. For more information about the Cotter River School visit the Hall School Museum web site.
H.S. Gullett, ‘Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-18’ (Vol. VII, p.734)
Information provided by Janice Flaherty
SG Marshall - Our Queanbeyan Boys No.3 postcard
JWC Shaw – Our Queanbeyan Boys No.1 postcard