Jock Marshall - One Armed Warrior A Bright Sparcs Exhibitions

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From the Highlands to the City

Robert Duncan Marshall was born in Adelong on the southern mountains of New South Wales in 1866. He was a complementary opposite for his fiery wife - a steady antidote for her occasional blazes of temper and sharp tongue. He was tall and good-looking, humorous and tolerant - his interest in discipline was unaggressive. Jock remembered being chastised by him only once - verbally, in memorable terms, when he had pretended to run away from home after a violent argument with his sister. 'She was livid when she discovered I'd spent the night under the house.' 'He was always making trouble' said his sister, Alma.

Robert may have appeared easy-going but his character was as strong as his physique. He simply made his wishes known more quietly, and with more psychological intent than did his wife. Very often it was she who energetically implemented a decision made by him. He was no overt disciplinarian but obviously capable of controlling men in his eventual work as foreman with the tramways in Sydney. At home Jock remembered him sitting reading and smoking his pipe, digging in the large garden or chopping wood with efficient rhythm; and laughing at his own jokes. There is not a single letter to illuminate his thoughts. His reading was unusual for a countryman at the time, but because letters were rarely valued - treated as rubbish - it is almost impossible now to know what influence his Scottish parents may have had on their sons. His father's life is recorded as a series of adventures and practical activities but the Scottish tradition of intellectual curiosity may have been alive as well. The lives the Marshalls and the Crowes led in the beautiful valley of the Adelong River in Southern N.S.W. was physically busy, and for Robert and four of his brothers, financially hard - though their father was a rich man. It would not have been a life conducive to introspective letter writing of the sort to be kept in attics. Jock's habit of keeping letters over most of his life was a direct contrast.

Robert was thoughtful and observant even when nonchalantly focused. When Jock was about twelve there was an incident indicative of his character. In his easy-going way he disagreed with his wife's decision to send their youngest son to a Sunday School, the Penshurst Christian Endeavour, but did not interfere with the arrangement. Instead he gave Jock a battered copy of one of his books, The Riddle of the Universe by Ernst Haekel, the 19th Century German Zoologist who did so much to popularise Charles Darwin's views when the storm broke over The Origin of Species. Robert also gave him The Origin of the Species. Jock kept both books all his life.

'It was half the fault of Pop that I was thrown out of the Penshurst Christian Endeavour for preaching Darwinism to a fundamentalist superintendent' Jock wrote during the war in New Guinea. The other half seems to lie with an enchanting ring-tailed possum which used to go to meetings in his pocket. Emerging for exploration, it usually came to rest in the thick curls on top of his head, causing an unseemly and irreligious mirth among the assembled company. He refused to be parted from the little clown. It spent most of its days in his shirt pocket. At night it took off to hunt for food, then in the first light of dawn, with its thick fur dew-wet, slipped back through the bedroom window and crept into bed with him.

But the superintendent became tired of such interruptions to Christian Endeavour and imposed a ban on both boy and possum, which was not lifted until shortly before the annual picnic in the Blue Mountains. Jock remembered that day well. Being fascinated, even then, by the life of the bush, he was excited in the morning to find a rock-warbler's nest for the first time. Later, hungry, walking back hurriedly to attack the tableful of sandwiches which he knew awaited, he discovered a large slice of the sole of his boot was flapping about. He took out his penknife and cut it off, but as the sandwiches came in sight, instead of throwing it away he conceived a wicked idea for discomforting someone. He inserted it between two slices of bread and placed it on the laden table. The superintendent must have thought it looked more enticing than the others and unhesitatingly chose it. The crack of his false teeth signalled the end of Jock's association with Christian Endeavour - then and forever.

Robert had initially won his point in a quiet way - evidently typical of him. He was possibly also secretly amused by his son's childish practical joke, although there is no evidence that he indulged in such pranks himself. His sense of humour rarely deserted him. Even when he was dying in that winter of 1946 he told Jock 'See that I'm cremated son - it's too cold to be in the ground in this weather.'

In 1923 Robert gave Jock another book, The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine. Apart from being an insight into his choice in reading and, with the other books he passed on to his son, the only indicators of his intellectual life, there is a curious aspect to this gift. Thomas Paine, born into a poor household, partly Quaker, had a meagre education but later attended science lectures, ran away to sea, had an unsuccessful marriage, failed in business, and however talented he was, his unusual gifts were firmly lidded down until he sailed away to America at the age of 37. Only then did he blossom into the passionate, active controversialist whose writings influenced three nations to praise and rage. Robert may have thought that the succinct biographical sketch attached to this edition of the Age of Reason might influence his bright but truculently difficult young son to make some effort at education. He failed if that were his aim - it may even have encouraged Jock to believe it was never too late to begin. However, Paine's writings on Christianity fascinated Jock; if not immediately, certainly later.

Jock often spoke of his father; 'he was a delightful man - I wish you could have met him.' For a boy with such a combative attitude towards authority he had a surprisingly good relationship with both his parents. But why had this child of their middle years become such a rebel - so determined to spit out the education that should have been a breeze for him? One imagines such a thorny leader of lesser rebels must have had some sword of Damocles hanging over him. It is hard to see - he could not identify it himself.

Jock looked very like his father as Robert had apparently resembled his own father, William - "Scotch Willy" as he was dubbed in the family - and our son Donald bears a striking resemblance to Jock. A Nordic appearance was strong. Jock remembered Scotch Willy as a very old man in the pretty town of Adelong where he was taken occasionally for holidays. Even more clearly he remembered the tales he was told of his grandfather's seafaring across the Atlantic Ocean and around the Caribbean Sea, then in Australia the search for gold in the Southern Highlands; better still the finding of it on the Eucumbene and again on Adelong Creek. William left the windy farm where he was born in Stranraer, Scotland, at the age of seventeen, and went to work in the shipyards of the Clyde before taking to the sea. Ten years later, in 1854, he sailed into Sydney Harbour in the S.S. Boomerang, one of the very earliest steamships, which he had helped build on the Clyde. In Sydney he met Elizabeth Duncan of Dundee, married her in 1856 and, apart from trips back to Scotland to see his family, he left the sea forever. He was apparently well loved and respected in the Adelong and Tumut districts where he settled, but in his own family, towards the end of his life, he behaved with an extraordinary lack of fairness; though this may well have been the result of a degree of senility. He had six sons. He allowed one of them, Hugh, to coax a minor fortune from gold and more than a thousand acres of rich land beside the Adelong Creek into his own hands from his father's estate. The old man died in 1917 at the age of 90 and his will is a ruthless document. The five other brothers received forty pounds each. 'The Marshalls are wanderers' says family lore; not surprising really - they all, except William who became Deputy Mayor of Tumut, and Hugh, who bought a hotel, had to travel far for work.

William's gravestone and that of his wife, Elizabeth, are well-preserved in the Adelong cemetery and bear the inscription underneath their names and dates: "Set here by their son Hugh Marshall." It is evident that none of the other sons would have any part in generosity towards him. Robert was not a man for recrimination but he never forgave his brother. When he married Violet Crowe in 1901 he was a drover. Later he worked on the railway. By 1909 there were four children, and he and his wife decided to pack up and leave Wondalga to try their luck in Sydney. So it happened that the youngest son, Alan John, was born in Sydney on February 17th, 1911.


London 1950

The old lady, Violet Marshall, was seventy-nine and had a strong desire to be eighty. She sat enfolded in a capacious wing-chair in front of the fire in a damp grey winter. Her tiny feet rested on a foot-stool, an interested and slightly quizzical gaze glittering at me through her Dickensian glasses as I crawled about the floor, pregnant with our first child, completing some huge paintings of rooks and of rook's reproductive systems for a zoological display at the Festival of Britain.

We often talked like this over the work, and because of the work my domestic arrangements were even more haphazard than usual between the visits of my dear charlady, Mrs Ivy Adams. I used to get a prickly conscience about this help when I thought of my mother-in-law - how she had scrubbed, polished, slaved over her beautiful flowers that she grew for the Sydney market through all sorts of disasters. I tried to justify it. 'Don't be foolish child - do you think I would have scrubbed floors if I could paint birds like that?' Probably not. She was far too intelligent. In a different environment her energy and organisational skills might have taken her far from the domestic scene.

Violet Ada Crowe was born at Dora Dora homestead on the upper Murray River in 1872 - her mother was engaged in some form of domestic work there. Her grandfather, John Crowe, Jock's great-grandfather, had arrived in New South Wales from Ireland in 1840. Coincidentally, James Graham, my own paternal great-grandfather, had arrived in Sydney only one year earlier, so there was a historical link in early colonial times between us - although my father's people had become part of the building of Melbourne and Jock's had stayed close to the land until just before he was born. Indeed Violet and Robert kept a life-style more in tune with the country than with Sydney suburbia during most of his youth. He knew his parents' emotional attachments, clear memories even, of 19th Century life away from the cities; the thrusting search for fortune as people dribbled over unturned earth, scrabbling for gold, prickly excitement of bushrangers, sweating toil of bullock and horse teams, the river paddle-boats. He was fascinated by historical links, in everything - people, animals, houses, furniture. It was natural for him to be curious about his forebears, and some of the people who sat in the family tree had captured his childish imagination.

It is true this earliest Australian relative, John Crowe, sits enigmatically in the family tree. He was an Orangeman from Belfast, and, as far as anyone knows, never returned there. After he arrived in Sydney in 1840 he disappeared into the Raymond Terrace district of the Hunter River valley, surfaced to baptise his son Thomas in the small Anglican church of Tanilba in 1844 - an act of desperation for an Orangeman one must presume - to bury his wife, who was half Spanish, in 1863, then appeared again in the sheep country of the Riverina in Southern New South Wales. He died in Junee in 1899. Nothing personal seems to be known about him except the fervour of his religious views. Had he hoped to get away from the perpetual Protestant-Catholic wars of the spirit he chose ill, for along with their charms the Irish brought their devils with them. And his son Thomas followed in his bigoted footsteps. 'We were not even allowed to sew on Sunday!' said Thomas's daughter, Violet, with rueful humour. He adhered to rigid church dogma despite being engaged all his adult life in the rugged, blaspheming business, first of horse-training and then as a teamster supplying the paddle-steamers on the Murrumbidgee River. He died when he was only forty two, with his family still young; so to his grand-children, and even to most of his own children, he too was an indistinct figure - though legends of fiery feats with horses and encounters with bushrangers filtered through the family. He married Emma Bella Travis, a girl who had been orphaned in the catastrophic flood which swept away most of the town of Gundagai on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River in 1852. Violet remembered her mother, Emma, talking of that early trauma in her life: 'My mother was only about five, but her clearest memory of that disaster was the sight of coffins poking up out of the mud when the water subsided.' The cemetery had been dug into the soft ground of the river flats and the flood waters sluiced coffins and headstones in a grim game of musical chairs.

Thomas and Emma had five children. Violet was the second daughter. She was only fourteen when their father was killed in an accident. She remembered the sense of responsibility in helping her mother and older sister with the care of younger children. During the cold days of winter and early spring in London we talked of this and much else; the horses she loved, especially the teams of great draft-horses; and the beautiful rolling hills of the valley where they lived around Nakka Creek and Wondalga. Then she might have a wicked chuckle about some preposterous relative such as the fellow who spent all his spare time trying to prove he had traced the family back to the Welsh Kings. Nobody believed him, but it is alleged he was a happy man. And, of course, there was much talk of Jock.


Jock was in a hurry even at birth. His mother said he was born as his young sister, Alma, then only seven, was summoning the midwife. Left alone, but practised in the ways of childbirth, she evidently dealt with this emerging life in the way she dealt with most things - decisive and competent. They were then in William Street, Darlington, having moved there in fright and disgust just before Jock's birth because all four of his brothers and sisters had almost died of typhoid fever in Sydney Hospital. There had been a break-down of public sewage in the Darlinghurst area where they had previously settled after the move from Wondalga.

The noisy, dirty inner city suburbs were no joy to a man and woman used to the scrubbed existence of a small country town, open skies and wide paddocks. The skills needed to deal with animals were not worth much in the city, but Robert's ability with machines found him work with the tramways. He was strong and responsible and worked hard; with his wife's organisational gifts they managed not only to keep the family in Sydney but to save enough money to move out again within only a few months of Jock's birth. Not that they moved so very far - merely to the edge. Ten miles to the South at that time brought you to grassy paddocks. So they bought land and built a house at Penshurst - thirty five pounds for two blocks, four hundred and fifty pounds for a man from Mortlake to build the house, and later fifty pounds for another two blocks. Penshurst then had a railway station, a shop or two, a thin scatter of houses and a tiny school (Dumbleton Public) sheltering under gum trees. The only grass growing there now is under the tyranny of the family lawn-mower between a grid of paling fences and brick bungalows. The house the Marshalls built still survives - a small echo of their country past, verandahed around with 'it's hat pulled down over it's eyes.'


So Jock became a Sydney-sider - but not quite. Sydney was his city - very much so. He had a feeling for it; it's tempestuous history, it's haphazard beauty and ugliness, the bustle in the streets, the scintillating blue of harbour inlets. Yet at home links with Adelong and Tumut were still strong, and the habits of country life prevailed. Flour, sugar, rice were stored in bulk quantities as though for a siege. The kitchen was warm with the aroma of pies, cakes and home-made butter. There was a cow to be milked. It was Jock's job to look after the separator. He hated it - all those icey metal pieces to be dismantled on cold winter mornings. But he was allowed to keep a pony. Billy was a bay gelding, a charming and intelligent animal; Jock loved him dearly.

In the house there was solid dark furniture covered with a profusion of mats which his mother embroidered, more, it seemed, for utility than aesthetic pleasure. There was also a piano upon which Jock was expected to perform. According to him, he did this without feeling, 'bored with the repetition.' At school he was restless, unhappy and later, at Kogarah High, destructive. 'Totally undisciplined' reported his school master to his parents 'though gifted at English.'

He showed a curiosity about words very early in life. His sister Alma, seven years older, remembered an incident which occurred in the brief period when their parents tried raising chickens on their land - 'Jock would have been about four.' He was having some infantile discussion with his mother about spelling. With her mind only half on the conversation in the way of busy mothers, she said 'no word has a double U.' He disappeared for a while and then ran back and announced - 'Vacuum does.' He had seen it on the kerosene drums from the Vacuum Oil Company which were used for incubating. His mother had an ambivalent attitude towards that story.

He had respect for his disciplinarian mother but there was love as well. In her mature middle age she was not so fierce and he benefited from being her only companion when the rest of the family were at work or school. When chickens quickly gave way to growing flowers for the Sydney market he sometimes helped her gather blooms early in the morning. He loitered hopefully in the kitchen while she baked, and prodded her to tell tales of teamsters, bushrangers, the breaking and riding of thoroughbred horses; or she might recite the works of her two favourite poets - Robert Burns and Banjo Patterson. Later, when undergoing anaesthesia, Jock refused to count and recited Banjo Patterson instead - 'Less boring and a good sleep-making rhythm.' In maturity his own taste in poetry was considerably more catholic. It ranged widely through early English to Dorothy Parker, W.B. Yeats or translations from the Chinese - all gathered in a book he kept over many years in which he wrote down poems, scraps of poems or quotations from whatever he was reading.

He remembered being a solitary child. His two brothers and his sister were much older. He loved his elder brother, Donald. This boy was ten years older than he was but was patient, took him rabbiting, taught him to shoot and generally allowed him to be happily pestiferous. But he was killed in a rail accident when Jock was only thirteen. Jock felt he didn't know the second boy, Gordon, very well at all. With his sister Alma, he was in almost constant conflict. So for the questing, imaginative activities of a small boy he was on his own within the family. He was also shy. Shyness is such a common part of childhood, it would hardly be worth mentioning except that many of his later activities led people to believe he was the complete extrovert. It was not so. He brought the early sensitivity almost completely under control. He had powerful weapons - he was 'a character' and when little he was determined, cute and fun-loving; later his unusual vision and love of words gave him wit and charm. But there remained a reticence concerning his feelings which was certainly not a failure in self-expression. Sometimes he guarded this emotional privacy with aggression - 'the best form of defence is attack.'

In the tiny primary school under the gum trees this shy, funny, aggressive, tow-headed little boy (they called him "Snow" at school) turned to mischief as a relief from boredom. He had an interest in drama. From earliest days he discovered he could effortlessly become leader of a group. He pullulated with ideas for the discomfiture of authority and was prepared to execute them; no doubt grinning, as he did later when such a scheme was forming in his mind. He used 'Dumbleton Public' as a joking retort when asked in England what his school was - an old Dumbletonian! The mischief spread into other activities such as devising complicated schemes for stealing apples from neighbours' gardens, but if he met a frothing neighbour he was frank about the theft, looking the owner straight in the eye with that unwavering gaze. His manners caused reasonably favourable comment among the women of the district - 'Violet's boy may be wild but he is always polite' was the message that came back to his mother.

"Violet's boy" was well disciplined at home. Violet was a benevolent tyrant. The characteristics of that demure flower, always hiding behind it's leaves, were hardly appropriate to her nature, though the flower itself remained her favourite despite long association with more exotic blooms. Her family called her Nin. When young 'she had red hair and a bad temper.' Her eyes were hazel, the gaze dauntingly direct. Her features were drawn finely and she had good lines. Tiny and wirily strong, she possessed that fine sense of balance which kept her glued to the back of a galloping horse or hanging high in a tree. She had beautifully made limbs which her youngest son inherited on a grander scale. She was restless, electrically energetic, tough and uncompromising in her moral attitudes or on any matter of principle, but lightened by intelligence and a dry sense of humour. She was generous to people whom she counted as friends but implacably dismissive of anyone she considered had let her down. 'A hard woman' said her grandson Bruce (Alma's son) who experienced these characteristics, growing up next door to her (Nin and Robert gave Alma the block of land on her marriage). She had no physical fear for herself. She drove an old bull-nosed Morris like a demon, and when Jock was about ten and she past fifty she climbed an immensely tall pine tree to bring him down from his 'hide' where he had currently fortified himself.

Besides these rather bizarre activities of a small Edwardian lady she carried out with competence more homely duties - embroidering, baking a light puff pastry, even painting small pictures of her beloved flowers. Jock remembered her pointing out colours such as heliotrope and madder, which intrigued him. She had a feeling for history, and transmitted the enthusiasm to her son. When he was a little boy she took him on train trips to many parts of New South Wales. She had a friend who lived at Kurnell and whenever they took the ferry across Botany Bay they walked around the stretch of rocky shore and the wooded hillside where Captain Cook first landed; before it was fashionable to take more than cursory note of this event or place.

As he was growing up he had to beware the strap behind the kitchen door although he said he never remembered being punished unfairly. His sister Alma viewed this differently and declared the strap could have been used a lot more often on one she perceived as a spoilt brat.

That difference in views points up the difficulties their mother had in dealing with her daughters. She confided when our eldest daughter was born - 'I always knew how to handle boys but was no good with girls.' This was the nearest she got to touching on the fact that her eldest child, a daughter, had run away from home at the age of seventeen and was never heard of again. Her other daughter, Alma, made persistent efforts over years to find this girl called Daisy - without her mother's assent and without success. 'Nin behaved cruelly to her - she treated her as a kitchen skivvy. I remember seeing her crying often.' Alma would only have been about ten when Daisy left. There may have been some inaccuracy in her memory of events but her feelings about her sister were undeniably deep. She also felt deprived of her mother's love.

Alma wanted to like Jock - at least this was the impression she gave in later life. They may have had a natural antipathy for each other, but in truth it was probably their mother who came between them. Alma had become so embittered through years of frustration in trying to elicit some real affection from her mother that it coloured her whole behaviour. She saw love and companionship being lavished on this often naughty little boy while she was ignored or criticised and often blamed, she said, for his misdemeanours. Whatever feeling she may have had for him, or for her mother, became locked behind a hard protective shell against disappointment. Jock took this to be her nature and an affront against the mother he loved. It was easy to see it in the same way when facing the reality of a bitterly critical woman, yet obvious that she had a real need to give and receive affection.

Just before she died in 1989 she discovered a shattering truth about Daisy. A cousin, Isobel Bagot (daughter of Violet's elder sister), told her that Daisy was not Robert's child. Isobel had been told this in great secrecy when she was growing up, and had kept quiet until the last of Violet's children was dying. This was a shocking revelation about the mother who had been so unyieldingly moral in her attitudes. But it was also an insight into behaviour which had caused enormous pain, and an example of the power of that guilt-ridden morality which must have been absorbed by the young Violet from her bigoted father. At the end of the 19th Century it is inconceivable that his daughter could live easily with the reality of an illegitimate child - even though Robert gave his name and protection to them both. Earlier her mother had been heard to say - 'if any of my girls get into trouble it won't be Violet.' The unhappy child became a symbol of shame and disgrace. The secret was well hidden but it made no difference to the inner reality which must have gone underground as a deep psychological wound. One can only guess at the infinite suffering for herself and both her daughters. She refused to discuss this first daughter in any way at all with anyone, even with Jock whom she adored, or even with me though we talked of many things in the last two years of her life with us in London. There was no word of it in her dying moments.

Uncompromising about this as about so much else, she was very often disconcerting and direct: 'Why don't you wear corsets?' she said to me one day just after Michelle was born. Bridling (I had never worn corsets in my life), I muttered about the benefits of exercise - I was doing some I think - and that I would surely regain my figure anyway. 'You don't like being told do you?' No, I did not like being told. But her honesty was disarming. I did not take to corsets - but she made me think about other things. This direct attacking attitude was tempered by her forbearance when she watched me, while helpless herself, day after day doing things differently from her own way. She rarely mentioned it. She made a difficult situation easier for me.

Her influence on Jock during his childhood was strong. It showed in the moral structure that underlay even his most outrageous behaviour. She would not have condoned most of his rebellious acts but forgave him, whether because of her own secret, or simply an urge to indulge her loved favourite, is uncertain. There seems to have been, in maturity anyway, no fear of God in her morality; even when dying she made no calls on the deity. It may have been a private rebellion. Perhaps there was a ray of truth in the statement that Jock 'was a born rebel.' His mother seethed with it below the surface.

Jock Marshall: One Armed Warrior by Jane Marshall
Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 25 February 1998
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (
Prepared by: Elissa Tenkate

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