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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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.