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Escaping a terrible family history

Professor Alistair Thomson discusses his family story of war and repatriation.
PROFESSOR THOMSON: So Hector goes to see a neurologist in Melbourne. And the neurologist says it could be one of two things. It could be an exhaustion psychosis, which is basically he’s not managing post-war life, and it’s down to Hector’s fault. Or it could be encephalitis lethargica, which is something I had to look up and work out. But basically this is a condition we know about through Oliver Sacks’s book and film, “Awakenings”, which is basically a whole lot of people, healthy people, just went and fell into comas in the 1920s and ’30s and remained so for many, many years. And we now think– medical experts now think– it was probably caused by the Spanish Flu, 1918-19.
And the respiratory infection that Hector had in 1919 may have been enough to trigger basically what was mental damage, neurological damage, that then came out five or six years later as part of this epidemic. It’s a worldwide epidemic. Now, the doctors thought that was possible. They knew enough to think that that might have possible. And he’s lucky, because in his medical records– this record from the war– it actually has “respiratory infection”. They can put the two together, and so they say, there’s enough evidence here to suggest. And so he gets a pension. He gets a 75% pension, which– because by this time he can’t work.
Nell’s writing desperate letters to the repat about she’s having to employ a man, she doesn’t have enough money, Hector’s in bed the whole time, he’s collapsing, he’s a semi-conscious, he’s in a real mess. And so the pension really makes it possible. She’s got two small children, she’s running the farm pretty much by herself, she’s running the finances, she’s running the house, looking after two kids, and looking after a very sick First World War Veteran. And so they get this pension, and it makes family life possible. So in on sense, it’s a good story about the repat.
If you could make a connection between something that happened to you in the war and something that happened to you after the war, and if you were lucky enough to have a specialist or a doctor who made that connection, then you got the pension. It actually ends up being a very sad story, because just after they get the pension, everything seems to be– it’s still difficult, he’s not a well man. And in fact, the mental health episode.
He then collapses again in 1931, gets sent to Caulfield repat, and then there’s a note in the repat file from repat, and he has a complete mental breakdown, gets aggressive with people around him, and he gets put into the Royal Park Receiving Home, which is the receiving home for the mental asylum. And he’s there for six weeks. So I was probably wrong to say he was in and out of mental hospital. He was there for six weeks, enough for it be something that’s completely written out of family memory because of the stigma. He does come back. He’s not well, and then the extraordinary turn of events is that Nell has a gallbladder problem.
She’s sent into Gippsland General Hospital for an operation. The night before, she writes this note, and we’ve still got a copy of it. Dad kept this note, and it just says “For Hector”. And she writes this note in pencil the night before she dies. And this is sort of– if people are doing this course and finding family records, it’s these sort of photos and these files and there are notes like this. So she’s writing from St. Helen’s Hospital on a Wednesday. “Hector, darling, I’m writing just in case anything should happen to me. Please promise me that the boys will not be separated and parted, but brought up together. No more, darling husband.
Your loving wife, Nell” And she dies that night under anaesthetic. And so we’ve got this very sick man, two small children– my father, aged seven, and his younger brother, aged five– and the extraordinary thing is that Hector, who’d struggled all the way through the 1920s and early ’30s, pulls himself together enough to just about manage. And maybe he had this strong assertive wife who was able to run the show. She wasn’t there, so he did the best he could. It was a grim childhood for my father David and uncle Colin, which is partly why the memory of it’s so painful.
The farm was going bust, Hector took to drink, the boys were going to be pulled out of school, but the new bus service gets them to Sale High, they managed that. In the end, dad– there’s an inheritance of a hundred pounds– and he gets off to a school in Melbourne for one year. And that’s his way through to Duntroon. World War II’s broken out. All three of them go war. The extraordinary thing is that Hector, who’s been so unwell all through the 1920s and ’30s, he wants to get away from the farm. The boys are just about to leave, so he farms Colin out to an uncle, and he goes to Melbourne to enlist in Second AIF.
And he lies about his age. He puts his age down– because the records are in the files. He lies about where he was born. He says he was born in Clydebank in Scotland, not Clydebank in Victoria. And he changes his name and puts a P in Thomson, but then he signs it and forgets to put a P in the signature. And it’s quite clear from the medical officer’s comments they know he’s over age, but they want him to join. So he joins up. And he’s doing all that because he doesn’t want the medical officer to find his mental health records from the First World War. So that’s not an uncommon story.
But actually, it wasn’t the Army that was Hector’s problem, because actually the Army was a safe refuge from a really terrible domestic life. So he joins up again. Eventually he gets injured again and is brought back to Australia and dies as a broken man in the 1950s. So that’s Hector’s story. And in a way, it’s a story that the repat files enable us to tell. The story has a sort of nice ending in a way in that I rewrite the chapter– I’m going to write a new chapter about Hector and about Nell. And I talked to my dad about it. Dad, by this stage, is in his late 80s.
He’s early stages of dementia, but he can he can concentrate enough. When I give him a copy of the draft to read, I’ve never seen– his face. His concentration as he works through. He’s reading a story that he never understood and never knew. He’s a young boy. He doesn’t know about his father’s illness, and he doesn’t know about his extraordinary mother. He can read and see these letters where his mother’s writing to the repat just with– she’s an extraordinary woman. And it made it possible. It made it possible for me to go back to my dad and say, this was your mother, and she was an extraordinary woman.
And you didn’t realise how sick your father was, and, yeah, he was a terrible father in all sorts of ways, but he managed to keep you and your brother together and got you through. And so in the end, and for me probably the most lovely moment, was dad saying, OK, I’m happy for you to publish that chapter and to write the things that I hadn’t written 30 years before. And I guess I’d changed. I suppose I’ve matured as a historian, and probably in 1983 I was an angry young man and wanted to say how terrible things were.
And now I have a much more complex understanding of my father’s father as a man who was damaged by the war and a family that was damaged by the war and of how family memory was fragmented and fractured, but then in a way, put together. I guess that’s what we do as historians, we try to put together stories in a way– we don’t do it just to heal. We do it to better understand. But in this case, better understanding for my father was, I think, healing. And I think, actually, it was really good for him– it was just before he died- to be able to rediscover the story of a terrible family history.
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