When I was a young minister freshly graduated and ordained, my first ministry in the 1960’s, after seven years of the slums of Newmarket, was in a small country church, in the small country town of Ararat, gateway to the Wimmera in Western Victoria. There I learnt the difficult art faced by all city bred ministers, of becoming a country parson.
Around Ararat there were many poor families living on small farms. We usually referred to these people as “subsistence farmers”. They usually managed to eke out a living, and their total cash income for the year, would be far less than what one person would get on an age pension. The small subsistence farmers usually had a small herd of cows, or perhaps a small flock of poor quality sheep, or a few scrubby cattle, or half a dozen vealers they were fattening for the market. Whatever their primary product, they received very little for it when stretched over annual expenses. Mostly they grew vegetables for themselves, and lived on raising chickens providing both their own meat and eggs.
So long as you grew your own vegetables, raised you own meat and drank your own milk you could make do. But they had little money to cover any farm necessities. If the price of milk dropped then they would be forced to sell their cows. These dirt poor farmers were too poor to provide fencing when the existing fencing collapsed and too poor to buy sheep dip or drench. Their kids went without medicine and their parents went without good clothes.
It is a fact, though hard to believe in these more affluent times, that in the decade and a half after the War there were many desperately poor families in Australia. The generations that grew up during the War also knew poverty. And the generation of people who lived through the Depression were able to speak even more vividly about what poverty meant. Even to my time as a young country preacher there were still children who slept three in a bed, where houses had no separate family or rumpus rooms, where people had no lavish meals, and their entire household was terribly cold all winter.
I remember from my visits to the dirt poor farmers that they ate what we usually despise today bread and dripping, suet, liver, shanks broth, day old bread, “specs” from the fruiter, sheep heads soup, cold tongue, and plenty of carbohydrates and bulk in steaming saucepans of porridge and potatoes. Dirt poor people walked long distances. Public transport was just too expensive.
Around Ararat there were still pockets of real rural poverty. The churches helped these dirt poor farmers. You never found the dirt poor farmers at the Church of England. The Church of England was very respectable and only decent land holders, bankers and professional people attended worship there. You never found dirt poor farmers at the Presbyterian Church either, because it was full of wealthy squatters who had lived for generations on land which their forefathers had just claimed. You did find some dirt poor farmers at the Roman Catholic Church, for it was said that the “Catholics looked after their own”.
If you wanted to find the other dirt poor farmers around Ararat you would find them at either the Methodist Church, the Church of Christ or the Baptists, the three churches that had a name for helping although the Baptists expected church attendance and personal morality before any help was given. But the poorest of the poor dirt farmers always could be found at the Salvation Army. There they were helped with no strings attached.
The Ararat Salvation Army was like many corps scattered over Australian in the post War decades. It was small and impecunious. The work was led by a Lieutenant and his wife, usually freshly graduated from the Salvation Army College. They were moved on after a maximum of a year and hardly got to know the work before they were sent to some other place. They were paid a pittance of a salary and lived in the most primitive of the manses attached to any of the town’s churches. The Salvation Army Corps consisted of a few elderly ladies with grey hair and buns, given to good works, a couple of reformed drunks who provided the manpower and the bandmaster, a few single mothers and other women in pathetically thin dresses and a bunch of ragged children.
The Salvation Army ran a thrift shop in town although in reality it was only the porch to the Citadel with some racks of clothes in it. But the clothes were clean, a food parcel was always available, there was always a warm smile, a cheery greeting and a hot cup of tea. The Salvos did it right.
Because I was always concerned for the poor and the needy in our community and helped where I could, I was called upon quite often to help at the Salvation Army in between the movements of various Lieutenants and their wives, or to handle circumstances that were perhaps beyond the experience of the new officer of the Corps. I preached in the Salvation Army regularly and often attended prayer meetings. I got involved with some of their poor families and able to use our resources to help them out.
A typical dirt poor family were the Ryans. They lived out near the end of Seven Mile Road, which meant that they were a fair way from town. The family consisted of husband and wife and one son. Bella, Jack who was usually called Pommie because he had come from England just before World War II, and their son John. They worked on Fiske’s dairy farm, although diary farm was almost too good a word to describe it. The Fiske’s owned the property and they lived in a large house on the other side of Seven Mile Road. I never met them and in fact never even saw them. They lived in Melbourne and ran the farm as a hobby.
Opposite their big house on Seven Mile Road, was the Ryan’s house on the other block to their property. Bella used to run the farm and also do the washing and ironing for Mrs. Fiske. The Fiske’s could not afford to have a man permanently on the property even though they had seventy cows to milk, potatoes in a few acres, and grass hay to be mown and baled each year. So they hired the Ryan family and provided them with rent free accommodation, free milk and vegetables and all the potatoes they could eat, and a few pounds a week income.
The house was typical of a dirt poor subsistence farmer. It consisted of four rooms and out the back a dirt floor lean to. The house had never been painted since the time it was built out of rough sawn timber, felled on the acreage. The lean to at the back had sacking windows over chicken wire. The four rooms in the house were joined by a short passage. Over the door leading from the passage into the kitchen and the main bedroom was the biggest pair of bulls horns I have ever seen in my life mounted on a board with a piece of moth eaten red velvet backing to it. The two front rooms in the Ryans house were never used. That would be surprising to people today. One was a lounge in which they never sat, and the other was the good room kept for visiting relatives or friends of whom they had very few. Those two rooms were kept “for good” and to my knowledge hardly ever occupied.
The next two rooms consisted of their bedroom dominated by a double bed with the most sagging wire and kapok mattress you have ever seen in your life, and there was the kitchen, which was a big room which in fact served as a living room, dining room, rumpus room, family room and kitchen all rolled into one. All the floors were covered with thin condoleum, the kind of tar paper edition of lino. Outside the kitchen was a lean to with a dirt floor. Up one end was the laundry with a couple of stone sinks and a copper, in the middle were always six gumboots and various implements that had been just left before coming into the house, and the other end of the lean two surrounded by chicken wire and sacking windows, served as John’s bedroom.
Outside was one water tank which every summer ran out of water. Down the backyard an old corrugated iron dunny on skids. There were patches of high tall weeds around the backyard, each patch represented a previous resting place for the old dunny. When one hole was full it was covered over and a new hole was dug and the dunny pulled along over it.
I visited their home several times for meals and the meals always consisted of stew with plenty of potatoes and usually a can of peaches for dessert. I recognised that the can had been purchased in honour of our coming. Whenever we visited we took out food, clothes, books and whatever might be useful to the family.
Jack was quite a few years older than Bella. He had been a private in the British regular army during the 1930’s and discharged because of tuberculosis. His lungs were in a very bad condition and he was advised to come to Australia where the sunny climate might give him some hope of recovery. As a discharged permanently invalided soldier of the British Army he continued to receive an invalid pension from Britain. The tuberculosis had been cured but he suffered very bad emphysema and could hardly struggle out of one chair to go to another. He sat at home all day and rarely went out side except for a trip down the backyard. I remember on one occasion visiting them to see him sitting in front of their black and white television set the only luxury that the house afforded just sitting watching the test pattern and listening to the music.
In spite of his emphysema and bad lung condition he smoked 160 cigarettes a day. He was a chain smoker and next to his chair and wherever he moved he carried a tin which contained the most gruesome mixture of old cigarette butts and phlegm which he constantly spat into the tin. Jack was absolutely useless in every way on a farm and made no contribution to the family life.
Bella was the work horse. She milked by hand helped by an antiquated machine, 70 cows a day. She drove the tractor and ploughed the few acres. She sewed the potatoes. She also dug by hand the potatoes. She drove the tractor and cut and baled grass hay. She stacked the bales of hay on a trailer and drove the bales over the road to the hay shed where she stacked the bales under cover. She constantly worked in men’s overalls and gumboots. That was her uniform all the year. In her house she prepared meals in her overalls and bare feet in summer and overalls and gumboots in winter. She had grown up the eldest of eleven children of an unemployed father who, during the Depression, lost his job on the Victorian Railways where he worked as a ganger. She helped look after the ten younger children with her mother and spent all of her early life with little education knowing nothing else except hard domestic work. She was a very large woman and incredibly strong. She had a heart as big as the rest of her and always had a smile and good sense of humour. I really liked Bella.
John was their only child. He had been adopted from the Ballarat Orphanage. He was the most skinny, sickly and spindley child in the Orphanage. The story went that when Jack and Bella went down to the Orphanage they looked around the whole roomful of young orphans and stopped on this one who had been passed over by every other family who selected a child. Bella had said “That one looks like he needs a good feed. We’ll take him.” So John became their only child. But he was a sickly child and throughout his childhood he suffered from what they referred to as “chalky bones”. I do not know the whole story of it, but his bones were very brittle and frequently the slightest fall would end in a broken leg or hip or arm. His hip bones suffered greatly with the hip joints crumbling. In his teenage years he was not allowed to run or play any sport. He also had an allergy problem with grasses which made it very difficult during the cutting of the grass hay. He also was unable to have calcium and I remember calling one day to find on a dairy farm that John was unable to have any milk. He was eating two weetbix for breakfast covered with hot water. In his late teenage years John had a kidney removed which had further debilitating effects upon his life.
Bella insisted that John go to Sunday School at the Salvation Army which had helped them out so often. They would walk almost the full length of the Seven Mile Road to Sunday School. As a teenager John became a Christian. I remember most vividly when he became a soldier in uniform. General Booth never had a more under sized soldier who was unable to fill out a uniform like John Ryan. His Salvation Army cap, which I suppose was the smallest size they made, came down over both ears and his head looked ridiculously small under it. His Salvation Army uniform coat was too big and the shoulder pads would droop over the sides of his narrow, bony shoulders. In spite of his mother turning up his trousers they were always too long. But no one wore a soldier’s uniform with greater pride and meaning than John Ryan. He was a committed Salvationist who loved the Lord and fulfilled his responsibilities.
In the old lean to with it solid tramped dirt floor and hessian and chicken wire windows, John had only a few books in a packing case beside his bed. There was his Salvationist Bible and his songster’s book, and a few books given to him as Sunday School prizes over the years, plus some other books which I had given him.
But it was John’s quality of life inside his frail body that really led Bella to commit her life to Jesus Christ and become a lassie in the Salvation Army. She wore her uniform and bonnet with equal pride. Always her uniform was pressed and clean. She probably only had one or two dresses in her wardrobe and so she wore the uniform whenever she went out or down to town. She wore it with pride, even though it used to ride up over her big hips and there was always one or two inches of petticoat showing in the rear. They were faithful committed Salvationists giving a meagre offering of two shillings a week in what they referred to as bullets, the offering envelopes.
Bella however, was a great fund raiser for the Salvation Army. Every race day she stood at the entrance to the race track rattling her box in her uniform and bonnet and saying to people as they entered the races such things as “Do you want the best tip of the day?” When a punter would stop and enquire she would give him a tip which would be “In life’s handicap event the most sure thing to bet on is Jesus” and then roar with laughter. With a smile the punter would dig in his pocket and deliver two bob or ten shillings to help the Army. If it was a wet day and a heavy track she would say “Do you want to know the best thing to bet on a wet day?” The punter would stop and ask. She would reply “There is no one who goes better in big wet than John the Baptist.” Another roar of laughter and another two bob into the Salvos box.
Every Saturday night she would make the rounds of the hotels rattling her box and selling copies of “The War Cry”. Every now and then some person would wave her on without a donation and Bella would stop and in a loud voice say “I could wring more out of the beer cloth on the counter than I can get out of you.” and with a smile and a laugh the embarrassed drinker would dig deep into his pocket and the Army would have another offering.
Jack never went to the Army because he could not get out of the chair but Bella and John were there every week. They could not do much to help others but they did raise money which allowed the Army to support their Captain and his wife in the good work that they did. They lived too far out to be involved in other meetings and had no car. They walked to church every morning and the Captain and his wife drove them home after Sunday services.
The rest of Jack’s life continued as the earlier part of it. He simply sat in his chair and spat and smoked. Eventually he was taken to the nursing home up on the hill. I visited him a couple of times in the nursing home and he was sitting up in bed smoking. This was against the rules but for a life long chain smoker who was in his last weeks of life, I guess some kindly matron and some understanding doctor decided that he should have his last smoke before the death sentence came upon him. I like to imagine that as he came to the butt end of the last cigarette in the pack Jack took his last puff and disappeared in a cloud of nicotine.
I buried him in the little country cemetery. He had made virtually no impact upon the progress of this life and left no possessions of any note.
Bella continued on. Perhaps life was now easier for her without Jack. Certainly she got round a bit more. But on her own she continued to bale hay and milk the cows and run the farm for the Fiske family. And she rattled the money box for the Salvation Army. Her ready smile made her a character in the community. There was not a man in the community who did not respect Bella as a woman and not one man would have raised a finger to hurt her in any way. They all knew the tough life this dirt poor farmer led and admired her for what she did.
I received an unexpected telephone call from John. He said to me simply, “Would you bury Mum?” The big heart of Bella had just stopped. I tell you there were tears in my eyes when I buried her in a little country cemetery. There were only a few friends present, a couple of her sisters had come up from Melbourne, and some of the Salvation Army were there and a few other dirt poor farmers from the area around. She left few possessions.
We helped John shift to a flat in Melbourne. With Bella’s death the work on the farm could not continue and he lost not only his mother and father, but also his home. He rented a flat and lived on an invalid pension. He had virtually no possessions and the old china and other things from Bella and Jack’s house on Seven Mile Road went back to the thrift shop where they had been purchased in the first place to be recycled into another dirt poor family.
John’s health declined dramatically. I went and visited him in the Royal Melbourne Hospital where he had his other kidney removed. He was now permanently hooked to a dialysis machine and was constantly having a drip in one arm. He was thinner than any other person I have ever seen. The bones of his chest which always seemed to cave inwards, were quite pronounced. As I visited John I realized he was dying inch by inch. There were not enough kidneys around to give him a kidney transplant and even if some kidneys had become available I think they would have gone to someone with more hope of a fulfilling future than John Ryan’s. I visited him regularly in hospital. He was a courageous battler, always putting on a brave front and asking questions about my wife and little children. While I talked, the dialysis machine pumped away and the drip in his arm gave him some vitamins that kept him alive. Occasionally a nurse would administer another injection which was keeping him going. I would always spend an hour or so beside his bed and after sharing news about what was happening in the world and in our family I would read the Scriptures from his Salvationist Bible and then pray with him. Inside I was crying for John.
As I sat beside his bed in the Royal Melbourne Hospital on one occasion, for the first time in my life I was tempted to play God, and kick out the plug in the wall that provided the power for the dialysis and life support system. Many times I looked at the cords around my feet and thought that if I pulled the cords out from the wall and kept talking with him for an hour or so, provided no nurse checked his condition he would possible sleep peacefully and die. I was face to face with the moral dilemma of euthanasia, but it was the face of a skinny young man I loved.
John was a couple of years older than I was and I was 26 at the time. John died. I laid him to rest beside his mother and father in the little country cemetery. A couple of ladies attended and a few people from the Salvation Army and some other dirt poor farmers. John’s possessions were few. I suggested they go to the Salvation Army thrift shop where they might help some other poor people. They all went except one family possession which came to me in a round about way. On the back was a label which read “For Gordon Moyes Please Deliver”.
If you would come to my home a few years ago, over the top in a fifty year old passage way that runs outside our boys’ bedrooms down to the kitchen there is an old fashioned pelmet half way down the passage and on that wooden pelmet there is a large pair of bull’s horns mounted on some moth eaten red velvet. It looks completely out of place in our home, but I rarely pass underneath it when, seeing it, I do not think of John Ryan and the dirt poor farmers.
When I shifted houses, the horns came with us, and stand over the double doors to our barn. There they are at home.
Everything I have told you including their names, about Jack and Bella and John Ryan is absolutely true. For you see I had known them at the time of John’s death of all of my 26 years. Bella was actually “Aunty Bella” my mother’s older sister. Jack was “Uncle Jack” and John was my cousin.
Australia still has dirt poor families who, through no fault of their own, have very little of this world’s goods, who live good lives, contribute what they can to society, and live a life of faithfulness. I often think of them when Canberra makes economic changes that mean very little on paper but can easily wipe out a family’s livelihood.
There are still plenty of Bellas and Jacks and Johns who depend upon the Salvation Army and Wesley Mission to help them survive in these tough times. The dirt poor farmers taught me lessons about faith and trust and hard work when I used to visit them on my rounds at Ararat and I always came home to the country manse at 90 High Street, opposite the Railway Station, having learnt another lesson in the difficult art of becoming a country parson.