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.
Like many country towns Ararat was full of community groups. There was a group it seemed for everybody and every interest. On one occasion I got from the Town Hall a list of all the registered groups in Ararat in order to invite them to support our evangelistic outreach to young people called “Teen Week”. I discovered that there were 312 different groups or clubs in Ararat yet we had a population in the entire area of only 8,001, as the signpost outside the town clearly boasted. Actually the Shire workmen kept painting the correct number of residents in our Shire as 8,000 but every time some young fellow had his first baby born it was the custom to go out and paint over the sign and add the one new child to the town’s total population. In all of my time there, however, the number of deaths we had outstripped the number births by far yet the population always was boasted as 8,000.
The sporting clubs received the most of the attention in the “Ararat Advertiser”. There was of course the Ararat Turf Racing Club, the Gun Club, the Swimming Club, the Football Club, the Soccer Club, the Cricket Club, the Dog Racing Club, the Trotting Club, the Boxing Club, the Rifle Club, the Small Bore Club and I often wondered who the small bore was that founded that group, the Fly Fishing Club, the Ladies Scottish Dancing Club, the Ladies Highland Pipe Band, and so on. There were groups and activities for all kinds of sport and recreation.
Then there were the educational groups. Each of the schools had its Parents and Friend Association and Mothers Club. There were various forms of study groups, an Esperanto group dedicated to the spreading of Esperanto as a common language throughout the world, a Chess Club, a Philately Club and clubs for all kinds of educational pursuits. There was the Mechanics Institute Committee, the Library Committee, and the various Music Committees who, instead of finding unity in their common interest of music seemed to be more bitterly opposed to each other than to the philistines who had no musical ability, for the Classical Music Club would have nothing to do with the Country and Western Club which in turn had nothing to do with the Light Opera Company. They in turn had nothing to do with the Gilbert and Sullivan Society.
One of the educational groups asked me to become what they called a “critic”. I had never heard of the Penguin Club before and went along with some trepidation. Some twenty women met every Tuesday night in the Women’s Croquet Club rooms to present prepared speeches to each other and to learn the art of self expression, self confidence, and the ability to lead meetings. I was one of the two critics in town, the other being the local magistrate Mr. Alan Vanstan. It was our responsibility to listen carefully to all the lady speakers on a given night and then to criticise them constructively pointing out the errors of their ways, of their logic, and weaknesses in construction and presentation.
Now I come to think of it I was gamer than Ned Kelly standing up to criticise those women week after week and yet it was one of the more pleasurable memories I have of Ararat because the Ararat Penguin Club ladies were absolutely discreet, never criticising the critic and always being extraordinarily polite to us over supper which they prepared in the Ladies Croquet Club rooms kitchen. I have on my shelf at home three little black and white china penguins gifts from the ladies after different sessions in appreciation of my work as a critic.
The most secretive clubs in the community were the various Masonic groups, some with interesting initials like the M.U.I.O.O.F. and unusual names like “The Buffaloes”. Judging from some of the men who attended in their evening wear there were some odd fellows that met the Masonic Hall.
And then there were all the church groups. Enough in all the denominations to please everybody.
Then there were the service clubs. It was only a matter of a few months before I had been invited to speak to each of the service clubs in turn and I carefully made my observations of them. The Rotary Club met in the biggest hotel in the community, had a glorious dinner together, a long night of business and of festivities, and were quite clearly the most affluent people in the community. They raised lots of money and organised many fine community service activities although it seemed that most of them had the hard work done by simply seconding some workers from their places of business to do the various jobs rather than doing it themselves. The Apexians, on the other hand, consisted of the young fellows around town, usually school teachers and bank tellers who were shifted into Ararat for a year or two and who clubbed together for mutual friendship and encouragement. They were the real work horses of the community and were always hard at work erecting swings and childrens’ playground equipment. The group I didn’t feel at home with met in the bottom hotel on the outskirts of Ararat. They were the Ararat Lions Club and seemed to consist of truck drivers, workers from the abattoirs, and warders from the prison or J Ward. Their meetings were fairly rowdy and large amounts of alcohol were consumed. I know they did some good works in town but I am afraid the drinking patterns seemed to be the greater interest. I was speaking at a District Conference of Lions not long afterwards and made the error of telling them of my observation. I made the quote “I have visited the service clubs in this town and I discovered that the Apexians do all the work around town, the Rotarians walked around as if they owned the place, and the Lions drank it dry”.
It was an accurate description of a very limited number of clubs and most certainly not true for the wonderful work done by the Lions organisation around Australia. However, my challenge to the Lions to commit themselves to community service fell upon deaf ears because this little saying about the Apexians, Rotarians and Lions was picked up by the chief reporter of the Hamilton “Spectator” who was present in the meeting. He duly reported it on the front page emblazoned in headlines, which in turn was picked up on the front page of the Melbourne “Herald” in the “In Black and White Column” the most widely read column of all the daily newspapers in Melbourne. That led to it being repeated in other newspapers and I received an avalanche of mail from angry members of Lions International. I have consequently accepted every invitation to speak at Lions International District Conference trying to atone for the error of my ways.
The biggest group in all the community, however, was the Country Women’s Association. During my time as a country parson I was invited to speak at their 40th Anniversary in 1965. In their forty years in Ararat the CWA had wonderful record of community service. I spoke to a packed Town Hall under the banner “Service To The Country, Through Country Women, For Country Women, And By Country Women”. They had the best choir in the community and recruited singers from all the church choirs, not only within the township but throughout the Shire. They certainly had the best cooks and when the Ararat annual show was on the Country Women’s Association members took all the first prizes.
Their handcrafts were always the best and their superb bottles of preserves so neatly and carefully arranged in their Fowlers jars were a work of artistic merit. They were also the best dressers in town. The women very largely looked alike they were big, solid country women of ample proportions and beautifully dressed with lots of tweeds and kilts with matching hand woven scarves and wore sensible walking shoes. They had built the CWA Baby Health Centre, and the CWA Rest Rooms which were right in the heart of the city near the Town Hall. They were hard working women who provided the best of hospital visitors in our community and who responded to my call once to provide a youth tea for more than a thousand young people I gathered for a special youth rally. I enjoyed the CWA.
Of all groups in Ararat probably the saddest I ever visited was the ALP political group. The Liberal and Country Party groups did not seem to hold political rallies. Neither did they seem to do much work. They just had members everywhere who did whatever was needed to be done. Our local member was Mr. Henry Bolte, the Premier of Victoria for the past ten years. He had been the Member for our area for the previous twenty years and was the most powerful political figure in Victoria at this stage. He had gained so many government enterprises for Ararat, including the district offices of so many government departments, Telecom, State Rail Authority, Country Fire Authority, Prison, Mental Hospital, and Health and Education Services district offices that he had brought a great deal of employment and wealth to the community through the government offices. No one wanted Henry Bolte to stop representing us.
The ALP had a small political meeting that met in the Railway Institute rooms which were always enveloped in clouds of cigarette smoke and stale beer smells. There was a hardy group of men who worked down in the railway sheds who provided the main core of the ALP. Each election they fielded candidates who just did not have a hope against the combined forces of the Liberal Party and the Country Party and the powerful personality of Henry Bolte.
Incidentally, Henry was no slouch as a politician. I had the temerity to invite him to attend our church on one occasion and when his government car pulled up he jumped out of it full of energy, pumped my hand as if I was his oldest friend, and then started to tell me how much he was impressed by my work and ministry and quoted facts and figures and statistics about our church, its influence in the community, and what I was doing which left me just breathless. I know he had a careful group of people to prepare his speeches and do the homework for him, but when he responded like that to a young country parson I recognised the skills that made him a powerful premier. He had been born just out of Ararat and had farmed in the area all his life. He was one of us and there was no way that Ararat would vote Henry out of office.
However, at each election someone stood as the candidate for the rather defeated and dismal ALP.
I got a surprise as to who the ALP endorsed candidate was to be one year. There were two bee keepers in our community. Bill, a bachelor who was the organist in our church was a very quiet and shy man who in a most retiring way quietly shifted his square hives of bees from paddock to paddock. The second bee keeper, Harry, was very much the same nature. I guess bee keeping must be one of the most lonely jobs there is as when the season came the men loaded their old trucks with hundreds of hives and kept travelling for months on end throughout the Wimmera, checking their hives, caring for the bees, collecting the honey, with very rare trips back home.
Harry Harrigan and his wife, Elspeth, were members of the Presbyterian Church. She was a very intelligent and well educated woman who had been educated at Ballarat College in her earlier life. I think she also had some professional training as she always spoke and acted as if she was a woman of outstanding professional characteristics and capabilities. One day, at some inter church function, Harry who very rarely said a word, replied to my question about his work and his family by saying “Did you know Elspeth is standing for election in two weeks time?” I nearly fell over. I knew the election was coming and I hadn’t seen any posters up but I couldn’t imagine Elspeth as the ALP endorsed candidate. All I could think of was that someone had done some fast talking and perhaps an intelligent, cultured and well educated woman might be the very candidate the ALP needed to unseat Henry Bolte.
I muttered that I didn’t know that she was standing for the election but asked Harry how he thought she would go. Harry was in no doubt whatever, “Oh, she’ll win she’s got all the women behind her. They’ve all told her that they intend to vote for her.” Suddenly I realized that there was a revolution going on in our town and I hadn’t heard about it nor read about it in the Ararat “Advertiser”. If Elspeth had all the women behind her then Henry would really have to look to his laurels. I couldn’t imagine the Premier being unseated but it was a pretty torrid time in the rest of our State and the fact that there weren’t many advertising signs up by the Parties meant very little as the only signs usually put up were on polling day because the ALP was fairly dispirited during those years.
The following Sunday, prior to the election, I thought I had better made some comment and urge the people to think carefully about their vote. I urged them to consider the merits of the candidates and to vote as they thought best for our country and our local community. I told them that I commended them personally the man who had represented them so well over the past years and on the other hand I wanted to say that the woman candidate was a fine Christian lady of deep commitment to the Presbyterian Church and to the community and we should consider carefully the merits of voting for her.
On election day the posters went up and we all tramped into the Ararat Town Hall to cast our ballot. Bolte romped home with a record win. Something like 75% of the community voted for him. But I was shocked to see the ALP candidate was some man whose name I did not recognise. Elspeth’s name was not on the voting paper at all.
I couldn’t believe it. When I came home I got on the phone and rang up Harry and said to him, “Harry, you told me that Elspeth was standing for the election in two weeks time. But her name wasn’t on the voting paper. I told the church to consider voting for her carefully.” Harry paused a long time and then replied, “She will appreciate your support and I still think she’ll get elected next Tuesday.”. “But what election is being held next Tuesday, Harry?” I asked. “The Country Womens Association are electing their president next Tuesday” he said to me. I then realized why it was so significant that Elspeth had all the women behind her.
It is not easy being a young city born minister working as a country parson. I made lots of errors, but as I walked home from the voting tables in the Ararat Town Hall I was about to learn another one, as I made my way 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.