I was briefly in Melbourne for Friday and Saturday, attending the funeral of my great-uncle, Bill Harry, who died age 94.
Bill was the brother of my father’s mother, and the last of his generation. I refuse to feel upset when anyone over the age of 80 dies; in his case, I feel privileged to have known a fine man.
The Harrys are my Cornish ancestors, mostly seafarers from St Ives on the north coast of Cornwall. I imagine them to have been smugglers or pirates at some point!
My Harry ancestors all seem to have had sturdy constitutions, and lived to great ages. But they seem to fade out in their late 80s, and Bill had some years with advanced dementia. Which was a sad thing, as he had always been a great fellow to have a chat with.
Bill was a great family historian, and lover of anecdote. Apparently his grandfather John Harry was a sailor on a ship, captained by his uncle, who landed during the Victorian gold rush of the 1850s. John deserted the ship, with many others of the sailors, and it seems that his uncle refrained from having him dragged back in chains as a deserter.
John Harry had little luck with mining, then had a fine farm and the largest Clydesdale stud in Australia, then lost it all in the Great Depression.
Bill himself was a semi-legendary figure. His funeral program shows a dashing young soldier of World War II, as part of the 2/22 Infantry Battalion. They had 1300 troops, and found themselves facing a Japanese invasion force of 20,000. Some surrendered, and were sent away on a Prisoner-of-War ship which was sunk in mysterious circumstances. Others split up and lived off the jungle until they could escape — and Bill as a kid from the bush was one of these, with excellent survival skills.
Eventually about 400 of them made their way home. Bill’s battalion mates made it clear that Bill deserves a lot of the credit for those who made it back.
Back in Australia, Bill worked tireless for the survivors of his battalion, and for war veterans generally. His day job was setting up soldier settlement farms, but he worked on many committees. Here’s the list from his eulogy, which I think is just remarkable:
Aside from being President and later Secretary of 2/22 Battalion Lark Force Association from the 1950’s until 2002, Bill was:
- Honorary Treasurer of the Victorian Returned Servicemans League (RSL) for 39 years,
- on the Board of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust which raised the funds and set up the Winston Churchill Scholarship.
- on the Salvation Army Executive Committee for over 20 years,
- on the Corps of Commissionaires Board of Governors for over 30 years,
- a founding member of the Anti-Cancer Appeal,
- 26 years as Chairman of the Patriotic Funds Council of Victoria,
- a Trustee with the Necropolis Trust for 15 years from 1988.
- He was also a Council Member of the Melbourne Lord Mayor’s Fund for Hospitals and Charities for 40 years.
Within the RSL he was
- Honarary State Treasurer for 37 years
- Treasurer of the War Veterans’ Homes Trust
- Treasurer of the RSL Widows and Widowed Mothers’ Trust
- Chairman of the Anzac Appeal and Poppy Appeal
- a member of the RSL National Finance Committee
- he was Chairman of the RSL Cricket Competition (cricket being a great love)
Bill was very much the youngest of his siblings, and married later in life: to Ruth McMasters, a teacher in New Guinea.
His kids Frazer and Rohan were not so much younger than myself or my sister, so they counted as younger cousins and we saw quite a bit of them. Whenever they arrived, I quickly hid my favourite toys to avoid their destruction! The family in general felt that Bill and Ruth let the kids run amok.
As I expected, Frazer and Rohan grew up to be confident and capable adults — and it was great to be able to catch up with them again. Ruth remains a favourite aunt.
I left the farm at 6.30 am on the Friday, driving by myself down the Hume Highway, and only just made the funeral at 2pm — after rear-ending someone in slow traffic just fifteen minutes short of the nominated time. Guess my concentration must have lapsed.
Thanks to my sister Glyn for putting me up for the night, and we had a very pleasant cafe dinner together. Then the long trip back.