In the World War One letters I have posted on this site we have encountered members of Gordon Iles’ immediate family, his parents Arthur and Margaret and his siblings Florrie, Sarah, Elvie, Cliff and Tom.
In this post I will try to describe who these people were and what their lives were like. This helps us understand the culture and values that shaped the Iles’ family correspondence. It also helps answer the question, if Gordon had lived what life might he have led?
Fortunately, we have both first-hand and documentary evidence about the lives of Gordon’s family members. My main source of first-hand history is my mother Beverley Croome who was the daughter of Gordon’s younger brother Tom. The written evidence consists of photographs, official documents and a multitude of articles about the Iles family in local newspapers such as the the Burnie Advocate and the Launceston Examiner. Thanks also to Florrie Iles son, Neville Smith, Sarah Iles granddaughter-in-law, Noelle McArthur, and Sarah’s great granddaughter, Anita McArthur, for some of the family photos.
Let’s begin with three photos of the Iles family probably taken in 1917 and sent to Gordon as postcards.
The first is a family portrait taken in front of the family home in Thirlstane. This may be the photo Gordon refers to in his letter to his brother Cliff where he writes “And I can see a big change in you all in that photo. You and Tom seem to have grown [into] such big roosters. I will only be a little fellow beside you when I get back”.
Gordon’s father, Arthur, wrote the following message on the back of this card:
“You will know where this is taken. Irene Iles from N.Z. is standing between Sarah and Elvie and you will know Tom by his curls. A.H.I”
The second photo of the family shows them around their new car. It is probably taken the same day because Tom (standing behind the car) has the same clothes on. This is likely the car Florrie refers to in her letter to Gordon in early 1918 when she writes “I wish the war was over and you was home again. it would be lovely. I reckon you will be driving the car when you come home”.
Arthur’s message on the back of this card was:
“You will see this is the car that you will have to drive when you com(e) home. you can see the shed I built for it where the old Blacksmiths shop was. it is a good car, electric lights, self star(t).”
“Self start” refers to a starter motor, as opposed to ignition through the use of a hand crank. Starter motors were invented in 1896 but the commercial manufacture of self starting cars didn’t begin until 1912, and they didn’t come to dominate the market until 1919 when starter motors were first installed in the Model T Ford. The Iles’ car is most likely an Australian Holden body on an American or British chassis. In 1917, war-related restrictions on foreign luxury goods allowed the importation of many more car chassis than car bodies, giving Holden a market opening. I assume starter motors were also a Holden contribution to cars assembled and sold in Australia.
The third photo is of a team of horses. The man on horseback may be Cliff Iles. The man standing may be Arthur. Nothing was written on the back of this card.
What follows are notes on the members of Gordon’s immediate family featured in these photos, and then notes on the family’s social and political activities. Following that are reflections on Gordon’s family and what life he might have had.
Who were Gordon’s parents and siblings?
With the first photo as our cue, let’s have a look at Gordon’s immediate family. Gordon’s parents, Arthur and Margaret, are seated on the left. Arthur was born in Colebrook, in 1867, and was the grandson of convicts. He moved with his family to the North West Coast when his father, Henry Iles, acquired land at the eastern end of Thirlstane, not far from the Rubicon River, an area traditionally owned by the indigenous Tommeginne people. The only artefact I’m aware of from this time in Arthur’s life is the atlas he had at school, in which he traced the borders of the British empire in thick red pencil.
Arthur took over Henry’s farm when the latter moved to New Zealand in the early 1890s. He further increased his holdings further when the major local landowner, Robert Stewart, was hit hard by the depression caused by the collapse of the Van Diemen’s Land Bank in 1891 (for more on this see Charles Ramsey, With the Pioneers, 4th edition, 2015, p53). Arthur was an Anglican, a freemason and a prosperous farmer. Algerian oats and potatoes were his cash crops (Gordon refers disdainfully to growing oats in this letter to his brother, Cliff). In the early 1920s the Mersey Oil Company bored for oil on Arthur’s farm. Thanks to a £10,000 reward for payable oil deposits offered by the Commonwealth Government there was oil drilling up and down the Mersey Valley with lots of headlines about imminent “gushers”. Nothing came of it.
Arthur had a forthright manner, but he was also renowned for his generosity to families with less than his. He was heavily involved in community and public life, as we shall see directly. He had a temper when his patience was stretched but was also sentimental. When twin girls, Pat and my mother Bev, were born to Arthur’s son Tom, Arthur was blind. He felt the babies’ faces to know what they looked like. He only lived a few more months. When he gave each new-born twin a shawl, he said to their mother Amy, “tell them who I was”.
Margaret, nee Aitken, was the daughter of Scottish immigrants who settled at the western end of Thirlstane. She had nineteen brothers and sisters which may explain why she was known as uncommonly kind, patient and loving. Tom’s wife Amy remembered her as “the most beautiful lady you will ever meet”, high praise from a daughter-in-law. Margaret loved to hitch up her skirts and head down to the beach to play with her many nieces, nephews and grandchildren.
Arthur and Margaret retired to a fifty acre farm on a hill overlooking Devonport where they built a house similar to the one they left behind (their new home was named “Highfield”, I assume because it was on the highest field in the district). Arthur died in 1936 and Margaret in 1944. They were both buried with their forbears at the New Ground Church of England cemetery near Thirlstane (sadly, the New Ground church is among those many Tasmanian Anglican churches currently scheduled to be closed). The story of Arthur and Margaret’s ancestors is directly relevant to how Gordon saw himself and how his parents saw his war service and death. I will tell these stories in another post.
Standing in the back row of the Iles family portrait photo, from left to right, are Gordon’s siblings, Tom and Elvie, his cousin Irene from New Zealand, then two more siblings, Sarah and Cliff. The girl in front is Gordon’s sibling, Florrie. Her cheeky grin shows she was not one to do what was expected, but more about that in a minute. The woman seated on the right is probably Margaret’s younger sister, and Gordon’s aunty, Marion. Gordon and his siblings were born over a decade. His one older sibling, Sarah, was born in 1893 (according to her birth certificate she arrived in the world on Boxing Day, but family tradition says it was Christmas Day. It was common at the time for a child born on Christmas Day to have their birthday discreetly moved, for the sake of the child and Jesus). Gordon’s youngest sibling, Florrie, was born in 1903. The Iles children regularly attended the New Ground church. There were no high schools on the North West Coast until 1916, so they all left school after Grade Six, aged around twelve.
Tom took over part of his parents’ farm when his parents retired. Newspaper reports from the 1930s indicate he was growing flax, a crop that would prove profitable during World War Two when it was used to make everything from machine lubricant to parachutes. Tom lived on this property with wife, Amy, and their six children, including Bev, until he and Amy retired to Latrobe in 1950. Three of Tom and Amy’s sons, Laurie, Kevin and Barrie, farmed in the Thirlstane district. Tom’s farm and home were taken over by Kevin. Tom and Amy’s home is now owned by their great grandson, Daniel Iles. Daniel’s parents, Wayne and Michelle Iles, still farm at Thirlstane.
Tom was my grandfather so I could write a great deal about him. For brevity, Bev’s recollection is of someone who was forthright, like Arthur, but also empathetic and emotional like Margaret. Like Arthur he was involved in community life and was generous to others. After he died in 1984 people from the district told Bev they don’t know how their families could have survived the depression without meat and vegetables left for them by Tom Iles. Tom was always on the go. Years before my parents were born my other grandfather-to-be, Norm Croome, bought skins off Tom. Norm recalled that the only way to keep up with this purposeful Thirlstane farmer was to run. Later in life, when Tom was diagnosed with angina, his response to his doctor’s advice to rest for an hour after lunch was “bugger that”.
Tom and his older brother Cliff we’re close in age and according to family lore they had their own childhood language incomprehensible to everyone else. Like Tom, Cliff farmed part of his parent’s land after they retired. But he was unlike Tom in many other ways. Bev remembers him as handsome, affable, talkative, with a twinkle in his eye and joke always at hand. My sister Sharon recalls hearing a story about Cliff scaring attendees at a local dance by running around the venue, dragging a stick along its outside walls. Bev can’t recall that particular story but says “it’s just what he would do”. Bev does recall the differences in outlook between Cliff and her father, Tom. As Tom strode back to the plough, Cliff would string up a hammock until the midday sun had passed. He was relaxed about public life as well as farm work. Apart from a news report of his wedding and a letter he wrote about dairying, Cliff’s name barely appears in the papers of the day. Bev remembers Cliff to be less social than Tom in later life, a paradox given their personalities. Whereas Tom’s home was always open to visitors, Cliff and his wife, Mattie, kept more to themselves. Cliff and Mattie named one of their sons, Gordon, after the boy’s late uncle.
You may remember Elvie and Sarah from Florrie’s letter in my first post on this site. Florrie wrote that Elvie was to be Sarah’s bridesmaid when she married Alec Dawson. Bev remembers Elvie and Florrie as kind and loving like their mother. Sarah was steelier. Sarah’s granddaughter, Josie Dawson, says Sarah was in New Zealand sometime before this photo, but Arthur called her home.
Florrie was also called home. She had moved to NSW with her husband, Dalton Smith, but she returned to care for her parents in their final years and then inherited their Devonport farm. As the township of Devonport marched up the hill, Florrie sold off some of her land to developers. She had converted to Catholicism when she married Dalton which is why she gave the rest of her land to the Catholic Church to build what is now St Brendan’s Shaw College. Christian Brothers lived in the house Arthur and Margaret built. Sadly, it was demolished a few years ago to make way for school administration blocks raising the need for the old farm houses dotted across suburban Devonport to be better protected. Like her parents, Florrie lost a child. Her son David drowned in the Mersey River. St Brendan’s football oval is named for him.
If you’re wondering whether having a Catholic daughter and grandchildren was a problem for an Anglican and mason like Arthur, the answer is yes. Anti-Catholic sentiment ran deep in Tasmania in the early twentieth century. Catholics were looked on with suspicion because of their “superstitions” and “divided loyalties”. They routinely faced discrimination in employment and housing. For all their generosity to others, the Ileses could also be sectarian. I recall my grandfather, Tom, saying he disapproved of inter-faith marriages, at least before Catholics “changed” after Vatican II. This will give you some insight into the stress Florrie’s conversion caused. That the family remained close despite this shows how deep their bonds ran.
Returning a final time to the family portrait above, I have no information about cousin Irene from New Zealand. She doesn’t appear in any other photos. Bev has no recollection of Gordon’s aunt Marion, although cards she sent Gordon have survived, perhaps indicating a special relationship. Bev does remember Marion’s twin sister, Agnes. Because Agnes was a twin she was Bev and Pat’s godmother, a role she took quite seriously. She regularly delivered the young twins into Latrobe, in the back of her horse-drawn cart, for piano lessons from the nuns at the convent. It seems Catholics were at least good for teaching music.
The social life of the Iles family
If you only knew the Ileses from newspaper articles you would assume they partied constantly. Between the 1910s and the 1940s there are dozens of newspaper reports of social events that involved Gordon’s immediate family members, many of which were held at their house or granary. These events included birthday parties, wedding receptions, wedding anniversaries, parties for the arrival or departure of relatives, Red Cross fundraising dances and dances after ploughing competitions. There would be dancing, live music provided mostly by a piano and accordion and maybe a fiddle, singing, games and performances. The revellers would often enjoy “a sumptuous supper” which Bev says involved a lot of cakes with a lot of whipped cream. Obviously, these events punctuated weeks of hard and repetitive farm and housework so it’s easy to image why they were “thoroughly enjoyed by everyone in attendance”.
Old-style country dances were a resilient tradition in rural Tasmania with Tom’s son Rex and his wife Betty (who farmed at Barrington) travelling up and down the NW Coast to play at them right up to the 1970s (Betty’s birth family fielded a band that she also played in, “The Banfield Orchestra”). Recent research into Tasmanian country dancing before 1950 shows it was essentially an Anglo-Celtic repertoire of jigs, reels, waltzes, polkas, square dances and progressive dances like the Barn Dance, Pride of Erin and Gay Gordons. But sometimes the phrasing, playing styles and dances were specifically Tasmanian. According to Tasmanian folk music experts, Steve and Majorie Gadd, endemic dances included “the Huon Valley’s own Broom Dance and the Frog Dance, an extremely athletic dance from the North and East of the State that looks like a cross between Cossack dancing and Irish Step dancing and a local form of clogging or tap dancing”. Photos of Margaret’s large Aitken family, usually taken on celebratory occasions, often include a bagpiper. Outdoor dancing accompanied by the pipes was a Scottish tradition that clearly continued in Tasmania.
The Iles family’s social events would often run into the small hours of the morning and almost invariably ended with everyone singing “God Save the King”. As you can see from the news reports above and below, that was the finale of my grandfather, Tom’s, bachelor party and of the kitchen party held for Tom and his fiancé, Amy, the night after. From this we gain a small but important insight: the Ileses saw themselves not only as Tasmanian farmers and citizens of a new nation called Australia, but as subjects of a global empire, an empire that then saw itself under the greatest threat since the war with Napoleon a century earlier, an empire less confident than the one Arthur traced in red when he was a child. “God Save the King” was a song of defiance, solidarity and hope at a time of crisis, as much as a song of loyalty and ethnic identity. When I was a child, my immediate family and I would spend Christmas evening with our extended family at my grandparents’ home. As the time came for the Queen’s Christmas Message my many uncles, aunties and cousins would hush. When the anthem began my grandfather would stand, not in a pompous or showy way, but because it had been deeply significant to him and his family at a formative time in his life.
A note on language: the bachelor party news report above uses the term “boy friends” to mean men who are friends in the same way women still use “girl friends”. At some point in the last century “boy friends” lost its connotation of friendship and took on an exclusively romantic meaning in a way that “girl friends” didn’t. Maybe this was because prejudice towards male relationships made any term that even remotely connoted such relationships impossible to use any other way. “Girl friends” did not go though the same transition because prejudice, backed up by the law, was fiercer toward male relationships than female relationships. If I’m right, the question is what events triggered the shift? Were they local or global? Hopefully, a future student of language will reveal the answers.
The public life of Iles family members
The other impression you get from the newspapers is that members of the Iles family were involved in every local committee and issue of their day. The tradition began with Arthur’s father, Henry, who petitioned for more government spending on education and infrastructure, including a bridge over the Mersey River. Arthur’s name begins to appear with his father’s in the early 1890s. But Arthur really hit his stride in the decades before and after World War One. He was on, and more often than not chaired, committees that lobbied for, or oversaw, schools, roads, bridges, halls, churches, sports carnivals, ploughing competitions, irrigation systems, agricultural cooperatives…the list goes on. He was what we would call today a “community organiser”.
In 1908 Arthur was elected to be one of the members of the first Latrobe Council. His public career peaked when he became Warden (Mayor) of the Latrobe municipality immediately after World War One. While Warden he was also made a magistrate under the Commonwealth’s Invalid and Old-age Pension Act. When it was passed in 1908, this legislation put Australia at the forefront of the global movement to provide vulnerable people with a safety net. It also imposed strict conditions on pension recipients. As a magistrate Arthur had the duty to investigate pension claims and accept or deny them. In Arthur’s role as Warden he also directly oversaw the erection of the municipal war memorial in Gilbert Street. Its foundation stone still bears his name, below that of his dead son.
Like every public figure, Arthur suffered some slings and arrows, mostly from his neighbour Arthur Lade whose wife once threatened to douse Gordon (or so he tells us in one of his letters). The two Arthurs engaged in heated public disputes about everything from pigs polluting their shared stream and the route of a proposed tramway to the very Tasmanian problem of the best way to grade potatoes. More seriously, Arthur Iles was accused of using his prior knowledge of which roads were due to be macadamised to successfully bid for the contracts. Some family members think there may have been some truth to this, although there’s no documentary evidence I’m aware of.
Of all Arthur’s children, Tom did most to carry on his father’s public work, particularly in regard to organising sports carnivals, ploughing competitions and events for the masons. He was also elected to the Latrobe Council.
A place to belong
What do you see when you look back a century at the Ileses, their lives and their community? It can seem as if they were people with great stability, continuity and predictability in their lives. They appear to be very closely tied to each other, their community and the land. There is some truth in this. Farm life follows patterns of growth, maturity and decay set by the seasons and by the passage of the years. In small rural communities there are many links. It’s also possible that the stability and interconnection we see in the life of Gordon’s family is a reaction to the traumatic disruption associated with migration two or three generations earlier. Margaret and Arthur Iles grew up among people who had been displaced from everything and everyone they knew, often forcibly. This would have been a strong incentive to make a place in the world that was safe, secure and theirs; a place where, to use Bev’s phrase, “they could belong”.
We shouldn’t overplay this. Thirlstane was not a bucolic paradise. There were politics, division and conflict, and not only because of the War. There was also an embrace of change and a belief in progress. Automobiles, oil rigs and old-age pensions were all new to the Iles family and all easily assimilated into their daily life. While we look back and see a certain timelessness about their world, they would have looked forward to a world of ever more rapid technological and social innovation.
I said at the start that knowing Gordon’s family helps predict what course his life might have taken. Most likely he would have farmed, married, raised kids, attended dances, church and lodge, and retired to Latrobe or Devonport. Over the years I’ve heard many family members express their regret that he didn’t have the opportunity to do these things and leave a family behind him. As Gordon’s great niece, Josie Dawson, said in the Advocate in 2015, “[Gordon] has got no family to carry on his memory and I think it’s important [for us] to carry it on”.
But when we consider the history of Gordon’s family we can see there’s something else to regret about his early death. His letters show him to be curious, thoughtful, energetic, engaged and good with people, someone who could carry on his father’s social and political leadership and build on it. It’s not hard to imagine him becoming Warden or even an MP. It’s very hard to imagine him being content with growing oats.
Of course, plenty of returned soldiers wanted to do the exact opposite and withdraw from society, especially if they had what we today would call post-traumatic stress disorder. Kathy Gatenby’s book about the life on South Maria Island of WWI veteran, Viv Robey, and his wife Hilda, provides an excellent insight into this. But Gordon’s letters show someone whose experience of the frustration, futility and horror of war was propelling him towards greater interest in people and events, not less.
Some historians lament the mediocrity of European leaders between the wars because so many good future leaders were lost on the Western Front. In its own small way Tasmania was the same. Every death in war is a tragic, unnecessary loss. But having seen Gordon’s family in their social and political context, it feels like there was something particularly regrettable about his death. It feels like his fate was to lead, and that we are all the poorer for that fate never being fulfilled.
Here are the obituaries of Arthur and Margaret Iles. They are a fitting conclusion to this post.