1458 1/Air Mechanic R.A Crook, No. 8 (Training) Squadron, Australian Flying Corps, UK, Xmas 1917
This is my Australian grandfather Robert Alan Crook (or just Alan as he was known), who for the most part grew up in the historic gold mining town of Castlemaine Victoria. This was where his father, Robert Henry Crook, had taken an early retirement from the Wesleyan Methodist Ministry due to illness. There on the northern outskirts of town the family established a poultry farm, which they called "Chester".
The following is mostly derived from Alan's memoir, which was dictated in 1965 shortly before he passed away and then transcribed by a third party sometime later. As a consequence it contains some gaps and typing errors and only goes as far as the immediate post WWI period, but fortunately my 80 year old father provided some clarification and detail. Also some additional detail was sourced from the book Rostrum in Australia 1930-1965, by Freeman Alan Milston.
Alan's paternal grandfather, Thomas Crook, had like many others originally immigrated to Australia back in 1856 because of the gold rush - leaving his home in Bristol, England as it turned out forever. Whilst mining for gold in the Dunolly area of Victoria, Thomas decided to invest his finds in a mixed hardware and grocery store and it was here, in 1860, he was joined by his wife Priscilla (nee Derrick), also originally from Bristol. Incidentally, Alan's memoir mentions Priscilla's uncle, Thomas Derrick, as the inventor of the derrick lifting device, which he developed in Bristol around 1800. However, he was not a "hangman" as Wikipedia and various printed dictionaries have long stated, rather in the census of the time his profession was "Blacksmith". His design also had nothing to do with “ lifting bodies” and “gallows” as the dictionaries state, instead it was for lifting and moving goods as derricks do to this day.
As for Thomas and Priscilla Crook, after running their shop for a time in Dunolly, they then decided to move the business SW to the village of Moonambell. Here, whilst Thomas was away for a spell gold prospecting in New Zealand, Priscilla had the misfortune of being held up by bushrangers, one of whom held a shotgun to her head while the others ransacked the shop. It was in Moonambell in 1861 that Robert Henry was born (Alan's father).
Robert Henry grew up to become a Wesleyan Methodist Reverend and was based in a number of towns in Victoria, including Euroa, Camperdown, Pyramid Hills, Queenscliff, Benalla, Sale, Shepparton, Kyneton and also Mt Bischoff in Tasmania. A lot of the time he would be on the road on horseback traveling to outlying settlements in all sorts of weather. It was in Camperdown where he met and married Alan’s mother, Laura Sleeman, a school teacher whose father, John Sleeman, owned a bakery and store to the north in Buninyong. While based at Pyramid Hill Robert Henry returned from one particularly arduous journey in bad weather, contracting Tuberculosis in the process - a condition he would struggle with for the rest of his life.
My grandfather Alan was born in Benalla in November 1897, the second child of two sons and three daughters to Robert and Laura (the others being Harry, Myrtle, Ida and Queenie). Alan was also incidentally delivered into this world by a Dr John Nicholson, who happened to be the same doctor who attended the wounded Ned Kelly at Glenrowan station back in 1880. Now it’s not clear whether Dr Nicholson had also tended one of the wounded and notorious QLD Aboriginal police "black trackers" who fought the Kelly Gang. It is clear, however, all those brave Aboriginal trackers (who Kelly feared the most) were defrauded by the bigoted and arguably corrupted Colonial system of that era, for none of the Aboriginal police received any of the reward money rightfully owed to them for their important role in the destruction of Ned Kelly's gang. To this day in fact, restitution is yet to be granted to their descendants.
In Benalla too in March 1898, Alan’s older brother Harry suddenly took ill and passed away mysteriously, just 2 years of age. The story goes the unidentified doctor in attendance at the time couldn't provide proper treatment, nor an accurate diagnosis for the cause of death, because the doctor himself was in such a seedy state, after having been dragged away from a local inn.
Notably, in my grandfather's memoir he describes through the eyes of a boy his first memory of seeing an Aborigine in 1903, when he was 5, which was at the school he first attended in the township of Sale. He thought at first the boy's skin was dark because he hadn't washed. He also mentions that many Aborigines lived a segregated life along the banks of the Thompson River near Sale, how they didn't seem to have any work and how sometimes he recalled seeing some begging on the streets of the town. He also however recalls many many more white swagmen (drifters) begging in Sale, or offering menial labour in return for assistance from his father's parsonage - a few of whom reneged by deliberately secretly breaking axes they'd been given to chop fire wood for the church. Alan also describes the many local Chinese settlers in Sale, who busily worked market gardens, whom his father held English classes for and who helped around the church.
What Alan recalled of his early years in Sale today stands as a testament of the great divide between Europeans and Aborigines and the injustice inherent in the colonial system and the Federation which followed. Indeed it wasn't until after my grandfather gave this account in the mid-1960s that Aborigines were allowed to live within white communities. Victoria anyway is perhaps one of the best examples of the worst in Australia, as far as Aboriginal experience of colonialism goes. The peoples Alan described, by the way, were probably those deemed not "full blood" and forced away from Aboriginal reserves like Coranderrk and Lake Tyers by the Colonial Government 's so-called Aboriginal Protection Board". This was a means by which the survivors of Australia's rarely discussed but often bloody Frontier Wars were divided in order to marginalise them into oblivion. Aboriginal people who have long lived a rich existence and in comparative harmony with the land for many, many thousands of years.
Jumping ahead to June 1908 in Castlemaine, the family lost another child, the youngest Queenie, aged 5, in this case due to Typhoid fever. Then in June 1914, the former Reverend Robert Henry was also laid to rest alongside Queenie, high on a hill in Castlemaine, having finally succumbed to the Tuberculosis that had forced him to prematurely retire (he was just 52, survived by his wife Laura who lived until 1944).
Not long thereafter the remaining family sold the farm and moved into town to a house described as being on a very large block on a hill on Farnsworth St (possibly no. 31) . This was a more practical arrangement as Alan had by then found work at the close by Thompson & Co. engineering works, a well-established firm which had contracts with the Victorian Railways, amongst other things. There he was first exposed to the field of electrical engineering, working under an experienced English electrician maintaining such equipment as the firm's Siemens motors used in the locomotive machine shop.
Alan also studied in the evenings at Castlemaine Technical College to catch up on his education, which he'd had to forgo for a time on account of his father's rapidly deteriorating health and the demands of their farm. Alan by then was also in the North Castlemaine Company of the Senior Cadets and recalls their winning the local competitions held at Bendigo in 1913, then losing them badly in Melbourne the following year.
In 1915 Alan and the rest of the surviving family moved to Melbourne, where he took up an apprenticeship with the Victorian Railways. Unfortunately it was not to be in the electrical engineering field which he’d hoped for, but soon after compulsory service in the Citizens Forces found him gaining valuable experience with its company of electrical engineers based in Queenscliff, Port Phillip Heads and Point Nepean, maintaining such equipment as generators and searchlights.
The First World War was of course by then well and truly raging, thus on the 23 October 1916 after 11 months service in the electrical engineering company, Alan was able to successfully volunteer for the Australian Flying Corps as a trainee mechanic, aged 18 and 11 months. From July 1917 he served exclusively in the UK. After undergoing a familiarisation course on rotary engines, he was assigned to No.8 (Training) Squadron, AFC upon its creation in October 1917. There he worked on the British built Sopwith Pup, Sopwith Camel and later the Sopwith Snipe until mid-1919.
Amongst his experiences in the UK with No.8 Squadron he had this to say in his memoir:
"At Leighterton...the aerodrome consisted of what we would call a big paddock, the fences having been taken down and with no pretense at runways, asphalt, or concrete. We had many accidents, some of them fatal and at the time about as many men were killed in training as were killed in action."
In July 1919 Alan was back in Australia and was demobbed from the AFC. However, he soon got the itch again and took a boat to the USA with a friend he'd met in the service. There they traveled extensively and he also found work as a draftsman in an engineering firm in Chicago. His friend eventually decided to settle in sunny California, while my grandfather headed back to the UK to work and study engineering in Manchester with Metropolitan Vickers.
When he eventually returned again to Australia in 1926 (via several countries) he worked again for Metropolitan Vickers initially in Melbourne, then very soon after took a transfer to Sydney. There he met and married Muriel Waterhouse (formerly of Norfolk Island, granddaughter of Jabez Bunting Waterhouse ) and they settled down to start a family in Killara, Sydney. In 1933 Muriel and Alan had their one and only child, my father. In Sydney they also eventually established an electrical engineering firm, Acelec, in 1936, which included a factory in St Leonards producing a variety of electrical components and assemblies.
In 1930 Alan helped establish Rostrum Australia, a non-political, non-sectarian public speaking club first established in the UK, of which he had been a member in 1925 during his period of study in Manchester. Notably the Rostrum clubs Alan helped set up in Australia were men only, whereas in the UK both men and women could join. Why there was this difference in Australia is apparently due to Alan's insistence, but it wasn't until the 1970s several years after Alan passed away that the membership rules changed (NB: Jean Ellis helped establish a women-only public speaking club in Australia in 1937, called the Penguin Club).
Whether or not Alan's rigorous stance on limiting Rostrum membership was influenced by his upbringing, membership of the Freemasons, or social mores of Australia in that era is not clear. His involvement as a Freemason is however noteworthy in its exclusively male membership policy - a movement for which he attained the title of Past Master of his northern Sydney Masonic Lodge. It has only been in relatively recent times that a limited number of Masonic Lodges have actually relaxed their restriction on female membership.
According to my father the biggest contract of the Acelec firm Alan and Muriel owned involved the rolling out of electricity power lines and infrastructure from Sydney down the east coast as far as Eden, which is close to the NSW-Victorian border - a project that began just before WWII and continued through the war years. This job took Alan out on the road frequently and it was while working at Central Tilba that Alan met a local Aboriginal named Gundy Davis and a young relative Wallie, who lived on a government-managed Aboriginal mission at Wallaga Lake. My father recalls being brought down there by Alan a few times during the war, as a young boy and being taken out to Mystery Bay on fishing trips and sight seeing in a row boat with Gundy and Wallie. He recalls also Gundy telling him stories about the old traditional way of life Aborigines had by the sea. Later Alan helped my young father to correspond with Gundy, swapping photos of their fish catches (Gundy aka Edward (Ted) Davis passed away in 1954, aged 63). These events my 80 year old father still vividly remembers and credits for helping to instil in him an early passion for the sea, fishing and above all a respect for Aboriginal people - completely contrary to the way white Australian society back then was slanted (this being in effect at the time of Australia's apartheid era).
According to my father also, shortly after WWII in 1947 Alan was rolled from management of his own company in a boardroom coup, while he was away on a study tour of the USA into modern manufacturing methods. The individual behind it was a former comrade of his from No.8 Squadron, whom Alan had specially recruited to help oversee the company's affairs. After that the company was eventually broken up and sold off.
That setback didn't seem to hold Alan back however, as soon after he set up an electrical and mechanical engineering consultancy business. In the 1950s He also became Chairman of the Electrical Branch of the Sydney Division of the Institution of Engineers, member of the Federal Council of the Institution, as well as member of their Finance Committee. He also served on the Switchgear Committee of the Australian Standards Association, President of the Electrical Manufacturers' Association of NSW and Member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers.
Apart from all those hats, he also took on responsibilities as a Justice of the Peace, a Ranger appointed under the Flowers Protection Act and a Vice President of the Killara Music Club. He also was responsible for the formation of the Amateur Apiarists' Association of NSW (ie domestic bee keeping) and a member of the Methodist Church Trust, where he was also Honorary Engineer of the Church.
In 1963 however, Alan suffered probably his biggest blow of all with the unexpected loss off his wife Muriel to toxic shock following a breast cancer operation. Not long after this he suffered a stroke, which compelled him to retire. However, he managed to eventually recover enough to embark on another journey, this time all around Australia, taking many dozens of Kodak colour slides as the basis of an illustrated Rostrum talk, which he titled 'See Australia First' (essentially the perspective of Alan as an experienced world traveler encouraging people to not do what he did, but to look first around their own backyard, before they go overseas). This talk was to tour several states, commencing in April 1965 in regional Queensland. Shortly after in June 1965 he was awarded a MBE, largely due to his involvement in establishing Rostrum in Australia. Barely three weeks later however, my grandfather was left totally incapacitated by the effects of a second stroke, although he was at least able to relay a message of gratitude, via my mother, for the recognition and wishing that his wife Muriel could have been alive to enjoy the honour too. Alan passed away barely two months later on 9 August 1965 age 67 - which was just a few weeks before I was born.