September 2021
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From Our Collection

The Darning Mushroom

This darning tool was an essential item in 19th and early 20th century household as self-reliant women often had to make and repair all their clothing.

Darning would have been considered a necessary skill for girls and young women, part of their education as future wives and mothers. The darning mushroom would have been an essential tool in an era when women were constantly repairing worn socks. Before the common use of synthetic materials, socks, bed linen and items of clothing were in constant need of repair. The mushroom was used to make these repairs.

There always used to be a steady supply of darning in the family mending bag. A woman sitting darning was a common sight, and so was a darning mushroom, inside a stocking or sock with a hole in it. The “mushroom” or darner made it easier to stitch a neat repair: not too tight, not too slack.

To repair socks (or jumpers) the darning mushroom is slipped under the hole, with the sock stretched smoothly, but not tightly, over it and gathered tightly around the stalk to hold it in place for darning. Tensioning the fabric stops the darning from pulling the fabric together.

Hand darning employs the darning stitch, a simple running stitch in which the thread is “woven” in rows along the grain of the fabric, with the stitcher reversing direction at the end of each row, and then filling in the framework thus created, as if weaving. A small loop is left at each end of the line of stichest to allow for the darning thread to shrink when first washed.

Darning is a traditional method for repairing fabric damage or holes that do not run along a seam, and where patching is impractical or would create discomfort for the wearer, such as on the heel of a sock.

The Casualties of War: Beyond the Battlefield

At the time of the First World War there was little understanding of what today is termed post-trauma stress disorder (PTSD). Returned soldiers often suffered lingering psychological damage which, although largely unrecognised, was at least as debilitating as physical injuries. Doctors were generally reluctant to diagnose a patient with shell shock, attributing their condition to a nervous disposition that might be cured by a period of respite, before sending the soldier back to the front.

Returning to Australia soldiers were expected to “just get on with it”, to adjust almost immediately to civilian life and put aside all that had happened to them. No-one appreciated how long the effect of these issues might last, or indeed whether they might re-occur after being triggered by a seemingly unrelated incident.

The cost in personal terms was incalculable. The trauma of war affected not only the soldiers, but impacted also on the families to which they returned. The number of returned soldiers who took their own lives within a few years of the war’s end has never been quantified, while the suffering endured by their wives and families is beyond measure.

One such example is the story of Norman Byrnes, (Service No. R309) who was one of the first to enlist in the AIF in September 1914. Byrnes (aka Burnes) was born in Penrith in 1890. He worked in country NSW as a shearer. He was an excellent horseman and after training at Holsworthy Camp was assigned to the 7th Light Horse Regiment. Byrnes served at Gallipoli and subsequently in the 2/4 Camel Regiment in Palestine and Syria.

Throughout 1916 Byrnes was stricken with dysentery and recurrent bouts of typhoid and enteric fever. He was also treated for venereal disease. His health continued to deteriorate and eventually he was assigned to the Nursing Staff of the University War Hospital in Southampton. He was medically discharged and repatriated to Australia in December of that year.

The war left Byrnes physically weakened and emotionally fragile. Unable to return to his previous work as a shearer, he dreamed of getting married and starting a new life in the bush. He applied for land under the Soldier Settlement Scheme which offered returned servicemen blocks of land in sparsely settled areas. Most soldier settlers struggled to make a go of farming and burdened by impossible debts and collapsing world markets, abandoned their holdings. They became part of a growing army of unemployed, the once proud heroes of Gallipoli and the Western Front now stripped of their dignity, desperately searching for work.

Byrnes had taken up land near Barmedman, in NSW Central West, where he hoped to settle. He married Elsie May Spinks of Mortlake in February 1920 and in May 1920 he returned to Sydney where he attempted to persuade his wife to join him camping on the 6 ha. block of yet-to-be-cleared land. Elsie was reluctant and a row ensued in which Byrnes fired a revolver, critically wounding his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Spinks, in the chest. He then pursued his wife along Frederick Street, Mortlake firing a further four shots at her. She escaped by jumping aboard a passing tram. Byrnes reached the tram shed at the corner of Cabarita Road and Frederick Street where he shot himself.

The coroner returned a verdict that death had been a result of a fatal bullet wound to the head inflicted while Byrnes was “temporarily insane”. Mrs Spinks was conveyed to Western Suburbs Cottage Hospital, where she recovered.

Andrew West

February Guest Speaker

Due to the current Covid-19 situation, and the need to go back to the 2 sqm rule we have, ruluctantly, decided to cancel our guest speaker listed for Saturday, 5th February. Andrew Tink is a great speaker and his subject of Honeysuckle Creek was a most important part of our history. We will re-schedule his talk as soon as we can as I know many of you were looking foward to it.

Please follow us on our website or on Facebook page to be kept informed of future speakers. Alternatively, you can go to our website and add your name to the waiting list for guest speakers so that you will be notified regularly of upcoming speakers.

The village of Eyam saw 260 of its residents killed by the plague

Eyam plague: The village of the damned

On 1 November 1666 farm worker Abraham Morten gasped his final breath – the last of 260 people to die from bubonic plague in the remote Derbyshire village of Eyam. Their fate had been sealed four months earlier when the entire village made the remarkable decision to quarantine itself in an heroic attempt to halt the spread of the Great Plague. This is the story of the villagers who refused to run.

Abraham was in his late 20s when he died. He was one of 18 Mortens listed as plague victims on the parish register.

But the story of the plague in Eyam had begun 14 months earlier, with the arrival of a bale of cloth sent from London, where the disease had already killed thousands of inhabitants.  Contained in the bale of damp cloth were fleas carrying the plague.

A tailor’s assistant called George Viccars was said to have opened the bale and hung the cloth in front of the hearth to dry, unwittingly stirring the disease-ridden fleas contained within the parcel.  He became the first of the plague’s victims in the village.

George Viccars, the first of the plague’s victims in the village.

“That poor man was just visiting Eyam to help make clothes for Wakes Week [a religious festival] – and sadly never left,” said Eyam churchwarden Joan Plant, who has researched the story.

The pestilence swept through the community. Between September and December 1665, 42 villagers died and by the spring of 1666, many were on the verge of fleeing their homes and livelihoods to save themselves.

It was at this point that the newly appointed rector, William Mompesson, intervened. Believing it his duty to prevent the plague spreading to the nearby towns of Sheffield and Bakewell, he decided the village should be quarantined.  However, as if persuading his parishioners to sacrifice their lives was not difficult enough, he had another problem – he was already deeply unpopular with the villagers.

Mompesson had been sent to Eyam in April 1664 after the previous rector, Thomas Stanley, was removed. Stanley had refused to acknowledge the 1662 Act of Uniformity, which made it compulsory to use the Book of Common Prayer, introduced by Charles II, in religious services.  Stanley, along with the majority of people in Eyam, had been supporters of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan government, prior to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

Mompesson, realising he would need help, decided to reach out to Stanley in the hope that he could persuade the villagers to carry out his plan.

“Stanley was living in exile on the edge of the village, having been effectively kicked out, and the parishioners didn’t like, or trust, Mompesson,” said Ken Thompson, historian and chairman of Eyam Museum.  “However, they agreed to meet and the plan they devised was remarkable.”

After the plague returned in the summer of 1666, burials in St Lawrence’s churchyard were stopped

Services were held in the open air at Cucklet Delf and families stood apart from each other to avoid the spread of infection

On 24 June 1666, Mompesson told his parishioners that the village must be enclosed, with no one allowed in or out.  He said the Earl of Devonshire, who lived nearby at Chatsworth, had offered to send food and supplies if the villagers agreed to be quarantined.

Mompesson said if they agreed to stay – effectively choosing death – he would do everything in his power to alleviate their suffering and remain with them, telling them he was willing to sacrifice his own life rather than see nearby communities decimated.

His wife, Catherine, recorded in her diary: “It might be difficult to predict the outcome because of the resentment as to William’s role in the parish, but considering that the Rev. Stanley was now stood at his side, perhaps he would gain the support necessary to carry the day.”

During the meeting, there were many misgivings over the wisdom of his plan, she wrote. However, she concluded that with help from Stanley – who had stated that a “cordon sanitaire” was the most effective way of dealing with the plague – the remaining villagers reluctantly agreed to the plan.

Dr Michael Sweet, a wildlife disease specialist at the University of Derby, said: “The decision to quarantine the village meant that human-to-human contact, especially with those outside of the village was basically eliminated which would have certainly significantly reduced the potential of the spread of the pathogen.”

“Without the restraint of the villagers many more people, especially from neighbouring villages, would have more than likely have succumbed to the disease.  “It is remarkable how effective the isolation was in this instance,” he added.

August 1666 saw the highest number of victims, reaching a peak of five or six deaths a day. The weather was remarkably hot that summer, which meant the fleas were more active, and the pestilence spread unchecked throughout the village.  Despite this, hardly anyone broke the cordon; even those who were reluctant to stay saw it through.

The same month, Elizabeth Hancock buried six of her children and her husband, close to the family farm. They had all perished in the space of just eight days.  Elizabeth Hancock had no choice but to drag each of her children to a field next to the family farm and bury them.

Mrs Plant said: “I cannot begin to imagine how she must have felt. To lose a husband and six children in a matter of eight days is unimaginable.” It is said people from the nearby village of Stoney Middleton stood on the hill and watched her – too scared to help.

This was now the reality of how the villagers were viewed from the outside, Mrs Plant said.

Another plague survivor, also forced to bury his own family, was Marshall Howe.

As the number of victims increased, and entire families were wiped out, Howe was tasked with the job of burying them. He was infected during the early stages of the outbreak, but survived.

Believing he could not be infected twice, he relished the job, often helping himself to the victims’ possessions as his reward, Mrs Plant said.  Howe would later bury his own son, William, aged two, and wife, Joan. It is possible his family was infected through the items he stole from the dead.

Mrs Plant, who is a direct descendant of Margaret Blackwell, one of the few villagers to have survived the plague, said: “It must have been terrifying, but every single family would have had that strong belief in God, and would not have feared death.”

In his letters, Mompesson described the smell of “sadness and death” in the air. He also wrote about his wife, who had tended to so many of the dying, contracting the plague while helping others.

On 22 August 1666, they went for a walk in the nearby hills, and Catherine spoke about the sweet smell in the air. She died the following morning, aged 27.

The current rector, Mike Gilbert, said: “When you read Mompesson’s letters – he must have assumed he was dying. In one he writes ‘I am a dying man’.  “He was scared but he did it all the same. There was definitely that hope of heaven that kept them going, but it was phenomenally difficult to simply face it – it wasn’t a nice way to die. ‘I’m going to die in pain and there is nothing anyone can do about it’.

“It is almost overwhelming to think what it must have been like – I suspect fear stalked them every day of their lives at the time.”

However, the worst of the pestilence was over. The number of cases fell in September and October, and by 1 November the disease had gone. The cordon had worked.  During the outbreak, Eyam’s mortality rate was higher than that suffered by the citizens of London as a result of the plague.  In just over a year, 260 of the village’s inhabitants, from no fewer than 76 different families, had died. Historians have placed the total population of Eyam at between 350 and 800 before the plague struck.

However, Mompesson knew his actions, and the courage of his parishioners, had probably saved thousands more.

He left Eyam in 1669 to work in Eakring, Nottinghamshire, but such was the reputation of the “plague village” he was forced to live in a hut in Rufford Park until the residents’ fears had abated.

Now, three and a half centuries later, the story is still well known by the people of Eyam.

Local historian Mr Thompson said: “Who would have thought they would have agreed to do that and put themselves and their families in mortal danger – which is what they did – so much so that at least a third of the population died.  “They knew they were risking life and limb but they still agreed to do it.

“If it means anything at all, you almost feel responsible to do something to remember it.

“There is an onus on the people in the village that you can’t just turn your back on what the people did.”

The Pekanbaru Death Railway

The Japanese invaded Sumatra in 1942 and, using the engineers from the infamous Thai Burma Railway, put over 120,000 newly captured slaves to work building a railway. These slaves were not only local Indonesians, but also POW’s captured as the eastern colonies fell. This is the history of that railway…  

Very early on the Dutch government in Indonesia had investigated the possibility of a railway to connect the east coast with the existing lines of the west coast of Sumatra. This line would give access to coal fields which had been established inland as well as new seams that had been discovered.

When the Japanese invaded in 1942, they already had an idea for a railway between the west and east coast of the island. After the battle of Midway in June of that year the need for the railway increased immensely as the allied navies were free to push further into Japanese territory. Using previous surveys, as well as surveys undertaken by their own men, a plan was put into action to construct a 220km long railway between Muaro and Pekanbaru. The line between Kota Kombu and Pekanbaru was almost certainly, completely of Japanese design, using the dutch land surveys and their own survey crews to form a linking path.

This railway once completed would allow the Japanese to move troops and supplies easily between coasts as well as gaining access to the resource rich interior of Sumatra. This railway would avoid using sea routes which were by now, heavily patrolled by allied warships and submarines.

Pekanbaru was chosen as the end point for the railway as it was located on the banks of the Siak river which gave good access to small ocean going ships which could then cross the straits of Malaca relatively quickly, finding safe ports in places like Singapore, Johore or Malaca. This route also gave the possibility of using air support which would not have been so easy to get had the railway proceeded to Tembilahan as originally intended. Coal mined at Camp 14 by the Romusha and POW’s would eventually use this route, being burnt in the foundries around Johore.  

All that was needed to complete the railway was a work force. This labour was found in the form of local Indonesian workers, along with POW’s captured as the colonies fell. These prisoners of the Japanese were rounded up and work on the railway began in April 1943. POW’s would not work on the railway until  1944.

More than 120,000 Indonesian labourers, called Romusha by the Japanese, were used as the main workforce on the railway. They built the embankments and cuttings through the jungle and along the gorges. The attrition rate of the local work force was unfathomable with reports at the end of the war estimating only 16,000 had survived.

In 1944 as the local work force became harder to find, around 5000 allied prisoners were brought to Sumatra to work on the railway. The majority of these prisoners had been captured in Java two years earlier when Major General R. T. Overakker surrendered the The Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, (KNIL army) and colony (around 4000 Dutch). Other nationalities that worked on the railway were British, (around 1000), Australians, Americans, and New Zealanders (300 total). 

The prisoners were housed in 18 camps along the railway with the first POW’s arriving at camp 1 on the 19th of May 1944.

Camp 14 and 14A were built to service a coal mine in the hills just outside Petai and required a spur line to be built. Starting 3 km north of the Petai village, the line wound its way west over a river plain before climbing gradually next to the Tapi river, then through a narrow gorge and ending at a flat area which became camp 14A. Just over the river is the transition, or loading point, for the coal. No locomotives were used past that point, instead a push cart line of 700mm gauge was utilized. This line then ran south west for another 4 kilometers, passing camp 14 before ending at the coal mine. This branch line was completed in February 1944.

Leaving Pekanbaru the main railway ran through the swamps and dense jungles of the Riau province, past and through the mountainous and steep gorge of the Kuantan river towards Muaro. Many prisoners died creating these passes along the gorge, with the Japanese using dynamite to remove rock faces while the prisoners slaved beneath.   

The railway was finally completed on the 15th of August 1945, commemorated with a gold coloured railway spike being driven in just outside camp 10 to signify the joining of the railway. That night the camp commander gave a speach to the prisoners. 

“Now the railway is finished, thanks to all your efforts, I have the honour to announce in the name of His Highness the Emperor of Japan, that all of you will be given a rest. Shortly you will be transported to a better place. And from today the rations of rice, vegetables and meat will be increased. You will receive these new rations as soon as we receive fresh stock. At this moment we don’t have meat or vegetables and only rice for a few days. While waiting for transport, you are not permitted to leave the camp.”

Many prisoners suspected something but did not know until later, that the day the final spike was driven in, was also the last day of WW2.

Between the 24th and 30th of August the prisoners in the camps along the railway were transported by rail to Pekanbaru where they learnt that the war was over. The sickest of the allied prisoners were transported to Singapore for treatment, with the rest following soon after. The last of the prisoners were transported on the 25th of November. The Romusha were never returned to Java, (where they had mainly originated), and began their free lives on the island of Sumatra.

After the war ended a train driven by Lance Corporal Ito was used to transport ex Dutch POW’s from Muaro to Pekanbaru. This train derailed during its journey but the passengers helped to get it back on the line and it continued on its way.

In early 1946 the last of the Japanese railway engineers in Sumatra used the trainline to transport themselves and their gear from Muaro to Pekanbaru. From there they awaited transport back to Japan and caught boats that came up the Siak river on the 8th of April 1946. 

After this, the railway was never used again and soon after the bridges began to collapse and the rail was pulled up and removed for scrap.

It is estimated that, through sickness, mistreatment and accidents over 100,000 locals died creating the railway along with 703 POW’s.

To learn more about the Pekanbaru Death Railway, join us at the City of Canada Bay Museum on Saturday, 5th March at 2:00 pm where Andrew West will be our speaker.

City of Canada Bay Heritage Society Inc.
PO Box 152, Concord, 2137 :: Phone: 9744-8528
email: ::

City of Canada Bay Museum
1 Bent Street, Concord
Open Wed & Sat 10am to 4pm :: phone: 9743-3034 during museum hours.

ISSN: 2207-4910