Ian and Blanche

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1.3.1 Alexander and Sarah (1892-)

Alexander and Sarah were married at "Mr. Oliver’s residence, Duchembegarra… according to the rites of the Bible Christian [Methodist16  ] Church," on 30 March 1892.  They made their first home nearby on Alexander’s farm.

Alexander McRae and Sarah Oliver 1890

Alexander McRae and Sarah Oliver, 1980

The marriage yielded five children and twelve grandchildren:

David (1893—1982) m.1925 Alice Macdonald (1901—1986) (John, Mary, Cynthia, Brian, Gordon, Patricia).
Marion (1894—1960) m.1916 George Iddles (1883—1962) (Mavis, Roy).
Roderick (1897—1920).
Dorothy (1899—1995) m.1922 Alexander Fraser (1888—1957) (Jean, Donald).
Ian (1903—1975) m. 1929 Blanche Gittins (1910—1987) (Eion, Gwyneth, Graeme).

The first two children, David and Marion, were born at the Olivers’ house in Duchembegarra.

Though their proximity to the Olivers made their family life easier, Alexander and Sarah were discouraged with the struggle to survive on their relatively unproductive land, and soon began to think about moving away to some more fertile area.

Poor soil was not their only cause for dissatisfaction; Alexander resented the intrusion into his farm affairs of Victorian government bureaucrats with their petty requirements and regulations.

AustraliaPrincipleFamilyLocations-200x200.jpg (8996 bytes)The last straw was the arrival in the mail of a notice of a fine for some infraction of government rules. According to family tradition, Alexander slapped the offending paper on the kitchen table and declared—Sarah, we’re going to Western Australia!

Why remote Western Australia, rather than one of the nearer and better-established colonies South Australia or New South Wales? There may have been several reasons, but a family connection was certainly one of them: Alexander knew he could count on Ernest Carter, a nephew by marriage17   and a prominent farmer and produce merchant in Meckering, WA, to help him establish a farm in that district.

In order to make the arrangements, in 1896 Alexander went to WA and stayed for a time at Carter’s farm in Meckering.  He traveled by steam ship from Melbourne to Albany, by coach to Kojonup, probably by mail cart to Katanning, and thence by train to the railhead, then located at York.  From York he walked to Meckering.  He could have taken the train from Albany, directly to York, but it seems he was under an obligation to detour to Kojonup to hand-deliver a package too valuable to entrust to the mail.

Having with Carter’s help secured an option on two 160-acre homestead blocks three miles to the south-east of Meckering, Alexander went back to Victoria, sold the farm at Duchembegarra, and then in 1897 he returned to WA with Sarah and the two children.   Dave was then four years old and Marion was three.

The family made the first leg of their journey—to the port at Melbourne—by wagon drawn by four draught horses.  Alexander had hoped to sell the horses at the port, but failing to receive any good offer he left Sarah and the children to go by ship to Albany while he took the horses to Adelaide, a distance of some 400 miles and sold them there for a better price.  He completed the transaction in time to catch up with the family on board the ship when it docked at Adelaide.

A scene at the port made an indelible impression on four-year-old Dave: an agricultural-machinery salesman on a bicycle, towing a harvester on the cobble-stoned pavement to demonstrate how easy the machine was to pull.

The family continued to Albany on the same ship, but while Sarah and the children traveled second class Alexander went steerage to save money.  He arrived in Albany with 500 gold sovereigns in his pouch from the sale of his farm and livestock.

Having completed the purchase of his 320 acres in Meckering, Alexander made a camp on the property and set about clearing the land and building a rudimentary cottage on it. Meanwhile Sarah and the children stayed in Northam, at a boarding house run by Alexander’s sister Jean (Mrs. Jack McKay) by this time a widow.

Western Australia Principle Family Locations

Western Australia Principle Family Locations

The family’s arrival in WA came at a time of economic expansion there.   Boarding houses like Jean McKay’s were doing a capacity business catering to the unmarried men then flooding into WA to find work on the railroad or in the goldfields around Kalgoorlie or on the new farms opening up to the east of Perth.

Ernest Carter also benefited from the boom, and on a scale that eventually led to his undoing.  Carter became WA’s biggest supplier of the fuel for the horses and camels which were the engines of transportation of the era—hay.  The magnitude of his business may be appreciated from the anecdote that in one year he sold so many twine-bound sheaves of hay, at the handsome price of £3:15:0 per ton, that the twine alone cost £1000.  Elated by success, he attempted to corner the WA hay market with the goal of driving up the price to £5.  But his plan failed when South-Australian suppliers started bring in hay by ship, and Carter reacted to the setback by shooting himself.

Sarah stayed with Jean for several months, during which she gave birth to the third child of the family, Rod.  Meanwhile Alexander had transformed the property at Meckering into a functioning farm, and had constructed a dwelling with an iron roof, dirt floors and walls of wheat bags sewn together.  Sarah and the three children moved there from Northam in 1898.

Though their home may have been less comfortable than the one in Victoria, in WA the family enjoyed the relatively pleasant West Coast type of climate with hot dry summers and cool winters.  They still had to contend with the constant annoyance of flies, and the proliferation of rabbits was a growing menace to farmers throughout Australia.

Thanks to the good soil and reliable rainfall of Meckering, the farm prospered with wheat as the main crop.  With a growing family to consider, Alexander decided to put more land under cultivation.  Being unable to add to his holding in Meckering he sold it in 1910 and bought a wheat farm of 1400 acres in the Jennerberring district, eleven miles north-east of Quairading.  By then the last two children, Dorothy and Ian, had been born on the farm at Meckering.18  

Sarah and Alexander in Jennerberring, Baby Mavis Iddles, 1917

Sarah and Alexander with baby Mavis Iddles, Marion's daughter.

Though the family’s life at Jennerberring was prosperous and relatively comfortable—they had a real house instead of the shack at Meckering—it was darkened by misfortune after Rod, the second boy, had an accident in 1907 in which he suffered irreparable brain damage.

Dave, 1916As young boys, Dave and Rod played at riding a bull calf. As the calf grew and began to sprout horns, it became more and more difficult to stay on its back. Rod’s injury came as he was about to fall, and the animal tossed its head and drove a horn into the eight-year-old’s skull.

The outer wound healed, but Rod began to suffer fits of mental disturbance which became more frequent and severe with the passage of time. On occasion he would interrupt a placid family meal with a horrifying howl, leap up from the table and run about outdoors in a frenzy, temporarily unable to recognize anyone and unaware of his surroundings. Rod never found rest until he died in 1920.

Sarah, Alexander, Ian, Dot, and Rod at Jennerberring, 1917 Dave, Port Suez, 1917
Marion, 1916
Front row: Sarah and Alexander.  Behind them: Ian, Dot, and Rod.
Pictured separately: Dave, at Port Suez, 1917, and Marion, 1916.

In a photo of Alexander and Sarah and three of their children taken at Jennerberring in 1917, Sarah seems "worn out," as she often described herself, by the troubles of the time.  Rod’s fits were her chief concern, but she also had the two eldest children on her mind.

War had broken out in 1914, and in 1915 the eldest son, Dave, joined the army.19  Alexander wanted him to stay on the farm, but Dave longed for a military career.  Imbued with the warlike tradition of the Clan MacRa, and admiring of his great-grandfather Alexander, he would not be held back.  By 1917 he was serving in the Middle East with the 10th Light Horse.20 

Marion had also left home, against her parents’ wishes, to serve as a maid on another farm in the Shire of Quairading.  In 1916 she married George Iddles, and the couple’s first child, Mavis, was born the following year.  Marion’s departure was the occasion for resentment on her younger sister’s part.  As Dot complained in a way that tried her mother’s vast but not limitless patience, without Marion the two remaining women were overburdened with the dairy, the poultry, the cooking and washing and all the other work that fell to the distaff side on farms of the time.

Ian figures in a 1917 family photo as a schoolboy in short pants, but already he had begun to share the heavy work on the farm.  He was the only member of the family who did not in some way distress his parents, and in the following years their hopes came to center on him.

Meanwhile Dave served with the 10th Light Horse in Gaza, was wounded at Samson Ridge in 1917 but recovered and returned to Australia in good health in 1919.21  He obtained a farm near Alexander’s through the government’s War Service Land Settlement Scheme.

Dave encountered enormous difficulties at the beginning, chief among them the plague of rabbits which destroyed his first wheat crop. The situation improved after Dave and Ian began to work together for mutual benefit.  By combining their efforts alternately on the two farms, the brothers achieved more than they could have separately.

In 1922, however, Alexander upset their arrangement, to Dave’s disadvantage, by selling his farm and taking Sarah and Ian on a tour of Victoria to visit old friends and relatives there.

Alexander’s disregard for Dave may grown out of a lingering displeasure with him for going off to war in 1915.  By now a man in his sixties, Alexander had become disposed to act out of inappropriately strong affections and animosities.

With part of the proceeds from the sale of the farm, £6000, Alexander bought a new 1922 Dodge car, and with Ian at the wheel the tourists spent two years traveling about and renewing old associations.

At the end of the trip Alexander made an extravagant gesture in keeping with his increasingly impulsive personality.  Instead of keeping or selling the Dodge, still a valuable vehicle, he simply gave it away!  The recipients were members of the Roach family, owners of a station on which Alexander worked in the 1870s, and the gift of the car may have been in belated recognition of some kindness extended to him by the Roaches at that time.

Tambellup and Vicinity

Tambellup and vicinity. Homestead and other locations mentioned in the text.
(Click the red rectangles to zoom in; click edge of map to zoom out)

Back in WA in 1924, Alexander, Sarah and Ian did not return to the Quairading but settled instead in Tambellup, a wool-growing district about 150 miles to the south.   Alexander bought 3000-acres of particularly good land east of the town, and in the next two years Ian cleared much of it with a newly-purchased steel-wheel Fordson tractor hauling a scrub roller (a roller consisting of a log fitted with cleats to beat down and cut brush).

Land prices were going up at the time, and after two years Alexander sold the improved property for twice what he had paid.22  Buoyed by this quick profit, in 1927 Alexander, Sarah and Ian took another extended vacation in Victoria.  They traveled in a new 1927 Chrysler.23  This time, fortunately for the family, Alexander kept the car instead of giving it away at the end of the trip.

Upon returning to Tambellup in 1928, Alexander bought a farm comprising 1400 acres of relatively poor land a few miles south of the town.24  He named it Gilella, after the doyenne of the Clan MacRae, née Ella Gilstrap.  He gave Ian a life interest in the property, and willed it upon Ian’s death to Ian’s and Dave’s sons.

Alexander, Ian, Jean, Don Fraser, Sarah on Gilella Veranda 1932

On the veranda at Gilella, about 1932. Alexander, Ian, Jean and Don Fraser, Sarah.

Gilella included a small house located on a sand dune a half-mile from the property’s northern boundary where it coincided with the course of the Gordon River. Built about 1900,25  this "settler’s cottage" as this type of dwelling was called, had a corrugated-iron roof, weathered jarrah26  board cladding and a board floor.  The interior was lined partly with pine boards, partly with whitegum27  slabs hand-hewn with an adze, and the rest was left unlined.  One of the few comforts of the place was a grouping of pepper trees whose dense foliage provided protection from the heat of the summer sun.

Alexander, Sarah and Ian moved to Gilella in 1928 and the older couple continued to live there much of the time until a few years after Ian’s marriage in 1929.

With advancing age, Sarah retained her dignified and kindly manner but Alexander became more inflexible, self-righteous and intolerant of the human error.  Even minor sins irked him.  He bristled at the slovenly handwriting with which the clerk28  at the Tambellup Coop store kept the grocery accounts, and he tried to teach the fellow a lesson by writing his weekly grocery order just as illegibly.  But this "lesson" fell flat.  The clerk, having perhaps noticed that Alexander’s purchases varied little from one week to the next, managed to make up the order correctly anyway.

Throughout their life together, Alexander and Sarah invariably attended the Methodist church service on Sunday morning.  From Gilella the couple traveled to the church in Tambellup by sulky pulled by an aged mare.  They allowed over an hour for the five-mile drive.

Sarah longed for a garden, or at least a patch of green around the house, but at Gilella the surrounding sand supported nothing but stinging-nettles.  The closest Sarah ever had to her own garden there was a collection of noxious-looking dark-green plants that she managed to keep alive in kerosene cans on the veranda.

Worn out at last at 69, Sarah died in her sleep at Gilella, of a heart attack, in 1934.   She was was buried at Tambellup.

After Sarah died, Alexander stayed sometimes with Marion and George Iddles in Tambellup and with other relatives in Quairading, as well as at Gilella.  In 1937 he went to Melbourne for radiation therapy for skin cancer.  He lived three more years.

To the last, Alexander’s greatest pleasure was the printed page.  While at Iddles’ he often received a fellow bibliophile, an elderly man who had lost an arm in a mining accident.29  The two friends habitually sat side by side on Marion’s veranda, reading for hours without exchanging a word—except at the end, to say how they had enjoyed each other’s company.

Alexander died of cancer in Quairading in 1940 and was buried there.  He was 82.


Continue reading: 1.4.1 Ian: Youth in Jennerberring (1910-1922)


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1. Ian McRae (1904-1975) Background and Youth (-1929)

1.3 Western Australia

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Footnotes:
(click footnote number to go between footnote and text)

16. Alexander became a Methodist in compliance with the wishes of the Oliver family.

17. Carter’s wife was the daughter of one of Alexander’s sisters. Though not a blood relative, Carter habitually addressed Alexander as Uncle.

18. On 14 October 1968 all buildings in and around Meckering were destroyed by an earthquake. Its magnitude, 6.9, was the greatest ever recorded in Australia.

19. Australia provided substantial military support to Britain during both world wars.

20. The 10th Light Horse: An Australian regiment celebrated for exemplary performance in battle, particularly in Gallipoli and elsewhere in the Middle East during World War I.

21. Dave again served in the 10th LH throughout WWII, attaining the rank of Captain, Acting Major.

22. The buyer’s name was Jack Simpson.

23. Effectively a Maxwell, since it was the first model to be sold after Walter Chrysler bought out that company.

24. The seller’s name was [first name unknown] Crawford.

25. The builder’s name was Backhouse. The owner of the property at the time was [first name unknown] Bessen.

26. A Western-Australian hardwood used for railroad sleepers (US ties), for building and more recently for furniture.

27. A gnarled hardwood common in the Tambellup area.

28. Eugene Tomney, a suave and efficient young man whose writing really was illegible.

29. [First name unknown] Gallagher. A Tambellup identity, Gallagher tended the diesel engine that supplied the town’s electric power. He lived in a room to one side of the shed occupied by the engine, at the rear of Andy Bessen’s garage.