Ian and Blanche


1.4.2 Ian in Tambellup (1924-1927)

In 1924 Ian returned with his parents from their tour of Victoria, and set to work clearing the property that Alexander had bought west of Tambellup.

Tambellup and Vicinity
Map of Tambellup with locations mentioned in the text.

By this time Marion and George Iddles had also moved to Tambellup and lived, not on a farm as did the rest of the family, but in the town itself.  George worked as a cabinet maker and builder by choice and as a laborer by occasional necessity.  The other two of Ian’s surviving siblings,  Dave and Dot (since 1922 Mrs. Alex Fraser) had settled on farms in Quairading.  [See W.A. Family Locations]

Compared to Quairading the climate in Tambellup is less arid (the average rainfall is about 14") and more moderate (the temperature rarely goes above 105F or below 32F). The Quairading climate is suitable for the production of wheat, the Tambellup one for wool.

The town of Tambellup35  is located on the Great Southern 3'6"-guage railway 80 miles north Albany, the nearest outlet for the shire’s wool and other exports. Aside from the railway station (g in the Tambellup town map) the town contained a Methodist church (a), a recreation area including tennis courts and croquet rink (b), a town hall housing the Tambellup Shire Road Board office (c ), a post office (at d since about 1935), the Rose Tea Rooms (e) Andy Bessen’s and Bert Box’s garages (f, l), Don Harvey’s Drapery and News Agent (h), Snowy Wilson’s Billiards Parlor, Barber and Miscellaneous store (i), the Coop Store (j), a school serving about 60 children (k), a one-room dwelling owned by Bert Box and known as Number 10 because that number ornamented the door (m), a pub (n) and police station (o). An infirmary, Nurse Turner’s (p), provided the town’s

medical care until the hospital (q) was built in 1933. Beside Iddles (I), a few other family members and friends also lived in Tambellup at different times during the 30s and 40s: Ethel Miniter from 1944 (M), the Morris family in the 30s (M), Mabel Gittins in the 40s (G), the Alford family from about 1939 to 1946(A).

The nearby Gordon River usually flowed for a few months during the wet (winter) season, and would occasionally threaten to flood low-lying parts of town including Nurse Turner’s and the pub.36  In summer the river was a series of brackish pools, some of them a few miles on length.

As already recounted, at his father’s behest Ian went to work to clear the new property east of the town. He applied himself energetically and for the most part obediently, but at age twenty-one he also asserted his independence and earned a little money by working as a telephone linesman. He bought a motorcycle and joined in the diversions of the rural community. He spent more time than Alexander wanted him to playing snooker on Snowy Wilson’s billiards parlor, and he enjoyed every kind of outdoor sport. He played football37  on the Tambellup team against neighboring towns and took part in rowing races at the annual New Year’s Day regatta on the Gordon River (there were two eight-oar shells in use at the time). He played tennis, too, but never quite mastered the steady, sweeping stroke so important in that and other games that involve hitting a ball with club or bat. A photo of him, now unfortunately lost, showed him holding a racquet and dressed in the fashionable tennis get-up of the day: blazer and long, white narrow-cuff or "snake-proof" pants. Poised as if to bounce on the balls of his feet, he looked mightily pleased with himself. He stood 5’10" and weighed a little under twelve and a half stone—a figure he would have converted, given a spare millisecond or two, to 175 pounds. That was his weight for most of his life.

The Gordon river was once a great asset to the life of Tambellup, not only for swimming and other water sports but also for fishing. It was stocked with perch, and Ian went after them with an enthusiasm verging on mania. Regrettable as it is to relate, his early efforts to catch perch involved a can charged with calcium carbide, fixed to detonate underwater to stun the fish so they could be collected at leisure. But he soon abandoned such unsubtle and illegal tactics in favor of hook, line, float and sinker, with a live minnow for bait.

Fishing for Ian was never a mere interlude of relaxation. In this regard his approach was the opposite of George Iddles’. A perfectionist, George lovingly fashioned football-shaped floats and painted them with red, white and blue bands, and it was his pleasure in fishing to sit on the river bank for hours, contemplating his miniature buoy bobbing in the water. For Ian any old cork would do for a float, and he hauled in his line frequently to replace the minnow with a livelier one. His thoughts were ever focused on the fish.

The beauty of the Gordon faded in the next decade. Perhaps because of the clearing of the bush the water levels became higher in winter floods and lower in summer. The river became polluted, the boats and swimming places fell into disuse, and the fish, what were left of them, took on a muddy flavor. Ian’s love of fishing never faded, but he was eventually forced to indulge his passion on the South Coast near Albany. But that is getting ahead of the story.

At his first opportunity Ian joined the 10th Light Horse peacetime militia. Though the 10th Light Horse was renowned in battle, the peacetime militiamen were seen by some as spending more time on their gear and get-up than on honing their fighting skills. They were sometimes disparagingly called "chocolate soldiers," an allusion to the nattily-uniformed but unwarlike soldiers depicted on the lids of chocolate boxes. But for Ian the negative image of the chocolate soldier was more than offset by his awareness of Dave’s exploits during the war. Ian was dazzled by his brother’s panache, and longed to emulate him in feats of strength and endurance. Perhaps at the same time he underrated his own particular quality of quirky cleverness.

Whatever his motives might have been, Ian found the week-end activities of the militia—galloping, shooting, charging—much to his taste. He took pride in grooming his horse and polishing his gear. On the farm, in preparation for the next parade he dragged his spurs and stirrup irons behind the plow to give them an extra gloss.

His service with the 10th Light Horse left Ian with better-than-average skill on horseback, and he had occasion to demonstrate them on a much later occasion. He was astride an unruly gelding named Peter, trying to sell the brute at auction. Seeing a deceptively docile-looking Peter take a couple of circuits of the stockyard without incident, the auctioneer was emboldened to climb over the fence and start up the bidding from his usual place inside the yard. Then Peter had a conniption and began jumping about like popcorn on a hot griddle, and the auctioneer lost no time scrambling back over the fence to safety. Meanwhile Ian sat on the writhing beast, seemingly as comfortable as on his armchair at home, looking around wondering why the bidding had stopped. Understandably enough, this demonstration of how easy he was to ride did not induce anyone to bid for Peter. He ended up as a reserve charger for Dave, who had by then returned to active service in the 10th Light Horse in Quairading.38 

Aside from horsemanship, Ian carried over into later life another skill he’d picked up in the militia. He was a stickler for punctuality, having perhaps inherited his father’s inflexibility in that regard. Yet when planning to attend some dress-up event, a wedding say, he would wait until the last possible moment to shave, change clothes. Then he would do so with astonishing speed, to be ready just in time. This went back to a certain gymkhana event. The ultimate aim was to gather up as quickly as possible a number of annular markers set out around a large field. The competitors started off "asleep" in their tents with their horses hobbled just outside. At a bugle call the men had to leap up, put on their uniforms, pack their tents and gear in the saddlebags and go careening off on horseback, pronging the markers with their lances.

The militia training also included conventional athletics meets, in one of which Ian won the quarter mile handicap in 56 seconds.39  Creditable though it was, Ian’s fleetness of foot fell far short of that of his cousins Billy Draffin and Alexander McCutcheon ("Cutchy"). Both qualified for Australia’s premier professional footrace, the 130-yard Stawell Gift. Dave was also a fine athlete, for example winning an army gymkhana hop, step and jump (triple jump) event with a leap of 45 feet—at the age of 45.

Ian might have had a comparable talent for the high jump, however. He could jump his own height, an impressive feat for a man of his medium-heavy physique. He learned a particular style of jumping from the aborigines around Tambellup. Instead of approaching the bar obliquely and jumping sideways, the aborigines ran straight at the bar as if to hurdle it, and at the height of the jump they drew up their feet to assume something like a forward-leaning lotus position. It’s not clear how high the aborigines could jump if they really felt like going all out. One of them, induced by the passage of a hat for contributions from a small crowd of onlookers, cleared the bar at 6’4". But there is no way of knowing if he had all his burners on at the time. Aborigines see no point in running or jumping for its own sake.

Why didn’t this high-jump style become more popular? Ian demonstrated a likely answer when he made an impromptu appearance in the event at a Caledonian sports meet in Melbourne. This was in 1927, during Alexander, Sarah and Ian’s second tour of Victoria. Having trouble with his footing on the damp turf, he accepted the loan of athletics shoes for better traction. To see what happened next it suffices to imagine adopting the lotus position in shoes fitted, as these were, with spikes.

Also at the Caledonian Games, Ian also entered the event known as tossing the caber, that is upending a pole (caber) so the free end falls as far away as possible. He was in training for this exercise, since it was his habit, whenever he came across a suitably sized log lying about on the farm, to pick it up and toss it with all his might. An inclination to this uniquely Scottish exercise might have been in his genes, and was strengthened when in 1923 Alexander presented him with a copy of the newly-published "The Clan MacRae…" (footnote [2]) with its history and legends of the Highlands.

The awareness, through "The Clan MacRae…" of the sad story of Scottish defeat and subjugation may have been behind other of Ian’s traits, his egalitarianism and particularly his contempt for the British ruling class. This attitude came out decades later when Ian was half-listening to a radio broadcast intended to help non-British immigrants—New Australians—learn English:

New Australian: "Get bucket."

Instructor, in the upper-class accent favored at the time by the Australian Broadcasting Commission: "Get the bucket. That’s the Australian way."

Ian: "Get the bloody bucket yourself, that’s the Australian way!"

Continue reading: 1.4.3 Ian’s First Years on Gilella (1927-1929)

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

1.4 Quairading to Tambellup

1.4.1 Ian: Youth in Jennerberring (1910-1922)

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1.4.3 Ian’s First Years on Gilella (1927-1929)

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35. For an evocation of Tambellup in the 30s and 40s: "But Moments Past," by Lorna Jeffrey Burridge (8 Good St., Oyster Harbour, WA 6330 Australia).  Lorna’s childhood home was just south of G, on the Tambellup town map. The Burridge farm was west of Tambellup, a few miles south-east of the first McRae (1922—24) property.

36. In a devastating flood in 1982, the house still known as Nurse Turner’s was destroyed and the pub was severely damaged. The house on Gilella was flooded and subsequently fell into ruin.

37. Australian-rules football, popular in the states of Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria. Aside from the shape of the ball, which is like that of Rugby and of American football, the game resembles a cross between basketball and soccer.

38. By the 40s, horses were used only for ceremonial purposes.

39. This may seem a very poor winning time, but it must be remembered that the participants had no coaching or training in athletics. They simply ran for the fun of it.