This page is dedicated to stories sent in by family members!

Here’s one sent in by Robert James Tait Jnr. When his dad died, Robert James came across a letter his dad had written about Robert’s grandfather and it concerns various facets of early life in Australia.


In the days between 1913 to 1925/6, lads in the district who were larrikins would be nabbed by the local policeman,  (who would know every single person in the neighbourhood) and given summary justice on the spot. Misbehaving lads would be given a couple of strokes on the backside with the cane or strap the policeman would carry. If the mischief was more serious he would take the lad home and advise the parents, giving them the option of the father giving the boy “a good hiding” as punishment was called in those days, or the alternative would have been to take the boy to the police station for punishment there with the parents present. It seems that only in rare cases was the latter ever chosen. Although times were hard in those days, people were generally honest and law abiding, although it would appear that petty theft took place from time to time. Nobody locked their front or back door. Keys were never used. Nobody would ever enter another person’s house unless he was a thief.

To Robert, Len and Nigel.  Written by their father, Robert John Tait.

Robert John Tait with grand-daughter Olivia

Robert John Tait with grand-daughter Olivia

I was very proud of my father (Robert James Tait), and because I remind myself now and again that you did not know him at all, I thought I would write down all that I can remember about him and all that I can elicit from people who knew him. Dad used to tell me about the “old days” and I listened intently. Most of my knowledge of Dad is through direct experience and the rest from  things he related to me about times before I was born. He was a wonderful man.

Robert James TAIT

Born: Victoria Road, Birkenhead. SA     22 August 1908

Died: 11 March 1964

Born Robert James, nicknamed Bob, your grandfather was a caring and loving husband to your Nana. (Ethel Priscilla nee Temple.) He was a man of little formal learning, but being an avid reader was quite knowledgeable, spelled most accurately and had a formidable grasp of word meanings. He was as straight as an arrow in his character, and no matter who I met during all of my life there was not one who said an ill word about him. He was universally respected by his peers and acquaintances. I was immensely proud of him.

He was born and grew up in Birkenhead S.A., his father Arthur John TAIT and Scottish accented mother Jeannie (nee MacReady) – having settled in the area after his grandfather moved from Goolwa where he owned a hotel and a house. His grandparents John TAIT and wife settled in Goolwa in the mid 1800’s having come from the Shetland Islands to migrate to Australia. Dad’s grandfather, he told me, knew about ships and was a master mariner in Scotland I recall. It would be my guess that John Tait quickly became part of the growing Murray River trade which grew quickly during the early days before railways. I would think he started on riverboats very soon after arriving at Goolwa from Scotland. The Murray River was the lifeblood of the wheat and wool industries, bringing the harvested grain and the wool clip to Morgan and Goolwa, and supplying the farms with food and merchandise. Without riverboats the pioneering graziers and wheat farmers could not have survived. There were no roads, no shops (stores) and no towns within horse and cart range of the properties along the River right up to Wentworth in N.S.W. This was the job of the river transport companies, often bringing a year’s supply of the staples like flour and sugar to the homesteads which would have been fairly primitive. So this was where the riverboats plied before locks were built. The gold rush era of the mid 1800’s would have financed the prodigious growth in activity in Australia, and transportation would have been one of the spin-offs.

On the River Murray – -  See below for the significance of this.

John Tait was the master of the “Ellen”

PS Ellen

PS Ellen

for most of his River years, except for a three year stint as master on the famous “Gem” paddle steamer and his name appears in the records on board that boat which is now a museum piece at Swan Hill, Victoria. His name also appears in several historical books including “Water into Gold” which describes  those early days, and the riverboats plied out of Goolwa at the mouth of the Murray where there was a huge wharf and transport terminal to handle the produce and the trade for upriver. You have to see the big wharves at Goolwa, Murray Bridge, Morgan and Swan Hill to get some idea of the tonnage of cargo the Murray carried before the railways were built. Your grandfather’s father Arthur became bosun on the “Ellen” but eventually he moved to Birkenhead, near Port Adelaide to work in the maritime trade after the paddle steamer era. It would seem that John Tait left the river at the same time and settled in Birkenhead after owning the hotel at Pt Broughton.

The advent of rail links to the interior created better and cheaper freight facilities, so the paddle wheelers were outmoded almost overnight once the trains began to run, and the bulk of the boats were tied up, and the crews paid off.

I did see the “Gem” and the “Ruby” passing each other one day

PS Gem

PS Gem

when they still carried cargo, at the very end of their working lives. Dad came and got me from the camp area and took me down to the river edge to see the spectacle, pretty rare by this time in 1945. It was quite a sight. That was at Walker Flat just out of Mannum

PS Ruby

PS Ruby

SA when our family of three and Uncle Dudley, Auntie Jean and his three children, Laurie,  Bill and Shirley Temple were taking a holiday on the River in about 1945 just after the War – as we called WW2.

Arthur Tait married, and his wife had a daughter May. However, his wife died in childbirth and eventually May was brought up by Arthur’s parents – May’s grandparents. When I saw Auntie May (Pettigrew) for the first and only time at Sorrento on the Mornington Peninsula about ten years ago with your Nana Tait, she told me about the years she spent on the river and she thought they were wonderful times. She and her grandmother looked after the dining room on the “Ellen” and the “Gem”, and they had a Chinese chef for quite a while.  She related some funny stories including the one about the cook putting himself and all his belongings in a dinghy when he thought the paddle wheeler was going to founder because of the prodigious load it had on board at one time. The load was the local school complement, all the potatoes and timber fuel they could carry, and finally boulders and sandbags — to enable them to get under the bridge (probably the one at Paringa, upriver from Renmark) with the river running a banker  after a winter of heavy snow in the East. They made it!

Arthur John remarried to Jeannie McReady  and had eight children; John (called Jack), Alfred, Belle, Constance, David, Robert James, Leonard and Agnes. This is the family I knew.

Robert James had a happy childhood and never mentioned any disharmony when he related to me the times of his boyhood and adolescent life and his family. Except to say that he and Connie (Constance) were never close and they agreed to disagree on most things. This was probably the normal sibling rivalry and Connie would have been instructed to look after the younger boys, Dave, Bob and Len  from time to time and your grandfather would probably chafe at the idea of his sister being in command, and Connie would not appreciate her task being made more difficult by a rebellious young brother. He loved his sister Agnes, and liked and respected his elder sister Belle. He loved his mother and confessed to me that she was the one that guided him through his boyhood and was the one to warn him of the darker things of life, something that one would have thought Arthur, his father would have done. Your grandfather seemed to have a good family relationship with his brothers and his father; no criticisms and no praise. The family had a good name and reputation in the Birkenhead district.

I think Dad was closest to Len. I liked uncle Len, probably because when ashore on leave during the war (he was in the navy) he took me to Adelaide for a treat and told me I could have lunch on him and order anything I wanted. He was surprised that I ordered a ham sandwich and a milkshake and an ice cream with raspberry syrup at Woolworth’s cafeteria, because I think he expected me to eat like my dad and have a steak at a more expensive place.

However to me, that was the best lunch you could get because Nana Tait had taken me there at some time before that and I remembered the occasion. Looking back I now realise what a good man Uncle Len must have been to make the effort to give me a treat like that. It was wartime and I suppose the philosophy was “don’t postpone anything, because you may not survive the next voyage” and he was being a “dad” to me when my dad was out on the sea somewhere. Uncle Len was on the HMAS “Sydney” and I went on board it at Outer Harbour I remember, just before the war. During the war Uncle Len was transferred off it (with others) in Perth to man a new Corvette in Melbourne, and the next voyage of the “Sydney” was its last, sunk off the coast at about Geraldton W.A. The “Sydney” and the German “Cormorant” (a “Q” ship) sunk each other with only a couple of German survivors out of almost 2,000 men on both ships I seem to recollect.

Grandad grew up in Birkenhead and went to Lefevre Peninsula school where I eventually attended years later and even had the same teacher in one class that Dad had; a Mr Vaughan.

Your grandfather said that although times were hard in those days people were generally honest and law abiding, although it would appear that petty theft took place from time to time. Nobody locked their front or back door. Keys were never used. Nobody would ever enter another person’s house unless he was a thief. This was a period when Neighbourhood Watch really worked (although it was not official or organised or given a name), because everybody knew everybody else, and a stranger stood out like a sore thumb. There were not many middle class people. In those days people actually went hungry when times were hard and if the breadwinner was laid off work. There was no dole. The community spirit was very much alive and neighbours and friends would always give something, even if they had little themselves, to those who were less fortunate. When I was a baby, Nana Tait sometimes reluctantly declined to get the usual half pint of milk from the milkie in his horse and cart because she didn’t have enough money. In those days you left out the billy can, lid on, money inside. The milkman told her to leave the can out anyway, saying that the baby needed milk to grow. I think Dad paid up the bill when the money was available ( a new job or buying and reselling fish and so forth).  And everybody survived.

Your Grandfather didn’t like school, except to be with his cobbers and swim at lunchtime (forbidden of course) down at Fletcher Dock near the school. A lot of kids never wore shoes or boots to school because they couldn’t afford them. Your Grandfather often took his off and tied the laces together and hung them round his neck so he would have shiny shoes for  class inspection (hands and nails clean, shoes polished) each morning.

He nearly drowned on the Port River running along the timbers down near the waterline, which the boys did a lot. His white cotton shirt billowed out at the back when he slipped and splashed into the river, and this gave him enough buoyancy to paddle back to the wharf. He said he learned to swim pretty soon after that. He loved the water was a good swimmer and would dive off the wharf like all the boys, but he also used to climb up the mast on the ketches and dive off the rigging, which most of the lads didn’t.

He was always proving that he was the school’s best fighter, and would take on anyone who disputed this. At school he was not too keen on study, and was not cowed by the teachers, choosing to take the caning which inviolate followed with bravado and of course there could be no show of pain. That was The Code. There was only one teacher who got him to study, a man called Syd Shepherd for whom your Grandfather had a lot of respect. Shepherd was a real psychologist in his approach and treated each pupil as an equal.

As a result he won over the ones who had a chip on their shoulder, and that year was a big breakthrough for Robert James. He had an impressive memory and was well read. His grasp of English was excellent and his spelling prowess was almost infallible. Probably went hand in glove with his love for literature. But his biggest period of learning was after he left school. He was in good company; Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was also a poor student at school and a late bloomer.

At one period he used to be let off from class 10 or 15 minutes early to catch the train into Adelaide so he could sell newspapers. He was the only one bringing in any money at that  time. His father worked on the wharf and sometimes loading coal from the colliers in big wicker  baskets lifted by cranes onto horse-drawn carts. I believe John Tait owned four houses on West Terrace at one time after the riverboats were gone, but he had to go back to Scotland to settle some family business. When he got back the houses were swallowed up in debt.  So there was no family inheritance to come down that line.



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