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1935 trip inspiration as pandemic revives travel throughout Oz

By JOHN P McD SMITH

As COVID-19 is likely to put a spanner into overseas travel for a while, holiday makers may get inspiration for domestic jaunts form Father Percy Smith who in 1935 travelled 4000 miles from Alice Springs to Thursday Island.

It is probably one of the longest distances travelled for the annual meeting of the Anglican Church in Central and Northern Australia, certainly without aircraft.

Father made this long and arduous journey starting from Alice Springs going by train to Adelaide, then ship and returning by car in a second-hand modified Ford, which he named “The Brolga” because it would fly across the tableland.

1935 was the year of the Silver Jubilee of King George V, Australia was in the middle of the Great Depression, Joseph Lyons was Prime Minister, John Curtin took over the Labor Leadership from James Scullin, pastoralist Sir Sidney Kidman died and the cane toad was introduced in Queensland.

It was the era of daring aviators. Charles Kingsford Smith disappeared when flying the Lady Southern Cross in an attempt to break the England-Australia speed record.  In the early hours of 8 November 1935 the plane vanished. His body was never found.

Commercial air travel was in its infancy and Qantas Empire Airways completed its first scheduled international flight, when a De Havilland Express departed Darwin bound for Singapore on 26 February 1935.

Father Smith had become accustomed to travelling vast distances as the size of his Alice Springs parish in the 1930s was enormous. Stretching from the WA to Queensland border, and from the SA border as far north as Tennant Creek.

Until 1968 the Northern Territory was part of the Anglican Diocese of Carpentaria, which covered various parts of northern Australia including most of northern Queensland and the islands of the Torres Strait.

The head office or “see” was based on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, which was to host the 1935 annual general meeting of the church called the Synod.

Many priests and church leaders were required to travel a long way to attend the Synod meeting and Father Smith’s journey attracted particular attention for its duration and indirect route.

Starting in Alice Springs he went by train to Adelaide then Melbourne, then by ship to Brisbane, then from Brisbane to Thursday Island on the coastal vessel the MV “Merkur”. Originally named the “Rio Bravo” for the Flensburg Steamship Company the “Merkur” was built in Germany at Kiel by Frederick Krupp.  Kiel was the main port for the German fleet in WW1.  In 1935 it was part of the Australian coastal passenger/cargo service. After being requisitioned by the Royal Australian Navy in WW2 the “Merkur” was returned to its owners in 1949.

On board The “Merkur” was also a travelling circus including two large performing elephants. The elephants were housed on the poop deck.  Father Smith wondered given the rolling seas what would happen if the elephants got stomach upsets. They might have to re-name the vessel The “Murky!”

For the return to Alice Springs Father Smith had a more direct route in mind. A Brisbane newspaper report from August 7, 1935 entitled, “Priest who is real bushman – Off to Alice Springs by Car – 2000 Miles Drive,” read: Weather-beaten as to face, a clergyman of rather less than average height, celebrated Holy Communion at the Holy Trinity Church, Woolloongabba, today. Sandy-haired, with piercing blue-grey eyes, he looked every inch a bushman in canonicals.

And such he is, for he is Rev Percy Smith, priest in charge of Alice Springs, the largest Anglican parish in Australia, which stretches from the South Australian border in the south to Tennant’s Creek in the north, and from the Queensland border in the east to the Western Australian border in the west.

His parish runs north and south for 520 miles, and east and west for 600 miles, giving it an area of 312,000 square miles, or almost three times that of Great Britain and Ireland.

Mr Smith has been absent from his parish for almost three months, and this morning set off on his 2,000 mile journey back to Alice Springs.

About 18 months ago Mr Smith was appointed the first parish priest of Alice Springs, prior to which he had been curate of Nundah, and he had also lived the rigorous life of a member of the Bush Brotherhood.

For 18 months Mr Smith has worked in his huge parish, “roughing it,” more than most bushmen, for his work took him through the loneliest and most desolate parts of the Territory.

On foot and on horseback, by train and motor truck, he has traversed parts of the inland that previously have not known a clergyman. It was a hard life, but in his work Mr Smith was supremely happy, and since he left his parish recently, his one desire has been to get back to it.

The real reason for Mr. Smith temporarily leaving his parish was to attend the Synod of the Diocese of Carpentaria at Thursday Island. To do this, he had to travel 4,000 miles, reaching Adelaide after a two day’s journey in a cattle train.

Father Smith returned to Brisbane where he appealed over Brisbane radio for money to buy a car.  Amazingly the money came in.  He was able to purchase a second hand Ford.

The car had only done 5,000 miles, and when the body had been converted to make it into a utility truck, the car was ideally suited to his needs. The newspaper report went on to say,

The car was piled up with the personal belonging of the three travellers, as well as stores for the journey and a supply of water, petrol and oil. It is not intended to use the reserve supply of 44 gallons of petrol during the trip, if it can be avoided, but rather to carry it for use in Mr Smith’s parish, for petrol costs 4s. 6d. a gallon at Tennant’s Creek and 2s. 6d. a gallon at Alice Springs.

Each of the travellers will take his turn at the wheel. When Mr. Smith and Mr. Newcombe left Brisbane this morning, they headed for Taroom, where the springs of the car will be strengthened before setting out on the difficult part of the journey.

In 1935 Father Smith was only in the second year in Central Australia, but this report captured his passion for Alice Springs and its people.

“It was a hard life, but in his work Mr Smith was supremely happy, and since he left his parish recently, his one desire has been to get back to it.”

Upon his return he continued his work with Aboriginal people at “The Bungalow”, which included establishing St John’s Hostel and later St Francis’ House.

John P McD Smith is the Chair St Francis’ House Project.

PHOTO at top from Courier Mail.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you to Charlie Carter for his question.
    The other two men were Rev W J Bensley and Mr M Newcombe.
    A newspaper report from the time noted: “Mr Bensley is going out to Tennant’s Creek to act as Mr Smith’s assistant in that part of his parish, and Mr Newcombe is a business man who has been associated with the motor industry, and is going out to Alice Springs partly for the trip, and partly to investigate the business possibilities of the district.
    “An appeal for an assistant for Mr. Smith was made, and Rev W J Bensley, the vicar of Chinchilla, offered himself and was accepted for the post. Mr Bensley, who was formerly curate of Bundaberg, was trained at Moore College and St Francis’ College, Sydney, and for a time he worked in Brisbane before going to Bundaberg.
    “Mr Bensley is married and has two sons, but he is leaving his wife and children behind, for at Tennant’s Creek his home will be a tent and his church will be a tent and his church will be in the open air.
    “At Tennant’s Creek there are already 700 people, and Mr Bensley is convinced that the town will grow and that before long the church will have its own place of worship.
    “After Holy Communion this morning, the car in which the two clergymen and their companion are to make their 2,000 mile trip to their distant parish, was drawn up in front of the church, and Rev A E Morris, rector of Holy Trinity, blessed the car and prayed that by its use the work of the Church might be advanced.
    “The car was piled up with the personal belonging of the three travellers, as well as stores for the journey and a supply of water, petrol and oil. It is not intended to use the reserve supply of 44 gallons of petrol during the trip, if it can be avoided, but rather to carry it for use in Mr Smith’s parish, for petrol costs 4s. 6d. a gallon at Tennant’s Creek and 2s. 6d. a gallon at Alice Springs.
    “Each of the travellers will take his turn at the wheel. When Mr Smith and Mr Newcombe left Brisbane this morning, they headed for Taroom, where the springs of the car will be strengthened before setting out on the difficult part of the journey, and where Mr Bensley will join the party. They will travel to Tennant’s Creek, where Mr. Bensley will be left behind, and then go on to Alice Springs, reaching there, it is hoped, in about a fortnight from the time of leaving Brisbane.”

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