In the crowd

Courtesy St John’s Church of England

Can you read about the life of a person by looking at their face? When you sit in a public space and you look about do you wonder who the people around you are? I do, and I search their faces to see what I can make of them from looking. None seem to notice my inquiry. The odds are if they are sitting they will not be doing anything else but looking into the screen of their phone. If they are on their feet they may be on some purposeful mission but many will be blissfully unaware others share the space with them.

In 1888 the child who became my grandfather was born. The rumour is he was born into the home of a public servant in the municipality Governor Phillip first called Rose Hill. By the time he was born it was called Parramatta. His parents names are an unanswered question to the family. Some members of the family have attempted to research his past but no one can yet claim certainty they have the whole truth for he was abducted as a child.

His abductor was the woman he grew to love and whom he called mum for about a third of his life. She was his nurse until she stole him away from his family home and disappeared into the neighbouring state of Victoria. She eventually settled with him in the forests of Gippsland. I am uncertain when she left New South Wales and whether she was married or not. Mrs Hartman was indeed married at some point to Mr Hartman. She continued to work in service to other families and Grandpa worked as a timber worker in the forests around Woori Yallock. The work he did in the isolated forests was to cut down trees. The timber he cut became railway sleepers used on the rail tracks that spider-web like spread across the state from Melbourne

Eventually she became a legitimate mother to other children but she was not my grandfather’s natural mother. I know this because he eventually changed his surname back to the name of his father. The truth emerged when he announced, to his parents, he was getting married. His mother confessed to him his past was not all he knew about himself when the Banns to his marriage was announced.

A fit young man, because of his work, he won the first underhand wood chop at the Royal Melbourne Show as Alex Hartman. He won many more magnificently ornate pieces of Victorian silverware in other similar competitors. By the time his firstborn child, Evelyn my mother, was christened as Hartman-Mason, he was entirely uncertain of his past. Known to everyone as Alex he had also recognised he was born James Fredrick Mason. He fathered seven more children and by the time the last, the twins, were born he had dropped the Hartman altogether. My mother, on the other hand was Hartman-Mason until she married. At that stage her wedding certificate named her Mason.

The life of a labourer is difficult. Like many of his kind during the Great Depression this fit man, just past his fortieth birthday, could not find work locally. It meant leaving home early on a Monday morning with something to sustain him and rough sleeping each evening after an often fruitless search for am itinerant job. By that stage he had qualified as a power monkey as the person in charge of blasting with explosives. This meant he did get a job, for a period, working on the Great Ocean Road at some stage.

Later on he returned to full time work in that job at the Cave Hill lime mills owned by the family of David Mitchell. Father of Nellie Melba.

Despite his hard physical labour he was a man who weathered the ups and downs of fortune. One of the downs was the compulsory acquisition of some land he owned near the road to Lilydale. Government policy at the time was to acquire whatever property they needed without paying the actual market rate. Thus the acquisition was a big blow to his financial security.

At another time land he had purchased for development was sold before it was exploited to assist a son, imprisoned in Bruma by the Japanese for three years during WW11, resettle on a Returned Soldiers Property in the Mallee. This was a further setback that he did not dwell upon.

The old man I knew as a child taught himself to swim in order to qualify as the local swimming pool manager. He built himself a shed. He pottered about with bees and chickens. He loved the twice daily paper and magazines deliveries. He was a big strong man used to his own company until he was hospitalised with a brain tumour in the last weeks of his life.

At one stage, many years after his abduction, he did get in touch with his Sydney family. Their response was, a child was abducted many years ago, however we don’t want to know you because you could be an imposter. With modern science it would be possible to easily prove my relationship with the other family today. I could not be bothered. No one in the extended family has an inclination to restart that search today. We all prefer to remember this tragic story as an interesting anecdote in the life of a relative.

He died on 3/9/1965. Today a stained glass window in St John’s church Lilydale is dedicated to the lives of both my maternal grandparents.

The person sitting beside you on the train. The one you see at the bus stop. The noisy person next door – has a life with a history. Mostly it will be mundane. The colour of a life is not always easily seen. To discover the interesting roles another plays allows you to appreciate the unseen life.

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