Betty [Bowden] and James O’Dwyer

Family History

Muttaburra Memories

My links to Muttaburra come from my mother, Betty Bowden the daughter of Lizzie and Sonny Bowden. My mother was the youngest girl in the family and a good tennis player and baker of excellent sponge cakes. She met my father James O’Dwyer when he was posted to Muttaburra as the Primary School Teacher in 1940. They were married in 1942 and my father was called up shortly afterwards. He became a Commando in Z Special Force and was killed towards the very end of WWII when he and 3 other Commandos were parachuted behind enemy lines in Borneo. They were accidentally dropped into a Japanese encampment, while their supplies were dropped outside. One of them survived.

I first came to Muttaburra as a five year old in 1948. My grandparents, the Bowdens were salt of the earth, hardworking and kind people. My brother and I and my mother joined them in their house on Bridge Street, down near where the bridge crosses the Thompson River. My grandfather, worked as a stockman and station manager and at the time caught wild horses (brumbies) which he then ‘tamed’ and probably sold. He also kept a horse or two to take part in the Muttaburra horse races. Having wild horses jumping and rushing around in the back yard (fenced off, but just) was a different experience. My grandparents also had a young jockey sharing a room with Uncle Jack, my mother’s youngest brother who later went off to Korea and came back damaged by the traumatic events he experienced. My grandmother cooked and cleaned for everyone. Hot meals three times a day, usually meat and potatoes and vegetables followed by a pudding or homemade cake. How she managed I cannot imagine. There were also other boarders who popped in for a few months or days.

Boiling clothes and sheets in a copper and lifting the heavy wet things with a pole, even pegging them out looked laborious, let alone the ironing which was either an iron made of metal heated on top of the stove, or a more dangerous, hissing thing which probably ran on good old kerosene. The cooking took place on a large metal range, set back into a corrugated iron niche, and was heated by timber, blazing hot in the hot climate for most of the time, but cosy in winter. This was not a life for the faint hearted. I don’t remember too many complaints though. My grandmother often whistled while she worked, or listened to music on the ABC. Of course, most people didn’t have air-conditioning in those days, but in Muttaburra, people weren’t even able to run electric fans to obtain some relief from the heat. In the midst of this my grandmother also kept a lovely garden as long as she lived in Bridge Street. There were tall trees, flowers, and even a green lawn, a little oasis all watered by hand with the local bore water. At the back in a separate enclosure, she kept chooks, which hid amongst the tall bamboo stands but thankfully mostly laid their eggs in their nesting area making them easier to find.

During one school holiday I stayed with my grandparents in a station cottage, where grandad was working, and remember him coming home during the day. It was scorching hot and as he came onto the veranda, he took his leather hat from his head and fanned himself with it. He was dripping with perspiration and seemed very upset. He told us that his best and favourite dog had been out with him and they had stopped for a drink of water. Then as grandad had issued a command to the dog, to get behind some sheep, it had suddenly dropped dead in its tracks. He tried to hide his hurt but we could see that he was very upset. This story came to my mind when years later after I had left Muttaburra, I heard that grandad had also dropped dead from a heart attack. Maybe he and his dog are reunited now.

At least at that time Muttaburra had telephone and wireless connections. Outside the house, we had a huge pole held aloft by metal strings staked into the earth, so during my school holidays I could listen to the ABC’s Children’s hour and the Argonauts. Then for the adults there was ‘Blue Hills’ and ‘When a Girl Marries’, as well as ‘Pick a Box’ and some Crime Series in the evenings as well as the longed for News from the outside world.

There was also a local hospital run very capably by Dr Arratta and his wonderful staff. Dr Arratta was much loved by my grandmother, but to me he was a terrifying presence, usually wielding items such as ‘needles’ or talking of operations. I had my tonsils taken out by Dr Arratta and the smell of the awful aesthetic chloroform makes me gag even today.

I remember Bud Daly’s store very well. He was the local baker and always had a cheerful disposition. The butcher’s shop was run by Mr Langdon a local grazier, who was also pleasant and interesting to chat to and gave the town good quality meat. There was the open air cinema where movies ran 3 times a week, a few hotels, the Cassimatis Store further along closer to the school. There was also an Anglican Church and a Catholic Church. Before I left Muttaburra, a small swimming pool was built which was a relief in such a dry and dusty environment.

Looking back at that time from the present day amazes me. Of course it was a different era but the people were amazingly self-sufficient and stoic. Mail only came once a week and that included magazines, and as an avid reader, I wonder how they managed without a library. Perhaps books were able to be posted from Longreach Library. Although for most of my time in Muttaburra I remember it as a hot dry place, we did have a couple of memorable floods during the 1950s. For me as I watched the flood waters swirling beneath our floor boards, I was delighted to hear that the airports were closed and I would be unable to return to school in Townsville until they opened again. For the adults it must have added misery as well as fun. Roads were not sealed and cars were constantly bogged and stranded between Longreach and Muttaburra, and even food supplies ran low and needed groceries were rowed across the Thompson river, sometimes ending up in the Thompson River. However as well as all the unusual green lushness after the floods, there were other benefits such as the river yielding up a good amount of ‘Yellow Belly’ fish and vast amounts of crayfish or yabbies…..we won’t mention the mosquitoes!

Most of my time was spent away from Muttaburra, as I went to boarding school in Townsville. Those old DC3s (TAA I think) created the most noise I had ever experienced. They were not pressurised of course so barley sugar was handed around by a smartly dressed Air Hostess at the beginning and end of flights, to prevent our ears ‘popping’. Meals on the aircraft were also quite stylish. Silver coloured salt and pepper shakers, cutlery and plates were presented on trays and the food (the very little I ever partook of) seemed very good. However, cursed by air sickness, I had to sit clutching those air sickness bags and was often a shade of green upon arrival in Townsville.

My mother later remarried Jack Walton from Yorkshire in England who was a Motor Mechanic and after arriving in Muttaburra was employed as a mechanic by Somerset Motors. He eventually left Somerset Motors and built a garage in Muttaburra. It was sold in 1959 and we then moved to Brisbane and eventually on to our separate lives.

Source: Maggie – maggie300@optusnet.com.au