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Early Days in Chinchilla ... The Redgens

Updated: Jul 12, 2023

My parents were probably the first generation after true pioneers, in the Chinchilla district. Both arrived as small children between 1905 and 1910, and witnessed all the changes from horsepower to internal combustion engines. In later life they did own a TV, but no mobile phones or computers.

The railway had reached Chinchilla, about 160km west of Toowoomba, in 1877, but by 1900 had extended as far as Roma. During the 1870s the town … then the rail terminus … had been bigger, but those days were now past. In 1910 it was a very small town, with about 1000 residents, several hotels, and a number of small shops. This was the year the first butter factory was built, the first district show was held, and a brass band was planned.

My paternal grandfather Bill Redgen was born in Geelong in Victoria. His father seems to have had an unsettled life, but at one stage was a shopkeeper in the gold-mining town of Steiglitz. The first real information we have, indicates that Bill held a hawker’s licence, and travelled with a horse and cart in the Wimmera district, selling to local farmers. He married MaryAnn, the daughter of a local farmer, and soon set up as a shopkeeper in Wycheproof. After a disastrous fire, in which the shop and all its contents were burnt, he responded by buying out his competitor across the main street!

Bill was well known in Wycheproof, serving as councillor and even Chairman of the District Council. He also had a number of other leadership roles in the district.

‘He was chairman of 10 or more committees at the same time!’ a local once told us.

Bill had a large family of four sons and three daughters. They too had heard of the opening of new farming lands in Queensland, and it may have been an urge to provide opportunities for his two adult sons that led to his decision to sell up in Victoria, and move north. Several other families, including the Middletons, left Wycheproof at the same time, and also came to Chinchilla.

Bill arrived first, and was soon followed by the rest of the family. They sailed from Geelong, where they still had cousins, in the Wodonga. They arrived in Chinchilla in 1906, when my father was 5 years old.

When Bill sold his shop and moved his family to Queensland, he had no first-hand farming experience. He made no allowance for the differences between the soils and vegetation in the area he had left, and those in the new surroundings. We heard that he inspected farms with deep fertile black soil, but which had a high clay content. This gets very boggy in wet weather, and Bill’s did not approve of it.

‘I like good soil, but not carrying it around on my boots with me!’ he said.

Consequently he chose elsewhere, north west of Chinchilla, where the vegetation seemed something like that, which he had known in Victoria. The family selected a number of farms there, in the individual names of Bill, his wife, and the two eldest sons. But unfortunately it was rocky land, infertile, and entirely unsuitable for farming. It was not long before this became obvious to the family. Grandmother moved her younger children to the best farm of the several they had chosen. From there, my father Ray was able to attend the local school for 3 or 4 years, his only formal schooling. But soon, Grandma moved her daughters and youngest sons to Chinchilla,

This change from a successful businessman to failed farmer, had a disastrous effect on Bill. In the future, his employment was, apparently, as a manager of teams of men building fences, on large stations further west. At other times, he was leading teams of men who were trapping possums and koalas, so that their skins could be sold for fur. He also sought comfort in alcohol.

So by 1914, my father William Raymond, always known as Ray, was living with his mother in the town of Chinchilla, with his sisters. His father was rarely present, and even then, was usually on a drunken 'bender,' while he went through any money he had earned during his time away. Ray’s older brothers worked during the summer running a dairy on the best farm the family had selected; and in the winter driving teams of horses transporting whatever goods they could find. Ray had already left school. There is a story that he and Percy, a brother a couple of years older than Ray, had a milk-round, delivering milk through the town in a billy-goat cart.

During WWI, Ray’s oldest brother Jack served in Egypt and France, and was badly wounded there, His father's problems with money and alcohol led to separation between his parents, and in time, to Bill's early death.

Ray was a young man of twenty, trying to make his own way in the world. Perhaps he ran a few cattle on his mother's farm, probably he worked beside his brothers in his Uncle Tom Redgens's growing grocery store in the town. We actually know little of his life at this time, except that it seems that his mother kept her family under her eye as much as possible.

Ray’s mother had become a strict Methodist, and later a Jehovers Witness. She believed that music and dancing, along with alcohol and gambling, were lures of the Devil, and so were banned. He never learned to dance, and with his father's example before him, never drank alcohol either. For a short time, he became a member of the Rachabite Lodge. But he did tell us of attending the Presbyterian Church, and cracking peanut shells in the back pews!

Ray grew up watching his older brothers who played Aussie Rules Football … they had grown up in Victoria … cricket, golf, and tennis. Ray also had become a good player of golf, cricket and tennis. My mother Emmie Littleproud, had become a good tennis player during her time at boarding school. At least once, Ray visited her local district, Canaga. She told us that during one of her holidays at home, she and a friend had attended a local tennis match. During the lunch break, they took the chance to have a game on the empty court, but were quite cross when they were joined by at last one attentive young man … Ray.

‘After that,’ he said, ‘I watched her, every time she came to catch the train. I told my friend Fred that I was going to marry her one day!’

But he had to wait some time to do it.

The only story I have retained of their courtship was that he would leave home in Chinchilla early on Sunday morning, to ride the twenty-five or so kilometres to her home. There he spent the day with her family, before leaving after dark to ride back to town, to be ready for work the next day. Sometimes the saddle horse must have been exchanged for a sulky. I learnt that her brother had to chase the sulky for some distance, before the horse was convinced that it had to leave for the drive home.

The couple eventually married in 1929. But they had planned to be married before that, probably in 1927, when Emmie was 21. After the wedding was planned, Ray’s mother had pressing financial worries, and his savings disappeared in helping his mother. Emmie was furious, and always wondered whether Grandma was trying to prevent the wedding. I doubt that Mum argued with Ray about it, the couple never argued in all the years I knew them. But Emmie, small and clear-minded, always had her own opinions, and stuck to them.

‘I need to get away and think!’ she said.

She contacted the headmistress of her old boarding school for advice. With her assistance, Emmie was appointed as a governess at Mildura, a sheep station near Barcaldine, teaching two young girls.

This was a long way from Chinchilla, and to get there she must have made a long journey; almost 300 km to Brisbane; 550 km to Rockhampton; and another 550 km to Barcaldine, all by steam train. It must have taken several days. I think she quite enjoyed her time, and old newspaper stories I have read indicate that she kept playing tennis there. We never heard how Ray coped with the separation, but I am sure he never openly blamed his mother for their troubles. Grandma was still the family’s head.

The couple did not see each other during this time, but there must have been some communication between them. On her return journey, Ray met Emmie’s train in Maryborough, where his married sister lived, still many kilometres away from Chinchilla. Emmie told me that, before then, she had not really made up her mind about continuing the engagement.

I’m sure he was easy to spot on the platform, head and shoulders above the other men, neatly dressed with the shirt and tie he always wore, and probably his trade-mark hat. That would have made Mum realise that it was time for a decision. Getting closer, she would have seen again, how handsome he was, with dark eyes, and his smooth dark hair brushed back from his broad brow. And those smiling, loving eyes. All of those things must have helped her make up her mind. That was the true beginning of their fifty-five years of happy marriage.

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