One of the pleasures of walking the suburbs is making unexpected connections. Sometimes it’s a ghostsign – like the ‘Dr Morse’ sign that I first noticed in North Melbourne, which popped up again in Fitzroy and on a cafe wall in Abbotsford. Sometimes an architectural feature – the ‘barley sugar’ columns that I was unaware of until I spotted them on 1930s flats in South Yarra now keep turning up everywhere. And sometimes it’s a person whose life I find myself intersecting with as I walk. Whether we realise it or not, a passage through the city is a succession of encounters with countless individuals, celebrated, notorious or unknown.
One of these is Dame Mabel Brookes, the Melbourne writer whom I first came across in the unlikely setting of the Maribyrnong Explosives Factory, which I wrote about here. The factory employed thousands of people, mainly women, during World war 2 and beyond. Brookes, a well-known figure in Melbourne’s upper class, worked on the production line for a few months as part of her war work in the 1940s, using the name ‘Mrs Brookes’, and included a brief account of life in the factory in one of her memoirs, Crowded Galleries.
I doubt the book is much read these days (I came across it quoted by John Lack in his history of Footscray) but as far as I know Brookes was the only contemporary writer to record life in the Maribyrnong explosives factory. In doing so she captured a slice of working class history.
“We worked swiftly. An armful of detonators, a line of boxes to be packed, a quick fitting of the deadly little grenades on one table, a careful manipulation of pins and tighter screwing of base plugs further down, a powder-filling section next door … The explosive factory was divided into a series of bays spreading like a town over the slopes, concrete paths joining the places of work. Ever present were the red lines showing where only the specially shod feet must tread …” – Mabel Brookes, Crowded Galleries
Mabel’s husband was Norman Brookes, another name not very well known today, except to tennis tragics. Norman was a bona fide champion, the first Australian winner of Wimbledon (which he won twice, in 1907 and 1914) and a world number one. The trophy they hand out every year at the Australian Open, to be held aloft by the likes of Djokovic and Federer, is the Norman Brookes Challenge Cup. So the equivalent of Mabel Brookes’ war work in our own day might be, say, Bec Hewitt, wife of Lleyton, rocking up at the factory in her Mercedes.
When walking through South Yarra, which for many years has been thick with mansions, I came across ‘Raveloe’ where Mabel grew up, “the place of many parties and much fun and carefree youth”.
I imagined her getting into her chauffeur-driven car on that pleasant street beside the idyllic Domain – or perhaps one of her other houses, nearby ‘Kurnah’ – and driving across to smokey Maribyrnong, where she joined the women of the western suburbs making bombs and grenades. She didn’t have much in common with them – she was chums with colonels and generals, and she was president of the Victoria Hospital – but her memoir provides a valuable record of life at the factory (among a lot of other guff about tennis tournaments, society weddings and royal garden parties.).
Our paths crossed again on my most recent walk, when I wandered through St Kilda cemetery. Here is where Norman and Mabel Brookes’s journey came to an end. They share a gravestone in the cemetery. Perhaps surprisingly, no mention is made of Norman’s tennis achievements.
Not far from the Brookes’ grave is that of Sybil Craig, a Melbourne artist whose work I have come across from time to time (once, years ago, when I was planning a novel about the Melbourne art world, I read her diaries in the State Library). She too turned up at the Maribyrnong Explosives Factory, when she was appointed an official war artist.
Craig’s paintings of the factory capture in paint what Brookes captured in words: the workers concentrating on their task (one moment of carelessness could have deadly consequences) the noise and the stink. The paintings can be viewed at the Australian War Memorial.
Stories of war are usually told by men about men’s deeds. But these two women, ironically both from the eastern suburbs, and both far from working class, illuminate an aspect of Melbourne suburban life during the war which might otherwise be forgotten.
There are other interesting tales to be found in St Kilda cemetery – how could there not be? Every cemetery is a great starting point for stories. Here, for example, you’ll find the grave of Alfred Deakin, one of the most remarkable figures in Australian history, who played a critical role in federation, and was three times prime minister – not that you would know it from his tombstone. Those people who like to add every tiny achievement to their LinkedIn profile should look at how people of real note do it.
Other graves lead you to ask: Who is interred here, what do their memorials tell us?
I couldn’t go past this memorial to a woman named Doleen La Barte, who died in 1920. The scale of it suggests a more than ordinary level of grief.
Doleen LaBarte would have been born roughly the same time as Mabel Brookes, and like her came from a well-off Melbourne family, but fate or chance had other things in mind for her. The cemetery guidebook describes Doleen as a ‘murder victim’. On searching for more information, I found that she had been shot and killed by her husband, Thomas LaBarte, in Moss Vale, NSW in 1920. LaBarte also killed a policeman at the scene, before telephoning the police station to announce “I have shot one policeman, and I will shoot them all”. On looking up newspaper reports of the case, I realised that this too was a kind of war story.
When he was put on trial, La Barte’s defence was that he was suffering from ‘war strain’ due to his experiences in World War I, during which he attained the rank of major. He claimed that he was temporarily insane when he killed his wife.
The jury returned a verdict of manslaughter, and LaBarte escaped the noose for both killings. The press, ever sensitive to matters of mental illness, dubbed him ‘the demented major’. Doleen La Barte’s bereaved family erected a memorial to their only daughter in St Kilda cemetery.
Much of the time when I walk around the city I am struck by how much things have changed. In this case, though, almost 100 years later, it seems we have made little progress either in the treatment of mental illness or in reducing family violence.
More about St Kilda cemetery: ‘St Kilda cemetery an unlikely tour venue’ (Leader newspapers)