Ch12 Pt1 Wingham Town Clerk

I had arrived in Kempsey in the latter part of 1956. It was now 1959, and I was thirty-seven years old. I was once more chafing at the bit and dissatisfied with things at the Shire of Macleay.

It annoyed me that I was never allowed to attend Council meetings, was not allowed access to Council minutes, and apart from the general office routine, had very little idea what was going on. The Shire Clerk never sought my advice and never took me into his confidence. As a result, when Councillors asked me questions about aspects of development, I was unable to answer satisfactorily. The Shire Clerk had had a most unfortunate experience with his previous Deputy, and because of this, he had apparently decided to tell nobody anything at all. As a result of this experience, he was subsequently obliged to take three months’ leave, during which time I found that I was quite capable of doing his job once I gained some of the local knowledge previously denied me. When he returned to duty, I decided that it was time for me to move on.

Jobs were now beginning to dry up. For years there had been a shortage of qualified clerks, at least, in the country, the city slickers having apparently been unwilling to leave the fleshpots to migrate. Now, however, coastal jobs began to attract larger numbers of applicants. Jobs were still fairly easily available in the west. But once there, it was almost impossible to get back to the coast. I reasoned that in our lifetime the coast would be the area where most of the development and the action were. Certainly the amenities were there. Anyhow, I felt a great personal need to be near to the sea where I could visit sometimes and recharge my batteries. Thus, my objective must be a job on the coast as Clerk to a Council. So when Wingham Municipal Council advertised, I had little hesitation about putting in for the job. Wingham was eighty miles or so closer to Sydney and Newcastle than Kempsey, and it was only eight miles from Taree, a burgeoning town. Forster and Tuncurry were within easy reach, both excellent seaside resorts. Port Macquarie was not too far away. Wingham was a small town, but it suited. There was a mere ten shillings a week increase in pay, but I should be my own boss and run the business my way for once, as well as dealing directly with a Council of Aldermen.

Adequate educational opportunities were close at hand for the children. If I got stuck in Wingham, they could lead a happy and fulfilled childhood in this area. Moreover, facilities for further tertiary education or professional training were available relatively close at hand in Newcastle. When Irene and I had first come to Australia, I had picked Taree as the town where I would like to be Town or Shire Clerk for all these reasons. Wingham was very close indeed geographically speaking, and if the money was a little less than I might have hoped for, well, there were many worse places in New South Wales.

There were three applicants for the job apart from myself.

Nobody else had applied for the job because it apparently seemed so insignificant. Also, the threat of amalgamation overhung Wingham even in those days, and few people were prepared to take this risk. The incumbent Town Clerk was a Freemason, and he and I recognised each other the moment we met. Despite this, I never did attach much importance to the Masonic link. The days when you had to be either a Catholic or a Freemason to get a good job in the public service were passing, and it seemed to me that the sooner that kind of rubbish was buried, the better. I think that I got the job, in the final analysis, by default. The other candidates were so unacceptable for various reasons, that I was the only one left, in spite of the fact that I was a naturalised Australian and not a natural born one.

So I started work in Wingham. I immediately found that we were grossly understaffed and that I had no chance of getting any extra staff because the finances of the Council were balanced on a knife’s edge. The only plant we had was a tabletop Bedford truck which was of ancient vintage even in 1959, and a farm tractor with a blade on the front which acted as a grader-cum-dozer. Every time the thing struck a rock larger than the size of a football, the wheels spun, and the labourers had to rally round with pick and shovel. All the records were kept by hand. I had one old fellow who looked after the rates, thank goodness, but all the rest of the income and expenditure records, the ledgers, the plant returns, stores and materials, journal calculations and entries, periodic financial statements, annual statements of accounts, trial balances, annual estimates, calculation of appropriate rate levies – in fact every last thing to do with accountancy – were carried out personally and manually by me. In addition, I managed the show, raised loans, attended to all the mail, all the correspondence, organised all the Council meetings and did all the minutes. I worked a seven day week with daily overtime for ten years, and never got paid a penny extra. I calculate that Wingham Council owed me thousands upon thousands of dollars when I left, and my regret was that I never stood up to them and demanded what was rightfully mine. However, at the time, I was in a financial bind, and very worried. The children were at a stage when I did not want their school disturbed. I owed a lot of money and had very little capital. Wingham was a small, inward looking community. Had I stood up for my rights, they would probably have had to pay me. But there was a legal doubt in that the Mayor never authorised the overtime that I was forced to work. Also, our finances were so restricted at that time that every penny had to be watched. By all the rules of the game Wingham should have been amalgamated within a few months of my arrival. But I also had another personal and even selfish feeling deep in my heart. Here was a little community obviously on the point of collapse. I was determined to see that it did not collapse. Maybe this silly little place was my personal testing field and battleground. If I could make Wingham live and prosper I would know deep in my own consciousness that I had contributed a small amount to the development of Australia. Nobody would fully understand it but me. It does not matter a rap what other people think of you. It only matters what you think of yourself. I became determined that come what might, I would set Wingham on its feet so that it would never collapse. At the same time, I would earn sufficient money to ensure my children an undisturbed and secure childhood.

Today, I might take a different attitude. But what actually happened is factual, and backward thoughts are pointless.

When old Normie, who did the rates book and other odd jobs eventually retired, I mechanised the entire accounting process, installed an electronic accounting machine, and transferred the manual ledgers to card systems with automatic postings of the general and works cost ledgers at the same time. I replaced Normie with a female accounting machine operator with a good knowledge of bookkeeping.

Prior to this, I organised the financial and legal aspects of a sewerage scheme for the whole of the municipality, which had previously been on an antediluvian pan service. Subsequently I organised extensions of the sewer, and was in the process of organising with the Public Works Department a further augmentation of the overall sewerage scheme when Wingham was finally amalgamated in 1981. However, this augmentation was in train, and the town was to receive the benefits of it, amalgamations notwithstanding.

When I arrived in Wingham, slightly over a score of houses had been built under a Council housing scheme introduced by the Town Clerk who was my predecessor. When I left, we had financed four hundred new homes under the scheme, and a myriad of extensions and renovations. In addition we had built one small Council subdivision, one large subdivision of over two hundred houses, mostly Council financed, and a further large subdivision half constructed and built on at the time of amalgamation. Here again, the project had reached such a stage that the new Council had no alternative but to continue the work to completion.

I was able to obtain thousands of dollars by way of government grants for unemployment relief, which put kerb and gutter and footpath throughout the Municipality. (The manager of the local branch of the Commonwealth Bank said he always dreaded receiving correspondence from me asking for loan funds. He said that he knew that he would have to advance Council the money, because the picture I painted of Wingham’s plight was so heart rending that it made him cry. I used the same technique on government departments, and it worked amazingly well for about three years until they seemed to wake up to the fact that they were being rather free with their money).

During my time at Wingham, we built a filtrated and chlorinated 33⅓ metre swimming pool and extended it to 50 metres. We also turned our old garbage dump and an adjoining Crown lease into two hundred and seventy acres of sporting complex for football, hockey, cricket, shooting and other sports, and built a huge Sporting Pavilion, again partly with grants. The Sporting Pavilion contained for a long time the only basketball court in the area. It also contained squash courts, showers and dressing rooms, and on the outside a grandstand to seat one thousand people. This grandstand overlooked what came to be recognised as one of the best rugby league football fields in the area.