The year was 1955, and fresh out of Ballarat teachers college, Bob was assigned to the A1 Mine Settlement School, south of Mansfield, near Woods Point. Single-handed, he taught 22 students from grades one to seven in a weatherboard hut. A dramatic way to kick off his career.
When I met him in 2019, he kept a twinkle in his eye as he shared stories about death, theft and depression. Join me for a glimpse into this unique slice of history.
How did you get such a tough assignment fresh off the starting blocks?
My Dad was a teacher, who later became a school inspector, so I grew up moving around Victoria. He told me, “You gotta get your own school, or you’ll never get anywhere.” But it was near impossible for a new graduate to get that sort of assignment.
My first position was temporary at Coghills Creek, but when that ran out, I applied for and was appointed to A1 Mine Settlement. It was the last school anyone wanted. When I first arrived at the Gaffneys Creek pub in a shirt and tie, the mine manager took one look at me and said, “You poor bugger!”
Tell us about your living conditions.
The Department of Education had taken over the community hall as the schoolhouse, an ill-equipped building that sat over Raspberry Creek. The small supper room off the back was my bedroom. I ate in the miners’ canteen for a few dollars a week and shared their toilet and shower facilities, where they washed off grit, sweat and the cyanide used in the mining processes. There were few safety precautions there. The milky run-off from the plant went straight into the creek.
What was the mining community like?
Mostly, there were single men, some of whom were raising kids. Only five women braved the settlement to complete their families.
Everyone was there for a reason, in most cases to hide from the law. Others had work issues, such as losing their trade license, and this was the only place they could get a job. You’d never double-cross a miner, but if they were on your side, they were like family.
Did you have trouble fitting in?
Luckily, I could play football. There were three local teams: Jamieson, Gaffneys Creek and Woods Point. We only had enough players for 16 to a side, but everyone got into the spirit of the game.
The Gaffneys Creek oval was cut into the side of a hill, and it was fair play that you didn’t bump people into the rock wall. One day, one of the Woods Point players thumped me into it giving me cuts and bruises all over the place. By the time I came to, third world war was going on behind me. What a sight! Thirty-one players hoeing into one another.
After games, we met at Gaffneys Creek pub. On many occasions, a well-known Ford Fairlane ended up in the creek on the way home.
What were the students like?
The kids had nowhere to play but the road, so they got into mischief. They told tales on each other, but always looked after one another. They loved tickling trout in the creek, and more than once, someone got tangled in the raspberries. By the time someone ran to get me, one of the big boys would have pulled him out.
They threw rocks on the roof of the schoolhouse to wake me up in the mornings. When they piffed it over the main roof and hit the roof of my room, it gave me a rude shock.
One day in class, a naughty boy bit me on the leg. We had the strap in those days, so I used it. He ran home to his mother, who came back with a lump of wood and belted me. There was nothing I could do. The nearest police station was Woods Point and how would they help anyway?
Did the student’s mischief ever get serious?
One day, the school president found me and asked, “You can swim, can’t you?” I could. Most of the miners were never taught.
A past student had gone fishing in a waterhole in the Goulburn. He’d pinched some gelignite to blast the fish, but must have fallen in. They wanted to confirm that he was in the water and get him out.
It was the middle of winter, but I duck-dived for hours. At last, I found a hand. I tied a rope to his arm and they recovered the body. He was as black as a hat from the explosion. They put him on the back of a ute [utility vehicle] and took him to the Mansfield morgue.
Was that the only tragedy you witnessed?
In the two years I was there, about six people died. I’d turn up at the canteen and someone would say, “Poor Wally’s gone.”
“A bloody great rock fell on him.”
They all ended up at the Mansfield morgue.
When an ambulance came from Mansfield to pick up the bodies, I couldn’t keep the kids in class. They’d all mill around to catch the only entertainment around and to make sure it wasn’t their Dad who’d “gone down” that day.
How did you cope with this harsh reality?
I got depressed. The mine was in a valley, so we only saw the sun for about an hour a day. And while I had some mates, I didn’t really have anyone to talk to.
I must have got a bit dramatic on the phone to my parents, because they drove down to see me. Dad checked out the schoolhouse with its portable blackboards and said, “You’ve got everything you need.” And that was it.
Were there any lighter moments?
I celebrated my 21st birthday at one of the miner’s cottages, where I was served liquor the first time – Pimms No. 1 [a gin-based aperitif]. I got so Milly-munked [drunk] I didn’t know what I was doing. The chooks outside were missing the party, so I kept bringing them inside to join the fun. In the end, the hosts got sick of me, so they stuck me in a wheelbarrow and pushed me home.
What about a social life? Could you date anyone?
My girlfriend lived in Melbourne. To begin with, I caught a ride back to the city on weekends with one of the few people who owned a car. He dropped me off in St Kilda at 4:00pm on Saturday and picked me up at 9:00am Sunday, so I only saw my girl for a few hours.
Later, I bought a Morris Minor, which gave me more freedom. I stayed in town longer and left at about 4:00am Monday morning. Sometimes the road, treacherous at the best of times, was blocked by snow, so I couldn’t make it through. I had to backtrack and take the long way around. The kids knew if my car wasn’t there, not to come to school. When I finally arrived, I had to round them up.
How tight was security?
Every fortnight, an armoured truck came and loaded up ingots of gold. Once on the return road, they found some fallen rocks around a bend. When the driver and guard hopped out to clear the path, a couple of youths clocked them over the head and took off with the gold. Just like the old Ned Kelly days.
Was that the only incident?
Tales were told about a system the miners had going. The mining process was to blast rock deep in the mine. The rock pieces were loaded onto trucks, which were hauled to the top of the mineshaft and driven from the mine to the processing plant. If the miners found a good nugget of gold, they’d mark its location with a chalk cross on the side of the truck. The truck driver stopped between the mine and the plant and chucked the rich rock into the bushes. At night, the miners retrieved the rock from the bushes and as I lay in bed, I swear I could hear them dollying away [a dolly is like a mortar and pestle used to separate gold from the rock].
I used to wonder how they got the gold out of the mine to sell it. It wasn’t until years later that I deduced that the guy who dropped me off in St Kilda every weekend might have been transporting more than a love-struck teacher.
What have you done since you left the mine?
I worked in public schools and lectured police trainees for a number of years, then left the public system and taught at Carey Grammar. When I’d had enough of teaching, I drove Silver Top Taxis for a time, and then moved to the YMCA, where I started as a training officer and worked my way up to CEO. Next, I created a sports and recreation traineeship program for the Federal Government, for which, years later, I was awarded an Order of Australia.
Where to from here?
I’m married with two children, and am enjoying my retirement in Glen Iris. My daughter, Jenny, is a Lawyer QC. My son, Greg, lives and works in Mansfield, so I enjoy visiting the area. I recently went out for lunch with a couple of ex-students from the A1 Mine Settlement School, which made me realize that though horrible at the time, those two years gave me one of the greatest experiences of my life.
The A1 mine is still in operation, though the raw material is now trucked to Malden for processing.
The A1 Mine Settlement schoolhouse met a sad demise years later when someone backed a car into it and the whole thing toppled into Raspberry Creek.
Gaffneys Creek pub was burnt down in 1993 by two escapees.
You can follow Bob on:
Facebook: BobandPam Romanes
Next time: If you are submitting a manuscript to an agent or publisher, here’s A Beginner’s Guide to Formatting a Manuscript
Next interview: Natalie Muller, Publisher at Black Cockie Press
Next interview in the Mansfield series: Greg Romanes on Tree Change, Foster Care and Mansfield’s Next Gold Rush