Homeless Shanklands

I and A Shankland, UK

Not everyone who went out from Britain to find a better life in what were then "The Colonies" liked what he found. The following are excerpts from letters written from Australia some fifty years ago by Ian's great-uncle Robert Shankland back to his family in England. In this one he explains how difficult it is to keep up with his correspondence with the lack of all home comforts including a home!


... Just to finish I want to explain how I do not keep up the letters to you all as I should, it just cannot be done - I'm far behind in answering anyone whom I promised, for I've not the least convenience for doing so. You may think this is a bit of a tall story, what about the nights? Well, I have to go to bed with the fowls, as I have no lights, no table or chairs or all the articles I would require for regular writing. I have not lived in a house for all these years, I've just got a little nook I can crawl into to sleep or when it storms. It's no great hardship living out in this country. Bush fires are always a danger, I was burnt out in 1936 by a drunken Scotchman neighbour, of course he denied setting the fire, to get a conviction for these firebugs one has to practically catch them actually starting the fire, now four years after the War building material just cannot be had, and it's likely to be bad for many years, the newcomer immigrants are promised houses built by the Government but the Government is far behind with promises and preference to these people ...

Robert Shankland

Robert had been born in County Durham in the north-east of England, but had emigrated to Australia and did military service in South Africa; in both places he seems to have been dogged by bad luck. These extracts show what a hard time he had of it with his fruit farm in New South Wales.


December 14th 1947

Dear Nephew John,

I received your last letter a few days ago ... I should have replied earlier, but I am so terribly busy, trying to get some seeds sown as we had the wettest November and December so far, something of a novelty for this time of the year, which is always blazing hot and so dry that it is impossible to get seeds to germinate probably until March. You may think I am a real farmer, well I am not, I have had a very unsatisfactory life in Australia as a whole, it seemed as if I would have to die as an old nomad that is a wanderer from place to place, so when the last depression was here, years 29-30, 31-32, etc. it was announced by the local papers, that small blocks of land would be available to those who wanted land, when I came out of the Army I was always after the land, yet I could not convince myself that one could make a living by the land ...

Robert was born in 1870, the youngest of a family of seven children. He grew up on the farm their father managed near Easington, later a colliery village, on the north-east coast of England near Newcastle, and he loves to remember it as it was when he was a boy. (There are no coal-mines there now: the indigenous energy industry has been closed down by the last British Conservative Government.)

These letters were written a few years after the Second World War, when Robert was in his seventies, having only recently got back into contact with his relatives in England. Most are to his nephews John and Robert (sons of his brother Thomas); the Walter he refers to is another of his brothers.


Sunday May 23rd 1948

Dear John,

Your very welcome letter and photograph arrived some time ago, I was pleased to see you all, and Walter, he seemed to be a real old toff, and you telling me about the yarns he and Jack Hewit had and the singing, I did not catch on who did the singing, Jack or Walter, well it's a poor heart that doesn't rejoice sometimes.

The Mason's Arms I remember well where you had a booze, so I expect all the other pubs are still in existence, the Half-Moon, Shoulder of Mutton, Kings Head, and another I have forgotten the name. I remember getting a feed of carlings (green peas) fried in fat with lots of pepper on them some time in Easter this custom occurs, I never got at the why and wherefore of this unusual custom, I have always been keen on investigating the folklore of peoples in villages or towns in the various counties in England or anywhere else ...

My curiousness gets me back to that old place where I was born and where I remember Father and Mother. It would just delight me wonderfully if I could just visit the places I have in mind around that old village.

This nostalgia for the sights and sounds of his youth in the Easington area co-exists with his recognition of the hardship and dangers of coal-mining, and with his own difficulties in his life in New South Wales:

Colliery disasters

June 3rd 1949

Dear John,

Your letter to hand last week, I was very pleased with it. I am afraid I've treated you all very shabbily for not answering all the letters I received last Christmas ... I have always intended to answer any one who wrote to me, but good intentions somehow go on the rocks ... it seems to me I work day after day hour after hour, and never get through anything I've planned to do. I am anxious to make a good show on this very land before I leave this planet.

The colliery disasters you mention, I grieve for their relatives. I know of the two places you mention but I did not know they were coal-mining places. I was very interested about the new village that is going to be built. I was wondering where exactly the situation would be, I walked that road very often, Acre Rigg and West Horden is side-by-side ... I've often wondered if that old windmill is still standing in a field right opposite West Horden, I do not know who farmed that old place, but the old mill did not work in my time, but a man that lived there used to work for a blacksmith at Easington ...

In another letter he expands on the bush-fire problem, which (as the first excerpt indicated) led to his spending much of his life without even a house to live in:


28th December 1949

Your very welcome letter and card arrived today [and] found me in a very tight corner. I've just come from having a look round and believe me I've got a shock. For 16 years I've been endeavouring to make this place reasonably secure from the bush fires that are so prevalent at this time of the year, I had been down in a low part of my land only a half hour or so, when I came up to the top I saw a volume of smoke only a few yards from my line of division from my neighbour. I knew then I was in a fight for life, to save a few apple trees covered with a good crop of fruit half grown, I was practically helpless, not a soul within three-quarters of a mile that I could look for help. I set out to see this neighbour, I found him standing on the road close to my Scotch neighbour's house, he had seen the smoke and knew that I would be in serious trouble, but he thought and probably knew that it was this man who had set the fire, as he told me he had seen him coming home drunk, and if it was only him that was going to get burnt out he would not lift a finger to help to stop the fire. When I told him it was only a few yards from my place, we both hurried back and started to fight but it was too late, it got along the line of my apple trees so up went the apples and the quince trees that I had been nursing all these years, and the fire kept raging on all over the bottom of my place, I did not sleep a wink that night. I had to go for my Christmas dinner the next day to my neighbour's place, the fire was still raging a lot more quietly and it looked as we would come out with the loss of the apples only, but the neighbour next to this fellow on the other side was caught and the fellow who came to my help had another few days with his son-in-law battling the fire to prevent him being burnt out, he was saved by these men's action. I was too knocked out to help, what made me wild was to see these working men anticipating a quiet good Christmas having to lose their holiday, through this dirty swine setting fires. This is the second time he has burnt me out. The year 1936 he lit two fires, one on the 1st Nov and the second on 8th Nov. The second got me burnt fruit trees and other things. Yesterday I woke up, looked down the lower portion of my block, there was the fire raging up towards my grass land that we had saved. Here again I had to rush out looking for help. I got the bush fire brigade this time, all's quiet on the fire front today, but we never know when some fool starts fires. So Walter thinks I should have more comfort in housing? Better to have no house at all than to invite the fire bugs.

But memories of his early life in Easington keep surfacing, even when he knows his brother Walter is now old and blind:

... I was pleased you had visited Walter my only brother, you were sorry for him in his darkness and yet he was cheerful you say, tell him if you are at Durham again that I am also sorry for him, and I wonder if he remembers me giving him a bad kick on the shins, we had a row about something, that kick is as vivid to me now after all these years as if it only occurred yesterday.

Occasionally, through his disillusionment and homesickness, there come flashes of poetic nostalgia for "The Old Country", but here he reads what he has written and concludes that he has "used up all the space I can and said nothing"!


21st December 1950

I just don't know where to start to have a yarn to you, it's such a long time ago I have had a yarn to you, well I will start off anywhere and see what comes out I guess. Well, a new year is just about on us, I had a letter from John a few weeks ago telling me about the death of Walter, it seems he had a lonely death if not a painful one, it's bad enough not being able to see all the various flowers etc. round us in the spring and summer, I'll tell you just one sight that always pleased me, a lane or a lonnen as the locals called it, a narrow lane with the typical may in flower and the red or white wild rose intermingled and the wild smell it has, and sometimes the straggley yellow honeysuckle. I was just turning over a handful of old letters when I came across a photo of a tall straggly-haired girl and a taller young man who carried the name Jimmy, whose Jimmy? and I know there was a young fellow who was to marry Maureen, was this Jimmy and Maureen in the photo? One of my complaints is forgetfulness, I hope if I am to go out soon I hope the deity that controls these going outs uses the quickest, the most effective, and could you induce your Bobbie to write me a letter, and tell me all about the School you told me about, and if he is good at History could he find out a village named Merton supposed to be in Yorkshire, the village Captain Cook was born in, I see I've used up all the open space I can and said nothing.

A touching way to say nothing.

I. and A. Shankland, March 2000