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How not to invest in shares

One of my late mother’s pastimes, inherited from her father, was investing in shares – not so much to make money but for to add interest to life. Going to company AGMs was for her – and many others of pension age – a social thing rather than an opportunity to grill the board with incisive questions. In early times some companies – RHM and Young’s Brewery to name but two –  followed their AGMs with a really good lunch (the real reason many went!) but these ended when the host’s hospitality was abused – what sort of person goes to an AGM and fills their briefcase with bottles of spirits or food from the buffet? As for me I’ve not followed in her footsteps. My three incursions into the world of shares have been conspicuous failures!

Firstly, in the 1990s, came Pathfinder Repossessions. After the UK’s Conservative government (correctly) removed double tax relief on mortgages but (mistakenly) deferred bringing this change in , there was an almighty housing boom, followed by a rise in interest rates and a crash, with many people having their houses repossessed. At the same time the government introduced the BES (Business Expansion Scheme): all profits made from investing in such companies were tax free.

One such company was Pathfinder Repossessions. The story was a good one. As the New York Times explained (Feb 1992): “Their aim is to snap up homes at auction, quickly refurbish and rent them, and then sell them off in four or five years”. Five years later, with property prices having gone up by around 17% and all the profits from renting there should have been a useful return. But in contravention of the statement in the original prospectus ‘that the Directors will endeavour to facilitate the realisation by Investors of their investment at the end of five years‘ the company’s money, supplemented by significant borrowings, had been invested in a speculative new-build scheme in Wimbledon. I made my opinions clear at the AGM, noting “The Profit and Loss account for 1996-97 show sales of £387,000, which I presume is rental income from properties still owned by the company. By some sleight of hand all but £3,000 of this has been spent on management and administrative expenses”. The chairman responded with some very sarcastic comments.

A few months later Pathfinder Repossessions was taken over by Pathfinder Properties. At least I didn’t lose my money. I invested £2500 and got back £1,882 in cash and shares in Pathfinder Properties worth around £871, net total £2,753, for £2,500 invested in 1992 – a five year period when savings interest rates were around 5-6%. Some people made a lot of money out of Pathfinder, just not the shareholders.

Skip a few years to the excesses of the dotcom boom. All sorts of companies were being set up from scratch and were soon to make millionaires of their founders even though they weren’t making money. The key to this was to get a share floatation, a not inexpensive process. Step forward Durlacher, a long established stockbrokers. The deal was simple – payment in kind: Durlacher would float your company in exchange for a small proportion of the share capital. The attraction for people like me was that by investing in Durlacher you were buying into a parcel of dotcom companies, knowing that the due diligence had been done by supposedly very clever people. So I put some money into Durlacher shares. They went up. Repeat two or three times.

And then …. Reality caught up. As the Telegraph reported: “Durlacher, a star in the dotcom boom when it was valued at £2.3 billion and was on the brink of joining the FTSE 100 index, is now worth less than £5m after seeing its shares plummet from a peak of 441p nearly three years ago. Yesterday, the shares fell a further 0.11p to a new low of 0.82p after it said a review by KPMG had revealed its net assets are now less than half its called-up share capital”. Of course I should have set a stop loss and bailed at an early stage but didn’t. I’m not sure now how much I’d invested – probably a few thousand pounds – but the final insult was that my holding was now worth less than Charles Schwab’s minimum £15 deal. Fortunately one of their staff took pity on me and let me get my last few pounds out.

And so to Australia. Through a friend I heard about a small company called Ironclad Mining. Another great story: they had the rights to mine iron ore at Wilcherry Hill, South Australia. The pitch: “The project has forecast high rates of return from development due to the quality of the product likely to be produced from Wilcherry…. Stage 1 will aim to produce a high quality, low contaminant Direct Shipping Ore (DSO) 62% Fe product which, can be produced by simple low cost, dry methods such as crushing, screening and dry magnetic separation. It is expected that Stage 1(a), which is being fast-tracked into production by the end of this year, is likely to deliver up to two million tonnes a year of DSO ore for at least three years”. Millions of dollars later lots of exploratory drilling had been done, a never-used miners compound built and a shipping barge procured. But with a fall in iron ore prices the shareholders weren’t up for any more rights issues. The company was folded into Tyranna Resources. ASX:TYX, price: 0.007 AUD, Market Cap: $8.98 m (as at 18.09.21). As for myself, I turned $7272 into $306!

TL;DR: Never take investment advice from me!

A unique holiday souvenir

After he retired in 1966 my dad took up family history as a hobby. Things were different then: no internet, no ancestry.com. Rather every scrap of information was the result of hours of work, mainly visiting the register of births, deaths and marriages housed at Somerset House, then St Catherine’s House – though living in SW London made this fairly easy. These records, though, only go back to 1837.

Cannington parish church

Cannington parish church

To take the search further back, in June 1975 I accompanied dad for a week’s holiday in Somerset. On his father’s side, the Bryer family could be traced back to Combe Florey, then Cannington near Bridgewater. Whilst staying there we met several distant relatives – I wish I’d kept a journal as 46 years on my memories are very hazy.

One, cousin Nancy, lived in a rather fine house in the town centre. We also met an elderly couple, George and Elsie who produced a picture of the village carpenter’s shop with wagon wheel and part finished coffin amongst the contents. Dad’s grandfather was the village carpenter; his father moved to Bristol and read gas meters for a living; my dad moved to London and became a civil servant, and here I am living in Melbourne.

But back to the main task. We did spend an afternoon at the County Record Office in Bridgewater, but the real interest was in searching through the Cannington parish church baptismal, marriage and death records. There were no shortcuts, rather it was a question of reading through page after page of often barely legible handwriting. Slowly we filled in some gaps in dad’s research but others remained unresolved.

The Holy One front cover

The Holy One front cover

The vicar, Arthur Moss, was very helpful and as a keepsake I bought a copy of his book, ‘The Holy One’. It’s an interesting piece of work: he takes the four Gospels and rearranges them to make one narrative of the life of Jesus.

This was not an original idea: according to Wikipedia the earliest known gospel harmony is the Diatessaron by compiled by one Tatian of Adiabene in the 2nd century which Moss acknowledges as one of his inspirations, the other being William Newcome, Bishop of Ossory who compiled his Greek Diatessaron in 1778. Moss’s work is a translation of this text. It starts with St Luke’s preface and finishes with Jesus’ ascension and John’s epilogue.

Now I look through it for the first time in many years, it’s an beautifully crafted work and I will take time to read it through. My bookshelf apart it has seemingly disappeared without trace. A Google search on “The Holy One” “Arthur Moss” produced nothing of consequence, something that this piece will rectify!


The Holy One, Arthur R. Moss, pub. Citadel Press, Derby 1971, ISBN 0 85468 512 X

Where goes Africa?

Inside Africa frontispiece

Inside Africa frontispiece

In recent months I’ve been re-reading a chunk of John Gunther’s Inside Africa, mainly the chapters relating to what were British colonies. It runs to 960 pages (the index takes up 40) and recounts the author’s experience of travelling the continent with his wife during 1952-53. They visited 105 towns and cities and he took notes on conversations with1,503 people.

It was a time when nearly two hundred million Africans were ruled, for the most part, by five million white Europeans. But, as Macmillan would note in 1960, “the wind of change is blowing through [Africa]. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.

Gunther saw this this desire to shake off colonialism, talking to many emerging leaders, but on page 10 notes: “Many Europeans think that Africans, if they become free, will make a botch of freedom. But this remains to be seen. They also say that African exploitation of Africans could be worse than European …”.

But the desire for freedom could not be supressed. I just remember from my 1960s childhood seeing every few months on TV news another independence ceremony when a Union Jack was lowered, a new national flag taking its place, raised in a spirit of hope and optimism. As far as Africa is concerned the last sixty years, sadly, have proved otherwise.

At church we are currently studying the book of Exodus dating back more than three thousand years. Even if you’re not Jewish or Christian you almost certainly know the plot. The Israelites find themselves enslaved by the Egyptians, the ever-increasing oppression leading God through Moses to cry: “Let my people go.” And finally the moment arrives when they make their miraculous escape through the Red Sea on to a life of paradise in a land of milk of honey.

Save that it didn’t work out that way. No sooner were they free than the complaints started. People were telling one another that they’d be better off in Egypt [Ex.16:3]. Moses was worn out settling disputes between people [18:13-26] and when they were given a set of laws – the Ten Commandments [20:1-17] – for the better regulation of society they forgot them in no time. It would be decades before they (or rather their descendants) were able to enjoy a settled society. The 40 years spent wandering in the wilderness was for many a lifetime.

What of Africa? We’ve seen terrible things happen in so many African countries: thousands dead in the Matabele massacres, vast numbers dying as a result of the Biafran civil war, Rwandan genocide and other conflicts. Up to the 1970s South Korea  and Zimbabwe enjoyed much the same per-capita GDP. Now the ratio is something like 24:1. And that’s not because Zimbabwe has nothing going for it: it used to be called the bread bowl of Africa, has massive mineral resources, at independence was left with pretty good infrastructure (rail the legacy of Rhodes) and has one of the greatest sights in the world in the Victoria Falls. What has it lacked? There’s a good summary here.

But perhaps it doesn’t have to be like this. Check out this 2008 paper by Icelandic Economics professor Thorvaldur Gylfason:

Believe it or not: in 1901, Iceland’s per capita national output was about the same as that of Ghana today. Today, Iceland occupies first place in the United Nations’ ranking of material success according to the Human Development Index that reflects longevity, adult literacy, and schooling as well as the purchasing power of peoples’ incomes. Can Iceland’s rags-to-riches story be replicated in Africa and elsewhere in the developing world? If so, what would it take?

The author’s answer can be found here. The now 1.3 billion Africans were ‘freed’ from colonialism in the 1960s by the winds of change observed by Macmillan. They now deserve to be freed from poverty and bad government. “Formerly one of the world’s poorest countries—with a GDP per capita of about US$70 per year in the late 1960s—Botswana has since transformed itself into an upper middle income country, with one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.” shows us what can be done.

Twickenham Ferry

Last week a Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network meeting discussed Melbourne’s Ferries – Past, Present and Future. Upstream of the city all the ferries across the Yarra – one of which I will return to – have been replaced by bridges. Downstream, the river is subject to a fairly low speed limit, reflecting the use of the river by small leisure craft, container ships accessing the docks as well as the need to protect of the river banks. Geography means that for most destinations, unlike Sydney, other forms of transport are quicker or cheaper.

Bellarine Express and Geelong Flyer ferries passing in Victoria Harbour

Bellarine Express and Geelong Flyer ferries passing in Victoria Harbour

Apart from the tourist ferries from the CBD to Williamstown, we do have two ferries running from here in Docklands to Portarlington and Geelong, both services starting in the last few years. Portarlington  in particular lends itself to a ferry service – it’s not served by rail and the ferry is probably quicker than driving. Will we see more ferries? Not without suitable mooring facilities, the meeting was told.

But back to Ferries past. When the first settlers came here they brought a lot of their former place names with them. So as a one-time resident of Twickenham, now living in Docklands, I can easily visit Richmond, Hampton, Sunbury but no Twickenham. We do though have a Twickenham Crescent in Burnley. Why? Let the Australasian, 4 June 1904 explain:

TWICKENHAM FERRY

Extract from 1889 David Syme woodcut: Twickenham Ferry on the Yarra

Extract from 1889 David Syme woodcut: Twickenham Ferry on the Yarra

One of the prettiest reaches on the Yarra, within easy distance from Melbourne, is that portion lying between Burnley and Toorak, about 4 1/2 miles up from Prince’s bridge. Here a ferry conveys passengers across the river, starting at the bottom of Grange-road, Toorak, across to Burnley. The ferry dates back to 1880, when Jesse Harrow, a veteran waterman, founded it.Unlike its English namesake on the River Thames, where the ferryboat is manned by a “jolly young waterman,” Twickenham Ferry on the Yarra is worked by means of a suspended rope, stretched across the river*, with a sheave wheel and regulating lines at each end, so that it can be raised or lowered, according to the height of the water.

Twickenham Ferry postcard c.1907

Twickenham Ferry postcard c.1907

On the Burnley side of the river, partly hewn out of the bank, is constructed a most picturesque old dwelling, containing four rooms and a shop. Here the widow of the late Jesse Barrow, together with her son and daughter reside, and retail refreshments, ranging from soft drinks and kola beer to apples, pears, and lollies, to the thirsty oarsmen. The ferry hours during the weekdays are from 7 in the morning till 10 at night, and on Sundays from 8 till 9, the fare being one penny each way.

“There are a good many ‘dead heads,’ though,” added the ferryman; “you see sometimes, men looking for work, want to cross the river, and, of course, promise to pay when they return, and again sometimes a lady finds she has left her purse at home, or has no change; then we have to trust to their honesty. So it’s not all profit, in addition, we have to pay £5 a year for a license.”

Thirty years later the ferry service was no more:

FAREWELL TO TWICKENHAM FERRY

Not least perhaps among the many functions which his Grace the Duke of Gloucester will perform will be the official opening of the Centenary Bridge at Grange Road, well on the way to completion. Another step in the path of progress no doubt; but progress, no matter how desirable in practical ways, is not always a source of unalloyed gratification. At least, so thinks Mr. Barrow, the picturesque boatman of Twickenham Ferry, who, with the opening of the bridge, will find his occupation, like Othello’s, gone. Incidentally another, perhaps one of the last of those links that bind us to Melbourne’s pioneer days, will be broken.

Mr. Barrow, who has lived in or near his present habitation, Twickenham Ferry, just by Burnley, throughout his life, is the son of Jesse Barrow, who came to Australia from England in 1861….

None of the many regular or casual voyagers carried in his little craft during nearly half a century ever made an un-interesting trip with Mr. Barrow. Short though the transit might be, there was always time for some interesting reminiscence that gave additional interest or charm to an already charming spot. The strong structure that makes his service “no longer necessary” will be stolidly silent where he was eloquent, retaining its frigid parvenu dignity somewhat in-appropriately in the midst of rustic beauty. But though Mr. Barrow’s services will be no longer required, we in Melbourne know, they will not be forgotten

Argus 15 Sept 1934

Two nights at Swan Hill

Map (source Echuca Discovery Centre)

Map (source Echuca Discovery Centre)

With memories of my March Echuca mini-break fading, I decided it was time for another short break travelling by train. This trip was to Swan Hill, about 155km NW of Echuca and, like Echuca, on the south bank of the River Murray which separates Victoria and New South Wales.

The Echuca and Swan Hill lines share the same track as far as Bendigo (164km/100mi from Melbourne), after which the line to Swan Hill branches off for the 183km/114mi run to Swan Hill.

Swan Hill lift bridge

Swan Hill lift bridge

The railway reached Swan Hill in 1890, subsequently being extended for a further 42km, now freight-only, to Piangil. No prizes for speed – the journey takes 4:42, an average speed of 74kph/46mph – but the leisurely pace is made up for by the affordable comfort of travelling first class – the return fare was just A$108/£60. I stayed at the Jane Eliza motel across from the station and was very comfortable there.

PS Pyap

PS Pyap

What to do? There are a number of attractions in the area if you have a car, but if on foot there’s really just one, the Pioneer Settlement. It claims to be Australia’s first open-air museum and opened in 1963.

The train arrived at 1227 giving me time to check in at the motel and then get down to the Settlement for the river cruise.

Swan Hill Settlement village by night

Village by night

It’s a good job that the tickets cover admission for two days since I spent the rest of the afternoon and the whole of the next day there, and I’m still not sure whether I saw everything. You can find lots of information on the Settlement’s history, buildings and contents in Heritage Victoria’s report recommending that it be added to the state register. Not everyone wants this.

Highlights for me:

The PS Pyap cruise: In contrast to Echuca, there’s just this one paddle steamer offering a one-hour cruise each afternoon. Shades of George Washington’s axe, she was built in 1896 but has been re-hulled, re-decked and her engine replaced with a Gardiner diesel.

PS Gem at Swan Hill

PS Gem

Wandering round the now-static PS Gem, the largest paddle steamer to trade on the Murray. She was built in 1876. In 1882 she was sawn in half by hand, and the two parts were pulled apart by bullocks to allow an extra one third to be built in between the two parts. In more recent times several cruise ships have been cut and stretched, though without the use of bullocks!

Swan Hill D3 locomotive and 1924 Dodge Tourer

D3 locomotive and 1924 Dodge Tourer

A ride in the Settlement’s 1924 Dodge Tourer (included in ticket price, as is the carriage ride)

Seeing the Castlemaine-built D3 locomotive – like many of our exhibits at the Newport Railway Museum in need of some TLC.
Victorian Railways Dd fleet ran to 261 locos from nine builders including Baldwin in the USA and Beyer Peacock, Manchester

Swan Hill blacksmith at work

Blacksmith at work

More than a few exhibits, especially the traction engines, were a reminder of Britain being the workshop of the world.

Watching a blacksmith at work is always compelling

Visiting all the Settlement buildings – I went to the laser light show so was also able to see them after dark.


Swan Hill Giant Murray Cod

Giant Murray Cod

I did say that the Settlement was Swan Hill’s one real attraction but I’ll end with mentioning Swan Hill’s contribution to Australia’s fixation with giant things, the Giant Murray Cod.

With this trip done, I’ve just one more Victorian rail line to ride: the line to Bairnsdale. Watch this space!

Swimming in the 1960s

I was not a water baby. It took me a long time to learn to swim but thankfully I did. Back in 1863 Abraham Slade recorded:

July 14th. 1863. My poor dear Arthur aged 9 years : About 6 in the evening went alone to bathe in the river near Whitton, and got into a deep hole and lost his life, was brought home quite dead. Was buried in Twickenham Burial Ground on the 18th Saturday afternoon… Oh the anguish of soul it has caused his parents…

Thankfully as a child growing up in Twickenham I had many better, safer options. My first vague memory of public swimming pools is from the early 1960s. Keen that I should learn to swim, I was enrolled in Saturday morning swimming lessons at the old (1882) Richmond swimming pool in Parkshot, Richmond, by then showing its age. Changing cubicles lined both sides of the pool. We went there because the then Borough of Twickenham didn’t have an indoor pool. There I learned to swim!

At primary school we had swimming lessons – memories are vague, but perhaps just during our last two years? A green Fountains coach would take us to Isleworth Baths (1936) and back to school afterwards. Outside school, I don’t remember going swimming very often: I never ever swam at the massive Twickenham Lido but would go to the then outdoor Teddington pool on hot summer days. Of the Twickenham baths, derelictlondon.com says

Built in the 1930s, in a concrete and brick art deco style, Twickenham Baths was municipal architecture in the grand sense with its wide hall, twin staircase and deep arches… The pool itself was an old-fashioned Lido, the last word in leisure, generously proportioned and with ample room for sunbathing on the paved areas. There were fountains at each end of the pool and a diving board at its deepest point, in the middle

Then to Hampton Grammar School. During my first few years during the summer term we would go swimming once a week at the outdoor Hampton pool, then unheated. If the water temperature was 10C (!) or more, it was deemed suitable for swimming.

Later in my school career we were given a wider choice of activities on games afternoon. Not being keen on the mud and cold of football, I opted for swimming. We were left to make our own way from school to the near-new (1965) Feltham baths by bike (c.3 miles, 10 mins), where our names were ticked off by Mr Pickering, supervising master who had driven there and would spend the session sitting in gallery catching up with marking. Once the allotted time was up we were left to get changed and make our own way home. Today there’s no way any school would be allowing its pupils to go off unsupervised, and I can’t imagine many parents would allow it either. The interesting thing about this pool was a movable boom which could be placed at one end to give a full-length pool or moved out to create a separate diving pool (in those days pools had springboards and high diving boards).

As the truly excellent Lidos Alive pages recount, the pools of my childhood are no more. In 1966 Richmond Parkshot was replaced by a new pool complex in Old Deer Park. The 1936 Isleworth pool and Library has been rebuilt as Isleworth Recreation Centre. Teddington, originally built as a lido pool in 1931, was closed in 1976 and rebuilt as an indoor facility in 1978. Hampton Pool was closed by LBRuT in 1981, then reopened following community pressure. It’s run by Hampton Pool Trust, a non-profit It’s still an outdoor pool, rebuilt in 2004, but the water is now maintained at a year-round temperature of around 28 degrees – such luxury compared with our 1960s 10C! Feltham baths is now Hanworth Air Park Leisure Centre & Library.

Twickenham Baths is the one that has disappeared. It was closed in 1980 and the site stood derelict for years. The old swimming pool was filled in and all buildings demolished in 2005. 41 years later the long term future of the site still has to be determined.

And now? The building in which I live has a beautiful 25m pool which I ought to use but rarely do. This winter I must make the effort to do so.

Three nights in Echuca

Map (source Discovery Centre)

Map (source Discovery Centre)

No cruise this year! Well not the cruise I’d planned anyway, on the Queen Mary 2 from Fremantle to Sydney. But needing a break, I decided to revisit Echuca, famous for hosting the largest paddle steamer fleet in the world and, of course, took a couple of boat trips.

As a tourist from UK I’d visited Echuca  in 1989 on a day trip but not since so a revisit was well overdue.

Echuca railway station

Echuca railway station

This time round I went by train – another of my ambitions, not a particularly ambitious one, is to ride every rail track in Victoria. Only Bairnsdale and Swan Hill left! Echuca has a fine railway station but it now gets but one train per weekday, two a day at weekends.

PS Alexander Arbuthnot passes the new under-construction Echuca-Moama bridge

PS Alexander Arbuthnot (1916) passes the new under-construction Echuca-Moama bridge

Echuca was first settled by Europeans in the 1850s and by the 1870s was Australia’s largest inland port, being the point of shortest distance between the Murray River and Melbourne. Across the river, on the New South Wales side, is Moama. The first bridge was constructed in 1878. A new bridge is now under construction.

Echuca wharf

Echuca wharf

The railway arrived in 1864, about the same time as the wharf was constructed. Until the 1890s depression the town flourished, but during the first half of the twentieth century the expansion of the rail networks on both sides of the river meant there was less need to for paddle steamers to bring cargo to Echuca. 1944 saw the removal of 80% of the wharf, cut up to provide firewood for Melbourne.

PS Pevensey (aka Philadelphia in 'All the Rivers Run')

PS Pevensey (1910) (aka Philadelphia in ‘All the Rivers Run’)

From here on the story might have been one of progressive decay, but from the 1960s the importance of Echuca’s heritage and its tourist potential was realised.

Today tourism is Echuca’s largest earner, given a boost by the TV series, ‘All the Rivers Run’ (I bought and am now watching the DVDs).

Holden Museum, Echuca

Holden Museum, Echuca

Apart from the wharf and multiple paddle steamer trips, there’s an excellent and free Discovery Centre, numerous preserved buildings in the port area and elsewhere, an excellent museum, the National Holden Motor Museum and more.

Next year, if plans work out, I’ll be back in Echuca, taking UK friends to see the sights. If you have the chance, do so too.

 

On falls

At the start of last week the headline news here in Victoria was that our Premier, Dan Andrews, had taken a tumble on some slippery steps and was in intensive care with broken ribs and a fractured vertebra. Most people were full of sympathy, myself because of my own experience in 2018 – unlike Dan I sustained a knock to the head which could have been very serious, and unlike him was free from pain and discomfort within a few days.

Sky News: Daniel Andrews is in intensive care

Daniel Andrews is in intensive care

Sky News managed a non-partisan headline on Facebook, but then opened their reports to comments. I think they knew (and looked forward to?) what would follow.

Some said what you might expect decent people to say, expressing sympathy and wishing him a quick recovery. Most comments – reflecting those who watch Sky? – were of another mind. I could have found hundreds more expressing sentiments like the ones quoted here.

Sky News comment: I hope Dan Andrews never walks agains

I hope Dan Andrews never walks agains

Demis Papillon: “I hope he never walks again”. Really?

Sky News comment: Shame there wasn't a noose around Dan Andrew's neck when he fell

Shame there wasn’t a noose around his neck

John Pikos: “Shame there wasn’t a noose round his neck at the time”. Not a Labor voter perhaps?

Sky News comment: Pity Dan Andrews isn't in the morgue

Pity it isn’t the morgue

Di Ward: “Pity it isn’t the morgue”. I hope she’s not first on the scene should I ever have an accident.

The real mystery to me is why people post such comments. Do they think we’ll be impressed? Does doing so make them feel good? Don’t they realise that every such comment reinforces the impression of Vic Liberals as the Nasty Party (TM Teresa May)? As I noted last October “You’re either with Dan (Daniel Andrews, our state Premier) or, spurred on by the LNP (conservative) opposition and the Murdoch press, have what might described as a vicious hatred of him”. As per the comments above the latter is certainly true. Sad, isn’t it. And if last weekend’s Western Australia election is any guide, the Victorian Liberals will be punished yet again at our next state election.

 

On Maths Teachers

Last Saturday saw the annual City Bible Forum ‘Life at Work’ conference. With the uncertainties of Covid-19 this year’s conference had to be a virtual one over Zoom. Whilst some of us in Melbourne missed the excellent food served up by our usual hosts, CQ Functions, many others away from capital cities were able to participate. One speaker was Eddie Woo, committed Christian and maths teacher extraordinaire. His YouTube channel, WooTube, started with him filming class lessons for a sick student in 2012, and it now has over 1.1 million subscribers. For his work he was made Australian Local Hero of the Year 2018 – a well deserved honour.

As for my own school maths teachers, they may never got to be known outside their local circles, but thanks to them I’ve spent 30+ years writing engineering software with more than a little maths. I owe them all a great debt.

Extract from Hampton Grammar School report

The facts do indeed justify the conclusion!

Two from Hampton Grammar School stand out. It’s an institution I carry less than fond memories of and yet I remember many individual teachers with affection.

Maths was my strong subject as this report extract shows (I’m not sure why this term’s class ranking was so low). Unfortunately I didn’t apply myself to most other subjects.

For O-level maths our teacher was the elderly (to us schoolboys) Frank Steffens. He was an old boy of the school having been Head Boy c.1924-5. He went off to university, then returned to HGS to spend the rest of his working life as a maths teacher. His apparent sternness disguised a kindly nature. He wanted every boy in his class to succeed and we did. I’m not sure whether today’s teachers would be allowed to make the weakest pupils of the week sit in the front row on the following week, but it was a tactic that worked!

I was in the ‘Latin A’ [express] stream which meant that we took our O-levels after four years instead of five; for maths we took the ordinary exam in January followed by Additional Maths in June. There were 32 of us in the class (not streamed for maths); 28 of us got a grade A in the O-level, 4 got B’s and 4 C’s (when pass grades were A-E), an extraordinary achievement. Later, in the sixth form Mr Steffens took us for a general studies class. Us boys were amazed that someone so ancient (he would have been in his early 60s!) could understand and explain to us the science behind Dolby stereo!

We started our A-level studies under Stan Barton, who was also Deputy Head. With an interregnum between heads, he was often called away and so would set work for us to get on with in his absence. Not too much work was being done when Alan Waltham, head of maths, happened to walk by the classroom and hearing our chatter decided to investigate. He decided that it would be best if our group could sit in his classroom and get on with our work while he taught his main class, breaking off occasionally to check on our progress. Finding that four of us were well ahead of the others he offered to coach us to sit pure and applied maths as two subjects rather than sit the combined paper, an offer which we accepted. And so this left him teaching three different groups at the same time! And we all passed!

Then to Reading University: No specific maths classes but in my last year those of us in the Building Surveying stream had a weekly structural engineering class. It was the high spot of my week, not so for most of my fellow students. Our lecturer, Mike Hewitt, owned a calculator which could calculate sines and cosines! We were in awe of this device which had cost him a couple of months salary. We did our calculations with slide rules! He understood that some were not mathematically inclined: “In the exam there will be seven questions and you have to do five. 4½ will be mathematical questions and 2½ essay questions [i.e. one half-and-half]. That’s so those of you who can’t add up 2+2 can at least pass on the essay questions and the clever buggers among you [looking at me] can’t get 100%”. He’d be pleased, I hope, to see what this ‘clever bugger’ has been doing for most of his working life.

Silo art 2: St James, Devenish and Goorambat

St James silo art

St James silo art

Here’s a look at three more of the silos I visited last month.

The first are at St James, a small town 148 miles north of Melbourne. It was first settled in 1870 and reached by railway in 1883, St James then being the end of what would become the Oaklands line.

The silo art depicts the history of wheat farming in the area, with one silo featuring a portrait of Sir George Coles (1885-1977). George Coles snr ran the St James store, selling it to his son in 1910 for £4500. From this grew the Coles Group supermarket empire we have today.

The silo art is by Tim Bowtell who also painted the Colbinabbin silos shown in my last piece

Devenish silo art

Devenish silo art

One stop along the line is Devenish, also settled in the 1870s. The silos were painted by Cam Scale and completed on Anzac Day 2018.

These two, built 1943, show a modern day combat medic and a nurse from WW1 – special to me since my maternal grandmother (who I never knew) served as a [British] army nurse in WW1. Fifty young men and women, one sixth of the then Devenish population, enlisted for service in WW1. Seven never returned.

The other silo, not shown here shows a Light Horse man.

Goorambat silo barking owl

Goorambat silo barking owl

The next stop on the line, the last before it joins the main line at Benalla, is Goorambat. The silo art is by Jimmy DVale. Shown here is a Barking Owl, an endangered species with fewer than 50 breeding pairs left in Victoria. What a magnificent depiction of a magnificent bird.

I’ve shown you four of the seven silo groups in NE Victoria. If you ever get the chance go and visit them yourself!


Australia Silo Art home page