They were the parties in paradise for some of the cream of Australian naval officers before the horrors of Gallipoli and other WW1 battles.
The idyllic hilltop setting was an ornate iron laced tropical bungalow flanked by coconut palms and exotic flowers with sweeping lawns overlooking an azure sea. The ladies were in white linen and the menu was in French and Italian. It included pasta, consommés, lobster salad and tasty meats.
It all happened – regularly – on our fabled Parkinson family plantation, Kuradui, on New Britain island in what is now Papua New Guinea, and the hostesses were our grandmother Dolly Parkinson and great grandmother Phebe Parkinson.
The young men were the commanding officers of the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (ANMEF) which seized German New Guinea in September 1914 and one of them would go on to become a Gallipoli hero, rear admiral and a knight.
After the Battle of Bita Paka – the first military action by Australians – they’d gravitated to the charming Phebe Parkinson , the half American and half Samoan pioneer who’d settled the island with her Danish anthropologist husband Richard long before the Germans planted their flag in 1884. (Richard died in 1909).
Phebe supplied the Australian forces with fresh milk, eggs and pigs and cattle, recruited labour for them from the local communities and a hospital was set up on the Kuradui plantation. The homestead soon became the social hub for the officers in 1914-15 and one of them, Lieutenant Oscar Gillam, took a number of photographs at Kuradui which survive in precious albums stored at the Mitchell Library in Sydney.
They show our grandmother Dolly as a vivacious 19-year-old, not long returned from finishing school in Brighton, England, where she’d graduated after earlier attending a college in Wellington, New Zealand. Multi-lingual and sophisticated, Dolly would have been delightful company. It was probably a year or so before she met our grandfather Peter Uechtritz whom she married in 1918.
In various photos, Dolly clearly has a friendly relationship with Lieutenant Commander Leighton Bracegirdle, then in charge of the Australian forces at Herbertshöhe (Kokopo). The other dashing officer featured in most of the photos is Commander Joseph Beresford, who clearly has no lack of confidence in himself. Beresford commanded the six companies of naval reservists in the ANMEF and played a key part in the Battle of Bita Paka when six of the force became the first Australians to be killed in action in WW1.
The bald man with the moustache is the Polish postmaster of Herbertshöhe Josef Mainka and the lady with her image crudely scratched out in almost every image is his wife Karolina. Given that these are photographs were taken and belonged to Lt Gillam, it can only be assumed that Gillam for some reason fell out badly with the lady. The mind boggles.
After the ANMEF was disbanded in early 1915, Lt Bracegirdle was appointed commander of the First Royal Australian Naval Bridging Train and was dispatched to the Gallipoli campaign. He was tasked with the erection of piers and pontoons – under continual shelling – for the British Army landing at Suvla Bay in August 1915 and was eventually wounded in September. Bracegirdle also served in the Middle East, was mentioned in dispatches three times during the war, was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and appointed Knight Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (KCVO).
The young Kuradui tea partygoer thus became Rear Admiral Sir Leighton Seymour Bracegirdle KCVO, CMG, DSO and Official Secretary to four Australian governors-general, Sir Isaac Isaacs, Lord Gowrie, the Duke of Gloucester and William McKell.
Gillam’s album is a treasure for our family. There are lovely shots of Phebe and Dolly in front of the homestead. Apart from the photographs, it includes a letter from Phebe to Gillam ahead of one of the parties where she asked him to “bring along one more gentleman, as there is one lady over “ with herself, Dolly, Swiss nurse Sister Augusta and Dolly’s Swedish-Samoan cousin Ricka Rondahl.
A signed menu in Gillam’s album shows the camaraderie of the Australians and Parkinsons . Phebe signs it as Matron of LAK (Landing Area Kuradui?) and Dolly as Acting Commander LAK. Another signature is that of Lieut-Colonel William Seaforth Mackenzie, who’d become Acting Administrator and author of the official history of the Australians in Rabaul. Yet another is LCMR JM Jackson, who was on HMAS Warrego which first landed at Rabaul on August 12, 1914 and which captured the German steamer Nusa.
Dolly was the third and youngest Parkinson daughter. It is not widely known that, at the time of these photographs, her sister Nellie was interned in Germany. Nellie had recently divorced her German husband Carl Diercke but was visiting in-laws in Berlin when war broke out. As a British subject she was rounded up and held in a camp. (It is a long , complicated story how the Parkinson children were regarded as British. Even though their father was the son of the Danish Duke of Augustenberg, Richard was born out of wedlock. He was given the name of the Duke’s English racehorse trainer Parkinson who did a deal to be registered on a ‘marriage’ certificate to Richard’s mother before disappearing back to his home country)
Nellie may have been on the Germans’ watchlist as a few years earlier she’d horse-whipped a German officer – thrice across the face – after he disgraced himself trying to enter Dolly’s bedroom after a dinner party at the governor’s residence. Despite appeals by their friend Governor Albert Hahl to the Kaiser himself, Nellie was jailed for a month for insulting the German uniform… but that’s all another story.