|Errol Knox | Biography | Obituary | Sir Errol Knox - A Tribute
Memories of my father, Errol Knox
These are vignettes - little pieces of memory - until they are written down I do not know what - if any - value they may have. They do not have any claim to be important or to add to history but are mere intimate insights into the life of one who to many of the family is only a name. I haven’t seen most of these stories confirmed anywhere else. Sadly there is of course no way now to check them but I include them for what they are worth – snippets of unsubstantiated memory that hopefully lend a little colour to the life of a remarkable man.
Tales he told me
As a boy one of his tasks was to prepare the horse and buggy for the family
to go to kirk on the Sabbath. One day he thought the pony would look so much smarter if he blacked its hooves. When his father saw this, he was furious and said it was unnecessary work on the Sabbath and gave him a beating – obviously necessary work!!
My father also said that they were forbidden to walk on grass on the Sabbath because that gave pleasure to the feet.
These two tales are an insight into the religious practices of the time not in any way a comment on the family life. Interestingly on my mother’s side I remember my mother talking of the extremely strict way her Lutheran aunt and uncle (Aunt Minnie and Uncle Jim) celebrated Sunday, where even children were expected to be mouse quiet and a considerable time was spent reading the Bible. Needless to say she and her sisters did not look forward to these visits.
Another fleeting memory is my father saying his grandmother (??) had told him she remembered seeing convicts flogged at the triangles
An even more possibly mythic memory is the story that my father helped push ??? – (was there???) the first plane to fly in Australia. There is certainly no question that all his life he was fascinated with flying and this was surely behind why in WWI he transferred into the RFC (Royal Flying Corps, then moved into the AFC (Australian Flying Corps) when it was formed, which in time became the RAAF.
University, Journalism and War
Returning to his university days. I do not know why he abandoned his law studies to take a job in journalism but it was a seminal decision that was to shape the rest of his life. That is fact – we now move into tales/myths engraved in my memory. I believe that at this time he was diagnosed with a serious – even possibly fatal – kidney disease. His reaction was typical – he decided he needed to cram as many experiences as he could into his life. In 1913 he booked a berth on a ship sailing to the US and before leaving Sydney Harbour threw away his pills! In the US he gained valuable experience in the newspaper industry but when War broke out he returned to Australia and, as his service record shows, enlisted in the AIF on 4 May 1915 and was passed as fit. His record however does not report that while serving in France he was involved in a gas attack and as a result his voice always had a slightly husky tone.
Like so many he did not talk about his war experiences but The Battle Below, the history of No 3 Squadron, which he published years later fills in some of the gaps as does his service record from the War Museum in Canberra.
I do not recall being told where or how my parents met - My mother was by the end of the war a VAD . She always had a consuming interest in all things to do with anything medical – and she talked of nursing men back from the trenches, who as they began to recover delighted in teasing the naïve young English girl! Perhaps this was the link but I do not know. However meet they did and fell in love and became engaged and the wedding was arranged in Storrington, where the Coore family then lived at Ladye Place (the first of her homes of that name) because it was the Ladye - spelled in the medieval way - House of the Monastery there. Lady of course referring to the Madonna.
Very shortly before their wedding in 1919 a cable was delivered to my father stating that his wife and children were about to arrive in Southampton. This naturally caused a sensation and some embarrassment until my father was able to explain that the cable should have been delivered to Major GE Knox not EG. This was Major George Knox, one of the CSR (Commonwealth Sugar Refineries) Knoxes, who were a well known and wealthy family after whom Knoxville in Melbourne is named. Because of the similarities of their initials and rank, George and my father were frequently confused.
This story of course did nothing to allay the concerns of some members of my mother’s family. Who was he this dashing dark complexioned Australian ‘from the colonies,’ about whom so little was known? Might he even have - as some feared - Aboriginal blood? In England at that time it was of utmost importance to know who was who – not very difficult among county families and here was a man they had to take on trust
The opposite side of this coin was that the Knox family in Australia was equally disturbed by my father arriving in Australia with an English Catholic bride. It had been tacitly understood he would marry the eminently suitable ‘girl next door’. Consequently my mother had a very difficult time after her arrival. She was pregnant, sick and very homesick and the family were far from welcoming in the initial stages. It had also been a difficult voyage to Australia on a troop ship which had a big component of Snarlers (Services no longer required), among whom were many serious trouble makers. My father was the officer in charge so was constantly busy and under stress, so it was far from an-away-from-it-all romantic honeymoon cruise for both newly weds.
In later life my father was known for his lightning flashes of temper. My mother first experienced this side of his character shortly after the wedding, when they set off on their honeymoon. My father had procured a car for them to tour in, which was all very exotic and adventurous as cars were still relatively uncommon. They were also not totally reliable and this one stalled on a steep hill. My father’s reaction was typical of his personality when faced with a crisis, he barked orders to his bewildered young bride to get him a stone and hurry about it. Having no idea why he could possibly want a stone - and this was after all the English countryside where stones were not common - she froze. That produced more yelling which I think resulted in tears. I’m not sure how it was resolved or how he chocked the car but perhaps it was fortunate it was their honeymoon!……..
Leaping forward in time my mother used to love to recount how my father thought the best way to stop the baby (Titia) crying was to walk her up and down whilst singing extremely bawdy songs he had learned during the war. My mother’s education at this time undoubtedly proceeded at a rapid pace as even her short stint as a VAD had not taught her many of these words.
My father still had a passion for flying and remained good friends with many of the young airmen and women who were making flying history. He would have loved to have joined them I suspect but was too busy forging his career as a journalist. However all his life he enjoyed flying and never suffered air sickness even in roughest conditions. My mother had a brief flirtation with this wondrous new world and expressed her desire to learn to fly. My father introduced her to his friends, some of the dashing young pilots whose names are legend. However after one flight with - I think - Charles Ulm, she suffered such air sickness she was cured of her dream of fame in the air.
Time moves on…..
The scoop - sinking of a ferry
He had just finished work and as usual was walking down to Circular Quay to catch the ferry home to Kurraba Point, when he saw the accident. A loaded ferry was rammed by another ship. Many of the passengers were still in the water when he rushed back to the newspaper office and yelled the dramatic words Stop the presses! He sat down, wrote the story and the Stop Press edition was on the streets while the rescue was still under way. It was a sensational Scoop in the best Hollywood style.
The abdication of Edward VIII
History was always important in his life – whether the study of it or to be aware of it as it was happening. I remember being woken up in the middle of the night and carried into the room where there was a radio. (My father had embraced this technology, when it first appeared and even had an early crystal set.) This night he impressed on us that what we were about to hear was of the utmost importance. We were being present as history was being made. It was the abdication speech of Edward VIII and although it came to us awash with static, certainly although I cannot recall the details, I know I was there!
One of my father’s loves was sport of all kinds. He was an avid follower of cricket and whenever possible attended test matches and often took the family. He had a great memory for cricket statistics and could rattle off cricket facts and figures and famous tales. I remember being taken to the Sydney Cricket ground to see the famous Larwood bodyline test. Even I realised this was a memorable occasion. Feelings were running very high among the Australian crowd and my mother and I (because I adored her and did whatever she did) were barracking for England. It was not a good way to go!
Yachting and sailing and indeed, like Ratty, any form of boating were high in his choices of how to spend his leisure time. He, I’m sure, agreed there was nothing worth doing more than messing round with boats and things. At one time he had a yacht named Lara and he and his friends delighted to go off to such idyllic places as the Hawkesbury. There was also always a small dinghy – the family run around. Sydney Harbor was famous for sudden powerful squalls known as Southerly Busters which caused chaos among the sailing boats. On one such occasion my father and a friend George Goddard, then editor of Smith’s Weekly, who had been painting a shed, set out hastily in the dinghy and rescued a number of the sailors who had been thrown into the ‘drink’. Next day a story appeared in one of the Sydney papers carrying a photo of the two heroic ‘workmen, ’ No one had recognised the two well known journalists disguised in paint stained overalls.
Swimming and surfing were also one of my father’s delights as it was for all the family. We were had our own ‘swimming pool’ at Ladye Place. It consisted of a wall enclosing the waters of the harbour but its real purpose was to keep out sharks. As children we often went swimming before school and it was where I learned to swim – by the simple expedient of being thrown in and told to swim if I didn’t want to drown. I was soon proficient enough to follow Titia out to the first line of breakers at Manly and to body surf back to the beach.
Tennis was another favourite sport for my father – both watching the professionals but also as a player. Having one’s own tennis court was for him most important. At Ladye Place Sydney (the second Ladye Place on Kurraba Road, he first had a grass court made and later on the next level down (the house was on the top of Kurraba Point and the garden went down to the harbour in terraces) he put in an en tout cas court. These were the latest in technology at the time – another typical move by my father. There were regular tennis parties at Ladye Place - both on Saturdays for men and women and during the week for ladies. Once a year there was a grand Tournament – there were silver cups for the winners and a big feast – the highlight of which was a sucking pig carried in on a huge platter complete of course with an apple in its mouth. The day ended with a ball in the big entrance hall with its beautifully polished parquet floor. The music was provided by a big gramophone housed in a large ornate walnut (??) cabinet.
When I was about seven or eight I loved to hunt through these records and play my favourites - Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony was one I remember and a number of records from opera. It was my introduction to classical music which began a life time love affair.
Another major interest my father had was racing and he became a member of all the major clubs when he moved to Melbourne and attended races most Saturdays. His real love affair though was with Hanging Rock Racing Club. He became President and dreamed great dreams for it. He planned to buy adjoining paddocks and set up a cross country course that would have been even more spectacular than the Warnambool Grand Annual or Easter at Oakbank. Unfortunately he never had time to bring this even to the planning stage but he was ever a visionary in all his fields of activity. After his death the main race on the Australia day meeting was named the Sir Errol Knox Cup.
Love affair with opera, literature and art.
One of his lifelong love affairs was with opera. I don’t know when he was first introduced to opera but I remember him telling me that as a student when money was scarce he would scrape and save and stand in queues for hours so that he would be able to secure a ticket. Although in his student days he could only afford seats in the gods as the cheapest seats were called (earning this name as they were at the very top and the very back of the theatre) being able to hear Melba and Caruso was worth any effort. All his life, he took every opportunity to attend operas wherever he was or whatever was happening. My mother always told me that she was at the opera when the contractions that ended in my birth began so it is no surprise that when I was my late teens and he was Vice President of the National Opera Company, I accompanied him to many operas. I was even privileged on one memorable occasion to sit with Gertrude Johnson and Florence Austral both luminous names in the early history of opera in Melbourne and by then rather awesome figures dressed in sequined black gowns with ropes of black sparkling beads, all reminiscent of the Queen of the Night costumes!
My father also loved poetry and literature and was widely read. He had a fantastic memory and was given to reciting long tracts from Shakespeare, Macauley or other great English poets in a dramatic fashion so it was to be there to hear him declaim "Tiber Father Tiber to whom the Romans pray………" In later life – during his final years at The Argus – he would arrive home at 2 or 3am and read detective novels as a relaxation. He also loved cryptic crosswords – especially those from The (London) Times - Does one have a genetic predisposition for cryptics??? Certainly its now in the third generation! And will it last as long as Great grandmother Araminta Von Schmeling’s reputed tonelessness, which seems to have surfaced across many of her descendants over many generations????
As a young man, my father became friendly with many of the artists of the Heidelberg school – especially the Lindsays, particularly Lionel. It lent one more dimension to his interests, passions and loves. As far as I know he never tried drawing himself in a creative sense but when he decided to build on to Ladye Place Woodend, he actually took a crash course in design and drew up the plans himself and as far as possible did this according to professional specifications. He never did anything by half measures!
The Frustrated Farmer
Never doing things by half measures was true also, when not long after becoming Managing Editor of The Argus and moving to Melbourne, he bought the property at Woodend, which of course my mother named Ladye Place. When World War II broke out and petrol was rationed, so that he could be there as much as possible in his rather elusive free time (during the War he kept his fulltime job as Managing Editor but also took on the role of Director General of Public Relations for the Australian Armed Services) he once again showed his innovative thinking and had a gas producer mounted on the current car, an Oldsmobile. Fortunately by this time he had been allotted a full time driver/chauffeur, so it was Jack Petersen’s task to keep this temperamental and cumbersome monster in working order, so that it could huff, puff and smoke its way up the hills between Melbourne to Woodend.
At Ladye Place (Woodend,) my father’s love of the land resurfaced alive and well, and what had originally been designed to be a weekend retreat, quickly began to take on a new persona as did its owner. It was not long before he bought more land and the place took on the aspect of a farm with the arrival of some stud Aberdeen Angus cattle and some pedigreed English Leicester sheep. Next was added a little grey Ferguson tractor and stables were built to house the increasing number of horses.
A redoubtable stereotypical Irishman John O’Neill was employed almost as soon as Ladye Place was acquired. Clad winter and summer in clothes that we all thought he must have brought from Ireland and which probably varied little from what his father and grandfather had worn, he worked tirelessly at whatever had to be done using only tools such as spades, mattocks and axes that also would have been familiar to his ancestors. He dug the garden so my mother could indulge her love for flowers and have a kitchen garden. Then he undertook the digging of a dam – a massive job because the soil was heavy clay but he was undaunted. He also dug alongside the stables a manure pit, another legacy of Ireland and a long time before the word compost joined the gardening language.
For a short while – post John I think – Charlie arrived to do odd jobs. Born and bred in the slums of Melbourne, his last job was at The Argus, where the task demanded brawn rather than brains as Charlie’s education was principally in how to survive on the streets. He had fallen foul of one of the gangs and a home made bomb had been thrown into his house. Terrified for his life, he told his story to my father, who arranged to have him ‘smoked away’ at Ladye Place. He stayed hidden away there for some time and we all loved him.
The next group of farm workers were of a very different type. They were ‘displaced people’ as the post war refugees were known. In those days immediately post World War II huge numbers were displaced and could not return home even when hostilities were over. Australia was among countries who offered to take them to clear the refugee camps. On arrival they were housed in camps such as that at Bonegilla and for two years they were bonded to the government and had no choice as to where they could go or what they would do. My father applied to have a married couple come – the man to work on the farm and the woman in the house as cook. They were to live in the cottage. I’m not sure how the people were chosen but the first couple we received were from the Ukraine – both probably in their late forties. In his former life he had been a professor of chemistry and his wife had led the comfortable life of the wife of an academic. Both had some English but the man asked was it alright if he wore gloves when he was working as he wished to protect his hands in case he could ever get back to the only work he knew. They did not stay long with us as my father soon got to work to make this possible. I don’t know how he got his qualifications recognised but he did get a job at I think Newcastle University though I’m not sure of the details.
The next worker to arrive was equally unsuitable for the tasks needed. Tall, slim and charming, he had been an officer in the Yugoslav army and prior to the war had been training for the Olympic Games Equestrian team. Once again my father contacted some acquaintances, pulled some strings and he soon left us to work in the equestrian world in Melbourne.
This was a fairytale ending to the hell the three had been through but didn’t of course get the farm work done so this time my father asked for a less qualified couple. A man from Czechoslovakia and his German wife arrived. He was a short and rugged from a peasant background so was not daunted by the farm work but had a quite violent temper that quickly surfaced. His wife took most of the brunt of this but it could be quite frightening. We eventually learned he had been heavily involved in the resistance movement during the war and had been in some very dangerous operations. Perhaps this was the trigger. He stayed some time but we learned that later his temper had got him into serious trouble and he had been deported to Czechoslovakia.
The next couple were a Croatian and his German wife and two small children. They too were good workers and were the last couple who worked for us. Many Croatian friends came and stayed in the cottage and there were many late nights spent playing cards at which I often joined them. We learned later that one of those who was quite a frequent visitor had been involved in quite a violent murder but I always found them good company. The couple stayed on in Woodend when they left and we kept in touch with them. Sadly their young son committed suicide so the story does not have a happy ending. They were the last couple we had as by then the scheme had been wound up and by 1948 all our lives were dramatically changed with my father’s sudden death.
His spiritual journey
Before ending these brief notes it is appropriate to tell the little I know about his spiritual journey – which like so much of his life was never ordinary.
As we have seen his first years were dominated by the strict Presbyterianism embraced by his family. Perhaps the fact that one of his brothers was named John Calvin Knox says it all.
I am not sure at what stage he joined the Freemasons but he obviously had quite a rapid rise in the ranks. For many years I remember seeing a box containing his Masonic apron and some other "things” – I have forgotten the details. They were obviously tools of his office. I’ve no idea what happened to them. I have the impression he had risen up the ranks but of course marrying a Catholic ended his Masonic career.
Always very supportive of my mother’s religious position, he always made sure we all got to Church and of course there was no question that we would not attend Catholic schools. Perhaps it was through St Aloysius College, a Jesuit school that my brother, Peter attended that my parents became friendly with some Jesuit priests, one or two of whom thereafter were frequent visitors at our house. My father also became friendly with Joe Lyons, who became Prime Minister and at times they would discuss issues that occurred where his religion and his political life came into conflict. By this time my father knew a great deal about Catholicism but it was only after his death that we found out he had discussed becoming a Catholic with his Jesuit friend Father Nerney. When he collapsed on the plane with a major heart attack and was rushed from the airport to St Vincent’s Hospital in Melbourne, the Archbishop with whom he had gone to school at Fort Street High in Sydney many years before visited him. Fr Nerney also visited him and received him into the Church before he died. The Archbishop arranged a Solemn High Requiem at St Patrick’s Cathedral. The letter Fr Nerney wrote to my mother after his death is very moving.
Part of it reads
Consequently I got the Loreto nuns, the Sacred Heart nuns, the Mercy nuns and the Carmelite nuns to pray for Knock and I prayed as best I could. And I prayed to every saint in heaven. These people are real. I know them all. I work with them, I said them I leave the HOW he is to be saved to God. I know perfectly well that God never likes vulgar triumph before the pagan world. I am not praying for a sensational conversion of a prominent man …. Yes by all means let it be done in God’s way. ….. very well in God’s way but save him…..
He went on to tell of how it all happened…. My father sent for him. Fr Nerney went on "I was anxious (but) . His heart was ready. He was like the man in the Gospel who said Lord I believe,,,help my unbelief and God did."
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