My half-sister Barbara Shannon,
(née Barbara Brown), who was born on 18 August 1928, passed away recently at the age of 87, and I spoke at her funeral at the Northern Suburbs Crematorium on Tuesday 3 November 2015. The audience was small: family and friends. The updated text of my talk, mainly factual things about Barbara’s life and background, and my life, is given later in this file. Meanwhile, here are lots of photos of Barbara growing up, and later color photos by me of the small family wake at Coogee.
I am John Tranter, Barbara Shannon’s half-brother. I thought I’d outline Barbara’s life, as much as I know of it. Some of you know some of it, the latest part, maybe; some of you know the early parts. I knew Barbara Shannon almost from my birth, right up until now. Barbara was born in Sydney on 18 August 1928, and lived at Rose Bay with her mother — my mother — and her father, Harold Harcourt Hellier. My mother’s name was Anne Katherine Brown, and I was born much later, in 1943. Harold Hellier had returned from the First World War badly damaged by the things he had seen and by the things he had been through, and he took up a career in journalism and, sadly, took to the bottle. I can’t blame him for that. He had a lot to forget.
My mother had fallen in love with him and married him in the early 1920s, and had two children, Barbara Hellier and Peter Hellier. After some years it became obvious that things were not going to work out, so my mother took the children and went back to her home in Bodalla, a small town on the South Coast of NSW. That must have been hard for her.
She made a living there in the post office. This involved learning Morse Code, something I only learned a few years before my mother’s death. Part of her work involved typing out telegrams, and telegrams arrived over the telegraph wires, and were sent, in the form of Morse Code messages.
So every time I receive a Short Message Service text on my phone, the phone makes a sound like dit-dit-dit DAH DAH dit-dit-dit, (pause), dit-dit-dit DAH DAH dit-dit-dit. I think of my mother every time, as that is the Morse code for ‘SMS’. Even though she didn’t live to see SMS messages, she would have known what that Morse Code meant.
In the late 1930s a young teacher at the school at Bodalla, Frederick Tranter, fell in love with my mother, and they were married at Moruya in April 1941. Fred was 26, my mother was 34 years old.
Her two children, Peter and Barbara Hellier, by then teenagers, were placed in boarding school; Barbara at Bega, and Peter at Hurlstone Agricultural High School, near Liverpool, in western Sydney, a school I later attended. My father became the teacher at a one-teacher school in Bredbo, a little village twenty or so miles north of Cooma, in the Southern Highlands or Monaro area of NSW. I was born Cooma in 1943. My mother used to say that Bredbo was a dreadful place: in the winter it was freezing and windy, in the summer it was hot and windy.
Peter and Barbara came to visit with us in the school holidays — usually in January, when it was the hottest and windiest.
When I was about four my father took up a teaching position in Moruya on the South Coast. I might add here that on the long night-time drive down the Brown Mountain road from Bredbo to Moruya on the coast, the side door of the car accidentally opened near the Dalmeny turnoff (Dalmeny is a small beach community), and I flew out onto the night road, waking as I bounced across the gravel road into a ditch. One of my earliest memories is of clambering to my feet in that pitch-black darkness only to see the tail light disappearing around a bend. The car was a 1939 Chev coupe, with only one tail-light. Of course I survived — here I am — but that bang on the head explains a lot.
I’d like to mention my grandfather, John Brown, Barbara’s grandfather too, and my grandmother, also called Barbara: Barbara Brown. My mother’s sister was also called Barbara. The Brown children: George, who died in the war, Jim, who was a navigator in the war, Anne my mother, later Anne Hellier, later Anne Tranter; Barbara, later Barbara Oliver married to solicitor Martyn Oliver in Nowra, and young Peg, who married a US serviceman (name unknown) and went to live in Phliladelphia after the war, and later returned to Australia and married Jim Bridekirk. Her step-daughter was Sue Bridekirk, daughter of Jim Bridekirk’s first wife.
My uncle Martyn and his wife Barbara (a Nowra schoolteacher) had no children of their own, and treated me with great affection as a surrogate child. Martyn, who had fought as a young man in New Guinea, took to drink after the war, but was a recovered alcoholic by the time I knew them, and I never saw him take a drink. He had a heart murmur caused by the awful stress of fighting in the jungle, and died in the mid-1950s of his heart problem.
To go back a bit, my grandparents, and Barbara Shannon’s grandparents, were raised in New Zealand of Scottish stock. My grandfather John Brown was brought to Bodalla on the south coast of NSW in the early years of the century when my mother was only two, as the newly-appointed manager of the Bodalla Company, a communalist co-operative of farmers that produced the (then) famous Bodalla Cheese. He had been a cheese-maker in Otago, in New Zealand. [I believe the Bodalla Company co-op was started by Sir Thomas Mort. He started a shipyard in Balmain in Sydney, in the 1850s, to build the refrigerated ships that transported frozen mutton to Europe, and which made him a millionaire. The shipyard closed after World War II, and was a container wharf for a while, and is now a lovely park by the Harbour, where I walk my dog.]
Being Scottish at heart, John Brown was interested in machinery — the Scots invented the steam engine, the telegraph and the telephone, and a Scotsman patented the mechanism of the fax machine in — believe it or not — 1848. And a Scotsman, John Logie Baird, invented television in England, demonstrating it successfully in 1925. That’s where we get the word “Logies” from. So Barbara’s grandfather was knowledgeable about mechanical devices such as milk separators and milking machines, a big new thing in those days.
And John Brown was — being Scottish — a great reader, as all the family were. My mother, who read three of four novels every week of her life, said she hardly knew what her father looked like, because she only saw him at breakfast time, and then he was usually to be found behind a newspaper, reading.
And I’m sure the Scots in Edinburgh invented the Encyclopaedia Britannica around 1770 in order to have something interesting to read — articles about machinery, perhaps — through the long Scottish winter nights.
I hardly knew him, but I knew my grandmother. In later life she lived with her daughter (also called Barbara), my aunt, in Nowra. When she was in her nineties (and I was about nineteen) she put down her magnifying glass — she was always reading — and said to me ‘I see you’re writing poems, Johnnie.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Well, I suppose I’m going to become a poet, Grandma.’ In fact I went on to write over twenty books of poetry.
‘Very well,’ said Grandma. ‘But I’ve been reading Constance Fitzgibbon’s biography of the poet Dylan Thomas. Fitzgibbon says that Thomas was unable to say no, either to a drink or to a woman. Now I hope you’re not going to be like that.’ And she gave a wicked smile, and took a sip of wine.
That was Barbara Shannon’s grandmother.
Barbara married Leo Shannon, a divorced Navy man, in the early 1950s. In those days divorce was a dreadful thing; today it seems not so bad. I suspect Leo had a hard time of it in those days, but he bore everything with a brave smile.
They hitch-hiked through Europe, then returned to Australia. Leo, or Lee, was a basically a good and decent man. He became a probation officer, and they lived in Maitland, Bathurst and Sydney. They had two children, Linda and Mark. Mark is with us today; Lindy sadly died as a teenager in the mid 1970s, not long after I returned from Singapore where I had been working for a couple of years, and where my daughter Kirsten was born. Lindy met Kirsten when Kirsten was only a few months old, which is a nice link.
To go back a little, I boarded with and lived with Barbara and Lee in Neutral Bay through the year of 1961, when I studied Architecture at the University of Sydney. They were good days.
Lindy was a happy baby, and even though I withdrew from Architecture before the end of the year, I was okay with University life. The next year I studied Arts One, but my father died that year, and my life seemed to fall apart. It was years before I completed my degree.
Eventually, after overseas travel with my partner Lyn Grady (whom I met in 1964), and lots of adventures and misadventures, we returned to Australia and I married Lyn in 1968. We’re still together.
After my father’s death, my mother left the family property, a farm, at Kiora, near Moruya, and came to Sydney, to Mosman, and lived in a comfortable granny flat at the back of the house that Barbara and Lee then owned. My mother often minded my daughter Kirsten, and we were over there frequently.
In 1975 we moved to Brisbane (I produced about 40 radio plays for the ABC there) where my son Leon was born in October 1975. Three years later we returned to Sydney, and again we saw a lot of Barbara and my mother.
Eventually Leo Shannon, who had been a healthy and vigorous man who loved to go bushwalking, contracted stomach cancer, and died of it. Barbara lived on, in the flat they had bought in Marten’s Lane, Mosman.
I should mention that Barbara had been very talented musically when she was young. Mark’s daughter Heather Shannon — Barbara Shannon’s grand-daughter — also developed a strong musical gift, and eventually went to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. I was delighted to attend a concert she gave there in 2008, with Barbara and my wife Lyn and my daughter Kirsten: Schubert, Bach, Chopin and Shostakovich, all beautifully performed.
Later Heather branched out into popular music and performed very successfully as a member of the band ‘The Jezabels’, which became popular and successful in Australia, in the United States and in Europe. Barbara followed her career closely and very proudly. I know Heather’s musical success was important to Barbara: she mentioned it to me many times.
Barbara Shannon had a fall about ten years ago and broke her hip. I was glad to take care of her, and I helped out as much as I could, visiting her in hospital and doing other things. My wife Lyn helped too.
Barbara recovered well and eventually moved to a retirement home, The Manors, in Mosman, and she seemed to enjoy the life there. Mind you, I feel she enjoyed most of all complaining about the fact that she lived in the electorate of that Liberal politician (and our Prime Minister for a while) that Tony Abbott person, so her vote was always wasted. Most of the other inhabitants of the Mosman retirement home were Liberal voters, I assume, and I suspect that Barbara enjoyed upsetting them.
In fact when Barbara moved out of the Marten’s Road flat, a helpful neighbour said to me “That sister of yours… she’s a very hard woman to help.”
I feel that the more time that passes, the more Barbara’s habit of dismissing ideas she didn’t like begins to seem funny and admirable, and perhaps even brave and independent. In many ways she was, and is, a model for young women.
Barbara was one of the most beautiful and one of the most intelligent women I ever knew. She had a good, long life, and I know she was greatly loved by her large family… and who can ask for more than that?
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