william & frances hickmott

(last updated 26 December 2018)

Lalbert To Ouyen A trip to the West
Home again The depression years Final chapter

Lalbert

William, or Bill as he was known, was born at Charlton in Victoria on 6 October 1887. He was the sixth child of Henry Edward Hickmott and Elizabeth Ann Owen. When he was a small boy, he moved with his family to Lalbert where he attended State School No 2990 with his brothers and sisters and cousins from the Smith family. These included, in June 1893, John, Sophia, Florence, Alice and Olive Hickmott - all from Henry Edward's family - and Albert, Richard, Charles, Ernest, George and Myrtle Smith who were the children of Joseph Colmer and Rebecca Smith (nee Hickmott). While he was a student there, the original school was closed down and, following petitions from the parents, a replacement was built at a more central location. According to a letter written to the Education Department by William's father, the new school was to be 'twenty-six feet by thirteen [with] eight foot walls, iron roof [and a] hardwood floor'. It was to have 'walls of bush pine, two windows, one door, spouting all around and [would be] lined and ceiled throughout'. In 1901 this building was also closed and the school moved into the Hall of the Mechanics' Institute in Lalbert. The children attending at this time included Bill's younger siblings George, Minnie and Ella Hickmott and Myrtle, Percy, Stanley and Lily Smith.

john and ada hickmottThe relatively small number of people living in the farming districts at this time, together with the great distances between properties, made it inevitable that neighbouring families would intermarry. This had been the case with the Frees and the Shepherds in Corack and was to be so again with the Hickmotts. In 1903 Bill's brother, John Edward Hickmott, married Eliza Ada Free, the daughter of William and Margaret Free (John and Eliza are pictured together on the left). Click here to read of their life and times and family.

Two of Bill's sisters, Sophia Elizabeth and Edith Olive Hickmott (pictured below) married George William Lewis and Herbert Digby Lewis in Charlton in 1898 and 1903 respectively. The brothers' parents were George Sugden Price Lewis (1838-1877) and Catherine Ellen Macguire (1848-1933) who had been born respectively at Hobart Town in Tasmania and Belfast (Port Fairey) in Victoria. After living at Merino they and their large family moved onto land at Charlton in around 1877. Olive's husband Herbert, said by many at the time to be the best saddler in the Mallee, owned a shop and house in Lalbert. He and Olive had four children - Richard Francis, Phyllis Irene, Herbert Gould and George Roy Lewis - before Olives's untimely death at Lalbert on 29 August 1912. Click here to read more about their lives and family. Around this time Olive's sister Sophia and her husband and surviving children travelled to Western Australia. It seems that Sophia's husband George either died in Perth not long after the family arrived there or left the family. Sophia, then known as Elizabeth Sophia, and her children stayed on and Elizabeth married Charles Carter at Perth in 1919. Click here to read more about her life and times in the West. Three years before Olive's death her, Sophia and Bill's parents had sold their farm at Lalbert and, together with their youngest children, also moved to Western Australia where Henry purchased a farm, that he named 'Dingley Dell', just outside the wheatbelt town of Brookton.

mrs bert lewis

From Jan and Janine Power's book, Lalbert Reflections (p. 156), this photo of a tennis party at Lalbert in 1908 includes, seated on the right, Mrs Bert Lewis
and two of her children Phyllis and Herbert. The others are said to include Mr and Mrs Bill Nalder (nee Leach) and their daughter Nellie,
Bill's brother, Bert Nalder (at the back holding the horse) and 'members of the Wilson and Smith families'.

edith olive hickmottsophia elizabeth hickmott

Edith Olive Lewis nee Hickmott (1885-1912) and Sophia Elizabeth Lewis nee Hickmott (1879-1973)

On 29 June 1910, Bill Hickmott married Eliza Free's cousin, Frances Alice Free, in the dining room of her parent's home at Lalbert East. Frances was the eldest daughter of Samuel and Fanny Free and lived on a farm adjoining that of the Hickmotts. According to The Hickmott Story, written in 1981 by one of their 65 grandchildren Win Noblet (nee Dean), she and Bill 'made a handsome couple. Frances looked beautiful in her dainty lace and taffeta frock with tiny pleats and rich lace edging. Her elaborate headdress and veil were held in place with orange blossom. After the ceremony Bill and Frances drove by horse and buggy to take up residence in their first home in the Talgitcha area of Lalbert'. The year before Bill and Frances were married, Bill's parents sold their farm at Lalbert and moved with some of their family to Western Australia. Bill, his brother John and sisters Sophia and Edith elected to stay in Victoria. Bill subsequently spent a good deal of his time helping his cousin, John Albert Smith, clear a block of land Smith had bought at Wornack near Ouyen in the Mallee district. During this time Frances gave birth to the couple's first daughter, Grace Frances, who, as the photo below which was taken for the occasion demonstrates, they proudly presented to the small child's maternal grandparents.

wm hickmott weddingsamuels family

Frances and William's wedding at Lalbert in 1910 and Frances and William with Frances' family at Lalbert in 1911. Rear Row (L/R): Samuel John, William Hickmott, Frances (holding Grace),
Fanny Johanna and Edward Charles. Front Row: Albert Ernest, Hilda Flavell, Samuel (holding Donald), Leslie, Ann Grace, Clifford and Mary Jean Free.

To Ouyen

leaving lalbertAttracted by the prospect of good wheat harvests, Bill decided that he would also try his luck in the Ouyen District and applied for a block of land in the same area as his cousin. Following the birth of the couple's second child, Gladys Elizabeth in June 1912, he and Frances loaded their meagre possessions plus some provisions and necessary tools onto a waggon and drove the 110 miles to Al Smith's block where they lived until their application was approved nearly two years later. While he waited for the approval to come through, Bill worked for other settlers who were clearing the Mallee scrub from their blocks, building fences and houses, and performing all the other tasks needed to establish an outback farm. In order to survive until the first harvest (which returned a pleasing ten bags to the acre) they trapped rabbits and grew their own fruit and vegetables. While they were at Wornack their third daughter, Muriel Edith, or Judy as she was known, was born. Their neighbours there were the Hahnels whose daughters cared for the girls when Frances was away or in hospital. As the account of their early life by Win Noblet makes clear, the diminutive Frances had to work as hard as the men, tending her garden and growing brood, preparing meals on a small camp oven, and washing clothes by boiling them in large tins on an open fire built outside for that purpose. All the while she had to be extremely careful to ensure not only that the precious water was not wasted but also, in summer months in particular, that sparks from the fire did not set the surrounding bush ablaze.

Not long after their fourth child, Florence Evelyn was born on 13 December 1915, Bill received news that he had been granted a 640 acre block of land located to the northeast of Ouyen. The block had been forfeited by another settler so had been partly cleared of the Mallee scrub that grew across the district. They chose to build the first house of their own on a small rise that overlooked one of the cleared areas. As Win Noblet describes: 'Logs were cut from the surrounding large box timber to form the frame of the building. The dividing walls were formed with hessian sewn together and white washed. A detached bungalow was built behind the living section and served as a family bedroom'. Limited finances meant that Bill had to continue to seek work elsewhere as well as clear and develop his own land. This meant that Frances and the children were often left by themselves for long periods of time. While Frances was very much a country girl, used to the demands of outback life, the still unfamiliar surrounds combined with her utter isolation and fears of marauding dingoes and other animals, made this a very trying and difficult time for her.

. . . naturally in unfamiliar surroundings and amid the howling dingoes she was afraid. The little girls were terrified and Frances would clutch her little children while keeping a wary eye on the closed door, anticipating any minute it would burst open and the vicious dingoes would attack ... [Their little greyhound Bella] was [also] afraid of the dingoes and the unknown terror of the inky black scrub, and would be scratching at the door, pleading for protection and the warmth and comfort of his masters voice. But Frances was so afraid and although she loved all small things [she] couldn't bring herself to unlock the door and let little Bella in (The Hickmott Story, p.44)

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clearing land

Clearing and ploughing land in the Mallee

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A trip to the West and Grandma's garden

hickmott girls in waIn 1918 Bill decided that he and his family would travel to Western Australia to visit his parents and siblings who he had not seen since they left Victoria a decade earlier. After arranging to let his property and farm machinery to his neighbours and packing up the family home, Bill and Frances and their by now five girls (my mother Elsie May had been born at Ouyen on 23 June 1917) travelled by train to Adelaide and then by boat to the West. Win Noblet again takes up the story:

Naturally the girls were very excited, so looking forward to the great adventure. Outings were very rare. Their excitement became a little less intense as on the first day and night on the boat they all became sea sick. After the initiation they found their sea legs and enjoyed the remainder of the four-day journey. Frances took all their meals to the girls in the cabin as children were not permitted in the dining room (p. 45).

Although Frances would have been kept busy caring for her children, it is likely that she would have reflected at different times on the fact she was following the first part of a journey undertaken two years earlier by her two younger brothers, Bert and Sam Free. Under pressure, no doubt, from government propaganda and the local community's various 'war whoopers', they had enlisted together in Melbourne on 24 July 1916 where, along with a number of other recruits, they swore on the Bible to 'well and truly serve our Sovereign Lord the King', 'resist His Majesty's enemies', and 'cause His Majesty's peace to be kept'. They departed Melbourne on the SS Port Lincoln on 20 October 1916. After training on Britain's Salisbury Plain and at Camieres in France, they first saw action in Belgium on 29 July 1917. Bert was obliterated by shell fire at Passchendaele three months later. Sam died of wounds near Villers Bretteneaux on 26 May 1918. Click here to read their story and that of their family striving to cope with the loss and its aftermath.

Such reflections would have been pushed into the background once they arrived at Fremantle and saw for the first time aborigines (who were diving off the wharves to retrieve the pennies the passengers from the ship were throwing into the water). Next were the sights and sounds of Perth and then a two-hour train journey southward to Bill's parents' farm at Brookton. Located in the Great Southern region between Beverley and Pingelly, Brookton was one of the original stations on the Great Southern railway line. Gazetted in 1895 the town was originally named 'Seabrook', after the early pioneer John Seabrook (1818-1891) who moved into the district in around 1847. The locals preferred, however, to call the town Brookton, the name of Seabrook's homestead. The name stuck and was officially accepted in 1899.

Bill's father, Henry Edward Hickmott had purchased a farm, which he named 'Dingley Dell', near Pingelly in 1909. As he had been in Lalbert, he became very involved in local affairs, performing the duties of a lay preacher in the local Methodist Church and using his membership of the Brookton Farmers and Settlers Association (of which he was president for two years) to push for a better deal for the region's farmers. In 1914 he was elected as the local Country Party Member for Pingelly in the Western Australian Parliament, and continued serving in that capacity until his defeat in the 1924 general election. Click here to read about Henry's time as a Western Australian MLA. It is possible, then, that Bill and Frances and their girls may have joined the old gentleman for lunch in his offices in Perth during one of their visits there. We do know that on one of their trips to the capital, Frances had the photograph shown above taken of her five girls. It is quite a remarkable portrait. The two elder sisters, Grace and Gladys, standing at the back looking both at the assistant next to the photographer and over their younger charges: the dreamer Judy in the centre and on either side Elsie and Florence, the unwilling participants in the process.

The family spent altogether twelve months in the west, staying with different relatives who Bill worked for in order to pay the family's way. Much of this time was spent with the girl's grandmother, Grandma Hickmott, for whom Gladys collected 'the crackling orange centres of "blackboys" for morning kindling'. The six year-old tomboy was also inspired by her grandmother's beautiful and tranquil garden. As she reminisced some sixty years later: 'My greatest achievement after my family has been my hobby of growing plants over 25 years. I grow mostly natives and sell at give-away prices because I wanted to help green-up Australia...my plants are widespread in Victoria and even interstate'.

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Home again

The family travelled back to Victoria by train, stopping at Lalbert on the way so that Frances could see again her own family. During this time the couple's first son, Auther William, or 'Hutch' as he became known as, was born at the Ultima Bush Nursing Hospital on 13 March 1919. On their return home, the three older girls were sent to the one-roomed bush school at Borongie North (pictured below) to begin their education. As Win Noblet describes, the girls' first day away from their loving parents, and subject to the questions and jibes of the more experienced pupils, was one none of them would forget:

. . . the shy little girls...spent a good deal of the first day in tears. It was too much for the little Judy, she crept out of the classroom and escaped the trauma to sob her heart out under the school. The three mile journey home was almost as frightening as the dreaded classroom, which ever way they turned the scrub and sandhills looked the same. By some small miracle their bush knowledge pointed them in the right direction and the trio eventually saw the welcome sight of the little homestead in the distance, and mother eager to hear of their little happenings.

borongie north school 1926

Borongie North Primary School c1927

In addition to attending school, the older children were expected to look after their younger siblings, assist their mother in the kitchen preparing meals for the workers in the fields, and help their father clear away the stumps and roots of the mallee trees that were being gradually cleared from the property. This last task was both laborious and time-consuming, with literally hundreds of thousands of the partially buried 'mallee roots' having to be pulled or dug from the soil and either stacked in large heaps ready to be burned, or loaded onto drays and transported into Ouyen and sold to the townsfolk as firewood (a dray load of stumps was much sought after and attracted the healthy sum of £2 in 1926). As the time for sewing the season's wheatfields approached, Frances would often join her husband in the task even though she was either pregnant or still breastfeeding their latest child. On these occasions,

. . . the children at home would bring the baby, pulled in a little cart out to where Frances was working so she could feed her offspring. One day Frances was helping load stumps onto the dray. She carried a large stump over but finding it too heavy to lift high onto the dray she dropped the stump, which broke in half to reveal a large black snake neatly curled up inside (The Hickmott Story, p.51).

hickmott's haystackSnakes were not the only danger faced by the settlers in summer. Another worry was fire which on a hot and windy day could threaten the farmers' very lives and livelihoods. The Hickmotts found this to their cost during a heat wave in 1923. Bill had just spent weeks building a haystack (like the one pictured) and, with a hired man, was cutting the remainder of the hay into chaff for their horses to feed on. Sparks from the engine driving the chaff cutter set alight the straw roof on the nearby stables. As the men rushed to pull the screaming horses from the growing inferno, a rush of wind carried the flames across to the haystack which immediately caught fire. As Judy later recalled, the children coming home from school saw the smoke from 'Dickies Hill'. 'We ran home as fast as we could. By the time we reached the Shed Hill the stack was a roaring inferno, and also the stable with its straw roof. Dad was throwing out collars and harness, winkers - all the harness he could rescue. Even part of the hessian ceiling in the house caught fire, chains away, in the flat between the Shed Hill and the Garden Hill. They put it out in time but the stack and the stable was [sic] a terrible loss'.

In spite of these and other setbacks, Bill and Frances did well enough through the 1920s to place a deposit on an adjoing 640-acre block of land and to have constructed on their original prpoerty a brand new house. This, like the one pictured below, was made of galvanised iron and was lined not with whitewashed hessian but with more permanent plaster sheeting. There were two bedrooms, a living room and kitchen (which housed a built-in stove as well as an open fire place) and a large lounge room that contained at one end a huge open fireplace in which the ubiquitous mallee roots could be burnt during winter. A covered verandah that lay along three sides of the house added to its size and spaciousness. As the dam was also extended, they were able as well to begin a garden Bill's mother would be proud of. Consisting of massed flower and vegetable beds, an orchard and plenty of wattles, gums and peppercorns to provide colour and shade in summer, it would serve as a place of wonder and retreat for visitors and members of the family alike.

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family home dam and sheds

horse and buggyTowards the Christmas of 1926 the family received word that Frances' mother, Fanny Johanna Free, was seriously ill and that she wished to see her eldest daughter and her children once more before she died. Bill and Frances immediately packed their ten children, a change of clothes and a small supply of food and water into their buggy and set off on the 110-mile journey to Lalbert. The trip, in the mid-summer heat, was a slow and uncomfortable one for the children especially. It would take three days in all with the family spending the first night at their friends, the Olivers, at Cocamba and the second with Frances' younger sister Annie and her husband Jack Kent at their farm at Meatian (where the family posed for the photograph shown below).

In the middle of the trip they gave a lift to an old and very large swag woman who, when offered the family's precious water bag, drank it dry. The old crone was also lousy which the young ones sitting next to her in the heat soon discovered. Not long after this the horses tired badly and the buggy became bogged in the soft Mallee sand. While Bill and the older children pushed and pulled the buggy and exhausted horses from sand drift to sand drift, Frances (pregnant with her eleventh child, Donald Henry, who died when he was six years old) walked ahead to Meatian to get help. Jack drove out in his car, the first the Hickmott children had seen, and drove the smaller ones back to his farm. Bill and the others didn't arrive at Meatian until close to midnight.

hickmotts at meatianFrances reached Lalbert in time to see her beloved mother before the latter died early in January 1927 from complications arising from a recent heart attack. She was just 62 years of age. Click here to read of her and her forbears' life and times. After the funeral, the family returned by buggy to Ouyen, Frances carrying with her the photos and other treasured mementoes her mother had kept of the two young sons and brothers who had been killed in the Great War.

On their return to Ouyen, the Hickmotts resumed their familiar routines of work, school and play. Life remained hard but sufficiently successful that Bill was able to have built near the family home a dirt tennis court on which the older children and their friends contested marathon singles and doubles matches. To maintain a regular water supply, he further enlarged the family dam. Perhaps because Frances' grandfather, William Free, had drowned himself in his dam (or 'tank' as it was then called) at Corack East, the children were forbidden to go near the dam. As Win Noblet writes, they were told that devils and demons lurked beneath the murky surface, ready to grab hold of any unsuspecting interlopers. In spite of this warning the boys as they grew older would often plunge into the dam to cool off after work or their long tramp home from school. They 'eventually all learned to swim as they knew they had to so they wouldn't be found out breaking the rules. But the girls during childhood never learnt to swim' (The Hickmott Story, p. 56).

The older boys also spent much of their spare time helping their father deal with a new and real threat to their livelihood: rabbits. Brought from England to Australia as a family pet, the rabbit thrived in the new conditions and quickly spread in increasing numbers across the arid farming regions of southeast and western Australia. Every morning 'Hutch' and 'Forty' (Wilfred Samuel, born at Ouyen in 1923) and later John Owen (born at Ouyen in 1929) and their father would set their traps at the entrances of the burrows that dotted the Mallee landscape. Every evening numbers of struggling, squealing marauders would be taken from the traps and killed and skinned. For the dried-out skins could be exchanged for a small government bounty, the only compensation for the constant and, when the numbers of rabbits approached plague proportions, seemingly impossible quest of ridding the district of the menace.

Throughout this period, life for the Hickmott children was a very simple one. As Gladys later recalled, Christmas Eve and the Ouyen Show were about their only outings, other than the daily trips to school and their fortnightly attendance at Sunday school. 'After walking over the sand hills to school', she mused, 'we weren't too keen to go [back] again on Sundays. Poor Mum struggled to make her tribe into good Christians with minor success. But we all grew up into decent citizens with no black marks...and I think we were the happiest, matiest family you could ever find'. As they got older the girls 'went to an occasional dance at the school hall. How we enjoyed it and relived it over and over for months'. Life was never easy though. 'We had a bath once a week in a huge tub carried into the bedroom. Starting with the little ones we all went through the same tub of water. I used to say the last user of the towel was dried wetter than he was before.' She and the other girls 'changed our underclothes once a week and had to wear one dress to school for a week. Plus hob-nailed boots and black socks, we must have looked picturesque'. Still, she continued, 'we used to laugh a lot when we were young. Things that seemed so funny then make me want to cry now' (The Hickmott Story, p. 132).

By the early 1930s the older girls had left school and were either, in the case of Grace and Gladys, helping their mother or neighbours or, of Judy and Florence, working in Ouyen (at the railway refreshment rooms). The main distractions from day-to-day life for the younger members of the family remained their three-mile trek to-and-from school. As for most bush children these were enlivened by the occasional encounters with snakes, lizards and other animals including the odd rampaging bull. The Hickmott children had also to endure the prospect of 'Old Man Shortridge', over whose land they had to cross, coming after them on his horse, whip in hand and yelling at them to stop tramping down his wheat crop. They were doing no such thing of course but this mattered little to the madman and his dogs who seemed to have it in for the small children bolting towards the channel that separated Shortridge's property from the adjoining and more welcoming territory of the Rennick family. In his constant 'war' with the 'Hickey kids' as he called them, Shortridge would even remove the board that lay across the channel, forcing them to remove their shoes and socks and wade up to their knees across the watery strait. Brought up to respect their elders, the children tended not to complain to their parents about Shortridge's outrageous behaviour. One day, however, Hutch who while short in height was strong and wiry in stature, stood his ground and challenged the shouting madman to a fight. It may have helped that this was done within earshot of some nearby workmen. Whether this was the case or not, Shortridge for a while at least skulked about his property and stopped harassing the children.

hickmott children c1929

The 'Hickey kids' (and others) c1929. From R/L: Grace, Gladys, Phyllis Kent (the children's first cousin), Judy, Florence,
Elsie, Hutch, Alan Kent, Mavis, Wilma, Forty, Lorna and Donald

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The depression years

The Old Home

Oh, I love the old homestead that stands on the hill.
It's the nicest I know anywhere
And I feel that the old place belongs to us still
In spite of the stranger that's there.

Oh, the gay times we had in that old happy home,
My brothers and sisters and I,
They will come back to haunt me where ever I roam
And live in my heart 'til I die.

I remember the garden abloom in the spring
And still each separate tree
And each little flower some message can bring
Of some happy memory to me.

One strict rule we had in that old happy place
Whoever should call night or day.
Found the door open wide and mother's kind face
Smiling a welcome to stay.

And though I have travelled a long way since then,
I find that where ever I roam
Though people are kind there's no welcome like when
I lived with the old folks at home.

But hard times did come and however they tried
There was no way to make farming pay,
So from the same place mother came as a bride
They went broken-hearted away.

And so the old place stands neglected forlorn
For the rich man who calls it his own.
Just speaks of the country with half amused scorn
And spends all his time in the town.

The garden we planted means nothing to him,
The house is just some place to sleep
And the little old dam where we all learned to swim
Just a watering place for his sheep.

I've no wish to be rich, for it seems to be when
There's money there's trouble and strife.
But I'd like to buy for my parents their old home again
To live there the rest of their lives.

Gladys Blake nee Hickmott (1913-2004)

The depression years of the 1930s saw life get harder still. Falling wheat prices and extended droughts severely reduced the income derived from the farm and Bill found it increasingly difficult to pay off his machinery and meet his mortgage commitments. Like many others in the district, they were eventually forced by their creditors off their land. Bill and Frances had to pack up and leave the house in which they had invested so much of their time, energy and love. As the poem, written by Gladys years after the event indicates, the move from 'the old home' was bitterly resented by the older members of the family in particular. They were equally depressed by their new house, a small and dilapidated shack that had no garden to speak of, very few trees and looked onto the main road that ran between Ouyen and Kiamal.

Things were about to improve though. Bill and Frances soon afterwards obtained a loan from the newly established Rural Government Adjustment Scheme. This enabled them to settle their debts and reclaim their land. They were unable to go back to the old home, however, as it had been rented to someone else. Bill was able at least to lease another block to the west of Kiamal which had on it a house that, while not as good as their original home, was larger and more comfortable than the shack they were living in. The family moved onto Peverill's block, as it was known, early in 1935 a few months before the birth of the last-but-one of their sixteen-strong brood (Edward Lesley who died four years later from the effects of sunstroke). Pictured below, this house was where the old couple would live with their family until 1959 when they would move into Ouyen and the house would be taken over by their youngest son, Ralph Lewis. Bill's land was divided among his sons Forty, John, Francis Allan (or 'Ginge' as he was known) and Ralph. The boys, in turn, shared the cost of financially supporting their aging and beloved parents during their twilight years.

Life at Peverill's became gradually easier for Bill and Frances, assisted by the acquisition of such 'luxuries' as a kerosene regrigerator, an electric generator, tractors and other mechanical farm implements, and a slow combustion stove in which Frances would bake her renowned bread, scones and cakes. As in the old days, visitors were always made welcome and often stayed overnight following an enjoyable evening of yarning, singing songs and reciting poetry, listening to the gramophone and later the wireless, or playing cards. In later years the visits of neighbours and relatives were supplemented by those of the couple's grown-up sons and daughters and their increasing numbers of children. Those among the latter who came from the city were introduced to the sometimes dubious pleasures of bird-nesting, catching yabbies in the once-feared dams, and spotlighting for rabbits and foxes. They climbed on the machinery, rode on bouncing tractors, and wandered under bright, clear skies through the clumps of scrub that had escaped the jaws of the Mallee rollers.

hickmott homestead on peverill's block

Hickmott's home on Peverill's old block

hickmott family in 1938

Hickmott family c1935. Rear row (L/R): Florence, Frances, Bill, Grace or Gladys
(holding Edward). Centre row: Elsie, Wilma, Forty, Hutch, Judy. Front row: Mavis (nursing June),
Lorna, John and Ginge.

hickmott family in 1938

The Hickmott family in 1938. Rear row (L/R): Gladys, Muriel ('Judy'), Auther ('Hutch'), Grace, Florence ('Floss'), Elsie, Wilma and Mavis.
Centre: Frances (holding Ralph) and Bill (holding Edward). Front row: Lorna, Francis ('Ginge'), June, John and Wilfred ('Forty').

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Final chapter

In 1959 Bill and Frances moved away from their farm and into a small but comfortable house in Ouyen. Though they were sad to leave the place in which they had lived for over two decades, the new arrangements were better suited to their aging years. As Win Noblet described, Bill was able 'to walk daily down the street, via the back lane to purchase the daily paper, fresh bread and importantly to meet and chat with friends on the way'. In the evenings he and Frances would sit together on their front verandah reminiscing, no doubt, about old times and old friends and watching the younger generations hurrying by in their fast cars. While in Ouyen they continued their long-established practice of attending the local football and cricket matches and, of course, hosting the streams of visitors who continued to come to their place for a yarn and a cuppa. Although by now into his seventies, Bill would delight in driving any city-based visitors back out to the farm. As he pointed out the old blocks and the changes they had undergone, his car would weave back and forth across the busy highway. Miraculously there occurred no accidents or even close shaves. Perhaps the locals were aware of the Hickmott Vanguard and kept their distance. Or perhaps those undergoing the journey entered a kind of time warp that took them out of the era of the car and back into that of the horse and buggy.

gathering at ouyenOn 29 June 1970, the old couple celebrated their sixtieth year of marriage. More than four hundred people crammed into the hall at Kiamal to celebrate the event. They included the couple's long and dear friends the Olivers who flew in from Manangatang, landing their plane in a nearby paddock. A number of Bill and Frances' siblings attended, including some who travelled all the way from the West. Friends and acquaintances abounded of course as did members of Bill and Frances' own family. All of their fourteen surviving children were present with their spouses. So too were most of their 65 grandchildren as well as 42 great grandchildren, all of whom were welcomed by the guests of honour. They received messages of congratulations from the Queen, the Governor-General and the Premier of Victoria (an old Mallee hand himself who hailed from the the nearby town of Walpeup). While these formalities were not unwelcome, they were less important to the old couple than the re-gathering around them of their kith and kin and the memories, stories and a good deal of noise and laughter this engendered.

Six years after this joyous event, William Henry Hickmott died. He was 88 years old and had been in hospital for two years following an operation. Although physically constrained, his mind remained alert and attentive and so to the end he was able to continue to enjoy the visits of his many friends, children and grandchildren, some sixty of whom formed a guard of honour at his funeral. Frances Alice Hickmott (nee Free) outlived her husband by three years. For much of this time, however, her mind was fogged by the effects of senile dementia. Occasionally she would recognise a caller or well-wisher but most of the time her thoughts were cast inwards, focussing perhaps on much earlier lives and times.

In his obituary on Bill written for the local newspaper, an old friend who had known the Hickmotts since their time at Lalbert, wrote that 'as a result of this friendship he has spent many a night, often a weekend and even a week at a time in the Hickmott home. It was on these occasions', he continued, 'that I learned what a wonderful household it was - a family of love and kindness and help towards each other'. The themes of close family ties and a supportive and loving childhood underpin the stories and memories of Bill and Frances' friends and children, many of whom are now also gone, and the reminiscences of those grandchildren old enough to remember family gatherings at either Peverill's near Kiamal or Gregory Street in Ouyen. The story of Bill and Frances Hickmott remains for many, then, a very special and sustaining one. It is a story that is driven in large part by the values, determination and open-heartedness of its two principals. But it is also, one suspects, a story of its time. Bill and Frances lived at the end of a particular era in Australia's history. It is an era that is now long-passed, one in which, as A. B. ('Banjo') Patterson put it:

Our fathers came of roving stock
That could not fixed abide;
And we have followed field and flock
Since e'er we learnt to ride;
By miner's camp and shearing shed,
In land of heat and drought,
We followed where our fortunes led,
With fortune always on ahead -
And always further out.

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Hickmott family Rootsweb site Bill and Frances' Family and descendants
Bill's grandfather Henry Hickmott Bill's father Henry Edward Hickmott
Bill's aunt Rebecca Smith More Hickmott photos

Image sources:
Sophia Elizabeth Hickmott, Free family 1911, Hickmott girls in Western Australia, Borongie North Primary School, Hickmott's haystack 1921, Hickmottsheds and dam, 'Hickey kids' c1929, and Hickmott family c1936; private photograph collection.
Edith Olive Lewis nee Hickmott, from the 'Lewis Genealogy and Family History Information' on the Geni Family History website.
John and Ada Hickmott, William and Frances' wedding, Hickmotts leaving from outside Lalbert Hotel, House at Peverill's and Hickmott family in 1938; from Win Noblet, The Hickmott Story 1825-1981 (Bendigo: Cambridge Press, 1981).
Clearing and ploughing land in the Mallee and Family home courtesy of Picture Australia.

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