06 December 2009

Ida Madge Brown (1904-2009)

The Spring 2009 edition of the University of New England publication The UNE Experience (see here) contains the following entry:

IDA MADGE BROWN (1904-2009)

Madge Brown, who was household administrator at the University when the main college residences were located within Booloominbah and nearby huts, has died in her hometown of Wangaratta, at the age of 105. She joined the University in 1946, after her service in the army during WWII, and she retired in 1964. Her dedicated service to the University gained her the privilege of being admitted to Convocation. Her role is recalled in Cherry Robertson’s Long Youth Long Pleasure, which notes that “the appointment and duties of the maintenance staff, the staff of the campus residences and town houses, were all her responsibility”, and she is remembered as being remarkably efficient. Many students will remember her as someone who had a real interest in them and making sure they were properly looked after.

Madge Brown was a member of the remarkable family that created Brown Brothers of Milawa. Her father John Francis Brown planted the first vines at Milawa in 1889, and her younger brother John Charles developed the business we know today.

Madge trained as a nurse, and as the obituary by family friend Keith Dunstan, published in The Age on 19 August 2009, attests, she had an eventful war. She embarked with the 2/4th Australian General Hospital and served in the Middle East; at the height of the conflict she served at Tobruk.

On return to Australia Madge was promoted to matron-in-charge on the hospital ship Wanganella. She was constantly at sea bringing back wounded troops from the Middle East and New Guinea. On July 14, 1944, the Wanganella was in Bombay Harbour when a British freighter at the wharf caught fire and 1700 tons of explosives aboard ship exploded. The freighter disintegrated and its boiler landed on tramlines 800 metres away. Warehouses were flattened, 900 people killed and 3000 injured. Nurses and doctors on the Wanganella worked for 36 hours looking after the wounded and the dying.

My father shared with Madge her last contribution to the consequences of that dreadful conflict, the relief of POWs held at Changi and other camps in Southeast Asia, including those brought to Singapore from the Burma-Thailand Railway. My father had participated in the wartime establishment of the Australian Army Psychology Corps and was one of its founding members. By the end of the war AAPC was primarily concerned with the rehabilitation of POWs, and my father was embarked on the MV Duntroon for this purpose, originally bound for India but diverted to Singapore on the news of the Japanese surrender.

Madge was sent to Singapore to establish the 2/14 AGH; my understanding is that my father and Madge, with her detachment of Australian Army nurses, were on the same ship. Of that period, my father wrote in his memoir Psychology at New England: an autobiographical history of the first forty years (UNE Publishing Unit 1993):

  ...By mid-1945 the war in Europe was over and it was just a matter of time before the South-East Asian and Pacific theatres followed. Plans for general demobilization were well under way and arrangements were in hand for the return of all front-line soldiers to the homeland. These plans, of course, included the repatriation of prisoners of war, one important segment of which was the recovery of the Eighth Australian Division, captured in Singapore in 1942. A special unit – Second Australian PW Reception Group, commanded by Brigadier J. Lloyd – was raised for this purpose and was originally destined for India. With the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and its effect on Japan, the Group was switched to Singapore. The establishment of this unit provided for two Rehabilitation Officers (Captains) and I was seconded to the Directorate of Rehabilitation to fill one of these postings. The main body assembled at Walgrove Camp near Sydney in mid-August and embarked on MV “Duntroon” towards the end of the month, arriving in Singapore on 12th September, the day on which Lord Mountbatten, accompanied by General Slim, took the Japanese surrender. It was an exciting day for all concerned, especially for the ex-prisoners who were present in Singapore on that day.

Our Headquarters was set up at the notorious Changi Prison where most of the POWs had been concentrated under appalling conditions – primitive, overcrowded, makeshift accommodation; next to no clothing; and near starvation rations. The morale was, on the surface, fairly good but one sensed a false euphoria that was understandable after the release from the cruelties of Japanese confinement. The men were pitifully thin, some little more than skeletons, many were sick and there were still some dying daily from the ill-treatment they had received over three and a half years. The Reception Group was divided into two Camps and it was to one or another of these that the men were directed as they were released from Changi or collected from outstations in Burma and Thailand. Each camp had its own ‘Battalion Hedquarters’ and Company Staffs, and one Rehabilitation Officer was attached to each, though we lived at Group HQ.

My duties in Singapore were only peripherally psychological. In the main they consisted of setting up a centre, in association with Army Education, to which ex-prisoners could come to be instructed in the repatriation and rehabilitation procedures that would confront them on arrival in their home ports. Booklets outlining the procedures were issued to them, but most of them wanted to talk about their experiences and to gain some assurance that they were not and would not be forgotten in the return to civilian life. Some were tragic cases who had lost limbs and had also lost confidence in their ability to cope with a world they had virtually forgotten. Here was a ‘clinical’ situation it there ever was one, and the therapeutic aspect of it was going to be a long-term affair. From it I learned a good deal in the way of insight into human suffering of an order that I had never seen, and perceptions of the human condition in the endurance of intolerable hardship. It was to be expected that many had succumbed to the unbearable strain. When later I studied theories of psychological breakdown, I was better able to understand concepts such as ‘frustration tolerance’ and the breaking point of helplessness. It was regrettable that these lessons had to be learned in such poignant circumstances.

As fate would have it, in 1946 both Madge Brown and my father took up positions at the New England University College. Madge took up her position as household administrator, and my father was delighted to be the successful applicant for appointment as Temporary Lecturer and Guidance Officer for ex-Servicemen at his alma mater, at which he had been the first student to enrol when it opened to receive students in 1938.

I knew very little of this background because my father never spoke of his Singapore experiences apart from his having arrived in Singapore the day Mountbatten took the Japanese surrender. I knew Madge well – I was two years old when we moved to Armidale and in the small university community of those days we saw quite a bit of her, including a couple of times in the 1950s when she came to Port Macquarie for a holiday at the same time as my family, but in those days I knew no more than the fact that Dad had known her from his army days.
Remarkably for the small town that Armidale was in those days, there was another veteran of the Changi relief effort present in our immediate circle of friends enjoying summer holidays in Port Macquarie. May Richardson (neé Drabsch), who had grown up in Guyra, was the Australian Army matron second in seniority to Madge during the relief effort; she had been transferred in from the Pacific Islands.  She and her husband John used, like us, to take a holiday cabin at Beach Park at the top of the Tuppeny Road at Flynn’s Beach. There they all were, having a late afternoon drink in our sitting room, and never a word of those grim times they had shared.

Madge was not one to talk about herself and I doubt that many of my fellow students had any idea of what this quiet, gentle, ramrod-straight lady had experienced in her past life.

Rest in peace, Madge, it was a privilege to have known you.

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