Jim McKinty & Bert Semmens

VSF students 1934-36

Paraphrased from Jim’s notes and from Bert’s unpublished Recollections: My career in Forestry

[Bert] My career in forestry commenced when I read in the handbook-diary issued by Melbourne High School of a scholarship offered by the Forests Commission of Victoria for entry to the School of Forestry Creswick.

The minimum entry qualification was Intermediate Certificate although Matriculation was preferred for entry to the School which, at that time had an intake of only three to five students each year. 

[Bert] The scholarship was for three years leading to a Diploma in Forestry, paying £50 a year, of which £45 would be deducted for board and lodging, tuition and textbooks. On successfully completing the course, the trainee would be appointed Cadet Forester with the Forests Commission. The career range was: Cadet Forester £156 per-annum rising to £221, Assistant Forester £247 to £299, Forester £325 to £416 and Chief Forester £429 to £507. This was 1932, in the middle of the Depression. Jobs were scarce and not well paid for juniors, usually less than £1 per week; most of which would go into board and lodging at home.

[Jim] Usually students with the requisite science subjects were chosen but, despite not having a pass in chemistry, Jim (who was also at Melbourne High) was selected on the basis of a very high score in the entrance exam. Other students were selected on the basis of their being Legacy children and, later, Returned Servicemen from the Second World War were accepted. An intensive oral general-knowledge exam formed part of the selection process – such as what direction was the wind blowing, and what direction do the trams run in a particular area. Jim expressed his interest in forestry matters in terms of government activities on snagging the Ovens River to allow access by paddle steamers (this was in fact undertaken by the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission). 

[Bert] I got official confirmation of a scholarship and a list of requirements including breeches and leggings and a school blazer (the school uniform), boots, working clothes for practical work in the forest, underclothes, sheets etc, all to be marked with my name for laundry purposes.

[Jim] On the Melbourne to Creswick train with Jim was Allan Coldicutt [a good footballer – who, in his first year after graduation from Creswick, lost a leg when a tree fell on him in the forest]. Jack Cosstick joined them at Ballarat. Bert Semmens arrived later. The fifth student in their year was H. Rupert Uren (who withdrew in the second year). They were collected by car from the station and Charles Fletcher (1932 intake) took them in hand and showed them to their rooms.

[Bert] I was taken to the school by Grandfather Semmens, and it was then that I found that the Principal - E. J. Semmens (nicknamed E.J. or ‘Jacko’) - was his nephew and the son of his brother Josiah who had retired in 1927 as Chief Inspector of Forests.

[Jim] On his second day at the school Jim was detailed to help fight a fire that broke out on the Springmount side of the pine plantation at Creswick (the only junior to do so). “…we ran to it at Scout pace. That means we ran 50 yards and then walked 50 yards at a time.” 

[Jim] Initiation at the school was somewhat rigorous. On the night after their arrival the new intake was required to provide a concert for the incumbent students – this, they thought, was the initiation. Over the weekend, however, hazing began in earnest. On Friday evening they were baptized by being thrown into the local lagoon into which all the sediment from the school grounds drained (Jim grasped the arms of the students that were throwing him in and took them in with him – “they didn’t like being held under”); escorted out into the school plantation and their hair cut off in various patterns (usually the ‘broad arrow’ - the symbol of Crown ownership), tarred and feathered and generally raced around the country. [Another ‘torture’ was to bring an inductee into a room in which a pot of tar was being boiled. The student was then blind-folded and held down while hot candle wax (rather than the tar) was dripped onto their body. In some cases psychosomatic burns appeared.] Each new student had to wear a lead weight, each with a unique number, around the neck continuously for the next month – it could not be removed for any purpose, whether bathing or at a dance on pain of extra weights being added as penalty. [The lead came from the original building at the School and had been set aside for disposal; but had been purloined by a student.] On Sunday, Jim was sent to get the ‘cow’ from Pollard – “all bull”. Other penalties included turning off the gas lights in the main street of Creswick – particularly those that shone on the School’s entrance gate (so that late-comers could enter unobserved).




First-year students after shearing during initiation
L-R: Jim McKinty, Rupert Uren, Bert Semmens, Allan Coldicutt, Jack Cosstick
Photo: Jim McKinty
Source: Malcolm McKinty

[Jim] The hazing eventually lead to trouble. During Jim’s Senior year one of the inductees (J. Walsh - who didn’t complete the course) took up a posting at the Duntroon Military College. The military doctors noted the rash from the ‘tar’ (wax). Complaints to the Forests Commission were taken up at the school and the senior student (Jim) was almost expelled. A possible benefit from such bizarre activities was that subsequently the students all got on with each other and didn’t bear grudges, possibly because they had all been through the same initiation. [The nature and intensity of subsequent initiations changed to a degree.]

[Bert] Dormitory accommodation was, by today’s standards, spartan. Being located in the former Creswick hospital, the boys were housed in what were probably the private wards. Two rooms attached to the main building were each occupied by two or three of the Junior students. A bathroom opened from a hall to one of these rooms. Boys in the other room had to go to the bathroom via an open verandah and often did so in the nude. As the verandah faced into a courtyard in full view of the kitchen on the opposite side, there were continuous complaints of this practice from the female staff. The other students were housed in one four-bed room (Intermediates) and two two-bed rooms (Seniors), each of which had a bathroom attached. The laundry and linen room had been the hospital’s operating theatre and featured a big skylight.

[Bert] Hot water for the Intermediate and Senior’s rooms and the Principal’s residence, located just outside the laundry, came from a system through the stove. Hot water was allowed for only one hot bath a week per boy, so bath-night was traditionally shared to allow two baths per week. The Juniors’ bathroom had a wood-fueled bath heater so they could bathe without restriction. Showers were cold. Murray Thompson and I could boast that we had a cold shower every morning while at Creswick, sun, hail or snow. I admit it was sometimes sheer bravado on my part.

[Bert] Beds were probably ex-hospital and mattresses of kapok and therefore quite hard. Wardrobes and dressing tables were shared - one for two boys with one drawer each. The toilets at the back of the building were of brick with a septic tank and only two years old. The Seniors described the previous ‘family five-holer’ with a long wooden seat and five holes at regular intervals. The masters’ two holes were partitioned off from the boys’ three. The ‘night-cart’ called twice a week to remove and replace pans. Creswick’s sewerage scheme was completed in 1962.

[Bert] There were three meals a day, with the main meal at midday. Quantities were adequate even for growing boys. The quality was mostly enjoyable with occasional lapses, mostly due to overcooking and burning. Breakfast consisted of porridge, with a cooked item on toast to follow. Eggs scrambled or fried with bacon, tomatoes and, in season, mushrooms (if collected by the boys). Midday meals were reasonably varied but predictable. Roasts on Tuesdays and Thursdays when there were visiting lecturers. Wednesday was known as ‘dog-day’ with variations of stews from minced beef, minced meat patties for midday and pasties or pies for tea. Friday was corned beef. Fish was not served as there were no Catholics in my three years at the school. Saturday and Sundays were usually roasts providing cold meat for tea with salad. Sweets were reasonably varied, with steamed puddings with jam etc., baked rice custards, jam tart and so on. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday had soup for tea - mostly vegetable, but always tomato on Friday. There was plenty of bread and jam. Butter was rationed and in my years was shared out at the beginning of the meal in equal proportions. Water was always on the table and tea served at the end of each meal. Second cups were available if required. Either Mr. Semmens or Mr. Litster sat at the head of the main table - mostly Litster for breakfast and tea and Semmens for midday. Grace was said by either the master or, if absent, the senior student. Being late for meals was not encouraged and usually brought a swift reproof. Seniors and Intermediates sat with the Master at one table and Juniors at a smaller separate table.

[Bert] The three female live-in staff: housekeeper, cook and general maid (who waited at the tables) lived in what probably were the nurses’ quarters in a second story above the entrance and office areas. A part-time laundress was also employed.

[Bert] The entrance hall of the main building was flanked by the two former general wards. That on the south side had been made into a museum and housed specimens of wood, seed pods, capsules, cones and the like for study by students together with wood products like oars, skis, barrel staves, bat willow splits, etc., donated by the various makers. The other was the classroom containing twelve individual desks with a lecturer’s table, lectern and chairs in front. This opened into a smaller room used as both library and classroom, mainly used by Seniors and an after-hours common room. Heating was by open fireplaces in the classroom and library. Senior and Intermediate students cut all the firewood for the school.

[Bert] Lighting in the main building was by coal gas, connected to Creswick’s supply until electricity arrived in 1938. The plant was owned and managed by a Mr. Thompson and his son. Pressure was manually controlled, was barely adequate and fluctuated. Changes were monitored either at the works or Thompson’s home. If the latter, he would ride his bike the 500 metres to the works to adjust the flow. As he had two daughters of an age to be friendly with boys from the school, the current friend would get much abuse and general advice when adjustment took too long. Lighting in the dorms was by kerosene lamp; a quart of kero being issued each week per boy. Lamps were sold by Seniors to Juniors and consisted of a round tin reservoir with a burner screwed in and soldered to an upright flat tin which served as both hanger and reflector. I don’t know how old mine was but it was bought when I arrived and sold after my three years for five shillings.

[Jim] Students received a minimum of lecturing and were expected to develop their own studies. At that time there was no long history of Australian forestry. Instead, European experience, particularly in Britain and Germany, that went back 300–400 years, was applied to Australian conditions. William Litster taught engineering from his own notes which were written for people going to work in the colonies and compared the work capacity of elephants with mule teams. Studies of timber products were essentially at commercial seasoning kilns and sawmills; the efficacy of locomotives was also studied. The students undertook seminal experiments into the growth characteristics of Australian tree species.

[Bert] Subjects studied were Physics, Chemistry, Geology, Botany, Silviculture, Dendrology, Surveying, Forests Mensuration and Forest Protection. There were four regular lecturers. The Principal, E.J. Semmens generally took the pure science subjects, although R.W. Richards actually lectured in Physics and Hector Yates in Geology. Both of whom visited from the Ballarat School of Mines. Of interest is that Mr. Richards had been with Mawson in Antarctica. William Litster took the forest subjects generally, but E. J. lectured in Dendrology, Wood Technology and Forest Protection (Entomology, Pathology and Fire Protection). A Demonstrator visited regularly from Melbourne University to oversee experiments in Practical Chemistry. Semmens, Richards and Yates were excellent lecturers, mostly without notes, and readily supplied answers to any questions.

[Bert] Semmens’ lectures were, more often than not, discussions, in which E. J. would sometimes introduce a theme which we should recognise as poorly-based on known facts. Woe betide any student who failed to recognise the falsity or poor logic in the presentation. We were constantly reminded that information given by anyone should be mentally scrutinised for error no matter how high their reputation …“Even lecturers of high standing like myself”. Litster (nicknamed Billo) was not a good lecturer, dictating from notes which I suspect dated from his own student days. As students spread across a decade could quote from his notes in unison it would seem they were not often revised. It was rumoured that Billo had been assigned to the assessment team when brought out from Scotland but proved unsuitable. Part of the course in Forest Mensuration included measurements of the growth of trees. Measuring the heights of young pine trees was difficult because the limbs were too small to bear weight and awkward to climb over. To avoid climbing twice it was customary to swing across the 8ft gap between the tops of the 60 to 70ft high trees - a bit hairy at first.

[Bert] Mornings and two afternoons were spent in formal lectures in the school. The oldest student in the Senior year was head of the students and allocated field work as would a District Forester, kept time sheets and progress reports on work done in the nearby forest and plantation area. The second-oldest in that year became the school botanist and had charge of the herbarium and the botanical, entomological, pathology and wood technology collections. The third-oldest became librarian, and the fourth the works foreman for any work in process; looking after tools etc. I understand this system was devised by E.J. to get prospective public servants used to the seniority system then in vogue. As part of surveying my year mapped and laid out a new golf course for the Creswick Club. Second-year students operated a small eucalyptus oil distillery. Over the years leaf from a number of Eucalyptus and other species was distilled for E.J. to analyse; he become the foremost authority on eucalyptus oils during that time.

[Bert] Discipline was largely self-regulated. There was no stated requirement for a pass mark but, as previous students who had not done reasonably well in all subjects, had had their scholarships terminated, the pass mark was accepted as around 70%. E.J. used a very large vocabulary coupled with sarcasm to make his point. Of one student, who was not doing too well academically, he said “You are wasting your time (x---x) cultivating the habits of a lounge lizard, and aping the manners of a social butterfly”. Of another, he said he had observed him throwing stones at the rain gauge with great success. He continued “No doubt when you go into the field, you will return to the office and lay a bird on the desk of your superior officer saying “Look sir, I killed this with a stone. I practiced at the Forestry School.”

[Bert] There were a few rules. Lights-out by 10.30 pm, but this was seldom policed and entirely forgotten when exams were in the offing with students studying up to midnight most nights. Formal ‘prep’ times were strictly kept: 7.30pm to 9.30pm during summer and 7.00 to 9.00 during the winter term. Intermediate and Senior students were allowed to find their own ‘private’ areas for more intense study prior to term exams and most studied up to 11 or 12 o'clock in the last term.

[Bert] During free time students were allowed to go into Creswick township to visit friends provided a note was left in E.J.’s office citing times of leaving and return. Students were also encouraged to attend the formal balls and dances held by the various organizations of the town but not the boozy Saturday night ‘hops’.

[Jim] The first-year students did not expect to be allowed out of the school for social occasions but church attendance was compulsory for all students, where they did get a chance to meet members of the opposite sex. Finances for the School were still short after the Depression so students had to rely on allowances from home for any extras they wanted. Consequently they generally couldn’t afford too many social engagements. In the second and third years they occasionally did get out to dances and the church held weekly dances which the students sought permits to attend. All students were permitted to attend the annual hospital ball.

Jim’s year started the School’s annual social event as a celebration of completion of the school year.

Weekend sport was encouraged. The School had its own tennis court. The students formed their own teams to play tennis, football and cricket against local teams as well as joined the Creswick clubs. The school had two horses - very basic riding lessons were given by the gardener. Only one bicycle was available amongst all the students.

On 12 November 1936, the film unit of The Shell Company of Australia visited the School and filmed the students at various activities. This segment was incorporated with film of forest logging operations to be released in 1937 as the movie Timber.

[Bert] At the end of each year the Board of Examiners interviewed each student in order of seniority to advise them of the results of the final exams and whether or not the scholarship would be continued and, for the
Seniors, whether they would enter the public service as a Cadet Forester. This was the only time a full uniform was worn. As most of the boys wore their boots for field work and didn't polish regularly, much cleaning and polishing had to be done the day before the ‘Board’.

[Bert] On being awarded the Diploma, we were instructed to report to Head Office in Treasury Place on the first working day of the New Year. The Chief Clerk (later designated ‘Secretary’) took us around the office and introduced us to the various officers and described their duties and how they worked in with the field. We were then assigned to various officers to fill in our time. Alan Coldicutt was the first to go, being assigned to Niagaroon District H.Q. at Taggerty, regarded at the time to be the best district. Jim McKinty went to assessment and Jack Cosstick went to Yarram. I was a bit longer before I was assigned to the Bendigo District