The Golden Years – Russell Williams

Long lives well lived, a wealth of wisdom accumulated over the years…There is much we can learn from our elders and so many stories waiting to be heard. Mirror journalist Wendy Williamson meets Russell Williams, who lives at Banksia.

You will find, says Russell Williams, that every third person on the street in Cardiff, Wales, is a Williams. Not all the Williamses stayed in Wales, however, and that is just as well for Foster. It just wouldn’t be the same without the Williams clan who have made it their home over the last sixty-odd years and contributed so much to the community, especially the local fire brigade.

It was the other Welsh families in the district – names such as Davies, Roberts and Hughes – that attracted the Williams family to Foster just after the second world war. Russell’s parents had come out to Australia from Wales after the first war. His father had fought for the British in the war, as had his father’s brother, Robert, who received the top French bravery award.

Russell’s father was a farmer in Wales and he found his skills were highly valued in his new country. Russell was born in Shepparton, while his father was managing a farm in the district. “He put it under irrigation and ran the farm for the owner. It was a big dairy farm and the cows were milked by hand.” He was particularly knowledgeable of irrigation systems, which were just being established in northern Victoria.

“Dad turned a sandpit into a farm at Murray Bend,” recalls Russell.

The family, which included four boys – Reg, Allan, Russell and Howard – moved to the city during the second world war when Russell’s father was in the army camp at Royal Park.

“He promised Mum he wouldn’t go overseas, but one day a high ranking officer turned up and told him he had to collect 110 men and be in Sydney within a few days ready to head overseas. It was written on his book that he wasn’t to go overseas, so the officer discharged him and then reinstated him [under new conditions] a few minutes later.”

He soon found himself instructing soldiers how to drive ambulances. “Half of them had never driven so much as a horse and cart!” Sadly, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese at Singapore and sent to Changi Prison. His management skills had him running the hospital for a couple of years, but he did not survive the war. He died in 1944, when Russell was just 14.

Mary Williams decided to move with her sons to Foster, where she knew there were other Welsh families. The boys were glad to leave North Melbourne and its tough street gangs and move back to the country. They didn’t stay long in Foster, however, before Mary moved her family onto Newry. They were there for two years and then moved to Tarwin.

“Mum loved moving,” laughs Russell. “She must have moved 52 times in her life! When she was in her eighties I would visit her and find she was still moving – if it wasn’t the house it was the furniture, including the piano, inside her house!”

He remembers his mother as very entrepreneurial.

“She bought the Foster North Hall, and the family gradually demolished it. We pulled it apart and reassembled the materials in Station Road, Foster. It was just after the war and very difficult to get building materials, so you had to make the best of what you could get. Mum ran a shop selling baby goods from home for a few years, but she never made any money, because she would feel sorry for the young mothers who would come to her and she’d give goods away!”

The move from Foster to Newry was to a bigger dairy farm with more cows and a milking machine, so it was easier to make a living. Russell went to school, but he also milked and he played football for Newry. “I was 14 and we won the premiership – and got a bottle of lemonade, no medal!”

Back at Foster Russell went to work for Jack Lester on his 3000-acre farm at Yanakie and played football for Foster. Like most of the young people at that time, most Saturday nights he would go to a dance somewhere in the district.

“You’d meet nice girls and Mother would look them over and say if they were all right or not!”

At one such dance he met Pat Eling from Toora and soon she became his bride. They had three children – Wayne, Donna and Paul – and Russell now has four grandchildren, though Pat and Wayne have sadly both died in recent years.

All four brothers married girls from the Toora district, says Russell.  It was just one of the many things they had in common. They worked together and played together – all four brothers and then when Allan moved to Frankston, two or three of them. They bought a block of land [at the top of the Toora Road in Foster, opposite Aherns] and built three houses on it. They bought some army trucks – ‘Blitzers’ – and carted logs in them, and they worked on building and cement jobs.

Later Russell bought better trucks and won the contract for the cream round. These trucks were so versatile they could carry all sorts of things – and did. “We used to drive interstate, especially when I was moving furniture. It was good to be out and about, but really we were just glorified labourers. Glorified because we had a truck, but we had to work our guts out paying for it!”

Somehow between all the truck driving and building work the Williams brothers found the time to volunteer for their local fire brigade. All the brothers were in the CFA at one stage (Reg rejoined in recent years and at the age of 86 is still a member!) and there have been occasions when there have been as many as eight or ten firefighters by the name of Williams in the Foster brigade alone!

A framed citation for leadership with the CFA holds pride of place on the wall of Russell’s room at Banksia Lodge. Although he can remember fighting five fires in the one day, a lot of his early involvement in the CFA was about the physical exercise it provided.

“We used to travel to what were called ‘demonstrations’ with the fire brigade. These were competitions, such as ladder races, as well as marches in full uniform. You had to be able to run fast and be strong enough to carry heavy objects such as fire hydrants. It was great exercise. A lot of town’s brigades were the same men who made up the local football team.”

Russell has lived at Banksia Lodge for about five months. He decided to move in when he found his eyesight and hearing failing, but has been delighted to find both have since improved. “They look after me very well here and it’s good to know help is on hand if I need it.”

It took a couple of cataract operations to improve Russell’s eyesight- and it is just as well it has improved considering what he went through. After barely surviving open heart surgery several years ago he was told he couldn’t risk a general anaesthetic for the operation on his eye as he mightn’t wake up. He had to have a local, and he had to lie still while the needle approached his eye! “I must have left fingernail marks in the stretcher, I was holding on so tight,” says Russell, still amazed that he lived to tell the tale. But survive he did – to tell this tale and many others and keep this reporter, for one, delightfully entertained.