Mothers Day with Joe

Joe played his first test against the touring English and visited their shores four times. In all he played thirty-one tests against our old cricketing foe. He captained his country in eighteen of those. It took Bradman to lead the Australian XI more times to that point. He, Joe, was a thick set man in the Boon tradition and also mightily powerful with the bat. He was courageous against speed in those unhelmeted times, could defend with stoicism and build an innings by slow aggregation. He figured in some mighty stands. But, when it called for it, he could swashbuckle his way to a ton in the blink of an eye. He once held the record for the fastest century against the Poms. He also took on the South Africans once they came into the test fold.

My lovely Leigh and I, for various reasons, did not travel north this year to celebrate Mothers Day with our wonderful Mums, but nonetheless we wanted to do something to mark the day, something a little different perhaps – something we normally wouldn’t do. In the lead up to it Leigh saw an ad, I readily agreed and she made a booking.

Joe was born at Glen Ormond in South Australia, the son of a well-to-do merchant. He attended the Prince Alfred College in that state’s capital, quickly demonstrating his prowess with the willow. He once set a schoolboy record, scoring 252 against a neighbouring educational institution. He also was proficient at the native game, playing footy at a high level. After his school years he moved on to an agricultural college, before managing one of the family’s wheat farms. Later he returned to Adelaide to marry and open a sports store on Rundle Street. His father, John, saw his business potential and started to groom him to take over the family firm and was not happy when his son was selected to play his sport at the highest level for South Australia. Over time his wife, Alice, gave him ten sons and five daughters so Joe was soon to have trouble balancing his life between representative cricket, family and business. Could he make a go of it in all three arenas? Only time would tell.

The journey on that most recent of Mothers Days was only a short one, just into the nearby suburb of Claremont. The location of our repast was to be an elegant mansion that was once, before the area became built up, the most dominant feature on the landscape for miles. Now it is largely hidden from view of the major thoroughfares. A chocolate factory is now the feature most commonly associated with Claremont, but once upon a time it was this house. A recent benefactor had lovingly bought the building back to life as in previous decades it had fallen into decrepitude. It is now open to the public for tours, high teas and special occasion functions such as ours.

To start with his sporting passion won out for Joe, but the time away from family weighed heavily. Then his father pulled the mat right out from under him. John purchased a large property and informed his son he was to manage it. Joe retired from cricket and followed his old man’s orders. But his country needed him and he was soon back in whites, succumbing to pressure to take over the national side as captain. He tried to battle on in that role for a few more years, but age and weariness caught up with him. He was doing too much and had to slow down, seeing him give away the game at the highest level to return to his holdings and his ever growing family. Part of the trouble was where his father’s land was situated – almost in the middle of Tasmania, just outside Oatlands.

Claremont House was radiant in the dusk as we arrived. Entering, we were impressed by the capability of the restorers who had taken it back to something akin to how it must have looked in its heyday. On its originally prominent site it began life, around 1840, as a four-roomed Georgian home, gradually morphing into its present day form as a mansion in the Italianate style. The land it was established on was once owned by another iconic figure, one of the founders of Melbourne, John Pascoe Fawkner. He put it up for sale in 1826 for it to be purchased by another mover and shaker of those early days in the colony, Henry Bilton. He built the first structures on site, including the cottage, by 1840 transforming it into a substantial house of rendered brick. Fast forward to 1858 and Bilton had increased his land holdings around it to 350 acres. Being childless, on his death in 1889, the land was sub-divided and sold off. Parliamentarian Frank Bond became the new owner of the house itself, adding extra rooms to his Claremont edifice and constructing its tower. Twenty-one year old Kathleen Brook purchased the property in 1911and with her wealth it soon became a centre of the local social scene for the well-to-do.

Stuck in the middle of Tassie, Joe was far away from any substantial social scene, something Alice probably would have felt quite keenly. But being in that part of the world had some advantages for her husband. He found a new passion – politics, initially throwing himself into the various farming associations whose function it was to gain better deals for the man on the land. But Alice was hankering for a more urbane existence and it was her that saw an advertisement in the press for a substantial house to house a substantial family by the Derwent, not too far out of Hobart. It was also right on the road north to Stonehenge, their Midlands residence. Perfect. She quickly purchased it on Joe’s behalf and they moved in in 1920. And soon Joe started to set his sights on taking his political ambition one step further. He became the MLC for Cambridge in ’21 and served that electorate in the Legislative Council until 1941.

I wouldn’t rave about the tucker, but there was plenty of it, being a buffet – and it was palatable enough. But it was the plush surrounds, on that second Sunday in May, that really appealed. The food was being served in a large room dominated by an expansive billiard table. And on this was arranged all sorts of memorabilia that fascinated this diner, including from Joe’s tenure at the stately home. Amongst it was a plethora of photos from his time as a cricketer, including a snap of him arm in arm with the great WG, as well as one of the man he called his ‘white-haired boy’, Victor Trumper. I was so engaged I almost totally forgot about my stomach and the gorgeous date waiting for me back at our table. Also featured, from more recent times, was an image of the current owner with Dame Helen Mirren.

Along with politics the former cricketer was partial to automobiles, converting the coaching house to hold his collection of six expensive models. Sadly, though, time marches on and with his children grown up and largely dispersed, the place became too onerous for the ageing couple to manage. He sold it to the Red Cross in 1940 to be used as a convalescent home for the war wounded.

It was a delightful evening at Claremont House for Leigh and I, well worth the cost of the meal for all that history. My lady has vowed to return to partake of the tour and high tea and I would encourage any visitors to our fair city to do the same.

Joe Darling CBE saw his later years sadly mired in controversy as he dared to take on the might of the Forestry Department whose practices, back in the day, were every bit as dubious as they have been in a more recent era. He accused the minister and some officials of taking bribes and demanded a royal commission. The evidence he presented was so compelling that this was finally granted – something that did not earn him friends, but served to demonstrate the man himself hadn’t changed much from his days leading our nation on the cricketing fields of the world. He won out in the end, but did not live to see the outcome, passing on in 1946. He was the last surviving member of the soon to be federated nation’s touring party of 1896, dying only thirteen days later than fellow Tasmanian tourist of that team, mate and local parliamentarian CJ Eady. Joe is buried at Cornelian Bay. I wonder what the great man would have made of twenty/twenty, IPA and dare I say it, the current ball-tampering farce? I daresay he’d turn in his grave by the river.

Claremont House website = http://claremonthouse.com.au/

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