A Pocketful of Yesterdays, the story of Jim Bowcock (Part 1)


With this virus upon us, and the future so uncertain, I think we need to do things which keep us cheerful and useful, embroider our lives with beautiful actions, one might say.

Before the scare began, I’d started interviewing older people for a series I called, Lives well lived.
Now, I feel a challenge to step up the work just in case we lose great story tellers to the pandemic.
Coast Community News, our local paper, agreed, so here’s the first pocketful, the story of Avoca farmer, Jim Bowcock.
Jim was just a baby when he arrived at Avoca Beach.
It was 1928, his mum had died in childbirth in Sydney, and his dad was off somewhere.
So his aunt and uncle, farming in Picketts valley, took him in when he was just a year old.
One of Jim’s earliest memories is the tinkling of a piano.
Dan and Elsie, his new parents, loved to dance at the Kincumber Hall, (yes it’s still there at the roundabout), and they would take baby Jim in some sort of portmanteau and stick him behind the piano while they cut a caper on the dance floor.
That would have been a happy memory, but sadness was soon to come to his new family.
Biddi, their daughter, was about 12.
It was a hot day in December 1928, when Biddi decided to go for a swim at the beach with her friend, Beryl West.
She decided to walk because her dad, Dan, who was supposed to go with her, was taking just too long.
As Biddi started off, Jack Pickett pulled up in his truck and offered her a lift.
Jack lived with remorse for years afterwards for his fateful kindness.
If he hadn’t given Biddi that lift, if her dad had been with her, maybe things would have turned out differently, because at the beach, Biddi and Beryl both drowned.
A sandbar collapsed it was said, and they were swept out.
In those days, not many people could swim.
People waded to cool off, staying in the shallows.
The tragedy changed Avoca.
The surf club was started because of what happened that day.
Rescue teams were created and everyone became more conscious of the need to be able to swim, but not Jim.
To this day, at 92, he still can’t swim.
It seems that Dan and Elsie were so upset by the loss of Biddi, that little Jim was never allowed to go to the water after that and so never became part of the surfing culture of Avoca which quickly developed.
Since there was no Avoca school, Jim went to Kincumber primary.
It was quite a long walk, but he had a way of cutting across the fields from the Valley, crossing the road at Bangaloe stud then onto another bush path which took him off-road to the school.
The roads in those days were of course all dirt, the traffic sparse.
In his last year at school, Jim got a bicycle, a Speedwell which was russet red and had handlebars you could turn up or down, depending how fast you wanted to go.
This was the great depression and the thousands out of work roamed the countryside, begging a job or a meal.
“Were there any swaggies around Picketts Valley, you know, Waltzing Matildas?” I asked.
He was very young of course but he remembers how Walter Pickett, another farmer in the valley and a kindly religious man, took in the swaggies who came to the door, giving them work, a feed and a place to sleep.
Some were quickly on their way, being natural roamers, but others stayed a long time.
Walter believed in a bountiful world, preached it too in the Sydney domain on Sundays.
He always had a terrific crowd around his soap box because everyone knew that at the end of his impromptu sermon, he would dip into his bag of threepences and scatter them like grain for the chooks.
Five pounds worth of threepences, around 400 in total he’d throw, and in those days threepence would buy you a beer.
But it was Walter’s passion, or was it his compassion, that got him into some trouble, so that he spent time in Callan Park, the lunatic asylum.
Maybe this was more a result of the sword he used to brandish, the sword of the lord, a threatening sight for anyone.
But Walter was a kind man who loved fishing.
In those days, Avoca Beach was lined with open boats that would be rowed out as much as three miles, and that’s where you’d find Walter with his grandson almost every morning, much to Jim’s disappointment when he came over to play with his missing friend.
Jim had no interest in fishing, but loved sport, playing cricket in summer and tennis in winter.
He wasn’t much good, he says, but entered every competition.
Later, when he had wheels, he played tennis in Gosford, where there were courts aplenty on vacant blocks.
People put courts on spare land and rented them, day and night, to help pay the rates.
Later, when land values shot up, all those courts disappeared.
As for cricket, Jim remembers listening to the Ashes coming in from London on the crackling radio.
They sat up all night, glued to the set, and then farmed next day in a daze.
Walter’s wife, Janet, was French, and her daughter Emily was famous for being able to do anything and everything.
She could pull a stump, bring garments back to life, ice a cake, and play the piano.
One time she repaired an American officer’s jacket found in the surf and even deciphered the Latin on the button, which no one else could read.
“In God We trust.” it said.
Reading the horror stories today of men beating and killing their partners, I asked Jim how it was in those days in Picketts Valley.
He replied, “You had to be nice to each other because you were a team.
“With the depression on, if you weren’t a good team, you went under.
“There was plenty of food around, a glut even, but nobody had any cash and so you had to work miracles, the two of you, to pay for shoes and clothes.”
I wonder if couples in this present crisis will become more of a team again, more appreciative of each other.
Then came the war …

Mike Rubbo

(Part 2 of A Pocket full of Yesterdays, Jim Bowcock’s Story, will be printed in the next edition of Coast Community News, but if you can’t wait until then, visit our website for the full story. SECOND PART WILL BE PUBLISHED ONLINE ON EASTER SUNDAY)