Looking Back June 2023 – Tony Lawless

By Leo Billington

Trig point on Hazelwood Hill

“Where’s Hazelwood?”

“Come on, you’ve been around here for a while, where’s Hazelwood?”

Tony Lawless has welcomed me into his kitchen. “Tell me before you sit down.”

I retort; “How are you going Tony? Keeping well. Okay, but where’s Hazelwood?”

Tony has thrown down the gauntlet and I take up his challenge.

Actually, his patriotic fuelled question is easy to answer, as I point out the window. The Hazelwood railway station was over there, close-by is the Hazelwood Cemetery and not far away was the Hazelwood Ridge State School. One exception – the Hazelwood North Creamery was in Tramway Road. I know there was a trig point located on the Hazelwood hill.

Incidentally, years ago, the hill was seen as a challenge for amateur bike racing from Morwell, to the hill, and back home.

Now that Tony and I agreed, listening intently to his life story, it was most obvious he is a proud “Hazelwoodian”. He is patriotic to his core – as was his father Jack and uncles Tom and Frank. There is nothing wrong with this, nothing at all.

Basically, the Lawless family settled in the heart of Hazelwood from 1919 onwards.

As the back story, one prominent Hazelwood settler of the day was John McMillan, who managed to consolidate a considerable amount of freehold land during the selection years.

After World War I, the Soldier Settlement Board bought about 5000 acres as part of the McMillan estate and subdivided the land into 45 soldier settlement allotments.

John McMillan developed a renowned herd of shorthorn cattle there and also bred horses for the Indian Army. Meanwhile, the 1880’s McMillan homestead remained on its site until the 1970’s when the surrounding land was bought by the SEC.

Headstone of John Joseph Lawless

Part of the McMillan homestead block, including the original Bennett and McMillan homesteads, was bought and farmed by soldier settler William Sweeney (who hailed from Yarram), while an adjoining 76 acre block was allotted to Jim Lawless from Boolarra, who, with his younger brother, Jack, operated a sawmill elsewhere. Another close soldier settler neighbour at this time was Ronald Leslie Grauer from Yinnar.

Jim enlisted for the First World War and was eventually awarded the Military Medal for Bravery in the Field at Broodseinde and Passchendaele. He was discharged from the Army in 1919.

Jim married Anne Browne and Jack was one of their sons. Jack was Tony’s father.

Therefore, those lively questions Tony fired at me are quite understandable. Lawless country is Hazelwood country and vice versa. It is in the soil.

Newspaper Proclamation of Town Of Churchill, 1965

With undaunted pride, he recalls Uncle Tom and others leading a vigorous community protest against the decision to name Churchill after Sir Winston Churchill. The formal announcement in January 1965 of a name change sparked plenty of debate which simmered for a long time afterwards. Tony still sees the Shire of Morwell Proclamation dated March 15, 1965 as a “red rag to a bull.”

Tom Lawless claimed that “We are not against Churchill. We are only for Hazelwood”. The Housing Commission subsequently erected two 30 ft by 12 ft billboards, designed to announce to the world that this was Churchill.

Banner and propoponets wanting to restore the name Hazelwood

To emphasise the public reaction to the town’s chosen name, matters warmed up at a public meeting held at Churchill on February 25, 1988. This followed Morwell Shire Council deciding to seek public comment and a public meeting was held. As was the outcome almost 20 years earlier, the State government ruled against any change to the town’s name.

Public confusion reigned. “Well! Where do I live if they decide to change Churchill back to Hazelwood?” Tony wondered at the time. “But I do not live in Churchill! I live in Hazelwood.”

Tony displays frustration and, sometimes, anger, toward government officials who do not bother to learn about local communities.

Yet, while his strong feelings still linger, there is as well, another side of Tony’s character many do not know.

Early schooling was at Morwell’s Sacred Heart Primary School. Getting to school was a necessary chore – by car, sometimes, or on his bike.

Riding from Hazelwood to Morwell will sound painful these days, yet perhaps it gave Tony a fair and reasonable excuse to go AWOL. In military jargon, this means ‘absent without official leave but without intent to desert.’ No doubt Tony intended to attend school, after all, his grandmother, Anne Browne was a school teacher at Budgeree from 1911 until late 1916. Anne then taught at other Victorian schools until her marriage in 1923.

There is a pause in our conversation – Tony provides a jocular comment about school teachers. I think he’s stirring me, as is his customary behaviour. I agree that learning about life is not possible from textbooks.

We push on – Tony’s educational pursuits were then pierced by attendance, as a day boarder, at Patrick’s College Sale. He withstood three years before, sort of, graduating during Form 4.

“I spent lots of time looking out the windows, mainly watching the gardener cut grass. Church attendance was mandatory, sometimes seven mornings each week, although sometimes, I came home only once a month. It was time to get out.”

He recalls fond moments, with the boys, eating fish and chips down at, what is today called the Port of Sale. References to beer bottles often punctuated our conversation as did Tony’s memory of communal showers.

“No, it was back to Hazelwood and the farm for me.” This is when his education was really cemented.

Our conversation darts around, laced with humerous anecdotes. One describes how a cheap Skoda car was obtained from Connell’s Garage in Morwell. With minor modifications underneath, it was ably converted to ride on railway tracks.

As previously mentioned, the farm bordered the main Morwell to Mirboo North railway line. Knowing and remembering the train’s timetable was handy when it was time to give the Skoda a drive. No licence required!

Leaving school at an early age was not without its drawbacks. One early job was grubbing tussocks for Jim Daly. Fencing, animal husbandry – the dirty, muddy tasks – were freely allocated by Jack.

As mentioned, our conversation darts here and there; it is a laugh-a-minute ride through what was an unthinkingly, enthusiastic, and eager young man’s life while growing up.

“Now young Leo, where to from here? What else do you want to know?”

“A coffee thanks Tony. Let’s talk more about where’s Hazelwood.”

(To be continued in the July 2023 Churchill & District News.)

Map of Mayvale, showing Hazelwood to the south