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Grafton News

River tragedy remembered 80 years on

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The sombre scene at the graveside in South Grafton when nine of the Cub Scouts who drowned in the Clarence River were buried. Photo: Clarence River Historical Society.

River tragedy remembered 80 years on

 

By Tim Howard

Grafton will relive one of its most tragic days – the drowning of 13 Cub Scouts in the Clarence River off Susan Island – on Sunday

On Sunday at 5pm, at roughly the time 80 years ago when a punt carrying 29 Cub Scouts capsized while returning the boys from a day of fun and activities on the island.

In the ensuing chaos 13 of the boys – most not proficient swimmers – drowned.

Freelance author Peter Langston has researched the event and put together this description of what led up to and what happened after those frantic minutes.

“That Saturday – two weeks before a war Christmas in 1943 – the 1st Grafton Scout Troop was to have Christmas parties in different groupings on Susan Island, a long, reasonably narrow island in the Clarence River, between Grafton and South Grafton.

“The main group of boy scouts were engaged with scout master Ian Malcolm, while the younger group of cub scouts were enjoying fun activities like treasure hunts with their leader, 17-year-old Charlie Penn, who was a King’s Scout and had won every honour possible for his age in the scouting movement and was highly regarded in the general community.

“About 4pm, two scouting friends of Penn – Rex Oxenford and Jimmy Doust – swam across the Clarence from Oxenford’s grandfather’s place to Susan Island, to fulfil a promise to Penn and assist in bringing the cub scouts back across the Clarence in a punt owned by Oxenford’s grandfather’s company. The larger scout floodboat was unavailable, having been found to be unseaworthy due to vandalism the night before.

Part of the display commemorating the tragic drowning of 13 Cub Scouts in the Clarence River on December 11, 1943

Part of the display commemorating the tragic drowning of 13 Cub Scouts in the Clarence River on December 11, 1943

“The majority of the cubs had come across the Clarence with Penn that morning. The punt was wooden, with a shallow draft. It was 4.9m long, about 1m wide at either end and slightly wider at the centre. The punt had no propulsion but oars and carried a passenger cargo of young boys wearing back packs and most wore leather shoes.

“The vast majority either could not swim or were hardly competent to tread water. Oxenford suggested two trips but Penn felt confident they could make one, as the water was calm, despite an approaching storm from the south-west.

“This proved true until the boat escaped the lee of the wind caused by the large trees on Susan Island and the water became choppy and the strength of the wind apparent. Penn had his oarsmen, Oxenford and Doust, point the craft into the approaching waves, but the craft was sluggish under the load and its freeboard was only three inches. (Freeboard is the distance from the water line on a boat up to the top of the side. It should have been seven inches.) Penn ordered Doust and Oxenford into the water to get behind the boat and push with their considerable leg power.

“Two things happened almost in unison.

“Some of the younger boys panicked at the sight of the older scouts going over the side and moved to one side as a larger wave broke over the boat and swamped it. In the ensuing panic, the boat capsized, throwing the remaining 29 boys into the water.

“Bowlers at the nearby green, including police inspector BH Baxter, heard screams but it took a few minutes to realise the boys were in trouble and not skylarking. They then raised the alarm, rushing to the shore and launching any craft they could find, borrow or even steal. Constable Anderson raised another rescue group from around the Crown Hotel. Meanwhile, the cubs turned to their older Scouts and splashed or dog paddled to them in any way they could, five and six clinging to them and sinking them to the channel floor.

“There were many heroes that afternoon but none more than Oxenford and Doust, who were in the water for more than 45 minutes effecting rescues and performing resuscitations on rescue boats, and Penn, who carried on despite near drowning.

“Fifteen boys were saved but 13 drowned, the last of them dragged from the water by grappling hooks until the head count was reconciled at 10pm.”

The Clarence River Historical Society has organised a lunch at the Grafton District Services Club from midday on Monday. where invited guests will hear addresses from dignitaries and perhaps from a survivor.

Mr Tranter said one of the two remaining surviving boys, local identity Fred Schwinghammer, had died recently and there was only one survivor of the tragedy still alive.

The sombre scene at the graveside in South Grafton when nine of the Cub Scouts who drowned in the Clarence River were buried. Photo: Clarence River Historical Society.

The sombre scene at the graveside in South Grafton when nine of the Cub Scouts who drowned in the Clarence River were buried. Photo: Clarence River Historical Society.

“We’re working with the family to see if he can attend,” Mr Tranter said earlier this month.

From about 2pm the commemoration moves to the river side and Memorial Park, where marquees will be erected for officials and guests.

Part of the service will be an account of Fred Schwinghammer’s life.

The culmination of the service will occur from 5pm, 80 years to the hour (allowing for daylight saving) from when the boat capsized.

The SES will take current Cub Scouts to the approximate point in the river where it occurred.

The names of the children who drowned will be read out and at 5.20pm wreaths will be placed on water:

  • The boys
  • Robert Wilkes, 10, Grafton.
  • Allan Tobin, South Grafton
  • Robert Rennie, 10, Grafton.
  • Keith Rennie, 8, Grafton
  • Dale Thornbourne, 10, South Grafton.
  • Graham Corbett, 9, South Grafton.
  • Cecil Lambert, 8, Grafton.
  • Raymond Retchford, Grafton
  • Allan Spicer, South Grafton.
  • William Robert Dillon, South Grafton
  • Brian Munns, South Grafton
  • Raymond Morris, 8, South Grafton
  • Richard John Steinhours, 8, South Grafton

The drownings and the revelations most of the boys were either poor or non-swimmers shocked the Grafton community.

Within weeks the Grafton City Council was discussing the need for a community swimming pool where children could be taught to swim safely.

But it was 10 years before a site for the pool could be agreed upon and another year before construction commenced.

The pool site is now a construction zone as work has commenced on building the $30 million Regional Aquatic Centre on the site.

The pool was closed in September 2022 when it was years of water leaks from the pool had made the pool sit unsafe.

 

For more local Grafton news, click here.

Clarence Valley News

Queens of Song

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Queens of Song - Melissa Buchholz (piano) and Meg Kiddle (vocals)

Queens of Song

 

Queens of Song is a nostalgic and highly entertaining show coming to the Saraton Theatre on Sunday 7th April at 2pm. Melissa Buchholz (piano) and Meg Kiddle (vocals) are former Grafton girls and they attended South Grafton High School together. They have both established successful careers as individual musicians and reunited after many years to form this duo that has toured across Queensland and NSW. Melissa has achieved many pinnacles and awards during her career including a Fellowship with Trinity College London, and she is now an Examiner with Trinity College London. Meg is a very successful touring performer and holds a Bachelor of Music (classical voice) and her Masters in Vocal Pedagogy.

Queens of Song - Melissa Buchholz (piano) and Meg Kiddle (vocals)

Melissa Buchholz (piano) and Meg Kiddle (vocals)

The show is a celebration of the golden voices of the past, that are no longer with us. People such as Mama Cass, Karen Carpenter, Helen Reddy, Freddie Mercury, Peter Allen and more. It is a walk down memory lane for audiences as they reminisce about a time when life was simpler and the music was timeless. The show features anecdotes and trivia about the artists, as well as personal insights into each musician and an AV presentation that runs for the entirety of the show. The sparkling vocals from Meg seem to adapt seamlessly between the genres, while Melissa provides stunning pianistic work and cleverly crafted backing tracks that she has produced. Audiences have given rave reviews for the show which starts in 1968 and travels through the decades to the 1990’s.

Meg and Mel are very excited to be returning to their hometown for this very special show. The Saraton Theatre is an iconic venue that they both performed in while still at school, and they feel privileged to be returning to this stage as professional musicians.

Get your tickets now from here

 

For more entertainment news, click here.

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Clarence Valley News

Council’s last minute bid for old jail

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The Old Grafton Jail.

Council’s last minute bid for old jail

 

By Tim Howard

Clarence Valley Council will make an 11th-hour bid to get hold of the historic section of the old Grafton Jail, after knocking back a similar opportunity three years ago.

In 2020 the council decided against acquiring the jail because of fears it would be too costly to maintain.

But the recent sub-development of the site meant that the council could acquire just the historical section of the old Grafton Jail, even though it appeared the NSW Government has decided how it would deal with the site.

At the November Clarence Valley Council meeting Cr Novak moved the general manager write to NSW Museums and Galleries general manager Brett Adlington seeking advice on the restoration status for the state heritage listed facility and report the feedback to council as soon as practically possible.

Cr Tiley questioned the motion, believing it may be too late.

“The information report I understood was fairly clear,” he said. “Half is the Local Aboriginal Land Council land claim, a quarter’s Health Department and the remaining quarter, the heritage bit is going to be sold.

“I’d love to us to be able to retain some portion in posterity for the people, but I don’t see how that’s possible. It was laid out. Can you comment?”

Cr Novak said her motion would allow the council to find out what opportunities were available.

There was some conjecture if Cr Novak had picked the right target for contact in Mr Adlington.

Crs Greg Clancy  and Karen Toms argued he was too far down the pecking order to provide meaningful advice to the council.

They said it would be more meaningful for the council to go straight to the jail owner, the NSW Government, to see what it had planned for the part of the site the council was interested in acquiring.

Cr Novak agreed that it would be wise to seek the government’s views, but defended the choice of Mr Adlington because of his local knowledge.

The Old Grafton Jail.

Clarence Valley Council has not given up hope of getting hold of the historic section of the Grafton Jail, even though it appears the NSW Government has earmarked the site for other users.

“Mr Adlington is from our region, and he knows the jail as well,” she said.

“I believe that he will be pivotal in providing advice alongside what the New South Wales Government has to offer as well.”

Cr Clancy said the council needed to talk to the government about this and sort to amend the motion to this effect

“I think we need to find out whether the government is prepared to sell to the council at a reasonable rate and then assist with the ongoing maintenance because that was what the issue was when this came to the council in 2020. I think it was,’ he said.

“We were very interested in preserving the jail and we would have been interested in possibly taking it over but the ongoing maintenance costs was the real issue.

“I don’t know that we necessarily can it can or need to explore it with the management of the galleries, etc. So that’s that’s my reason for the for the amendment.”

Cr Steve Pickering suggested a foreshadowed motion that tweaked the order of preference in the motion, putting contact with the government ahead of writing to Mr Adlington and including Cr Clancy’s amendment as a point 4.

This appealed to Cr Alison Whaites, who said the council was not as pushed for time as it appeared.

“We actually do have a bit of time up our sleeves,” she said.

“From what we’ve discussed at our cultural committee, it was going for sale in October.

“They usually go by our auction. And we do have that time to get this letter written.”

She said getting more information in December was a feasible timeline.

“And so I think we do actually have time and maybe in December might come back to us and then we can discuss the possibility of putting a hand up to purchase it or the general manager or the mayor or somebody actually being able to bid at the auction so there is a bit of time in that sale process which probably now won’t happen until next year.”

Councillors were not convinced by the amendment, voting it down 5-4. But they did approve of a suggestion to bolt Cr Pickering’s foreshadowed motion to Cr Novak’s original motion.

 

For more local Clarence Valley news, click here.

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Grafton News

City landmark falls to start $29.5 mil project

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Bathurst builder Hines Constructions won the contract for the $29.5 million build of the Regional Aquatic Facility.

City landmark falls to start $29.5 mil project

 

By Tim Howard

A Grafton landmark has disappeared in the past week, but it’s proof that a much awaited facility is on target for a December 2024 opening.

The Grafton Memorial Pool waterslide which dominated the landscaping of the pool grounds for decades has come down and heavy machinery has begun tearing up the pool structures and surrounding ground to begin stage one of the $29.5 million project

The head contractor, Bathurst firm Hines Constructions Pty Ltd, has promised Clarence Valley Council it will complete stage 1 of the project, known as the Regional Aquatic Centre, by December 2024.

The first stage will include the indoor facility, which includes two 25 metre pools.

The 50m outdoor pool will be part of Stage 2 of the project

The start of construction will rule out any use of the Grafton Pool site over the summer.

Heavy machiney at work beginning to demolish the pools as part of stage 1 of the Regional Aquatic Project.

Heavy machiney at work beginning to demolish the pools as part of stage 1 of the Regional Aquatic Project.

In 2022-23, despite the closure of the pool, the water slide was opened at selected times.

The pool has a close connection to the Grafton community

It’s origins go back to December 11, 1943, when 13 Cub Scouts drowned in the Clarence River returning from a picnic on Susan Island.

Findings from the tragedy revealed most of the boys had not learned to swim and the community resolved to raise funds to build a pool so children could learn to swim at an early age.

The name Grafton Memorial Pool was a reference to the boys that died on that day almost 80 years ago.

After fundraising, construction of the pool began in 1954 and it opened in 1956, the year of the Melbourne Olympics.

In the pool’s first year of operation it was visited by a touring squad of Olympic swimmers which included Sport Australia Hall of Famer, Jon Henricks.

During the visit Henricks competed in the 50m freestyle at a club event which he won in 25.60 seconds before going on to Melbourne to become Australia’s first ever Olympic 100m freestyle champion and set a new world record.

Bathurst builder Hines Constructions won the contract for the $29.5 million build of the Regional Aquatic Facility.

Bathurst builder Hines Constructions won the contract for the $29.5 million build of the Regional Aquatic Facility.

Henricks’ record, which stood for 60 years as the fastest 50m in the Grafton Olympic Pool, was beaten in 2016 by local swimmer Charlie Steele in a time of 25.11 seconds.

Over the years the addition of the waterslide and diving pool turned the facility into a regional attraction which brought visitors to the city.

But the past decade revealed issues at the pool, which included a massive water leak.

It is believed the water escaping from the pool into the ground around it has created a sinkhole responsible for the structural instability which forced the council to close the pool ahead of the 2022-23 swimming season.

The council had developed a shovel-ready plan for the Regional Aquatic Centre, which has been used for the current project.

Future stages will include the 50m outdoor pool and two waterslide.

 

For more local Grafton news, click here.

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