stories, photos, anecdotes….. sharing the past
Nestled within the leafy, eastern side of Parkes, is a park that junior cricketers frequent on a Saturday. It also contains the only public basketball court in town. Originally known as “Reid Street Park”, it was renamed Armstrong Park to honour a former Alderman of Parkes. However Francis James “Frank” Armstrong was even more than a great servant of Parkes Municipal Council. He was an apiarist, builder, author and adventurer. His story is one of family, optimism in the face of whatever life throws his way and of bees!
It is important to note here, that Armstrong Street IS NOT named after Frank Armstrong. It is mentioned on Trove in Western Champion Friday September 10, 1909, page 20 and Frank would have only been eight years old at the time – and yet to set foot in Parkes!
(Source: Parkes Council (1909, September 10). Western Champion (Parkes, NSW : 1898 – 1934), p. 20. Retrieved August 29, 2018, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article112352480)
Frank’s story starts in Temora – a town in the north-east of the Riverina area of New South Wales – and will also take in other country towns within NSW as well as Queensland and Western Australia. Eventually, Frank Armstrong settled down calling Parkes home for over 40 years. Armstrong’s tale has triumphs and tragedies, yet displays a resilience that defines the generation that came through the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Researching Frank Armstrong is a pleasurable activity due to the fact that he wrote a book on his family’s history A Farmer’s Son Without A Farm. Finished in 1985, this book is part of Parkes Library’s Family & History Resource Room, having been presented to Parkes Library by the author on 7th April 1986. While providing an invaluable connection to yesteryear, it also highlights Armstrong’s affinity for bees. The author points out that several hives in his backyard were always within his sight while he was writing his book.
According to chapter one of Frank’s opus:
My place of birth was on a farm four miles east of Temora NSW on the Stockinbingal Road….The farm house had Pise (rammed earth) walls and corrugated iron roof. It was a very humble home. In those times there were no palatial homes among the new settlers.
My birthdate [sic] is the 5th July 1901, just six months after the federation of the states of Australia into the Commonwealth of Australia. Edmund Barton was the first Prime Minister. While I had nothing to do with Federation, I firmly believe it was long overdue. To think of Australians as different people because they lived in different parts of Australia is quite ridiculous. What greater folly can be imagined than building railway lines of different gauges, or having trade restrictions between the states.
Armstrong (1985) page 1
Frank was the eldest child of James Armstrong and Elizabeth Selmes – although to those who knew them they were ‘Jim’ and ‘Lila’. James Armstrong was born in Ballarat, Victoria and the family regarding his birth date as 25th November 1868. When Frank was researching his book his father’s birth certificate was obtained and it stated the date as 20th November. However since Jim and all his family always celebrated his birthday on the 25th, Frank has decided to keep it that way. While Frank could not recall in his book the exact reason why his father moved from Victoria to Temora, New South Wales, he suspects it was due to the desire to obtain some land of his own or perhaps the lure of alluvial gold which had been found in the area. James’ father – Frank’s paternal grandfather – was born in 1830 in Berwick-upon-Tweed. A carpenter by trade, when he arrived in Melbourne in 1851 he was caught up in the gold rush to Ballarat and later on became a gold mine manager.
While Frank Armstrong’s story is an incredible one, there is probably one defining moment that caught national attention: when he decided to take 20 million bees across the country with his family in tow! At the time he was considered one of the country’s leading apiarists, but this endeavour granted him celebrity status! The following reports are just a few of the many national and state newspapers and magazines that covered the story, including a special feature in The Australian Women’s Weekly.
While Frank Armstrong had experienced success with honey production in Western Australia, being ever present of changes in the market, he could see that rising production costs would eat into any profits. This wasn’t taking into account how honey exports would change. While this was disappointing, it did lead Frank and Jean to make one of the best decisions – moving and settling in Parkes!
The partial failure of the honey crop in the 1950-51 season, coupled with poor prospects for the next season had a very unsettling effect on me. To tide over to better times I thought seriously of entering the building trade in W.A. but on second thoughts it seemed wise, if that were to happen it would be better to be in N.S.W. where I had a good reputation, as a builder.
We had no financial worry as our operations in W.A. had been a financial success and we were better off than we have ever been. It was the future prospects that did not look very promising. The export market for honey was not good and the cost of production was rising. 1951 was the year of the boom in wool prices and it was not long before wool growers were beginning to make investments in new homes and farm and station buildings. I make no secret of the fact that I was homesick. Jean was quite prepared to do what seemed to be best for our family. After agonising over the situation for several weeks we finally decided to return to N.S.W. and finally chose Parkes as a good town in which to make our future home. With benefit of hindsight we have never regretted that decision.
Armstrong (1985) page 59
On arriving in Parkes on August 5th the Armstrong family had land but no house. The caravans were arranged on the block of land at the eastern end of Reid Street. Frank recalls the block of land well:
On our first trip over I had arranged to purchase a block of land at the eastern end of Reid Street. It had been ploughed and was very wet, so we had some trouble getting the [caravans] into position. My sister and her husband Leo Vaughan were there to meet us, as also were Jean’s brothers Allan and Bob Eggleston. The total area of the land was five acres, bounded by the Wellington Road – Reid Street and Thornbury Street. We purchased the Northern end fronting Reid Street. Later the Education Department acquired the balance and it is now the site of the East Parkes School [Parkes East Public School]
Our first job after arrival at Parkes was to set up the caravans and to make them as comfortable as possible. This was done by parking them twelve feet apart and flooring the space in between. An iron roof was then built over this space including the vans. The rear end was closed in and the front end closed with windows and a door. To the people of Parkes it must have looked a very humble home. We did not worry much because we knew there were better things to come. For the time being we were comfortable, we had water and electricity connected.
Armstrong (1985) page 61
In 1956 Frank was elected to Parkes Municipal Council. In his book he recounts his thoughts on the matter.
At the Municipal elections in December I was elected as an Alderman of the Parkes Council. At the first meeting of Council I was elected Deputy Mayor. The man elected Mayor was Cecil Moon, an Englishman who, at a very early age had been a member of the Australian Forces that landed at Gallipoli. I felt honoured to be his deputy. As I drove home that night I could not help thinking, that it was a far cry from the humble days of my boyhood. It also occurred to me that the small number of people who referred to us as Gipsies [sic] because we lived in Caravans when we first came to Parkes, would perhaps change their thinking, because by then we owned one of the best homes in Parkes, and [were] giving employment for quite a few of the town’s tradesmen.
From a responsibility point of view it is doubtful if there was much difference. As an Alderman it was a duty to work for the good of the community in which I lived and as a youth it was my duty to work for and be loyal to my family. I discharged both responsibilities to the best of my ability. Now in my declining years both bring me a great peace of mind.
Armstrong (1985) page 66
Two photographs from the “blue book”. On the left, Central West County Council departmental heads Fred Morris, Bill Pavey, Norm McDonald and Frank Armstrong (chairman) with a group of touring Japanese students outside the CWCC headquarters in Clarinda Street in the mid-1960s. On the right, CWCC headquarters in the original Mazoudier Building on the corner of Clarinda and Church Streets in the early 1950s. Source: Tindall, R. (1983) page 82
It would be a rare builder who didn’t suffer an injury in the course of their work. Frank observed that “most accidents are caused by carelessness…” and the following story is included as a reminder of the near misses which could be more serious and also due to mentioning of a doctor that long-term residents of Parkes may remember:
Most accidents are caused by carelessness and this was no exception. My left thumb came in contact with the [circular] saw. There was no pain the saw just nocked [sic] my thumb away, but in the process it took out a piece of flesh only just smaller than a five cent piece. Neither the bone or the nail had been touched which was very lucky.
I was taken promptly to the Casualty ward at the hospital. A young Doctor, named Dr Drake, examined my thumb and the detached piece. Well he said we will have a try at grafting it back where it came from. About three hours later the sewing process was completed, which only took a few minutes really.
Being a carpenter, my left thumb is my favourite. You may wonder why carpenters have favourite thumbs. If you are right handed as I am just try picking up or holding nails without a left thumb!
When the Doctor finished he said “Well, that is all I can do for you, it is in the Lords [sic] Hands now.” To which I replied, “I will not give the Lord all the credit” to which [Dr Drake] replied “Thank you very much”
Armstrong (1985) page 70
The personal story of Frank Armstrong highlights how kindness can be reciprocated in amazing ways. In the spring of 1974, Frank’s search for ideal breeding conditions for his bees saw him find the perfect spot in Enngonia – 100 km north of Bourke and only 40 km from the Queensland border (Sydney Morning Herald 2004). The school teacher at Enngonia Public School at the time, Robert Manwaring, was interested in bees. Friendly terms were developed between the Armstrongs and Manwarings with Frank and Jean invited to visit the school for a bee presentation. The interest from the school children resulted in most of the students and some of their parents visiting the Armstrong apiary for a first-hand demonstration of how to rear queen bees and how to extract honey. It was during these friendly encounters at Enngonia that Jean mentioned her five year trouble with her eyes including glaucoma and cataracts that had left her with only one good eye. Robert Manwaring, upon hearing of this, arranged an appointment with Jean at Bourke Hospital with a friend of his. This friend was none other than Professor Fred Hollows who advised that an operation at Prince of Wales Hospital in Randwick could restore the sight to her right eye. In 1977 Jean’s left eye developed a cataract and again Manwaring’s friend, Professor Hollows, treated Jean with equal success. Frank records that the Armstrong family hold Fred Hollows in the highest esteem, following with pride his increasing recognition internationally with all his work in ophthalmology.
NOTE:The late Professor Fred Hollows has another link to the Parkes Shire. In July, 1971 he assisted Mum Shirl Smith, a prominent Wiradjuri woman, in establishing the Aboriginal Medical Service. Both Mum Shirl and Fred Hollows’s widow, Gabi Hollows, have been awarded Australian National Living Treasure status.
In November 1975 Armstrong received a quote for three thousand queens to be delivered to the Asia Honey Bee Company in Tehran, Iran. Frank was required to ship 500 queens per week, beginning of February 1976. This involved Frank investigating how to ship bees to the other side of the world. The information he received was minimal and at best, useless. Frank ended up learning from experience after the first shipment was sent via London by Scandinavian Airlines and half of the shipment froze to death. The second shipment went by Air India and were left in the sun at Bombay Airport (now called Mumbai) and half were killed by heat. Fortunately for Frank and his customers in Iran, Warren Jones, the government bee inspector in Dubbo, happened to be in Sydney and sorted things out by arranging for future deliveries to be handled by British Airways. This resulted in no further losses and payment was received. For months afterwards, Frank heard nothing and wondered how the queens had performed. Then on Monday 19th January 1976, Frank had a request for delivery of 6,000 queen bees starting in the following month. Frank had just returned from Mackay, Queensland – over 3,800 kilometres round trip – and felt that at 77 years age this amount of queen bees was beyond him. Frank sold his equipment to two younger beekeepers who fulfilled the Iranian order (worth $18,000)
While 1977 saw Frank owning very few bees, he was busy with cabinet-making and other jobs for local people. Working alongside son-in-law, Bill Page, Frank assisted with the dismantling of the temporary post office in Cowra. In addition he helped:
In 1979 Frank had a difficult decision to make. The Armstrong’s eldest grandson, Greg Page, had been employed in the building trade for 19 months without apprenticeship. Greg asked his grandfather to take him on as an apprentice. While overjoyed to not just see his grandson follow in his footsteps but play an active part, Frank had initial concerns. As he writes, “I was nearing 78 years, and it would take three years to see Greg through an apprenticeship.” (p.79) In the end Frank decided to take Greg on, and it ended with Greg passing his Building Trades course, with honours, at Forbes Technical College.
However Frank was busy still, building a house on their vacant block of land on 27 Mengarvie Road. When it was finished, Frank worked out that selling their current home at 25 Mengarvie Road would not attract any tax as they had been living in it for seven years. So after finishing building, the Armstrong family then had to move all their belongings next door – with Frank trying to convince the other residents of Mengarvie Road that he wasn’t “…quite as nutty as we appeared.”
A quick search on the Facebook page Parkes In Photos Of Years Gone Past reveals that people still remember Frank Armstrong as the “bee man”. This is not just because of the trip across Australia but because Frank so often had beehives that he was tending to. For many years, Frank also supplied honey and wax for the Parkes show as part of the District Exhibit. Frank gracefully allowed others to enter and win the honey competitions as he felt he had so many bees that he had an unfair advantage. However this blog has only partly covered his incredible story, and he was as busy as the bees he loved so much. Many homes still feature his handiwork, and one of the reasons that Parkes East is so leafy is due to Frank’s hard work as part of the East Parkes Progress Association. On 29th March 1965, Parkes Municipal Council named Reid Street Park, Armstrong Park.
By writing his story, Frank Armstrong provides not just his family but all people valuable insights to life in Parkes in years gone past. It is also a tale of hard work, perseverance, family and of course, bees.
Parkes Shire Library would like to thank the following people and organisations for their assistance with this blog post:
If you have stories of Armstrong Park, Armstrong Street or Frank Armstrong that you are willing to share please contact Parkes Shire Library via firstname.lastname@example.org so that they can be shared and kept for posterity on this blog. Alternatively, you may leave comments on this page.