Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 3, 2013

At the Very Heart (2012), by Storry Walton

At the Very HeartWhen At the Very Heart: 100 Years in Remote Australia first arrived chez moi from publishers Wakefield Press, I thought it was a coffee table book.  It’s actually much more than that, and this copy is destined to be catalogued at my school library because its content is a valuable contribution to Australian history.

Everybody’s heard of John Flynn who founded the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) , but who knew that it was not entirely his idea? Kudos should also go to a young pilot who died in World War I, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at his entry on Wikipedia.  Clifford Peel was a country lad from Inverleigh in Victoria, and at a public meeting he had heard John Flynn talk about the needs of people living in remote areas.  Peel gave up his medical studies to enlist in 1916, but he did not forget what he had heard …

In a remarkable letter from the troopship Nestor at Port Said to John Flynn [in 1917], he outlined a detailed proposal for an aerial medical service for the inland, complete with maps, sites for bases, adaptations to the aircraft, operational considerations, costs and a budget.  It became the model for the aerial medical service.  (p. 46)

Clifford Peel died in action on the Western Front just before the war ended and you can see his name on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial.  It took the indefatigable Flynn ten long years to create the RFDS, gathering support from far-sighted entrepreneurs such as Hudson Fysh who founded QANTAS and H V McKay of Sunshine Harvester fame.

This was a time when there was no doctor from Oodnadatta (1000km north of Adelaide) to Darwin (a distance of 1300 miles).  It was a time when

If you elected to live outback, this meant that you didn’t complain, you lived with the pain, and sometimes you made it and sometimes you died.  (p.128)

The first nursing home at Oodnadatta opened in 1911, and the book shows that the nursing staff took their share of pain too.  The author notes that Oodnadatta is one of the hottest places in Australia

Early one morning [Deaconess Sister Latto Bett] received a message from a travelling railway doctor that there was a seriously sick child at William Creek.  She packed a few things in a basket and a friendly railway lineman offered to take her the 125-mile journey south on the open motor rail tricycle used by gangers.  She wrote that despite the sight of hundreds of drought-dead cattle ‘the journey was on the whole quite pleasant when you take into consideration the fact that you have to sit very still in one place without a back rest or an umbrella to shelter from the sun’.  (p. 131)

Latto Bett nursed her patient, then set off to travel a further 50 miles by buggy for an injured stockman, got lost four times in the dark coming back, took the new patient back to Oodnadatta,  then nursed a new arrival till he recovered enough for her to accompany him on an 800-km train trip back to Port Augusta.  On her return to Oodnadatta she nursed a patient for seven days day and night after he had come in alone by camel over 400 miles in temperatures of 50°C and then conducted his funeral in a dust storm when he died.  Latto Bett isn’t in the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB) online and I couldn’t find her on Wikipedia but you can see the photo that’s in this book at Trove along with a mini-bio.  Somebody somewhere should be writing a proper biography of this amazing woman – Storry Walton says she kept a diary …

(Actually, there’s a whole lot of incredible women in this book!)

The book also traces the history of the Australian Inland Mission (AIM) and its successor Frontier Services.  Flynn was no city missionary, and neither are his successors.  Remote Australia isn’t a place for churches and proselytising, it’s a place for adventurous people who are willing to fit into the idiosyncratic lifestyle of people who live in remote isolation, and who are willing to listen rather than talk.

City kids like the ones I teach will get a some idea of the vastness of the inland and hardships faced by pioneers from the graphics in this book.  There is one of Flynn’s amazing 1924 map which shows how the train lines peter out, leaving a vast emptiness at the heart of our continent.  Photos show just how hard it was to get around in the early days: there are vehicles of all descriptions getting bogged in the sand.   (Storry makes the point that people tend to photograph the same things.  After all, there’s not a lot else to take photos of between homesteads, eh?)   The section about the mail service in its early days is illustrated with photos of posties on camels and horses and there is a poignant reproduction of a notice trying to locate a Victor Larsen so that his letter can be delivered.

There is also an enchanting picture of a new schoolhouse in Gippsland, which may well have been the ‘pride of the community’ but would have tested the mettle of both teachers and students.  Made of rough timber and corrugated iron, it would indeed have been ‘severely cold in winter and hot in summer’ but it boasts a garden, a newly planted tree and a rose-bush, with netting to deter rabbits which were already making their presence felt in rural Australia.

I think kids will also be interested in the pictures of the School of the Air, then and now.  Who knew that this was pioneered by Adelaide Miethke?  Look at her miserable entry on Wikipedia and weep for the way the feminist founder of this crucial element in outback education has been treated by history.   The ADB Online has a better entry, thank goodness.  It shows that she was awarded an OBE (and so was Flynn but Clifford Peet doesn’t even have an entry.  Miethke was a friend of Flynn’s, an educationist and first president of the RFDS in South Australia, and it was she who used the RFDS network at Alice Springs to connect children and teachers in the first School of the Air in the 1950s.  She was also a peace activist and the first female Vice President of the SA Public School Teachers Union.  Thousands of outback children owe their education – and their confidence in speaking to strangers – to the vision of Adelaide Miethke …

The book isn’t all about the inland, there are terrific stories from the High Country in remote Gippsland, Victoria.  There’s a chapter called Time and Space which shows the diversity of remote communities across our continent.  It features

  • the Mobile Aboriginal Patrol which operates across Central Australian and South Australian deserts and padres past and present who served indigenous communities;
  • AIM patrols in remote outposts in WA, travelling by bicycle, car, motorbike and camel;
  • the Pilbara including the Mines and the Western Desert;
  • the Burke and Wills Patrol in western Qld;
  • the funeral of Ziggy Remienko who ran the pub at Betoota, the only one between Birdsville and Windorah; and
  • the Frontier Services Midlands Patrol based in Oatlands Tasmania in the high mountains wilderness.

The book celebrates the work of past and present padres and mission staff  but it’s inclusive of women and it’s not heavy-handed about the religious aspect of their work.  These ministers preside over weddings and funerals, but most often they provide discreet counselling support for people.  As John Case who serves on the Burke and Wills Patrol says:

Most people are not religious, but I have yet to find anyone who does not have some kind of fauth, something strong outside of themselves. (p.109)

However, while  At the Very Heart isn’t a hagiography, I would have liked to have seen more about services for indigenous communities, which might have had to address some failings.

There is heaps more to discover in this brilliant book but I think you should get your own copy and/or give one to someone you love and /or to an impecunious school library near you!

The book has a timeline, references, a bibliography and an index.

Author: Storry Walton
Title: At the Very Heart, 100 Years in Remote Australia
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2012
ISBN: 9781743051344
Source: review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press.


Fishpond: At the Very Heart: 100 Years in Remote Australia
Or direct from Wakefield Press.

Cross posted at LisaHillSchoolStuff.


  1. Oh, this is the book for my dad who loves Flynn and the AIM – very closely related to our time in Mt Isa and of course the Presbyterian Church. But, what attracted ME to this review is that I know of Storry Walton in a very different guise – as the director of the Australian Film and Television School (and other film and television roles). Had no idea he was writing as well though I suppose with his interest in documentaries it’s not surprising.


    • Has he a birthday coming up?


      • Not till May but he has a backlog to read. Main problem with this, I now realise, may be its size. If it’s coffee table heavy it may not suit. At 92 he’s finding managing big heavy books difficult … nice trade paperbacks which usually have clear print are the go.


  2. should be very popular in Aussie I d think I only now about them via appearance on travel documentaries and the tv series flying doctors years ago ,all the best stu


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