Think of the Royal Military College Duntroon and most Canberrans think of cadets being put through their paces to a strict military regime. Either that, or the pomp and ceremony of the annual Trooping of the Queen's Colour parade.
Not many think of horses. However, while digitising more than 54 RMC Journals from 1913 to 1968, amateur historian and former RMC graduate (1966) Richard Lamb has concluded "that the horse was a central part of cadets' lives for over three decades after the RMC commenced in 1911".
"I was really surprised to find the RMC's close association with horses, which, apart from being chronicled in these journals, isn't widely documented", reveals Richard, adding that "between 1911 and World War 2, cadets at Duntroon would have gained a solid appreciation of cavalry and mounted infantry, especially those destined to horse units in India and elsewhere in Australia".
The role of the horse in Duntroon life depended on who was commandant at the time. For example, in 1919, the focus on horses diminished after Commandant Parnell, known for his stern discipline, suffered a bad riding accident and ordered that cadets could not exceed trotting pace. Heck.
However, that all changed in 1920, when his successor, Major General Legge, a horse squadron commander in the Boer War, arrived at Duntroon. "Along with a more relaxed style with cadets, Legge introduced a cavalry trek which remained as an annual tradition until the break-out of World War 2 in 1939," Richard reveals.
Never one to shy away from a challenge, Legge chose the highest point in the ACT - Mt Bimberi, at 1912 metres - as the destination of the inaugural five-day horse trek. "They split into two groups a military-civilian group and a first class cadet group in cavalry column of about 15 riders," Richard reports.
"Their route went through Tharwa, Gudgenby, Orroral, Cotter Gap, the original Oldfields house in the upper Cotter, Murrays Gap to the top of Bimberi and probably followed a similar return route".
Apart from the cadets, 10 of whom subsequently graduated in the Australia Light Horse, Legge also invited some civilian and military luminaries including Professor F W "Doc" Robinson, a name well-known to local history aficionadas.
"Doc began in 1913 at RMC as a lecturer and after war service returned in 1920," Richard explains.
"His enthusiasm for the national capital led to his book, Canberra's First Hundred Years And After published in 1924".
Riders apparently enjoyed the trek so much that the 1921 RMC Journal hailed it as "the event of the year".
Five years later, in 1926, probably the most ambitious and arduous of all the cadet treks into the mountains was made over five days in late November, a total of 160km criss-crossing the area we now call Namadgi National Park.
Lieutenant Irving, a trek staff member, later adjutant RMC, provides some insights into the arduous nature of the trek as reported in the 1927 Journal. "53 miles [85km] in the first two days out with each man carrying marching order complete with rifle and sword". Day three was one of the toughest days when the column forded the Cotter River 14 times in just 13km. Contemporary bushwalkers who have tried to bush-bash their way through this rugged part of the ACT would know all too well the challenges faced by the cadets.
Day four was no picnic either, with "a night march down Paddys Creek until 2am when the column camped for the night, tired out after 33 miles [53km] of going in the roughest of country most of the time making our own trail".
Irving notes that despite these difficult conditions, the behaviour of the cadets was exemplary. "Under the most trying circumstances, in the most difficult country and in extremely hot weather, there was never a murmur," he writes in the 1927 Journal.
"More journal recollections illustrate the annual RMC Gymkhana which was a highly competitive affair including staff with individual and company events such as artillery team driving, tent pegging and jumping," Richard reports.
"In the 1920s Duntroon was reputed to house the biggest stables between Sydney and Melbourne." If you are looking for them today, they are long gone, having been transformed into a transport compound located just to the east of the roundabout on Morshead Drive.
Horses were also a key part of recreation at Duntroon, with some cadets on leave riding much further afield than the mountains. For example, an article in the 1925 Journal outlines the best ways of travelling to the south coast. "For wet weather and by motor go via Bungendore and Braidwood but for those to whom rougher country and change of scenery appeal, horse through Captains Flat is recommended," it advises.
Although the 1937 Journal notes "long weekend treks through difficult country have become commonplace", by the late 1930s the horse was on its way out with the last cavalry trek was held in December 1939 and the last gymkhana on Duntroon grounds in August 1940.
"1939 has passed with its hunts, and gymkhana ... this means a sad parting as mechanisation, camp and city life will take from them the opportunity of feeling a horse between their knees probably for many years," laments one author in the 1939 Journal.
In 1941, cavalry was withdrawn as a subject and following the war, in mid-1946 Duntroon's horses were sold at auction in Queanbeyan.
"But it wasn't quite the end for horses at Duntroon," Richard explains. Duntroon's only "light draught horse" not sold in the 1946 auction went on to perform duty for a further six years, pulling the RMC cricket pitch roller.
Literally the last horse standing.
A treasure trove of life in early to mid-20th century Canberra and Duntroon, RMCs digitised journals are now available online at www.nla.gov.au/nla.obj-734748369
Your columnist's recent exposé on Sydney's historic Quarantine Station at North Head struck a chord with several readers, including Tom Campbell of Belconnen who has a curious connection with one of the facility's best known workers.
"The Quarantine Station achieved notoriety back in 1917 when a young Catholic nurse, by name Annie Egan, who was inflicted with Spanish flu, asked for a priest during her illness, and was refused by the authorities," Tom reports. "Archbishop Michael Kelly, the archbishop of Sydney at the time, demanded that she be visited, and he even went up to the gates in full rig, but was refused entry." Despite a public outcry, poor Annie died of the flu, alone, and was buried at North Head.
Tom reveals he grew up in Annie's home town of Emerald Hill, near Gunnedah, where, Annie's sister, known as Sr M Vincent (a Sister of Mercy), taught him typing, shorthand and business principles in St Mary's College, Gunnedah back in the 1950s. Small world.
Were you a stickler for the Canberra tradition of waiting until Anzac Day before turning the heater on? Since confessing I broke the unwritten rule this year (ANZAC Day Tradition, 11 April), I've been besieged with support from readers.
"Load of old tosh this business about heaters and Anzac Day," attests Gerry Corrigan, who "grew up in Canberra (Campbell) with the old briquettes fired Rayburn - no central heating". While Gerry concedes "sure it was fun skidding on the ice in your bare feet on a frosty morning when I was a thoughtless eight year old," he is quick to add, "I am 61 now and enjoy being comfortable and warm". Don't we all.
WHERE IN CANBERRA
Clue: Mt Tennant (back left) is familiar to many, but where exactly is this out-of-place lounge?
Degree of difficulty: Hard
Last week: Congratulations to Jenny Jones of Banks who was first to correctly identify the location of last week's photo (right), sent in by Linda Beveridge as the much loved possum, one of Martin Moore's nine bronze and marine turpentine sculptures that portray animals endemic to the ACT, located at the Ainslie shops.
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and suburb to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday, April 25, wins bragging rights. Tickets to Dendy Cinemas will once again be given as a prize when the cinemas reopen.
Regular readers would be all too familiar with this page's obsession with objects embedded in trees, so imagine your Akubra-clad columnist's delight on receiving a photo from Martin Kenseley, of Rivett, of this seat, clearly well-grown into two trees on the Lilli Pilli point walking track. "It must have been deliberately placed many years ago," Martin reports, adding "from the seat you get a fine view of the Tollgate Islands at the head of Batemans Bay". A place to check-out post COVID-19 travel restrictions.
During these times of social distancing, many Canberrans, including Marc Edwards, of Ngunnawal, have been enjoying family in backyards. However, earlier this week, Marc was left "unsettled" when he noticed a face "peering back at him" from the hot coals of his fire pit. It looks even more realistic if you squint. Apparently.