FONDLY remembered as a national legend and an embarrassment to the Sunbeam Colliery, Arthur ‘Stag’ Garrard has long been feted by the town of Korumburra.
The man who took on and beat the almighty coal company with a heavy old wooden wheelbarrow in 1924 went on to lead the Karmai parade with that wheelbarrow for many years and, after his death, a street was named in his honour.
In the stuff that urban legends are made of, Stag’s ashes sat in a filing cabinet in the office of this newspaper for 14 years before they were interred in the church yard at Coal Creek Community Park and Museum.
Arthur Garrard was born in Richmond in 1897, the son of Emily Catherine Garrard. His early life is something of a mystery. There is no record of a father on the birth certificate, yet Arthur grew up in the belief that his father, a policeman, died when he was a child.
Times were hard and he was sent to a Methodist orphanage, later to be taken in by an uncle in Ballarat who wanted cheap labour for his orchard. The uncle treated the youngster harshly and, after one particularly brutal horsewhipping, Arthur returned to the orphanage.
A couple of years later a Mrs Cato, who was the childless wife of the Cato as in the-then grocery chain of Moran and Cato, came to the orphanage and offered Arthur a home, education and comfort.
But a counteroffer came from a Korumburra farmer who ran a township farm called Daisy Bank, who wanted some cheap labor, and offered Arthur a home, a horse and some schooling in return for work. The attraction of the horse proved too much for Arthur and he chose Korumburra as his future home.
He did some schooling at Korumburra in between working on the farm and milking cows.
Although his life was hard, it was typical of the times.
He left school in his early teens, worked on district farms, and in adulthood worked for the Sunbeam Colliery as a surface hand tending the horses and cutting timber for the mine.
He was a rough diamond and popular with his workmates. His nickname ‘Stag’ came from his habit of commenting at yarns or half-truths ‘that’s a staggerer’. The nickname stuck until his death.
Stag married Elizabeth May Breasley in Korumburra in 1924. They had three sons, Arthur (1925), William (1926) and George (1927).
Making of a legend
It was also in 1924 that the story of Stag’s involvement in a strike at the mine captured the imagination and support of Australia.
Stag was a surface hand at the Sunbeam Colliery who went out on strike with the miners who were agitating for better pay and conditions.
When Stag returned to work with the miners after the dispute had been settled, an angry mine manager, Benny McWilliams, sacked Stag for striking on an issue which McWilliams said did not concern Stag.
Stag defended himself by saying: “The miners are all mates of mine, and if they go on strike, so do I.”
It was an excuse that McWilliams would not buy. But when the men heard Stag had been sacked, they went out on strike again, demanding that he be reinstated.
McWilliams bowed to the pressure but decided he would humiliate Stag by giving him a job that he would refuse.
He gave Stag a wheelbarrow and told him that his job from now on was to wheel a barrow load of coal and deliver it into the township three miles away, bringing back a bag of chaff for the horses on the return journey.
Times were hard and Stag accepted the job.
The next day, on his first trip into town with his load of coal, Stag was greeted by the children lined up outside the state school, cheering him on. Photographers were there from the Melbourne press. As he rounded the corner of the Austral Hotel, patrons came out of the hotels with pots of beer.
From across the road, the famous singing barber, Lachie Macqueen, who once shared the stage with the immortal Dame Nellie Melba, presented Stag with a cigar.
Stag’s story was syndicated all over Australia, and overnight he became a living legend, immortalised in Korumburra’s folklore.
It was McWilliams who was humiliated. So much so that he decided to do something about it by reportedly taking Stag’s barrow from the yard of a house, stowed there when the mine knock-off whistle blew.
Stag went to the police and reported the theft to Senior Constable Duvanel, then in charge of the Korumburra station. Senior Constable Duvanel got on the phone to McWilliams, who denied any knowledge of the barrow.
“I’m not suggesting that you do,” said the senior constable, “but I just want to tell you that if the barrow is not back in the yard by tomorrow morning, I will make further investigations and press charges. Whoever took the barrow has deprived a man of his livelihood.”
The barrow promptly reappeared, and Stag was back on the job; but he remained there only a short time, as his fame had spread around the district and he was offered other employment.
Stag left the district in the 1930s and was not heard of again until, in 1970, when a back-to was being organised with a miners’ reunion at the old Sunbeam Colliery.
Stag’s story resurfaced and the late Clem Wilson went on a search for him, finding him living in retirement in Brunswick.
Stag returned to a hero’s welcome. The town’s local baird, Alf Smith, had written a poem about Stag’s exploits. Everywhere he went, Stag was welcomed and feted.
His wife died shortly after Stag returned to Melbourne, so he decided to come back to Korumburra and spend his last days in the town where the people had been so pleased to welcome him.
Every year for the next seven years or more, Stag led the parade in the district’s annual Karmai festival wheeling his barrow. When he found the walking a bit much, he rode in the back of a utility.
Stag lived happily in the town until he died suddenly in his room at the Carinya Hostel for the Aged in October 1983, just as he was preparing for his daily walk up the town for a couple of beers with his mates.
Stag left a will with Sentinel-Times editor, Brian Blake, as his executor.
He left instructions that, after a service in the Methodist church, his body was to be cremated and later scattered over the route he used to walk with his wheelbarrow.
A couple of weeks after the funeral, the undertaker walked into Blake’s office and handed him the parcel of Stag’s ashes. Busy at the time, he put the parcel in his filing cabinet, slightly sceptical about walking down a road and scattering ashes.
There the ashes remained for more than 14 years, until Blake, a member of the management board of Coal Creek Historical Village, suggested Stag be given a permanent resting place in the church yard of the village as part of the attraction’s million-dollar relaunch on April 5, 1998.
This was agreed to and a Gothic tombstone briefly highlighting the deeds of Stag was placed in the church yard, only a stone’s throw from the road over which he once walked.
Another service was conducted in the church of the village by Uniting Church minister, the Rev David Peel. It followed a procession to the church led by a trumpeter, followed by Stag’s grandson, Alex, wheeling the ashes in a barrow of coal. Beside Alex was his sister Lavina.
Among the mourners at the second funeral was Bill Hogan, 83, of Korumburra, who could vividly remember being one of the schoolchildren who lined the road outside the school to cheer Stag on his journeys into the town with his wheelbarrow in 1924.
Blake told the story of there being no question of life after death, claiming Stag proved it to him.
Given a bottle of port one Christmas, Blake placed it in the filing cabinet alongside Stag’s ashes. He swears the bottle gradually emptied, bit by bit.
“It couldn’t have evaporated through the glass. I had the only key. So, it must have been Stag who emptied the bottle,” he claimed.