Thomas Kempster in later life. Courtesy of Dawn Willersdorf
Private Thomas Henry Kempster
Pakenham & District War Memorial
Born: 21 August 1894 - Carlton, Victoria
Enlisted: 11 August 1916 aged 22
Unit: 13th Battalion, 22nd Reinforcement (SERN: 6765)
Served: Western Front
Died: 5 August 1962 - Heidelberg, Victoria
Thomas was an older brother of Albert Kempster. Before the War, Thomas worked as farm labourer and chaff cutter (1). When he enlisted in August 1916, he was 22 years old and working around Wagga Wagga in NSW. Thomas was assigned to C Company, 18th Battalion. He embarked from Sydney on 8 November 1916 and arrived in England in early January 1917. After a brief spell in training camp there, Thomas was taken on strength with the 13th Battalion in France. On 11 April 1917, he was shot in the arm at Bullecourt and hospitalised, first in Rouen then England. Ultimately, it was decided to send Thomas back to Australia on medical grounds, as he had been left with restrictive movement in his elbow. He was discharged from the Army in Melbourne on 1 August 1918 (2). Together with other soldiers who had already returned, Thomas was officially welcomed home to Pakenham at a social event held in late November 1918, and presented with a gold medallion (3). He became a member of the inaugural Pakenham RSSILA sub-branch committee when it was formed in April 1919 (4). In 1920, he married Phoebe Dyer of Kiama NSW (5).
It has been said that Thomas’s challenge for survival did not end in the trenches, but continued when he became a solider settler after the War (6). In late 1918, Thomas applied for a 226 acre soldier settlement block on the former I.Y.U estate in Pakenham. The block was bounded by the Toomuc Creek and what is now Cardinia Road. The land was, in Thomas’s own words, “virgin”, meaning he had to essentially build up his farm from scratch (7). This included clearing the land; removing tree stumps; fencing off cow yards and sub-dividing paddocks (he ended up installing a mile and a quarter of fencing!); ploughing and sowing pasture (the native “kangaroo grass” being deficient for raising stock); building a dwelling (little more than a rough “hut”); and erecting cowsheds (8). Thomas was full of optimism, self-confidence and a hardworking spirit, but needed substantial financial assistance from the Closer Settlement Board (CSB). In the first year, the CSB advanced him money to purchase many of the things needed to start up, including cows, horses, a plough, milk strainer, cream cans and milking buckets. Despite the advances, a three year repayment free period on the farm itself and a lot of hard work, Thomas was soon struggling to make a living . By 1920, he was falling behind with the repayments on the CSB’s advances, and didn’t even have money to pay for the journey to NSW for his wedding (9). A large part of the problem was the land itself as much of it suffered from flooding during the winter and spring. This meant that no more than a third of the property was suitable for profitable dairying and the capacity to grow fodder crops for his stock was limited. In summer, the problem was a lack of water and the drying out and hardening of the soil (10).
According to Thomas, the other major issue was the CSB itself, which was soon concerned about his capacity to repay the money it had been advancing him. At one stage, Thomas even wrote to the Prime Minister, W.M. Hughes, complaining that cow sheds promised by the CSB had not been finished, which cost him a considerable sum of money. Thomas wrote: “I can’t make farming a success unless the Closer Settlement Board help men as much as possible”. In frustration, he then stated that “Far sooner would I suffer in France again in another war, than to go through what I have gone through at the hands of the Closer Settlement Board of Victoria” (11). In a letter to the CSB in April 1923, he wrote “My heart and soul is wrapped up in my allotment not only for myself but for my children. I do not expect to make any rapid strides to success, in my case it is going to be slow but sure, I known that before long I will be in a position to to pay my way” (12). However, with Thomas’s debts to the CSB mounting and little or no capacity to make repayments, matters came to a head in June 1924, with the Board refusing to provide any further advances unless he himself undertook the drainage works necessary to improve his prospects. The Board’s advice to him was stark: “if you are not prepared to do this the obvious thing appears to be for you to give up your block” (13).
In September, the CSB decided to call in the advances it had previously made to Thomas. He was given just 7 days to repay £1174 - the equivalent of $385,600 in 2016 dollars (14) - which he could not do. In the end, Thomas agreed to forfeit the property, which he did in November 1924, although he later regretted doing this (15). He then moved to Sydney, where his wife’s family lived. Thomas was out of work for 12 months, then got a job as a labourer in a Sydney wool store (15a). Later in 1927, Thomas and Phoebe moved back to Melbourne. They were in difficult financial circumstances and initially lived with Thomas’s widowed mother Margaret at her home in Henry St Pakenham. Thomas’s health was not good: he had been in hospital in Sydney to have shrapnel removed from his body and could only do light work. Thomas only managed to obtain a few days work in his first six months back in Melbourne (16). His war time experiences also came back to haunt him: he suffered from nervousness and lack of sleep. Whenever a window rattled, it reminded him of machine gun fire. He also had difficulty getting his dead comrades “out of his mind”. Thomas had apparently been in a trench when everyone except himself was killed (17). Thomas and his family later moved away from Pakenham. He obtained jobs with the Railways and the Ordinance factory at Maribrynong in Melbourne’s West. He died at Heidelberg in 1962.
The assistance of Thomas’s relatives, Dawn Willersdorf and Margaret Young is gratefully acknowledged.
(1) (7) (8) (10) (11) (12) (13) (15) & (16) PROV VPS10381/P/0000 Unit 297 Item 311
(2) NAA B2455 KEMPSTER THOMAS
(3) South Bourke & Mornington Journal 12/12/1918, p. 2
(4) South Bourke & Mornington Journal 24/4/1919, p.2
(5) Kiama Independent 31/1/1920, p. 2 & NWFHG (2016), pp. 53-54
(6) & (9) Narre Warren & District Family History Group (2016), p. 54.
(15a) & (17) NAA B73 H35894 KEMPSTER Thomas Henry