Courtesy of Dorothy Kellock & Sue Rutten
Private James Sydney Thewlis
Pakenham & District War Memorial
Born: 12 October 1895 - Longwood, Victoria
Enlisted: 22 January 1916 aged 20
Unit: 39th Battalion, B Company (SERN: 609)
Served: Western Front
Died: September 1960 - Berwick, Victoria
Known as “Syd", James Sydney Thewlis was a son of James Thewlis Senior and his wife Susannah Young. The Thewlis family lived at Longwood near Sale, before settling at Pakenham on a farm called “Sunnyside” (on the Princes Highway, opposite what is now Thewlis Road) around 1910 (1). Syd was 20 years old and working on the family farm when he enlisted for service on 22 January 1916. He was one of the Pakenham men who volunteered in response to the major recruitment campaign to reinforce the AIF following the Gallipoli campaign. Syd’s parents readily provided their consented for him to “serve King and country being under the age of 21” (2). Before he left Pakenham, a farewell and send off was arranged for Syd and another local volunteer (a Mr Stanley, head of the local Methodist Mission) at the Mechanics’ Institute (3). Initially, Syd was assigned to B Company, 39th Battalion at Ballarat. He embarked for England in late May 1916, and proceeded to France in February 1917. Syd subsequently served as a scout on the Western Front with Sergeant George Edgar Watkins DCM. The scouts undertook patrols into areas such as “no-man’s land” to obtain vital intelligence on enemy positions. This was highly dangerous work. The 39th Battalion took part in the Battle of Messines in June 1917 and later fought at Broodseinde and Passchendaele. During early 1918, the 39th Battalion was part of the desperate British attempt to stop the German advance through France during their “Spring Offensive”. Later, on 25 August 1918, as the Germans were being pushed back towards the Hindenburg Line, Syd was gassed (4). At the time, the 39th was advancing beyond Bray, north of the Somme River (4a)Syd’s gassing effectively ended his War. He was initially admitted to the 5th General Hospital in Rouen, but then invalided to the UK and was still in hospital there in late January 1919. He was then granted some leave before being repatriated back to Australia. He was discharged in Melbourne in July 1919 (5). With a number of other returned soldiers, Syd was officially welcomed home to Pakenham in October 1919 and presented with a gold medallion from a grateful community (5a).
In 1920, Syd applied under the Soldiers’ Settlement Scheme to purchase 110 acres of his parent’s property. This was granted, with the approval stating that “Young Thewlis is a good type of fellow. A good mother. Knows the place and should do well.” (6). He had references from some of the leading figures in the community including Reg Henty, James Ahern (Berwick Shire Clerk) and Arthur Greenwood of Mount Bourke, who also described Syd as “just the sort of young fellow to encourage to take up land” (6a). Indeed, he became one of the leading dairy farmers in the District. Syd was a member of the Pakenham Herd Testing Association, which also included a number of other prominent dairy farmers in the district such as Jack Ellett, Tom Houlihan, William Brownfield, the Purton brothers, Tom Vagg and Albert Rix. The group was very competitive, with monthly returns on production published in the local newspapers and trophies and awards given for the most productive herds (8). In 1938, Syd won the Association’s trophy for the leading soldier-settler herd (9). One of his cows, “Molly” produced 1,819lbs (825kgs) of butter fat (10), while another called “Tiny” was the first in the district to produce over an imperial ton (2,240lbs / 1016kgs)! (11). In the early 1940s, Syd claimed the honour of having the highest producing herd in the Association (7). Most of Syd’s milk and butter fat went to Melbourne, with the surplus sold to the Longwarry factory. He put a lot of effort into modernising his production, including using machines to milk the cows and trialling electric fences. In addition to dairying, Syd was producing commercial vegetable crops, including potatoes, carrots and navy beans (12).
Syd also became a leading Pakenham citizen, lending his time and talents to a wide range of causes, including the Pakenham Agricultural and Pastoral Society, the Pakenham Show Committee, the RSL (of which he served as President for six years) and both the Presbyterian and Methodist churches. During WWII, he served as a Lieutenant (V367922) with the 11th Volunteer Defence Corps (12a). Syd was also involved with the War Agricultural Committee, the local Repatriation Committee, the Comforts Fund and the Food for Britain Drive during and immediately after the War (13). Such was his community involvement, that it was said that “If a letter comes addressed to any organisation in Pakenham and does not bear a name, it can be quite safely delivered to Mr Thewlis” (14). In 1951, Syd was elected unopposed to the Berwick Shire Council, representing the Beaconsfield Riding. As the Dandenong Journal reported: “We know enough of Syd’s public spiritedness, ability and pride in his district to confidently predict he will be an excellent councillor as soon as he gets ‘the run of the ropes’. He is fortified by an excellent knowledge of the district” (15). While on the Berwick Council, he served as the Shire President in 1958 and 1959. Syd would not have been able to give so much back to the community without the support of his wife, Ella, whom he married in 1921. This was recognised by the Pakenham Show Committee, which in 1952 made a surprise presentation to her (16). Ella was the daughter of George and Elizabeth Bould of Cardinia. The couple raised four children.
Syd died suddenly in September 1960 aged 65. In its obituary, the Pakenham Gazette spoke not just of Syd’s achievements on the land and his community service, but also of his being a role model to others: “Syd Thewlis’s contribution to the life of the community did not begin or end with his conscientious discharge of public duties. More effective than all this in influencing those who came in contact with him was his private life .... his example of clean living, integrity and kindliness taught most eloquently the message which all Christian Churches proclaim ... In common with many, many others we mourn the passing of a pal in the fullest sense of the word” (17).
Aside from the Pakenham & District Soldiers’ Memorial, Syd and his family are commemorated in the naming of Thewlis Road. Interestingly, through his sisters, Syd was related by marriage to a number of Pakenham’s other WWI Diggers: Millicent (“Alice”) was married to Driver Richard Doherty; Minnie to Oswald Williams, brother of the late Sergeant Arthur Carter Williams; and Doris to Fred Auhl, brother of Private Robert Auhl (18).
The assistance of daughter Dorothy Kellock, granddaughter Susan Rutten and Audrey Dodson of the Berwick - Pakenham Historical Society is gratefully acknowledged.
(1) Pakenham Gazette 14/10/1921, p.3
(2) (4) (5) NAA B2455 THEWLIS JAMES SYDNEY
(3) South Bourke & Mornington Journal 23/3/1916 p. 2
(4a) AMW 4 23/56/28 39th Infantry Battalion War Dairy, August 1918
(5a) Pakenham Gazette 17/10/1919 p. 2
(6) & (6a) PROV VPRS 5714/P0 unit 928, File 1217/12
(7) Dandenong Journal 26/8/1942 p. 6
(8) Dandenong Journal 18/10/ 1939, p. 18
(9) Weekly Times 22/10/1938, p. 15
(10) Dandenong Journal 21/7/1943, p. 9
(11) Dandenong Journal 26/8/1942 p. 6
(12) & (14) Weekly Times 15/12/1943, p. 10
(12a) NAA B884, V367922 (mistakenly listed as “James Sydney Ellett”)
(13) Ibid; also see DJ 20/2/1946, p. 12
(15) Dandenong Journal 11/4/1951, p.1
(16) Dandenong Journal 22/10/1952, p. 14
(17) Pakenham Gazette 16/09/1960, p. 1
(18) Argus 19/5/1950, p.14