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Bob Edwards: from orchardist to ethnographer

Dick Richards, 22 March 2011

PHILIP JONES: Welcome to the second session of the symposium. I have very great pleasure in welcoming someone who just made it back by the skin of his teeth from Japan last week. We owe a lot to Dick for pulling himself together and being here today after that experience. I have known Dick for years. He’s a specialist in Asian art, particularly Asian ceramics, at the Art Gallery of South Australia, and he’s always been one of those humanising influences along North Terrace and had a very long association with the Adelaide Plains, and his family farmed next to the Edwards’ family. Dick is going to take us back into those early years. Thank you very much, Dick. [applause]

DICK RICHARDS: Thank you, Philip. Bob grew up on his grandfather’s productive vineyard, orchard and market garden in the beautiful farming district of Marion on the Sturt River in South Australia. The area was surveyed by William Light in 1838 and Richard Hamilton planted grapes there soon after. Marion is about 10 kilometres south-west of Adelaide, on a fertile flood plain between the sea and the hills. As a child, Bob roamed freely over the whole district once home to the Kaurna people whose marks remained on the giant river red gums where they had removed bark for coolamons. The river, now a concrete drain as was alluded to earlier, was fed by natural springs. It had deep waterholes for fishing and swimming and was full of bird life.

Marion was surrounded to the south by sheep and wheat properties, and the local railway yard at Oaklands provided a distraction for small boys and girls. It had a country air, with its sheep and cattle yards, piles of mallee roots, stacks of wheat. Mail bags, rows of milk cans, smelly canvas-covered boxes of fish and in season the local produce would be sitting in the shade on the railway platforms. In those days the steam trains always had a guard’s van that also carried freight every day.

Life for Bob was full of delight and excitement in this rich environment, despite the hard times of the Depression. The World War II years were also important to Bob’s growing up. There was rationing, but the orchard and exchanges with neighbours made sure that food was always on the table. Street lights were out and the houses were fitted with blackout curtains. The few vehicles carried smoke coke-fired gas producers, their lights dimmed and shaded.

Bob spent quite a lot of time at the local Warradale army camp. Here troops were being trained for the Middle East. When they had finished in the Middle East they were rushed back to Warradale for brief respite and training before they were sent to New Guinea. Bob watched rifle and machine gun exercises in the beautiful gum-studded farmland close by. The soldiers became very fond of Bob and made him their mascot. I think they even provided him with a uniform.

On the orchard he worked the vines with a horse and single furrow plough, delighting in the crowds of seagulls that followed him. He drove the tractor and trucks, nurtured stone fruit, almonds, wine and table grapes, and vegetables. The hard outdoor life invigorated him and made him pretty tough later on. He enjoyed the changing of the seasons, the quiet dawns and dusks, magpies, sun, sweat and cold.

Bob went to school at the new Ascot Park primary school and later to Thebarton Technical High School where he learnt skills that were essential for his future as a man on the land. He left high school in 1945 with distinction, but there was no question of tertiary education. It was assumed that he would follow his father and grandfather on the land. But Bob was shocked in 1950 when his grandfather without consultation suddenly decided to sell the business. Luckily Bob’s father bought into what is Seaview Winery at McLaren Vale, which was then called Edwards and Chaffey. Bob followed to work on the vineyard and quickly adapted to the new life of hand pruning the grapes in autumn, still pruning as the grapes were budding in the following season. He had great fun making vermouth. He tells these amazing stories of throwing great sacks of herbs into the vermouth with complete abandon. My father thought that his vermouth and dry sherry was delicious, especially as it was 2/6 for a three bottle flagon.

Bob grew restless for independence and decided to go into business by himself and returned to the Marion area to lease a large mixed garden property, and here he honed his marketing and management skills. He became an expert at manipulating and negotiating the lucrative Christmas markets by betting or gambling on the hot weather to come. He would stack his cucumbers in the paddock with sprinklers on, waiting for the last moment to sell them at a much better price. He also used to drive his truck looking as though it was fully loaded into the markets but empty to throw his competitors off the scent.

Bob’s grandmother was a passionate member of the Field Naturalists Society and took Bob when he was quite young to lectures, exhibitions and excursions. I think this had a major impact on Bob’s later life. Bob swiftly embraced the world of science and history, and a friendly scholar farmer - Adelaide people would recognise the name - Gordon Ragless became his mentor and introduced him to the Royal Geographical Society. This was in Bob’s early teens. Bob became a devotee of the RGS and particularly its historical section.

In 1952 Bob married Kath, his lifetime partner, and following the birth of their four sons the couple spent weekends and nights together writing papers, reports and letters for many decades. Bob would do a full week’s work and go home for the weekend and do probably more intense two days of correspondence and report writing. Bob published his first paper with the RGS in 1954 on the history of the local church at Marion - St Mary’s on Sturt Road – the second oldest church in South Australia and the church where Bob and Kath were married.

In the 1960s Bob started night school and moved away from the market garden to the Adelaide wholesale produce market, first with the Apple and Pear Association and later he became their marketing director. At the same time he kept up his academic interests with a passion, gradually moving into Aboriginal studies with the South Australian Museum.

In 1965 he succeeded Norman Tindale as curator of anthropology, realising his lifetime dream at the age of 35, which is pretty amazing given his start in an entirely different profession. He worked with Charles Mountford among other important scholars and produced a large volume of papers and wonderful photographs of remote desert Aboriginal people. Bob continued his involvement with the National Trust, and by the 1960s chaired the committee for regional museums. He was also appointed to an international committee for UNESCO, and many other exciting projects followed.

Bob has been a wonderful friend, confidant and mentor. I have had the great luck and pleasure of working with him on a range of projects for over four decades, perhaps most closely with Bob and also Carol Henry at Art Exhibitions. Thank you very much. [applause]

Date published: 18 April 2011