Alec Prentice Sewell: Author and Philanthropist (1909-2003)

Page 1

Author and Philanthropist

Samuel Furphy

The Ian Potter Foundation Limited


Level 3, 111 Collins Street Melbourne Victoria 3000 Tel Fax email web

03 9650 3188 03 9650 7986

ISBN 0-646-46421-3

Alec Prentice Sewell ( 1 909-2003)

Samuel Furphy

page 3


Child at Heart Tiz is

bridge is Peter Pan's

He knows your name anc/ ways Has /un wit/, Pup and Fans Enjoys h is endless days.


property 'Teamsters' Hill ' in Toolangi, one regularly encounters a poem inscribed in wood, sto ne or metal. A small plaque is fixed to a bridge over a fishpond in the beautiful garden behind the house; it displays a poem, (above), which in four lines conveys a great deal about the life and legacy of its author. Alec Prentice Sewell was a child at heart: his interests included gardening, sport and literature, but above all he ce lebrated the innocence and wonder of chi ldhood. He identified closely with Peter Pan and it is very appropriate that although he had no chi ldren of his own, he left a lasting legacy to ch ildren in his will.

Pe t er Pan's Bridg e

Alec Sewell's childhood years - from his birth in 1909 to his graduation from Haileybury College in 1926 - are

The remainder of Alec's estate has passed to The Ian Potter Foundation, whose Governors are honouring

the years he remembered most fondly later in life and

A lec's wish that the funds be app li ed for t he benefit of

they feature strongly in his octogenarian writings . His

young children.

early career as a bank clerk, his war service, and his postHandsome, creative and playful, Alec Prentice Sewe ll

war employment with the Universities Commission were less im portant to him. After retiring he moved to his

was also en igmati c; he was a man of few extravagances

childhood holiday home at Toolangi and began the most

and simple pleasures. Through shrewd investment

creative period of his life; he wrote poetry and stories,

of inherited wealth and modest living he built up a

he tended the garden of his beloved mother, and he

substantial fortune; but there were few outward signs

created a stimulating and picturesque environment for

of this wea lth, which he principally valued for the

the chi ldren he never had.

benefit it could bring to others. Alec Sewell was a man of considerab le creativity; he also had a great emotional

Befitting his own love of childhood and his belief that

intelligence and was astute, positive and intuitive in his

all children deserve a stable and stimulating upbringing,

judgement of a person's character. A bachelor all his life,

Alec's philanthropy focuses on youth. He has bequeathed

Alec confessed to 'past affa irs,' but none that resu lted

his wonderful property at Toolangi to Anglicare Victoria

in the fam ily he desired. He battled ill-health and was at

as a holiday home for children in need and the parents

times a self-described 'lost soul'; but he blossomed in

or foster parents who care for them. He has also made

older age, paradoxically through a return to youth. In his

mater, Haileybury

writings he recaptured the joy of chi ldhood adventure. In

provision for scholarships at his a/ma

College, specifying that recipients show all-round

his gardening, he sustained himself through knowledge

potential but lack the financial opportunity to realise this

of what he would leave behind: a sanctuary for children


in need. page 4

Alec Prentice Sewell traced the origins of his surname to

Sewell: 'Sea Victor, Ruler

Cumbria in north-western England - 'probab ly the Isle of Man ' - and discovered its translation from Old English was 'sea victory' 1

or 'sea ruler.' 2 Alec's paternal grandfather Richard Blamyre Sewell was born in 1837 and christened at Bolton Le Moors in Lancashire. He sailed to Australia as a 21-year-old in 1858 aboard the

Winefred; he travelled alone, seeking prosperity in the antipodes: An engineer, there wasn't much that he couldn 't do or make. Rather below average height, but deep-chested and strong, he took no slack from any man, yet was good-natured and helpful, though impatient. He treated all women ... with knightly solicitude and deference, and they all seemed to like him. Any in trouble he would help, yet there was only one woman for him. 3 Duri ng the voyage Richard met Emma Sophia Cottrill, a

A.-tl1ur Edgar Seu·e// (1865-1952)

beautiful 16-year-old from Worcestershire who travelled with her parents and seven younger siblings. Alec surmised that his grandmother 'must have been something to look at on that ship' as even in her eighties 'her complexion was one of peaches and

Seicell, (Dane or maybe 1\Torseman),

cream.' The weeks on board the Winefredwere enough to foster

Sailing icitl1 eacl1 earl an oarsman,

a romance between Richard and Emma, but the courtship was not

Harried Englis/1 coasts and islands,

as smooth as young Richard may have hoped: during the voyage

Sacked and burnt 'round Pictis/1 Higli/ands.

well away from a pub'; after arriving in Melbourne this friendship

Richard also befriended the bosun 'who was a good bloke at sea, landed Richard in trouble when he jumped to the defence of the bosun when the latter was ejected from Young and Jackson's Hotel

Longboat raided Gaul and Ireland, Daic11 attacks icit/1 seax and firebrand, Goe-ls like Tiic, in blood tl1en icallou·ed, Viki11gs i-ery smartly /olloiced.

in Flinders Street by a fellow reveller. At the very moment of the scuffle Robert Cottrill, the dignified father of Richard's sweetheart, walked past: 'The gentleman stormed home and commanded his w ife never to permit the young Sewell to enter the house. "Rolling in the gutter in a drunken brawl outside Young and Jacksons." ' 4 Fortunately, Richard had the support of Emma 's mother, who would sneak him into the house to see her daughter. Eighteen months after their arrival in Victoria, Richard and Emma were

Summer blood sports, snatcl1i11g plunder, Loeers a/ten torn asunder, Seicell, means sea victor, ruler. Rutl1less raper, needed cooler.

married; the couple had eleven children, eight of whom survived infancy. The most prominent of the Sewell children (and also the youngest) was Sir Sidney Valentine Sewell, who won scholarships to study medicine at the University of Melbourne; he became a physician at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, was an expert on the treatment of tuberculosis and a president of the Royal Australasian

Back to /iord and icinter quarters,

College of Physicians (1940-42). 5 Arthur Edgar Sewell, Alec's

V?,/e icit/1 little sons and daugl1ters,

father, the fourth of eight sons, was born in Williamstown in 1865. According to Alec his father was highly intelligent but a little

Dreaming o/ next summer's funning,


His descendants lack /1is cu11ning. Dad had a first class brain; he wasn't so hot on common sense. My mother had the common sense, but he had a first

Spotlig/1t on our lives prosaic, TI7or/ds

/ram Haga,·'s life arcfiaic,

Licence s/1ocki11gly outrageous,

class brain and could be anything he wanted to. He got a job in Morris and Meeks (the largest ironmonger in the southern hemisphere). He was made accountant in that enormous firm. 6

Green icit/1 e11L·y 1 so contagious. 1 pag e


The Prentice Family of Rutherglen


shipboard romance of James Prentice (1830-1891) and Mary Brown (1836-1912 ), but they too courted en route to Australia. Alec never met his maternal grandfather and his grandmother died when he was very young; nevertheless, the influence of the Prentice family on Alec was great. James Prentice was a prominent farmer in the Rutherglen district of northern Victoria, owning over one thousand acres at 'Emu Plains'; he farmed cattle and sheep, but the property was best known for its vineyards and gold mines. In 1876 Emu Plains boasted 11 acres of vines, 'ma inly Pedro Ximenes and Malbec' and 'Golden Chasselas for the Melbourne table grape market,' but by the end of the century the area under vine had increased tenfold. 8 According to family legend, Francois de Castella brought vines from Portugal to Emu Plain s, which was one of the first vineya rd s to produce port wine in Australia; the vines were later sold to Burgoynes by Alec's uncle. 9

I sab ella Pr entice (1 877-1 958) To augment his w in emak ing business, James Prentice pegged out ground in 189 1 and formed the Prentice Freehold Gold Mining Company w ith a capital of £8,000 . In seven years the mine produced 59,000 ounces and

James and Mary had five sons and five daughters: the youngest, Isabella, was born in 1877 .12 Alec observed that, although born in Austra lia, Isabella 'had that quiet

paid £69,000 in dividends. More gold mines followed the trunk towards the Murray River, including the 'North Prentice' and 'Great Prentice,' but there was substantial

cha rm and gentle voice possessed by many Highland Scotswomen.' 13 Isabella was on ly 14 when her father died, but had a very close re lationship with her mother;

outside capital involved. 10 It is unclear exactly how lucrative t he mines were for the Prentice fami ly, but Alec

she lived at Emu Plains with her mother and variou s siblin gs and was the bookkeeper for the family business.

downplays their signifi cance:

Isa bella remained in Rutherglen until she married in her late twenties; although she must have brought some

The three goldmines? They were not so dusty, but there is mighty little of that gold dust clinging to

money to her marriage, her most significant inheritance

me. Any sort of dust blows around, and gold dust in

was the strong Prentice fam ily va lu es.

particular. Sic transit gloria mundi. 11



A Memorable Childhood Growing up in Staniland Grove was the source of


were married at 'Emu Plains' on 6 September 1905 .

many fond memories for Alec. It was a new residential

Arthur had been living in St Kilda, but t he newly married

area and the houses were not even numbered until

couple soon ma de t heir home (which they called

1929; consequently, Jack and Alec often played in and

'Belthur') at 5 Staniland Grove, Elsternwick. Despite

around construction sites as new houses we re built

being a successfu l accou ntant, 40-yea r-old Arthur was

on neighbouring blocks. At about t he age of six, Alec

less successful when it came to his own money and was

entertained himself by playing in a sand heap with his

£1,000 in debt when he married Isabella . Accord ing to

brother Jack, after the w orkmen had gone home:

Alec, his father quickly surrendered all responsibility for

Alongside was a large bin with plank sides in which

money to his more prudent w ife :

a slurry of lime bubbled threa teningly I was in the First payday he came home and threw his pay down

habit of walking around the centimetre-wide edge

and said to mother, "Do with

which was always wet with slurry

it what you like, you can 't do

This time I slipped and the burning

worse than what I've done

fluid closed over me. I half ran, half

with it." I used to say to my

hobbled the hundred metres (a

father, "You are a pretty lucky

hundred kilometres?) to sanctuary

man." He said, "No, I'm a

Mater peeled the clothes of me,

good judge. "


dunked me in the bath and gave me warm boracic water to bathe my

Their f irst son, Jack Prent ice

eyes. I survived to try climbing ta ll

Sewe ll, w as born in 1907 and

smokestacks some years later 16

Alec Pre nt ice Sewe ll was born in El sternwick on 5 February 1909;

Th e love and care provided by

both Jack an d A lec w ere named

Alec's mother w as combined w it h a

after Prentice uncles. Alec later

desire that her sons not 'get above

recalle d an early memory of his

themse lves .' The fam ily cou ld afford


the assistance of a housema id, but Isabel la did not allow her sons to be

He looked up into the face

lazy an d complacen t , or to take t heir

of comfort, goodness and

privilege for granted

gentle authority Just now it was as white as the high

.Artl1u r Sewell witl1 l1 is t wo sons, Alec P rentice Sewell (left) a nd

white bone-collar which fitted

Ja ck P ren t ice Sewell,

c 191 2

closely around the slender neck.

When I was about 76- 77, I was late and asked a maid to clean my shoes. My mother heard this and when I

A head with fine -spun auburn hair escaping from

got home that night (with no one there) she said,

under a hat with a stiff narrow brim, which held clear

" That girl who you got to clean your shoes, the only

of the face a black wide-netted veil. The hazel eyes,

difference between her and you is that your parents

with their candid gaze, followed the tracks of the

have a lot more of the worldly goods than hers.

permanent way He was able to observe this woman

If you can't get up early enough you can go with

for two or three undisturbed seconds. He put up his

dirty shoes." 17

hand, touched her face, and felt the net ridges on his Alec attributed his mother's careful attitude rega rding

finger tips. 'Your face is white, Mother '

money and privilege to her rural upbring ing : 'She w as The boy w ou ld have been about three as he sat upon his mother's knee on Elsternw ick Ra ilw ay Station, w ait ing

a Rutherglen girl; alw ays a country w oman 's fee li ng. ' Although Alec inherited and accumu lated a considerab le

for the puff-p uff to huff, snort and w histle them to

fortune through his life, his lack of conspicuous

Brighton. He had fe lt compass ion, and w as to remember

consumption might be exp lained by the example of his

those few moment s, of no open disp lay of affection,

mother's humil ity.

throughout a long life. 15

page 7

A 'Hill Holiday Home


No more Latin no more Frenc/1 no more s ittin ' on a frnrd wood benc/1.


Tim Sewe ll family and tw o visitors at Taolangi (i-U ec sea t ed o n stu mp)

Toolangi, that Arthur and Isabella soon resolved to buy

\\'7 HE N ALEC \\'7AS 7-YEARS-OLD, HIS PARENTS decided to invest in a holiday home; a retreat from the

a place of their own; the fami ly was shown around th e

city was particularly appealing to Isabella who missed

town allotment blocks by Mr Cameron, who impressed

the country air she had enjoyed during her Rutherglen

young Alec by the ease w ith wh ich he despatched a

childhood. On a previous holiday th e Sewell family had

sna ke enco untered along the way. According to A lec,

fallen in love w ith the tiny town of Toolangi, which was

Mr Cameron taught the family 'all we were ever to

nestled in the Great Dividing Range 'along the watershed

know about the bush.' 20 The family chose two town

between Healesville and Kin glake.' Toolangi is thought

allotments blocks in the southwestern corner of Toolangi.

to mean 'stringing bark tree' and is traditional land of

Alec recalls:

the Wurundjeri people; it experienced its first significant

We all felt we had been struggling over logs for

European incursion in 1893, when the Plenty Ranges

years, and my parents made the choice because

were closed to logging to preserve Melbourne's water

it was the highest village ground in view and we

catchments - in due course, paling splitters moved into

were all thorough ly 'bushed' in the bush, and in any

the Toolangi forest to ply their trade.

case it was impossible to get a quick grasp of the topography hemmed in and dwarfed as we were by

When the Sewells first began visiting Toolangi, they stayed at Toolang i House Hotel; they were collected

the enormous eucalypts and dense undergrowth. It is

at the Healesville train by Alex Cameron, who ran the

so different now. The primeval bush has given place

Hotel w ith this mother. Cameron read the newspaper

to rich irrigated land yielding strawberry runners,

during the journey to Toolangi w ith the re ins between

vegetables (including witloof), plant nurseries, indeed

his legs and nearly collected a speeding cart at Devils

nearly anything other than alkalinity-insistent plants,

Elbow in 1916. 19 So pleased w as the Sewell family w ith

and those that are frost tender 21

page 8

Alec explained: 'my parents caused a small hole to

In one of his charming autob iographical short stories,

be carved among the primeval forest giants for our first

Alec tells of the efforts he and his brother made to cut

house in Toolangi.'22 By Christmas 19 16 a comfortable

a track through the bu sh from Teamsters' Hill to the

bungalow dwelling w ith a 2.5 metre perimeter verandah

Toolangi Post Office. When returning from an errand to

had been built; but, tragically, a fire destroyed the new

collect milk, Alec had decided to take a short cut hom e

home before the family had enjoyed it for even one

'by way of the virgin-forested hypotenuse,' but had

night Alec's fathe r had procrastinated - "Did you see to

found the scrub difficult to negotiate:

the insurance, Arthur?" ... "No, No, I was too busy, I'll do it tomorrow" - so the family was forced to simplify its plans and convert a shed into a simple two-bedroom cottage . The cottage was initia lly referred to as 'The Hut,' but the property later became known as 'Teamsters' Hill' in honour of the paling sp litters who had preceded settlement in the area and had gathered the fruits of their labour in a clearing near the Sewell cottage.

Next morning he began to cut the track after surveying it, and marked the trees. Later his elder brother joined him and they slashed, chopped, sawed, crowbarred, jacked, mattocked and raked their way to a long and huge log which lay across the bottom of the gully, and at a wombat height above the track. He began to deviate around it, but his brother said, 'We'll make a ramp under it.' Which they did, one on

For the Sewell family, the journey to Toolangi

each side and meeting beneath the log. They even

consisted of a half-kilometre wa lk or Hansom Cab ride to

drained the excavation away down the hill. Unusual

Elsternwick Station followed by a train journey to Spencer

enterprises had a particular fascination. 25

Street Station; the family then boarded a frustratingly slow train to Yarra Glen , w hich 'stopped at or between stations impartially and seemingly interminably.' 23 A short journey in the mail coach followed to Geddes Grand Hotel, w here the family enjoyed a midday meal before being collected by Charlie Bath who had the mail contract for Kinglake and Toolangi . There were 23 kilometres of dirt road between Yarra Glen and Toolangi and the trip was regularly broken to deliver sup plies, but the fam ily wo uld eventua lly reach its destination. Young Alec often enjoyed the final leg of the trip up front w ith Charlie and was occasionally entrusted w ith the reins .

The boys concea led the meeting of their 'secret milk track' and the road, which remained undiscovered for twelve months. The road gang that happened upon it immediately guessed it was the work of 'those two boys on the hill w ho were always into something.' Nevertheless, the milk track continued to serve as a convenient route into town, even if the boys we re occasionally stalked by wa ll ab ies w hen returning w ith milk after dark. A Toolangi chore that aroused less enthusiasm in Alec was the task of helping his father empty th e lat rine; A lec reca lls he gave 'what little assistance was possible under the handicap of having

At Toolangi, Alec and his brother Jack entertained

temporarily given up breathing.' 26

themselves in a variety of ways: they rode their pony or played football or cricket depending on the seaso n; in the mornings they often worked grubbing gum trees for which they were paid three pence per tree. The task of clearing the fam ily block was a significant one and the two boys became experts at stoving stumps; Alec recalls he and his brother, w ith occasional help from their parents, burned out a total of 160 stumps in a threeacre area. The techn ique was we ll described by Alec in

Tanglefoot Tales. 24

During an extended stay at Toolangi, Alec attended the small local primary sc hool 'I remember attending our little one-master school for a few months as one of about six or eight pupils, around 1917, w hen aged about eight The ma ster saw that I had an aptitude for landscaping, and let me slightly reshape one of the flower beds and extend it ' 27 Whether Alec also attended primary school in Elsternw ick is unclear; perhaps his mother took care of tuition at home. He commenced his forma l education in 1918.

Pompey the Pony Pompey is a skewba ld and very amiab le but a bit and is very mu ch


t/1 e people I

/i/e e.

o/ a devil


The pony resided in Yarra Glen between holiday visits


attraction for both Alec and Jack during the ir visits

and Jack and Alec always took turns riding the pony

to Toolang i. Pompey was a gift from one of the boys'

between Yarra Glen and Toolangi . During the holidays

Rutherglen uncles: 'A noted cattle pony, he was trucked

Alec and Jack rode Pompey to the Toolangi Post Office

by rail to Yarra Glen station .'

to collect the mail and provisions; in summer they would groom the pony and parade him around the dirt tracks

I cannot speak for my brother, but to me this pony

of Toolangi for the benefit of the many holiday visitors,

exceeded my every expectation. Shortish, with a

who wo uld exclaim "Oh, look at the pretty pony."

broad and powerful frame, withal beautifully shaped. His head not big, but nearer that than small, with a

Pompey was not, however, always so we ll behaved; he stubbornly refused to be tied and was very difficu lt to

fine broad forehead, eyes wide-set, and rather more than his fair share of equine brains and cheek' Legs

contain in a yard as he always discovered the weakness in a fence. Pompey was also afraid of snakes:

rather thick and solid, yet again well shaped. The inches-thick forelock was a pure white adornment

Pompey was mortally afraid of reptiles and always

that we were obliged to keep cut as a fringe in a

saw them before I did, and nothing on earth would

straight line above his eyes. Th e tail was of the same

persuade him to pass while one was in view, and

colour and luxuriance, the end still thick, which was

even minutes afterwards he would have to be belted

kept cut just clear of the ground. This not solely for

past the spot, bucking, prancing and snorting.

looks, but to give him a good reach to swot the

Unfortunately, there were so many sticks about our mountain afforested roads, and he nourished grave

maddening summer fly.

concerns about all of them, and took precautionary His was a double mane equally abundant on each

action about every twentieth. Consequently a ride

side of his neck, the white and tan applied in effective

at any pace was regularly punctuated by nervous

broad alternations. The same colour application extended to his shortish, sturd y barrel, including the robust and beautifully full, rounded rump. The thought w ith me was that w ith paint brush in hand one woul d have realised that no improvement in colour distribution was possible. One did not need horsemanship to appreciate the mild yet spi rited eyes w ithout a trace of vices. 29

page 10

swerves, quiverings and proppings.

In about 1920 the Sewell family bought its first

On one occasion, while riding down the Old Toolangi Road, Pompey's paranoid evasive action caused Alec

automobile - a Buick, registration number 414 - and

considerable grief:

Jack and Alec began to outgrow Pompey. Consequently, the pony was gifted to two nursing sisters who took care

He was going at a good clip when he saw another

of children whose parents were travelling or otherwise

imaginary snake and did a genuine cattle-pony dead stop. Every horseman knows the agony of rolling

unavailable. It is, of course, exceedingly appropriate that a pony so dear to Alec Prentice Sewell was donated for

things on the pommel of the saddle, and usually this is a dire but short trial. This time it could scarcely

the benefit of children in need. Although it is unlikely young Alec made the decision himself, it fits nicely w ith

have been worse. As I felt the blood draining from

his later philanthropic spirit and dedication to child

my cheeks, I rolled feebly out of the saddle, and even


in extremis, I looped the bridle over my bent arm as I stretched out flat on my back in the middle of the road There were four thoughts in my mind How long could I stand this degree of pain? We had given up crying for anything when very very young, Pater saying in the old style That's for girls, boys don't cry.' Had I permanently ruined my marriage prospects? Would Pompey wrench, nay just wa lk away to the plains? Would his path be over my recumbent form? 30 After an eternity lying in the dust, Alec noticed Pompey was waiting dutifully; despite his penchant for breaking ties and jumping fences, he passed up this opportunity for escape and waited until Alec had composed himself. Pompey then carried a sorry Alec home at a gentle walk: 'Not so much as one quiver, tremble or baulk the whole way, unless on my part'

page 11

Education Haileyburiensis Parents want their lads to charm us, Want them singing 'Gaudeamus ', From tl1.e palette any mixture, There's no racial colour fixture.

Fe lla learns to be a grafter, Study first and sport thereafter, Proud results have been un/olc/.ing,

ALE C BEGAN HIS FO RMAL SCHOOLING IN 1918 AS a day student at Haileybu ry Co llege, w hi ch was at that

Top positions our boys lwlding.

time situated on the corner of South Road and New Street, Brighton Beach . Alth ough Haileybury had been founded in 1892, it was stil l a relatively small private

Can /eel uni's like a brotl1er,

school with around one hundred students across all levels (the student numbers had been adverse ly affected by

W ith us school's our other mother,

World War One) Alec arrived at Haileybury three years after the retirement of the co lleg e's owner and founder

Li/elong lifes tyle is em bedded,

Charles Rendall; he was therefore more fam il iar with

Firmly stamped and strongly treaded.

the new prin cipal Lo uis de Crillon Berthon. Alec recalled in Tanglefoot Tales an occasion when, after wrestling a somewhat larger lad to the ground, he was told by Berthon 'You're not a bad chap, Sewel l, but the trouble is you don't know your own strength. ' 31 A lec showed the earliest signs of literary ab ility when he was awarded a junior prize for w riting in 1921; but his most notable achievements at school were on the sporting field. Alec w as a talented all-round athlete, but was particularly strong in sprinting and high jump competitions; he regularly w on ath letics championships at Hail eybury and in his final year achieved his ambition of w inning the open high jump at the Associated Grammar Schools (AGS) combined school sports.

~ ~ -t<>~


...:::7kc>~ ~

~ ...:::7e.L,c>c>-£





...::;7r~~ v,Jt



~ A lec Pre nt ice Sewell aged 1 4

page 1 2

Alec (l10ldin g ball) as captain o/ tl1 e u nde/eated Under 1 4 I-laileybury Co llege Fo otball Team

Alec was also a very talented footbal ler. In 1920 he

Alec also achieved significant success on the cricket

captained the under-14 football team to an undefeated

field; he was a member of the school's First XI for the

season; remarkably, he also played in the school 's senior

last four years of his schooling and was invo lved in the

football team that year and, along w ith his brother Jack,

celebrated 1926 premiersh ip win over Ivanhoe Grammar.

helped the team w in the 'B grade' premiership in the

Alec usually opened the batting in that season and

AGS competition. For his last two yea rs at Haileybury,

scored a total of 190 run s at an average of 21; he also

Alec captained the senior football team: in 1925 the

took five w ickets for the season at an average of 24. In

team played in 'A grade' for the first time and finished

the premiership match he was not at his usual best: he

in a creditable fourth position; the following year,

opened the batting but suffered the embarrassment of

due to a lack of large bodies, the team returned to 'B

scoring a pair. He did, however, take a w icket in each

grade' where it simply dominated. The team won all

innings, including the all-important w icket of Ivan hoe

six matches, some by massive margins, and finished

opener and top scorer McCahon who he bowled for 33

the season with an embarrassing ly high percentage of

in the second innings. Alec also represented his school in

2,676. The biggest victory came against a Camberwell

Tennis and Athletics.

team w here the final scores were Haileybury: 48.38.326 Alec was very proud of his and his schoo l's sporting

- Camberwell: NIL. The only serious competition for the season was encountered during the last match against Caulfield, wh ich Haileybury won by 60 to 29 points. According to The Hai!eyburian 'the feature of the play was Sewell's defence at centre half-back. ' 32

achievements: 'In my short time at schoo l from 1918 to 1926, w ith an all-up roll call of little more than a hundred, our sporting record speaks of a Th ermopylae of endeavour, unity and fierce ach ievement. ' 33 Friend s of Alec recall him saying that he was asked to train w ith a Victorian Football League club and that he thought he could have played league football if things had been different; apparently, however, his parents did not approve of the idea. If Alec had played football at a league level, he wou ld not have been the first in his family to do so; his Uncle Tom Prentice played a few games for Essendon on the wing as a 17-yea r-old . According to Alec 'Essendon was the fashionable side in

~~ c:>~ ....:7/c:>~fJe.A,-t,~~



those days. They had many chaps who had fin ished at Uni - Architects, Doctors, etc. ' 34 Tom Prentice did not stay at Essendon for long; he returned to Rutherglen, w here he capta ined the local side from 1893 to 1900. 35 Despite his uncle's link w ith Essendon, Alec was always a supporter of the Richmond Football Club.

page 1 3

Alec Prentice Sewe/1 (cl 940)

As an older man, Alec recalled that he ' hated every

WHEN ALEC LEFT SCHOOL HE WA.J.'\"TED TO BE Al'\! ethnologist; he was fascinated by anthropology and the

second' of his job with the bank. His brother Jack

'science of races .' Although some of the poems he wrote

followed uncle Sidney Sewell's example by studying

decades later display an interest in Australian Aborigines,

Medicine and graduated from Melbourne University in

he was not able to pursue this interest as a young man.

1931; perhaps Alec was frustrated that he was unable to

He had passed five out of six subjects for his Leaving

undertake further study or pursue his career of choice.

Certificate, but a career as an ethnologist would have

In time, his lack of job satisfaction began to affect his

required matriculation and several more years of study

performance at work and in February 1932 he resigned

at university. In May 1927 The Haileyburian recorded the

at the bank's request. A note on his record sheet states

career paths of its school leavers and noted: 'Alec Sewell

Alec was 'an unsatisfactory officer showing no promise

is deep in the mysteries of the study of accountancy. ' 36 It

of advancement in the Bank's service' - clearly his poor

is not entirely clear what led him into a career as a bank

performance was a product of his lack of enthusiasm

clerk, but it might well have been the influence of his

for the job. It is difficult to say what occupied Alec's

accountant father. It was obviously not, however, his first

time for the next few years: he spent some of his time

choice of career and he never spoke about it positively or

at Teamsters' Hill and Toolangi resident Alex Demby

in much detail. Alec commenced work with the National

remembers Alec occasionally played with the local cricket

Bank of Australasia (or 'the Bank' as he always called it)

side. Alec might have found some other employment in

on 3 June 1927; he began as a probationary officer in

Melbourne, but he only ever spoke of working for 'the

the Bill Department and subsequently worked as a clerk

Bank' before the outbreak of World War Two in 1939.

in a variety of departments including remittances, orders,

Many decades later he observed: 'While I had always

passbooks, inward exchanges and in branch offices in

worked, I never got the job that I wanted and was a sort

Prahran, Caulfield East and Hawthorn. In June 1931 he

of lost sou I.'

was relocated to Leongatha for three months, before being stationed in Violet Town .37

... at





'l ~ fl·



c·v .,

C(( I

·tl1 tl c ba k. page







Travel and War Service ~






; ' ~ ~


~ ....:::7,6-~

BY 1939 ALEC WAS A 30-YEAR-O LD BACHELOR Al'.JD still living with his parents; with no ag reeable ca reer to inspire him, he decided to travel overseas and see some of the w orld. Alec w as lucky eno ug h to obtain a letter of introduction fro m t he Premi er of Victoria to aid him in his t ravels. He later recalled: 'I went to the old country

O ld Se ymour Ca mp c 1928, Alec top le/t

to see t he fam ily roots in England and Scotland . It w as a wonderfu l thrill to wa lk on t he turf. It was one of the

Alec then trained for severa l months w ith the 2nd

biggest thrills I have ever had .' 38 He spent considerable

Field Artillery Regiment near Maryborough in Queensland

time in his mother's native Scotland and also visited his

and was a member of a six-man gun crew in the 4th

brother Jack, who was practicing med icine in England.

Battery. Hi s gun sergeant Ross Holdsworth recalls he was

With Eu rope on the brink of war, it must have been a

bright and cheery and worked hard in training, despite

fascinating time to trave l to Britain . Alec stayed there

the hindrance of his bad back . He was not a typical

unti l at least June 1940, when he acquired another letter of introduction, this time from the Agent General

soldier: his shirt was often out and his bootlaces undone, and he was genera lly unkempt; but Alec was a we ll-

for Victoria in London. If he left the UK at about th is

liked sold ier and a great teller of stories. Hi s travels and

time, Alec wou ld have marginally missed the Battle of Britain, which began in July 1940. Alec then travelled to

adventures we re a great source of yarns shared around

the United States of America, which for the time being

the army camp, although colleague Alf Mellor suspected

was isolatin g itself from the looming disaster in Europe .

that many of the stories were probab ly apocryp hal.

Alec also visited Canada before returning to Austra lia.

Alec was also very wi lling to enterta in his fe llow soldiers by encouraging them to laugh at him. His bad back

Not long after his return Alec decided to join the war

regularly disrupted his training; but, although A lf Mellor

effort; he passed a medical examination and joined the

was sure the complaint was legitimate and that Alec was

2nd AIF on 17 March 1941. Like many young Austra li an

'no malingerer,' he noted that Alec always seemed to be

men at the time, Alec had previously undergone

well enough for a game of football if one was on offer.

rudimentary military training: he attended the local Ultimately, however, Alec's war service was

drill hall at Ripponlea as an 18-year-old in 1927 and was instructed by Sergeant Simpson on t he rudiments

compromised by his ongoing ill -h ea lth. He later w rote

of arms, includ ing how to disarm a bayonet-charging

that he would have died from pneumon ia: 'that is, if the

German w ith nothing but bare handsl


Alec was initially

early antibiotics had not appeared in the shape of those

asked to take on an army office job, but he 'didn't want

dreadful great lifesaving M and B tablets that had to be

to push a pen' and began military training at Seymour

sna pped in tw o unless one had a gullet like a horse.' 40

in August 1941. After only two months of training Alec

In July 1943, w hen his reg iment was transferred to New

was admitted to the camp hospital for three days w ith a

Guinea, Alec was classified medical ly unfit and remained

severe cold: it was one of many ailments that w rought

in Australia. He w as in and out of hospital throughout

havoc w ith his military career including a bad back, high

the war and spent much of his wa r service in the clerical

blood pressure, rheumatic fever and pneumonia.

positions he had hoped to avo id . page 15

833 Burwood Road

833 Burtl'Ood Rood, East Hoictf1orn (as it appea.-s in 2005)


Alec was also very close to his brother Jack and

and began working for the Bank, he continued to reside

shared many of the same friends. His decision to travel

with his parents in Elsternwick. In 1930, however, the

overseas in 1939 was probably influenced by a desire to

family moved to a larger home at 833 Burwood Road

see Jack, who was living in England; during this trip Alec

Hawthorn East, which remained the family home until

was present at Jack's marriage to Beryl Bennett. When

1955. Not far from Burke Road, Camberwell, the house

war began, Jack remained in England and enlisted in

is a fine two-storey Georgian building, which was large

the RAF as an Ear Nose and Throat specialist He lived in

enough to require servants. The new residence became

Britain for many years and only returned to Australia as

a focal point for the wider family of the Sewells and

an older man.

Prentices and for other friends and acquaintances; Alec's cousin Andrew Gilmour recalled long Sunday lunches at Burwood Road with several people in attendance. The house also featured a billiards room, and Alec often reminisced that Australian champion Walter Lindrum had played there. Alec's friend Roy Buzza got the impression from Alec that the family were socialites and regular entertainers.

In the post-war years, Alec kept in contact with his army friend Ross Holdsworth; Ross recalls that Alec was an unusual person - 'very well read and excellent company.' According to Ross, Alec was very fond of words and liked using new words in his conversation . Ross was working as a pharmacist in Camberwell and he and his wife would regularly invite Alec over for a meal. Ross and Alec also shared a love of the Richmond

The financial brain of the Sewell household was certainly Alec's mother Isabella: Arthur would give her the money to manage and she invested it wisely and ensured the family was financially secure. Alec had a great deal of time for his mother and she had a large influence on him; his father took him to cricket and football matches, but many got the impression that Alec was never quite as close to his father, who was 44 years his senior. Arthur Sewell was a prominent Freemason and, according to Alec, was offered the position of Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of Victoria; Alec recalls he was 'always worried about looking after Mother when Dad was at meetings.' 41 The relationship between Alec's parents was very strong and Isabella loved her husband dearly; Arthur also showed considerable affection for his wife, calling her 'Belle' in a good mood, but 'Bella' in a bad mood.

Football Club and attended games together.

The Universities Commission

A lec did not comp lete his work ing life w ith the


found consid erab ly more interesting than his pre-

Unive rsities Comm ission; he mentioned in an interview

wa r bank in g emp loyment. He was appointed to the

later in life: 'I finished up going down to the army. ' 43 He

Universities Commission and helped administer the

presumably worked in an admin istrative position, but his

Colombo Plan, which fostered regional cooperation

health continued to cause him problems. At about this

and deve lopment through education and aid programs.

time he was diagnosed wi th prostate cancer; he later

Alec worked close ly w ith the students w ho stud ied

explained to his friend s that 'he had prob lems with his

in Australia under the scheme; he helped them find

wate rworks.' Although he overcame this health scare, it

accommodation, introduced them to university lecturers

was probably what fin ally convinced him to retire at the

and professors, and generally ensured their transition to

age of 60. Given Alec's lack of enthusiasm regard ing his

Austra li an unive rsity life was a smooth one. Alec later

working life, it is temptin g to interpret his retirement as a

reminisced that it was a wo nderfully interesting job,

beginning rathe r than an end; certainly, the fina l third of

although it was a struggle because he was often ill .42

his life is the most significant in terms of his literary and philanthropic legacy.

In 1952 Alec's father died at the age of 87. Apart from his time overseas and in wa r service Alec had lived at home all his life, so it must have been a traumatic t ime for him and his mother. The fam ily home in Burwood Road was now unnecessarily large and Alec's mother resolved to sell it and move permanently to Toolangi; Isabe lla had always been particu larly attached to Tea msters' Hill and Alec's memories of the place often relate to his mother. She lived the last six years of her life in Toolangi. Alec was stil l working, so he purchased a smaller home in Alta Street, Canterbury, w hich he used as his Melbourne base until he retired in 1970; nevertheless, he spent more and more time at Toolangi, even after his beloved mother died in 1958.

pag e 17

Romance? Plea

IT IS TEivlPTING TO SEARCH ALEC'S SHO RT STO RIES and poems for hints about his own romantic experiences.

Tanglefoot Tales is certa inly auto biog rap hi ca l to a large

Fella who can make me proud, cerebral witl1in our crowd,

degree, but his other w ritings are not identifiably so; the open ing remarks in Alec's collection of short stories for adu lts, Flickers and Glows, specifica lly deny any basis

toes to crown quite well endowed,

of the stories in reality: 'Any characters herein depicted

lending silver to each cloud.

are figments of the author's imagination, and any real imagined resemb lance to any person, living or dead, would be coincidental. ' 45 Despite Alec's written den ial,

Plato, Bros, intertwine, wrong proportions undermine, mix is wl1.ere to seek /or sign, dominance may point decline.

Selfish lust brings sel/-de/eat, bud to bud can but repeat, lave is selfless self to share, wondrous gift brings gift as rare.

he once rather playfully confessed that 'one of the stories is true,' but refused to identify w hi ch one. Perhaps the romantic and sometimes mildly erotic stories in Flickers and Glows are part ia lly drawn from his own experi ences? The same may be said of many of his poems, which exp lore the competing views on love of Plato and Eros. Alec once said: 'I always intended to get married and intended to have at least 3-5 children, but never got around to it. ' When asked if he had many girlfriends, he rep li ed: 'Yes I did. Heaven knows, I li ked them; I liked them too much, that was one of my troubles .' 46 In Tanglefoot Tales Alec reca lls an early romance, wh ich came to nothing: 'At seventeen there had been a di ll of

If you lave, then give to me, not in /eeble weak law key, give in Juli virility,

a girl of the same age. Fortunately she had been the less dillworthy of the two of us.' 47 A friend recalls of Alec's travels in 1939: 'He spent a lot of t ime in Scotland; he liked t he Scots, pa rticu larly t he women !' A lec described himself as a playboy, but exactly what he meant by this

kiss me /air, and then let be. 44

we w ill never know; neverth eless, he had stro ng emotions and a sensuality about him . A romantic feature of A lec's wonde rful garden at Toolangi is the 'Love Seat,' wh ich overlooks the football ova l. Like many features of the garden , it is accompan ied by a poem:

The most signif icant woma n in Alec's life was undoubtedly his mother: Toolangi neighbour Alex Demby Tl1e 'L ove Seat' in A. lee Sewe // 's ga rde n in Tao la n gi

recalls that 'Alec had one girlfri end, but we al l fe lt he dedicated his life to his mother.' Alec always spoke about his enormous affection for 'Mater.' Moreover, his attachment to his home in Toolangi related specifical ly to his memories of his mother; he reca lled creating the garden at Teamsters' Hi ll with his mother and she was an important inspiration for his vision for the place after his death. page 18

A Vision for Toolangi


his memories of childhood; it was the place he most associated with his mother, and the secure cradle of his youthful years. As the prospect of a family of his own faded, Alec's long-term plans for Teamster's Hill began to evolve. He wrote in 1989 'You intelligent ones will long since have discerned that in my four-score yea rs as a bachelor, I have slowly but surely felt the lack of fatherhood. ' 49 After the death of his mother in 1958, and particularly after his retirement in 1970, Alec formed a vision for Teamsters' Hill, which involved creating a sanctuary for the children he never had: 'In the all -tooforeseeable future, when the writer can be thought of in terms of non est, there will be a considerable chatter of children in this garden.' 50

Alec's cottage at Taafa119i (,\fay 2005)

A Vision for Toolangi continued

Other poems inscribed on the structure revea l the

Alec hoped t hat when he died Teamsters' Hil l would become an orphanage; he pictured it as a home for

phi losophy of life and moral ity Alec w ished to pass on to

deprived children, of any colour or creed, which wou ld

the children who wou ld enjoy his garden:

provide the stimulating environment for ch il dhood

i ·e i ... BH>._tl) f rot 1 c111c

development that he himse lf had experienced. He proposed to demolish his simple cottage (the family

·1 WO tl1iug~ ...

home holiday home sin ce 19 16) and build a two-storey dwelling w ith accommodation for foster parents and

Ki1ulncs~ in

6-8 children . He be lieved that the wonderful garden and mountain scenery at Toolangi wo uld be an idylli c place

( ou1•c11-ie

for children to grow up. He was following a common



rou >


iu ) our

but increasingly old-fashioned view that 'children at ri sk'

bn 1 J t.•

own. (




needed to be re moved from the corrupting influence of the city - the 'heartless world' - to the protective and pristine natural environment of the country. Before his mother died, Alec had discussed with her various plans for the development of the garden, and her plans formed the basis for his vision. For Alec, development of the garden involved more than planting trees, bushes and flowers . He was creating an environment for outdoor recreation for the ch ildren who were to live at Teamsters' Hi ll. Behind the house, near 'Peter Pan's Bridge' over the fishpond, Alec bui lt a ch il dren's play area featuring a play house ca lled 'The Inside Inn' surmounted by a lookout; on the inside wall are favourite poems w hich are


either entertain in g or instructive. The structure's name is borrowed from the poem:

In~idc [ 1111


lbl( t.' 1 0



•<·c· wr o ·

( )u ... ide l r. inl'i


ln . . ic

o ~cc>







1i ... in ic.le 111. \

pag e


' 11.

Tf1 e 'Inside Inn'


'Bla ck Gully Orn/'

Befitting his love of sport, Alec undertook the major

At all times, Alec's first priority was honouring the

task of creating an under 12's football and cricket oval.

memory of his family and ensuring the beloved property

Because it is situated on a sloping part of Alec's property,

and garden would survive. He was very focussed on his

the oval's construction involved substantial earthworks;

childhood associations with Teamsters' Hill and wanted

but Alec spared no expense and installed goalposts and

to protect its integrity and meaning for his life and family.

a perimeter fence. Neighbour Clive McPherson sold Alec

According to friend and adviser Dorothy Scott: 'He had

a ride -on -mower and he mowed it religiously, or grazed

a vision of himself as a part of a continuous chain of

it with a small flock of sheep; but, ironically, Clive never

human history and had affection for the innocence of

remembers a game of football or cricket occurring on


the oval. This was most likely due to Alec's concern that 'the balls might have ruined mother's rhododendrons .' Alec also had a swimming pool installed in the late 1990s, heated by both solar and gas. His loyal friend and gardener Roy Buzza counselled him not to build it, because he was concerned it would require too much maintenance; but Alec was determined to add to his children's paradise. He even had plans to build a tennis court, but these did not come to fruition before he died. When at his most enthusiastic, Alec spoke of his desire to expand his idea beyond Toolangi. He planned to purchase a block of land by the ocean on the Mornington Peninsula for another similar establishment; he thought it would be a wonderful idea if the children at each home could swap dwellings during the school holidays, with the children by the sea experiencing bush life and vice-versa. At age 81 he told the Healesville paper Mountain Views: 'Provided Australia prospers and my investments prosper - in the course of time I envisage that this provision will be extended to other houses (one in the mountains and one by the sea) in every State in the Commonwealth.' 51

page 2 1

T/, e s wimming poo l (ins talled in 1 998 )

LLate Maturing Quince

1 :

Alec Sewell the Writer So he journeyed to Toolangi, where tl1.e mountain ash yearns skyward, And the messmate and the blue-gum grow to quite abnormal size. 'Spite the "stately homes" he vaunted, 'twas the simple life 11.e wanted; And 11.e got it, good and plenty, at Toolangi on the rise.

C.J. Dennis

THERE IS LITTLE DOUBT THAT ALEC PRE NTICE Sewell drew considerable literary inspiration from the most famous poet ever to reside in Toolangi: C.J. Dennis (author of The Sentimental Bloke) was introduced to Toolangi by his friend the painter Hal Waugh in 1908; the two men pitched tents by the river, which they called the 'Hall of Hal' and the 'Den of Den.' From his tent Dennis submitted writings to the Bulletin and other newspapers. C.J. Dennis grew attached to Toolangi as quickly as the Sewell's would a few years later and soon moved into an abandoned timber getters' hut; the cottage was extended and renovated and rema ined his principal home for the rest of his life, apart from a short period writing for The Labor Call in Sydney in 19 14 and time spent in his Collins Street flat. 52 The garden surrounding the cottage was chiefly the work of Mrs Dennis. Alec recalled: It was amusing to hear the pilgrims say, as they leant over the fence, "Just the garden one would expect from a poet." Den had no more than a half share in its concept and far less in its construction, apart from writing the cheques. 53 In 1922 Dennis began his career w ith the Melbourne Herald, where he was employed as a staff writer and poet until his death in 1938. It w as during this period that Alec Sewell became acquainted with Dennis: The thing that stays with me is talking to Oen as he reclined in a deckchair on the lawn. I would have been about seventeen ... He rarely got out of his dressing gown, and I always posted his weekly supply to the Herald on Sunday night. He was an interested, and interesting man for a seventeen-year-old to talk to. I liked him greatly, and I did him a secret good turn, which was little enough for all the tennis I enjoyed at Arden. 54 pa ge


Tangle/ oa t Tales (firs t p ublish ed 1989) Fr eigl1t 1\'1e ig l1ts: In 1\tl y Rl1y111 ing Verse

(2 0 03)

According to Alec, 'Den

There is no doubt

was not overly robu st, and

that Toolangi was an

although not without

eq ually important force

a certain distinction,

behind Alec Sewe ll 's literary

it would have been

output; the routine of

idle to deny that the

gardening during the day

largest part of him was a

and reading and w riting at

large, rea sonably wel l shaped, high

night certa inly sustai ned Alec in his later more solitary

bridged nose.' 55 Alec also remembered 'the

years, but Toolangi also provided much of the material

extraordinary thinness of his hands, which seemed

for Alec's most accomplished col lection of stories, the

almost translucent, toward the end of his life ' 56 As

semi-autobiographica l Tanglefoot Tales. The title links the

a 17-year-old Alec deliberately kept his conversations

collection to Toolangi, which is on ly a few mi les south

with Dennis brief lest he interrupt the composition of a

of Mount Tang lefoot; but it is clearly also a reference

masterpiece; but despite Alec's reticence Dennis always

to the 19th century children 's classic Tanglewood Tales.

seemed keen to talk and Alec wo uld come to regret th is

Nathaniel Hawthorne's sequel to Wonder Book featured

lost opportunity. In time the famous poet became Alec's

'Greek myths reto ld with a modern, free, half reali stic

hero as he worked hard to develop his own writing, but

and half fanciful tone' and would certain ly have been

Dennis died before Alec became more serious about his

read by Alec in his childhood. Tanglefoot Tales is not

literary pursuits.

exclusive ly a chi ldren 's book, but its strong appeal is its portrayal of Toolangi during the period of Alec's

C.J. Dennis biographer Alec Ch isholm records that

own childhood. It recalls the excitement of chi ldhood

Toolang i had a positive influence on the poet's output.

adventure and discovery.

Probably, indeed, he was finding life in the peace

Alec later explained that he had always been

of Toolangi refreshing after his drab experiences

interested in writing, but on ly developed his ab ilities later

in Melbourne, and doubtless he was absorbing,

in life: 'When I was young it didn't come to anyth in g.

consciously or otherwise, a useful body of "local

I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn't get it into

colour " 57

words properly. It was mostly after I retired . I'm getting better and more able all the time.' 58 He certainly made up for lost time publishing five books of prose and poetry Tanglefoot Tales (1989), Gossamer: Light Verse (1990), Real Things Like This (199 1), Flickers and Glows (1991) and Freight Weights: In My Rhyming Verse (2003 )

pag e


Toolangi (Stringy-bark place)

Lovely lines sweetly drawn trace Toolangi's high rim, eucalypts lace the dawn, fertile /arms tat and trim.

Higlzland watershed heights, 1.\1.yers Creek to bay scene,

According to Dorothy Scott, Tanglefoot Tales is about the extraord inary idyllic nature of childhood and

Yea to Murray's delights,

of being captured in the moment: 'He resonated w ith

we 're the spine in between.

that notion of chi ldh ood; he was ve ry much a child at heart.' Real Things Like This is a co llecti on of stories written as the 'boyhood diary jottings' of the fictional

If you want fragrant a1r

character Toby Thomas Blunden; w ithin its pages 'the

and pure creek at tlze source,

wise hand of the mature man is evident in the writing of the boy.' 59 Gossamer.· Light Verse is Alec's first collection of

then you '11 get your /air share

poetry and covers subject matter ranging from political,

as a matter of cou1·se.

philosophical and romantic to nostalgic and sentimenta l. Flickers and Glows is more definitely an adu lt book

and contains some rather more suggestive, even erotic,

To you Port p/,,.illip folk,


it is places like ours

In his final years, Alec decided to work on one

that you need to invoke

more book of poetry: Freight Weights is a remarkable

to be safe in your towers.

achievement for a man in his nineties and contains over 250 poems. It is perhaps not quite as consistent in quality as the earlier and more se lective Gossamer and many of

T/,,.ere's a war1·anty here,

the poems are quite obscure; Alec asked publisher Sue

in the hills that we've got,

Thompson if any should not be included, but she was reluctant to exclude any, as they all sa id something about

c/'leris/,,.ed guarantee clear,

a complex and enigmatic man . Alec's octogenarian (and

in the eyes of our lot.

nonagenarian) literary flourishing was quite remarkable, summed up nicely by Alec's own assessment: 'Late maturing quince, lush peach beyond his reach. ' 60

p a ge


Mr Sewell of Toolangi

T/,e cieu· /ram Alec's /rant c/oor


sitting on the couch and the desk in his living room was

writing sustained him in his later years; they provided the

always strewn with papers. Those who knew about

daily purpose and stimulation that he had often lacked

Alec's wealth noted he was reluctant to spend money

as a younger man:

on himself; there were relatively few outward signs of his wealth, which was partly inherited, but certainly

It often takes people a long time to get started on something, but some people, once they get started, they won't knock off until it's done. There is so much I've got to do - I want to do - I'm trying to hang on. Most people are afraid of when they'll die, and they want assurance of another life, and it's a natural thing. But I'm completely unafraid. 61 Friends of Alec recall that in his later years he was an

expanded through a combination of wise investment and simple living. Many who knew him were very surprised to learn of the extent of his wealth when details of his bequests were announced after his death. At times, Alec actually felt somewhat vulnerable because of his wealth, which explains his relative secrecy; he was anxious that his wealth might fall into unsafe hands and not be used effectively to achieve his philanthropic objectives

early riser; he was always up by 5.30, spent some time in the garden each day and would often write until well

The main luxury that Alec afforded himself later in life was a prestigious motorcar: he once walked into a

after midnight. To sustain this regime Alec often needed

showroom and bought himself a Honda Prelude on the

a sleep during the day and would take one whenever

spot; he told Roy Buzza he had done so because 'he

and wherever needed. Elizabeth Sykes. who lived on

couldn't justify a Masserati.' He later traded the Honda

a farm near Alec, once found him lying down on the

for a BMW, which was his last car. Old friend Alex Demby

concrete driveway: 'I thought he was dead. I went up

recalls that Alec became 'Toolangi's worst driver.' Alec

and said are you all right. He said he was just a bit tired

had the BMW for eight years and it then took Roy Buzza

so he thought he would have a sleep.'

twelve months to convince him to stop driving; Roy's

Alec lived very simply; he wore the same old clothes each day, but always wore a suit when he went to town. His house was very modest: although it had been extended on one or two occasions it was the same 'Hut' that the family had improvised when its original home was burnt down in 1916. He spent a lot of time

approach was to sow the seeds of the idea but let Alec think it was his own. Alec was understandably reluctant to sacrifice his independence by giving up driving: his weekly visits to Healesville, where he had lunch at the RACV Club, and his regular trips to Melbourne to discuss his investments were an important part of his life in later 25

years. Taking a different tack, Alec's stockbroker Trevor

Toolangi Primary School, which he had attended briefly

Montgomery suggested that it was high time he got

himself in 1917; he often helped out financially with

himself a chauffeur; but the final straw was when Alec

school projects, particularly in the garden, and donated a

ripped the sump out of his car driving over a fallen rock.

silver cup as a trophy for the school's annual 'Marathon.' It was only after Roy Buzza informed the school that Alec

To those who knew Alec as a kind, eccentric man,

had spent over $1,000 on the trophy that the council

living simply on the hill at Toolangi, his financial acumen

decided it must insure it.

was not immediately obvious. There is no doubt, Alec was fiercely independent and resisted any

however, that he had a shrewd eye for investments and managed his share portfolio wisely. When Isabella Sewell

suggestions he should have home help; he was

died in 1958, she left her two sons a share and property

unconcerned with outward appearances. According to

portfolio worth nearly £25,000. If Alec were an average

Dorothy Scott:

investor, his half of this inheritance might have grown Alec's values were deeply embedded in the nature of

to approximately $1.5 million at the time of his death. Given his bequests in 2003 amounted to more than $7.5

his being; he would enthuse about words and was

million, we can safely assume that his investments were

almost childlike in his enthusiasm. His garden, his

considerably more successful than average. His fortune

literature and creating a haven in a heartless world

would certainly have been significantly supplemented by

for children were his loves; meals and other practical

his own savings (especially since he lived at home with

concerns were inconveniences that got in the way of

his parents until they died), but the size of his bequests

his passionate pursuits.

indicates he was no financial novice and inherited his A good example of Alec's lack of concern for

mother's financial ability.

practicalities was his commitment to the publication of From 1978 until his death, Alec's stockbroker was

his final book of poetry, Freight Weights : Sue Thompson,

Trevor Montgomery of JB Were, who recalls that Alec

who assisted Alec with the publication, recalls that

contacted him about once a fortnight and frequently

'he couldn't think of anything else while it was being

visited Melbourne for a meeting and a meal and always

published.' In a similar way, Alec's constantly developing

stayed at the RACV. Trevor remembers that, although

plans for Teamsters' Hill occupied his mind more often

Alec was not entirely financially literate and did not

that household chores. He wanted to ensure he left no

read company reports, he often reflected on wider

stone unturned in creating a paradise for children; it

macroeconomic trends and read the financial pages of

was a fantasy that he nurtured and which nurtured him.

newspapers. His success in managing his own finances

In his last years Alec was wonderfully supported by the

stemmed from his ability to accurately judge people,

ever-loyal Roy Buzza who not only worked in the garden

rather than a specifically financial expertise. Alec knew

every Saturday, but supported Alec in a variety of other

that solid growth in his investments would ensure the

ways: he did his shopping, he bought him new clothes

realisation of his philanthropic objectives, so he always

and he helped him organise his finances. In the quarter

considered Trevor's advice carefully. He did not use

of a century Roy worked for Alec as gardener, the two

dividend reinvestment plans, preferring to take the

became close friends; Roy refused any increase to his

cash and invest it where he thought it appropriate.

1978 rate of pay and soon drew pride from the fact that

Nevertheless, Alec was generally fairly quick in his

he, too, was contributing to Alec's remarkable vision .

judgements and his meetings with Trevor usually involved

Despite the fact that many were concerned about the

a brief discussion of his portfolio, followed by an in-

way Alec was living at home, friends resisted the idea

depth discussion of Alec's latest poem or short story

of moving him to an aged care facility. Toolangi had become a centrally important part of Alec's life; to take

Alec spent a lot of time thinking about what he

him away from there would have been to undermine a

would leave when he died, which, to many, seemed like an odd way to live a life; but although his football oval

crucially important connection with his childhood, his mother, his very identity. Alec only left Toolangi for the

was rarely if ever used, there was no lack of interaction

last few months of his life.

with children. Many children in Toolangi were employed Alec told Roy Buzza that he had two main regrets

in Alec's garden; Roy Buzza was usually the foreman and directed numerous youngsters in raking leaves and

in his life: first, that he sold his shares in Poseidon too

other tasks. After the swimming pool was installed, local

early; secondly, that he voted for Gough Whitlam in

children would often visit in the warmer months; Alec

1972. Despite these regrets, he consoled himself that he

would usually remain inside writing, but it must have

could have done worse: he could have sold his shares in

given him some satisfaction to see children enjoying the

Poseidon too late; and he could have voted for Whitlam a

paradise he was creating. Alec was also generous to the

second time! Alec Prentice Sewell died on 6 August 2003.

page 2 0

Legacy Happy are tlwy who live in the dream of their own existence, and see all things in the light of their own hope; to whom the guiding star of their yout/1 still sl1ines from afar, and into wl10m the spirit of the world lws not entered! They l1ave not been 'lntd by tl1e arcf1ers

1 1

nor l1as the i,·on

entered tlwir souls. The world l1as no


Motive' the English writer William Hazlitt wonderfully expressed all that Alec Prentice Sewell appreciated and loved about childhood. When quoting it in Gossamer:

f1and on tl1em.

Light Verse, Alec wrote 'This piece of Hazlitt has been with me from a tender age, and means more to me each

William Hazlitt. 62

year that passes.' Alec looked to ch il dhood because his own adu lt life had not been as rewarding as he may have hoped: he rarely found satisfaction at work; a lifetime companion and family passed him by; and he was at times a lost soul. With the wisdom of age he found a purpose and it focussed on youth - the part of his own life that he remembered most fondly. Alec's legacy is in many ways a type of symbolic fatherhood the play equipment inscribed with verse; the child-size football oval; the stories of his own youth in Tanglefoot Tales; or the fictional adventures of Toby Thomas Blunden in

Real Things Like This. In so many of his pursuits Alec w as immersed in a sentimental w ay in an extraordinarily idealised view of chi ldhood. Although Alec's plans for Teamsters' Hill were sincere and heartfelt, they did not fit with modern child welfare practice. Alec had proposed an orphanage in the mountains - a refuge from a heartless world; but in the early 21st century such institutions no longer exist Children at risk are placed in foster families and are usually returned to their families; they also need to be located near their famil ies to facilitate these reunions. Very few children are now in permanent care; and they are usually the most troubled children or adolescents, for whom Teamsters' Hill w ould not be an appropriate home. In his last years Alec began to understand this; with the help of many he rethought his vision and rewrote his will to reflect modern practice. Although it w as necessary for Alec to adapt his original vision, it

.Alec Pr entice Sewe ll

still reflects the spirit of his original approach. His w ill includes three philanthropic objectives. page


Former Executive Secretary of The Ian Potter Foundation, Professor Dorothy Scott, who helped Alec adapt his ideas of ch il d welfare into a mode rn context, proposed the Sewell Gifts be divided into three categories Gifts for Children, Gifts for Nature and Gifts for Literature. The latter two categories we re not specifically A lec's idea, but Professor Scott beli eved they would be a fitting memorial to Alec's life and loves. According to the Foundation 's gu idel in es: Gifts for Children 'will support initiatives to benefit chi ldren under the age of 12 years who are at risk of com ing into State care or who are currently in State care'; Gifts for Nature 'wil l guide chi ldren towards a love of, and respect for, the environment'; Gifts for Literature 'will support projects wh ich are designed to nurture a love of literature (in particular, poetry) and the natural world in children under 12 years of age who are living in disadvantaged circumstances.' A year after the inauguration of the The first objective relates to his property at Toolangi. Prior to his death Alec transferred ow nership of

Sewell Gifts, the Ian Potter Foundation has allocated almost $200,000 to six worthy projects; the largest

Teamsters' Hill to Angl icare Victo ri a, the welfare arm

gift to date w ill finance the expa nsion of th e Roya l

of the Angl ican Church. In his will he also bequeathed

Botanic Gardens education program, including the

$2.5 million to Anglicare Victoria for the construction

construction of an Activity Shelter. Other Sewell Gifts

and maintenance of 'a new residential fac il ity for the

w il l support programs for the benefit of blind children,

short and long term accommodation of up to 12 ch ildren in need.' Rather than permanent accommodation (as

grieving children and ch ildren from low socio-econ om ic backgrounds.

Alec had originally envisaged), the property will provide In his retirement, Alec derived satisfaction from

respite care for foster families.

knowing that he would leave a lasting legacy; he knew

Alec also made provision of $400,000 in his wi ll

he was ach ieving someth ing worth wh il e as we ll as

for a scholarship at Hai leybury College. He specified

honouring the memory of his own family:

that it should be awarded to an all-round student, who could not otherwise afford to attend the school. The

All 1ny fa1nily see111 to have

scholarsh ips sta rted in 2005 and are awarded for the last three years of school in g, w ith the amount awarded depending on the recipient's financial situation. It can

done scnnetb_in~ pretty good. \Vl1ilc I

amount to up to three quarters of the fees.

had c1lways worl:.!cd,

I never

Q'ot tl1at job that I wanted and wa~

Alec bequeathed the rema inder of his estate (in

a sort of lost soul; so I thought the

excess of $4.5 mi llion) to Th e Ian Potter Foundation; he asked that the Foundation apply the funds according to its own charitable objectives, but requested it 'give preference to charitable organisations w hich direct their efforts towards the maintenance, education, we lfare and benefit in life of needy children in Austral ia.' In 2004 The Ian Potter Foundation inaugurated the 'Sewell Gifts':

best tl1ing [ place

could do is 1nal~e tl1is

for deprived l:.!icls.

... ([ decided) I 1nigl1t as well put in 4 a late run on tl1c rails.

The Governors of the Foundation have chosen to His property at Toolang i, t he schola rsh ip at Haileybury

honour his memory with gifts in his name for the benefit of needy children in Australia under the age

and the gifts administered through Th e Ian Potter Foundation now stand as evidence that his 'late run on

of 12 years, in recognition of Mr Sewell's life-long

the rails' was overwhelm in gly successful and that his

concern for the welfare of children in our society Mr Sewell's love of literature and nature will also be

efforts w ill contin ue to benefit countless ch ildren in t he future.

recognised 63

p a ge



Rebecca Bennett, Jim Brown, Jenny Bullock, Roy Buzza, Alex Demby, Lachlan Donaldson, Chris Foley, Andrew Gilmour, Charles Goode, Trevor Hart, Niall Holden, Bryn Jones, Bernard McGrath, Clive McPherson, Trevor Montgomery, Leonie Mugavin, Bob Pocket, Jeff Prentice, Mark Richmond, John Rose, Kay Roworth, Dorothy Scott, Petra Smillie, Elizabeth Sykes, Sue Thompson, Bill Waters, Keith White, Jan and Vic Wil liams, Alexandra W illiamson and Peter Yule .

The Author: Samuel Furphy is a Master of Arts graduate of the University of Melbourne. His research and teaching experience includes Australian history, British colonialism and 20th century world history. While working part-time on his PhD thesis - a biography of pioneer Victorian squatter Edward M. Curr - he has also worked as a freelance professional historian. His recent publications include a company history entitled Se/bys the Science People: A History of H.B. Selby Australia Limited (2005).









Alec Prentice Sewell, 'Sewell,' in Freight Weights (Kilsyth, Victoria: Roundabout Publishing, 2003), 71.


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 19.


The Haileyburian, May 1927, 33.

Alec Prentice Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales 2nd Ed. (Melbourne: Subsidy Press, 1991) 1st Edition, 1989, 78.


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 22.


A.P. Sewell, 'Listen To Older Voices.'

A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 75.


Lloyd, Rutherglen : A History of Town and District, 229.

A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 75.


The Haileyburian, May 1927, 6.


Information regarding Alec Sewell's career with the National Bank of Australasia was kindly provided by

John V. Hurley, 'Sewell, Sir Sidney Valentine' in Australian Dictionary of Biography 11, 569.


Alec Prentice Sewell, Interview for 'Listen To Older Voices,' Healesville Community Radio, 2001.


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 75.


Brian Lloyd, Rutherglen: A History of Town and District (Wangaratta: Shoestring Press, 1985), 146, 156.


A.P. Sewell, 'Listen To Older Voices.'


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 123-4.


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 107-8.


A. P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 121 .


Lloyd, Rutherglen: A History of Town and District, 75-6.


A.P. Sewell, 'Listen To Older Voices.'


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 108.


A.P. Sewell, 'Listen To Older Voices.'


The official records of births for James and Mary Prentice are incomplete, but various sources suggest the total of ten children. The sons recorded in Births Deaths and Marriages records include James (1858), William (1860) and Thomas (1875); but, elsewhere there are references to


A.P. Sewell, 'Listen To Older Voices.'


Alec Prentice Sewell, Gossamer: Light Verse (Melbourne: Subsidy Press, 1990), 16.


Alec Prentice Sewell, Flickers and Glows (Melbourne: Subsidy Press, 1991 ), 1.

Alexander and Robert. Isabella (1877) is the only daughter included in official records, but family members recall she had four sisters. The gap in the official records between 1860 and 1875 is most unlikely, suggesting the other six children were born in this period. 13

14 15

A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 77. A.P. Sewell, 'Listen To Older Voices.' A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 94.

Bernard McGrath, Manager, National Australia Bank Group Archives, 16-18 Parsons Ave, Springvale, 3 171, Victoria.


A.P. Sewell, 'Listen To Older Voices.'


A. P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 96.


A. P. Sewell, 'Sweet Cradle' in Gossamer: Light Verse, 4.


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 96.



A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 39.


Mountain Views, (date uncertain) 1990.


Alec H. Chisholm, The Life and Times of CJ. Dennis (Melbourne: Angus and Robertson, 1982), 2-3.


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 111.


A.P. Sewell, 'Listen To Older Voices.'


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 16.


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 1.


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 18.

A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 1.


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 15.


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 3.


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 18.


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 4 .


Chisholm, The Life and Times of CJ. Dennis, 52.

A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 23.


A.P. Sewell, 'Listen To Older Voices.'


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 27.


A.P. Sewell, Real Things Like This, back cover.


A .P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 11 - 12.


A.P. Sewell, Freight Weights, 13.

A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 86-7.


A.P. Sewell, 'Listen To Older Voices.'

A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 24-5.


William Hazlitt (1778-1830), 'Mind and Motive,' quoted in A.P. Sewell, Gossamer: Light Verse, vi.



25 26


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 91.


Alec Prentice Sewell, Real Things Like This (Melbourne: Subsidy Press, 1991 ), vi.


The Ian Potter Foundation, 'Guidelines for Sewell Gifts' (2004).


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 27-8 .


A.P. Sewell, 'Listen To Older Voices.'


A.P. Sewell, Tanglefoot Tales, 33-4 . p age


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