|8. ALLCHURCH, Ernest.|
|"the most outstanding man in Central Australia, was Mr Allchurch, postmaster and magistrate, who could always be approached".|
|Fred Blakeley, Dream Millions. 8.|
Ernest Allchurch was the Chief Telegraphist and Postmaster at Alice Springs when the First C.A.G.E. Expedition arrived in town, he was a long time resident of the 'Centre, he and his wife Bessie were married at Hermannsburg in 1905 when he was a junior telegraphist on the Overland Telegraph Line. He soon became attuned to life in one of the most isolated outposts in Australia and very much in touch with the mores of the sparse and oddly assorted community and had rare sympathy for the Aboriginals. Only miscreants and devious vested interests had a harsh word for Ernie Allchurch.
As befitting the times and locale he had a pioneering spirit and in 1908 became involved in the first successful north south motor vehicle crossing of Australia. the previous year Murray Aunger and Henry Dutton made an attempt in a 20-25 horsepower Clemet-Talbot car and travelled almost to Tennant Creek when a major mechanical breakdown, beyond even Aunger's ability to repair, finished the journey. They returned to Oodnadatta on horseback, making plans for the following year and Allchurch was included in those plans, he would arrange forward delivery of supplies and communications for the next foray. Aunger and Dutton returned to Alice Springs in mid July driving a more powerful Talbot and the necessary spares for the abandoned vehicle. They took Allchurch aboard for his company and ability to tap into the telegraph line and report progress which was remarkably speedy. The abandoned car was repaired and refuelled and to everyone's amazement it fired into life almost immediately. It was driven to Pine Creek and railed to Darwin, while Aunger, Dutton and Allchurch continued on in the second Talbot arriving there on the 20th August 1908, less than two months after leaving Adelaide.
Fred Blakeley met Allchurch shortly before he set out on this successful motor vehicle adventure, which places Blakeley in Alice Springs in late July 1908, he and the O'Neill brothers were on their way north to Darwin on pushbikes, creating their own bit of pioneering and history. Allchurch gave them generous hospitality and assistance and Blakeley duly acknowledged Allchurch's part in a notable pioneering feat. Blakeley infers that he had met Allchurch on several subsequent occasions and their friendship was long standing if somewhat deferential on Blakeley's side, this did not stop Allchurch giving Blakeley some sharp advice on two occasions, the first as a result of meeting Harold Lasseter. Blakeley introduced Lasseter to Allchurch shortly after the Expedition arrived, and it was an embarrassing encounter as it soon became painfully obvious, under Allchurch's gentle but persistent cross examination, that Lasseter had never been in Alice Springs prior to 1930, "Mr Allchurch was very scathing and told me I was a fool to believe anything the fellow said". Blakeley too had misgivings about Lasseter's veracity at this stage, amply confirmed as the Expedition travelled west.
With Fred Colsons able help Allchurch made sure the Expeditions mail was delivered and he kept a concerned eye on their progress, at one stage prepared to countermand orders from the Sydney Crowd that would have left the Expedition in a dangerous position without fuel and supplies. When the Expedition returned to Alice Springs Blakeley sought Allchurch's advice on Philip Taylor's unusual Aboriginal artifact, the Sandhill God. Allchurch expressed rare displeasure, "he was very annoyed with me and gave me a good talking to. He said, to think that an old hand like you was sucked in by those myall natives like that". Allchurch explained the significance of the Kulpidji and the consequences of removing it from Illbilla. Ngapatjukurrpa, the Aboriginal custodian of the Kulpidji, had lost the only record of his antecedents and a a critical part of his tribal culture. There's a sense that Blakeley never quite understood the depth and enormity of souveniring Aboriginal curios.
Apart from his telegraphic and postal duties, Allchurch was a Justice of the Peace and a Special Magistrate, and 1929/30 was a busy time for the law in Alice Springs. The economic depression and completion of the railway saw a migration of undesirables to the Capital of Central Australia. The legal system was unable to cope, lacking expertise and being saddled with a mixed bag of laws inherited from the Northern Territory, South Australia and the Commonwealth, The prison had room for one white man but six could be squeezed in and the accused seldom had representation. Allchurch and his occasional colleagues on the bench had to make broad and generous interpretation of the laws, commonsense rather than justice prevailed. It was under these circumstances that Frank Green appeared before Allchurch in June 1929 charged with breaking and entering premises, a serious charge that warranted trail by jury in Darwin but at considerable expense and the absence of a police trooper to escort the prisoner. Allchurch reduced the charges to illegal possession of goods and being unlawfully on premises, and sentenced Green to three months, he was more or less thrown out of jail two months later to make room for the next felon. Green was fortunate in a fashion, a trail in Darwin may have resulted in a year or more in the infamous Fanny Bay prison and then the Lasseter saga may have taken a different course.
1929 was a difficult year for Allchurch personally, a number of aspersions had been cast on his good name by an Adelaide detective, who had been seconded to investigate theft from the Commonwealth Railways. Allchurch was implicated through unwittingly allowing stolen petrol to be stored on post office premises. The following investigations were both farcical and enlightening, many citizens of Alice Springs and thereabouts had received stolen railway goods, even Father Long had to account for the building materials in his new church, every hand made concrete brick was counted, measurements taken and volumes calculated, all was correct of course. The detective was completely out of touch with the workings of Central Australia and expanded his brief to include materials borrowed between Departments in his list of stolen goods. Again Allchurch was implicated when he couldn't produce receipts for fencing wire and netting loaned to him by his colleagues in the Engineering Branch. Apparently Detective Dayman couldn't understand the value of a handshake when doing business in Alice Springs. Canberra was so concerned that the inimitable Senior Postal Inspector Dix investigated the case.
It took Dix a couple of days to unravel the mess and make an ass of the southern flatfoot who had forgotten his original brief and set out on a crusade to prove the citizens of Central Australia the most corrupt in the land. He recognised the difficulties in applying the law in such a remote place and made practical suggestions. A few of the recipients of the stolen materials made restitution to the Railways and one fellow received a short jail term and then successfully claimed ten pounds legal expenses. Allchurch was cleared of any involvement with the stolen goods racket but he never received any apology for the false charges directed at him. He died while on leave in 1932, perhaps his sudden demise brought on by the stress of administering the law in Central Australia. Many accolades came Allchurch's way, one of the warmest came from Cecil Madigan when describing the atmosphere of the Telegraph Office, "They were a happy little community, and many can remember pleasant evenings, with song and music, under the Allchurch roof. Ernie Allchurch was in charge for twenty years or so, one of the characters of the country, huge and gentle, liked by all". And Madigan was a fine judge of men.
© R.Ross. 1999-2006
Errol Coote, Hell's Airport. 71 Fred Blakeley, Dream Millions. 8,9,119,145,161,166, Hard Liberty. 158. Cecil Madigan, Central Australia. 70. National Archives Australia, Title, Administration of Law in Central Australia. Series,A432. C/S, 1929/2000. pg.7. & Title, E. Allchurch - Special Magistrate & Local Court Auditor. Alice Springs. Series A1. C/S, 1935/7516.