Eden’s Phil McGrath is a living link to a communication system that kept Australians in touch for over 100 years.
The dots and dashes of the Morse code telegraph system are a language he has used for a half century, a language that is now only used by a handful of civilians in this state and only 100 or so across the country.
Last Saturday Phil accepted the honour of life membership to the Eden Killer Whale Museum, where he has practiced his trade for over 20 years.
The eighth person to receive such an honour, Phil was commended for his efforts for preserving and demonstrating the Morse code and telegraphy system and engaging with institutions such as the Telstra Museum in Bankstown and others in Western Australia, Queensland, South Australia, Victoria and the ACT.
Phil was born at Culcairn in 1934, the second eldest in a brood of seven. Steam trains rumbled past their home, the railway providing work for his father, a fettler on the Burrinjuck line, and his grandfather, who worked on the Cooma line.
With a lot of effort, the family’s herd of dairy cows provided enough butter, cream and milk for the table along with a surplus which was sold in town, a few miles down the track.
Phil helped milk the cows each morning before school, but he loved to do a round of the rabbit traps, which was much more exciting for a young boy. He also enlisted the help of a family of ferrets to help control the wild rabbit population. “They were stinking things, there to do a job and you kept your fingers out of the way,” Phil said.
“Sometimes when you were out with them the rotten things would get in a nest of kittens and get their belly full and go to sleep and then you’d have to dig the things out.
“Boy they used to get down deep sometimes too. Sometimes you would just say ‘Bugger you, you can stop there’.”
Just before Christmas in 1948, Phil left school at 14, a year earlier than was allowed, to work as a rouseabout and telegraph messenger at the Post Master General’s department. After Christmas he was taken on full time as a telegraph messenger, sat an entrance exam and was transferred to Albury. By 1951 he was on his way to Strathfield, Sydney to train as a Morse code operator.
“I’d never seen the city or the sea before,” he said.
“We used to ride our pushbikes to Bondi and Bronte and a few of those places.” After training Phil spent a few months in Canberra, then was sent to work on the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Scheme.
He spent seven months serving a camp of 6000 workers, with 32 nationalities.
“There was a lot of sign language too trying to talk to everyone,” Phil said. Then it was off to the busy office, and love, at Yass.
“On a busy day in Yass you could be transmitting 30 to 40 telegrams an hour,” Phil said.
He courted Val, a girl from Milton, and they married and moved to take over the post office at Candelo.
“They soon had me running up and down the coast and to the tablelands and back up the Snowy. It’s not much good when you have kids, so we ended up back in Canberra,” Phil said.
The government began winding up the Morse code system soon after Phil, Val and their four children moved to a hobby farm at Jigamy on the June long weekend in 1962, for Phil to be acting postmaster in Eden.
“They began phasing Morse code out about six months after we moved here,” he said.
“A lot of people moved to other government departments, to foreign affairs but I wanted to stay.”
The family were kept busy running a little hobby farm at Jigamy Creek, selling surplus food to local caravan parks. Local businessman Al Armstrong offered Phil a job as a junior clerk at Armstrong and Evans department store, later promoting him to general manager.
“There was a bit of a story that Al advertised for an office girl and the local post master applied,” he chuckles.
Life settled for the next seven years when the appeal of modern appliances gave Phil and Val the idea to launch their own venture, an appliance service business which they ran until 2000. Sadly, Val passed away in 2006, five weeks and five days shy of their 49th wedding anniversary.
Phil's faith and love of work has been a driving force behind the several community icons. His dearest is the restoration of Mary MacKillop Hall, the former Catholic Church which now commemorates Australia’s first saint.
“I suppose it’s my favourite, because of the effort put into it and the involvement of Mary MacKillop, having visited Eden and her history here.”
Phil’s community involvement extended to the establishment of the Eden Swimming Pool and the beautification of the Eden Historic Cemetery. But it is the Morse code connection through which Phil is most recognised, and it almost didn’t evolve.
“When Morse finished, the equipment was supposed to go back to government stores but it never ever did,” he said. “It finished up in a showcase at the museum for 30 years.”
“One day I walked past it and I remember mentioning it to someone that we should get it going again.”
He feels saddened that the skill is dying out in the general population.
“It’s almost impossible to train someone now because of the commitment needed to learn the code parrot fashion and then getting the opportunity for very intense training and practise,” he said.
Send a telegram through Phil at the Eden Killer Whale Museum each Tuesday and Wednesday between 11am to 2pm. Read more about the museum here.