Silver Lies, Golden Truths Broken Hill, a gentle German and two world wars

Silver Lies, Golden Truths

Broken Hill, a gentle German and two world wars

Silver Lies, Golden Truths.
Broken Hill, a gentle German and two world wars

Christine Ellis


Reinhold John Schuster was born in Germany on 12 November 1885. Leading a normal everyday kind of life, which included schooling and working at home to support the family income, he was conscripted for army service and called up on 12 October 1904. Four months later he became the father of Johanna, which didn’t impress his parents.

After completing his army duties he was finally discharged on 27 September 1906 but could be recalled at any time if needed. For the next few years he travelled around Europe learning different job skills always looking for better and more interesting opportunities.

They became available by the end of 1911 when he signed on as crewmember of the Rostock which arrived at Fremantle on 1 March 1912. It proved to be the end of his normal every day kind of life. He swam ashore to take in the sights of Fremantle followed by the Margaret River area and finally the Golden Mile. After some seven months of roaming the Western Australian bush he signed on as a trimmer on the Riverina which reached Port Adelaide on 9 October 1912.

Arriving at Port Adelaide he jumped ship once more and headed for Port Pirie. Working for a while at the wharves he soon decided that better opportunities would be available at the mines in Broken Hill, discovered by Charles Rasp, another German and soon known as the Silver City. He also expected it to be a safer place and less likely that he would be recognised as a deserter. After all jumping ship was still illegal.

The best and cheapest way to travel was to ‘jump the rattler’. A short stop at Petersburg resulted in a lengthy delay and when continued it was a paid trip and with the company of 20-year old Lillian Fairweather. They arrived at Broken Hill in April 1914. When he took up his first job as underground miner, almost 400 men had already died in the Silver City’s mines.

As it turned out, Jack, as he was now known, was the wrong man, in the wrong town at the wrong time. This is perfectly made clear by the book’s author. Chapters such as ‘Enemy alien’ and ‘A mob’s wrath’ leave no doubt about it. Broken Hill was most certainly not the place it was supposed to be.

Regardless of Australia’s involvement in the war, union troubles, unemployment, anti-German sentiments and the general animosity towards foreigners, Jack and his English born Lillian were married on 29 August 1914. Although very happy with each other the war years were a nightmare. Jack was, and remained a popular and valued team member and as such was highly respected. At the same time he was respectful and obliging when he had to report at the police station every week.

However there was always the fear of internment at Torrens Island or violence against him or his wife on the street, the constant name-calling and his inability to leave the city. Worst still was the matter of who could be trusted and who could not. Added to this was the constant worry about the treatment of other Germans, many of whom had been in Australia for years or even born in Australia. Naturally Jack worried about his family back in Germany as well.

If all this was not enough he also had to cope with his wife’s poor and rapidly declining health. Eventually he had to stop work to look after her. She died on 29 May 1920, only 26 years old. She was buried at the Church of England Cemetery. It left Jack devastated but he learned to cope and remained single for a number of years. This changed when he met Rosina Mary Seward through his involvement with the Lutheran Church.

Rosina was born in Wilcannia in 1890 and was a widow with 5 children. Not only did he willingly take on this ready-made family, he was keen to add to it. After their marriage on 24 March 1925 the new Schuster family soon settled into a hectic but happy routine and in March 1928 they had a son which was named Reinhold. Their happiness was only short lived as the baby died in November. He was buried in Lillian’s grave as she had always wanted a son but never did.

A second son was born on 2 June 1929 and named Alwyn John. Daughter Maisie was born on 7 October 1930 and Maxwell George in 1932. With such a large family a new house was bought with plenty of room for a vegetable garden, fruit trees and grape vines. After working 20 years underground Jack too had ‘dust on the lungs’, had to go on ‘compo’ and was granted a living wage of £3/6/6, not much for such a large family.

As married women were banned from working Rose was unable to add to this meagre amount. For more than ten years, miners no longer fit to work underground had become ‘blockers’. They were now joined by Jack and the family moved to Menindee. They eventually returned to Broken Hill in 1937.

In April 1938 Jack left for a visit to Germany to visit his brothers and sisters and daughter Johanna. The trip was paid for by his uncle who thought a sea voyage would do wonders for Jack’s lungs. Some people expected him to stay in Germany but he was back by October. By the end of the 1930’s money was hard to come by. Nearly 2500 men were unemployed in Broken Hill.

With the outbreak of WWII things went from bad to worse. The family once more felt isolated and ostracised. This time the treatment of and approach toward enemy aliens was different, it was more organised. Within a week of declaring war on Germany the Schuster home was raided by the police to interrogate Jack and confiscate anything German, including personal letters. The children were terrified and Jack had to register again. This time Rose was declared an alien too. The possibility of internment was as likely as it had been during the previous war.

Unbeknown to the Schuster family a petition was circulating in Broken Hill for an exemption of internment for Jack. Jack’s health meanwhile had deteriorated and he died on 14 August 1940, aged 54. He was buried in the same grave as his first wife Lillian and his first born son with Rose. Jack's 'migration' and life had been very different from many of the thousands of Germans who had migrated before and after him.

Christine Ellis has told Jack’s remarkable true story to read like a poignant tale about an extraordinary man, interesting and captivating. At the same time she narrates what was happening in the Silver City, much of it unknown to most readers. There was certainly more to Broken Hill than Unions, two-ups, strikes and the mining related diseases and deaths. The book debunks the myth of solidarity and is much more than just another family history. In Ellis’ words ‘the story of Broken Hill runs alongside Jack’s but it’s a different story to that traditionally told. Long renowned as the birthplace of Australia’s industrialisation, Broken Hill has worn a badge of solidarity – of common interest generating power to overcome adversity. It’s a myth. Jack’s eyes saw into the soul of the town and found a hotbed of powerlessness and divisiveness’.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Silver Lies, Golden Truths by Christine Ellis,
PB, 296 pp, with B&W photographs, is available at $29.95, from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455


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