Stories of faith, family and flood

Peter Bogan is the first recipient of‘Community Connect’, an NRMA/State Emergency Service commendation recognising those who have contributed significantly to improving their community’s resilience in the face of natural disasters. Tracey Edstein spent some time with Peter recently.

Dorothea Mackellar, when living at Torryburn, wrote about droughts and flooding rains, and the Lower Hunter region has experienced both, but it's the latter that has captured Maitland man Peter Bogan's imagination. He was a teenager when his family home, newly built at Horseshoe Bend – 'the Bend' to locals– was devastated in the 1949 flood, and again in 1955. "Do you know how hard it is to lift a roll of sodden carpet down from inside the roof? " he asked.

Talking to Peter, and listening to his torrent of stories, it's hard not to be drawn into the spirit of the times. Peter is not one to sugar coat his memories, or the vast amount of information he has gathered over the years, but he does have an appreciation for the way Maitland rose to the occasion. "There was no SES, but the police, the army and the air force all came, and lifesavers from Newcastle brought their boats and rowed until their hands bled. Then they bandaged them and rowed some more.” Some 400 locals were rescued from roofs and other places of relative safety by one group alone, working from Maitland Hospital.

"Everyone talks about the '55 flood, but there were major floods in '49, ’51 and ‘52, as well as 1889, 1891 and 1893." Peter has a particular sympathy for the men from places like Millers Forest who had to leave the farm and work in industry because too many floods in too few years had made it impossible to wrest a living from the land.

No one who lived through it could think there was anything even vaguely romantic about prolonged and repeated flooding, but Peter is quick to tell tales of remarkable generosity that soften the harsh reality a little. He believes passionately in the importance of others knowing the truth of what happened, “after I’m gone”.

He recalls, "A man who owned a hardware business in Newcastle summoned his yard hand one Monday morning, telling him to take the truck and tools and head to Maitland to help in any way he could. Take anything you need, and I don't want to see you for a week. He paid him his wages,rather than making a donation."

Getting to Maitland post-'55 flood wasn't easy, with so many roads impassable. One day a barely recognisable ambulance, covered in mud, arrived at Maitland Hospital, having taken the long way from Cessnock. It was filled withpies and sandwiches, agift from the people ofCessnock. The hospital had no food, water or power, but a water truck duly arrived, and electricians from out of town came to restore power. "I don't know howthey did it," said Peter.

 Researching Maitland’s history keeps Peter “busy in my old age" although he's a youthful 79. It's not all about floods; he's interested in various aspects of World War I, with particular reference to the local area, and if someone asks him a question he can't answer, he takes it on as a project.

He's a keen member of Maitland Historical Society, and was instrumental in the SES exhibition at Maitland City Hall in February to mark the 60th anniversary of the '55 flood.

Reflecting on happy school days, at St John the Baptist Primary and then Marist Brothers, he recalls, "I could hear the first bell ring at home in Carrington Street and still arrive at school on time." He describes the Brothers who taught him as "hard men for hard times" but his affection, even admiration, for them is reflected in the fact that he is a proud affiliate of the Marist Brothers. He wears his 'old boys' Marist tie to this day. Peter can tell many stories of what it was to be a Catholic in sectarian times, although he says that ‘the Bend’ families “fought the river all those years and they fought together”.

With five sons and four grandchildren –three boys and a girl – there's plenty of scope for the next generation of Bogans to share the stories. He was delighted when four-year-old Lexie Grace, having visited the February exhibition, announced that the spare block at the end of Free Church Street was, "mud from the flood!"

Peter shares his knowledge and understanding of the flood years through a popular series of five local walks. "Once people do one walk, they want to do all five." There's even an app so you can walk independently – but then you would miss Peter's insights and stories, and the opportunity to ask him a question which might lead to his next project.

Of Irish ancestry - the Bogans arrived in Maitland from County Fermanagh in 1842 – Peter uses an Irish word, seanchaí, meaning storyteller or historian. There is no doubt that he is fulfilling the important role of the seanchaí by preserving and telling lovingly the stories of his community.

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Tracey Edstein Image
Tracey Edstein

Tracey Edstein is the editor of Aurora Magazine, the official magazine of the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle.

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