top of page

METTAM, Bertram

Bert Mettam joined the NT Police in 1946 after a colourful military career including time as a POW (see article to right). He served in Alice Springs for a few years with many patrols and relief periods at bush stations. There were only 4 police officers in Alice Springs at the time.

He married Shiela Trainer in 1949 who was then a nurse in Alice Springs and soon after transferred to Timber Creek and then to Maranboy.

After being diagnosed with skin cancers in 1951he was pensioned and unable to work out in the sun and went on to be a salesman for RM Williams and then opened a Saddlery repair shop near Morphettville until retirement.

job to do - fix document conversion errors and bring into web page - images and links to additional stories to be added.

Articles in the 'Hoofs and Horns' magazine in the 1950s under the Nom-de-plume of 'John Stockman' were later attributed to Bert Mettam (Citation May 2010 - reprinted below)

In true Sherlock Holmes fashion, Citation donned the office deerstalker, whipped out the magnifying glass, even plucked the violin to aid contemplation, and uncovered the double life of a former NT Police Force officer with literary skills. The case arose when we were browsing through the interesting police section in Darwin’s NT Geneological Society, a valuable source of information on many subjects. A Society member was busily sorting out and cataloguing donated research files of Darwin author, Pearl Ogden. In a pile of tearsheets from the Hoofs and Horns magazine were numerous Territory Letters attributed to John Stockman who obviously knew much about the NT Police Force.

For example, in September l957, John Stockman wrote that the chairman of the NT Police Arbitral Tribunal, Mr Justice Kriewaldt, had rated Darwin’s climate as being such as to be included in the top category of disagreeable climates. The judge also remarked on the high cost of living and added the price of a Sunday newspaper (airlifted in from south ) was such that he could not afford one. These comments were made during the hearing of an application for a new police award. The tribunal, consisting of the judge, Sergeant Jim Mannion and a member of NT Administration, brought in increases across the board.

The December l958 edition carried an item about a run of sickness among senior police officers. During the last two months Sergeant Frank Fay and Jim Mclean had retired because of ill health. Inspector Bill McKinnon had been in hospital with a perforated ulcer and was south, his return doubtful. Inspector Sid Bowie was absent on two months’ sick leave with heart trouble. Inspector Stokes had left Darwin to take up the post as the Australian representative in the Cocos-Keeling group.

In the meantime,“that long suffering backstop”, Sergeant Jim Mannion, had stepped into the breech to carry on. The final comment: “ He (Mannion) shouldn’t miss out on his promotion this time.” Going on this praise, a lesser sleuth may have suspected the mysterious writer was Mannion, who had journalistic skills, doing a bit of self-promotion, but no.

A valuable clue surfaced when some of Stockman’s articles were illustrated with photographs by one Bert Mettam, a former NT policeman. Further on in the fascinating Ogden documents we stumbled upon part of the typescript of a short story written by Mettam about a brutal buffalo shooter. From time to time Stockman wrote items related to buffalo shooting, one in l954 saying the business was at a standstill in the Territory because of the failure of the market.

There was even a book review by him and another handwritten account of a road trip from Adelaide to the NT which mentioned the Sundown Murders and said author Bill Harney was the popular ranger at Ayers Rock (Uluru ).

Armed with this growing dossier of evidence about the identity of the scribe, we contacted author/historian/publisher Glenville Pike, who also contributed to Hoofs and Horns, to see if he knew this Stockman. Yes, almost certainly, Mettam had been the author of many interesting items in the magazine. (Hoofs and Horns ran advertisements for Pike’s North Australian Monthly which he started with the financial and literary support of Darwin’s Jessie Litchfield, several contributors being former NT mounties).

Conclusive evidence banking up, we tracked Bert Mettam to his Adelaide lair and gave him the third degree; eventually, he cracked under the withering interrogation. Laughing, 90- year- old Bert confessed : “ Yes, I was John Stockman.” His nom –de- plume had been bestowed upon by the owner of the magazine, Alec Williams, of Adelaide. Contributions had also be made to the Mulga Wire column in the same magazine and other publications.

When Citation blew Bert’s cover as John Stockman, he regaled us with tales from his early life in the NT and childhood brushes with the law. Born in the Darwin Hospital on February 6, l919, he was the son of Evlampia Holtze and Alfred Mettam, his father, a plumber, having come to Darwin to work in the construction of Vestey’s meatworks.

Bert’s maternal great grandparents were striking and talented people; great grandfather Maurice Holtze, born in Hanover, later part of West Germany, graduated in botany and horticulture at the Royal Gardens, St. Petersburg; his wife, Evlampia, was Russian. According to Bert, Holtze was involved in a brewery venture in Russia and something went wrong. As a result, he rushed home one day and told his wife to quickly pack up a small amount of their possessions and the family fled, migrating to Australia with four children in l872, ending up in Palmerston, later to become Port Darwin.

Holtze at first worked as a guard at the Palmerston Gaol and was later put in charge of the Darwin Government Gardens at Doctors Gully in l878. He later moved to the present Botanical Gardens site where he conducted many experiments and won prizes at interstate shows. Because of his fame, he was appointed director of the Adelaide Botanical Gardens in l891. Both he and his wife were buried on Kangaroo Island, South Australia.

Their son, Nicholas, took over as curator of the Darwin Botanical Gardens and was also the Government Secretary. One of his daughters, Evlampia, named after her grandmother, married Bert’s father. The NT Place Names Register says the Mettam’s were a talented couple who held evening socials in their house which included singing, talks and piano recitals. Mrs Mettam taught violin and piano.

The Darwin suburb of Ludmilla is named after Bert’s great aunt, Ludmilla Holtze. Mettam Road is named after Bert’s father. Recalling his childhood years, Bert said he and other boys regularly climbed a tree, one of several, near the picture show, which enabled a free view of movies. From time to time, spoilsport police officers arrived on the scene with torches and flashed the beams up into the branches. “It was just like a flight of startled cockatoos,” Bert chortled. “We took off, running in all directions.”

Another event at the Star Theatre he remembered were the regular private screening of movies to approve films as being fit for viewing by Aboriginals, a form of censorship. Dr Cook, the Chief Medical Officer, and somebody else from Aboriginal welfare would be ushered into the “dress circle” and the film rolled by Tom Harris, the theatre owner. Bert attended the Darwin Public School where he said the best teacher ever to come to the Territory was Ernest Tambling, whose son, Grant, became a Territory politician. A visitor to the school had been the author Ernestine Hill (see Mofflin family article this issue) who had her young son with her. The boy was left with someone while she went gathering material for her writings.

In 1930, Bert’s mother died in childbirth when he was 10. His father, who had been persecuted for his union involvement, ill and struggling on the dole, died in l931. Bert was left to look after his brother, John, three years younger than he. Aged 13, Bert left school and went to work as a messenger boy in the Lands Branch with other offices nearby, including the Mines Branch assay section. To get the position he had to sit an examination with another boy, and pipped him in a test.

The job involved pushing a heavy bike fitted with a basket back and forth between the offices where he was based up to the government offices on the Esplanade and the Administrator’s office in Government House. He knew of author Xavier Herbert when he was the pharmacist at the Darwin Hospital which then overlooked Doctor’s Gully. Herbert’s novel, Capricornia, had upset a lot of people in town, he added.

As the years went by Bert joined the militia and was a clerk in the Mines Branch by l939. The next year he joined the regular army and was in the 2/29th Infantry Battalion as a Platoon Sergeant in Malacca at the time of the Pearl Harbour attack. Falling back to Singapore before the Japanese onslaught, he became ill and was in hospital there, having a beer on his 22nd birthday, his last for three and a half years, as he became a prisoner of war. During his time on the Thai-Burma railway, mostly only clad in a loin clothe in the blazing sun, starved and beaten, he saw many of his mates die. His ordeal was included in On The Line Stories of the Thai-Burma Railway Survivors by Pattie Wright, Melbourne University Press, 2008.

After the war, before discharge, he applied to the NT Government Secretary, Harold Giles, who he knew from his earlier days in Darwin (Giles having even been the pound keeper back then), for a clerical position in Alice Spring, starting in July l946. There he met Sheila Trainer, a nurse, who had been in Darwin, and they married in l949. He joined the force and was posted to Timber Creek and Maranboy. There appears to have been a “romantic” start to his writing career. The dire shortage of women had been discussed one evening by single police officers over “a cup of tea”, Bert insisting there was no beer available at the time. Having been a good letter writer and keen to take up the pen, he wrote to Hoofs and Horns saying there was a fine bunch of men in Central Australia who would like to correspond with members of the opposite sex. Boy, did those letters flood in.

Bert said his mother had kept a large diary in Darwin and both parents had encouraged him to become educated and express himself clearly in writing. During his wartime ordeal he had the urge to take notes, keep something of a diary. He did not do so because the Japanese reacted ferociously to anybody caught writing anything down : “Christ!- You were in terrible trouble if they found you doing this. On moving camp, they would tear the place apart looking for any written material hidden away. Some people, of course, did keep a kind of diary, but I don’t know how they were able to do so.”

Afflicted by skin cancers caused by the exposure to sun during the war, he went south for treatment and was advised to quit the Territory as it would aggravate his condition. Over the years he would lose an eye, nose and ear and was reported as saying he would have nothing to hang his glasses on if he lost the other ear.

Moving to Adelaide, and because he could not live on “fresh air”, he obtained a job as storeman in a music and electrical store in Rundle Street. In addition, he began writing material for Hoofs and Horns under the name of John Stockman. Items were also provided for another section in the magazine, Mulga Wire. His vast knowledge of Darwin in particular and his experience in the police force gave him a wealth of ideas for writing, including short stories. Much time was spent in the public library, researching and reading newspapers. While in the library he delved into the records relating to the Holtze family which had contributed much to the development of the Territory and South Australia. A great granddaughter of Maurice and Evlampia Holtze, Wynnis J Ruediger, published The Holtze Saga in 1988.

Bert had dealings with the renowned bushman, R.M.Williams, and later did saddle repair work and set up a saddlery business near Morphettville Racecourse. The family suffered a terrible blow when a daughter and three grandchildren were killed in the l983 bushfires.

While talking with Citation, Bert said he did not get around much now because his driving licence had been taken away. Even now, when he went shopping, Mrs Mettam walked so fast he could not keep up with her.

He sent his regards to Pearl Ogden whose research papers put us on the trail of John Stockman. Of course, we could have asked her at the outset for the identity of John Stockman, but it would have been too easy. Besides, we enjoyed the manhunt. Discussing Citation, Bert said the magazine’s founder, Jim Mannion, had filled its pages with great stories about the early days of the police force.

Naturally, Bert was able to reveal yet another side to another literary minded member of the force, Constable Vic Hall. Hall, he said, liked singing and had a “crackly”, distinctive voice. In Hall’s autobiographical book, Outback Policeman, first published in l970, he told of the time he burst into song when he and his boss, Major Dudley were forced to walk for eight hours after the car they were travelling in broke down. Major Dudley joined in the singing, which conjures up a fascinating scenario - the Commissioner of Police and a lowly constable engaged in a sing- along. As they both had served in WW1, some French ditties may have been included as they legged it along the rough track.

There is an interesting batch of Bert Mettam photographs in the NT Library online collection. These cover his early childhood in Darwin through to his time at Timber Creek and Maranboy. The ones taken in Darwin present an image of the happy life he and his brother led with their enlightened parents before the tragic death of his mother, followed soon after by that of his father. A l923 shot shows Bert, sporting a bowtie, posing with his parents and brother. In another fine study taken two years later, he again has a bowtie and long socks as he and brother pose with their mother, a rocking horse in the background, at their Myilly Point residence. Bert and brother John are seen in a group of children in fancy dress. Bert appears to be dressed like the silent movie child star, Jackie Coogan, a cap slewed across his face; another boy is decked out to be a rooster. Bert hams it up in his father’s coat tails in another snap. There is a l949 photo of Bert and his wife sitting on railings with Wason Byers, a controversial cattleman, given to brawling, at Timber Creek. Bert and policeman Ted

Morey are shown together at what seems to be strange for the bush- a white picket fence- at Maranboy. Bert’s mother is the subject of several photos-aged l5 with a violin, said to be a pupil of the Adelaide Conservatorium of Music; dressed for tennis in Darwin with a racquet; married, in white, with a parasol. While she is buried in the pioneers cemetery in Darwin, her husband died and was buried in WA.

There is a photograph of boys, including Bert and John, returning to Darwin aboard the Koolinda from WA where their father had gone seeking work, apparently without much success. Pearl Ogden has written seven books about the NT. When she started the Katherine Historical Society back in the l970s, the first letter she received with information was from Bert Mettam, which caused delight and fuelled her enthusiasm for gathering material about the Territory to turn into books.

20 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Relationships with Aboriginal Women

The following paragraphs taken from "A Force Apart?" detail relationships between Aboriginal Women and NT Police members in a historical context. It is important to consider this in the context of it

Jackie Gordon

(from "A Force Apart?") A more recent example of the life of a police wife was that of Mrs Jackie Gordon, whose husband, John Gordon, was stationed at Timber Creek in 1957. Again, life had hardly chan

Vicki Darken

(from "A Force Apart?") There are no extant records of the loneliness the early police wives felt, but life had hardly changed by 1945 when Vicki Darken lived with her husband at Harts Range Police St


bottom of page