No Such Thing as Co-incidence

In the Australian spring of 1965, two very different people arrived in Melbourne.

Rosemary Steele from Musselburgh was bored with her life, full though it was, and this led her to apply for an assisted passage to Australia. She was successful and made the decision to emigrate, agreeing to remain in Australia for at least two years. Dramatic as it sounds, her family and friends expected never to see her again.

John Sandell was an aircraft electrician from Gosport. He had successfully completed his apprenticeship as an electrician in the Naval Dockyard in Portsmouth but, having done four years National Service in the RAF, he moved to work at Fleetlands in the late 1950s. It was there he heard that the Australian government was looking for skilled workers including aircraft electricians. He applied and was offered a job.

Naturally he flew to Melbourne. In later life whenever anyone mentioned having been on holiday somewhere – anywhere! – John would remark that he’d been there. And he had: to the airport at least! These were the days of many refuelling stops when flying to Australia was a massive undertaking. Arriving in Melbourne, he rented a flat in Elwood, not far from St Kilda.

Rosemary went by sea, sharing a cabin with five other (unknown) women aboard the SS Australis. One of those women, Angela, became a lifelong friend. They sailed east via Egypt, Aden and Fremantle. Because of the weather, Australis was unable to dock at Station Pier in Melbourne, going on instead to Sydney. From there the unfortunate travellers went back to Melbourne by train. Rosemary was met by her aunt and uncle with whom she lived for a few weeks before renting a flat with Angela in the suburb of St Kilda, joining the Presbyterian Church there.

John also had an aunt and uncle living near Melbourne. Unlike Rosemary, however, he knew nothing about his relations, not even their address. Before leaving Hampshire, his elder sister had told him all she knew about their Scottish mother’s family. Connie knew that their mother’s sister had emigrated from Galashiels in the late 1920s; indeed, after her mother’s death, Connie had kept in touch until the war when it became difficult. She knew the family had been living in Geelong, Victoria’s second city and a major textiles centre, and that they had attended a Presbyterian Church there.

And so, one Sunday morning, John took the train to Geelong and found the Church Connie had mentioned – boarded up and clearly no longer in use. However, a local directed him to another Church in the neighbourhood, suggesting that he might find the people he was looking for there. Having come this far, it would have been foolish not to go another mile – so fortunately he did.

As he neared the Church, the congregation began to emerge. Noticing John hanging about, a gentleman approached him and asked if he could help. John replied that he was looking for his aunt and uncle, Aggie and Bill Armstrong. With a curious expression on his face, the man explained that they no longer attended this Church but that, as it happened, their daughter was married to his son! They were away that weekend but the man, who became known to John as Uncle Ted, invited him home for lunch.

That was the first of many meetings with his extended Australian family and also his introduction to Christianity. Over the next few months, John and Uncle Ted discussed the Christian faith and, for the first time in his life, John seriously considered what it was all about. Finally he decided that the claims and promises of the Bible were true and became a Christian himself. Encouraged by Uncle Ted, he began to go to Church, a Presbyterian Church naturally. St Kilda Presbyterian Church to be precise.

And it was there, in March 1966, that he met a young Scottish woman. As he told the story, he knew right away that he wanted to marry Rosemary Steele. Certainly, he wasted no time. They were engaged by June and married on Christmas Eve in the Church at St Kilda. The bridesmaid was Angela, Rosemary’s cabin mate, and John’s cousin’s son, Barry, Uncle Ted’s grandson, was his best man.

John and Rosemary set up home in Elwood, spending their free time travelling around Australia and with their families. John was considering becoming a minister and they thought very seriously about staying in Australia. However, they finally decided they would return to the UK. John was offered a job in Edinburgh and they booked a cabin on SS Orcades, leaving in October 1967. Rosemary had to be granted special permission to leave before her two years were up!

They sailed east, via New Zealand, Samoa, the Panama Canal and Madeira, so that Rosemary could circumnavigate the globe, arriving in a very snowy Southampton just before Christmas. John’s sisters met them there and they stayed a few days before going to Musselburgh for Christmas with Rosemary’s parents. Five months later, their first daughter was born and five years later John was ordained to the ministry, having studied for that time to gain the necessary qualifications.

To his dying day, John would never accept the idea of coincidence, citing this story as his reason. He believed unwaveringly that God had a plan for his life. John and Rosemary were, of course, my parents and it is I who was born in May 1968, having first sailed halfway round the world! My younger sister and I grew up on this story and many others of our parents’ time in Australia. But it wasn’t until 2010 that I went back to Australia, this time under my own steam! There I met my family, many for the first time, and visited places that seemed so familiar to me including St Kilda Presbyterian Church. It was emotional, my parents having died recently, but I had a wonderful time meeting people and seeing places my parents knew and loved.

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