Of Flying Doctors and Frontier Faith
by Ivan Rudolph
John Flynn was born at Moliagul, a Victorian mining town, on 25th November 1880. His parents were, Thomas Eugene Flynn, a school teacher and lay preacher and Rosetta Lester who were married in April 1876. She died in 1883. John was the youngest of three children and graduated from secondary school in 1898.
Although not lonely he spent hours by himself in the countryside dreaming dreams, one of which was to become a minister in the Presbyterian Church. He attended University High School at Parkville to obtain the necessary entry qualifications. Not having any money, a problem he faced most of his life, to attend University he became a pupil teacher when he was 18 years old.
Despite being a dreamer John was highly involved with people of all ages. He formed a successful Sunday School, took up leadership of the Footscray Young Men’s Bible Club and organised Bible Studies. During the long school vacations of 1902 he travelled by bicycle touring the drought-stricken farmlands of Western Victoria, camping out in his home made tent. He made a little money taking photographs and writing about his experiences for the Melbourne newspapers.
Sometimes he wondered if he should abandon his dream of becoming a minister and instead become a ‘home missionary’. He was appointed as such in 1903. Finally he began his official training for the ministry in 1907, aged 26. His first major contribution to solve the isolation of people in the outback was his highly successful 111 pages booklet The Bushman’s Companion in September 1910.
John Flynn graduated from a four-year course in Divinity at Melbourne University in 1910, and was ordained in the Flinders Street Presbyterian Church, Adelaide at the age of 30 on 24 January 1911. A few days later he was on his way to Beltana where Robert Mitchell had pioneered the first and only itinerant ministry to Inlanders at the Smith of Dunesk Mission. Flynn’s lifelong connection and concern with the outback and its isolated people had started in earnest.
After his introduction to Beltana and the bush ministry John planned his first of many trips. He would travel nearly 400 km to the railhead of Oodnadatta. With the help of storekeeper William Coultas he stocked up with everything and anything for the long journey. His first stop was Leigh’s Creek, now called Copley, where he conducted church services.
At Oodnadatta he met Sister Latto Bett, a Smith of Dunesk nurse. He soon realised that the outback needed a hospital rather than a church. Where better than at Oodnadatta? He took his rough plans, drawn up in Beltana, to Port Augusta and Adelaide to have them done professionally. It was constructed by Tom Trottman of Port Augusta and transported by train to Oodnadatta. Flynn built most of the furniture himself.
The hospital was officially opened on 10 December by Robert Mitchell. Sister Bett had soon some benches placed on its verandah and every morning she taught 30 of the local children. Flynn’s next trip was along the Birdsville Track. At the different stations he became acutely aware of the problems mothers faced educating their children. After his return to Beltana he worked on another issue of the ‘Outback Battler’, a quarterly magazine he had started.
During 1912 Flynn went to the Northern Territory where he met Mrs Jessie Litchfield who told him about conditions there. One of them being the sexual exploitation of Aboriginal women and the breeding of half-cast children to work on the cattle stations. He travelled widely to collect as much information as possible, visiting such places as Darwin, Katherine, Pine Creek and Bathurst Island.
He also went to see Mrs Jeannie Gunn, author of We of the Never Never, for some ideas. On 26 September he handed in his report, of which eventually 5000 copies were printed resulting in the establishment of the Bush Brigade and his appointment as Field Superintendent. Soon after Robert Bruce Plowman was appointed Flynn’s first missionary of the Inland. He moved to Beltana and later Oodnadatta to launch the first ministry patrols into the Red Centre.
Flynn’s ability to befriend almost anyone within minutes of meeting was extraordinary. However one group whose friendship he needed most but didn’t get for a long time was his own controlling Board, the Home Mission Board. It voted the new mission the Australian Inland Mission, AIM, against his wishes. He would have preferred Frontier Service, which it became many years later.
After a visit to Alice Springs and realising the need for more information about the centre he proposed the publication of a new magazine to educate people about it. After much opposition the Board agreed and Flynn produced single-handedly The Inlander, which came off the press in December 1913. Nothing quite like it had appeared in Australia before. Teachers and University lecturers in particular were very appreciative of its information and statistics which were not available elsewhere.
In his search for additional patrol ministers Flynn preached his heart out in churches, at youth meetings and rallies. The outbreak of war was a major set-back for his recruiting and fundraising. Regardless of these problems he was able to establish a hospital at Port Hedland in February 1915 which became a stunning success. Further hospitals were established at Alice Springs and Maranboy.
Despite his hard work transport in the Inland remained one of the biggest problems. Cars had been an improvement but were still too slow in emergencies when vast distances over unmade, or no roads were involved. As far back as 1912, while on the Birdsville Track he concluded that ‘the wings of death were swifter than camels or horses’. He now wondered if aeroplanes could provide the solution.
It is here where Ivan Rudolph’s superb story telling excels. He manages to relate all Flynn’s problems, disappointments, intervention of war, lack of money, equipment and people, and final success in 1928 when the Flying Doctor Service was incorporated, into a compelling narrative. In describing these years of struggle and almost super-human efforts, when so much happened, including the solving of communication problems by Alf Traeger, readers will find it hard to put the book aside, even for a short time.
After his final success Flynn took a well-earned holiday, his first in 20 years! He visited the Middle East, England, and France where he attended the First International Congress on Aerial Medical Service. After that he went to Ireland investigating his ancestry followed by a trip to Germany, Switzerland and America.
Having returned to Australia he worked as hard as before keeping the flying doctor in the air. Slowly more money came in. A fundraising rodeo organised by Sidney Kidman raised £1000. Newspaper articles by Flynn also advertised the AIM and the flying doctor resulting in still more donations. In 1932 Ion Idriess wrote the best-seller Flynn of the Inland which gave even more publicity. That same year he even found time and courage to marry his long-time personal secretary Jean Baird. He was now 51.
In June 1933 Flynn was awarded the Order of the British Empire, OBE. It did not stop him travelling for months, sleeping in his swag under the stars. A lot of time was spent in Western Australia at Port Hedland, Wyndham and Halls Creek setting up flying doctor bases. In 1937 he and Fred McKay went to Cape York to investigate its medical needs and starting another base in Far North Queensland. With a welcome cheque of £3000 from Artie Fadden he was able to finance his new Dunbar Hospital.
By the end of 1939 John Flynn had realised his dream. A mantle of safety now covered the Inland of Australia. To put a crown on his achievements he was elected to the highest office in the Presbyterian Church, Moderator-General, which he held for many years. To the bushman he had become a legend, they referred to him as Our Flynn. John Flynn died on 5 May 1951. His ashes together with those of his wife Jean are buried at Alice Springs.
Review by Nic Klaassen
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