L A Wells (SLSA)
At that time, Police Constable Jack Kennett, his wife Isabel and their five children lived at the lonely Charlotte Waters Police Station. One of the Kennett family's neighbours, the McDill family from Old Andado Station, went south for the Christmas holidays in 1935. On their return early in February 1936 Jack Kennett met them at Abminga Railway Siding and took them back to Charlotte Waters where they had left their vehicle. On their arrival at the station Mrs Eleanor Lucy McDill was unwell and wanted to return to Adelaide. Her husband, Robert McDill, had to return to the station and so their young daughter Lois stayed with the Kennett family. Unbeknown to them all the Kennett’s five children, young Jack aged 12 years, Jim 10 years, Joyce eight, Joe six, and baby Rosslyn aged 18 months had been infected with diphtheria.
A few days after the McDills' visit, Joyce injured herself playing in the yard and needed medical attention. The track from Charlotte Waters to Alice Springs was treacherous and the journey took several days. There were many sandy patches in the dry Finke River to cross and about 30 kms of high Depot Sand Hills, north of Horseshoe Bend. The train from Adelaide was due that day at the Abminga Siding, so Jack and his Aboriginal tracker, Tracker Bob, travelled by rail with Joyce to Alice Springs. Joyce received treatment at the Australian Inland Mission Hospital, later known as Adelaide House. While in Alice Springs the travellers stayed with Jim Orr and his wife in their railway cottage. The population in Alice Springs then was about 600 people.
Isabel Kennett remained at Charlotte Waters to look after the other children and attend to the Post Office duties. A day or two later baby Rosslyn became very sick. Isabel rang her husband Jack to ask him to get a lift back to Charlotte Waters and drive her and the baby up to Alice Springs to see Doctor Paddy Reilly, the Government Residential Medical Officer. However Dr Reilly had left the Alice that morning to go to Horseshoe Bend with Claude Golder to see a man who was very sick with suspected arsenic poisoning.
Jack asked Father Percy McDonald Smith to drive him to Charlotte Waters. Father Percy at that time was involved in levelling the ground in Bath Street to start the building of the Church of the Ascension. He agreed to go but first had to mend a spring in his utility. The party consisting of Fr Percy, his little dog Ditto, Jack, Vic Pearce and Tracker Bob set off on the afternoon of 13 February 1936.
A nightmare period of 11 days followed in the February heat and harsh conditions for the Kennett family, friends and neighbours, yet worse was to come. Fr Percy and his companions drove from the Alice down the track which led through Maryvale Station. When they reached the Depot Sand Hills they found Claude Golder and Dr Reilly bogged in one of the worst sand dunes.
Jack eventually was able to drive the doctor's car out of the sand bog and they all proceeded to Horseshoe Bend. The doctor attended to the sick patient, while Jack investigated the possible suspicious circumstances of the poisoning. Isabel now rang to say that baby Rosslyn's condition had deteriorated. The doctor spoke to her on the phone and diagnosed diphtheria. He was anxious to see the baby so both cars set off for Charlotte Waters where they arrived about midnight. Dr Reilly gave the baby serum and at about 3.30am both vehicles left for Alice Springs. Jack drove Isabel, baby Rosslyn and Tracker Bob. Fr Percy took Dr Reilly in his utility, while Vic Pearce stayed at Charlotte Waters to look after the three Kennett boys and Lois McDill, as well as to attend to the Post Office.
Knowing that Fr Percy was an inexperienced bush driver and that it was dark and tracks difficult to see, Jack tried to keep Fr Percy's headlights in sight of his rear view mirror. After a while he realised the utility was not following him. Jack waited, fearing Fr Percy must have taken a wrong turn but after half an hour, with the baby very ill, Jack continued on to Horseshoe Bend.
When Dr Reilly arrived at Horseshoe Bend, Gus Elliott immediately drove him to Rumbalara Siding to catch the train to Alice Springs. Fr Smith and the bogged utility were retrieved and also taken to Horseshoe Bend. Later in the day, Vic Pearce telephoned Jack in Alice Springs to say that young Jack and Jim had both developed sore throats. A passing traveller kindly agreed to drive the three Kennett boys and Louis McDill to Horseshoe Bend to meet Fr Percy. There Mrs Ruby Elliott, a trained nurse, seeing the baby's condition, suggested she travel with them. Just after they had passed Maryvale Station little baby Rosslyn died in the arms of her heart broken mother. Mrs Elliott then nursed the little body and the sad group continued to Alice Springs.
Isabel was put in quarantine and had to stay at the Orr's cottage. The Methodist Minister, the Rev Harry Griffiths, officiated at baby Rosslyn's funeral as Fr Percy had not arrived in the Alice as yet. Jack Kennett had to carry the little coffin and place it in the grave himself, while grieving friends had to stay 20 metres away because of the quarantine regulations. Sister Jones, wife of Jack Jones, the Welfare Officer at The Bungalow, helped Mrs Orr look after her charges.
Although the Kennett family was in quarantine, the town’s women cooked meals and passed them through the hedge to help Mrs Orr. Meanwhile, Fr Percy and Dr Reilly had driven through the night on bush tracks but realized when the sun rose that they had missed the turn off in the darkness and had driven about 70 km west instead of north. They turned around but later the car became bogged in the sand. They tried to dig the vehicle out all day in the hot February sun. By late afternoon they decided to walk the remaining distance to Horseshoe Bend a distance of about 60 km. Tormented by flies and the heat they had to rest often. At midnight Dr Reilly decided to walk ahead as Fr Percy was small and frail.
The doctor was anxious to get to the Alice as he was worried about the two little Kennett girls. He took a long drink from the water bag, which he left with Fr Percy, and set off. Fr Percy continued to walk as far as he could, then decided to rest using the water bag for a pillow. When he awoke, he found the weight of his head on the bag had pushed the cork out and all the water had seeped into the sand, so he and his little dog had to continue on without any water at all.
Jack was worried that Fr Percy would have trouble in the Depot Sand Hills so he set off with two friends and Tracker Bob to meet him. However, Jack's vehicle broke down south of Maryvale Station at Alice Well. The next morning Fr Percy arrived at Alice Well. Jack and his offsiders piled into the utility, making five adults, four children, two of them sick with diphtheria, and the dog. They eventually arrived in Alice Springs. Meanwhile, little Joyce Kennett had also succumbed to diphtheria. Jack, who had saved enough money from his constable's wage was able to send his eldest son to boarding school in the February. However, the pilot was delayed with dust storms and also had to stop at Farina to pick up antidiphtheria serum. When the plane arrived in the Alice it was late at night and needed servicing.
In the morning Dr Reilly woke Jack to tell him that Joyce's heart was failing and she was too ill to travel on the plane. Fr Percy went to her bedside and started to say The Lord's Prayer. The little girl rallied and joined in saying the prayer to the end, then died. Jack Kennett had to open the grave again and carry his daughter to bury her with her little sister. Fr Percy officiated at the service at which everyone wept. Jack went home to Charlotte Waters to pack up the little girls' toys and clothes to save his wife the anguish.
Isabel and the two older boys also succumbed to diphtheria and were in quarantine for a month. Dr Reilly later asked the police authorities to transfer Constable Kennett to a different place, where he and his family would not have such sad memories. However, it was nearly a year before Jack was transferred to Alice Springs.
In appreciation of Fr Percy's help and ministry, Jack and Isabel Kennett donated the marble font to the Church of the Ascension. It is inscribed with the little girls' names, Joyce and Rosslyn, and the text, "Suffer the Little Children". The names of Constable Jack Kennett, his wife Isabel and children have been perpetuated in Alice Springs in the street named Kennett Court.
Thanks to J.Petrick and The Alice Springs News who supplied some of the information.