William and Eva Keast: Life on the railway at Nambucca Heads following World War I

World War I caused unprecedented disruption in regional Australia. For many pioneers of districts like the Macleay and the Nambucca sons were relied upon for labour and security in farming and industry.

Thomas Keast, of West Kempsey had lost his wife, Ada Jane, nee Milligan, at the age of 29 in 1897 leaving him with two young sons, William Robert and Ernest Francis.

One can easily imagine that having them both enlist and go overseas would have been an enormous sacrifice financially and emotionally.

William enlisted in 1914 at the age of 19 and his brother Ernest followed in 1916.

William Keast

William Keast

As William's civilian occupation was a drover, his skill at horsemanship saw him serve in the 6th Light Horse Regiment. He saw active service at Gallipoli, Egypt and in France at many noted battlefields. William was uninjured from his active service, however he was plagued with dysentery, fevers and influenza which required several spells in military and civilian hospitals in Malta, Egypt and England.

There is an impassioned letter, dated 1916, written by his father asking to send his "boy back home again" to regain his strength and "get him strong enough to go back to the front."

It seems his plea was unheeded with William being discharged from the AIF on July 1, 1919 after four years and 235 days of service.

Within four months of returning to Kempsey, William had married Eva Ellen Avery, the daughter of a local boat builder and carpenter.

William Keast pictured right, groom is Leslie Milligan, his wife Olive Dickson, Nina Milligan seated and likely Doris Milligan on the far left. Photo courtesy of Brendan Goswell.

William Keast pictured right, groom is Leslie Milligan, his wife Olive Dickson, Nina Milligan seated and likely Doris Milligan on the far left. Photo courtesy of Brendan Goswell.

He worked for the local council and the Post Master General before joining the railways at Nambucca Heads as a fettler in 1927.

They lived at the Nambucca Heads railway station property for 34 years and were in charge of the Pacific Highway level crossing gates for most of that time.

Nambucca Heads Railway Station 1924. Photo courtesy of Nambucca Headland Museum.

Nambucca Heads Railway Station 1924. Photo courtesy of Nambucca Headland Museum.

The station consisted of a single sided platform, station building, several fettler's cottages, and a station master's cottage. The current station building was erected by 1945 after the original was destroyed by fire.

Railway Fettlers cottage 1920s still standing in renovated condition at Nambucca Heads. Photo: Rachel Burns

Railway Fettlers cottage 1920s still standing in renovated condition at Nambucca Heads. Photo: Rachel Burns

William and Eva had three sons and a daughter. William was active in his community and was a voluntary first aid attendant in sport for many years.

Sadly, William collapsed and died while helping put a Sheffield trolley on the railway line at the age of 67. Eva stayed on at the railway cottage and continued to work as the gatekeeper. She died in 1974 and they are buried alongside each other at the Nambucca Cemetery.

One can only conjecture if William's long service in the First World War made his return and ensuing life difficult. However with Eva and his family alongside him he lived a stable and active life which can only commend him.

Old cast iron sign still in use at Nambucca Heads Station. Photo: Rachel Burns

Old cast iron sign still in use at Nambucca Heads Station. Photo: Rachel Burns

Sources for this article: Brendan Goswell, Margaret Fox, the book Valley Veterans: Nambucca Anzacs by Trevor Lynch, Australian World War 1 Military Records and the Nambucca Headland Museum.

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