Local resident Norman Ellison: A man behind the iron mast remembered

Darragh Christie, 27 July 2021 · #

Portrait of Norman Ellison

Returned with grotesque wounds to his thigh and his legislation.

Enlistment papers. Source: NAA: B2455, ELLISON H H N National Archives online retrieved 6/07/2021 Note Mosman address ‘Tarvis’ 137 Avenue Rd and occupation ‘Cadet Journalist 4 years John Fairfax & Son, Sydney’

NORMAN HYMAN HIRCH ELLISON Eldest son of Mr Joseph Ellison, was born at Moore Park in [24th Sept.] 1895, and educated at the Mosman Superior Public School. Entering the clerical department in 1912 he became a cadet on the reporting staff two years later. Enlisting in June, 1916, as a Gunner in the 117th Howitzer Battery, he went to France, where he was transferred to the 3rd Field Artillery Brigade, and was in due course promoted to the rank of Corporal. He was constantly in action on the Somme, at Messines, on the Yser Canal, and at Ypres, until severely wounded in the right leg in the fighting around Passchendaele on September 30, 1917. He was in hospital in England for five months, and was then pronounced unfit for further active service.1

Back home

Smith’s Weekly with Pandemic headline

Corporal Norman Ellison1 was invalided out in 1919.

He came out of the Army and he went into journalism which was his only true love. He started as a cub reporter and went on to become at one stage acting editor of Smith’s Weekly and the Referee and then in later years he had his own publishing company and published a magazine called Motoring Australia and Flying and that continued until WWII when it was impossible to get paper and the magazine came to a halt.2

Sydney Morning Herald library in 1931. c/o Fairfax Media Business Archive, State Library of New South Wales

In 1922 he married Lil Ruta-Cohen. Society papers reported the fashionable details of their wedding in the gossip column:

Image: ‘Serge’ frock. Source: Evening News advertisement.

Miss Lil Ruta-Cohen, daughter of Mr and Mrs W. Ruta-Cohen, ‘Myala’, Bondi, was married last night in the Great Synagogue, Elizabeth-street, to Mr Norman Ellison, son of Mr and Mr J. Ellison, of ‘Tarvis,’ Avenue Road. Mosman. Rabbi Cohen, assisted by Rev. Einfleld, performed the ceremony. The bride, who, according to the Jewish custom, was given away by her parents, wore a charming gown of ivory charmante draped with silk embroidered net, and fashioned in the early Victorian style, with extended hips. Her tulle veil, arranged mob cap fashion, was caught at each side with a posy of orange blossoms, and a bouquet of white carnations. Roses and dahlias completed the picturesque ensemble…A reception was held at Sargent’s, Market-street, after the ceremony…The bride travelled in a smart frock of navy blue serge beaded in red. Her hat and bag were in harmony.

Mr and Mrs Ellison moved to Norman’s home suburb of Mosman3 Norman and Lil had two children Rodney and Marilyn. Rodney recalled:

Mid-19thC Odessa

My mother served in the VAD in WW1 and thereafter a housewife looking after a couple of brats, my sister and me. My sister Marilyn was born in 1932. My grandparents – there’s an exotic background there – my father’s father came from Odessa in the Ukraine. His wife from somewhere in Holland…My mother’s father came from Poland …and his wife came from what was then Russia…

The family moved around from Milner to Killarney St, then settled at 13A Whiting beach Rd.

View from 11 Whiting Beach Rd Mosman, looking towards Taronga Zoo. Source: ‘Barry O Keefe’ Local Studies ‘Trace’ image archive. LH PF 4387

I have particularly happy memories

Rodney Ellison was born in 1924, in Milner St. He recalled:

I’ve lived most of my life in Mosman. I have particularly happy memories

Many of these memories3 were of Taronga Zoo, which was just down the road:

‘Susie’ the elephant

My father had a favourite animal. It was Susie [Jessie?] the elephant. My father used to feed all the animals in the Zoo on Life Savers which probably contributed to the early demise of a lot of the animals. But with Susie, he would come down and call out, ‘Susie’ as he approached the elephant area and this big lumbering elephant would come out, stretch out her trunk and dad would feed her at least half a dozen Life Savers, and with a little crooked finger would delicately put them in her mouth.

Jessie the elephant, a gift from the King of Siam, travelling across Sydney Harbour to her new home at Taronga Zoo, 1916. Description: Jessie arrived in Sydney in 1883, a gift from the King of Siam and spent the first part of her life at the old Moore Park Zoo. In 1916 she crossed the harbour by vehicular ferry to her new home at Taronga Zoo. Over a period of 56 years, she gave rides to over 2 million people. Taronga Zoo was officially opened on 7 October 1916, replacing a zoo that had been established at Moore Park in 1881. Source: Barry O’Keefe library image collection online LH PF 306

However there were times when Suzie had been misbehaving and would be chained up…at least 20 or 30 feet from the moat so my father would have to throw the Life Savers…and Susie, with great delicacy and using her trunk like a vacuum cleaner would pick up the tiny slivers… You could almost see the smirk on her face.

Unfortunately, Susie met an untimely death…She fell on her back in the moat. It was impossible to save her, much as they tried and she died there. To my great disgust the then Chairman of the Trust…had her feet cut off and made into umbrella stands and wastepaper baskets. I don’t forgive that

Jessie/Susie-‘sploitation. Kids taking a ride. Source: Barry O’Keefe library image collection online LH PF 3830

One-eyed Bull

There was another favourite of my father’s. My father by the way had lost the sight of one eye in a car accident. It was a big bull seal that used to sleep in one spot every morning and he too only had the sight in one eye. My father felt some affinity with him which I’m not sure was reciprocated but when my father reached where this big bull semi-blind seal lay he’d make these seal-like noises and strangely enough there was always a response…

Image: Roland the Bull-seal at Berlin Zoo. Poor old Roland was killed and his statue destroyed in WW2. But Roland was captured on film for posterity. The seal at Taronga probably wasn’t as big but you can get a good idea of the type of interactions possible by watching the video.

Monkey business

Norman Ellison wrote about famous Australian aviators. The Ellison’s and Kingsford Smiths were neighbours2:

On one occasion, early morning when the milkman came to deliver the milk he knocked very loudly on our…back verandah, woke me and said, ‘come quickly. There was a chimpanzee on the roof of the Kingsford Smith house immediately next door to ours…

Freda and Freddy take afternoon tea at Taronga Zoo

But it wasn’t all ‘monkey business’ in the sleepy suburb. Both father and son almost came a cropper as Rodney remembered again:

Tram overboard!

My father in later years used to go down by tram to the ferry and on one occasion as took the turn on the downhill section from Ashton Park the brakes in the tram failed. It picked up considerable speed. My father abandoned the ship (tram) somewhere around the Aquarium and injured himself quite badly. The tram continued down, went straight off the end of the lines next to the wharf, nosed in the water, and came to rest with the front of the tram actually in the harbour. A few people were hurt but I don’t think anyone was hurt badly, but my dad did suffer, not shockingly, but he was seriously injured in that situation.

One of a few like incidents on the Lower North Shore involving [usually reliable] trams and steep gradients.

Lucky near-miss

My father, as I mentioned served in WW1 and he bought back a Smith & Wesson Service revolver, 45 calibres and for reasons unknown he also had a collection of 45 soft-nosed bullets. On this particular occasion, one of the lads, three doors up in Whiting Beach Road was with me…The nose of the bullet is lead so that when it is fired it makes a normal entry of 45mm, but if it hits anything solid, bone, in particular, it spreads and makes a gaping hole where it comes out.

Smith & Wesson .45

Now I put this bullet in the chamber. I was toiling the chamber for what reason I can’t remember, and the obvious happened. The gun went off and the bullet struck the side of my head in that loose flesh just to the side of my eye, travelled underneath the skin for about four inches then left me, went through the ceiling of the house, broke two tiles on the roof, and went on its merry way. If it had touched the bone of my skull I would not be making this recording.

Dad’s Mast, 1934

The [ill-fated ] HMAS Sydney II passing the foremast of her namesake, HMAS Sydney I at Bradley’s Head 11 August, 1936. Source: http://www.navy.gov.au/hmas-sydney-ii Rodney’s perch probably would have been in one of the trees in this photo.

Rodney claimed to have a favourite vantage point. A tree near the old ramparts behind the HMAS Sydney Mast,4 overlooking Bradleys Head. He recalled:

I always refer to it as dad’s mast which is not quite accurate, but I believe he was the person who first suggested that it would be an ideal spot for that to be there, as a memorial to that famous ship.

Rodney’s words can be confirmed by digging into Council correspondence from 1934:

Excerpt of meeting minutes 09/10/34 Mayor Carroll acknowledging Ellison’s part in the Sydney Mast story. Source: Barry O’Keefe Library Local studies vertical file. Photo by the author, D.Christie

Mayor Carroll’s history

Source AWM 301401 https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/301401

Mosman Mayor ‘Jack’ Carroll gives a good summary of the Mast’s story in his book The Streets of Mosman5:

When the “Sydney” was placed out of commission and dismantled, the Mast was purchased by a Queensland resident, Mr William Rankin, and presented to the R.S.S. & I.L.A. For many years it lay at Cockatoo Dockyard, many attempts being made to place it in some suitable position on Sydney Harbour, without success.

HMAS Sydney being broken up at Cockatoo Island, Sydney Harbour. Source Trove https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-142114441/view

When it was known that H.R.H. The Duke of Gloucester was to visit Australia in 1934, the Mosman Council, following a suggestion made by a resident – Mr N. Ellison – decided, if possible, to obtain the Mast and erect it at Bradley’s Head. Firstly in honour of the Royal visit and secondly to preserve such a historic memorial of a famous warship.

Titan floating crane with mast and fighting-top of HMAS Sydney on its way past the Bridge to Bradley’s Head where it is to be erected Source SLNSW FL1387410

After a great deal of negotiation, in which all bodies concerned were most co-operative, the thirty-ton Mast was transported from the Dockyard by the floating crane “Titan” and successfully lowered into permanent emplacements, designed by the Council’s Engineer, J. Dee, on the 24th October, 1934.

Installing the mast at Bradley’s Head. HMAS Sydney’s mast shipped from Garden Island and being installed by the huge floating crane ‘Titan’ under direction from Mosman Council’s Chief Engineer. Photo composite by B. de Broglio

all arrangements have been made

‘Jack’ Carroll invited Mr and Mrs Ellison to attend the Mast’s opening ceremony:

Invitation copy or draft to Mr and Mrs Ellison from Mosman Mayor on behalf of Council. Note pencilled in reminder: ‘Fwd tickets.’ Photo by the author.

dedicated with no militant spirit

Jack Carrol’s lofty words on the day of dedication are worth recording here:

This mast of the ex-HMAS “Sydney” under the shadow of which we now stand, is dedicated with no militant spirit; with no idea of perpetuating the alleged glories of war, and, least of all, inculcating any sentiment of national boastfulness. Rather it is a dedication in a spirit of peace and of respect and gratitude to the great and many sacrifices of that silent but efficient service… My fervent wish is that the mast will become a treasured memorial for our people and one from which future generations may absorb inspiration and guidance to fulfil their destiny …

The Daily, Tues 27 November 1934, reported on the days events. Click on the headline below to read the full article:

Under ‘E’ on the East Face

Mosman War Memorial with Norman Ellison’s name, on the East facing wall. THEY HARKENED FREEDOM’S RALLYING CRY Source: photograph by the author, D. Christie.

We’ll let Rodney have the final words in this story:

This is as an addendum or a PS, whatever you wish, but one of my proud moments is to walk past the War Memorial at Mosman [‘Alan Border’] Oval and there is my Father’s name there: H.H.N. Ellison and he served for a number of years in the artillery. He was refused three times before he could get into the Army. He was very Badly wounded in Belgium and suffered grotesque wounds to his thigh and his legislation. Thereafter, all of his life he had a slight limp. I am very proud of my old man he was quite a remarkable man.

As he puts it the mast now stands a lasting Memorial, in an ideal spot.

Credit: LEE_G (CC BY-SA 3.0)


1 Record of service : members of the staff of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Sydney Mail who served in the Great War. [Sydney : John Fairfax & Sons, 1919?] Source: Trove online FERG/3831 retrieved 6/07/2021

2 Ellison, Rodney memories were recorded by Katherine Wade on the 15/11/2003. Source: ‘Trace’ digital archive, Barry O’Keefe Library.

3 Norman also grew up in ‘Carisbrooke’, in Avenue Rd.the site of the original house is now units

3 Ellison, Rodney memories for all quotes by Rodney see also Rodney Ellison’s Mosman Memories http://mosman1914-1918.net/project/blog/rodney-ellison-s-mosman-memories

4 The mast at Bradleys Head was HMAS Sydney’s second mast refitted in the UK, not the original from the time of the Emden sinking

5 Carroll, Jack & Mosman Historical Society (1981). The streets of Mosman (2nd rev. ed). Mosman Historical Society, [Sydney]

Meeting minutes 09/10/34 Mayor Carroll acknowledging Ellison’s part in the Sydney Mast story. Source: ‘Barry O’Keefe’ Library Local Studies vertical file. Photo by the author.

Follow the Norman Ellison Story:

…and the Sydney v Emden story:


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