Coo-ee Penrith – Remembering the Gilgandra Coo-ee March through Penrith

In July 1914 Penrith, the Blue Mountains region and the wider Australian community held celebrations commemorating the centenary of the construction of the Western Road over the Blue Mountains. This event was the first major historical celebration in the district and was generally acknowledged as the centenary of Penrith. It occurred however on the eve of the Great War.

On 28 June 1914, just a few weeks before these centennial celebrations, Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo. The fallout from this faraway event led to Britain declaring war on Germany on 4 August 1914. Australia, with a population of just five million people, pledged its full support of Britain. Although there was an enthusiastic outpouring of support, there was also a level of uncertainty about how Australia would measure up as a nation.

Over the next four years, almost 65% of Australians involved in the war became casualties, the highest of all British Empire nations. Almost 40% of Australian men, between the ages of 18 and 45 would volunteer for service, 331,000 would be sent overseas, 155,000 returned wounded, while 61,720 lay with their companions, never to return.

Penrith’s population between 1911 and 1921 barely changed from around 3,600, owing to the removal of men and families because of the war and the downgrading of the locomotive depot at Penrith Railway Station. At St Marys it was a similar situation with its population by 1921, just on 2000 people.

When war was declared, the Nepean Times rode the wave of enthusiastic support, its editorial read:
It will no doubt be a bitter and terrific conflict – this Armageddon of the Teuton against the Briton, the Frank and the Slav…Australia’s battle cry will be On! On for true liberty, for democratic progress, for the sacred rights of hearth and home…

The Nepean Times recorded four long years of war. From the enthusiasm of volunteering, the adventure of service overseas, to the stinging reality of death and the heartfelt return of the wounded and maimed, the Nepean Times was there, describing one sombre step after another. A study of the Nepean Times reveals war news within each issue. These included those killed and wounded, memorial services, soldier’s letters, returned soldiers and casualty lists. These honor lists not only included a list of those who had died of disease, wounds or were killed in action, they also listed those wounded and invalided home and those missing and listed as prisoners of war. The lists also recorded the men who had enlisted from their respective districts as well as the names of serving nurses.

As the war raged across the world. Fred Williams remembered Penrith at the time as ‘a quiet sleepy old town’. Similarly, Clive Bendall’s memories of the district during this time were of ‘the music of dance halls, the scent of orchard fruit and the sight of a clear and mighty river’.

Throughout the war, regular public functions helped to not only raise funds for the civilian suffering in Europe, such as the Belgian Relief Fund, but also to recruit men and to organise collection of comforts for the soldiers. Penrith and St Marys Comfort Clubs were formed from a desire of women of the district to actively undertake patriotic work in making personal comforts for local soldiers on active service. Women threw themselves into the war effort. Often led by the Mayoress and other leading ladies of the district, funds were raised, clothes made and comfort parcels prepared. Women made knitted socks, mittens, balaclavas and flannel shirts. Hospital and soldiers bags were made up. The Penrith Soldiers’ Comfort Club sent 1,000 parcels to local soldiers during the war. A typical parcel included cigarettes, socks, chewing gum, writing paper, pencils, soap, tooth brushes and paste and toffees. In return the men sent letters of appreciation and thanks.

Penrith red cross
Penrith Red Cross (Penrith City Library)

Of those who enlisted from this area, around 335 soldiers stated that they had been born in Penrith and about 70 were born at St Marys. Emu Plains, Mulgoa and Castlereagh each had about 20 born in their districts to go to the war. One hundred and twenty-five men from the Penrith and St Marys districts who died in the war have been memorialised on tablets and memorials across the breadth of the district. These men were not necessarily born in Penrith nor did they live in the district for any length of time, but it was their impact on those left behind that saw their names commemorated in the district. Of those men, 64 are buried in France, 32 in Belgium, 17 at Gallipoli, 5 in England, 3 in Egypt, 2 in Syria and one in Palestine and Iraq. One soldier never left Australia, dying from pneumonia at Bathurst Hospital.

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Penrith Drill Hall, Henry Street Penrith
(Penrith City Library)

By the latter half of 1915, news of setbacks and growing war casualties, saw recruitment figures dwindle. Headed by brothers, Bill and Richard Hitchen, The Gilgandra Coo-ees recruitment march was one of many that would reignite a passion for the cause. The Gilgandra marchers reached Katoomba on 5 November and by 8 November they had reached Springwood.


On Tuesday 9 November, the men experienced one of their toughest days, marching in sweltering heat, through fire-ravaged countryside and smoke-filled air down to the humidity of Emu Plains for which it was noted. En route flags and bunting covered roadside cottages and people gathered to wish the men well. The road down Lapstone Hill presented an impressive sight as they swept round the bend, with each support wagon flying a different flag and bearing its districts name. As the men descended the mountains they rang out resounding cheers followed by coo-ees.

At Emu Plains they were greeted by senators McDougall and Grant and the people of Emu Plains. Clive Bendall remembered as a child of ten, being at Emu Plains School when the Coo-ees, dressed in blue dungaree uniforms and white canvas hats, stopped at the school for refreshments. Forty dozen bottles of icy cold cordials from Bronger Brothers as well as the 5 cases of oranges from the Shephard family of Westbank, and three cases from Walkers orchard was a welcome sight for the dust-drenched weary men. The local ladies provided a fine assortment of cakes and sandwiches which made for a welcome light lunch for the men.

At 3 o’clock they marched, along with most of the people of Emu Plains, along the Great Western Road to Victoria Bridge. There they were welcomed by the Mayor of Penrith Thomas Jones in front of the old Governor Bourke Inn, by a squadron of Light Horse, a company of infantry, the Boy Scouts, and most importantly a detachment of district recruits who were soon to depart for the front. They included Edward Hope, John Gardiner, Edward Ausburn and William Starling, all of whom would die at the front within a year. These men were headed by two local returned soldiers, George Taylor and George Primmer. Headed by the Mounted Police and Penrith Brass Band the men marched into Penrith amidst great cheering and 400 Penrith public school children singing patriotic songs. The newspapers described the men as robust, with fine physiques, good discipline and a keen soldering spirit.

High Street was decorated with bunting, streaming from building to building. Elizabeth Basedow from Orchard Hills remembered attending school at Kingswood that morning and then the school was marched by their teacher into Penrith. The Coo-ees marched up High Street to the Fire Station, turned left into Evan and left again to the Council Chambers on the corner in Henry Street. From the steps of the Chambers, Mayor Jones asked the men to ‘give the enemy a special one, good and hard’ especially in memory of executed British nurse Edith Cavell. School children sang ‘Coo-ee’ in fine style and Senators Grant and McDougall addressed the Coo-ees and the crowd.

After the speeches, the men marched to the showground for a banquet and concert, followed by a recruiting speech. Food was brought en masse showing the spontaneous hospitality of the local community. Mrs Costello from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union also provided the audience with a rousing speech from the platform on the evils of alcohol and that it was the greatest friend of the Germans. Three men came forward and were recruited – Alan Easterbrook, from Mulgoa who was later wounded in France and returned to Australia in 1917 and Selby Megarrity from Luddenham who returned in 1919 and W A Sutton.

The next morning on 10 November the men, led by the local brass band, marched the 4 miles to St Marys along the Great Western Road. At Victoria Park breakfast was prepared for some 250 men, provided for by the local women of the district. Local schools and senior cadets were there to welcome the men along with the Mayor, Alderman Brell and the Member for Camden John Hunt, MLA. Local man, Samuel Luke, joined the men. He had been born in St Marys, the son of Robert Luke and Elizabeth Morphett. Luke was killed in action on 21 April 1917.

Sam Luke

By 10 am they were ready to march on to Parramatta. When they passed Colyton Public School, Captain Hitchen was presented with a purse of sovereign coins and an Australian Ensign. Here also a young man stepped forward and joined the recruits. He was a member of the Mcgregor family who already had 5 sons already enlisted.

Of the 263 men who marched into Sydney, past maimed and wounded Gallipoli veterans, many would die themselves somewhere in France or England, including Captain Bill Hitchen. Although not all the men, including we believe W A Sutton, who marched were accepted, some 220 eventually sailed for the front, some to the Middle East, most to Europe.

During the war, life went on for local people while their loved ones, relatives, friends, and colleagues clung to the hope that life at home had not changed. Local communities expressed their gratitude through memorials and hoped the horrors of the war would soon fade.

The 2015 Coo-ee March Reenactment commenced on Saturday 17 October. It is a  memorial to the 263 men who answered the call of “Coo-ee! Come and join us!”, and fell into line in towns and villages along the way of the recruitment march from Gilgandra to Sydney in 1915.

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For more information on the reenactment, please visit their website and follow their itinerary:

They left Springwood on the morning of 7 November 2015, and stopped for refreshments at the Old Emu Plains Public School on the Great Western Highway, as they did 100 years ago. Afterwards the Coo-ees marched on, into Penrith for a memorial service at Memory Park before their stay overnight in the hall and stables at the Showground. A civi reception in the evening was a short relaxing time for the weary men and women. The next day on 8 November they walked to Victoria Park. Local federal Member for Lindsay, Fiona Scott walked with them and experienced the camaraderie amongst the group. After a service, breakfast was served to all before the Gilgandra grouped bade farewell to the City of Penrith. They will be in Sydney for Remembrance Day, on 11 November.

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Lorraine Stacker
Penrith City Library

9 November 2015