Ghost Monkey in the Family Tree

old George

Two Georges and a William

This story starts with the Bengal Merchant sailing on the high seas, September 27, 1834.

My Great-Great Grandfather George Parker, named after King George IV, booked a berth for the price of some cloth. As a bonus he was granted a 7-year working holiday in a Sydney glass factory courtesy of George’s successor, King William IV. George was 18 – but would live to be 79 (almost as long as the indolent monarch whose name he was given). At the time, the average lifespan of male convicts was 61.

After obtaining Free-Man status, George married Harriet Adeline Morris and the couple began to help populate the fledgling city with a dozen offspring.

Unlike life back in the Olde World, his own family never went hungry with George embracing the most beautiful harbor he or anyone had seen.  Fishing was in his blood and no one George knew would ever be in want of a feed.

Four sons

George, Charles Robert Thomas, Henry Phillip & Joshua followed Old George into fishing. Old George would have been proud as the four sought opportunities up and down the rugged, expansive coastline, choosing the waters between Sydney and Newcastle as the preferred option.

Life was randomly good, tough, exhilarating, ugly, dangerous, but also always full of wonder and pulchritude, for even the ugliness had a righteous beauty that only the true locals, fishermen, dreamers and artists could possibly ever discern or appreciate.

Any port in a storm

The brothers were on their 5th run to Newcastle when a massive storm struck, forcing them to take shelter through the inlet to Lake Macquarie. Paradise. The sparsely populated southern end would be a perfect base for fishing families. Indeed, the lake was bountiful and before long, all four had built homes in Dora Creek and founded the fishing industry in the area.  

But they followed Old George’s footsteps in more ways than one.  All four married, had large families and made a mockery of average life expectancy, so much so that the four were featured in a story in the Newcastle Herald upon the passing of Young George in 1940.             

Unlike their father though, they had help in reaching such milestones with all four lived years longer than the siblings who had stayed in Sydney. It was not all down to a healthy fish diet, as much as it played a part. Durability can have many helpers.

Dr. Leighton-Jones and his monkeys

One day there will be a movie about Dr. Henry Leighton-Jones. It may even be one in which my Great Grandfather, his brothers and some of their sons will be portrayed as supporting characters.                

Henry Jones was born in Newcastle, NSW. He was Chief Medical Officer of the Northern Territory between 1916 and 1928 and from there, traveled to Paris to study controversial animal to human transplants under Dr. Serge Voronoff who had reportedly had success in transplanting chimpanzee thyroid glands into children with hypothyroidism and slivers of chimpanzee testicles to restore virility and vitality into aging men. Whilst there, Dr. Jones married Dr. Voronoff’s secretary, an American named Nora Leighton. Jones, always ahead of his time, adopted her surname, attaching it to his own.

After 6 months with Voronoff, Dr. Leighton-Jones returned to Australia and set up residence on a small farm at the mouth of Dora Creek. The area would later have the largest coal-fired power station in the country. Little known today, the building of this station dispossessed many of their homes and land, among them members of my extended family.

His original plan of treating the transplants as merely a hobby had been shelved due to bad investments. He did set up as the local doctor, dentist and pharmacist, but this work would be subsidized by those looking for a Fountain of Youth, enabling often free care for the local community.  He also gave discounts on the transplants to local men and performed the thyroid transplants gratis.

The work improved upon that done by Voronoff due to Leighton-Jones determining that rhesus monkeys provided a better match than chimps. These were kept well fed and healthy but caged away from prying eyes on the farm.

Dr. Leighton-Jones feeding one of his monkeys

The work continued into the early 1940s but was stopped when it became impossible to obtain more monkeys from war-torn Malaysia.  

Dr. Leighton-Jones died of a heart attack in 1943, just prior to giving a lecture on his work at a seminar at Newcastle Hospital. Thereafter Nora destroyed his records to protect the privacy of his patients.

His story was all but forgotten until interest was revived by Robert, a son of Charles who had come forward to admit he had been one of those who had received a graft. He was well into his eighties at the time.  He recalled Leighton-Jones as a fine doctor and a good man who was kind to children.

Another Robert

My father, also named Robert, was a son of Alfred, another son of Charles. Alfred had likewise, been a recipient of “the operation”. Result – he married a woman years younger and together they had 14 children.

My father, Robert (Bob) Parker

Those 14 were part of the first generation to abandon the fishing industry. Too many had moved to the lake trying their luck. Young George in fact had become the spokesperson for local fishing families struggling under diminishing hauls and increasing red tape. And so it was, with fishing no longer much of an option, my father applied to work on the railways along with some friends. None were passed fit by the government doctors to be employed, yet were called before those same doctors weeks later for compulsory army service. Conscripts. This time all passed the medical. As they should have the first time for the strong, healthy young men they were. The one salient factor was that the railways paid more. My father reacted the way Parkers always have. He rebelled – once by going AWOL before being arrested at the finish line of a yacht race on the lake.  We moved from the lake when I was about eight, though I soon moved back and lived with my grandmother for a time as our family expanded to seven kids struggling on a sporadic income from my father’s concreting business. He was great at concreting. He was terrible at business. Unwilling to chase debts from family men like himself and unable to afford to take the legal action required against large construction companies who didn’t pay. By the 1970s, he was concreting during the day, doing an afternoon shift at a pub and then a night shift in a sports club to keep food on the table. By then, I had also been to 11 different schools as we followed where the work was to be obtained. I had had enough, quitting school altogether before turning 15 and getting work to help the family budget.

The years of grinding physical work took its toll and my father never made it to even the average age of a convict.

As a kid, I loved hearing the stories that my father told of his own childhood. Of how sharks would get caught in the haul and how the older men would wade out into the water with axes to dispatch them, or else risk losing the catch with the sharks ripping through the nets. Other stories revolved around yacht racing and other sports, walking miles to fetch water, the awards he won for his market gardens, adventures with brothers.

But my favorite story was how he had been chased through the bush by a ghost. He truly believed it. And if he believed it, so did I.

That is until as an adult when I read a story on Leighton-Jones including interviews with Dora Creek locals. In the early 1940s, two of the monkeys had escaped captivity.  My mind immediately recalled my father’s story. Now it made sense. At the time, aged around 7, he had probably never seen even a picture of a simian before. His “ghost” had been a rhesus monkey.

As I write, there is a story breaking in the news of three baboons escaping from a Sydney hospital where one was set to have a vasectomy. The three are a part of a colony kept for medical experiments, sparking calls for the practice to cease. What was acceptable in the wild, loose years between wars, was no longer the case. It is at best, a moral and ethical dilemma.

All I can add is that weirdness abounds – as does the yearning for freedom.

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