Little old shoe leads to a humble war hero

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The double-fronted shop at 220-222 Timor St Warrnambool (now BIBA Hairdressing) as it was in 1919 when Robert Long, right, ran his bootmaking business. Image courtesy Helen Thomson.
The double-fronted shop at 220-222 Timor St Warrnambool (now BIBA Hairdressing) as it was in 1919 when Robert Long, right, ran his bootmaking business. Image courtesy Helen Thomson.

By Carol Altmann

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A02F2F;”] A [/dropcap] child’s boot found during renovations of one of Warrnambool’s oldest commercial buildings has unearthed the remarkable story of a local war hero.

Bluestone Magazine wrote about the shoe being found under the floorboards of 220-222 Timor St in one of our very first editions, way back in November 2013, when we reported on the restoration of the 160-year-old building by owners Luke and Natalie Taylor.

At that time, it was known that one half of the two-storey building had been rented during the 1930s by a bootmaker – a Mr Long – but whether the shoe was connected to him, or any more details about this Mr Long, proved elusive.

Enter Rodney Harris, who recently stumbled across our story and called Bluestone to say that he believed his friend, Helen Thomson, a well-known face in Swinton’s homewares department for many years, could fill in all the gaps.

And she could.

ol shoe
The child’s leather boot that was unearthed during renovations at 222 Timor St Warrnambool in 2013.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A02F2F;”] H [/dropcap] elen, now aged in her eighties, is the daughter of the late Pearl Long whose father, Robert Long, started the original bootmaker’s business at 220 Timor St early in the 1900s.

In one of those priceless moments that history buffs live for, Helen produced a photograph – the only known copy in existence – of her grandfather standing outside the shop in March 1919.

As was common for the time, the extended Long family all lived upstairs from the business and Helen believes the English-style boot may have belonged to one of Robert’s six children (another three children had died).

“I know Mum used to talk about these little English boots that her father would buy for them for school, because they were good quality,” Helen says.

“But Mum hated wearing them, because of course they were not like what the others kids wore,” she adds.

Helen went on to explain how her grandfather’s bootmaking business was later taken over by her uncle, Roy Long, who everybody knew as “Toy”, and this is where the story took an unexpected and remarkable turn.

222 timor toy long005
Roy “Toy” Long as a member of the AIF 2/21 Battalion (Gull Force) who became prisoners of war on the Indonesian island of Ambon for almost four years. Image courtesy Helen Thomson.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A02F2F;”] W [/dropcap] hen war broke out in 1939, Toy Long left his bootmaking business and joined the AIF as part of the 2/21 Battalion (known as Gull Force) that became prisoners of war on Ambon, Indonesia, following the Japanese invasion of the island in 1942.

Toy, together with other members of his batallion also from Warrnambool, was imprisoned for almost four years in appalling conditions.

During this time, it has now been revealed, Toy risked his life by hiding documents given to him by his commanding officer that would prove crucial in the later trials for war crimes.

Helen has a precious copy of the letter written to Toy by his commanding officer, W.R Scott, after the war.

It reads, in part:

My Dear Long,

The time has now arrived when we are no longer POWs…in Japanese hands. I may therefore without risk of your being deprived of your life, write and thankyou for the way and the risks of death you knowingly and yet willingly took secreting most important documents, holding them in your care for a long period of time, during which, I may add, there were two searches carried out by Japanese troops…

“You took all the risks, knew it meant death for you if you were discovered, and I now thankyou on behalf of us for the gallant manner in which you completed the task. I wish you all the best of luck for the future.”

A copy of the letter written to Toy Long by his commanding officer which reveals the great risk he took in hiding documents that would later prove critical in war trials. Reproduced courtesy of Helen Thomson.

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #A02F2F;”] A [/dropcap] fter returning from the war, Toy lived with Helen and her parents, and other members of the extended family, in their house in Kruger St.

“My mother was cleaning up one day and found this letter and started to read it, but Toy snatched it out of her hand. He didn’t want anybody to know about it,” Helen says.

Years later, however, one of Helen’s aunts had possession of the letter and typed out a copy for Helen. The original is now in the Canberra National War Memorial.

“He (Toy) never talked about the war, but he had the most horrendous nightmares, yelling out in his sleep,” Helen recalls.

Toy resumed his trade as a bootmaker after the war, opening a shop in the former Market Arcade in Lava St (and, later, opposite the Regal Shoppe in Timor St), and despite his horrific experiences – or perhaps because of them – he embraced life to the full.

“He was always such a kind and generous man and always had something for us kids when he came home from work, sweets or glass beads or something like that,” Helen says, laughing.

Toy later married and had one stepson. He died in 1990.

A humble shoe retrieved from the rubble has revealed the story of a brave and humble man.

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7 thoughts on “Little old shoe leads to a humble war hero”

  1. Great sleuthing. This is exactly why I subscribe to Bluestone. History is continually unearthed or revisited.
    I remember Toy Long, our family (Frank and Jennie McGennan) always patronised his business – yes in those days, shoes (most probably bought from Tommy Rome’s) were repaired not thrown out. Perhaps because my father Frank was also a returned serviceman, albeit and fortunately not a POW, Toy’s business was viewed as one cobber supporting another.
    While Toy Long’s business may have been set up at the Market (formerly owned by my great uncle Andy McGennan) my recall is that he finished up in Timor Street opposite what was the Regal Shop. Does anyone else share that memory?
    I can vividly picture him in that shop. A small white haired man, wearing glasses, and surrounded by so many shoes that I was astonished that he could always find your shoes when you arrived to pick them up!

    1. Thanks for such great feedback Marilyn – I believe that the Long’s also had a grocery store opposite the Regal Shoppe (this was Toy’s grandfather, William Long) but I am not sure if he ended up with his bootmaking business there. I will check and get back to you! Glad you enjoyed the story as much as we enjoyed writing it.

    2. Marilyn, you are absolutely right: Toy Long did end up in a shop opposite the Regal Shoppe, but it is no longer there. As it so happens, his grandfather (one of Warrnambool’s early settlers) had a grocery business in what later became Baudinette’s, right across from the Warrnambool Bowl, and this lovely two-storey building still stands today.

  2. Baudinette’s grocery store was yet another Warrnambool institution that enjoyed my family’s custom. Every Thursday morning, Len Baudinette would call in and pick up mum’s completed grocery order and then in the afternoon, he would deliver a box or two of our family staples. This went on for years and years. These home deliveries were in addition to Berry Tyzack’s green grocery delivery, Ray Barnes delivered bakery items to our back door ( a current bun for me on Fridays as a special treat ) and of course, the daily delivery of milk to our front door from the Sungold Dairy. For those wondering, this occurred during the 50’s, 60’s and just into the 7o’s. By then, Cole’s New World supermarket was firmly established ( aided and abetted by McGennan grandfather and his brother selling the Art Deco period Liberty Theatre to Coles – now seen as vandalism of a heritage site ) and household shopping had changed forever.

  3. Comment; As one gets older, these stories are priceless- you have made the effort to go back in time-when we are constantly being pushed and pulled onto the fast moving conveyor belt of NOW .

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