23 December 2022

Gundaroo remembers man of spirit, community stalwart

| Sally Hopman
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Man with plaque

Peter Firth, late of Gundaroo, was named the Yass Valley’s Citizen of the Year in 2021 for his services to the community. Photo: Julie Priest.

Gundaroo lost one of its stalwarts last month with the death of Peter Firth, a man passionate about keeping the historic village’s unique character alive.

Instrumental in setting up the village’s Historical Society and Men’s Shed, Peter developed an interest and passion for the small rural community from the day he bought the property Moralla back in 1972, moving there with his wife Julie and children Jenny, Anthony and David.

Born in London on 23 December, 1938, Peter moved to Australia with his parents and brother Michael when he was nine, his father taking up the job of Queanbeyan town engineer. Peter attended Queanbeyan Primary School from age 10, then Canberra Grammar.

He started his career as a chemist in the Rum Jungle uranium mine in the late 1950s before heading to the Ord River project at the Kimberley Research Station. It was there he met Julie and they married in 1965 in Canberra.

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“As Dad knelt down at the altar,” Jenny said, “a ripple of laughter broke out in the church as his brother Michael had written ‘HE’ on one shoe and ‘LP’ on the other – this was the beginning of a remarkable wedding and an even more remarkable life together.”

In 1967, Peter was offered a Department of Foreign Affairs advisory posting in rural Thailand, the start of a passion for that country.

He worked in Thailand as a soil scientist, arriving there with Julie and baby Jenny and leaving four years later with three children.

In 1972, Peter was to set up a relationship with a place that would retain a special interest in his heart right up until his death – the village of Gundaroo, half an hour’s drive north of Canberra.

Man and woman

Julie and Peter Firth were happily married for more than 57 years. The couple met when Peter was working on the Ord River project. Photo: Supplied.

In January of that year they bought Moralla, and with it, he developed strong community connections with the historic village and its people. He started as a park trustee, served on Gunning Shire for 11 years, established the Gundaroo Bush Festival and Gundaroo Community Association, volunteered in the bushfire brigade, edited the Gundaroo Gazette, chaired the Gundaroo Historical Society and his latest achievement was establishing the local Men’s Shed.

It was this community involvement that earned him the title of Yass Valley Citizen of the Year in 2021.

“Dad led a busy life with strong emphasis on social interactions, supporting his community work,” Jenny said.

This often led to what she described as “legendary” fundraising activities, with one in particular still talked about in Gundaroo folklore – the port-bottling fundraiser of 1984.

In his book, The Kimberleys and Beyond, Peter writes that despite the fact Gundaroo punched above its weight when it came to fundraising, the same could not be said for its prizes. When a microwave seemed always to be the gift on offer, locals knew they had to up their game.

One bright spark came up with the idea of a port bottling to raise money for the village. No-one quite remembers whose idea it was, but most every local, today, lays claim to it.

“The idea was brilliant in its simplicity,” Peter wrote in 2009. “Buy a bulk quantity of port wine, bottle, label and sell it as a unique Gundaroo libation. In very small print, acknowledge the winery it was sourced from.”

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Hard to believe, writes Peter, but this was a fundraiser that was never short of volunteers. Before long, the management committee had more sub-committees than it could throw a port glass at.

“For several weeks, Gundaroo was a hive of activity, with corks ordered, labels printed, a corker and suitable chemicals for sterilisation acquired.”

Legendary Gundaroo publican Matt Crowe “generously” supplied many of the empty bottles … “Well, it was probably not all that generous considering we had paid to empty most of them,” Peter said.

The big day came. Peter rang round all the committee members – “the plonk has arrived”. Forty-four gallons of 1984 Brown Bros Tawny Port, enough for 300 standard-size bottles.

Local writer Mike Hayes described the port as “lunatic soup”.

An assembly line was set up in Firth’s backyard, and therein lay the problem. Turns out rather than a tap or a spout, there was only a 4-inch circular bung on top of the barrel. So Gundaroo ingenuity came to the fore, thanks to Peter Firth, who grabbed a piece of garden hose.

“We’ll siphon it like you would petrol,” he said. And so they did, all taking turns to suck out the port and fill all the bottles. Sweet success.

Peter Firth is survived by his wife Julie, children Jenny Priest, Anthony Firth and David Firth, brother Michael Firth, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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