Monday, April 15, 2024

Family treasure returned

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Here’s a great story that ends in Maldon: Newstead resident Chris Simmins rescued a grotty-looking object from a skip in Campbells Creek, took it home, cleaned it up and discovered that he’d found a treasure. It was a wooden christening bowl with a hallmarked sterling silver rim and shield, dated 28 July 1908 and engraved with the name John Boys Ponder. 

Who, Chris wondered, was John Boys Ponder?

The answer came when Chris decided to enter the bowl in the Precious exhibition, which was organised by Gordon Dowell at the Newstead Arts Hub in 2022. An old Geelong Grammar boy visiting the exhibition who was a mate of Gordon’s identified John as a Latin and Ancient Greek teacher at this school.  

Chris got in touch with Geelong Grammar archivist Darren Watson and found out a great deal about John’s long and interesting life. Philip Ponder, one of John’s sons, was located and Chris returned the bowl to the Ponder family. As to the reason why John’s christening bowl ended up in a skip? According to Chris, this was a mystery to the family, who had close contact with John up until his death. 

John, who died in 1999, is buried at the Maldon Cemetery. He lived in Maldon for several years and will no doubt be remembered by many Maldon residents.  

Here is a little of John’s story:

A Cambridge University graduate, John Ponder came to Australia in the 1930s and taught at Geelong Grammar. When WWII broke out, he returned to England to enlist.  After fighting in North Africa, he was selected to become an SOE (Special Operations Executive) soldier and was parachuted behind the German lines into Greece.  In preparation for this, John underwent a crash course in demotic Greek (he already knew Ancient Greek) and received paramilitary training. When he was evacuated from Greece in 1944, John came back to Australia where he joined the Z Force Special Unit (the equivalent of the today’s SAS) as a major. See correction below

John wrote a book about his wartime experiences, titled Patriots and Scoundrels: behind enemy lines in wartime Greece, 1943-44.  

Post-war, John returned to work at Geelong Grammar. He married and he and his wife had five children. John taught Latin and Ancient Greek at Geelong Grammar until those two subjects essentially became redundant. He then re-invented himself as a librarian.

A great champion of the written word, John was also a collector who specialised in incunabula – early printed leaves. He began buying these as a schoolboy, and he had an impressive collection.   

Upon retirement, John embarked on a further career: that of a book binder and printer. For some years, John had a stall at the old Melbourne Meat Market, which operated as a craft centre in the 1970s and 1980s.  He was also a keen gardener, a bird watcher and played the cello. A gentle and scholarly man, John nevertheless had a capacity for great courage and the ability to survive physical hardships – traits he drew upon during his war years.    

In his later years, John moved to Macedon, then Castlemaine and finally to Maldon, a town that he loved.  Here, he continued to garden and to lead a busy life. Eventually John moved to Tarrangower Village before shifting to Melbourne to be closer to his family.  

Ever a pragmatist, John ordered his own tombstone some years prior to his death. It is in the shape of an open book – entirely fitting for someone who was a great lover of the written word.  

This article appeared in the Tarrangower Times, 16 February 2024.

Correction

Following the recent article about the late John Ponder, retired Colonel Doug Knight got in touch with the [Tarrangower] Times. Doug is the President of the Australian Commando Association Victoria. Doug wishes to correct the record.

The article, when outlining John’s military service during WWII, stated that after serving with the secretive Special Operations Executive behind enemy lines in Greece:

“…John was posted back to Australia where he joined the Z Force Special Unit (the equivalent of the today’s SAS) as a major.”

This is incorrect. John was one of a number of officers from SOE who were detached to Special Operations Australia, also known under its wartime cover name of the Services Reconnaissance Department. He worked in Z Special Unit, a British non-operational unit which was categorically NOT the equivalent of today’s SAS.

John spent the remainder of his service establishing contact with Allied prisoners of war, and then demobilising British servicemen.

Apologies for this error, which is all the writer’s own work. 

This correction appeared in the Tarrangower Times, 1 March 2024.

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