Peter was born at his parent's home at Woodend, Ipswich in south-east
Queensland, the sixth child and third son in the family.When he was three years old, the family moved to a new house at 19
Kendall street, East Ipswich, where Peter spent the rest of his
childhood. The Kendall street house, although large, was still bursting
at the seams with a family that eventually totalled 11 children. Until
he went to Sydney as a young man to study, Peter never had a bedroom to
himself – he and his brothers slept out on the verandah of
the sprawling Queenslander-style house.
When he was four
and a half, Peter's sisters took him to school at the Ipswich Central
State School.His recollections of that period are very clear....
“...the teacher in the first grade was Miss Merlin - a
kindly old lady whom we all liked.Our second teacher was rather a strict lady who made us sit
up straight in class. On one occasion, she took one disobedient little
boy up to the front of the class, laid him on her lap, took his pants
down and smacked his bare bottom.She had no trouble with anyone in the class after that…
“Our third teacher was a kind old man who taught us very
well but was fond of the bottle; so much so he never progressed past
teaching second grade.”
For the next four years, Peter and his brother Frank went
to St. Mary's Christian Brothers College in Ipswich, until their mother
decided she could no longer afford the fees because of the Depression -
so the boys went back to the State school.Peter returned to the Christian Brothers for his secondary
Since he was one of 11 children, study conditions weren’t
“It was hard to find somewhere to study – my older
sisters weren’t exactly quiet around the house, and eventually I had to
make do with a space under the front stairs, out among Dad’s stag-horn
(above): St. Mary’s Christian
Brothers College, Ipswich in the 1930s, where Peter was a student for
his high school years.
Sport was an
important part of the teenage Peter’s life.He played for the East Ipswich Cricket Club and won the Binnie Cup
for the best batting average in the 1940-41 season, and the J. Dale Cup
for best batting average for Ipswich and West Moreton in the same year.
wasn’t confined to cricket – he won the Ipswich and West Moreton
junior tennis title (from his brother Frank) in 1939.[i]
The final must have been an engrossing match. According to a
it was a marathon, lasting several hours:
Noticing the length of the rallies, two onlookers
took the trouble to count the number of times the ball crossed the
net. In one game of seven points, the ball was hit 489 times.
One point took 134 strokes, another 108. (.....) Some of the
games prior to this, when the players were fresher, were even more
The game was called off
for the day with the score at 6-4, 5-7. When it was finished
on the following weekend, Peter came out victorious, 6-3 in the
final set. Peter says circumstances played a large part:
"I'd had a normal week, and was quite relaxed, but
Frank had had to work the night before, so was hardly rested before
going on court, which made my task easier".
his Senior (Leaving) exam at the Brothers, and although he says he
“hadn’t a clue” about what he really wanted to do, started studying
to be a teacher.During that year at Teachers’ College, he was paid a small student
allowance – an amount that had to be repaid when he realised he
wasn’t suited to the classroom.
say”, Peter recalls, “I’d spent every penny of the allowance, so Mum
came to my rescue and paid it all.”
His brother Tom,
five years his senior, pointed him in the right direction for his future
“Tom told me
that if I joined the Commonwealth public service, even as a clerk,
opportunities would come up for traineeships – and they did”
So Peter entered the Commonwealth Public Service as a
clerk, before gaining a cadetship in 1941 as a trainee biochemist
that involved five years of study at the School of Public Health and
Tropical Medicine at Sydney University.Peter’s mother Lily was reluctant to see one of her three sons
travel so far, particularly in wartime, but for him, it was the
chance of a lifetime.Peter’s 10 brothers and sisters had, until that point, stayed in
the south-east Queensland region around Ipswich, although his sister
Kathleen later ventured further afield, to the United States, as a
war-bride, after the end of World War Two.
The move to Sydney was the turning
point in Peter’s life.While in Sydney, he found lodgings at Randwick
with the family of
Gertrude Williams.Gertrude was the much-loved aunt of Joan Gaffey, and had
taken her teenage niece in, when Joan left her father’s Hunter’s Hill
home on the other side of Sydney.The Williams’ house was home to several relatives and
this extended family helped Peter adjust to life a long way from his
Peter in the early 1940s on an outing to Mt. Kuringai, in Sydney’s north
It’s perhaps to be expected that the two young people,
living under the same roof and still in their teens, would make a match
of it.After a two-year courtship, Joan and Peter married in Sydney's St.
After their marriage, the couple lived briefly in Darley
Road Randwick, near Joan’s mother’s family.Accommodation in wartime Sydney was extremely hard to find; they
eventually found a room in the home of a woman whose husband was away
fighting in the war.
They were living there at 1
Norfolk Avenue, Beverley Hills, their first child, son Peter, was born.Living in a single room with a baby was not unusual for the time,
but when a second child arrived less than a year later, the time had
come for them to look further afield.
left: The young family on Magnetic Island, during Peter’s relief work in
When the work in
north Queensland came to an end, Peter considered taking a job at the
University of Queensland, but the chance of a permanent position with
the Health Department in Toowoomba came up – and this time, Joan and
Peter made a more permanent move.
The original Commonwealth Health Department Laboratory in
Ruthven Street, Toowoomba (below), where Peter worked, from when he arrived in
Toowoomba in the late 1940s until the laboratory was transferred to a
new annex in the grounds of the Toowoomba Base Hospital, in James
Street.The older children enjoyed visits here while their
father was working, and took a great interest in the guinea pigs kept at
the laboratory for various tests.
For the first
few years in Toowoomba, the family moved around, to Mary Street
(opposite the Grammar School), and Herries Street, before a permanent
home was found in a Department of Health house at 350 South Street,
Harristown, where the family lived for nearly 30 years.
147 Mary Street,
Toowoomba, where Peter and Joan, along with their three eldest children,
lived in their early days in the Garden City of the Downs.
(above) When the lease on 47
Mary Street expired, the young family moved to this more modest dwelling
at 9a Herries Street for a year, before the long-term move to South
The South Street house had one big advantage, apart from its
size (it had to accommodate a family large even by the standards of the day)
– it was on a double block, which provided plenty of room for the five boys
and four girls to play. The backyard was the scene of many impromptu
football and cricket games, while the sole piece of brickwork, a chimney,
provided a tennis hit-up area, much to Joan’s consternation, as the hard-hit
ball often missed its target and hit the adjacent fibro with a
The house at 350 South Street, where the Byrnes family
lived for nearly 30 years.
Peter with the family’s first car, the FJ Holden
The FJ Holden survived the driving lessons Peter gave to
his teenage children, and even survived a roll over inflicted on it by
daughter Mary, during a drive home to Toowoomba from Brisbane.
(Fortunately, none of the family was seriously injured in the crash –
although Mary was fined for driving with an overloaded vehicle!) That
car was resuscitated at the panel beaters, and was succeeded by two more
Holdens, first a Kingswood, then a Commodore that served Peter and Joan
well in their later years.
left: Peter at work in the Commonwealth Health Department
laboratory, late 1970s.
(above) Peter & Joan (seated in centre) with many
of their children, their spouses, and grandchildren in the backyard of
350 South Street, c1981.
Sunday morning escape – reading the papers on the front porch of 350
in a typical stance, with son John
After Peter's retirement in 1982, Joan, Peter and their
youngest son Danny moved to a new home in Toowoomba.The house was in walking distance of the University of Southern
Queensland, and the university’s grounds and gardens became one of
Peter’s favourite walking routes.