Richard Chapman: Canberra’s shipwreck kid

Richard_Chapman_Torpedoes, flying boats and doodlebugs were all part of the childhood of Canberra-based veterinary legend and author Dr Richard Chapman. Chris Sheedy tells his fascinating story.

AFTER THE SHIP taking him and his mother back to England from Australia during World War II survived a collision with a freighter in the middle of the night, young Richard Chapman thought the worst was over. He was wrong.

Chapman’s father, an engineer, had a job in the mountains of Burma. His parents were married there, and nine months later, Richard was born. Shortly after, the family moved to Rangoon.

During the Battle of Britain, the Luftwaffe targeted shipping convoys, which made travel by sea perilous. Instead, the family chose to take a ‘flying boat’ to Australia. The journey to Sydney lasted five gruelling days and went via Singapore, Jakarta, Darwin and Newcastle. Soon his father was called back to Burma to manage the building of roads and airstrips. After eight months in Sydney, once the Battle of Britain had come to an end, six-year-old Richard and his mother used the last of their money to book two tickets back to England.

The best-laid plans

“It all went very well until we had just been through the Panama Canal and we hit a cargo freighter at night. Of course, as a precaution during the war, it was all blacked out,” Dr Chapman recalls. “It put a dirty great hole in our bow and from then on we were restricted to six knots. Two days later, we were torpedoed.”

The boy and his mother spent four hours in a lifeboat before being rescued by a US Navy destroyer. They were taken to Charleston, South Carolina, on the east coast of the United States.

The long way home

“We became ‘shipwreck kids’ and were very well looked after,” Dr Chapman, now 81, says. “Families would come and take me out and we would go into shops and the family would say, ‘This is a shipwreck lad. What can you do for him?’ I would leave the shop with clothes and lots of other stuff.

“From Charleston we went to New York where we were put up in a great big skyscraper, which was amazing for a little kid. From there we went to Halifax in Nova Scotia and boarded a ship back to England in a convoy. A couple of ships in the convoy were sunk, but we got through pretty lightly. We landed in Glasgow about 10 days later.”

It was a dramatic introduction to life for a young boy. The drama would continue until the war ended. But for children of wartime, it was simply the way things were. If your ship was torpedoed, you swam for your life. If your school bus suddenly stopped and opened its doors, you knew exactly what to do next.

“Sometimes we would see the ‘doodlebugs’ [German V1 flying bombs] as they flew overhead,” he says. “If you heard them coming then you didn’t have to worry, but when the sound went away it meant they had begun their glide, so the bus stopped and everybody had to jump out, into a ditch by the side of the road. I used to have to run out of the bus an average of three times on the way to school each day, during a 20-minute trip, to dive into ditches.”

When he lived with his grandparents in Kent, says Chapman, he led a fairly normal, middle-class life. Every few nights he’d wander outside and watch the German bombers flying overhead, on their way to London. His father re-joined the family in 1943, and when Chapman was 12, his parents bought a farm.

“I always had a great rapport with animals,” he says. “I remember sexing six-week-old cats, and my mother could never understand how I did it. But I did it purely by listening to the way they miaowed. It was nothing anatomical.”

He first considered becoming a farmer, but his father told him he should earn a degree, in case farming went “down the gurgler”. Chapman considered joining the navy, but childhood experience had given him a healthy fear of sharks.

“Sometimes we would see the ‘doodlebugs’ as they flew overhead … If you heard them coming then you didn’t have to worry, but when the sound went away it meant they had begun their glide, so the bus stopped and everybody had to jump out, into a ditch by the side of the road. I used to have to run out of the bus an average of three times on the way to school each day.”—Dr Richard Chapman

A bond with animals

“I really enjoyed working with the animals on the farm,” he says. “I got some advice from a couple of vets to first listen to everything normal and look at everything normal, then you will clearly see what is different. That was a very good piece of advice.”

Chapman decided to become a vet, but like most things in his life, it was not without its challenges. “When I came close to university exams, I got cold feet and didn’t think I would get through,” he says. “My father was in Sierra Leone at the time. I wrote and told him that I would become a missionary and not bother becoming a vet. Apparently he almost choked on his cornflakes! He told me not to just be a bible basher, but to finish the vet degree. So twice I was set on the right course by my father. I owe him a debt of gratitude.”

Back down under

Canberra’s pet owners also owe Chapman’s father a debt of gratitude. After practising for three years in England, he saw an ad for a subsidised position in Orbost, Victoria. Chapman’s experience as a youngster in Australia had stuck with him. So in 1961, he applied for the role, won it and headed back Down Under as a “10-pound Pom”. This time it was a four-week boat trip, thankfully with no submarines firing torpedoes along the way.

Six years in Orbost was followed by six years back in England, after which he returned to Australia for the final time, this time with his beloved wife, Jan. They settled in Canberra after Chapman did a locum there and was offered a partnership.

Few vets have had a bigger influence on a city than Chapman has had in Canberra. He built the Woden Animal Hospital in Holder, set up a branch practice in Merimbula, launched All Creatures Veterinary Clinic in Calwell, had rooms at the Canberra Equestrian Centre for several years, chaired the ACT Veterinary Surgeons Board and for 32 years was the official race vet at Thoroughbred Park.

“That involved being at the beck and call of the stewards to look at the horses if they had run poorly. I had to take blood swabs and go around to the start of each race in case there were injuries and in case horses had to be pulled out. I gave up doing that when I was 72 because I was ducking under countless fences and walking about six kilometres each day. I thought something was going to give,” he says with a smile.

“When X-ray machines were not available, you had to have brains in your fingertips.”—Dr Richard Chapman

Then and now

The difference in practices now compared to when he started off in the industry is enormous, says Chapman. There is now a massive reliance on X-rays and other scans to confirm specific issues and this is a concern. It makes visits to the vet more expensive for clients and it also means vets lose the ability to diagnose and treat issues in the absence of such technology.

“When X-ray machines were not available, you had to have brains in your fingertips,” says Chapman. “You look at everything normal and then you find what is abnormal. You need a very delicate feel. This has all gone these days because everyone wants X-rays and ultrasounds. This adds to the price of veterinarian work, which has become unaffordable to a lot of people.”

In order to preserve some of this knowledge, Chapman, who has been treated for various forms of cancer over the last 12 months, has written and published a book called Do I call the vet? And what to do in the meantime.

“Going to the vet was becoming so expensive that I wanted to get some of the old bush remedies back into circulation,” he says. “They were some of the things that I found worked if you’re in the bush and you have to wait three hours for a vet. Quite often things improve on their own anyway, so it can save quite a lot of money and it is also bringing some of the old knowledge back.”

Dr Chapman has never really given up working. His retirement, he jokes, has involved around 40 hours of work each week. But having been given the news from his oncologist that the cancer is receding the very morning of our conversation, Dr Chapman intends to share his knowledge for a good while yet.

And why not? He has overcome torpedo strikes, attacks by flying bombs, marathon seaplane flights and wild moments around bucking broncos. What is one more challenge for this shipwreck kid?

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2 Comments

  1. Dr Chapman has been my dog Billy’s vet for many many years. When I relocated to Melbourne he provided with advice over the phone. I have a copy of his book and use it regularly. I still seek the service of a vet here in Melbourne if needed but have found some of the smaller issues have been rectified with his methods. It has saved me a lot of money and means I can afford more expensive treatments when necessary.

  2. I heard about this wonderful man and his great sense of humor on today’s Australia all over with Macca and I will be buying this amazing book as a gift for my Daughter Emma and her family who have lots of animals on their property at Longford, East Gippsland. I am coming to Canberra for the first time to contact Brendan Nelson re visiting the War Memorial as I have a family history on WW I and WW ll. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Richard and Jan were to meet visitors to their lovely city who share similar interests. I have not retired as I enjoy working in the health industry supporting community services, so important to do things that you enjoy and to have a positive outlook on life-it’s half the battle won!

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