The news that a little boy had gone missing in the bush out at Putty grabbed our attention last week.
I heard the news while reading Gideon Haigh's new book The Brilliant Boy, where he reminds us that public anxiety over a lost child is common in Australian history.
Haigh jogged my memory of the disappearance of the Beaumont children, Azaria Chamberlain, Graeme Throne, William Tyrrell, and then of all those kids gone missing in Australian children stories, novels and art.
Haigh takes us to Saturday August 14, 1937, when seven-year-old Maxie Chester goes missing from his home in Waverly, in Sydney's eastern suburbs. Back then, Waverly housed new migrant families, in the case of the Chesters a Jewish family fleeing fascism in their Polish homeland.
Max's mother searches frantically for her missing son. Around 7pm his body is pulled from a flooded trench, dug the previous week by council workers for new telephone cables. There is no happy "AJ" ending for this mum, Golda Chester.
A year later, the death of Maxie Chester comes before the Australian High Court.
Mrs Chester was appealing against a decision of the supreme court not to award her damages against Waverly council.
There she was represented by Maitland boy Clive Evatt. Hearing the appeal were four high court judges, which included Clive's brother, H.V. 'Doc' Evatt, arguably Maitland's greatest son, perhaps its best fighter.
During the trial, the court hears that Maxie Chester was the hope of his family, the child most likely to thrive in this newly adopted country, a particularly brilliant boy, says the family doctor.
Haigh sees parallels between the hopes of Golda Chester for her son and the aspirations of Jeanie Evatt (nee Gray) for her brilliant boy, Herbert Vere - Doctor Evatt, as he becomes when he graduates in law from Sydney University in 1924.
Jeannie Evatt had eight Maitland boys between 1883 and 1900. But two died as infants in the 1890s in local typhoid outbreaks, and her husband, John Ashmore Evatt, died from rheumatic fever in 1901.
The unresolvable grief of a mother was not something monetisable in claims before a court. The Doc disagreed.
By then, seven-year-old Bert was described by his East Maitland teacher as the brightest pupil she'd ever taught.
In 1904 to Sydney went Jeanie Evatt and her boys to be near her parents. Bert excelled at school, as did his brothers. But a world war saw two of Bert's younger brothers enlist and die, Frank in the carnage of Passchendaele in Flanders and Ray in a gas shell attack at Tincourt in the Somme.
It was a strain almost too heavy to be borne, the Doc later wrote.
Golda Chester's modest claim before the courts was for a payment of 1000 pounds as compensation for pain and suffering occasioned by the death of her son as a consequence of the failure of Waverly council to render a duty of care.
But in the 1930s the courts saw emotional and psychological harm to a mother as the stuff of temporary emotion, even though the shell shock of a soldier returned from war had become a proven medical impairment.
The unresolvable grief of a mother was not something monetisable in claims before a court.
The Doc disagreed.
His 34-page opinion is seen as a master class of legal reasoning, the work of a brilliant mind.
Sadly, for Golda Chester, the Doc's opinion was a lonely one, the Chester appeal was defeated by three votes to one.
It took Australian courts until 1984 to recognise that psychiatric injuries were as real as physical injuries when chief justice of the high court, Harry Gibbs, recognised the correctness of the Doc's 1939 dissent.
By then Golda Chester was long dead, found hung in the back room of her Waverly home on July 25, 1949.
The Doc left the high court in 1940. He led the Labor Party, including as member for Hunter.
He was the Chief Justice of NSW. He led the United Nations, he launched the Declaration of Human Rights, and on and on.
But it is the Doc's achievements in the law that Haigh's book emphasises, how the Doc fought stuffy precedent with the lived experiences of ordinary people.
Maitland's brilliant boy died in 1965, aged 71.
Phillip O'Neill is professor of economic geography at Western Sydney University
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