WHEN Jane Belfield (1932-2013, pictured) arrived in Australia on a migrant ship in 1954 at the age of 19 she was living her dream of travel and adventure.
That she was pregnant with her first child and travelling alone, with her husband obliged to follow later on a Merchant Navy ship, she took in her stride – as she did with the many hurdles in her life.
She was to travel extensively over the course of that life; living almost half of it in Papua New Guinea, forging an enviable career, and acquiring countless friends and admirers along the way.
Newly married, she’d given up a cherished position as an editorial assistant in London to travel across to the other side of the world and live on a sheep farm in Western Victoria. But writing was always her first love, and she fulfilled a lifelong ambition when she graduated in journalism in the late 1960s.
Born Edna May Hill in 1932 in Heanor, Derbyshire, UK, she later won a scholarship to Heanor Grammar, and achieved distinctions in all her subjects. Always fiercely independent, she then turned down an offer of a scholarship to Oxford, preferring to work to put herself through night college and a science degree. She was encouraged to also try modelling, and won numerous competitions, later featuring on the cover of Women’s World magazine.
Jane met Michael Belfield in 1951 at a Christmas party at the National Coal Board in Ilkeston, where she was working as a telephonist. The charming Australian, with a farm back home, was different from anyone else she’d ever met, and they married in March 1952 and moved to London. Jane had a position there as editorial assistant with Miracle magazine, but resigned later that year to emigrate to Australia.
She was plunged instantly into rural Victoria life when, fresh off the ship and travelling from Melbourne to Coleraine with her new mother- and brother-in-law, she shyly revealed that she needed to ‘spend a penny’. The car pulled up beside the road and she was directed to: ‘Go behind that gumtree, Dear!’
The years at the farm were among her happiest. The brothers would play outrageous tricks on her, but with her characteristic good humour she bore it well, all the while feigning indignant objection.
Michael and Jane’s eldest son, Nicholas, was born in Coleraine in 1953, and they lived on the farm for some years before they decided Michael should apply for a position in PNG.
He was posted to Epo Agricultural Station and the young family moved there in 1956 while Jane was pregnant with their second son. Flying across treacherous PNG terrain became the norm, and this was the case when Jane flew to Port Moresby hospital to have Martin in 1956, then last child, Louise, in 1958.
With the ag station quite a distance from the nearest town, Popondetta, all their food had to be air-dropped. Sunshine Milk powder and Carnation milk in tins became their sole milk supply, and there were always weevils in the flour! Jane was often alone on the station with the children while Michael was on patrol, coming down with a debilitating tropical illness during his first absence.
The family later moved into the town and then a few years later to Mt Hagen in the Western Highlands. Here, Jane freelanced for the ABC and the Post-Courier, compiled newsletters for various organisations, and was also agriculture correspondent for Pacific Islands Monthly.
In Mt Hagen she studied for her Bachelor of Arts degree then Diploma of Journalism through the University of Queensland, often dragging an armchair into the kitchen at night to warm her feet in the oven of the slow-combustion wood stove!
From 1963-1965 she was supervisor of Mt Hagen Preschool, and in 1965 became program assistant at Radio Hagen; rising quickly to broadcast officer, then station manager. In 1969, the boys went to boarding school in Melbourne, Jane travelled overseas with Louise, and Michael resettled in Port Moresby.
On her return there in 1970 Jane took up the position of assistant editor with the Department of Information and Extension Services (DIES).
In his own tribute to Jane on his website, PNG Attitude, former colleague Keith Jackson, then station manager at Radio Rabaul and later Radio Bougainville, remarked on her “once unusual, perhaps unique, role in Papua New Guinea broadcasting”.
“In those days, of course, there was no email or fax [or] teleprinter service. Information was distributed to the 18 radio stations scattered across the country from the Central News Room (CNR) in Port Moresby through a dedicated broadcast channel.
“In addition to writing and editing the news, Jane was the voice of CNR, reading the news – written in simple English ready for the translation into a score of local languages – in measured, carefully modulated tones, spelling out the killer words and repeating anything she judged to be especially complex.
“At the 18 radio stations, the news would be transcribed and then translated into Pidgin English, Hiri Motu and a clutch of PNG’s hundreds of vernacular languages; whereupon it would take its place along with [local] news in the many news bulletins that were broadcast each day.
“And so, even before we met this lovely woman, most of us out at the stations felt we knew her [through] CNR.”
In 1973 the ABC and the DIES amalgamated to form the NBC and Jane became chief subeditor. She was one of the first white women to be offered a government contract in the newly independent PNG.
“She had the exhilarating experience of working in journalism when a new nation was born and on seeing it move through the rigours of early nationhood.”
In 1976, Jane and Michael divorced, and she left PNG in 1979 when her contract with the NBC expired. Returning to Western Victoria, she worked for the Western Advertiser, then the Portland Observer. She continued to read current affairs for Radio Australia’s PNG service and also had vast amounts of freelance work published, broadcast and performed in Australia and overseas.
In 1990 the PNG NBC offered her a contract, training cadet journalists, but instead she accepted an offer to work in Rabaul with the Cocoa Quality Improvement Project (CQIP). From 1991 to 1993 she liaised extensively with agricultural officers, growers, women’s groups and more; producing an abundance of publications, radio programs and videos in Simple English, English, and Pidgin.
Following hip replacements in 1993 and 1994 she was offered jobs with overseas aid programs in Asia and PNG, but turned these down. In 1994 she signed a contract with a private cocoa firm in Rabaul; however, this fell through when Tavurvur volcano erupted, burying the town in ash. So she continued her freelance work, including editing CQIP manuals.
Her taste for adventure never wavered. And while her rheumatoid arthritis knocked her down again and again, she never gave up. Despite her many ailments – and she suffered terribly from the arthritis and its complications for more than 20 years – she was independent and hardworking to the end.
She lived in her own ‘PNG spirit house’, Haus Tambaran, writing and editing up to just before she died – and still able to knock out a cryptic crossword at lightning speed.
She not only had a luminous career, she was luminous. And all who knew her experienced her sharp wit, and her unwavering high standards.
If you knew Jane, her children urge you to raise a last glass to her: double vodka, NO ice, a slice of muli, and a teeny dash of tonic.
Jane is survived by her three children, six grandchildren, and three great-grandsons. She is buried at Coleraine.