Cowra Voices storytelling app was launched at the 75th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout in August 2019. Catherine Bennett was asked to speak about The Japanese Gardens primarily, which is location number four on the app.


This audio interview with Catherine Bennett was recorded on 21st September 2018, in Cowra by Nikkei Australia’s Mayu Kanamori and Masako Fukui. This interview was recorded for the Cowra Voices geolocative storytelling app created in 2019 in launch to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Cowra Breakout. For more information, please refer to the Overview in this archive.

Catherine Bennett  00:31

Hello, I’m Catherine Bennett. I’m a potter by trade and have worked for many years in pottery and art and craft teaching and making. And more recently, my son and I are running a section of the family farm and we have sheep and are growing lamb for meat.

Catherine Bennett  00:57

I went to Japan in 1971 as an exchange student to Ichijo High School in Nara. I was 17. It was a private exchange organised by the then Mayor of Cowra when the school showed an interest in having a student. While I was there, I was at school of course, but then showed an interest in – doing, learning to do pottery. I had done a little bit of pottery here, but was keen to learn more and so the teachers were able to arrange for me to work in a very traditional tea ceremony workshop near Nara called Akahadayama, with a family called Oishio. Old Mr Oishio had recently retired and his son was running the business with a number of apprentices and workers. So Mr Oishio was able to sit beside me on the wheel. And although he had only a little bit of English, and I had only a little bit of Japanese, I was able to learn by following his hand movements on the wheel, and it was a fantastic way of learning. So I was able to learn to throw. Then later on – and I used to go there a couple of days a week with one of my teachers on the back of his motorbike. He would take me and then stay while I did a number of hours there.

Catherine Bennett  02:22

Later on, it was arranged that I could go to one of their students and Mr Hagiwara, who had a studio closer into Nara. And I used to go there every day and learn to throw really quite well. Got involved in glazing, saw how things were fired. And it really set me up for my future life because pottery has been my career.

Catherine Bennett  02:49

The reason I wanted to go to Japan was that my grandmother went to Japan in 1911. She was 25, and went with an uncle and aunts and cousins in a big trip, by ship, of course in those years. And we have her diary and lovely black and white photos of that time. And also some of the beautiful craftwork, including pottery that they brought back from Japan. So that was my sort of inspiration as a child, we used to look at these beautiful exotic things, and thought, how nice – I thought then it’d be lovely to learn to do pottery.

Catherine Bennett  03:28

My grandmother was Elsie Stokes. And she married Harold Busby. So her married name was Busby. They were farmers on a farm neighbouring ours. And her family came here very early. In fact, they were the first European people into this valley in 1831. So we’re still on that land. So we do have a very sort of strong sense of place and a long history of diaries and station records and early photos of our lives here. So that was a great inspiration when we were children as well. So we sort of knew about their early lives in quite a lot of detail, particularly that trip to Japan.

Mayu Kanamori  04:17

Why did your grandmother go to Japan? She must’ve been the first person from Cowra to go to Japan.

Catherine Bennett  04:23

Absolutely, she would have been. Yes. So my grandmother, Elsie Busby would have been one of the first people in Cowra – I think probably the first person to go to Japan. Travelling then was so much harder. Her uncle was the first skilled doctor in Cowra, a man called Dr Felix Bartlett and he was a great traveller. He came from Devon in England and came out, married a great, great aunt of mine, and had two children here. And he took his children, and Elsie, his niece, and an older aunt, and his wife to Japan as an adventure and a trip.

Catherine Bennett  05:10

In fact, it was a sort of a tour around the world that they did. They went to England first, back to where he was from. And then across Canada, across the Atlantic by ship, and then across Canada on an early railway line. And then by ship down to Japan, then they went into Hong Kong, the women stayed there and the men went into China. And it was very soon after the Boxer Rebellion, so things weren’t so good in China. So it was in my grandmother’s diary, she describes the difference between what she felt was happy, contented, Japan, and unhappy, rebellious China at the time. She had the most marvellous photos of their travelling on horseback, and in a sedan chair. They went to Nikko and into the mountains and walked there. Photos of them walking up into forests with big trees, then to Lake Biwa, where they went on a punt or a boat. And there were photos of them at the stages where tea could be had. So they were sitting on platforms and with a cloth, and having tea as they travelled. It’s fascinating. Then they went down into Kyoto, and Nara. So there are photos of them going to temples and shrines in Nara, which I then went to in 1971. So I was able to recognise the same stone lanterns and entrances to the temples and shrines there. Fantastic.

Mayu Kanamori  06:54


Masako Fukui  06:56


Mayu Kanamori  06:58

Wow. Any questions along –

Masako Fukui  06:59

Well, probably too many. But I think that’s another story for another time, I think we have to get the app done first.

Mayu Kanamori  07:08

So can you tell us – you went to Japan and you’ve learnt – opened up a path to pottery, and then can you let us know what happened later?

Catherine Bennett  07:21

Yep. So after I was in Japan for a year, I came back and finished my schooling, just a couple of years at the Cowra High School. And then went to East Sydney Technical College, which was a fantastic place to learn ceramics in Sydney, under Peter Rushforth, a well-known Australian potter who had been a prisoner of war in Japan. And he had taken a great interest in Japan after the war, having had a hard time. He then decided that he would go back to Japan, and come to terms with what had happened during the war. And, again, took a great interest in pottery, was absolutely amazed by their pottery traditions. And came back and spent his life teaching and potting, and made beautiful ceramics which are very well known in Australia.

Mayu Kanamori  08:17

Was he a Cowra man?

Masako Fukui  08:18

No, he was from Sydney. Melbourne and then Sydney. Yeah. So he was the head of ceramics there, did that. Then went on to England and worked with a potter Alan Caiger-Smith, who was a very, very good brush worker and did beautiful tin glazed earthenware and lustre ware, and worked as an apprentice in his workshop for three years and that was the most wonderful experience as well. Came back to Cowra, set up a small pottery on our farm where I was brought up.

Catherine Bennett  08:59

When I came back to Cara, Mr Saburo Nagakura visited the Cowra Japanese Garden, and thought it would be nice to have something slightly more active going on in the Garden, as well as the sort of more passive walking around looking at the Garden. He was from – he was head of the Kyushu Electric Power Company and was based in Arita, which of course is a famous porcelain centre in Kyushu, the southern island of Japan. And he said, ‘what about setting up a pottery’? So the Garden got in touch with me, knowing that I was a potter and said, would I be able to help with a design for the building and then run it? So I worked with John Favre, an architect based at the ANU in, not the ANU, I think it was the Canberra University in Canberra. We worked out a floor plan And the building was built. And it was Mr Nagakura who financed that.

Masako Fukui  10:11

It’s not there now though is it?

Catherine Bennett  10:13

It was run for, I’d say 15 or 20 years as a pottery. I worked it for about 10 years. And then some – a group of women in Cowra took it on. And there was a sort of changing population in that group. Then finally, it was decided that it would be made into a small conference centre, which it is now.

Mayu Kanamori  10:38

Do you know the relationship between the Park, the Saburo Nagakura Park, and how that came about in – with the Japanese Gardens? We don’t have much stuff on the –

Catherine Bennett  10:48

No, I think what happened was, Mr Nagakura took a great interest in Cowra because of the pottery connection. By then there were other potters working in the Cowra area. There’s some very good clays nearby, which are suitable for pottery making. And because he had a wonderful personal collection of ceramics, as well as building on the Kyushu Electric Power Company’s ceramic collection, he felt that he would like to do more for Cowra. So he offered to finance the Saburo Nagakura Park, which is now in one of the most beautiful positions in Cowra overlooking the town to – looking to the south. And it’s much used, I noticed people go up there a lot. They’re at barbeque facilities and a playground, and an area where you can play games, you know, lovely garden and a lawn, and people seem to use it a lot.

Mayu Kanamori  11:52

Have you spent much time there yourself?

Catherine Bennett  11:55


Mayu Kanamori  11:56

Can you tell us specifically what you’ve done there?

Catherine Bennett  11:59

Not long ago as an extended family, because I’m from a big farming family with lots of nieces and nephews and brothers and sisters, we decided to celebrate a family birthday at Saburo Nagakura Park in Cowra. And we ordered pizzas and took them up and ate them in the picnic area, and the family played cricket on the lawn.

Mayu Kanamori  12:28

Your mother was mayor?

Catherine Bennett  12:30


Mayu Kanamori  12:31

And had relationships with Japan?

Catherine Bennett  12:34

Actually fascinating ones I think, and that might go into the POW Camp thing. So my mother, the daughter of Elsie Busby, who went to Japan in 1911, was a farmer’s wife and with my father ran a very busy farm. Did lots of books, raised four children and then felt that she would like to contribute to the Cowra community and became, along with another woman friend, the first female councillors on the municipal council or aldermen, I think we should call them. Shall I start again?

Masako Fukui  13:20

No, no.

Catherine Bennett  13:22

And so she was an alderman for more than 20 years. And in among – during those 20 years, she was mayor, the first and only so far, female mayor of Cowra, for four years, from the late 70s till the early 80s. During – in 1980 she went to Japan as Mayor and did an official trip, and was able to meet many of the businessmen who were financing the building of the Japanese Garden and helped – was on a committee, on the original garden committee that was working out how to establish a garden. So she was very instrumental in that early, those early planning years.

Masako Fukui  14:13

You didn’t mention her name.

Catherine Bennett  14:15

My mother, Barbara Bennett, the daughter of Elsie Busby, who went to Japan in 1911, was a councillor and was Mayor of Cowra from the late 70s to the early 80s.

Mayu Kanamori  14:28

So did that kind of influence you in any way?

Catherine Bennett  14:33

I think, in my mother’s family, and my father’s really, there’s a very strong sense of duty to work for your community. Mum and Dad were great employees of people, because we had a big asparagus enterprise here, and lots and lots of people would come and work on the farm at certain times of the year. That extended into my mother’s community activities as an alderman.

Catherine Bennett  15:03

One of the things that she enjoyed most in those years, was getting to know some of the old prisoners of war, who were in the Japanese Prisoner of War Camp in Cowra during the war. And they formed a Cowra Camp Association, it was called. And these lovely little old men, who were elderly then, would come to Cowra quite often, visit the cemeteries and pay their respects, and got to know the activities around Cowra. And one of Mum’s great pleasures was meeting those elderly men. And she kept up correspondence with them for years. Of course, my mother is no longer alive, and they probably aren’t either. But the three names that I remember was Mr Mottai, and Mr Kaneda, and Mr Fukushima, who I actually met when I went back to Japan years later. They were the most delightful men, they were jovial, and funny. And they had sometimes quite surprising memories of the camp.

Catherine Bennett  16:13

One that I do remember is that they were absolutely amazed at the view to the east, which is a really beautiful view from the Camp. And they said they had no recollection of that. So coming back, they thought, gosh, you know, we’re in this position, and we didn’t realise that it was there. They also talked about the food, they’re amazed at the quality of the food, it was very good. And they were well fed and cared for. They said they found oatmeal porridge, which was fairly common on the diet on the menu, a little bit hard to eat. And the other thing that they thought was very funny was milky sweet rice pudding. Because rice, of course, was probably generally savoury in their own country. And they thought that was an odd thing. And it was something that they did remember.

Masako Fukui  17:07

Such little things you remember –

Catherine Bennett  17:09

(Laughter) It’s often those minor things, isn’t it? You know, funny little things, like the bathing arrangements or food.

Mayu Kanamori  17:21

Did you have anything else that you’ve written there?

Catherine Bennett  17:23

About my mother – I’ll just see.

Masako Fukui  17:25

Oh gosh, You’ve actually written so much – (unintelligible) experiences with the Japanese. You spent time in Japan as a young woman, or as a teenager. What’s it like coming back to Cowra, seeing tourists, like there’s a huge Japanese influence?

Catherine Bennett  17:52

Both ways I guess, there are lots of tourists going to Japan as well. One thing that I could talk about is, I was – at the Garden when the pottery house was first built, it was right at the time when there was a big second development at the Japanese Garden, the lower lake, in front of the pottery house was being constructed. And so Mr Ken Nakajima and his son, the designers and makers of the Japanese Garden, were working in the garden while I was working at the pottery. So the pottery house became quite a centre for workmen, which was fun. And I do remember that Mr Nakajima, who was elderly then, small, jovial man, and he always wore white gloves. And one day, two very big burly Cowra tradesmen appeared with a crane and a front end loader to move a few rocks around.

Catherine Bennett  18:56

I should explain that Mr Nakajima was the most amazing gardener. He had such skills. I think probably most of all his skills with placing rocks was quite amazing. He chose rocks from various locations in and around Cowra, just by going out into, onto farms and finding the rocks that he might be able to do something with. So as a giant pile of rocks, and these fellows came up with their big machines to move you around. And I think they had no idea that it was going to be a long job, and very, very carefully planned. So at first they were being fairly rough with rocks, rolling them here and there. And Mr Nakajima in his white gloves, was very carefully training them to place them within centimetres. And I looked at these two fellows and thought, you know, they were rolling their eyes and thinking what’s all this about? By the end of the day, the three heads were down looking at a rock, carefully measuring and they were all absolutely engrossed in this job, Mr Nakajima and the two Australian tradesmen. So they did the most beautiful job. When the water was turned on, all that laying of rocks was done dry. And then the big day was to turn the water on and see how it worked. And Mr Nakajima only had to move perhaps two or three rocks a few centimetres here and there and it was perfect. So he really did have tremendous experience with rock work and gardening.

Catherine Bennett  20:32

One of the times when he was here before that second development, in the first development my mother was very involved in the Garden. And possibly with the stress of establishing it initially, Mr Nakajima had a bad case of shingles. And so he had to go to hospital. And they worked out what was wrong. And then he – it was arranged that he would stay in the hospital and be cared for as needed. And then each day he would set off, walk over the hill and to the Japanese Garden and do the work. So for the whole of that time, he was based at the hospital, which was lovely. He became well again.

Masako Fukui  21:16

Great. Fantastic, such a good story.

Catherine Bennett  21:18

And then there’s another one, another story about him, which I was there for. There were a group of local Cowra businessmen and some Japanese businessmen being shown around the Japanese Garden, possibly with the idea of working out, you know, the finances of it. And Mr Nakajima was talking in Japanese and although I don’t speak much Japanese, I understand enough to understand some conversations. And I realised that he was telling the most marvellous story of building concurrently with the Japanese Garden in Cowra, a smaller Japanese garden in the Moscow botanical gardens. And so he was travelling between Australia and Russia. It was the USSR in those days, building the garden and he was talking about that. He went to the garden and found that there were no rocks around Moscow, it’s on a plain. And so he said to the people at the university, who were – the students were – the university students in Moscow were helping him with the arrangements. And said, ‘I need some rocks’. So a train was arranged and the students and their teachers were sent out to the Urals, where they were first rocks to collect a trainload of rocks. Came back. Mr Nakajima got in one end of the train and walked through the train, came out the other end shaking his head and said, ‘no, these are no good. They’re all round’. Marui, he said. And, is that word for round? And so the students and the train had to go further to find the right size rocks (laughter).

Masako Fukui  22:55

But in Cowra, they found the right rocks?

Catherine Bennett  22:57

In Cowra, they found the right rocks. I think mainly a combination of the granite, which is around the Cowra area, and limestone rocks from the Wolli region, which had lovely water marks on them.

Masako Fukui  23:13

So the rocks are very special around here?

Catherine Bennett  23:15

They’re very special rocks. And Mr Nakajima chose that site because of the beautiful big granite, it’s granite diorite actually, which has garnets in it sometimes, the rocks in the Japanese Garden on the hill. And he chose that particular site because of two particular rocks, a big flat rock and a pointed rock, which he felt were sort of sentinels that would be the centre of the Garden. He was given a choice of three sites. And my mother was involved in that. That site, which is west facing and rocky and poor soil, and then two sites down in the town, close to the river, one in the – I think it’s called the River Park. And I think what the aldermen felt that he would probably choose one of those two sites, but he chose, to their consternation, he chose the site that it is on now, and they thought how are we ever going to make a garden there. It was rocky and dry and poor soil. But thank goodness he chose that site because it’s absolutely beautiful now.

Masako Fukui  24:27

That’s amazing. Didn’t know that story, did you know that story?

Catherine Bennett  24:30

A lot of people think that the pointed rock is the sort of God rock or the Shinto rock, it’s actually a big flat rock. And then the pointed rock is adjacent. And he felt that it was the big flat rock which might be the main rock in the Garden. The other thing that somebody in those early days, the committee thought that he would have to clear the whole site, because none of the native vegetation, the eucalyptus and bushes would be suitable for a Japanese garden, and he said no. The eucalypts are like giant bonsai. They’re the most marvellously contorted shapes. And that he was very keen to use both exotic species and the native species. And he did that very well.

Masako Fukui  25:18

(unintelligible) giant bonsai, that’s great isn’t it.

Catherine Bennett  25:20

There’s one big, I think it’s a grey gum at the top of the main lawn, and he thought that that was particularly beautiful tree.

Catherine Bennett  25:33

Yes, one thing –  has anybody talked about the rocks in front of – you know, those carved rocks in front of the Japanese Garden?

Mayu Kanamori  25:41

No one’s talked about it.

Catherine Bennett  25:43

Right. Well, the man who did those came to – while I was working at the Garden, soon after Mr Nakajima was there for that second construction. A New York based sculptor came to Cowra and offered to make a sculpture in front of the Japanese Garden. Most of the councillors weren’t interested. But fortunately, Mr Cyril Treasure, who was, I think, maybe the Deputy Mayor at the time, I’m not quite sure what his position was, took an interest in him. He was a bohemian Japanese New Yorker. And said that would be wonderful and arranged for him to have accommodation at one of the hotel – in motels in Cowra. And he spent a number of weeks making a sculpture out of I think it’s 13 granite rocks, they’re fairly rounded. He chose them, Mr Treasure helped him collect those and place them in a line in front of the car park, at the Japanese Garden. And he used a tungsten tip tool and a hammer, and made the most amazing, curving line joining the rocks together. So it’s quite a symbolic piece. And there’s a story about it beside the sculpture. And because he was up there in blazing heat, I think he must have been here in the middle of summer, he used to come into the pottery and we’d have lunch together and make tea and get his energy back again, and then go back to sculpting this beautiful (unintelligible), it took a number of weeks. Granite is a very hard material to work with. And so it was slow work, but beautifully done.

Masako Fukui  27:38

Hmm, wonderful.

Catherine Bennett  27:43

More recently, our connection with Japan has been with farmstays. Some years ago, one of the fathers of one of the early exchange students at Cowra High School, who were part of the Seikei-Cowra exchange system, Mr Horibe, bought land here and built a restaurant and a guest house in Japanese style. And he arranged for, often university students, school students, young adults to come and be based in Cowra for some weeks or some months. And sometimes he would arrange for them to come and stay on farms. And we had many of those students. They would come for a week or three months, sometimes studying here, working on the farm, but we had quite a –  for some years, we had quite a strong connection with Shimabara Agricultural High School in Kyushu. And each year in August, a number of students would come with a teacher and work on the farm for a week. They would help with sheep, with sheep work. But they also did a lot of planting of trees. And we now have many established trees and avenues that you would have driven through on your way here, of trees that were built, planted by the Shimabara students. And it was – did the most wonderful job of rehabilitating and regenerating native trees and shrubs on this farm. So I’m always grateful to the work that they did.

Mayu Kanamori  29:26

There are women from Shimabara buried in the Cowra Japanese War Cemetery.

Catherine Bennett  29:31


Mayu Kanamori  29:33

I’ll send you an email later and let you know which ones they are.

Catherine Bennett  29:38

And were they internees who –?

Mayu Kanamori  29:40

They were internees.

Catherine Bennett  29:41

Really so they’d been living in Australia before the war and were interned. Quite a number of the students who came from Shimabara were girls as well. And they were doing various studies, you know, animal studies, vegetable studies, so. Interesting, and well, I’ve got the names written down, so we’ll see if there’s a connection.

Masako Fukui  30:06

Isn’t that strange? Not strange but –

Mayu Kanamori  30:11

It’s an interesting coincidental connection.

Catherine Bennett 30:15

Yes, yes.

Catherine Bennett  30:22

One thing that I do know about a little bit was, because it’s so topical now is, and this has nothing to do with your app at all. I think that, yes. My mother, before she became Alderman, was always sort of very involved in the community and was worried about the Aboriginal situation here. Cowra had a mission, where there were, a lot of the Aboriginal families were expected to live there. And she realised that the children – initially there was a school on the mission. Then there was a change in our official policy, and the children were supposed to come to mainstream schools. And so those children were having to walk across from the mission, which was quite way across the river over a bridge to school. So their coming to school was, in many ways very difficult. They didn’t have the finances to have uniforms, and probably not quite enough food sometimes. And they’d had no early preparation with preschools to come to the school. So it was a bad time, when there were changes to the policy of dealing with Indigenous people in Cowra, in Australia happening all the time, and it was all pretty terrible, really.

Catherine Bennett  31:53

And my mother realised that some of these children were having to come to school with absolutely no understanding of what school was about, and no preschool to go to. So she was – got involved with Save the Children Fund at the time, and helped to establish a preschool on Erambie, the name of the Aboriginal, the Indigenous or Aboriginal mission in Cowra. And found a very nice woman, Mrs Capps, who was able to run it with the help of a Miss Coe,  an Indigenous woman, who had lived in Cowra for many, many years, and the most delightful person, a real mother, and a great carer of the community at the mission. And it was, I think, very successful. They were able to learn in their own environment, and with people who cared for them, and then it made their transition into the mainstream schools much better. So there is, you know, there is quite a lot, I think that could be said and talked about with the Aboriginal connections in Cowra, and possibly not enough has been written or spoken about that yet. Yeah.

Masako Fukui  33:20

Do you want to tell –?

Mayu Kanamori  33:24

Which part like, we’ve talked to one of the Coes.

Catherine Bennett  33:27

Great, which one?

Mayu Kanamori  33:28


Catherine Bennett  33:29

Isabel, yes.

Mayu Kanamori  33:30

Young Isabel.

Catherine Bennett  33:30

Yes, yes.

Mayu Kanamori  33:32

And she’s going to talk, we’re going to interview her.

Catherine Bennett  33:36

Great, that is good.

Mayu Kanamori  33:38

We’ve also interviewed Robyn Coffey.

Catherine Bennett  33:41

Yes, yes.

Mayu Kanamori  33:43

So we have two Aboriginal voices on it, which is great.

Catherine Bennett  33:47

On the app?

Mayu Kanamori  33:48

On the app.

Catherine Bennett  33:48

Great, so you will be able to incorporate that.

The Cowra Voices Audio Archive Project 2023

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