Egidio Dellavalle was born on 29 June 1890 in Sondrio in northern Italy. When he was 23, he emigrated to Western Australia aboard the ss Orama. For eleven years, he worked as a labourer at Kalgoorlie before moving to Burracoppin. He was there for two years when, in 1926, he applied for naturalisation.
Aside from a return visit to Italy in 1929, he remained in Western Australia, working in country areas as a labourer and sleeper cutter. While we may never know most of the stories of his life, it seems he worked without a major incident for a decade. In April 1938, however, he became lost in the bush.
Having had a holiday in Perth, Egidio returned to the sleeper cutter’s camp near Wannamal with his friend Antonio Maroni. He was not feeling well and struggled to eat. On Sunday, 24 April 1938, he realised he had left some of his clothes behind in Perth. At 5 am the next day, he decided to go and get them.
The camp he was staying at was said to be “in the centre of a 30,000 acres of virgin timber country.” He intended to walk through the bush to the Moora Road and, once there, he would get a lift to the city. While walking, however, he missed the right track and he quickly became disoriented.
Once Antonio woke up and noticed Egidio was gone, he may have at first tried to search for him. When that proved helpless, he contacted the Gingin Police Station. Two constables (one from Gingin and one from Perth), two Aboriginal trackers, 25 sleeper cutters, and residents began scouring the bush.
Egidio was without food and water. For two days, he wandered the bush, his concerns growing. At some point, he accepted he was lost and hoped that a search party would find him. Doing all that he could to increase that chance, he left a trail by marking the trees as he walked.
Walking in the bush for nearly 50 km, Egidio eventually came across a dog-proof fence bordering a farm. It was too high to climb over and he struggled to yell out to the man he could see ploughing a paddock with a tractor.
His efforts to call out in his weakened state were hopeless. He could hardly hear his own voice.Mirror (Perth, WA : 1921 – 1956); 30 April 1938; Page 11; Sucked Leaves to Keep Alive
Lack of water was especially concerning. Luckily, a heavy dew fell the night before. Egidio pulled the leaves off the trees and sucked the moisture off them. He soaked his handkerchief in the dew and placed it over his head. As he became increasingly dehydrated, his face became “swollen and raw.”
No longer able to walk, he crawled around the fence line and managed to find a hole. Enlarging it using sticks, he pushed his way through and crawled to the house, “the struggling journey taking him two hours.” Early in the morning on 28 April, Reginald and Hazel Kennedy found him. They put him to bed and gave him eggs and milk and a drop of brandy to help him recover.
Egidio was lost for four days with nothing but dew to sustain him. He lost weight and was brought to Mt Hawthorn Hospital by his employer, Lawley Reilly, for treatment. It wasn’t until 30 April that he was allowed to eat properly.
Egidio made a full recovery. His photo, as well as his remarkable story of survival, were printed in the newspaper ‘Mirror’. He returned to work as a sleeper cutter and, in the years that followed, he obtained work at Boddington. It was at Boddington, on 10 February 1942, in the midst of World War II, that he was captured and interred as an enemy alien.
Aged 52, he had over £14 on his person, which was the cash for the camp paymaster. He also had to list all the property he owned in Australia. Nearly all of it related to his work as a timber worker and included: a broad axe, small axes, wedges, saws, hammers, a sharpening stone, a tent, a wooden bedstead without a mattress, and a box of kitchen utensils.
Over the next two months, Egidio was moved from Fremantle to Harvey and then to Parkeston (near Kalgoorlie) before being sent to the Loveday Internment Camp in South Australia. His accommodation at the camp was a makeshift cabin that he shared with about 20 other men. Work was optional, but he was paid for anything he did do. It’s possible (given his skills) he joined a woodcutter gang.
The Italian armistice took place in September 1943. Egidio was released on 6 December and returned to Western Australia. He more than likely went back to work as a sleeper cutter. For the next 13 years, he lived his life quietly. At age 66, on 22 January 1956, Egidio died in Perth.
As is often the case with so many people, much of his life story is unknown. Fragments, however, indicate that he was a valued and respected timber worker. In 1938, when he was lost in the bush, one article referred to him as “one of the most famous sleeper cutters.”
- SRO of Western Australia; Freemantle Inwards Jul 1912 – 1915; Accession: 457; Item: 51b; Roll: 184. Month: 07. Courtesy of Ancestry.com.au
- National Archives of Australia; Della Valle, E – Naturalisation certificate; 1926-1927; Series Number: A1; Control Symbol: 1926/20952; Citation: NAA: A1, 1926/20952
- National Archives of Australia; Prisoner of War/Internee: Della Valle, Egidio; Date of birth – 29 June 1890; Nationality – Italian; 1942-1943; Series Number: MP1103/1; Control Symbol: W15183; Citation: NAA: MP1103/1, W15183
- National Archives of Australia; Prisoner of War/Internee; Della Valle, Egidio; Year of birth – 1890; Nationality – Nbs of italian origin; 1939-1945; Series Number: MP1103/2; Control Symbol: 15183; Citation: NAA: MP1103/2, 15183
- 1938 ‘SLEEPER CUTTER MISSING.’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 27 April, p. 9. , viewed 11 Mar 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article41680349
- 1938 ‘SLEEPER CUTTER VANISHES’, The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1955), 27 April, p. 2. (CITY FINAL), viewed 11 Mar 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article85034975
- 1938 ‘LOST IN THE BUSH.’, The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), 29 April, p. 19. , viewed 12 Mar 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article41681106
- 1938 ‘SUCKED LEAVES TO KEEP ALIVE’, Mirror (Perth, WA : 1921 – 1956), 30 April, p. 11. , viewed 12 Mar 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article75445688
- Information relating to the Loveday Internment Camp courtesy of the Barmera Central Tourism website: https://www.barmeratourism.com.au/loveday-internment-display/
- Information relating to the Loveday Internment Camp courtesy of ABC Australia: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-03-24/loveday-world-war-2-pow-internment-camp-anniversary/100020538
- 1938 ‘No title’, Mirror (Perth, WA : 1921 – 1956), 30 April, p. 1. , viewed 16 Mar 2022, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article75445553