Image: Greame Douglas Ratten
By Dennis C. Nutt, State Archivist, churches of Christ in NSW & ACT
The introduction to a Memoir will tell you a great deal about the person who wrote it before you even begin to read. Greame Ratten’s Memoir begins thus:
I have decided to write this story in the hope that it may be of interest to my children and future generations. In recent days I have become aware that unless we record our life’s story, our descendants would be only guessing as to what life was like in our day. Each of us has a unique story – mine is not spectacular, but I am sure there will be some points of interest that even my own family would otherwise never know.
Here is a man with his feet firmly planted on the ground who does not overplay his life, but does not undervalue it either. Greame Ratten gave long and distinguished service to the churches of Christ in both Victoria and New South Wales for which proper acknowledgement is due.
Greame David Ratten was born in his grandmother’s home in Middle Brighton, Melbourne to Stan and Ina Ratten on 4 March 1928. He was the first of five children, one of whom died in infancy from a faulty heart valve. Greame was seven at the time. The family now contained three boys and one girl: Greame, Roger, Leith and Jennifer.
One of his earliest memories was standing at his back fence in Bentleigh watching across the paddocks, the building of the Bentleigh Church of Christ which was erected in one day on his 4th birthday. His parents were foundation members of that church. As a boy, he made a commitment of his life to follow Jesus and was baptised.
His schooling began at the West Bentleigh State School, with the dream of playing the drums at school assemblies. As a four-year-old, he could hear the drums being played from his house and would play on an upside-down beach bucket in the back yard. When he started school, he was bitterly disappointed to find he could not join the band until grade 3. The wait was painful but finally he was appointed Captain of the drum band. He was a consummate musician and began playing the cornet with the Moorabbin Municipal Band at eight years of age.
His maternal grandmother gave Greame and his brother Roger piano lessons. They entered a talent quest, the Australia’s Amateur Hour, on Melbourne radio, both playing a brass instrument with one hand and the piano with the other. It was quite a feat, as the brass instruments were transposing instruments and they were in a different key to the piano. The problem was, being radio, the listeners did not appreciate the skill being exhibited. During the war, many band members enlisted and, as a young teenager, he played the last post at the funerals of ex-servicemen and at Anzac Day services, and began playing for dances and cabarets. Excelling at music was the focus of his secondary education with the academic side of school life coming off second best.
As a young teenager, he was encouraged to help in the kindergarten section of the Bentleigh Church of Christ Sunday school which began a lifetime of Christian Service. In 1931 Jean Mitchell’s family moved to Bentleigh where she began her school life at the West Bentleigh Primary School, the same school Greame attended. Their mothers met at the school’s mother’s club and soon became close friends. Clearly, Greame’s and Jean’s lives began to intersect at a very early age. Jean’s mother was the official pianist for the Moorabbin Boys Band in which Greame played.
The families continued to intersect through their childhood and teenage years. Jean (pictured with Greame below) once announced that she would never marry one of the Ratten boys. They were horrors!
Into the Work Force
In December 1942, he left school, aged 14, and started work on the mail desk at City Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd. He worked there for two years and was clearly not suited to clerical work or to working with numbers and accounts.
The funeral of an aunt towards the end of 1944 sparked an interest in the funeral business. He visited J. Monkhouse & Son at Brighton and was offered a job making coffins. He was sixteen years of age. This was the beginning of a career in the funeral industry that lasted for thirty-two years. Making coffins soon gave way to learning the funeral business and the skills of funeral directing. It was not a job, it was a calling.
When he was nineteen, an uncle encouraged him to start a business delivering pies, pasties and crumpets. His father loaned him £200 to buy a van and he started delivering the goods to shops from St. Kilda to Box Hill. While this activity filled the mornings from 4.30 am to midday, he was still available for funeral activity in the afternoons. He persevered with the delivery business for two years and finally sold it as a going concern in order to get married and take up the position of resident manager of J. Monkhouse & Son, Brighton.
As a young adult, he developed a love for pipe organs and arranged to have lessons at All Saints Anglican Church, East St Kilda. On one occasion he fell asleep during a sermon at the Hemming St Methodist church, while sitting at the organ. At the close of the sermon, the minister had to walk across the platform and wake him with the words “We are going to sing the last hymn now”. Although he did not continue playing pipe organs, he was an accomplished organist. He continued to play the organ in church services up to very recent days. It was in playing the organ that his love of music, God and the church, were best expressed.
Greame was blessed with the fact that although he could read music, his skill as a musician was augmented by his ability to play by ear. This came in handy one time in Sydney. He was at a Rotary Club working bee in the cemetery of the historic St Anne’s Anglican Church at Ryde. A panicked vicar came out of the church and asked if anyone could play the organ. A bride was about to arrive, and the organist had not shown up. In his blue overalls, he answered the call, and found himself sitting at a pipe organ. He had a minute to work out how to turn it on and, with no sheet music, played “Here Comes the Bride” as the bridal party entered.
At one stage he accompanied “The Ratten Sisters,” four teenage girls in the family, on the piano as they travelled around the churches: a female, Christian version of the Bee Gees. They were very big on the local church scene!
When Jean was around eighteen, she attended a Ratten family event where her mother was providing the entertainment. It was a dinner dance and Greame needed someone to dance with because, in his words, ‘I was between girlfriends’. His mother suggested young Jeanie Mitchell. This quasi-date was followed by their first real date which saw Greame take Jean to the movies followed by a restaurant meal of chops and potatoes! Love blossomed and they were married at the Mordialloc Methodist Church on 20 October 1949, beginning a lifelong partnership of seventy years. Greame was twenty-one, and the manager of a funeral parlour.
After three years he became branch manager at Box Hill, and three years later the resident manager at South Yarra. In 1958, Greame purchased a funeral business of his own in Morwell, in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria. This was a huge step. In the first couple of weeks in the business they sat around waiting and hoping for someone to die! It was going to be hard work. They worked as a team running the business with Greame initially needing to drive a taxi to supplement the family income as the business slowly grew. They joined the Morwell Church of Christ and Greame soon found himself as chairman of the board, a role he fulfilled for seven years.
In 1967, they sold the now most successful funeral business in Morwell for Greame to take up the offer to become the General Manager of Wood Coffill Funerals in Sydney; a large funeral company with a number of branches requiring different management skills. The family took up membership with the Telopea church and there he served six years as chairman of the Board.
Greame reflected on the privilege it was to serve families at such a critical time in their lives. He saw funeral directing as an extension of his Christian faith where genuine compassion and care could be expressed.
When Wood Coffill Funerals was sold in 1974, Greame accepted the position as Executive Officer with Christian Enterprises, a Caringbah based organisation that ran business to raise funds for mission organisations. This necessitated the family moving to Caringbah where once again Greame served as chairman of the board (fifteen years). In these churches at times he also served as Sunday school teacher, was a Sunday School Superintendent, led Bible studies, played the organ, song-led and led worship. You name it, he did it!
In 1980, Greame accepted the position of Site Manager at the recently purchased Stanwell Tops Christian Conference Centre, which became their home for the next sixteen years. He was thrown in at the deep end, because in early-October of that year the Federal Conference was held at Stanwell Tops. It was an outstanding success, not the least because of the condition of the site and the opening of the new Conference Centre known as Boronia Place.
The role morphed into that of General Manager and Greame was able to use his business skills to advantage. This movement occurred when Stanwell Tops was removed from the direct control of Conference Executive and became a committee in its own right. The campsite made great strides under his direction both in terms of raised camper numbers and staff increases. It was enlarged and improved, and Greame enjoyed this work. His ability to be warm and engaging, diplomatic, and, at times, very firm, made him ideally suited to the role. One of his bolder initiates was the establishment of the Stanwell Tops Church of Christ which met at the campsite the initial minister being Ed Holt, who also acted as campsite chaplain. This church flourished for many years with Greame taking a strong lead in coordinating the mission and ministry of the church.
Greame’s interests went wider than the local church. He was very active in Christian Business Men’s Committees. For years he helped lead his local branch and was also on the National Executive for an extended period. He was a popular speaker at CBMC outreach Dinners, one of his topics being, “A funny thing happened on the way to my funeral.” He served a period as the National Chairman of CBMC.
When he retired in 1996, Greame took on the ‘temporary’ role (one year) as caretaker at Hillcrest, the United Protestant Association retirement village, at Stanwell Park, moving into a small on-site cabin. Fourteen years later they moved out of their temporary on-site cabin, into their beautiful home in the redeveloped UPA village. As with everything he did, this part-time role as a caretaker was done with commitment, dedication and with genuine care for the residents of the village. He finally retired in 2016, aged 87.
Retirement did not mean retirement from Christian service. In the early 2000’s, Hillcrest Christian Fellowship commenced. Greame and Jean were instrumental in planting this fellowship. Weekly services saw Jean leading worship and Greame playing the organ and preaching. Numerous commitments to Christ and baptisms ensued, with weekly Bible Studies, regular midweek services at Kennett Home, pastoral care, funerals to conduct and God’s people to be shepherded. He was the unofficial chaplain of both Hillcrest Village and Kennett Home. He served on the executive of UPA Sydney South District for many years, and also on the UPA State Board from 2003 to 2008.
Through the church offerings, over the years, many tens of thousands of dollars have gone to Christian causes with a humanitarian focus.
“After he had served his own generation by the will of God, he fell asleep” (Acts 13:36) on 6 February 2023, one month short of his 95th birthday and two years after his beloved Jean.
As I wrote at the beginning of this paper, Greame Ratten gave long and distinguished service to the churches of Christ in both Victoria and New South Wales. That service issued from a deep faith, not based on a privileged, easy, pain-free, life. He faced some serious challenges and difficulties, loss and grief. And yet he could declare ‘Great is Thy Faithfulness.’
Greame was always committed to the church, however his faith was not based on the Christian religion or the importance of the church. His faith was grounded in a personal relationship with Jesus. This was something he and Jean shared. His whole life was an outworking of a decision to follow Jesus. Where he led, Greame went, what he asked, Greame did. He was a disciple. He spent much of his life wanting to help others to get to know Jesus. His confidence in the Bible as God’s Word and Jesus as the Saviour, drove his desire to share the Bible with others and to challenge people to explore the Christian faith.
Greame was a godly man, and although by no means perfect, he exhibited godly qualities in the way he interacted with people, in the way he spoke and lived. In following Jesus, he became more like his Lord. He manifested to a serious degree all the Fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.
His faith was not the sentimental, wishful thinking of a 94-year-old. It was the faith of a young boy, a young adult, a new husband, a young father, a middle-aged businessman, a retiree, a 94-year-old. His favourite hymn was “Great is Thy Faithfulness” because God had been faithful over a lifetime.
I am greatly indebted to the Ratten family for making available to me most of the material that constitutes this paper. I knew Greame from the late 1960s, but most particularly in connection with Stanwell Tops and Conference.
Read more churches of Christ in NSW & ACT histories HERE.