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Brian Coote: pharmacist, local documentarian and raconteur

From 1928 and 2013 if you needed medicine in Barraba you would have been helped by a member of the Coote family. Don, and then his son Brian Coote, operated their family-owned pharmacy in Barraba for 85 years. Tinctures, mixtures and ointments, later the pharmaceutical drugs we are familiar with today, newspapers, comics and for a long time, ammo; all were available at Cootes Pharmacy.

Brian Coote is not just well known and respected as the local pharmacist. He has also taken many photographs which have documented life in Barraba over the decades. Brian also has a detailed memory for people and their stories and often unites the photographs and stories on social media to capture some of the local history.

Brian was born in 1937 in Maude Street, Barraba, one of four children to Don Coote and Ebbe Illife. He was in fact born in the very same bedroom he now lives in. Brian says his father Don was fundamentally a farmer at heart, but he and Ebbe lived behind their Pharmacy in Queen Street and everyone in the family of six was involved in the (family) businesses, including children Valerie, Brian, Terry and Shane. The shop was originally at the site the Barraba Library now occupies. Next door was a bakery run by the Smith family who also lived behind their shop. Brian says the families were close as a result. Both Brian’s parents were from Manilla. His dad grew up at “Fair Mount” and attended Manilla Public School until Intermediate, then De La Salle Armidale.

Brian has an incredible memory for stories, and a special interest in his own family history. He recounts that his father Don was also strong on family history and always happy to tell the unexpurgated version, which was unusual in his generation.  Sharing stories with his pharmacy customers was a real pleasure to Brian throughout his career.

“Older customers were such a bloody delight as they could tell you stories,” says  Brian. But nothing was better when he could tease someone about a moment from their past and they would give him a comeback about his own misspent youth. Brian recalls a customer from Upper Horton volunteering the following story. She started it with, “I remember what terrible kids you and your brother were, Brian!” 

The lady recounted she was coming into town just after she was married, driving over the Manilla River bridge, when half way along two faces popped up over the side behind the mesh. She got a huge shock and screeched to a halt. Brian says he had forgotten he and his brother Terry had climbed onto the bridge’s piers, despite the large amount of water in the river at the time and being unable to swim. The lady drove straight to Mr Coote Senior to let him know about his sons’ misconduct, but Brian recalls his father never said a word to the boys. Brian and Terry were able to continue to run wild in Barraba.

Educated at St Joseph’s Primary School in Barraba by the Sisters of St Joseph, Brian went away to high school at De La Salle College in Armidale (now called O’Connor), and then onto SydneyUniversity to do Pharmacy. In those days the qualification also required an apprenticeship, which Brian completed under Kevin Murphy in Gymea. Kevin’s own experience in the Navy meant he agreed with Brian that he get his Nasho (National Service) out of the way rather than deferring it, when Brian was called up in 1956. Brian completed Nasho at Holsworthy in Ingleburn.

Once qualified Brian returned to Barraba to work in the family Pharmacy and in 1966 met Veronica O’Dwyer, a primary school teacher. “If it wasn’t for teachers and nurses we’d be that inbred around here!” quips Brian. Veronica, known as Ronna, and Brian have five children: Damien, Megan, Justin, Shannon and Kirsten. All of the Coote family were the subjects of their father’s great photography interest. 

Brian tells another story from later on when he was the Pharmacist behind the counter of the shop. “One Sunday I was working in the pharmacy with Elissa Ratliff, who worked for me when she was home from Calrossy. I said to let me know if Marsupial Max came in.” Max Spencer and Brian had both had cars at Kosmo’s Smash Repairs at the same time for roo damage. Max got his vehicle mended the quickest but on the way home had another unfortunate encounter with a roo. Hence his nickname, Marsupial Max. 

“Max came in and I was giving him a bit of a working over. He was such a nice bloke. Off he went and another customer, Haidee Lea, asked if she had really heard him be called ‘Marsupial Max’. I started to give her a bit of a run down about how Max was married to Jill, a registered vet, and they had Peter and Ruth and so on. Then Elissa took over and started to relay the family connection between her grandmother Ann Williams and the Capel family. By the time she had rattled it all off Haidee tottered out wondering what she’d walked into.”

These days Brian shares a lot of his photographs on social media, including stories of the people and places depicted. He also has an interest in drone photography and has shared photographs ofthe local district from this unique vantage point.

It was during Nasho in 1957 that Brian’s passion for photography got a big kick along.  His Sgt. was Army Sergeant Scaife. Sgt Scaife had been in the RAF Bomber Command. He had been shot down in Germany and spent time as a POW. He owned a Leica camera and would take photos of the platoon, of which his men could buy copies. Up until then Brian had always taken photographswith simple cameras but says he was blown away with the clarity of the Leica’s images. Nasho paid a salary so Brian’s first priority upon completion was the purchase of a good camera with the money he had saved. When asked if he remembers what he bought, he shoots straight back, “It was a Super Paxette, a 35 millimeter was a Leica thread interchangeable lens.” Of course, he’s still got it. By Jane Harris

Brian & Don Coote

Brian’s Nasho C Company which had two platoons in it. Brian is third from the right in the front row.