The years 1947-1953 were the most significant of my life. From my first job as a dairy farm worker at 10 bob a week, until my enlistment as a soldier in the Regular Army, those years would provide the pattern for future endeavours.
This is an account in verse of the first six years of my working life – a life that took me from the sad house at 9 Potts Sreet East Brisbane to Government House in Sydney to be installed as a Member of the Order of Australia. To give the reader an overview of my whole working life see the poem Just an Ordinary Man, which covers the many and varied aspects of the boy from Potts St.
These are the years in which I learnt to take every day as it comes and take the good with the bad. It was also the time when I learned to adapt to whatever situation I found myself, be it a lack of money, shelter or food and to deal with those situations.
I am aware of those who would say that being a side-show worker at 15 years old was no place for a boy and the lifestyle would be a recipe for disaster. Well, I can assure them it was a much better situation than the one I left.
Each one of the events chronicled here is at least 95% authentic and only to preserve the metre has any fiction been included. There are names and places that will be familiar, but remember that the event took place some 50 years ago and many of the characters are no longer with us.
There is a degree of nostalgia in these verses and one or two of the early pieces may contain a little sadness, the remainder are of “humorous” content.
So please join me in a celebration of receiving …
SIX OF THE BEST
- 1 THE START
- 2 THE WOOLEYS
- 3 THE MERRY-GO-ROUND
- 4 THE BABOON
- 5. THE RIDES
- 6 SHOWGROUND EXPERIENCES
- 7 THE REST OF THE STORY
- THE POETRY (Six of the Best)
My childhood years spent at 9 Potts Street were something I would care to forget as much as possible, for I found little happiness, although I had four brothers and a sister for company. The fact that our parents had never married and were extremely poor no doubt contributed to my mother’s departure with another man when I was about eight. I spent the next few years alternating between her homes and Potts Street depending on circumstances. Potts Street is situated one street behind the “Gabba” cricket ground in East Brisbane, a near city suburb. It contained, I suppose, normal, ordinary people. With the exception of number 9 it was an Ordinary Street. However, it is not my intention to place emphasis on my early childhood but, rather on my early working years. There is no doubt however that leaving the “home” was preferable to remaining. The subsequent pieces concerning Potts Street are for background information.
- The Ins and Outs of a Brussell Sprout
- The Thirty Bob Horse
In the early months of 1947 I was living with my mother in South Brisbane opposite Musgrave Park. It was a large house which had been converted into rooms with a communal kitchen and bathroom. I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor in conditions which were very ordinary and the constant bickering between residents was unbelievable. I pestered my mother into applying to have me finish school on financial grounds to alleviate the situation. My mother answered an advertisement in the Courier Mail for a lad to work on a dairy farm.
Suddenly I was transformed from a schoolboy into a wage earner for her application was successful. So, just before my thirteenth birthday, I started work for Mr. Cedric Zischke at Mt. Tarampa as a farmhand. And so began 18 months as a “Tit puller”. To this day Cedric Zischke and I still keep in touch and it was his efforts that instilled in me the work ethic that was to serve me so well. It never did any harm to Put the Boy on a Farm. I learned so many skills on the farm like herding and milking cows, some of which became like pets and I sometimes wondered how they felt.
I hope they would be pleased if they could read How Now any Old Cow. Delivering calves, handling multiple draught horses, feeding pumpkin to pigs and planting pumpkins all became normal daily tasks at which I became proficient. Each day there were problems to solve and improvisations to make and there were times when I was afraid of obstacles or tasks that I thought were beyond me.
Life on the farm was filled with encounters with all sorts of creepy, crawlies and things that go bump in the night. But, the beastie I feared the most was the snake. My first encounter and its effects are fully explained in The Addled Adder.
After 18 months , six of which I spent in Ipswich Hospital with a bone infection contacted on the farm, I was all “tweaked” out and I couldn’t see any future pulling tits. I decided it was time to bid farewell to Cedric just when he was about to increase my wages to one pound a week. I was desperate now to roam further afield and with my farm knowledge I assumed I could easily find a job.
Back once again with my mother, nothing had changed. My mother told me that her brother Billy O’ Brien was the foreman of a road gang up near Clermont in western Queensland. With the money from the farm I took myself to that very place. I found Uncle Billy and his wife at the road camp 40 miles out on the Charters Towers road. Billy didn’t know I was coming and he really didn’t know me that well. As a result he didn’t have a job for me which caused a dilemma. He solved that by getting me a cowboy’s job on the now extinct Barcome Station. The conditions on Barcombe were not very good and after a short time I left and returned to the road camp . Uncle Billy wasn’t real happy and it was a teary young lad that curled up on the tarp mattress that night.
It was during that fitful sleep that salvation arrived. During the night I could hear the movement of heavy vehicles and in my half slumber I imagined them as passing by the road camp and took little notice. Dawn came and with it a rise in the temperature and feeling the warmth of the outback sun I ventured a glance from under the blankets. There before my eyes were the semi-trailers emblazened with the words “CONEY FAIR AMUSEMENTS”.
I leapt out of my tarp bed and with Uncle Billy by my side we approached the wondrous and opportune sight. While I waited, Billy had talks with a group of men and by the way they kept glancing in my direction I knew they were talking about me. Very soon I was called to the group and told there was a job for me if that was okay. Well, it was and the look of relief that showed on Billy’s face stayed with me a long time. I hope you enjoy the verse, Ode to Uncle Billy.
And so started my days on the road as a “warb” [a showman’s name for a sideshow hand] with various show people.
The man who was to give me a job on that cold outback morning forever stays in my memory. George Wooley was his name and he is now operating a Merry-go Round in some higher place. He and his wife Vera became de facto parents to me and gave me the nickname “Titch” which I carried during my time on the road.
George and Vera had a daughter for whom they had purchased a kid goat, but the girl had lost interest. As soon as I had been hired, I was given the goat’s tether rope and it was placed in my care. George had two trucks, a KB5 International and a WW2 Ford “Blitz Wagon” and it was made clear by the child that the goat must travel in the cabin of the Blitz. Pat, the Blitz driver, was not keen on this idea but he couldn’t leave his job some forty miles from the nearest town.
George was not a tall man and was made to look even shorter due to the wearing of a long Gabardine coat which hung close to the ground. It was usually covered in grease marks from George’s habit of lying on it while doing vehicle repairs. The cantankerous kid goat had a voracious appetite for anything that it wasn’t supposed to eat and had taken a liking to nibbling the bottom of George’s long coat.
The kid goat was getting on Vera’s goat and as guardian of the gobbling goat I was soon to become embroiled in the battle of The Goat and the Coat. The girl is still alive I think and I sometimes wonder should I contact her and divulge the fate of the goat. No, bugger it, let her stew like the goat!
The road ahead was filled with such excitement and unusual experiences that I was as happy as a dog with two tails. Any hardship such as sleeping on tarps or under trucks was to me a kind of release and I lapped it up. I would have gladly walked over broken glass in order to satisfy Georgie and Vera. Fortunately it never came to that and at last I felt that I was receiving some recognition for my efforts.
There was a steady stream of little towns where we erected the carnival. For some of them we were the only entertainment they had all year and people came from miles around. The smiles on the bush kids’ faces remain with me today, although some of those kids were older than this kid. Through towns like Capella, Emerald, Bluff and Duaringa to Rockhampton for the 1949 Rocky Round-up Rodeo it was one long wonderful dream.
My main job was to operate a small Merry-go-round and there were times that the kids on board were bigger than me. As the “Merry” made its endless rotations my imaginative mind sensed the wooden horses enjoyed their task. So engrossed was I at times that some kids got a lot more than their zack’s worth (sixpence), which was the time it took to play an old 78 record, about 3 1/2 minutes. The poem, Horses Without Courses, is the result of those mental meanderings
The Round-up over, all the vehicles were loaded onto one of the show trains which transported show people to the coastal shows as far north as Cairns. This was due to the bad roads and the still rationed petrol following the Second World War. What a sight, this long puffing serpent loaded with the legends of the side show world. Names like Jimmy Sharman’s boxing tent, Ubangi the Pygmy, The Daredevil Durkins’ Wall of Death and The Great South China Troupe.
Many older people will recall those names and those who had the good fortune to be around then will appreciate the poems, Can You Remember Ubangi? and The Ice Cream Kid.
The train finally came to rest at Gympie where everyone took off for their annual break as there were no more shows for a couple of months. Upon our return to Brisbane I left George and Vera with the promise to rejoin them later. It took a bit over a year.
Back at Potts Street life was much the same as when I left. In the house of Len Pye everybody was expected to contribute their share of the household expenses which were divided equally among whoever was living there at the time. Get a job, that was the first priority.
My first job was in a pottery warehouse stacking hot pottery directly from the kiln. Hard work, but satisfying. The big problem was being fed, as there was no mother to provide that service. So it was ‘do the best you can’ and as I was first home I took it upon myself to try and feed the mob, with a little success. I think that’s what sparked what was to be a future career in the field of catering.
Several other jobs followed, like making springs and wooden coat hangers But, it was all getting too much for old Len so he approached the Brisbane City Mission for someone to, as he put it, Look After Me And The Kids. The pay would be thirty-bob a week and keep. And so started the string of “housekeepers” one of whom would eventually spur me to get back on the road.
The housekeeper experiment inspired me to apply for a job with Colonial Sugar Refiners and I was successful. In company with an aboriginal mate called Johnny Mc Dougall we headed to Innisfail in far north Queensland to begin work at the now disappeared Goondi Mill.
I was allocated the position of Points Boy and held that job until the end of the season which coincided with the Innisfail Show. There I was happily reunited with George and Vera. It was also goodbye to my mate Johnny who declined an offer from another showman and whom I have never seen since.
I wasn’ t there five minutes when the dastardly daughter put the heavies about the goat and its whereabouts. I continued to plead ignorance but the very spoiled girl gave me a very hard time during all my time with the family.
At this time George had reduced his vehicles to just one Commer truck so I was required to ride in the back and so I only saw where I had been and not where I was going for many months to come. It was to become my steadfast rule in later life that, if possible, never to face backwards on any form of transport.
This particular odyssey was to take me to Victoria, South Australia and then back into New South Wales where I was to leave George and Vera forever. However, during that trip I was to experience situations that would remain with me always. One was the incident described in the poem Doin’s In Dimboola and the other occurred on the road from Adelaide to Broken Hill and is told in The One Armed Baboon.
Following that incident and after entering New South Wales for a few small shows which provided very little income, I decided it was best to leave and I think George was relieved. I managed to secure a short duration job with an elderly couple with a tiny merry-go-round. It was only for a few weeks and I soon found myself in Orange at Cherry Blossom Festival time.
Bloody hell! It was cold and I was fortunate that my brother Des was working for a bloke named Bluey Seymour who was operating the Kicking Donkey stall. He gave me a place to sleep. It was nothing luxurious, just some tarps to lie on and two Army blankets for cover. Bluey had no work for me but he guided me to a caravan occupied by one Donner Gabriel Uppmann who offered me a job with no pay , just food, shelter and new clothes occasionally. Well, beggars can’t be choosers and it was a case of Taking the Good With the Bad!
I recall the date vividly. It was 30th September 1950 and the Cherry Blossom Festival was due to start but the weather was terrible with sleet and biting winds. That didn’t seem to matter now that I had a place to put my head down.
Big Donner had another worker named Ron “Jockey” Cheeseman who had worked for him on and off for some years and who was to leave after a few months. I was then left to operate two children’s rides simultaneously while Big Don sold tickets at sixpence a ride. Working for Big Don was a constant procession of Showgrounds and Merry-go-Rounds including venues like a Carnival in the main street of Swansea and a three week fair in the grounds of the Royal North Shore Hospital. Then to top that off was a beach side site at The Manly Madri Gras. It was there that I encountered Manly’s Mercantile Miss.
Big Don was a Swede and had been a fair discus thrower in his youth. He wanted to go to Finland for the 1952 Olympics and offered me the rides to operate. He said I could keep any money I made. It was a chance of a lifetime, however it was not to be. Following an argument over a pre-show curfew he imposed, I told him to jam his job and worked my last show at Beaudesert in Queensland in 1951 as a race caller on a Climbing Monkey game. So ended one of the great periods of my life. But wait … there’s more!
Back in old Potts Street the same constant conflict was in vogue and it made for a pretty awful lifestyle. Once again I needed to be somewhere I could feel free from domestic turmoil.
Brother Arch was a nomad just like me and spent nearly his entire life away from the family home . At this particular time he was working for Silvers Circus which was playing in Brisbane on open land next to the Kedron Dog Track. It didn’t take much convincing for me to be signed on at 3 pounds a week and “keep”.
Oddly enough my few months with Silvers were uneventful. Apart from sleepless nights in a leaking tent and riding on the top of the tent truck in all weather it was a tedious experience.
It was during a performance in Shepparton in Victoria, with a section of the cage used for the lion act on my scrawny back, I decided I’d had enough and tied my old grey blankets to my cardboard suitcase and left. It was a bloody stupid move on that particular day because, with little cash and nowhere to stay, I was forced to camp on the bank of the local river with many other nomads.
On the bare ground in the long grass, I slept until a storm caused havoc among us “deros”. Off to the brick kilns!” I heard some one shout, so, I upped stakes and followed. The old brick kilns were at least dry and wind free. It was here that I met the three young blokes that were to be my mates for many months. Part of this period is best described as Apricots and Agitators.
So there we were, four young blokes without a job at Christmas in a town where we knew nobody. We camped in the brick kilns for a few days, buying bread and butter plus smallgoods from the nearby sausage maker. After a friendly chat with the local law, we packed our gear and headed out of town. About half a mile out on the road to Echuca we got work in a pear packing shed and we agreed to start next morning. That’s fine, we had work but nowhere to sleep.
Standing outside the packing shed we looked around for some kind of shelter and chose a big Pepperina tree nearby. A small running stream ran past the tree and lying on the ground were about six sheets of corrugated iron. Using these and some wood from the pear packing shed, we made a crude shelter. It served us very well for a couple of weeks until a wind storm destroyed the hobos’ hovel and we found work and lodgings with the SPC fruit preserving company. After our episode with the Pepperina Sandwiches we were glad to accept the barracks accommodation that went with the job.
The work in the cannery was not hard physically or mentally taxing and overtime was abundant. Life was good for a couple of months and we wallowed in the “delights” of Shepparton until the message got around that the season was nearly over and our time card would be soon punched one last time. So, now reasonably solvent, we punched our own card and headed for Mildura where the grape season was soon to commence.
Once upon the mighty Murray Valley Highway the terrors of hitch-hiking became apparent for the road was all gravel .The dust spewed up by passing trucks both blinded and choked at the same time. Everywe were where we went we tried to get work but met with some opposition. Then we found that There Ain’t No Luck in Tooleybuc. Hours were spent with thumbs pointing towards Mildura with no luck until we concluded that a group of four may be too many. So, sharing our tobacco, we spilt into pairs and while lying in the grass by the road I wondered what it would be like to Get a Grip on a Grape.
It was somewhat sad to leave the farm of George Kerridge and the family that accepted two footloose young blokes into their home without question, but I guess that was a vastly different era.
Back as a foursome again we sat in the Wintersun Hotel in Mildura and pondered our future. The Melbourne Sun newspaper carried a large ad. for workers for the State Electricity Commission. It seems they were building a big powerhouse at Yallourn and were desperate for labour. That night we camped by the river and caught the train to Melbourne the next day.
There was much discussion on the train regarding the variety of work we had handled over the past months and that we had made some good money from it. However. a few nights at the Savoy Plaza on Spencer Street at a ‘quid’ (1 pound) a night soon de-jingled the pockets and Yallourn beckoned. We spent a few nights at the Cross Keys Hotel in North Essendon. How we did it is best described in A Night on the Lord’s Lawn.
Off we went to Yallourn to start another experience at another occupation although I perhaps should have noted some others who warned, Don’t Go Down the Mine.
After being unfairly sacked the very first day by a very aggressive ganger, I was given another job in the open cut store unscewing rusty nuts and bolts from railway line brace plates. We were housed in pretty ordinary accommodation in the West Camp and ate the very ordinary food. Eventually the monotony of rusty nuts and bolts took its toll and I said, “Stuff this up your Khyber” and said goodbye to Jim, John and Ernie. We had enjoyed each others’ company through many escapades. The only one I ever saw again was Johnny who, like me, eventually joined the Army. I wonder whatever happened to Jimmy Theisfield, Ernie Richardson and Johnny Grace?
Why the hell I wanted to go back to Potts Street I’ll never know, I just did. I arrived back in early 1952 just in time to say farewell to brother Steve who had enlisted in the Navy.
Lolling about the Pye household was not the accepted thing as the Old Man was a worker to the core and anybody idling around the house copped a full blast at every opportunity. Although I was paying my share of expenses, I felt compelled to get a job and so I applied for the job brother Steve had vacated and was engaged by Horn Engineering [Ship Repairers] as a blacksmith striker. My job was to strike for two smiths and that was bloody hard work and took some learning. It’s no wonder that old Fred dubbed me The Amateur on the Anvil.
During this period brother Arch had been in the bush as a stockman. When he returned to Potts Street he spoke of the life on the land and the feet started to itch. When a family friend named “Wacker” Crawley suggested a stint with a lamb marking contractor, I had no hesitation in downing the sledge hammer and heading for the “Mulga”. My poem Brother Arch, Wacker and Me tells more. The job was even bloody harder than striking. with no let up from dawn to dusk and any diversion like The Tooth Hurts was welcome.
The contract over Brother Arch and Wacker headed back to Brisbane and I got a job as a cowboy/ rouseabout on a nondescript sheep property which turned out to be sheer hell. If it wasn’t for the old station cook, things may have been worse. Our relationship is best described in the verses of Cassie and the Cowboy.
It was during the lonely lantern-lit nights in my hut that I became aware of the Korean war from the headlines spread across the week old newspapers which I had salvaged from the garbage. There was nothing remotely patriotic in my decision to try and enlist in the Army. It just seemed like a good way to see more of the world. It was Cassie who advised me to become a cook if I was enrolled. I left the sheep asylum in December 1952 and returned to Potts Street and after much persuasion the Old Man signed the papers for me to enlist.
On the 29 January 1953 I started my 26 year career with the Army and yes, I did become a cook and remained that way ever since. The verse Come and Join Us marks the beginning of 26 great years. If you’re wondering what happened in those years I’m afraid that’s another story I suppose when cosidering today’s ideas of what is right for a teenager to be involved in, those six years would be classified as injurious to my standing in the community.
No doubt a thousand counsellors would be assigned to my case who would not take into account what my standing is today.
The experiences I had and the people I met have allowed me to feel comfortable in the company of fellow human beings from every strata of society.
Cedric Zischke taught me the work ethic and George and Vera Wooley provided the props that supported me when I was doubtful about my own worth. Broken nosed tent boxers showed me how to defend myself and that came in handy on the odd occasion.
The “Agitator” taught me never again to be manipulated. Jim, Johnny and Ernie showed me real mateship and the importance of sharing. But, most of all, those six years taught me to be adaptable in any circumstance and to appreciate food and shelter, be they 5 star hotels or a tarp bed by the road.
Although my last formal schooling ended at 12 years of age I did return at 33 years old and obtained a Leaving Certificate. There is no doubt however that my real education took place on the road and I shall never regret nor forget those years.
So, the boy from 9 Potts Street, whose father once said, “You’ll finish in the gutter”, didn’t make it there, but made it to Government House Sydney in 1976 to be installed as a Member of the Order of Australia for services to my country. Not bad for a “warb” from the showgrounds.
My thanks to those responsible for causing me to hit the road and I will leave you all with this message: “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish that counts” and folks, I ain’t finished yet. A special thank you to the old cardboard suit case which I carried for six years and I believe it was happy when I said, “This is it! I REST MY CASE”.