David Wightman

Ship name / Flight number: Empire Brent

Arrival date: 20/08/1948

I was born in Uddingstone, near Cambuslang in Glasgow in 1931. My father was a casual farmhand and we moved regularly so that he would have work. As a consequence, I went to ten different schools by the time I was ten years old.

When I was only 11 years old, my father died of tuberculosis. It was 1942 and most medications were being sent to the soldiers fighting in Europe. My mother was left with six children to care for. We moved back to Glasgow and I was allowed to continue my schooling, but the day I turned 15 years old, I left and took a job as an apprentice omnibus builder. It wasn’t much money, but it was something.

A couple of years later, I saw an advertisement calling for ‘boys of good character’ to work in Australia. I applied to the Big Brother Movement and by the time I turned 17, I was sailing on the ‘Empire Brent’ to Australia. Mr Simpkins was our chaperone. I think we were the fourth shipload of ‘Little Brothers’ to leave Britain after the end of World War II.

I sailed with 23 other boys, and when we arrived in Sydney on 20 August 1948, 22 of them were sent to work on farms in the Riverina district. I was sent to Merriwa, in the Upper Hunter Valley, and I’ve lived here ever since.

I didn’t have to go to the BBM training farm because I’d grown up on farms in southern Scotland. However, I had never handled a sheep before, and I finished up living with the damn things!

My timing in coming to Australia couldn’t have been better. In 1949, I turned 18 years old and if I had stayed in the UK, I would have to do two years of compulsory national service with my peers. In 1950, the Korean War started, which meant I probably would have been sent to that cold peninsula. One of the best moves I ever made was coming out to Australia – because of what it gave me, as well as what I avoided.

My first job was on a sheep farm of 5,000 acres called ‘Wendouree’. My employer was good and treated me well. I had my own room and boarded with the stud groom, Alf Pollard, who was a Dr Barnardo’s boy. I worked as a station hand and had to learn to ride a horse.

Lionel Whitelaw, my employer, was a kind hearted man. When I told him about my family situation – about my widowed mother and five other siblings – he offered to sponsor them to come out to Australia. Not only that, he built a house for them and helped my younger sisters to find jobs in Merriwa. They arrived in 1952 and gradually adjusted to the hot, dry climate and different culture. It was wonderful to see my family again. Some wit in the pub made the observation that the best thing Lionel Whitelaw ever did for Merriwa was to bring out the Wightman family!

In 1954, I decided to leave Wendouree and go shearing with a friend. I could make more money that way and, just two years later, I was able to buy a house in Merriwa for my mother and siblings to move into.

One of my sisters moved to Sydney to train and work as a nurse at St George Hospital in Kogarah. She decided that she didn’t like it, and when she returned to Merriwa, she brought a nursing friend with her. Barbara and I got along really well and we were married in 1960. We’re still together, 63 years and three children later.

I loved shearing, but I wanted to diversify my skills, so I went to Sydney Technical College to study wool classing. Fortunately, I was able to save some money by staying with Barbara’s mother. I felt like I’d come full circle when I started working as a wool classer for the Grazcos Shearing Company in Australia. I liked the work, but it involved too much travelling around New South Wales, so I went back to shearing.

I worked for 36 years at Borambil Park Shearing Shed near Cassilis and at Hegarty’s property near Dunedoo. Both places are less than two hours’ drive from Merriwa. I knew I’d have to look after my back, so I didn’t try to break any shearing records and didn’t over work. I have spent my life working around hard-hooved animals – cattle, horses, sheep – and learnt to be careful when handling them as I didn’t want to have an accident. I’ve done shearing, drenching, crutching, wool classing – pretty much anything to do with sheep. I’ve never been able to get away from sheep! Thankfully, they are pretty dumb animals and don’t complain much.

In 1966, my mother-in-law sold her house in Sydney and helped us to buy 40 acres on the edge of Merriwa. She came to stay with us occasionally and help Barbara with our three young children. We lived there for 55 years, and only sold it in 2022 when we decided it was time to move closer to the health services in town.

Our property, which we named ‘Tara Hill’, was irrigated and we made hay to sell as fodder. This meant I could cut back on the shearing and travelling. I was shearing in Nyngan when my first child was born, and I didn’t want to miss the birth of my next child! We also did some share-farming and ran ten head of cattle. It was a good place to raise our son and two daughters, and they still live and work in regional parts of NSW.

I retired from farming (and sheep!) in 1998. I started doing volunteer work for an organisation that drives people to medical appointments. I met some interesting people and I was able to keep driving for them until I turned 88 years old.

As well as being a qualified nurse, my wife is a skilled pianist and played the organ for the Anglican church in Merriwa. When her doctor said that she could no longer drive because of the glaucoma in her eyes, I started driving her to and from church and decided that I might as well go along. Then I started doing some voluntary work for the church, such as keeping the grounds and the cemetery tidy. I am handy with woodworking tools so I also did some odd jobs – fixing and building things. We are still both involved with the local church.

The best thing I ever did was to come to Merriwa. The townsfolk accepted me, not that there’s many of the people I met in the 1950s left! I have always had a shilling in my pocket. I think I was a lot better off financially than I would have been if I’d stayed in Scotland. I went back to the UK in 1988 with my wife and daughter. I’d been away for 40 years and most of the people I knew had moved on and Glasgow had changed.

I haven’t kept in touch with any of the other ‘Little Brothers’ I met on the Empire Brent. I did write to Mr Simpkins to thank him for looking after us on the voyage, and he replied, but then we lost touch. The Little Brother reunions were usually held in October or November, which was the harvesting season, so I was too busy to attend.

I have kept in touch with Alf Pollard, the first person I boarded and worked with. He married and moved to Muswellbrook, which is less than an hour’s drive away. His wife Connie taught Barbara and I to dance. We used to like getting dressed up and going to the dances in Merriwa and other local towns on a Saturday night.

My mother stayed in Merriwa and died at the age of 84 years – twice the age of my father when he died in Scotland. I think she had a much healthier life in Australia.

I’ve lived in or near Merriwa since I was 18 years old. I’ve never thought of moving anywhere else. I enjoyed my work, although it could be frustrating at times working with the silly sheep! Never for a minute have I regretted coming to Australia.


Empire Brent: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SS_Letitia

Merriwa: https://www.visitnsw.com/destinations/hunter/upper-hunter/scone/destination-information/merriwa

Dr Barnardo’s: https://www.barnardos.org.uk/who-we-are/our-history

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