(Ernest) John Reynolds

Ship name / Flight number: Strathnaver

Arrival date: 04/10/1961

Left: John

I was born just before the end of World War II, on 27 October 1945. My older sister, Brenda (b.1942) and I were both ‘48 hours leave babies’ – our father was a gunner in the British Army and we were probably conceived when he came home for two days leave. I also have two older brothers, Terry and Bob, who were born before the war.

My dad came back from World War II deaf in one ear, but that didn’t stop him resuming his job as a fruit and vegetable seller at the Ridley Road markets in north London. My mum worked with him and we lived in a small council flat.

I enjoyed school, particularly my favourite subject: geography. When I got my first wages packet (working in the London Shipping Office from the age of 15 years), the first thing I bought was an atlas. I was fascinated by the size of Australia and wanted to go there. I watched all the TV shows about Australia, such as ‘Wicker Down Under’ on the BBC.

I had my BBM interview at Australia House with my father. I was pretty mature, even though I was only 15 years old.  My parents signed the forms to let me migrate. As I was under 16 years of age, they had to sign over my guardianship to the Department of the Interior. I found out later that it just about broke my mother’s heart.

I sailed on the SS Strathnaver from Southampton on 29 August 1961. I remember the date because it was my eldest brother’s birthday. There were 29 Little Brothers in my group and most of them went to the hostel, but I wanted to work on farms. I celebrated my 16th birthday at the training farm, even though my actual birthday fell while I was on the overnight train travelling to my first job near Finlay. The farm cook made me a cake with 17 candIes on it (she thought I was already 16 years old) and they sang ‘happy birthday to me’. While I was at the training farm, it rained and it was the first time I had heard rain thrumming on a tin roof.

Below: John at the farm, 1961

I had never been on an overnight train before. It helped me realise just how gi-normous Australia is. The farmer met me at the train station and took me to his property near Deniliquin. It was an irrigated property in the Riverina and they grew rice and barley. They also kept ten cows for the house so they had a supply of milk, butter and cream.

My accommodation was in a hut about ¼ mile from the homestead. I had no electricity and used a Porter gas lamp for light. I had a radio that I’d bought in Aden for company. I’ve always been a reader, but at times it was quite lonely. I was paid £5/week + board. There was nothing to spend my wages on so I saved up to buy a motorbike.

My parents were always in the food trade and I was used to big meals; these meals weren’t. We’d go into town once a week and I’d go straight to the Greek café in the main street and order a great big plate of steak, chips, and peas.

I only stayed on this farm for three months. It wasn’t for me. It was an ex-soldier settlement property about one mile square with just two trees on it, one of which was dead. The vegetation and colours were so different to England. Their son was a bit sickly and had to go to Shepperton for treatment, and I’d be left by myself to run the farm for a couple of days.

We parted amicably. I’d bought a motorbike but had to leave it there, as I decided to fly back to Sydney! However, the owners were good enough to sell my bike and send me the money.

Back in Sydney, I went to the BBM hostel at Homebush. They found me another job – in Deniliquin! I said ‘no thanks’, and they said I’d have to move out of the BBM hostel. I packed my bags, went into the city, and stayed at the YMCA in Pitt Street. I went to the Commonwealth Employment Service (CES) and purely by chance, a lady rang up looking for someone to work on a dairy farm at Burrell Creek (near Taree). I had a quick interview on the phone and everything they asked me if I could do, I said yes. I think the CES might have paid for my train ticket from Central to Wingham.

The farmer’s heavily pregnant daughter-in-law met me at the train in a Holden Sedan. I had three suitcases, which would not fit in the car, so she had to go back to the farm and get the ute!

It was a beautiful farm called “ALAMBIE”. It was bounded on two sides by the Kiwarick State Forest, and there were more trees than you could count.

I lived in the homestead and was treated as part of the family rather than the ‘hired help’. They were in the process of building a new carport and another room, which I moved into. It was the first time in my life that I’d ever had a room to myself.

This was a dairy farm and I helped with everything from milking to calving to fencing. They had a small herd of 60-70 cows. Only four cows could fit on the milking machines and it took about 2.5 hours to milk the whole herd, twice a day. Hygiene was very important and it took time to clean everything down between cows and at the end of the milking.

My wage was £5/5 plus board. I loved it – being outdoors, the mild climate, the green landscape – just the whole thing.

The farm wasn’t far from Wingham and we’d go to dances there, and in Taree, on the weekends. There’s a BIG difference between north London and Wingham! I sent aerogrammes to my parents but once I was a bit lax, and I got a telegram from my mother with one word: ‘Write’!!

Allan Martin (senior) was the boss and he introduced me to his cousins on neighbouring farms – some of them are still my mates today.

I worked on their farm for about 3-4 years until they stopped dairying. Then I got a job in Wingham at McCulloch’s produce merchants and would commute from the farm. I was in the fresh produce trade, like my parents, except I also sold farm machinery. After a while, I moved to the neighbouring farm to live with Allen’s Aunty Mary, who was a widow.

In 1964 my parents decided that they wanted to migrate to Australia. They were 50 years old with no qualifications apart from being hard working. Allen, who belonged to the Wingham Apex Club, talked to the members and they sponsored them to come out.  Allen and Barbara drove with me Sydney to meet their ship, which docked in Woolloomooloo. My parents came back to the farm with us but decided to try living in Newcastle.

Unfortunately, my mother was very homesick. We had some extended family members living in Adelaide, so they decided to move there. It was difficult for me to leave the farm, Wingham, and the Martin family, where I felt at home. Dad and I drove to Adelaide, but we had to take the longer, coastal route, as my mother was sure we’d die if we drove across the Hay Plain, which she thought of as ‘the desert’. (A Pommie family had recently made the news when they’d left their car and perished near Alice Springs and I think she thought we’d suffer the same fate). I was 18 years old and the long drive gave me a good opportunity to re-connect with my dad.

Adelaide was alright. I joined the Port Noarlunga surf lifesaving club, which provided me with a new set of friends. My dad taught all of his children to swim at the local pool not long after we could walk. I was already a surf lifesaver at Blackhead, near Foster.

My dad was a mad-keen sportsman. I played football (soccer) as a kid and a bit of rugby union in Adelaide. I learnt about rugby from watching the games on TV. I scored a try in my first game, but it was disallowed because I didn’t know that you had to touch the ball to the ground – I thought you just had to dive over the line (like the players on the TV did).

My parents wanted me to go to England with them for my 21st birthday. I said I’d go, as long as they would pay my fare back when I was ready. I went with five mates from the surf lifesaving club. I was 20 years old. When our ship docked in Singapore, we thought: ‘this is good!’ We met some Australian girls who said they were back-packing and myself and my mate, John, got off the boat! The others stayed on.

We joined Joyce and Margaret back-packing in Asia. We travelled north through the Malay Peninsula, west to Penang, then north to the Thai border and caught the train to Bangkok where John and I ran out of money.  We parted company with the girls and scraped our pennies together to buy airline tickets from Bangkok to Kolkata. We lived on rice – I still can’t eat it to this day! We managed to buy 3rd or 4th class tickets on the train across India to Bombay. I still had a British passport and the British consul in Bombay arranged for us to stay at the Red Shield Hostel, which was run by the Salvation Army. They took my passport off me and flew me to England. I took all John’s dirty washing with me.

John had an Aussie passport, so the British Consul couldn’t help him. Fortunately, his brother was in the Royal Australian Navy and he was in Plymouth on a mission to buy submarines from the British, so he wired money for John to catch a boat to Marseille and then a train across France to Calais, then a boat to Dover and another train to London. Before this epic journey, John had only left South Australia once to go to Western Australia for a surf life-saving competition!

Despite my spontaneous foray into Asia, I made it to England by October 1966 in time to celebrate my 21st birthday with my family and mates from Adelaide. My father never found out that my passport had been taken off me. My mother paid the money to get my passport back.

There was no room for me and my five mates to stay with my family in London. Instead, we rented a bedsitter in Earl’s Court, for all six of us! We’d split up and went our own ways travelling on the continent, then meet up in London. It was brilliant. I got seasonal work – picking hops in Kent and grapes in France. I learnt French at school so I could get by. We lived in a big chateau in the Loire Valley and felt like kings.

My working holiday lasted for about two years. I worked on a kibbutz in Israel for 4-5 months, where I met lots of people from different countries and cultures and travelled to the Holy Lands. Then I used Gibraltar as a base and travelled around northern Africa. I had my first hash in Tangiers – you couldn’t go to Tangiers and not try it, not when you’re 20 years old! I started smoking when I was washing dishes at a beach café on the Canary Islands and Gitanes cost one penny each. Back then, backpacking was safe and easy – you could stick your thumb out and a car would stop. It’s harder for travellers these days, and the world can be pretty ugly.

Eventually I got homesick and was ready to return to Australia in November 1967. Interestingly, after only five years, Australia felt more like home than England. My parents kept their promise and paid for my passage back. Fremantle was the first port of call; you can smell the gum leaves from the deck. Allen and Barbara Martin came to Sydney to pick me up and took me straight back up to the farm. You hear some horror stories about how ‘Little Brothers’ were treated, but my experience was wonderful.

I got an assortment of casual jobs as I had no trade or qualifications. I worked at the local timber mill and for a produce merchant handling grain. At one stage I had three jobs – blowing up tree stumps, serving drinks at the RSL, and repairing fences on the weekends. Aunty Mary welcomed me back into her house.

My sister, Brenda, and her husband, and my eldest brother, Terry, and his wife, must have been impressed by my parent’s stories from Australia because they decided to emigrate in 1969. Mum and dad had residency papers, so they could come back to Australia within a certain period of time and bring family members with them. They applied for citizenship at their first opportunity to do so. They decided to settle in Perth. One of my brothers (Bob) remained in England.

After a few years back in Wingham, I went to visit my family in Perth and finished up staying in Western Australia for 39 years. Iron ore mining was growing and I took a job in Port Hedland for Mt Newman Mining, loading ships with iron ore. I didn’t need any qualifications – I just lined up for work. I stayed for eight months – Port Hedland is a desolate place.

I went back to Perth, and then back to Aunty Mary’s farm for a while. Around this time, I started to realise that I was gay. This wasn’t easy in the 1970s, especially in a small town like Wingham, so I left and returned to Perth. I kept in touch with the Martin clan – they are like a second family.

I started working in the carpet trade, and that’s how I met my partner, Des. He was a spray painter. We lived together and then bought our first home together, except in those days, two gay men couldn’t get a home loan. I was now selling carpet and my boss’s fiancé pretended to be my fiancé so I could get a home loan. Des and I were together for 42 years, on and off. My family knew I was gay.

I bought a carpet franchise from ‘Trevor’s carpets’ and opened a shop in Perth. In the 1990s, I sold that and we moved to Margaret River (about three hours south of Perth) and ran a kebab shop for three years. We made our own hummus, haloumi, and tabbouleh. I was probably the first blue-eyed kebab roller in Australia.

We had friends who lived in Cairns and went to visit them for a holiday. As soon as I got off the plane, even though it was raining, I thought, this is where I was born to live. We went back to Margaret River and within six months we’d packed everything up to move to the tropics. In 2004, Des and I bought a place in Aeroglen, near the botanical gardens.

Des died 14 years ago (in 2010). It was a blessing, really. He was an alcoholic and would ‘fall off the wagon’ periodically, which changed his personality. He was an orphan, and I wonder if that affected him all his life.

All of my family now live in Margaret River and Perth. My parents and Terry are dead and buried in Fremantle. My sister Brenda is a widow and visits me in Cairns once a year. We then do a bit of travelling together. She had a pace-maker put in recently and can now go to England. I won’t let her go by herself. We’ve planned a five week trip and I plan to upgrade our flights to business class.

I love to travel and have been on safari in Africa and to New Zealand a number of times. I go to Bali about three times a year and stay in a friend’s hotel on the beach in Seminyak.

I go to Foster (near Wingham) every year for Allen’s birthday. He turned 92 years old in 2024. His eldest son, Phillip, is only ten years younger than me and treats me like a brother. We both barrack for the South Sydney Rabbitohs. One of Allen’s grandkids lives in Cairns, so that’s another connection with the martin family and my days on the farm.

I make sure that I get to Sydney once a year, too. I have a ritual of drinking a beer in a pub at Woolloomooloo, opposite where mum and dad arrived in 1964. I do the same at the Overseas Passenger Terminal at Circular Quay. It’s my way of saying ‘thank you’ to Australia for accepting us.

I honestly cannot imagine living in any other country. I feel like I was an Australian before I even stepped foot on the shore. I got my citizenship papers in 1969. I’m very happy living in Cairns and I keep fit so I can keep on travelling for a few more years yet.

 

 

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