Gordon McRitchie

Ship name / Flight number: Orontes

Arrival date: 09/04/1959

*Above: Gordon mid 1959

I was born in Dundee, Scotland on 18 June 1941. I must have been born under a lucky star, because I feel like I’ve been lucky all my life. I am the second youngest in a big family of ten children. By the time I was born, my oldest brothers, James and Willie, had joined the navy and were serving in World War II. I have six brothers and three sisters and too many nieces and nephews to count.

I went to school in Dundee at Stobswell Boy’s School and stayed until I was 15 years of age. Only myself and my younger brother Dennis went there.

My Dad (who was born in 1898) was a spray painter all his working life. I took up an apprenticeship in the same area but couldn’t get any work. Most of the people in Dundee worked in the jute mills but that industry had declined by 75% by 1950. Instead, I did odd jobs, like delivering coal to people living in apartment blocks. I’d haul a half hundred weight of coal (about 22 kg) on my back, up the stairs and then go down and get another load. I dunno how I did that – I must have been fit and strong. I got that job because no one else wanted to do it. To me it was alright because I got six pounds a week, which was good money for a 16-year-old to earn at that time. Every Friday my Mum would have the bath running for me and I was just black – covered in coal dust.

All my brothers went overseas, so I think leaving Scotland must have been in my blood. I had planned to go to America or Canada because my brother Charlie was there and he had a big, flash American car. Charlie worked it the Canadian gold mines and said you could get a job there easily. Then I saw an advertisement for the Big Brother Movement in the newspaper. I showed my Mum and she said: ‘Oh, that’s always in the newspaper.’ What attracted me was that it wasn’t going to cost anything. All you needed was ten pounds spending money for the trip. Canada did look closer on the map, but I applied anyway, and about two weeks later I got a letter that I had been accepted. I couldn’t believe it! I told me Mum and Dad and they said: ‘You’re not going, are you?!’

My Mum died before I came to Australia. She was only 58 years old. She was very unlucky – my Mum wasn’t a smoker or a drinker but she died very young. She got cancer. She ran our big family and she was a very good mother. How she managed to discipline all us kids, I’ll never know. She had ten children and another three who died in infancy. In those days it wasn’t easy, but she was determined, and very strict. We were well known in our street – ‘keep away from Mrs McRitchie!’, people said.  My Dad had a big leather belt hanging on a hook, but not once did he use it. My Mum would say: ‘You wait till your Da’ gets home!’ and he’d say: ‘och, they’re only laddies!’

In the meantime, Charlie had come back to Dundee, so there was no excuse not to go now. I went to Australia, otherwise, I could be in Hollywood now! My brother George was in Sydney, so that helped. Still, I didn’t realise how far away it was. When they said it would take about six weeks to get there on a boat, I was shocked.  Even to go from Dundee to London was a hell of a long way.

My older brother David took me to the train station in Dundee and asked me if I’d be alright once I got to London. He’d been there before and knew that it was chock-a-block. I said I’d be alright, but when I got there, I didn’t know what to do. Luckily, a man and a woman from the BBM saw me looking lost and asked me if I was Gordon McRitchie. They took me to Australia House in London and gave me something to eat – for free! The next day we went to Tilbury docks to board a huge ship called the SS Orontes. Here, I met the other boys who had also joined BBM – I think there were 22 of us. There were only two boys from Scotland – the other lad was from Glasgow – I must have been lucky to be chosen.

*Left: Gordon on the Orontes in 1959

On the voyage, I was lucky that I only had one day when I was badly seasick.  Some of the other ‘Little Brothers’, about 5 or 6 of them, stayed in their cabins and didn’t move until we got to Sydney. We used to take bread rolls to them – that was all they were brave enough to eat. Being young we were always hungry and used to often have two meals in one session as we’d sneak onto another deck for a second meal as the crew wouldn’t recognise us ! In those days, the crew didn’t care, and the BBM escort officer didn’t do anything.

When we went through the Bay of Biscay, I thought we were going to sink. There was a fierce storm with such big, green waves. I sat in my seat for 24 hours and didn’t move. After that I got my sea legs and came good. Then I started enjoying myself – it was great, like a holiday – you didn’t have to do anything and you got fed! That trip took forever. I didn’t have a clue where Australia was. I remember we went through the Suez Canal but at Aden we were not allowed to go onshore as there was still political trouble from the 1956 crisis between Egypt and Britain. Locals were sending up watches and trinkets for sale from the dock and some boys sent money back to them down ropes. When they opened the watches to check why they had stopped working they found nothing inside – we laughed our heads off! In Columbo we went onshore and had a ball playing soccer in the streets with all the locals – they were really friendly and we had cold beer too. We stopped in Fremantle where my brother Bill lived with his family in Perth. He picked me up and drove me to his house which was on a large block of land and we had a barbeque. The roads were unsealed and we stopped in a pub where the doors swung open like a Western movie. It felt like another planet. It was so hot and the flies were all over the meat which didn’t bother my brother as he was used to living in Australia by then. He tried to persuade me to stay in Perth but it was too basic for me so I said I preferred to get to Sydney.

I got to know two other ‘Little Brothers’ on the trip – Tony Jones and Terry O’Brien – and we got along well. Tony was an only child so he was pretty well-off. By the time I got to Sydney, I owed him ten pounds. He always seemed to have money – he’d just write to his parents if he needed more. When we got to Sydney, my brother George met me.

BBM were very good and looked after you. We stayed at their big house in Homebush. They tried to talk me into going to work in the countryside, but I said that Sydney looked like the place for me. Terry and Tony agreed – we wanted to stay in Sydney. We didn’t want to go to the BBM training farm.

There was plenty of work in Sydney in 1959. If I didn’t like a job, I’d quit and get another one the next day. In Scotland you couldn’t get a job anywhere. I was knocking on doors every day, and I was fighting with my father who couldn’t believe that I couldn’t get a job. That’s why the Big Brother Movement was like a saviour.

My first job in Sydney was retreading tyres – I lasted only half a day. You had to strip the worn tyres – a machine does this work today. It was stinking hot work, so you’d just wear shorts and get covered in rubber. My next job was at a similar place in Paddington – I only lasted two days there.

My third job was at a ladies’ underwear factory in Summerhill. I only lasted two days there as well, because it was too hard to get to by public transport from Homebush. Then Tony Jones decided that we should move out of the BBM hostel and rent a place in Balmain. It was much closer to the city and easier to travel around.

I was still bouncing between jobs when Tony said he was going to join the army. I thought that sounded like a good idea – get paid for nothing, just have to put on a uniform. That was May 1959, less than two months after I’d arrived in Australia. I had to get permission from my Dad, because I wasn’t quite 18 years old. My Dad wasn’t keen, but he agreed.

Once we had our medical check-ups and uniforms, we were put on a train at Central Station and sent to Ingleburn for ‘softening up’. From there we went to the Kapooka Army Training Camp near Wagga Wagga. I remember it was winter, pitch black, and freezing cold. We got off the train at Wagga Wagga and a sergeant shouted at us to ‘get in line’. After less than a month in the army, Tony Jones had decided that he didn’t like being bossed around and he went up to that sergeant and said: ‘Excuse me, sir, when’s the next train back to Sydney?’. The sergeant was having none of his cheek and barked at him to ‘get in line!’

We were taken to these Nissan huts that the Americans had built in the war. They had curved rooves made of tin, no insulation, and were freezing cold. To toughen us up they kept the hut doors open so the fog could creep in overnight until our beds, with those heavy army blankets, were soaking wet. Apparently, it was part of the discipline process. If you disobeyed an order, they’d make you march for days on end with a rifle and pack.

After freezing through the winter in Kapooka, we were sent to the 3rd Infantry Battalion, Enoggera Barracks in Brisbane to swelter through the summer.  The army wasn’t bad, but I hated being pushed around and having sergeants and corporals who knew less than me telling me what to do. I wanted to be my own boss. I stayed in the army for about a year and a half. Ironically, Tony Jones stayed in the army longer than me, and became a sergeant himself! He did his full six years and worked as a sergeant looking after the officer’s facilities at Mosman (Middle Head).

When we were in Brisbane, Tony and I bought a car together – a big bulky Ford Pilot. I learnt to drive in it. We were lucky that we weren’t killed as we skidded a few times. Driving on the highways was an experience! It used to break down a lot and we’d get stuck somewhere. Eventually Tony sold it and gave me my share of the £80 some years later. He was an odd bloke, but honest.

After I left the army, I worked for an American guy on the Gold Coast running one of the first ten-pin bowling alleys. He said I was good at handling people. But I was living in Brisbane, and we had to travel to and from the Gold Coast each day, which was too much. Brisbane was going through a bit of a recession, known as the credit squeeze of 1961 and I thought I’d have a better chance of finding work in Sydney.

I hitch-hiked from Brisbane back to Sydney – that was a bit of an adventure as I didn’t have a penny in my pocket. I met a guy by the name of Syd Smith whom, it turned out, practically grew up next door to me back in Dundee. He was driving to Melbourne and said he’d give me and another man a lift to Sydney. When we went to meet him to start the journey, he’d already left! So, we decided to hitchhike instead. Luckily – I think I’ve been lucky all my life – as soon as we got on the highway out of Sydney, a car stopped and asked us where we were going. The driver, a big bloke in a uniform, said he was going to Melbourne and he’d take us to Sydney. I knew we’d be safe with him as he was wearing a police uniform. When we stopped along the way, he bought us hamburgers and milkshakes, even though we had no money. Once we crossed the harbour bridge, he abruptly stopped the ute and said – OK, you two, get out. I remember standing near the harbour bridge and thinking – er, what do I do now?

I was going to Sydney to see if my brother George could help me out. I arrived on a Friday night and walked to what I thought was my brother’s address. I knocked on the door, but he didn’t live there. I’ll never forget how I felt: I had no money, I was starving, it was cold, dark and pouring with rain, and I didn’t know what to do.

Then, I had an idea. I knew that at Circular Quay there was a police station, so I walked there, in the rain and told them my story. The duty sergeant looked at me and said: ‘yeah, well, what do you expect me to do about that!?’ I asked if he’d put me up, so I’d be safe. He looked surprised but gave me two blankets and locked me in a cell for the night. I got up in the morning and he let me out, but not before giving me a big steel plate with bacon, eggs, toast and a big mug of tea. Then the sergeant looked at me and said: ‘and I don’t want ever to see you again – now GET OUT!’

It was Saturday morning, so I walked back up to Oxford Street, where I thought my brother was living, and I bumped into his mate who told me that I’d knocked on the wrong door! I had to borrow some money from him so I could pick up my suitcase that I’d sent down on the train. George put me up for a while.

I got a job almost straight away, with Repin’s coffee. They were a big Russian family and they opened some of the first coffee and cake shops in Sydney. The Repin’s factory was in Epsom Road, Waterloo, and I used to pack and roast the coffee. I knew nothing about coffee, but I learnt about all the different beans and the different ways to roast them.

I volunteered to deliver the coffee and the beautiful cakes to their cafes. I drove a Volkswagen van with a sliding door on the side. One day, as I went around a corner, the door flew open and all the cakes flew out the door and straight onto King Street! I didn’t know what to do. I scraped the cream cakes off the road and drove back to Waterloo. The boss went off his head when he saw all the smashed cakes. I told him it wasn’t my fault and he needed to fix the van. After that, I wasn’t allowed to do any more deliveries.

I stayed in the Repin’s factory managing the orders and then, of course, what happened was: That’s where I met my wife!  She was an office girl and she’d come down the stairs from the office above the factory floor with messages for us. She was younger than me – about 16 at the time. I used to see her father come and pick her up and take her home to Bondi. I was making good money so I bought a car, a Vauxhall, to impress her. I told her I’d drive her home after work. She thought I had a lovely car. And that’s where it all began. We got married up at St Jude’s in Randwick in late 1963. Then before I knew it, she was pregnant. My son Marcus was born in 1964 and then my second son Angus in 1966.

To make some extra money, I sold envelopes for Fred Hosking, but sometimes people couldn’t understand my strong Scottish accent on the phone. Now, when I go back to Scotland, I can’t understand them! Dundee has its own slang, which is like another language. Then I met someone who drove taxis on a Friday night and he showed me that there was good money to be made. I went along to the Department of Transport, and went through the rigmarole of the paperwork. To get a taxi license, I had to learn where all the hospitals were and the places of interest in Sydney. I started working one Friday night and, lo and behold, I made more money that night than I did in my whole week at Repin’s! I used to work from 3pm to 3am. I didn’t stop for the whole 12 hours. I was driving RSL cabs and decided to do Saturday nights as well. People paid in cash in those days, and my accountant told me I didn’t have to pay much tax.

I decided to buy my own taxi as I really wanted to be my own boss. My first taxi cost me nearly $20,000. I couldn’t slip up on my repayments. In the end, it only took me five years to pay it off.

In those days, people thought that only criminals drove or owned taxis. The bank wouldn’t give us a loan. My wife was surprised that I wanted to own and drive a taxi, and her parents certainly didn’t want me to. I used to put all the money I made in the glovebox – the big notes – and when I picked her up for an early breakfast, I’d tell her to open the glove box and she didn’t believe how much money I was making.

We saved up and went to Scotland in mid-1973 so she could meet all my mad family. We’d go to a family party and there’d be 300 people! We decided to stay in Dundee for a while as my dad was now 76 years old and not well. He was a WW1 veteran where he served in the Black Watch and Artillery. Strangely he died on Remembrance Day 11 November that year. We enrolled the boys in school and I got a job – with Michelin, the tyre company. After a couple of months, they wanted to promote me and send me to work in Paris, at their headquarters. But my wife’s father became very sick and wanted to go back to Australia (her parents had come to visit) to see his own doctor. We decided to go back to Sydney in March 1974 after about nine months and that’s when I bought my second taxi cab. It was good to go back to Scotland but at that time it didn’t offer the opportunities or lifestyle for our family that was available in Australia.

One thing we did around 1980 for 12 months was lease some businesses up in Newcastle. They were located in the Winns department store building where we leased a pastry shop, bistro and wedding functions hall on the top floor. It was hard work and we were not experienced running that type of business but one day we were approached by band managers and agents asking us if we’d be prepared to use our wedding functions space upstairs for rock bands. We had no idea but needed the extra cash so we said yes. After the Star Hotel had burnt down the year before there were very few venues for bands in Newcastle so it turned out to be a great opportunity. We called it the Shortland Rock and it took off with bands playing sometimes three nights a week. We had all the big bands of the day like Cold Chisel, Mental As Anything, Dragon, Mi Sex, Midnight Oil – it was incredible and on big nights we’d fill the venue with nearly 2,000 people. It was a very wild time and a lot of stories. The trouble was the noise was late at night where we were located in the CBD. Eventually the resident lobby group opposing us won out as we were in the Newcastle Herald paper every second day, the Council and licensing police were also buckling under pressure to do something. So one Wednesday morning we turned up to the building and the locks had been changed – we were shut down. It was a huge disappointment after all the work we had put into the business and The Police on their first Australian Tour were booked to play that coming Saturday night. I went back to Sydney and continued with the taxi business which was very reliable. We carried on from there, until everything fell apart.

My wife and I separated and then divorced after about 20 years together. I wasn’t too worried, because the boys were all grown up – Marcus was about 20 years old and Angus was 18 by then. We were still friends, and I just carried on, driving taxis and meeting my mates at the pub. I’ve been back to Scotland a few times and I thought about moving back there for a while. I stayed with my nephew, who has a big house in Dundee and keeps a spare room just for me. Because of the big age gap between the siblings in my family, he’s just a few years younger than me.

I retired nearly three years ago – both my taxi license and my driver’s license. I was driving up until COVID – until that ship, the Ruby Princess, came in. I decided to get out of it just before Uber got in on the act. They were taking a lot of the work, even though they cost more and are often late. Uber drivers don’t know where they are going half the time. But Uber meant the price of taxis went way down. I must have been lucky again – I got out while my taxi was still worth something. I feel like I live in another world now!

My boys have done well. Marcus was in the health security business – he was the Managing Director of International SOS. He’s semi-retired now, but people are chasing him all the time to work for them. His boys take Ubers! Angus lives in Canada with his daughter. He works in the stock market !

Of my brothers and sisters, Dennis (the youngest) and I are the only ones still alive. James, George and my Dad all died of heart-attacks – my family were big drinkers and smokers..

When I think back to the beginning, every step I took – I was lucky! I always had an open mind with things. If I’d stayed in Scotland, I wouldn’t have done much. As soon as I was 15-16 years old, I was adventurous. My life turned out pretty good – I can’t complain. My marriage, well, I thought we had something permanent. Apart from that, I’ve been lucky – blessed by the stars.












*Above: Gordon, 04/2023








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