Ship name / Flight number: Asturias
Arrival date: 29/08/1949
My long life has had many unexpected twists and blessings, but it all started in Cambridge, England. I was born on 11 December 1932, the first and only son of Herbert John and Faith Lowe (nee Hinner). My father was a loving, humble man who was running the family business in Swaffham Prior, but chose to move to Cambridge and start a new business because one of his five brothers didn’t like his wife. He set up a general store and delivered goods to his customers using a horse and cart.
I went to school in Cambridge until I was 14-years-old. As a teenager, I wanted to escape the Christian atmosphere that imbued my family life. My father and mother were devout Baptists who played the violin and organ respectively at weekly church services. I had to pump the air into the organ – a role I did not relish. When I saw an advertisement in 1949 in the Cambridge Daily Newspaper for the BBM, I grabbed the opportunity to get away. While my parents were not enthusiastic about their only son going to live on the other side of the world, they gave their blessing and took me to Tilbury docks to board the “Asturius” with Mr Miller as the chaperon. They were heartened that I promised to write to them every week – and I did! On the six-week voyage to Australia, I decided that I would not be homesick, that I would just ‘get on with it’.
As soon as I arrived in Sydney on 29 August 1949, I was sent to the BBM training farm in Holsworthy and then to a farm at Boggabri in NSW. Although I had not spent much time with farm animals, I enjoyed working with horses and the wide-open spaces.
In 1952, I was required to do three months of national service. I lived at the Holsworthy Army barracks in Sydney and earned £7/week. Before I was sent to the army, my wage was only £2.10.0 /week. When I had completed my compulsory service, I returned to Be-bara farm at Boggabri and asked for a raise. My employer, Mr Kemmis, refused. At about this time my father became ill, and since I had completed my two years of service with BBM and I couldn’t get a raise, I decided to return to England.
Back in England, I worked as a window cleaner, until I was called up for national service in the British army. To avoid this, I paid my own passage back to Australia in 1954 and the BBM found me a job on a farm at Narromine and then Dubbo, NSW. I lived and worked on the Roberts’ family farm, ‘Merimboola’ in Dubbo, and was profoundly influenced by their Christian beliefs. I became a Christian too, and embraced the God that I had tried to escape in England!
The next big change in my life came in 1957, when I met Haidee Lillian Lynne in Sydney and fell in love. We were married in Bathurst (where Haidee grew up) at the Seventh Day Adventist Church on 16 June 1958. We set up house in Sydney where our daughter Vanessa was born in May 1962, when I was 30 years old. I obtained a truck driver’s license and delivered goods for the Sanitarium Health Food Company. We then moved to Adelaide before settling in Darwin.
In Darwin, I drove buses for a living until a terrible accident changed the direction of my life again. My friend and fellow business owner, Alwyn Naylor, was driving a 4WD on the mail run from Katherine to Darwin when she went around a corner too fast, rolled the vehicle, and was killed instantly. She left behind three children. Haidee and I decided to look after Alwyn’s school-age children and I took her son to Newcastle, NSW, to go to college, because I was studying there to become a pastor. Haidee stayed in Darwin with our daughter Vanessa and Alwyn’s two daughters. Unfortunately, this was a big mistake and led to the end of our marriage in 1970, although we remained good friends.
In Darwin, Haidee and I were friends with Beverley and Ian Bannerman, who had a daughter about Vanessa’s age. In 1976, Bev and I moved to a farm at Mt Dandenong, on the outskirts of Melbourne, with Vanessa and Bev’s two daughters, Rose and Bronwyn. We were married at the local Presbyterian church. In 1975, we adopted a three-and-a-half-week-old Aboriginal boy and named him Jonathan (Jon).
I have always been willing to ‘give things a go’, so I started a small business selling Christian books and then selling blinds, awnings, shower-screens and discounted furniture. Bev kept the accounts for our business.
Then tragedy struck again. I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and couldn’t continue to work. Bev tried running the business on her own, but it was too much, as she was trying to look after me and the children as well. Fortunately, we had recently taken out income protection. With the insurance payment, and after selling our property on Mt Dandenong, we could afford to buy a farm near Orbost on the Snowy River. We grew vegetables, kept chickens, and agisted cattle and sheep. My experience working on farms with BBM were very useful for adapting to this new occupation. The slower pace of life allowed me time to heal and provided a rural environment for Jon and the girls to grow up in.
When Jon was about four years old, we discovered that he was deaf. In order to give him the best schooling possible, we decided to sell the farm and move to Perth. In 1980, we bought a house in the suburb of Thornlie, where we have lived ever since. Jon attended the deaf school in Cottesloe. Tragically, within six months, his vision started to decline too. But then we learnt about the Gallaudet University for the deaf in Washington, USA, and their unique approach to educating deaf people, which gave us hope. We saved our money so that Bev and Jon could travel there and try their visual learning system before it was too late. Jon learnt sign language and we fundraised so that they could go back to Washington eight times in June/July for a summer school program for the deaf.
In Perth, I again found that I had to be adaptable to get work. At the age of 48 years, I was offered a job as an orderly at the Hollywood Repatriation Hospital. Even though I had a 50km round trip on my pushbike each day, just as when I first moved to Australia, I enjoyed the exercise and being outdoors. One day, a patient was admitted who had maggots in his eye. The nurses knew I’d worked on a sheep farm, so they asked if I could help, as they thought I’d know how to get rid of maggots! On another occasion, a priest failed to turn up to pray with a patient who was in the palliative care ward. One of the nurses knew I went to church, so she asked if I could pray with the patient. I’d never done this before, and I was nervous, but I prayed and found I could do it. It was such a wonderful experience, that I was happy to repeat with other patients.
In 1996, Bev and I were driving past Kings Park in Perth one wintery night and we saw homeless people huddled under the trees. Bev felt sorry for them and said: ‘let’s go home and make them soup’. I didn’t say anything but I wasn’t keen on the idea. I said she’d have to write to the Perth City Council to get their permission, hoping that they’d say no. When they said we could feed the people living in the park, I decided to join Bev and just ‘get on with it’.
We started cooking in our own kitchen and within a matter of weeks, we were making soup for about 60 people each night. Other people started bringing food too, and donating money to pay for the ingredients. After six and a half years, we out grew our home kitchen and moved to a commercial kitchen. Our work evolved into a charity, which we launched on 18 May 1996 and called ‘Manna’. School kids helped to pack meals and volunteers were rostered on to make the meals. We were now taking food to people in most of the parks in Perth each evening and providing breakfasts in 22 schools. We needed to raise funds to cover our costs. Even though we were both now in our 70s and had some health problems, the sense of purpose that we got from the work and the wonderful fellowship of the 200 volunteers meant that we didn’t want to stop. I found that doing this sort of work ‘knocked the Englishness out of me’ – it taught me to be less reserved and to try and understand other people’s point of view. People are wonderful – they just need a place to be kind. Both Bev and I received a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) in 2008 for ‘service to the community through the provision of social welfare services’.
Left: An Aboriginal mother and daughter wearing a hand-made poncho and beanie distributed through Moort Care, Perth, 2022.
On 16 January 2018 we decided to retire, but we ended up starting another charity only two months later! Moort Care provides blankets, ponchos, toys and food parcels to people in the community. We chose the name ‘Moort’ because it is a Noongar (local Aboriginal) word which means ‘family’. Volunteers knit and crochet blankets, beanies and ponchos and we distribute them to patients in hospitals and seniors in nursing homes. People receiving dialysis treatment really like them as they get very cold when they are hooked up to the machines and can’t move. The Freshwater Bay Rotary Club in Perth provides funds so we can buy the wool. We also support another charity called ‘Share the Dignity’. Bev uses our house as a clearinghouse for the distribution of clothing, rugs, ponchos, and sanitary products for women.
We are excited that in June 2024, we will become great, great grandparents. When I applied to come to Australia as a Little Brother in 1949, I didn’t imagine that I would start several charities and have such a wonderful life in the west.
Left: Bev and John Lowe standing next to a banner for the ‘Share the Dignity’ charity which they support through their volunteer work, Perth, 2019.
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