Ship name / Flight number: Wairangi
Arrival date: 26/11/1948
* Left: John is on the left, 1948
As the sixth child of eight, I learnt to look out for others, but also look after myself – two skills that I would need for my future life on the other side of the world.
I was born in Cornwall in 1931. The Great Depression didn’t have the same devastating impact on our rural community as it had in the cities. My parents were farmers and had a steady income from the dairy herd.
We went to a small school on a country estate that is now on the National Trust Heritage Register – ‘Lanhydrock’. I remember that a viscount and two ladies lived in the Victorian mansion on the estate and we had to greet them with a curtsey or a bow. Our little primary school was bursting at the seams during World War II as children from London and northern cities were sent to Cornwall to escape the Blitz.
As I was growing up, I thought I’d like to be an auctioneer, because I’d seen them perform at animal clearing sales and farmers markets. But then I saw an advertisement on the school noticeboard for young boys who wanted a career in Australia. I applied to the Big Brother Movement and was accepted.
I sailed from Liverpool in October 1948 on a small ship called the Wairangi, which was part of the Shaw, Saville and Albion Line. My older brother, Rex, helped me take the train to the port with all my goods.
It wasn’t easy to leave my family when I was only 16 years old and travel to the other wide of the world. I’d only been outside of Cornwall once, and that was just to Somerset! My parents kept up a brave face, but after I left, poor old Mum was very upset.
We didn’t go via the Suez Canal, but instead went the long way around the Cape of Good Hope. I remember the excitement I felt, stepping off the boat and onto the streets of Cape Town after 14 days at sea. I walked past a camera shop and saw a Kodak Box Brownie in the window and decided to use most of my money to buy it. I was lucky that the owner of the shop was there doing some paperwork, as he wasn’t open on a Sunday.
We arrived in Fremantle in time for my 17th birthday on 2 November 1948. When we sailed into Melbourne, the dock workers were striking, so we had ten days in port. We were lucky that members of the Victorian Branch of the New Settler’s League were on hand to look after new migrants. People welcomed us into their homes so we didn’t have to stay in our cramped berths. The Municipality of Melbourne gave us passes to ride on the trams and go to the pictures for free. Coming from the UK, where we had hardly done anything because of the war, we felt so lucky, and free. We were made to feel important too.
When we finally arrived in Sydney on 26 November, we went straight to the BBM training farm at Liverpool. There were 17 boys in my group of ‘little brothers’. Because I could already ride a horse, I didn’t attend the same training sessions as the others. Instead, I was told to ride a horse across several paddocks with a sugar bag across the front of my saddle, and use it to bring back loaves of bread from the bakery.
My ‘big brother’ in Australia, who looked out for me, was Charles Pothecary. He lived at Hunters Hill in Sydney, and for several years I would have my annual holiday at his home.
I was allowed to leave the training farm early and sent to work on a property in Jerilderie in the Riverina. At the time I didn’t know that the infamous Kelly Gang had passed through this property on their way to rob the bank at Jerilderie. I dragged my heavy luggage to the train station – there were no wheels on suitcases in those days! The ticket inspector saw this pink-faced boy approaching, and when I told him I needed to buy a ticket to Jerilderie, he said: “that’s where the crows fly backwards to keep the sun out of their eyes.”
I travelled all day and half the next day – the temperatures were a century or better (in the Fahrenheit scale – about 38 degrees Celsius). I could see a water bottle in the luggage racks above me, but I wasn’t sure if I should touch it and I didn’t want to get in trouble, so I tried not to think about how thirsty I was.
I arrived at Wunnamurra Station in time for my first Christmas in Australia. On Monday 27 December, I reported to the horse yard bright and early. A couple of station-hands were sitting on the rails and asked me: “can you ride a horse, boy?” “Yes, yes”, I said, keen to impress them. One of them pointed to a horse and said: “you see that horse over there? We call it the night horse. You can catch it, saddle it up, and go and round up the other horses that were grazing in the paddocks overnight.” I did as they instructed and headed in the direction of the paddocks. The landscape was so different to the green Cornish countryside. There was just mulga trees and scrub as far as the eye could see. I wasn’t used to such vast paddocks. I kept riding, looking for the horses but I couldn’t find any. When I returned about 30 minutes later, the station-hands were still sitting on the rails, and as they casually rolled their cigarettes they asked: “Where are the horses, boy?” I looked at them blankly and they laughed their heads off. I had to go out again. This time they sent me in the right direction, and I did find the other horses and bring them back to the yard. While I was learning, they had their fun with me.
This was the first time I was earning my own money, and my weekly wage was £2.10.0 per week. After a couple of years, I became overseer at Wunnamurra. It was an honour to be trusted with this role. I knew I was following in the footsteps of one of the owner’s sons, and I felt they treated me like a son. Perhaps the owners, Elsie and Alan Creed, missed their boys, as their other son was away at boarding school.
After about five years at Wunnamurra, I moved to Yooroobla, the adjoining property, to work as their overseer. The place had a tennis court and a swimming pool, so I thought it would be better. But the owners didn’t like you to leave the property to go into town, and I felt restricted, so I went back to Wunnamurra.
In 1957 the NSW state government bought Wunnamurra because they wanted to sub-divide it for ‘closer settlement’. They were planning to run irrigation channels north from the Murray River near Yarrawonga, which would mean that the land could be farmed more intensively and sold as smaller blocks. I was at a bit of a loss. I went fencing for a while – there were lots of fences to build as the property was carved up.
Then, would you believe it – the mayor of Jerilderie, Fred McPherson, contacted me and said: “I’ve been watching you the last couple of years, and I’d like to help you on to a farm”. It was a wonderful, wonderful opportunity. The owners of Wunnamurra wanted me to buy one of the blocks from the sub-division and the mayor arranged a loan for me. I didn’t start farming straight away, as I had to wait about three months for the water channel to come, and when it did, the value of my 640 acres of land jumped threefold.
I worked very hard levelling the block and built a good shed for storing grain. However, I needed more capital to buy a tractor so I leased out the farm for cotton growing.
I was offered a job as manager of Tongala station, a 6000-acre property in the Jerilderie district owned by the Steele family. This property was later sold to the Wells family and became the One Oak Poll Merino Stud.
While I was at Tongala, I would head up to Falls Creek with friends to do some skiing. My good friend, Warwick Wettenhall, was a member of the Kiewa Ski Lodge. It was here that I met my future wife, Margot. She won my heard through cooking the most delicious lamb roast I have ever had. I didn’t fall for the girl; I fell for her roast!
In 1963, I went back to England for the first time since coming out to Australia 15 years earlier. I sailed on a huge ocean liner, which was full of young people bursting with life. I clearly remember the dining room with the crystal glasses and silverware – it was such a contrast to my economy class trip to Australia in 1948! It was good to see my parents again, and although I felt nostalgic seeing the Cornish countryside again, I had no regrets about my decision to migrate to Australia. After spending about three weeks catching up with family and friends, I returned to Australia on the MV Fairsea. The BBM employed me as an escort officer to chaperone a new crop of boys heading Down Under, so my fare was paid.
When Tongala was sold, I went to Victoria where I worked as an overseer on a property called ‘Mount Elephant’, which was owned by the Fairbairn family. This property was in the western districts of Victoria near a town called Derrinallum.
While I was in Victoria and England, Margot had been living and working in the UK for a year. We corresponded during this time, maintaining and strengthening our relationship. When she returned to NSW in 1964, we announced our engagement. Margot had grown up on a mixed farming property called ‘Yandilla’ in Wallendbeen, NSW.
*Left: John and Margot, 1965
We were married on 25 September 1965 in the historic granite Presbyterian Church on Cooper Street, Cootamundra. Margot’s father, Jack Caldwell, was a successful farmer and a generous man. When he was ready to retire, he divided up the family farms so that his two sons acquired 1500 acres each and his two daughters received 1000 acres each. While the properties were gifted, they came with mortgages. At this time, I took the opportunity to sell my land at Jerilderie and purchase a further 600 acres to add to ‘Flagstaff’, the property we had inherited from Jack Caldwell.
‘Flagstaff’ was a 1600-acre property located on Burley Griffin Way between Stockinbingal and Wallendbeen. It was a wildlife refuge when we took it on, and I was keen to improve and increase the pastures. We worked hard, clearing trees and rock picking whilst building up our numbers of sheep, primarily Corriedale in the early years, progressing to Merino and then on to breeding cross bred prime lambs. Margot had a great love of horses and helped on the farm, mustering sheep and cattle.
* Below: John throwing fleece
I shared my love of the Australian bush with our three kids. A family outing was to hitch ‘Ranger’, one of our horses, to the sulky and explore the forest and boil the billy. I also took them ‘roo shooting and sometimes we’d muster as a family with the women on horseback and the boys on motorbikes, always with an enthusiastic Kelpie or two. I have taken a keen interest in sheep doges over the years, training them and teaching them a few tricks. Old traditions prevail, and I continued to milk a cow every morning for many years while at ‘Flagstaff’, sometimes with one of the children perched on a stool beside me.
We had a big garden with flowers and vegetables that Margot and I cultivated together. Gardening is one of my hobbies, as is classic cars. I’ve owned 17 cars over the years – my latest is a 1979 Jaguar. I love taking it for a drive on a Saturday and Sunday morning, going to the little villages around where we live and stopping for a coffee.
Whilst at Flagstaff, I joined the Rotary group in Cootamundra and was an active member, becoming President in 1980. During this time, we hosted a number of exchange students, and I enjoyed introducing our visitors from Japan, Finland, South Africa and Germany to farming life in Australia.
I enjoyed acting and singing and was an enthusiastic member of the Cootamundra Amateur Dramatics Society, performing in a number of productions over the years. More recently, I’ve indulged my love of singing by entertaining the elderly at the Cootamundra Retirement Village and Nursing Home, singing songs from the ‘good old days’.
In 1982 we purchased a second property called ‘Wattle Flat’, which was north of Stockinbingal. These 840 acres of flat terrain had good red loam soils that produced good pastures and fat lambs. Wattle Flat was about 7 kilometres from Flagstaff, so we were able to drove sheep between the two properties.
Left: Lyne family in 1986
In 1995, we bought a beach house in Mollymook (about seven hours’ drive east of our home at Flagstaff) so we could have holidays at the coast. I loved being able to lie in bed on a hot night, with the window open, listening to the waves break on the shore.
Margot and I retired from farming in 2004. Our eldest son, Phillip, took over the farm so it is still in the family. Our other son, Geoffrey, lives in Sydney and works in IT, and our daughter, Sally, works in Canberra. We are blessed with five grandchildren. When we gave ‘Flagstaff’ to Phillip, we gave the beach house to our other two children.
When I look back on my life, I think how lucky I’ve been. Margot and I have a comfortable house in a quiet street in Cootamundra and I’m ‘as happy as Larry’.
Below: BBM CEO Suellen McCaffrey and John, 03/2023
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