Ship name / Flight number: Castel Felice
Arrival date: 15/05/1963
*Keith during his work at the Botanic Garden in Sydney, front row, kneeling down
When I came to Australia in 1963 with the Big Brother Movement, it was exciting to be doing something that had not been on the cards for me.
I was born in Harrow, Middlesex, England in 1944, the second of four children. My mother was an attractive woman who had a fairly wild lifestyle. She wasn’t good at looking after her children, and there was not as much social help back then as there is today, so when I was about 4 years old I was sent to live in a Dr Barnardo’s home with my older brother Colin. After my 11th birthday, my grandparents took us out of the home and we went to live with them in Northamptonshire before moving into a caravan with our father. Having grown up in an institution, I relished the beauty of the changing seasons around my new home and all it entailed.
Wilby, outside of Wellingborough where we lived, was a small traditional village with an 800-year-old Norman stone church with old bronze bells. I joined their bell-ringing group and learnt to ring the church bells, which to this day still feels like a special experience.
I didn’t have a good education, so when I finished school at the age of 15 years, I took whatever work I could get. I tried out for the All Arms Junior Leaders’ Cadets, but that didn’t work out. I was keen to experience more than life could offer me in the midlands of England, so when the opportunity arose to apply to the BBM to go to Australia, I jumped at it. My grandparents and relatives helped me scrape together the kit I needed (clothes etc.), the £16 that BBM required you to have in a bank account in Sydney, and the £16 that you needed to cover your expenses on the voyage. From Northampton, where my Dad and older brother waved me off, I travelled to Southampton to board the Castel Felice in early 1963. I was barely 18 years old and very excited about the whole trip.
The voyage was, literally, a wonderful experience for an ordinary country boy like me. I was wide-eyed with wonder as we sailed through the Suez Canal, crossed the equator, and pitched and rolled on the rough seas in the Great Australian Bight. Cigarettes were cheap and so was a bottle of chianti. I came out to Australia with 15 other boys and four of us slept in a converted meat locker in the bowels of the ship. We definitely had the ‘cheap seats’!
When I arrived in Sydney on 15 May 1963, broke and owing money, we were taken to the BBM training farm for about eight weeks to learn about general farm work on a dairy farm. That wasn’t much use to me, as I was sent to a 16,000-acre sheep property outside Griffith to fix fences! The farm was owned by the Sides family. The head jackaroo gave me a horse called ‘Prince’ to ride and told me to jump on. I had never ridden a horse before and had to teach myself. I quickly learnt that Prince was always happy when he saw a low branch up ahead (thinking he could knock me off).
*Keith in his early Sydney days in Australia with a group of friends, second from right
I joined a group of men who worked and camped in the bush fixing the fences that were hollowed by white ants. If you wanted to eat, you had to kill a sheep. This happened twice a week and that would feed all the workers on the farm, including us jackeroos. Sleeping under the stars was a wondrous experience – I soon learnt the constellations. For a boy who grew up in post-war UK with rationing and restrictions, it didn’t seem like a hard way to live.
After a couple of years on the property, I decided to branch out and go to Geelong to meet up with a fellow BBM acquaintance from the Castel Felice. I needed a job, so I answered an advertisement for a grave digger. They took me on, even though I had no experience, and I soon learnt the sad and finer details of digging graves.
I met Clive and Fran Davis through my BBM ship acquaintance, as Clive and Fran had helped him to settle in Australia, and Clive got me a job packing potatoes for some extra cash. He and his wife Fran – truly and genuinely good people –were members of the local Baptist church and they helped many new migrants (36 families in all) find accommodation and work in Geelong. Fran was like a mother hen and she said that I could come and live with their family. Since I wasn’t close to my biological family, this meant a lot to me – to be wanted and accepted as I was when living with their whole family.
I stayed in Geelong for a while, but feeling footloose I decided to travel to Sydney. I did all sorts of odd jobs, the longest lasting one in the tin mines at Condobolin – it was hot, filthy, and dangerous work due to the fine dust but the pay was good. Later, I got a job at the Royal Botanic Gardens as a trainee arborist. I learnt the ropes, literally, as I was taught how to climb trees with ropes. I am scared of heights but I think you’ve got to be able to work with the things that frighten you, rather than let those things hold you back.
Speaking of ropes, and heights, in 1970 I decided to test my nerves and try parachuting. Jumping out of a plane for the first time is the experience that stands out most in my life. It was scary, but thrilling… until I discovered that the friend I went parachuting with had signed us up for a second jump!
On Sunday afternoons, a group of former ‘Little Brothers’ would gather at an oval near the Randwick Racecourse to play football (soccer) and then have fish and chips. It made me feel like I was a part of something bigger than myself or my family.
Towards the end of the 1960s, I started to learn to fly. I did a trial flight at Bankstown aerodrome and was hooked. We joined the Royal Aero Club at Bankstown and would dress up for their dinner dances on Saturday nights. It was a great and happy fraternity to be in.
Now that I was living near the Pacific Ocean, I joined the Clovelly Surf Life Saving Club – even though I couldn’t swim! One of the other club members taught me to swim and I passed the bronze medallion course, so I could participate in surf patrols. One of the most memorable experiences I’ve had is catching a big wave in a surf boat – the thrill of riding down the face of a wave is incredible. I was boat captain for a brief period in surf life-saving carnivals and a probationary member of the board of examiners.
In 1973, I was living in Sydney’s eastern suburbs and, like many British ex-pats, I would go to Bondi Beach. That’s where I met my wife, Eileen. We decided to take a road trip to Darwin to see if we could get along. We had our differences and spats, but got married anyway. The wedding was on 31 May 1975 at St Jude’s Anglican Church in Randwick. The bell tower reminded me of the church near my home in Northamptonshire. We later learned that St Jude is the patron saint of lost causes! However, our marriage hasn’t been a lost cause, as we are still together after nearly 50 years.
*Keith and Eileen Denton Marriage 31 May 1975 St Jude’s Church, Randwick
We bought an old Federation house in Coogee, Sydney and got involved in the local community. At that time there was lots of work around in Sydney and builders were always looking for tradesmen. I decided to set up a small business in conjunction with my wife that I called “Denton General Contracting” and take on small jobs, or find others who could do them.
In 1982, our daughter, Sarah Jane, was born. We are very grateful for her, as our first child died in infancy and is buried in St Jude’s cemetery. Eileen and I have been through some really tough times but the hard times have forged their own bonds through us as well as all the good times.
In 1983, I celebrated my 20th year in Australia and invited Frank Mansell, who was executive director of the BBM then, to the party. He was a wonderfully giving person who was like a father figure to me and hundreds of other ‘Little Brothers’. If you had a problem, you could contact him and he would try and help you fix it – a true ‘big brother’! I feel disappointed that the BBM is no longer bringing young men out to Australia and carrying on that same tradition.
*Below from left: Frank Mansell and Keith
As a family we have done lots of travelling. In 1988, on one of our trips back to the UK to see Eileen’s family, we made the bold decision to purchase the village manor house in Ardgay, in northern Scotland and turn it into a hunting lodge/guest house. We did lots of entertaining at our house in Coogee and decided to put our skills, experience and teamwork into a small business.
During our eight years of running our guesthouse, we became the first business in the north of Scotland to receive a three crown highly commended award from the Scottish Tourist Board. We still have this award today – over thirty years later – as it is considered a personal award for our standards and achievement while carrying on a business under the auspices of the Scottish Tourist Board.
Encouraged by this, we decided to buy an historic 17th century coaching inn on the road to Dornoch and renovate it. I became a licensed hotelier and, even while we were still renovating, the locals would approach us to let us know which drink they liked, so we could have a bar stocked for the locals, as well as the tourists. I worked as the barman, chatting to people (which I like to do), and Eileen worked behind the scenes running the kitchen and other associated things. One winter the temperature dropped to minus 23 degrees Celsius! Even though our second Scottish business was also successful, we decided that it was just too cold. We packed up and moved to Cairns – swapping snow for sun.
I found it hard to get work in Cairns. I was 50 years old, which was ‘too old’ for many employers. I started my own business again and we stayed in Cairns for 26 years. Eileen contracted influenza and then her kidneys failed. The doctors said she was very sick and could not stay on dialysis. I donated one of my kidneys to her and she made a full recovery. Now, 22 years later, we are even more connected to each other.
In 2022, we decided that Cairns was getting too hot and humid for us, and that it was time to move south. Moving interstate when you are nearly 80 years old is not easy! We couldn’t have done it without the unstinting help of our daughter, Sarah Jane. We wanted to live closer to her and our two grandchildren who live in Colac, Victoria. After much searching, we found a suitable house in Camperdown and are enjoying the different and varied weather.
Even though my age is slowing me down, when I look back on my life, I can’t remember a time when I was sitting around. Some days I was so busy that I had to run between jobs. Eileen says I have a ‘big personality’ – I do think that life is all about the people you meet and connect with. That said, we are all mortals, so you’re always saying goodbye to somebody. I have tried to fit as much as I can into my life. Migrating to Australia with the BBM expanded my prospects. I’ve maximised the opportunities and have a sense of achievement when I look back over my last 60 years in Australia.
Three cheers for the BBM!
Dr Barnardo’s UK: https://www.barnardos.org.uk/who-we-are/our-history
Castel Felice http://ssmaritime.com/sitmar1.htm
St Jude’s Anglican Church: https://www.stjudesrandwick.org.au/
Surf Life Saving Bronze Medallion: https://sls.com.au/role/bronze-medallion/
*Below Keith in 2022
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