Ken Johnstone

Ship name / Flight number: Orontes

Arrival date: 22/05/1957

Excerpt from the book “Likely Lads and Lasses: Youth Migration to Australia 1911-1983” by Alan Gill


Ken Johnston presenting the 2019 BBM Jazz Scholarship to guitarist Joshua Meader, 6 November 2019, Parliament House, Sydney.

A Scot with a Flair for Numbers

KEN JOHNSTONE had no hesitation in claiming 14 as his lucky number. He arrived in Australia on 14 May 1957. His two daughters were born on May 14, two years apart, and a son was born on January 14. Numbers interested him in other ways, determining the choice of his career as a professional accountant.

He was born in Dumfriesshire, in Scotland, on 25 February 1940 – just five months after the start of World War II. He described his childhood as ‘mobile’. ‘Dad was a saw miller. He went wherever the timber was, and we went with him.’

The family moved to England when Ken was about six. But the transient lifestyle remained. By his early teens he had attended 14 schools in as many parts of the British Isles. At school – through his favourite subject, geography – he developed an interest in Australia. ‘I knew about the various states, where they were located and what their industries were.’ His interest extended to sport. ‘I used to admire the Australian cricket team and still do. When England played Australia I used to barrack for Australia because I regarded myself as being from Scotland.

‘In the school leaving certificate English exam we had to write an essay on the country where we would most like to live. I wrote about Australia. At that stage I didn’t know I’d ever go there.’ After leaving school – the family were then living in Norfolk – he worked briefly with his father in a sawmill, but could not decide on a career. One avenue he pursued was meteorology. ‘I had an interview at the local met office. They sent me all this paperwork; how I’d earn £3 and 10 shillings as a cadet, leading to £8 a week as a fully blown weather man. It didn’t sound all that encouraging.’

‘I couldn’t find anything else that suited. So I went to the local employment office. The woman there was helpful. She said: ‘Why don’t you emigrate? You could go to Canada or Australia”.

‘I said there’s no way I would go to Canada, it’s just too cold, I didn’t fancy the severe winters. Australia was different. She gave me this pamphlet on the BBM plus a few other brochures. I was so excited. I could envisage myself on the back of a horse in the outback herding cattle and sheep. From that second onwards I just went hammer and tongs to get to Australia.’

Ken’s eagerness was rewarded. Within three months of applying he found himself – one of a group of 33 Little Brothers – en route for Australia on board the Orontes. He had travelled down to London a couple of days before the ship’s departure, giving him time to attend a jazz concert at the Stoll Theatre. ‘I’m a jazz fanatic. There was a New Orleans clarinet player called George Lewis. He was one of my idols. That was probably the greatest send-off I could have had.’

The journey out was uneventful. Some pretty girls travelling with their parents were disappointingly well chaperoned. ‘In those days a girl of our age would be unlikely to be allowed to travel by herself.’ There were two escort officers. ‘They  used  to  pull  us  out  of  bed  early  every morning, run us round the deck and make sure we didn’t drink or misbehave.’

‘The Suez crisis was on at the time. We had only two stops, Las Palmas and Cape Town, which is a magnificent place. We sailed in during the morning, just at sunrise. The whole harbour was a blood red colour, a sight I will never forget.’

At the time of Ken’s arrival, the Big Brother Movement was easing its policy that all new arrivals should spend at least a couple of years in farming. ‘When I came [in 1957] people were beginning to move away from the country to the city and to industrial areas because that was where the jobs were.

‘My original intention had been to go on the land, but five weeks on the ship had given me plenty of time to think about my future, and I had decided I would like to pursue something in the city.’

On the day after his arrival, he went to the BBM office, where an interview was arranged with someone from a manufacturing company for the following day. ‘That interview was on a Friday. I started work on the Monday. I’d been in Australia only four full days. The unemployment rate was about two per cent at that time.’

The ‘something in the city’ was not very grand. ‘I was assistant to the cost clerk, a very mundane job. First thing in the morning I used to sharpen the boss’s pencils and turn his calendar to today’s date.’

After he had been in the job a few months, good fortune struck. Ken and other Little Brothers were befriended by a local doctor, John Coles, honorary medical officer to Gunning House. ‘He used to take us to his property at North Rocks. We would ride horses bare back, chop trees and clear land for him. He told us that to get on in Australia you had to have either a trade or a profession. So not long after that I started studying at Granville Technical College doing accountancy.’

One day Ken saw an ad in the paper for an accountancy position with Qantas. ‘I was 18, with boyish enthusiasm, and thought this is the job for me. They were actually seeking a mature, middle aged manager, which I definitely was not. So when I went in for the interview they just looked at me and said “Next!”

‘That afternoon I went and saw Frank Mansell. I told him what had occurred. Of course, I was not very pleased, but as it happened, it was my lucky day. He said to me: “Our treasurer, Edward Marriott, a city accountant, is looking for a young bloke to start training. Would you be interested?” Would I, indeed!

That same evening Ken drove to Marriott’s house in Killam. ‘He sat me down in his lounge room and spoke to me like a father. It was one of two turning points of my life. He took me completely under his wing. He gave me sound advice and was very supportive. When there wasn’t enough work to keep me going, he said “Just go and sit by yourself and study”.’

Ken left the Granville Tech and began a course at the Australian Accountancy College in the city. ‘Being able to study at times during the day was a great plus. I had no extracurricular activities in those days; I played cricket with the local church team and that was about it. So virtually all I did was study, including at weekends. Because of this I went through the course fairly quickly.’

A few months later Ken experienced his other ‘turning point’. At the Sydney Jazz Club, in the old Ironworkers’ building in George Street, he met his future partner, Wendy Woolley.  In addition to sharing his tastes in music she was an accomplished athlete, who had run with Betty Cuthbert and Marlene Matthews in the NSW state relay team.

By that time the custom of appointing a ‘big brother’ to look after a ‘little brother’ was no longer observed. In Ken’s case Edward Marriott effectively performed this role. ‘He was a great influence on me and I would say he replaced my own father. I named one of my sons after him.’

Ken and Wendy were married in St Paul’s Church, Canterbury, on 17 December 1960. A jazz band performed during the ceremony. ‘There were Negro spirituals and gospel music. It was just wonderful.’ The minister had been ‘horrifed’ when the request was first put to him, but Ken won him over by playing a record of Jazz At Vespers, recorded in the US.

Ken qualified as an accountant, gaining a degree in 1963. ‘As soon as I qualified, he made me a partner.’ Marriott, who was then in his seventies, retired in October 1965 and Ken took over the practice.

He (Marriott) remained as treasurer of BBM for a further year. His intention to retire from that post was submitted to the October 1966 board meeting.  He died eight weeks later on December 10. At the board meeting on December 13 Ken formally succeeded Marriott as treasurer of BBM. He held the post until December 1996, when he replaced the late Jock McCausland as chairman. Collectively, Ken Johnstone and Edward Marriott had created a unique record in that the movement had been served by only two treasurers in 71 years.


A great sadness in the lives of Ken and Wendy Johnstone occurred in 1978 with the death of their eldest son, Garfield, in a train accident.

‘We named him after Garfield Sobers, the West Indian cricketer. When we came back from our honeymoon we saw every ball bowled at the Test in Sydney. It was that famous series with the West Indies, and Sobers scored 163 – one of the finest batting displays I’ve ever seen.’

The choice of name proved appropriate. ‘He was a brilliant sportsman. He won the State primary schools’ 100 metres, clearly taking after his mother; and represented the State in junior rugby and cricket. He was more a bowler than a batsman, and just so fast. If he had older boys taking the catches, they just couldn’t catch the ball at that speed. If he had lived longer, I’m sure he would have represented Australia in cricket or athletics.’


Ken is very proud of the work now being done to steer the movement along paths appropriate to changing circumstances. He says without a trace of self-consciousness: ‘I feel very privileged to have been accepted as a migrant by the BBM.’

‘Of the 33 in my own group there were a couple of fellows with whom I really had something in common. It’s nice when you run into such people. Had we stayed together longer, we could have formed lasting friendships. But we separated almost as soon as we landed. I think the whole emphasis of the BBM was to assimilate young people into the community, so that they’d find their own way of life as quickly as possible.’

He admits there have been a few ‘bad apples’ among Little Brothers. He knew of two who had been in jail. ‘If you bring in 12,000 young people from anywhere, a few have to slip through, don’t they? We’ve had a few rascals. One fellow in our group finished up, as they say, up the river. He was a bit of a kleptomaniac. It manifested itself on the boat. He was knocking off clothes from the cabins; he just couldn’t help himself.’

Frank Mansell had a theory that homesickness, not physical hardship, was the biggest hurdle faced by Little Brothers. Ken Johnstone agrees, and speaks from personal experience. ‘There wasn’t one person I spoke to in those first weeks after our arrival who wasn’t adamant about saving up the money to go back. There were no exceptions. I felt that way myself. ‘My own problem was exacerbated by the fact that I never had any letters from home until I’d been in Australia two months.  Something went wrong with the mail or maybe the stamps were for the wrong amount. Then suddenly I got about 16 envelopes all at the same time. It was like reading a book. And that made me feel a lot better. I remember, even in recent years, that if I got on the phone to my elderly father in Scotland it was a great feeling. Quite uplifting, in fact, just to hear his voice.’”


Ken, sadly, passed away in October 2022.

BBM is forever indebted to Ken for 53 years of service including, 30 years as Treasurer and 20 years as Chair of BBM.

Until a few years before his death Ken ran his own accountancy firm in partnership with former Little Brother and current BBM Treasurer, Eric Haines. 

Despite heavy pressure of work and a full family life, Ken managed to find time for his passion for jazz music. He was an avid collector of records, tapes and CDs of jazz music world-wide, with particular interest in New Orleans and Chicago style, which he believed to be no longer adequately preserved. 

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