Ken Parsons

Ship name / Flight number: Strathnaver

Arrival date: 21/02/1961

I was born in Torpoint, in the south of England, in 1945. My birth certificate says I am the illegitimate child of Ivy Parsons. My mother already had a son (John) and a daughter (Betty) to two different men. I don’t know much about my father – only that his name was Charles Danning and he was an American sergeant of Latin American heritage, who was serving in England during World War II and shipped back to the United States shortly after. I doubt that he ever knew of my existence. Like most children who have never known their fathers, I fantasised about who he might have been.

My older sister Betty and I were taken away from our biological mother and given to Mr and Mrs Collier as a trial adoption. They were a middle class, childless couple in London who had no idea about raising children. However, within a couple of weeks we were returned to the Waifs and Strays Society (which changed its name to the Church of England Children’s Society in 1946) as I had a chronic ear infection and sores on my face. When we heard we would be sent away again, we destroyed the toys they had given us. I think the Collier’s wanted to keep my sister, but the Church of England said we were “not to be separated”. This was not the usual practice, and I am so glad I was able to stay with my sister.

We were housed at the Society’s nursery for some time until a widow by the name of Mrs. Craddock, whom we later came to call “our mummy”, applied to foster us. (It was socially acceptable for a widow to be a single mother, but not for an unwed woman.)

Mrs. Craddock lived in London with her twelve-year-old son, John, who became jealous of his mother’s affection for us and protectiveness. I remember being sent to St. Leonard’s, a respite home, on a week’s holiday so the situation could cool down a bit, and Mrs. Craddock could have a break. A year later, due to the trouble her jealous son was giving her and her failing mental health, Mrs. Craddock felt she had no choice but to give us back to the Waifs and Strays Society. However, she did not want to cut all ties. I visited her at Easter and Christmas and those were very happy times for me.

When I was five years old, I joined Betty at Eaton Hill, a home for children in the foothills of the Derbyshire dales. I vividly remember when I first walked into the main house, looking up at the high ceilings and being amazed by it all. I settled down there very quickly, because it was a nice place to live, my sister was there, and the people who looked after us, Don and Elsie Lomas, were good too.

I have fond memories of Christmas time at Eaton Hill. We were given lots of toys by the local people, even the poorest of them. Local organisations hosted Christmas parties for us and sometimes we went to two or three parties on the one night where we ate too much sweet food, and were sick as dogs when we got home.

There were about 25 rooms in the main house, about two acres of gardens around the house, and then hundreds of acres of fields surrounding that. We used to have hours of fun in the grounds, riding bikes (that we repaired ourselves), pulling billy carts (that Don Lomas made for us) and playing games. As we got older, we had jobs to do, like chopping firewood and taking the coal up from the cellar to the fireplaces. We were very well cared for at Eaton Hill, as far as everyday needs were concerned, but emotionally, we had to fend for ourselves. If you were struggling with schoolwork or being bullied, there was no shoulder to cry on. There were no hugs and kisses.

We used to walk through all sorts of weather to get to the school at Little Eaton. Locals donated old shoes and socks to the school for us to change into in wet weather. Coming home, we used to race each other to see who was fastest.

Left: Ken Parsons driving the ‘bus’ at Eaton Hill, c.1955.

I enjoyed junior school at Little Eaton, but once I got to secondary school, my grades started going downhill. I was left-handed and having to write with a nib that had been used by countless right-handed children, meant I couldn’t write properly. The teachers refused to let me write with a pencil and I could not afford my own fountain pen or biro. Consequently, I fell behind in my school work. Both my sisters were quite smart and Maggie (who was born after me and raised by an aunt) passed the Eleven Plus exam, which meant she could go to a grammar school and get a better education. However, no one would pay for her uniforms and text books, so she couldn’t go.

At school and in the village, we were called ‘the Home kids’ and got into quite lot of fights, to the extent of being tied to trees and having arrows and spears thrown at us. No-one really wanted to have anything to do with us.

I did have one friend in the village, and his father owned a farm. He grew potatoes and raised pigs and chickens, and the family was very well off. I think he was a bit disappointed with his son, Barry, as he was in a C stream at school and I was in a B stream. I invited Barry to Eaton Hill a couple of times – once to my birthday, which was a bit embarrassing, because all it consisted of was a cake with a couple of candles. However, he enjoyed himself and on a number of occasions he told me that he wished he could live at Eaton Hill. I was very sceptical of what he said, but after seeing him fresh from a couple of sessions with his father, I believed him.

I lived at Eaton Hill Home for ten years. When I was 14 years old, I finished school and started work at the Midland Hotel in Derby as a waiter and porter. Now I was required to pay 30 shillings a week to keep living at the home, or find somewhere to live in the village, which I definitely didn’t want to do. When I heard about the Big Brother Movement, I decided to take my chances and apply to go to Australia. I nearly didn’t make it, as I was waiting to get a reference from Barry’s father for my application. I used to go to their house a lot and help Barry muck out the pigs, because I wanted to drive their tractor. One day I accidentally jammed the wheels of the tractor up against a fence, which took a lot of getting free, and spilt a jar of pickled onions into Barry’s mother’s handbag, soaking some important documents! Barry’s father was contemplating for a long time whether to give me a reference or not, but he did in the end – maybe he just wanted to get rid of me!

Even though I had not lived with my mother since I was two years old, I still had to get her permission to go to Australia. She asked to see me before I left in 1960. I was visiting my uncle in Cornwall, and I remember seeing her for the first time in over ten years, walking down the railway lines outside his house. It was not a tearful reunion. She asked me for ten shillings to buy a packet of cigarettes that I knew only cost about two and six pence. I was not impressed at all.

Today, children would be told what to expect before they meet their mother after so many years, and what their family history was, but not in those days. That’s the only thing I think was wrong about being brought up at Eaton Hill – we were left to sink or swim, emotionally. I don’t think I would have thought so much about what my life could have been like, if I had been told the truth about my family. When the good ship Strathnaver, pulled away from Tilbury Dock to take me to Australia, everyone was singing “Auld Lang Syne” and crying. I was the only one with dry eyes, because I was so keen to get away.

The only time I got homesick when I was in Australia, was when I was travelling by train in the bush, going somewhere or other at Christmas time, passing farmhouses and country towns and seeing the lit Christmas trees and decorations. I certainly did not feel any loss of my mother or family, but I missed the life I had at Eaton Hill, which I could never go back to.
Sailing wasn’t to be my strong point, as I was dreadfully seasick. The only time I actually enjoyed the trip was when we were on dry land, in places like Aden or Port Said in the Middle East, going through the Suez Canal and on the Dead Sea. When we docked in Colombo, Sri Lanka, I saw palm trees, white sands, and blue seas for the first time in my life. I also tasted delicious watermelons, which cost a penny each.

I always remember meeting the coast of Australia, because all we could see was bush for a very long time. It was also the first time I heard a radio broadcast, which had a lot of advertising and pop music. The only radio stations we could hear in England were run by the BBC. Listening to a Perth radio station for the first time, I heard the song “Rubber Ball” by Bobby Vee, and it’s been a favourite of mine for the last 50 years.

When we arrived in Sydney in February 1961, I had to go to the Big Brother Movement’s farm, to acclimatize to the weather and learn about farming. They kept me there for about three months – until I was 16 years old. At the farm, I was photographed with another lad feeding calves with a baby’s bottle, and years later the Big Brother Movement used the photo to promote themselves in a book and on the ABC television program called “Likely Lads and Lasses.”

Left: Ken Parsons (right) feeding a calf at the Big Brother Movement Training Farm in Fairfield, 1961.

From Sydney I was sent to a property called “Warra Park”. I remember we travelled on a train and God knows how many hours it took to get there. The train pulled up at what they used to call a ‘flag and whistle stop’, which was between Finley and Deniliquin. I was left at on the station platform waiting for someone to come and pick me up. It started to get dark and I could just see this utility coming down the track. It stopped and picked me up and that was the first time I met the person I was to work for, or more like, to do under-paid labour for.

They weren’t very nice people that I worked for, and I think the only way they could get workers was to get unsuspecting young boys through the Big Brother Movement. We were supposed to be employed as jackaroos, but in fact 90% of the time we were in the paddocks, clearing burrs from the ground so that they wouldn’t get into the sheep’s wool and lower its value. I only stayed at this place for a few months and the cocky was always boasting about how he only paid 50 pounds for all his workers from the Big Brother Movement (it was called a donation). It must have saved him hundreds of pounds. He only paid me three pounds per week, when he remembered, which was not very often, so I left.

I returned to Sydney and BBM sent me to work at a property called “Rosewood” in Barellan, near Griffith. If I thought it would be any better, I was badly mistaken. I had to sleep in an 8 x 8 foot shed with no windows, which used to be a place where they kept meat. Again, I was not allowed into the main house, except to eat.

I did a few different jobs around the place such as ploughing, burr cutting and painting. If there was room in the family car, I could go into town with them every couple of weeks. My employer would then give me some of the money that he owed me, but he kept most of it, saying that it was better if he helped me to save it. As I was a very trusting person, I believed him.
One day he took me to a spot by the side of the house where he had marked out an area of the ground about 50 feet long and 30 feet wide. He told me to dig a hole ten feet deep, which was going to be for a water tank. Now, if you have ever dug in the ground in the middle of New South Wales, you would know that you can only dig down about six inches with a spade, and then you have to use a crowbar to loosen the soil. So, you can imagine how hard the work was for a 16-year-old boy from England. I persevered for a few weeks, but after I had dug half the hole for the tank, I decided this was not for me. My employer tried to talk me into staying and became abusive when I said no. Then to show me what a nasty person he was, he told me I had saved him 600 pounds, as I had dug most of the hole and it would not cost much to have someone from town finish it. He then refused to give me the hundred or so pounds he owed me in back pay, on the basis that I had spent most of the money in town (which was not true) and that he would keep the rest to pay for the radio, that was in my shed but I didn’t want to take with me. I felt cheated and angry, but what could I do?

When I left Barellan I was lucky to find work with a contractor doing some ploughing. It was very boring, but at least I got paid reasonably well. When I hear the song “Beautiful Circle” by Sara Storer, it reminds me of these times, because it’s about a person who keeps himself occupied while ploughing.

What I remember about this time was that I had to sleep in a humpy. It had a bed, a dirt floor, and nothing else. It didn’t even have a door. I was returning one night after a day’s work and the two dogs (that belonged to the man I was working for) raced off ahead of me and were barking and going berserk inside the humpy. When I arrived, they had cornered a big brown snake, which was hissing under the bed. I wanted to let the snake escape and go on its way, but the two dogs were between the snake and the door and I couldn’t call them off. It was a worry, to put it mildly! The only thing I could think to do was to kill the snake. I went and got a spade and cut its head off, which was no mean feat, with two crazy dogs and a very angry snake.

The ploughing work only lasted a couple of months and as I was still just 16 years old, I had to go back to the Big Brother Movement in Sydney. I spent a couple of weeks at their boarding house in Homebush, a terrible place. While I was there, I tried to learn a trade, but as I was only receiving five pounds a week and it cost that amount to stay in the boarding house per week, it was pointless continuing.

The Big Brother Movement then sent me to Narromine to work for a pig farmer. The job was not very good and of course I was not allowed to live with the family. I had to live in the old house down by the river, which had been flooded many times over. Here I was, living in what you might call a cesspit. All I had was a mattress with a couple of blankets and the place smelt very badly.

I stayed there for about three months but when the pig farmer went away, I had an offer to work at a brickyard in town, so I decided to move on. I kept feeding the pigs while the famer was away and when he came back, he was very angry that I was not going to work for him anymore as a cheap labourer. I think he would have done me some serious damage, but my muscly mates from the brickyard who were waiting for me in the car could see what was going on. They got out of the car and as soon as he saw them, he suddenly went quiet and paid me the money he owed me.

The brickyard was owned by an Englishman who had four sons who worked there too. We lived in old caravans, which were clean, and went to the pub in town to shower. The brickyard owner provided us with vegetables, but we had to get our own meat. We used to drive to a farm in the middle of the night and steal a sheep to slaughter. One time, our driver leaned on the horn in our getaway car and woke up the farm dogs and household. We grabbed an old boiler (sheep), dumped it in the boot of the car and sped off. Luckily, we didn’t get caught, as I would have been sent back to England. We didn’t enjoy eating that tough ol’ sheep, and I never rustled again.

In Narromine, I noticed the way Australians treated the Aborigines and was disgusted. Most of them were forced to live in an area outside of town. They were allowed to come into town to buy alcohol, but to drink it, they had to go back to their huts outside of town. If the Aborigines wanted to go to the open-air cinema in town, they had to sit at the back. If they wanted to use the swimming pool, they had to have a shower first, whereas the white people could just jump in, even if they were dusty and dirty.

The owner of the brickyard was never up to date with paying his bills, and often in debt. After I’d been working there a few months, the bank called in his loan and the brickyard closed. I was sorry to have to leave Narromine, as it was the first place I had worked in Australia where I was paid properly and got to know and like the people I was working with.
As work was hard to get, against my better judgment, I took another job through the Big Brother Movement. They sent me to a dairy farm in Forbes where I had to get up early and work split shifts in the milking shed. The pay was not too good, so I did not stay long.

I met up with a guy in Forbes who invited me to hitch-hike with him to Parkes, which was the last big town before Broken Hill in the far west of NSW. He said I’d need to travel light, so I left my case and most of my clothes under a bridge. The people at Eaton Hill Home would have been aghast, as they forked out a lot of money for my stuff.

Before we left for Parkes, the guy I was with said to me “Do you want something to eat?” I said yes, and he took my shoulder and we walked into the local the police station. I was alarmed and didn’t know what was happening but I didn’t want to cause a commotion. He told the Duty Sergeant that we had travelled from the previous town and asked for some track rations. The policeman didn’t ask any questions and gave us coupons to buy food. He told us we would have to go to the next town if we wanted any more food in a week’s time. Track rations were something left over from the Great Depression to make sure unemployed and homeless men kept on the move. We went down to the local shop and got 30 shillings worth of food. When we left the shop, the guy said to me: “Now let’s go to the pub and sell this food and buy some beer”. Needless to say, I refused and we parted company. Consequently, I hitch-hiked to Parkes by myself.

I looked for work in Parkes, as the last thing I wanted to do was to ask the Big Brother Movement to find work for me. I was well aware that I would probably end up as cheap labour for some redneck cocky. I couldn’t find any work in Parkes, but was told that there was some in a place called Matakana, which is a whistle stop on the Broken Hill train line. It took a few hours to get there on a goods train (which had one passenger carriage) that was dubbed the “Midnight Horror” by the men who worked on the track where I was going to work.
I liked working at Matakana on the rail line, as I worked decent hours and the pay was OK. At that time, the track bed consisted mainly of dirt (not gravel) and it was reported to have the longest and straightest length of track in the world. I remember seeing the train approaching from miles away and seeing its headlight swaying from side to side when the train was travelling at speed.

Left: Ken aged about 20 years old, 1965

I stayed at Matakana for a few weeks, but it was a bit too far from civilisation for me. The only way we could get into Parkes (the closet town) was on the Midnight Horror, which took too long and was a very rough ride. There was no way they would stop the passenger train (the Indian Pacific) for us, nor provide a bus. Even the kangaroos got lonely at Matakana, as they would come into the camp at night.

I decided that as I was getting older and could earn more money now, I should try my luck in Sydney. On a trip into Parkes, I learnt that a circus was in town. If I could get a job with them, I could travel to Sydney and get paid for it at the same time. I went and asked, and they gave me a job! We had to sleep under the trucks but that was alright as it was still summer. We were paid OK – about 15 pounds per week with no tax. However, they had a way of getting some of their money back – if you did something wrong, real or imagined, they would dock you a pound.
The day’s work consisted of leaving town at 6.00am to travel to the next town. Once we arrived, we had to put up the main tent, set up the seating and also the lion’s cage, as this was the first act. This took us until about 1.00pm and the first show started about 2.30pm. After the lion’s act finished, we had to take the cage down. If there was only one show (because it was a small town), we would take the big top down after the show finished. This usually took us until midnight to pull the tent down and stow it away. Then at 6 am the next morning, we would be on the road again. If the circus was performing in a big town, we would stay a couple of days for more than one show, which was much better. The main act when I was working for the circus was someone called Chad Morgan, a singing comedian, who I remember was very bad at both.

I stayed with Ashton’s Circus for a few weeks, but when we arrived at Wellington (about two-thirds of the way to Sydney), I learnt that there was better work at a place called Mumbil. This was a one-horse town, about 25 kilometres from Wellington. The State Water Authority was building a dam to increase the capacity of Lake Burrendong. We were employed to clear the rock from the spillway they were building, after they had blasted the area with dynamite. It was not the best job in the world, but for the first time since leaving the BBM farm, I had a clean bed, a shower and good food. At least I had good pay and conditions!

As I was now over 21 years old, I knew I could earn much better wages in the city, so I hitch­hiked to Sydney. I ended up at a boarding house in Strathfield, which was run by a tiny old German woman, who had a system of how to segregate payers and non-payers. If you paid on time, she gave you have a room by yourself or with one other person. If you were late in paying you had to move to a room where there were five guys. If you lost your job or couldn’t or wouldn’t pay, you were relegated to a lounge on the veranda and got no food. Ma, as she was known, was a kind person, as she let people stay on the veranda, and either leave when they were ready, or come back into the house when they found a job and could pay their keep. I must admit that I ended up on the veranda on one occasion when I first moved to Strathfield. At least I had a bed, of sorts.

After about three weeks, I got a job with the railways, laying and digging up tracks. Then I started working at Concord Hospital as an orderly. I didn’t have time to feel sad or angry about my situation, as I had to make sure I knew where my next meal was coming from.

I met a girl called Susie, and we got married in 1969 and moved to Melbourne. After living in Sydney, Melbourne felt like a country town, and we both preferred that.

Little did I know, that the labouring job I had at Matakana would help me get a job with the Victorian Railways. I worked my way up through the jobs of shunter, guard, signalman and then safe-work inspector, which was a specialised role. I had to pass a very long written exam to get promoted to the role of safe-work inspector. The exam lasted for a whole week – five and a half days! As I said earlier, I didn’t learn to write properly at school because I was left-handed. Once I came to Australia and could get a pencil and paper, I used to practice my writing. I didn’t pass the written exam the first time, but I did the second. I worked for the railways for about 20 years, until I had an accident. I was fixing up the house we had bought in Sunshine (a suburb in western Melbourne) and I fell off an old ladder. The only permanent damage I suffered was to my optic nerve, which caused me to go colour blind. You can’t work for the railways unless you have good vision, so they gave me a payout.

Left: Ken with his first son, Jamie, 1970

I got bored staying at home – I was only 44 years old – and Susie and I also had four children to care for. I thought it would be hard to find work, but I got a job as a casual carer for people with mental and physical disabilities who had been moved out of institutions and into homes in the community. The pay was good, and because the job was casual, I was able to keep drawing my weekly allocation of about $600 from my payout. I earned enough to go travelling every six months – not bad for a boy who grew up in a children’s home and couldn’t write properly when he left school at the age of 14!

I went back to England about four or five times. On one of my trips, I visited Eaton Hill and sought out Don Lomas, the man who looked after me there, and my old friend Barry. I was able to see my brother, John, and my sisters too. After Don died, his daughter inherited his estate, and she passed Don’s diary of his time at Eaton Hill on to me. I think she did this because my older sister, Betty, is mentioned quite often.

I retired from my casual carer’s job in 2010. That gave me more time to travel with my second wife, who came from Chile. Now I live by myself, with a small dog that my daughter bought for me, in a unit in Albion (western Melbourne). Looking back, I have enjoyed my life in Australia, even though it was very hard in the beginning. I don’t think I would have had the same opportunities if I’d stayed in England.

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