Robert (Bob) Robertson

Ship name / Flight number: Strathnaver

Arrival date: 04/10/1961

Left: Bob, 1961

I was born in Beckenham, Kent, when England was being bombed by the Germans on 9 February 1943. I realised just how lucky we were that our house wasn’t bombed when I dug an incendiary bomb out of our backyard when I was about 5 years old. I don’t want to give the impression that my childhood was ruined by the war – far from it. My grandparent’s house was just two doors down from where Enid Blyton’s brother lived. There was a giant horse chestnut tree in a clearing at the back of all the houses, which backed on to the Hundred Acre Wood, which the famous children’s author called the ‘faraway tree’. We made a camp in the burnt trunk of the tree after it was hit by lightning and played in it with the local children. I was virtually an only child, as my younger brother only lived for a couple of hours, and my sister was born ten years after me.

My father was a power or electrical engineer, and we moved around the south of England a bit for his job. I went to the technical college, not the grammar school, and studied electrical engineering for 12 months. One of our tasks was to splice undersea cables, which would be laid on the seabed between the United Kingdom and the USA. After graduating from the Preston Technical College, I got a job as a landscape gardener, which led to work at Linfields – the largest plant nursery in Europe at the time. I started working in the carnation greenhouses. The company wanted me to train as a landscape gardener and paid for me to study horticulture at night-school. I wasn’t sure if growing plants was really my thing, so I volunteered to work with the plumbers who were installing the irrigation system for the greenhouses.

Money was tight in our family, and I’d read an article about boys going to Australia with the BBM. I enquired at London House and thought, ‘you beauty!’ – a free cruise, guaranteed work, and if I don’t like it, I can come back after two years! I always wanted to travel and joining the BBM made that possible.

I sailed from London in 1961 on what would be the penultimate voyage of the SS Strathnaver. I was part of a large group of about 30 Little Brothers with two escorts. The voyage was a lot of fun. We sailed via the Suez Canal and I got off the boat in every port. In Bombay I had swallows tattooed on each of my forearms so I could boast that I’d gone through life with a ‘bird on each arm’. In Celyon (now Sri Lanka), a couple of West Indian cricketers boarded, and we played on the deck. I remember bowling one of them on the middle stump.

When the SS Strathnaver docked in Sydney on 4 October 1961, I chose to go to a training farm outside Newcastle. My first job was at a property called ‘Ben Lomond’ near Tullibigeal where I was ploughing and clearing land. About three months later, I moved to a nearby sheep station called ‘Evergreen’ at Lake Cargelligo where I learnt to shear and castrate sheep. There was more land to be cleared here, too. I was an ‘old hand’ at this and could clear a quarter of an acre of mallee scrub in a day with an axe.

Left: Bob at the property with his riffle (caliber 22), 1962

When I wasn’t working, I went hunting for kangaroos with some of the other employees on the farm. I discovered that I had a talent for shooting. You could throw a beer can into the air, and I could put eight holes in it with my gun before it hit the ground. I could also shoot a matchbox off a fence post from 100 metres away.

I spent my first year thinking that I’d return to England when my two years was up, but I came to realise that I fitted in better in Australia than I did in the UK. I liked the fact that respect had to be earned in Australia, whereas in England the class system prevailed and you had to give respect to the upper crust. ‘Effluent floats to the surface’, I always used to say! be given to you. I kept in touch with my parents by writing to them every 4-6 weeks and telephoning them once a year from the post office.

After a couple of years working in central New South Wales, I was itching to see more of Australia, so I hitched a ride on a semi-trailer to Melbourne. I blew all the money I’d saved in about ten days and ended up at the Coburg labour exchange looking for a job. I told the interviewer: ‘if it’s got wheels, I can drive it.’ This led to a series of jobs as a wholesale delivery driver for Lohn Corndon in Kensington. When you’re behind the wheel of a five-tonne truck in an unfamiliar city, you soon get to know the one-way streets and laneways.

I started learning to drive when I was just six years old. I got a regular driver’s license in the UK, but when I was working at Lake Cargelligo, I decided to get a trucking license so I could drive the wheat trucks to the silos. The local cop had been watching me drive the trucks without a license, so I decided it was about time I made it legal!

My next job, with Claude Neon, called on some of my training in Tech College. I worked for them as an electrical rigger in Melbourne and country Victoria. I wasn’t scared of heights, so I did most of the ‘chair work’. This meant sitting in the bosun’s chair and using pulleys to pull myself up to the required height to install the signs. There was very little safety equipment in those days.

After about 12 months, I got a job with the Postmaster General’s Department driving the delivery trucks between the mail sorting centres. I also delivered telegrams after hours. This is when I first met Normie Rowe, who was doing the ‘slot runs’ – clearing the public telephone boxes of pennies. In the mid-1960s, the PMG Department required all male employees to have a neat, ‘short back and sides’ haircut. Normie Rowe refused to get his hair cut, so he left and pursued a career as a singer instead.

I met my future wife while I was working in Melbourne. An Irish bloke I knew invited me to go to Legget’s Dance Hall in Prahan with him. I met Carol on the dance floor, and we got married a couple of years later, in 1967. I didn’t have a best man or a buck’s party and none of my family could come to our wedding. After honeymooning in Tasmania, we came back to Melbourne and bought a house in Northcote for $7000. Until our first child was born, we were able to live off one wage and use the other to pay off our mortgage.

Left: Bob with his wife Carol, and his children Matthew and David, 1970

In 1975, the PMG Department was split into Telecom Australia and Australia Post. I stayed with the postal service and worked my way up to being manager of mail deliveries at the mail centre in Preston, Melbourne. I had about 70 drivers working under me. Even though I was four rungs up the organisational ladder from the delivery drivers, I worked outside in a ‘hands on’ capacity as much as possible. I don’t like working in an office. This is a trait I passed onto my two sons. We moved to Preston so that I could walk to work for the early starts.

I stayed at Australia Post for 27 years. When the company offered me a redundancy in 1991, I did my sums and took it, even though I was only 48 years old and too young to retire. By finishing work on 2nd July 1991, I was paid my severance pay and holiday pay in a new financial year, which meant that I got $66,000 for one day’s work!

After I retired, Carol and I had more time to travel, and we went all over Australia, New Zealand, and Norfolk Island. I went back to the UK for my father’s 80th birthday in 1998. My parents came to live in Melbourne in 1980 and stayed for over ten years.

Left: Bob and his wife, NT Litchfield, 1995

Carol and I have been married for 57 years this April (2024). Our two sons both work in Melbourne: Matthew followed in my footsteps and works for Australia Post and David works as a hydraulic engineer. We still live in Preston, and I’ve built a workshop and a large shed in the backyard where I can keep some of the things I like to collect, like old tools, coins, stamps, golf balls, jigsaws, books, and packs of cards.

I think coming to Australia was the best decision I ever made. If I’d stayed in the UK, I couldn’t have achieved anything like what I’ve been able to in Melbourne.






Left: Bob at the BBM reunion in Melbourne, 2023

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