Stephen Bull

Ship name / Flight number: Fairsky

Arrival date: 13/08/1963

Left: Stephen Bull, 1968

I was born outside of London in May 1946. I am the youngest of four siblings, but I didn’t have much to do with my eldest brother, who went to sea; or my sister, who got pregnant and left home when she was in her late teens. When Allen, my other brother, migrated to Australia 20 years after me, I barely knew who he was.

My family were very poor. We lived in a 3-story flat near the post office where my father worked. My Dad was a para-trooper in World War II and returned with a broken back, so there weren’t too many jobs open to him. We didn’t own a car and used pushbikes to get around.

I left school when I was 15 years old, barely able to read and write. I saw a poster saying ‘Australia needs YOU’ with a big finger pointing at me and I decided that would be a good adventure. I worked in a garage with a mechanic for about six months while my application to the BBM was processed.

The only advice I was given before I left was what to do if someone came at me with a knife. They must have thought I’d get into lots of fights in Australia.

I sailed on the SS Fairsky in 1963 and it was a lovely trip, except for when I was nearly murdered in my bed! I was sleeping in a cabin with three other blokes, and a Little Brother came in drunk and thought I was in his bed. He was a big, muscly bloke and grabbed me around the neck and tried to choke me. It took the force of three men to pull him off me and if it wasn’t for my cabin mates, I’d be dead. It was scary. Even now, nearly 60 years later, I don’t like to have my back exposed in case someone comes up behind me. I wanted an adventure and I was certainly getting it!

Once we arrived in Sydney in August, a bus took us to the training farm. When we got off the bus, a monster of a bloke lined us up and told us the rules of the place. He was a big man. I gaped at the size of his boots. He said he had a .303 rifle and was a dead shot, which made me think he would shoot us if we were bad. He ruled the roost and he made sure we knew it. I never had a problem with him.

What I did have a problem with, were the toilet cubicles with no doors! I was absolutely petrified. It must be an Australian thing. The meals were good and the dormitory was basic. The farm managers tried to teach boys who had no idea about farming how to milk cows. I was more interested in driving the tractor and digging up rocks to fix the road into the farm.

I stayed on the farm for quite a few weeks as the brainy kids got jobs first, and dopes like me were the last to go. Eventually, I was sent to a farm near Mooroopna, in eastern Victoria. It was a long journey – a train to Central station and then the steam train to Benalla. We arrived in the middle of the night, and I must have been half asleep, because even though I could hear them calling my name over the loudspeaker, it didn’t gel, and I didn’t get off at the station. When I realised that I’d missed my stop, I got off at the next station, which was Violet Town. It was the middle of the night and I didn’t know where I was. There was nothing I could do, so I waited at the station until sunrise, found a telephone box and phoned the BBM number on my travel papers. Someone in the head office answered, but they weren’t much help. I decided to use the last bit of money I had and called a taxi to take me the 30 kilometres back to Benalla. Fortunately, the family I was supposed to meet were at the station. I chalked this experience up to ‘adventure’ too.

I was working for a lovely farmer, Ian, and his wife and they taught me how to milk the cows. It was pretty simple stuff and after a month or so, they left me on my own to run the place. They were old – worn out – and wanted a holiday. Ian used to make and fix things for his dairy, and he introduced me to welding. I thought I’d practice one day and welded some bolts together – Ian went right off when he found out! I can still see the anger on his face now.

On Saturdays we’d go into Shepparton for a dance with a live band. I danced with lots of different women, but I noticed one young woman who wouldn’t let the boys put their arm around her too tightly.

After about three months on the farm, I’d saved nearly £25 and I told the owners that I wanted to go to Sydney. I was going to make it big in the big smoke! They said: ‘Steve – don’t go!’ Being young and in search of adventure, I ignored their advice and caught the train to Central.

I stayed in a hostel until the BBM helped me to find a room in a boarding house in Stanmore. They helped me to get a job at a service station run by a company called ‘Better Brakes’, where I worked with the mechanics earning just £6/week. I had to dip into my savings just to make ends meet. I couldn’t afford proper food, so I ate with the homeless people, which was traumatic. I moved into a derelict house in Stanmore so there was no rent to pay. But there was also no running water or electricity. I had to go to Central station to use the toilets and showered at work.

Left: Stephen, 1969

About this time, I got a letter from my girlfriend in London. When I left, we both thought that I’d only be away for two years, and she said she’d wait for me. The two years had passed, and she was writing to say that she couldn’t wait any longer. I was squatting in a house and eating with homeless people when her letter arrived. I didn’t think life could get much worse.

My luck turned around when I was in Mascot one day and walked past a scrap metal yard. I asked if there were any jobs going, and I was soon working at Sims Metal, recycling steel from steam trains. In my first week on the job, before I was paid, I had no money to buy food. When we had smoko, my fellow workers noticed this, so they all gave me something from their lunchboxes. These were migrants from the Middle East and men who’d served in World War II and didn’t know me from a bar of soap, but they were kind.

This job paid £25/week: a 400% increase on my mechanic’s wage. I saved to buy a motorbike and even though I had no experience and no license, I started driving it. I also moved into better accommodation in Abercrombie Street, Redfern.

After a couple of months, I left Sims Metal and got a job fixing elevators. I was working alongside a fitter welder as a tradesman’s assistant. My manager could see I had potential and suggested that I do a welding course at Technical College. I followed his advice and soon I was sent out to repair jobs with my own assistant. I bought a car and moved to a flat in Randwick. It was 1966 and I’d been in Australia for about three years. Life was good.

One day I was called into the office at work and I thought I’d be given my next job. Instead, the boss told me that there’d been a union meeting, and because I wasn’t fully qualified, he’d have to drop my pay. He couldn’t afford for his workers to go on strike, so he met their demands. I could either stay with reduced pay, or find be on my way.

I chose the latter, and ended up wandering around New South Wales, South Australia, Victoria and Queensland picking up work wherever I could. I worked in mines out west and on the Snowy Mountains scheme. I’d make some money, then come back and blow it all in Sydney. I knew it wasn’t a good way to live, with no plans for the future.

I decided to look for more permanent employment and applied for a job with the Abigano Construction group. I was offered a job on a Saturday afternoon that started on Monday morning in Broken Hill. I said I’d take it. When I asked my mate where Broken Hill was, he said I’d better jump in my car and start driving!

I was working on the railway line from Cockburn (on the South Australian border) to Broken Hill. It was the first time I’d been in the desert, and another mark on my adventure scorecard.

When the job at Broken Hill finished, I went back to Benalla to help build a dam. While I was there, I visited the dairy where I first worked when I immigrated to Australia in 1963. Ian and his wife were so pleased to see me, and were chuffed that I’d come back to visit them and say thank you.

I stayed in a hotel in Benalla for a while, until a friend offered me a room in the share-house he was leaving. I moved in and the landlady offered to introduce me to her friend. I agreed, and recognised her from the dances I went to in Shepparton eight years ago! Diane was the one who was cautious around the boys who had more on their minds than innocent dancing. We started going out, but when my work on the dam finished, I moved back to Sydney.

Below: Stephen and Diane Bull, 1971

Diane and I wrote to each other, and I suggested that she come to Sydney and we could go to the Gold Coast for a holiday. She agreed and we rented a cottage up there opposite the beach. I went for a swim one morning, and when I came back, Diane had made the bed, cooked breakfast for us, and put the washing on. I was amazed. I made an off-hand remark that we should get married. After our holiday, we returned to Sydney and Diane took the bus back to Shepparton. A couple of weeks later, I was staying in a hotel in Helensburgh for work and a parcel arrived. Inside it was a new shirt and a note from Diane saying that she’d made arrangements for our wedding and made a shirt for me to wear! I didn’t realise that she’d taken my passing comment as a marriage proposal!

We were married in Shepparton in 1971. We had the reception at Diane’s house – I really liked her parents. None of my family could come, but they sent telegrams. Fifty-three years later (in 2024) we are still married with two children and three grandchildren.

Below: Stephen at his daughter’s wedding, 2012

Above: Stephen, 2020

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