Ship name / Flight number: Strathnaver
Arrival date: 13/03/1955
I was born 15 months before the start of World War II and grew up in the small, working-class village of Stalybridge in the city of Salford. We lived in a stone cottage in the hills behind Manchester. One of my earliest memories is of the sky lit up at night because the houses were burning after being bombed by the Germans. One night, the bombing was so bad that Mum decided we would go to a neighbour’s place. As we were hurrying there, hugging the shadows, a bomber flew low and fired, and I remember the bullets ricochet off the cobblestones. It was a scary time to be a child.
My Dad was a leather-man – he made seats for the Lancaster bombers during the war. Even though he didn’t see any active service, he was unsettled after the war and my parents decided to move to the south of England for his health. We tried living in London, Cornwall, Brighton, Blackpool and the Isle of Man but eventually moved back to Manchester.
All that moving around made it hard for me to learn at school. I wasn’t a good scholar, but I did excel at athletics. I represented the City of Salford in the half mile race and the long jump and won both by a large margin. I went on to represent the district of Lancashire in those two events. At one school, I had a brilliant history and geography teacher and that ignited my interest in Australia.
The employment options for working class boys from Lancashire in the 1950s were focused on the coal mines and factories. I tried working in the mines but, being tall, I wasn’t suited to the cramped, low passages. I applied to do an accountancy traineeship and while walking home from the interview, I passed an employment office and saw a poster with a boy on horseback, beckoning young men to join him in sunny Australia. On a whim, I went inside and applied to go to Australia with the Big Brother Movement.
A couple of weeks later, I received two letters on the same day. One was from the accountancy firm, offering me the traineeship, which was working 3 days/week in the office and 2 days/week at Manchester University studying accountancy. I would be the first person in my family to go to university. The other letter was from the BBM offering me a job in Australia. I had to make a big decision, particularly since I was an only child. I chose adventure over accountancy and sailed for Australia on the P&O RMS Strathnaver on 8 February 1955. I was 16 years and 9 months old. My parents came to see my off at St Pancras station in London.
* I am at the back on the right with light coloured hat
On the boat, I met 17 other young men who were also ‘Little Brothers’ and Kevin Barrington who was our leader. When we arrived in Sydney on 13 March 1955, we went to the training farm in Cabramatta and then I was sent to work on a large sheep property in the Riverina. I caught the train to Finley dressed in my best clothes, which was a suit and tie in those days. The farm owner picked me up at the train station and I travelled in the back of a ute to their property. When I arrived, I was put straight to work. I was given a large knife and told to kill a lamb so we could have roast for dinner. I had never killed or gutted an animal before. It was a shocking start to my new career. After seeing the animal’s guts spill out, I couldn’t eat dinner that night.
My sleeping quarters were an old shack with broken windows and no electricity. It was freezing cold. The horses were in a shed next to my shack and their noises kept me awake at night – it was bloody awful. It made me feel like one of the farm animals. I worked 7 days/week and decided to leave after four months. To make it worse, the owner tried to trick me out of £100 in my final pay.
I didn’t have a ‘Big Brother’ looking out for me. By the 1950s, the BBM had more Little Brothers than they could match with Big Brothers, so they tried a new approach with one Big Brother appointed as a welfare officer for a district. The problem was, that Big Brother was often a local bank manager or prominent person who did business with the farm owners and people who employed Little Brothers. There was a clear conflict of interest. It wasn’t good for the business interests of the Big Brother to criticise his clients for not looking after the Little Brothers properly.
After I left the sheep station, I went back to Sydney and stayed in the BBM hostel in Homebush for a few days. I wanted to get a good job as I was saving money to bring my Mum and Dad out to Australia. At the hostel, I met Peter, who had just arrived from Yorkshire. Traditionally, people from Yorkshire and Lancashire do not get along, but Peter and I became good friends. One of the Little Brothers at the hostel said there was plenty of work cutting cane in far north Queensland, so Peter and I decided to go. I sold my good suit to pay for the train fare. Little did we know, that we would be arriving in Cairns at the end of the cane harvesting season! Luckily, we found other work out past Mareeba on the Atherton Tablelands. With an axe and a saw, we were told to fell trees and clear a path for a pipeline to the dam the government was building at Tinaroo. It was hot, heavy work in humid weather that I had never experienced. We didn’t have to work on the weekends, so we would go into Cairns for some fun. There was no accommodation, but we could sleep on the verandas of the pubs.
After that job finished, I caught a train to Mt Isa, which is 1000 km south-west of Cairns. I had a job interview with one of the mine managers, and when we heard each other’s Lancashire accents, we realised that we had worked in the same mine in Manchester! He offered me a job, even though I didn’t have any qualifications or proper experience. This was a lucky break and I stayed in Mt Isa for two years earning good money.
Accommodation was still scarce, so I often slept in a swag in the dry bed of the Leichhardt River. Mt Isa had a large Indigenous population, and there was a family who lived further up the river bank from me. They looked out for me. When I was bitten by a snake, they helped me get to the hospital for treatment. Eventually, I was offered a bed in the barracks for mine workers. I was grateful for this, as the winter nights out west can be very cold.
After two years, I’d saved enough money to pay for my parent’s passage. I quit my job and caught the train to Sydney to meet them. That trip took five to six days and I arrived at Central Station looking dishevelled. I was approached by two police officers who thought I was a vagrant. They asked me if I was homeless, which, technically, I was, since I didn’t have an address. They didn’t believe me when I said I had plenty of money in the bank and called me a ‘smart arse Pommy bastard’. I narrowly escaped being arrested by saying that I’d go to the People’s Palace in Pitt Street, which was run by the Salvation Army.
It was wonderful to see my parents again and we rented an apartment at Bondi Beach. I was surprised by how much my mother had aged in the past couple of years. She was unsteady on her feet and one day she slipped and fell in the bathroom. She hit her head and we found her lying on the floor, unconscious. We called an ambulance and they took her to the Prince Henry Hospital at Little Bay. She was recovering, but the nurses left the windows open on the ward at night time to let in the fresh sea breezes and she caught pneumonia and died. My parents had only been in Australia for two months. Mum is buried in the big cemetery at Matraville, over-looking the water.
My Dad was distraught, so we bought an old van and headed north to Brisbane. We picked up casual work wherever we could, mostly picking fruit and vegetables. We travelled through the Riverina picking stone fruit and grapes and stayed for a time at Red Cliffs, near Mildura. Then it was on to Adelaide and Melbourne. About this time, my father decided that he wanted to go back to Sydney, to be close to where his wife was buried. He found a small apartment near Botany Bay and stayed there for the rest of his life. He died in 1964 and is buried close to Mum.
I stayed in Melbourne and went to see the personnel manager at the Myer Emporium. After doing a one-hour exam, I was given a job in the credit department, contacting people to pay their accounts. It was a far cry from killing sheep, felling trees or picking fruit. When I was 16 years old, I choose Australia over accountancy. By the time I was 21, I found myself working in an office in the city as a bookkeeper!
Jack Johnston, my manager at Myer, was a keen table-tennis player. I learnt to play and got better and better. We played as a doubles team in the Victorian Open and made it to the finals. We were thrashed. Through table-tennis, I met a young woman who was also deft with the bat. I liked Loraine and told her that there was no need for her to feel sorry for us losing the finals if she would marry me! We courted for a while and married 18 months later. We have four children, ten grandchildren, and on 1 December 2022 we celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary.
In 1962, the same year we were married, I took up athletics again. I was competing against Ron Clark, the famous Australian middle-distance runner who set 17 world records.
In 1973 I got a job as General Manager of a major furniture and electrical goods retailer
Once I had enough capital, I decided to start my own small business. Even though I had no experience in the recruitment industry, I knew how to spot a gap in the market and a business opportunity. In the 1979 I established a recruitment company called Australia Wide Personnel, which specialised in recruiting people to engineering positions. We started in a small office in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs with Loraine doing the typing. I ran the company for 35 years and retired on my 84th birthday. My eldest son, who’s also called Stephen, took over as managing director. The company now employs 500 people with offices in Melbourne and Sydney. I am still a board member and a major shareholder.
In the past three years, I’ve battled with cancer of the mouth, throat and prostate; which has been tough. But there’s an old saying that ‘smooth seas don’t make good sailors.’ I’ve certainly had some ‘rough weather’ in my life but you give it your best shot. I do wonder if my Mum might have lived longer, if my parents had not come out to Australia, but we couldn’t have predicted that.
I feel indebted to the BBM. I’ve met some former Little Brothers at reunions and persuaded the CEO of the BBM to hold reunions in the Gold Coast, Riverina district and Melbourne.
I’ve had a wonderful life and wouldn’t change a thing.
Ron Clark: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ron_Clarke
Australia Wide Personnel: https://www.australiawide.com.au/about/Contact Little Brother