Ship name / Flight number: AIR BA936
Arrival date: 31/07/1970
Early in 1970, I saw an advertisement that would change my life. The ad, in The Lincolnshire Echo, was placed by the Big Brother Movement recruiting for young men to migrate to Australia and work on the land as jackeroos. At that time, I couldn’t see much of a future for me in England and, as I’d already considered agricultural college or joining the Royal Marines, this thought lit me up. When I mentioned the possibility of my going to Mum and Dad, they were both shocked but, as Dad said, they had always brought us up to stand on our own two feet and he would stand by that. Mum also agreed but was a bit more hesitant. I left in late July 1970 after having worked to raise some money to take with me.
Before I left for Australia, I read a few books to prepare myself as best I could for life ‘down under.’ Dad and I went off to Australia House for an interview and I had the compulsory medical; we had a great time together. Dad was really starting to prepare me, and himself, for what we both knew was imminent. We had several ‘man-to-man’ chats on what I would do should there be any problems, and what to do if I was ever in any danger in Australia. But I think that Dad’s secret desire to live in Australia one day had played a part. ‘Keep your eyes open and post me some local newspapers from time to time,’ Dad said. ‘One day, if I can convince your mother, we might all finish up out there.’ The second thing to my distinct advantage was that my dad had also left home at a very early age, and he knew that, although it would be tough, I could do it because he had done it himself. The Lincolnshire Echo also ran a story: ‘Steve is going it alone to Aussie’, and go I did! I was only sixteen years of age.
I didn’t want Mum and Dad at the airport with me, as I knew I would be upset. I asked them to say goodbye at Lincoln station from where I took the train to London. I was upset and thought about turning back all the way to London. But I told myself it was time to start doing what was going to become commonplace: ‘grit your teeth, blast through and don’t stop.’ When I arrived at the airport, I had to wait at a meeting place and be briefed by the representatives of the Big Brother Movement and also meet the other three lads who made up the rest of the party. As I was waiting at the meeting point a lady approached me and asked if I was going to Australia with the Big Brother Movement. Thinking that she was a representative, I replied that I was. She then proceeded to try to talk me out of going, saying all sorts of terrible things. ‘You will be exploited and molested and die,’ she said, and the list continued to grow. It was my first challenge within hours of leaving home. I was on the verge of ‘doing the bolt’ when the BBM representatives turned up. I can’t honestly say that after that experience I was feeling full of confidence about Australia. Back home Mum and Dad were a mess; Dad was very upset, grieving. ‘He just shut himself away and cried for two days’, Mum said.
As I sat in my seat on this plane taking me to my new ‘home’, I will never forget the music that was playing – ‘The Long and Winding Road,’ by Paul McCartney. I was scared but full of hope and, though I knew it would be hard, I also knew I had made the right decision. ‘Hard,’ has never been a reason not to do anything; hard is ok. I was on this journey for better or worse and wondered where this long and winding road was leading, and whom would I meet along the way? Only God knew and only time would tell.
Frank Mansell, then Director of BBM in Australia, met us at Sydney Airport and we were taken to the BBM Hostel at Strathfield where we met the manager, Mr Hickey. He greeted us by referring to ‘you grotty bunch of pommy bastards’; clearly he had had some discipline problems with previous boys being unclean, unkempt and stinking. He ordered us to shower daily (no problem) and then, turning to me, asked if I was missing my mummy and daddy. He roared laughing and said that I looked as though I was about to burst into tears. That was exactly how I felt after all that had happened in the past seventy-two hours; I was feeling as though I had been thrown in the fire and as though all hell had come against me. But, as always, God was good. The boys and I went out during those two days I stayed at the hostel – into Sydney and over the Harbour Bridge and on a ferry to Manly for lunch. It was then I realised how expensive Sydney was. I had eighty dollars in my pocket, and I was deeply worried that I would run out of money. Now, fifty three years later, when I walk past that café, I am reminded of that day.
After two days at the BBM hostel, I was sent to Calmsley Hill, their training farm on Cowpasture Road, Bossley Park (now Calmsley Hill City Farm). Mr Gavins, the manager, was a kind man who obviously felt sorry for me. His wife was also very kind and motherly and showed a genuine concern for the boys and their welfare and did most of the cooking. The food was good. Our daily routine was to rise around 4:00am to milk the cows and take in the amazing view from the dairy; we could just see the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Then, during the day, general farm duties included feeding the stock, fixing fences and so on. The training at the farm was to make sure that we were at least some use to the ‘cockies’ who would employ each of us. Mr Gavins had a cockatoo in a cage near the dining room. The Little Brothers had obviously had much fun over many years teaching the bird rude words as well as teasing it, for whenever we approached its cage it would shriek loudly and hurl abuse at us. Gavins also had a tricky way of disciplining the boys. Rumour had it that he had trained his ‘mean and motherless’ cattle dog to sneak up on any boys as they were misbehaving and nip them on the heel. His secret signal would cause the dog to respond and most of the boys were terrified of it so they behaved themselves, during the day anyway. The cockatoo had also learned verbatim all the calls and whistles that the manager used for the cattle dog. The cockatoo would wait until the dog was asleep under the peppercorn tree then would call out using the manager’s whistle; up would jump the dog, totally confused and run around barking as the cockatoo shrieked with delight.
One day, while exploring the 200-acre property we found the very dilapidated gravestone of a Little Brother on top of the hill. He had died in a tractor accident within a couple of weeks of arriving. I wondered how awful it would be to die on your own so far from home. We cleared the grass around his grave and left, all feeling sad and perhaps a bit scared. I stayed at Bossley Park for about four weeks before being offered two jobs: at a piggery in Campbelltown and on a mixed farm at Baldry near Parkes. I took the job on the mixed farm where they grew wheat and had sheep, pigs, a commercial herd of Herefords and a Poll Hereford stud. Baldry was 400 kilometres from Sydney in Central Western NSW, and I was very excited to start my job. It was exciting to be travelling such (what seemed to me) vast distances in Australia. I was most surprised by the Australian bush because I’d always imagined it as more desert than anything. The bush and gum trees and the smell of eucalyptus were new to me but have become something I will always love. On the day I was to leave, Mr Gavins dropped me at the station. We exchanged a firm handshake and after a kind word from him, ticket in hand, I was bound for my new job, although I would have to stay overnight at the YMCA near Central Station in Sydney. The following day I was going to what I thought was ‘The Parkes’. The train trip seemed to take forever; we left at 4:00pm on the ‘red rattler’ and arrived there about 3:00pm the next day. The journey through the Blue Mountains’ magnificent scenery had been slow but pleasant. That night, though, I didn’t sleep very well, just dozed and at about 7:00am one of the kindly guards woke me with a cup of tea and a couple of scotch finger biscuits. ‘I put the jug on, mate, thought you could do with a cuppa.’ I remember thinking this was a true Australian, the type I had read about – tough but kind. As we chatted, he asked why I was on the train. I told him I was a Little Brother and was going to work as a jackaroo near ‘The Parkes’. He roared laughing. ‘It’s called Parkes’, he said as he scuffed my hair. ‘Bloody Poms. You’re going to go just fine, mate,’ he said. ‘Stop worrying.’ I sat once more and contemplated my future. What would the people be like? What would my future be? It had only been five weeks since I had left home, but it felt like an age. Once more I contemplated where this long and winding road would lead, and I hoped that I would be travelling somewhat faster than this train.
Lance Barber, my new boss, was a cocky. When he came to pick me up at the station, he said he’d had trouble finding me because I looked younger than the school kids getting off the train. Lance was of small stature but a ball of muscle. His face was brown and weathered and his hair grey, on top of which sat proudly his Akubra hat. Lance’s hands were calloused and twisted from hard work and arthritis. As he slid his hand in mine to exchange a handshake, my hand was almost crushed as his callouses bit into the very soft skin of my white pommie hand.
Lance took me home to Fairy Mount which was located on the Parkes-Wellington Road about fifty kilometres from town. It consisted of two holdings, the other being Craig End in the Coobang Shire. The farm bordered the famous Parkes radio telescope, and I was very excited about that. I had seen the moon landing on television the previous year and remembered the Parkes radio telescope being mentioned. Now, here I was. And my boss owned the land next door. I thought Dad would be very impressed.
Within hours of my arrival the Barber family was questioning me about my family. ‘Are you an orphan? Why did your parents let you go to Australia alone? Didn’t they love you?’ It was clear, they just didn’t understand; it was out of the realm of their experiences. The concept of a young boy of sixteen travelling around the world on his own with his parent’s consent, trust and support, was very foreign to people who hadn’t travelled beyond Sydney. The questions put me on the defensive though and I felt uncomfortable answering and found myself continually defending my parents, so finally I avoided answering.
I had worked for Lance for just over three years when one day I received a telegram that was to change my life. It was from Mum and Dad and read, ‘Arriving RHMS Ellinis 29/1/74.’ Dad had come out of the RAF and had decided to pay his family’s fare and migrate to Australia for good, true to his word. They were already on the boat. I had remembered what he said when we travelled to London to visit Australia House: ‘If I can talk your mother round, we might all come out.’ The whole family was coming, even Grandad. I couldn’t believe it. I was just so excited, and it caught me completely by surprise. Mum and Dad had written to me often but there was never a hint of what they had planned to do.
Over the years, life in Baldry with the Barbers proved very challenging. I had the courage to leave home at sixteen. I had come to Australia on my own. Yet I had not before had the courage to leave Fairy Mount. Somehow, from when I started working there, my confidence just got lower and lower. I was angry with myself for allowing this to develop and knew that it was my duty to protect myself.
The events over the three and a half years had affected me more than I realised. I had lost all my confidence. I had been beaten up many times, continually humiliated and told how useless I was. I was told that I couldn’t do anything right. And, at that time, I sort of believed it. In 1974, I finally gained the courage to leave Fairy Mount and I moved to Sydney. One day I saw a job advertised at the Roche Research Institute of Marine Pharmacology at Dee Why in the animal house, breeding rats, mice, guinea pigs and rabbits. I figured I must have a bit of a chance as I did have eight years’ experience with animals. I was very nervous. There were 140 applicants for the position, but I did my best. It was very disappointing to get the letter saying my application was unsuccessful. But, to my surprise, within two weeks of receiving the first, I received another letter offering me the position. The initial candidate didn’t like the position and had applied for a transfer, all within a week of working there. I accepted and began a new career.
I worked at Roche for nearly a year and enjoyed the work and learnt a great deal about managing a laboratory. I was happy at the lab but did have some moral and ethical questions about the type of research and compounds they were testing. I felt uneasy about being a part of it and decided to start looking for employment in medical research. A position advertised in The Sydney Morning Herald for an animal technician at St Vincent’s Hospital, the Garvan Institute of Medical Research, caught my eye. The Garvan conducted medical research in endocrinology and, though I thought the likelihood of success was slim, I needed the interview experience. Dad was a good coach in those things and when I talked to him about how awkward and self-conscious, I felt all the time, he remarked that the truth was that people weren’t looking at you. Most people were too busy looking at themselves and what affected them! Despite there being 120 applicants for the job, after three interviews, I got it!
During my time at the Garvan Institute, I met my wife Susie, who worked next door at St Vincent’s hospital in the microbiology department. Our first date was the 17th of April 1978, and we got engaged in June 1978, six weeks later. In 1992, our one and only child was born, and, at the time of writing, we have just celebrated our 44th wedding anniversary.
Back in 1986, I had decided it was time to move on from the Garvan Institute, but I had no idea what I would do. John, my brother, was working for a company called Microwave Technology and, along with the engineer George Gissing, was developing a microwave link. The company was subsidising this work by designing and manufacturing a range of amplifiers that were being sold to a relatively small customer base. Eventually, a larger company – Pacific Communications – bought out Microwave Technology and though they offered John a job, they said they would not continue with the amplifiers. John saw this as an opportunity to start a business and he gave me a call.
So, in 1986, we started Benbro Electronics (short for Bennett Brothers). John and I decided that we wanted Benbro to be a corporately and socially responsible company that would make a positive contribution to society. John and I first started to employ people with a disability because we did what we felt needed to be done in our own backyard. Then, we made a decision – twenty five percent of the available jobs at Benbro would be reserved for people with a disability. It was a business and policy decision and was partly motivated by the journey of our Dad who for years, just needed a ‘fair go’ as a result of his own disability. Our intention wasn’t to be known Australia wide, nor worldwide, for our employment policies, but when I consider the recognition that we and Benbro have received, I only have one thing to ask, ‘How do you get an award for doing something we should all be doing anyway – caring about people?’ It seems to me that getting an award for this is the same as getting an award for paying your tax, or observing the speed limit; it is something we should all do, because it’s right… although it’s not always convenient. As with everything that we are passionate or care about, there is a price.
In 1996, we were nominated for the ‘Prime Minister’s Employer of the Year Award’. We were invited to the Awards Dinner at Parliament House in Canberra and we were informed that Benbro had won the Small Business Award for NSW. We were ecstatic and very surprised and we went up to collect our award. After lunch, the National Awards were announced. John and I were very relaxed and very happy to have won the State award and neither of us thinking that we could possibly win the National Award. Finally, it came time to announce the National Award in the Small Business Category. Ian Leslie handed over the envelope, ‘… and the winner is… Benbro Electronics.’ It took about ten seconds for what he had just said to sink in. John and I looked at each other in total disbelief.
Benbro would go on to win both the State and National awards again in 2003 and 2006, the state award in 2005, the Pre-eminent award in 2006, and were inducted into the Prime Minister’s Hall of Fame. In 2007 we were also awarded the ACCI/BCA National Work and Family Award (Small business) and in 2011, the National Safer Communities Award.
In 1998, John and I, along with Suzzanne Colbert and John Little, formed Employers Making a Difference to represent the employers’ interests in the employment of people with a disability. We articulated our vision, to: ‘Set about leading the change to a positive employment environment for people with a disability, by changing the perceptions of employers and encouraging their good corporate citizenship.’ The organization, which is now known as the Australian Network on Disability, which, at the time of writing, has 379 member companies, and pioneers the award-winning ‘Stepping Into’ internship program which ‘breaks down outdated stereotypes and misconceptions about the capabilities of people with disability by connecting our members with talented university students with disability in paid internships’. https://www.and.org.au/about-us/history/ and https://and.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/AND-Annual-Report-insert-FA-no-ligs-accessible.pdf
In March 2001, I checked the mail and to my great surprise and thrill there was a letter from the Governor General, Sir William Deane, saying that I was being considered for an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) for services to the community through Employers Making a Difference (EMAD). I was absolutely overwhelmed at being considered for such an honour, and my brother John was also awarded one 6 years later.
The investiture was held at Government House in September and the Governor of NSW, Marie Bashir, presented the medals – including my OAM – and what a day it was! As I was seated alone waiting to be presented with the medal, I thought back to when I was sitting on the plane as a very frightened sixteen-year-old, a Little Brother, on my way to Australia to start a new life down under, listening to the ‘Long and Winding Road’ and wondering where that road would lead. Here I was about to be presented with the ‘Order of Australia.’ It was a very proud moment of my life as I contemplated the many battles I had fought from the moment I had stepped onto the plane, lonely and homesick. I thought of the times I had nearly given up and even considered becoming a recluse. I thought of the times at Lance’s where I was told I would never amount to anything and I was useless. I thought of the fight to recover from the treatment I had received that had been my life at that time, the broken promises, the abuse and the disappointments. I recalled the fight we had to start Benbro and keep it alive… and the disappointment of losing our dad. There was also the struggle to have our daughter and the fight we had in setting up Employers Making a Difference. Yes, this was a victory that I felt should be jointly shared. I also remembered what my dad always said as he proudly introduced me to others, ‘He dragged himself up by his bootstraps… ’ and that was the truth. Struggles have always been so much a part of my life and I am mindful that many people also have struggles and yet are not acknowledged in such a way. All the experiences either good or challenging have made me a better person. I am still so grateful for the opportunity.
In 2012, I published my autobiography entitled, ‘More than a Conqueror’. “This is a story of courage, fortitude and hope. It is a story of a young man, little more than a boy, who, when presented with an opportunity to travel to the other side of the world to start a new life, thought, ‘Why not?’ Without planning it, he became the forward scout for the rest of his family who followed him to Australia some three and a half years later.”–Back cover of his book More than a conqueror / Steven P. Bennett | National Library of Australia (nla.gov.au)
If you want to obtain a copy of the book, please contact Steven
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