|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: November 27, 1998
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Why do you think it is that the runners and the swimmers and so on at the Olympics seem to get a lot more publicity than the equestrians?
That's a point. It's rather funny isn't it, they haven't because - well I suppose the swimmers, take the swimmers, the swimmers have done well, nearly every Games our swimmers have done well. When you think of Dawn Fraser and a few others. And naturally enough the ones that are getting gold medals, they do well. It wasn't until after Rome - it wasn't after Rome - but then as you say, why? Now even after Rome, after we won the gold, two gold in Rome - oh well I suppose each one should have got a gold, so that would have been four gold medals in Rome, should have been, plus the silver medal - we should have, we should have had a lot of publicity. And I think the authorities in Australia were to blame over that, because they didn't make enough of it. Apart from me having that fall and getting out of hospital, there was damn little written up about what we did, was there, if you think back over it. And Australia should have made something out of that coming up to the next Games. It's something that - I suppose if you go on the Continent, and you go to England, television, television made the equestrian side of the thing, because they were televised a lot there, and if you walked down any street in England, anybody on the street could tell you what horse was jumping and what was the name of the rider. Because they were televised and people saw it on television. But not Australia. Now television here in Australia just weren't about to - it was damn hard to get television to take anything, even on the Melbourne or the Sydney show that was mixed up with the horses.
And yet Australians have always loved horses and had a lot to do with them, haven't they?
Yes, they have. Well even today, now we've won two - twice now running, we've won the three-day event at the Olympic Games. And you know, there's not a big thing about it now. And they're not getting the big money, they're not getting the big money for the 2000 Olympics, you know, the equestrians. But I see in the paper that the women water polo girls, they're getting about the top money. Now a lot of them - somewhere around the two million allotted to them. Now they haven't done anything yet. This will be their first - this will be their first run at the Olympic Games. And the Australians are getting hardly anything for it, the equestrians.
Of all the different sports that get played at the Olympics and the competitors that go, as you've pointed out the equestrians need the most complicated arrangements. Could you just describe simply for us what actually was involved in transporting and dealing with the horses during all the Olympics?
As an amateur, you know, my big cost was finding the horse, buying the horse, preparing that horse, the feed, the shoeing, and the hours I put in in getting that horse ready to compete. And we had to compete and we had to be winning or we had to be close up to winning first, second or third, to be even looked at in the equestrian sport. But for the transport, that was paid for by the AOF, that wasn't a cost to the competitor. So we can't say well it cost us a fortune to get to the damn Games, because the transport there was paid for. That wasn't a cost for us. But then after the Games - see I spent months with these damn horses quarantining. Somebody had to be with them. If I hadn't been with them they had to pay somebody to be with those horses when they went to England for their six months. And you see Mavis and I, we argue the point and you've heard us, of course, but we get on pretty well apart from our bickering and that, we're still here after 50 years. And we will still argue the point, because we don't always see what she... I suppose I think she's hard to get on with at times, and she reckons I'm a fair bugger to get on with I suppose. But there you go, see we're still here.
Now quarantining the horses, the horses had to be quarantined before they came back to Australia for six months, did you say? Could you tell me about that?
Yes, yes. It was six months. Now when the Games finished, wherever you were, well say take Tokyo, we finished at Tokyo. So you had to find a way of getting those horses to England to quarantine, because that's where they had to go for their six months before they can return to Australia. That was our quarantine regulations. So in Tokyo we had a cargo boat going to England that accepted taking us. And on that boat we had the Australian horses and the New Zealand horses, and there was eleven horses altogether. Now so you had to have the fodder, the fodder on that boat to last - I forget exactly what time it was, because we went through Panama that time, and they unloaded cargo just after we went through Panama. So I suppose it took a month from when we left Yokohama. And then on the boats, each side, the aft hatches, they have stalls for the horses. And I said to the Japanese "I would like to take these horses out and walk them you know, instead of them standing in those boxes for all that time, I will walk them in the morning and I'll walk them in the afternoon, approximately a mile each time. Can you put something on the decks so these horses can walk on the deck without slipping?" So they did, they put those, the mats they use for the walls of their houses and that, made out of some strong bamboo stuff. I don't know whether it's bamboo or a very strong grass. But it was a thickness of about two or three inches this stuff, and they lay this all round the deck, right aft around, which gave me a good long walk for the horses. So I took them out of the boxes, and you know, it was created something for the Japanese because if you run into heavy seas, they're liable to come over the aft part of the boat and wash your boxes off. So they've got to be strapped down to the deck, they've got to be wired down to the deck so they can't move. Now the Japanese very smartly put a guy wire high up and then over the top of that and strapped their boxes down. So I could walk the horses out underneath. And this we did to England, and of course, walking your horses about like that, those horses were alright to ride them when we arrived there. Not hard, but we could ride them straightaway. Well we spent nearly nine months that time, because we competed on the horses, which you can do in England or Ireland. But if you went across to France, 22 mile, you had to return and do another six months in England. That's how it was. So we competed there pretty successfully in eventing and games. Yeah.
Are the quarantine laws for Australia still as severe as that? Do you still have to do that?
No, they're not. No.
Why has it changed?
I think the - they - I think they've found out, if you've got a very cold country, say they've got snow and ice in America, you could fly straight from America in a particular type of the year when there's ice and snow about, very cold, fly straight into Australia and spend about three or four weeks in Australia quarantine, it'd be okay. Now they did that, I think they did that when we had the world championships in Gawler, South Australia there a few years ago. And if you - they're flying now - they put about 80 horses or more on a jumbo and fly straight from England to here, but they spend a month under veterinary supervision in England before they fly. Then they fly and when they arrive here they got to do another three weeks here in quarantine before they come out amongst the other horses. Which they've done with their English horses that raced in the Melbourne Cup.
Can I ask you now about your life as a dairy farmer on this property. When you came here, how big was the property?
The acreage was 180 acres. And it had a fence around it, right around that 180 acres. Not quite, not quite, no. I was wrong in saying that. There was about 140 acres that had it around it. And that area had been leased by an old chap here named Kerr. He'd leased it for 40-odd years, just by word of mouth, no written documents, with the McKinnon people that owned Meridi Yallock, the big station. And we set to then and fenced this. But they took in a bit more of Meridi Yallock to make up the 180 acres. So that was one fence, one old fence had to be pulled down, which I pulled down, and then I had to fence the rest into the paddocks I required.
And when you had the paddocks you required, did you - were you able to make a good living for your family out of that acreage?
Yes, yes, we did. We did it pretty hard for a start. Although the government, the government were pretty good to us soldier settlers. They did help us for the first 12 months or more. And they did supply us with posts and that that they put on our debt, they put on our debt. But they did find those posts. Well they did for me, they did for me, because I was a bit late coming onto this property and others that were already on Meridi Yallock, the settlement, they'd gone out and found their own, they'd split their own posts in a forest not terribly far from here. And they had got them and of course that didn't go on their debt. They found their own posts.
Was the dairy industry doing well in Victoria at the time? Was it a good time to be a dairy farmer?
Yes. Yes. I - things have moved on from those times, but you see living has also moved on, much more expensive now. A pound, we were still in pounds, shillings and pence then, and a pound went much further then. A pound goes - well the equivalent to a pound doesn't go anywhere much now, does it? But we had to, for a start we had to build our dairy, we had to build our dairy. They helped us, they helped us in finding the material, but we had to do it. We had to build the damn thing and get it going. It was a bit different in lots of ways in settlements. In some of Meridi Yallock, the early parts of this place, the houses were built, and the sheds or dairies, were all there before they put the settlers on the things. And then there were some 45 of us on this side of the property. We set to and built our own dairies, and they eventually put the house up. Now we were here some time living in a garage that we built ourselves before this establishment was built.
And you gradually built up your acreage, did you, over the years? You did well enough to be able to expand?
I was - a neighbour of mine just across the way, used to watch me and I suppose he thought "He's not a bad working bloke, Bill Roycroft". Never ever came and did anything for me, as far as helping to fence or do anything like that, but he must have been watching me, because he said to me one time, "Bill you're too small, you know, you're too small". I said "I know I'm too damn small. I can't even afford to wear a hat". But he said "What I want to talk about, if you see some land that would suit you, let me know and I'll look at it and if I think it's okay, I'll stand you at the bank". You know, that was really something, because I did then look about, because we could do with some more, somewhere to put our young stock and I found a place where Barry is now, and I said to this chap - he's dead now the chap that did this for me - I took him and showed it. He said, "Bill, don't miss it, this is good land. I drove over this country in the middle of winter and bought sheep. It's a great piece of country. Buy it". So I did. He stood me at the bank, and he stood me for some years, you know, just my guarantee, but once that happened that let me put my young stock out there and that was a great help. And from that we billowed on and I bought other places.
And you were able to do that as you gradually built up from the dairy, from the dairy?
From the dairy yes.
Now what happened when you were away for so much? I mean it wasn't just going away to the Olympics, it was all the work and time that was taken up with developing the horses and doing that, having that interest. What happened to the dairy? I mean even when Mavis came with you sometimes overseas, what happened to the dairy?
That's where the Rantles came in. The people that still walk in when we go away. But...
People by the name of Rantles, they live about three mile away from here now. They - we just rang them up and say "Look, we're going for a few days. Can you look after the place?" That's ok. They're honest people, they do the - I think when I went away once and they - all the whole family came into the house, because they were moving from one establishment to - because they'd finished their contract and had nowhere to go and it suited them, it suited us and they'd come into the house.
And so when you were away they moved in and effectively managed the dairy for you?
Once, they did, yes once. But I sort of got away from...
I was asking really about your financial arrangements you know, being able to keep on with the horses. Was the dairy the basis of your financial success or was there something else?
Well, there was - I wanted to go on about how you got and what did you do. While we were building up, getting ready for the Games, we had to milk the cows. Now that was, that was five o'clock in the morning, and the boys were still going to school at this early stage, you know. So it was five o'clock in the morning, milk those cows then work the horses. And you would do that again in the afternoon, and by the time you worked your horse again in the afternoon, milked your cows, we were coming in for dinner of a night-time somewhere around the nine o'clock, you know, through summer-time. So when you think back over it, as I drove up that road yesterday, up the hill, I used to do about seven mile of a morning with the horses. And that was up and down the - it was always on the road because I used to disk it up and I had the distance, if I tried to do it in a paddock, it was a bit difficult, because the paddocks were small, you didn't get the distance. I did it on the road and through the summer I kept it disked up so it didn't affect the horses' legs. They were always on good going, it was soft on their legs. And now I think you - that was a start of what you asked me, then you went a bit further and asked me something.
About the way you managed financially.
Ah, yes, yes. Well, Mavis took over the first time, then she got one of the boys to look after the place while she came over for Rome. I think Henry Rantle, the bloke I was talking about, used to come in and do anything that was too much for the young fellas. And as the years went by, if one of the sons wasn't in the team, he did the job on the property, and then there was the one time that the whole family - I think that was Mexico, 19, that was 1968 - Mavis came and Wayne was with me, Clarke, the youngest one stayed with the neighbour over there, and Barry stayed here with the family of Rantles when they moved into the house. And Mavis went through the whole thing with me. Then on to England and stayed a lot of the time that we were quarantining the horses. We seemed to be able to work it out reasonably well.
The reason I was asking that question about how you managed financially, is that you tend to associate horses and owning horses with the very rich grazier types, and I was just really wondering whether the dairy industry was so good at that time that you really did have plenty of spare money, or whether it was always a struggle?
Oh, it was. You see, I was a good enough horseman to buy these horses off the racetrack, wayward horses that bucked a bit, or they wouldn't, couldn't get them to go to the barriers. And you know, some of those were damn good horses, but they were a bit wayward.
So they were cheap.
Yes, that's how I was able to get these horses. I told you about this horse that eventually went to Canada. But he was a dog of a horse when I first got on him, but finished up - he was eventually sold to a girl for dressage, that horse, you know.
Did you ever race horses?
Yes, we did. Yes. Not a great lot, we didn't a great lot. But mainly steeplechase. We did race Stanaswa. Stanaswa won 24 races. But I bought that horse as - he was a yearling, bought in - Wright Stevens was where they used to sell them in Melbourne, all these yearlings. And I bought him on his breeding and waited 'til he was two year old, broke him in and got him ready for racing. And he was called Stanaswa this horse, because as a two year old I'd broken him in and I was riding him down the road, the road down below there that's called Roycroft's Road, and I met one of the settlers on the road, and I said, he said to me "What are you going to do with this horse?" And I said "He's a two year old, I'll wait a while". "Oh", he said "Wait a while, stanaswa". So I called him Stanaswa. And you know this fellow said, "Stanaswa, that's Egyptian". He was a returned soldier from the Middle East, and wait a while is stanaswa in Egyptian. So the horse was called Stanaswa. And Stanaswa's up on the wall there in the photo, and he was a brilliant horse. Stanaswa.
Have you ever made any money from horses, in any way? I mean real money.
No, I don't suppose, no. No, I haven't made any. I was, I suppose I could have you know, because I think Wayne my son has probably made quite a bit of money. I had the ability, I had the ability to make them, I had one called The Liberator. He was by Stanaswa, beautiful moving horse, and I got him right up to practically doing top dressage. You know, he'd canter a pirouette on the spot. He would do passage and piaffe. And I sold him off, well Mavis sold him off while I was away in England. And we got 15,000 for that horse you know, because 15,000 was a lot of money for us. But the chap that bought him from us for 15,000 sold him for 100,000, that same horse. And if I'd have kept that horse and ridden him, I probably could have gone to another two or three Olympic Games. Because an old man can ride dressage at a big age, you know. Now I don't know whether that was - whether I answered that question correctly.
Well I suppose I was wondering really, whether or not you were dependent on the cows really for your money, or whether you ever really made any money at all out of the horses.
No, no, The Liberator would be the only horse that we did make a bit of money out of. But 15,000, I don't even know where that 15,000 went. I suppose it went on machinery or some damn thing, you know. Because to buy equipment to run the farm is pretty damn expensive. And of course we had a truck to cart horses in, or cattle in, so 15,000 didn't go very far. So you couldn't say I made big money out of horses.
Have you liked being a dairy farmer?
No, not particularly, not particularly. You couldn't say dairy farming's hard. It isn't hard. I suppose as we did it, it was a pretty good exercise, because in the old bales we milked in, you know, you bobbed up and down under a cow, down to put the machines on, up, you know, to get up. You did a lot of getting up and down. Today the cows are in these bales, I call them rotarians, because a lot of them have got these rotary bales, the cow goes around and around and they're elevated above you. You don't have to stoop down to put the things on them. But I didn't like it, I didn't like it because you had to be there, you know, you had to be there night and morning or you get somebody else to do it. See I was managing, before I came here I was managing a sheep property. And on that sheep property, it didn't matter if you went away for a couple of days, you didn't have to be there to milk them night and morning, but you were a bit tied down once you were a dairy farmer. But it wasn't hard work. You couldn't say dairying is really hard work.
But have you ever wished, given that you really seem to be the classic bushy, have you ever wished or envied the life of people in cities?
No, no. You know, I spent a few months in Melbourne as a schoolboy and I don't think I learnt anything, I don't think I learnt anything in Melbourne at school. With a big lot of kiddies as you were in Melbourne, I don't think I learnt a damn thing. I probably learnt to fight a bit, because God there was a lot of fights amongst those kids on the playground. But you see, I went to school mostly in a little state school three mile away from home, and I think that individually, mostly you only had one teacher, but she could go right through the whole school, right up to eighth grade. And you were taught straightaway to read and write and spell and arithmetic, all those things, straightaway from very young. And you picked it up because you were young and your brain was active. But they tell me today there's some - and I know, because I was over at Mrs Kelly's on a big property not far from here and during a cup of tea in the afternoon, a young girl brought the things in on the tray, and I said to Mrs Kelly, "That's a nice young girl, Mrs Kelly". And she said "Yes, she is a nice girl you know, but she can't read or write". And I said, you know, "Is that - much of that going on?" She said "You'll find there is a fair bit of it today". They push them through. Now I'm getting away from...
Yes, what about city life? Has your experience of city life as an adult, does it attract you? Would you like to live in a city?
No, I would not.
Could you tell me why?
I think they're a different class of people. I think they're - they live a different life, you know, to us. I suppose - well if I could recite a Banjo Paterson it'd probably tell you more about it, but I dont know, I've got a brother that's lived all his life in the city, you know. And he's different to me. He's different to me. Well it's the only one that I can say that I know in the city. But if the city people come up to the country, everything sort of astounds them. They don't really know what's going on amongst animals. But the brother, you know, he's a different person. I go talk to him and he's different.
Animals really matter to you, don't they, Bill? What about your dogs?
Yeah my dogs are my friends there. I suppose I'm a bit like a Pommy, you know. If you run over a dog in England they just about kill you, you know, but you could run over a person and that's an accident. We run over a dog in England, Neale Lavis and I, and I said "God Neale, look they'll kill us. Let's get the hell out of it". The dog was - it wasn't our fault you know, the dog run out as we were going by, run out under the flaming car.
How do you feel about your dogs?
Well, I like those dogs. I wouldn't say I loved the dog, but you know - I like them to like me the dogs. I'm not cruel to the dogs. I give them a damn good shaking if they do something wrong, but I don't go kicking the dog or...
Is training dogs rather like training horses? Is there similarities?
No, there isn't. There is a bit of difference I'd say. They're - I think - well you know, I suppose a dog knows heat and cold, he knows whether he's hungry or thirsty. So to be nice to a dog you see that he's fed and he's got water, all those things, and I do. I think that's being kind to a dog and you see that he gets exercise, and he's not hooked on that chain most of his life. I let them go. Before you came to talk to me, I took them on the motorbike and gave them a damn good run before I put them back on the chain.
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