Australian Biography

Bill Roycroft - full interview transcript

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Let's take you now right back to the beginning, and could you just describe for me the life at Flowerdale where you were born, just in a little story tell me about those early days, about your mother and father and the household you grew up in and the school you went to and so on. I'll ask you a question to kick that off. Bill, what part of the country were you born in?

Well I was born in Melbourne in the city, but it was just born there, because I suppose there was probably no hospitals around our area. And then back to Flowerdale where I grew up until I was 14. So that was my young day, spent in Flowerdale, and I suppose it's the greatest part of your life, I suppose you, growing up until you leave school, and then go away and make a living for yourself.

And what do you remember about that time? What were some of the things that happened to you then, that probably helped shape the Bill that you became?

Well I suppose what shaped the horse world I lived in was the fact that you rode horses to school, and for a start of course you had to be dinked behind your brother, your sister did, somebody a little bit older than yourself. Because soon there was seven of us, six of us still going to school when I started school. It was pretty hard to have a horse each, so if there was one or two horses, and they were capable of carrying more than one person, you were dinked behind and it was always bareback, there was no saddles. So if you were - if you didn't get a ride, you walked the three mile to school. But at times, at times, we worked it out pretty well I think as a young family. They'd ride a horse half the way, tie the horse up, so you would walk half the way and then have a horse to ride the rest of the way. And so it was done coming home. There was times when I can remember three of us on the one horse. No worry, you know, one would get on, that was the eldest and they'd help you on behind and you'd pull each other up. Or you'd pull the horse up against the fence, so you could climb on. Oh it was a great age I think. And I loved riding - running without boots. I'd pull my boots off soon as I got out of school, I loved running barefooted. I don't know what it was, but that went on for years, and I know they reckon I had pretty tough feet.

And what kind of a ride was it to school? Was it a rough ride?

It was, it was, yes it was roughish when you think of the terrain. There was big old trees on the sides of the road, and a lot of those big old trees were either pushed over to make a track through, or fallen, cut down and fallen and cleared away to make a track. In those days there were mostly jinkers and buggies or drays or something pulled by horses in those early times. And until they started to get cars through there, no cars of any sort at those early ages could get through there, because it was just more or less a track through it. But for riding wise to school, you know, there was logs to jump, there was the gutters and we had a big hill, a lumpy sort of a hill on the way they called the Devil's Punchbowl. It was a place they reckon that people didn't like passing through there of a night-time, because the Flowerdale Hotel - they'd drink at the Flowerdale pub, and then to ride over this punchbowl of a night-time, they reckon there was a devil there or some damn thing. There was a silly story about the place.

And what were your parents like, your mother and your father?

Well my father was Irish and he was from Ireland. He came to Australia at 16. And you know he died at 72 and he still spoke very brogue Irish, even to those days did it. And he was, he was a very gentle sort of a fella. I think he should have belted me lots of times, but never ever did. My mother was a kind person, very good-looking woman my mother. And I can remember the days when long skirts, when they wore the long skirts. And then all of a sudden the skirts become shorter and they were, for a start very tight skirts. They were about half length. They weren't really short as we know the very short ones today. But they were, they shortened up from the long skirt and they were tight ones. I can remember them sort of hobbling around in these things.

And how did the family go along? Did you - were there very strong principles, strong messages that you were given in the way that you were brought up, about how to behave and so on?

Well I can remember my father didn't drink. Not that I know, unless he used to drink before I can remember, but I don't remember him ever. He wasn't a man that, you know, spent his life at the pub or went to the pub. I think he'd have a social drink at home, but that was about it. He was a hell of a good worker. And things were very hard those days. When I got to remembering, you know, we were coming into the Depression. Well I suppose my early times, born in '15, born 1915, and then through the years up to 1928 things were still pretty tough those days, before the Depression set in, because butterfat, butterfat was not a big price, and they sent the cream. There was no such thing as sending your milk to the factory those days. You separated the milk, and the cream was in cans, and a truck picked these up and took to the factory to make into butter. So I can't remember what butterfat was those times, but you didn't milk a lot of cows and they were milked by hand, because horses was your transport. We were a big family, they had to be transported and you fed a lot of horses. So you grew a crop to feed a lot of horses, instead of having push-bikes or something like that, and be able to milk a lot of cows. I suppose our early place that we leased would be around the 350 acres, or might have been a bit bigger. But there was no super put out those days. Your grass was a kangaroo grass, and it was pretty hard to run a lot of stock without feeding, and you kept a team of draughthorses, to plough the ground, to grow the oats, to make the chaff, and looking back over those years, if one had only thought you walk, or you ride a push-bike and cut out all this horses for transport, things could have been different.

You have always had a tremendous capacity for hard work. You've not been worried by hard work. Did you have to work hard on the farm when you were growing up? Did you work hard at home as a kid?

No I suppose I didn't, I suppose I didn't as a youngster going to school. Yes, we did, we did help milk the cows, but then there wasn't a hell of a lot of cows and there was quite a few of us. We did lease other places at the time. And put cows on there. So we milked the cows and we travelled to school on horseback from those. That was when I was I suppose around the ten or eleven. We did lease another place alongside this, some seven mile away and we approached the school from a different angle. It was on another road that we approached the school. Yes, I can't say that I was hard worked though. Because I had to milk before I went to school, that wasn't hard work. And I didn't do much on the farm until I was about 14 and left school. Then, yes I did, I broke in horses and I helped with the fence if there was fencing to be repaired or built, you know, I did help, yes.

What brought you time at Flowerdale to an end at that time when you were 14?

I think that my time at Flowerdale ended, I think I was in - I think I probably was 15, 15 or I may have been 16 when the family broke up. Yes, I would have been 16 I think.

How did that happen?

Well there was my mother and my father broke up and that broke up the family.

And what happened to make them separate? What incident brought that about?

Pardon?

What made that happen?

I think that she got interested in somebody else.

And that brought the family to an end. Now you went to Leeton with your mother, didn't you? Could you tell me - and you've told us all about that - could you tell me the story of the ride that you did from Leeton back home later, could you tell me how that came to happen?

Yes, as the years went by, I'd been back down to Flowerdale and I returned to Leeton because I knew that horse was there, and when I wanted to return back to Flowerdale, I rode that horse back. And I travelled my 50 mile, or close to 50 mile, a day. And I rode as an old stockman would ride, in what they call a jig-jog. It's out of a walk that, it's out of a walk with the horse, and the horse becomes to a shuffling, what we call a jig-jog, but it is a trot, a trot just out of a walk. And it's comfortable to sit on and it's easy on the horse. And they can travel all day like that, without doing any, upsetting their legs or their wind. And that's how I travelled. I would travel around my 50, 25 mile, and I carried a bit of oats with me and fed the horse when I thought it was about lunchtime, that's midday, and then I'd travel on the other - through the afternoon. And I had my places to stay. Out in Narrandera, there was a place between Narrandera and Urana, it was an old pub there, and I stayed in that and I had a few shillings in my pocket, so I stayed in that old pub, and it didn't cost much for the bed, but the trouble is I had to sleep on the floor eventually because that damn bed was full of bugs. You know, I don't know whether you know anything about bugs, but they attack you. I don't think it happens probably today. You probably don't find any old places where you stay that's got bugs in it. But I wasn't long in that bed before the bugs started. So I finished sleeping on the floor.

And for the rest of the journey were did you sleep?

Well the next - see that was - the next night I stayed in Urana and I knew people in Urana. And I stayed there. They didn't have any room these people, so I stayed in a shed there near where I had my horse. I had my - I had my camp with me, a few blankets tied on the back of the saddle and that was no worry to me, as long as I was out of the rain or out of the - shelter.

Was that kind of cross-country riding, a very long ride like that, very good preparation for you later, do you think?

No, I don't think so, I don't think so. You see, all I was doing was riding along at an old jig-jog, and if I'd have cantered along or gone any quicker, that horse would probably have busted up in the legs or gone lame. But it wasn't doing him any harm at that pace I travelled. And I'd left Urana and I think my next stop was, could have been Rutherglen or maybe...

How many days did it take you to get from Leeton to Flowerdale?

I think it took me 8 days, thinking back over it. And...

What did you learn from the ride? What did you get out of it? Why do you think it was important for you as a young man?

All I got out of it was I wanted to get from Leeton to Flowerdale, and I was going to do it on a horse's back. You know, there was no great thing that I'd ridden that distance, because you know, in those days, probably a lot of people have ridden distances like that.

When you're riding through the bush, is there a danger that you might get lost?

Yes there is.

So how do you - how do you keep your bearings?

Well you know which direction - if there's any sun about at all you can always get directions from your sun. But when I rode that time from Corryong home where we were in Callaghan's Creek, there was, through the forest there was all these tracks. People wanting to go from, say Lucyvale where I went into the bush, over into the Tallangatta Valley, people wanted to go there. Now they weren't going to go to Tallangatta, which was miles and miles around to get just across the range into the other valley. So they went, they had these bridle tracks, where people went through on the horse through these, and of course it made a track. The only problem you had to watch there, it was a single track, and leading a horse you had to be damn careful that the horse you were leading didn't go one side of a tree and you the other and him get away, because he was unbroken and you would lose your horse. So I got to the Tallangatta Valley and stayed with people I knew there. Then from there I had to get across to the next valley, Mitta Mitta, all bridle track. Now today, today that's car tracks through there, the Forestry Commission have put roads through those hills, you know. So today you can drive through there with a car. Different age.

There was also an incident that you wanted to tell me about at Murrimbindi Gordon Station. Would you like to tell us that story?

Yes, yes, it was - I was shearing then, I was shearing when he knew him, so I sent the letter to him. It was, I think it - I'm not terribly proud about what I'm going to tell you about this, because the old chap that was cook, Old Bluey we called him, but he was a bit of a dirty old coot, and shouldn't I suppose have been cooking for us. But he had a wagonette, he had a wagonette on the road, and there was the shearing shed and where we, where we were billeted while we were there was on the other side of the road. And he camped in his wagonette on the road and he had a blue Queensland heeler dog that used to sleep on the wagon with him. And he swore that nobody would touch that wagon while he was in that wagon. So after shearing one night, we dined and then we always had a bit of drink in the establishment, and I suppose I had a bit of drink. Not too much.

And there was a young fella shearing there with us - I suppose we were about 18 then - him and I decided we'd give this old fella a wash. And there was a big dam, big dam below the shearing shed. So we decided we'd grab the wagon and down through the gateway into this dam. Back him into this dam. You know, and we thought it was damn funny when we did it. We grabbed the wagon and off with this damn wagon, back-to-front into the dam. And to our horror that dam was deeper than what we thought it was. So the wagon went right down with the damn roof just sticking out. And we got him out of the wagon, but unfortunately he took his teeth out of a night-time, and those damn teeth disappeared down through the bottom of the wagon. We pulled that wagon out. We got all the other blokes that was there to help and we got the wagon out. But his teeth were still in the dam, you know. And it was - it was cold frosty weather you know. Next day, lunchtime, we decided, this boy and I, we decided we'd try and find those teeth. Now you can imagine very cold frosty, and God it was cold. So we stripped off, we stripped off. There was no running about, we just went in naked. And we dived in, dived looking for these bloody teeth, you know. And it was a muddy bottomed old dam. And I was about to give up, I said "Look Bun" - Bun was the name of this boy - "I'm nearly frozen to death you know". "I'll give it one more go", he said. So he dived down and luckily he found the damn things, you know, we got them. But when we pulled him out, when we pulled him out, we had to take him and give him all dry clothes. So you know, we had to give him our damn clothes, because he didn't have any other clothes to get into. And we had to give him our blankets and all that damn stuff. So next day we found the teeth, but the boss, the boss heard about this, and oh, did he roast us. And we had to give him, we had to give him £5 each I think it was. And that was quite a bit of shearing for us, you know, to give him £5 each. And all these clothes we'd given him, we couldn't get them back. And see he was an old soldier of the First World War, and shearing with us was two ex-soldiers. And they were very hostile on us for doing what we did, just two damn young blokes. We thought it was damn funny. But looking back on it now, you know, it wasn't terribly funny, was it?

It was an expensive prank.

It was, yeah. But that damn dam, we just thought that was a shallow bit of a dam. We didn't expect that wagon to disappear down this, and then have to go and look for his flaming teeth.

Now leaping right ahead and picking up another story that I want you to tell me as a story, could you tell me, in your own words, what happened to you in the three-day event at Rome?

Yes. Rome. Well, I suppose it's all been told lots of times I suppose, but - we arrived, we arrived with our horses about 12 o'clock at night. Praterni del la Vado [the venue was actually Pratoni del Vivaro]. It had been hewn and cleaned up by the army because it was just raw country, bushy type of country, undulating, ideal for eventing, because it had the up and down and creeks to jump. Now when they decided the teams' times to go and who would go first, I was first of the four riders - chosen to go first. And your first rider's to find out how the course is going to ride, and any trouble or that comes back to your next riders. One, two, three. So mistakes made by that first rider can be sorted out by the rest of them. I think I - winning at Badminton, I was first of all of that team to go at Badminton of everybody, I was first. So I don't know whether that made them decide to send me first, on the small horse. And leading down to do our first roads and tracks, I met people that I'd been living with in - I hadn't been living with - but I knew them well in England with their two little girls. I'm leading the horse down to start at the start of the roads and tracks and they met me. They'd arrived to watch what was going on. And I said to one of these little girls, "Would you like to ride Solo?" Oh, they'd love to ride Solo. So I threw her up on the saddle and led my horse on down to the start. And where you start at the roads and tracks, you've got to weigh in and you've got to have 11 stone, 11 pound. You've got to step on the scales with that weight. You and your saddle, or perhaps if you don't need the saddle, you just step on those scales, to make sure the horse is going to carry 11 stone, 11 pound, or in metric, 75 - 75 kilos. So I set off on the roads and tracks, and that was supposed to be about 6 mile. And on the way - I didn't want to go the whole way if there was a short-cut, and I knew they hadn't flagged it, because we'd been around that course to be shown where we had to go and they hadn't put flags there to make us go the distance. And if they've got a red and white flag, that's compulsory. You've got to go through that red and white flag, because normally they have a person there to see you go through it. But they did have a chap standing on the gateway before we had to go far along this six mile trip. So I just brushed past him, he said something to me. I suppose he was trying to stop me, but I just brushed past him anyhow, and finished up nice and early at the start of my steeplechase. Because that's your next phase, your steeple, which is two and a half mile, done at steeplechase pace, which is 600 a minute. I won't go in thoroughly about how the pace is, but it's very fast pace to do it without being penalised. And I did it in the time required, and then set off sail from there for our next roads and tracks, which I think was approximately 8 mile. But we had been around this two days before, driven around to know where our next roads and tracks were to go. And we had found short-cuts through timber, and I took this, which brought me to the start of my steeple - start of my cross-country, which was approximately 5 mile. And when I arrived there, the chaps waiting for the riders from Canada said "Did you see Tommy?" Now that must have been the name of the boy that was to be - he was to be in front of me. But having cut through these short-cuts that we took, happened to be ahead of him, see. And I said "No, I didn't see Tommy". And they said "God damn it, he's got lost". And I said "No, I don't think he would be lost. He will arrive eventually". So see, we are now at the ten minute compulsory stop before you do your cross-country. This is so the vets can inspect your horse to make sure that he is alright and fit to do the next five mile.

So I set sail on the cross-country and I'm going well until pipes. Big pipes that face you, the open part of the pipe faces you. And although I thought my horse was right to jump the thing at the right place to take off and jump it, he just galloped straight through the thing, as if it wasn't there, you know. And thinking maybe he'd recover, I stayed on top of the horse. I don't suppose I was really where I should be, but I was still on top of the horse, I was going to stay there. And the horse didn't, he didn't recover, he turned over on top of me and left me - he up and away, because it didn't hurt him, didn't lame him. Left a bit - took a bit of skin off his leg, but didn't lame the pony. So eventually I came to and said, "Where's my bloody horse?" and he's standing alongside me, you know. So I suppose they helped me back in the saddle. I suppose they did, you know, and I don't know, but they probably did. And away I went again. And it must have been just by memory, because I did jump the fences, because the next fence after that was downhill to an Irish bank, ditch in front of it, six foot across the top of it, which I was supposed to jump on and off. And down from that was giant steps, up on top and five foot on down on to a road, a very short stride to a post and rail fence with a big brush behind it. And that we had planned to jump down off the bank, angle our horse on that road, because it was very short to there, and get enough room to put a stride in there. Well, Mavis tells me I nearly fell there, because I didn't take that angle. I must have jumped straight down and straight to the fence, and nearly tipped over there. Then the last fence - and she said I looked like going the wrong way. Perhaps the horse knew the way, I don't know. But anyhow I had to get to the last fence and jump it. And those days, those days you had a mile run in after you did your five mile cross-country. And that wasn't supposed to be done at the normal pace we go cross-country. That was done about half-pace. And that was up a long gully there in Rome, tea-tree at the side, and there was a red and white flag there with a chap there to see that you went through it. And people say, that were there, that I did stop talking to this fellow. So obviously he pointed - I probably said, "Where the hell am I?" because Clive Cochrane who was at the last fence, said I said to him as I jumped that fence, "Where do I go?" Just like that. And he said I was galloping on, so whatever he said to me I wouldn't have caught what he said. But apparently this chap up at the end, up the top, pointed where I had to go. And I finished up in the yard where the scales were that you had to weigh in. And you had to be carrying that 11 11, or the 75 metric, when you got off your horse. And you didn't get off the horse until they told you to get off the horse, in case you got somebody passing you some weights or something to make your weight. And from there - you see there it was the Americans waiting for their horses, the Canadians, and the other people. And the Americans had whisky and the Canadians had oxygen in case their horses were exhausted. And the Americans are giving me whisky to drink and the Canadians are poking oxygen, because they could see I'd had a fall. Then I was taken - oh, they weighed my saddle - and a girl Judith Ritchie was there at the finish, and she carried my saddle across to the weighbridge. I don't think I even stepped on that damn thing, I think she put her foot on it and pushed the thing down.

And you know, they gave all clear that I had the weight, and they took me to the casualty room, stripped off my pants and could see I had a big cut on - and the stirrup leather had rubbed skin of my shin, and of course they looked at that, and then they found that I'd had trouble with my shoulder. So I'm onto a stretcher and across to the helicopter. And this damn helicopter - I rode past that helicopter, you know, out in the morning back into the stable, out again in the afternoon and back in. I used to think, you know, some poor bugger will probably get a ride in this thing. And that poor bugger happened to be me. And they flew me down to Rome, because we were some 30 mile out of Rome at Praterni del la Vado [the venue was actually Pratoni del Vivaro]. And they took me off that stretcher back onto their stretcher into the hospital stretcher and they got their stretcher back. Had I been seriously hurt I think, you know, I would have died being one bloody stretcher to the other. Anyhow, they put me in there for the night with ice on my head and - oh before, Mavis came down, she came down with an Italian, because she had a car up there that she used to drive backwards and forwards every day to the event, from Rome. She booked into a hotel in Rome. And they sent a soldier down with her, to show her where the hospital was. And she said that was rather difficult, because he wouldn't tell her where to go until she got right to the spot and then say left or right. So before she left there, I said I want to be out next day, I want to see what's going on. And she didn't know whether I was going to get out anyhow. She didn't think I probably would. I asked them during the night would they give me something for the pain, and they wouldn't. They said oh no, they kept my head - I suppose they were worrying about blood on the brain or something, and the ice was to stop the bleeding. It was pretty damn uncomfortable, you got your head packed in ice overnight. I'm afraid I didn't sleep much.

[end of tape]

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