Australian Biography

Bill Roycroft - full interview transcript

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So during that time that you were doing all these rural odd jobs and turning a hand to anything, it was the Depression. What was the main things - what were the main things that you remember from rural life in the Depression?

Well I was in Leeton, as a messenger boy for two years. Gave it up, returned south, to a place called Homewood, near Flowerdale. I returned back up to Leeton, New South Wales. And there I did get a job in the canning factory for a while. That was when that fruit was pouring in, and there was a - there was a big homing place there for people from Sydney, Melbourne, to accommodate them. They were all women in those accommodations. And they stayed on there while fruit season was on and then they returned to Sydney, Melbourne. And these shanty towns around those cites - was deplorable, you know. Although I was getting a dollar here and there, or in those days, it was shilling, pence, pounds, these people were finding it damn hard you know, with little kids in these - well, these accommodation they built was just out of tin and bags and any damn sort of shelter they'd give them. You know, in around Leeton it can be damn hot there in the summertime. [INTERRUPTION]

Once more I returned south. Met up with my brother Tom. Older than me. And he had a letter from a chap named Roberts from Callaghan['s] Creek - it's a tributary off the Mitta Mitta. And he wanted us to go share-farming. That's milking cows. So we both arrived up at his property. And we found there was no milking shed, no yards, no nothing, but we were to build these. It was one on the end of this big property. And so we set to and built a hut. Out of, it was out of - you probably wouldn't know about slip rails, post and slip rails that they built fences of in the old days. Well that's what we built this hut of. And all we had was tin or - what do you call it?

Galvanised iron?

Oh, just sheets of iron it was. We made a chimney out of that. And bricked it,with, just with dirt and bricks and stuff, to make a fireplace. Then we had to build the yard, build the place to milk the cows, a place to separate, because we milked and then separated. And a chap would come once - twice a week he used to come - and pick up the cream. We used to send cream to a place called Eskdale. Eskdale was down in the Mitta Valley. And we stayed share farming there for two, two years, milking 50 cows by hand, this brother and I. And when we did milk and turn it into cream, we had to take that a mile on a sledge to where the chap would pick it up to go to Eskdale. Now we made enough money to just to live, but we would, I suppose we would have damn near starved if we weren't good at rabbit trapping and fox shooting to supplement our income from the share farming. You see, because the pasture was pretty poor and there was no super spread on the ground. It was just kangaroo grass, you probably remember kangaroo grass. Anyhow that's what the cows had to milk on. So we decided we'd pack up with this. Oh, in the meantime, I thought I'd get some ponies. So I toured up to Corryong from there. I rode a push-bike from where we were to Corryong, bought two ponies, returned back to where we were on Callaghan['s] Creek, left my bike behind this time, caught the train from Mitta Mitta - it's not the Mitta Mitta of today you know. That Mitta Mitta that I knew, Tallangatta rather, Tallangatta, that Tallangatta is now covered with water. The Hume Weir has gone over the old Tallangatta. And that was rather a very nice town, with two big nice pubs there - brick, built of brick. I suppose they're - I don't know whether they ever see them if the weir goes down. But this time I caught the train to Corryong. And brought these two ponies home. Now one was a little buck jumping bugger, so I led him home. And I travelled down as far as Eskdale, a name of a place, went bush there on a bridal track over into the Tallangatta Valley and stayed with people that I knew for the night. Then went bush again next day, over the range, back down into the Mitta Valley. And eventually home. Now that little pony can buck like hell and for some time he used empty me out pretty regularly. But later on - I will tell you about it - he finished up taking a girl to school. That will come later on.

But when he threw you, this pony, this bucking pony, you never broke anything. I mean what happened when you got thrown?

No, I was pretty resilient those times because you see I was only about 17 or 18. It come pretty easy those times.

And you managed to tame this, this, this horse...

Yes. Yes. I got to know this pony. You know, for years and years that pony - or for a lot of years anyhow - this pony, you'd saddle him up, pull the girth up, pull and he'd buck, you know. Let him have his buck, then get on and ride him away. And I earned quite a bit of money with that pony like that, because I bet people they couldn't ride him. Saddle him up and he'd buck and they wouldn't get on him, give me the money. And I bet them I could ride him. I'd let him have his buck and get on and ride him.

Of all the different work that you were doing during this period through the early thirties, where you were doing odd jobs and so on, what did you enjoy most? Did you prefer the work with horses?

Well, I don't - see that's a long time back. The enjoyment I got out of horses I suppose was - I did a lot of breaking in of horses eventually you know, and was to get the horse from just a wild horse down to a horse you ride, or drive. Because we used to have to break them in to both saddle and to harness. And you know, for that we'd get 30 shillings. You think about it. Thirty shillings, go get the horse most times, get this unbroken horse, tie it to the side of the break, bring it home, break it in. And it had returned to its owner quiet, broken in to saddle, 30 shillings you know. But it's different times. They certainly don't do it today. Now we - I'm telling you about the...

About that time and you were doing share farming with your brother. And then what happened to end the share farming?

Well we, we left there. We left there with a buggy and two horses and these two ponies in the, as we call it, a sulky, you know. It was a - it was a buggy that had the horse tied behind, and later we went into New South Wales. See we were the - Callaghan['s] Creek was in Victoria. And my brother got us shearing, shearing in a place just over the border. And he went to an agent there and he got us shearing jobs way out on the Langara Station the other side of Hillston, over the Lachlan River. And I toured through there with the horse and had to meet up with him. And I just got there, he'd left the day before. So I toured back to Leeton and stayed with people I knew in Leeton, or people that I lived in their shed while I was being a messenger boy, some years before. And I remember that shed that I used to sleep in. I used to eat with them, but I slept in a shed, and I found that cow manure, if you burnt cow manure was good for keeping the mosquitoes off you. So...

What had brought the share farming to an end? Had you just got tired of it?

Well there was nothing in it. Apart from rabbit skins and that, you know, and the chap Roberts that we were milking for, he was getting damn little out of it. Because we were getting half share of what we were doing. And he had a family of - he had three girls and a boy. So he'd been doing it very hard, and he was running sheep and he was having trouble with dingoes. It was rather bushy country there where we were. It was a big property in this valley, but all around was timbered country. You know, the hills going towards Mitta Mitta was all timber hills. And the other side going to Tallangatta Valley, that was all timber. And a lot of dingoes. At night-time you'd hear these dingoes howling. And kangaroos. We used to shoot these kangaroos, we used to get a permit for so many skins and we could sell the skins. Wombats, which are protected today, we used to get so much for their scalps. Because they're a damn nuisance those wombats, you know, they're starting to live under people's houses and creating a bit of a problem.

You were riding at that stage, in pretty hilly country. What does it do for your riding to ride a lot in mountainous terrain?

Well we used to visit people across in, over the range down into the Tallangatta Valley. And we did the same across into the Mitta Valley from where we were. But it didn't do anything much for you, the only thing you did jump a log if it was in your way, you know, across a gutter. But apart from that we got a bit blasé about riding. It was our transport. You know, we weren't doing it much for sport or - oh we did later on in life when I met up with Mavis, my wife...

But at that stage...

But at that stage it was our transport to get there, get here, or get there, you know. So we didn't see anything romantic about riding through the bush.

So later on, when you got to Leeton and you were sleeping in a hut with friends and so on, what did you do for a living there?

Well I worked in the orchards there and I did have a stint out on the plains with big teams of horses in the wheat belts. You know, you'd have about 14 horses in a team. And yoking up, collaring them up in the morning early, take the collar, and you'd decollar them at lunch-time, wash their shoulders, and the same thing at night-time. And it might sound a bit funny, but we used to keep pee to wash the horses shoulders. It was good for hardening and sore shoulders.

Does that still work?

I wouldn't suggest if you get a cut or something that you try it, but we did. Yes.

Do you still do that?

I beg your pardon?

Do you still use pee?

No, no.

Why did you do it then?

Well I suppose I heard it was good for a horse's shoulders. So I just followed on.

And did it seem to you to work?

It seemed to, yes. Yep. But you know, washing their shoulders, washing the sweat off their shoulders and keeping their shoulders clean. And the collars that you put on, keep them clean, did help. Because horses with sore shoulders wasn't a particularly nice thing to see. Because as soon as they got going the collar rubbed their shoulders and bled, and you know, it wasn't right.

Were you particularly good with horses at that stage? I'm not talking about later on. But working around horses, when you were working them, did you have a particularly good way with them?

I think I probably did. Yes. Later on, later on in life I was working on a property and I only got the job because the station owner thought I was good with horses.

And what do you think that was, that made you good with horses? What was it about you?

Oh, just my background I suppose, from starting off in school with horses, you know. Worked with horses, to work with horses and to dances on horses. You know.

Do you have to treat a horse with respect?

Yes you do.

And does that apply to those old working horses as well?

Well, you were as kind as possible, you might find one that wanted a bit of rough treatment, but mostly you were pretty kind to a horse. You saw he was watered, fed, and you know, looked after, kept clean. And we didn't rug - we didn't rug up there roundly. That was pretty - much warmer than it is down here. Horses weren't rugged. But they were washed down after they'd worked all day and I think most people rather look after a horse than be cruel to it.

And where did you go after Leeton, after you were in Leeton?

We left, the brother and I returned and we came south. We drove the buggy all the way south, back down around Flowerdale. And then we went shearing. And we were both blade shearers at the time. That's old blade shears. Perhaps you - I don't know whether you know about blade shearers or not, but I started off with blade shears. And I kept it up for some time. And didn't get around to machine shearing much just before the war.

There must have been a tremendous amount of skill in using those old shears.

Well with them, yes there was. There was fair amount of skill in preparing them. You pull the blade back so you took a bigger blow each time you made a cut with those shears, you took more wool. But you had to be damn careful that you didn't take too much skin either. It was, particularly with merino sheep that are wrinkly, you had to be careful with blades that you didn't take too much skin.

What did you think when the machine shears came in? The mechanised shears came in, what did you think of them? Did you despise them a bit?

Oh that was it. No, no, no, no. I was all for the machines. Much easier. Because in blade shearing, in blade shearing you do your run, your two hour's run and you stop for morning lunch. Instead of sitting down and enjoying your cup of tea and that, you'd be out grinding those shears over an old grindstone, that you either pedalled or somebody turned for you with a handle. And you sharpened those shears again. You were never - and it was a lot of work in those shears to have them cutting properly without pulling the wool. Because they kick enough without the shears being blunt and pulling them.

And were you shearing when the war broke out?

No, I wasn't shearing when war broke out. Yes, I was. Yes, I was shearing. I was shearing at Bob McCracken's Switzerland Station, yes. I always skip that bit. He - he was a good man to shear for, Bob McCracken. And he loved yarns. And in those days, I could tell a yarn or two. You know, we'd be sitting having lunch and after we'd fixed our shears and telling me yarn. He enjoyed that.

Were they tall stories you told?


Were they tall stories you told, or real ones?

Oh real stories. Oh these weren't made up. I suppose somebody had told me and I - those days I could remember yarns, you know. So after Switzerland, we shored then at Murrimbindi Station, just across - but war broke out - what was it? I should remember the date.

In 1939.

1939 and it was a Monday. Was it a Monday? I forget the day. But we were shearing and I remember there was two Irish blokes shearing alongside me, and you know, "Are you going to join up you fellas and go and fight for Britain?" And I said "Of course we will, of course we will". And they've said something about Ireland was Ireland when England was a pup and Ireland will be Ireland when England's buggered up. And I don't - I think they probably got a beat of a belting after the shearing was over.

From you?

Well see they were Irish and they were...

You didn't give them a bit of a belting, did you?

No, no, no, no. But we didn't particularly like that and told them so. They better watch what they're saying.

What did you think when war broke out? What was it going to mean for you?

Well it didn't mean much to me at the time, because I thought, well with the way things have gone, it'll be over quick smart, you know. But as you know, it wasn't over quick smart.

Had you had anything to do with the army up to that point?

No, no, but straight after that I went into the Light Horse, I went straight into the Light Horse. And because you know, my stupid thoughts those times, being young, that maybe they'd take the Light Horse to go. But there was no damn way they were going to take the Light Horse - mechanised age. So the only time they used the Light Horse during the war was some of the Queenslanders they took to New Guinea and used them for packing supplies up into the hills. There was no fighting of this past - Light Horse would be no good in this last World War.

So where did you go to join the Light Horse? Did you have to go to Melbourne?

No, no, no. We joined it right there, it was the 20th Light Horse they called it. It was Mansfield, Yea, Seymour combined. And we went to Torquay in a big camp at Torquay down near Geelong. And there we were, we were in camp there I think for a month. And then abandoned. And we joined up then - oh I think I went scrubbing for a while. Now you probably, most people wouldn't know what scrubbing means. But in forest country they ring-bark a tree, they ring-bark a tree. That's a ring around and around the tree, they cut into it. And that kills the tree, but it grows suckers below where you put that cut. And that's what we call scrubbing. You go scrubbing. So we go and knock those suckers off. And then the tree eventually dies. The bottom part eventually dies. That's scrubbing. So I was scrubbing in very hilly country when I decided - Dunkirk fell. Remember Dunkirk? When Dunkirk fell I thought it's time I go enlist. So I went to Yea and met up with a lot of boys who were in the town there. I said "I'm going to enlist", they said "We're coming with you". So I think there was about 14 of us went to Melbourne and we enlisted at Caulfield. Caulfield Racecourse. They said to us when we went in, "Where do you boys want to go?" and well I said "I want to go to the 2nd 22nd Infantry, they're camped at Rokeby near Yea". And I thought well I was a bit fond of Mavis at the time, see, and she was near Yea. So, nothing was done about it. The whole 14 of us said "Yes, Rokeby will do us". So we were split up and we went down to, we went down to Mornington, to a camp in Mornington. And we were only there for a couple of weeks. And they split us up again. They sent seven of us to Colac. Now you came through Colac. And we camped on the Colac showgrounds there. And the seven of us were in where they used to stable the horses at the show. And they built a tin fence along it, wood on the floor, and we slept on straw palliases. And you had two blankets to keep you warm, you know. But a lot of the other, they came from all over Victoria to there, and some were in the pigs stall, where they used to keep the pigs. And they had trouble with rats and mice and things there. And from there they formed a regiment called the 2nd 14 Field Regiment in Puckapunyal. And we were drafted to there. And there was, there was half of us, the 2nd 14 Field Regiment, Victorians and half South Australians. And from there we went on and trained and eventually it was to Darwin we were sent.

You were originally going to be part of the 22nd, weren't you?


And what happened about that?

There lies a story, and probably a very fortunate story for me. Because we had applied to go to the - we said we wanted to go to the 2nd 22nd. They'd noted that down, but time had elapsed and we'd been sent to Colac. And at the same time as our transfer came through to go to the 2nd 22nd, we got a - we got an application to the headquarters at Colac to release us for send off by the Shire of Yea. Now so many would enlist and the shire would ask them to be let - go home to have a send off. Well the captain, and he was a Captain Smith from Mansfield, was in charge of our unit, said "Well Bill, we can't let you go, because you're on draft to the 2nd 22nd and you go tomorrow". He said "I can't give you permission to go once you're on draft". So anyhow, there was a tin fence right round that place. Well the seven of us went over the tin fence and we hitchhiked to Melbourne and back and back to Yea. And we stayed adrift for six days and then returned back to camp.

What did you do in those six days?

Oh I don't know Mavis what we do in those six days. I don't know. You'd have to ask Mavis what we did in those six days. But I suppose we relaxed a bit from, you know, going up and down, up and down.

But you weren't going to go to war without saying goodbye to Mavis?

No, we were going to miss that send off. Anyhow it was any damn excuse to get away from you know, left right, left right, you know, I fell over once and he said "What's wrong with you?" I said "I was buggered". He said to me "Buggered if you don't get up I'll give you more pack-drill". So...

Isn't that called - isn't what you did called Absent Without Leave? AWOL?

That's right, yes.

Aren't you in big trouble if you go AWOL?

Well, you're in trouble I suppose in as much as you've got to do pack-drill. That's in Australia, but if you leave overseas you're liable to be shot as - I believe they did shoot an odd one during the war, the First World War. I haven't heard of anybody being shot on the second one.

So what happened when you guys came back after six days, back at Yea?

Well we did pack-drill. You put a pack on your back and they march you up and down, up and down. Left, right, left, right. Up and down, you know. And you do that for about half an hour or more, carrying a big pack. And I eventually said to the CO "What about our transfer to the 2nd 22nd?" "Well" he said, "Mr Roycroft, we don't want you". He said "I sent them a - I got a telegram asking where you were. So I sent them back a telegram, they're absent without leave. I got a telegram back saying, we don't take them that go absent without leave". So I wasn't there. But it was very fortunate because eventually I was guard of honour on most of those blokes in Tol Plantation New Britain, where they'd been massacred by the Japanese. See luck's a fortune. I would have been a long skeleton - all there was the green ants clean them up very quickly there. There's millions of green, these big green ants. And all was there just their bones. And their boots. They never took their - their boots were still there. Their dead meat tickets or the identification disk that we wore all the time. They were thrown away or burnt, or something. So they were put in sandbags and buried those boys. Some they identified by their dentures. Mostly they were just gone by the way, just lost. So that was escape for me. And that was Tol Plantation, New Britain. We'd been to New Guinea right up to the Sepik River after the Japs. Then across the New Britain...

Let's just go back a step. When you didn't get into the 2nd 22nd, what did happen to you back in Victoria?

We trained, we trained on there and eventually the brass come up from Melbourne for us to do a shoot - we were artillery, and we were to do a shoot at 2 o'clock in the morning. And it was a cold frosty night, and it was the only time ever that overproof rum was issued to the troops. They're supposed to you know, but that was the only time ever it was issued. And I didn't drink the stuff, and I don't think most of the young blokes did. But the officers must because they made a hell of a mess of that shoot. We were supposed to do the shoot and then go to the Middle East. So they didn't send us, they sent us to Darwin. We shipped off to Darwin and we were to support there for the 2nd 21st and there lies another story, because eventually the 2nd 21st was sent to Ambon, and they couldn't get us on the boat. We took our guns and the trucks and things down to the wharf, and they said "We can't get you on, you'll have to wait for the next ship". And Ambon fell before the next ship came in. So here again, most of those 2nd 21st never come back. They died of starvation or beriberi and one of my school friends, a very nice young fella, he went west there. He saw me just before he left Darwin. He said "I'll see you over there, Bill". But he didn't see us there. Ambon went. And you know, most of those fellas, or a hell of a lot of them died in 1945, and the war was practically over, you know.

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