Australian Biography

Bill Roycroft - full interview transcript

Tape of 12

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So when you saw the property, you thought it'd be a good one to have. How do you go about getting it?

I wrote in to the - to the authorities and applied for it.

And what happened?

Well I was interviewed and there were so many there at the interview, I thought well what the hell, I want to be - I want to get a sheep property anyhow. This is a dairy farm I'm applying for. So it doesn't really matter if I don't get it. Walked out of the place and went back in doing my job. I remember where I was when Mavis drove up in the car and said "You've got that property". I can see the place now. And it was on a - I was nearly at the other end of the property that I was managing and I can see the slope of the country I was on when she arrived and said "Bill, you've got that place".

And even though it was a dairy farm did you feel very excited that it was a new life starting for you?

Well yes. I think something of my own you know. This'll be my property and yep. Yeah, that was a great feeling and then to get down here - a brother of mine was, he was my second oldest brother, he had a truck. He said "Bill, when you want to move down, I'll take all your stuff down for you". I had an old ex-army utility that I had a frame built on. So he brought my furniture down and we didn't have that much damn furniture anyhow. And I brought a horse, a cow, and a lot of tools, my fencing tools, you know, crowbars, shovels, all the things I'd need, a crosscut saw, for - to start on a farm. And I can remember coming through Colac or one of those places. And they wanted to know where we were going to show this night. You know, they thought I was travelling with a circus or something with this cow and horse.

And what was it like when you first came here? There was you, Mavis. One or two babies?

Two, two. Barry and Wayne were born then. And Mavis stayed with friends on Chocolyn just the other side of Camperdown. We'd been friendly with them for years, and Mavis stayed with them with the two kiddies. And I stayed with the chap that had written to me and said "Bill, come and have a look at this place that's coming up for selection again". That was Bob Drysdale who was just down the road here a couple of mile. He was already settled on his place. And he'd - nearly all of them were still living in huts, because houses had to be built. And he was still in a hut and I camped in with him. And I used to camp with him, come here and do things on the place. And with several of the chaps that he knew that were carpenters, they came here and built the - I got the material in and they built that garage out where our car is parked now. And we lived in that for nearly 12 months, until they built this house here. Because they were having - it was an unmade road from Roycroft's Road at the bottom, up to here. There was no road, it was just a track. An unmade road up there. So in the wet times it was damn hard for them to get in with material. And we set to then to build a cowshed. Now, they said, "We want your cowshed". They surveyed the place, there was a manager here to manage all these properties that were being settled. And he said "Your dairy will be in here about 200 yards in from the road". And I said "You have another guess. Mine will be six feet from the fence down here. Right here". Where the old thing is there now. "And if you want to argue with me, I'll go to Head Authority. I'll go to Melbourne about this. I'm not going 200 yards to build tracks into a dairy and tracks out. I will have a loop on the road where the milk wagon will come around and pick up our milk or cream. And that's it". So we set to, Mavis and I and built the bricks, all the bricks in that place down there is done hand, done by hand. We put down the concrete floor and then we built those, we used to stack those concrete. And there was 1,300 of those bricks, they're about twelve by, four by six by six. They're big bricks. All concrete. Now we had to get in scoria sand cement to make those bricks. And that was all done by hand. And they were a mould. You'd put them in this mould and you'd be making one brick at a time. Open the mould. It'd be put the stuff in there at a certain mixture that it didn't flop about once you took the mould off it. It was solid. And then that would dry and there you'd have your brick. And I used to keep watering them, make them tough, tough bricks.

It was terribly hard work. Did you mind it?

No, because...

Why not?

I didn't mind because then hard work was what I knew how to do. And I was good at what I did, you know. Because I was a fence contractor years ago, when you were paid very little money to pull down an old fence, and erect a new fence. Well I knew all about those things.

What about the dairying? Did you take to that? You hadn't wanted a dairy farm...

No, but it was - once we - well we started off here before the machines were set up we milked by hand. And then we had no electricity, no electricity, so everything was oil lamps and we had an engine to drive the machines for a start. And that had to be all done by an engineer that came round and fixed it up. And it was all damn costly too, and we didn't have much money. But the Settlement Commission, they helped us for the first 12 months. They were very good. We had to pay it back but it was on a very small loan, and it was really something very good that the government did for us after the war.

A lot of soldier settlers did go broke though, didn't they? It wasn't an easy thing.

Yeah, well I think a lot of them went broke because they were damn lazy or they didn't have the know how. You know, there was on this settlement, on this settlement, a few blokes that they went through an agricultural college. They went to an agricultural college to learn how to farm. Well they were damn useless, you know. The ones that were born on a farm and come up and did it practically right from childhood, they were successful. I think there was two on this - there was 45 settlers on this area, and I think two probably were a failure. Well they didn't do terribly well. They weren't exactly absolute failure I don't suppose, but they didn't do terribly well, and left the farm eventually. But most of them were successful because they'd come through the - born on farms, their father's farms, and they'd gone on from there.

And what about Mavis, was it very important in the success to have a wife that could contribute?

Yes, of course.

What did she do?

Well Mavis, not only she was a terribly good cook, but she was good at looking after the kids. She was good at taking over the dairy if I was sick. I don't think I was sick very often, but it showed up when I went off to the Olympic Games. She took over the place and probably managed the damn place better than I did. Yes, very capable, Mavis. Horse-wise, riding, or driving... And looking after the property, yes.

You're on a dairy farm, when did horses come into your life in a big way on this farm? How did they - how did the horses happen for you?

Well we made horses - we brought one pony with us when we came down. I told you about the horse being in the back of this utility. We, we did a lot - you know, before we came here we'd done a lot in shows and gymkhanas and we knew all about competing in shows and that. Of course, with one, this one pony we brought with us, well you can't do much at a show with one pony. So we set about to getting horses. And the first one we bought, we wanted something to pull a sledge, because you had posts to pull about, corner posts and barbed wire and all the stuff had to be moved about to do your fencing. All the fencing that was done on this place I had to do it, because there was nothing here only a boundary fence, and that was old and broken down. So we found a chap that had a horse that was suitable. He wasn't, he was by a thoroughbred out of the heavy, and he was heavy enough to pull a sledge so we could put our material on it to take it where we wanted. And he was light enough also to ride. So the Noorat Show, which is a big show down here, it's just been a week ago, we went to the Noorat Show and Mavis rode this horse. We groomed him up and made him look pretty good. And she won the lady rider on him, beating all the tops around, you know. And I show jumped the damn horse over straight fences. It wasn't Olympic fences those times, they were straight - they'd had hurdles, what they called hurdles and they had fixed fences. So - and the fixed fences were bigger than the hurdles. So over the hurdles you went at fast pace. And they judged you by whether your horse tipped in front or tipped behind. It was worse - more penalties if you tipped - if the horse tipped it in front than rather with his hind legs. Because if you tipped in front, that's liable to tip you on your head, you see. And over the fixed fences, that was more a hunting pace. And - quieter pace, and they judged you by the pace you travelled, how the horse jumped the fence, a different way of judging. But there were skilled people that used to do it, that used to judge. And you won it by what marks you got, or what penalties you got. So that was the start. So from there on we looked around to buy horses, and a horse Robin Hood, a nice chestnut horse, we heard of this horse, and seeing that I didn't go to the Olympics in Melbourne, 1956, Mavis and I decided that we would go to the 1960 Olympics. And that was our aim then, to get horses that would be suitable to go. So Robin Hood was a colt, and I think he was two year old or something like that. We purchased him, we had to have him gelded, and I broke that horse in and started on, and there was another one - oh we got polocrosse ponies also. This is quite a long story you know. I don't know whether it takes up too much time to go explaining all this sort of thing.

What did you do with the polocrosse horses?

Polocrosse is, polocrosse is a game played with a polocrosse type stick. And it's played on the horse similar to polo, only thing polo had a different type of weapon to hit the ball. The polocrosse stick you gathered up a softer ball, and you threw it, and you had to have your stick with the net on the end of it, but you'd throw to your people that were performing with you, and they could catch the thing out of the air, or pick it up off the ground full gallop. It was quite, it was quite a game. And we played that for 8 years. But you had to have the horses to do it. So I saw a chap ride past one day here with cattle. And a beast broke away and he chased this beast and turned on the beast, and I thought, by God, you know, that's a good type of horse he's riding. I'd like to get on to that. So as he went back past, he'd taken his cattle past here and was returning, I walked to the fence and hailed him. I said "That's a great horse you're riding". And he said "Daisy cutting bitch". I said "Don't you like her?" "Oh, not particularly. I'm riding her for a certain fellow just to give her some work". I said "You don't want to buy her?" "No, I don't want to buy her". But I said "You wouldn't mind if I see the chap and buy her?" "No, I don't care". So I hurriedly saw this fellow, and he sold me the mare. She was a mare and I think she was about four or five year old then. But she was a beautiful mare. Dixie. I got the mare from a chap just around here at Dixie. So I called her Dixie. And I played her for 8 years. But I had another one apart from her, a spare one. And Mavis - we were looking for horses, big sale in Hamilton, you know, they used to have a big sale there, two or three times a year. And there was lots of horses in those sales. So we bought this horse, Tex. Coloured, coloured horse. He was skewbald. Beautiful looking little horse. And we bought him for £20. We couldn't afford much money those days, but we were a bit horse crazy. So we bought this one. And Mavis played polocrosse on him, and looking at his teeth one day we found he was only a two year old. We shouldn't have been playing that horse, you know. And she played on him for the time we played. Eight years we played. And we had some great tournaments we used to go and play.

Could you use the same horses for polocrosse as you used for other sorts of show events?

Yes. Yes. We used to do everything on them. We'd play polocrosse on them then we'd jump them or we'd hack them. And you know, we'd do anything on a horse then, they'd be your stock horse.

Why do you think you were horse crazy? What was it about it that really got you in?

Well I suppose it's a bit like an axe man. He's good, he's good with an axe, so he goes in for chopping wood, you know. He's great at it. And it shows. Well, and it's like a cricketer, he's very good at cricket, so he loves to play cricket. Because he's good at it. Well we were both reasonably good at horses, so I suppose that's why we liked to do it, because you like to do something you're pretty good at.

Can I take you right back now, because you said that you were already involved in horses before you came here, and had been in gymkhanas and other events. Can I - when was the first time that you went in for a horse competition in your life? The first time.

When was the first time I went in for...

When you - that you rode a horse in a competition.

Well that's way back when we were still on the farm, still on the farm in Flowerdale, and there used to be gymkhanas all around. Flowerdale used to have a gymkhana. That's where - and there's foot running, there's horse events, bending and flag raising and all that sort of thing. And just down the way there was another name - there was Homewood, Glenburn - all those little places used to have these events every year. They were marvellous, because people could travel to these in a jinker or they could ride their horse there. You know, going back into those times, see Strath Creek, they used to have a very good one, and that's where I was managing that property, that sheep property at Strath Creek. But it was a bit liking to the early milking days. Just here at Dixie was a creamery. And just across here at Cobrico, just near where our boys went to school, Cobrico, there was a cheese factory, out where Barry is there, there is one. They were handy, a bit like the gymkhanas where you go per horse, and then you could come home and do your job in the evening. And they were all horse set up those things because they were close enough for a horse to cart the cream or the milk to those factories. And so it was with gymkhanas. You could go to Glenburn or you could go to Strath Creek, or you go to Flowerdale, to compete these. Just in a horse and jinker or ride there, because it was a horse world.

And did you win in those early ones...?

I can remember the first time somebody said "Bill, have a loan of this saddle". I used to compete bareback, very young. And I got in this damn saddle and I felt lost in this saddle, because I was away from the horse, you know.

And did you win?

I won occasionally, yes. But I was beaten often enough too, yes. It's just being beaten and taken - you can't be winning all the time. And it pays - makes a damn good sport if you're to be beaten and win, and be beaten, you know.

But did you like it when you won?

Oh, of course you always did, because there might be a couple of shillings. See it was pounds, shillings and pence those days.

And when you started competing and Mavis did too, after you were married, and you'd come back from the war, you got involved in events then. Is there any that you remember particularly that really hooked you in and made you think this is good stuff? When you were doing, you know, when you first got involved, when you came back after the war in show-riding?

I think the thing that used to, I used to like doing was over the old straight fences and hurdles, you know. And even those days they used to - and they used to have high jumps. They'd have a high jump set up and they had the fence on a big lean, so the horse would be jumping up to six foot and seven foot over these things. I never really had a good horse for high jumping. It was mostly hurdles or the old straight fences. But I did, I used to enjoy flag and barrel racing, and billycan racing, where you had a billycan full of water you had to bolt on to your horse bareback, over a couple of hurdles, around the peg, back over the hurdles, and try and finish up with water in your billy after the billycan race. And I did that, you know, I used to compete, even when we were settled here over the years, I'd go to the show, Camperdown Show, Noorat Show, Hamilton Show, these places, and compete on this mare, Dixie. She was brilliant at these flag and barrel racing and that sort of thing. And I still did it, you know, even grown up and away from the childhood, I still as a grown man used to like doing it. And we'd compete, we'd compete in the morning leading a horse, in the led classes and then we'd be in the riding classes, hacks. And then during lunch-time they used to use the sporting event, flag and barrel racing, we'd compete in those. And then the afternoon was taken up with show jumping. So it was a full day for us.

In these country shows was there anything at all like more formal dressage?

Ah, well no, no, no. Dressage didn't come into - not the country shows. [INTERRUPTION]

In these country shows, was there any place for anything even remotely like dressage?

No, I suppose not. The only thing that would resemble it, they'd send you out to work your horse. You all go round in a ring and they pick out a certain amount of the horses that they like to work individually. And the rest, they'd say, we don't want you, you can go. The ones they sorted out, then they'd send them out individually. Now you show me what you can do, and today, today I think they probably do a little bit in that they probably go out and do a half pass with the horse, you know, and do a flying change and they may do show how beautiful the horse is, to hack it around, individually. Now I don't know for sure, but possibly they do do that today. Mostly it was - they'd set a thing for you to do, out to that peg, now I want you to canter to there and I want you to trot to that other peg, or do something. Some would do that. When I judged, I used to send them out, you know, you just show me just how damn good this horse is. And they'd go, they'd please what they wanted to do, not what I told them to do. Not set out a course for them. I'd let them show me just what that horse could do.

When did you get the idea that you were perhaps a bit better than just somebody who could win country shows and gymkhana? When did you begin to get the feeling that maybe you could do something on a grander level with your work?

Well see I competed against most of these fellows that went away to the first - went away to 1956. They went to Stockholm and competed in Stockholm, because our quarantine, our quarantine regulations wouldn't allow horses into Australia. So...

There wasn't an equestrian event in Melbourne at the 1956 Olympics, it was in Stockholm, is what you're saying. Yeah.

We didn't have any, we didn't have any events here until after Stockholm. It was after Stockholm they started up one day eventing and we had our big three-day event in Sydney and Melbourne. That was following '56. But having competed, or knowing these fellows that competed, that went away in 1956, I knew I could beat those damn fellas riding a horse, because I could ride a pretty rough horse, you know, one that bucked and that sort of thing. So they, they got fourth at the Games, those fellas. And I knew damn well I could beat them. So when we competed against them in Melbourne, I beat all those fellas. Well firstly, where they competed in Melbourne at Oaklands, they set up a course there for 1956 for the pentathlon. They had stables, built up rough stables there, because the country that's running the pentathlon had to supply the horses. So that meant that they could run the pentathlon because no horses had to be brought in. But we had to get the horses ready for them to compete on, all these countries coming in. And it was, it was that course that, that's where they built the course, the first three-day event course for Australia. And I camped in one of those huts that they had there for the pentathlon 1956. And the boys that had been to the Games in Stockholm said "Bill, we're having a meeting" after they walked that course that they'd built. And I said "What's your meeting about?" They said "We're going to protest about the size of these jumps. They're going to kill us or our horses. They're too big". "Well" I said, "what they build I'll jump, so I don't want to be in your meeting. Thank you very much". So you see, I thought if that frightens those fellas that's great, you know, because they've got to jump it. Anyhow they didn't alter the fence, and most of those fellas that's competed at Stockholm didn't finish the course. They were eliminated on the way. And I was second in that thing. Another chap that could do good dressage, he beat me by a few points. So I was second in my first three-day event... And we went on to Gawler, I think I was first and second at Gawler, the big one on the hilly country in Gawler. Funny thing about it you know, I was getting up, I was 43 then I suppose. And they said "Bill, it's a pity you're so old you know". I said "What the hell do you mean, I'm so old?" "Well you know, we like them around about 20 or 21". And I said "What the hell have you got to do to go to the Games? I'm winning. Now what the hell have you got to do?" So they kept on saying that, next one come up, I'm winning again. I kept on winning. So eventually they thought, well we'll have to take him I suppose.

Even though he's so old.

I was 45, see, when I went to Rome. And Laurie Morgan was too.

Why hadn't you gone to Stockholm?

Because we'd just settled in here you know, and I couldn't even afford to wear a hat, and I couldn't afford to buy horses.

It was a big expense to go to the Games.

No, no it wasn't a big expense. No, but it was the damn expense - I was running pretty damn short here you know, because I was trying to get on my feet on this property. Because although they allotted us a few cows, we had to buy cows and there was improvements to be done on the place, superphosphate and seed. You know, there was so much to do and to get going. And I used to get around without a hat and I love to wear a hat, because I couldn't damn well afford to buy a hat. I had more hair to keep my head from the sun, I suppose...

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