Australian Biography

Ray Whitrod - full interview transcript

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How did you get to school? When you were travelling when you went to school, how were you supposed to go to school in those days?

Well, most of the time we lived nearby the schools I went to. The convent school, the North Adelaide school, the Cowandilla school, we were close by and we were originally at Norwood because we lived on the plain, but when we moved to Halifax Street, it was quite some distance and I would leave home about twenty-past-eight and travel by tram out to Norwood school and that's how I'd get to school. My mother would give me sixpence for tram fares and for lunch and I would spend a penny going out there in the tram and then unfortunately for me, where I got off the tram at the school, there was a bookshop, stationery shop, which always had boys' comics in it, and I used to go into the shop and spend my five pence on boys' comics and not have any ... go hungry for lunch unless I could persuade some of the boys to swap me a sandwich for the comic that I had read and I did that for a long time. So I was always very hungry by four o'clock, five o'clock, when I came home for tea.

And you were prepared to walk like ... like that too?

Oh yes, it was about three miles but when you're nine, ten, eleven, you can walk that distance after school and usually there were one or two other lads that were going in that direction. In fact the ... the two lads that came with me were, most of the way, two of the wild boys, the bottom boys in the class and I was the top boy in the class. It was an unusual combination but they taught me a lot. They taught me how to be careful if you were stealing parts of a bicycle: you make sure the numbers are taken off and repainted and so forth. I think one, if not both, had been in the Magill Boys' Reformatory and their mates were in that category, so they ... I knew a little bit about raiding fruit ... fruit orchards and getting saltpetre shot at you by the fruit gardeners and so forth. But ... and maybe if I'd stayed in their company, that's the track I might have gone down.

Did the knowledge come in useful when you were a policeman?

Yes, it did. I ... I ... I ... I'm not sure it was useful, it was a temptation. I was on line with them. I knew what they were talking about. When a thief walks down a street or a housebreaker walks down a street, he ... his perception is vastly different from a law-abiding person. The thief always looks for opportunities of things to steal: he sees a window open, he sees somebody's parked the car and left the key in the ignition, he knows that there's no dog at this house, he sees the shopping basket and so forth. He doesn't know the architecture or perhaps the painting of the house but he knows what the opportunities are and ... and then a policeman comes along afterwards and if ... if he looks through, through the criminal's eyes, he's got a better chance of working out what happened. You know if ... if ... psychology taught me that if a ... if a gardener walked down a street, the gardener at the end of the street could tell you what was in the front garden, what flowers were growing, what shrubs were in flower. I could never do that. I wasn't interested in gardening. I was interested in open windows and ... and milk cans that had been left out the front with money in them and so forth. That's the ... that's the way I was going.

Now when you left school, what year was it that you finished?

I left school when I was seventeen, in 1932, about half way through the year.

And your education had consisted of your formal education, which you hadn't paid a huge amount of attention to, the education of the other boys and so on, and you've had this big influence from the Baptist church and from the scouts ...

Well, not much from the Baptists except they sung Sunday school hymns, I suppose.

I mean the Baptist mission and the man there who helped you. Looking back now and just putting that altogether, those adolescent years, years that you went through high school, what would you say were the main influences on you, that were shaping you at that time? Could you sum them up for me?

I think one thing was my poverty. I always felt uncomfortable in the class because my ... my clothes were the cast-offs of an uncle who'd died and they didn't fit me and I was gawky, I was growing and ... and I was in ... in my intermediate and leaving years, in a mixed class with girls and boys and on the whole they wore school blazers and school caps, and the girls dressed in school blazers and so forth, and I was in ill-fitting clothes and didn't have any money for lunch and ... and didn't do my homework, so the only thing from school that I really got was a feeling of an ability as an ... an athlete. I was a good runner. I won the school's half-mile championship, combined high schools' half-mile championship and I was quite a good runner, and I played football and soccer at reasonable levels. But the scholastic side escaped me a little bit. I really should have paid more attention, but I didn't.

Did you have a little bit of a feeling of inferiority then because of the poverty? Did you feel a little bit inferior?

Oh yes, I did, a great deal. I used to ... one of the ... One of the girls at the mission school was a recent arrival from England and they had a grocery shop on Hutt Street and she would walk home in the same direction as me. If I wasn't playing football or sports, I would walk home with her and she was always nicely dressed and so forth, and she always did her homework and she was always second or top of the class. And later, we would talk about school and I was not really very advanced sexually at that stage, fourteen or fifteen, not like they are today, but, you know, I liked the girl's company and she was a good, good sport and then later on I met her. Years ... very many years later I met her and she said to me, 'Ray, I'm staggered at your progress. How well you've done'. And I said, 'What do you mean?' She said ... she said, 'I never thought you were that bright', and I thought she was a good friend, but not with that remark. [Laughs]

But you didn't think you were that bright either, did you?

No, I didn't, no. I ... I was just scraping through on my exams and, and I didn't understand that if you did your homework, that's what gave you the edge over people like me who didn't, and I didn't understand that. If I had of, maybe I would have done more homework, maybe my life would have been different.

How did your mother afford your scout uniform?

Yes. Well, I think, one, she had a system of emergency rationing system that if ... if we were sick and had to have a doctor's attention, she would have to pay a doctor's bill and there were no free doctors or free medicine in those days. I know when I had boils she would take me to the chemist and the chemist would lance them and not charge us, but for ... if you were sick, really sick, get a doctor and with the scouts there was no scout uniform. We ... we were compelled to buy a heavy serge pair of pants, They were the best pants I ever had and they were my mine own new pants and shirt and so forth, and what she did was she had a Singer sewing machine and we always had the latest model Singer sewing machine in our house. It was really the only thing that was in the house apart from a couple of beds and a table and a couple of chairs, and I never worked out why it was that we always had this latest model sewing machine, although my mother was a good machinist, a good sewer, and she would turn up clothes and so forth. And then I worked out that what was happening was that every three or four years, the Singer sewing machine company would bring out a new model and my mother would trade in the old model for a new one on time payment. And when she traded in the old model she got a cash refund, plus the cost of course of the new one, which you paid off at two shillings a week. So whenever my mother really was faced with ..., she would get a new model sewing machine which meant for all our lives we had a man called Mr. Gooch calling for us on Monday morning and collecting two shillings a week. It was a sort of money lending scheme.

And so that, that sewing machine cost twice its normal value.

Oh, five or six times its ... its worth, but there was no other access to funds anywhere. My ... my mother's mother was ... was poor and my father's father had died. We had no ... nobody to ... to sponsor me at all.

And then you left school in the Depression. I suppose in this framework of the family, very eager to get a job. Did you get one?

Yes. I got one temporarily as an office boy and I wasn't very good at it. It was seven and six a week which was a big ... a big thing for my mother because she got most of that, but I had to dust the office furniture and do a lot of menial tasks which I ... I [laughs] thought was a cleaner's job and not somebody with a matriculation certificate and I was really only half sold on the ... on the job. I didn't do it very well and I ... I got the sack in the end because I left the firm's bicycle out in the little alleyway alongside the ... the main building and ... and one of the two partners had driven his car along this narrow way and had collided with my bike and caused some damage to his car. This happened twice and he thought that was the limit so I got the boot and ... and my mother was upset and I wasn't very upset, but she was. I thought I'd get another job and I didn't and I tried to go fruit picking in the Murray - apricots and grapes - but they already had big lists of waiting people so there was no money in the ... in the bush for people like me.

What year was it?

Oh that would have been when I was seventeen. I was out of work for almost a year, seventeen to eighteen, something like that and ... although I was entitled to rations because I'd turned sixteen, and you could get rations if you were unemployed. That was the sort of dole that we got. You got a pound of sugar and you got two loaves of bread and some potatoes, some onions and a pound of meat, and that was the week's ration and I could give those to my mother and that helped. But when I went out in the bush looking for work, it was hard to make that meagre ration go round but along the Murray you could always get plenty of grapes to eat and ... and oranges and fruit along the Murray, growing along the side of the road so I ... I had a fairly meagre diet for quite some time.

Now during that year, when you were looking for work along the Murray, and only on rations, what did you use for rent? Where did you sleep?

I carried a swag and slept out under some trees and then eventually finished up at Barmera and at Barmera on the river Murray. That was the centre of an irrigation area, where I thought I might get jobs when the apricot season come on. The local scout master let me ... and a mate ... camp down in a little shed at the bottom of the yard and there was no stretchers, we slept on the floor and ... and that's where I was for some time.

And how did that end? Did you get work in the end?

[Laughs] Oh well, in-between times I'd fallen in love with a girl and she was a school teacher and ...

How did you meet her?

Well, she'd come along to a scout meeting that I'd been running at ... at the church, Flinders Street Church, and her sister was running the cub pack and she herself was running a guide company. We got involved in that way and ... and in my last year at high school we'd ... her brother and I had hiked down to Victor Harbour and spent some days down there and she and her friend had come down there so we got involved down there and ... and I fell in love with her and it was a difficult year for me. And then, they, this family, the Russell family, my in-laws, saw a notice in The Advertiser that the SA Police were advertising for young people with a good education to become police cadets. So I got on my bike and pedalled back to Adelaide and sat ... First of all we had a physical examination and I just scraped through because although I was very physically fit, I was only five foot nine and a half, and five foot ten was the minimum height, but the doctor, the police doctor, who was examining me, he said, 'He's only eighteen. He'll grow the extra half inch'. I never did but ... so I was always one of the shortest police, a shorty in the police force. So I joined the police force as a cadet.

What did you know about the police force at that time? What did you think being a policeman meant?

Yes, well, I hadn't had much touch with them at all, except stories my mother had told me when ... when she'd been in Birdsville as a young girl, her mother had left home, fairly often for quite long intervals, because she'd been a midwife and she would go out to a cattle station and help with the birth of a child and that meant that she was away a week or a couple, maybe three weeks at a time. And my mother was then the eldest of a small family of four or five children, aged ... My mother was then aged ten or eleven and she looked after them, and she told me that if they got sick and she didn't know what to do, she would whip across a strip of land between the ... the Haylock house and the Birdsville Police Station and she'd go across there and there was a sergeant-in-charge, an old sergeant there, and a constable and she and the old sergeant would take down a home remedies book. My mother couldn't read at that stage because there'd been no school at the time, and the old sergeant and she would pour over this book to find out what ... what was wrong with the sisters or brothers and what remedies were available in a ... in a very poor little hut in Birdsville. And there would be castor oil and ... and Bates Salve, a few home remedies and they'd use those, and there was no doctor in town, and the flying doctor service hadn't arrived, the inland mission hospital wasn't there, and so my mother had grown up with this very close friendly relationship with the policeman - the police sergeant, and it seemed to me that, that was a sort of, you know, reasonable life helping other people, and that's what policemen were paid to do, to help other people and were paid reasonable salaries and I thought that was what being a policeman meant.

Was that in your mind then or was it more to please the people who became your future in-laws that made you join?

Well, it was a job of course and that would have given me ... made me more acceptable to my in-laws. I had a steady job, a government job and government jobs were status jobs in the Depression, and it was also a job I thought was out of doors and I liked being out of doors and there wasn't much paperwork in those days and so generally it was something that appealed to me.

Who was this girl? Who was this girl that had made such an impression on you?

Oh it's my, my present wife. [Becomes emotional] Sorry, Robin. Yeah, we got ... we got engaged when I was twenty-one, and still in the police force and then ...

Let me ... Let me get you to describe ... take you back. You're eighteen years old, and you go down to Victor Harbour. Could you tell me about meeting her and what it was about her: I'd just like a little picture about how it was then.

Oh right. Well, Victor Harbour ... you won't know this but Victor Harbour was then a fairly attractive holiday weekend spot and we went down there, Brice and I, walked, hiked down there and ... and Mavis and Gert, her friend, came down there and ... and we went out on few joint expeditions. We went out in a fisherman's boat to collect crays and so forth and I remember coming back, being very sick because when you're picking up cray pots you stay still and the boat rocks violently and I came back and we were all very sick and I can remember the three of us being prostrate on the ... on the beach and moaning and groaning, and Mavis was quite ... was sick but quite cheerful about it and made ... made it into a joke and I thought, well, you know, that's an unusual sort of girl. I didn't know many girls but she seemed to me to be a very attractive sort of personality and then we spent a few days riding on the little river there and ... and she became a sort of a ... very much the person I wanted to be with. I talked to her and ... and of course, I was impressed, she was a school teacher. She never talked down to me. First school teacher I'd met that didn't talk down to me, and she listened to some of my stupid ideas and ... and didn't throw cold water on them and so we got on famously, and I don't think she ever saw me as a sort of a suitor at that time because I was seven years younger and so we kept company. When we got back home we would go to a few scout dances and so forth but I was never regarded as a sort of suitor by the in-laws or by Mavis. I was just Brice's friend, and so it was quite some time before they saw that I had serious intentions about marrying her.

And what did they feel about this boy, young boy, without a job, being interested in their daughter?

Well, when it became clear that I was seriously interested in their fairly successful daughter, in their mind ... They'd been very welcoming and warm and kind to me, that became less so and although they never shunned me and I was always at Sunday tea, at the Russell home and so forth, but they made sure I was always closely chaperoned and supervised and the number of opportunities when Mavis and I would be alone were very strictly limited until, of course, I got the job in the police force and I was a cadet and when I was twenty-one I got attached to the CIB. I was the ... one of the first, I suppose, of the young people to go into the CIB and my ... my shorthand, which I learnt in high school, at which I was fairly good, was a new, new technique in police interrogations and I used to go to all the more serious interrogations and take down the conversations [in] shorthand and then give it as a witness in the Supreme Court later on. This was quite a brand new concept in policing in South Australia and occasionally when I first started doing this, it was also new to the defence lawyers and they would ... they would ask to see my shorthand notebook and they would get their secretaries to check my outlines and make sure that it wasn't a bogus report and so forth, but it proved to be a very solid line of interest ... of evidence, because here were their words as they were spoken. And so I was gradually accepted as one of their more promising young detectives in the ... in the SA Police Force who hadn't had to go through the unusual selection process. Detectives were usually chosen from the smartest guys on the beat or from the country. You usually had five or ten years uniform service before you were recruited into the detective force. That was a sort of elite force. But I went straight in. I never did any beat duty or traffic duty or motorcycle duty. I and another mate were the first two to form this new sort of career structure.

Do you think you missed something through not being on the beat?

Yes, it may be so. I've never thought, Robin. Maybe, maybe. There were two divisions of the police force in those days. You were a country policeman or a city policeman. A city policeman's routine was very dull. You directed traffic at intersections and you marched up and down your beats in slow time and you ... and you arrested a few drunks and you moved some girls on, who were obviously loitering and so forth, and you reported cellar doors that were left open or street lights that had gone out and should be on. It was a very dull job in the city. In the country you were much more responsible and independent and maybe, maybe I lost something by not being a country policeman but on the other hand I forged this ... this new structure and I was very keen and very happy with the job. I was very good at it. I got more commendations than most other people at that time and I was recognised as one of the brightest sparks. There'd been a programme on one of the local radio stations called Adelaide Speaks about this time and there was a ... a programme on child delinquency and the Police Department had been asked to nominate a speaker, and my inspector, Charles Evatt, had nominated me to the Commissioner. I was then twenty-two or twenty-three, with two years police experience, and I went along to this public debate, which was broadcast, and there was a ... a barrister, leading barrister, a fellow called Hicks. There was the ... the professor, the lecturer in social work from the university and ... and the lecturer in psychology from the university, and we had this discussion about child delinquency, for about an hour, an hour and a half I would think. And the two university academics talked about fairly vague concepts that they'd used, [and] picked up from books and so forth, and Hicks who was a very good orator as a barrister spoke about his sort of contact with, with delinquents. But he ... in those days, he hadn't been in the children's court so he didn't know much about child delinquency and so forth. So I thought it was time to bring ... bring a bit of realism into the discussion and I talked about my life patterns and my friends who'd been delinquents and those I'd been to school with and ... and where we were going and how we thought and this idea that thieves were always looking for opportunities and so forth. And the next day a letter came to the Commissioner of Police from Hicks. I think a copy went to the Adelaide Advertiser ... from Hicks, the barrister, saying that the previous night there'd been this public debate on juvenile delinquency, at which there'd been these two academics and himself and the third one had been Detective Whitrod and he wanted to comment to the Police Commissioner, how ... what's the word he used? ... how 'advanced' the new breed of policemen were. And that sort of ... I got a few like that and that lady who wrote about her clothes. I picked up a few little things from the public, which sort of earmarked me for fairly rapid promotion.

Which you got?

Which I got, yes.

What kind of training did they give you when they recruited you as a cadet? [INTERRUPTION] I'll ask that again. That's okay. What kind of training did they give you when they recruited you as a cadet?

Well, as a cadet, we were ... we were supposed by the Commissioner's vision of a cadet to be sort of cadets who would be superior policemen, and we were supposed to serve time: six months or five months in each of the various branches of the police force. In the detective office, in the fingerprinting, in the photographic section, in the filing section, in the mounted cadre, so that when we were sworn in at twenty-one - you had to be twenty-one then to be sworn in - you would have had a nice background of what the police force was all about. But what happened was when I and a few other mates like me joined the police force we ... we were touch typists and shorthand writers and we got stuck in. As soon as we got to one department they seized us and we stayed there because we were good at typing and they were using one finger typing. So we ... I got very little training. I ... When I went there first I was put in the filing room and for six months all I did was to file dockets away, all day, five days a week, and getting some dockets out. And in the mornings I would be enthusiastic and work hard. By two o'clock I was bored stiff with doing this filing and I would sit down and read them. So some were interesting and some were not. And then when I went to ... later on I was posted to the fingerprints section, and I thought this is going to be interesting, I'll learn how to take fingerprints. And at that time there were three fingerprint experts here in Adelaide. They had been photographers, civilian photographers, who'd learnt fingerprinting from a ... a classic, by a fellow called Dalton. He was the authority. And I thought I'll learn Dalton and I'll become a fingerprint expert, but all I did was to file history cards, record cards, day in and day out, and if I got hold of a copy of Dalton, it was snatched away from me immediately by one of the three fingerprint experts because that was a sort of key and they were the three experts and so they didn't want any challenges. So I learnt nothing about fingerprints. I spent six months just pulling out police histories from cards and putting them back in. It was very boring.

Did you go to a formal training school?

Oh yes, towards the end. There hadn't been enough young men with matriculation who'd applied to join the police force and so they'd adopted a somewhat lower standard called junior constables and these lived in, in the depot, and we went down to the depot for our final twelve months and there you went into a classroom situation and were given a horse, not in the classroom of course, but given a horse you'd look after and ... and you learnt how to ride and how to do mounted drill and how to tent peg and how to use swords on horses. I don't know why. How to jump over hurdles with horses, but young men become very attached to their horses. I had an old chestnut called Ripple and I used to get with the bugle call at six o'clock and go out to Ripple's stall and clean it out and groom him down, take him out and water him, feed him and then I'd come back, have a shower and have breakfast, and then we had ... We had drills of a morning, foot drill or mounted drill and the same thing would be repeated and Ripple would be fed and watered before I had lunch and I used to keep hold of any little apple cores I could find and smuggle these into Ripple and it was ... I enjoyed it very much my association with the horse. But the classes ... the classes were very poor, Robin, and they were in old wool sheds down right on the wharves at Port Adelaide and they were run by the oldest boy in the class and he would read out sections, legal sections of the act, the Criminal Act, and then all of us would write down in longhand very carefully, word for word, which we were supposed to learn that off by heart because these were the acts that we had to enforce: licensing and gaming, lottery, police offences act, criminal law. It was dreadful, really dreadful, but we did it because we were glad to have a job, and we were there thirty days at Port Adelaide. We had one day off ... one day off a fortnight and there also you could get, on the weekend, you could get one night off and that night was also free, but that's all we had. It was dreadful.

What were you taught about the ethics of being a policeman, the context of being a policeman?

Yes. I don't think we ever had any direct sort of training, [or] teaching in this area. We had a very good sergeant in charge, ex-Indian Army man and very smart, very smartly turned out and we were smartly turned out. Inspected our quarters every morning after breakfast and we had to keep the spotless and clean and we had ... We didn't have much contact with real policeman outside. We really weren't given any ... any reinforcement or introduction to an ethical code, a moral code. It was just what we came in with and it was really quite inadequate but I don't think anybody was given any moral training: school teachers or doctors or dentists or anybody at that time. But it was quite inadequate. One thing about it, you'll be interested, we were there weekends, shut up, confined. There were no fences around the place, or a low fence, and just across the road was the Squatter's Arms Hotel. None ... none of the boys ever slipped out to get a bottle of beer or shandy, even on hot weekends.

These were policemen?

These were trainee policemen. Never, never got out. But later on, of course, things were different, but we never had any serious initiation ceremonies like Duntroon or the navy had. We were, I suppose, happy to be where we were because most of them, being like me, had come from nowhere.

Do you think you learnt much from taking care of your horse?

Do you?

Did you learn much in the longer term from taking care of the horse?

Oh only I suppose the strength of my love of animals, which in the way was started by those draft horses in the corporation dray that came done, and it was an old horse I had. Ripple was quite old and steady and slow, and not quite ... so he never bucked me off or anything like that, so you grow fond of animals. And I was very fond of him and I learnt the first thing you do is attend to your pet. You attend to your pet first. Later on Robin, I don't know whether I have ever told you this, but I went to the Boys' Town Reformatory outside Brisbane. I had been invited to go to Boys' Town outside Brisbane, about forty miles outside Brisbane, to present the prizes. This was really a boys' reformatory run by Christian Brothers and I went out there and it was about forty miles in farmland, and it was an old building that had been enlarged and there was about forty quite naughty boys in there, no fences around the place and I went in and was introduced to the boys and so forth and later on, after we had supper, I presented the prizes and they had a little band and they played, and I talked to the Brother in charge and I said, 'I've been lots of boys' reformatories and they always have a very high escape rate. What happens here? You've got no fences around'. And he said, 'Oh we don't need fences'. And I said, 'Well that's an interesting idea. Why don't you?' And he said, 'Well come here', and he took me around the back and around the back of the building there was a stable with about forty horses in it. He said, 'When a new boy comes here we attach him to one of the older boys and we say to him, 'Now look, if you are of good behaviour we'll let you have one of these horses the whole time that you are here. You can ride him and train him and feed him and exercise him and he's your horse'. And he said, 'Those first two or three weeks the older boy passes on his knowledge to the younger boy and the younger boy is thrilled to get a ...

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