Published online: Friday, 28 January 2011

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Interviewed at home in Cattai on 22nd January for the Hills Rural News.

Gordon Johnston

14 Nov 1914 - 30 Jun 2011

A Pitt Town Local Legend and character

There's not many of us who were alive all through the First World War. I still drive a tractor, still dig in fence posts and dig drains. I drive a 5 ton truck but I've been restricted to a 10km radius now. I don't know of any other 97 year old bloke still farming around here.

It's a long way back a there all over Australia, and the whole lot of them deal with the cattle. One of my ancestors led the charge at Rouse Hill and he was given 40 acres of ground to grow wheat and it wouldn't grow and it wasn't till they went to the Hawkesbury that they did manage to grow wheat successfully. They even sent word to England to be picked up, they were starvin'. My people came on the First Fleet. Jim Johnston was on the Dunbar with 745 people and they all perished at the heads. He swam ashore and they found him in a cave the next morning and he got the job of keeping the lighthouse at Newcastle heads and then started farming cattle.

Ebenezer Church cemetery is full of Johnstons. My grandfather owned more ground in NSW than just about anyone. Everywhere he had 600 acres. One at Maroota, one at Vermont, one at Pitt Town. All that's being subdivided now that my grandfather owned, ...James Henry Johnston. He was a big cow man and used to go droving down the Western Rivers. I went down with him when I was 12 year old. I drove from Broke to Wisemans Ferry and then camped and then to Maroota.

{Gordon Johnston was born at the ridge at Cattai, at home.}

I camped then to Homebush, where they we sold, about 105 cattle. Then the police came out and counted em to see that ya didn't pick up any extras along the long paddock.

I remember when I was stock carting with semi trailers, you'd see 6 or 8 sheep tied to the fence with twine so the carters could pick them up for 'emselves on the way back. Now sheep are $200 each! And it's impossible to cut that much meat off 'em, the taxes have buggered it up... and it's getting' worse.

My dad, Henry Johnston, did a bit o' carryin'. He'd go down the Hawkesbury loaded with fruit and vegetables in a steamer through Broken Bay to Sydney Markets.

{"This is gonna waste your paper, the young are not interested ya know..."}

I used to go with him when I was 6 or 7 year old.

In the depression, nobody had any money, and people slept on the side of the road and boiled the billy and made a cup o' tea and now ya not even allowed to do it. The swaggies... you'd give 'em a bit of a feed and it would surprise ya what they'd do for a bit of bread and drippin... they'd sharpen ya scissors or mend ya saucepans and ya could buy stud buttons that ya didn't have to sew on... whatever you could get. At the back of every house there was shoe last that you could hammer a new sole on ya shoe.

The swaggies were mostly sleepin' under the culverts on the side of the road.

Ya'd get half a pound of white lead or pipe clay to whiten ya sand shoes to go to town. There were no buses.

I bought the 200 acres on the river for 200 pounds and turned it into Pacific Park for waterskiing and I had 3 bowsers, Golden Fleece, Plume and Ampol. When the petrol strike was on, I'd go to Queensland and I'd bring 1,000 gallons of petrol down and I was that busy that I had 10 blokes working for me.

All the time I'd go anywhere when anything was cheap, load up the truck and take it to sell it; vegetables, fruit and cattle, pigs, firewood. I supplied Richmond airport while the war was on with 30 ton a day of firewood... I carted bricks and sand. Ya'd go to a creek and fill up the truck with sand by shovel... and had to shovel it off. There wasn't any tip trucks before the days of Jack Lang. He put the transport act on. Ya paid every mile you did. He came to Ebenezer and bought a property and he had a black Angus bull and he hand fed him. If anyone else went on the property the bull would charge 'em. Everyone knew what he had it for. He helped me shovel loads of blue metal off my truck when he built the silo to feed the cattle... Oh he was a thorough gentleman.

{"I'm still as smart as the day after I was born."}

I had 2 sisters and 4 brothers. My brother Tom and I are still alive, he's 11 years younger, he's 86. He was in the Tank Corps in Victoria and I got him out to supply Richmond with wood. I was called up 3 times and each time I was knocked back for cock toes. I go to bed early cos o' truck drivin'. As soon the sun went down we went to bed. Now they don't go to bed till the television stops runnin'. No good for ya body, most animals go to bed when the sun goes down. I still believe that. Can't drink beer cause of sugar troubles and I haven't smoked since 60. The Hawkesbury River is the most flooded river in Australia and this time everywhere else is getting washed away, and Warragamba is only half full. Everyone queries me why I've never needed glasses. I look where I walk always so I don't get bitten by a snake. I think because I've always looked in the bush it's helped my eyes and if the lights not good I don't read the paper. I'm not interested in possessions, just take each day as it comes. Don't worry about things, just do something about it. I sleep like a rock. I'm active with work every day and I walk all the time. I've got acres here in the bush and I'm fine looking after it.

When I was a kid there was 1 or 2 old blackfellas lived in the bush at Maroota and Broadwater. If they caught a fish, they'd sell it and buy rum. When I was a little kid a swaggy lay down on the side of Old Northern Road, Maroota, with no water and died of thirst. A trooper came out from Windsor, with a shovel tied beside the saddle and buried him on the spot. Nobody knew who he was but some women still put flowers there at his grave. There is ground water a foot below him.

I remember riding on the steam ships Erringhi and the Sunrise. I did a few trips up the Colo with Wal Jones. Walking pigs along the plank with him onto the boat and loading watermelons. I remember the blacks' camp on the river at Sackville - they weren't bad blokes. They would hop in and give ya a hand loading watermelons for a coin or a smoke. They'd grab a cob off and hollow it out and put a bit of bamboo in it. They liked a smoke the niggers... even smoked the old tea leaves.

In the depression we got butter from the neighbours... if not, lard or dripping. I remember going on the old steam boats, crated up with veggies from the Hawkesbury, through the heads to Sydney. Bit rough but you just ploughed through it. My father loaded corn on the Erringhi... my uncle, Hal Johnston was the owner of it. Dad was only 5 foot 7. He could carry a 3 bushel bag of corn weighing 180 lb on his shoulder along a 3 x 2 inch plank onto the boat every year for the corn crop. They worked 10 hours a day. He died of a heart attack droving cattle to Riverstone. He fell off his horse. The police came to Cattai and I went home and worked the farm to work it off. I was 9. The day I turned 17 I went into Windsor and bought a new 1300 wt Chev 6 truck. The policeman wasn't interested if I could drive. All he wanted was the 10 shillings for the license and I drove it home. In 2 years time I had 3 trucks half paid for and didn't know when I was gonna sleep the next day. This was all from buying and selling vegetables and that was at the heart of the depression. Sometimes you did your money when the food spoiled. See even in the depression people had to eat something. I was buying and selling pigs and swapping cows and chooks. Some blokes paid in home-made beer. Ya know how to catch 100 bull-head mullet in a net and sell 'em, get honey out of the bush and sell it. Ya can't leave a swarm of bees in the bush any more. When it is full, some smartarse will swap it for an empty one.

I went droving 4 times to Broke up the Hunter. A week's trip, 3 or 4 of us with a hundred head of cattle. We'd swim them across the Hawkesbury at Wisemans. We'd put a punt load on and wind it across by hand. And the rest of the mob would swim across following the punt and we'd cut the fence on the Sydney side to get them through, then patch the fence up. We'd all get down to Wisemans ferry for the races once a year... in my early twenties. We gambled on them, tried to win a quid. There's too many rules now and GST's the worst thing that's ever happened. Italians won't pay it. You can't get GST off an Italian. He puts the money in a stump, not in the bank.

If it was dry at Broke you got the cattle cheap and if it rains at Broadwater on the swamp, you put them on it and when they're fat, off to Homebush. I remember droving cattle as a teenager and till I was 20. I'd unload cattle from Western NSW, off the railway at Parramatta and drove them on horseback through Granville and Auburn, down Parramatta Road. It was concrete and patches of dirt that made clouds of dust all along for about about 6 hours to Homebush sale yards, all pastoral, and we sold them at auction.

Sometimes ya lost some, sometimes ya made some. There were blokes making a living buying drought affected sheep next to nothin', shear 'em, sell the wool to Parramatta Woollen Mills, then sell the poor sheep to anyone who wanted a feed. There was a rule in the depression. Ya could kill the sheep and eat it but you had to hang the fleece on the fence for the owner to sell.

Everyone at Riverstone seemed to work at Riverstone meat works... a big slaughter house and hundreds of acres, everyone lived on Riverstone meatworks. Then Vestys put a sign on the gate. No more work. It all stopped. So we started to deal in meat ourselves. We'd milk the cow and hang the milk can on the fence for the neighbour. They'd take it and leave a dozen eggs there and that's only stopped recently in Halcrows Road. The iceman used to leave ice in a canvas bag at the letterbox and take the shilling. Kids started pinchin' the money and that practice stopped all round Australia. Things went strictly to cash, the values slipped. Blokes who couldn't read or write could always count money and they became very cunning with dealing. I learnt school in a rough way, a couple of years. I can sign a cheque but I can't write one out and yet I've been able to buy and sell properties all my life... say... 20 properties... 'cos the taxman might be reading this. Schooling is definitely overrated. The school of life... that's where you learn it. You watch 5 year old kids deal amongst themselves... it's experience... don't you worry about it... they're smart... the day after they're born.

Wal Jones, the last of the Hawkesbury steamboat captains died circa 1990 aged 104, at age 99 he was Joffe'd and told how around 1931, the height of the Depression, the swaggies opened up more tracks to the Hawkesbury River. The relief workers built roadworks with pick and shovel, while trucks became less primitive. The steamboat was no longer the fastest way to get produce to Sydney markets. We never dreamt that in 2011 we would record a man who not only spanned this history but took a big part. Gordon's 17th birthday pins the very day which is 14th November, 1931 that brought in the modern era for the Hawkesbury and the Hills. It is an honour to bring to you the living men and women who helped to build our district and we can acknowledge them now while they are with us.

A lady had a little stall at Cattai. Kingsford Smith came there and wanted to know where he could get turf. She knew I cut turf and she told him where to find me. He told me who he was and said will you take me and show me. He drove a Sunbeam Talbot motor car. A bushy lookin' bloke like you'd expect to see in the bush. We went through 2 gates, he gave me the wheel and said "I'll open the gate... you know where ya goin?. We went onto the river bank, he said "Any of this'll do", but I took him over to the oak trees and he said "Oh that's special". He was a down-to-earth bloke but dreamed of flying. He said "I'm gonna fly from England to Australia to set up a mail run". I said "Don't you fly a single engine plane all that way. It'll fall down with ya". He said "Oh I'll be alright". He got as far as Singapore and crashed. I was a young man... too far back for me to work it out (the year). Well he never saw that turf laid. His brother paid for the turf... I just supplied it... North Sydney... can't recall the street... the gardener there said "Oh I can sell all you can cut of this". I marked it out with a 20 foot batten and an axe if it was dead square and 12 inches wide. Not many did it. Lloyd Brown later had a contract to cut turf at Long Neck Lagoon for 5 shillings a year. (laughter).

I've worked for Sidney Kidman, cartin' stock during drought on the overland road, South Australia. They couldn't get cattle from one waterhole to the next because you cant drove em if you don't have water every 20 mile. But get em in a truck and you do 200 mile without given 'em a drink. I had 5 Dodge trucks that were used in Egypt... army stuff. We used all army stuff. It's only recently you can pick 'n' choose. I remember when international trucks wee only 2 bearing crankshaft. Jackson Thompson was the agent. They used to drive bags between the wheels to take up the slack. I remember the first bus going to Wisemans ferry... a 6 cylinder International... a along tourist wagon filled out with 20 seats. It ran 3 days a week then it ran 6 days a week.

My favourite Prime Minister was Billy Hughes. He was fairdinkum, of course he was. He was a battler. He never went to school... made his money selling push bikes.

As a tribute to Gordon, Pitt Town pub received 100 copies of this edition, for his friends, and his caricature to hang on the wall in the pub.

Mick Joffe

More Characters

Since the early 1970s, Mick Joffe's passion has been to caricature and record endangered characters of Australia, and the world. As of 2015, the majority of these interviews exist only in manuscript form.

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