An Aussie from Handsworth by Kate McVea, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

I have recently contacted Carl Chinn to see if he can help me find any living relatives in the UK.  Grace, one of the members of this site, kindly put me in touch with Carl and even mailed me a copy of the Brummagem magainze - what a wonderful lady.  I have emailed Carl some details and also photos of my father.  Unfortunately, I have none of him as a young teenager, which he was when he left England.  Carl has replied that my request will be in his January 2005 issue.

My dad, Samuel Bradley Powell, was adopted along with his sister Maree and brother George, by George Powell and his wife Margaret (nee Dovey).  Sam believed that he and his siblings were blood kin.  I do not know what year they were adopted, but my father thought his birth date was 1908.  I have copies of his school record from Handsworth Grammar which confirms that he attended 1920-1924.  He also attended Rookery Road Council School until he was 13.

Dad often spoke of his early life in Handsworth.  They lived at 134 Newcombe Road.  He talked about running through the house on New Years Eve to let the old year out and the new year in.  He was chosen for this ritual because of his dark complexion.  I'm not sure of the legend behind this practice.  He also spoke of polishing the brass on the stairs every week and of working an allotment with his adoptive father.  He told me that Margaret Powell's nephew, Walter Dovey, lived with them for some time.

Dad's mother died around 1924 after she developed pneumonia due to being caught in a snow storm.  I have been unable to find a record of her death.  My dad was devastated as he was devoted to her.  Then about a year later his father remarried and that seemed to be the final straw for dad.  He must have decided to come to Australia.  

After a friend advised me to check with the Big Brother Movement to see if they had any information about my father, I emailed them and had a phone call from Sydney and that is how I found out my dad came to Australia under the Dreadnought Trust.  I also found out that he sailed out on the Aberdeen Line's Diogenes in October 1925.  I knew what ship he came out on, but was never aware that he was a "Dreadnought lad" and he seemed pretty vague about it, saying it had "something to do with Big Brother".

Dad told me often of how he arrived in Fremantle in Western Australia and heard a drunken sailor say on the dock, "Cripes, more bloody pommies".  He also said he came to realise in the ensuing years that the Aussies weren't necessarily insulting the English when they called them "pommies".  It was and still is used by the oldies as a term of affection for our English cousins.

Advertisements such as the one below appeared in the English press:

New South Wales is prepared to accept lads between 15 and 19 years of age for free farm training and maintenance at either Scheyville or one of the apprentice farm schools under the Agricultural Department. Boys for the apprentice farms should be superior class and receive up to twelve months subject to good behaviour and at the option of the boy.

I have researched the National Archives in Australia and this is an extract of a terrible publication dated 1921 I found associated with the Dreadnought scheme:

"Doubtless it would be more stirring to the imagination of boys were they told that Australia abounds in native tribes to be warred and wrestled with, and finally vanquished, of course, after the valiant manner of so many of those rollicking stories of life in new lands.  True, there used to be some of this in Australia in times gone by, but to-day the few thousand aboriginal blacks remaining are confined to the practically unsettled regions of the far north of the continent and the average Australian hardly knows that they exist.  And much better so, as it is this absence of hostile peoples which leaves the Australian free to exploit the riches of his immense continent without let or hindrance".

This reflects the dreadful attitude people had towards their indigenous populations in those days.  Dad did meet several Aboriginal stockmen on the large sheep stations he worked on and spent many hours with them droving.  He related an incident where one Aboriginal he was camped with told him he would give anything he had to be a white man.  Dad replied to him that as far as he was concerned he was already (a white man that is).  It was with one of these black stockmen that he first tasted witchety grubbs and said they were all right too!

I also found out these facts from my National Archives research:

The Dreadnought trustees would pay 8 pounds towards each fare and the Australian Government a grant of 12 pounds.  The Dreadnought Trust also gave them 10 shillings as landing money and also had 10 shillings deposited in the Government Savings Bank to encourage the boys to save.  During the training they were to be given one pound per week pocket money and, on completion of the course, a further one pound as good conduct money.

According to the National Archives, all these arrangements seemed reasonable on paper and many Dreadnought boys found satisfaction in their new lives, but there were serious problems for the majority. They were city boys being trained as farm labourers, and existing as strangers in a strange land. They were young and immature, scattered over vast distances, exploitable and exploited. They suffered loneliness, homesickness, `Pommy bashing' and culture shock.  Many returned - over the years - to Great Britain, especially during the Depression when some faced unemployment without the support networks taken for granted by long-standing residents. There were some widely-publicised suicides among the boys and deaths from illness and accidents. It was a tough apprenticeship.

Only very few of the Dreadnought lads were offered 12 months at an agricultural college.  The majority had three month crash courses in farming at places like Scheyville near Sydney where my father went.  The training they got at Scheyville was basic, conditions primitive and staff semi-literate, mostly veterans of World War I who could not obtain better positions anywhere else.  They were given basic training to be in essence farm labourers, while being assured that if they worked hard they would soon be earning good money to buy their own farms

My dad related a tough apprenticeship indeed.  His first job on a large farm provided lodgings in a hut abutting the pigpen.  Every night the farmer rubbed lard into his sore, bleeding hands.  But he survived it all and learnt a lot about life on the land in a harsh countryside such as the Australian outback.  He could ride a horse with the best of them and drove a team of 18 horses pulling a 16 ton wagon of wool 35 miles to the nearest railway station.  He told me that his first trip was a disaster.  He let the wagon overrun the horses and ended up in a tangle of chains and kicking, agitated draft horses.  He went on musters into the mountain ranges rounding up wild horses.  These musters took up to two months.  The horses were railed to Sydney and then shipped to India as army remounts.  He worked on a riding school in a beautiful valley in New South Wales, which later was flooded for an hydro-electric scheme in that State.  It broke his heart to think of all that lovely countryside gone.  He cut cane in Queensland and pitched hay in over 100 degree heat.  The intensive sun turned his skin deep brown and he constantly got ragged about being a "Pommie" and looking like an "abo".  The only part of him that was lily white was his legs.

Taken at the riding school
in Buragarong Valley, New South Wales

One funny story he tells of a place he worked is this.  His boss (the "cocky") boasted in the pub to one and all that his horse could beat his neighbour's horse at the upcoming picnic races.  The problem was that the cocky didn't have two bob to rub between his fingers to feed his nag to get him ready for the race.  So he decided to get dad (the smallest employee) to sneak into the neighbour's silos and steal fodder to build up his horse for the race.  Dad was also chosen to ride the horse and, luckily for the cocky, he won the race.  I don't think dad was given any of the winnings though.

Another tough cocky used to say to dad all the time "The cheapest way to clear a paddock is to get a mob of floggin' pommies, work `em till they can't hold an axe, sack `em and get another mob'.  Dad used to laugh as he looked back on those days.

Dad lost touch with his brother George around 1930 when the Australia has fallen into Depression.  George was in the British Army and was in India at the time.  He wrote to dad saying he wanted to come to Australia and dad wrote back advising him it wasn't a good time to come.  He never heard from him again, but he could quote his brother's Army Number (1056916) until the day he died.  His sister Marie married an American and he never heard from her as far as I know.  

He joined the Army in Sydney in 1941.  He was 33 and had been in Australia about 16 years.  A mystery to me is that he then called himself Arthur Powell and I only knew him as such until I got his school records after his death.  He was sent to the Middle East and New Guinea.  He came out of the Army 7 stone and riddled with malaria and suffering with his nerves and a back injury.  He met my mother, a Tasmanian girl, in Sydney and after visiting her family on their apple orchard went on to marry her and make his home in Hobart.  He worked for many years for the Agricultural Department utilising many of the skills he'd learned over his years on the land.  Unfortunately, due to his back injury he was unable to continue to pursue his love of horse riding, but made up for it by attending the horse races regularly and placing his bets.  I think he lost a lot more than he won, but he only told us about the wins.

As far as his father and his new wife were concerned, I can't be certain, but I get the impression that dad never kept in contact with his father because of the remarriage.  I don't think he forgave his father for what he considered was disloyalty to his mother's memory.

There are no photos of his family.  Dad said he lost all his photos in a kit bag that was blown up during the war.  I'm not at all sure that this was the truth, but maybe it was.  I have to realise that communication was not as easy then as it is now, with cheap telephone calls, email, digital cameras and even affordable airfares to keep in touch with family abroad.  But why dad stopped writing home I'll never know now.  Dad passed away in 1989 aged 78 from bone cancer, a legacy of many years smoking the dreaded weed.  How I wish I had questioned him more about his family.

I think it was a shame that he never went back to England himself.  He was never a rich man and such a trip would have been out of his reach.  However, I felt very privileged to have had a trip over to the UK in 2000 with my husband and to see the house where dad lived, his schools and the country where he grew up.  Dad always said I'd love the English pubs - he was right - I did!

Kate McVea, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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