Australian Biography

Bill Roycroft - full interview transcript

Tape of 12

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Bill, what part of the country were you born in?

I happened to be born in Melbourne, and I don't know what age I was when I - I suppose I was a few weeks old when I came back to a little place called Flowerdale. And Flowerdale is where I grew up until I was 14.

Where's that? What kind of country?

Flowerdale is approximately 70 mile north of - well it's north-east of Melbourne, up over Kinglake, Kinglake, it's quite a range there, Kinglake. And Flowerdale was where I was established until I was 14, and time went on from there of course. I left school at 14 and the family broke up...

But before we get to leaving school, what was the family like? What did your parents do in Flowerdale?

The family, as far as I can remember, they were milking cows on a place just out of Flowerdale, and my first memory that I can remember, was an old Indian, and he had two horses and a wagonette on the road, and it was close to where they were milking cows. And I can look back and that's the first I can more or less remember as a young child, was these horses moving away, and he was running after them to stop them. That's about the first I can remember.

So horses made an impression on you at an early age.

Yes, they did. Well, the family moved from there to another establishment, oh I suppose there was some five mile from there. And that was only until they had leased another property, and moved to there. Now, when we moved to this property that they'd leased, then it was school days for me. Walk to school or ride behind one of my brothers. And life went on from there.

And did you yourself ride to school?

Well it was quite a mixed up thing. There was, see there was seven in the family. There was two girls and five brothers. And the eldest brother when I firstly went to school had already left school. I believe he left school at 12 year old. And funny thing about that, as we grew up he was the best writer and speller of the whole family. Now, as for riding to school, there was quite a few of us, you know, still going to school. There would be six of us still going to school. Now there wasn't a horse for each one. You, you rode behind one of the others, or you walked to school. But it was usually dink behind them. Sometimes there'd be three of us on one horse, you know. And at one of those rides behind my brother called Ted, we got bucked off this pony and broke my arm, and he galloped home with a flapping arm. It was quite a long time ago, you know, and things were different those times, because Mother then had to put the horse in the jinker and take me 14 mile to have my arm set. And the setting of the arm those days, you know, was two boards on your arm and wrapped around with adhesive tape or something. That was the setting of my arm.

How did you deal with the pain?

Oh I can't remember the pain now, but I suppose there was some pain.

You had to learn to put up with pain.

I guess so.

What was school like? What kind of a school was it that you went to?

The little school was at a place called Break O'Day. Now how the hell it come by the name of Break O'Day I don't know, but there was a nice creek there and it was called Break O'Day Creek. Now whether some people lived on that creek and they were called Break O'Day, so the place was named after them. You see that's going way back before we had a telephone. There was no telephone there and no electricity, none of those sort of things. And that was school for me, but I suppose that was the grounding in my riding, because eventually I had my own horse to ride to school. And it was bush country with big fallen trees on the side of the road, gutters, and going to and from school we jumped those things. And looking back, a few years when Laurie Morgan and I competed, after an event we'd go to the bar and have a drink together. And he said to me one day, as somebody wandered up alongside us, "How can you two blokes be good at cross-country riding?" And he turned to me and said "Bill, remember our cross-country to school". You know, that's how it was.

Did you have a saddle?

I never had a saddle until I was 14 year old.

So what did that teach you about riding? Riding bareback, do you learn a lot?

Well yes. Well I suppose in those days, you had marvellous balance because bareback on any type of horse, you were a saddle on there with your balance. And I suppose that stuck to me right through my equestrian days.

And the relationship with the horse too, it would be - is it closer if you're right there on its back?

Yeah, well the relationship, you know, as years went by and these horses I took to the Olympic Games, yes there was a relationship between them. But leading on from...

I don't want to leave your school yet, because I'd like to know, you said where the school was at Break O'Day. What kind of a school was it? Were there many teachers there? Were there many children? Could you describe the nature of the school?

Yes, I think when I left school there probably was about eight left at that school. There was big families, you know, there, because we were seven and I think we were one of the small families with the seven. There was tens and twelves all around the place. And, you know, there was a little school paddock for those horses. And they'd arrive there in the morning, you know, one from this way. They'd come from all different ways to the school.

And so the horses were left in a paddock. And then you...

They were turned loose in this paddock, because the little creek flowed through this school ground and the horses had water to drink and they had feed, because it was a small paddock.

And what happened inside the schoolhouse? Were you all in one class?

No, no, you all had, you went right through to eighth grade. You started off, I suppose, I don't know how the hell they worked it out those days, but you finished up in eighth grade in that school.

With how many teachers?

Well you see, only had one teacher. Sometimes we just have a learner or a reliever, but mostly we were a bit lucky in having a good teacher that could take the children right through from their first grade to they left school, you know, eighth grade.

Did you like school? Were you good at learning?

I couldn't get out of school quick enough, you know. But they were damn good those days those teachers, because the first thing you learnt at school was to read and write and arithmetic. I think if they go back to those days today they'd be doing something. So many, I believe, that don't go right through so they can read or write. They're pushed through, they don't keep them back if they - they just keep pushing them through. Maybe I'm wrong, I don't know.

Why was it that you couldn't get out of school quick enough?

Well I used to love to take my boots off and run barefooted. As soon as I was out of school, finished for the day, I took my boots off and run barefooted you know. And I don't know I suppose it was I hated being restricted. And once you went into school those days there was no fooling about. No playing about like they do today and taking over the teacher. I know what the cuts and a good cane was.

Did you get the cane very often?

Oh a few times. Yes. And I suppose I deserved it.

Were you athletic? Were you good at sport?

Yes, I think I was, yes. We used to high jump and vault, you know, with the old poles and yeah. Oh yes, I think because running, I could run like a hare, barefooted.

Was that recognised at all at school? Were there school sports...

Oh, we used to have school sports, but we never went on from there. I have a brother that, he could run and was very good at 220, 440, 880. He could run the lot, but stupid man, he never really did anything with it.

And what was going on at home? What were your parents doing to keep this family going? They were on a farm, but what were they actually doing there?

Well it was a dairy farm. It was a dairy farm, and my father used to plough and you know, going back in those early days he ploughed with two horses and a single furrow plough. It was so damn tedious, you know, and then it progressed to three horses and a disc plough that had two discs on it. It was all different, it was all different to what happens today, the mechanised aids. You know, I can see the old Dad now with a bag of oats around, tied to the thing around his neck, and sprinkling the oats on the field, on the paddocks, by hand, you know. Well that was going way back.

What sort a person was your father? What was he like?

He was a very kind man. I think back on it he was terribly damn kind because he many a time - he never ever belted me, but he should have, I'm sure he should have. I think I gave him plenty of opportunities to do that to me.

Doing what kinds of things? What kind...

Well you know, there was a stick or a strap or something.

But I mean what sort of things did you get up to that you think you should have been disciplined for? Can you remember anything...

Well, I think it's probably at times he's told me to do something and I haven't done it, you know.

And what did you have to do around the farm? What were your jobs?

Well mainly, after I left - well we milked cows before we went to school, you know, and we milked them when we came home.

From what age?

We milked cows by hand those days. There was no machines. That was before machines. So it was - and I think back on it now, you know, how things could have been much different if they'd have been more looking ahead. If he'd have thought, now, instead of having all these horses I'd put them on push-bikes. Everybody ride a push-bike. If you take a family of seven and you just think of the horses it took, as we grew up everybody had a horse. Horses to drive - pulling the jinker for the women. And then to feed those horses you had a big shed full of chaff. And to get that chaff you had to plough the fields with those horses. Then you had to store that away, all this feed and all these horses to create this feed. Now if they'd put them all on push-bikes, and milked a big mob of cows that could have been fed where those horses were being fed, you know, it would have been a different life. They could have made much more money.

But you would never have gone away and got a gold medal for being an equestrian.

Well what the hell, you know.

And what about your mother? What was she like?

I thought Mother was a hell of a - she was a very soft person. You know, I think one of the boys, our boys is a bit like my mother, soft and very thoughtful. And I thought she was a very good looking woman, she was. That might have been her downfall later on in life. I don't know.

What happened to her later on?

Well the family broke up eventually. And we split up.

At what age were you when that happened?

I was, I suppose I was about 15 then. I went with my mother to New South Wales. And I was eventually - I suppose I was looking after myself at 15. I was - I was a messenger boy in the Water Commission in New South Wales, the Irrigation Commission, Leeton, New South Wales. And I probably learnt to fight a bit there, because the messenger boys, we used to scrap a bit. That was a pretty big, pretty big office there where they run the Irrigation Commission. That was just before they brought in the rice into Leeton and Griffith and those places.

It was very unusual in those days to have a family break up like that. How did it effect you all that that occurred? Was it upsetting?

I suppose it was. But I don't know whether it worried me greatly. I suppose it did those times. But it did my elder brothers. They were older than me. They took it hard, and one sister. One of my sisters also went with my mother. And one of the brothers was, had, he had paralysis, and he was put into Melbourne and boarded in Melbourne, and went to - finished his schooling in Melbourne. And stayed there for the rest of his life. Finished up owning shops, and he did well for himself eventually.

What were the circumstances of the break up? Did your mother meet somebody else?

Yes, yes, it was a brother of my father.

And did she go to New South Wales with your uncle to live?


Did she go with your uncle, your father's brother, to New South Wales?

Yes, yes.

How was it decided who would go with her and who would stay with your father?

I think she made that decision. But I didn't stay with them. I went out on my own, and I slept in sheds and I did all sorts of funny things you know.

Did you, in effect, run away from home?

Oh, I think I just said "Look, well I'm going on my own".

So how old were you when you actually left school?

I was 14.

And what was your first job?

My first job was breaking in all the hacks on the property into harness. I set to and I used to - of course they were ridden so they were well mouthed these horses, and there was a spring cart. I don't know whether you know anything about a spring cart, but it's like a dray that you cart things in. Your horse got sharves on it and you have a heavy type of horse that pulls it. And you carted your oats and stuff with it. So I used to catch these horses and tie them to the fence, pull the cart up on to them, put the harnesses on them. And I knew about putting kicking straps on them so they couldn't kick, and a belly band and all that sort of stuff. And I'd untie them off the fence, slip back into the cart and let them go. I used to go out on to the road and away we'd go. Well they were well mouthed so I could hold them, and I used to stand up in the cart, and I broke in about seven or eight horses, just after leaving school at 14.

Those were your father's horses?

Or my brother's horses and sister's horses. The whole lot, yeah. And the Mother took a couple of those horses with her when she went north, yeah.

Did you feel really affected by leaving the property that you'd grown up on?

Yes, I did, I did, because if you grow up on a property, you know - I went there before I could remember much at all. And growing up it was home, you know.

What's it like now at Flowerdale? Is it still like it was when you were a kid?

The home's still there. I like to go back there once a year, and I drive around all that place up there, Flowerdale, and all the places that I used to roam over. And in my - see when I left school there was no damn money, things were very tough. And you don't probably remember terribly much about the old Depression, but when I was 14 - see that made me about 28... I was born 1915, that puts me into 28, 29, or thereabouts anyhow. And that's running into the old Depression. And boy, that was - they know nothing about today what went on all back in those times. Bank managers carrying their swag. And you know, you would go some 15 or 16 mile and you'd pass quite a few swaggies. We called them swaggies, carrying their swag. And there was one old woman in my area that used to carry a swag, Old Mary we used to call her. Today you don't see a swaggie on the road. You see people walking, might be travelling somewhere, but you don't see swaggies carrying their swags so they camp under a tree or under a bridge. But we did, we saw that, you know.

So you were rather lucky to get a job as a messenger boy at that time.

Yes, I suppose I was. I was interviewed, I read a bit of paper, they wanted messenger boys and so I went and applied and was accepted. And I spent two years - I spent two years as a messenger boy.

And you said that you scrapped a little bit with the other boys. What was it like?

Well there was a bit of opposition you know, and I found my bike was getting wrapped up in wire - I'd have a message to do and I'd get my bike, it's tied up in wire. So I sorted them out. You know, see I broke my thumb on the first one, so I had to fight one at lunch-time and the other one after work. So the boys in my office they strapped my thumb up so I could fight after work. But we were only kids and it wasn't much of a scrap I suppose.

So did you feel very grown up to be involved in these fights, or were they a bit scary?

No, no, it wasn't scary, no.

Have you ever been scared? As a kid...

No, I can't remember being scared. I think you know, looking back, if I'd have been a bit more scared, or thinking a bit more about my cross-country - somewhere along the line I'll tell you about Munich. There it would have helped be to be a bit scared.

But you were brought up to be fearless.

I don't know, you know, pain, people worry a great lot, it bores me to tears. People, you know, they bruise their thumb or some damn thing or they cut a thumb, they're off to see the doctor, you know, into the doctor. I've had one ear nearly torn off, you know, with a horse, and I said to Mavis, "See if you can stitch that thing up". She said "No". Barry was here, "Take him to hospital". So they took me and had it stitched up. A lot of those things, you know, people, they rush off to the hospital, rush off to the doctor. Doesn't work you know.

And it wasn't the way it was when you were growing up.

No, no, it was not. I think probably - oh things are different you know. I lost my damn teeth through carelessness. And not brushing your teeth and looking after your teeth. Today - God I made sure our boys looked after their teeth and they kept their teeth. So as we go through you'll find the change from my time. And, you know, these swaggies I was talking to you about, they slept in all sorts of - under bridges and anywhere they could get a bit of shelter for the night, somebody's hay shed.

You were two years as a messenger boy with the Irrigation Commission. What brought that to an end?

Well I got, I got sick of being a messenger boy and being sent here, sent there, you know. So I left there and I returned back down to Flowerdale. I didn't live right in the - I didn't live in the home that we'd left all those years ago. I lived in an old hut. And I trapped rabbits. I liked to call myself a fur trader. It always sounded better than a rabbit trapper. But you see, you could make a living, a poor living. You got your chap that picked up the carcass, the carcass of the rabbits, he paid you for those carcass and paid you pretty damn poorly. If it had a bit of a bruise in it, so you got less money for it. You know, you got five, you got sixpence or something for a good rabbit. And he toured around, picked your rabbits up, took them back and sold them in Melbourne. Well naturally enough he couldn't give you much money because he probably didn't get a hell of a lot of money when he got back to Melbourne. Because they were the Depression days, and of course it affected the city as well as the country.

You were living in this hut rabbit trapping by yourself?

Mostly. Mostly, yes.

And did you do any other sort of work around the place while you were doing this? Or did you just concentrate on the rabbits?

No I worked anywhere I could get work. Anybody wanted work, yes, I did it. I did some fencing if, you know, somebody wanted fencing done. As I came along before the war, I worked a lot on big properties, stations, where there was - mostly I worked with horses on these big properties. You'd be in a mower, mowing ferns on the side of a hill or, you know, you'd be pulling post to fence, and all different types of jobs, apart from rabbit trapping.

And was that with harness horses, or with - were you also...

Harness horses, but then you know, on these big properties there was sheep to be mustered and that was done on horseback, or cattle to be brought in. That was done on horseback. Everything was horseback to me. Dances were - when I started dancing it was on a horse's back, to dances. We carried our good clothes on a bag and changed when we got there. Tied the horse to the fence and danced all night. After the dance was over, back into your working clothes and ride home. And it wasn't only me, you know, there'd be a party of up to 15 of us, riding horses to a dance.

So although you had, in a sense, left your family behind, did you have many friends? Did you pick up friends at this time?

Yes, oh well, I made friends out of people more or less in the same - same category as me, you know. Because they weren't getting it easy. You know, even the big properties, even the big properties those days, mostly they were working out of the banks, you know and they couldn't pay you big wages. They didn't have the damn money to pay you.

So, although you were a bit of a loner, you weren't lonely. You were going around making your own way, on your own.


Did you feel quite self-reliant and capable of making your own decisions?

I wasn't going to starve. I was going to eat. And we made enough money to buy clothes so we could have a decent suit to go out in. Yes, I think we, we got by all right. Pretty tough way of getting by I suppose but...

Was there always plenty to eat?


Was there always plenty to eat?

Oh well, I suppose the - you know, the rabbits, we ate a lot of rabbits. We ate that many rabbits that I don't particularly like to have a rabbit any more. And there was foxes, you know. Back in those days women wore foxes, fox furs around the neck. And a fox, a good fox skin, knitted fox skin, was worth good money. And we did - I was a pretty good rifle shot, and we used to catch foxes in that area around Flowerdale it was a mountainous hilly country, a lot of bracken ferns. And foxes lived in - that's where they hid amongst these ferns. And we learnt to have - make a whistle out of the top of a tin that made a noise something like a rabbit squealing. And we'd - we'd do this way up a gully somewhere and a fox would hear this and think there was a rabbit in trouble, and he would come to where this sound was being made. And when he got in distance we would shoot him. Skin the fox and we'd peg that out on the tree, or on the side of - a lot of our huts we stayed in they were wooden huts, so you pegged your skin on the side of the hut.

With all the different jobs that you did, these casual rural jobs, which was the most lucrative? Which made you most money?

If you could get contract fencing, probably in those days, or occasionally you would get a contract cutting timber, because you would mostly have wood fires. And if you could find a patch of timber - dry, it had to be dry timber - and you were good with an axe and a saw, you could make pretty good money that way. Not big money as we know money today, but put a few pounds and shillings in your pocket.

What about shearing? Did you ever do any shearing?

Yes. Yes, I started shearing I suppose when I was - I suppose I was 17 when I started shearing. Yes, and going back - I can't remember right back when I started how much money per hundred it was. But when I finished, just before I went to the war, it was 28 shillings a hundred. Now today, today they're getting about, nearly $2 a sheep. So that'd be $200 a hundred, you know. And they'd be shearing, some of them shearing their 200 sheep a day.

[end of tape]

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