2009, People, Stories and Articles

Jimmy Mead – Camfield Station, NT

“Never a Ringer”

It’s a clear May morning in the Northern Territory, and we’re sitting with Jimmy Mead and Sheilagh Savage on the verandah of their cottage at Camfield Station. We’re privileged to be talking with them; they both have great life stories and are willing to share them.

Starting with Jimmy, we are keen to hear from the 75 year old grader driver with 58 years experience of the Northern Territory and Kimberleys. He begins: “Well, I actually sorta grew up in the Territory and Kimberleys. I was born in 1933; I’m from Toowoomba, Qld and I left school at eleven. I was no good at school and I went working for dairy farmers. I decided there was better money driving tractors or getting amongst machinery, and I wound up sinking tanks around Longreach and all through West Qld, as well as working for Theiss Bros. in Mt Isa.

Around 17, 18 years old, I came up here to Katherine (Jimmy calls it Katheryne); there were all dirt roads, corrugated, no bridges, and no 4 wheel drives. When I first hit Darwin in the early 60’s, there weren’t many people around, and they weren’t Territorians; everybody came from ‘Somewhere’. At weekends when we weren’t working, we’d pop down to the wharf with a carton of beer and watch the Japs salvaging the ships they’d sunk (during the war). They’d got the contract to clean the Harbour up, and I tell ya what, that was so interesting to watch you know. You’d see a 100 Japs on this big barge, and one Jap done in white with a white hard hat and a whistle, and everybody worked off that whistle eh, and they run with big bottles of gas. Then they had those little boats beside the big barge, and they used to screw their helmets on, and they’d go down under and set all the fuses around the parts of the ship, and then up they’d come and away they’d float, and next thing … BOOM … and you’d see great fish comin’ up, and floatin’ there. You’d just sit and watch those blokes work eh, and there’s no doubt about it I thought to meself, “Look at them little blokes, and there were no big blokes among them!, how they can work…” and they run with that whistle blowin’ all the time; you’d never hear a voice goin‘! And that was a great experience, watchin’ that!”

When asked when did he first start working on stations, Jimmy responds: “Oh, that’s a hard story that one, because see, I used to never work on stations. I was never a ringer, but then, when you keep doin’ your licence thru, you know, drunk driving, which I never did, but somebody always dobs ya in, and you know, the coppers didn’t even have breathalisers, but they could pick ya up and make ya walk around ya car, and if ya had to hang onto that car … ah come on …, and then see they just had a sorta kangaroo court, and Bang!… “Ah, take it off him for six months!” You see, what I was going to tell you was, when they keep taking your licence off ya, ya wind up, they took it off me in the finish, and that’s how I come to work on stations.”

Anyhow I thought to meself, “Wet season comes and you know there was no dole offices or anything like that, and what the hell, a mans gotta start putting money in the bank, so when the wet comes he’s not sorta shootin’ Kangaroos, or knocking beef down to get a feed.” That was with everybody, not just me. Up til I was forty-two, I didn’t realise there were banks, nobody went to banks.”

Lyle prompts Jimmy about a yarn we’d heard him tell at Delamere about going back to Queensland, and only getting as far as the Dunmarra pub.

Jimmy laughs, – “That’s true! You know, that’s where we’d leave a big mint job, you know, plenty of money in our pockets and we’re off to Queensland ‘cos you see, a man’s always trying to get back to Queensland just to see his friends and that. And that old Noel Healy and Ma Healy who owned the pub … we’d get there, and ‘cos you know she’d say “Well, people come in here, you can meet em here; why travel all the way? Some people come from Melbourne to here, some people come from Toowoomba, and some people come from right where you were born to here! You meet ’em here Jim.” Yeah, well righto, there was about four of us there you know, just goin’ through to Queensland in an old bomb. That’s where we’d wind up workin’ for her then, spent our money over a few months. Next thing, no more money. Well…pump petrol! You know the old bowser out the side and “Bernie, you get down in the kitchen, and Bluey, you do a bit of laundry and you wash some clothes around here!” And there’s me mate, Bluey Morgan, he’s makin’ beds, and washin’ sheets -Aaw!

And yeah, the old hurricane lights, and she had the old gramaphone … it wasn’t old in them days … you had to walk over, ‘cos whoever was on it singin’, he’d waaaaaaaaa (slow down) “Wind the gramaphone!!” and ya ya ya ya, and away the gramaphone would go again!”

And did he ever get back to Queensland? “Yeah, we eventually got back there; me brother Bernie and meself. Put it this way, I’m seventy-five in September and I was fifty-six, fifty-seven when I went home. I went down to Dalby to see me old man; after all them years I found out he’s still alive, so I said “We’ll go down and see him. So we met the old fella then. He was eighty-two. After that he wrote to me pretty regular.”

Jimmy worked on numerous stations, during the years of the Vestys, and on the construction of Lake Argyle. He helped to build the diversion dam, at Kununurra, a little one compared to the Argyle dam. “There was no town – no nothing!” Standing on the bridge over the floodgates outside Kununurra, he can justifiably boast, “See all them white spots? (on the wall) They’re my sweat marks! I was there to see the first big flow come through them gates. They had them opened up high, and here we were up on top watching, and there’s whole big Boab trees and great big gum trees comin’ through! (They were dislodged from the banks up stream as the water rose) Crunch Crunch Crunch, … you could feel the vibrations under you, and I tell you what, if they would’ve clogged up there, it would’ve pushed the dam arse over handle, with the cement still so green.”

At times over the Wet, Jimmy spent time in old anny Bay (jail). “There was nobody dangerous in there. Darwin had no bridges then, and you’d sleep in an old motor car. The police would pick you up for vagrancy, with no money in your pockets, and put you on a holding charge. You just gotta chew your time out there with rough as guts tucker, but you won’t die in there. If you got let out half way through the Wet, oh man, you felt like getting back in there! 3 ounces of tobacco a week – that wasn’t too bad – Outside, you’d have to pick up bumpers.”

In Fanny Bay, Jimmy landed the job of cooks offsider, and was also given the dubious task, with 2 or 3 other inmates, of maintaining the hanging pit and the hanging rope, “You see it’s always the Wet season when you’re in there, and where they hang ‘em, it’s a big drop down there, a big square hole and you gotta go down there with buckets with a rope on it, because it builds up, the water, and if it keeps filling it’ll wind up being a swimming pool there! So you gotta keep that empty. You’re down in there and your mates up there, at the top, and then you’ve got another mate that carries out the water and pours it on the lawn. So that was a pretty permanent job! So you go get ya buckets and your rope and away you go! And you waxed the hanging rope -you pull that rope right down, rewax him and then roll him back up there. Yeah. So, that was a good experience!”

Lyle asks Jimmy what he really likes about the Northern Territory and the Kimberleys and Jimmy replies: “I don’t know. I think it happened to a lot of us. They reckon once you drink the water out of the Ord, you’ll always return to it, eh? I don’t know, I just sorta love the Kimberleys, and here. A good life? Oh yeah, I love it.” And will he keep driving a grader?…“Next year, and then we’ll quit it if I’m still around.”

Image captions:

1) Jimmy and Sheilagh

2) Jimmy’s grading outfit at Camfield Station

3) Jimmy loading spare tyre on to grader.