Monday, May 30, 2011

Uncle Doug

Ok, I'm putting up a new post because I am tired of looking at the same old one whenever I enter my Blog!  (which I do in order to access all of the other Blogs I like to check).  That's really the only reason :)

However, I have chosen to post about something that I don't think is boring at all.  You might, but I hope not...

My mother's only sibling is about 76 years old, and is living in a small house by a river down in rural New South Wales.  He's too unwell over recent months to continue typing up the autobiographical stories he began to record in more recent years - but the stories he has recorded are worth reading and so I'd like to share them, with his permission.

Uncle Doug left home at age 14, determined to seek out his fortune, or at least some adventure.  Among other things he was a swagman (a swaggie), a jackaroo and roustabout, a crocodile hunter, a gold miner, a sheep shearer, a cane cutter, and a pearl diver.  His life has been interesting and full of adventure.  It's also very much an Australian story.

The text uses Uncle Doug's own words and grammar, with a small amount of editing only.  

'Starting a New Life
Captain Jonson and his World Famous Royal Dancing Ducks.

The first time I saw sheep being shorn was near Buntine W.Australia at Joe Shaw’s property on the wheat belt, where I was employed as a farm hand.   The year was 1949.  I had put my age up from 14 to 16 years of age and was helping out in the shed, cleaning up for just one older shearer.

         Listening to his yarns and stories about his time in the big shearing sheds up North stirred my imagination.

         I loved the stories and vowed to see those big shearing sheds for myself.  I was also impressed by the bigger wages, up from three pounds a week to nearly five and keep, after all I wanted to make my fortune, so after only about six months I resigned.  Not that I was unhappy there, as Mrs.Shaw was a lovable motherly person and Joe Shaw himself was a decent cheerful bloke.  Bevan Shaw their son was in his early 20‘s and a typical multi skilled young farmer, good to work for and showed me lots of interesting things.  I had learned a lot while at the Shaw’s property, driving the old Bedford truck and the new Chamberlain tractor, plowing, seeding, fencing and milking the cow.

         Sundays after the milking I would go shooting rabbits with a .22 caliber rifle or after kangaroos with the .303 Lee Enfield.

         Another reason for leaving was that the Police were looking for me as a runaway. I had changed my name Douglas Bedwell to John Davies, it seemed a good idea at the time, however, it was like so many other things I have lived to regret. It got harder to change back to my real name as time went by.    

         Anyway after work one evening Bevan drove me into town and wishing me luck said goodbye and left me at the bus terminal, under a tree near the railway station.  I discovered that the bus departed for Perth early next morning.

         With only a single blanket, I put on as many clothes as I could for the nights were cold.  I had asked for permission to camp in the bus in case we got unseasonal rain so I would at least be dry.

         After a long cold night at last daylight came and I was walking around trying to get warm, when an old Morris van pulled up beside me and the driver asked me where he might get fuel for his van.   I explained that I wasn’t sure because I was a relative stranger here, but suggested he could ask the bus operator who should arrive soon.  The van driver was a chatty sort of bloke and soon introduced himself as Captain Jonson.  I told him my new name and that I was going to Perth, to look for a job with the big shearing teams.  The old Capt. had a colourful way of speaking, “Holy buckjumping sand crabs lad this is your lucky day”.  He said looking me straight in the eye, “I like the cut of your jib young Jack, and I can offer you an excellent job with me.”

         He spoke like an old time seaman, with lots of earthy, rather salty sayings.  Telling me that he could teach me much and I could earn a healthy wage.

         While I wasn’t as naïve as he imagined I liked him and it sounded interesting enough.   And so I joined up with Captain Jonson and his World Famous Dancing Ducks, as his assistant.  I put my gear in the back of his van, which was fitted with a shearers’ type stretcher, his bunk as he called it, and indicated an old thin mattress for me.  The rest of the furniture consisted of a small kerosene stove, a couple of hurricane lamps and a small folding table.  There were several blanket covered boxes, and I detected small noises which seemingly came from them.  I had found the ducks, or as he called them “Me Little Darlins”.

        While we were waiting to get Benzene as he called it, the Capt. lit the stove and made strong black tea and heated a tin of baked beans, which we shared, then gave his darlins some grain.  Sure tasted good and I started to thaw out a little.

The Capt. explained his business to me, travelling around country towns, mainly following the country show circuit and entertaining the good folk with his wonderful dancing ducks.
         We would put up the old pale green tent and the Captain would start spruiking and gathering a crowd, while my job was to keep the gramophone wound up playing music, and getting the ducks ready inside the tent.  The folding table was fitted with a sheet metal top covered with green felt like a billiard table.  It was set up in the middle of the tent with the small kerosene stove placed on a box under the table.   Capt. Johnson instructed me to light the stove, and warm up the ducks dancing arena.  He explained that his little darlin’s hated having to dance with cold feet.

         Outside the Capt. would be working the people until he had a crowd, saying things like,  “My world famous Royal dancing ducks have been entertaining people, including Royal Families around the world, for many years and we have been induced to bring our smaller high quality show for your education and entertainment.”   There was a brightly painted canvas banner with pictures of ducks dancing in front of a King, Queen and a Prince and Princess, with the legend:  “Captain Jonson and his World Famous Royal Dancing Ducks.”  The ducks were called various names after famous dancers like; Dame Margo, Nijinsky , The Madonna and Matushka were just some I can remember.

         When he had enough people, he would come into the tent to test the warmth of the table.   It had to be very warm or the ducks wouldn’t dance.  Then going outside he would start collecting a shilling for adults and sixpence for kids, as they entered the tent.  When it was considered we couldn’t wait for more people, he would then close the tent flap, come inside and address the crowd.  Introducing the ducks as he gently lifted them one by one saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, girls and boys, It gives me great pleasure to introduce our beautiful Matushka, direct from the Russian Ballet…  Madame Matushka will you please consent to giving your adoring audience a small demonstration of your marvelous talents?”  Then holding her up for a little kiss, would say to me,“ Music Maestro Please”, and place her gently on the arena, after I had started the music.  He would drop a handful of grain, then after a moment or two Matushka would start to pick up her feet to start dancing to the music of Swan Lake or some other ballet.  At the Captain’s direction I would add the rest of the cast one by one until they were all dancing, quacking and pecking at the grain scattered around.  At the end of the record, we would lead the applause and quickly gather up the cast, put them into their cage, with a damp blanket on the floor.  Then after another eloquent introduction, we started the next act as I put another record on and rewind the gramophone.    There were several records, mainly of a classical nature, but some trad Jazz. My favorites were Carmen, the opera and the traditional Jazz, “When the saints go marching in.” 
         I got on well with the Captain, even when he had a drink or two, then he would talk even more than usual.  It was quite obvious that he was well educated, at least, to my limited experience. 

         He was born in or near Melbourne, had been to the Cup, loved Aussie rules football, and had once entered the Stalwell gift footrace.

         However it was stories about his life at sea that interested me most...'
(I'll continue with another story next time I post.)


  1. I am excited for even more Uncle Doug stories to come, he was and is an interesting man!! :) I think you should write that story that I can't repeat ;) It's so wonderful that you've put together so much about family history lately, thankyou!! :) We, and our children will, love learning about them, so when we meet them on the other side, we will totally have stuff to talk about haha :) love you xox

  2. Ahhhh! I've figured it out! (well, me and a bunch of google online forums). I can post a comment if I don't select the "keep me signed in" box when I'm logging on with my blogger account. Yay!!!!

    Anyway, Here's the comment I've been TRYING to make since 5 minutes after you published this post:

    Mum! How can you leave me on a cliff hanger like that! Thanks so much for this post - I loved reading it, and can't wait to read the next half! Hurry up and post!!

    xoxo Tammy

  3. Mum did you ever read that book called....I can't remember :S
    But you got it for me one Christmas and I was reading it until I lost it right when I was at the end of the book.
    But it was an autobiography of an Australian man who grew up on the wheat belt and then was in world war 2 and then about his life etc etc.
    I wish I could remember the name but do you have some little idea what I'm talking about?
    ANYWAY, Uncle Doug's story reminds me of that and I think his life could be compiled and sold as a book. It's interesting to learn what life was like back then. It just doesn't happen that way these days.
    Anyway, thanks Mum! Love you :) xox

  4. TAMMY!!! Thank you for your tip! I've been trying to post a silly comment for days!
    I love you!

  5. Bethy, the book is called 'A Fortunate Life', by A. B. Facey. I have two copies :) It's a wonderful book, I agree.

  6. Oh that's it! Thanks Mum, it was totally KILLING me. And my google searches of things like 'an australian life' were absolutely zilch help :P
    One day I shall finish reading that book...I was right near the end too. I hope it was happy :) xoxoxox