Kenthurst - Malcolm Johnston


Interviewee: Malcolm Johnston, born 1947

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for Baulkham Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 19 June 2006

Transcription: Kevin Murray, Nov 2006

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

You actually moved to Kenthurst - what year was it then? How old were you?

We moved to Kenthurst in 1950.

You were about 3 years old?

Yes about 3 years old. As I said, first of all to work for a Great Uncle and then Holland Park.

What do you know about the history of Kenthurst, Malcolm?

The history of Kenthurst? Well, I know of some of the pioneer families, such as the O'Hara family - they came very early in the piece. There is a Gully named after them - O'Hara's Gully, and O'Hara's Creek. And there's also a hill not far from where they lived, on the corner of Pitt Town Road. It's named O'Hara's Hill. They were a farming family and they had bushranger connections, so they fell into a little bit of trouble there for a time. The Cusbert family, they were along Annangrove Road and down in Bluegum Farm, which is a beautiful little valley of a couple of hundred acres which has just recently been... the old man Arthur McGilchrist lived there, he recently died and it's been subdivided, but it's a beautiful place. Then there's the Sproule family on Annangrove Road, Kenthurst. Charles and Laura Sproule, they were there back in the mid-1800's. They lived in a slab hut and had a very tough life, farming and keeping themselves in food. And a lot of their ancestors, the Sproule family, bring in the Stevens family, the Blake family - they're all related. Not many of them are still in Kenthurst, they're gone.

Owen Parr’s Baby Blitz truck in OHara’s Gully

What was the connection with the O'Hara family and the bushrangers? What do you know about that?

I think they may have harboured a bushranger. I think he was doing the Windsor and Parramatta area and I think they had some connections with... I think they came from Toongabbie at the time and they somehow came to harbour a bushranger for a while and feed him, so they fell into trouble there. I think they may have been locked away for a while.

What was the bushranger's name? Do you know?

No. I'm not sure. (Actually this was Jack Donohue).

Well we're going back a fair way, aren't we?

Yes. (Actually it was the late 1820's).

Now there were three land grants made along Pitt Town Road, weren't there, about 1823. Was that to those families you mentioned?

No. I'm not really sure. I know the Cusberts were along there as well for a while, along the ridges. Of course, all the early pioneers used the ridges, like Annangrove Ridge and Kenthurst Ridge. Once you got off these ridges it was very rugged country, not good for much at all, so they mainly stuck to the ridges. The O'Haras were the first, I think, and Cusberts around the same time.

Were they doing timbercutting at that time?

I don't think they were into timber, no. But there were timbercutters in O'Hara's Gully and along Bluegum Creek. Some of the trails are still there and there's still evidence that they were there, especially in O'Hara's Gully - there was a mill down there, probably until around the 1950's, still. So that changed hands right from those early days and they would have been cutting Blue Gum and Ironbark and so on.

Interesting. Now, when you moved to Kenthurst in 1950, where did you actually move to? Which part of Kenthurst was it?

We moved to Porter's Road, Kenthurst, between Nolland Place and Lawrence Road. That's where Owen Parr's property was. He had probably 60 acres of citrus, and he ran open range fowls. His property took up both sides of the road. He had one area called The Flats - every section of the farm had a different name, so if you were told to go to The Flats to pick fruit, well you went down to The Flats.


Blitz truck laden with firewood 1950s

So your father worked for Owen Parr for the first ten years, then did he set up his own business after that?

No. While he was at Owen Parr's, my father bought 40 acres of land right out at the end of Porter's Road which was really only a track. No water, no electricity, and the idea was to set up a peach orchard. We spent a lot of weekends there with a big old army truck. My mother, brother, sister, my father and myself would be clearing land on the weekends, by hand. So we spent a lot of time out there. But my father must have been a good farmer because he was offered a big job managing another farm which was on Pitt Town Road, Kenthurst for Cord Wentworth Jefferson, who was a director of Grace Brothers. So my father tossed it all up... he didn't have any money. He was always scratching all his life, so he thought "we'll be set", because this man built us a brand new home to get him. At the same time, other people were trying to get him as well, as a manager. Because, prior to us coming to Kenthurst, most people ran their own farms and made ends meet themselves, so there weren't a lot of managers available - people just to work on farms, so he did a good job there.

So what did he actually do on that farm? What was he growing...?

At Speedwell, or...?

The one for Jamiesons...

Jeffersons. They had a rather large - 60 acres it was - of citrus. Mainly lemons, a lot of oranges, a few Navel oranges, grapefruit. And then they had open range fowls, several thousand of which ran through the orchards to keep the weeds down and to fertilise the orchard and probably take some of the insects. Then later on a large cage shed was built for eggs and the cage sheds even had piped music so the chooks couldn't hear the planes flying over to go to Richmond which at the time sounded a bit strange to the real farmers at Kenthurst because... yeah, that was strange...

Whose idea was it to give them piped music?

I think Mr Jefferson might have heard of this overseas, so he was going to try it.

What did your father think about that idea?

Oh, he was a bit embarrassed at the time, but it seemed to work. It made the fowls a lot happier.

Laying eggs to Mozart, were they?


Now, your mother worked in the packing shed as well, did she?

Yes, she picked fruit and she packed eggs for Owen Parr and for... she got a bit of a name for packing eggs so she also packed eggs for Jefferson's. Jefferson being what he was, he was a director of Grace Brothers, he had occasions when they had parties and meetings and so on, so my mother actually helped on those occasions in the kitchens, so she was a bit of a roustabout.

Thirty dozen eggs were packed in a box

Now, while your father was working for Jefferson's what was happening to the 40 acres of land that he bought at the bottom of Porter's Road?

Well, he decided that he never really had much in life, so seeing that Mr Jefferson built the family a brand new house as a bit of a reward for coming to work for him, my father thought that we might need some furniture, and a new car, so he sold that land. He didn't have time for both, which was a bit of a shame.

That would have been worth something today?

Yes. But that's how life is.

Can you tell me approximately how many farming families there would have been in Kenthurst at that time, in the 1950's?

In Kenthurst, I think there was somewhere around 450 families, which seems a lot, but they were pretty sparse. Your neighbour could be a mile away - a couple of kilometres. Most properties were 40 to 60 acres until the 70's when it was all subdivided into 5 acre blocks. Most people who lived in Kenthurst at the time either owned a farm or were farm labourers. So the 1950's was a time when more people moved into Kenthurst to work on the farms.

This is the time when, of course, Kenthurst and surrounding districts would have been the fruit bowl of Sydney, wasn't it?

Yes, well Kenthurst grew really good fruit. I think at the time we had the highest rate of juice. Kenthurst was classed as having the highest rate of juice per ton. I think the Gosford area was second and the Riverina third, so we were way up there. The Wrench family lived on Pitt Town Road. They were a farming family from the late 1800's and they had the biggest citrus orchard in the Southern Hemisphere, and that was in Kenthurst. Perce Wrench, he used to go to America annually, just about to keep up to date with farm ideas and so on. He employed a lot of people - a lot of immigrants. He had people of all nationalities, giving them a start. He probably had six to ten houses which were workmans cottages, and a lot are still standing today, where these people lived as they worked on the farms.

Were there problems with fruit fly and other pests?

Yeah, we did use sprays. Any fruit left over had to be picked up off the ground and disposed of, buried. When we were at Owen Parr's property, he had a well, a very old, huge well. It had corrugated iron over the top, with a trap door, and all this fruit was picked up, loaded onto trucks, into boxes and we'd go out to this property - it was on his Flats, the area called The Flats - We'd open the lid and all the little flies would come out. There was all this fermenting old fruit, full of seeds, pips, and we'd tip all the fruit down there, so that was one way to dispose of it.

A well full of lemons, or whatever?

Yes. And today it's probably metres deep with pips from fruit. So other than that, the chooks generally kept them free from bugs, and so on. There was some spraying done, but mainly for weeds. But early in the piece, the orchards were actually chipped with a chipping hoe. All weeds were pulled by hand and the men were on the chipping hoe all day. They tell me some of the smarter bosses used to have a man in there that would get the pace going and the others had to keep up with him, but he was planted because it was a big job, to keep the weeds down.

You're a marvellous source of information, there, Malcolm. Terrific.

Kinnish family farm with citrus trees and poultry sheds 1954

Now, what sort of water supply did your father have for growing his fruit? Where did the water come from?

Well, in the early days of Kenthurst, they relied on rain. It was a different type of farming - the idea was to keep tilling the land and that was supposed to hold the moisture, but the problem with that was, the more you tilled the land, the finer the soil got, so when you had a downpour of rain, all that soil washed away. It ended up down on the bush line. So then it had to be all brought back, so they had scoops. In the early days they had a horse and a scoop and they'd scoop that soil back, dump it through the orchards again. Later on they'd use the tractors for that. But then, around the 1930's dams came in. A few big dams were built in the area, and that really changed things. Generally there was enough water to last through the driest times. Then city water came. Some areas didn't have city water until the 1950's. So, mainly dams... all the house water was tanks. There were some natural springs. My wife's uncle - actually my wife's family (Cadwell) were pioneers... in the late 1800's they came to Kenthurst, and my wife's uncle told me about the natural springs that he had on his property. We own some of his property now, and this particular spring, I make sure it's kept clear. We used to have the chooks drink from that spring, and I keep it open now for birds that actually come in in the dry times. It never stops running, even in the driest drought. But throughout Kenthurst there's a lot of these springs. I've actually found one that's very important, over in Fuggles Road in Kenthurst, where a pioneer family, the Nollands, used to get all their washing water and their house water from this spring. They've got a big sandstone beside it - the sandstone is actually engraved, and I think it's called "Lucky Strike". I'm not sure of the date on it, but they have actually etched the date that they found it into the sandstone. So, a lot of farmers relied on those springs.

Now what sort of form of transport did your family use? Did your father have a car, for instance?

Well, on Porters Road, no, we didn't have a car. We didn't have a telephone. They were pretty hard days, actually. Very isolated. But if a crisis arose, you'd get a lift from a neighbour, probably Owen Parr, my father's boss at the time. Some of our groceries could be delivered. We had a mailman come around and you could write a note and he'd deliver it to the shop which may have been at Dural - a small shop at which you could get necessities. Later on, Castle Hill. But there was no bus. The roads were very rough. The buses didn't arrive until about 1950, I think. But we lived off the land, basically. We didn't need milk - we had the cow, and we didn't need eggs - we had chooks, and we ate a lot of chicken, rabbits, crayfish out of the creek. And we had all the fruit we needed, and vegetables, so we didn't need a lot. But if you needed to go to Kenthurst, the Hall, you'd walk. I remember my father walking up there during the 1950's, he'd walk with a mate, Jack Baildon. Probably about 4 miles, which today means nothing to people who are physical, but back then it was dark and cold, or maybe even hot. Very rough surface on the road, and he'd walk up there to get a library book from the Literary Institute, which was a weekly event, actually.

Kenthurst School of Arts and Literary Institute Hall c1900

What sort of prices did your father get for his fruit in the 1950's? What were they paying for a crate?

I wouldn't be able to remember. I know that wages were very low, because I remember my father starting... he was earning 15 pound a week as a farm labourer when we first went to Kenthurst, which was not much money at all. You might think that back then it would have been a lot, but I know it wasn't. But while he was working for Owen Parr he was growing tomatoes for himself on the part of the property where... in the workman's cottage we were living in. We used to grow tomatoes, and used to grow turnips. The turnips were great. We used to go to the paddock, pull it out of the ground, wash it off and that would be like having a sweet to us - we'd chew this turnip. And then we had carrots - we'd pull them out of the ground and have a chew on those. So he added to his wage by growing a bit of stuff, yes. But I'm not sure how much he would have made per box of fruit or tomatoes...

Now, you picked fruit yourself too, didn't you?


Can you describe the process of picking fruit... all the paraphenalia, and so on?

The first fruit we picked was during the 1950's, I probably would have been eight years old. Myself and my brother and Owen Parr's boys - there would have been Eddie and Kevin Parr, and later on, Graham Parr - we'd go with the men and pick fruit. We had picking shirts which were made for men. They were like a big singlet made out of canvas. You'd pull it over your head and tie it tightly around the waist and pick fruit into the front. We used to have competitions to see who could carry the most cases of fruit in that shirt, so that probably explains our bad hips and legs now, but we'd be really right out... waddling right up to the boxes and tipping the fruit into these wooden cases which were later on loaded up onto the back of the truck. We used to get sixpence a case for picking fruit, which was... we were only 8 or 10 year old, so we did alright... I think I remember having about 100 dollars in the bank by the time I was 10... 100 pound it would have been, which was a fair bit of money. While we were picking the fruit, some of the best times were morning tea, because you'd turn your case upside down on the ground and use it as a seat, and Owen Parr's wife and two daughters, they would cook in the kitchen - cook the cakes for the week, for the morning teas, like sponge cake with jam and cream, or biscuits. And then there'd be a billy of tea, and they'd carry the billy in one hand and the cakes in a cane basket out to the men and we'd all sit around on upturned boxes and eat our cakes and biscuits, and the chooks would mill around. There'd always be a chook that was a bit over friendly and want a feed as well. They were good years. Then after the fruit was picked into the cases and loaded onto the truck, onto the Blitz, the old Blitz would be driven up to the packing shed, backed up to a huge bin and the fruit tipped off into the big bin on the back of the grader, turn the grader on and the fruit would go up conveyor belts and onto brushes and run along a belt which dropped them into different bins for the size. There were probably ten bins of different sizes, and at each of these bins would be a worker standing to pack that size fruit into a box. After being packed into the boxes the fruit cases would be taken to a box press, and the box would be put into this press and the boards laid on top and then a foot pedal pressed to secure the lid, then the lids were  nailed on. We were capable of nailing the lids on, as young kids, and we'd get a penny a box for nailing those on. I don't think we could even lift the boxes out of the press. I think we would have to get one of the men to lift it. And they were stacked up very high in the air on top of each other, and then the labels were glued on. But the glue for the labels was flour, put into a pot on the fuel stove, water added to it, of course, and a little bit of salt, I think, was sprinkled in there and we'd stir it up. Once it was bubbling like porridge it was ready. Then that would cool and with a big brush we'd brush that onto the boxes and stick the labels on.

Fruit box label for V.A. Cadwell lemons

Now you've collected some of these labels, haven't you?


How many have you got?

I like the local labels, but I have some of the local, prominent farmers, like I've got one of Owen Parr's, and I have the Branz's, the Cadwell's, my wife's family. I've got my wife's grandfather's labels, for instance. So I've got a good collection. I've got a lot of the fruit boxes too. Some of the fruit boxes were changed a little, they had handles put on so they could be carried more easily, just for picking the fruit. But back in the fruit sheds, the packing shed, the grader only took up probably a third of the shed, the rest of it was empty fruit boxes which were stacked to the roof. They were huge sheds, and as kids we used to climb right up on top of these fruit boxes... I don't know how we weren't injured at times, but we'd climb right up on top and we'd proceed to pull some fruit boxes out of the middle, and keep pulling them out of the middle until we went down and we made passages all through underneath, and we'd put boards across to support the ones above. Probably the first miners, we were. Then we'd hide down in there and when the men came in we'd make noises and they'd wonder where these noises were coming from. We had a great old laugh.

A labyrinth you did, huh?

Yeah. But the packing sheds had their own smell - you could just smell the skins of the oranges and the noise with the hammers and the graders going and the men yelling trying to talk to each other - it was a whole world of its own. In the corner of the packing shed, usually there was a spot for packing eggs, which was the egg packing room.

Now when you were picking fruit, I believe that you sometimes had problems with wasps, did you?

Yes, we did. When you were out in the orchards picking fruit, the trees were quite large. A lot of them were old trees, so there were ladders to get up on - we had these special ladders with three legs which the front leg was to push easily in through the foliage of the tree, and then while you were up on these ladders, sometimes with a full waist of oranges, you'd be whacked on the leg. You'd wonder what it was, then the pain would come... it was a wasp. There'd be a big nest hanging in the tree with, sometimes, dozens of wasps. Then we usually had to get rid of them, not a very humane way, but the way was to get a piece of newspaper, screw it up pretty firmly, make a rod out of it, light the end and put it on the nest. I presume it burnt their wings off and they fell to the ground. If you had bare feet - we never wore shoes. I myself only started wearing shoes a few years ago when I turned fifty. No-one ever wore shoes, we had pretty tough feet - but if you trod on them you'd be in trouble, they'd still sting.

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