John Allen


Interviewee: John Allen, born 1917

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 22 June, 2010

Transcription: Glenys Murray, July 2010

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

So what do you remember about living there (in Highs Road, West Pennant Hills) in the nineteen twenties? Tell me what sort of neighbours did you have? Do you know the names of them?

Well we had good neighbours the Frankish family and they were right close to us. Others further on. We had Cliff Banks, we had the Blissett family and Ron Harrison and Bill and Janie High. They were the next door neighbours.

Your immediate neighbours, what did they do?

It was all orchard around there those days. The next door family to us the Frankish’s, he worked for the men that owned the orchard. He was a relative of mine his name was W H Allen, William.

What number were you in your family?


You’re the fifth child out of how many?


That‘s a big family you had?

Oh normal family in those days.

Tell me a little about your father, what kind of work was he doing?

Originally he was a commission agent in the Bathurst Street fruit markets. You couldn’t give fruit away in those times. There was a terrible glut of lemons and he arranged for a lot of them to be sent overseas. They went bad on the way and they were no good. He didn’t have much money but what he did have he lost on that. Then he gave the markets away and he came back onto the farm. A relative named Ron Bragg took over his business.

He wasn’t a farmer he had a little patch of this and a little patch of that. He had a patch of apricot trees and some common orange trees and some lemon trees. A few apples here and there, he used to enjoy himself showing the fruit at the various different shows. He’d nurse two or three of the trees to get the very best fruit. He used to grow a fair amount of peas that helped us a bit. The income that kept us alive was my mother. She used to go to work three days a week doing washing and ironing for others round. There was Mrs Arthur Whitling, there was Mrs Harry Dibbs, there was Mrs Jacky Weaver. They were the three clients she had. She would sometimes go to a Phillip Lytton(?) who lived close by. She used to get ten shillings a day to do the washing and the ironing, clean the house. They were our main source of income for the house in those days.

Allen stone house 548 Old Northern Road Dural 1993

Now your family could be described as pioneers. In which way would they have been pioneers in the district?

(John's pioneer ancestor was convict Robert Allen who was buried at St Patrick's Cemetery, Parramatta. Robert's son James Allen married Grannie, Sarah Bellamy, in 1853). Granny lived in a stone house which is now just up the road. It was moved, but it was an old house when I was born.

So it’s a very old family in the district?

A very old family at West Pennant Hills and also at Round Corner here and at New Line Road. When old grandfather (James) died there was quite a family on his side. He divided it up and everybody got a bit of it. My dad’s (Silas) was about fifteen acres then there was my Uncle Robert he was next door. He had about the same area. Then there was an Uncle Ambrose he had the top part, I think he had a little bigger area there. Then there was James he had part of the property at West Pennant Hills. Then there was the girls (John's aunts, Agnes, Adelaide, Aida, Sarah).

What did your grandfather do?

He had the orchards. With all the places he had quite a bit of orchard.

How many acres did he have?

Oh God I wouldn’t know how many acres he had. I suppose there’d probably be sixty or seventy acres at least in all the places. That’s a guess I don’t know.

What sort of crops did he grow?

A bit of everything as far as I know. Oranges I know was one of the items. He had a patch of loquats I know because I used to pinch them with permission more or less. He had persimmons, lemons of course. Everybody had lemons in those days. He had a fair sized patch of apricots.

Silas Allen's house Highs Road West Pennant HIlls 1986

Now the house that you grew up in at West Pennant Hills, can you remember what it looked like? Can you describe it?

I know exactly what it looked like.

Can you take me for a walk through it?

It was a large shed and it was divided into… about half of it was divided into living quarters. There were three bedrooms in it. A dining room and another little private room a sewing room where Mum used to do the sewing. Then the other part we used to put the sulky and the buggy. Then the rest of it was for the packing of the fruit and had the horse feed and what have you there. To look at it, it was a just a shed but it was quite a comfortable old place.

What was it made of?

Timber, the wash house and that was separate close by. We had a well for water - it never, ever went dry. It was on fifteen acres of ground and that’s about all I can think of.

Did you have any electricity laid on?

Not then there was none there to have. We used lamps and candles. They were our form of lighting in those days.

What about toilet facilities?

We had the ordinary pans and you dug a hole out the back and buried it when you needed to.

Sounds like it was a tough life was it there?

It was a tough life no risk on that.

Worker's cottage built c1905 by James Allen for J. Heron of 'Glenhope' West Pennant Hills 1986

You said there were only three bedrooms in the house for seven children? Tell me where you all slept?

Ted and Eddie and myself lived in one of them and the girls lived in another one and Mum and Dad lived in the other one.

What was your job? What were your duties as a child? What did you have to do?

Mainly picking peas was one of the biggest ones. There were quite a few in the district used to grow a lot of green peas including our place. Peas and tomatoes. I used to get a job picking peas from around the different ones. There was Old Jim Black had a big patch and an Italian by the name of Di Rocco he used to grow them. We used to grow them ourselves. It was a back breaking job, picking peas, but that’s what we had to do. We did a fair bit on Di Rocco’s he used to grow a lot of tomatoes. We used to work with him pulling off the bottom leaves and covering them over with hessian so they wouldn’t get frost bitten. That was our main job when we were very young.

I left school when I was thirteen. I did a little bit of work as an offsider on a truck but only for a short period. Then I went to help a chap do some clearing in Highs Road about ten acres. That was hard work but I enjoyed every day of it.

You were chopping down trees were you?

Pulling them out mainly. Pulling them over because we had to clear the ground. We used what was known as a forest devil to pull them out with. We got them out. Most of the timber was sold for what was known as baker’s wood. All the bakeries ovens were fuelled by wood not by coal. So no coal or oil was used. We used to cut the baker’s wood. We supplied a bakery at North Parramatta another one at Carlingford and one here at Dural. It kept us pretty busy. We used to cut a few… fence posts we used to split up and firewood stacked a lot of firewood. We got rid of the timber as fast as we could cut it. Got nothing much for it but that was the way it worked those days.

Dam Highs Road West Pennant Hills 1986

We grew quite a lot of our own household vegetables. We had the poultry we used to kill. Every now and again we’d get a pig and my dad and uncle used to kill the pig and cut it up. Put the meat away in a smoke house to cure it. Mum was a very good cook. She spent every Sunday religiously cooking. We lived all right.

So most of the food that you ate did you grow it yourself then?

Yeah the biggest part of the food we grew ourselves yes.

So you grew your own vegetables?

We had our own vegetables, we had our own cows for the milk. We had our own chooks for the eggs. Our chooks were also for food. We weren’t past cooking a rabbit now and again. We’d often do a rabbit.

Now your mother you said cleaned houses for people but what would her average day be like? What sort of things would she…?

Well she used to walk to do three of the places. Mrs Whitling was nearly opposite the old school at Castle Hill. Dad used to take her over in the horse and buggy there that was a long one. But the Dibbs it was about a quarter of an hour's walk to their place. They were about half way between our place and Castle Hill but through the bush. Not round the road. Mrs Weaver she was only in Highs Road the first place in Highs Road she wasn’t too far. The Lytton family they weren’t far the other side. She used to walk to work. She’d do a good eight hours a day for ten shillings a day.

What did the Weavers grow?

They had a big orchard. All oranges they had old Jacky Weaver and that’s where the retirement village is now in Highs Road. That was all his orange orchard.

He was one of the biggest was he in the district?

He wasn’t the biggest but he was a fair sized one. There were a few bigger than him there.

Gibson's orchard Taylor Street West Pennant Hills c1930

What did the roads look like in your early days?

They were dirt roads. When it rained they were mud roads. There were no tarred roads in Castle Hill when I first remember it. That used to be dirt roads through Castle Hill. All the way out to Dural I used to ride my bike out to the uncle’s place here on the corner of Maple Street and Kenthurst Road. He used to have a nursery there growing fruit trees. I often used to ride my bike out. We used to play around with his family too.

Tell me who was Harry Blissett?

He was the local timber mill. He used to cut the timber. He had his place on the corner of Copeland Road and Pennant Hills Road, West Pennant Hills. There was a timber yard there for many years I remember. He lived opposite on Pennant Hills Road.

In the timber yard I finally saved up five pound to put a deposit on a truck. I used to pick up any sort of work I could find with the truck. One of the main jobs we used to do was clean out fowl houses. Poultry houses get the manure and sell it to the farmers. That was one of the jobs we used to do. Used to cart a lot of fire wood from out here at Dural down to Castle Hill. There was a chap named Jack Green had a firewood yard down there. He used to cut it up and I used to cart that down to him. They were two of the main jobs I did.

I left school on my thirteenth birthday and went to work and I’ve been working ever since.

Did you decide to leave school at thirteen or did your parents… ?

I was anxious to leave school at thirteen. I always had… I always wanted to get motorated. When I was eight or nine I used to give the local chap that was picking the fruit up and go for a ride with him. Well I mean I had this thing that it was wonderful to have motor lorries. I’ve been associated with the damn things for the rest of my life.

Shore family beside their truck outside the packing shed

I believe you drove the first truck into Sydney at the age of thirteen?

I was working for Herb Mobbs the local carrier. The first time I went in he had a small truck. A Whippet truck. You’ve never heard of them today. One of the farmers out here Jack Jones had a heap of cabbages to go into the markets. He couldn’t put them on the main truck he was using. So we went out and got them in the Whippet and I drove the Whippet to the Sydney markets with a big load of cabbages.

So what sort of work did you do immediately you left school at thirteen? Were you already driving then or did you do other work as well?

I did offsiding only for about three months, four months and from then I went wood cutting. I did that I suppose for two years. I couldn’t sign for a truck but my mother did. I was sixteen. That’s when I started doing all the various little jobs. I used to take a bit of fruit to the market, a bit of everything and then not much of anything. It gradually grew I finished up by the time I was nineteen I had two trucks. I’d bought a second one and had a chap working for me, named George Higgins. I had a job working on the Putty Road when they made the Putty Road. That was one of the jobs that I had.

I was married when I was nineteen and we lived in Oratava Avenue West Pennant Hills. From there we moved up onto Castle Hill Road and that’s where I was for a long while there. When I went to the war I had moved out to Ramsay Road Pennant Hills. That’s where I was when we joined up.

What was your wife’s name and how did you actually meet her?

She was a local girl and we used to go to the dances. Her name was Thelma Maud Viney she was known as Betty Viney. We used to go to the old Dural Hall. Sometimes we’d go out to Glenorie, sometimes we’d go to Berowra. Sometimes we’d go to West Pennant Hills. Every Saturday night religiously we went dancing. There were four of us always together, myself, Jimmy Simmons, Jack MacInerny(?) and Allen Harvey. The four of us always went together to the dances.

Dural Memorial Hall built 1925

Now tell me when war broke out what did you do?

When war broke out I had the early trucks, I didn’t own them I was paying them off. Work was hard to find, money was hard to get. We had a discussion and decided that if I went to join the army. Most of the people that joined the army didn’t go overseas. They just walked around doing nothing as far as that goes. If I joined the army the government would keep the family without a doubt… wages. Plus the fact we thought it was the right thing to do. I had a family to protect it was only reasonable that I would expect to do the same as everybody else. As I say I was only in the army for six days. I went and joined up at Paddington with two or three other chaps who I got to know eventually. That was on a Monday and they put us out on a week's leave. We had a call back on a Thursday, report back on the Thursday. Everybody thought it was a joke when I told them I was on final leave. We’d only been in the army two or three days. We went into camp at Enfield and the next morning they loaded us on a bus and took us down to the wharf and away we went. Everybody got a hell of a shock to think they were on the boat, the New Amsterdam on their way to Singapore. My wife didn’t know I was going. She had no idea that I’d gone away. So I wrote a letter from Perth when we called in there. That’s how she found out where I was.

 John Allen in World War 2 army uniform

We got to Singapore and thereafter to a place called Malacca. That’s where we were for a short period and from there to a place called Ipoh. That’s where we were camped when the war broke out.

The unit I was in was more old people I was one of the youngest in it. It was a Queensland unit but they were a few short and they wanted someone with experience with trucks. It was a transport unit. When I joined up they asked you what you did. I told them I had the trucks So that got me straight into that unit because they needed a few more. I didn’t mind I was as happy as billyo… That’s how I happened to go straight away because it was just ready to leave to go to Singapore. There were very few NSW’s went there wouldn’t have been more than fifty. The rest of them came from Queensland.

So were you driving the trucks for that unit?

In the army oh yes. Our main job there was carting fuel. There was thousands of forty four gallon drums of fuel stacked round and in the rubber plantations before the war started. We used to make stacks of them. Maybe forty or fifty drums in a heap and go a kilometre or more and put another stack. They were scattered all over the place. Hundreds and hundreds of barrels of fuel we stored. We never used it the Japs got it in the finish. They forgot to give us any weapons, we had nothing. The old rifles and that was it bang!

What sort of training did you get for warfare?

None, no training, that’s why they wanted someone who had experience on trucks. The only training that we had was told how to march. The old colonel used to line us up of a morning and put us through a bit of paces. We had to march up the road and back but that was only for disciplinary reasons, as far as training goes zero.

John what was the name of your unit?

The 2/3rd reserve motor transport unit. We were attached to the Indians. There were no Australian troops near where we were.

Soldiers from the 2/3rd on their way to Malaya, 1941

When the war started I was in Thailand. We were about thirty kilometres inside Thailand when the war started with the Indians. The Australians were still down well down the (Malay) peninsular. The Indians were the only ones in the army actively. We used to move them back at regular intervals. Sometimes they’d stay in the one place for two days, sometimes one day and we finally wound our way back down to the Muir River which is about the centre of Malaya. A place called Gemas that’s when they pulled the Indian troops out and the Australian went into action. I was taken out with the Indians. Our unit was no longer needed for the transport there because the Australians had their own transport unit. They brought us back to Singapore and then they sent us to Java. We were under the impression or we believed that they wanted to send us to India to come down from the other end. It was only rumour, I don’t know how true it was.

We ran into trouble on the way. Number one the boat we went on the old SS Kinta was a little old boat that used to ply between Singapore and Penang Island. That was the only boat available. We had no one to man the damn thing. A few of the blokes had a little bit of knowledge and that’s what we used to get to Singapore. The first night we got lost in a minefield and had to go back, the second night the pilot took us right out from Singapore. We got to Sinkep Island which is near Sumatra. We pulled in there for the day because we knew that it was in range of the Jap planes. They were floating around. We pulled close in to the shore to spend the day. We intended to spend it in the bush. We finished off spending it on the boat. As the day went on the boat started to tilt. We didn’t know that we’d gone in to far and the tide had left us sitting on a rock shelf. The Japs came over. There was two other old wrecks in the place. They dropped bombs and machine gunned them but they didn’t touch us. The fact that the boat was nearly on its side saved us from getting belted round. That night we managed to get re floated. We had a hole in the bottom boat so they jammed everything they could find in the hole to try and quiet it down. From there to Java we had a team bailing the water out as fast as it came in. We finally got to Tanjung Pria which is the dock area of where we were going. We went into a camp that was close by there. We went down the next morning and the poor old Kinta was sitting on the bottom with a little bit sticking up through the water.

It was in Java. They got us to drive round. I was on a motor bike we had dockets to get petrol anywhere we wanted go anywhere we wanted. They were trying to get us, so they told us, to make it look as though there were more troops there than what there was. Actually there was only our unit. They were the only ones that was there. The Dutch well they never fired a shot as far as we know.

Soldiers in the Burmese jungle, World War 2

We went up to the mountains to a camp there, waiting to find out what to do. The next thing we had a message to go down to the edge of the sea. Two boats would pick us up and take us out. The American boat the Houston and the Australian boat the Perth. We were waiting round the edge of the ocean to pick them up but they didn’t arrive. On their way round they ran into the Japanese Navy and were both on the bottom. The survivors from it finished up in the same camp that we were in. The Dutch capitulated. We had no option there was only a handful of us and we were taken to what was known as the Bicycle Camp which was in Batavia (Jakarta) we were there for quite a few weeks I don’t know just how many. Then they loaded us on a boat and we went to Singapore first spent a couple of days in Changi. Then they took us out of there and put us on another boat and took us up to Rangoon.

From there we got a train down to a place called Moulmein that’s where the railway line started. The first camp was twenty kilometres away so we walked that twenty kilometres through the scrub for the first night. From there on we had different camps on the way up to the line. We finished up mainly at the 105 kilo camp. We were there for about eighteen months. We were moved out when the line got useable. Didn’t use it for very long. When they could get their trucks through. They didn’t have railway engines they had ordinary trucks with railway wheels on them. The railway was built to suit the special wheels that they had on the six wheel drive trucks. They were the engines they had.

When you say they do you mean the Australians or the Japanese?

The Japanese.

So you’re already a prisoner of war by that stage?

Oh yeah we were taken prisoner of war in Java. We were prisoners of war at this time.

When the railway got mobile we were taken to a base camp. We were there for a little while and it wasn’t too bad. Two or three of the things that happened there. The first thing I suppose of note was the Japanese commander there. He had quite a big area fenced off with a little low fence and he had three or four hundred ducks in there. I don’t know what he did with the eggs but I understand it was always thought that he sold them to get the money for them. Well of course when we got there we hadn’t seen a duck for three years. Their egg production went down very quickly. We were a good band of thieves in those days you’d thieve what you could get your hands on.

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