STRAIGHT OFF THE TUSSOCK
A FAMILY MEMOIR WITH J.A.G (JACK) FULTON
BY TIM FULTON
Broomfield in North Canterbury was a quiet pond, but Jack was the stone that skipped across it.
I was constantly in trouble. My father Gordon was away most of the time, always busy, so I rarely saw him.
And my mother Winifred, well, she was 45 when I was born and totally incapable of looking after children, so during the day I was usually left to my own devices. One of the first things I did on the farm was paint one of our white calves red with house paint. I’d noticed how the calves got marked at certain times of the season so I painted the whole calf. Terrible job they had getting the paint off…nearly killed it. Another time, father had shorn about 20 wethers ready to go to market. Back in the 1920s you had to brand your sheep for shearing, but he’d left these ones alone because they were going to be sold about three weeks later. I decided they hadn’t been branded properly so I got the dog and away I went; mustered them into the top paddock, down the road into the yards, into the front pen of the shearing shed and proceeded to brand them. As far as I could tell there wasn’t a space left on them untouched. Well, that was the last time I was in the pen with a branding iron. Father was so ashamed of the sheep he kept them stuck out of sight in the paddock until they were ready to shear again. I could have only been three or four…
Apparently, when I was about five, I got up early one Sunday morning and milked the cows. The problem was our gardener, Bill Blain, went to milk them as usual at 6am and wondered what the hell had happened. What I did with the milk I have no idea. There was another awful scene one day when mother and father were about to head off to the races. I thought I’d be helpful and make sure the petrol tank was full, so I got the hose and filled it up with water. The motor started, then of course it sputtered out. My father had about as much idea about mechanics about driving elephants, so they never got to the races. That didn’t help things either.
When I was in trouble I’d often go down the road and these dear old spinsters – the Miss Colemans – would look after me. The rest of the family had grown up so they’d cook lunch for me. Where the hell my family was…I don’t know. Nobody seemed to worry about me.
More likely, no-one knew what to do with him. Unsurprisingly, Jack’s parents packed him off to the local school six months early. Broomfield is only about 6km north-west of Amberley, but until the 1940s the majority of the school’s pupils rode to school on their ponies and grazed them in the pony paddock. The school had only about 20 pupils, but it was too much for Jack to cope with.
Oh God, I got into my first fight; had a terrible spat with somebody out the back door of the school. And if there was a traction engine coming past I’d just walk out of the school and lean over the fence and watch it, or a mob of sheep. I pleased myself. In fact, I think they finally said they didn’t want me any longer at the school. They’d had me in a big way. I think you could almost say I was expelled from Broomfield School. ‘Asked to leave’ might be the best way of putting it…
His ”expulsion” coincided with the family’s move to North Loburn. In 1928, during a property boom, Gordon had bought a 2000 acre hill country farm at Scargill, north of Amberley. Soon after, he bought Okuku Pass, an 11,000 acre station 23km north-west of Rangiora. The Pass had originally been part of Gordon’s grandfather’s historic, “Lowburn” block, and he seemed hell-bent on reclaiming part of it.
John Macfarlane originally had “Coldstream” and “Lowburn”, which he took up in September 1851. On January 14, 1854, “Lowburn” became the first registered station brand in Canterbury, and Macfarlane added White Rock station to it soon after.
Lowburn, later known as Loburn, was on the north side of the Ashley and took in the downs of Mt Grey. In 1862, Macfarlane sold the station to Arthur and Charles Cunningham of Fernside, and built a new homestead at White Rock. Loburn was scrubby and a bad place to get a clean muster – the Cunninghams apparently had a bad time with scab. However, there was some heavy land in the valleys, much of which had been bought by navvies with the money they had been paid for digging the Lyttelton tunnel. The stock and station company Dalgety and Co took over the property in 1884 and sold off the land bit by bit.
The original White Rock homestead had been extended by John Macfarlane’s son-in-law, Walter Nicholls after 1882, but was razed by fire in the 1920s. When the Fultons moved to Okuku Pass in 1931, the property needed a lot of work.
Even considering the Depression, we paid for the Pass pretty dearly. It was a dreadful place really, particularly in those days. There was a lot of bush – it lay very badly to the sou’west storms and a lot of it was sour, wet, cold country in the front. It had a lot of gorse and in the 1930s we didn’t have the means of breaking the stuff in. It wanted a lot of money spent on it, so why father bought it, I have no idea. It was a millstone around our necks during the slump and the war years, it really was.
Winifred Austin had grown up in aristocratic style on a sprawling sheep station in Victoria – at one point the Austin’s Larundel property spanned 200,000
acres. Her forebear was James Austin, an English convict who was sent from to Hobart in about 1804 for stealing bee hives and honey. On his release around 1807, James established the Austin ferry service across the Derwent River in Hobart, and in the early 1820s sent for his nephews in
Boltonborough, a village in Somerset, to come out and join him. Over the next 20 years, the Austins made a fortune from farming and the ferry service, before Winifred’s grandfather, Thomas Austin, moved to Port Phillip, now Melbourne, in 1837. The same year he bought Barwon Park near Geelong, and married Elizabeth Harding, the sister of a neighbouring landowner. The Austin family’s original property at Winchelsea was 29,000 acres, and the family soon became akin to lords of the manor. In 1859 Thomas imported Lincoln sheep and rabbits, among other animals, from England, and 10 years
later began building Barwon Park Mansion, a 42-room bluestone homestead which hosted a visit from the Prince of Wales in 1871.
Sadly, Thomas died from blood poisoning in December the same year- only six months after the mansion was completed – and Elizabeth lived there as a widow for the next 40 years.
Elizabeth was a very grand dame – a tiger of a woman, from I can gather. She had four matched black horses, “the pride of Victoria”, and rode horses herself. When she went to church at Winichelsea – the one that Thomas built – they’d roll the carpet out from the coach to the doors and nobody was allowed in or out before her.
Mother was quite regal too, though. You could say she was saddled with these late children but she wasn’t really. She passed us off so quickly you couldn’t see us for dust.Mother basically had no part to play in the house besides looking after the ducks and fowls. She used to buy these ducks and roosters, have them slaughtered and send them to the refrigeration room at the freezing works down the road. She would have about 50 head there at a time and would draw them out as she wanted throughout the year. Every day from breakfast time to half past nine she would look after the ducks and fowls. I did upset things badly for her one day, though. She was treating her hens for lice, putting nicotine sulphate under their wings as a deterrent and as a protection against scratching. I’d seen father dipping the sheep so I thought: ‘Well, that’s stupid just putting a little bit of stuff under the wing’ – so I rigged up a dip – a bucket with kerosene in it – and proceeded to dip the 80 fowls. They flew up the wire, raced around the yard, went absolutely berserk and the whole lot died. I don’t know what penalty I got for it but I had a great time. I can still see those fowls flying up the netting going crazy around the yard. I’m sure the lice died at any rate…
Anyway, every day after she had been out in the yard she’d have half an hour on the telephone, which was a great thing, and do the garden until lunchtime. She slept from lunchtime to three o’clock, had afternoon tea and then fed the fowls and ducks again. That was her day.
Left to his own devices, Jackás curiosity often got the better of him. As an eight-year-old, he was enticed in to the back country with the Blunden brothers next door.
Apart from their main station in the Lees Valley, the brothers had a block of land about 18 miles away up the back of the Okuku Pass Rd which they used for mustering, shearing and weaning. One day they came through with a mob of sheep they’d driven from out the back, taking them past us down the shingle road to a sort of holding area. And for some reason I sailed along with them at about 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning.
They had taken a five-gallon keg of whisky when they went for this muster so by the time they came in they were well on their way. Apparently, they sat in their whare – they had just a hut on this block – and drank the rest of the day. I was sitting there listening to all this talk and they were getting drunker and drunker. I was having the time of my life listening to all this but about half past five my father finally found out where I was. He stormed in the gate and gave the brothers hell.
But along the way I’d noticed their gig horse didn’t have any shoes – it was in a terrible mess. I wanted a pony, so father thought he’d rescue this beaten-up old thing. It was a chestnut called Felix, and how many times it dumped me, I don’t know. Father used to laugh like hell if he tossed me off. One time, Felix shied at something on the side of the road and he tossed me right into a heap of boulders. I skinned my knee and he took off, so I stormed home ¾ of a mile to the house, wild as hell.
Eventually, father decided he’d show me how to ride him. It was one night after shearing and all the shearers and shed hands were out the front of the hut. Father was normally pretty good with horses and obviously thought: ‘I’ll teach this so-and-so how to ride.’ He got on with a saddle but no stirrups, and it wouldn’t be two minutes before he was off, flat on his back on the ground. The shearers laughed till they were nearly sick. Next thing, father took off in high dudgeon and we never heard any more about ponies and how to ride horses.
The family were well aware that even the slightest irritation could work Gordon into a lather.
Mother’s one saving grace was Helen McCracken, who lived at “Haylands”, near Glentui. Both came from roughly the same area of Victoria, and they used to talk on the phone about quarter past nine most mornings. But mother would be terrified that she’d still be there at morning tea when Gordon came back to the house at morning tea time to make a call himself.
Perhaps not surprisingly, hot-headed Gordon and the regal Winifred became increasingly estranged as the years went by.
I don’t know what happened between them, but something went wrong in the early 1930s after they sold the farm at Broomfield and went on a trip to Honolulu. Once we shifted to the Pass, father and my elder sister Mary became a pretty close team, especially towards the war years. They excluded mother and my younger sister Kate, and me to a degree.
Jack says part of the reason for Gordon’s frostiness his embarrassment about having children well into his mid-40s. Kate was born to a 47-year-old mother and a 43-year-old father, and it seems Gordon worried immensely about people might be saying behind his back.
Apparently there was an awful scene when he found out Winifred was pregnant. Father never really got on with Kate at all; he was so totally embarrassed by the whole thing he hardly ever spoke to her. But still, father and Mary were just their own little coterie; thick as thieves. It was embarrassing at times, because they just cut mother out of the conversation, reduced her to tears… In fact, father used to call her ‘Charming’ in a biting sort of a way. They had little conversation to my knowledge – didn’t really communicate, I don’t think.
However, Gordon’s most constant irritation was probably his horse Monty.
Both had short tempers, and the fights and arguments that used to go on between them were a sight to behold. They always had a contest while father was trying to open gates, for instance. Father was a great believer in being able to lean over the side of the horse to open the gate without having to get off. Every time he tried, Monty would play up. There was no way father could get Monty to sidle up to the gate, so the language would start and the horse would be kicked and cursed. It would be five minutes before father managed to get the gate open. He really drove me mad as well though. The rotten horse… you’d ride out the back and he’d go all day, and the moment he felt you were riding for home he’d start to jog. Father would curse him and they’d have another encounter. But really it suited my father down to the ground, this total contest of wills between the two of them.
Back in the house, daughters Kate and Mary spent most of the 1930s as boarders at Woodford House in Havelock North. But Mary arrived home shortly before the war and quickly took over the kitchen.
She was effectively running the house for mother. In fact, she’d superceded mother and excluded Kate. Dear Katie, she led an awful life at Okuku Pass; very repressed in a lot of ways. And then she’d been whisked off to school in Hawke’s Bay at a very early age because Amberley House had folded. In Mary’s eyes, Kate was totally incompentent and wasn’t allowed near the kitchen. We had a cook and a maid most of those years but Mary was still the boss.
* Winifred’s grandmother Elizabeth Austin gave much of her wealth away, establishing charitable institutions such as Melbourne’s Austin Hospital.
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