Bourke-A Town With Real Spirit-A Personal Perspective

In August 1960, as a raw youth,just after my nineteenth birthday, pastoral house Dalgety sent me to Bourke Branch. I had joined Dalgety in Sydney six weeks or so earlier after spending three years “jackarooing” in south/west and central Queensland. Dalgety said that they would use my vast rural experience and send me to a western branch! I thought I was going as a junior Stock Salesman, but the Bookkeeper had resigned a day or two before I arrived and on arrival the Branch Manager, Jim Garnsey, told me that as I had spent six weeks filling in time in the Sydney Accounts Department, I was the new Bookkeeper! Highly revered Bourke stalwart, Dermie Murray, tells me that he sat beside me on the aircraft from Sydney and was amused at the enthusiasm of this youngster. At the time Bourke had a regular Ansett Focker Friendship air service on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays.

Bourke in those days was thriving. The impact of the Korean War driven wool boom of the early 1950’s was still apparent and Dalgety Bourke was a vibrant Branch with a big business. Whilst my duties largely confined me to the office I got to know the district and many of its personalities by playing cricket on Sundays with the renowned Snake Gully cricket team. We had our home field some miles out of town on Jandra Station. Matches were often played in  extremely hot weather in surrounding townships-Wanaaring, Louth, Enngonia etc., and this induced a considerable thirst. On other hot days the back bar of Fitz’s Hotel was a favourite drinking hole and I have always claimed that it was in that place that I learned to drink.

In the early days of 1961 at the farewell to Bush Brother Timothy (the Rev.Dr. Barry Marshall), I met a spirited school leaver, Gail Dugan, who, five years later, became my wife with Barry Marshall officiating at our Sydney wedding. I spent some 18 months in Bourke before being transferred to Ivanhoe. Following Jim Garnsey’s resignation to become a grazier at Tilpa, I  returned to Bourke in 1965 in the midst of a roaring drought, to support new Branch Manager and Bourke Rugby coach, Peter Garry.

After spending a total of 28 years with Dalgety including six years as national General Manager of the Rural division, I was attracted by the Swire Group’s plans to become a major agricultural producer and in 1988 I resigned to succeed Dudley Dunn as Managing Director of Swire subsidiary, Clyde Agriculture, then known as Wesbeef Pastoral Company.By then Swire had bought Dudley out completely. The Swire and Clyde Chairman, Edward Scott, who through his great mate Dudley Dunn had grown to love Bourke and invest in Clyde, envisaged I would set up an office in Swire House in Sydney. I couldn’t see why we needed a Sydney Office, apart from a room or two for me and one or two support staff, as well as an office in Bourke, so it was agreed that Bourke Office could provide administrative services to the growing Company whilst continuing to support the local cotton farms, gin, workshop, hotel and grazing interests (Toorale, Janbeth and Longmeadows).

So, I firmly reconnected with Bourke and made frequent visits during the twenty plus years I was with the Swire Group, both as a Director of Swire and following Edward Scott’s untimely death, Chairman and CEO of Clyde.

Bourke Reunion
Against the foregoing background it was not surprising that Gail, her surviving brother Barry (Trangie) and I decided to attend the big Bourke Reunion over Easter. We had a ‘phone call from long time friend Kay Violini, the daughter of Lyle and Nancy McNeil-Bourke Ford Garage proprietors and Newsagents. Nancy was a Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald’s Post Office Hotel. Kay told us that she and Leo were planning on driving up from Gippsland and urged us to attend, if we could find any accommodation! As it was we fluked a cancellation at Julie Murphy’s Ardsilla House and couldn’t have been better looked after. Kay and Leo stayed with an old friend at Brewarrina.

The Reunion was simply wonderful and is a great tribute to the spirit, commitment, organising ability and energy of the people of Bourke. As Phillip Parnaby, who I suspect was the driving force, quickly told me, it was a whole community endeavour which had the effect of drawing people together in an unprecedented way.

We arrived on Thursday evening and attended Jenny Greentree’s art exhibition and were delighted with her ongoing work and the atmosphere of the gathering. On Friday morning we ‘tagged along’ on the Toorale tour. This was very well planned and it was great to have Bill Stalley give a colourful picture of life in the old homestead, built by Samuel McCaughey in 1896.

Old Toorale Homestead-McCaughey 1896

The barramundi lunch on the Darling was a highlight and the National Parks and Wild Life briefings were interesting and sensitive. I went to Toorale with misgivings given my great disappointment at the economic loss of Toorale (including the cotton farm) as probably Bourke’s most productive property . However, it was great to be back there and the NPWL staff’s enthusiasm for the ongoing diversity of flora and fauna and the Warrego flood plain was infectious. This reinforced my view that there is really no conflict between grazing and protecting environmental values with enlightened management

A low  Darling River in Front Boundary Paddock on Toorale

The Long Table Dinner on the Back o’ Bourke Centre levy bank was a truly great event, again wonderfully well organised. Thank God the wet drizzle disappeared and a balmy evening ensued. Surely a single table some 150 metres long with a la carte service, must set some sort of entry for the Guinness Book  of Records?

Saturday began with a wide ranging street parade enhanced by a colourful commentary. From antique tractors and wagons to a display of medical procedures and live sheep shearing there was something for everyone. Amidst all these events there was the constant meeting of old friends some who hadn’t seen each other for fifty years or more.

Kay and Leo Violini and Gail Boyd in Oxley Street Bourke with Kay’s ancestral Hotel in the background

The afternoon was packed with a conducted historical tour of the Bourke Cemetery with historian Paul Roe in fine form, a spirited rugby match between the current Bourke team and a team of not so old former players, an Easter Communion Service complete with a christening of a grandchild of old friends at the Anglican Church where Gail and I first met, followed by “The Ball”.The latter was more in the form of a dinner/dance with the organisers serving 500 people a quality hot meal a la carte, in the recently renovated Oxley Hall. An organisational master piece.

Daylight saving finished on Saturday night and we were awoken at 4:30 AM by  Barry with a somewhat cynical query as to whether we were going to the sunrise Easter Church Service at the Wharf. He had wound his clock forward instead of backwards! We did get to the Service at the appointed time of 6:00AM and enjoyed an Easter Service with a  wonderul backdrop of the Darling River at sunrise with active birdlife, followed by the Buster family tradition of pancakes. The Busters were very early Bourke cotton growers (1965) who immigrated from California and have been strong community centred local citizens. Pancakes were followed by the dedication of a Memorial Garden at the Bourke Hospital and a tour of the modern wonderfully equipped facility. Gail worked there as a Sister before our marriage,  after she had graduated from Sydney’s Royal North Shore Hospital.
After a brief break we headed for the central event of the Reunion – the Picnic Races. The first race meeting to be held in Bourke for 13 years. I understand the attendance figure was no less than 3600. That in a town with a total population of 2500. It brought back memories of regular race meetings in the halcyon days of the early 1960’s. Whilst I didn’t trouble the bookies, would you believe, Gail and I won the entrance raffle and look forward to five days in Darwin, all at a generous sponsors expense! Consistent with past practice we had dinner at Clyde’s former hotel, The Port of Bourke (formerly the Royal) and as we had done throughout the extended weekend met even more old friends.
On Monday morning we did the Jandra Cruise on the replica of the famous old paddle steamer which plys the Bourke Weir  Pool. The skipper gave us an interesting commentary on the scale of the Bourke floods, but unfortunately had a misinformed, jaundiced view of the impacts of irrigation. I managed to constrain myself-just!

Before departing we paid our respects to all of Gail’s and Barry’s ancestors and siblings in the Bourke Cemetery and there are a lot there. We were accompanied by an old friend who like Paul Roe is an authority on who’s who in the Cemetery and who joined us for lunch appropriately at the Parnaby’s  “Diggers on the Darling”.

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