Norma King recorded a series of interviews with Bill Allen in the 1980s. She later wrote this unpublished article based on these interviews. To go to these interviews.
I was born in 1902 in Darlington, England. I had one brother and one sister. In 1915 I came out to Australia with my stepfather, Bobby Thompson. He and my father had been good friends and both were after my mother. She chose my father. Sometime after he died, my mother married Bobby Thompson.
We came out on the orient liner, Omhra. The names of all the orient liners began with the letter O. The war was on and we had trouble getting through. We were chased by submarines twice. It was exciting for us young ones. We had a rough passage going through the Bay of Biscay. It was before there that the submarines chased us and instead of skirting the edge of the Bay we went out in the middle and the ship was rocking. We arrived at Fremantle and had a few days looking around and then went on to the Goldfields.
The first place we went to was Marvel Loch. We got off the train at Southern Cross and went on to Marvel Loch by car with the mailman. He used to deliver the mail to Marvel Loch and other outlying places. It was the early hours of the morning and the only illumination was a kerosene lamp.
My stepfather had a job there and we were there for about twelve months. He then got a loco job on the Gwalia mine. He left us there until he found somewhere for us to live. He found us a place behind the Gwalia Hotel. The kitchen and living part was a long, mud-brick building. The kitchen and living area was about fifteen feet long and ten feet wide and roofed with corrugated iron. There were also a couple of other rooms. We weren’t there for very long before we got a house down on the Gwalia Block near the shops there. Mrs Russell had a boarding house there and we bought their house from them.
I lived in Gwalia from October 1915 to 1928. In 1921 there was a fire on the Gwalia Mine. There was a big four-cylinder suction Gas engine, and there was a lot of waste oil that had run down there. There were wooden floors. The engine had a rope drive and the fluff off of this rope must have blown under the exhaust. It got red hot and a spark from there must have started the fire. The part where there was the winding engine was all right.
It put us out of work and I went prospecting after that. There were a lot of empty houses as their owners had gone away to find other jobs. Those who wanted to stay, like me, went prospecting. After the fire, the company asked the Government for a bit of assistance and received seventy-five thousand pounds. It was four years before the mine started again.
When I went prospecting I didn’t find anything sensational and my stepfather and I took over the little mine at Pig Well. We didn’t do too bad from that. There was a bit of a scheme going at the time that gave prospectors a little bit of money. It was called sustenance.
There was a man called Tom who had a little bit of a show fifteen miles out from us. Kangaroo skins were fetching a good price and I asked him if there were many kangaroos out there. He told me there were plenty and that I could stay with him if I could supply him with a bit of the kangaroo meat. He said he had a boy out there with a spring cart who had a lot of kerosene tins, which he filled with water from a tank and took out to him. Tom said I could go with the boy and when he went to the tank I could be dropped off there.
I took out a box and a hurricane lamp with me and put the lamp inside the box with the light facing the water trough near the tank. I stayed within shooting distance and after shooting the one ‘roo I went back to my camp. I wasn’t going to stay there all night. This went on for about a week.
Tom had an old man working with him, old Bill Brilliant. Tom said that he was a bit crook and had to go into Leonora. He said, “When you go in will you pop in and see him. He is staying at the White House Hotel.” I went in and saw him and told him that Tom wanted to know how he was and when he would be going back to the show. Bill said he didn’t think he would be going back and would I like to take his place. And that is how I gave up prospecting.
Tom said we had to timber the shaft. We used bush timber and got plenty of it not far away. He did a very good job of the timbering. We got out about a hundred tons of ore and this is how we got the Pig Well battery. My stepfather, Bobby Thompson, came over and wanted to know how we were getting on. We told him we were getting on OK. He said he noticed we had a big pile of ore waiting to be crushed. He was walking around and asked me what that old plant was over there. I told him it was the old Pig Well turnout and that it was the old Starlight mine.
It had been found by a fellow named Harris. He had been sitting down having his lunch and was rolling a cigarette and dropped his tobacco. He bent down to pick it up and saw gold, sticking out in lumps. He had been sitting on the outcrop. He was a half-caste shepherd. My stepfather found out that a syndicate owned it and the battery as well. It had originally been a Government battery.
After several enquiries, Bobby found out that a fellow named Durrell was representing the syndicate. He got in touch with him and discovered that the battery was for sale and offered to buy it for us. It cost him around four hundred quid and he bought it to treat our ore. It was in fairly good condition, we only had to buy new plates.
He got a man called Smith to look after the battery. We put the ore through and it only went a few weights. What a failure!
After this Smith suggested we look around and assay other dumps. Even if they assayed only a few grains the ore would be worth putting through the battery. I told him there was a huge dump over near Malcolm – the old Sunday leases. I saw where somebody had a go at it too. It was worth about four weights. We put three hundred tons of that ore through and we got enough to make up for our losses. The battery ended up being sold for scrap.
I stayed around the Gwalia-Leonora area prospecting for a while and in August 1928 went up to Wiluna. What made me go there was a newspaper article saying that Wiluna was opening up. I decided to go there. I got a lift up there with the Methodist Minister. He asked me if I had a job and I told him I was thinking of going to Wiluna to find one. He told me that he often went there with money from the Co-op store in Gwalia that was run by a fellow named Dench. The Dench’s were a theatrical crowd. He said he was going to Wiluna and was taking Dench there for a run and that I could go with them.
We arrived in Wiluna at about dusk and went into a hotel bar to have a drink. I looked across the bar and saw Lou Nowland. Lou used to be an engineer on the Gwalia Mine when I was there. He came around and asked me what I was doing there and I told him I was looking for a job. He said, “You’re just the man I want. We’re setting up a pumping job on the Dark Horse mine, about a quarter of a mile away, and I’d like you to be in charge of that”. The fresh water was pumped into a big tank and that, and water pumped up from the Caledonian shaft, supplied the mine and the town.
When I finished that I got a job driving the loco on the Wiluna Mine. This was usually called the Big Mine. Sometime after I was there I got a message from my brother in Gwalia, asking me if I could go down there for a while and help him work a show that was going fourteen weights to the ton. I asked Lou Nowland if I could take time off to help my brother. He said I could take as much time off as I liked and that I could come back and get a job there if things didn’t work out.
When I went down I found out that the ore had to be carted to Laverton to be crushed. My brother’s show was near Leonora. I don’t think I would have gone down if I had known that. There were four of us in the party. The others were two Italians. One was called Rigotti and the other little bloke was called Velanda. He asked me which one I wanted to go out in the bush with me and work the show and I told him it was immaterial to me. He said to take Velanda out. Well, the trouble I had with that blighter! I nearly shot him in Laverton. He was in Laverton drinking all the time. I had to put through the fifty ton practically on my own.
When we cleaned up I couldn’t get the gold in the bank until the Monday and Velanda said that he wanted to carry the gold around. I said, “You are not. I’m responsible for it.” He knew I had that little revolver. He’d seen it in my case. We were at the pub and I had the gold in my pocket. He called out to the others in the bar that I’d pinched his gold. He kept on saying it until I took the gold out of my pocket and put it on the table. I also took out my revolver and said, “OK. Take the gold and I will follow you everywhere you go with this.” On Monday morning I want you to hand me back the gold and if you don’t I’ll put a slug into you”. I would have, too. I asked him on Monday morning what had become of the gold and he said he didn’t know and I said, “I told you what I was going to do.” He then handed me the gold.
When I went to Wiluna in 1931 there were three hotels there; the Weeloona, in the main street, the Commercial in a street behind and O’Shaunesy’s pub, the Club, at the top of the main street. Dawson had the Commercial, and Gee, the Weeloona. Ray Finlayson took over from him and later became the Mayor.
I was staying at a boarding house run by Mrs Rucks who used to be in Gwalia. Her husband, old Henry Rucks used to be head rigger on the mine. I was there for a while and then moved to a boarding house run by Mrs Rickard. It was right next to the Commercial Hotel. I had a mate, Norman Ashley, who stayed at the boarding house, too. One day I went into the kitchen and asked if I could have my dinner a bit early. She said, “Just a minute, I’m straining the soup.” She was straining out maggots though a piece of hessian. Needless to say, I didn’t have any soup and also advised my mate not to have any. I told him I was getting out of there and putting up a tent on the flat near the dump and cook my own meals and said that he could come with me too. We did that.
When Wiluna was under construction they had to get their steelworkers from the eastern states. They were a pretty wild bunch when they got going of a night time. One night I got stuck into them in a little cafe there. We had been having a night out and I suggested to my mate, Norman, that we go and have a fish supper. We went in there and there met up with Harry Woosnam. I had only met him a couple of weeks before. Mickey Bennet was there too. We were sitting there having our supper and at another table, there were four of these fellows from the eastern states. One of them passed some remark about the waitress.
I got out of my seat and went over to the man and told him to cut it out. “She’s a good clean-living girl. Not what you say she is. You go over and apologise or I’ll get stuck into you”. I went over to my table and had just sat down when Norm yelled out, “Duck, Bill.” I ducked and a full bottle of beer came flying past me. If it had made contact it would have killed me. I said, “Come on boys, let’s get into them”. We turned that cafe upside down and it was a free-for-all. Someone had rung for the police and little Johnny the Greek told us to go out the back way. We got out of that without any trouble.
When the policeman came around and asked us what had caused the trouble we told him we didn’t know. Johnny the Greek told them what had happened and that the other fellows were the cause of it. The police wanted to charge the men for damaging the cafe but Johnny the Greek said to forget about it.
I didn’t go back to Wiluna until 1936. I hardly knew the place. The streets were all made and there were all these shops with coloured lights. I got married in 1938. I had met my wife in Perth and married her in Wiluna. My wife used to write stories. She won a short story competition in the Woman’s Day and after that some articles for The Countryman.
I saw an advertisement in a newspaper for a boilermaker in Manjimup in the South West. I went down there and worked and it was all night-shift work and it was pouring rain. My wife got seriously ill with pleurisy. I nearly lost her down there. She was in hospital and the doctor said, “Look, you’re from the Goldfields and I don’t think this climate down here suits you”. I had duodenal ulcers too at that time and the doctor advised us to go back to the Goldfields. We did that.
We were making our way back and got jobs in Kellerberin as housemaid and yardman. That didn’t last long. It wasn’t much of a job. Before we left there we heard there was a vacancy at a hotel in Tammin for a housemaid and yardman. That was wicked. When we got off the train and were on the platform the porter asked me if we were going to the hotel. I said we were and he said, “You might as well leave your luggage here”. When I asked why he told me that the others who went there hadn’t lasted twenty-four hours. I said we might as well give it a try,
We went over and started the job and it wasn’t long before there was trouble. I used to have to feed and milk a cow and I hadn’t milked a cow in my life. I told my boss this and he said that now I had the chance to learn. I milked the cow and took the bucket into the kitchen. The cook, the boss’s wife, wanted to know where the milk was and said that I must have been drinking the milk. There wasn’t enough to cover the bottom of the bucket. I said it was all I could get from the cow and couldn’t old Charlie do it as he had been doing it before. Things got worse.
I went into the kitchen and asked for a cup of morning tea and she said I’d get no morning tea there. I said my wife and I have been working in a lot of places like this and have always been entitled to a morning cup of tea. I went and made a cup of tea for myself. She said I wouldn’t be getting any more and I told her I would while I was working there. I used to have to light the kitchen fire in the morning and I’d make myself a cup of tea before she came on the job. It came near lunchtime and I asked her for my morning drink. She said I wouldn’t be getting any and I said that every hotel I’d worked in let me have a drink of beer or cool drink before lunch every day. Anyway, we didn’t stay there long.
We then went down to Perth and stayed at the Shamrock Hotel and this woman came up and asked me if I was Bill Allen from Wiluna. I said I was and she asked me what I was doing and I told her I would be heading back to the Goldfields. She told me her mother was looking for someone in Cue. There was a big mine there. We took the job and while there, saw an advertisement for a boiler-maker at the Shannon River. After a while, we were making our way back to Wiluna and stopped off at Kalgoorlie.
I couldn’t get a job there and then went on to Leonora and put all our luggage on the mail cart to go back to Wiluna. I was talking to “Macca” Petroni who had the boarding house there. He told me there was plenty of work there if I could get a house and said I could get a house over the road from him. People had just left it and you should have seen the mess it was in! We cleaned it all up and moved in.
I got this here job on the Gwalia Mine again. I had to work with an electrician and we had to go right down to the bottom of the shaft looking after the pumps, the electricity and the ropes and that. There was one occasion when we had to go down and we were changing the pump. To change the pump there was a hard wooden plug to cut the water off and we had to disconnect the pipe and put the new one in you see. We were doing that and got the pump all ready to start and Charlie said, “See if we can get that plug out and put the new one in.”
There was no hope of getting that plug out as it had all swelled up. He said there was only one way, “We’ll have to get inside the darn and pull it out. The darn was very high up you know. I told him that I wouldn’t get in that muck for all the tea in China. All the water that cleaned the stables and that was there. It was the colour of strong tea. He said that someone had to go down and he supposed it had to be him. He went in and pulled the plug out and when the manager asked us how we had got on, Charlie said that I wouldn’t go into the dam and that he had to. The boss hauled me over the coals for that. He said that I was supposed to give them a hand. I said there was no way I would go into that filth as anyone could get tetanus there. He said if I wouldn’t do what was asked there’s only one thing for him to do and that was to fire me. I told him to make my time up and I left the job.
We had a visit from Pastor Wilson of the Seven Days Adventist Church. I told him I wanted to leave there and he told me to hang on for a while and he was going to Kalgoorlie and he would see what he could do for me down there. He came back and said he wanted me to go down to Kalgoorlie and see Mr Reynolds who is a lay preacher down there and he’d put me up for a while I tried to get a job. We went down and stayed there for a little while and I couldn’t get a job. I went up to Leonora again. I eventually got a job in Kalgoorlie at the Roads Board but that didn’t last too long and the next job I got was as a yardman at the Kalgoorlie Hotel. That was a good job. I was there for about eight months and then got a cut on my foot and finished up there. I finally got a job on the road roller machine.
When I was living in Wiluna the second time there was a very funny incident. It happened at North Pool, which is fourteen miles out of Wiluna. It is at the end of a creek and finishes up in a gorge. It is a beautiful pool of water, about thirty yards wide, fifty yards long and about thirty feet deep. It is all lined with beautiful gum trees. One Saturday night my mate and I had a good night out and on the Sunday morning I got up and said to Norm, “Let’s go for a ride on my motorbike and freshen ourselves up a bit”. He agreed and when he asked me where we going I said, “To North Pool”.
I was smoking a pipe at the time and my mate, Norman, didn’t smoke at all. When we got to North Pool Norm said, “That water looks tempting. Let’s go for a swim”. I told him to wait until I had finished my pipe. We had no bathers and there was no one there except us. We took all our clothes off and put them under a bush on top of a pile of gum leaves. Instead of putting my pipe out I shoved it in my pocket. We were cavorting around in the water and Norm looked over and told me to look at our clothes. They were on fire! We heard a car coming and when we looked we saw that it was full of sheilas. I had my bike parked on the other side of the pool. Luckily for us, a woodcutter had his tent nearby and we dashed out of the water and ran to his tent. He lent us some clothes and some old shoes and I told him I would send back the clothes the next time a woodcutter went out there. That weekend’s paper, The Wiluna Miner, had an item that said, “Bill and Norm, next time you go swimming don’t forget to take your clothes with you”.
In the fire, I lost a practically new pair of elastic-sided boots and a beautiful new kangaroo hide coat I was wearing and a felt hat. They were my best clothes. I had to tum around and outfit Norman again. This happened before I was married and at the time when we were camping together.
My happiest memories are the time I was in Gwalia in the early days. I have lived in Kalgoorlie for the last thirty years and I expect I will die here.