Tuesday 29 October 2019

Jack Alty

Jack’s story comes from an interview he gave in 1986, and, thanks to his interviewer Helen Davison, we learn something about his life.

John Henry Alty was born in Lambeth England, in 1909, to John and Eveline Alty. His childhood was marked by air-raids and rations. His father worked on special duties with the Army Ordnance Department. His mother had the worry of the family, a deep concern for others in that area of London, and then her own illness. She died in 1924 from tuberculosis. While Jack and his sister were good at school, finances became a problem when their father suffered a mental breakdown. Jack finished school in 1925 and needed to find work.

When a friend in Australia wrote, painting life there in glowing terms Jack, with another boy, decided to see if they could get out there. Jack became a willing participant in the Dreadnought Scheme and was one of 57 boys, who left UK on the Demosthenes in October, arriving in Sydney on 27 November 1925.

Jack spent the summer months at Scheyville where he enjoyed his training, for the new skills and the new friends he gained. He also enjoyed the challenge of his first job, in 1926, at Kiaora at Yiddah, near West Wyalong in NSW. His employers were to become lifelong friends.

Following his time at Yiddah, Jack and a friend (another Jack), went off with their gear, to try further out west. They actually saved a good deal of money even though times were lean, but they managed to live off the land. That meant water and rabbits! Rabbit plagues were denuding the landscape, causing the loss of native animals and minimal farm production. Fumigants, baits, rabbit drives, dogs, guns, clubs did little to control the devastation. As well as eating them, the two Jacks sold many rabbits. They had a regular order from the Leeton Hydro Hotel for three or four rabbits per week. They became expert trappers and made money from the skins. Later, when Jack was given a sow, he fed it on boiled rabbits and wheat and subsequently bred many healthy pigs on this diet.

The impact of irrigation in the Riverina, and on Jack Alty, was very significant. When the two Jacks first reached Leeton, they sat on lush green grass, relishing this product of irrigation. On arrival in nearby Griffith, they heard that the Irrigation Commission needed logs for the fenced farms for the returned soldiers. This was an opportunity to earn some money, so as each load was picked up from them, they were paid for the previous load. Had they stayed, there was work available with horse teams cutting the irrigation channels. But they moved on.

Jack noted that rabbits were still a problem at each property he went onto. While on the property Fairview in 1934, he promoted the use of a tractor rather than a team of horses for them. There was real risk of horses getting hurt in the burrows. It was much simpler to mount a good ripper on the three-point linkage on the back of the tractor, and in that way, he eventually got rid of the rabbits there.

The introduction of the myxomatosis virus in 1950, proved to be the turning point in the overall control of rabbits. The number of sheep Jack could put on his properties was dependent on the prevalence of rabbits - they could eat so much there was little left for the sheep. Myxomatosis opened the way for the Wool Boom years which followed.

In 1934, Jack married Beryl Westrup. Farming at Goolgowi, Jack and Beryl went on to have two sons and two daughters. Jack’s properties were dry area farms and farming was difficult due to the soil and lack of water. He couldn’t even dig a dam because the soil was too sandy and would not hold water. The three bores he sank went 300 to 400 feet underground but were sometimes too brackish, even for the livestock. By 1976, Jack had eased up although still working the farm occasionally. But it thrilled him to see the introduction of the new water supply system, with water pumped to storage and then piped to Jack’s farm and others nearby. What a great relief to be able to plan livestock levels due to regular water!

Jack’s wife Beryl died in 1980. By 1986, he had remarried and was living in Griffith, where he died on 6 February 2002, aged 92 years.

At the end of the interview, Jack reflected on the strands of his story (childhood, Dreadnought boy, friendships, family, farming, rabbits and irrigation) this man of warmth, easy conversation and deep faith observed that a strand of one sort ends and another takes its place, while a thread alongside continues on and yet another weaves differently through, to make up the pattern of a life.