Walter (“Wally”) Roberts was born on 15 August 1907 in Newcastle-on-Tyne UK, the eldest son of Welsh parents, Walter and Elizabeth Roberts. The family moved to London, to 40 Elmsleigh Road Wandsworth, where Walter Roberts Snr worked as a printer and specialised in selling through direct mail.
Walter was clever at school, Elliott Central, and was remembered by one of his teachers, who kept in touch by mail for over forty years. As a boy he was fond of cycling, even riding his pushbike from London to Brighton and return (more than 170 km) in one day.
After his mother’s death in September 1921, home life became difficult. With his father’s encouragement he decided to immigrate to Australia. At Australia House in London, he learned of the Dreadnought Scheme. The floor of Australia House sloped and an official suggested he stand at the higher end as, "We’ve got enough jockeys in Australia already." Wally was a short lad.
Aged 16, he sailed on the SS Sophocles from Tilbury in 1924, in a big group of 61 Dreadnought Boys. During the voyage he and his mates helped the stokers in the boiler room, eating with the crew, then rushing upstairs to their own dining salon as well. Growing boys were always hungry. On arrival in Sydney on the 1 August, the boys went to Scheyville for three months farm training. The food was so poor, that Wally later told army mates who grumbled about poor rations, that they didn’t really know what bad food was.
After Scheyville, Walter was placed with a dairy farmer at Purfleet, near Taree on the Manning River. Hardly a farmer, this man was an alcoholic engineer from Sydney whose wife brought him to the Manning, in an effort to ‘dry him out’. Unfortunately for Wally, the engineer got a job in charge of the Taree and Wingham Water Works. He told his young apprentice, “You can’t stick around here by yourself talking to gum trees—you’d better find something else to do,” leaving a very disillusioned young British lad, who knew no one in this strange country, to look after himself.
Wally’s next opportunity was a dairy farm near Wingham; he also worked on the new Killawarra Bridge over the Manning River. Wingham became a turning point for Wally. He became involved in the local Methodist church, making lifelong friends, especially Stella Western, Rev. Charlie Judd – and Wally now had a motorbike.
Wally moved north to Wardell on the Richmond River in 1935, at the instigation of Rev. Judd, now minister at Ballina. He took up a Crown lease and started to clear the land to grow pineapples. It was tough work clearing the heath land with mattock, shovel, axe and brush hook. Rev. Judd used to help with the clearing on his day-off.
Wally’s ‘home’ was a very basic humpy, that leaked so much that he had to stay standing up on rainy nights. The Leeson family next door, accepted the young Britisher as part of their family. Hearing of these conditions, Mrs Leeson insisted that he came over to sleep in her sons’ room when it rained. Bill Leeson helped Wally build his first home - a small, two-roomed house with verandahs.
Now with his own farm, Wally was encouraged by Rev Judd him to marry the love of his life, Stella Western. Married in Wingham in 1939, they returned to live at Wardell. It was the start of a long and busy life of service to the Wardell and later, Alstonville communities. Wally joined the Grand United Lodge, the Hall Committee, the Rifle Club, and commenced a twenty-year stint as poll clerk at state and federal elections. Walter Roberts had been growing ginger as well as pineapples. He became the secretary of the Ginger Growers Association.
In 1936, as the war clouds were starting to gather, he joined the 41st Battalion of the Militia, riding his pushbike nearly forty kilometres to night parades in Lismore. At the outbreak of World War II he tried to enlist. Although a serving member of the Militia, he was told to forget it as he was too short, and in an essential industry. Next time he ‘got lucky’ when he mentioned that he was a good motorbike rider. After guaranteeing that the essential primary products of pineapples and ginger would continue to be grown for the war effort, he was allowed to enlist in the 6th Division, Signals as a Dispatch Rider in June 1940.
Wally served in Palestine, Syria and the Canal Zone, then returned to Australia to serve in the defence of Darwin, and in North Queensland. Then he served in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Bougainville, until demobilised in late 1945. Walter’s courage and commitment were recognised when he was awarded the British Empire Medal (Military Division). The citation notes that he "gave outstanding service as a dispatch rider with the 23rd Australian Brigade Signals during the preparation for the defence of Darwin and throughout the Bougainville operations as a linesman. His willingness to undertake difficult and dangerous tasks………..earned him the admiration of the formation."
Returning to Sydney after the war, he searched for a utility to make farm work easier. However, there were none available for him so he settled for a 1924 Chevrolet car. Back in Wingham, with his father-in-law’s help, Wally cut the back of the car out and installed a tray body. It became a utility (it had been utilised!). The Roberts family, with daughter Olwen, were able to return to Wardell. Son Alun was born in 1946.
By 1948 Wally had joined the staff of Tintenbar Shire Council. In 1955 the family moved from Wardell to Alstonville, where he became thoroughly involved in the community. Among organisations to benefit were the RSL, Junior Hockey Association, the Shire Employees Union, Methodist Church and Sunday School, Red Cross, Civil Defence, the Patriotic Committee, Maranoa Units, Meals on Wheels, Senior Citizens Group, and every major fundraising.
There was recognition of his selfless contribution to the community. In 1981, being the Ballina Shire Senior Citizen of the Year, he was also one of six finalists in the Senior Citizens Awards for NSW. In 1991, the Ballina Council awarded him for outstanding community service. Meanwhile, his partner for fifty years, Stella, had passed away in 1988.
Wally was always a wheel man, and his bicycle was part of his identity. He rode it everywhere until it was stolen in 1995.Then aged 87 years, he switched to a 'gopher' (mobility scooter).
Wally was one of those people who made a difference wherever he went. Phrases from the full Army BEM Citation say it well – “his amazing capacity to deliver………his irrepressible enthusiasm and cheerfulness has been an inspiration.”
Walter Roberts BEM passed away in February 2008, being 100 years old.