Monday 26 February 2024

Bert Bridges


“Whoah, that was close!”

Probably not the words used, on the day Bert learnt how dangerous machinery could be. He had fallen off a steam-powered road engine and was run over by one of its big rear wheels. Being a small boy, Bert fitted between the high grips on its tread and escaped with his life, but with serious injury to his pelvis.

Albert William (Bert) Bridges was born on 25 March 1908 in Hendon (North London) to Robert and Rose Bridges, the fifth of seven children. His father had served in the British Army in the Sudan, Egypt, and the Boer War. Bert was six years old, when his father re-joined the Army to serve in France.

Young Bert got work in a picture theatre at Marble Arch. His job was to provide sounds during the screenings of the silent movies. Movies like The Retreat from Moscow and The Angel of Mans called for drums to be beaten off-stage for the thunder of gunfire. It needed imagination and good timing to create realistic sounds, and Bert enjoyed doing it. In 1922, Bert got work with leather goods specialist Garstin’s, in Hendon. He was there for three years, and received a valuable reference from them when he was about to leave England.

Bert had decided to emigrate. Bert, with his younger brother Tom and their friend Dick Willis, applied to travel with the Dreadnought Scheme, which brought them to Australia. They left on the SS Bendigo on 11 November 1926. Bert and Dick were 18 years old and Tom was a year younger. They reached Cape Town and, while there, decided to continue to Australia, on the toss of a coin. And so to Sydney, arriving on 7 January 1927.

In Sydney, they were given £2, put on a train to Cowra, sent to its Agricultural Experiment Farm. Bert’s first eight (hot) weeks were mainly spent cutting burrs. After training at the Farm, he went to Jack Pierce’s dairy in Taragala, South Cowra. This was followed by a brief time back at the Experiment Farm and then with Ernie Goodacre at Penrose, a farm north of Cowra. This was a positive time for Bert, the Goodacre family were very good to him.

The farm jobs were temporary at best, times were difficult, and men needed work. When construction of Wyangla Dam began, jobs became available on road-works to the site. In the hope of getting work, Bert and others were camped in a reserve on Waugoola Creek. They were living off rabbits, and food scraps from a bush kitchen which had been set up for the men working on the dam road. Dick Willis was working at a Mr Scott’s dairy at Warwick, a few miles down from Cowra on the Lachlan River. In 1929, Dick managed to get work in Newcastle, and when he gave notice, the Scotts asked whether he knew of someone to take his place. He went to Waugoola Creek to find Bert. Bert started with Scotts straightaway.

Dick and Bert were not the first Dreadnought Boys to work at the Scott farm. Before them were John Frith and Les Hirst (Check out the story posted back on 31 May 2017).

Despite the Depression the farm remained viable. People still needed to be fed and the farm was self-sufficient in fruit and vegetables. Mr Scott had died in 1926 so his wife and daughters, Maud and Lil, were running the farm.

Tom Bridges had eventually left the Experiment Farm and found work locally, but he gradually went further away, from Grenfell to Young and then Western Australia. He had become a travelling show-man, moving around Australia before staying in the west.

Bert was able to go back to UK for five months in 1933. On return, aged 25, he settled into dairy farming life with the Scotts, who became his family. Then, just before World War 2, he met Grace James. War intervened in their plans - Bert enlisted in December 1941, being posted to the 2/7 Australian Field Ambulance in Canberra, and then in Gympie (Queensland). Brother Tom had also enlisted and was in Darwin when the Japanese attacked. When both Mrs Scott and her daughter Lil had died, Bert was manpowered out of the army in 1944, and returned to the farm.

                                                                               Bert Bridges’ Army Photo

Bert and Grace married in April 1945, and had four children in the ensuing eight years. Maud Scott continued to live with the Bridges family. In 1955 the family, with Maud Scott, sailed on a trip to UK. When the ship called into Perth, Tom met them. It was their last contact for some years.

When Maud Scott sold the farm to Bert, he continued to supply milk to the factories at Cowra and Canowindra. He also supplied to the kitchens at Fagan’s Mulyan and Edgell’s Lombardy, which operated at harvest time on these large asparagus farms. His side-line in vealer production also prospered.

Through his contacts Bert heard that Dick Willis was in hospital, ill with lung cancer. Dick lasted until 3 April 1967, aged 58 years. Meanwhile, Bert’s brother Tom had re-established contact with a surprise visit in the early 1960s. In 1974 Bert became ill with failing kidneys. He died on 10 June 1975. Tom continued to visit until his last trip in 1995. Tom died in Perth in 1996.

Back in 1911, one of the Trustees of the Scheme was confident that the young Dreadnought Boys would be our ‘future farmers and soldiers’. Bert Bridges fulfilled that hope and, with his family, made a lasting contribution to the Cowra District as well.