A long way from home

24 Apr, 2015 02:00 AM
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The last Dreadnought Boy Tom Dreha at his home in Seven Hills.
I was a very, very bad milker, and that did not suit the boss
The last Dreadnought Boy Tom Dreha at his home in Seven Hills.

BEFORE World War I, when Australia had no navy and was relying on Britain to provide some defence cushion in what was then known as the Far East, a movement was started to raise money to build a battleship for the British Navy.

At that stage, Britain and Germany were engaged in an arms race that culminated in World War I, and Australian sentiment in support of the "Mother Country" was strong.

The Dreadnought Trust ("dreadnought" being the common word for the big new class of warship) was set up at a meeting in Sydney in 1909.

However, in 1910 the relatively new Australian government decided to establish an Australian Navy, and 60,000 pounds from the trust was diverted into a scheme to bring British boys to train as rural workers in Australia to meet a perceived shortage.

It was one of several such schemes introduced around this time, and the boys imported under this particular scheme became known as the "dreadnought boys".

The boys recruited were aged from 15 to 19 years and selected for "good character and physique".

Between 1911 and 1915, 2557 boys arrived, and by the scheme's end in 1939, the total in NSW had reached 5595.

They were provided assisted passages to Australia and paid what amounted to only pocket money on their arrival and relatively meagre wages once they were employed.

The scheme was fraught with problems, however.

The boys were mostly from cities and had no experience of rural life or farming and Australia was very much an alien world.

As one account put it, they were "strangers in a strange land".

They often had to deal with spartan living and working conditions, and sometimes outright exploitation and cruelty.

Many ultimately rejected the rural life and moved to work in the cities, but there were also suicides and deaths from injuries and accidents.

Initial training for the boys was carried out at a 2500 acre (1000 hectare) special training farm set up in 1893 at Scheyville in the Hawkesbury district west of Sydney to train city boys for farming, but without great success.

Between 1911 and 1939 it was the centre for initial training of dreadnought boys.

Conditions at Scheyville were deliberately spartan to prepare the boys for the kind of accommodation they might receive once employed on farms in the bush.

At Scheyville the boys worked from 7.30am to 5pm, clearing land, milking cows, and ploughing.

Some of the trainees, after two or three months at Scheyville, were selected to undertake a 12 month course at state agricultural experiment farms.

This entailed working at various agricultural research stations across NSW.

At Wollongbar and Grafton on the North Coast, they learned about sub-tropical fruit production and dairy farming.

At Glen Innes on the Northern Tablelands they studied pastoral pursuits, and at Cowra in the Central West, sheep breeding and crop cultivation.

Glen Innes for example trained 325 "dreadnought boys" between 1912 and 1930.

In January, 1923, the Sydney Morning Herald reported many of the boys sent to Cowra had been absorbed in agricultural employment and were "making good".

But in January, 1926, the same newspaper reported criticism of the way the boys were being treated at Grafton.

One of the issues was the lack of transport to get the boys into town, and the local Chamber of Commerce carried a motion calling for the provision of a means of transport so the boys could get to town when they desired to do so.

Despite all the problems many of the boys stuck with farming and lived long enough to benefit from the more buoyant years in the 1950s and 1960s.

Farm life all milk and thistles

THE last group of Dreadnought Boys arrived in Australia in September, 1939.

Tom Dreha has no regrets about his decision as a 16 year old in 1939 to apply to come to Australia and be trained for farm work, under the scheme.

Mr Dreha, who lives at Seven Hills with his wife of 68 years, Eileen, found it a positive experience.

At 92, he is believed to be the last survivor of the Dreadnought Boys, thousands of whom were recruited in Britain to work in rural Australia between 1911 and 1939.

Mr Dreha responded to an advertisement in a newspaper in his home town, Liverpool, in northern England, to go to Australia under the scheme.

On arrival he was sent for three months' training at a special camp at Scheyville.

However, his rural career got off to an inauspicious start when he was sent to work on a dairy farm near Kempsey.

"I was a very, very bad milker, and that did not suit the boss," he said.

"So he introduced me to a mattock and scotch thistle".

However, he remembered the advice of his father who had encouraged him to make the move to Australia.

"He said it did not matter what happened in life, you just take it as it comes, as long as you know how to behave," Mr Dreha said.

After a few more farming jobs, Mr Dreha joined the Australia army and served in World War II with the AIF in New Guinea and Dutch Borneo, now part of Indonesia.

During the war he corresponded with a pen pal (Eileen) and the couple were married in 1945.

After the war he worked various jobs, including as a boiler maker, and lived around the inner Sydney suburbs of Newtown and Marrickville.

He said some of the Dreadnought Boys had had bad experiences under the scheme but his own experiences had generally been good.

"I had good overseers in farming and they were experienced farmers," he said.

"I have no regrets whatsoever, and I've got a wonderful family.

"I have never, ever been back to England."

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