Never putting cart before the horse

Never putting cart before the horse

News
Neil Gill, Brookton, with a horse-drawn wagon which originally came from Narembeen and took 18 months to restore.

Neil Gill, Brookton, with a horse-drawn wagon which originally came from Narembeen and took 18 months to restore.

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As a born and bred pragmatic country person and central western Wheatbelt wool buyer for 37 years Neil Gill, Brookton, was never one to put the cart before the horse - nor indeed, the horse before the cart.

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AS a born and bred pragmatic country person and central western Wheatbelt wool buyer for 37 years Neil Gill, Brookton, was never one to put the cart before the horse - nor indeed, the horse before the cart.

Over 35 years Mr Gill, 72, has collected and restored nearly 30 carts, buggies, gigs, sulkies, drays and horse-drawn wagons which are now stored under cover at his property Tamelroy at the end of Brookton's main street.

A hobby that started with an offer from an uncle of two old wagons on a Pingelly farm to do up, became a passion and sheds that once stored bales from his wool buying business are now filled with light horse-drawn vehicles - most restored, a few works in progress and lots of parts, particularly metal pieces - wheel rims, steering turntables, steps, mudguard brackets, braces and rods.

Most of the bigger wagons - like a restored Emu Brewery wagon - are displayed in his yard under purpose-built roofed shelters to protect them and with wheels off the ground on blocks to prevent white ants from ravaging the timbers - solid timber of the size and length required to restore a horse-drawn wagon are almost impossible to find these days unless an old wooden bridge or pier is being replaced.

Old shearing sheds can sometimes be the source of lighter timbers for decking and other wagon parts.

A rare breaking-in cart with extra long shafts is part of Mr Gill's collection.

A rare breaking-in cart with extra long shafts is part of Mr Gill's collection.

Some of Mr Gill's handiwork and that of members of the Pingelly Men's Shed members, who restored a wagon with some parts Mr Gill helped provide and who have helped him paint some of his wagons, can be seen in a historic display beside the Brookton-Corrigin Road in Brookton.

His passion is finding, salvaging, rebuilding and preserving old horse-drawn conveyances, particularly the big farm wagons that were yesteryear's two, four or six-horse power equivalent of the 500 horsepower prime mover and bulk grain bin trailers found on most Wheatbelt farms these days.

But he has never owned a Clydesdale - the gentle giants that on many farms up until the end of World War II pulled implements in the paddock Monday to Saturday and, after a tidy-up brush of mane, tail and leg 'feathers', pulled a buggy with the whole family aboard to church on Sunday and waited patiently outside, chomping through a nosebag of oats, while the parson preached on and on inside.

Occasionally, when a trip to town or a delivery to the wheat bin involved an extended stop at the local 'rubbity dub' to wash away the dust, Clydesdales were entrusted with finding their own way home, as well as with the safety and security of their inebriated driver fast asleep on the wagon seat.

"They used to do that here (in Brookton) and at Pingelly - get full of wallop in the pub, give the old horse a crack and he'd take them home," Mr Gill recalled from his youth in Pingelly.

"A lot of (buggy and wagon) collectors start off with a horse connection, but I never had horses," he said.

His love is of the clever craftsmanship that went into constructing out of the local materials at hand the purpose-built working vehicles the horses pulled.

Mr Gill has also begun collecting horse-drawn farm implements.

Mr Gill has also begun collecting horse-drawn farm implements.

The heavy timbers of the load-bearing components - frame, turntable supports and axles - and specially selected hardwoods used to make the massive wheel hubs, spokes and fellies - a felly is a segment of the outer circumference of the wooden wheel inside the metal wheel rim - is his interest.

For example, his enquiries with old-timers into how local wagons were built and their history revealed timber from Morrell trees, found throughout the Wheatbelt and commonly known as white gum, was favoured for wheel hubs, the critical high-wear component that rotates on the end of the axle and transfers all the weight to the wheel.

Similarly, he marvels at the near-perfect balance front to back, light weight, elegance and deceptively delicate appearance of some of the two-wheeled buggies and gigs - designed for two people, but often called upon to transport a Wheatbelt family of six, plus basic supplies for the week.

Many of the horse-drawn vehicles in his collection are purely utilitarian - designed to haul up to 10 tonnes at a time of bagged wheat, wool bales or beer barrels over the deeply rutted tracks and 'corduroy' sections - layers of brush and saplings laid at right angles across soft patches - of what passed for country roads in the first half of last century and earlier.

Certainly 10 tonnes was a significant load when you consider brakes to pull it up were simply blocks of hardwood that a series of metal rods operated by a long lever and the driver's strength, jammed against the rim on each back wheel.

"They looked big and heavy and cumbersome, but with the big wheels once you got them rolling, they moved along quite well," said Mr Gill as he proudly showed off his collection to Ripe magazine.

But others in the collection were obviously the luxury or sporting vehicles of their day, with slender, supple leaf springs, heavily padded diamond-tufted leather upholstery, fluted timber panelling, decorative wrought iron work for brackets and steps and sweeping narrow mudguards, designed more with rakish styling in mind than keeping the countryside off the occupants.

A roadside historic display in Brookton features some of Mr Gill's wagons and a fibreglass Clydesdale horse.

A roadside historic display in Brookton features some of Mr Gill's wagons and a fibreglass Clydesdale horse.

These were not meant to go behind plodding 'cart' horses, but to be pulled by fine, high-stepping fillies with flared nostrils and flighty dispositions.

Just like today, the aim was to create an impression by proclaiming the owner a person of considerable affluence and possibly high distinction, to any pedestrian who saw them.

"There's no doubt, some of them were pretty flash in their day," said Mr Gill of the two-wheeled conveyances in his collection.

"I've got one of only two breaking-in carts supposedly left in Western Australia," he said.

It looks like any other two-wheeled light cart except for exceptionally long shafts a horse went between.

"They were used to train young horses to pull carts," Mr Gill said.

"With an untrained horse you put them right up the front of the shafts so they could kick and buck without doing any damage.

"As they got more used to pulling the cart you moved them back along the shafts."

Many of the wagons and buggies were found on local farms and some have personal connections.

"The Emu Brewery lorry came from Popanyinning - that's my cousin's actually, but he's dead now," Mr Gill said.

A restored Emu Breweries wagon.

A restored Emu Breweries wagon.

"One wagon was dumped by the Powells and that was made in Pingelly and another wagon is from my uncle that was made in Brookton by Matthews, a wheelwright here in those days.

"I found out all the axles, (wheel) centres and spokes came out of the Midland railway workshops originally.

"They used to make them there and send them up (country) in (railway) truck loads."

"I got a lot (of carts and buggies) off my cousin Anthony Boyle - he used to do clerk of the course for Bunbury and Pinjarra races - and a second cousin used to do all the leatherwork and that sort of stuff between Pinjarra and Mandurah - Hardingham was his name.

"He did all the Swan Brewery horse team's saddlery and leather work and used to do some work on the wagons as well.

"I didn't realise we were related until I went to look at some of his work and realised his uncle was also my uncle.

"I started collecting as a hobby through my uncle who had an old wagon on his farm and an original Swan Brewery lorry (restored and later sold) was out there too.

"He (uncle) said if you want to do them up you can have them.

"The Swan Brewery lorry originally came from my other uncle at Kulyaling, between Pingelly and Brookton, he got that in 1946 when he came home from the war.

"His brother used to work for the Swan Brewery and they were switching over to motorised vehicles.

"Uncle Alf had lost his own wagon in a fire that year and his brother rang up and said 'Alf I've got a wagon for you'.

"He used to take his wheat from Kulyaling to Narrogin and it was a three-day trip there and back - about 38 miles each way.

"He'd take his wheat down to Narrogin to get it ground into flour and that was his supply for the year.

"I've got the buggy my mum and her dad used to travel in.

"There were nine children in the family so 11 of them would come to the (annual agricultural) show in the late 1940s and early 50s in this buggy.

"The two little ones would be under the feet of their mum and dad - my grandparents - and the rest of the kids would be hanging off the back somewhere.

"Another sulky I've got, a local woman Madge Smith used to drive into town taking a short cut across the paddocks."

Mr Gill's passion for wagons has also seen him bring four back from South Australia to restore.

"They're very good over there, they house a lot of them (wagons) in sheds so they're protected from the weather," he said

"The South Australian wagons and buggies are different to the Western Australian ones - they had to have handbrakes fitted, probably because it's more hilly over there.

"The Western Australian wagons and buggies never had handbrakes."

With wagons, buggies and sulkies becoming harder and harder to find, Mr Gill has altered his collecting passion slightly to take in old horse-drawn farm implements.

He has a scarifier and a number of mouldboard plough sets already restored and on display in his yard.

Waiting in the wings to be returned to their former glory are two horse-drawn Sunshine harvesters that will soak up all the time he has to spend on them.

Footnote: Journalist Mal Gill is not related to Neil Gill.

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