York Conversations

Which three words best describe York for you?

We were delighted to exhibit portraits, stories and films as part of the York Festival 2017. We spoke to 26 people about their York stories and experiences and the exhibition was a culmination of the results of those beautiful sessions. We also invited people to take the time to add to the exhibition with their own stories and photographs of the town.

York is a nuanced and complex place. It has been made malleable by the rich lands in which it is nestled - from the fertile flats to the protection and joy provided by Mt Brown (Wongboral) and Mt Bakewell (Walwalling). As with many country towns that have farming at their fore, reliance on natural forces as a key contributor to the local economy has arguably left York strong yet vulnerable, resilient yet adaptive, very aware yet introspective.

The town’s longstanding history has had an undeniably significant impact on today’s York. Several of the events that took place within living memory have left deep imprints on the town and on the community. Interestingly these are incidents that took place both within York (the royal visit in 1954) and outside it (the Amana plane crash in 1950), they are both human-driven (the world wars), and matters outside of human control (significant flooding in the 1940s and 1950s and the Meckering earthquake in 1968) and include broader phenomena that impacted York for short periods (the Great Depression) and decades (racism, particularly against the Balladong Nyoongar community, and the separateness between Catholic and non-Catholic communities).

Many ‘Yorkies’ are born here (as were their forebears before them) and always remain. But the town is also comprised of many newer community members, who bring a new energy and drive to the town and assist in maintaining its momentum – keeping it relevant and ‘on the map’ from the vantage of those living outside of the town. They have done so through initiatives like the York Motor Museum and Flying Fifties races, as well as through the various successful and effective festivals that have been enjoyed in the town throughout the years, of which this year’s York Festival is no exception.

A town as historic as York comes with many a memory, many a story and many a legend. You will find a nostalgic comfort in some, which you may have heard many times before. Others may surprise you due to their novelty or rarity. But can you pick out the memory from the legend, the myth from the story?

As well as photographic portraits and stories, a series of films were created based on themes that many of the storytellers covered:


The Meckering earthquake of 1968;

The royal visit of 1954;

School; and

Larrakinism in the town.


Bob Ashworth

Ever since I could walk I always helped my dad on the farm. If I got the chance I’d get hold of the reigns of a couple of horses and a plough or something. It was a good life. I loved ploughing the land and watching the crop grow. Whenever we weren’t at school we’d be at home doing work on the farm. You just had to do it, you know. Then we’d get to play football occasionally. It was different for the town kids. They used to come out to our farm and they used to cause problems because all they’d want to do was play. They didn’t know how to work; they couldn’t milk a cow, couldn’t feed pigs or anything. They’d just been brought up that way.

My family came into town for a few groceries. We’d also sell the cream from our cows. We had a lot of food on the farm so we brought it in and gave it away to people that couldn’t afford to buy, especially during the war and rationing, but after as well. During the war we used to go out kangaroo shooting every Sunday morning. I was one of the youngest who went. Shoot a kangaroo for each family, skin it and bring it home, and that kept you going with meat without you having to buy any, you see. That was a good part of life, it kept people together a bit. I used to go to school on Monday morning with a blue shoulder as I had the shot gun resting on it on a Sunday.

Before there was TV, every night mum used to sit around playing the mandolin to us. Beautiful. Also, we used to swim in the Avon pool. It was a big change when they built the Memorial Pool, but the river was getting too dirty so they sort of banned you from swimming in it. No one really listened to the ban; at night time, kids used to go to the pictures and then strip off and into the pool. We also used to go to the dances. Boys put perfume on and dressed nicely. Everyone that could, went to a dance. There was no other entertainment – and wireless was only just coming in properly. If you were lucky enough you would take a girl along with you or else all the boys would go together. You’d dance all night til midnight, then if you’re lucky you took a girl home. Most cases you didn’t want to be mucking around with girls like that though. You’d just go home as you’d got to be at work early the next morning. And there could be dances on three or four times a week from different places. You’d have to go to other dances in a horse and cart or sulky or someone else’s old bomb, you know. Fit 10 or 12 in a Pontiac or an old Whippet or something. Them were good old days.

Keith Gentle

My father was born either at York or on the farm at Quellington. He farmed with horses until I left school and purchased his first tractor in 1950. Dad said whenever he was carting bags of wheat to the York flour mill with wagon and horses – as he approached York coming in from Quellington – passing the Goldfields Road – he always hoped as he looked towards Marwick’s Hill that there wasn’t a camel train coming towards him with galvanised sheeting strapped on all the camels’ sides. Those sheets glistened in the sun and looked like a big dragon; the horses got upset whenever they saw them.

Mum came out from England on the steam ship, the Osterly, when she was 21. The war was on. They had a naval gun on the stern in case there were any German naval ships around. But when it got to Gibraltar they took the gun off as they said there’d be no more trouble with the Germans on the journey to Australia and they needed the gun elsewhere. Four days later a German war ship appeared and it started trying to shell the Osterly, but was just out of range. The captain ordered ‘Full steam ahead’ and the stokers down below were shovelling coal for their life. The weather was hot. Mum said they used to bring the stokers up on deck in relays and the passengers would hold the corners of sheets and try and fan them to cool them down. The German ship chased for four days but couldn’t get close enough to hit. Some of the stokers perished though due to the heat and exertion.

Mum was also a good horsewoman. She had won a hunt in England. She’d been ice skating the day before the hunt. In those days you just wore your ordinary boots to ice skate and you’d bore a hole in your boots, then screw your blades in to go ice skating. So she was in the front of this hunt and there was another man catching up with her. She didn’t have any spurs and she realised she still had the metal for boring holes in her boots in her pocket. So she used that to give the horse a few jabs and she got there first. She was awarded a fox’s tail for that hunt and we used to have it in the house here.

I’m a bit disappointed; there wasn’t a school where we lived so I boarded in three different private houses in York so that I could get to school. As such I wasn’t at home as much as if I had been just going home after school every night. When I finished school I went to Guildford Grammar School and 18 months after I finished there mum passed away. So there would be lots of her stories that I didn’t hear.

While boarding at one of the private houses for school there was an incident with three Wirraway aircraft on an exercise. Two managed emergency landings but one crashed. It appeared they’d got lost above York and were dropping distress flares. Dr Ward had a son in the air force and I was told he got a torch and flashed with Morse code Y-O-R-K. The plane that crashed ended up about half a kilometre behind where I was staying, one landed in one of Marwicks’ paddocks and the third landed close to a house where two old ladies lived, the Miss Taylors. The day after the crash all us kids from school went down to the crash site. We got bits of the planes as souvenirs. Next day at school, Alf Davies showed me that he’d got a mechanism off the joy stick that was for firing the guns. I was quite intrigued with it. Alf was happy for me to swap a pomegranate for the mechanism and I’ve still got it today.

Mum was a friend of the Miss Taylors. We went up to see the Miss Taylors after the crash one Friday, when my mum was collecting me to take me home for the weekend. There was a plane sitting 50 yards from their house on its wheels with a couple of soldiers guarding it. In those days people had their toilets in a shed out the back of their houses. These Miss Taylors told my mother that they were concerned - they couldn’t go to the toilet because the guards would see them walking into the toilet shed.

On the weekends I was very keen to be out in the bush with my catapult trying to shoot parrots and catch rabbits. When I was little I wasn’t strong enough to press down the string on the rabbit trap to set it. But my mother had told me that when I turned, say seven, I would be able to do it. The night before I was seven I put a rabbit trap under my bed. The next morning I jumped up and tried it but I was so disappointed because I still couldn’t set it. My mum solved the problem eventually because she went and saw a rabbit trapper and he found her the weakest trap he had. And I could set that one.

Valda Hansen

Dad was a butcher and we lived in town, quite a distance away from the butchers, in a house that still stands. I didn’t really know the farm kids very well. They’d come to school in a horse and sulky and hang out with each other, then after school I’d go home and they’d go home and we wouldn’t see each other again until the next day.

There wasn’t much money or food around. A lot of our meat was rabbits, kangaroo and parrots. We’d set a box up for the parrots, put a stick under the front of it so that it’s tilted, then when the birds come in to eat the food that we’d put in the trap, you’d pull the string and the box would fall down on top of the parrot. It worked really well. Parrot pie, it was really beautiful. They’ve got a lot of meat on them. And you had to, or go hungry. 

We lived in the river. We’d have races and quite a few other games. Friday nights there were swimming races organised by the town. I was never in any of them but they were quite popular, just down at the main pool. We’d also go lots at the weekend with the family. We’d bombard the other kids and the boys used to ride their bikes off the jetty into the river. We’d come back up out of the river with green stuff all over us. And today they’d say don’t swim in it because it’ll kill you. But it didn’t kill us. And I had blisters all over me from sunburn. Leeches? Oh they were alright. There’d always be a friend there when you got out to help you get them off and throw them back in the water.

During the war we joined the Red Cross here and we used to knit squares and balaclavas for the soldiers in the trenches using khaki wool. The senior ladies in the Red Cross used to sew them all together and send them away. We thought we were smart! I can still remember those who came home from the concentration camps. I will never forget it. Thin, terrible. I also remember the day that the war finished, and the big party that happened. We were allowed out that night, the first night we had ever been allowed out at night on our own. The parties were at the Town Hall and the Masonic Hall. People were drinking and dancing and having a good time. There were no decorations though as there wasn’t enough time to put them up. We thought it was just great, although we didn’t know a lot about the war.

Colin McNamara

During the war years the army built the central bridge. When they finished they left these pontoons. My brother and I played on them all afternoon. We got to the point that we thought we owned them – giving other kids permission to join us. My dad’s friend saw us playing on the pontoon one day and instead of telling dad (which was a good thing in the long run) he went and told the police sergeant, who then came down to see us. Luckily for us he was on the west bank of the river and we were on the east bank. As soon as we saw the sergeant we ran off. That ruined everything as within a week the pontoons were gone. I was sour with my dad’s friend at the time, but ultimately the sergeant only gave us a fright whereas dad would have given us a fair bit more than that!

I can remember the 1950 Amana plane crash as plain as if it was yesterday. I was camped with my brother, Mick, at the time, and this particular night we went out spotlighting. We came home and went to bed and this plane flew over.  It was very, very low. We jumped out of bed and ran out of the hut and all we could see was a big glow in the sky. The plane had crashed behind a hill. We were three miles away from the crash but the glow of the fire from the crash was incredibly bright. Mick and I decided to get the police and to take both the owner of the property we were camping on and our dad as close to the site as possible. I rode out on the back of a copper’s motorbike. We had to walk quite a distance through the bush too.

When we got there, there was a sergeant, a constable, a farmer and a fellow walking around. Well by the time we got there dad had settled him down and kept him warm and that, but this fellow was a survivor from the crash. I always admired that man. In those days if you were 64 you were an old person. He would have been at least that age. He was badly injured and the side of his face was burnt and the moisture was coming out of it, with the skin rolling down. All the time that we carried him from the crash site to the ambulance he never complained once. He kept saying ‘Well I don’t know how I’ll ever thank you fellows for what you’re doing for me.’ And unfortunately he passed away on the following Sunday. I’ll never forget that.

I saw one of the crew laying with his tunic over his head and his legs cut at the calf. Another male body lay on the ground with not a stitch of clothing on it. We walked up to one body feet first and where the head should have been was flat as a board. It appeared they’d been thrown out the plane and something lobbed on their head. Those were the only near enough to complete bodies I saw. Mostly there were only bits of humans. Let’s say one foot, cut off at the ankle – you could see the toes and toe nails. Another piece was the torso of a man only. There were pieces everywhere. And the plane, it just looked like a heap of rubbish scattered over a large oblong area. It was really frightening.

There were that many sightseers coming in to view the crash site in the following days that the property owners locked the gates. But people took the gates off their hinges to come in. About a week after the crash the owner was fuming; sightseers even had the hiding to wave at him as they drove passed onto his property to take a look. And they never put the gates back on their hinges. You’d find shoes and things all over the drive through the property; people would pick them up out of the crash site, get going, then realise what they’d picked wasn’t a good souvenir so they’d just throw it out.

It also disturbed me that there were these two other fellows that helped as much as the rest of us on that first night of the crash, but they never got any recognition at all. Not one mention in the paper or in any subsequent dedications about the crash.

There was an old fellow in town who believed that if you wanted a kangaroo you went out with a dog and caught it, - he didn’t like high powered rifles. He knew Mick and I had a high powered rifle out there. When someone asked him about the plane crash he said ‘Yea, them Micknamaras (he never called us the McNamaras) with their gun, you’ll never know what they’ll do’ insinuating that we had shot a four-engine plane down with a rifle.

Kim Marwick

There were some fairly wet times in the 1950s and 1960s. The big flood in 1955 was the fault of the Avon River being blocked up with trees. But all we cared about was whether the water would come all the way up to the house so that we could do bombies. Meanwhile, all my father’s sheep were getting drowned and he was trying to save everything, yet we couldn’t have cared less. We were due to have a day off school because the school bus couldn’t get to us as the bridge had gone. But we had a very good community woman who lived just down the road from us and she wasn’t going to have us miss school, so she came up and bundled us all into her car. Worst luck. I’d do anything if it meant missing school; helping out on the farm to miss the school bus, anything.

Aboriginal kids used to all jump off the bus at the camp (I think my grandfather bought the reserve for the Aboriginal community in 1904). We were friends with the Aboriginal kids at school. They always smelled of smoke. They’d have a fire going inside their homes and they’d all curl up next to it in their clothes. Then the next day they’d come to school in the same clothes again. And why wouldn’t ya? We would have done the same thing if our mothers had let us.

While we were young we used to come into town for church, and that – apart from school – was it, really.  After church we’d go up to the bakery and get a couple of loaves of bread. Then on the way home the old man would stop and talk to one of his friends somewhere and we’d eat the bread. Then by the time we got home there wouldn’t be any bread left. We used to hollow it out then put it all back in the wrapping. Don’t know who got into the most trouble for that, my father or us.

As we got older, you were either working or getting drunk, and smashing cars up in the process. We were usually boozing up the top on Mt Brown, or where the roads divide between Beverley and Quairading. We used to drink all the time, wherever we went. You know, if we went to Northam it was a three bottle trip, or Greenhills a two bottle trip. Perth was a 10 bottle trip. We just drank all the time when we weren’t working. We used to go to dances. We’d wonder why the girls wouldn’t talk to us half the time – it was because we were always on the booze! I think that the problem was the generation before us were a bad example. They were bloody terrible. A lot of them had experienced bad things during the war, and whether they were drinking for that reason or because there wasn’t any money in farming, or any money full stop due to the probate levy – you know – a fair proportion of the community seemed to be alcoholics.  People were always in pubs. It was social, but it was also the employment agency; if you wanted someone to work for you you’d go to the pub and buy the bloke a drink. It was the great meeting place.

I was only a little kid at the time but after the war Faversham House was a hospice for soldiers that had been gassed or shell shocked. I felt really sorry for the old buggers. There was a gate at the property that they weren’t allowed to pass but sometimes they did, with a few Sheckles in their pocket, and snuck to the pub. As a kid it appeared that they were sort of put out of sight and held back from the community. I don’t know exactly what happened to either Faversham House or the soldiers – perhaps they died or perhaps their lot was improved.

Dale Morgan and Jill & Leslie Munro

Our father had been recommended York as a place to live by another doctor friend, who said that if he had to be a GP in a country town, York would be the place. We stayed at the Castle before finding a house on the corner of Elizabeth St and Avon Terrace. Our parents had to convert part of it into a doctor’s surgery and waiting room. There was already a doctor here, who was far older, and whose number plate was 'York.1'. In those times it was usual for an incoming doctor to pay ‘good will’ but our parents didn’t have any money for that.

There was a bit of a difference of opinion about the doctors. Our father was young and very good looking. Young people here liked having a young doctor but the older people really resented him coming in without paying any ‘good will’, and squatting (as they called it in those days). This was especially the case for the matron in the hospital, who took a dislike to mother and called her ‘the skinniest woman she’d ever seen’ – and she was a very big woman herself. She then spread rumours, saying all of the doctor’s children were the ‘skinniest children’. Dad said to mother ‘Why didn’t you say to the matron ‘Well, you’re the fattest woman’?’ Later on Dad did pay the ‘good will’ and things settled eventually, but it took a while to stem the rumours.

We had a really happy childhood. We had the biggest garden in this dilapidated old house, with cats, dogs, chooks, rabbits, pigeons, guinea pigs, lambs, and budgies. Lesley: We learnt to drive in the garden in Esmerelda - an Austin A30. I learnt to stop by banging into a tree. Jill: And we used to walk to the old hospital. We used to go there to catch pigeons with Dad at night time. We’d go with Dad on his rounds and (Dale) slide down the bannisters and have morning tea with the sisters and the matron (a different one by that stage). Lesley: We’d also help roll up the clean bandages over a knife; they used to sterilise them all and re-use them in those days.


The hospital sewerage (as well as that from pig farms and other places upstream) went directly into the Avon River. And as dad was the medical officer, he banned swimming in the river, especially the area with jetties near the new bridge, at times when the river was not in high flow. He wasn’t popular for the ban but he used to see so many ear, nose and throat problems. But what he didn’t know was that we used to walk down to this gorgeous sandy part in the river below the bridge called ‘the Sandy’, and we used to swim there and catch gilgies along there too. Lesley: He did know – he caught us there one day!

Mum was a really hard worker. She and Dad gave a lot to the town. With four girls, the pets, unruly garden, helping out in the surgery, she worked on lots of committees, always seemed to be on a cake stall somewhere. She was strong in her views, and conservative in a way that might today be seen as racist, which would upset her now, but reflected the social situation of the times. That said, because the surgery was at our house, at all times of day and night we would get knocking on the door with ‘Doctor, doctor you see me now’. So there was quite a lot of humbug that would happen at our house and Mum would get really exasperated as Dad would have to work late into the night and sometimes all weekend, mainly serving Aboriginal people out of hours. Jill: I can remember taking home a friend of mine and Mother not so tactfully saying that it was probably best if I didn’t bring her home again. She was a young Aboriginal girl but to me she was just another young girl. That’s what it was like when you were young. Dale: The girls used to teach me words in Nyoongar and we used to play with them at school. They were the best runners and I used to be so jealous. Lesley: Same. I used to sit next to an Aboriginal girl and I was impressed by the way she could cut her fingernails with a razor blade. She had beautiful handwriting.

Lesley: I also remember being at Sunday school at the Methodist church and the minister would say something like ‘I have to announce that we have taken so and so children to Mogumber mission because their parents can’t look after them,  and they are being looked after now’. And I was a little girl at the time and I thought ‘That’s nice, well they’re being looked after’; I had no idea.

Gwen and Robin Gentle

Gwen: We went to the same primary and junior high school. I can remember Rob at school, but not as vividly as he can remember me, apparently. We were four years apart.  Rob was blonde and shy. Robin: I remember Gwen in her very nicely made and designed school uniform – white shirt, tie, blazer, pleated skirt, black shoes, white socks or stockings. Gwen was always very neat, trim and upstanding, though I probably never even spoke to her during our school days due to the four year difference.

We had two or three Aboriginal children in my class, who we treated as friends. At seven or eight years old, a group of Aboriginals would come onto our farm and spend several weeks fossicking with my parents’ approval. I vividly remember it was a cold rainy blustery winter’s evening and as my father and I walked into my house to a warm environment I said to my dad ‘What about those Aboriginals, who are up there over the hill. How are they going to be tonight in such a cold environment?’ They lived under bush humpies made out of the materials that were available in the bush. My father’s words were ‘They are used to living in such bleak conditions.’ And my heart went out to them thinking ‘I’m glad that I have what we have and don’t have to live like that on a cold winter’s night like tonight.‘

Sandy Taylor

On a Saturday night you might get into York. You’d come in with 10 bob, buy a packet of smokes, have a couple of beers, go to the dance, and go home with a bit of change in your pocket. The dances were mostly at the Masonic Hall but there were always dances at Talbot, Quellington and around the district. There’d be a fight or two, mostly over some girl or something, but not much larrikinism. 

Tony Boyle

The message of ‘You don’t know how easy you’ve got it’ came right through my life and is now going on through to my boys. My parents used to tell us often that they used to have to work hard - all horses, no tractors - in the very early days. And how they’d get up at 4 o’clock to prepare the horses before breakfast, then work the horses all day – three teams of eight horses pulling ploughs – with the brothers driving those teams. And how they used to race one another around the paddock ploughing. To win, they used to cheat by feeding the horses some wheat in their feed to give them some more energy. They had to be very careful not to make the horses sick though.

At the age of nine, my brother Peter and I had to kill sheep. But we couldn’t do it, we were too weak. So we would start the lamb at sun down, cut its throat and start taking the skin off it, and my father would come home and finish it off; sling it up in the air, put a calico bag over it overnight, then early in the morning before there were any flies around he would take the carcass and chop it up for our meat. And that was what we were living on. We also had two cows, which Peter and I had to milk before school every morning. My mother would then boil the milk and skim the cream and we’d have that cream on our Weetbix.

We employed an Aboriginal fellow after I left school, to help with the new piggery. Good, fit, hardworking man, who was well motivated, named John Fitzgerald. We gave him a house, a wage, a lamb a week, a car and petrol. That worked really well for about six years until welfare told us that for his wage we weren’t paying him the full ward rate.  John was taken away from our employ.

My grandfather, who was Dr Ward, was the doctor in York for 40 years. My mother used to come into town and see him and he used to come out and see us too; there was a tradition that he would come out every Sunday night for dinner. He would bring one of his medical cases and he’d pop it open and pull out five bottles of Fanta. And us kids, we thought that was great. One thing we used to do was go and sit in the lounge room, while they sat round the kitchen table and had some beers (he also brought a couple of King Browns out in that case). We would sit by the fire in the lounge room and when we’d finished the Fanta we’d take the straw out of the bottle of Fanta and light it up and smoke it. Without the parents knowing of course.

The worst reprimand I got was from my father, when I was the ripe old age of seven and chose to go down the following path of crime. I asked my father for some money to buy some marbles because ‘Everybody, dad, is playing marbles’. He said ‘No, you play cricket and football. We’re not going to waste money on marbles.’ I knew where he kept his money. It was in a very high cupboard in the bedroom and was on a shelf that was far too high for me. But I climbed and reached over and I felt some paper money there, grabbed that, pulled it down and it was blue. It was a £5 note. Having pocketed this £5 note I felt a bit nervous but thought he would never know it was missing.

Off I went to school. I rounded up a couple of mates at lunchtime and said we were going to go into town and get some marbles. I went into the local newsagency that sold the marbles, it was owned by a fellow called Alan Stacey. Big shot Tony walked in there and plonked the £5 on the counter and asked for £5 worth of marbles. £5 worth of marbles would have bought a semi-trailer load. He gave me a bag of marbles and off I went. But unbeknownst to me he rang my parents soon after.

My father was sitting in the kitchen when I got home, which was most unusual. ‘Hello Tony, what did you do at school today?’ ‘Oh the usual, played cricket.’ ‘Oh really, you didn’t play marbles?’ ‘No, you said I couldn’t have any marbles.’ ‘Tony, bring me your bag.’ He tipped it up and marbles went everywhere. ‘Where did you get the marbles?’ ‘I won them.’ ‘Playing cricket?’ ‘No I won them playing marbles.’ ‘Do you want to tell the truth?’ By then I was quite upset, and told him ‘I bought them with some of your money.’ ‘That’s stealing. Your brothers and sisters can divide those marbles between them and you and I are going to pay a visit to the apricot tree.’

At the apricot tree he broke a branch off, about as thick as my thumb, and it had pink buds all along it. I can see it today as clear as anything. And much to the amusement of my brothers and sisters he gave me six on the backside with it. Because they were laughing I turned to my father and said ‘Didn’t hurt a bit’. Wrong thing to say. Another six. And this time it did hurt. I had bruises down my legs so couldn’t go to school for a week, well my parents didn’t want me to go until they were healed. So I worked with my father all day, every day, that week - and we became good mates.

Peter Mold

I was at St George’s Cathedral for about 12 years and then the bishop sent me up to York. York was pretty run down at that time, about 1978.  I had a sort of feel for the place already from visiting my rector friend here. When it actually came to the crunch I moved here reluctantly as things were sort of in such a sad state; the building was in a state of decrepitude and everything was sort of run down. The actual church, when I first arrived, was pretty grim. No one much went. There had been a lot of neglect. My predecessor, who had been an exemplary priest, wasn’t very well, so things got a bit out of hand. The town had suffered since 1968 after the earthquake, when the population had declined by a thousand or so to its lowest ebb really, historically. The main street was pretty empty, just concrete footpaths and not a lot of business activity or anything. But that all improved over the years as they held festivals and things, which attracted a lot of people.

The population of York is pretty stayed. The majority are born here and grow up here and a lot don’t leave. York is a bit of a tribal place. It is a sort of general statement, but you get fairly big, extensive families and they don’t need, or have time or social energy to sort of embrace people outside of their network. I remember when we had the first music festival here, it wasn’t greeted particularly enthusiastically by many, and the crowds weren’t appreciated on a Saturday morning and all that sort of thing. Over about a decade there were lots of those sorts of festivals – not just in the business district but out in halls and homes and so on. They were very popular with people coming up from Perth and elsewhere, but locally there was this sort of rump that didn’t have much interest.

The result of these festivals was that many were attracted to buy weekend cottages here and they often had quite a lot going for them in the arts and so on, which is quite different to many of the people here. They put a lot of energy into committees and running things.  At the festivals we used to get international performers. It was pretty exciting. And you’d get out on the streets and have a drink and meet new people and move around. We had an exceptional organ at the church and I would organise three or four concerts a day at the church too. There was a lot of preparation that went on over the course of a year. Schools would bring their bands up and take part, parents would come up and bring their kids. It wasn’t elitist at all but it was a very high standard. For about a decade it created a bit of an aura for people that weren’t from York. It was all so exciting.

I’ve been retired here for about 20 years and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world. When you retire you are conscious of not having the same official place in the community and there is a risk of feeling a bit lost. But I found that people related to me even more freely once I retired, which was a positive surprise.

Lindsay Delahaunty and James Harwood

Lindsay: I came to York in 1976 as the Shire Clerk.

James: I am from South Perth, and came to York in 1979 to establish the York Motor Museum with my partner, Peter Briggs. He had money, I had flair and I was married to a York girl.

I first came here in 1946, just after the war with a friend of mine, John Craig, who had the Castle hotel. While I was here I met a girl, Gwen Marwick. One day I was a bit adventurous and I said ‘Would you like to marry me’ and she said ‘Yes’. So that was the start of a wonderful relationship.

I could see the possibilities of a Museum in York. I came up here one day to lunch with my brother in law and while I was here I was told about a stately home that was for sale. Gwen and I had a look. She said ‘It’s lovely, but you’d hate York’. I said ‘Darling, when I’m with you I’ll go anywhere’.

I soon ran into Peter Briggs, looking like he’d just come into a lot of money. He thought the Museum sounded like a good idea and we became partners. After we arrived in York the first thing I did was demand, in a nice way, to see the Shire Clerk, who happened to be my friend Lindsay. I explained what I was going to do. He was excited. We decided that we would turn this little town, which was in a moribund state, into something exciting, and where people came to visit. We saved York and gave it a period of time that I don’t think I ever previously saw or will ever see again.

When I bought the property for the Museum it was empty. The front door window was broken. The place was full of cobwebs and out the back was a jungle. As we developed and expanded we bought the Ford dealership and knocked a hole in the wall, leaving us with a huge accommodation for about 150 cars.

Lindsay: As Shire Clerk, we also started a focal point on tourism. And we were lucky at that time to have quite a famous state planner in Margaret Fieldman, who had recognised the historical significance of the main street of York because it was relatively untouched in those days except for the 1968 earthquake. Margaret developed the restoration that we could do in the main street and brought in some heritage grants. So we re-established the Town Hall and the whole of the main street. We offered access to grant funds if people developed their buildings in the way that was recommended. And we did things like paint scrapings to find out what the original colours of the buildings were, and street scaping. It really was a unique time to do this, and now York is preserved as a result.

Tourism was being developed on the theme of ‘York’s future is in its past’ and this development won many awards in the early days. It was a matter of encouraging various self-made tourist attractions to utilise the buildings. So the Motor Museum timing was perfect. Its uniqueness got the main street going with tourists coming to visit it. James started up a vintage bus tour around the town for tourists too, which people thoroughly enjoyed. Before long it became a very popular little town and the shortage of accommodation meant that a lot of money was invested in the town to provide accommodation for tourists from the metropolitan area.

The old York hospital was turned into accommodation and a mutual friend became caretaker. Some guests said there were ghosts in the building; that story even hit headlines in the West. People claimed to be woken up in the middle of the night and that there were people rushing down the passages and all of this. Our friend got to the stage of putting a sheet over himself and running down the halls like a ghost just for the thrill.

James: The bus tour took place on what was very much a vintage bus. In order to start it you had to crank it by hand - one of the reasons I’ve got a sore back today. We had a lovely bell and I used it to announce that a tour was about to happen. I’d get people on board and in a very happy, jubilant mood, and point out, as we went around the town, various historical buildings and their uses. Some people didn’t smile so I would ring the bell lustily when I saw them and say ‘And she’s from the Cheer Up Society’ and people would laugh like crazy. We also used to take the cars and air them out on the main street. Sometimes we’d take them to Northam or interstate. We got things going. We put York back on the map.

Adelphe King and Walter Murdoch King

Adelphe: We met in Christchurch, Claremont at a bible study meeting. I was partnered with Walter’s daughter, and she was such a lovely girl that when the deacon said ‘This is her father’ I thought ‘He must be nice, too!’  Walter: I also checked up on Adelphe through the deacon, not knowing that she had done the same.

Adelphe: When I married Walter we had a few years in the King house in Nedlands. Then I had to do an assignment on colonial architecture and l discovered York. I dragged him up here to take a look and we both decided it was a great place – and the start of a new life for us. We got to know a few people straight away, partly through the local church. After about two years we bought an open block of land, about 10 acres. We started planting trees and at first planted anything with a green leaf, but then we realised we needed to learn a bit more about local plants.  We carried on planting, being more careful with local plants, and stopped counting at 2000, but didn’t stop planting.

We’ve got friends, who for goodness knows what reason, shop in Northam! Why go to Northam?! There has always been a great York-Northam rivalry as a result of the railway decision of 1890. York wanted the railway to start from York, the Northam people from Northam. According to legend they were meeting in parliament about this decision. The rest of the state couldn’t have cared less where the rest of the railway went from. Evidently they said at about 3 o’clock in the morning ‘Why don’t you just toss a coin and abide by that’. Northam won. So Northam became the big railway and electric centre, and York a quieter back water. That meant, from our point of view, that all the lovely buildings here have been preserved whereas in Northam they are harder to see because of all the modern additions. When we first moved here I was determined not to abide by the rivalry, thinking it was absurd. But then I was teaching in York and at Northam and I wanted to bring up an artist from Perth. I told the Northam students that I wanted some of them to join the York class for a lesson with the artist. ‘Go all the way to York?!’ they said. So there is still this thing – a ‘That’s them and that’s us’ – and I couldn’t break it.

Our step grandchild came up to play in one of the York jazz festivals. There was someone called Morrison, who came to the hotel that they were playing in, pushed the kid aside and sat down next to him at the piano and played. And I thought ‘Who’s this character muscling in on the poor kids’ but people adored it because he was a name in jazz – I’d never heard of him myself though. 

You had to pay to come into the town while the festival was on. We met one cross local person when we were on duty at one of the entrances to the town during the festival. This guy turned up and he said ‘This is my town, I shouldn’t have to pay to go in, I’m just here to buy my milk’. But most people realised that it was just a happy occasion that need not make one cross.

Ken Screaigh

My dad worked at the bakery and we lived in town. My memory says that butter and things like that were hard to come by during and after the war, but we never went without, there was always something we could eat. We had our own veggie garden and we had fruit trees at the back of the house. For pocket money we used to ride through the town on our bikes and collect and sell on any bottles we could find that people had thrown out. We also trapped rabbits up in the hills overnight then collected them early in the morning before school, keeping a couple for ourselves and selling whatever we had left. And that was our spending money for when the Show came, or we wanted to buy cool drinks or lollies. Mum thought it was wonderful when we brought home the rabbits. It was a daily thing, rabbit was the main meat we’d eat; we also enjoyed chooks and ducks and the odd bit of kangaroo. We never had too little bread because of dad’s work. We used to come home from school, sit on the swing and have a piece of fresh bread out of the oven, with dripping, pepper and salt on it. That was your treat.

I always wanted to be a mechanic. There were no mechanical jobs around the place in those days. A chap came from Nannup – George Chipper – and he started up a butcher shop opposite the Imperial. He advertised for an apprentice butcher. My mother grabbed me by the ear, down we went for an interview and I got the apprentice job. I was butchering for 46 years. In the early days my boss would buy stock (sheep, lambs, beef). He bought an old block out the bottom of Mt Bakewell and built an old bush abattoir out there and we killed every day. There were no refrigerator trucks in those days so meat would be chucked on the back of a ute with a tarpaulin over it. I ended up buying the business off him in 1968 and sold it in 1994 so owned it in my own right for 26 years. 

John Peacock

I had red hair, was tall, slim and could run the pants off a kangaroo. We were farm kids. We talked, played, kicked football. If you had a football and a bike, that was your life. In 1950 dad bought me a 26” Swansea bike. I used to put one sister on the front and one on the back. Every Friday, as the family only used to come to town to shop once a month, my mum would send a list in and Ashbolt’s would put the grocery order on the school bus.  I’d then cycle my sisters and the groceries about a mile home off the school bus. I’d sit the groceries in the middle of the handlebars and my older sister would hold them there.

So I’d ride the school bus for 45 miles (so 90 miles a day – we had the longest run), get the extra mile home by bike, then if I didn’t have the cows milked by 6 o’clock I’d get a belting. You did as you were told.

Through the whole of my schooling I was very involved on the farm.  My dad was crook for 10 years and died in 1962. But even before then I used to come home from school and drive the header until 10 o’clock and then go to bed, get up and go to school the next day. I used to put all the crop in, even at that age. Just imagine a little 12 year old with a bag on his back weighing 180 pounds. When I was 12 I also used to drive a fully loaded truck of sheep to Midland because dad couldn’t do it. I’d come back and get dropped off at the school and he’d drive home after having rested most of the way. I don’t know if anyone twigged that I used to sit up high on a cushion to do the driving; the police would go passed and wave. I never got caught. Then when I came to get my licence at 17 the police sergeant said ‘You’ve had your licence for three or four years, I’ve seen you driving around!’ 

I only had one girlfriend. I met her at my auntie’s 50th birthday. We looked at one another and thought ‘Wow’ but that was as far as it went. Then she came to see me about two months later and it went on from there. We’ve been together for nearly 51 years now.

Veronica McGuire

We never had a house, just a camp out in the bush. We helped to wash, clean, cook and look after our younger siblings. Mum had a camp oven and she cooked in that, and over an open fire. We cooked damper in the ashes. We had to carry water from about a mile away, at a farmer’s well where my dad worked. When work wasn’t busy for him we’d come and live on the reserve at York. Every time we went back to the reserve dad would have to rebuild our home, then when we left again we’d just leave it there. The reserve was really a place special for Aboriginal people. It had a swimming pool - the river - and one tap where we all got water from. It had toilets but nothing else.

We travelled from York to Quairading, Beverley, Kellerberrin, back to Northam, back to York. We were moved by work or a death or sickness in the family. All we had was a horse and sulky and we would always walk alongside it when we were travelling because the sulky carried food and clothing with little extra space for six, seven or eight kids.

When we were out in the bush we spoke language all the time but when we were in any of the towns we were told not to and warned that our dad would be taken away if we did. We had to stop talking our language because they didn’t know what we were saying. Our language was nothing nasty or bad, it was just our common speak that we enjoyed talking.

I worked on farms from the age of nine years old. We used to save our money from that work and dad would take us to Northam to buy our Christmas presents. We’d go but he would have to leave us four miles out of Northam and walk to the police station to get a permit to take us in. If we were still there at 6 o’clock we would have been arrested and put in jail.

Dad was working and mum was at home looking after all the little children so us slightly older kids had to come to York to do the shopping. When I came to York from the reserve we would have to be watching where these big black cars are. Because they were hanging around to pick us kids up to take us away. And when we saw them we would run. And we’d run all around town, over barbed wire fences, rip our skin, pull our hair, double gees or whatever because we never had good shoes, and sometimes we were bare feet. So we had to run to get away from Mr Neville. And that happened for a long time. Sometimes we’d only get a few of the groceries before we’d have to run. People in the town didn’t care a damn. No one would help us, no one would give us any advice, no one would say ‘Well, come in here until they are gone’.

Later me and my sister used to work in York here and come down on the train at 6 o’clock and leave at 8 o’clock at night. We worked for George Chipper at the butcher and for his wife at their house – washing aprons and ironing - for up to 10 years. They were so good to us. They joked and talked and we bought our meat there. But then after work, sometimes the guard wouldn’t stop the train on the way home at our station. He’d take us four miles out and we’d have to walk back late into the night. Even though we told him it was our stop he didn’t care – ‘too bad’.

When we were teenagers the Coolbaroo Aboriginal dance was on at the Town Hall. They’d have a band from Perth and a cup of tea or a meal. There would be three or four buses of people from Perth, and people from Northam too. We used to go as often as we could. But after that we would walk the seven miles back to where we were living, at about 11 o’clock. It was a dangerous walk, we were scared of snakes and bulls charging us.

My family always taught us to be loving, caring and respectable. We always did what our parents, aunties and uncles told us. But we were rejected and barred by most people. In York here, there was a tea room. When we went in there to get a milkshake they’d give it to us in a takeaway container. One of my oldest cousins asked if they could sit at the table – and why did they have to have it in this container. They were told they couldn’t stay in and had to leave. Not allowed a spoon. ‘Take your drink and go.’ When they used to give us our change they used to throw it at us. They’d never give it to you in your hand. Didn’t matter about our character or any reference we had, that’s how we were all treated. You’d walk in somewhere – ‘Oh, you people aren’t allowed in here, you’re barred. Keep going.’ ‘Don’t come here, we’ll get the police.’

Sue Groom

The family property was on Ovens Road. It was called Ovens Road because there were just so many from the Ovens family in the street. My grandfather came with two of his brothers and they all took up farms on that road, then one had 10, one had 11 and one had 12 children.

My father and all his siblings were born at home in the ‘blue bed’, and were no doubt conceived there too. My great aunt apparently used to come down and help my grandmother with each birth of the 11 children. Apparently my grandmother used to knit a new set of clothes each time. The other children would know that there was a new baby coming when they found the clothes.

My father used to have my sister driving the truck when she was four. He’d put it into first gear and low range and she would steer the truck around while he was on the back feeding the sheep. We all helped on the farm. We were the sheep dogs; when my dad called for you to come to chase the sheep you’d better stop what you were doing and get out there or you’d be yelled at. Once when we were very young at Christmas, my dad said ‘Before you open the Christmas presents you’d better go and milk the cow’. I said ‘But I can’t milk a cow’ and he said ‘Yes you can, here’s the bucket’. That was farm life.

The farm people felt superior in York I know, especially our family, because we lived on ‘Castle Rock farm’ and I thought that made us the most important people in town. And no doubt the townies felt superior to the country folk. I think we probably had less in common with the townie kids. We had really rich lives on the farm. It was lonely at some level, though. When we were young, sometimes my brother would dress up as a girl and I’d call him Betty and then other times I’d dress up as a boy and he called me Tom, so we managed to get by with friendships that way.

When I was a child, if a stranger was in town you’d stare. People did pass through but essentially it wasn’t a tourist town. As an Ovens, I was a part of the farming community, made of people who’d been here for generations, so I didn’t really have anything to do with newcomers. Not because I didn’t want to but because we had an established group already – the farmers and their families.

There were around four Aboriginal children in our class. They were all really good at sport and so were quite prized. But they were socially separate from us. They lived on the reserve on the edge of town and after school we didn’t have anything to do with each other. There were Aboriginal people that lived on our farm in an old house at the back and my father used to get them to do root picking but they struggled financially because I don’t think there was any dole at that time. My father also had Aboriginal friends that he used to buy alcohol for.  They would wait for him to go into the pub because they weren’t allowed in, and they’d ask him to buy them beer. Sometimes they would come and ask mum for flour and sugar too. We used to joke and be friendly with them but there was always this separateness. I was always saddened by that.

Pat Hooper

We came to live in York in ’79. I came to take up the position at the old school as the deputy principal.

If you’d only ever lived in the city you wouldn’t have understood the importance in a farming boy or girl’s life of certain annual events in the farming calendar. These events were usually at the same time every year and it was the opportunity for the farm kids to help out and spend some time with their dad, who they otherwise might not see for weeks on end, such as during seeding.

There used to be a joke between me and my farming friends in the ‘80s that their sons would develop ‘woolitis’ or ‘seeding disease’. These kids would have been the 11 or 12 year olds, who would try to wag school to be in the shearing shed to help dad with shearing, bringing in the sheep, or to take lunch out to dad on the tractor and all these types of things. These were the same stories and jokes that were shared in the ‘20s in all farming towns, but in the ‘20s kids got away with it because 12 year olds didn’t really have to be at school. The stories were also told when I was at school in Bruce Rock in the ‘50s. These matters are intergenerational and timeless; while machinery and farming habits have changed, traditions on the farms haven’t.

Once we settled in York I was also part of the Rotary Association here and we were involved in helping setting up the Flying Fifties race. The pomp and circumstance of it was amazing. The man who engineered it, Peter Briggs, was fairly well known as being a pompous type of person. He would ride around with his leathers on and he’d have his leather coat and – I mean – he played the part of a 1920s driver, and he played it very well because I think he actually believed he was one. The race brought a lot of people into town. It also divided the town; there are and were a lot of people in the town who don’t like their main street closed. But the majority accepted that the town is a place where tourists come, just because it’s York.

The original York jazz festivals were absolutely sensational. A lot of them weren’t ticketed and a lot of people came back to York year after year just to walk the streets and enjoy performances. James Morrison and Andrew Fife just jammed for an hour one evening at the York hotel, totally unsolicited. That would never usually happen.

This is a town that moves at a pace of its own, it has a history of its own and you can’t take that history away from it.

John Weeks

I was born during war time, so after the Great Depression, but the impact of the Depression definitely lingered. My memories of say, two to three years old onwards are that you got one book a year – at Christmas time – a very special time of year. There just wasn’t the money.

We always did our shopping in town on a Friday afternoon. Friday was the biggest social day in York.  All the farmers came in, all the people from around the district. And that’s where you met people. If you wanted to meet certain people in York they were always parked in a certain place in the street. And they would sit in their vehicle with their door flung wide open, which meant you could talk to them, while they could sit comfortably. It was a fairly select little group, and they had rather large cars – Chevs, Buicks, big Fords. They’d park outside what was then Christie’s café. Everyone would go to Christie’s, have a cup of tea and a biscuit, and then go out into their cars and you would have your soirees. You couldn’t just shout up and down the street – that just wasn’t done.

Then the old boys used to head for the pub. Women and children would sit in their cars and wait for the menfolk to come out. This wasn’t a problem for us as dad didn’t drink. The pub in those days closed at 9 o’clock, so it wasn’t really an extended night, but it was enough to fill most of the boys up – then they’d jump in the car, crank them up and off they’d belt, though I can’t remember too many accidents. There were four pubs in town. If you wanted to meet a railway worker you’d go to the Royal or the Imperial, if you wanted to meet one section of the farmers you’d go to the back room in the Castle, if you wanted to meet the local workers in the stores you’d go to the Palace. It was very structured – a structured society.

The top of the society was the doctors and the lawyers. They were a matter of distinction. It was an honour to be invited out with them. Then followed the farmers and probably the shop keepers. At school though, you were more likely to get bashed if you were from a family of doctors or lawyers! Class distinction was a licence to be set on, and fighting was quite common. That’s how you set your school pecking order. No one was strong enough to really do any damage, so the fights behind the toilets used to be quite good sometimes.

Most of us learnt to swim in the main pool down here. Norm Reynolds was the quasi swimming instructor. It was just accepted that you learnt how to swim with Norm. I cannot remember anybody really getting very sick out of the river – there might have been a few ear aches but that was about all. In summer the mud and algae used to come up from the bottom. You’d push it out of your way and just get a belly full sometimes. We used to make canoes in later years when the river was in flow. We’d push the canoe in and it would fill with water. The sides would collapse and suck you down. Couldn’t get out of the damn thing until you reached the bottom, which wasn’t that far away really. Then once the pressure equalised you’d pop up, drag your canoe out, and do it all again. There were also ladies’ and men’s sheds with showers in. That was where you pulled the leeches off and there was always plenty of them. I still swam in the river after the swimming pool opened because we didn’t have to pay! It was a no brainer really. That said, the swimming pool should have been opened about 10 years earlier. Many other country towns already had one. The controversy caused by the swimming pool really and truly was a strange old time.

The 1955 flood was a biggy. It came right into town. But when you’re young enough, you can turn a disaster into a winter playground and that’s what we did. Beauty! Canoes, swimming- excellent! The water came right up into the Castle bar and they were serving beers at the Royal with blokes waist deep in water. It was good fun. 

My dad was a barman at the Castle. There was a feud between two Albanian groups in those days. Dad was in the bar when one bloke opened up the other bloke’s stomach with a knife. Dad came home a bit grey that night. The bloke went to jail and the mayor put in an application to have him released early because he had a good relationship with the accused. He was released, but not for long before the other Albanian family caught up with him up at the top corner of the town.  Knocked him off his pushbike with a car and opened up with a seven-shot automatic.

My love and joy was the farm, but I really enjoyed doing theatre stuff. My favourite was a play called Aladdin, one of the biggest productions we did, which involved big puffs of smoke and people disappearing.  The whole stage accidentally went up in flames. We’d made these curtains out of hessian and the podium and the curtains went off – and the leading lady went up in smoke too – which caused a bit of delight of course.

Lois Ralph

My family is Nyoongar. My grandmother on my mum’s side knew language brilliantly. She taught my older cousin, but she would only speak language in a whisper; she was brought up at New Norcia mission, where they were not allowed to speak language out loud. My grandmother didn’t know how to let go of that rule.

I was here until the age of seven. Lots of memories of York growing up, it was a very ideal place, full of freedom and sunshine. Where we lived was near the river so we would just venture down every day and swim in the billabong, and there were leeches all over you but who cares! We would get them off us and then turn them inside out with a stick and plant them along the river bank. There used to be a bridge where the old hospital is. It was shaped like half a horse shoe. Underneath

there was all this golden sand; we called it the Sandy. We swam there in the waterhole, jumping off the rope into the water, made sandcastles.

In summer we’d go down to the river, stick our hands in a hole and pull out gilgies; filled up a bucket with them and shared them with the family. We’d just stick them in boiling water and eat them. During the winter time, because meat was so expensive, we lived off lambs’ tails - just chucked them on the coals and ate them. We’d ask the farmers for them.

We lived down on the York reserve, with my mum, dad, grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins on both sides – it was just one big family. It was just lovely, and it made you feel really secure. There was no fear in your life, like there is today. You could just walk up the road and see your gran, who lived five metres away. And all we ever did was hang out with our cousins. The houses weren’t that great; we had these little tin shacks. Grandmother made one. It was just a dirt ground, but they were made comfortable and secure so it was out of the rain and too much of the sun. But there was lots of love, and when there’s lots of love you don’t really recognise how people live.

At that time there were all these policies; we had to be home, off the streets at 6 o’clock. That didn’t include where we used to swim in the river though, which was behind the reserve, away from the town. Sometimes we would go to the pictures in York at night too, so occasionally we ignored the curfew.

By the time I was seven I was taken away to a mission in Wandering, so I was just repeating the cycle that my grandmother had gone through. When I first went there it was quite a different experience. The nuns didn’t dress normally, I thought they looked like penguins – with a veil and collar and just this face looking at you. For a seven year old it was quite scary. It was the first time I’d seen a nun. And they spoke German, so it was all so different. I was there for nine years and didn’t get to go back to York very often during that time. At 16 I left the mission and lived with my mother. I was happy to be with a parent but it was pretty hard because we had to get to know each other all over again.

I wanted to come home when I was an adult with my children. I wanted my children to experience the happy times that we had here as kids. When we first got back to York I went to look at the reserve area. There were no buildings on it, it was just flat. Some of the trees were still there – so we were able to pinpoint where our home used to be. It was good to be back - the feeling of belonging again, and seeing that many things here are still the same. The treatment of Aboriginal people in York has changed, but there is still a bit of animosity hanging around.