Bryan Atkinson Oral History
Oral history of Bryan Atkinson recorded as part of That was my home: Voices from the Noongar camps in Perth’s western suburbs PhD thesis. Recorded by Denise Cook on 31 October 2012 at Bryan’s house in Leeming. Listen to the interview. Full transcript below.
Denise Cook (interviewer): Do you want to just start by telling me your name?
BRYAN ATKINSON: Okay. Bryan Atkinson.
DC: And when you were born and where?
ATKINSON: Born in Fremantle, 1951.
DC: And what’s your connection with Wandi?
ATKINSON: Wandi worked for my grandfather, George Atkinson. My grandfather died in 1938 so he was a bit of a mystery to myself and my other two brothers but we knew Wandi and I recall him coming to our house for breakfast and he was well loved. I must’ve only been four years old because I’ve now found that Wandi died in 1955 but yes, he was a real stockman and according to Wikipedia, they mention at this stage that he drove sheep in the Cockburn Sound area, but it was much more than that, because Wandi actually lived with my grandfather in the racing quarters of the house and the property that they had was quite large and at some stage my grandfather had about 46 racehorses which is enormous by any time date. Wandi would ride these racehorses and he would also be responsible for managing the stock that came down from the ships from the north-west and berthed at Robb’s Jetty and I’ve got a feeling that they just pushed them off the side of the ship into the water and they swam ashore and Wandi would have to take these cattle and put them in the holding yards. It wasn’t only Wandi; there were probably other stockmen as well, but he was a great stock person and he was well loved by everyone.
DC: So what would that involve – taking the cattle and putting them in the holding yards?
ATKINSON: Well, sometimes these cattle, when they came down from the north-west, they had to be quarantined for a short while because they had ticks, any sort of disease but I mean primarily they were there for quick kill at the abattoir and that’s all I can really tell you but other than the fact that my brother Wayne, my second born [brother] he said that these cattle did have long horns and some did have long horns and they were quite brutal to look at and to manage and it took an expert stockman, and Wandi himself sat on his horse with his huge stock whip and was able to control these cattle. From what I can gather, he was working for my grandfather since 1896 and there’s quite a few references to Wandi’s misdemeanours, what I call little misdemeanours, because in those days Aborigines had to be registered with people if they worked for those people, so there was a court proceeding where Wandi was taken to court because he hadn’t been properly registered as an Aboriginal worker and my grandfather was fined but Wandi in the court refused to say anything. Also later on, it was illegal for Aborigines to drink alcohol. I mean, in those days, everyone drank alcohol so I can’t see why Aborigines couldn’t do it, but he was caught a few times drinking and there was always a Western person that was fined in the court for providing him with alcohol.
Wandi, later on, he – after my grandfather died in 1938, everyone left the premises, there were still a couple of young girls that needed to be looked after by an elder sister until they were old enough to inherit, or to take some of the inheritance, but we’re not sure where Wandi drifted off but he still would’ve worked for Anchorage Butchers in some stage. And all I can say is that in 1896 it appears from the notes that I’ve taken from Trove from the National Library papers, he would be around 16 or 17 years old when he was working for my grandfather at Anchorage Butchers with the cattle – okay, the sheep as well, and the racehorses.
DC: Do you know how he came to work for your grandfather?
ATKINSON: Because the cattle came from the north-west, he would’ve come from a north-west missionary station but we don’t know which one. He wasn’t the only one – there was another Aboriginal called Tony which I know very little about and there’s always a reference in the family with a “Black Paddy” but I have no photos of him and no recollection but Wandi was the one that was favoured by our family. Wandi was a boxer and it appears that my grandfather was a boxing referee, and Black Paddy also fought, and Wandi and Black Paddy were in log chopping events so they were well known by everyone in the Fremantle area.
DC: And can you just say a bit about Anchorage Butchers – when they started and what they did?
ATKINSON: Well, Anchorage Butchers were just a slaughtering, butchering firm but it’s pre-1900 to my recollection; the exact date might appear in some of the notes there and I haven’t looked at them close enough, but if Wandi was working with my grandfather in 1896, for sure the abattoir would’ve been going then. Anchorage Butchers was owned by Oscar Copley, or the Copley family; George Atkinson; and a fellow called Negus. They were the three owners of Anchorage Butchers and all I know is that when my grandfather died in 1938, there were too many Atkinson children and the Copleys had insisted that only two would inherit the shares for the sake of, you know, like board meetings or whatever, and those two were my father, George Atkinson and Sydney Harold Atkinson, his brother. They were the only two that were allowed to keep their shares in Anchorage Butchers. I think around 1963 or ’64, Anchorage Butchers started to disappear off the scene; that’s as much as I recall.
DC: And what did they do there?
ATKINSON: At Anchorage Butchers? Well, it was just that they slaughtered the cattle but the complex was big and when I was a child and went to the Robb’s Jetty complex, I’m sure there was probably more than one meatwork company working from there but I know further south from there there’s a Coogee slaughter and I think that solely belonged to Anchorage Butchers and that was just north of the Coogee Beach complex that you see now. Also I know that whenever they used to slaughter the cattle and sheep, a lot of blood was released into the ocean there and there were always sharks there but there were no shark attacks at the Coogee Beach to my recollection, or nothing out of the ordinary.
DC: So what animals did they slaughter there?
ATKINSON: Well, the Atkinson/Copley set-up – they would’ve had stations up north and then they were bringing those cattle down from up north and then slaughtering their own cattle at the Robb’s Jetty abattoir. The sheep were slaughtered at the Coogee abattoir. I don’t recall seeing cattle – maybe there were some cattle at Coogee but it was mainly a sheep slaughtering place.
DC: And did they slaughter any other animals – pigs or anything else?
ATKINSON: Goats. I remember when I was a child – oh boy, did they stink. (laughs) The cattle, when they were slaughtered, I can remember I felt no sympathy for them but sometimes I used to see them hit on the head with a sledgehammer which is probably quite humane. I don’t remember in my young days in the fifties, seeing rifles being used but that would’ve come later and the stun guns would’ve come much later. The sheep – I can remember them going for the kill. They always had a Judas sheep leading them into the kill and all that sort of thing.
DC: What’s a Judas sheep?
ATKINSON: Well, that’s the one – it usually had a collar or something like that and he was the one that would lead the others up the race to the slaughter but I always found sheep to be rather cute and at a young age I just found it a little bit too much to watch them being killed.
I wanted to tell you, as I previously mentioned, that my brother Wayne had mentioned when the ships arrived from the north-west, sometimes some of the cattle swam out to sea and he recalls one incident where the cattle actually went right up to South Beach, further up into Fremantle, near Fremantle Harbour perhaps, and they had to shoot some of the cattle in the water but the more gruesome details of that probably my brother Wayne would know.
DC: Yep. So just getting back to Anchorage Butchers, so was the slaughterhouse actually at Robb Jetty?
ATKINSON: There was a big slaughtering plant at Robb’s Jetty and also at Coogee and in between there you had the skin sheds and you had the – oh, it was a very smelly area, and you also had, like the tanning hides and all that; they were all there. We had another relative that had a plant where they used to – well, you know the hides they used to throw salt and all that on them, but there was a plant there and I forget what they used it for, my brother Wayne will recall, I think where some of the offals or meats or something they used to break them down and use them for by products or something like gelatine or something or whatever, you know. There was a plant for that as well. But when we were young, my brothers Wayne and George would help riding horses and driving the sheep from places as far back – we had the well – there was land somewhere near what they call Ten Mile Point [note: Ten Mile Well; 1048 Rockingham Road, Wattleup; 10 miles from Fremantle] or something. What’s that area?
DC: Is that on Stock Road heading down towards –
ATKINSON: Yes. They called it Ten Mile Well or something like that. That area there, the land was quite poor, limestone soil and very rocky. I think in the fifties, Dr Max Canning [Note: Dr Max Canning, practised at 199 High Street for many years. Died in 1995] had the land there and I’m sure Wandi would’ve been involved, well, he wouldn’t have because he died in ’55, sorry, but I can recall that we used to bring the sheep in for the slaughter at Coogee. And my father always had these wonderful cars because Oscar Copley got these American cars and then after, whenever he wanted a new one, Oscar’s reject car was given to my father who was the livestock buyer who would have to travel all through to many of the saleyards in the south and Midland to buy the sheep for the slaughter. So the sheep were local but the cattle that they were – in the early 1900s and twenties and thirties and forties, would’ve all come from the north-west.
DC: You mentioned that Wandi lived at the racing part of the property where your grandfather was. Do you know if he always lived there?
ATKINSON: To my thinking, up until my grandfather’s death in 1938, I’d say yes. From 1938 till his death in ’55, is a bit of a mystery. All I know is that when I was three or four years old, he came to our house for breakfast and he was well received into the house and we all loved him but I have one remaining auntie left, Dorothy, she was the youngest – she’s married to Tom Woodhead, lives in Winthrop. Dorothy Woodhead has told me that she’s not sure where he went but Wandi did – we all know that Wandi took on the name Dixon so somewhere between ’38 and ’55, he became attached to the Dixon family and that’s why he took on that surname. My brother George would probably know the details of the Dixon family and where they actually lived because I don’t, yeah.
DC: And can you tell me about your grandfather’s property – where that was exactly?
ATKINSON: Well, It was diagonally opposite the Newmarket Hotel and I think it’s Douro Road and Hampton Road which is the extension all the way down – Hampton Road ran from virtually the gaol all the way down to the Robb’s Jetty. Now this piece of land – the house was quite big and I can show you a photograph of it after – it was huge and they had many yards but it was right near the South Fremantle sandhills and this was an area where the poverty stricken people lived; they actually lived in the sandhills and probably all the winos and drunkos – it was a mixture of a lot of poor people that couldn’t afford any housing, they would live there. So I don’t know if in any way they interfered with the racing setup but the fact that my grandfather had so many racehorses at any one time, I’m sure that they got around any minor problems that they might’ve had. My actual father had a champion racehorse that won the Perth Cup in 1960 and that was trained at the South Fremantle area. The racehorses were always galloped and exercised in the salt water in that area so it was a great setup and to the family’s astonishment – the Atkinson family’s astonishment – when my grandfather died in 1938, they found that the property was not even owned by the Atkinson family. It was owned by I think the Baker family who were also in the meat industry and probably the Baker family didn’t want to surrender the property yet the Atkinson family knew that it was vital to their racing setup so accepted the fact that they had to pay rent. No one to this day still knows where some of the fortune went because it was around the time of the second World War breaking out, they all received some money – there were nine or ten children, the youngest two received enough to build a very nice house but they still believed that there should’ve been a lot more of the fortune left and some of the members of the Atkinson family, my uncles and aunties, have blamed WA Trustees for some of the money going missing, but that’s just idle chatter, yeah, to me; it’s beyond me.
DC: So you wouldn’t have seen that house and that racing setup then? That would’ve been all before you were born?
ATKINSON: To this day, I still haven’t been there but I have been advised by a Terry Pattinson, or Paterson, [Jerry Patterson] that lives in that area that there are some remnants still there and some photos of a famous horse that the Atkinson family had, called Dark David, who, after my grandfather died, went over to the eastern states and won a big hurdle event, the Grand National or Steeple – I think it was the Grand National Steeple – but it performed very well in Victoria. There’s a wonderful story told about this Dark David, because evidently he had jumping blood in his racing blood and this horse, Dark David, used to jump over the fences or the paddocks that they had him in, but other horses would follow and they couldn’t jump; they couldn’t jump the fence but Dark David could so they knew they had something special there but I don’t think there was any jump racing in Western Australia at that time.
DC: So can you tell me anything about what the property was like?
ATKINSON: I can only show you a photograph but it had that lattice work and all that around the house and there is a diagram of the house but that diagram was given to me by an auntie who passed away last year; it’s probably nothing much to look at but the setup was good and they had three or four maids and they had at least three or four people to work the horses. George Atkinson had his own trainer.
DC: Who was that? Do you know?
ATKINSON: Well, at a later stage of his life in ‘38, it was a bloke called Tozer who married one of George Atkinson’s daughters; Jean, I think it was Jean that he married. So that’s what happens when you’re in close proximity with someone. (laughs)
DC: So how many people would he have had working for him with the horses?
ATKINSON: I would say he would’ve had at least three or four and they had racing quarters there for them. I know during the Depression one auntie told me that there were even others that came to stay with them because they were quite happy just to live with them to get enough food, you know, just to be fed, because they were really tough times.
DC: And they would work for the family in return?
ATKINSON: Probably, yes. They would have to put in something. There are notes here that I’ve got – I mean, this is a picture here which you can see of my grandfather where he died at 57; to me he looks like 70 years old and then my grandmother died at the age of 47 so they were still tough times even though they were quite well off.
I’ll tell you one other thing, here, just one other thing – my father, they were really spoiled because they had their little ponies to ride and all that and they would – some of the children would ride to school, ride a horse to school, but later on, my father who was the third last born and his two younger sisters, Edna and Dorothy, went to a Girton College [Note: Formerly Fremantle Grammar School, Girton College from 1925-1947] which is opposite the Fremantle Monument. It was like a private college which became a church I think after, and then after that it’s a private residence but I have got a pamphlet here I can show you about this Girton, or Girden, College. They would be taken to school from South Fremantle, they would be taken by horse and cart by one of the workers. The horse and cart man would go back home and he would bring their lunch for them at like noon and then go back home again and then pick them up again in the afternoon, so I’m sure they were really spoilt.
DC: Can you tell me anything about the shacks in the sandhills? Did you see them?
ATKINSON: To my knowledge, there were no shacks. I think they just lived out in the sand. You know, probably the – maybe you should be interviewing someone else about that but to my recollection – I mean the dunes were quite high so you could be on the, what is it, the leeward side and you could avoid any of the cold perhaps, you know, yeah. I’m sure if they were drinking alcohol that their bodies would’ve been quite warm. (laughs)
ATKINSON: When it’s raining, no doubt they probably would’ve found some way of covering themselves but I never ventured into that area. I mean, eventually in the fifities and sixties it became a rubbish tip, that area, and then after that when Bondy – when they had the America’s Cup here in the early eighties. I think it was around ’85 or ‘87 [Note: America’s Cup Challenge defended by Royal Perth Yacht Club, February 1987] or something like that, they put those dome like huts there and probably they’re still there today, yeah.
DC: They are.
ATKINSON: So those huts, where those huts were, if you went just north of there, that was the Atkinson property. To my recollection, there’s still some remnants of that house still there.
DC: And did you access it from Hampton Road or from Douro Road?
ATKINSON: Hampton Road, yeah.
DC: And where did the family move after your grandfather died?
ATKINSON: Well, there were only two girls. See, my father was born in 1918, so he’s twenty and then he’s gone off to the war. It’s only the two girls, Edna and Dorothy, that were still not old enough – Dorothy is the last born, 1925, so she’s only 13 years old and all I know is that she was put under the care of an elder sister called Elsie. And the Trustees paid Elsie a certain amount of money from Dorothy’s inheritance to look after her until she was old enough to receive her inheritance. I feel that Edna would’ve been in the same situation and probably she also was with the sister Elsie. It probably would’ve been better to put the two girls with them [?]. You could interview my Auntie Dot, she’s not – her memory of her childhood is not that good, mainly because she might’ve suffered some trauma, just between you and I, I think some –
ATKINSON: Emmanuel Son and Dawes were the ones that were still exporting all the sheep to the Middle East in the late sixties, early seventies, or all the seventies, I would say, because my father was a stock buyer for Emmanuel Son and Dawes in those days because he was a freelance stock buyer. And he was paid a commission per head for the stock that he bought and then as a young teenager I would go down to the wharves and we would load the sheep on the ships because the lumpers didn’t have a clue how to manage sheep and how to get them to go up the race and how to put them in the pens on the ship and was probably a job that they didn’t particularly like, so we actually put the sheep on the ship, got very well paid, it was cash, and after we finished the job we always got to go and have a beer with the ship’s captain.
[Break in recording. Then looking at photo of stock agent Simon Gentle]
DC: So this is actually part of this larger photo.
ATKINSON: This is Robb’s Jetty, yeah. So do you think he [Wandi] might be in there?
DC: That’s him there [indicating Simon Gentle] I’ve just cut him out of the photo.
ATKINSON: That’s not Wandi, but.
ATKINSON: See, they’re coming off here but at some stage they were actually just throwing them off the ship but this would’ve come later.
DC: This is about 1920 according to the photo.
ATKINSON: Okay; that’s a good photo. And there is a book written about Cockburn’s history [Note: Cockburn: the making of a community]. Have you seen that?
ATKINSON: I might have it, I don’t know. I might’ve given it to my brother.
DC: So it was Clem Booth who donated the photo.
ATKINSON: Yes, and Clem Booth, the Booth family, were also involved – they lived in the heart of Fremantle, near Shack’s Motors. I don’t know the name of the street but I know my father was always going to the Booths.
DC: Then he’s named all the people in the photo, including Simon Gentle.
ATKINSON: Dan Luck, Emmanuel Bros, Dalgety’s, Dalgety’s, Emmanuel Bros., Emmanuel Bros., yeah. I mean, I used to go to the Midland sale yards with my father as a child and you cannot believe the language of these men. I mean, when men are with men, ooh! The swearing! Yeah, but there was a lot of fun there, but my father was always told so much because he was a freelance stock agent then and people always fed him information. What have you got here?
DC: So this is Black Paddy.
ATKINSON: Oh! Okay. I should show my auntie that. She’ll love to see that.
DC: And then there are some references to someone called Black Charlie. Have you heard anything about him?
ATKINSON: No, but, you know, there’s got to be more than one that was in Fremantle then.
DC: And this is where he’s died, 1952. And this was just out of – there’s an oral history with Clem Booth and he just mentions –
ATKINSON: Yeah, [reads from Clem Booth oral history] “Wandi worked at Anchorage Butchers; he even had his own little room out there”. Well, that would’ve all happened after ‘38. [Continues to read from oral history] “Remember in the photo that I sent to The Countryman there was a negro named Simon on a cattle horse and he was well remembered.”
DC: So that’s Simon Gentle.
ATKINSON: Mmm. But he’s called him a negro. Why?
DC: I think his ancestor was from St Helena, or was from somewhere else; I can’t remember.
ATKINSON: West Indian? Great, yeah, okay. Well, I’ll keep these notes and I’ll have a look at them. Do you want to come to my computer now and do –
ATKINSON: At Robb’s Jetty there always would’ve been government employees from the Quarantine that would’ve been watching, or observing and making sure that the animals were treated properly and that they were also controlling any disease and then they had to make sure that the animals had feed and all that, so they were like probably how the RSPCA would be today.
DC: And so you were saying your grandfather was prosecuted?
ATKINSON: On more than one occasion and it was always him that copped it but I mean, someone had to front up to court but I know he was also charged once for moving some hay from the Quarantine area, maybe from some cattle – bringing the hay to another area to feed his own cattle, or something.
End of Interview
Latest News for Adults
Keep up to date with the latest Reviews, Local History Info, Event Videos & Podcasts and more!