Gordon Johnson – An Enigma



I find this is a difficult task to undertake. Difficult to focus objectively on the source of one’s presence in this world without being either too harsh or too lenient. I find that friends of mine are either too uncritical of their forebears and put them on a pedestal, or are hypercritical – blaming them unjustifiably for faults they find in themselves and which are of their own making.

Sadly, I come to this essay with severe prejudices in my memory of my father’s life which I will have difficulty in putting aside but I shall try to set these episodes out as objectively as I can and deliver a balanced account of his life. I am mindful that some years ago I wrote an earlier version of his life and my youngest sister took me to task stating that it was not at all like the father she remembered. But then she was ten years older than me and left home to go nursing when I was only seven and so we did not share the same time frames of his life. Additionally, she was by far his favourite child and I noted that he was always on his best behaviour in her presence. Nevertheless, her recollections of his life in those earlier days I shall include in this essay as they are very pertinent.

Gordon Johnson – An Enigma

Before beginning on his life-story it would be useful to set out some traits of his personality – the talents and deficiencies that he carried with him all his life as do we all. Many of these were undoubtedly related to the genes inherited from his forbears. If we are smart we analyse what we bring into this life and try to plug the holes in our makeup early in our life but very few of us are mature enough, early enough in our journey, to go down this path.

Looking for recurring genes in his family – our family! – one has to go back to Gordon’s grandfather, Samuel Johnson, a seventeen-year-old lad apprenticed to his father, Edward Johnson, a cotton-spinner at the Bankside Mill in Cotton Street, Oldham, Lancashire in February, 1834.

Richard Thompson, the owner and manager of Bankside Mill, had been in dispute with his operatives over his reduction of their wages and as a result had locked them out and hired ‘knobsticks’ or scab labour at lesser rates. This was in the very early days of trade unionism when gatherings of workers were forbidden by law and any workers arrested and convicted of being associated with union activities were gaoled.

It is recorded in the Oldham Petty Sessions of the day that Samuel Johnson, then aged 17 years of age, was convicted by Magistrate Rev. James Horden of assault on an operative (knobstick) and instructed to provide a bail of £10 and a surety of £20 to keep the peace for three months.

Sam’s father, Edward, is described as a peaceable man with steady employment as a millwright at Greenbank Cotton Mill over many years. He had married Mally Crompton in 1809 and Sam had three older sisters at the time of his birth in 1816. This pattern of having three girls born before a boy is familiar as both my father and myself had similar distributions in our children. Mally died in 1827 when she was aged 27, probably from tuberculosis. Sam was aged six months at the time. Edward wasted no time in remarrying and went on to have a further six children by his second wife, Hannah Chadwick.

At all events the first emergence of violence in Gordon Johnson’s forbears arises with his grandfather, Sam. But worse was to come with Sam.

On Tuesday, April 15, 1834, several thousand mill workers were involved in a riot and broke into the Bankside Mill in Oldham, demolishing several buildings. A bystander was shot dead. Sam, aged 17, who by this time had attained a reputation as a ‘union man’ was at the forefront, assaulting several mill workers and damaging property.[1] These indiscretions resulted in him being arrested, indicted, convicted and sentenced to be hanged for a capital crime (property destruction). The judge, Lord Lyndhurst, made a request to King William IV for clemency and the sentence was reduced to transportation to Botany Bay for life – twenty years.

Did this gene of violence persist in subsequent generations? It is alleged that Gordon Johnson’s father, also Sam, chased a customer who refused to pay his accounts, from his butcher’s shop down Spencer Street with a meat cleaver.

Gordon Johnson also exhibited these hot-tempered, violent outbursts throughout his whole life. He accepted resulting misfortunes with pragmatism, never dwelling on, or even accepting, that perhaps he had made a wrong decision in following his impulsive urgings. This contrasted with his grandfather who learnt from his indiscretions and had no reported violence after his sentence – none during his convict days and none in the following years. 

But hand in hand with this gene went admirable traits, also traceable to his convict grandfather. Gordon never gave up and never allowed self-pity any house room. He made the best of any misfortune and was mentally a very tough competitor. I remember a fathers-versus-sons cricket match in grade seven. Each father was brought on to bowl against his son and I noted that most fathers did not endeavour to dismiss their sons but rather rolled their arms over in a gentle manner. Not so my father. He determined to dismiss his son, for a duck if he could, and my presence at the crease only served to increase his determination. He would play against me at tennis on our lawn tennis court at Woodville. He was happy to beat me every time but eventually at the age of fourteen I beat him – for the first time. He never challenged me again.

Like his forbear he was not afraid of hard work and applied himself assiduously towards self-improvement. He was forced to leave school at the age of thirteen but continued to practice his handwriting until it became ‘copper plate’. Throughout his life he read assiduously bringing home six or so books from the Myers Lending Library every week and devouring them during his spare time.

During his early years of marriage his wife, Myrtle, suffered anxiety depression when her two oldest children were admitted to different hospitals in Melbourne, one with diphtheria and the other with measles and she worried that both could die. Gordon stepped into the breech and ran the household – cooking meals, shopping and generally looking after his family, at the same time holding down two jobs.

Sam the convict married a 17-year-old Irish orphan from Cork, Mary Hall, at the Roseneath run in Gippsland in 1851, immediately following the completion of his 20-year sentence. They went on to have eleven healthy children including Gordon’s father, also named Sam, after his father.[2]

Sam junior was born in Stratford, Victoria, in 1863 and was only nine when his mother became widowed with eleven children, the oldest Ann aged 19. The older children became the bread winners with Edward, aged 16, taking over his father’s business as a carrier with his own bullock team, traversing the lonely three-month trail from Bairnsdale to Omeo in the high country. Sam the convict had been the first bullocky to blaze the trail from Bairnsdale to Omeo in the Australian Alps.[3]

Sam’s mother, Mary, subsequently went to live in Melbourne with the younger children, and Sam and his brother George Robert, three years his junior, obtained apprenticeships as butchers and eventually went into business together in a butcher’s shop at 420 Spencer Street, Melbourne, not far from the Spencer Street Station.

Sam junior, son of the 20-year convict, picture taken around 1910.

On November 6, 1894 Sam married Augusta Riley at Moor Street,    Fitzroy under the rites of the Free Church of Victoria. Sam was 32 years of age, and Gussie, 26 years, as they started married life on the premises above the butcher shop in Spencer Street. Gussie had a severe, domineering type of personality in contrast to her husband, but she was financially very savvy and acquired several properties, probably with money from her mother, Mary Wilkins, whose first liaison was with a George King Thornhill, a wealthy property owner and gold-miner, and by whom she had three children. Gussie was an offspring of Mary Wilkins second liaison, and first marriage, to Leeming Riley.[4] Gordon Johnson inherited many of his mother’s traits.

Sam and Augusta had three sons and a daughter Doris. The middle son was registered as Samuel Gordon but always signed as G.S.Johnson. He was born on June 26, 1898 at 420 Spencer Street, West Melbourne, the site of the butcher shop. The family later moved to 16 Crisp Avenue, West Brunswick where Sam purchased the house in his name, his wife Gussie already being the owner of several properties in the area courtesy of her inheritance from her mother Mary Wilkins.

  Augusta Riley circa 1890.

Gordon’s older brother was Stanley with whom he never had a close relationship, but he was always close to his younger brother Les or ‘Bubs’ as he was more usually known, even throughout his adult life.

Being clearly the smartest of the children Sam and Gussie decided to send him to Queens College for his secondary education. However, he did not fit into the mold of college students and was teased about his family residence being in Brunswick, one of the very poor suburbs of Melbourne in the early 1900s. Gordon did not take kindly to being teased and his knee jerk reaction was to take of his jacket put up his fists. The outcome was that his parents (or more likely the Headmaster) decided it would be better for him to leave school and join the workforce, and so at the age of 13 Gordon’s schooling finished. But Gordon was intensely ambitious, industrious and an avid reader. Even in his later years after he was settled in Adelaide with his family it was his regular habit to go to the city for business every Friday afternoon, and always on these occasions he would borrow six to eight books from the Myer Lending Library. These books he would devour over the succeeding week and then repeat the process the following week. His favourite topics were travel and biography.

As a boy he helped his father in their butchers’ shop in Spencer Street on a Saturday morning. He recalled the two of them getting up at first light and walking in to the shop in Spencer Street from West Brunswick intent on beating the first tram. Cars were a rare luxury in those days of the early 1900s.

 Enlargement of School photo      Brunswick Primary School – Gordon back row second L

Dressed in a sailor’s outfit in 1904 Gordon aged three in 1901

When he left school at the age of 13 Gordon’s first job was as a junior clerk with Edgar Bell & Co., custom house, shipping and commission agents. He left Edgar Bells at the age of 14 in September, 1912 after a period of six months. His reference reads

‘During this time we found him to be honest and attentive to his duties. He left us of his own accord in order to improve his position.’        Signed – Henry Bell, 1912.

Numerous other references from this period 1912 to 1925 attest to his diligence and trustworthiness and it would appear that he had no hesitation in quitting one job to get a better one. Another reference from Ball & Welch of Flinders Street written on January 24, 1922 reads: 

‘During this time we have found him honest, sober, attentive to his work and a competent ledgerkeeper. He now leaves of his own accord.’

Eight other references during this period 1912 to 1925 affirm to his inborn ambition to better himself rather than an innate instability in the workplace.

One of the intriguing assets Gordon acquired during his formative years was a very characteristic copper plate style of handwriting which is here reproduced.

Gordon Johnson married Myrtle Alice Young in 1918 when he was aged 19 and she 21. The circumstances and date of their meeting is unknown but presumably it was in the Carlton, Brunswick area where Gordon lived and Myrtle, by then having finished at Zerco’s Business College, was working as a secretary in a school, and boarding with her married brother Perce and his family. She had previously boarded with her auntie Louise Hill whilst she attended the business college in the vicinity of Royal Parade where Aunt Lou’s husband Fred Hill was superintendent of a mental asylum. Myrtle became very proficient in shorthand, English and bookkeeping. Her family had a farm at Georges Creek, a tiny outpost in northern Victoria.

It was around this time also that Myrtle was having a gay time with her cousin Bet as they lived in the vicinity of Melbourne University and visited the same haunts as the students. Myrtle had a young university student, Joel Harris, who was keen on her but Gordon must have intervened and that romance came to nought. Bet at the same time dropped her boyfriend Frank for a medical student, a much better catch, and whom she eventually married, Kingsley Allen.

Very little was ever spoken about Gordon and Myrtle’s wedding in later years, in fact nothing. Myrtle and Gordon were married at Christ Church, Brunswick, according to the rites of the Church of England on May 4, 1918. They were both registered as living at 33 Park Street, Brunswick, at the time. Perhaps the reason for keeping it quiet was the fact that baby Gretta was born on September 12, 1918, some five months after the wedding. 

After their marriage they lived at Mordiallic, probably in one of Gordon’s  mother’s houses which she inherited from George King Thornhill via her mother Mary Wilkins. Gordon and Myrtle’s first child, Gretta, was born at Mordiallic Hospital when Gordon was a mere 20 years old and Myrtle 22. It must have been following this delivery that Myrtle suffered severe postnatal depression and her doctor offered to sterilise her by tying her tubes. She declined (good decision Myrtle!!) and went on to have a further three pregnancies but continued to be troubled by anxiety/depression all her life.

It is noted from his references that Gordon had two jobs during 1918 and possibly a third as he worked as a movie projectionist during the evenings. This interest in photography remained with him throughout his life and he took many pictures with an early Kodak bellows camera.

A year or two later the family moved back to Brunswick probably renting one of Gussie’s numerous investment properties. There Elvia Estelle was born in 1921 and at six months of age contracted measles followed by pneumonia. At the same time Gretta developed diphtheria and both became seriously ill and were hospitalised in different hospitals, Gretta being in the Fairfield Infectious Diseases Hospital.

Elvia later developed bronchiectasis as a result of this illness and this troubled her for the rest of her life necessitating a lobectomy in 1947, the first performed in SA by D’Arcy Sutherland, Adelaide’s first cardio-thoracic surgeon.

                Myrtle and Gordon circa 1917

All this had a serious effect on Myrtle who reacted adversely to the associated stress and most of the domestic load and hospital visiting was taken on by Gordon.  

Myrtle and Gordon’s third daughter Lesley Isabel was born in February, 1924, also at Brunswick.

Stories of Gordon’s aggression abounded. On one occasion the family went to a park and Gretta, then only three, was happily having a swing, a little distance away from the family. Another man and his young child arrived on the scene and the man asked Gretta to vacate the swing in favour of his own child. Gordon entered the discussion and without further ado removed his coat and threatened a fist fight, something at which he was very adept. In the end no blows were struck, but Ada Young, Gordon’s mother-in-law, who was also there enjoying the ambience, was appalled.

On another much later occasion he attended a cricket match in the Members Stand at the Adelaide Oval with his young son. When the players retired for afternoon tea he pushed the man sitting next to him on the end of the communal seat (as they were in those days) onto the hard bitumen where this man sat down solidly on his coccyx. He got up off the ground and remonstrated with Gordon who challenged him to the usual fight. Quickly a crowd gathered and stood on their seats to enjoy this unaccustomed spectacle in the sedate members enclosure. Fortunately, the offended member thought better of it and disappeared into the milling crowd. Apparently, he had been edging towards Gordon to get a little more room on the end of the seat. A most unwise manoeuvre as it transpired.

Why did he behave so? Kerry Packer was asked a similar question after he behaved in a similar vein as he was also wont to do. He replied ‘Because I don’t know how to talk to people.’[5]

And yet he could go out of his way to help people who had no hope of returning his favour. His sister-in-law’s eldest son, Ernie Schulz became very fond of Gordon because he offered to bring him down from Benalla, where he was on a farm with his parents in Northern Victoria, and get employment for him as a mechanic in the Ford Motor Company at Geelong in the 1920s, where his prospects would have been considerably brighter. Unfortunately for him, his father, a Cooneyite preacher, refused to let him go.

In 1925 the Ford Motor Company of Canada set up in Australia at Geelong and Gordon successfully applied for, and received, an administrative appointment when the company commenced operations. This necessitated him moving his family to Geelong where initially he rented in North Geelong, but then subsequently built a house with funds supplied under an endowment from Mary Wilkins, his grandmother, which she had left in her will to her grandchildren. This was, of course, from funds initially brought into Australia in 1849 by George King Thornhill, inherited from his father the Colonel.[6]  Some of this money was acquired from Irish rents during the Great Irish Famine (1847 – 49) which resulted in the deaths of all Gordon’s other grandmother’s family (Mary Hall) leaving her an orphan in a workhouse in Cork at the age of 14.

The house Gordon built was situated at 5 St. David Street, North Geelong, alongside Corio Bay.

Was Mary Wilkins so generous to all her 28 grandchildren? Certainly there was a rift in the Thornhills when Major James married the Heanley sisters who were of good Catholic stock, but there is also good evidence that in the early years at least there was close intermingling of the Thornhills and Rileys. For example, Amy Riley was a witness at the wedding of Major James Thornhill to the first of the Heanley sisters, Kate Elesia, on February 28, 1883. At that time Major James was aged 29 and Amy his half-sister 21.

Interestingly Major James married the first Heaney sister in an Anglican church and the second sister in a Catholic church.[7]

Gordon always had a soft spot for his younger brother Les and used his influence with the company to get Les a job in the paint shop of the new Ford Motor Company at Geelong. During this time Les, unmarried at the time (he did not marry Chris until 1935 when he would have been about 33), lived with Gordon and his family at North Geelong, all Gordon’s family enjoying his company. Gordon wanted to push Les but he did not have the ambitious drive of his brother and was happy to jog along in whatever job was offered. Les had inherited the pleasant easy-going temperament of his father Sam. He had been somewhat dominated by his mother Gussie, and eventually marrying such a nice girl as Chris Ellison would have been a god-send for him.

Much of Gordon’s employment with the Ford Motor Company at Geelong involved him in visiting Ford dealers around Victoria and his daughters became very excited at the week’s end when their father returned. He was a good father and had the added burden of having to take Myrtle shopping as she was unable to go anywhere without him, even to the extent of being unable to travel on public transport, suffering from agoraphobia as she did. Ada, Myrtle’s mother, came frequently by train from Georges Creek to visit her at Geelong and Myrtle wanted her to stay as she was very dependent.

Gordon must have applied himself diligently to his new post as in 1928 after only three years with the company and at the young age of 30 he was selected to set up a branch of the company in Adelaide, although it was to remain under the jurisdiction of Geelong. After disposing of his house, he duly transported his family and their belongings to Adelaide.

Family en route to Adelaide – Lesley, Gretta, Ellie with Myrtle, and Ada sitting on running board.

Initially the SA Branch was under the umbrella of the Adelaide Car and Tractor Company, but in 1935 the Ford Motor Company became a separate entity and Gordon was accorded the title of Manager the Ford Motor Co. (S.A. Branch). He was granted power of attorney to act on behalf of the company and no doubt accorded other privileges along with a raise in salary as befitted his increased responsibility. He remained as manager in S.A. for the next 26 years. A large new factory was built at Birkenhead with extensive office space for secretaries and additional staff and on a lower level a huge factory floor where limited vehicle assembly could take place.

Gordon’s wife, Myrtle, did not cope well with their elevated status in the business world even though her educational level had been superior to that of her husband. In their Geelong days they had come under the influence of a religious sect who gave themselves no name beyond ‘the way’, a biblical term used in early new-testament times, but were known as ‘Cooneyites’ by outsiders. This sect was entirely exclusive, aggressively evangelical and demanded a strict code of behaviour from its adherents. They were fundamentalists in that they took the Bible absolutely literally, and taught that their members, and only their members, would go to heaven. No lipstick, no radio, no movies and minimal social contact with non-believers. They built no churches but had regular twice weekly meetings in hired halls such as those belonging to the Freemasons or Masonic Lodges. There two ‘preachers’ either male or female (not mixed unless they were married) who spoke in turn, interspersed with prayers and Sankey hymns. These meetings took place on a Wednesday and Sunday evening, the preachers spending the rest of their time door-knocking the whole district or visiting the ‘saved’ and keeping them up to scratch. On Sunday afternoons there was a ‘meeting’ in one of their homes rather like a Bible study but conducted more formally with everyone taking turns in having a prayer and talking on a passage of the Bible which had inspired them during the week. Finally in these meetings there would be a breaking of bread and taking of wine (grape juice) followed by a brief socialisation. The group was strongly represented by the Irish and lapsed German Lutherans.

Towards the end of the year in the more formal Sunday night meetings the gathering would be ‘tested’ Billy Graham style for those who had accepted an invitation. Most of the congregation would already be committed ‘friends’ in the ‘way’ but those wishing to join had to make a public declaration by standing – if they were slow or reluctant it was suggested they make their commitment while the congregation prayed with their eyes closed. This would always be accompanied by much peeping through fingers to see who had ‘made their choice’ and much sharing of information afterwards. Those preachers who attracted the largest number of converts were held in the highest regard.

On one occasion a targeted convert had been inordinately slow to make his choice and Mrs Flavel, one of the elect, was heard to mutter ‘Someone should put a pin in his backside to make him stand up.’ 

There were no teaching seminaries as such, the young preachers learning ‘on the job’ by accompanying an older preacher and being first cab off the rank to speak at the meetings. For these novices, allowances were made if any doctrinal straying took place but, presumably, they were tutored by their older mentor beforehand.

No collections were made but clearly those in wealthy circumstances would have made voluntary donations on a private basis as some were sent as missionaries to other countries. In fact, Gordon made donations to the sect on a regular basis, including writing a cheque for the annual convention which was held under canvas, and for which he bought Myrtle a tent.

Gordon and Myrtle had been introduced to the sect whilst in Geelong, presumably through the intermediary of her older sister Marie who was also a member of the sect. In fact, her husband, Ernie Schulz, was a preacher in the sect up in Northern Victoria at Tallangatta. Their intrusion into his home life was resented but tolerated by Gordon.

They must have agreed to attend a private home meeting in Geelong where the hosts happened to be the Bradley sisters, Milly and Ally, a delightful pair of school-teaching spinsters whose parents had migrated from England. My understanding is that Gordon and Myrtle and their infant children attended meetings at Milly and Ally’s on a semi-regular basis until Gordon decided against continuing. 

Gordon’s association with the sect was brief and he soon found it was not to his liking. Myrtle on the other hand must have felt in need of support, particularly after her shattering experiences with her two babies’ serious illnesses, and she joined the sect. Gordon no doubt felt that by leaving Geelong the family would be out of reach of the ‘Cooneyites’. Such did not prove to be the case and after a time Myrtle was tracked down in her new environment in Adelaide probably by her connection with the Bradley sisters, who also moved to Adelaide around this time.        

When the family arrived in Adelaide they rented a house in Mitcham and later Highgate. On arrival in Adelaide the girls were aged ten, seven and five and there followed happy times as Gordon introduced them to their new environment with picnics to various outlying areas such as Strathalbyn and the Barossa, although he himself was working hard to establish the Ford name in South Australia. He was generous to his daughters purchasing a horse for his oldest, Gretta, which was kept in a yard in the back of the house at Highgate. He also did a good deal of the shopping with them for their clothes and shoes. 

Leaving for the office from Mitcham in the latest model Ford In 1933 some 9 years after the birth of the youngest daughter, Myrtle became pregnant again. No mention of her pregnancy was discussed presumably due to Myrtle’s surprise and embarrassment, with the girls then aged 15, 12 and 9. Nothing therefore was known or discussed until the arrival of the midwife who was brought across from Melbourne especially for the occasion. Presumably Myrtle’s growing rotundity was hidden by appropriate clothing although her middle daughter Elvia on one occasion put her arms around her mother and exclaimed ‘If you get any fatter you’ll burst!’ Eventually Gordon, in an aside, told Gretta her mother was pregnant, but she did not divulge the secret to her sisters.

In October 1933 ‘nurse’ officiated at the home birth of a son in the household. Gretta was the only one of the four children not born at home. ‘Nurse’ was presumably the same midwife who had attended Myrtle for the births of Elvia and Lesley in Victoria as she was specially brought over from Melbourne for the occasion.

          Tennis day at Highgate,1934, Sam and Gussie in front.       

Gordon preferred renting his accommodation to buying, and in about 1935 the family had a third shift, this time to Queen Street, Norwood, into a rented two-story house with a tennis court and yard for a horse. The horse at this time was a retired steeple-chaser of some seventeen hands that Gordon purchased in Melbourne after it had come second in the Grand National Steeplechase. The horse at that time had been retired from racing due to alleged ‘breathing problems’ and Gordon presumably purchased it for a good price from his Melbourne contacts. It was then brought over by ship from Melbourne and given to Gretta to ride.             

503 Torrens Road, Queen Anne Federation style, built early 1900s.

Gordon was not convinced that this animal had finished its racing days despite being told it became short of breath when racing, and so he put Pactolus in the hands of a trainer and registered his racing colours,  recently designed, with the SA Jockey Club. The trainer very quickly realized that racing was out of the question and so Pactolus was returned to Gretta to ride as a hack.

In 1939 Gordon decided to shift houses for a third time, on this occasion purchasing a large property on an acre of ground with a tennis court and room for a horse, on Torrens Road, Woodville, just before the outbreak of WWII, in March, 1939. This made his daily travelling to Birkenhead less tedious.

Gordon was entitled as manager to employ a gardener at the expense of the Ford Motor Company and after moving to Woodville he availed himself of this invitation. Initially this was Mr Flavel, a Cooneyite, but he proved either less than satisfactory or became ill with cancer, or both, and his place was taken by Henry Smith, who had been the second gardener at Loretto Convent when it was the private home of the Scarfes of Harris Scarfe connections. He was highly skilled and raised the standard of the Woodville garden to win a certificate of commendation in the annual Adelaide Garden Competition.

The 1930s saw Gordon involved in extensive travelling throughout the length and breadth of South Australia setting up dealerships in as many country towns as possible. These dealerships extended across the border to Broken Hill in NSW. He also had frequent interstate trips for conferences at Geelong.                             

On occasions the Canadian boss, H.C.French, or ‘the Governor General’ as he was known, would visit. Gordon at this stage of his life was a tea-totaller, but not so the mafia from Head Office in Geelong, so Gordon  had to have a drinks cabinet made and stacked with whisky and gin to satisfy the maffia’s needs.

SA Branch Staff – back row – Tim Watts, Mr. Spafford , Stan Driverfront row – Tommy Finnegan, GSJ, Rus McDougall

Stories of Gordon’s bombastic behaviour in the factory were legendary. Something or someone in the factory would upset his equilibrium and he would emerge from the offices into the factory on top note letting all and sundry have full blast.[8] On these occasions those on the factory floor would busy themselves in some inconspicuous corner until the storm subsided.

At other times he had a good sense of fun and was a great legpuller although often restrained at home where he was not fully appreciated.

The year 1939 brought the onset of World War II and with it came a change in the function of the Ford Motor Company. The company operated during the war years on a lend lease arrangement with Canada suspending to a large degree, the manufacture of civilian vehicles. War machines such as Bren Gun Carriers on caterpillar tracks, as used in the Western Desert by the Australian Army, were assembled at the Birkenhead factory and tested in the sandhills at Largs.

The war also brought an influx of servicemen, some stationed in Adelaide, some passing through, both Australian and American. This was to the delight of Gordon’s daughters, but Gordon was always suspicious and restrictive of their activities.

Certainly, with more encouragement one or two of his daughters would have found a husband in that period. Myrtle felt obliged to help with the war effort and at weekends soldiers and airmen, both Australian and American, would be invited to stay at our Torrens Road home on a billeting arrangement. The fun and gaiety during those weekends with tennis, table tennis and other games, was enormous. Poor Gordon was unable to cope and took himself elsewhere on those weekends.

Why did he not enlist and go off to one or other of the two World Wars? At the outbreak of World War I he was aged 15 or 16 and at the time of the armistice, 20. He was never strongly pro-British, perhaps influenced by his Riley grandfather, although he never really knew him, or again by his Irish grandmother on the other side although again she died two years before he was born. Nevertheless, their influences and anti-British sentiments would have permeated subsequent generations with anecdotal stories. Gordon was well versed in the politics of the day and was never one to blindly follow popular opinion, much preferring to take an individualistic stance, especially if it generated an argument, the more heated the better he liked it. He made an art form of baiting any opposition to his arguments and never apologised.

Left: Family portrait c. 1937. Above R: Family excursion to visit Ellie doing WAAAF rookie training at Mt Breckan, Victor Harbor. Back row: Gordon, Gretta, Myrtle, Ellie, two fellow trainees. Front row: Aunt Lou, Lesley, Ross. Below right: Bren Gun carrier as assembled at Ford Factory, Birkenhead.

In later life he played cards once a week with a ‘Barney’ Rice, a qualified cabinet maker who worked for a period in the Ford factory. As a young Irishman, Barney had been involved in the Irish fight for independence in 1920 against the notorious ‘black and tans’ of the Royal Irish Constabulary and the British troops, and had a missing middle finger from a machine gun burst to show for his trouble. Gordon made the mistake of baiting Barney about the ‘black and tans’, although in reality he had great sympathy for their cause. Barney responded violently as would be expected of an Irishman and card games were suspended for a period. Eventually they resumed after a truce was called.

By the time the second world war came in 1939 Gordon had been manager in South Australia for just on ten years and was aged 41. The Ford motor Company had changed its manufacturing to a war footing, manufacturing machines of war, some of which were supplied through the Birkenhead factory. One assumes that either he or the Government of the day took the view that his role as Ford’s SA manager was an essential service, and supervising the production of war materials was more useful to Australia than involving him in armed combat. No doubt it turned out for the good of the country as his presence in the services would have been disrupting in the extreme.   He made his own rules and would never succumbed to any discipline administered from above. Having had a managerial position for 10 years he had long since lost acceptance of any higher authority.

Several other enlightening documents exist demonstrating Gordon’s commitment to the Ford Motor Company, their generosity in recognising his commitment, and finally the company’s attempt to influence the Federal election result of 1937 in favour of the Federal Country Party. These documents are reproduced in Appendix 2.

Gordon had a wide circle of business acquaintances the closest of whom he invited to tennis afternoons at Woodville – men only of course. He enjoyed the competition and played a good standard of tennis, having had tennis courts at all of his three Adelaide houses. He would always finish the tennis afternoons with a single against Pat Faulkner, uncle of a future Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide, and co-owner of Eclipse Motors, with whom he did business. He would play those games as if his life depended upon the result.

As his daughters became older his relationship with his family became strained, with the exception of his youngest daughter Lesley, or ‘Blokey’ as he called her, who somehow managed him without difficulty. There were frequent disagreements and he tended to withdraw into his own company.

From being a happy family, a gregarious group, gathering around a mallee root fire which Gordon carefully tended every evening in the ‘den’ at Woodville, Gordon withdrew to spending the evenings by himself with no winter fire, listening to the American baseball on shortwave. He usually went to bed early to read a book.

In 1945 at the end of the war Gordon’s father Sam died. This was a big blow to Gordon as he had always had a close relationship with his father and spoke in fond terms of him always. He loved relating the story of how he, as a lad, would walk with his father from Crisp Avenue, Brunswick, to the butchers’ shop in Spencer Street and help serve the customers on a Saturday morning. This would have been around 1910.  They would set off at dawn to try to beat the arrival of the first tram into the city.

Gordon had made the trip to Melbourne by train which was the normal mode of travel in those days, to wind up his father’s estate. He was the designated executor as was set out in Sam’s will. Perhaps everyone at the funeral was tense at the loss of their dearly loved father. Perhaps also Gordon’s siblings were expecting to inherit the bulk of the estate as Gordon had been by far the most successful of the family and his needs may have been considered less than the others. He may also have had on his manager’s cap and created some resentment which he could easily do. At all events a huge family quarrel erupted and Gordon walked out, forfeiting his share of his father’s estate to his younger brother Les. The sole possession which he took back to Adelaide was his father’s gold watch and chain. Myrtle expressed her dismay with the outcome, strangely reminding Gordon that he had a son to whom he owed some responsibility. It would seem sons were considered more relevant than daughters in those unenlightened days.  

Gordon’s relationship with his father contrasted somewhat with his relationship with his mother to whom he was not particularly close. Gussie was closer to her youngest child Doris whom she took with her to England on the occasion of the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1926, following which they toured the Continent. Dorry was 21 at the time. Upon their return to Australia Gussie went to the Royal Melbourne Show and purchased a motor vehicle and had Dorry learn to drive so that she could be taken around Melbourne in comfort. Les may have still been home with Dorry and Gussie when the car arrived, or perhaps he had gone to live with Gordon’s family at Geelong at that stage. At all events he was not invited to drive it, and eventually the car was retired to Dorry’s farm at Koondrook. Dorry was outgoing and smart – she painted, sang and played the piano. In 1933 she married a very charming farmer, Colin Frankling, and lived the rest of her life on the Murray at Koondrook. 

They had no children and Gretta often went to stay with them for extended periods on the farm.

Finalisation of Sam Johnson’s Estate. Gordon’s pencilled distribution to his siblings.

Family holidays in those early years in Adelaide were always at Christies Beach and were major logistical exercises. The whole household together with cats, dogs, birds, and even the chooks in pens were loaded onto a Ford truck and transported to a beachhouse on the seafront for the entire summer, Gordon commuting the 20 miles to work each day. The horse was ridden down to Christies Beach by Gretta and had his own paddock. The neighbours at Christies were also regular holidaymakers and became well known to the family. When the girls left school these holidays were abandoned and Gordon tended to go on fishing trips with Ron Angas of Angaston and his men friends on Angas’s 64 foot jarrah planked ketch ‘Pavana,’ still in existence in Queensland in 2009. On occasions they raced in the Adelaide to Port Lincoln classic.

Rather like her mother-in-law, Myrtle purchased a little Ford Prefect in about 1935 with some insurance money whilst the family was living at Norwood. Gordon arranged for Gretta to have driving lessons so Myrtle could be driven to do the shopping as she was unable to cope with public transport. In fact, it was not until 30 years later that she again began venturing on public buses.

The first time Gretta ventured out after gaining her driving license was to drive Myrtle down Greenhill Road with her two young sisters in the back seat. She managed to stall the vehicle on the old Kingswood tramline, not difficult with that model, and restarted with huge kangaroo hops accompanied by much mirth from her audience in the back seat. That vehicle was very prone to kangaroo hops as it had a very sensitive clutch. The author could verify this as he also learned to drive in that same vehicle.

When Gretta’s driving progress was checked by her father he was heard to loudly exclaim, ‘Clutch,clutch! What has that man been teaching you!’

‘Pavana’ in racing rig, 1933. Gordon crewing on Pavana in Backstairs Passage

Traditionally Gordon always did his Christmas shopping at the Myer Emporium to whom he supplied delivery vehicles. The females of the family always received very expensive night attire such as would not normally be worn on a daily basis. Gordon himself was a poor receiver of gifts, always pretending on the occasion of his birthday that the date was incorrect.

At the end of WWII Gordon found himself, at the age of 47, in the large house at Woodville, living with his wife, Myrtle, aged 49, and two daughters aged 27 and 25, Myrtle, and a young son aged 12. His youngest daughter, Lesley, had left home to go nursing at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. To his oldest daughter, Gretta, he paid a retainer, designated for her to help with domestic duties in the large house, and also to look after her mother, and drive her to do the weekly shopping. She also had her horse, Pactolus, to care for and exercise. Gretta, in her lifetime, made only one foray into the commercial world, when she applied for and was accepted, as a driver in the WRANS. However, the war ended before she was called up, and so she never did have paid employment! His third daughter, Elvia, had employment as the personal secretary to a Mr. Waddy, the general manager of the Adelaide Steamship Company.  

Gordon found himself in constant conflict with the three mature women of the household, who always sided against any opinion he might express, such that he ceased to give his opinion at the meal table in order to prevent the frequent bickerings that occurred. Even political opinions resulted in fierce arguments, as Gordon was the sole proponent of Labour Party views, whilst the females united in their support for the Liberal Party under Bob Menzies. Gordon’s youngest daughter, Lesley, was at the time, living in the Nurses’ Home at the RAH. Had she been living at home, I am sure he would have modified his tendency to argue, as he always listened to his favourite child. The household, most certainly, would have been more peaceable.

Increasingly Gordon isolated himself; the ladies had a fire to themselves in the spacious drawing room, whilst Gordon spent his evenings in the ‘den’ by himself, listening to his large and much-loved radio which had the capacity to tune into short-wave broadcasts, including American baseball which he followed assiduously. In winter he never bothered to light a fire and always retired early to his own bedroom, now permanently acquired, at the far end of the large house.

In 1947 his eldest daughter, Gretta, became engaged to a war time hero, Jock McDonough, who had been the catapault pilot on the Perth when that ship was sunk, together with the American battleship Houston, by the Japanese fleet in the Sunda Strait. He was picked up after 24 hours in the water and spent four years as a prisoner of war on the Burma/Siam Railway.

Gordon found this situation difficult to handle and when Jock approached him in his ‘den’ with the request for his daughter’s hand he made this stupid comment; ‘Well, what do you expect me to do about it!’ and continued reading his paper.

Gretta and Jock were planning a quiet wedding two weeks after the announcement but Gordon, no doubt relenting his initial response, but never conceding that it had been stupid, took the arrangements out of their hands and organised a huge reception on the expansive front lawns at Woodville under large marquees with all and sundry invited, including his business acquaintances. Lobster mournay, sparkling burgundy and all the trimmings – no expense spared. It was a grand occasion.

The Wedding photograph of the two families, 1947.

Around this time Gordon met a man who was to be his closest friend and confidant for the rest of his life. He was a batchelor named Howard Daw, owner of the Adelaide Fish Market, in partnership with his brothers Leo and Compson. Howard had been a ‘near’ state cricketer in his youth and was a keen race goer and golfer, so Saturdays for Gordon became race days, and Sunday mornings golf at Kooyonga Golf Club. Their regular playing partners were Tim Wall and Clarrie Grimmett, both of test match fame and all close friends with Victor Richardson who, at that stage of his life had retired from golf. Don Bradman was a member of the same club and they all shared the locker room and had played cricket together but for some reason Don never played in the group and rarely fraternised with his former team mates.

Photo left: In 1947 Ford introduced the revolutionary V8 single and double spinner. The Birkenhead factory floor was turned into a showroom and the Press and public invited.[9] Photo right: Gordon and ‘Corny’ in earlier days at Geelong. Coincidently, he had followed Gordon into employment with the newly formed Ford Motor Company of Australia in 1925 from Tarrant Motors after signing Gordon’s reference for employment at the embryo Ford Motor Company. (see reference Appendix 2)                                                                                

In 1953, after 25 years continuous service with the Ford Motor Company of Australia, Gordon was presented with a gold watch, a small enough token for his pioneer work in setting up the company in South Australia. The following year the Board of Management at Geelong changed, with the old guard moving out, and a decision was made to shuffle around the branch managers. After 26 years as Manager of the South Australia enterprise, Gordon was offered a transfer to Brisbane, to be second in charge in Queensland, with a view to taking over from the incumbent manager, a man by the name of Cornwall or ‘Corny.’ Corny was also a long-standing state manager with whom Gordon had worked in his earlier years at Geelong. They were not close friends.

This news came as an unexpected bombshell, as the family roots were well entrenched in Adelaide, especially with the arrival of the first grandchild.

Many family discussions took place and a decision was made that Gordon would go to Brisbane and make preparations for Myrtle to follow. The girls had by this time gone their separate ways with Gretta married, Lesley nursing in Sydney, and Elvia with a steady stenographer job, although still living under the family roof at the age of 33. The youngest, Ross aged 21, was in the fourth year of a medical course and it was planned that he would transfer to Brisbane University Medical School and remain with his parents.

Huge wooden trunks were constructed in anticipation of transporting the goods and chattels when Myrtle moved, and Gordon went off up to Brisbane, residing in a hotel.

Certainly, after Gordon’s departure the home atmosphere was more relaxed and even his relationship with the rest of his family more cordial than it had been for many years. Gordon had always had a difficult relationship with his middle daughter Elvia, both having fiery tempers and being unrestrained in their freely expressed opinions.

Gordon wrote almost daily, page upon page of letters, in pencil, telling of Brisbane, its humid weather, and particularly of a conspiracy between ‘Corny and his puppet branch accountant’, against himself. His letters described in graphic detail their moves to discredit him and push him out. The truth and accuracy of his claims is open to speculation as it had to be remembered that, for 26 years, Gordon had been the master of all he surveyed, answerable to no-one.

Left: Daily Press, News Ltd., Lionel Coventry cartoon, 1951. Right: Arial view of 503 Torrens Road, Woodville taken from a telegraph pole by a friendly linesman.

At all events the tensions in the office continued to build and Gordon saw himself as representing the downtrodden staff against the ‘bully’ Cornwall. Finally, the inevitable happened and a physical confrontation ensued. Corny had his shirt torn off in front of an aghast office staff and blood was drawn from a trivial arm scratch. Gordon was summarily dismissed on the spot! Twenty-six years of service up in smoke as a result of a momentary indiscretion.

On reflection of the tumultuous episode, one cannot but wonder if Gordon saw this as an exit from a position in which he felt trapped. Away from his family, whom ironically, he missed, and who were less than enthusiastic about the move, and away from his longtime friends with whom he felt comfortable. Was the Ford Motor Company giving him an opportunity to resign in offering him the Queensland job? In retrospect this would have been a better and honorable out for him.

When he returned to Adelaide, full of fire and righteous indignation, lawyers were engaged and correspondence between Geelong and Adelaide flowed freely to and fro. Geelong, not surprisingly, backed their incumbent manager.

The flurry of legal correspondence gradually died down and the rest of the family settled back into their comfortable niches, and put the matter behind them. In a sort of way Gordon seemed relieved that this interruption to his life had disappeared. However, what was he to do now, as he was only 56, and probably not sufficiently superannuated to last him for the next 25 years?

The house at 503 Torrens Road, Woodville was put on the market but selling proved difficult as times were tight especially for a house of that size. Eventually it was sold as a school for retarded children at a somewhat lesser price than was hoped and remains as such to this day. Whilst the house was on the market Gordon obtained employment managing a small service station across the road. He had thoughts about buying the business but then changed his mind and went to work in the office of his long-time friend Bertie Bond of Bonds Tours to whom he had sold vehicles in earlier times. He worked there for some years and finally retired in his early 60s.

Around this same time, 1955, Gordon’s youngest daughter and the apple of his eye, announced her engagement and imminent marriage to a budding surgeon in Sydney, one John Fisher. She decided to get married in Sydney and sadly none of her family attended, all making feeble excuses for the inexcusable. Whether the fact that John was of the Catholic faith played a part, I cannot say. In those unenlightened days it may have.

Following the sale of Woodville the family moved to a somewhat smaller house at 146 Watson Avenue, Toorak Gardens although it still had five bedrooms. Why was this area chosen? Gordon had suggested that Myrtle and Gretta look around with a view to buying a house. However, he stipulated the areas he would prefer, and these areas centred around the Toorak Gardens, Tusmore suburbs.  It later transpired that Gordon was having an affair with an Alice Hunt, a widow living by herself in Stirling Street, Tusmore. After the property in Watson Avenue was purchased and Gordon, Myrtle, Elvia and Ross moved in they found that Gordon was wont to go for ‘walks’ in the evenings to do some ‘visiting’. Myrtle had had suspicions for many years regarding his faithlessness and described her husband as a ‘married batchelor.’

No celebrations were held on the occasion of their Golden Wedding anniversary in 1968, in fact it was not mentioned by anyone as I recall.

In 1961 Gordon’s son married Sadie Marr, the niece of one of his favourite country Ford dealers, Clem Eckermann of Tanunda. Clem duly proposed the toast at their wedding.

Gordon’s wife of 50 years, Myrtle Alice Young, died quite suddenly in 1969 after a brief sojourn in Calvary Hospital. The autopsy did not reveal the cause of death as no pathology was found. She had found life difficult and probably had a serious bout of anxiety/depression after her children’s illnesses around 1924. This was not diagnosed nor was it treated and undoubtedly persisted and flared up from time to time. She suffered from agoraphobia, being unable to travel in public transport or lifts, and had to be driven most of her life. She regularly took phenobarb tablets to ‘calm her nerves.’ Gordon did not understand and was not particularly sympathetic, although he did help her with in the purchase of a little 10 HP Ford Prefect and, for a period, sent one of his employees to Woodville once a week to drive her to and from the shops. Myrtle and Gordon’s relationship remained problematic and undoubtedly would have been better had they been left to their own resources in later life, and not had to share their house to the end with their explosive second daughter Elvia. At her funeral, conducted by ‘the friends’, the Cooneyites, Gordon placed a single belladonna lilly flower on her casket, her favourite February flower.

The house at Watson Avenue was sold and the contents distributed. Elvia moved into a unit, funded by her sister Lesley and husband John Fisher, in Hyde Park.

Not long after, in his typical undiplomatic fashion, Gordon announced triumphantly to his family that they had no need to worry about looking after him in his old age as he had already found someone. A short while later he married Alice Hunt. The ceremony was boycotted by his children as a futile token of respect for their mother whom they knew had been aware of his liaison for some years.

Gordon shifted into Alice’s house in Stirling Street, Tusmore.

The remaining eight years of Gordon’s life were undoubtedly his happiest and most contented. He reconciled himself to his family, including Elvia, although this never became a free and easy relationship. He reconciled himself to his step cousin Reg Newsom and became more accommodating to his son-in-law Jock McDonough, even going on the road to sell his re-refined oil to contacts in the motor industry.

Gordon had much more in common with his new wife, Alice, than Myrtle, and they had an extended overseas tour lasting six months, travelling by ship to Europe. He even paid a visit to his cousin, the Countess of Portarlington at Ascot, at Reg Newsom’s insistence. Travel had been one of his lifelong ambitions and he had an intimate knowledge of the geography and politics of eastern and western Europe. He reveled in every aspect of their trip and thoroughly enjoyed shipboard life.

Gordon saw much of his grandchildren in the 70s and generally became much more benign, probably because he was well managed by Alice who humoured him in his aggressive moods. He enjoyed his TAB at Burnside and enjoyed advising Alice with her share investments although he had no need as she was very successful in that area without any advice. They had two little Australian terriers. On one occasion Mitsy was lost for several days, and despite scouring the neighbourhood there was no sign of her. Eventually they came across her outside the TAB at Burnside waiting patiently for the return of her master whom she knew would turn up there sooner or later.

                               ‘Gramps’ the traveller                                                                                                                      

What would one say of the man himself?

He was a man of his time and his town – Melbourne. He was bombastic and argumentative, but his opinions, at times radical, were well thought out and logical. He was not overawed in any company and never refrained from saying what he thought, no matter how inappropriate to the occasion his comments may have been. This approach to life did not meet with universal approval, but generally he was popular with his peers and respected by his business associates, remembering of course, that in his era before and after the second world war motor vehicles were a scarce commodity. As state manager of a leading company he had a good measure of power. Not that he abused his position – the distribution of vehicles to dealers was done according to the rules and without fear or favour. He worked hard and long in his position from 1928 to 1956 and it would be fair to say that the Ford Motor Company in South Australia had a fair measure of success during his time in charge.

In the 1930s he regularly travelled to every corner of South Australia assessing the suitability of which car dealers to whom he should offer dealerships, rejecting those not suitable. He nurtured personal relationships with each of these many dealers and successfully supplied them with whatever models they required. He worked hard and long hours. The author in primary school years often joined him on Saturday morning stints in the Birkenhead office when he would be the only one working in the plant.

On the home front his rumbustious approach to delicate situations was not as effective as in the business area, and his perception of the world in terms of black and white at times met with fierce resistance. Being one to never compromise in any situation, and for that matter not knowing how to compromise, he was prone to resort to force usually with disastrous consequences. Nevertheless, his family were equally pugnacious, having of course the same Irish genes, so on these unfortunate occasions it transpired that the only one in the family who attempted to pour oil on these troubled waters was his youngest daughter, Lesley.

From left: Grandson David’s christening, 1969; Johnson grandchildren; Not a bad swing for 70!

Gordon had a good sense of humour and saw the funny side of many situations. In his Melbourne style he quickly saw through pretentious people much to their discomfort. He was courageous in an Irish sort of way, and boasted to his second wife at the age of 75, after a particular incident, that it was ‘the first time in my life I’ve ever walked away from a fight! I must be getting old.’ Crisp Avenue, Brunswick was a rough area and lessons of life were basic and learnt early.

Charlie Malpas was one of Howard and Gordon’s golfing partners and frequently visited from Geelong for golf and the races. Charlie was a talented inventor who invented the wine cask among other objects and had his own manufacturing company, but he was an insufferable, pompous bore and was always the butt of Gordon’s unsubtle humour. Roger Daw was a nephew of Howard Daw, Gordon’s best friend. In recent years when asked why Charlie did not take offence at Gordon’s comments Roger replied, ‘Gordon was a great lateral thinker and Charlie never caught on to the subtlety of his remarks.’

Gordon was the only one among his siblings to have ambition. He came from a middle-class family and pulled himself up by his bootstraps, determined to make good, whatever effort and sacrifice was demanded. He left school at 13 for reasons already described, but educated himself as he went along. He was organised and conscientious, made sure that he dressed appropriately, and only in later years had the odd drink and odd small bet on the races.

As with all his peers in those days he smoked, initially cigarettes and later a pipe, but gave both away in later life and became strongly anti-tobacco. He was a stickler for physical fitness and purchased his own gymnasium decades before it became fashionable. At 6 am he would be up working out with the punching ball, on the rowing machine or pulling the chest expanders. In his younger days, in Melbourne, he had been an Australian Rules football umpire in lower grades and was of course always a staunch Carlton supporter. He missed his Victorian football when he came to Adelaide but kept up to date by reading the weekly Sporting Globe published in Melbourne. He followed all sports enthusiastically. Before he enjoyed the races and Sunday golf he would spend his Saturday afternoons in Adelaide motoring around the south parklands watching baseball, hockey, football or whatever was being played. On his latest shortwave radio he would regularly tune in to the World Series baseball no matter how crackly the reception.

Gordon was also meticulous, one might say almost obsessional, regarding his and other people’s organisation and neatness. The daily Leaving for the office from Mitcham in the latest model Ford.

 newspaper had to be left neatly folded with every page in order when he came to read it. His tools in the shed all had their place and woe betide anyone, family or visitor, who did not return his tools to their appointed position. Presumably this obsession carried over into the Ford factory.

He was very particular about his appearance and always dressed in a suit, waistcoat and tie, clean, ironed shirt and polished shoes. As was the fashion of the day he always went out with a felt hat.

One can understand Gordon’s frustration with Myrtle’s stubborn refusal to leave what was undoubtedly a fanatical, misguided cult which she followed for most of their married life. Initially he showed great patience, even providing funds, but in the end it ruined their marriage and their lives. Myrtle’s continued connection to the group she saw as her only antidote to her continuing anxiety/depression and this made it impossible for her to step out into the unknown without, as she saw it, her essential crutch.  

Gordon set his own rules for life and rigidly adhered to those rules. His ambitions extended beyond himself and included his family. He did his best to educate them in the arts, taking his daughters to the theatre and opera which he loved, and also buying them tickets to the ballet. Gordon’s half cousin Reg Newsom, of course, was an actor with J.C.Williamson Theatre Productions and always visited the family when he was in Adelaide. In return they went to all his performances at the Theatre Royal, with the exception of Myrtle who, by religious persuasion would not attend public functions, even though her mother Ada had been a great supporter of the theatre in Melbourne. Ada’s relative by marriage was Australia’s renowned comic opera singer, Florence Young. Very early after they appeared on the market, probably around the 1940s, Gordon purchased a gramophone player together with a collection of ‘78’ record discs, all classical. His favourites were the tenors and sopranos of the day and included Nelson Eddy and the also the Nuns Chorus.

In his younger days Gordon was very attentive to his family and regularly took Good shoulder turn at 70!   them on picnics and the like in his company vehicle. When Myrtle had her initial period of depression following Gretta and Ellie’s hospitalisation as babies, he regularly took her up by train to her mother’s farm at Georges Creek near Old Tallangatta in Northern Victoria.

In his latter years Gordon developed strong rapport with his grandchildren particularly the boys – Alastair, Michael, and Steve, and when David arrived he derived much pleasure in attending his Saturday morning football matches as a seven-year old. Somewhat inadvisedly he presented David at a very young age with a Swiss Army pocket knife which his parents quickly confiscated.

In his seventies Gordon developed acute appendicitis and postoperatively this was complicated by a severe bowel infection to which he very nearly succumbed. However, fortunately he slowly recovered.

His final illness was prostate cancer and he was admitted to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital. He developed chest symptoms and was looked after by a chest physician Bruce Higgins. Bruce examined his chest X-Ray in Gordon’s private room holding it up to the light. It showed both lungs to be full of secondaries and Bruce explained this to him in the nicest possible way – a very difficult undertaking. Gordon thereupon announced, ‘You don’t have to say anything – I saw the look on your face as soon as you held up the X-Ray and I knew what you were going to say.’

He was a man of his generation. On another occasion whilst in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital he was heard to say to a disinterested fellow patient by the lift alongside the ward as he said farewell to his son,

‘There goes one of your top surgeons!’

And on yet another occasion in the same setting,

‘Put a ‘wog’ in a white coat and they think they own the place!’

After he was diagnosed with lung secondaries from his prostate cancer in TQEH Gordon returned home and was lovingly cared for by his devoted wife Alice. He gradually went downhill and died peacefully at Stirling Street in 1977 and was cremated at Centennial Park. A small plaque there records his ashes.

Recollections of ‘Gramps’ by his grandson, Michael McDonough.

Gramps; Gordon Samuel Johnson.

Being asked for your personal thoughts, or to pass comment on a close relative can sometimes be very difficult (and dangerous).  In any relationship your view or opinion can, and usually does, change over time.  Expectations and opinions can be changed as experiences, either shared or otherwise, can have a significant influence on a personal perception.  For a child, a parent’s opinion is a very significant influence.  Mum said that he was ‘this’ and ‘that’, and a very strict disciplinarian.  To me, that was a little confusing as I never really saw any of that.  Many years later, and asking Mum about her childhood and growing up, she drew a picture which seemed in complete contrast to her description of what kind of person he was.  To me, he seems like a man that was very much family.  He wanted the best he could possibly give to his children, but by no mean, giving a free hand.  There were rules and limits, and woe betide if you tried your luck and pushed them.  He was a busy man in a commanding position, but it seems that he always made time and effort for his family.  The relationship he had with Narnie was stressed and obviously soured, but he never spoke ill of any family member, not to me, or even in my company.

I would like to mention the other side of my family as a contrast.  Gretta seldom had a kind word to say about her father-in-law, Barbie.  Dad never really said very much either.  Dad’s two brothers were regarded with great disdain, with no feelings or comments being withheld.  I have discovered that the actuality appears very different from the opinions Mum and Dad shared about Barbie.  Mum always described him as “a sanctimonious, self-serving old fool.”  Barbie was a very different character to Gordon, but I can see that Dad was actually very, very much like his father, especially with business and business dealings.  Fortunately, Dad was not like him in the personal and family things.  Dad was always looking for his father’s approval, but never got it.  Barbie just couldn’t communicate correctly with his three boys and his wife, but she was very subservient to his ways.

In business, and dealings with others, it appeared that he was very knowledgeable, honest and accommodating.  However, his dealings with family, which included the members of his married sons’ extended families, could be a little confronting, and include espousing his religious conviction.

Technically, I was the third grandchild into the Johnson clan.  Alastair was the first grandchild for the Johnson’s, and didn’t have to share the attention for nine years.  Stephen was nine years later, but born in London, and then me, 25 days later.  When the little baby brother came along, the focus was shifted.  For a nine-year-old to be relegated to second choice would have been somewhat of a shock.  A psychologist would regard that experience as resulting in having an adverse effect on the older child forming a healthy and long-term relationship with the younger sibling.   

With ALL of these events, I can’t remember Alastair being there, or anywhere.  It was just Gramps and I, or Gramps with Stephen or Anne. 

Gramps, what was he like? 

Looking back 50 odd years as to what I thought about him between the ages of first memories to 17 is somewhat different from what I think of him and how I see him today.  Unfortunately for me, our lives crossed for only 17 years, and in actual fact there were only about 9 that counted for anything.

I feel that I am extremely lucky to have had him in my life as, after all, we share some traits and genes, and most important of all, I learnt much from him.

I feel that I have been very fortunate, in that I have had the opportunities and time to be relatively interactive with two of my grandparents; my grandfather Johnson, and my grandmother McDonough.  Grandpa Mac, Barbie, passed away when I was only 6, in 1965.  I have only one clear memory of him, and that was when he was in Calvary Hospital, not long before he passed.

Narnie passed in early 1969, a couple of months before my tenth birthday.  My memories of her were her sponge cakes and boiled eggs.  Most of the time she was ‘in the feathers’.  When she was in bed, I had to be quiet, as if in the kitchen when she was cooking a sponge cake, quietness was the order.  I was not allowed unaccompanied past the swing door of the breakfast room.  I do remember that she always had peppermint Life Savers, either on her dressing table near her white gloves, or in her handbag.  Staying the night at Watson Avenue was always in the company of Ellie and Narnie; very seldom did I see Gramps after dark.  The TV was in the living room next to the fireplace, always burning mallee roots.  There were only two shows that were watched; “The Untouchables” and “Ironside”.  The time I remember most vividly was while we were watching an episode where Ironside, who was a paraplegic in a wheelchair, came to grief and his wheelchair shot out and away from him, with Narnie’s comment that ‘the whole lot has gone west.’  That was the funniest thing I’d ever heard, and just thinking about it brings a smile to my face.  Mum always said that Myrtle had a great sense of humour, but I think that she was just passing comment that was just so befitting.  That’s about all I remember of her.  Gramps, on the other hand, is a very different story.

I have many fond memories of the times and adventures that I had with my Gramps.

There are five events with Gramps that have never been too far away;

  1. He made me a sign on a piece of cardboard,
  2. Going to Rundle Street before Cracker night,
  3. Driving with Gramps to Warrnambool and flying to Hamilton,
  4. Gramps and Ellie having a row, and
  5. He took me down to Godfreys, on the Port Road and bought me my very own little engine.

Day visits to Watson Avenue were quite often; a least once a week to visit Narnie and Aunty Ellie (‘Lellie’).

I can’t recall exactly how often I stayed the night at Watson Avenue, but in the morning, when I woke up in Uncle Ross’s old room, I would go into Gramps’ little bedroom at the end of the sunroom and get into bed with him and he would read the paper and talk.  I enjoyed that; he always had a brown paper bag with black and white, aniseed ‘humbugs’.

He taught me how to pour hot tea from the cup and into the saucer; it made it cool.

At Watson Avenue, there was a small room adjacent to the laundry, and only accessible from its’ own outside door.  It was like a garden shed, with all of Narnies garden tools and stuff in there.  It also housed Gramps’ electric drum mower with its’ big, long extension lead.  However, the most impressive thing that was in there was Gramps’s shadow board.  It wasn’t a flash ‘pegboard’, just a sheet of chipboard with an expanse of wonderful tools, suspended off nails.  Some tools had their own silhouette outlined in pencil.  Every time that I went down to visit, that was always my first stop.  There were all sorts of other little treasures in there, but it was the tools.  He showed me what they were for and how to use them.  He did love to try and fix things, but he didn’t have much success, but to a five or six old, he was a wizard.  Later in life mum told me about the clocks he tried to fix, but Narnie would always end up taking them down to the clock shop, carrying their workings in a paper bag. 

He had glass jars with nails; it was quite a few years later that I learnt that nails didn’t come from the shop as they were already rusty.  There were jars with nuts, there were jars with bolts, and there was even a jar with keys.  Tubes of contact cement and all other kinds of glue.  The contact cement he used to stick new rubber soles and heels onto his shoes.  Talking of shoes, Gramps never tied his laces, but his shoes never fell off.  I tried it and they’d always fly off in two steps.  I thought that takes some skill to be able to do that. [This was one of the few things I also learnt from ‘Gramps’ – one threaded the laces through the eyelets as normal but left the second last eyelet free to take the last threading. On pulling the laces tight one left the second last eyelet until last to tighten and then tucked the free end into the side of the shoe. This method avoided the supposedly unsightly appearance of a bow on the top of the shoe. Ed.]    

Quite often my visits were employed straightening old bent nails that he had pulled out of the fence palings alongside the driveway.  I would straighten them on the concrete driveway and put them back in the jar.  Next visit the jar was either empty or full of more bent nails.  On a visit by the Fisher’s, Steve and I were given half the nails each; Steve only managed a few, and gave it away, so I finished the lot.  I think that for every nail, he hit his thumb once.  I think that visit was about the May school holidays.  It was about the same time that Gramps bought us both a pocket knife for our birthdays.  Gramps went to great lengths to take the sharp edge right off the knife, rubbing the edge on the concrete driveway; Steve was not impressed.  I think Gretta and Leslie may have had something to do with that.  We were about 8 or 9 years old.

I always thought that Gramps thought more of Steve.  He lived on a farm, was 25 days older than me, was bigger, more outspoken and had way more interesting stories than I did (maybe he just talked a lot?).  One thing that always puzzled me was the way he addressed Gramps.  The way he said “Gramps”, as in “Yes, Gramps” and “No, Gramps.”  The way in which he said it just didn’t sound right.  A bit condescending and dismissive.  However, to be fair, Stephen didn’t have the access to him that I enjoyed.

A footnote to that last sentence; it wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I realised that Stephen, Sarah and Sue were extremely remote from all their extended family.  John’s mother and sisters were up in Sydney, with John’s brother, Bill, up in Queensland.  Leslie’s family were all in Adelaide.  Family visits were between 5 and 10 days, maybe twice a year.  They didn’t really have the opportunity to know any of their grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins.  It was a decision made by others to be so remote from their extended families and family support.  It may appear to some as a somewhat selfish decision that I am sure has left a mark.  It’s something that concerned me, as my son Colin is in a similar situation.  I must also point out the parallel of Dad and his brothers who were also subject to an insular and isolated upbringing; they had money, but not family.  They were in England, America and Brazil.

Back to that little tool room.

One day I was in there working on some little fantasy project of mine, and Gramps swung round the corner and grabbed a nail from one of the jars.  He then took the hammer off the board and showed me this piece of cardboard that had a piece of string attached to it.  There was writing on one side, and the only two words that I could recognise were my name.  He closed the door and proceeded to drive the nail into the outside of the door.  He hung this sign on the nail and then asked me if I knew what it said.  I said that my name was there, but that was all.  He then read it out to me,

Master Michael McDonough.

Inventor and Consultant.

He gave me instructions that every time I came down, I must hang my sign out, so that everyone would know that I was there.

I think I must have been in Grade 1, about 6 years old, when he made it.  At that age, Gramps had me pegged, and he knew where I was going and where life would take me.

They were good times, but there was one event at Watson Avenue that concerned me a little at the time.  I can’t remember the lead up, but I do know that I was young, possibly before Catherine was born.  It was in the sunroom with Gramps and Ellie.  Gramps was down at his bedroom end and Ellie was in the doorway from the kitchen.  They were both yelling at each other on top note, about what, I don’t know.  In the end, Ellie was slumped on the floor sobbing.  At that, Gordon headed to the garage.  Where was he going? 

“To see the man in the moon!” came the reply.  He said that just about every time someone asked where he was going.

As I said, it was a little worrisome and troubling at the time, but I thought that this man is not to be messed with, and that anything he says, goes.

During the May school holidays, before Cracker Night, Gramps would drive me to the top end of Rundle Street.  Just going into town was a big thrill.  He’d park his grey Ford Falcon XK and take me into a little shop with strange writing (Chinese), strange smells of incense and other exotic smells, together with a glass fronted counter that was full of shiny red paper packets, full of crackers and bungers.  He’d talk with the little man behind the counter who then produced a large brown paper bag full of Roman Candles, Pinwheels, sky rockets and the smaller, bottle rockets, and packets of the little Tom Thumbs, strings of the red Yankees, Throw-downs, penny bungers, and a few of the really fat, fourpenny bungers.  He always emphasised that they were for Dad, only.  Not forgetting the sparklers for the mums and the girls.

I think the last year we did this was around 1972 or 1973, and Gramps was with Alice and living at Stirling Street, Anne came with us, but that was to Coles at Burnside.  Nearly as big a bag, but more ‘pretty’s’, and less bungers.  We parked under that big old Ghost Gum.  That tree is now inside the Burnside Village. 

As I am writing this, lots of other things are coming back to me.

He used to take me down to Victoria Park race track, right down at the end of Watson Avenue.  He would walk around it quite often, and sometimes he would take me with him.  I remember climbing over the brush fences on the inner steeple track.  He disapproved of me doing that.

There were at least two occasions that Gramps took me over to visit the Fishers in Warrnambool.  I am pretty sure that the first time was by air.  My first time in an aeroplane.  It was Ansett Airlines to Hamilton; the ‘milk run’, in a Fokker Friendship.  Gramps told me all about how Reg Ansett started the business with a bus, taking passengers on the Hamilton-Geelong-Melbourne run.  The way he spoke of Reg gave me the impression that Gramps knew him personally.  On the plane they gave me a little red airline bag, and a badge, and I remember being taken up to the cockpit and seeing all the gauges and levers and things.  Leslie and Steve, Sarah and Susan met us at Hamilton Airport.

The next trip was in the XK Falcon.  When exactly that was, I am not sure.  We did it in a day.  He gave me the map and asked me what the next town would be, and how far it was.  He explained to me all about the mile posts, and using them and a watch to check the speedo.  That took a little time for me to get my head around, but we had the return trip to consolidate the lesson.  That trip made it clear to me why he had the compass stuck to the windscreen and the relationship with where the sun was. 

Lessons that have never been forgotten.

At Watson Avenue I remember Narnie and Ellie out in the garden, but no Gramps.  If Gramps was outside, Nannie and Ell would be inside.  After Narnie passed away, and Gramps married Aunty Alice, he changed a lot; more relaxed and friendly.  A nicer person.

The one and only time I was invited down to Kooyonga Golf Course was when Dad, Alastair and Gramps had a round.  Dad came out with his nice bag and buggy.  Alastair had a flasher buggy, and lots more clubs with little bennies and a lot of different irons and other little doo-dads.  Gramps came out with this little skinny tan bag slung over one shoulder, with one wood, two or three irons and a putter on a wooden stick.  Alastair and Dad looked quite at ease teeing off, but Gramps looked a little at ‘sixes and sevens’ with his swing at his ball.  I think that his score was lower than Alastair’s; Alastair got cross and angry on a lot of holes.  Gramps was pretty cool about the whole lot.  I was about 11 or 12, and quite bored after the first couple of holes.  Gramps always gave me his ball to put through the ball washing machine; that was fun.

I remember going down to Dad’s oil refinery at Edwardstown, and Gramps was there in the front office, sitting behind the secretary’s desk.  Dad said he was there as a salesman, but apparently he was not that successful at it.

Dad loved to go fishing, as did Gramps.  Dad used a rod and reel, but Gramps only believed in handlines.  The three of us went fishing one day and Dad gave Gramps a rod and reel.  Long story short, Gramps spent the day sitting on the bank, patiently untangling one of Dads reels and a bird’s nest of nylon.

I stayed down at Stirling Street after Gramps and Alice were married.  Friday nights usually, and I was allowed to stay up and watch the ‘Deadly Ernest’ horror movie marathons on Channel 10.  Stirling Street was where I saw the black and white horror classics; “The Day of The Triffids”, “Mothra” and “The Blob”.  I think that Ann was allowed to stay and watch one night, out in that little, cosy sunroom.  That’s where we all had our photo taken with Gramps in about 1974 or 1975.

Gramps taught me how to cut the hedge there, and rake the white gravel driveway in straight lines starting at the footpath and going right through to the carport at the end.

One Saturday morning, Gramps took me down the Port Road to a place called Godfreys.  They had ads on TV that said they would accept ANY old mower as a trade-in, and then they would have this big sell-off of these old things at the bulk store on Saturday mornings.  We got there and he said, “OK, which one?”

Anyway, to cut long story short, I chose this little green one that was not like the others, and I still have it, here in Melbourne, 50 years later.  It cost $15.

When Gramps and Aunty Alice went on their European holiday in 1971, Gramps sent Mum and I postcards and kept us up-to-date on their travels.  I still have all of them.  While they were away, we had Alice’s little old Ford Anglia in the garage at Belair.  I had to run that engine once a week to keep the battery charged.  When they came back at the end of 1971, Gramps said that when I passed my licence I could buy the car from him for $27.00.  Why $27?  Best known to himself.  I had saved up that money by the middle of the next year, but I couldn’t get my licence for another three years.  When I did get my licence, at 16 years and two weeks, I was disappointed that he reneged on the deal, but I never pursued the issue.

During my time at the Navy engineering college, we were given annual leave at Christmas and mid-year.  Gramps loaned me that little Anglia when I came home in June 1976 and again in June 1977.

Gramps passed away when I was in the Navy, and still at the engineering school in Sydney.  I would phone home every week when I was up there, and Mum started this particular conversation in late October, 1977, that Gramps had passed away.  I don’t remember being that upset over the news, and agreed that it would be extremely difficult for me to get home for the funeral.  As it turned out, neither myself nor Alastair were able to attend.  When Narnie died, I was 10 years old, and as when Barbie, Dad’s father, died, I was not involved nor attended the funeral.  I was being ‘saved from the upset’.  My comprehension at the time was that one day they were sick, and then they were gone.  They just weren’t there to go and visit anymore.  Again, when Mater died, 3 months before I was to leave home to join the Navy, I was not involved, nor can I remember Alastair being there or home at the time.

A couple of months after Gramps had passed, Mum told me that her horse, Chatterbox, had died.  Wow, that did affect me, and in a most profound way that I was not expecting.

Being ‘saved from upset’; that is a strange notion.

All in all, what a great time to be alive, and what better company to have been in? 

Thanks Gramps.

                          Appendix 1

History of Ford Motor Company’s Beginnings in Australia[10]

Henry Ford established the Ford Motor Company in March 1903. On October 1, 1908 the model ‘T’ was released in Detroit, Michigan. Unlike the USA, the British Commonwealth had strict laws for cars and importing them. Cars made within the Commonwealth were exempt from taxes and duties when exported to British countries, so, to take advantage of this the Ford Motor Company set up another plant in Ontario, Canada, in 1904. In reality the new plant was just across the Detroit River from the existing plant. Chasses, bodies and components were shipped straight across the river and reassembled. These reassembled cars were now ‘Made in Canada’ and exempt from taxes and duties.

The first Ford motorcars were imported into Australia in late 1904. In August, 1909, the head of Ford Canada came to Australia. He set up an Australian office in Melbourne and appointed R.J.Durance, another Canadian, as the boss. Durance set up agencies in all Australian states to market the cars and this included Duncan and Fraser in Adelaide. The Ford selling price was just £310, way below competitors.                                    

Over the next decade rumours and complaints filtered back to Ford Canada of the poor state of affairs of Ford in Australia and of inconsistent marketing and sales of their product.

In late 1923 Ford Canada sent two company men to Australia to assess the situation and report back; they sent Mel Brooks and Hubert French. Hubert French was born at Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1882. At six feet two inches and 238 pounds, he was a huge imposing man. The ‘French Report’ that they submitted found the situation, in their eyes, so bad that it would change the way Ford would do business in Australia forever. At the time Australia was divided up into six states and in each state the individual distributors acted independently and ordered and bought cars directly from Canada. In Adelaide the distributor was Duncan and Fraser.

          In November, 1923, French and Brooks disembarked in Sydney after visiting Fiji and New Zealand. They found the Ford business in New South Wales was a complete mess. They found similar situations in Brisbane and Melbourne. In Melbourne the distributor was Tarrant Motors where Gordon Johnson was employed as a Costing Clerk from April, 1924, to June, 1925, at which stage he left to join the fledgling Ford Motor Company at Geelong.

Hubert French – first managing director of Ford Australia

From Melbourne French and Brooks travelled to Hobart and then on to review the organisation at Duncan and Fraser in Adelaide. With regard to Duncan and Fraser, Hubert French, in the French Report, was particularly scathing;

French Report on Ford Motor Vehicle Assembly in Australia

… By this time I was beginning to draw conclusion as to the manner of men which are representing us here, and my subsequent work has only gone to strengthen my impressions. It has never been my lot to sit around a table in conference with a more heavy, slow thinking, sleepy and dull crowd since I have been in business. If they have brains with which to think, they have all successfully concealed them under exteriors that are not only unsightly, but uninteresting. They anchor themselves in their chairs, yawn, and gaze at me with watery eyes, and it is my personal impression that not a single suggestion permeates their heavy intelligence. I am at once shocked that we should have permitted our business to remain so long in such hands, and disgusted that such men could become so prosperous from the manhandling of our business. Of enthusiasm there is none, of loyalty, less. They have no knowledge of conditions as they are, much less imagination to design plans for the future. The best description that I can think of as to their general attitude is the word ‘whining’ than which I believe there is nothing more objectionable in business.

The whole tenor of the French Report, a portion of which is included above, was denigrating to the Australian dealerships with barely a complementary phrase. One has to wonder at his motives in writing such a report. Did he have aspirations toward being made the ‘Mr Fixit man’ or did he see this as an opportunity for his advancement in the firm in Canada with no-one looking over his shoulder to check the accuracy of his conclusions. We have very little input from Mel Brooks who may have been happy to play second fiddle to the domineering French.

French’s report was handed straight to Wallace Campbell, Vice President of Ford Canada. On September 10, 1924 Campbell dispatched a letter to Edsel Ford in Detroit outlining the proposals for setting up manufacturing in Australia. Basically, it fully supported the findings and recommendations of French.

Amazingly Ford Canada received a reply in the affirmative on October 1, 1924. Edsel and Ford USA had cleared $US3 million to proceed following Campbell’s proposal of setting up a central Australian body plant and assembly plants in the capital cities. The proposal included:

The elimination of the main distributors’ margins. We would eliminate the present distributors – six in number – and turn the present sub dealers into main dealers. By doing so we could reduce the price of our product to the public approximately 10% and increase our dealer profit 33.3%.

Three months after Ford USA and Ford Canada had made their decision, French and five others were on a boat and on their way back to Australia. Upon landing in early 1925 one of their first tasks was to find a suitable site for the factory. They secured 100 acres near Corio Bay in Geelong. They also secured land for assembly plants in all states except Tasmania and Northern Territory. In South Australia the site chosen was three acres at Birkenhead.

On March 31, 1925, Ford incorporated two companies, the Ford Manufacturing Company of Australia and the Ford Motor Company of Australia. Each had a capitalisation of £A1,500,000 and they were split for taxation purposes. Herbert French was made General Manager and Wallace Campbell from Ford Canada was named as one of four directors.

The infant Ford Motor Company of Australia blocked the distributors from importing any more cars. This move starved the market and created a vacuum for the new company to market its product.                              

However, French had a problem, and that was the fact that setting up the plant in Geelong would take about three years, so a car from scratch could not even be considered before 1928. One option French had was to import panels and assemble a car. However, Ford USA and Ford Canada were already in the throes of retooling for the 1926 model with all steel panels. Neither factory was anywhere near ready for production.

It appears that French and Ford had little alternative but to use what was on offer and that was to use Duncan and Fraser of Adelaide with their new assembly line at Mile End, and to supply them with the engines to assemble into Duncans’ manufactured bodies. However, French was not impressed with the Mile End plant and caused it to shut down by assembling the first Ford Australia car in a leased Dalgety Woolstore in Geelong. He instructed Duncans to ship their manufactured bodies in a knocked down form by rail to Geelong. They had no option but to comply in order to recoup some of their losses as they realised no Model ‘T’ engines would be forthcoming.

   Duncan’s 160-metre long Ford assembly line at Mile End in 1925.

On July 1, 1925, almost to the day when Gordon Johnson commenced employment with the Ford Motor Company, Ford Australia announced that their new car, fitted with the South Australian made Duncan Motors Ltd body, was available for purchase in Australia. The price quoted was £185 and was described by a journalist of the day as being ‘much improved over its predecessors’.

Charlie Sherson was a motor trimmer for Tarrants and joined Fords just after Ford had started in the Dalgety wool store assembling cars. After serving his apprenticeship and being retrenched from Tarrants Charlie answered an advertisement on May 4, 1925, calling for tradesmen at the new Ford Motor Company in Geelong. His first job was to upholster and hood the new ‘Dalgety’ Fords. In 1995 at the age of 91 the Geelong Advertiser newspaper interviewed Charlie;

I had just arrived in Geelong off the train. I had no tools and no accommodation. Notwithstanding, I started work the next day. The car body parts were made in Adelaide and sent to Geelong to be assembled until late 1925. In late 1925 we went to the new plant. [Clearly the new plant opened far earlier than the predicted 1928].

From an Adelaide perspective all Duncan made bodies were shipped to Geelong and whole cars shipped back. All state dealerships were cut off and lost their franchises to import engines directly from Fords.

Gordon Johnson joined the Ford Motor Company in July, 1925, when it started in the Dalgety Woolstore in Geelong and he would have been among the first wave of employees to start work at the fledgling company. Unlike Charlie Sherson he was not sacked from Tarrants but left of his own accord undoubtedly realising that the writing was on the wall for Tarrants and that there was huge potential for future promotion in the new Ford Motor Company. In fact, shortly after his departure Tarrants was downgraded to being merely a Ford agent in Melbourne with no franchise for assembly. Gordon’s reference given on his departure from Tarrants is included. Amazingly it is signed by one G. Cornwall who was later to become Ford Manager for the state of Queensland and who, 30 years later, was instrumental in being associated with Gordon’s dismissal from the Ford Motor Company when Gordon was sent to Brisbane to replace Cornwall as manager.

Ford Australia finally ceased production of the Model ‘T’ in August 1927 having sold some 36,000 vehicles from 1925 to 1927. It was replaced by a new model. In the same month Duncan and Fraser went into voluntary liquidation.

The author, as a young lad, had occasion to meet Hubert French on many occasions when the directors of the Ford Motor Company saw fit to be entertained by Gordon Johnson at his house at Woodville on some of their annual trips to review the running of the South Australian Branch. He was a towering figure and obviously held in awe and reverence by his subordinates. He had been appointed as Managing Director to Australia at the young age of 43. He retired from Ford Australia in 1950 and died on April 5, 1961. He was known colloquially among the directors and state managers as ‘The Governor General’.

Clearly Hubert French was a hard task master with no tolerance for fools. One could even regard his conduct as ruthless in his dealings with the Australian dealerships prior to the French report.

In 1928 after Gordon Johnson had been with the Ford Motor Company at Geelong for barely three years and at the young age of 30, having left school at 13, Hubert French saw fit to appoint him as the first state manager of South Australia and sent him, alone, to organise a branch company structure. Whilst at Geelong he had been designated to set up dealerships throughout country Victoria, so presumably he had performed this task sufficiently well to impress his superiors and especially Hubert French. In all the correspondence between Hubert French and Gordon Johnson in the author’s hands there exists mutual respect and courtesy – even kindness when it became clear that Gordon was at one stage in desperate need of a holiday.

Hubert French probably mellowed as he grew older and allowed his branch managers the luxury of employing a full-time gardener for their private use, the gardener’s wage being paid by the Ford Motor Company.

Gordon Johnson was a tea totaller during his employment with the Ford Motor Company, but of course this did not sit well with the Directors’ visits, so he had to arrange for a large cabinet to be built and and stocked the best whisky and gin and the appropriate glasses. 

The ‘Mafia’ – the nine Directors of the Ford Motor Company of Australia arrive at Adelaide Railway Station to check Gordon’s books. Gordon fourth from left, alongside Hubert French.

From the author’s recollection the directors were all heavy spirit drinkers, particularly Hubert French and Scott Inglis, who had started his career with Duncan and Fraser Ltd. in 1919 as a salesman before joining Ford Australia in 1927 as National Service Manager. Scott and Gordon must have developed a special affinity as Gordon’s eldest daughter, Gretta, stayed with the Inglis family at Barwon Heads, Geelong on many occasions and for protracted periods of time.

Gordon Johnson remained as SA Branch Manager until 1955, nearly 30 years, when the powers that be at that time decided that there should be an interchange of state managers, whereupon he was transferred to Queensland.

Appendix 2

Local Press References

Appendix 3

Other References

Gordon’s first job 1912 at age 13.

Cornwall reference

Appendix 3

Relevant Business Documents

Retyped for clarity next page.

Ford Motor Company of Australia  11th December, 1937

             Pty Ltd.

Strictly Confidential

Attention Branch Managers

          The writer is very pleased to be able to advise you that the financial results for 1937 have been satisfactory. At the time of writing it appears that we will deliver to dealers, for this year, approximately 17,500 units, which constitutes a record since our incorporation in Australia.

          The Directors, in consequence, are very appreciative of the efforts that have been put forward by our entire staff and, to those who hold key positions and assume major responsibilities, we desire to let this expression of appreciation take a tangible form. You will find enclosed bank cheques which will represent a payment to the officials indicated, over and above normal salaries. We desire it to be understood that this payment in no way constitutes a precedent, although it is the writer’s hope that our results in the future justify its continuance. It should also be understood that in the expectation of any salary adjustments that may be made at this time, this extra payment will be taken into consideration.

          Upon the adoption of this policy, the writer experienced a distinct exhilaration and a determination that next year’s results will be even better. Particularly does he feel that in 1938 competition is going to be severe and it is going to require our combined, wholehearted, unstinting efforts, and the directors are all most anxious that among key men especially, there should be a knowledge that we individually prosper only in direct relationship to the Company’s progress. I am desirous that you should have a talk with each individual participating, and I recommend that you read them this letter. 

          I am particularly anxious that our overseas Directors should hear from us during the next year, as equally tangible proof that this policy has not been adopted in vain.

          In view of the strictly limited number who have qualified to participate in this extra payment it is considered that all those receiving it should treat the matter as strictly confidential.


                                    Managing Director


[1] For more details refer to Johnson, Ross, Sentenced to Cross the Raging Sea, Openbook Publisher, 2004.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Braden, L., The Bullockies, Rigby Ltd., Adelaide, 1968.

[4] More details of this period of history are available in Three Pioneering Australians, Part 1, Ross Johnson, Openbook Publishers, 2008. 

[5] The Australian February 18-19, 2006.

[6] Eight Pioneering Australians, Ross Johnson, Hyde Park Press, Appendix 14, p. 218-19.

[7] Johnson, Ross, Eight Pioneering Australians, Hyde Park Press, Adelaide, 2008, p. 48.

[8] Personal communication with ‘Mac’ McDougall, an engineer on the factory floor.

[9] Photo taken, developed and printed by author with the aid of his new Kodak ‘Box Brownie’.

[10] For most of the material in this appendix appreciation is expressed to Richard Duncan for giving access to;

    Duncan & Fraser Ltd., ‘Legacies Left Untold’  by David Chantrell, personal publication, 2008.

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