The Shorts of Tenindewa

As told by John Short.

My father Edward Ralph (Ralph) Short (born 1905) and his brother John Francis (Jack) (born 1903) came to WA in 1929.

Ralph had served his apprenticeship as a carpenter, a trade which served him in good stead on the farm. He was also a keen athlete, winning the 1 mile championship of the Essendon Harriers (I think in 4 minutes 14 seconds), a keen tennis player and dancer.

Jack had worked for Nankervis at Corryong where they farmed cattle. (Another brother, Herbert, also worked for Nankervis, and married Ruby Nankervis and lived at Corryong [Victoria] until his death.)

Ralph (left) and Jack cooling off at Nundemarra Pool

Ralph (left) and Jack cooling off at Nundemarra Pool

Ralph and Jack teamed up with Geoff Simpson; I have no details of him except for his misfortune which I will come to later.

Initially they applied for a Government block, but were unsuccessful. They found a property of approximately 3600 acres (about 1500 hectares) on the north bank of the Greenough River about 17 miles (27 kilometres) north of Tenindewa. This had been partly cleared. I am not sure whether they bought it from the ‘owner’, or whether from a mortgagee.

Initially Jack and Geoff worked on the property, clearing more land. Ralph stayed in Perth, working as a carpenter to finance the venture. Jack’s daughter, Shirley Daffen, tells me that they lived largely on emues, rabbits, rice and raisins. Jack would shoot an emu; if he wounded it he would mount his horse, chase it, leap off the horse and catch it. (I doubt this would be approved by “Occupational Health and Safety” today).

Scrub rolling at Jack and Ralph Short’s farm Kooyong Tenindewa

Scrub rolling at Jack and Ralph Short’s farm Kooyong Tenindewa

Jack Short scrub rolling on Kooyong Tenindewa 1930s

Jack Short scrub rolling on Kooyong Tenindewa 1930s

There was a building of mud bricks, apparently in a state of disrepair. They patched this up and lived in this, adding a bough shed with walls clad with super bags (which gave the place its name ‘Mount Lyell Mansions’).[CSML was a fertilizer company. The “ML” stood for Mt Lyell. CSBP today]

Ralph and Jack Short’s mud brick, bough shed camp “Mt Lyell Mansions” named because of the Mt Lyell super bags used to clad the walls and help keep out the draft.

Ralph and Jack Short’s mud brick, bough shed camp “Mt Lyell Mansions” named because of the Mt Lyell super bags used to clad the walls and help keep out the draft.

Ralph and Jack replacing the clutch on the Avance tractor

Ralph and Jack replacing the clutch on the Avance tractor

I think the first crop was sown on some share arrangement. By 1930 they had a 2-cylinder ‘Avance’ tractor and 14 disc “Sundercut” plough, a ‘Whippet 6’ light truck and a seed drill. They also had a scrub roller which was towed by the tractor. They bought a 10 ft. Sunshine AL stripper harvester on the basis that they would pay for it after their crop was harvested (I assume the crop must have been near ripe at the time).

After a year or so (I do not know exactly when) Ralph joined them, bringing his carpenter’s tools in a large wooden box. They were seeding with a tyned combine-seeder, which picked up long mallee roots which jammed themselves among the tynes and took much work (and undoubtedly curses) to remove.

One day Ralph brought out his saw (carefully wrapped, no doubt) to much laughter. However when the next mallee root got tangled, he took out his saw and removed it quick time; no more laughter!

They cleared more land, sowed more crops, and eventually got things established.

Geoff Simpson drawing water for the home at Kooyong Tenindewa 1930s

Geoff Simpson drawing water for the home at Kooyong Tenindewa 1930s

A major setback was one harvest time (I do not know the year, but it must have been early on) when Geoff was on the harvester. There was a blockage in the comb-front which took in the wheat heads; Geoff, in a moment not thinking, put his fingers into the intake. The fast revolving beaters took off his hand. Ralph had to dismantle the machine to get his arm out and take him to Mullewa hospital. Obviously that was the end of his farming.

After Geoff many men worked for them and at various times and they included Bob and Wally Weir and Vic Hackett, and later Digby and Jim du Boulay. (Ralph eventually sold the farm to Jim du Boulay).

The Shorts had a big roo dog named ‘Piper’. One day (in the ‘30s) while Wally Weir was picking up stumps from freshly cleared land Piper chased an emu. It was a stinking hot day, and he chased it for a long time until neither he nor the emu could run anymore; they stopped under a tree, the dog panting. Wally went over to them, grabbed the emu by the neck (holding its head low), it was too tired to kick. He led it to a large lump of wood, threw the emu’s head up and hit it with the wood, killing it.

(Some years later – in the early 40’s – Ralph was coming home from Mullewa and stopped to open the front gate. He saw an emu with its head through the ‘ringlock’ fence on the other side of the road and thought ‘I’ll have you!’ So he dashed across the road and as the emu pulled its head out of the fence he grabbed it. He figured that if he held its head down it couldn’t kick him. Wrong! The emu lashed out with its feet, and caught a claw in the top of a new pair of good trousers and ripped them down to the cuff. Ralph was afraid to let go in case the emu kept after him, so he pulled its head through a mallee bush, which obstructed the legs, and wrung its neck. He reckoned later that he didn’t know an emu had so many legs! Effie was relieved that Ralph had escaped “intact”, but was not happy about the cost of a new pair of strides!

Ralph and Jack, being keen tennis players, soon made their own clay tennis court. Its remains can still be seen not far from the road, a few hundred metres north of the crossing. (They also named the property ‘Kooyong’ after the famous Tennis Centre in NSW .)

Bob Oldham, who had a farm close to Tenindewa, was also a keen player. Tenindewa had a tennis court and had regular games.

Jack Short (2nd from left, Ralph Short (with pipe), Kathleen Palmer nee Rumble (lady 3rd from right), Doris Olman (Lady 2nd from right), Alex Rumble (Gentleman 2nd from right), Bob Olman (Gentleman on the right.

Jack Short (2nd from left, Ralph Short (middle with pipe), Kathleen Palmer nee Rumble (lady 3rd from right),
Doris Olman (Lady 2nd from right), Alex Rumble (Gentleman 2nd from right), Bob Oldhan (Gentleman on the right.

During the 1933 harvest Ralph would cart wheat to Tenindewa. He would set out with his last load late in the day, and stay overnight with the Oldhams. Next morning early he would go to the weighbridge and Jock McLeod (on his way to milk his cow) would weigh him in. Ralph would stack his bags where required (no bulk handling then) and Jock would weigh him out (no unions either!).

Ralph Short unloading bagged wheat at Tenindewa 1930s

Ralph Short unloading bagged wheat at Tenindewa 1930s

In the following year Ralph married Effie Peden who was at the time working as a domestic for Oldhams. They lived on the farm and over time they had seven children, me (John), Joan (who unfortunately died in 1940 from apparent food poisoning from drinking milk at a railway refreshment room), Philip, Douglas, Ross, Faye [Smart] and Andrew.

Ralph’s carpenter’s skills now came into full use; he built a house in a new location closer to the centre of the property. It only had two main rooms; a bedroom and a dining room. There were verandahs on the south and west sides; in the angle there were walls to form a kitchen with a wood stove. There was no bathroom; ablutions were performed in a galvanised iron tub in front of the stove. As time went by (and the family grew) the verandahs were extended to enclose the north side; we children slept on the verandahs which had dado walls about a metre high with canvas blinds between them and the roof. (We needed plenty of blankets in winter! The top blanket was a “bag wagga” made from hessian super bags.) Toilet was outside, well away from the house; no WC then! Of course there was a tennis court nearby (a new one). There were also several outbuildings; a machinery-cum-shearing shed, a milking shed, and another used for general storage (and occasional accommodation).

Later the east end of the south verandah was closed in to make a bathroom with a real bath and chip bath heater. Luxury at last!

Kooyong House from north-west

Kooyong House from north-west

Kooyong House from north-east

Kooyong House from north-east

Effie had to cook, clean and look after an ever-increasing number of children. At various times she also had to be a schoolteacher (at times one or two of the children got lessons by correspondence; but on the whole we boarded in Geraldton). She would also look after the chooks; she would get a hundred day-old chicks sent to Mullewa on the train (they don’t need any food for the first day or two.) There was a wood fired brooder to keep them warm at night until they were well feathered. Eventually they would start to lay, and together with those from the years before would produce lots of eggs which were packed in chaff in a tea chest and sold to the storekeeper in Mullewa.

She also made laundry soap from mutton fat (from the sheep which Ralph killed for food) and caustic soda – no fancy detergents then! No washing machines either – clothes were boiled in the copper, scrubbed on a washboard, rinsed in the troughs and put through a hand wringer. With several babies at various times, there were plenty of nappies too (no disposables then, either). The ‘wash-house’ was a separate building facing the south side of the house; it comprised a corrugated iron-clad section containing the copper and troughs, with adjacent ‘room’ with a shower operated by a semi-rotary pump drawing water from a bucket. Good in summer. It had a rough concrete floor. (We could not use the precious rainwater; Ralph would occasionally cart a few hundred gallons from the mill by the river and store it nearby.) Alongside this was a bough shed containing the Coolgardie safe (later superseded by a kerosene fridge) and miscellaneous other storage

In her ‘spare time’ she could do ‘odd jobs’ like mending clothes or adjusting them to fit growing children, or try to grow a garden – which is particularly hard to do without water!

At some time during the height of the depression they bought the contents of a blacksmith’s shop; this included a large anvil, a vice, a post drill (hand operated, capable of drilling holes up to about 25 mm diameter, and requiring a strong arm!), a forge and a lot of tongs. This enabled them to do a lot of repairs and alterations to machinery.

(Ralph also recalled going to a sheep sale, where the bid for some sheep was ‘tuppence’ – two pence – per head. The vendor called out ‘For heaven’s sake, call it two bob a dozen; sounds better!’) (‘Two bob’ was two shillings or in today’s money, twenty cents, although it was worth a lot more then than 20c is now!)

In 1935 they replaced the Avance tractor with a McDonald Imperial semi-diesel single cylinder, 36 hp (27 kW) at 550 RPM. It was the third pneumatic tyred tractor in WA, and the first such one north of Perth. It was made in Victoria; McDonalds also made road rollers and similar machinery. It was railed to Tenindewa, where it stood on its truck for a couple of weeks until they were notified it was there. Meanwhile there was much discussion among the locals – ‘he’ll get plenty of punctures with that thing!’ and so on. Eventually the ‘expert’ came along to show them how to operate it. This involved lighting a blowlamp to heat the hot bulb (which formed part of the cylinder head) to red-hot, then swinging the flywheel (via a pull-out handle) back and forth against compression until it built up enough angle so that the fuel pump injected fuel which ignited. Then the engine would fire and rotate the other way (which, depending on which way it was going when injection occurred, could be either way). If it was the wrong way, you could reduce the fuel until it bounced back, and a couple of quick jerks on the fuel lever might cause it to go in the desired direction; if not, try again!

It was possible, by carefully adjusting the fuel lever, to get it to idle at 0 rpm; it would come up on compression, fire before TDC and go in the opposite direction until it approached TDC again, fire, go back the ‘original’ way and so on. (It was not unknown for a ‘new chum’ to start it, put it in reverse and drive through the wall of the shed!) The flywheel was quite high from the ground; the ‘expert’ couldn’t swing it enough to start it. Luckily the farmers were stronger (or taller, or both) and they succeeded.

They then drove it to the farm, which would have taken about 4 hours; top (3rd) gear was only about 4½ mph (7.5 km/h). They made a stand which positioned them at a much better height to swing the flywheel.

(‘Semi-Diesel’ engines had a low compression, with the combustion chamber connected to the cylinder by a narrow opening. Fuel was sprayed onto the hot bulb, where it would vaporize, and ignite as the main charge of air entered. Lanz Bulldog (and Kelly & Lewis – Lanz made in Melbourne under licence) tractors operated on the same principle. They ran on crude oil, and did not like diesel distillate – it was too light!)

They did get plenty of punctures! However by filling the tubes ¾ full of water (which leaked out more slowly) they could usually delay repairs to the end of the day (or perhaps longer, if they stopped with the puncture(s) below the ‘waterline’). (Imagine pumping up a 14×28 tyre with a hand pump!) As time went by, the roots were picked (and burned), and punctures became less frequent. But doublegees were rampant, and their little spikes pricked the tyres until the tread broke up; the answer was to get a bigger old tyre, cut off the beads and fit it over the good tyre. If a wheel was running in the furrow the problem was much less; in fact, negligible.

They also ran sheep, and for a few years, pigs.

In 1936 they bought an International 3 ton truck. This had the latest hydraulic brakes, and wanting to know how things worked (a trait which has been handed down!) they pulled a front wheel and brake drum off. One pressed the pedal while the other watched. ‘Ah! so that’s it! Now how do we get it together again?’ (They did, and worked out how to bleed the system.)

Also that year bulk handling came to Tenindewa. The Shorts had a good year, and delivered more than half the wheat that went to the silo!

Sometime about then they bought another block from a man named McDonough. This was on the eastern side of the road, opposite Kooyong, and likewise its southern boundary was along the river; I think the area was about 1500 acres. It was sold in the 1940’s (before ‘Kooyong’ was sold).

Water was always a problem. There was a well more or less in the middle of the property, 90 feet deep, which produced water OK for adult dry sheep, but marginal for ewes and lambs. Another supply was from a windmill which actually was on Crown land between the boundary and the river, and which pumped water from the river into a tank on the property. This was generally of better quality than the well, but if the river was dry or fouled it was useless. Another well was on McDonough’s.

The house was supplied with rainwater held in three large tanks. This did for household purposes, but left little for garden – just a few pot plants! Sometimes this was supplemented with water from the mill on the river.

During the Depression a well boring contractor came to the property. He claimed that he could divine water, and tell how much, how deep and what quality. He was told that he could ‘prospect’ all over the property, and put down a bore wherever he liked. If he found a reasonable supply of water suitable for ewes and lambs he would be paid double, if not, nothing. He did not take up the offer!

(Much later we put down a bore near the house. Several people (including Effie and me) could follow the ‘stream’ for some distance, and the bore struck water; but it was as salty as the sea!)

In 1938 Jack got married and left to farm his own property at Yetna. Ralph had to buy him out, which put somewhat of a strain on his finances.

Then came WW2. Ralph was a year or two too old to be called up, and farming was an essential occupation. But labour was hard to come by, so ingenuity was called for. He rigged up extended controls so that he could operate the tractor and drawn machine by himself. The steering wheel was moved to the drawn machine, with a telescopic shaft (square rod inside square tube) about 4 metres long connected to the original wheel location by a universal joint. The tractor had an over-centre clutch, so one could declutch and put into gear on the tractor, then get on the drawn machine and engage or disengage the clutch with a long rod (supported on the drawn machine). The throttle could be operated by two ropes, one for up and one for down. It was a Heath Robinson system; but it worked! It must have kept one busy, particularly on the harvester, with wheels and levers everywhere!

The Imperial tractor rubber-tyred wheels were just the steel spoked wheels with the steel rims removed and the spokes shortened, and a pneumatic tyre rim welded in place. Weight distribution was a little-known science. Ralph figured that if he could get more weight on the rear wheels it would give better traction. So he made two earth moulds, removed the wheels, and laid them on the moulds. There was plenty of scrap iron (mostly cast-iron plough disc bearings) available, so this was stacked between the spokes. Large tins were inserted to make access to the valves, and were removed later. The lot was then filled with cement, neatly trowelled on the top (which became the ‘outside’; the ‘inside’ was a bit rougher). Once the cement had set, he had the job of standing the wheels up and getting them back on the tractor.

Many comments were made about the weight of these wheels, but Ralph replied that cement is lighter than aluminium – if you don’t believe that, check it! They were still pretty heavy, what with all the iron. That tractor was last heard of near Geraldton – still with its ‘cement’ wheels.

Harold Hayes was a returned soldier from WW1, who had a farm about 6 miles south of Kooyong. He had been wounded which left him somewhat incapacitated, but he and his wife struggled on. During WW2 the Army did manoeuvres in the district; one bright lad in a Bren gun carrier thought he would give Harold a fright and charged out of some scrub, but misjudged and bent the chassis of Harold’s truck. Harold, who had a short temper, tore a strip off the CO with the result that several soldiers were detailed to cart Harold’s wheat (in bags) to Tenindewa. Harold laughed at the efforts of these city lads dealing with bags full of wheat!

Just before Christmas one year (about 1943, I think) we went to Mullewa (on Friday, as usual with everybody). As we passed Harold’s place we saw that his house was on fire. We went in and found that the house was well beyond saving, and the fire had burnt the tyres on his tractor (between the house and the shed) and spread to some empty bags in the shed. Ralph dragged the bags out and made sure that there were no burning ones left, then we continued to Mullewa to break the bad news to Harold and Jeanie. (I was cautioned not to speak of it if I saw them before my parents did.) We did this, and when Ralph mentioned the burning bags Harold gasped and said ‘there were half-a-dozen drums of petrol under them!’ (Most farmers – including ourselves – had secreted stores of fuel in out-of-sight places, as fuel was rationed and often hard to get.) We also found that Jeanie’s niece and her husband had arrived on the train from Perth to spend Christmas with them; the train had departed so we took them home with us and put them up for a few days until they could make other arrangements. (It was the original ‘Crowded House’!)

The train service left a bit to be desired, but it was wartime. It was said that the train arrived in Mullewa on time one day. But it was the wrong day!

Because of the wartime fuel shortage Ralph bought a Ford Prefect utility, which was much more economical for light work than the truck. But when it needed two new tyres (which were rationed) the authorities would not issue the necessary permits, even when it was explained that these tyres would save a significant amount of fuel! Ralph managed to get two tyres on the black market.

In winter the river would get too deep for the vehicles to cross; so if we heard that the river was coming down we would park the Prefect on the south side. We had a rope across the river between two trees, and a tractor tube with some boards on top, so we could drive the truck to the river, haul ourselves across on the tube and drive the Prefect into Mullewa, reversing the process on the way home.

One day Ralph found some soldiers with a truck stuck in the river, and wondering what to do. He put the truck into first gear and engaged the starter; the battery had enough charge to get the truck up on the bank. He then dried out the ignition and sent them on their way.

Also during the war Ralph had an Italian POW named Donato Pascone working for him. He seemed to be happy to be away from the fighting. (From what I have gathered since, this was not necessarily due to cowardice, but the Italian officers treated their common soldiers with contempt, so that the soldiers were not inclined to fight – or do anything else – for them.) (Jack also had an Italian POW working for him at Yetna under similar circumstances.)

Not long after they were married, Ralph tried to teach Effie to drive; but the only vehicle then was the Whippet truck, which had ‘crash’ gears so it was not easy; the operation ended in tears. However in about 1941 or 1942 she decided she had had enough of being unable to get around on her own. Ralph was away from the house for the day, so she went to the shed and got the instruction book from the Prefect. After studying this (and having watched what Ralph did) she started it, found reverse gear, backed out of the shed, found first gear and did a few loops round the scrap heap. Gaining confidence, she found second gear, then third, and did bigger loops round the tracks near the shed and house. This was getting nowhere, so (with Philip, who was still young, and Douglas, who was just a baby; I was away at school) she set off for the next-door neighbour’s (Eric Hamilton, about a mile north). After a cup of tea and a chat with Mrs Hamilton (nee Stafford), she drove home and parked the Prefect where she had found it. But not quite! It was a few inches from its previous position, so Ralph wondered how it had moved! I have no details of the ensuing conversation, but she obviously convinced him that she was capable of driving it, and became a very competent driver.

One day in about 1944 Ralph and I were in a paddock near the house when a plane flew over us and landed near Hamilton’s house. As this was now abandoned, we went to investigate. It was an Avro Anson light bomber (no armament) from the RAAF training base at Geraldton, flown by a student pilot on his first solo flight. He had become lost, seen a river, figured that it was the Irwin and that if he followed it, it would lead him to the sea, whence he could find Geraldton. Wrong on two counts! It was the Greenough, and he was following it upstream! Once he realised that he was REALLY lost, he decided he had better seek help, so he landed at Hayes’s farm to our south and left the engines running (which was STRICTLY forbidden) while he sought guidance. Nobody home (it must have been a Friday). (At this time we would often alternate with Hayes’s so that one would do the weekly shopping for both, saving precious petrol.) So he took off, flew over our place and landed at Hamiltons’ and shut down the engines. Trouble was, Hamiltons had abandoned the farm so there was nobody there. I don’t know what he would have done if we hadn’t seen him, ‘cos it took two men to start the engines, one in the cockpit and one cranking!

We investigated, then took him home, fed him and Ralph took him to Tenindewa (the nearest phone). He had to explain to his CO what had happened, and Ralph was able to explain where the plane was. We then gave him a bed for the night.

Next morning the three of us returned to the plane. We started a small fire and gathered green leaves, then waited. I was mad on aeroplanes (and knew more about them than many adults), so I climbed into the pilot’s seat and ‘flew’ the Anson in battle, and got in the gun turret (which had no guns) and ‘shot down’ several enemy planes. Presently we heard another plane approaching, so we heaped leaves on the fire to make smoke for a ‘windsock’; a Tiger Moth landed and two airmen got out. They got the Anson started and all flew off. I do not recall whether the student continued his flight or was a passenger. Maybe his dressing-down later was reduced by the large jar of fresh cream which we gave him!

In 1947 Ralph bought a new Pontiac sedan. It was much quieter and faster than most of the vehicles of that time; the galahs picking up grains of wheat on the road would not hear it coming and misjudged its speed with the resultant panic take-off – sometimes too late! Eventually they learned (or those who didn’t had no descendants).

The Pontiac was very roomy, with full width ‘bench’ seats, which enabled the whole family to sit inside (no seat belts in those days) rather than some of us sitting in the back of the ute (which would cause all sorts of consternation nowadays, but was accepted as normal back then). The column gear lever also helped to get the maximum in the front.

The Pontiac was a step up from Chevrolet (which was the best seller of the GM cars.) Oldsmobile was the next up (Harold Hayes bought one of these) and Buick was the top. All had bodies by Holden with many common body panels and differed mainly in the engines, suspension and trim.

We children received some of our education by correspondence, other (bigger) portions by attending Geraldton schools while boarding out at various places. For a couple of years we owned 9 Grant Street in Geraldton; Effie and the children lived there while Ralph batched at ‘Kooyong’. This was not satisfactory for obvious reasons. So in 1948 it was decided to try to move closer to Geraldton to enable us children to live at home and catch the bus. Ralph bought ‘Mount Fairfax’ near Moonyoonooka, and sold ‘Kooyong’ to Jim du Boulay. The standing crop at ‘Kooyong’ was included in the sale, and the tractor and harvester were left for Jim to get the crop off (there was no crop on Mount Fairfax). It took two long days to drive the machinery from ‘Kooyong’ to ‘Mount Fairfax’.

Jim Du Boulay has produced a fantastic book (beautifully illustrated) that fills the gap of Kooyong from 1948 until it sold to Geoff and Karen Poyner in 2005.

Kooyong in recent times

Kooyong in recent times

Kooyong in recent times

Kooyong in recent times


  1. Would love to know the name of the ” expert ” sent to start the Imperial tractor , but couldn’t swing it over . My grandfather Albert William Fisher started Mcdonalds Perth branch around 1930 and was manager until his death around 1957 , my father Ronald Albert Fisher then became manager until his sudden death at work in 1978 , having commenced work at the age of 15 with Mcdonalds in Perth . He was trained in Melbourne in all aspects of Mcdonald machinery and became an “expert” travelling anywhere in WA to service all such equipment and was truly an “expert ” on the tractors . At the peak of the tractor era , he was workshop foreman supervising some 15 “experts” out in the field at any one time .

  2. John Short. This is Jane Barrett, from Melbourne! Just read your family History. A wonderful, interesting read. May I add, that Kooyong, is the name of the tennis stadium in Melbourne, Victoria, not NSW! It is where the Australian Open Tennis competition is held every January, with players from all over the world. All the best, Jane

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