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'Tails' South

by Tom Dyster

The story has been told before of the young man whose fortune was decided by the toss of a coin. John Borrett's was that kind of a story.

In 1841, fresh from a period of self-imposed exile on Kangaroo Island, he had nothing to save him from bushranging or starvation. One afternoon, depressed and almost penniless, he stood on a hillside at Bowden looking down over the uncultivated slopes that rolled away to the Torrens . . . . a lad of nineteen, 12,000 miles from home. On the impulse, he spun a half crown piece. Heads he'd go north, tails south. It came down tails. He went south and prospered.

The Borretts came originally from Wales but John Borrett was born in Kent in 1822. His home was by no means an uncomfortable one. Raydon seems to have been a quite substantial residence, set in a large garden behind handsome wrought iron gates. The parents were affluent enough to have purchased their son a commission in the navy. But life at sea under the tyrannical captains of the day appears not to have suited young John's individual spirit. He sailed the globe, coming several times to Australia, his last voyage landing him at Holdfast Bay in 1839. Here he decided he'd had enough of the sea. When his ship weighed anchor he was missing.

Desertion, even as recently as last century, was a grave offence not infrequently punishable by hanging from the yard-arm. Young Midshipman Borrett had no intentions of meeting such a fate. He fled to Kangaroo Island where for two years he laboured at fencing, herding sheep and anything else that offered. At the end of this time, hoping that his desertion had been forgotten, he returned to the mainland where he soon found singularly unappealing, the bustle of a city even as small and as unfinished as Adelaide. Perhaps in view of his desertion, he felt conspicuous there too. So the toss of the coin! Going south into the tiers he found his future on the land. The runaway sailor was to become the landed gentleman of means.

It is not hard to picture the youngster making his way on foot up the as yet unmade Great Eastern road, refreshing himself perhaps at David Crafer's Norfolk Arms, eyeing the wild-eyed disreputable looking tiersmen with caution. Who knows, he thumbed a ride on a labouring timber cart, encountered the local Aborigines as he forded Cox's Creek near the Deanery, and enquired after work in Mt. Barker.

At length he came among the green rolling downs of the Angas and the expatriate Scots who had settled there. Their neat stone fences, some of them still standing today were reminiscent of the farms of their native highlands. To them this place was Highland Valley. Highland Valley it is today. Here young Borrett found employment with the Stirling brothers .... at 11/- a week.

Canny and enterprising Scots themselves, the Stirlings, Charles and Edward, had arrived in the colony in 1838. They soon became successful farmers. Edward was elected to the first South Australian parliament, and later the town of Stirling was named after him.

The farm in Highland Valley sounds prosperous by 1840 standards. The 1841 South Australian Almanac describes it as containing and sustaining:

5 acres of wheat, 3 acres of barley, 2 acres of oats,
2 acres of potatoes, 1,550 ewes, 1,000 wethers,
2 horses, 1 pig.

No doubt on that property there was plenty to keep John Borrett busy from daylight till dark. He worked hard and saved well. Edward Stirling, true to the traditional reputation of his countrymen gave the lad little respite and certainly no overtime payment.

There seems to have been a healthy mutual respect between master and labourer, but young Borrett resented his employer's financial hold over him. He dreamed of the day when the position might not merely be equalled but reversed.

'You'll have a mortgage of me one of these days' young John told Stirling. And sure enough he did! A few years later, when Borrett owned so much property that he hardly knew, what he was worth, Stirling, needing cash for an investment, was not too proud to seek a loan from his erstwhile employee.

But it was several years of toil and thrift before John Borrett was able to assume the independence he had always sought. He began in a small way at Langhorne's Creek. And while on his way up he became one of the best known and respected graziers in that district.

In 1843 he married Agnes Donnin. The single-mindedness of the Welsh that was already there was now blended with that dash of Ireland to produce the pride and determination of spirit that is easily discernible in the fourth and fifth generation Borretts today.

The wedding was the event of the decade in Langhorne's Creek. John Borrett's wedding clothes hand made, were a gift from the women of the district. The marriage was a lasting and a productive one. Agnes bore John no fewer than thirteen children. Unhappily not all of them survived to adulthood.

From all reports, John Borrett was as demanding of his children as he was of himself. To him they were 'to be seen and not heard'. He would angrily cut short their protestations when, riding with him in a farm cart they were curtly ordered to get off and walk when a steep hill was being negotiated. Sitting up in solitary splendour he would suffer them to run on ahead so that there would be no delay when the horse reached the downgrade. Apparently though, he was more indulgent when mellowed by a glass or two of fine wine.

In 1850 he built the second Raydon. Four or five miles east of Langhorne's Creek on the main Wellington road, it stands today a memorial in sturdy local stone, to its first owner. A gum-lined avenue leads up to the old slate-roofed homestead nestling among whispering pepper trees. The stout stone outbuildings speak of the grit and determination of the man who built them. Though the tractor and the modern workshop have long since replaced the horse and its manger, they are housed in the same solid structures built more than a century ago.

Langhorne's Creek was desperately dry when I visited Raydon. A tributary of the Bremer River, the West Creek, that, fringed by rugged old blue gums, flows through the Borrett lands, was parched. When it floods, the pastures of Raydon are lush. Angus Borrett, the present occupant of the old family homestead, knows what this means for his two thousand odd sheep.

Old John Borrett, Angus' great grandfather, knew sheep too. Year after year his merinos won the top awards at Shows all round the countryside.

At the Strathalbyn Show one year he met again the wiles of his canny former employer, Edward Stirling. Stirling was genuinely impressed with Borrett's show, of prize winning rams and ewes. Jokingly, he removed the prize-winning sashes and surreptitiously transferred them to his own sheep. Suspecting the perpetrator, Borrett sought him out and confronted him.

'You can have the cash if you're so hard up' he taunted, 'as long as I get the ribbons back.'

John Borrett never forgot the style of his earlier upbringing. It is said that never in all his life would he eat in the kitchen. He didn't have to! By 1870 he was so well off he could almost have eaten in a palace had he chosen. For it was a time of great expansion in the colony; people with money to invest were on the crest of a wave. Land was there for the taking. Twenty years later was to come the great depression of the 1890s. Hundreds were to suffer unemployment, loss and hardship. But by then John Borrett was wealthy almost beyond measure. His business investments expanding, he found it necessary to visit Adelaide from time to time. Without doubt he broke his journeys for refreshment at The Aldgate Pump hotel where he would soon have become aware of Hawkins' intentions to dispose of his Aldgate lands.

In The Southern Argus of May 3, 1875, there appeared the following public notices:

Mr. J.A. Borrett of Mosquito Creek, who will take early possession of 'The Pump Hotel' at Aldgate, is to have a clearing sale on the property six miles from Langhorne s Creek on May 10, 1875. Valuable plant and stock will be disposed of and lunch provided after the sale.

Borrett went on with the Aldgate deal. He purchased Section 92 from Hawkins, an investment that must have paid him handsomely. For here was a considerable parcel of land open for development, containing within its boundaries a lucrative hotel on a most propitious site and with the assured prospect of a railway opening up in its vicinity before very long. Besides here too was a livelihood for his eldest son, Joseph. Borrett took out the licence in his name and installed him as manager.

Joe Borrett was, from all reports, carefree, good-natured and immensely popular with all of the family and everyone else. Everyone wanted to do things for him. His grandchildren still living today remember him with affection. More outgoing than his irascible business-like father, Joe loved people. He was a popular publican at Aldgate. He was delighted to exchange the life on the land near Milang for the less solitary existence of a pub-keeper. Mrs. Joe Borrett (Esther) too was pleased to get closer to civilization for she was obsessed with the fairly unreasonable notion that in the lakes district the notorious Kelly gang would come to terrorise the scattered farms. The infamous Ned had recently been released from a three year sentence in Pentridge Gaol and rumours were rife as to his future movements.

Joe Borrett appears to have been an indifferent business man, though during his three year stay at the Aldgate Pump, he showed some appreciation of the prospects of the locality by establishing a wheelwright's shop across the road next door to Hawkins' Smithy. Soon the stout durable wheels that carried heavy carts and wagons and from mills and markets in the hills, were being skilfully fashioned by the wheelwrights at Aldgate.

John Borrett's other sons found vocation mostly on their father's lands, though one of them, Harry, became a blacksmith at Bordertown before going eventually to Western Australia. George, who occupied the original homestead, and William farmed in the Langhorne's Creek district, John (Jnr.) at Lakes Plains.

In 1878 Joe Borrett did not renew his licence at The Pump. Was he too good-natured and free and easy for the good of the business? Did father John Borrett remove him? Or had he tired of the demands of a hotel life, conducting at the same time the wheelwright's shop? Whatever the reason, he left Aldgate to take up land at Yangya near Gladstone. There he continued to be the same happy-go-lucky Joseph Borrett.

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Last modified: Saturday, 21 January 2006

 


 
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