A treasure of memories

THERE are two kinds of people in this world – hoarders and chuckers – and Larry Foley is most definitely in the former category.

Books, photographs, paintings, letters, furniture, piles of stuff that represent 90 years of loving-accumulation take up every last square inch of his Bellevue Terrace home.

In fact, it is more like a personal museum amassed by force of habit rather than any set purpose.

As its benign curator, Larry has a story to tell about everything that I pick up.

Groaning tables and shelves surround his favourite easy chair, stimulating his extraordinary memory.

A recent stroke has slowed him down a bit and it will be a while before he holds court again at his favourite haunt Gino’s, but his good humour is irrepressible.

Larry was introduced to the rough and tumble of pre-war life in Fremantle when he lost his father George, in a car accident in 1936.

Bookie

A starting price bookie after he returned from WW I, George did most of his business with the lumpers who gave the town its robust, working class character.

Many of them were single men who lived in the warren of rooming houses in the lane off Henry Street.

Those were the days when there was a boxing ring at the back of the Federal Hotel and two-up schools behind the stacks of sandalwood on the wharves.

Fond of flash cars, George’s Buick straight-eight convertible had a dicky-seat reserved for the exclusive use of Larry and his young brother, Barney.

Skidding on the gravel on the way to see some friends in Armadale, George left behind an adoring family.

Faced with what must have been the greatest challenge of her life, Larry’s English-born mother decided to keep the business going at 50 High Street, where the Foleys continued to live over the betting shop.

With plenty of nous and a good head for figures, she did well enough to send the two boys and their sister away to school.

The four years that Larry spent with Barney at St Ildephons’s College, New Norcia, were crowded with study and sport: hockey and soccer during the week and Australian Rules on Saturday kept the boys happy and healthy.

He has nothing but praise for the headmaster during that time, Brother Ethelred from New South Wales, ‘the finest man I ever met’.

Impressed by the dedication of the Marists, he had to be talked out of entering their training college himself and becoming a teaching brother.

In 1946 when he was just 16, he joined Prevost & Co in Essex Street as an apprentice wool classer.

Its manager Bill Hughes, ‘the doyen of the wool business’, became his lifelong friend and mentor.

Signing up for a two-year wool-classing course at Perth Technical College, Larry did his three months practical training with a shearing team in a fourteen-stand shed at Manilya Station near Carnarvon:

‘Piece-picking in those days meant sorting five lines of pieces and brokens’. He tells me. ‘It was the hardest I’d ever worked before or since’.

After receiving his probationery classer’s certificate in September 1950, he signed up for a season at Bidgemia in the Gascoyne.

Paid £16 a week with keep and tucker, he decided that the £50 a week he would get for shearing 700 sheep was a much better proposition.

Some people thought that his physique was too slight for him to be a shearer but Bob Sawlish, a gun shearer living near his family in Fremantle, encouraged him.

In the years that followed he worked with shearing teams in the Pilbara and the Kimberley.

Not only did it pay better, but shearing had an esprit de corps that appealed to him.

The way of life was something special. Shearers looked out for each other in this fraternal existence where mateship was all-important.

Competitive

At the same time, it was highly competitive work. ‘I was never ringer material myself’, he tells me, ‘150 a day was my average tally.’ He remembers one Aboriginal 16-year-old, however, who chalked up 300 in one day’s shearing. And then there was Albert (‘Albie’) Pandora Philips from Perenjori who was always well dressed in khaki drill and Panama hat and drove a flash new car.

Spending half the year away from home, Larry sent his pay to his mother for safe keeping. In those days, the sheds were not exactly dry (a bottle of beer a day was the alcohol ration) but there was very little to spend money on. Altogether, it was a fulfilling and happy time.

In 1959, Larry found himself in the wool-scouring business when Bill Hughes bought Swan Scouring in North Fremantle. “It was hard and constant work,” he remembers. ‘The wool boom meant that the scours were going seven days a week and twenty four hours a day’.

In 1965, Bill put him in charge of the company’s Melbourne operation where he relocated with his family. Returning to run the WA operation in 1981, he retired in 1990.

Always interested in painting, it was in Melbourne that Larry started going regularly to Joel’s art auctions and acquiring a sound practical knowledge of the art market.

Building up a modest art collection himself, his biggest coup was when he bought Sir Arthur Streeton’s iconic landscape Golden Summers for Bill Hughes from a pastoral family in Gippsland who kept it behind their settee.

Now the pride and joy of Canberra’s National Gallery, it captures the feeling of the Australian bush like no other painting.

Banjo

Not surprisingly, Larry relished the writings of Banjo Paterson and the other bush balladists of the Sydney Bulletin school.

And then there was the local poet and boxer Jack Sorenson, whose brilliant career was tragically cut short by his suicide on board a ship in Sydney Harbour.

Art valuing has been one of Larry’s big interests in retirement and his shrewd judgement is highly respected by people who have dealt with him.

He shows me his favourite painting of an Aboriginal beauty that was given to him by his artist neighbour Alan Baker, many years ago.

Larry is an open-hearted soul who radiates bonhomie, supported loyally and lovingly by Peggy, his wife of 66 years, and their family of eight children and goodness knows how many grandchildren and great-grandchildren who regularly troop in and out of the house.

One of his few disappointments is that today’s youth don’t feel the call of the WA bush in the way that people of his generation did:

‘They don’t know what they are missing’, he says. ‘I have never regretted one single moment in the sheds: the camaraderie and work ethic remain forever.’

by BOB REECE

One response to “A treasure of memories

  1. What a lovely piece on Larry. You have captured him, it is nice read articles like this as it captures the more recent history and the way life was not that long ago.

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