My bro in Australia recently emailed an inspiring story to his siblings here in New Zealand about a little Aussie battler (battler: an ordinary person who perseveres through adversity). He thought that in these pandemic days, we could do with a little uplifting. I was immediately suspicious. My bro, although a decent enough man in his own way (one doesn’t get exuberant over one’s siblings; it’s simply not done) doesn’t normally ‘do’ warm and fuzzy. It’s possible that the snake bite he recently suffered may have altered his view on life, although that might only be my take on this new behaviour of his.
Anyway, he shared this story with us, even though he acknowledged that it puts his snake bite story in the shade. He’s now working on embellishing that. But it will still take a lot to beat this story about a boy and his horse companion –
LENNIE AND GINGER MICK
It’s 1932 and Australia is in the grip of the Great Depression. One in three workers are unemployed. Decrepit shanty towns hug the outskirts of the big cities. A scrawny rabbit caught in a trap will feed a family for a week. Country roads are filled with broken men walking from one farmhouse to another seeking menial jobs and food.
On the outskirts of the South Gippsland town of Leongatha, an injured farmer lies in bed unable to walk – or work. World War I hero Captain Leo Tennyson Gwyther is in hospital with a broken leg and the family farm is in danger of falling into ruins. Up steps his son, nine-year-old Lennie. With the help of his pony Ginger Mick, Lennie ploughs the farm’s 24 paddocks and keeps the place running until his father can get back on his feet.
How to reward him? Lennie has been obsessively following one of the biggest engineering feats of the era – the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. He wants to attend its opening. With great reluctance, his parents agree he can go. So Lennie saddles up Ginger Mick, packs a toothbrush, pyjamas, spare clothes and a water bottle into a sack, and begins the 1000+ kilometre (600+ miles) trek to Sydney. Alone.
That’s right. A nine year old boy riding a pony from the deep south of Victoria to the biggest and roughest city in the nation. Told you it was a different era. No social media. No mobile phones. But even then it doesn’t take long before word begins to spread about a boy, his horse and their epic trek. The entire populations of small country towns gather on their outskirts to welcome their arrival. They survive bushfires, are attacked by a “vagabond” and endure rain and cold, biting winds.
When they reach Canberra they are welcomed by Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, who invites Lennie into Parliament House for tea. When Lennie and Ginger Mick finally arrive in Sydney, more than 10,000 people line the streets to greet them. Lennie is besieged by autograph hunters. They become a key part of the official parade at the bridge’s opening, and are invited to make a starring appearance at the Royal Show. Even Donald Bradman, the biggest celebrity of the Depression era, requests a meeting and gives Lennie a signed cricket bat. A letter writer to The Sydney Morning Herald at the time gushes that “just such an example as provided by a child of nine summers, Lennie Gwyther was, and is, needed to raise the spirit of our people and to fire our youth and others to do things – not to talk only. “The sturdy pioneer spirit is not dead … let it be remembered that this little lad, when his father was in hospital, cultivated the farm – a mere child.”
When Lennie and Ginger Mick leave Sydney for home a month later, they have become a couple of the most famous figures in a country craving uplifting news. Large crowds wave handkerchiefs. Women weep and shout “goodbye”. According to The Sun newspaper, “Lennie, being a casual Australian, swung into the saddle and called ‘Toodleloo!’”. They finally arrive home to a tumultuous reaction in Leongatha. Lennie returns to school and soon life – and the country – return to normal.
These days you can find a bronze statue in Leongatha commemorating Lennie and Ginger Mick. But Australia has largely forgotten their remarkable feat – and how they inspired a struggling nation. Never taught about them in school? Never heard of them before? Spread the word. Lennie Gwyther and Ginger Mick’s courageous journey needs to be remembered.