Fred Johnson (1907-2001)
Fred Johnson worked on the Parliament House construction site in the mid-1920s. After the Parliament House was opened in 1927, he joined the parliamentary staff, working in the building until his retirement in 1967, when he was Deputy Principal Attendant and Keeper of the Mace. Born in Sydney in 1907, he died at Queanbeyan in 2001.
Interview with Fred Johnson
M Bourke: This is tape identification. This is an interview Mr Fred Johnson at Old Parliament House on 7th November 1995. It is being done by Max Bourke.
So when did you actually first start work here?
F Johnson: 1924 — My brother — I first came to Canberra in the early part of 1924 and my father, he was a builder by trade, a carpenter. He was employed on a carpentry job with Hoskins, the steel founding people. Anyway when that job was completed old Charlie said to him, ‘Harry what now?’. So dad said ‘It’s a bit quiet’, so old Charlie said ‘There’s a job here for you Harry’. My father said ‘I don’t know anything about steel’, old Charlie said ‘If you’re any good you’ll soon learn, and I think you can’. But, he finished up as a foreman for him for a number of years.
Then the boom started after the ’14-18 war and there was quite good money to be made up around the Griffith and Leeton area with soldier’s cottages. Griffith, that’s how he came to move up there. When he got himself settled down I followed up, but as far as accommodation was concerned it just wasn’t there. So what we had to do was, when we came down here was the tradesman’s mess. The only accommodation we had, no comfortable bedrooms, but we went under canvas.
M Bourke: This was you and your father was it?
F Johnson: Yes, my father and myself, anyway, under canvas with the temperature down about, well minus anything up to about eleven degrees. Our amenities block consisted of galvanised iron around and chip heaters for any hot water.
M Bourke: Where was that, at Ainslie? Where was the mess located?
F Johnson: Where the American Embassy is, as you go past the first turn to the left that goes down into that hollow. It was a beautiful spot to live, but as time went on the family were going to come down from Sydney to Canberra. As far as …
M Bourke: You’d left school by then?
F Johnson: Yes, I left school. When I first went to — there was some choristers wanted for the St Andrew’s Cathedral Choir, anyway I made representation, which they granted. Old Walter Massey back in those days, he was the — you might have heard of Massey back in those early days. I finished up I was able to satisfy them but there was every possibility that I would be alright. Anyway, not only the choir but it gave us access to the education system back in those days. Anyway, I stayed there. I suppose I had about the best part about nine years at St Andrew’s Cathedral.
That was when the ’14-’18 war was on. I used to watch the troops. We used to watch the troops in front of the cathedral that were marching down towards the wharves to go overseas. I always remember there was one of the soldiers going by with the Australian flag with lots of signatures on it. He looked at me, ‘He said, for you son’. He gave me the card.
Anyway, McEwan’s were business people in the tariff game in Sydney. The father back in those days, ‘cause it was all flat top lorries. He sent a lot around so as to take us kids around the city for it. Well, it was after the ’14-’18 war that I — actually the family started to move to Griffith. So you had Canberra, earlier still was Griffith, there was nothing at Griffith either. There was nothing there, as far as the accommodation was concerned and when the family came up, it consisted of four tents and a tent for the kitchen. There was no laid on water.
M Bourke: That was in Griffith or Canberra?
F Johnson: That was in Griffith and Canberra, not much better as far as the facilities were concerned, because here the cooking facilities were in — the ovens were those brick ovens that used to roll some logs into the ovens and by the time it was ready to go to bed that night, put a match to it and it would heat these ovens up ready for the days cooking. As you can see there, my father organised a committee that they employed the cooks and also to pay for the food stuffs. Whatever it was they used to strike a levy from the men to pay for the — well we stayed there until my father built — In the first place when we were able to get a place in Queanbeyan, which we did. Then it was backwards and forwards by either pushbike or the sulky.
M Bourke: Which year did you actually come to Canberra?
F Johnson: My father, earlier in 1923 and I came here in ’24.
M Bourke: And what did you do when you first came here? You worked on this site?
F Johnson: Actually the first job I had to help out — my father was the president of the mess and the cooks had a row, they cleared out. As far as the food was concerned, my father said — we got hold of a cook, and of course, I’d learnt a bit about cooking in Marool [?] House in Griffith, and that helped along that we were able — until we got cooks into it, into the kitchen, that we had to more-or-less put up with what there was. That was the situation.
We had a home in Queanbeyan and at this particular time my father was working on these cottages at the Causeway which is still there and all these workmen’s cottages down at the — in the mess here. Well, it was about that time that there were positions going on the workforce here.
M Bourke: Tell me what Old Parliament House looked like at that time?
F Johnson: Parliament House was more-or-less sitting in a desert. As you can see in those pictures, devoid of everything. So as far as Parliament House was concerned it was a case of starting from tors to build it up. I was only a youth at the time, possibly somewhere about seventeen, or eighteen, whatever it was. Sir John Butters, [inaudible name], chap by the name of Harrison, they were the administrators of the commission, and they opened up their offices as a wing at the Hotel Canberra. My brother Wilfred, he was selected as one from the schools — they wanted someone who would be relied upon to work in that office and that’s where he went. Anyway, we had problems with the …
M Bourke: What did you do yourself?
F Johnson: Where, in here? As far as the house is concerned there were several jobs around the house but I finished up — where you’ve got the motor, the garage down below, that was a big storeroom there with all the fittings of every description that you could possibly imagine there. It was my job, as far as the foreman and whoever it might be in charge, they used whatever fittings they wanted. It had to be sanctioned by one of the foreman and he’d bring it down. I’d take note of what it was and he’d collect it and take it up again.
M Bourke: That was in 1923 was it?
F Johnson: Well, no I’d say about 1924 because it was barely up, it hadn’t reached that stage. When they started it was like …
M Bourke: How much was built by that stage?
F Johnson: It was practically on foundations, on the foundations, these bods turning the concrete over with shovels, because as I said before there was no electric mixers, or ready mixtures, it all had to be done by hand. So it was the case, it was like that coat of arms. You know the coat of arms in the Senate? You know the Australian coat of arms?
Anyway, we had some very, very competent Italian tradesmen, good joiners, they were wizards on locks into the place. Anyway, Tony and his mate was selected to erect this Australian coat of arms. Anyway, he came down to the stores and he said ‘What do you know Fred?’. I said ‘What’s the matter Tony?’. He said ‘That coat of arms that we put up in the Senate Chamber, they said, seeing the two bloody foreigners put it up, they can pull it down and there’s going to be two other selected to put it up’. They did, they took it down, and they selected these two men. Tony said ‘And who do you think put it up Fred?’ I said ‘Who’, he said ‘They still got two bloody foreigners, two Scotsman’, that was the situation, what was there.
M Bourke: So did you work there from 1924 until the building opened?
F Johnson: Yes, I did, when the new building opened, they offered me a position, which I gratefully accepted because, as I said, that as far as the House is concerned. I enjoyed what I did. I liked the environment of it and that’s what I wanted to do.
M Bourke: Were you here on the opening day on 9th May 1927?
F Johnson: I was, I was here on the open day because they selected the foreman on the job, my father was one of them. It was our job to more-or-less walk around and if there was some problem that needed attention, we knew exactly where to go and they’d go up and rectify it, and that was what it was. Yes, I went right until the building was opened …
M Bourke: Tell me on the opening day where were you? Were you reasonably close to the ceremony at all?
F Johnson: Me, I’ll tell you where my position was, up on the room, where that guttering went around. I had a magnificent view. It was like Dame Nellie Melba at the rehearsal. The Queanbeyan band was out here to play the anthem and what have you …
M Bourke: This was the day before or something like that?
F Johnson: Yes, anyway the rehearsal was underway and of course the band on top note and she put up her hand to stop. Now, she said, ‘Either the band is going to play the national anthem, or I’m going to sing it, but I’m not going to compete’ and that’s exactly what happened. So the problem wasn’t there when — on the opening day.
M Bourke: I heard though that when she was singing it the planes flew over and drowned her out.
F Johnson: Oh well, I mean to say, as far — it was a terrific crowd of people. I wouldn’t say about drowning her out, because as I say my position was up on the roof and I was practically looking around it, apart from that I was doing the rounds, around the building. The other big problem …
M Bourke: Tell me what the day was like? What sort of day was it?
F Johnson: It was a beautiful day. They had quite a big force of army personnel and others that came up here for the opening but the trouble is no accommodation, so where they put them, in tents. It was a great stinking frost. I thought to myself, I know what you’re going through because I’d been through it myself. Anyway, when the sun broke through it was one of the most glorious days you could imagine could happen. The entourage was here, as far as the chappies that were sleeping under tents, they forgave all the inconveniences because they enjoyed it that same as everybody else.
M Bourke: You told me when we spoke on the phone that you think you were the first person to sit in the Speaker’s Chair.
F Johnson: Yes, [where’s that?] and I said I’ve got a photograph to prove it [… no, not that one. It’s in there somewhere]
M Bourke: So this is a photo of you sitting as what, as about an eighteen year old, a nineteen year old …
F Johnson: Yes, that’s right — now you can see the state of the Chamber, it wasn’t finished, there was the top not on the table, but this …
M Bourke: It was a pretty cheeky thing to do, to get up into the Speaker’s Chair.
F Johnson: Well, I mean to say, after all, you’ve got wait until your asked. Now this Les Dwyer he ran the — he was more or less an amateur photographer, and of course, back in those days the labourers didn’t carry cameras, anybody. So Les said to me tomorrow morning Fred I’m going to bring the photo over and you’re going to be the first one to get your photo taken in the chair. That was the original and I had it blown up a little bit there.
M Bourke: So did you actually see the chair, that was installed in 1926 wasn’t it?
F Johnson: Somewhere around that period of time.
M Bourke: It was the same time that they planted the trees in the courtyard.
F Johnson: I saw the trees planted.
M Bourke: Did you, tell me about that, because next year we’re replanting them, because they’ve grown too old and some of them are dying.
F Johnson: That’s true and all that, what’s-his-name was, it was — that was Harry, my brother, down here. Harry, he was a born caterer. He was the manager of the refreshment rooms here and Alan Tregear, did you know Alan?
M Bourke: No.
F Johnson: He was one of the clerk assistants. Tregear, of course, the dining rooms had never had a balance sheet. The cost, they never, ever had a satisfactory audit, or result. Anyway, Harry, with his experience, he used to run the hotel at Civic and also at Canberra. He said to me ‘Fred would you …’ this was when Harry was in the air force and when demob came this letter that I wrote to him, he said that when he came back he’d come over and see Tregear about the job. The situation at the time as far as Harry was concerned, he finished up in-charge of all the catering at Richmond in Sydney. He also finished up as Messing Officer of the northern area and you can just imagine how many troops that entailed. He also had the rank, I suppose, the pay side of it, as well as anything else, but his love of catering …
M Bourke: He came back here did he?
F Johnson: Yes, when he came back to Australia he decided that when he came over and had a yarn, because Tregear was Secretary of the Joint House and they were the ones that had the management of the refreshment room. He finished up as an Acting Squadron Leader, with his rank, but there was nothing to beat him. He was a man that disliked roguery and that type of thing, couldn’t tolerate it. Nobody thieving either, because they found in the refreshment rooms things weren’t going as well as what they should. The first thing, of course, Harry had a list, after he made his enquiries, and he had somebody write on the top of the [inaudible] ready for them to go. The place wanted cleaning up. So he said this little bloke, he said ‘I want you to get some buckets and mops, and get to bloody work and clean this place up’. This bloke said, he said ‘I’m here to look after the bar. I’m not a bloody cleaner’. So he said, ‘Well, if that’s the case, you better go down to Joint House Department and pick your salary up’, of course he argued the point a bit. Anyway, marched off, and he came back shortly afterwards and he said ‘Sorry boss, I was a bit hasty’. ‘Keep on going’ said Harry, got rid of him and a few more.
M Bourke: But go back, tell me, in 1926 when they planted the trees …
F Johnson: Oh yes that’s right.
M Bourke: … tell me about that.
F Johnson: Well the situation of the trees, that was by the Empire Parliamentary association …
M Bourke: That’s right.
F Johnson: … that came out. It was that same body, of course, that made the presentation to the House. Well, they were only a little bit striplings at the time. They found as far as the poplar was concerned that in the autumn, the autumn looked beautiful — they never clean those leaves from the poplar up because they thought the colour — little kids used to get down amongst it and bury in the leaves, so that’s how it came.
M Bourke: You were there when they planted them, were you?
F Johnson: Yes, I saw them plant it. There was another, I mean to say, at the present time, here within the building itself, and you’ve still got problems with roots have you?
M Bourke: Sure do.
F Johnson: Yes, well, back in those early days, they only had — when it was first laid they laid it with a top material — now what do they call …
M Bourke: Malthoid
F Johnson: Malthoid that’s right, anyway, they had this malthoid over it but there is one thing on the foundations they didn’t put in, was a felt to absorb the moisture. Well, it finished up. It used to come up in bubbles and Sammy Sampson one of the Senators, he went for a walk up around the roof. I was up there when the party was there, and Sammy said, of course he was a ’14-’18 man, he said ‘You know Fred this is just like walking over dead Germans’ you know with the bubbles on the roof.
My father, they had the same trouble over in the Post Office, over here, he thought at the time the only way to fix it was to put a low hip roof, so you’ve got the parapet there, that you couldn’t see over, and they thought they’d do the same on this roof. Because as far as the material is concerned they tried all sorts of things to try and cut those fault bits out. Then they went over the whole lot of it with pebbles. I think they might, the pebbles might be still around, up there under the iron.
So, that was the situation but up to that particular time that I remember it looked like as if it was going to be continual burden, because as far as the roof was concerned when it had this low hip roof over it, it had those little walkways through them to get on. To what extent at the present time …
M Bourke: Oh it’s still bad, there is still little low hip roofs over it but we are gradually repairing the roofs, particularly as we take things like the extensions to the press gallery off we’ll repair the roofs when we do that.
F Johnson: Yes, as far as weight is concerned, it’s not actually weight, but it was the way it was constructed. It should never had had that malthoid on it because, you’ve got such a big variation in temperatures, that she can be up and she can be down, like a thermometer, and that was the reason. Any great span there that is at fault?
M Bourke: No, I don’t think so. I think it’s just the expansion. It’s like you say, the expansion of the …
F Johnson: Oh yes, of temperatures …
M Bourke: Yes
F Johnson: … the bubbles came out and it reminded Sammy of walking over the dead German’s bodies.
M Bourke: Tell me, when you actually started work in the House, in 1927 did you?
F Johnson: Yes.
M Bourke: When the parliament opened.
F Johnson: Yes.
M Bourke: You started in 1927.
F Johnson: Yes.
M Bourke: Working on the staff of the House?
F Johnson: Yes, well I started with the Joint House for a while but not for very long, because I had a fairly good knowledge of the building. It wasn’t long. Later on in my career here I could have taken — they wanted me to take the House Keeper’s job on and I thought to myself, now Freddie, if you do that you’re not going to work in it all day, but you’re going to work in it all night too, and always on the job. We used to do a stint of security around the place, have a gun on your belly, on your hip pocket, and you had a key and these clocks. Have they still got the clocks for fire station?
M Bourke: No.
F Johnson: You’ve got rid of those did you?
M Bourke: They went a long time ago I think.
F Johnson: Did they, anyway, we had the key. Singly you’d have to walk around this building, plus in that garage area at the time, and if you didn’t click the clocks the fire-brigade would come up, just because you missed one, they used to fine you.
M Bourke: Tell me when did you work here until? When did you retire?
F Johnson: ’68 was it, was it ’69 – ‘67.
M Bourke: ’67, yes, and you remained as an attendant working in different parts of the building all that time.
F Johnson: Yes, well I finished up, as I say, we used to have different sections that we were responsible for. As I say, Records Rooms and the offices along the corridor up to the Opposition, up to the Ministerial side of it, and I eventually became in charge of the House of Representatives.
M Bourke: So you saw not only all of the additions added onto the building too over the years, all the changes when they added the wings on the sides …
F Johnson: Yes.
M Bourke: … and the press gallery on the top …
F Johnson: Well that’s true.
M Bourke: … that was all done, pretty well before ’67.
F Johnson: Back in those days Minister’s weren’t permitted, they didn’t have offices within the building. Even their Cabinet meetings — the Cabinet meetings were held over in West Block and the rest of their department, your Minister for whatever it was, that is where you had your …
M Bourke: Your office.
F Johnson: … your office there. Until they started — of course the press weren’t allowed here — Archie Cameron, one of the former Speakers, Archie they used to have to pay, more or a less, of a pittance of a rental for the place. I think it was him that reached the stage when, as far as the pittance was concerned, he did away with that and told them, I could kick you out at an hours’ notice.
As far as also the dining room, we had some very, very good journalists here. Joe Alexander was one of the shining lights. Joe, if you went into a Minister’s office and you wanted to see him about — the first thing a Minister would do was turn it over — because he could read it upside down just the same as what you could read, that’s a fact. On one occasion the Minister, PMG Minister – McLaughlin? - no - anyway the PMG Minister, of course they used to allow the reporters up near the Prime Minister’s rooms. I could never understand it because, I thought in my opinion, they should be kept way. They were just like watch-dogs. As soon as a Minister would come along, they would rush along, wanting some information. Anyway, Joe Alexander was a man that was always very, very well dressed, but he had a bit of a gammy leg and he used to limp a bit. Anyway, he sees the Minister, the PMG Minister coming along towards the Cabinet Room, and Joe like a rocket shot down. When McLaughlin saw him, of course there was a bit of something going on in that particular department, that wasn’t good. So when he got up to the Minister, the Minister took a step back and looked at Joe from the point, he said, ‘Joe a study in grey’. Joe Alexander said to him, ‘Sir to hell with your compliments, it’s news I want’.
M Bourke: Make ‘em wait.
F Johnson: Well that gave them an opportunity to open the Cabinet Room door and get out of his way, but that was the problem. Not only with the pressmen, but you know up where the old bar was, there was a little room just off the bar, as you come up along the verandah, through this little room into the bar. There were some of the senior journalists that would make arrangements for some of his staff, they used to be permitted to drink over there. Later on my brother was the instigator of having them stopped from drinking there, they had to go down to the non-members bar.
M Bourke: The journalists used to be allowed to drink up next door to the members bar.
F Johnson: Yes, with the door open, and of course, when one came off there was another one just like a chook going onto the roost, not the roost, into the nest. Anyway, they finished up, as I say, my brother couldn’t stand dishonesty and he reported it to the Speaker and told him exactly what was going on and with examination that is exactly what was going on. He said ‘Henceforth, press no longer permitted to go to that top room, they go down to the members bar’, but where the Opposition Party Room is, as you know, they used to get up there on the parapet they used to lean over and they could hear every word that went on in that Party Room. I finished up. I put a guard up there and — with the permission of the Serjeant of Arms and they weren’t permitted to hang over the rails.
Another joke was, where the Speakers Quarters were, there used to be little lounge close to there and they used to squat in there, of course they could hear everything coming out of the Party Room because there was no way of stopping it. Anyway, I mentioned this matter to the Whip, took the seat away and they couldn’t stay there any longer. So in a way that helped to tidy things up and not allow.
I always remember the Serjeant of Arms, this was Kerry Packer’s father, they always — journalists of every description were supposed to go to the Sergeant of Arms to get a Gallery Pass, to be permitted. So Doug Blake, have you ever met Doug? Anyway, he was Sergeant of Arms and he sees this stranger up in the Gallery, no he must have known him. He said to me ‘Fred, that’s Kerry’s father, Packer. Now’, he said ‘I want you to go around and inform him that he never came down to get a Gallery Pass for the press gallery’. I said ‘Sergeant, ‘As far as I’m concerned, he’s a bit too big for me’, because Packer, if you can imagine, he could unlock any doors around the place and go in …
M Bourke: This was Sir Frank?
F Johnson: Sir Frank, yes Sir Frank.
M Bourke: He wanted you to go and tell him …
F Johnson: Yes, anyway, he decided to go up himself. One of the boys in the Gallery, that was Stan, near Packer. Packer turned around to Blakie and he said ‘You’ve got bloody little to do, haven’t you’. Didn’t worry, because I mean to say, as far as any Minister is concern, he would have been quite welcome to go in there and squat in the chair. But that was Sir Frank.
One of the other instance was ‘Save Our Sons’, would you remember that, Vietnam veterans? You’ll remember it.
Anyway, they had a delegation came up to interview the Prime Minister. When they came up they had placards nearly as big as that, addressed to Right Hon. R. G. Menzies and on the side they’d say Save Our Sons, and that was the what’s-the-name. When they got up into the gallery and that side gallery was full of these ladies. As soon as they got up there, and they had banners that runs around. The placards facing down towards the Chamber and the Sergeant said ‘Fred you better go up and see what you can do about it. Either hand the placards to you or conceal them’. So I went up and explained the situation. I said, ‘I’m only, my instructions have come from the Sergeant of Arms and his message was, that you either conceal them or you give them to me for custody’. Anyway, I got some of them, but not all of them. But the rest of them they did abide by that decision and they put the placards down. Well, when I said to the Sergeant, I said, ‘Well when they come down I’ll watch for the chairman, the leader of the delegation to come down’. I said ‘How about those placards we give them back’ and he said ‘Righto’. So met them just as they came down into the Kings Hall. I had the placards and I said to the chairman of this committee. I said ‘I very, very appreciate what you did this afternoon’. I said ‘I very much appreciate it and brought the placards to give you back’ and as far as cooperation was concerned. We’re not usually as bloody, we’re not usually as cooperative as this, but still it worked out alright.
I won’t mention names …
M Bourke: Why not? Just tell me, we’re standing now in the Party Room.
F Johnson: Well this is the Ministerial Room. This is where the members, this is where they had their party meetings and one thing and another. They had their lockers over here on this wall. Did you pull them out?
M Bourke: No.
F Johnson: You don’t remember. Anyway, any mail, some of them, they were very methodical, some of them, if there was different sections of legislation that some of them were interested in, they used to have a file, their file there. Some of these members that looked after this sort of thing, they had their files in the cupboard so they could come from the Party Room, come from the House, come from the House, whip up the file and into the Chamber. Billy Hughes was the same down in his room.
Well, this member came into me one night, he said, ‘Fred I want you to come down to the Party Room for a moment’. I came down and here and you never saw such a bloody mess in all of your life, as what was here. A couple of them, you know, a few beers under the belt, or more than a couple of beers, but nothing would suit them better than to go through these lockers, pulling the papers out and just throw it around the room just like confetti. You never saw such a mess in your life. So he said to me ‘What are you going to do about it Fred’. I said, ‘ I can’t do anything about it, because’ I said ‘I’ll report it to the Serjeant of Arms and he’ll take it up with the Speaker’, but I said, ‘You know, the ring leader of this particular instance, he had his room here’ I said ‘you know where it is. Now’ I said, ‘if it was me, I’d be inclined to go into his room, into his draws’ because you only have to lift the window up and tip it all down from the table into the fish pond down below. I said ‘Well that’s up to you’. Anyhow, I told the Speaker and he came down and had a look at it.
This Charlie Adaman, of course, I was on — it wasn’t while I was on transport, but it was on one occasion that — four o’clock in the afternoon the buses would be ready to go down to the 4.15 train. He was talking and talking and …
M Bourke: Just let me stop you there. At that time the Members used to come out and catch the bus over to the railway station.
F Johnson: That’s true, yes.
M Bourke: Tell me …
F Johnson: There was no cars because, even Fairbairn and Street, you know what their reputation was, Fairbairn used to come over and bring his plane over from Melbourne. Hawker from South Australia. They were the three that used to come over on the plane. He’d come over here, he’d said a wire to say they were arriving at such-and-such a time. I’d be out there I had a Ford Coupe with a little dicky seat, do you remember the dicky seat at the back?
Anyway, Hawker always had the front seat on the count of his disability.
M Bourke: This was in their own plane was it?
F Johnson: Fairbairn’s own plane.
M Bourke: He used to fly himself?
F Johnson: Oh yes, he was, he was an Air Force man, a distinguished.
M Bourke: He used to go out to the strip there …
F Johnson: He’d give me a ring because there was no taxis to go, there was no Ministerial cars, or cars to go out to members, it was all bus transfer. Anyhow, when I got out there, whatever time he reckons he’d be here, it was pretty short after it. Well, what he used to do when he came in. We’d push the plane into the hanger, the empty one out there, when it was time to go home again, he’d let me know and we’d board — Hawker would sit in the front seat, Street and Fairbairn would sit in the dicky seat. I had a trailer that I used to put the luggage in to bring it over.
Anyway, going home, get out on the drone and he always carried his own fuel with him. He’d have his funnels and he used to always have sponges that he’d poor the petrol through, as he said, any globule of water there it would rest it. So, anyway, we’d get him organised and the same thing would apply the next time they came down.
Well, this particular day I said ‘Where’s Mr Hawker?’, he said ‘he couldn’t come, he was delayed and couldn’t get away and is coming down on the service plane’. Ansett or whoever it was used to have a plane in those days. I did I got a telegram from him to say what he was doing, but on the way over the hills of Adelaide, crashed, killed him. He was in such a state. The House was sitting and no other room, no other — it meant as far as Hawker was concerned, he wasn’t able to keep that appointment.
M Bourke: We might move on out to the Members Dining Room.
F Johnson: Yes — cars, during the committee stages …
M Bourke: This is Sir Littleton Groom.
F Johnson: That’s true — but Groom said from the time when he first took the Chair over, before he went into the Chair on this occasion, when they wanted him it was Sir Earle Page and who was the other did I say? Page it would have been Menzies, Menzies. They went around to the Speakers quarters, they hammered him to break it up and get him to come in for the division. Anyway, he said, he refused and he did refuse because he stood on the step and said ‘As long as I’m Speaker I will be impartial, and I will never, while I am Speaker, leave the Chair to vote for any party’. But what happened to him at next election, didn’t get the pre-selection, they talk about impartiality of the Speaker, that doesn’t exist. But that was Groom. I know that Ming they hammered him to try and get him to come in and he said, ‘No I gave my word’ and that’s what it was.
M Bourke: Tell me that again.
F Johnson: This section here is where, was my little domain here.
M Bourke: We’re standing in the House of Representative now, and this is where the attendants …
F Johnson: Well, in the box here, because on this other side, my eldest son, when they put these broadcasting booths in, he built these in. As I said, I don’t like mentioning members, but I always remember on one occasion that the pairs within the party. They’ve got a pairs book, as far as the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, if one leaves the Chamber during the course of a vote, the other one goes to a neutral corner. Anyway, on this particular occasion the neutral corner was here. It was — is Mr Whitlam coming to this show?
M Bourke: No.
F Johnson: We won’t relate it to him. I think it was credit to him for what he said. He said to me, in conversation about government. He said, ‘Fred, as far as government is concerned, Opposition never defeat governments, they defeat themselves’. He said ‘In our case’, he said ‘we’ve been in the wilderness for twenty-six years’. He said ‘We’ve formulated a lot of policy. I know it’s not going to all reach the statute books but’, he said ‘some of it will. But’, he said ‘that is the situation of the present time. If we don’t do what we say we’re going to do’ he said ‘the ballot box will tell the story’. Now, that was Whitlam, but that’s between …
M Bourke: Yes.
F Johnson: But, that was — up goes the Mace — if the Serjeant of Arms wasn’t in I’d go and pick the Mace up and take it around to the quarters. As you can see with that, when the Speaker and the Serjeant took the Mace down they used to hand me the Mace and I used to put it to bed.
M Bourke: We’re standing in front of the portrait, the painting of the opening of Parliament House in 1927. This, of course, they didn’t paint in, the artist took out all the people who were standing up, including you, up on the top there.
F Johnson: That’s true.
M Bourke: There are photos of it with all the people standing up on the top.
F Johnson: Yes, well actually, I was actually where the guttering went around. That was a beautiful position because I missed nothing.
M Bourke: There was a huge here.
F Johnson: Oh there was, yes. See then Gracie, was it Gracie Fields …
M Bourke: Nellie Melba
F Johnson: No, later on there was one — who was the other one Gracie Field and who was the other one, Kate, no not Kate Smith, I’ll think of it later.
M Bourke: Standing outside the old Member’s Dining Room where the card rooms used to be, isn’t it. It’s where the card rooms used to be. That’s the Member’s Dining Room itself.
F Johnson: No, I’ll show it to you. This was more or less their lounge room here. This is where they gave me my reception when I was retiring.
M Bourke: Right, we’re in the old Member’s Dining Room …
F Johnson: Yes, it was more or less or a lounge room.
M Bourke: … just outside the bar.
F Johnson: Yes.
M Bourke: We’ve made toilets out of this one here …
F Johnson: Oh yes.
M Bourke: But the rooms you’re talking about are just here I think. There’s a small room in there and then the larger …
F Johnson: Yes, I know. Here were the chairs here. You could [inaudible] you know when they might get a few under their belt and of course the volume would rise.
M Bourke: And these were journalists who used to come in here.
F Johnson: Yes.
M Bourke: And they’d be served out of the bar …
F Johnson: No, they weren’t allowed. The waiter used to come through. No, they wouldn’t be permitted to go into the bar, that was definitely not on.
M Bourke: No, I know, but they were sitting here and someone would bring them …
F Johnson: Sitting here because they had the tables. It’s funny, just a few, but they were permitted, not only to sit here, which was the prime spot, but also there was tables up on the verandah but they wouldn’t be sitting in there if they can get anywhere they could hear the stories.
M Bourke: Do you remember using the bar much?
F Johnson: Who? Me?
M Bourke: Yes.
F Johnson: Yes, I know the bar well. Yes, right on the ground floor before you walk out and where the garden is across the road. Anyway, this Alf Backley was a masseur, and he was a very good one to. He used to come up here, more-or-less as an attendant to Billy, as a masseur. I had to go in to Billy’s room and when I opened the door and walked in, where the desk is, Billy had his back — his arms down, supporting him, and Alf was doing his back. As I walked in he said ‘Hold it Freddie. I’ll take a picture’ his little bottom sticking out.
Billy used to go — he used to like a game of golf, but lose the ball. Rather than have him looking for the ball they’d take one out of their bag, ‘Here it is Mr Hughes ‘— ‘Not my bloody ball, but I’ll have it’. He used to send Alf down to the golf course with a little map to try and find this ball, where it was. It finished up Alf said, ‘I had him’ in future when he said he lost the ball and Billy had given him a little map where he thought he’d lost it. Alf would say, Hughes would come out and he’d have it in his pocket that he nicked out of Billy’s golf bag, and he’d say ‘Oh Mr Hughes I found that golf ball, and an excellent map it was too, particularly where you thought it might be’.
M Bourke: Let me just turn the sound off.
F Johnson: When my brother was here I used to get an invitation occasionally to come over for lunch with him, but his table was always there after the ministers finished, or at lunchtime. But there was a big sideboard, or — was that here when you?
M Bourke: We took that out, and of course, this was all — out here was all closed in
F Johnson: Yes, that’s true.
M Bourke: You’ll remember that was closed in so we’ve reopened. This is exactly as it was in 1927 …
F Johnson: That’s a fact.
M Bourke: … then they put a sideboard and then they built outside the servery, all the servery was out the back there, where the maids used to bring the food in from.
F Johnson: Not during my time, no.
M Bourke: Just on the back, out there, was closed in …
F Johnson: Oh yes, I see what you mean.
M Bourke: Food came up in a dumb waiter from down in the kitchen.
F Johnson: Yes, but the trouble was, Harry, as the new Parliament House, at the present time, as far as the level was concerned that meant the cooks here had to — they still got the dumb waiter going down?
M Bourke: No, the kitchen’s on this floor now just out through there.
F Johnson: Is it, yes, well they’ve made that mistake in the new Parliament House, about where the kitchen is, but that means you had to have a man out here giving instructions, and you had to have another one down in the kitchen.
M Bourke: Do you remember the building when it first opened like this?
F Johnson: No, well, as far as I can remember, back as far as that sideboard because the main servery was here. There was one — Digger Dunn one of the members. He was very, very fond of ox tail and Digger Dunn said to him, he said, ‘I’d like some ox tail and’ he said, ‘would you mind asking the chef can I have the thick end of the ox tail’. When he came out and gave that order to the chef. He said ‘You ask Digger Dunn does he think the ox has got a tail similar to a bloody giraffe’s neck’ [laughs]. The thick end he wanted, so he reckons that the oxen doesn’t work the same way.
M Bourke: Walking up here now into what was the billiard room up further here.
F Johnson: That was the billiard room, but where — the what’s the name, Burt Fields it was back in those days, where the sideboard was, they used to have fruit plates. If they wanted fruit they used to organise the fruit to the customer. This Bruce Mathews he was the greatest sleight-of-hand-man that you could strike. He’d be talking to Fields, without any to do he’d just walk away with a bloody plate of food, but Fields could never catch him, yes.
Yes, this was definitely the billiard room, and what are you going to make of that?
M Bourke: It’s going to be part of the dining room now. Well it’s last few years it was always used as a dining room too.
F Johnson: Has it.
M Bourke: When I came here to work in the early 1970s, after you’d retired this was a dining room, this part by then.
F Johnson: Yes, well the billiard room and, of course, those private dining rooms were at the back here a bit further on.
M Bourke: Yes.
F Johnson: They had a servery in this corner here.
M Bourke: That’s right.
F Johnson: Where that used to come up, but it looks beautiful.
M Bourke: The interview with Fred Johnson ended there with a walk through of the newly refurbished members dining room. That’s the end of the interview at 4.30 pm on 7th 11th.
M Bourke: I mean to say, at least, as time goes on, as I see it now. I was very, very pleased to think that they retained it because it should. This man did a lot of work for the new Parliament House, ‘But Fred’ he said ‘It will never be like the Old Parliament House’.
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