On Phoenix Park with John Wright

“The river was the playground for me. All my mates in Morpeth would come to the farm and we’d swim in the river. We’d play in the river. We’d fish in the river”. 

John Wright is a farmer, broom maker, and former horse racer whose house is settled on the bank of the Hunter River, right next to historic Morpeth Bridge. He has lived here for all of his 80 years, as did four generations of his family before him. John still works every day and sells fresh honey, eggs, spuds, and spinach by the side of the road. In its heyday, Wrights Farm was the place locals came to for their fresh produce, with cars lined up around the block to fill their boots. One former resident tells me that she was “raised on John’s vegetables”.

I had visited John’s farm many times over the past few years but aside from the odd bit of small talk about the weather or growing tips for the tomato plants I purchased from him, I’d never had an in-depth conversation with the man and knew little of his background. When I finally sat down with him one Friday morning, I expected a casual chat about growing millet and life by the river, but we spent most of our time together talking about surviving the historic 1955 floods and John’s fear that such an event may happen again. He tells me that minor floods in the area are frequent and while they have learned to withstand most of them, a big one is destined to come and it could be catastrophic given how urbanised the landscape has become. It’s a grim portent, but a reality that local producers and residents must face.

Despite this forecast, the floods and droughts he has already endured, and the shocking degradation of the river that he has witnessed, John is a contented and gregarious person who speaks fondly about his family’s long connection to the region, the history of neighbouring town Morpeth, and his hopes that his children and grandchildren will continue the Wright legacy.

Promotional postcards of Morpeth.
Courtesy of the Morpeth Museum Collection.

You grew up on this farm, which is right next to the Morpeth Bridge and the Hunter River. How far back does your family history here go?

It goes back to 1837. I’m the fifth generation, so originally it was my great, great, great Grandfather, who was also named John. His father was a man named Joseph who as 17-year-old lad in London was apprehended for having in his possession 109 pounds of lead. He told the police that he found it on the side of the road and he was taking it home to advertise it. They didn’t believe him, of course, and he was tried in the Old Bailey in London and given seven years of hard labor. He spent four of those years in the hulk of an old ship. That was the gaol in those days. After those four years, he was put on the first fleet and came out here on the Scarborough. He spent the rest of his sentence, three years, working in Sydney. His wife-to-be, Eleanor, came out on the second fleet. She had stolen an article of clothing and was given three years of hard labor. They met in Sydney and Captain Philip gave them permission to marry. They were given a grant of land, 30 acres to farm at Picton, near Windsor, and they went on to have seven children. Three of their sons came to Morpeth in 1836 on the boats. Joseph had a job with the government as an overseer and he led a team of convicts to clear Phoenix Park, that’s the farm area here just opposite Morpeth. They had to clear 1,400 acres of bush. They were locked up in sheds overnight and they were in chains during the day.

How did this plot of land come into your family’s possession?

Most of the land here was granted to the McDonalds, a very wealthy family in Maitland. They owned most of everything from Maitland to Dungog. John, while working with these convicts, realised how good the land they had cleared was and he leased this farm that I’m on today from the McDonalds. 

Throughout those many generations, were they all farmers?

Yes, all farmers. John was the first one, then there was Tom, Tom, Tom then my dad, then came my brother Tom and myself, another John.

Were they growing anything different back then?

I shouldn’t imagine, it would have been lucerne and corn and probably millet. That was a good crop in the early days, millet for making brooms.

Which you’re still growing now, and making the brooms. Was it your father who taught you that trade?

No, but my dad did grow the millet for the broom factories. A lot of our millet went to Sydney and then later on to Tasmania. I suppose I picked up the trade about 40 years ago. A man called Trevor Richards was involved with it. He ran Campbell’s Store and is a very knowledgeable man. Morpeth was a dead town when he arrived. You could play cricket on the main street. He bought the store building, did it up, and it’s become a major tourist attraction for the whole street.

Long before that downturn, Morpeth was the original port for the Hunter Valley, is that correct?

It was. Even bullock from Queensland came down to load their goods on the boats in Morpeth. It was said there were 14 bullock teams full of produce to be loaded in one day parked in the main town of Morpeth. There were 18 hotels. You can imagine how busy the town was. The steamships had stopped by the time I was born. My brother said he can remember the last one that came up, but he was six years older than me.

What do you remember most about growing up here?

This farm was a drawcard for children. I had a black and white pony and anyone could ride her She was full proof. The kids just came here by the dozens. Nearly every kid in town had a ride on my pony. It was often a hard life. Dad had a nervous breakdown when I was about seven and he had to go to the hospital. We went through really tough times. I never wore shoes to school. But things got better. Dad bought the first television in Morpeth. One night we had 30 children lying on the floor watching television and their parents hanging around in the background. It was this exciting new thing. That was in 1955, the same year as we got the big flood.

A Phoenix Park shed in the 1955 floods.

Do you remember the flood? 

Very well. I was fourteen. We were very fortunate, because dad’s father, when he got married, he said he’d build a house out of the reach of all flows. He had a record of all flows and he built it quite a bit higher. I think it was two meters high. When the ‘55 flood came, we knew it was going to be a big one. We had a good radio that dad brought after the war, you could pick up overseas with it, and we were listening to all flood reports. We had the boat tied up on the lower part of the house on the back of the lawn. We had a brick wall in front of the house. 9 out of 10 of the floods were the same level and would just come to the top of the brick wall but this one came up pretty rapidly. It came over the brick wall and it started moving up the lawn towards the house. The house was about a metre higher than the lawn. There were steps up to the house and it came to the bottom of the steps. That was unheard of. No flood had ever got that high. My brother Tom said to Dad “Do you think we should pack some of the furniture?” and Dad said, “Go to bed you silly buggers, it’ll never get into this house”. He went to bed while Tom and I stayed up. Eventually, it got to the top step. We woke up dad and he couldn’t believe it. So we started to pack up what we could. My grandfather had built the house higher than any previous flood, but this was two metres higher than the highest recorded flood. 

At about midnight we heard these voices. It was my aunt and uncle. They had a farm about a kilometre away and it was up to their windowsills. We were lucky, it was only knee-deep in our house. They arrived in a leaking boat with two young children and aunty was bailing the boat out with a saucepan. The only reason they made it was because my uncle was a young, strong man. It was as wild as could be. There was just all this water moving across the farms. I saw a great big house go past.

It must have been terrifying.

It was. We were fortunate where we were though. There were about thirty houses in Phoenix Park, thirty farms, and it was all up to the guttering of the roofs of houses. People had to get on top of their hay sheds until the next day. There were boats going around seeing if people were okay. There were live cows going down the river. There were chooks on bails of hay. One cow ended up on the top of a hotel. She survived, fortunately. 

Morpeth during the 1955 floods.

What was the recovery process for the farm like? Were you able to get back on your feet soon after?

No. We lost all the crops and it left a metre of raw sand behind. We had to bulldoze the whole farm to level it back out. Dad had to build a new fence. We had to move all our animals out and lease a new lot behind the Church of England in Morpeth while we got the land back in order. I think it was about 12 months before we got back into production. It was very hard.

What kind of impact did the flood have on Morpeth as a whole?

Well, Morpeth became quite isolated, you couldn’t get to or from the place for a while. Hercules aircraft would fly over with crates of food that would be dropped from the plane into a paddock. It’d bust open and they’d bring it into Griffin’s Garage and hand it out to the community. They sent crates of clothing and shoes too. But we needed it because the farmers had lost everything.

What about since then, have there been many bad floods?

Not as bad as 1955. They always do a lot of damage though. It almost always means you have to start again. I’ve been raising everything up though, putting a big mound under the bees. I’m predicting bigger floods for the future. The reason for that is, all around this area there was hardly a house, and the water had time to run into ponds and to soak into the ground, and now it’s just being all sealed with rooves, tar, and cement. It’s one large catchment area and the water will go straight into the river now. God help Maitland when we did the same rain as we got in 1955. One day we will and it will be devastating.

A young John Wright and his family on the river.

Your farm here is right next to the river. How much of your life was spent in the water?

The river was the playground for me. All my mates in Morpeth would come to the farm and we’d swim in the river. We’d play in the river. We fished in the river. 

When I was a child, around four or five, my father built a swimming pool in the river. It was two posts about four meters apart on the riverbank and then about four meters out, another two posts. He put a net around the whole area and he had a walkway on top so that he could get around it. He said, “If you’re gonna live on the river you’ve gotta learn how to swim”. What he would do is take his belt off and put it around our waist while holding onto the end of it. Once we started going he’d relax the pressure of the belt and you get a gulp of water and you’d soon learn to swim! We all became good swimmers.

We had a boat too and there’d be that many young people in there that it would nearly sink. If we had visitors, Dad would take us out in the boat at night and hang a kerosine lantern off the front of the boat. We would row up the side of the river and mullet would jump towards the light. It was a frenzy! We’d have to turn around because there were that many fish in the boat. As a child walking to school you’d look across the river from the bridge and you’d see these dark clouds moving in the water and it was many thousands of baby fish. On the contrary, today, there are no fish in the river. There could be some European carp, but they survive in all sorts of rubbish.

John in his father’s homemade river “swimming pool”.

I was going to ask you about the biggest changes you’ve seen with the river but the dramatic loss of fish sounds significant.

We’d go fishing with a rod, a bamboo rod that we’d pick from the riverbank, and we’d put a piece of line on about the same length as the rod with a jag on the end and a floater about one meter up from the jag. We’d just throw it out into the river from the little wharf that dad built, and you wouldn’t believe how many we’d pull up. I saw my father catch over 100 fish one day. Many a meal on the farm was from the river. There was flathead, perch, mullet. People are disgusted when you say it but there were eels. They were about half a meter long. You’d cut them into slices crosswise and the way my mother cooked it, it was far superior to any fish that you could eat. 

What do you believe is the cause of this loss?

I put it down to coal mines. Apparently, they’re allowed to let some of their pollutants out into the river if we hit a certain amount of rain. Suburbia doesn’t help things either. There’s this chemical you can pour down the drain to eat up roots of trees and that type of thing in your pipeline but it just ends up in the river. The river is a sump now for rubbish. Everything goes into the river. I hesitate to water with it on my farm because the quality is not good. In the past it was fine but now I only do it if I have no other option. 

Has anybody looked into the issue or tried to fix it?

I’ve been on the media, in papers and that, talking about it. As much as I hate mining, it’s probably keeping Australia going. But that’s a problem. I suppose we just hope that the river will get back to a better state once the mines close down.

You mentioned earlier that Morpeth experienced a big downturn. What brought it back?

It became a ghost town when I was a kid. You could go anywhere. You had no fear of getting run over.  Once the ships stopped coming and the railway went I think that was the reason for the decline. 

And so what about today? 

Now Morpeth is booming. There was a house sold recently, it was a nice home, but it made over a million dollars and that’s unheard of in Morpeth. There are people coming here. What I’m against are these greedy developers bringing houses in two parts and putting them on blocks that nearly touch each other. It’s wrong. They wanted to do it here in a paddock. Fair enough if they want to build a nice house on a nice quarter acre block, but they wanted to put multiple houses on the block and people from Morpeth really kicked up a stink. They put up signs everywhere and so far the development hasn’t gone ahead. I hope it doesn’t.

How are things on the farm today?

The farms are as good as they’ve ever been. They’re wonderful lucerne farms. They recently rebuilt the center of Morpeth bridge which was opened in 1898 and to do it they had to find bedrock for the foundation. They went 36 meters of perfectly beautiful soil before they hit rock.

I imagine you love having this view of the bridge too.

You’re sitting in my kitchen now and you’re looking across and it’s right there. I tell people that’s a million-dollar view.

Your dad was obviously a big presence on the farm and well known in town. Was your mother involved in the day-to-day operations too?

Oh yes, we wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my mother. There was one time when my father broke his leg. He was working on the horse and dray, unloading hay. Around the side of the dray is a frame that allows you to put twice as much hay. As he was working he slipped and his leg went between the dray and the frame and snapped between his ankle and his knee. A complete snap. The doctors in Morpeth put it in plaster and when they took the plaster off, it still hadn’t healed. So he had to go to Macquarie Street in Sydney. They grafted a bone out of his hip. He was out of action for 12 months. I was only about 8 at the time, my brother was 14, and my mother held us all together. She was wonderful.

Historic photo of the Wright Farm
Some of John’s produce in his roadside store

Once you finally retire, what’s next for the farm?

I have four children and they’ll end up with the farm when I go. We don’t sell farms here, we just pass it down through the generations. My three sons and daughter all live around here Just recently, my two grandsons have bought my brother’s share next door. So we’re already up to the seventh generation.

Despite the tragedies, the ups and downs, you seem to still have such. a passion for the place. 

I adore this life. I’m 80, I work every day of the week, and I just love it.

Categorized as Seafolk
Heath Killen

By Heath Killen

Heath Killen is the founder and editor of On A Floating World. Born and raised in Newcastle, he is passionate about the coastline and waterways surrounding his home. Elsewhere he helps people develop brands, campaigns, and projects based on their passions.