The Barwell Boys: Centenary of South Australia’s British Farm Apprentices

1 Posted by - 9 June 2013 - Feature stories

Can you imagine leaving your home, family and crowded city life and travelling to the other side of the world to start working on a farm in what seemed like the middle of nowhere? What if you were only 14 years old? 2,000 boys seized this opportunity during the 1910s and 1920s when they migrated from Britain to take part in South Australia’s Farm Apprenticeship schemes and a new exhibition, Barwell Boys, at the Migration Museum celebrates 100 years since the arrival of the first group of boys in 1913.

The exhibition runs to the end of August, focusses on the boys’ engaging stories – from day to day life, such as learning how to drive up to 10 horses at a time and lumping 80+ kg bags of wheat, through to the impact of the Great Eastern Drought, the First and Second World Wars and the Great Depression. The display reveals the pros and cons of the scheme, shows how far farming practices have come since then and celebrates the contribution these migrants made to our state.

The exhibition premieres in the Migration Museum‘s community gallery, ‘The Forum’, from 3 June to 30 August 2013. It will then appear at the Royal Adelaide Show from 6 to 14 September 2013, followed by a tour of country shows and field days across SA.


The diary of Bill Gladwell (a Barwell Boy) By John Gladwell, Migration Museum volunteer

The handwritten diary of my father, Bill Gladwell, a Barwell Boy from Essex England, was written during his trip to Australia aboard the S.S. Ballarat in November/December of 1923. The diary is a black cloth covered exercise book, notable that it has a map of Australia inside the front cover, even though purchased in England prior to departure. The diary gives a clear picture of daily shipboard life through the eyes of a fifteen year old boy seeking new opportunities. Not surprisingly there are times when it reads a little like ‘Boy’s Own Paper’ and it tone is optimistic. Bill describes how a group of about sixty young chaps his age (ranging from 15 to 23) kept themselves entertained during the six week voyage around Africa via the Cape of Good Hope and Capetown, South Africa. Many of them were away from parental control for the first time and were ready to try out some of the perks of ‘adulthood’ such as smoking and gambling (card games and betting on the daily distance travelled by the Ballarat.) Other activities included deck games and general ‘horsing around’, and some lasting friendships were forged on this journey out to South Australia. Going ashore in Capetown was clearly a highlight as they explored the town, even ‘having a go’ at Tabletop Mountain, which forms the backdrop to Capetown.

“We are now in the south seas and have passed the equator we are about 200 miles off Cape Town at the time of writing, and I shall post this letter there. It has been a fine voyage so far, and the weather has been fine every day…” – from George Henry Doxey
Diary kept on board SS Ballarat en route to Adelaide

Bill had grown up as the eldest son of a family of six, and his father was a veteran of the First World War whose life had been severely affected by being gassed at the battle of the Somme. After the War his father and mother lived in a ‘found cottage’ at Upminster Farm near Upminster Common, Essex, where he was the farm labourer. From an early age Bill had helped his father on the farm, and fell in love with the Clydesdales which they used to work the property. They were a very poor family but nevertheless Bill won some sort of parish scholarship which gave him entry to Chelmsford Grammar School (CGS) now known by its 450 year old name King Edward VI Grammar School. He had his heart set on being an architect and going to Cambridge University, but his father, following the ‘son follows father’ rule of agricultural life of the day, had other ideas. At the end of Bill’s second year at CGS in 1922 aged fourteen, his father pulled him out of school to work on the farm with him. This led to a furious argument, with both father and son as bull-headed as the other. As a result Bill ran away to sea, they were living not far from Tilbury docks, and at the age of fourteen he worked as a stoker on a Cunard liner for a year. On his return in 1923, he worked briefly on an orchard near the family home, but his father was still furious with him. While Bill was away, his mother had heard of a farm apprenticeship scheme in South Australia called the Barwell Scheme, and encouraged him to apply. He was accepted and set out for South Australia in November that year. He was not to return to England until 1966 with his wife Dorrie, a South Australian girl he had married when a soldier in the Second World War. His mother had died not long before, but his father was still alive, and so after 43 years they were able to reconcile.

After my father died his ‘Barwell diary’ was amongst his possessions I inherited, and I finally got to read it at the age of 42. It gave me a bigger picture of him, as he had continued to use the diary after the boat journey was over. He had recorded information about the places he had been sent to as a Barwell Boy, his wages and supplies, and as he got older he recorded many poems in bush ballad style (most of which he could recite ad lib.) and many of which showed that the ‘young man’s fancy had turned to love’. In growing up I had some difficulty knowing just how much of Dad’s account of himself was actual, or heroic verging on myth, so the diary gave me something both tangible and factual to understand him. It helped me to make sense of so much he had wanted for me, and also why he was a ‘larger than life’ character to me, and how some of his story with his father had been repeated between us.

“A large one (13800 tonnes) but is not quite so roomy as I expected, because quite a lot of it has been made into cabins as it was realy built for cargo and not for passengers. There are 1176 persons on board, and quite a number of them are scotch, so have plenty of bagpipes. We boys are berthed right in the fore part of the ship so we get all the rolling and it is great fun…” – from George Henry Doxey
Diary kept on board SS Ballarat en route to Adelaide

When I started working as a volunteer at the Migration Museum, History SA, four years ago it seemed only right that I donate the diary to the Museum collection as a contribution to the history of migration to South Australia, to be safe for posterity and to honour his memory. It was through the Migration Museum that I met Elspeth Grant who had researched the Farm Apprenticeship Schemes in South Australia from 1913 in her Honours studies in History, and who had come to the Migration Museum as a Curator in 2010. This year, 2013, marks the Centenary of those Farm Apprenticeship Schemes (including the ‘Barwell Scheme’) and I am one of a group of Barwell descendants who are working with Elspeth to present a centenary exhibition in the Migration Museum Forum Gallery in June 2013. John Gladwell (only child of Bill and Dorrie Gladwell)

Other useful links:
Barwell Boys on facebook – click here
Genealogy SA – click here
History SA – click here


  • avatar
    rita mulcahy 10 June 2013 - 10:13 am Reply

    This is wonderful John – and so important that he and you kept the diary safely – and the memories. What a story – enhanced by your account of his background. Well done – a real treasure. Rita Mulcahy.(Barwell daughter)

  • avatar
    Elspeth Grant 12 June 2013 - 11:51 am Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing John.

    Thanks also for your support Inside History. The Barwell Boys and Little Brothers Family and Friends would also like to acknowledge the generosity of our major sponsor Multicultural SA and key project partner Primary Producers SA

    Elspeth (apprentice Lewis Grant’s great-granddaughter)

    PS “The Lochiel Apprentice”, Rita’s father Joe Rich’s memoir, is also a great read :)

  • avatar
    Colin J Foster 17 June 2013 - 7:22 pm Reply

    Great that this part of our state history is being remembered . My father was a Barwell Boy, came out from Birmingham in 1922 and went to Spalding to work on a farm owned by a gentleman called George Dowd, quite sad that the dreams of all these lads was not realized at the end of their term.
    Will be visiting the Migration Museum to view the exhibition
    Colin J Foster
    Victor Harbor

  • avatar
    Catherine Manning 19 June 2013 - 6:14 pm Reply

    Great to read everyone’s comments. Elspeth and Rita the committee have done an amazing job, the exhibition looks sensational.
    Curator, Migration Museum

    • avatar
      Boyhistory 19 June 2013 - 6:48 pm Reply

      Job well done to all involved! Thanks for dropping by Catherine, congratulations on a great exhibition

  • avatar
    Jacquie Dennis 20 June 2013 - 5:32 pm Reply

    Have read all regarding “THe Barwell Boys”.
    Am helping some one to do their Family History,and found that the father came to South Australia as part of the Barwell Scheme,in 1923 on the ship Barrabool..he was 16yrs.
    I have leart so much info regarding this scheme, also to add to the Macalister family tree.
    Great to read every one’s comments…well done to all
    Thank you….Jacquie

  • avatar
    Janet English 14 July 2013 - 4:34 pm Reply

    Through hearing about your exhibition on the Barwell Boys I have found out that State records has a file on my father William Gordon Simpson Young who arrived in TSS Balranald in December 1922. I am coming to Adelaide from Queensland on the 7 August to spend a week to see the Exhibition and view my Father’s file. Thank you to all the people who have made this information available to descendants of these “boys”.

    • avatar
      Boyhistory 14 July 2013 - 8:23 pm Reply

      What a great result Janet, happy dancing here! I’ll let Catherine [Curator at the Migration Museum] know that you’ll dropping by for your research. Good luck with your search and safe travels :)

  • avatar
    Catherine 30 July 2013 - 4:02 pm Reply

    Hi Janet,
    We’re looking forward to meeting you when you visit. Will keep in touch.

    best of luck with your research. I’m sure The Barwell Boys and Little Brothers Family and Friends Association will be pleased that the exhibition has proved such a valuable resource.

    Curator, Migration Museum

  • avatar
    beachcomberaustralia 1 October 2014 - 8:17 am Reply

    Photograph of the SS BALLARAT (3) in Sydney c.1930, from the ANMM (Object no. 00017518) –

  • avatar
    Noel Fosbery 30 May 2017 - 10:01 pm Reply

    Hi John,
    I’m a late comer to this thread and only came across it whilst looking for a picture of the Ballarat. My Great Grandmother Rhoda Anne Fosbery was on exactly the same voyage in 1923 along with her daughters Hildegarde Georgina Fosbery 23 years, Rhoda Amy Fosbery 20 years and Son William Edward Vincent Fosbery 17 years. It seems to me that the boys at least would have known each other. I also have some pictures of them on board.
    I don’t think they were part of the scheme as they had departed Ireland after the death of Rhoda Ann’s husband in October of that year.
    My Grandfather Harry had sailed to Fremantle on the Balranald in May 1923. I’m unsure of the circumstances of the migration but I think there are some untold stories there somewhere.
    I am interested in reading the diary. Do you have a transcript?
    Noel Fosbery

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