Humans of the Wheatbelt

Humans of the Wheatbelt is a disability project that celebrates inclusion within the community.

There is always someone in each story that has a disability whether it is the human, interviewer, photographer or writer.

I was born in Northam at Fermoy Hospital which was George Throssels home, (which is now St Joseph’s Primary School office and library) and raised at Wongamine. My father was born in Northam and met and married my mother whilst he was in the Light Horse stationed at Donnybrook. Being brought up on a farm, gave me the opportunity to learn farming skills, such as shearing sheep, grain growing and all other aspects of farm work.

Our family heritage in WA goes back to 12th October 1829 when Richard Smith and his wife arrive at the Perth colony on board the ship ‘Caroline”. My other descendants on my father’s side, arrived in the 1840’s and 1850’s; hence why most of the old family in and around Northam are related. My mother’s side, the Gills , arrived in Adelaide in 1842 on the “Caroline” the same ship as the Smiths’ but eleven years later. One of mum’s Great Uncles was S.T. Gill who became one of Australia’s famous “Goldfields” artists; Many of his watercolours can be found in the National Art Gallery in Canberra and also the Melbourne & Adelaide Art Galleries.

When I was eighteen and there was little work to do on our farm, I went to work at the Industrial Extracts in Toodyay. This was only meant to be a casual job, that should have lasted for about three weeks, but I ended up staying for eight years. Industrial Extracts produced tannings for leather manufacturing and a mud thinner used when drilling for oil. The plant consisted of a steam powerhouse, log crushing machines, large autoclaves, where the tannin was extracted from the saw dust and the finishing department which consisted of large settling tanks, evaporators, stills and spray drier. The finishing department was actually similar to a milk factory.

After about three weeks of working there I was offered the position of leading hand in the finishing department. I had three weeks to learn the job as the leading hand was leaving and going back to Germany. I took up the challenge and was successful. The next step up from being a leading hand was the position of Shift Boss. To gain this position I had to study for and qualify as a First Class Engine Driver and know all aspects of the plant. This I did and after three years I was relief Shift Boss and when I was about 23yrs of age, promoted to Shift Boss. The smaller of the two alternator engines is at the Connors Mill museum in Toodyay.

When Industrial Extracts closed down, I gained a position, in the powerhouse, with Alcoa in Pinjarra. I started work there before the plant was commissioned. The powerhouse was different and larger to what I was used to, as it had steam turbines (2 x 25mega watt each) and massive boilers. I worked here in the control room for 4yrs and due to shift work decided to move on and applied for a position as trainee miller at Weston Milling in Northam.

As I had never been in a flour mill in my life I had a lot of learning ahead of me. A condition of getting the position was for me to complete a four year course in flour milling with the City of Guilds of London. After about two years in the job, the Head Miller retired and I was promoted the Head Miller. I held the position for eight years and then promoted to Mill Manager, a position I held for 25yrs.

I married my late wife Sophie when I was 19yrs old and she was 17yrs old. We had three children together, two girls and a boy. We were married for thirty-seven year before she got cancer and passed away. This was one of the hardest times of my life as well as when my daughter lost her first husband. He was a Sea King helicopter pilot in the Navy, he had flown many missions in battle when he was in the British Military but he got killed when the helicopter he was flying, to take his sister to her wedding, hit power lines, killing them both.

In 2003, I met Debbie and we have been married 16 years this April. We have a daughter Chelsea who is fourteen years old and is very talented at drawing, last year she won the Youth Art award for one of her drawings. Chelsea studies distant education through the Australian Christian College and loves this form of education. Debbie and I also enjoy music, we are in a band called “Bedrock” with three other musicians. Debbie plays guitar and sings beautifully and I play the drums which I have been playing for fifty years. Debbie has been singing for over 40 years and once toured QLD & NT with a country music show. She now runs her own business providing Childrens Entertainers in the Wheatbelt and Perth.

My eldest daughter Wendy, on completing High School, attended the Australian Defence Force Academy and went on to serve twenty-eight years in the Australian Navy as an Officer. Wendy also has a Science Degree, Master’s in Business and a Degree in Psychology and Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology, she runs her own business in Canberra. My other daughter Jenny who lives in Mandurah, has worked for the Commonwealth Bank and Bankwest and now works for the WA Football Commission. My son Richard worked on farms, stations and railways in Queensland until he was injured on a station and hasn’t been able to work since.

Besides working, I have also contributed to the community through my involvement with Rotary, and as a councilor on the Northam town council for two years and the Northam shire council for eight years. I really enjoyed my years on the Council as it put me in a position to argue to save our heritage buildings; I didn’t win them all but I tried. Some of the stand out decisions, in my opinion, that were made during my time on Council were the building of the Sound shell in Bernard Park, the demolition of the old hospital and building the new shopping centre, the Dome development and the new Aquatic Centre with its fifty metre heated swimming pool.

I have done a lot of travelling throughout my life. I’ve toured all over Australia, around the UK including Ireland, Europe and Asian countries and Debbie, Chelsea and I have been on six cruises since 2015, three to the Pacific Islands and three to Asian countries. We really love the concept of cruising and getting to see the many different countries and cultures. It has been wonderful and gives us a real appreciation of living in Australia.

The special moments in my life have been many, like finishing a course and receiving a qualification, when my children were born and obviously when I got married to both Sophie & Debbie. Also going along and watching my children graduate, whether it be a degree or a certificate at school assembly.

The best advice I can offer anyone in this life would be to get yourself a job and work hard and be honest.

But never forget to enjoy your life because life is short.

A couple of pieces of advice that was given to me when I was a Teenager are:

“ Look after your money when are young and it will look after you when you are old”

And “It’s not how much you earn, but how much you save”

Humans of the Wheatbelt is a Wheatbelt Health Network project supported by the Department of Communities.

Human - Desmond Hughes
Interviewers - Tom Gratis-Roh & Anna Cornish
Photographer - Tom Gratis-Roh
Writer - Liam Cleak

Shire of Northam Rotary Northam Rotary Club of Northam Wheatbelt Face Painting Company Western Milling

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Wheatbelt Health Centre
25 Holtfreter Avenue, Northam
Phone: 08 9621 4444
Open: 8am-6pm Mon – Fri


Alma Beard Medical Centre
81 Stirling Tce, Toodyay
Phone: 08 9578 2500
Open: 8.30am – 5pm Mon – Fri


Aboriginal Health - Northam
65 Wellington Street, Northam
Phone: 08 9690 2824


Aboriginal Health - Narrogin
Williams Road, Narrogin
Phone: 08 9881 0385
Open: 8.30am – 4.30pm Mon – Tues

  • 25 Holtfreter Avenue, Northam

  • 81 Stirling Tce, Toodyay

  • 65 Wellington Street, Northam

  • Williams Road, Narrogin

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