The family story is that when my mother became a teacher at South Newdegate School, the young men of the district would race to the school to claim the privilege of driving her back to her lodgings. I’ve taken liberties with the story, knowing, of course, the identity of the winner of the Great Filly Race.
The Great Filly Race of Lake Grace
There was not always a literal filly in the Great Filly Race of Lake Grace in 1938. Once Roy’s Dad realized why his son was disappearing from the farm every Friday after lunch and returning around dark, Dad positively encouraged Roy, ‘Take Man O’ War, he’s only had a day with the plough this week,’ or ‘Take Arrabella, she’s frisky today.’
Roy harnessed the horse of the day, whether filly or gelding, to the sulky and sped off. The road journey from Lake Biddy to South Newdegate School was (and is) a roundabout S-shaped route. In the first few weeks of the Race, Roy quickly refined a more direct route across farms and alongside uncleared bush near Breakaway Ridge. Once he had established the route, Roy could make the journey in under 90 minutes.
Each week, however, he tried to shave minutes off his travel-time, especially when one Friday Walter Lloyd had turned up at the school fence five minutes before him.
Roy estimated that riding Arrabella he could cover the same ground 30 minutes faster than with the sulky, but arriving with a horse only would negate the whole purpose of the Race. So he bounced along tracks and over rough white clay as fast as he dared. Dad would not be happy if he rode back to report that the sulky had a broken axle and one wheel stuck in a clay pan.
This was clearly an important Race for Roy. He was 29 years of age, and few romantic opportunities had come along for Roy and other young farmers of Lake Biddy. He dressed in clean shirt, grey trousers and polished shoes. He wore his Sunday jacket over the shirt, buttoned on a collar, combed his hair and wore his best grey fedora, ready to lift it to salute Miss Thackrah. At his feet was a jar of mulberries or a box of figs, summer fruit he had personally picked, as tribute for the lady.
For his vehicle Walter Lloyd drove a buggy, no doubt imagining that Miss Thackrah would prefer its upholstered seat to the wooden board of the sulky. Roy drove his family’s buggy in the Race one week, only to find it too big and cumbersome to travel fast through the bush. Arrabella could scarcely raise a canter with the buggy behind. That was the Friday Walter arrived before he did. The next week Man O’ War was again pulling the more streamlined sulky.
On four occasions (Roy counted them) both Roy and Walter were waiting at the school fence when Miss Thackrah emerged from the one-roomed school. Both young men stood next to their vehicle with a hand extended to invite the lady to climb up and sit in their carriage.
For this was the prize of the 15-Mile Great Race: the privilege of driving Miss Thackrah the mile to the finishing line: Jackson’s farm where she was staying. Then, with another hat flourish and the handing over of the gift, the winner would turn the horse and head home.
A summer storm boomed over South Newdegate one Race Friday. Miss Thackrah laughed when Roy, his coat and shirt dripping from driving through the rain, produced a dry but greasy mackintosh from under the sulky seat and draped it over her head and shoulders.
‘It smells of sheep!’ Miss Thackrah exclaimed. Roy wasn’t sure from that whether lanolin aroma pleased the lady or repelled her. ‘But it’s better than getting wet,’ she added. Roy didn’t know what to say. He produced little conversation, but his manners spoke volumes. He worried that when she became his wife she might not like the smells of farming.
Fridays went by. The dry hot season turned to autumn. The bright golden flowers of the native Christmas tree, Nuytsia floribunda, had faded and fallen, and its three-pronged fruit was now maturing. The first rains brought cooler days and the brown grass flushed green. Miss Thackrah went away for the two weeks of the May holidays.
Roy made sure he met the train at the Newdegate siding on the Sunday before the next term started. He raised his hat as Miss Thackrah opened the door of the compartment and leant forward to take her suitcase in his left hand, and with his immense right hand he gingerly took her dainty hand as she stepped down from the train onto the packed earth platform. As he straightened his back, their eyes met, and Miss Thackrah smiled.
‘August holidays,’ Roy said quietly, ‘Come and stay with us.’
After that, Walter did not bother to participate in the Great Filly Race, but Roy still dashed to collect Miss Thackrah on the last day of every school week.
They married the next Easter Monday, on a shining autumn day.