Mr. James Meikle - Early Australian Experiences
The life stories of self-made men, as a rule, abound with incidents depicting struggles against adversity, and an indomitable determination to achieve success. The career of Mr. James Meikle, of Alicia, 36 Scott-street, Newcastle, is that of a man who worked in his early youth for three-halfpence per day, to retire at the age of forty years with a competency, won by hard, unremitting toil. In the realisation of his ambition, Mr. Meikle had the assistance of a thrifty and devoted wife, who worked with him like a craftsman, while she also reared a family with the thoroughness which comes from Scottish ancestry.
Mr. and Mrs. Meikle are still living, and yesterday they had the joy of gathering round them their children, and grandchildren in the celebration of their golden wedding.
Mr. James Meikle was born in the town of Lesmahagon, Lanarkshire, Scotland, on June 11, 1844, and he is still hale and hearty at the age of 73 years. He was reared in Ardrie, his parents having moved there when he was an infant. Schooling as it was in those days was just what could be assimilated long before the teens, and this Scottish youth had got into hardness before he had reached his tenth year. His first job was the selling of newspapers, and doing odd jobs during the day, with the evenings devoted, as far as practicable, to night school.
Before young Meikle was in his twelfth year, the introduction of machinery into the weaving industry placed his father among the unemployed. Mr. Meikle, senior, had been a hand-weaver at which trade even in good times, hours were long and wages small. His former occupation gone, Meikle, senior, obtained work in a local colliery, and young Meikle also found a job there as trapper, his wages being sixpence per day.
In his thirteenth year the lad was apprenticed to the bakery trade, and his wages for the whole of his five years apprenticeship amounted to £10, or slightly less than tenpence per week. For that sum he had to work sixteen hours a day, and his was a life of work and sleep, recreation and amusement being totally out of the question. However, he got a thorough drilling into the trade, and such was the good opinion of him when he finished his apprenticeship, that he was engaged as a foreman baker in a town called The Shorts. He was then only eighteen years of age. His pay was £1 per week, which, he says, was considered a good wage in those days.
With a good trade in his fingers, and some ambition to get bigger things out of life, he seriously contemplated visiting America, but with the Civil War in progress, he decided to turn the project down, and cast his eyes towards Australia. At Glasgow he was given a job as baker on a ship called the 'Naval Reserve', belonging to the Black Ball Line, and he sailed with the vessel on March 2nd, 1864, being then in his 20th year.
The ship arrived at Queensland on June 12, 1864, and young Meikle began his colonial experiences. At the time the Queensland Government were bringing in immigrants at the rate of a thousand a month, and the newcomers were glad to accept work at any price. "It was", said Mr. Meikle, "a bad four months for me, for, though I tried hard and often, day in and day out, there was no work to be got".
Reverting to his passage to Australia, Mr. Meikle recalled the fact that the vessel brought out the first plant for the Brisbane gas works, and among the passengers were 400 navvies for railway construction, by Messrs. Peter and Brassie.
Four months of enforced idleness, and a depleted exchequer, made the new chum look further afield, so, having equipped himself with blanket and billy, he started to walk to Toowoomba. There were no roads, and the only guide was the telegraph wires. With the blacks numerous, and in no wise too friendly, the wayfarer had to keep his eyes open and his wits about him. Without tent, and sleeping on the ground, with the fires of blacks camps dotted around, was not too cheering. The telegraph line was not always easy to follow, and more than once there was a weary search before the line was picked up, and a fresh start made. It was a tough first experience of humping bluey, and it was a tired and weary Scotsman who finally reached Toowoomba. "I set out", said, Mr. Meikle, "in search of work, but it was pretty discouraging. Farmers offered me five shillings a week and my rations if I could plough. I told them I could not, and was promptly informed that I was no use to them".
Young Meikle then started to tramp back to Brisbane. On his way he met another young fellow, and they decided to keep each other company. So treacherous were the blacks that they feared to light a fire, and lived on cold water and bread. They lost their way, and in their quandary, decided to separate to the right and left to pick up the telegraph line, the successful one to cooee to the other. After walking for some hours, a big blackfellow approached, and asked for tobacco. On being supplied with all the weed the wayfarers had, he directed them to keep straight for white man hut. "Night was coming on when we reached the flat country, and saw a big tent," said Mr. Miekle. "If we had been given all Queensland we couldn't have been more pleased than the sight that tent gave us. Its owner took us into the tent, supplied us with a good feed and a shake-down, and I can assure you I slept well that night. The man was employed getting sleepers for the new railway. After he had made breakfast for us, he put us on the way to a place called Bridges' Camp, a section of the railway line. We thanked him for his kindness, and proceeded on our way. From Bridges Camp we walked to Ipswich where my mate and I parted, he taking a boat for Brisbane. I went on to a small place called Red Bank, a river-side coal mining town — the mine belonged to Messrs. Campbell and Towns, and asked for a job. There were none to be had, so I made my way to Brisbane, a sadder, but a much wiser man. "
Brisbane, however, proved no kinder than before, and young Meikle looked for work vainly in the daytime, and slept at night on the river bank where he had the company of about a hundred men, similarly circumstanced. To a man willing to work at anything, the position became intolerable, and he decided to quit Australia. He told his troubles to the Rev. Mr. Macgarven, a clergyman in Brisbane, and a native of Airdrie, and asked for a chance to get back to Scotland. Mr. Macgarven's son-in-law was the agent for the Black Ball line.
A ship named the 'Young Australia' had just arrived, and had been placed in quarantine. Young Meikle was given a job to bake the bread for the passengers at the quarantine station at Moreton Bay Island, where there was a Governor, doctor, and butcher, with twenty black-fellows, who did the rough work. Mr. Meikle was installed as baker. At the end of four months, when the passengers were given their clearance with a clean sheet, Mr. Meikle returned to Brisbane, and asked the shipping agent if he was satisfied. He said he was, and handed him a cheque for £32.
"With that money in my pocket, I thought I was made", said Mr. Meikle. "I asked him if he could give me a ship to go home in, but he advised me, being a young man, to stay in the country. I had thanked him for his kindness, and, thanking him again, I decided to take his advice".
Mr. Meikle remained in Brisbane, and got a job carrying timber at is 6d a day. After some months he was put into the mill and engaged as sawyer's mate, but concurrent with a heavy slump in the trade a notice was posted dispensing with half of the hands, "last to come first to go."
"I went," said Mr. Meikle, "and that finished my Queensland experiences."
NewcastleMaking his way to Sydney he found things little better there, so he then tried Newcastle, but could not get any work at his trade. That was 53 years ago, and there were only four bakers in business. He was determined to get work, and found it in the old Borehole pit at Hamilton. "At that time", said Mr. Meikle, "there was practically no other source of employment", and he found the mine full of tailors, butchers, bakers, carpenters, and all manner of artisans. Having got a mate he started on the coal, but results for the first two months were disappointing. Then came the drawing of the cavil, and they drew the best place in the mine."
Mr. James B. Winship was manager of the colliery at the time, and Mr. Robert Elliott underground manager. Mr. Joseph Dunlop was boss of the pit top. ''We worked as long as we liked in those days," said Mr. Meikle, "and it was no un-common thing to go in the pit at two o'clock in the morning and come out at six in the evening. "While I was there, which was only a few months, I made good money, averaging between £11 and £12 a fortnight."
GrenfellYoung Meikle, like many others at the time, was seized with the gold fever, and went with the rush for the Weddin Mountains, in the vicinity of where Ben Hall and Gilbert the Bushrangers, had their camp. At that period the southern railway had been carried only as far as Picton, so he had to walk the 250 miles to reach the diggings, through Lambing Flat and the King's Plain old diggings. At the time fortunes were being made by many of the gold miners. Mr. Meikle, however, preferred to try his hand at his trade, so getting some men together they erected the ovens and bakehouse, and put up a large tent for a shop, over the front of which was placed a large sign with the words "Newcastle Bakery". The venture was not too successful. Water cost a shilling a bucket, and other things were in proportion. Nevertheless the bakery was a paying concern until credit had to be given to the diggers. Some paid, but more cleared out without doing so.
Return to NewcastleThe field went from bad to worse, and with most of his former savings gone, Mr. Meikle returned to Newcastle with more dearly bought experience. After giving the district a thorough look round, Mr. Meikle decided to open a bakery at Plattsburg, and he started in a very small way. Five months later, on June 13, 1867, he was married to Miss Elizabeth Buchanan, second daughter of the late Mr. John Buchanan, of Plattsburg, and sister of the late Mr. Henry Buchanan, a former Mayor of Newcastle, the ceremony being performed by the Rev. J. Coutts, assisted by the Rev. Mr. Nairn.
Speaking of his marriage, Mr. Meikle said, "It was the best thing I ever did in my life. Besides being a good wife and mother she was a great help to me in my business, and my success in life is greatly due to her advice and co-operation.''
After seventeen years of strenuous work Mr. Meikle sold his business in 1877, and retired into private life. During his connection with Plattsburg, which was then in its most prosperous days, Mr. Meikle was for some years an alderman in the Plattsburg Council. He was one of the first shareholders of the Wallsend Gas Company, and has occupied the position of a director for many years on its board. Mr. Meikle is also one of the directors of the Newcastle and County Building Society. He was appointed a justice of the peace in 1901.