Saturday, December 3, 2022

A chat with Bill Revill

Recent stories

Ali Bohn, The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper

Sitting in the office a few months ago, a gentleman popped his head in holding a large, padded Post Pack under his arm. Asking for ‘Ali’, he wondered if I might be interested in having a read of the documents that were in the envelope. The documents were the manuscript to his memoir, and flicking through the first few pages, I realised I had to stop. I could not go any further because I knew I had to hear these words straight from him. It was clear he was someone who had lived a remarkable life. I could only see two possible concerns – 1) Would he agree to a chat with me?  2) Could I do his story justice in just two pages of the newspaper? After some logistical concerns (thanks COVID-19) and a few other personal issues, I was excited and anxious when we were able to meet for a chat recently at the home of Mr Bill Revill …

Bill Revill

I must be honest, first impressions of Bill were that he seemed a little off-hand or possibly reluctant to chat with me, I wasn’t sure this was going to go so well, but I knew I had to give it my best shot. I also knew that there had to be a reason for his outwardly reserved manner and that it may surface somewhere during our chat. Well, I discovered this midway into our conversation, and it hit like a tonne of bricks. Bill Revill, let me say straight up that now I have met you, I sincerely apologise that I misunderstood you in the beginning. Your story has touched me, and I am so grateful that you shared it with me, which must have been extremely difficult.

We are seated at the dining table of Bill’s beautiful unit. With everything in its place, he apologises for his furniture, saying that he “was hoping to have met a nice lady who would be able to choose some nicer furniture!” This makes me laugh, there is nothing wrong with his décor, it is perfect for what he needs.

I explain to Bill that I did not read his memoir as I always go into these chats without knowing anything about the person I am going to interview. This way, I am genuinely surprised at hearing each piece of information and can really get lost in the stories. I tell him that I will refer to it when I am writing the draft of our chat.

Bill Revill was born in Risley, England, on the Derbyshire Nottingham border on February 26, 1942.

His grandfather was a ‘notable farmer’ and as was commonplace at the time, the eldest son (Bill’s uncle) took over the family farm, with Bill’s father (George) being the second eldest, having to rent a farm of his own.

Bill was the third of four children, with one older brother (John) and sister (Joan), and one younger sister (Pat). As children, they did everything together. It was beautiful in the summertime in Risley, although Bill did not spend a lot of his childhood with his family. 

“In my first few years, I was sent to stay with my Uncle Will and Aunty Grace who had been unable to have children of their own. My mother had become pregnant with my sister soon after my birth and thought I would be better off staying with my aunt and uncle for a while. I didn’t want to go, but they were lovely people and were very good to me. My uncle had a lace mill and he exported lace, which was very interesting. Aunt Grace was wonderful. She had a beautiful garden, a magnificent garden, and she did beautiful needlework. There was a lot of backwards and forwards between my parents’ place and my uncle and aunt’s, which I didn’t particularly like. I think that affected me in many ways.”

Bill can remember the day their big, old farmhouse had the electricity turned on when he was eight years old.

“I remember the excitement of it being turned on. For warmth at bedtime before that, we used to have to warm a brick in the fire and then wrap it in a blanket and cuddle that in our bed. I can remember walking up the stairs to our bedrooms using it as a hot water bottle. Also in the winter, we would cuddle up with the cows for warmth during the day.”

Meals were very basic in the Revill house, however, Bill says that his mother (Joan) turned out great meals with whatever food there was available, cooking on a three-burner paraffin stove. A major influence throughout his childhood and into adulthood was Bill’s brother John. They even shared a birthday.

“I was born on John’s fourth birthday, and he was everything to me. My father wasn’t too interested in me, he was all for John, possibly just as his own father was with his elder brother when he was a boy. I looked up to John in everything he did. We had a very strong bond.”

Bill and his siblings walked three miles to the three-roomed with three teachers village school each day, where he says that they were very well educated, with an enormous respect for their teachers Miss Travers, Mrs Bennett and Mrs Johnson. There were no organised sports at school, except on a summers day when sometimes they would get out hockey sticks and “bash the puck around in the field.” 

Bill continues. “The school had a concrete playground that ran down to the road. In winter, it would ice over, and we’d slide down the ice. There were air raid shelters on the other side which were quite spooky! I can remember my eldest sister going off to high school and I could see her through the pantry window going off on the bus. John went to Nottingham High School, and I used to take Pat to school with me. I was very protective of her. But I really did look up to John a tremendous amount. He was everything. I’d try to do whatever he could do. He was very mechanically minded.”

There is a sense of sorrow in Bill’s voice, and I know at some point during our conversation he is going to tell me something terribly sad, but I wait for that to come without prompting.

In 1951, at the age of 11, Bill was due to commence senior school, however, before he was to even enrol, his father had other ideas.

“Well, throughout the war, Dad had wanted to join the RAF but wasn’t allowed to as he was a farmer and therefore needed elsewhere. There were lots of regulations due to him being needed, which went on for a long time after the war. This pissed him off. Then the council came around and decided to take some of the farm off him. At the time, he was reading the paper, looking for options to farm in the other colonies. 

We went to Kenya on a farmer settlement scheme and Dad was put on an existing farm to learn the processes. I remember before we left, selling everything off and feeling very excited about going. Everything was packed into trunks, and we took the train to London, then to the docks and aboard the maiden voyage on the Kenya Castle. It was a long journey, stopping at several ports through the Mediterranean and one night we saw the red-hot top of a volcano. We sailed along the Suez Canal, through the Red Sea and down the coast to Africa. The crew put on a ceremony as we crossed the equator, with King Neptune coming aboard, and some first timers being shaved and dunked in the pool. 

The experience of the journey on the ship was wonderful. We were spoiled with food with waiters and formal dinners. Our family had two cabins with the boys in one and the girls in the other. During the day, we’d be rushing around, climbing the ladder down the back of the ship (none of us could swim), eating ice creams and just having fun. 

We chugged into Mombasa, which was steeped in history with palms, baobabs trees and Fort Jesus. The whitewash walls, the smells; it was magical coming in. Everyone was dressed in long, white gowns. Just looking around at everyone was exciting. From there, we got on a train and off we went. From Mombasa, the railway climbs through dry bush country, full of wildlife, gradually getting higher as you reach Nairobi. The journey on the train was very slow, but the service was unbelievable with dining car, silver cutlery and crisp white tablecloths. We stayed one night in a hotel, then back onto another train. 

We arrived at Thompson’s Falls and were collected by a farmer who took us to the property, which was a log cabin complete with servants and with beautiful views, located on the edge of a forest. We learned very quickly to respect the wildlife, which ran free everywhere. Elephants, monkeys etc. The closest I ever came to getting cleaned up was when I saw a baby giraffe and went up to pat it under the chin. The mother came at me and well, I took off pretty quickly!”

School in Kenya was very different to the schools in England. The Revill children had to learn to speak the language and the closest school was in Nyeri, a couple of hours’ drive from where they lived, which meant they had to board. 

“The van picked us up and off we went to boarding school at the foot of Mt Kenya. They were all white kids; it was a European boarding school. There were a lot of Afrikaans and British kids there and it was a bit of a wrench to begin with, but you just had to make the best of it. There were organised sports, including cricket, which was great, but your whole life is on a timetable with not much time for anything else, so we were kept very busy. English was my favourite subject, but I also enjoyed maths, history and geography. The two princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, were holidaying at Tree Tops Lodge in Nyeri when their father, King George died. Thus, our new Queen was proclaimed just down the road from our school. We were only at the boarding school for a few months while my father looked for a farm.”

The year was 1952, and the Kikuyu tribe began an uprising based on witchcraft and horrific violence called the Mau Mau.

“All we were told was not to wander too far away,” Bill explains. “With the improved nutrition and healthcare brought by Europeans had come a rapid population increase, and there was pressure on their traditional and allocated lands. A state of emergency was declared, and units of the British Army began to arrive. Many hundreds of their own people were hacked to death for either working for the government or refusing to take the Mau Mau oaths. Police patrols guarded the school, and teachers carried guns to the dining room at supper time. 

On the farms, when a big operation involved the police reserve, several families bunked up together for safety. With most of the men away, the boys did a share of the guarding, and so I patrolled with a rifle in the evenings, aged 10. Mum swore that our gardener was sharpening Pangas for the Mau Mau; she heard the sound of metal rubbing on stone all day, every day. We took precautions in the evenings and when John and I went outside to our bedroom, so we survived without being attacked.”

At the end of the school term, Bill and his siblings were collected and taken to the farm their parents had purchased on the Trans Nzoia district in Western Kenya where half a dozen men were employed as farmhands; part of their role, and in following tradition, was to build themselves a hut allocated as the labour village. It was a very basic house, the only house there in fact, and was to be only a temporary dwelling until the sturdy mudbrick house was built sometime later.

“By then, Pat and I had started at the local school which wasn’t as far away as the one we were at before, and we boarded there. John left school and joined the Kenya Police. Boys and girls went to high school on separate trains, and it was a long journey. I went to high school for five years, which was one year longer than I had to, and obtained my School Certificate in Biology. They were doing this trial thing at the time where if you did an extra two years, you could go to uni, but I didn’t do that. I wasn’t aware, but it seems that my Uncle Will had discussed with my parents that he would pay for my university if I wanted to go. I would have gone and studied veterinary science.”

His uncle and aunty had kept in close contact with Bill while he was living abroad and made the trip to Kenya on a couple of occasions, which delighted Bill. After passing his school certificate, Bill applied for a position at Burrows Welcome Veterinary to train as a laboratory technician. He borrowed a bike to attend the job interview, which he got; the position coming with accommodation. 

At the same time, he had been called up for National Service and completed six month’s basic training, and then returned to his position at the veterinary practice. He thoroughly enjoyed his role, which included running tests on cattle which had been hit by the East Coast Fever and was responsible for conducting trial drugs on the livestock, as well as domestic pets. He attended night school and became a qualified laboratory technician. After five years, he had tired of the position, which by now, included incinerating the bodies of the deceased animals.

“It got to me; there was too much death,” he says.

Bill returned home to help his father with the farm. John had finished his career with the Kenya Police and was farm managing in the district but was also sharing the labour on the family farm along with Bill.

Poaching was a common illegal practice throughout Kenya, and rangers would search for them flying in small planes to send off warnings. A friend of Bill’s was responsible for such surveillance and, along with his co-worker, Alan, set off looking for poachers one particular day. They became the targets themselves.

“One of the poachers saw the plane and fired a shot at them, which hit Alan in the jaw and blew it off. The surgeon made him a new jaw from a floating rib. He survived; he was extremely lucky.”

Alan was married to an Australian lady whose sister was a nurse in Perth, Western Australia. She was quickly prompted to come to Kenya to help assist her sister’s husband with his rehabilitation, working at a hospital not too far from where Bill lived.

“That was Helen. I saw her because I lived close to the hospital. We met and we hit it off. I’d just booked a holiday at the time to go to England with John, and while we were in the air a message came over that we were being diverted to Benghazi. We had no idea what for until we landed, then we found out it was the start of the seven-day war.”

Bill and Helen soon became an item and married in Kenya. Bill felt that this would be a good time to begin a new life in Perth, Australia and to meet Helen’s family. Following the wedding, they travelled to Mombassa by train, then on a steam ship to Durban, where they spent time sight-seeing and meeting up with Helen’s aunties. From there, they hired a Mini and made the long journey to the port to board the boat bound for Australia, living on apples and chocolate as they drove.

Upon their arrival in Australia, Bill began working at Borden on a sheep and wheat property for a short time before securing a position as a field technician with the Western Australian Agricultural Department in Bunbury, while Helen continued with her nursing. At the time, a dairy farm owned by an ex-Kenyan gentleman in the area was in need of a milker and so a deal was made for Bill to work there at the weekends in exchange for free rent.

Bill was delighted to become a father to daughter, Bridget, on November 1, 1970, a role he took great pride in.

“It was scary becoming a father, but I was also very protective, a little like I was with (my sister) Pat when we were growing up. It was a very happy time,” Bill smiles.

Missing his family, and in particular his dear brother John, it was decided that Bill, Helen and Bridget would relocate to Rhodesia, where John resided after Kenya had become an independent African country. But, not before a little sight-seeing across to the west coast and up north to Darwin. The trip across to Durban, South Africa from Freemantle was especially exciting for Bridget who was being spoiled by cabin crew with plenty of chocolate!

Bill recalls seeing John again after such a long absence.

“It was a very happy meeting; seeing him and his family after so long was just wonderful. We stayed with them for a while before finding a job. I took on a new role working with a major farmer in the area growing cotton, cattle and maize. I relocated the family onto the house that came with the role. My boss suddenly passed away, leaving his son to run the property. The business relationship between my new boss and I wasn’t working, so I felt it was time to look for work elsewhere. I started working in the laboratory of a local mine for a while before moving once again to the east highlands of Rhodesia, working with a wattle company. They had many estates, but they put me on the most undeveloped place, then I was promoted to a more centralised property working with sugar cane, forestry and cattle. 

So, we moved to Chipinge, which wasn’t too far from where I was working. Then my son, Guy, came along on October 6, 1972. He was such an easy baby; he just grew and grew! Both he and Bridget were great kids. Bridget was home schooled for a bit, and she was a very quick learner. Both kids ended up going off to school. We were pretty much self-sufficient, because you couldn’t buy anything in due to international sanctions. Everything was made well and made to last. If it broke, you fixed it, you didn’t have the option of going to buy another one.”

Our new place was in Rhodesia, which happened to be at the beginning of a very nasty guerrilla war. As we arrived, so did the terrorists. It was expected for you to be in the armed forces, so I decided to join the police reserve as I could farm at the same time. I always took precautions to protect my family. We always travelled in two vehicles with me holding a machine gun in front and with my family in another vehicle following us. It was a horrific time. I saw many people killed, including buses being blown up full of civilians. It’s something you never forget.”

And here is that moment. This is when I realised I understood Bill’s demeanour completely. We need to take a break for a moment as he takes a few deep breaths and collects his thoughts. Bill talks about his difficulty in getting a good night’s sleep due to the nightmares from the effects of his experiences. I don’t know what to say, but Bill assures me he is happy to continue.

“My job was to clean up the aftereffects of the chaos or to go searching for the culprits with a rifle. It was very hard, but you just did what had to be done. There were landmines about, you had to have your wits about you.” 

With growing concerns for the safety of his family, Bill sent Helen and the children to Australia to spend time with her family while things settled down.

Through his role within the company, Bill won the National Carcass Competition for Rhodesia. He says the accolade made him feel quite proud of himself. The feeling of victory was short lived however, and eventually, Bill says, he was “weasled out” from the company. Elections were used and Rhodesia became independent Zimbabwe.

“To know I’d put myself and my family at risk all those years for nothing, none of it was appreciated. That made me very mad. Then I found out my dear aunty Grace was dying of cancer. So, I decided to go and see her, along with Helen and the children. I stayed for a while but had to go as I’d found another job working on a ranch in Rhodesia, but Helen stayed on a little longer. I was working too much, working myself into a frazzle. It was all getting too much, and then one day, I remember vividly, I was watching cattle in a daze, completely zoned out, but wasn’t sure why. All of a sudden, I snapped out of it and went back to work where I heard the phone ringing. I answered it and was told that John had been killed while flying in a light aircraft following the gooks. They shot him in the head with a machine gun. This affected me quite badly.”

It was also at this time that Bill and Helen’s marriage came to an end. A terribly difficult time for all involved, Bridget and Guy remained in Zimbabwe as they were both at boarding school. 

“I moved to Harare where Bridget was attending boarding school, but Guy’s school was in the opposite direction which made it very difficult. I took a position as a messenger of the court so I could be close to Bridget and kept that position for a long time.”

But Bridget didn’t complete her schooling in South Africa, instead returning to Australia and back with her mother.

“Bridget finished her schooling in Geraldton, Western Australia, and went on to study speech therapy at uni in Perth. She now runs all the speech therapy departments in Western Australia. She’s married to a South African chap and has two kids. Guy also went back to Australia and did cartography at uni. He has a daughter and lives in Perth. 

When the kids moved to Australia, there was a long period of time where I was completely lost. Although I kept in touch with the kids, it was terribly hard being away from them and very difficult for me to get to Australia, but I knew I’d get there eventually. 

I met a nice girl in Harare called Jenny. We were together 15 years and for seven of those years, she was dying of lung cancer. We’d had a good life, enjoying golf and other social activities. When she died, I went straight to the Australian Embassy to begin the process of getting to Australia. There was a nine-year waiting list after 12 months of processing. Thankfully, they got rid of that rule and I arrived in Western Australia in 2005, after just four years and paying the $35,000 visa. As a condition, I wasn’t permitted to rely on any government payments for 10 years. 

I went straight to Bridget’s, then I lived in a hostel for a while and got a job at an orchid farm cloning orchids. Then I became caretaker of a golf course at Harvey which came with a house. After living there for several years, I bought a caravan and decided to go travelling, not knowing where I was going or what to do. I went across to Margaret River and Albany, over to Adelaide and then to Cohuna where I had some friends. 

Then I went blind in my left eye and thought ‘what will I do?’ I could either chuck myself in the river or buy a house. So, I came over the bridge from Victoria and found myself in Barham in 2016 and that’s when I bought this place.”

To say that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of Bill’s life is a huge understatement. At this point, I still haven’t been back through the memoirs he has penned himself; I haven’t dared as I have an abundance of notes of my own to decipher. I will read them though, I promised Bill I would. We are winding down to the end of our conversation, aware that there is so much more to be said. So, at this point, I would urge you, (with Bill’s blessing) to invite or meet up with Bill for a coffee and a yack but be sure to set aside at least an afternoon, as Bill Revill is one of the most intriguing people you will ever meet. Highly intelligent, articulate, but slightly reserved, Bill is a natural storyteller who must be heard. I hope this story does justice to the life of Bill Revill, a man of integrity who will not let the demons from his past break him down. 

I am pleased to hear that Bill is finally settled in this little oasis called Barham on the mighty Murray River. Mostly, he keeps to himself, but he is more than happy to go a round of golf if there is an offer.

“Barham is a fantastic place and we’re lucky to have what we have here. I’m part of the Golf Club and the Gun Club, I play poker at the club once a week… I’ve made some friends here but it would be nice to meet somebody.”

And finally, with all his experiences and all his wisdom, what has Bill Revill learned?

“Well, if I had the choice, I’d probably do it all again! That sounds daft, doesn’t it? I don’t know, there’s always good things in life. The beauty, the animals, the greatness of people and comradeship of others. But so much that’s disgusting as well…”

With sore fingers from typing, and an overwhelming feeling of gratitude towards Bill for sharing his story with me, I send this draft to Bill for editing… awaiting with bated breath I have made him smile today which would be the best reward for writing this chat.

Be kind to yourself Bill, you have done an amazing job.

The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper 3 February 2022

This article appeared in The Koondrook and Barham Bridge Newspaper, 3 February 2022.



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