POWERTORQUE PEOPLE | Lady John ( Jacqueline) Southern

Recognising some of the great characters of the transport industry 

The transport industry is a great community, and while we here at PowerTorque focus our attention on the equipment side things, the people of the industry are equally important in shaping its future.

It’s not often we hear a story of a grandmother encouraging the younger generations to become truck drivers. In most cases the opposite is true, even when the family is involved in transport, but it’s fair to say that Lady John wasn’t your standard stereotypical grandmother.

Sadly, Lady John passed away earlier in the year. To find out a little of the history behind Lady John’s time behind the wheel, and her influence on the younger generation, I caught up with Birky and Richard, who both credit her with getting them into trucks.

Lady John began driving trucks in Queensland, in a Thames body truck.

“When I was born, she was doing a mail run in an old Thames truck, up around Blackall, and my bassinet was a cardboard school case in the truck,” said Birky.

“In the early 70s she moved south to Cobram, Victoria, and drove trucks for Norm Kortum. She was driving old 180 and 190 Inters, single drive with a bogie trailer, carting tomatoes down to Heinz in Dandenong. On the holidays, I used to go with her all the time.

“The family later moved to Hay, and it was there that she became an owner operator. Over the years, she operated four Macks – two B-models and two Flintstones. It was in one of those Flintstones that she had her first big accident in 1975. She was forced off the road and rolled the truck, loaded with goats, flattening the cab.

“Both Lady John and the truck were in a bad way, but the trusty dog was fine. When they got her out of it, here’s the dog with the goats rounded up,” Birky said.

It was this accident that got Birky into trucks full time.

“I was up in the Territory, contract mustering when she had the accident. I came back home and was good mates with the sergeant at Hay at the time. When they’d rebuilt the truck, I went around to see him, and see what we could do about getting my licence to help her out,” he added.

“After an old-school country driving test, Birky came away a qualified truck driver.

“I got my license and drove the truck, helped her out. But I honestly believe, still to this day, that I should have just turned around and gone back to the Territory. Worst thing I’ve ever done, getting a truck licence,” he laughed.

After Lady John had recovered from the accident, she got back in the truck herself, so Birky went to work for Neville Jones from Hay. Things changed again when Birky took a holiday to Griffith. “I came over here for a two week holiday, and I’ve been here for 36 years,” he said.

Richard’s story starts out much the same, skipping school as a kid to spend time in the truck with his dad.

“I was carted around in the truck with the old man, as a baby. As I got older, I remember going to visit my grandmother in Hay. She always had an old B-model Mack out the back, and we used to get in there as kids and pretend we were driving it down the road,” he said.

Richard has very fond memories of the times spent in the truck with Lady John, and credits her with teaching him how to drive at a young age.

“The earliest memory I have is when she used to drive a day cab S-line, and we’d go across to Hay with rice. She used to fold a thing down between the seats and sleep across the seats. I used to climb up and sleep on the tarp, or out in a swag,” he said.

“Then she started driving for Pattersons in Narrandera. That’s where she stayed, for as long as I can remember. I’d go along every holidays, and sit there all day just watching her. Sometimes she’d sit me in the driver’s seat and teach me how to drive. She taught me quite a bit”.

Spending time with his grandma not only got him into trucks, but it kept him out of trouble.

“I think most of the time the family was happy I’d go, ‘cause I was the one that would stir everyone up and cause trouble. If I was with Nan, I wasn’t getting my arse kicked, so that was pretty good,” he laughed.

Even after all that learning from Lady John, it took a while for Richard to get his truck licence. As he explained, “I’d been driving for about five years now. I was a bit stupid when I was younger and lost my licence. I couldn’t get my truck licence, so I spent about eleven years on the tools as a mechanic”.

Trucks are in the family, with Richard having uncles who are truck drivers and aunties who married truck drivers.

“I think I’m about the only grandchild that’s driving trucks though,” Richard said. “I’m the only one of the third generation that’s driving”.

In 2005 Lady John was inducted into the Road Transport Hall of Fame, and, as Birky explained, gave her sons a warm welcome when they arrived at the ceremony.

“My two elder brothers, my younger brother and I turned up there, and she didn’t know we were coming. Within earshot of everybody, she said, ‘That’d be right, you can’t travel 85 km to come and see me at home, but you can fly up here’. She gave it to us” he laughed.

Lady John was driving trucks right up to the age of 77, before her licence was revoked. “She wasn’t happy about it,” Birky said. “She used to go out and do the odd load even after that”.

Lady John broke all the stereotypes in her career behind the wheel. She started out in the days when driving trucks was a man’s job, but history shows that she did it well, and for a long time. She also raised ten children, and passed some of her knowledge onto her grandkids.

“I’m sure there were some hard times, and with ten kids to feed life wasn’t easy, but through it all she maintained her sense of humour, and became a much loved part of the community,” said Richard.

“I don’t think there’d be one person in Narrandera that didn’t know her, or didn’t like her. Even just in passing, she was a nice person. She’d always stop, say g’day, and have a chat,” Richard added.

Birky and Richard are still both driving trucks, ironically for the same operator, Aaron Gooda from Yenda. While Birky has been with Aaron for three years, Richard is on his second stint, after doing 18 months the first time around before going elsewhere and coming back. Both seem very happy to be working for Aaron, and commented on the quality of the equipment, and his attitude towards keeping it right. With their passion for the job, it seems to me that these are the type of blokes I’d want driving my trucks, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s not something in their genes.

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