Les Keefer

Les Keefer was born in 1924 in Toowong, Brisbane. He met Jessie Toon through his association with the Toowong Rowing Club and they married in 1959. He was Captain of the Toowong Rowing Club in the 1950s. This is his story:

“I joined the rowing club a couple of years after I was discharged from the Army. That would have been in about 1947, ’48. I joined there because I was lost for something to do. Most of the boys that I had gone to school with or gone to college with didn’t come back or moved away and I felt on my own so I thought I’d join down there. My best friend who I used to spend a lot of time with was killed during the war and that left a bit of a hole for me. So I joined down there to give me a new interest. I knew that they were trying to get going again after the war and I just wandered down there one Saturday afternoon to see what was going on and went on from there.

The captain that was Neale Holland and the only other person I knew there was Frank Avery. He was an old time resident of Toowong. There were about 15 members. We had two old clinker fours and two tub pairs. We had one eight and I think there was an old training eight there.

Funding was mainly through subscriptions from members and also from the Exhibition stall which raised a certain amount of capital, not very much but enough to keep going. At one stage Dr Whitehouse was there, and they put out a public donation. They did get some response for that. Just by and large they just about kept their head above water. The Exhibition stall was sort of a carry on from being established pretty well pre-war. They had a position at the Exhibition that was where the main gates are today, and where the old police building used to be. It was situated in the bottom of that. The lost children’s part was right on top of where we had the stall and it was a reasonably sized place All they did was make cups of tea and sandwiches. On one memorable occasion we sold waffle-burgers. They were all the rage on the Gold Coast and we were looking for something to do and Cal Malouf came up with this idea. He contacted this chappie down at the Gold Coast about these waffle-burger machines so we go down there and this fellow showed us the machines. Gave us a run through on how to make waffle burgers. Anyway we purchased these machines and away we went. We used to buy our pastry in block form and have to roll it out in a hand roller and then we must have had stacks and stacks of tins of Tom Piper and that’s what they were made of. We’d roll the pastry out, put the meat filling in – roll them up and cook them on these machines like the old waffle iron and they sold very well.

The best rowers at that time were people like John Cameron and Neale Holland. They were BBC boys the most experienced that were in the club. Each club used to take their turn for a regatta. We used to either row on the Milton reach or on the Town reach in those days. The finish was the O’Connor boat house. We used to row upstream from what was the coal wharves which is now Southbank. We started down near the Grey Street Bridge and finished at the Toowong Club house. They were all run on the Saturday afternoon and Toowong usually had a couple of stalls going. The Ladies Committee would run those and they were reasonable sort of regattas. We used to be able to fill an afternoon’s program with crews and sometimes we would have representatives from the Tweed would come up. Lismore came up at one stage. Usually there were GPS old boys, Toowong, Commercial, and University were in it occasionally. The eights were usually either a two or three crew race. Toowong didn’t have a sculler and most of the sculls on the river were privately owned.

For training, we used to go down early in the morning, mostly on Saturday afternoons and after work. Also Sunday morning I’d go down, so it covered about every day of the week. We’d select the crew, get them out on the water, start them off in pairs. If they were opposite, start them in a pair, then they stayed in that till they’d won their first novice pairs and then they were shifted into a four. We usually had a couple of pairs going at once and they would combine to make up a four. And they’d have to win their status. In those days, you started off as a novice. You would have to win so many novice and so many trial races, trials were all in fours. From trial we went to maiden status and from maiden to junior and from junior to open. That was the categories that they rowed in at that time. I forget the number of races you had to win in each particular section before you moved on to the other one. The training, well, whoever was available to coach. A lot of the coaching was other members of the club. They would sort of take a four out or a pair out and that was it.

The 1951 King’s Cup was rowed on the Hamilton Reach. I didn’t see a great deal of the race, mainly because Ron Ormand and I were co-opted into manning a dinghy which would have a sign on it which marked the turning point in the course. They started down the river at, somewhere near Colmslie, that was the venue. The Army had the watercraft workshops there then. When they reached that point, they had to make about a 10 degree turn to row straight up the Hamilton from there. We had to man this dinghy and hold it on station so these crews could pick their point when they came up to the turn. Consequently we missed the main part of the race. We were to go on the official launch and Mr Cameron was virtually the organiser in those days. Nobody else wanted take it on, so we were the fall-guys. That was rather humorous because we thought we may be able to see more of the race if we rowed over to one of these army workboats that were there. We rowed over to that, climbed up on the deck and then got soundly abused by the Army. They told us to clear off. Ron Mahony and Jim Nunan were in that crew. That was my King’s Cup. Queensland were well and truly outclassed.

I became Club Captain about 1948/49. I was Captain about 4 ½ years. I finished in about 1953. My job was to sort the crews out, get these fellows on the water, make certain that everybody that came down for a row, got a row, that they weren’t left to just stand on the bank and look at themselves. We weren’t a great number of members then. It was fairly easy to keep and sort it out and we co-opted whatever senior members we had around to take them out and look after them. I worked out a roster for these fellows around the place. The main thing was keeping the shed clean and tidy and looking after their boats , wash the old cement ramp down which used to get covered with silt when the tide went out and was rather a dangerous spot. We had several yard brooms there and they were all detailed off to sweep this ramp down. One fellow would hose while the other chap would sweep. I wasn’t very popular with them on that one but they all came to the party and there was never any trouble. It had to be done because we had several falls there on the ramp. When you lift the boat out of the water you had to walk backwards up the ramp with the boat and if you slipped on the mud there, one man went down, the whole boat would come down and that would have done quite a bit of damage not only to themselves but to the boats as well.

I was pretty handy. My brother was a cabinet maker. I co-opted him a few times to come down and give me a hand with that. Ron Ormand was very good with his hands too. He and I worked things out together. Most of the old clinker boats, the planking had dried out in them, they were the cedar planks that split and they had to be what they called “tingling” them, that means you put a patch over and sort of rivet around the patch and the old clinker boats the copper roves in the boat exposed to salt water, they would start to corrode, they were all starting to crumble away. The clinker boats were virtually falling apart. We were constantly working on these things to keep them on the water. The fours particularly had quite an amount of water in them when they came in at night just from seepage through the planks. But we managed to keep them going and that was a red letter day when we received our first regulation four which was a, what they called a carbon?? built boat, that means a flush hull that was made out of very thin marine plywood in those days, and they were really good boats. We bought two of them and they took the main load after that and we only used the heavy fours for novice crews to teach them to row in.

We had a Ladies Committee in those days and a few young girls were attached to it. Most of them were wives of the previous members, fellows who came back from the First World War and they got it organised for us. Some of the girlfriends of the fellows used to turn up and help on occasion. They were our mainstay with the Exhibition business. They used to go and man that during the week for them. One lady was Mrs Ward. She as an old resident of Toowong and Mrs Doherty, she was another old resident of Toowong. Mrs McVinish, wife of one of the McVinish Brother– there were four of them in the Toowong Rowing Club before the First World War. We knew all these people because Dad being a storekeeper used to serve a lot of these people and there was a Mrs Winterflood from Kedron. They were the main stayers.

The ladies handled all the stalls at the regattas. We fellows, between races would do a bit of fetching and carrying for them. We used to rig up a bunting around the place. We had the club flag in those days. I was able to borrow a PA system every time we were down there. So we always had music. And we had the usual stalls, cakes, jams, sandwiches, afternoon tea, scones. The ladies provided all that themselves. It wasn’t a real gala fete but not like I think it used to be in the days pre-war when men used to turn out all decked up and had little steam boats on the river following races. We never saw much of that later on.”

David Magoffin was a significant coach for Toowong Rowing Club. Les recalls his influence:

“Dave used to come to Queensland to coach the Brisbane Boys College. It was with Mr Jim Cameron’s instigation that he brought Dave when we were in serious trouble regarding coaching. He suggested that he would get hold of Dave Magoffin and he made him an offer to bring him to Queensland, and he found him a job which was the Commercial Blueprint Company and Dave took it from there. He coached both BBC and Toowong. He wasn’t a full time coach but he was our senior coach. He worked during that period but he took over all the coaching, both BBC and Toowong. Mr Cameron he was the organiser and it was quite a new beginning for Toowong. They started to improve tremendously. The younger blokes were a lot keener. Dave already had a reputation because of his coaching with BBC and we had quite a few of BBC boys with us, they’d left school and came to Toowong. They were there and they were keen to carry on with him. They included Bill Lovegrove, there was Col Bengston one of the Cameron boys or another, Jim Cameron and his brother, John. Jimmy Nunan was another one and there were several others – Teddy Edgerton, Ron Scott.

Some young girls started to come down. They were sort of Dave’s protégées. There were two girls, my present wife and a girl called Erica Elder which was Ron Ormand’s future wife. They both worked in the Blueprint Company and Dave co-opted them for coming out to help out on Saturday. They joined in any of the social occasions the club had and they used to help out on regatta days and the Exhibition stall. They did most of the work in the kitchen out there after their working hours, they’d arrive at the Exhibition and spend until the time it closed down every night that the show was open. That would have been around the ‘50s that they, it wasn’t much longer, it was shortly after Dave arrived here in Queensland and when he started work in there that these girls arrived down there.

I really never concerned myself with the finances. All I was concerned about was they had enough money to carry on with, but probably our biggest mainstay in that was again Jim Cameron. He injected quite a bit of money into that club one way or another, financing various things, repairs to boats and things like professional repairs to boats. With the Exhibition stall, club fees, our club’s membership had increased quite considerably by that stage. I think we had somewhere around 50 members in 1950. And that gave us just enough money to carry on with. The price of boats was – in comparing it to wages, were quite expensive. The main finances looked after by Jack Brett and Ron Mahony . Then Jack Pritchard came into it and they seemed to move things pretty well on that side.”

Les eventually gave up rowing himself to concentrate on building up the Club’s crews.

“It got to a stage there where the junior crews were being completely neglected at the expense of the eight. I was bow seat in the eight and decided then, Ron Ormand would take over the bow seat of the eight. I would stick on the bank and look after these fellows. It had got to a stage that these boys would come down and there was nobody to take them out. The only senior fellows we had were rowing in that eight – so I naturally took it from there. It didn’t seem to worry me very much because I was quite a bit older than all these fellows then.

There was one regatta held on the town reach of the river – I think it was a Commercial regatta when Toowong made a clean sweep of every race on the calendar. In some cases, we had two crews in the race and they went home in both first and second. Every crew member was presented with a little trophy, a small cup, about the size of an ordinary tea cup but traditional cup on a little base. I never saw the Club so animated as they were on that particular day. I mean when one crew would win, the next crew that went out, they were absolutely convinced they were going to win too and that’s how it went all afternoon.

That must have been 1950, 1949/50. Just after we had a big influx of young fellows down there from various places. Some of them came from the secondary schools, they’d finished there and the other fellows were just in the commercial places in the town and various jobs there. The membership then sort of grew because the fellows that came down there brought their friends down. Most of those fellows would have knew each other long before they came to Toowong. And that’s what I think made Toowong quite unique. These fellows knew each other before they came down there and they wanted to row as a crew together and we tried to keep that as much as possible. I personally wasn’t worried about winning races, just getting them to do something. We made a pretty concerted effort including fellows like Ron Mahony, Jack Brett, Ronny Ormand and later on Cal Malouf to keep all these fellows together. We arranged trips away for them. We went to pretty well most of the regattas up to Rockhampton, Maryborough, Bundaberg.

We used to have a wagon at Toowong. We were pretty friendly with the old stationmaster there, Tom Smith. He was there for donkey’s years. In those days Patterson’s saw mill was there and there was a siding that used to bring logs and stuff in for Patterson for them from milling operations. So we would hook an extra long wagon to take an eight or even a four and we used to take so many boats on the wagon. We’d turn them upside down, take the riggers off, turn them up and sit them side by side, and he used to supply tarps for us to put over the boats. And they always got there in pretty good condition. In a lot of cases, the fellows at the other end, like Bundaberg would always unload them for us, have them down at the shed for us ready to put the riggers on. In some cases we used to drive up. On one occasion we went up in a DC3. They’d come back to Toowong and we’d go up and collect it – quite simple. We used to have quite good cooperation between the stationmaster, he never let us down.

BACK (standing from left) Ron Grant, Les Keefer, Jack Brett, Ian Cook, Blair Allen, Ron Ormand, Ray Booker, Ray Smith, Noel Wilson
FRONT (seated from left) Col Bengston, Bill Ludgrove, Jim Nunan, David Bray, Dick Crombie.

When Tweed came up we always reciprocated and went down the Tweed and we had some great high times down there. We used to camp down there sometimes, not always when they were rowing but over the Christmas holidays and we had a marquee we used to send down. One occasion it was the old camping ground in Burleigh Heads for about a week or so. They used to come and go, they all used to have stretchers and they just did their own thing while they were there but mainly they kept together. We first started off behind the old Coolangatta railway station which was an area between there and New South Wales border. It was prone to flooding, which we found out later on. But we had a marquee erected there and we used to do the same thing, we used to camp down there and they used to go to various things like dances and so forth. I can remember one occasion at high tide and they must have had a deluge of rain somewhere further up and we sort of woke up one morning in about six or eight inches of water.

At that time Toowong Rowing Club was located opposite the Regatta Hotel. We had quite a few experiences of flooding over the years before the Club was washed away in 1974. In my day we’d open the front and back gate. The club in those days, had a set of gates on the back and also a set of door gates on the front, like doors, so we’d shift the boats up into a house, next door to the hotel and leave them in the front yard and we’d just leave these doors open in the shed. We’d move anything that we had to, that was loose and when the flood came through, the water just swirled through it. There was no resistance to the water, not like it was later on when it hit whole thing at the back and took the lot. But that’s what we used to do, but I wasn’t there in ’74 when that happened.

Every occasion down at the Club seemed to be a bit special to me and I was able to obtain a lot of satisfaction, when I did go down there. I had a lot of friends and the cooperation between the members themselves and my cooperation with them, just couldn’t fault. Every crew in my opinion was a good crew. Those that didn’t win races, it wasn’t always their fault, but, there’s no one thing I can say was the highlight. We did many things down there in a lot of ways. We introduced a speed boat, and that’s when Dave Magoffin arrived. Dave used to coach the crews from that. In most cases, if the crews had to do a racing start, the boat would be left behind.

Cal and I went to a lecture one night over at the university, of Professor Cotton and Forbes Carlisle. The lecture was “Adaptation Syndrome” which was the idea – one of the analogies was a carpenter, if he frequently cut himself or things like that, the wounds would heal much quicker than a person who say had no wounds of any description suddenly cut himself, he’d have a lot of trouble healing. The theory he’d adopted in muscle building and he adopted this what they called an ergometer. We had it installed down at the University and some of the boys went down there and had a try out on it and it was a real gut-buster. Anyway Cal and I got the wonderful idea, we’d reproduce this thing for Toowong. Instead of the straight pulling action of the ergometer, we would work up an arrangement with a flywheel activated by an oar which we tried to build. We had a bicycle wheel with the ratchet on it and coupled up to a chain at the end of a sawn down blade and we got a great lump of iron around this wheel. I think we rolled it, because in those days, in the old workshops we had at Indooroopilly, there was a set of blacksmith rollers. We rolled this inch square steel to fit around the back of the wheel of the rim of the bicycle and we bolted that on. Anyway they used to fiddle down there and fellows used to get on to it but eventually the fact that the weight in the wheel was quite out of balance with the strength of the spokes and you can imagine what happened. They tried to either give it sort of a quick start on it, or quick stop on it, the iron would keep going and of course the spokes would keep flexing backwards and forwards. Anyway, eventually it all fell through but later on when they got the extension finished, they put in a couple of professional rowing machines. They’ve got quite a gym down there now, I believe. But that was the beginnings of that – we used to fiddle with things like that and we used to have them all intrigued. Everyone wanted to have a go on it.

I eventually left the club about 1958/9. The work I was having to do wasn’t allowing me any time to get down there and what spare time I had, I didn’t want to spend down there because it was in pretty good hands Eventually I got married and that was the end of it. We had other things to do then.

The Club was going well at stage and they had the right people there. One main stalwart of the club is still there today, that’s Cal Malouf. I know when their finances got into a pretty serious way, he was the instigator of the bingo at Milton which was the club saviour as far as finance is concerned. Things have gone on from there. They’ve got some illustrious people associated with it today that we didn’t have in those days. They’ve done well. You get a bit maudlin, I suppose, you don’t like to see some of the old ways dropped and, but that’s progress. We’ve got to move on, there’s new ideas and new people. They used to run the regattas and I feel today they’ve taken them away from the river and taken up to Wivenhoe Dam. People – only real enthusiasts now sort of go up to watch those races. In my day there was quite a spirit, the rivalry between the clubs. It was Toowong and Commercial, they were the main two. We were very friendly with a lot of the fellows there. Wally Hughes was the main shaker and mover for Commercial and he was a great rival. I think the club was more “together” than they are today. They all seem to turn up on the particular days but I don’t see anything or hear anything of – except their annual dinner and things like that – where they sort of move off for a weekend together or something like that. We used to organise, say on Sunday, we would row from Toowong up to the old Mandalay Picnic Grounds and they would come back on the boat. They used to organise themselves barbecues up there and they were all away from the club house. Today the idea is I think, club rooms which they just go to and, you have a bar there, that seems to be the main consideration in these clubs today. And I suppose that’s the way things have gone. There’s nothing wrong with it, I see, it’s just progress. I feel that the old spirit of comradeship has gradually died away.

We got away and had a lot of fun together. They were good times.”

(Les Keefer was interviewed in November 2005).

Les Keefer died in April 2020.