Salute for bridge boy who rode into history
Captain Francis de Groot, with his borrowed horse and crazy sword, stole the show, but it is a nine-year-old boy and his beloved pony’s presence at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge 85 years ago that is being celebrated in the tiny town of Leongatha today.
Lennie Gwyther, a quietly determined soldier’s son, rode his horse Ginger Mick from the family’s modest farm, Flers in Leongatha, to Sydney to be at the event.
The schoolboy rode all 930km alone and bare-legged, spooked by hobos and chased by the flames of a devastating bushfire, a sou’wester atop his combed hair.
He left town on Wednesday, February 3, show day, his anxious mother and siblings waving him off. He packed lightly, carrying a swag and a pack of sweets pushed into his hands by his younger sister Beryl as he set off.
Lennie’s journey along the backroads and through the high country began quietly enough, but as word of his feat spread so did his fame and by the time he reached Sydney in early March thousands turned out to greet him at Martin Place.
“I remember seeing him off,” Beryl told The Weekend Australian. “I also remember the civic reception when he got home but it was never a big deal. I think the statue they have built is perfect, it’s not a formal statue and that suits my brother and our family perfectly.”
Asked by the local newsmen, Lennie conceded Sydney was “bonzer” but deemed the attention “most pestiferous”. Souvenir hunters plucking hairs from Ginger Mick’s tail did not impress the wide-eyed visitor.
In Leongatha today the locals and members of Lennie’s family will attend a small ceremony to unveil a statue for the boy, his horse and his incredible feat.
Alerted to Lennie’s feat, community members formed a committee to raise funds for the project. The local school put on a musical about his journey and ticket takings were donated.
Beryl Ferrier, now 92, will be at the ceremony along with Lennie’s daughter, Mary, who says her self-effacing father would “be quite amazed — he wouldn’t understand the fuss of it”.
Mary grew up aware of the ride and inherited the cricket bat autographed by Don Bradman and given to Lennie when he passed through Canberra but says he never spoke much about it.
“He wasn’t a bragger really, he never made a big thing of it,” Ms Gwyther said. “I asked him once if he ever wanted to turn back and he said that one night a hobo jumped out and scraped him a bit but that was the only time.”
The road in 1932 was full of itinerants in search of work, flushed from their homes by the Great Depression. Many of them worked on the bridge.
Lennie’s father, Captain Leo Gwyther, was a war hero, decorated with Military Cross and Bar. In the winter of 1931 he broke his leg in an accident and the boy shouldered the bulk of the farm work, milking the cows and harnessing a four-horse team to plough and harrow the fields.
On return his father asked him what reward he wanted in return. Lennie, who was obsessed by machinery and engineering, said he wanted to make the journey.
Beryl recalls Lennie being something of an inventor. He built a hand-pump washing machine for his mother to which he later added a motor, a land yacht for his siblings to ride on the farm and a boat to sail on the dam.
Later he built a home for his mother and was well into the construction of a yacht in the backyard of his Melbourne home when he died.
Ginger Mick, who was born the same year as Lennie and given to the boy when he was a toddler, won a ribbon at the Moss Vale show on the way to the bridge for best pony and boy rider under 10. The red horse lived to be 27 and was buried at Flers.
A song written by Bernard Wheatley about the journey will be performed at today’s ceremony in Leongatha.
Lennie was supposed to catch a boat home from Sydney but convinced his father that he should be allowed to ride back — through Melbourne this time.
‘I also remember the civic reception when he got home but it was never a big deal’ BERYL FERRIER ON LENNIE’S RIDE
Lennie Gwyther on Ginger Mick during his 930km ride from Leongatha to Sydney 85 years ago
Beryl Ferrier with a statue of her brother Lennie Gwyther