Champ of hard work
John Blackburn loved four-legged creatures, especially dogs and horses, but the dairy farmer turned breeder of champion thoroughbreds also contributed much to the lives of the two-legged mammals in the Harvey shire.
The legendary charmer blessed with wit and a cheeky grin was also a hard worker who proved that with common sense, determination, self-belief, ingenuity, blood, sweat and tears, you can build a successful and full life.
John died peacefully at Harvey Hospital at the age of 94 on May 9, his wife of 72 years Joan — “his rock of Gibraltar” — and youngest daughter Judith by his side.
Born in Mt Lawley, he was the third of four sons for Agnes and Harry Blackburn. When he was still a baby, the family moved to Albany, where Harry managed the Freemasons Hotel.
Around 1930, the Blackburns shifted to York to run the Imperial Hotel. Growing up in the hospitality industry taught the young John the value of manners and service.
While he played a good game of tennis, the competitive sportsman was a champion swimmer at Northam High School. The family moved again in 1940, this time to Cookernup, where his father bought Homebush, a 800ha farm, for 10,000 pounds. John won a scholarship to study accountancy, but chose to return to the farm.
During World War II, John joined the Royal Australian Navy — he needed his father’s signature as he was not 21.
Ordinary Seaman No. F5079 was only 17 when HMAS Southern Cross arrived in Darwin a few days after 242 Japanese aircraft had bombed the harbour, causing carnage and an estimated 250 deaths.
John’s swimming prowess came to the fore in Darwin.
While he did not often discuss his time in the navy, he told nephew Bruce Butcher of “diving under the ship with a knife in his mouth to cut away a rope that had tied around the propeller while somebody stood on the deck with a gun to shoot crocodiles should they become too interested in our Tarzan Blackburn”.
It was also while stationed in Darwin that John received a postcard from home. Joan had sent a photo, which he showed off to a fellow serviceman from Rockingham, who revealed that he had the same glamour shot.
Joan was just doing her bit for troop morale, but John negotiated a peacetime accord and they married on April 17, 1947. The couple settled into the shearer’s cottage on the family farm, to which John added a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom and veranda.
This was typical of his lifelong DIY obsession — he built three dairies, numerous sheds and, most notably, the Hillview home that still stands proudly on the Cookernup property.
Farm duties came first, so the house took two years to build, with John later wiring the structure himself.
John and Joan had four kids in five years — Raymond, Brian, Norman and Robyn — followed five years later by Judith.
When Harry Sr died, Homebush was split in three, with John running sheep and beef cattle before reluctantly changing to more dependable dairy farming. He somehow found time for a busy social life, which included golf, horseriding, shooting, tennis, swimming and even waterskiing on Logue Brook Dam.
John also served on the Harvey Shire Council and terms as president of the Yarloop-Cookernup branch of the Liberal Party and the Farmers’ Union. He also sat on several agricultural advisory committees.
“If that’s not enough, he was also captain (for three years) and life member of the Harvey Golf Club,” eldest son Ray said in the eulogy.
“No wonder Dad was worn out when he passed away — he had nothing left in the tank.”
When John and Joan scaled down from farming, they turned to horse breeding. They borrowed $100,000 and travelled to New Zealand to buy three broodmares, striking gold with Surprising, who foaled Rosamoss, Surprise Moss and Dusky Rosa. Rosamoss won the 1983 Boulder and Kalgoorlie Cups, while Surprise Moss won a Winter Cup at Belmont Park before becoming a successful sire.
Dusky Rosa won Perth races, but her true value emerged as an outstanding broodmare.
In 1997, her son Ebony Grosve won Group 1 races, including the Australian Derby at Randwick and MacKinnon Stakes at Flemington, and ran eighth in that year’s Melbourne Cup.
Other top horses resulting from John’s breeding ventures included Macrosa, Mikasa and Zamelina.
A procession of dogs named Shadow and Dog shadowed John around the farm, although his final pooch Susie was more companion than working dog.
John also had a penchant for four-wheeled beasts. His one extravagance began with a Prefect, rolled through a Ford Consul and green second-hand Ford V8 before he bought his beloved Rambler, which he maintained for 35 years.
In 2012, John and Joan reluctantly retired to Hocart Village in Harvey, where John’s famous drive for hard work did not completely disappear.
Visiting one day, second eldest son Brian discovered a 2m square of sand in the backyard had been levelled.
“Understanding his (poor) mobility, the only way he could have levelled that was on his hands and knees,” he explained.
“Dad said ‘Every man needs to have a shed. I’m gonna put down some concrete and build a shed’.”
The shed was never built. Faltering health two years ago resulted in John moving to Hocart Lodge Aged Centre.
John is survived by Joan, his brothers Harry, 96, and Basil, 90, plus five children, 14 grandchildren and 21 (and counting) great-grandchildren.
John Blackburn enjoyed great success breeding racehorses.
JOHN BLACKBURN Farmer and racehorse breeder Born: Mt Lawley, 1924 Died: Harvey, aged 94