It’s 1932 and Australia was in the grip of the Great Depression.
One in three workers were unemployed
Decrepit shanty town hugged the outskirts of the big cities.
A scrawny rabbit, caught in a trap, would feed a family for a week.
Country roads were filled with broken men walking from one farmhouse to another seeking menial jobs and food.
On the outskirts of the South Gippsland town of Leongatha, an injured farmer lay in bed, unable to walk – or work.
His father, World War I hero Capt. Leo Gwyther, was in hospital with a broken leg and the family farm was in danger of falling into ruins.
Up stepped his son, nine-year-old Lennie.
For many months, with the help of a four-horse team, he “harrowed and ‘smoged’, twenty-four acres of land” and kept the place running until his father could get back on his feet. On account of doing so, his father offered a reward.
Lenny had been obsessively following one of the biggest engineering feats of the era – the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. All he asked for was to attend its opening.
His mother, Clara, was unsure but, because of his hard work on the farm in a time of need, she reluctantly allowed him to go.
On 3 February 1932 Lennie saddled up Ginger Mick, packed a map his father had created, a toothbrush, pyjamas, a water bottle and a map into a haversack and began the long trek to Sydney. He had £1 in his pocket.
He had no clear idea with whom he would stay in Sydney, but he had letters of introduction to the Lord Mayor, to Col. Eric Campbell and to the Secretary of the Royal Agricultural Society from the Woorayl Shire President.
All alone! A nine-year-old boy riding a pony from the deep south of Victoria to the biggest and roughest city in the nation.
This was a totally different era. No social media, no mobile phones. But even then it didn’t take long before word began to spread about a boy, his horse and their epic trek.
His journey was widely publicised in the media, particularly newspapers. Frequent updates regarding his whereabouts led Lennie to encounter experiences he could never have imagined at the time of his departure.
News of the boy and his pony preceded them until all Australia could read of their progress. Even the London Times recorded the determination of Lennie to follow his dream.
Stirred by the courage of the young boy from South Gippsland, people were moved to come to roadsides to wave and wish him “Godspeed”.
He survived bushfires, was attacked by a “vagabond” and endured rain, cold and biting winds.
When he reached Canberra he was welcomed by Prime Minister Joseph Lyons, who invited him into Parliament House for tea.
At the end of his 620 miles (1000 kilometer) journey he arrived in Martin Place, accompanied by 25 police, and was met by 10,000 cheering citizens. The Secretary of the Royal Agricultural Society, Colonel Sommerville also greeted him. He was wearing khaki breeches, boots and leggings, and a thick coat, and was carrying a cloth sun hat in his hand.
In Sydney he met with Lord Mayor Sir Samuel Walder. While waiting for the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge he also visited Circular Quay, Bondi Beach and Taronga Zoo, where he rode an elephant
On 19th March 1932 Lennie, with Ginger Mick, paraded across the Sydney Harbour Bridge in its opening. While honoured by an invitation to partake in the official ceremony, Len must have wondered why all the fuss, being a quiet, retiring youngster.
Even Donald Bradman, the biggest celebrity of the Depression era, requested a meeting and gave him a signed cricket bat.
A letter written to The Sydney Morning Herald at the time gushed that “just such an example as provided by a child of nine summers, Lennie Gwyther was, and is, needed to raise the spirit of our people and to fire our youth and others to do things – not to talk only.
“The sturdy pioneer spirit is not dead . . . let it be remembered that this little lad, when his father was in hospital, cultivated the farm – a mere child.”
As he left for home, crowds waves handkerchiefs. Women wept and shouted “goodbye”.
According to the Sun newspaper, “Lennie, being a typical casual Australian, swung into the saddle and called “Toodleloo”!
His journey home involved talking to children at Gunning Public School about his experience as well as celebrating his tenth birthday with shire councilors, and being given a £1 note.
As he passed through other towns on the way he was greeted by crowds and feted by town councilors and other dignitaries.
Upon his arrival back in Leongatha, after an epic journey of 2,000 kilometers, Len was met by 800 citizens. He also delivered a return letter from Sydney’s Lord Mayor to the president of the Woorayl Shire Council.
Gwyther was also recorded in the Guilds Records as the “youngest known person to make a solo equestrian journey”. In Leongatha, Victoria, Gwyther Siding Road was named after him.
Newspapers have been publishing articles about him since 1932. The story of Lennie Gwyther was so widespread that The London Times also reported on him.
10 March 1932 The Sydney Morning Herald published a poem by V.G. Williams, entitled “My Latest Ambition”.
When my toy aeroplane I fly, I imagine I’m up in the sky.
Though Daddy says it’s a myth, I tell myself I’m Kingsford Smith.
With bat and ball I sometimes play, And if one bowl I chance to stay,
I call to Mummy, “Mummy, look. You watch me do the Bradman hook”.
But since Len Gwyther came to town, He’s tumbled all my idols down.
And on my rocking-horse I ride, I’m Lennie from the Gippsland side.
In January 2015, Bob Newton, South Gippsland Shire councilor and former mayor recognised the significance of the story of Lennie Gwyther and Ginger Mick for children of this generation, and asked for a statue to be made. Almost three years later on 14 October 2017, a bronze statue of Lennie Gwyther riding Ginger Mick was unveiled in Leongatha by the Gwyther family.
LOIS, What a fantastic and inspiring story. I had never heard of it before, but like our book of letters from the past, there are great stories in our archives that need telling. How do you find these gems?
A wonderful story!
We all need to be reminded of the fortitude and strength of character of a 9 year old boy and his horse from so long ago.