Interviewee: Mr Grahame Ernest Coves
Date of Birth: 7 May 1946
Interviewer: Phyllis Barnes
Date of Interview: 29 March & 27 May 2010
Date of Death: 30 January 2019
BOHG No: 2010-001
Total Length: 1hr 38 mins 40 secs
Phyllis Barnes of the Bunbury Oral History Group interviewed Grahame Ernest Coves, President of the Bunbury Oral History Group on 29 March and 27 May 2010.
Grahame was born on 7 May 1946 in North Sydney, NSW, son of William Aloisius Coves and Ivy Laura (nee Tuttleby). He has an elder brother, Brian, (who worked as an engineer on the Bank Shipping line, before moving to Two Rocks, WA), two elder sisters Fay and Pam and a younger sister, Julie. An older sister died of diphtheria before Grahame was born. His parents married in 1930 in Goulburn, NSW. His father was Catholic and his mother converted in order to marry William.
Grahame grew up alongside Sydney Harbour at a place called Kerosene Bay, within the view of the harbour bridge. This has since been cleared of industrial businesses and is now called Oyster Cove, which houses multi-million-dollar properties.
Grahame’s father was a boiler maker and loved training and racing trotting horses. He won a couple of big races whilst growing up in Goulburn and raced against the famous trotting horse called Walla Walla, who was a legend of its time.
Grahame’s first school was North Sydney Demonstration School and one of his memories was when the students lined the road to see the Queen drive by in 1954. He attended North Sydney Technical School where he concentrated on trade-based subjects. One of the ex-pupils was Dick Smith, who was a couple of years younger than Grahame. In his school and spare time, he played cricket, rugby league, the latter coached by Wallaby Bob Davidson, did bit of boxing and won a competition at the Lilac Time, a festival in Goulburn. He liked swimming and lived near Luna Park, which he frequented a lot.
However, the family fell on hard times and they had to move out of the harbour side house and moved into a housing settlement made up of nissen huts in the western suburbs of Sydney, located next to a migrant camp. Because of this, Grahame left school early and went to work at a friend’s trucking business delivering produce to Hawkesbury River.
At the age of fifteen Grahame joined the railways at Hornsby as a porter. One of his duties was a call boy when he would ride his bike to crews’ houses to make sure they were out of bed and make their shift on time! Over time he undertook a series of exams allowing him to work in administration starting in the booking office, working his way up as the manager of the parcels office at Strathfield and he ended his 19-year career at Blacktown in 1981, as a supervisor.
The Coves family had moved around eventually settling in the Hawkesbury district where they rented some land and his father trained trotting horses and Grahame trained greyhounds. Unfortunately, William never got back to racing horses as he was diagnosed with lymphoma and not long after, died aged 61.
By this time Grahame met Jan, they married and along came Melissa in 1973, Katrina in 1976 and Jan had a son called Peter. The idea of moving to Western Australia happened over a beer with his brother-in-law. His sister Julie was easily swayed to the move but Jan wasn’t so eager! In 1981, Grahame left his steady job with the railways, sold his house and packed Jan, his two daughters and his mother into a kombi, and his sister and brother-in-law did the same and they came over the Nullarbor in convoy, taking about six weeks to travel from Sydney to Perth, arriving in July. They had a couple of break downs along the way and they ended up putting their vehicles on the Prospector train at Kalgoorlie to get to Perth.
They lived with Grahame’s brother at Two Rocks until January 1982 when the family moved down to Bunbury after Grahame successfully obtained the shipping clerk’s position at the Bunbury Port Authority. At the time the Managing Secretary was Basil Mason, Brian Cunningham was the Accountant, Bob Allsop was the Harbour Master and Don Johnson was the Port Superintendent and their office was in an old building in the Marleston area, which was later demolished in 2000 and new offices were built on the site. Harbour and Lights were in the same building where the coxswain and boatman on the pilot boat had their offices and across the road was a workshop where the Marleston waterfront flats are now. The timber jetty was de-commissioned in June 1982, the inner harbour was built in 1976 where Alcoa was based, and the outer harbour had two land-backed berths. Over time the Port expanded when Worlsey Alumina started exporting.
They lived in a couple of houses before grabbing the opportunity to live as caretakers at Leschenault Homestead in 1986 which was owned by the Port Authority. It was purchased from Eric and Precious Johnson in the 1960s who had gained life tenancy. On the death of Precious, the Port decided that the property required caretakers. The ambience of the place sparked Grahame’s interest in enhancing the gardens to the stage where they were asked to hold weddings in the grounds. Being in a somewhat isolated place, they also experienced a couple of hair-raising incidents, but overall had seventeen very good years there.
The Port became computerised in 1989 when Grahame was put forward to do an IT course at TAFE. He has since set up a detailed database of the history of the Port updating information put together by John Willinge, some years earlier, for his book “Steam Ahead”. The database contains photographs of early visiting ships and equipment that was once used at the Port and rescued from being thrown away. These items were then put on display in a small museum. One item, a diver’s pump, was the Harbour Board’s initial purchase in 1908 and was restored by Ron Swanson, Peter Beale and some of the workshop staff. Another was a tide gauge that was found at the jetty.
In 1992 a radical workplace change was enforced by the Federal Government, whereby waterside workers and administration staff were to become amalgamated, resulting in an integrated workforce reducing the number of demarcation disputes. In order to achieve this, Grahame and Brian Cunningham, the General Manager, were put under a lot of pressure to put arrangements in place in a short period of time. As a sweetener the Government handed out money for reform. With all new practices sorted out and a few weeks to go before the deadline, Grahame received a call one weekend to say that Brian Cunningham had a heart attack and died. He was only 46. The Port became a different place after that. Not only with the passing of Brian, whose position was eventually filled by Dom Figliomeni, but also everybody’s duties were changed in so much that the staff were looking after the Port infrastructure and doing the stevedoring. The old methods had changed. That was until a change in Government and then positions became outsourced.
Since 1982, Grahame had worked under four CEO’s, four Harbour Masters, three Port Superintendents, three Financial Controllers, four or five Chairmen and lots and lots of board members.
At the time of the interview, Grahame and Jan were planning towards retirement. Grahame wanting to pursue his historical interests and technical expertise in expanding the Port database and Bunbury oral histories. Jan on the other hand, was looking forward to travelling! He reflected that Bunbury had been a great place to raise his two daughters, who were now married and between them had 5 children. Jan’s son Peter was living in Mandurah with his family.