Farm and racing lifelong passions

Harvey-Waroona Reporter
When John and Joan retired from farming, they turned to horse breeding.
Camera IconWhen John and Joan retired from farming, they turned to horse breeding.

Farmer, racehorse breeder, family man and “charmer” John Blackburn died peacefully at Harvey Hospital on May 9 at the age of 94.

His wife of 72 years Joan and youngest daughter Judith were by his side.

“His mother brought him up with very good manners, which was definitely part of his charm,” Joan said.

“He was a shy person, but he could be cheeky.”

John was born in Mt Lawley, the third of four sons for Agnes and Harry Blackburn, though the family moved to Albany when he was still a baby.

In the 1930s, the Blackburns moved to York to run the Imperial Hotel.

John attended Northam High School, where he was a competitive sportsman and champion swimmer.

This is also where he first met his wife of 72 years, Joan, whose wheat-farming family lived in Quairading.

“I didn’t really like him in high school,” she laughed.

“He was quite a shy person and I was a rather boisterous lass.

“They say opposites attract and this was definitely the case with us.” John’s family moved to Cookernup in 1940 where his father bought the 800ha dairy farm “Homebush” for 10,000 pounds.

John won a scholarship to study accountancy, but chose to return to the farm.

During this time apart, John and Joan wrote each other letters now and then, but did not meet up again until John joined the Navy and Joan signed up for the Air Force.

John was stationed in Darwin during his time with the Royal Australian Navy.
Camera IconJohn was stationed in Darwin during his time with the Royal Australian Navy.

For a time John was stationed in Darwin, where his swimming prowess came to the fore.

Though he spoke little of his time in the navy John once told his 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”.

John had the nickname “Tarzan Blackburn” during his time in the navy in Darwin.
Camera IconJohn had the nickname “Tarzan Blackburn” during his time in the navy in Darwin.

When John was stationed in Perth he sent a telegram to Joan’s aunt.

He asked Joan to meet him at the navy club “on Saturday at 7pm – don’t be late”.

Unfortunately, Joan’s cousin carried the telegram around in his pocket for a week before delivering it to Joan.

She arrived at precisely 7pm but had to wait 10 minutes for John to arrive.

“I told him ‘you’re 10 minutes late’, and he said to me ‘well you’re a week late’,” Joan said.

“And we went from there really.”

The pair married on April 17, 1947, and 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.

When John’s father died, Homebush was split in three with John running sheep and beef cattle before reluctantly changing to more dependable dairy farming.

The pair had four kids in five years – Raymond, Brian, Norman and Robyn – followed five years later by Judith.

When John and Joan retired from farming, they turned to horse breeding.

“John’s passion was horses,” Joan said. “I resisted for a while, but then I said he could have one.”

The couple travelled to New Zealand and bought three broodmares, striking gold with Surprising who foaled Rosamoss, Surprise Moss and Dusky Rosa.

“I said one horse, but we soon wound up with nine,” Joan said.

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.

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 remained very active throughout his life, finishing up his workday with a brisk walk every day.

It was during one of these walks in 2012 that John slipped on some loose gravel on the side of the road and took a bad fall.

John never quite recovered from the fall and the couple moved to Hocart Village that year.

In 2016 John was moved into the Hocart Lodge Aged Centre, but Joan visited him twice a day for hours at a time.

She said his heart remained in the Cookernup house he had built with his own hands.

“The current owners of the farm house have given us permission to scatter his ashes behind the house, which is what we will do as a family,” Joan said.

John is survived by Joan, his brothers Harry, 96, and Basil, 90, plus five children, 14 grandchildren and 21 (and counting) great- grandchildren.

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