A young Jim Ellem ready for action. An older Jim became a civic leader in Grafton.
A young Jim Ellem ready for action. An older Jim became a civic leader in Grafton.

Jim takes knocks on way up

TOUGH men for tough times ? former farmer, boxer, carpenter and Grafton City Councillor Jim Ellem has filled the bill.

Jim was born in Grafton and raised on a cattle property at Whiteman Creek during the depression years and like most of that era, from an early age he knew what hard times and hard work were.

He did not like school, hated it in fact, often went truant and gave schooling away altogether at the finish of sixth class when he was just 12.

Like so many kids of the period he had no shoes to wear at school, around the farm, for the occasional visits to town or for several years when he was employed clearing land, splitting posts and planting fruit trees and passionfruit vines. So who needs them.

Jim had several fights in the boxing ring and in touring tent shows but admits to having more bare-knuckle fights over the years then those other two put together.

He remembers training and sparring with such notables as Hunter Quinn, 'Tracker' Robinson and Roy Hawthorne.

Marriage, raising a loving family, having good mates and running a successful building business have settled him down but even now in his late 70s he is prepared to have a go, won't back down if he feels somebody is pushing or trying to humiliate him or one of his family or mates. In other words he doesn't mind a stoush if he feels the cause is right.

Regarding good mates Jim in particular mentions Ralph Martin, these days living in Wooli.

"Ralph has been a great mate. A really great mate through and through," Jim says.

Although as tough as they come, Jim has often exposed his gentle and generous nature, not only prepared to help acquaintences but also some he had just met who were in financial difficulty.

Jim has never been big, always around the 9st 10lbs mark wringing wet since a 16-year-old and so many of his opponents, particularly in the bare knuckle brigade, have been bigger.

Jim became a carpenter by trade, serving his apprenticeship with local builder Bill Crabb and also gained the higher trades certificate as a plumber.

He went into business on his own and later joined with Bill Attwater to form Ellem and Attwater Builders.

He enjoyed his years in the trade, a profession that seems to attract fine work mates and during his 45 years in building he oversaw the construction of some of the finest building in the Clarence area.

James David Ellem was born in April 1926 at Dr Earle (later Sir Earle) Page's hospital in Oliver Street, opposite the Grafton racecourse.

He was the second of seven children, four boys and three girls, born to Whiteman Creek farmers, Harry James Ellem and Emma May (nee Betteridge) Ellem.

First born was William (Bill) and following Jim were Ivy, Jessie, Dorothy (Dot) Don and John.

Bill served in the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) during World War Two but Jim was too young to join up in the early stages of that conflict and then when he reached 18 in 1943 his application to enlist was knocked back on the grounds that he was working in an essential industry.

Jim attended Seelands Public School until fourth class and then was at the Whiteman Creek Public.

"Main sport at the schools were marbles and cricket," Jim said.

"Our headmaster at the oneteacher Whiteman Creek School was Peter Steiner and I did not like him.

"He gave me a real hard time but it was probably a lot my fault.

"I often wagged school, going fishing or swimming and at times helping the horsemen on the Tick Board staff round up cattle that had not been 'voluntarily' dipped by the local farmers.

"My parents didn't know I was playing truant but my teacher Steiner found out and gave me six of the best.

"He wielded the cane heavily and I made the mistake by saying after the first three heavy whacks that it was not hurting, so he really laid on the final three. No way though was I going to let on it hurt."

Anyhow that was the end of schooling for young Jim.

He had always done his share around the farm, particularly with the milking, but now it was full-on.

"Dad would take our cream to the riverside Grafton Dairy Company Factory and because he was a member was able to buy a sugar bag full of pork bones for a shilling (10c)," Jim said.

"As anyone of that vintage will agree pork bones, when available, were an absolute delight.

"Dad would bring the bagful home, take out a good number of the bones for mum to bake and then distribute the rest among our neighbours.

"When I was 13, I had thoughts about becoming a jockey and actually rode at a couple of picnic race meetings but then came the job assisting Cyril Howard on his Mountainview Farm.

"My main task was clearing 10 acres of trees and undergrowth to make it viable for fruit planting and that 10 acres became the birthplace of Howards famous Mountainview Orange Farm.

"Before walking to Howards each morning I would help milk our cows, walk to their property, do the work, walk back to our place and finish the milking."

Barefooted, Jim cleared the trees and other growth using a mattock, shovel, axe and a crosscut saw. He would fell the trees, saw the trunks and then using a heavy sledge-hammer wedge, split them into posts.

He cleared the tree stumps by burning and grubbing them out.

"I was getting five pounds a week wages which was good but I was earning the money," Jim said.

"One day I was as usual working bare-footed when a five-foot brown snake grabbed me by the ankle and would not let go.

"Cyril shot the snake and drove me to Grafton Base Hospital, where I was admitted and received treatment but for the next few days I had very little sleep because of the pain.

"I was off work for three or four weeks and for many years after the ankle would swell up and ache at various periods, not letting me forget what had happened.

"From the cleared land I helped plant the orange trees and in between I planted passionfruit vines.

"We harvested passionfruit in the first year but it was three years before we picked any oranges."

Jim worked at the farm for four years or so and was around 17 when he became a trainee carpenter and plumber apprenticed to local builder, Bill Crabb.

Two years later Jim met Ailsa Stephenson, the woman he was to marry.

Ailsa was home on leave at Junction Hill from her workplace in Sydney, where she and sister Marcia worked in a Beaufort Bomber factory as part of the war effort.

Jim and Ailsa knew they were meant for each other and were married at Grafton's Christ Church Cathedral in December 1948.

For a while they and their growing family lived in a garage Jim built at Junction Hill until he finished a house at Blackwood Close. After some years they sold that house to live in Oliver Street.

They have four daughters, Peggy, Lyn, Sandra and Debrah and son David.

David has followed in his father's footsteps becoming a carpenter, in fact serving his apprenticeship with his father.

Eldest daughter Peggy, was Jacaranda Princess in 1967.

Jim Ellem has generally been a fit man, a fitness fanatic actually.

He remembers, however, he was not fit and spent too much time at the pub leading up to his first two ring battles when he was a 17 years old. He paid the penalty, beaten on points in both bouts.

Those losses irked him and he has made sure he has been in good condition ever since for health reasons as well as to meet any emergency.

"As well as plenty of sparring I used to go for long road runs most nights ? and still do," Jim said.

"I also took to heart the best advice I ever received about fighting, from my grandfather, Bill Ellem.

"He told me 'you can train as much as you like but there are two places you will never grow muscle, on your nose or on your chin, so keep both covered when in a fight'."

Jim's main reason for doing well in fights, be it in the boxing ring, on sawdust in the show tents or bare knuckle, was not so much his defence as his fitness, toughness and hitting power. Among the ring fights Jim best remembers was one against the teak-hard South Grafton lad Viv Milligan, one of the five Milligan brothers who graced the ring during the 1940s and 1950s.

Jim and Viv turned it on in a thrilling encounter which at the conclusion brought a shower of money into the ring.

Jim was awarded a points decision and the bout also received the fight of the night award.

Another was in a fight promoted by the renowned Gryff Wallace, a six rounds bout against the artful Vincent Wicks.

"I broke my thumb when I knocked him down in the first round," Jim said.

"From there I virtually fought one-handed and was in pain all the way but lasted the six rounds only to see the referee raise Vincent's hand in victory for what must have been a narrow points decision.

"Due to the badly damaged thumb I was off work for three weeks but Bill Crabb, a great bloke, paid my full wage."

One of his most notable tent fights Jim reckons was set up by boxers of the Les McNab boxing troupe in Grafton for the annual show.

"I was having a quiet ale at The Blue Goose Hotel at Junction Hill when the boxers came in and one started picking me so I knocked him down.

"The next day I was at the show, one of the big crowd in front of the boxing tent, when McNab challenged me, telling the crowd I was just a dirty fighter that had king-hit his man the previous night.

"That was not true as his fighter had thrown the first punch.

"I suppose most of it was all promotional work and it certainly paid dividends as I accepted the challenge, four rounds or last one standing, and the crowd poured into the tent, paying their money.

"I knocked my opponent down in the third round and he couldn't or wouldn't get up and McNab disqualified me saying I had hit after the bell.

"I said 'what bell?' and asked for my money but McNab refused to pay so in anger I grabbed him and then his fighters and patrons came from everywhere in a melee and it was on for a while until the police broke it up."

Jim said he enjoyed and was proud of his 17 years service as an alderman on the Grafton City Council.

At one stage he was the longest continuous serving member of the council.

He was always busy and worked on flood mitigation, local emergency, Clarence Valley estuary management and tidy towns committees.

Re-elected term after term he served under three mayors, Alan Dahl, Bruce Sahlqvist and Shirley Adams.

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