Ever the gentleman, Jim shares a centenary
Jimmy Rochford, Canberran for 100 years
Jimmy Rochford of Hall will turn 100 in 2013 and has lived in the Canberra area all his life- will qualify for a centenary medallion in Canberra's centenary year. Photo: Karleen Minney
Our federal capital city and Jimmy Rochford, 99, of Hall, have a very important thing in common. Both have their 100th birthday this year. Rochford, who may be the only surviving man of his grand vintage to have lived in and around the Australian Capital Territory for all of his life, is 100 on August 10, 2013.
Meanwhile, of course, on March 12, 2013, this city celebrates the 100th anniversary of the suspense-packed 1913 occasion when Lady Denman, the wife of the governor-general, spoke that mystical word ''Canberra'' and the world found out the name of the city that was the capital of a continent.
Rochford will be receiving a special medallion as part of the centenary celebrations (and he was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia in 1987) but he's not a medal-seeking kind of chap. The fuss to be made over him this year will embarrass him. He is legendarily modest.
''He's always been like that,'' his friend Bob Wilson (he's 71 and all his life has known Rochford) confided to us.
''He's a terrific bloke. A very genuine bloke. What you see is what you get.''
Although Rochford is alert and active (his handshake is startlingly firm) it was very hard to get him to even pick up his own trumpet let alone blow his own tunes on it.
''The funny thing is you don't want to talk about yourself,'' he kept insisting.
Everyone around him (he never married and has no immediate family but has an abundance of old friends) is desperately proud and fond of him and wants him to have some deserved limelight. The man himself, though, is limelight shy.
He's lived for so long that the world that he was born into seems eerily remote to us. When he was born Australia's population was just 4,800,000 and George V, born in 1865 and the grandson of Queen Victoria, was king. An average Australian man's life expectancy was 55. Rural Australia was utterly horse-dependant. Aircraft were futuristic contraptions and intrepid Harry Houdini had managed the first successful Australian flight just three years earlier, in 1910.
In the week he was born, the local paper (it was The Queanbeyan Age) was reporting that Walter Burley Griffin, the designer of the federal capital city, was steaming towards Australia and would any day now come to see the site into which he and Marion Mahony Griffin had fitted their imagined city.
Jimmy Rochford explains in a strong, clear voice that ''My grandfather came out from Ireland and settled in the Jeir district.''
His grandfather was Alexander Rochford. He was 22 and a labourer when he arrived in Melbourne in August 1863. He went from Melbourne to Queanbeyan on foot. He soon married Elizabeth Rolfe. In 1883 they settled with their five children on their selection ''Forest View'' near Jeir. The family became established and Jimmy Rochford was born there in 1913.
By the 1930s, he explained (seated in his long, low, rambling home in Hall with the blinds pulled down to keep the hot sun and hard light at bay) ''my brothers and I were growing wheat in the Belconnen area''. He has a 1931-32 photograph of one of his brothers at work on a Belconnen prairie driving a wheat harvesting contraption pulled by four horses. The brothers also worked at sinking dams on local farms.
''And then I bought into the garage here in Hall and it wasn't long after that that war broke out and finally I was called up and found me way to New Guinea and came home from New Guinea finally. So I survived the war, thank God.''
Immediately after the war he took up by a kind of soldier-settler arrangement a farm of about 1000 hectares outside Hall. He's kept about 80 hectares and still does some work there ''chopping out weeds''.
Rochford's greatest claims to fame are his achievements for Hall. Though it was part of the Territory it was, he remembers vividly, ''out of sight, out of mind'' as far as the powers that be in Canberra were concerned. Some Canberrans wanted nothing spent on Hall.
''They wanted it left forever the way it was in 1900. But the first thing I wanted to do when I came back home from the war was to get electricity for Hall.''
And get it he did, and then later mains water too, and over the decades all sorts of other boons that were taken for granted in Canberra but that for Hall had to be fought for. His style of diplomacy seems to have been polite and persistent and wondrously effective.
''I was always a lover of the village and the people that were in it … it was part of the ACT but at the same time it wasn't part of the ACT until we made it that way. It's a very complex story. And no one knows it like I do. But it's a hard story to tell without sounding a bit boastful.''
He has strong memories of old Hall.
''The dentists used to come out from Queanbeyan in a horse and sulky to tend to the early settlers here. It was very primitive. Oh, yes! Teeth were filled and pulled and so on. No medicine in any way. You just washed your mouth out and went home. Those were pioneering days. They were horse and buggy days. We didn't expect aeroplanes. We all stood up to watch when the famous pilot came in [it was Bert Hinkler who flew on to Canberra after his world's first solo flight from England to Australia in February 1928]. We wanted to go into town to see him land but we had no means of transport. But [smiling] he flew in. He beat us for speed.''
Rochford was a model of modesty right to the very end of of our conversation. Asked how he felt about the medallion he's soon to receive, he volunteered that ''I think some of the old fellas that came into this land, before I was born, they're the ones that should have got a damn medal. They were tough old characters.''
In his modesty it didn't seem to occur to Jim Rochford, 99, that he has been and remains the toughest old character most of us will ever meet.