Following Lennie's lead
Discovering 9-year-old Lennie Gwyther's epic solo journey by pony from Leongatha to Sydney
14 January 2015
As with my other Heritage Heroes titles (Lost! and Amazing Grace), Lennie the Legend started with an image. This time it was a black-and-white photograph of a small boy in a funny hat riding a sturdy pony past a dais packed with important people. Who was he? What was the event? How had he got there? And why was he all alone?
A number of productive hours spent trawling through the National Library of Australia's Trove website revealed the story of nine-year-old Lennie Gwyther who, in 1932, rode his intrepid pony Ginger Mick nearly 1,000 kilometres, from Leongatha in Victoria to Sydney, for the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
As with all true stories, once I started digging I found there was a lot more to this fascinating tale: a war-hero father, a terrible accident, a close encounter with a bushfire and, of course, a small boy alone on the road with his pony for five weeks at the height of the Great Depression.
To add to the storytelling potential, the tale was peppered with Australian icons. The Sydney Harbour Bridge, Phar Lap, Don Bradman and Charles Kingsford Smith all featured, along with the Royal Easter Show, Taronga Park Zoo and Bondi Beach. Some well-known historical figures also made an appearance: Prime Minister Joe Lyons, controversial New South Wales Premier Jack Lang, scene-stealer Francis De Groot, and even a young Gough Whitlam. This story had everything!
Once my book proposal was accepted by NLA Publishing, the next step was to retrace Lennie's journey. This involved two road trips (luckily by car, not pony!): one from my hometown of Canberra to Leongatha, and the other from Canberra to Sydney. Both provided invaluable insights into the story and the people involved.
In Leongatha, I was lucky enough to meet, through the members of the Leongatha and District Historical Society, Lennie's sister-in-law Shirley Gwyther, as well as his schoolmate, local historian John Murphy. They also put me in touch with Lennie's sister, Beryl Ferrier. These were indeed serendipitous encounters for a writer of creative non-fiction.
In Sydney, I followed Lennie's route around Taronga Zoo using a 1930s map from a guidebook I found in the National Library's collections. There is something very special about walking in the footsteps of the character you are writing about--and researching and writing Lennie the Legend provided many such wonderful experiences.
This book took me back to a time when children shouldered adult responsibilities much earlier than they do today. It is highly unlikely that these days a boy Lennie's age would be able to undertake such an amazing solo journey.
I hope that readers enjoy this fictionalised retelling of the inspiring true tale of a courageous and determined young Australian's quest to witness the historic opening of the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge.
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