John is in heaven building boats or handing out balloons

John Edward Guest. Photo Megan Lewis / Morning Bulletin
John Edward Guest. Photo Megan Lewis / Morning Bulletin Megan Lewis

JOHN Guest's final words to me came in the form of a letter at his funeral.

It was just before his service at St Joseph's Cathedral when a friend of his passed a single folded page to me.

I was about to read the eulogy so I decided to put the letter aside until after the service for fear of becoming too emotional.

The letter to me was one of several for friends and relatives found pinned inside John's coat and retrieved by a friend at Rockhampton Hospital after he died there on September 29, aged 90.

Many of you who live in and visit Rockhampton regularly would know of John.

He was one of the region's colourful characters.

John Edward Guest. Photo Megan Lewis / Morning Bulletin
John Edward Guest. Photo Megan Lewis / Morning Bulletin Megan Lewis

Sporting a large white beard, sailor's cap and a kilt, he always stood out from the crowd as he pushed his homemade portable wheelbarrow around city streets.

Behind this distinctive appearance was a unique person; a complete one off, who overcame mental health challenges to live an amazing life built around a fearless independence that few of use could imagine.

Here is a man who built a boat in his public housing flat, planned to ride a solar powered bike to Sydney and lived for 12 years in a three-sided shed.

(The following is an edited version of the eulogy largely written by Ruth Roberston with some input from Frazer Pearce).

With his twinkly blue eyes, rosy cheeks and his beaming smile he enjoyed being mistaken for Santa Claus by the children.

This was not difficult - he was the image of Santa Claus himself - and was for a time in the 1990s was given casual employment by some of the department stores to act as Santa Claus.

When John suffered incontinence a few years ago, he was no longer offered this job and it was a great source of disappointment for him.

Still, John carried an abundant supply of treats in his pockets and would hand these out to children whenever an opportunity presented.

Hundreds of parents and children in our city would recall these small but kind deeds and thereby John touched more lives than some of us may ever do.

But to tell John's remarkable story we need to go back to 1923 and the small town of Lydbrook in the Forest of Glen, Gloucestershire, when he was born to his parents, Albert and Elizabeth Guest.

He was baptised at "Courtfield", the family home of Cardinal Vaughan.

It was a large house situated on the opposite side of the Wye River and John's mother Elizabeth would have to wake the ferryman to take her across the river to Mass on a Sunday morning.

After John was born, his brother Michael and a sister, Pamela, came along.

One of his early memories was looking at a display TV in a shop window in London in 1928.

On leaving school at 14, John was employed for a time at a spectacle manufacturer.

John found work at the Lightmoor Colliery and then the Brockworth Aircraft factory near Gloucester, helping in the production of planes until his call-up into the armed forces in 1941 at age 18.

He became a sapper in the Royal Engineers and spent two years stationed near Gibraltar.

The war took its toll on John and at the end of the war in 1945, he was discharged as mentally unfit for duties.

He spent several months in a mental hospital, but somehow managed to emigrate to Australia on the 10 pound scheme in December 1949.

John Guest checks out the view of the flooded Fitzroy River Photo Sharyn O'Neill / The Morning Bulletin ROK151210fit-S4
John Guest checks out the view of the flooded Fitzroy River Photo Sharyn O'Neill / The Morning Bulletin ROK151210fit-S4 Sharyn O'Neill

John told stories about the journey from England, one of them about the terrible weather when only three people turned up for breakfast - himself and two small children. The waiter spoke Greek and could not understand what the children wanted so John had to play 'charades' to have the waiter understand to bring their orders.

He landed in Melbourne and made his way to Queensland where he fell in love with the warmer weather.

He wrote home to his brother with such glowing reports of the wonderful Australian lifestyle and colourful stories, that Michael and his wife and three children were induced to embark to Australia also.

Sister Pamela remained in England and still lives there.

John led a rather nomadic lifestyle for decades in and around the North Queensland area where he found work cutting sugar cane, night watchman keeping kangaroos off farmland and at Mount Isa as a surveyor's assistant.

He enjoyed the open-air lifestyle and was a keen naturalist and belonged to a group called the 'Field Nats'.

He returned to England only once after emigrating during a worldwide pilgrimage of the many of the Marian Shrines which included visits to Walsingham in England, Knock in Ireland and Fatima in Portugal.

John would eventually settle in Rockhampton and in the early 1990s settled into a housing commission unit there.

But Housing Commission policy doesn't extend to men's shed activities and John had nowhere to carry out one of his hobbies - boat building.

Being a resourceful man, John built a boat in his living room - he even managed to get it out of his second-storey unit and to the Fitzroy River, where he moored it.

Unfortunately, the next morning it had disappeared, most likely sunk and probably sits there today.

John was subsequently evicted from his unit for failing to keep the place clean.

John was referred to a housing service to find alternate accommodation and he met Ruth Robertson, a social worker who was amazed at John's graciousness toward the Housing Department.

He had simply accepted his fate of homelessness, saying he probably deserved eviction, as he would have made a lot of noise with all the hammering and sawing.

John then lived in Rockhampton share accommodation for a while before he set up camp on a Nankin property.

The kindly family on the farm, Laurie and wife Linda and Sasha and Sakeena, saw John with his tent and offered an old shed as a temporary camp.

Even though the shed had only partial walls, no electricity or water, John remained there for the next 12 years until he died.

He enjoyed the beautiful view of the open paddocks and mountains and had a special affinity with the animals that visited him, the cows meandering around, the dogs, the birds that roosted in his shed at night, the small creatures like the frogs and mice and he even welcomed the snakes, seen by visitors in his shed.

John said he had a gentlemen's agreement with one such brown snake - that they would leave each other alone.

He was asked did he get that agreement in writing. He just laughed.

Most people who knew John wanted to help him more than he would allow.

John was set in his ways and fiercely independent, and would not always accept help.

For years he slept on a pile of newspapers before he could be induced to a having a bed given by a friend Maree.

Another friend Helen, made John a new kilt which he readily accepted.

St Joseph's Cathedral staff were wonderful to John. He was able to use their bathroom resources and have parcels delivered that needed an actual address.

A big happening in John's life was the involvement of Capricorn Citizen Advocacy through Jenny Keerie.

That's when Frazer Pearce met John and became his volunteer advocate.

John would stop at The Morning Bulletin every Wednesday (when he came to town) and have a chat with Frazer.

While Frazer assisted John with his various issues from time to time they also spoke about many varied issues

Until a few years ago John would walk the 4km to the Emu Park highway to catch the Young's School bus to Rockhampton for his shopping trips.

On the return journey he would assemble his collapsible wheelbarrow that he had designed and built himself and then push the wheelbarrow the 4km back to the farm or Laurie would collect him from the highway.

When his health began to fail, it was too much for him and made trips to Rocky difficult. It was then that John accepted assistance from Ozcare who provided the social support and transport to Rocky for mass, the post office, doctor, shopping and back home again.

John was skilled with his hands. He was a devout Roman Catholic and all his life enjoyed his hobby of making Rosaries for the mission and belonged to the Rosary Makers Association.

In the years that John caught the Young's Bus to his Nankin home, he could be seen sitting, waiting for the bus in Derby or Bolsover Sts and making Rosaries.

In recent years John had a dream of helping people in Russia to make simple articles that would enhance their lifestyle. A friend tells the story that one day she took John to Shopping Fair Camera House to get photos for the subsidised taxi service application. John had to remove his Captain's Cap for the photos, but wanted more done with the cap on. John, being a humble man, was not forthcoming with the reason- but eventually said the photos were to send to India.

The friend correctly guessed and he confirmed that he had sponsored children in India. The shop photographer overheard and would not charge him for the extra photos. Bless that man too for his small kindness to John.

A few years ago John had an idea to have his three-wheeler bike solar powered and ride to Sydney to see his brother Michael. They had not seen each other for many years since Michael and Pamela visited John in Rocky. Riding a pushbike to Sydney was not feasible, so early last year, John's friends Ruth and Graham who were going to Sydney, offered to take John along.

The trip went as planned and the brothers enjoyed a few days of catching up. Almost a year ago John turned 90 and about 12 friends came together to the Cambridge Hotel to pay tribute to this special man. The past year saw a further decline in John's health and this was frustrating to him. John said he would be good "for a few years yet" if he could just get over the health issues.

He insisted he was still not ready to live in supported care and he got his wish. John died in the in the Rockhampton Base Hospital from complications of infections on the September 29, 2014.

On hearing of his death, a friend Maree immediately said "I think he's in Heaven already building boats" - maybe he is, or maybe he's handing out balloons to children.


I read John's final letter outside the Cathedral after I and other pall bearers placed his coffin in the hearse.

I didn't know what to expect. But as I read it I had to laugh.

This was no heartfelt farewell, just a request for The Morning Bulletin to report on the "mystery" construction work at the Lakes Creek landfill.

An inquisitive mind to the very end - and yes John we have reported on the progress of the transfer station.

Farewell old mate.

- Frazer Pearce

Topics:  editors picks eulogy fitzroy river mental health

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