Mt Claremont resident on a mission to record WA’s parliamentary history receives OAM

John Ferrell from Mt Claremont has been recognised for his service to community history in WA with an OAM.
John Ferrell from Mt Claremont has been recognised for his service to community history in WA with an OAM.

FROM cassette recordings to high-tech digital devices, John Ferrell has been capturing WA’s history for decades.

The Mt Claremont resident, former history teacher and brand new Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) recipient has interviewed 75 people in 40 years of documenting oral history, from southwest farmers and war veterans to state and federal politicians.

He has recorded talks with around 20 former state politicians at Parliament House.

“It’s terribly interesting,” Mr Ferrell said.

“Some can’t tell exactly what they feel, and you wonder what they’re holding back.”

The historian said there was something special about hearing straight from the source; he quoted author Paul Thompson, who said it “puts the flesh on the bones of history”.

“There’s an immediacy about the story someone tells; it’s exciting to hear them speak,” Mr Ferrell said.

“The documentary records by themselves can be a bit sterile.”

Mr Ferrell’s first interviews were conducted with his family and grew from there; his recordings dive deep in to people’s stories, with some ranging from 10 to 20 hours long.

One of his highlights was interviewing a neighbour around 1979, who had fought in Gallipoli.

“It gave me a real thrill to hear his story,” he said.

While oral historians work to make sure there are no distractions on the audio, Mr Ferrell noticed a certain canine presence while listening back.

“You get some funny sidelines; he had a lovely old sheepdog, and when I gave him the tapes I noticed the dog barking,” he said.

“He and his wife wrote back and said they loved to hear their dog’s voice.”

During his time in Boddington as the local high school principal, he got the town involved in a history project celebrating 100 years of the shire; locals submitted photos and conducted interviews to gather stories, which he turned in to a book in 1992.

Mr Ferrell recently worked to gather stories from southwest farmers around Bridgetown, Manjimup and Nannup who drove cattle from the country to leased coastal areas, a practice that began during the late 19th century and continued right up to the 1980s.

In much the same way he talked to politicians in the context of Parliament House, Mr Ferrell spoke to many of the farmers in the coastal huts they used to travel to.

He said he had many people to thank for his OAM, especially his wife.

“She spent untold hours waiting for me,” he said.

“I was delighted and surprised (about the award); I feel humble because what I’ve done depends on so many other people.”

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