John Ford’s eviction from Moree Bore Baths put mayor in hot water in 1934

Moree made headlines around Australia in 1934 when Mayor Percy Mellor attempted to evict highly-regarded masseur John Ford from the local bore baths.

It was a controversial incident that divided the community – as well as the town’s elected aldermen.

Moree Municipal Council claimed Ford was well behind in his rent and the mayor took it upon himself to settle the matter his way.

Australia was just getting back on its feet; the Great Depression of 1929-1933 had finally backed down and was slowly but surely releasing its vice-like grip on the economy.

Ford’s clientele had dropped off considerably – like many other enterprises across the district – and his yearly rent of £156 had fallen behind by about £100.

Ford, who fought for his country in The Great War, moved to Moree with his family in 1923.

Council’s direction was Ford be “peaceably removed” from the room he used to administer therapeutic massages.

Mayor Mellor had one problem, however – the masseur refused to budge.

Ford told a growing band of supporters council would have to “starve him out”.

“I can fast for days on end if I have to, and I’m able to hold out for a long time without either food or drink,” he claimed.

The Labor Daily reported: “Ford, who is in splendid physical condition, stated he could have gone without food or drink for days, and might have broken Ghandi’s record.”

Mayor Mellor countered Ford’s self-imposed sit-in by having padlocks strategically placed on the door jambs of the massage room.

He instructed bore baths employees to snap them shut the minute Ford vacated the premises.

That strategy didn’t quite go to plan, however.

Ford steadfastly refused to leave, and the padlocks – and keys – mysteriously disappeared.

After seeking legal advice, Mayor Mellor engaged two young men to guard the massage room’s doorway.

He also had the windows nailed firmly shut, with Ford still inside.

Mellor, handed the mayoral robes in 1931, instructed the “guards” to remain on duty, and to lock the door the minute Ford came out for some fresh Moree air – or, perchance, a bite to eat.

After about four hours however, when the newly-recruited guards realised just how long the stand-off might last, they promptly abandoned their post and handed in their resignation.

Their decision to pull the pin was hastened somewhat, given they were taunted and cajoled by mates attending the bore baths for a dip.

Meanwhile, a growing band of supporters – including several aldermen – were in crisis mode.

A huge demonstration in support of Ford was hastily planned for ground zero.

When word got out Ford’s followers were preparing to storm the bore baths, Moree Municipal Council backed off, wisely preferring to delay further action.

It was decided to address the matter at council’s next general meeting, planned for the following week.

Ford had a huge following in Moree, and further afield.

His cures for rheumatic complaints and neurological disorders, and apparent magical touch were second-to-none.

Medical practitioners and specialists often sent patients his way.

“He has done a great deal to boost the regular practice of physical culture for young and old in Moree and has always been a keen supporter of sport, particularly football,” reported the Maitland Daily Mercury.

His client list read like a who’s who of the rich and famous.

It included chief justice Sir Frank Gavan Duffy, Sydney Woollen Mills director Sir William Vicars and politician and Public Library of New South Wales trustee, Sir Daniel Levy.

Philip Wirth, of Wirth’s Circus fame, was also a regular client.

“All have praised Ford’s massage treatment and a number of aldermen have stated Ford is the best asset the Bore Baths has,” said the Maitland Daily Mercury.

When council convened in front of a packed public gallery on Tuesday, September 18, 1934, Mayor Mellor was widely criticised for his extreme, unorthodox approach.

Aldermen Edward Francis Cummins – an aspiring Labor politician and New South Wales Railways accountant – lambasted the mayor.

Cummins said the mayor’s harsh, hands-on involvement and the lengths taken to evict Ford brought the bore baths, and council, into disrepute.

“These actions also humiliated a highly respected Moree citizen and it is regrettable that Sir Daniel Levy, speaker of the legislative assembly, was receiving treatment when the incident occurred,” alderman Cummins told the council meeting.

“This whole incident is unsavoury and not in the accord of the kindliness and humanity usually associated with the north-west.

“While council was legally entitled to enter Ford’s massage room, they also had a moral obligation to a man who had treated some of the most prominent public figures in Australia and was the greatest asset the baths had,” Cummins said.

“Mr Ford had shown himself during his 11 years in Moree to be an honest man. There is no reason to doubt he will pay up. A previous tenant, who was paying only £78 per year, floated away owing £16.

“There was no hullabaloo about that; council seemed glad to wave him goodbye,” Cummins said.

Deputy mayor Andrew McElhone echoed Cummins’ sentiments.

“If everyone who owed money was treated by his creditors the same way as council treated Mr Ford, there would be empty shops everywhere,” McElhone said.

McElhone claimed Moree Municipal Council’s annual fee imposed on Ford was over the top.

“I think we are burglars for taking £3 a week for that massage room,” he said.

His comment drew a chorus of laughter from the packed chambers.

“Mr Ford was a digger and he went overseas to fight for those of us that did not go. Here is a man who has done more to advertise the baths than any other citizen and yet council refuses to give him a decent chance to make good,” alderman McElhone said.

The incident also created a legal quagmire for council.

“All the proceedings taken against Ford were out of order,” alderman Cummins said.

On July 2, more than a month before the controversial incident occurred, Moree Municipal Council passed a resolution asking Ford to obtain guarantors, saying “the situation would be reconsidered on July 30”.

“However, a motion was passed on July 10, instructing solicitors to take proceedings to evict Mr Ford,” said Cummins, who was Labor candidate for Gwydir and twice for Barwon in the early 1930s.

“This, obviously, was out of order, in view of the motion on July 2.”

After further discussion, alderman Alma Upton Ezzy said the situation was untenable.

“Council is in an awkward predicament and I move that all facts be placed before the local government solicitor,” he said.

Council agreed to Ezzy’s motion, with mayor Mellor assuring all aldermen – and Ford’s growing band of sympathisers – no further action would be taken against the highly-respected masseur until legal advice was received from the local government solicitor, Albert Bluett.

Naturally, The Truth newspaper seized on the story and ran with it.

“Since legal action has commenced, the affair has taken on a Gilbertian touch,” The Truth reported.

“Ford refused to peaceably leave the room. He refused to give up the keys. So the mayor,

accompanied by a carpenter, went to the baths and placed a padlock on the door of the massage room.”

Bore Baths manager Wally Foote was given the key and instructed by mayor Mellor to lock the door as soon as Ford left.

“But Ford was like the wisest of the three little pigs, and he played strategy against strategy. He did not leave his room,” reported The Truth.

“Both sides are watching each other now like cat and mouse. The residents, who are enjoying the show from the bleachers, are getting their best thrill for many a long day.”

At council’s fortnightly meeting in October, it was decided under the advice of local government solicitor Albert Bluett to refer the case to the minister for local government, Eric Spooner.

However, in November, Ford advised Moree Municipal Council in writing he would vacate the massage room and thanked council for “its kind consideration in his case”.

Later that month Ford and his family said goodbye to Moree and relocated to Sydney.

He was farewelled by a large group of supporters and well-wishers at Moree Methodist Hall, addressed by Reverend Arthur.

The hall was jam-packed with Ford supporters, including alderman Cummins.

“Mr Ford had treated for free many poor sufferers and it is regrettable that such a good man should be forced to leave Moree,” Cummins said.

Reverend Arthur said the Moree Methodist Church would greatly miss Mr Ford, who was trustee of church property.

“As a church, we are in a sound financial position, and this is due, to a considerable extent, to the wisdom and counsel brought to the trustee meetings by Mr Ford,” the reverend told the gathering.

Mr and Mrs Ford were much-admired members of the congregation and their daughter, Joyce, was Sunday School kindergarten teacher.

“They were highly-respected citizens of the town and district and good citizenship is one of the best assets that we can have,” reverend Arthur said.

“The town will be the poorer by their departure from our midst. Mr Ford has not spared himself in his work for the welfare of the town and its people.

“He has not always been listened to and has not always received the appreciation that his work has deserved. But there are many who will never forget what Mr Ford has done for them and there is none can raise a finger of reproach against him.”

Ford, originally from the Bathurst area, was a natural athlete and health and fitness guru; a health professional way ahead of his time.

As a young man he competed in the Bathurst-Sydney cycle race, finishing in the placings and was the only cyclist west of the Blue Mountains to finish the race in less than eight hours.

On October 9, 1907 he won the 72-mile Speedwell Bathurst-Orange road-race, earning himself a cult-like following in the process.

Under windy conditions, Ford cycled from Bathurst to Orange and back again in record time.

“The day was anything but favourable for racing, especially on the up journey. The wind blew in the face of the riders all the way,” reported the Orange Leader.

Cyclist Charles Frayle, a competitor in the 1907 road-race, said he knew Ford as a student at Bathurst Superior Public School.

“He came from one of the most highly respected families in the Bathurst district,” Frayle said.

“I have not seen him for years, but his patients, young and old, rich and poor, all have the same story. He is the same kind-hearted, clean-living man, generous as always to a fault, living up to an ideal and a standard which very few men try to reach,” Frayle said.

The Moree Bore Baths fiasco wasn’t the only time Ford made national headlines.

In August, 1931, he broke the world skipping record after several attempts.

Ford skipped 1204 times in five minutes, smashing the previous world record by 106 skips.

It was the Moree masseur’s fourth public attempt at the record and a judging committee, headed up by Ted McGroder watched his performance intently.

Immediately after breaking the record, Ford rested for a few minutes.

“Such is his wonderful condition and state of physical fitness, he was completely recovered within five minutes,” the North West Champion reported.

“This is my fourth attempt at the record, but I had an idea I was going to beat it tonight,” Ford told the local paper afterwards.

Ford’s massage and healing methods were legendary and drew endorsements from thankful clients across the country.

His ability and techniques to seemingly perform miracles were well documented.

The same year Ford skipped his way into the record books, the North West Champion published a letter from Alexander Cameron, under the headline: Hopeless Cripple Walks – remarkable success of Moree masseur.

“I was operated upon for an in-turned foot – the bone being extracted – and the foot locked by plaster of Paris, to prevent movement,” Mr Cameron penned.

“I was put on crutches after the operation, and suffered the most intense agony till the plaster casing was removed.

“Expecting to be cured, I was entirely disappointed and spent months of agony, at the same time seeking other avenues for some relief.”

Cameron consulted leading surgeons in Sydney and was told he would never walk again.

He said he decided to visit Moree Bore Baths as a last-ditch attempt to alleviate the pain he was suffering and it was here he met Ford.

“A friend insisted I visit Mr Ford for advice and treatment,” Cameron said.

Ford created a specially designed pattern boot support for Cameron, which was constructed jointly by a bootmaker named Parker, local blacksmith Frank Adams and leather worker Alf Sadlier.

“No-one could imagine my joy when I put on the boot, left my crutches in Mr Sadlier’s shop, and

walked through the town. Life was entirely renewed for me. For as long as I live I will never cease to thank Mr Ford for his unremitting efforts and successful treatment, which I am convinced only he could have accomplished,” Cameron praised.

Words Copyright Bill Poulos 2022