Trucking across five decades

By: Warren Caves, Photography by: Warren Caves


After 50-years in the driver’s seat, Stephen ‘Tiny’ Monkhouse reflects on his long career in road transport

 

Stephen 'Tiny' Monkhouse, now aged 70, still drives the Sydney to Melbourne run twice weekly.

At 70-years of age, Stephen ‘Tiny’ Monkhouse still plies the Hume Highway each night, completing two Sydney to Melbourne return runs and a change-over each week for Sydney-based Lawson’s Transport.

The Mercedes Benz Actros he currently drives provides a stark contrast to the Perkins diesel-powered International AB 180 12-tonner that Stephen cut his teeth on so many years ago.

While some of the details of Stephen’s early working life can be a little hazy, leaving school must have been a pivotal moment in time, as he swiftly quips early in our conversation: "I left school at the age of 14-years and 10 months." Such chronological specifics might suggest that leaving school was something of a big deal to him.

After bidding farewell to his school days, Stephen went to work with his father, who was a plasterer. He worked hard, seven days a week, but soon found this direction was not for him. After a stint in the army, during which he obtained his truck licence, it would seem he had found his calling. After further guidance and encouragement from his uncle, Ronnie Peebles, who ran the liquid cartage arm of Brambles Transport for many years, Stephen embarked on what would turn into a life-long career.

Eastern Truck Sales in the Sydney suburb of Lakemba is where Stephen was introduced to the aforementioned AB 180 International. The company had three trucks; the International was sub-contracted to Cridland Transport, a local customs agent. It was during this time that Stephen was introduced to wharf and customs freight forwarding, a genre of work he would continue to work in for many years.

After a time he moved on to work for another customs brokerage company, Belgin and Stockwell, who at the time had five or six trucks. Formed in 1971 by Brian Stockwell and George Belgin, the company would go on to become Stockwell International, one of Australia’s largest private, family-owned freight forwarding companies with offices in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Los Angeles and Auckland.

For his time at Belgin and Stockwell, Stephen was issued with an R600 Mack powered by a 237hp (177kW) Maxidyne engine. He recalls it would more than hold its own alongside bigger trucks, thanks to its ample torque which exceeded that available from the popular Cummins V903 engine found in many American-based trucks of this era.

Unbeknown to him at the time, Stephen would come to spend a great deal of time with this particular Mack.

Stephen drove this 237hp R600 Mack for many years during his time at Belgin and Stockwell in the '70s

An offer then came from company management to buy the truck which was taken up. Stephen’s owner-driver career had begun. As part of the deal, he recalls: "They took the payments for the truck along with fuel and other incidentals from my pay each week. I ran that truck as my own for five to six years, mostly on local customs/wharf work, along with loads of scrap from Sims Metals in St Peters."

Stephen coyly admits that those scrap loads, on the short trip from the scrap yard to the wharf, were generally well in excess of any manufacturer’s or regulator’s maximum permissible limits. Profitable? Yes, but a practice that would eventually draw some unwanted attention from the weights and measures boys.

According to Stephen, the R600 also had the honour of being the first truck to enter the new Container Terminals Australia Limited facility at Port Botany.

Venturing further afield, he recalls loading the R600 for R&H Transport to the Capricorn Mine in North Queensland.

"I would load 40-foot steel plate out of Wollongong and then top load 20-pallets of beer and head north … a bit overweight.

"This was pretty common practice in those days and I remember on one occasion waiting at Willow Tree for four days before continuing on after the weighbridge was clear. The beer was unloaded at Goondiwindi and replaced with stores for the Capricorn Mine," he says.

"If I was lucky I would backload a mine vehicle, but if not I would head to Mt Isa for a backload of rolled copper. If that couldn’t be lined up it would be timber railway sleepers out of Banana.

"During harvest I would sometimes stay in Banana for a few weeks carting cotton modules from farm to the gin before returning to Sydney," Stephen explains.

Rats and dogs

Eventually, Stephen sold the old R600 Mack, but continued to work for Bulgin and Stockwell as a company driver. However, the lure of owner-driver life proved too strong and it didn’t take long for him to purchase a second Mack, this time an ex-Thompson Bros R700 and trailer.

Jack Seaton, of Seaton’s Transport, provided some work for Stephen’s new rig which, combined with ad-hoc container work and additional loads for TJ Clark & Sons Heavy Haulage, kept the bills paid and food on the table, all part of providing for his family.

The two names on the front of the Lawson Transport Actros which Stephen drives: 'Noah' because it's as a big as an ark, while 'Alfie' is Reg Lawson's grandson.

The R700 was also put to work for TNT’s tanker division, transporting sunflower and palm oils from the docks for companies like Meadow Lea and MasterFoods.

"For a week at a time we would also head out west to load tallow from the Dubbo abattoir to a pet food facility in Bathurst. Dogs apparently love tallow, but it really stinks and the rats at that place were as big as cats," Stephen laughs.

After years of loyal service, the R700 was eventually retired for a time before being sold to the boss of one of Stephen’s mates. It ultimately went out to pasture to enjoy clean country air and farm life.

Stephen is a bit foggy on the timeframe (I put it at around 1993), but after selling the R700 he commenced work with Bunker Freight Lines, initially as a local driver. This would turn out to be a job which would go on to span a quarter of a century with the company and its subsequent owners.

Graduating from the local work, Stephen went on to run changeovers from Sydney to Balranald changeovers for Bunker, then later Sydney to Waddi in the NSW Riverina. He reckons it was good work and fondly remembers sharing the highway with many Finemore drivers, among others.

While Bunker’s fleet contained a wide cross-section of truck makes and models, Stephen says he would probably rate the Volvos as the best for him, although he does also admit to being partial to a Kenworth 900-series.

Redstar’s demise

With the evolution of time Bunker turned into Silk Logistics and finally Redstar Transport. Stephen maintained his employment through all the ownership changes and worked through until Redstar went into receivership around two years ago, leaving many drivers without jobs. Contrary to rumours floating around at the time, Stephen attests that Redstar’s management did in fact make sure all drivers had the means to make their way home after the trucks were grounded.

After the collapse of Redstar, Stephen found out that the redundancy payment provisions for long-service leave were capped at 12 years, leaving him well short on his total entitlements after some 25 years of loyal service.

At this juncture of life and without a job, many of his age would consider retirement. Stephen says it did cross his mind briefly. "I came to the conclusion that I’m not the sort of bloke who can ever retire. I then decided to try and secure some relief work standing in for drivers on holidays, etc."

Things didn’t exactly go to plan though. As often happens in this industry, when employers find reliable, competent drivers they tend to keep them working. From what was initially a fill-in role, Stephen has been working full-time for Reg Lawson of Lawson’s Transport, based out of south western Sydney for nearly two years.

The front of his Mercedes-Benz Actros features the names ‘Noah’ (because it’s as big as an ark) and ‘Alfie’ (for the boss’s grandson).

Stephen 'Tiny' Monkhouse says he's not the sort of bloke who could ever retire.

One of Stephen’s long-term friends, Scott Peden, who also previously worked for Redstar, rates his mate as one of the most professional operators he has met. Scott describes a hardworking, meticulously punctual driver who has offered mentorship to any in the industry, Scott included, who would care to ask and gain from his vast experience.

"I would and still do ring Stephen and ask for advice on all things truck-related. He’s been my go-to guy for some time," Scott tells me.

However, I was curious and had to ask Stephen how he got the nickname. He reckons there are mates of his that, to this day, don’t know his real name, referring to him only as ‘Tiny’.

"It was just a matter of convenience really," Stephen explains. "I was racing go-carts when I was younger and there were three ‘Stephens’ in the group so someone dubbed me ‘Tiny’ and the name stuck."

Motorsport is still a keen hobby for Stephen and most weekends you’ll find him racing speedway cars or sports sedans around various NSW circuits.

When he does finally wind back from driving, he’ll most likely indulge his motorsport hobby a bit more. But for now Stephen ‘Tiny’ Monkhouse is content running Highway 31 overnight, which is just as well as I don’t think his boss Reg Lawson is ready to let him go just yet.

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