Eric Caton (1913 – 1973)

Mary Metcalfe, the daughter of the late Eric Caton, has supplied this wonderful account of her father’s venture into the Stock and Station industry on the Darling Downs.

Not once but twice, did Eric Caton successfully commence and operate a private agency business on the Downs. Both operations were subsequently sold to major Wool Broking firms, the latter of which, Eric Caton Pty Ltd was acquired by Primac Limited in 1984.

In Mary’s words her fathers “personal approach to each client’s needs and best practice for handling their stock was of paramount importance to this country manager.”

Here is Mary’s story as printed in the March 2013 edition of the “The Gazette”, a journal of the Toowoomba and Darling Downs Family History Society Inc.

Eric Caton – an inspiration to many!

The Mayor of Toowoomba stood high on the auctioneers’ elevated walk, flanked by several men adorned in their akubras. Exhaust fumes from the trucks and motor vehicles in Condamine Street, Harristown, competed with the distinctive aromas of new timber and excited cattle, as drivers parked nearby. This day was indeed an auspicious one, for Alderman Jack McCafferty was present for the specific purpose of declaring open, the most modern, privately owned saleyards in Queensland.

Beside McCafferty proudly stood the man whose vision and confidence had made the occasion possible. Below in the buyers’ lanes were many cattlemen and buyers waiting for the opening bids at 11.00am on the cold winters morning of 4 June 1963, perhaps with some speculation as to the conduct and future of the new operation.

Just seven months before, the ground on which they stood had been nothing but two acres of vacant paddocks adjacent to the railway line. I marvel now as I recall the accomplishment. This was a private company venture by a man who was pitting his life savings, abilities, and experience against the might of the well established pastoral and mercantile companies of the time, such as Dalgety Australia Ltd, Elders Smith Goldsborough Mort, Australian Mercantile Land and Finance Co. Ltd. and Mactaggarts Primary Producers Australia, with a faith and optimism that he could achieve an income sufficient to support his family. It did not deter him that there were already two other saleyard operating weekly within the same city, and several within an hour’s drive from Toowoomba. The personal approach to each client’s needs and best practice for handling their stock was of paramount importance to this country manager.

The person to whom I refer was my late father, Eric James Caton, born 28 May 1913 in Cambooya to parents well acquainted with the land and the vagaries of nature. My late mother Phyllis Jessie (nee Cunningham) worked by his side in the new office as bookkeeper, supported by Eric’s brother, Graham Dowling Caton, as part time accountant. There were eventually also a typist and other auctioneers, including Norm Jenner, John Erbacher, Noel Grant and my brother Robert Caton, on the staff as well as many casual yardmen.

What was significant in June 1963, was that even with enormous odds stacked against my father, this was actually the second occasion on which he had commenced his own enterprise in the stock and station agency field. In 1952 he successfully sold his first venture, established in 1946, to New Zealand Loan & Mercantile Agency Co Ltd. in Dalby, and became their branch manager there. Company amalgamation with Dalgetys in 1962 meant there were two officers for every position. Eric was posted to Brisbane headquarters in an advisory role, after being awarded a citizens’ farewell.

Metropolitan living, for a man born and bred in the bush, soon lost its appeal. After ten months at age 50, Eric set about doing what was familiar to him in a smaller town. He acquired vocational skills as a wool valuer, fat lamb breeder, livestock and property auctioneer and real estate agent, and was already well known on the Darling Downs. He bought the land in Harristown and gained approval for another saleyards.

Eric organised the removal of the small two roomed dwelling in Dalby in which my parents had first lived in 1946, on a flatbed trailer for a very slow journey down the Warrego Highway, to become the official saleyard office. There was also business premises established at 33 Bell Street, Toowoomba.

From this small beginning, Eric Caton Pty Ltd became a very profitable company, with the support of a bank manager who acknowledged my father’s abilities. Only once did the company make a loss – that being the initial year of operation. Twenty years later it was still a very successful business, despite weathering many lean drought years. Additional land was acquired to extend the yards, with pig and calf selling commencing also. I smile when I remember that Dad used to lie in bed at night visualising yard improvements. After his death, when live weight selling and watered yards were introduced all over Queensland, the necessary improvements were constructed in the yards.

I often wonder what the future of the company would have been, had my father been able to experience a long life. The shock news hit the rural newspapers in September 1973 that Eric Caton, aged 60, had died on the 10 September, following hospitalisation. Actually the cause of death was a clot in the lung following the removal of his appendix.

At this juncture, my uncle Graham became general manager of this private company which continued to flourish for another decade. About 65,000 beef cattle per annum, plus dairy cows, calves pigs and real estate, were sold. By 1984 cattle were often sold directly by weight and grade at the abattoirs, and the future was uncertain for saleyard operators, despite the fact that Toowoomba was a major cattle selling centre. Caton’s sold 1200 cattle most weeks. Primac had been trying for years to buy out the family company and eliminate that source of competition and, when they finally offered a realistic figure, the sale proceeded, with my brother Robert, later becoming Manager of Caton’s Primac.

Today I have great admiration for what my father was to achieve. When I gaze at that land now at 52 -54 Condamine Street, Toowoomba, cleared of all yards, and divided up into small industrial businesses, I can only recall in my imagination the hustle and bustle there, that was so much a part of our family life for so many years. The two roomed office is all that remains now, as someone else’s premises. Incidentally some of the well seasoned timber, rubbed smooth by the cattle in the pens over the years, was used in the construction of facilities at Homebush in Sydney for the 2000 Olympics.

Mary Metcalfe.

A copy of Mary Metcalfe’s article as appeared in the March 2013 issue of The Gazette, a journal of the Toowoomba and Darling Downs Family History Society Inc.

Many thanks go to Mary for her wonderful contribution.

Posted in : Primac Gurus