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Restoration & Revival: Ralph Weslake’s 1953 AJS Model 20

Restoration & Revival: Ralph Weslake’s 1953 AJS Model 20

Norfolk’s history is an ever-evolving pattern of stories, legacies, people, cultures and traditions, woven together through time to form a beautiful tapestry that documents who they are, and where they have come from.

Written history is only made up by what people record of it, though much of what we know about the past are oral accounts, passed down from generation to generation. Ancient artefacts are preserved and put in glass cases and tales are recorded in books for us to learn about, events are documented, and histories are constructed. However, through generations of people, traditions evolve and inevitably stories that are not documented can slip through the cracks and get lost to time.

Modern-day Norfolk has a well-documented people and whilst the many layers of history are thankfully well recorded, it’s important to be aware there is a risk of losing stories that aren’t preserved. Sometimes these are sights, sounds and tales that might not necessarily seem so iconic or special in the moment, but looking back they become important snapshots of times past. Ralph Weslake’s 1953 AJS Model 20 delivering the milk on Norfolk Island is one such example of a story that might otherwise be lost, were it not for the dedication to a rather special restoration project by his son Graham.

Pitcairn-era Norfolk Islanders are descended from the Bounty Mutineers. Their descendants arrived on Norfolk in 1856 and their lineage has shaped the Island’s modern-day culture, and is still proudly prevalent. Norfolk has also been fortunate to have a transient population that come for a time, and have either settled and made Norfolk their home, or moved on. From missionaries and whaling ships, to traders and wartime movements, people have found their connections with Norfolk in many wonderful ways. Individuals, families and contracted and seconded professionals still come to work in government jobs, schooling or simply to try island-life for a while. Norfolk Island is undeniably idyllic, but long-term the remote island lifestyle suits some, and not others.

This mixture of internal and external migration to Norfolk over time has shaped a truly unique people through an ever-evolving mix of cultures and traditions, and has formed the Norfolk that you experience today. Many that have chosen to put down roots become important characters and island identities in Norfolk’s story.

Ralph Weslake is one such character. His Norfolk Island story began during World War II when he first arrived on Norfolk with the New Zealand Armed Forces in 1944. Norfolk Island was a strategic outpost station during the war and handled hundreds of aircraft travelling between Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific, on the airstrip which was constructed by joint forces in 1942. Ralph fell in love with Norfolk, and perhaps more specifically with a local girl, Enid Quintal. After returning to New Zealand and being discharged following the war, he returned and made Norfolk his lifelong home with Enid, and together they had 5 children, Ken, Graham, David, Joy and Lance.

Ralph was resourceful and never out of work. He found a passion for dairy farming and kept herds of cattle that he would use to supply milk for making local butter. Ralph continued with the milk supply for butter making into the 1950s, though changes in more regular air travel to Norfolk and the increase in some imported goods was a warning sign to Ralph that the demand for local butter would come to an end. Considering what he might do to make ends meet instead, he wondered if he could sell the milk to individual households. “So I went around to the housewives who were all using imported powdered milk … and I ended up with fifty-five stops, and twelve miles delivery” says Ralph.

Ralph’s rounds required about twenty-five gallons of milk which came from around 16-20 milking cows at any given time. He placed his filled urns in a large box that sat in the back of an old car, and made his way around the Island, though Norfolk’s roads were not sealed and during wet seasons the steep hills and driveways could be very challenging.

In 1954 Ralph imported a twelve month old AJS 1953 Model 20 Spring Twin Motorcycle from Sydney to take on rounds. The AJS Model 20 is a 498 cc air-cooled, twin-cylinder motorcycle made by British bike manufacturer Associated Motorcycles in London. Through the bike’s sales agent Ralph also imported the parts to modify it and add a side-car which would become the milk delivery vehicle and farm workhorse for many years. It was used like a tractor around the farm and would carry everything from loads of firewood to the odd new born calf, as well as the milk run to his fifty-five customers.

Ralph would set off on his rounds six days a week through until the 1970s and the rumble of the AJS Model 20 would echo through Norfolk’s valleys announcing his arrival. “Dad delivered milk with the bike and side-car from 1954 until the early seventies and we estimate the bike did in excess of 100,000 miles on Norfolk over that period” says Ralph’s son, Graham. Ralph considered the bike to be simply a means of transport and work vehicle, and things would only be fixed when broken or falling off.

Life was simple, but good. Ralph could turn his hand to anything and during a low period in the dairy farming days when a local doctor banned milk supply due to a concern over staphylococcus, Ralph simply purchased a Howard Gem rotary hoe and went contracting to feed the family until the ban was lifted.

He resumed his delivery duties and carried on until the seventies though threat of regulations around the pasteurising of milk persuaded Ralph to move out of dairy farming as a primary source of income, and in the end he moved to beef farming instead. Ralph also took a job at the Norfolk Island Hospital who were looking for a handyman, and there he remained on
the staff for over fifteen years.

The AJS Model 20 had worked hard, but it was sold on, and that’s where it would apear the bike’s story with the Weslakes’ would end. Ralph continued to work hard and together with Enid they raised their family on the farm, and their children – and now grandchildren – each have their own stories that are woven into Norfolk’s history.

The story of Ralph’s AJS Model 20 didn’t end there though, and in the 1980s Graham bought the bike off a local named Trevor Calder who had acquired it. Graham planned to restore the bike to its former glory, though there was no sign of the side-car and its whereabouts were never known, despite attempts from Graham trying to locate it in some of Norfolk’s many sheds. Graham was living in Newcastle at the time and exported the bike there where it would become a long-time restoration project.

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“When I undertook the restoration the only way to communicate was by ‘snail-mail’ and I would send a letter to Russell Motors in England who would send back a quote. I then sent a postal order and they would send the parts. This was around a 3-4 month process. However, there was at that time, a good array of second-hand parts obtained through wreckers yards and some enthusiasts. Now of course if I need parts I just jump on Google.” Graham says. The bike is very rare and there are few surviving examples in Australia or New Zealand, and no others on Norfolk Island. “[It’s a] good ride. Excellent for Norfolk but not able to match the average travelling speed on the roads of mainland. In bike terms it ‘tracks true’ i.e., it does not waver on gouges and keeps a very steady course”

Many years later, in early January 2020 Graham finally brought the bike back to Norfolk Island. It arrived via ship, just as it had when his father imported the motorcycle over 65 years previously. The motorcycle is of course worthy of a museum exhibit, and its history has been lovingly and beautifully preserved, but this piece of history is not behind glass or ropes aside an information plaque, because the story of Ralph’s AJS Model 20 is a revival rather than a preservation in the traditional sense, and the bike still roams Norfolk’s roads today.

Ralph is 96 years old and while he is not likely to hop on the bike to tear up and down Norfolk’s valleys the way he would in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the sound of Graham firing up the engine brings back decades of memories, for him, as well as many of Norfolk’s elders that recognise the twin cylinder call of Ralph delivering the milk.

So, listen carefully when you’re out and about, because you might just hear the rumble of a 1953 AJS Model 20 making its rounds. It’s no longer a farm workhorse or out delivering milk, but a lovingly restored and treasured part of history, revived, revved up, and enjoying a sedate retirement, clocking up more miles on Norfolk’s roads, and ensuring this part of Ralph’s – and indeed Graham’s – story is woven into Norfolk’s rich and beautiful tapestry.

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Image courtesy of Graham Weslake

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