It was the great saveloy strike of 1955. On a typical Sunday evening for the Chevalier College boarders, John Kilmartin and his mates were hungry.
But they knew that Sunday nights meant saveloys — “great big blood-red saveloys” that “must’ve been made by some cheapskate butcher in Sydney and they must’ve been made out of old boars because you could smell the pig in them as soon as you cut into them. They were just revolting”.
As it turns out, John Kilmartin knows a thing or two about meat, having worked in the meat industry as a farmer, wholesaler and industry leader throughout his career.
On this particular Sunday evening, old boar saveloys were more than the senior boarder was prepared to swallow.
“That night we spread the word that if they brought out the saveloys for dinner, they’re going back to the kitchen,” John told Shield&Heart.
“So we filed into the refectory and horror of horrors, Tom Whitty was the priest strolling up and down reading his prayers. He was a terrible disciplinarian and we were all terrified of him. Anyway, we held out. The trays came out with these great big blood red saveloys. We were the seniors and the juniors were hungry too, but we were glaring at them and telling them not to touch those things.
“Eventually Whitty realised nothing was going on and demanded to know why. Nobody said anything. We held our nerve and the saveloys went back. I think Br Merrick was scratching his head wondering what the hell was going on.
“Anyway, we got them back the next day. They sliced them, battered them and fried them, and we ate them because we were hungry, but we never ever got them again.”
It was as close to militant industrial action as this industry leader ever got. Among many career highlights, John chaired Monbeef beef exporters in Cooma from 1997 to 2008 and served on the Australian Meat Industry Council.
Born in Canberra in 1940, John always thought he would be a farmer. He recalls the tough initiation to boarding school at Chevalier, which had come about through the influence of his uncle, Fr Ed Kelly, who was a member of the MSCs and “a golfing mate of John Burford, who was the Rector, God bless him. “I was dropped off — there you are, son — I was 11!
“They were good years. Fr Ross had a hobby house down at the gatehouse near the main oval. We used to go down there and build model boats and the like. I remember getting word that Peter Gerrey was about to get a hundred for the First XI on the Main Oval, so we all ran down to see him get Chevalier’s first century.
Religion played a major role in life at Chevalier in those days, and vocations for the priesthood were encouraged.
“In our first year they picked out the brightest kids in the class and they steered us into Greek, Latin and French, and out of the five of us who did it, they got three priests.
The school was going through quite a baptism of fire as the economic realities of the business of education dawned on the MSCs charged with turning Chevalier into a viable educational institution.
“They were all pretty switched on fellows,” John said. “Obviously they were there to start a new school but they were doctors of philosophy and doctors of divinity. They didn’t know a lot about the subtleties of teaching and they didn’t know much about rugby and sport either.
“There were 80 boys when I went there, and there were nearly 200 when I left. Being a Catholic school with charity in their veins, they probably didn’t charge enough.”
John got through his Leaving Certificate exams and found himself back on the family farm.
“We had a farm up here and we had a dairy,” he said. It was around 1957 and John identified a niche market for veal amongst new Australians from Europe.
“I will be forever grateful to my language teachers at Chevalier as this is something that stuck with me all my life, both in appreciating the English language and in overseas travel and communication.”
“I started driving dad’s old truck without a licence down to the Moss Vale calf sale. I knew half these blokes because I’d gone to school with them. I’d buy 20 or 30 calves and bring them back to the farm. Then I started selling them to the butcher, then I became a meat wholesaler. Then it was pigs and calves, then it was lamb and the business was starting to grow and we had trucks.
“I became a major wholesaler in the Canberra region between 1959 and 1969. Then in 1969 the Commonwealth Government offered the abattoir for sale and I bought it, so I became ‘Mr Meat’ in Canberra.” It wasn’t without some controversy when the sale of the ab attoir became the subject of a Senate inquiry, and John found himself giving evidence in favour of the Government sale and being cross-examined by no less than Senator Lionel Murphy.
“I ran the Canberra abattoir for quite a few years, rebuilt it up to export standards and sold it in 1980 to FJ Walker who later became Australian Meat Holdings.
From there he bought and sold another ab attoir, acquired a property at Bungendore and another at Araluen and built up a sizeable breeding herd. In the 1990s he introduced a new process he’d seen in New Zealand called “hot boning”, and with a couple of partners, bought the domestic meatworks at Cooma, which they developed into a brand new export abattoir by the start of 1998.
“I was chairman of Monbeef for about 10 years until last year when I sold my shares, so I’m now right out of the meat industry and I guess I’m retired.”
Aside from his business interests, John has held board, committee and fundraising positions in Canberra with the Australian Centre of Christianity and Culture, St Christopher’s Cathedral, Calvary Hospital and also on the Board of Governors for Frensham in Mittagong.
The other great passion for John and his family has been horse racing and polo. He became president of the NSW Polo Association and Australian Polo Federation, as well as a stint as Vice President of the International Polo Federation. His involvement in polo saw him travel the world and rub shoulders with many celebrities and even entertain Prince Charles at an event with his wife, Maureen, the sister of Dick Hillsdon, the 1950 Chevalier College captain and sporting champion, and cousin of John Hillsdon (CPS 1955).
“We’ve got a big family – one son and five daughters – with 11 grandchildren and I’m very happy to help look after them,” he said.
Editor’s Note: Shield&Heart has confirmed that big red saveloys don’t feature at John’s family dinners.