Neville and Helen Skewes never imagined when they moved to Darwin nearly 70 years ago that they would one day be honoured as the founders of a Territory dynasty.
Their children and grandchildren continue to play key roles in the NT and beyond. And one of their eccentricities lives on.
Helen was fascinated by astronomy and astrology, so nobody was surprised when she named the family’s new 400-hectare property after Aldebaran, the giant red star at the heart of the Taurus constellation. It’s one of the brightest stars in the sky – maybe reflecting the passionate desire that her children and their children make a success of life.
One of the five kids, Danny, named his civil construction company Aldebaran Contracting in her honour not long after the death of his mother.
“Mum spoilt me a bit,” he says. “She was my greatest inspiration and biggest fan. She always wanted to know exactly what I was up to – ‘how much was that? How much? That’s far too much!’. Dad was good at making money and mum was good at keeping it. Dad liked a drink but he gave up drinking and smoking and took up punting on the horses.”
Neville came to Darwin during the Second World War in 1942 and his wife-to-be in 1946. They went into civil construction – digging deep trenches with pick and shovel – and the maintenance business in the early 1950s.
The company prospered for a while but went broke in 1956. Danny says his father was always grateful for the help he received from the Halkitis and Albany families after the bankruptcy.
Neville and Helen built a small store on what was to become the Arnhem Highway in Humpty Doo in 1967-8. And they opened a pub next door four years later – the Humpty Doo Tavern, one of Australia’s iconic watering holes – and subdivided two-hectare rural blocks.
“Buyers were that trusting they would often pay for the land in cash – $2000. And get the titles years later.”
Helen caused a scandal when she shot her husband after catching him “mucking around” with one of the barmaids and was jailed for 12 months.
“Dad wasn’t too badly hurt,” says Danny. “Just a couple of shots up the arse and one in the arm.”
Neville and Helen are today buried side by side at Aldebaran in Acacia, 60 kilometres south of Darwin. The family lived in Daly Street, Darwin, in the early years and then moved to Rapid Creek before settling in Humpty Doo.
Danny spent most of his childhood living in the pub – “I grew up behind the bar and did I have a mouth on me!”
It was a happy-go-lucky life, although the family suffered a terrible tragedy when the oldest of the Skewes children, Peter, was killed in a car accident at the age of 18.
Danny had to catch the bus from Humpty Doo to St Mary’s Catholic Primary School and then St John’s Senior College.
“We were in Sidney Williams huts; 74 kids, no aircon, not even a fan. The nuns were saints and anybody who was schooled at Saint Mary’s will tell you the same thing. Inspirational people.”
He admits he wasn’t a good student and left school at 14.
“I was six foot two with a big ego,” he says. “Of course I wasn’t very good at school. I knew everything – I was a smart arse.”
He worked for his dad and the legendary Townsend family, owners of Stapleton station, before going into business on his own in 1983.
Danny then went into partnership with his brother-in-law, Lloyd Coleman. In 1990, they started C&S Earthmoving, which lasted 20 years. They finally went their own ways and Aldebaran was born.
Aldebaran Contracting, which now employs 60 people, has built and maintained roads throughout the Territory – from Litchfield National Park in the Top End to Santa Teresa in
Central Australia. “I think I’ve graded every road from Darwin to Pine Creek.”
Danny prefers to work in remote Aboriginal communities than in town.
“Some people in town resent you for disrupting the traffic,” he says. “They don’t care that you’re fixing their road – they just want to get to the shops. “Aboriginal people are fantastic.
They’re delighted to see you and always greet you with a wave.
“But I think most people appreciate what we do. They enjoy driving on smooth roads.”
Aldebaran Contracting is owned by Danny and his Darwin-born wife Jacqueline. Four of their fve sons – Billy, Bede, Jacob and Neville – work for them.
The ffth, Tom, is an electrician with another company, MG electrical Daughter Kelly owns Bridge Creek Station at Adelaide River with her husband, Don White, and another daughter, Hannah, and her husband, Rhett Cam , run cattle on Lolworth Station in Queensland.
The second youngest of the eight Skewes children, Mariah, still lives at home.
Aldebaran Contracting, which supports several good causes, including the Manton Bush Fire Brigade and Darwin Show, is run from the back of the family’s house.
“I’ve spent so much time in work camps during my life that I’m happy to be at home.”
Danny lives by an earthy philosophy – work hard, treat people well and, most importantly, love your kids without spoiling them.
“Children want nothing more than a cuddle,” he says. “You can’t buy love, so don’t worry about what to give them – just give them yourself. I’ve tried to bring up my kids properly – relatively alcohol free, drug-free, honest and hardworking. My girls could work you into the ground. Being a parent is the hardest job. If you get it right, the rewards are tremendous. If you get it wrong, it’s devastating.”
Danny is pleased that he was born and bred in the Top End. “Growing up in one place means you see people from the cradle to the grave. There’s nothing more satisfying.”
The Skewes family originally comes from Cornwall in the far south-west of England and Danny – despite being as Aussie as they come – still salutes the British for their civilising influence.
“They gave the world everything.”
Unlike many business people, Danny isn’t obsessed with money.
“Money has never been the reason for me getting out of bed in the morning. My wife and I never went on our honeymoon for 24 years. We poured everything back into the business. If my freezer is full, I’m a rich man. People should appreciate that we live in opulence in Australia. Everyone can afford a rib eye steak meal. It’s more important to appreciate your family and the other people around you. If you can’t do that, what’s the point of life?”
Catholicism is important to him – “and it’s becoming more important all the time”.
Danny, who is a volunteer firefighter and was a Litchfield alderman for six years in the 1980s, flirted with socialist ideas as a young man but is now solidly conservative.
“If you’re not a socialist when young, you have no heart. If you’re still a socialist when you get older, you’ve got no brains.”
Has he considered going into politics? “Never. I’m a bit of a Don Quixote, although I don’t just want to charge at windmills – I want to fatten them.”
That doesn’t stop him working behind the scenes to rejuvenate the CLP. His father was a Country Party candidate in one of the first Territory elections and Danny has handed out how to vote cards most of his life.
He wants the standards of behaviour in public life to improve and is lobbying for politicians and even judges to be breath and drug-tested at work.
“You can’t turn up to work for me under the influence of alcohol or drugs , so why should you be able to do it in parliament or court?”
Danny Skewes, the boy from the bush, was touched – and humbled – when a life-long mate said to him: “You’ve lived in the Northern Territory all your life and I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about you.”
The successful businessman is a big bloke but he walked a bit taller after hearing that.
“It made my day.” TQ