Ottam (Uttam) Singh


"Ottam Singh was an itinerant hawker, or commercial traveller, who travelled around the South West in a covered wagon drawn by two bay horses, often with another horse tethered to the back of the wagon trailing along behind; and sometimes with a foal following behind, or trotting alongside the horses in the shafts. Nannup was a regular calling on his rounds, and according to stories I heard my grandparents tell, had been for a very long time. He was sometimes accompanies by a younger man named David Singh, who was I think his brother, and once in a awhile a young boy, a little older than myself, came with him. Mohan Singh was an early settler within the Nannup Roads Board district, he had a property at Balbarrup, but whether or not he was related Ottam I have no idea.

Though I often hear people refer to Ottam Singh as an Afghan, I believe he was either a Sikh or a Hindu. In any case he and David Singh wore turbans, usually white, but sometimes with bands of beautiful shades of pale blue, orange or pink. They were very colourful and romantic characters of my early boyhood, and few things caused me more delight than to see these turbaned, bearded men driving along in their covered wagon.

During their stay in Nannup they would camp in Bob Higgins' big yard, on the north side of where the Marinko Tomas Park is now. Sometimes I went there to gaze at their wagon and horses from a safe distance, and I envied the two Higgins girls their opportunities to talk with them, but I was never daring enough to go close to them myself.

About the time of one of their visits, out teacher had told us that in India, people read books up and down the page, not across the page the way we do. I am not sure that she was right, but that was what she told us. One day I was walking past Billy Blythe's barber/newsagents shop, when through the gap between the hinges and the door-jamb of the open shop door, I saw Ottam Singh seated on a bench in the barber section of the shop, reading a newspaper. This intrigued me, and I crept up to the door and with my eye glued to the gap through which I had spotted him, I watched carefully to see if his eyes moved from left to right or from top to bottom of the page. I must have remained there for some time, totally engrossed in my piece of sleuthing, when suddenly I became aware of his black eyes peering straight at me over the top of the newspaper. My heart leapt into my mouth and I bolted off down the street as fast as I could go, with a few quick glances over my shoulder to see if he was coming after me.

As best as I can remember, he dealt with the local shop keepers at that time, for I recall seeing him unrolling bolts of cloth material on the counter of draper shops But in earlier years, he went from house to house peddling his wares: spices, curries, pepper, items of clothing, calico and other materials, shirts, frocks etc. I believe he still did this in the case of isolated settlers away from the towns in later years too, but the Roads Boards in some districts had introduced very stringent conditions about licensing pedlars and hawkers who competed with local businessmen, so he no longer went from house to house in Nannup at the time I remember him.

By about the mid 1930s though, Ottam and his covered wagon had gone, and the commercial travellers who replaced him in their canvas topped motor cars, were a far less colourful or romantic breed; - at least in the eyes of a young boy: - and they all read from left to right too."

Extract from Len Talbot's book titled "Nannup - A Place to Stop and Rest"

The general store in Balingup that is mentioned by Mrs Happ in the newspaper article below. This photo was taken when the general store burnt down in the early 1930's.

Mrs Happ's house on the farm that Ottam Singh used to frequent.