Sunday, December 18, 2011

memory lane

About 50 years ago, my family moved into a small semi-detached home in Moonee Ponds. This was in one of the streets, not far from Moonee Ponds Junction, named after British poets.

At the rear was a cobblestone laneway, a reminder of the pre-sewerage “dunny-can” days. 
One of my grandmother’s two standard jokes went like this:
Q: Who is the strongest man in the world?
A: The dunny-can man, for he picks up what everyone else drops.

“New Australians” – i.e. almost white Europeans – were still arriving in Australia to settle, bringing with them strange new ideas and, in return, being paid with loud advice like “Yer in Orstraylya now, ya order lern ta speke Inglish!”.

When our new-chum neighbours were joined by their family and friends for a sauce or wine-making day, they always carefully hosed their carefully concreted back-yards when they finished. The lanes behind our house on those occasions were awash with tomato or grape pulp, and the smell of either can still transport me back to that house.

Gas Stove

The house had a wood stove [which smoked too much to be any use], an early Kooka gas stove, and in the lounge room, a briquette heater. 

Gas geyser
[connecting pipes insulated with asbestos lagging, of course]

For hot water in the bathroom there was a standard gas geyser, and for hot water in the kitchen there was the standard large kettle.
The laundry copper was under a back verandah of sorts. Not a gas copper like contemporary ones, it was still wood heated.

Gas Copper

Coming home from school [St Monica’s] meant either negotiating the junction, or taking some back streets to avoid the blokes spilling from the pubs out into the street. Mostly, I took the back streets.
One day, a lovely old Italian lady was in her front garden in Margaret Street when I tripped and fell, skinning my knee. She, without a word of English took me [without a word of Italian] into her home and washed my knee then put some antiseptic on it. At home such things were tended with [pink] mercurochrome, but whatever this lady put on my knee was brown [probably Betadine].

From that day on I knew that different people had different ways of doing things; that despite their differences most people are kind; and that actions speak louder than words.

Known variously as the Moonee Ponds Town Hall or the Essendon Town Hall, the council building which occupies one corner of the junction was largely destroyed by fire in 1978, and today only the clocktower remains.
The ballroom dances held there were a little before my time, though I do remember school concerts in the hall. What I remember more vividly than anything was going there for my “needles”.

The secret of comedy is timing, and for most of my life my timing has sucked.
While people in other parts of the world were administering an oral vaccine for polio, in the early 1960s yours truly was one of thousands who were given the Salk vaccine by injection. Not long after my last polio ‘needle’, the oral vaccine was introduced. 
Some years ago a GP delighted in explaining that ‘in those days” the needles were of a much thicker gauge [he forgot to mention the intimidating length], and that after a dozen or so kids had been vaccinated the needles were sharpened for further assembly line use.

A Bills water trough in Beechworth
[the kids belong to the bloke wot runs the website mentioned below]

Another feature of the junction at that time was a water trough for horses. This was very useful at the time, because milk was still commonly delivered by horse and cart all over Melbourne, and the ice we used at home was also delivered by horse and cart. The bottle-oh was a rather grubby and surly looking man, who always had a woman sitting atop the cart with him. Rumour [amongst us kids, at least] had it that she only put up with him because she was a deaf mute. This ‘fact’, along with my conviction the bottle-oh had what was called a ‘club foot’, helped me almost get over the trauma of having polio injections – the world was obviously not a very nice place for anyone remotely ‘handicapped’.

The bread was delivered in the modern way – in a motorised van. There wasn’t a lot of variety, and our unsliced loaves were simply handed over with a small piece of tissue paper wrapped around them. Sometimes there would be a little corner of the loaf broken off and, with the logic of a seven year old, I sat one day and nibbled at the corner a little, figuring that another missing crumb wouldn’t be very noticeable. The next crumb didn’t seem to make much difference, or the next crumb… or the next. When it finally occurred to me that a whole heap of crumbs made a big difference compared to the original loaf, I knew I was in trouble.

The incidence of Tuberculosis [TB] in Australia had peaked in 1953, but in the early 1960s it was still a problem. Today, Breastscreen vans rotate from one area to another, but in the ‘60s it was chest x-ray vans on rotation.
Whenever the van was in Moonee Ponds, the footpaths were stencilled with the legend “Have you had your chest x-ray?” [or something darned close to that]. Anyone looking for the van had only to follow the trail of footprints stencilled on to the path.

Of nearly 40 members of my own extended family tested for TB, only two had no trace of the disease. As one of the disease-free pair, I had another 4 needles [not at the town hall], while most others were simply given thousands of pills to swallow.

A range of crystal radio sets were available in the 60s
usually small enough to fit into a breastpocket

A few of the family’s adults were sent to Fairfield or Heatherton for total bed rest. When the authorities said “total” bed rest, they meant it. To survive the boredom, most used tiny crystal set radios, which worked well when the alligator clip was attached to one of the ancient old metal beds. They were also easily hidden from the concentra sanatorium staff.
As for comfort and care while being cured, the motto of the sanatorium [according to parolees] was “You can’t die of TB in here – though we make no promises about anything else”.

With rigidly limited trading hours, for anyone who worked Monday to Friday there were only a few hours left on Saturday morning to do the shopping – most often for us this was in Puckle St.
If my memory doesn’t deceive me, there were three Gilbertson butcher shops in this one small street. Meat and three veg was a balanced meal, and meat meant either lamb or beef – the lamb in reality was usually ‘two-tooth’ mutton. City dwellers who wanted a chicken for dinner had to buy one frozen, or kill one themselves.
Sawdust was commonly used on the floors of butchers' shops, as well as some fishmongers or pubs. In Gilbertson’s stores the sawdust was so thick it was as good as a walk along the beach.

One frequently visited store was a wool shop. Socks were made of wool and so any holes were repaired by darning. Most people wore hand-knitted jumpers, cardigans or vests. It was a do-it-yourself world. Knitting patterns usually specified how many balls of wool were needed for a particular garment, and expert knitters would ask for the right amount of wool – which had to be from the same “dye lot” – to be put away, and were bought as the garment progressed.

A little further along there was a haberdashery shop. Fabric was bought by the yard, and the shop assistant would complete a docket, then send the docket and cash to a central cashier using a ‘flying fox’ system. The flying fox in Puckle St was much the same as the one used in George’s in the city.

A docket and cash canister is
attached to the flying fox

The cool dude then waits for the countdown

And the docket and cash arrive at the store's space station

The manufacturer’s publicity for flying fox systems stressed the inefficiency of having shop assistants walking to a cash register and giving change when they could be serving other customers. Perhaps using a central cashier meant running adjustments could be made to stock figures as each piece of fabric was sold. Perhaps it was a coincidence, but I bet the flying fox system also made sure no shop assistants could pocket any of the cash, under-ring a sale, or fudge the yardage on too many dockets.

Early model shopping jeep
[not collapsible because few people had cars]

The first super-market-like store I remember seeing was also in Puckle St. Customers were invited to leave shopping bags, shopping jeeps or coats and brollies with a “cloak-room attendant” of sorts. It wasn’t a large store, but customers queued at checkouts to pay for purchases.
If we were planning to buy honey or peanut butter, we brought our own jars along, which were weighed before and after filling. Biscuits were weighed out for sale in brown paper bags. I doubt broken biscuits really are healthier because all the calories have leaked out, but they were definitely cheaper.

Around this time there was some kerfuffle about whether it was okay for bakers to sell “yesterday’s bread” cheap or not. I was not the most politically astute 7 year old in the world, but I believe one group held that stale bread was unhealthy, while the opposition claimed this was all bunkum, just a con to ensure pig farmers could get cheap supplies. Yesterday’s cakes [for a penny] however, were way cool and I think I would remember if it was illegal to sell them.

Once in a blue moon I am asked if I like horse riding. My usual response is that I don’t any more, because I once fell off a horse and hurt myself – the shop had a concrete floor. [The real story is that I don’t like heights.] Kifts shoe store had the perfect lure for kids in need of school shoes – a mechanical horse that was FREE.
There were always heaps of kids waiting patiently [or otherwise] for a turn, and I don’t remember whether I ever scored a ride on the grey beast or not. Probably not. I was small, and easily ignored.

Across the street was the movie theatre – where we saw many a Disney movie for the first time.

After we moved closer to the city, we still found ourselves in Puckle St from time to time, as various family members moved to or from the area. It was in a hardware store not far from the theatre that I watched, rapt, as the following took place in 1966:

“That’ll be one and ninepence please love,” the shopkeeper asked as he handed over the goods.
The elderly lady customer rummaged in her purse for a moment, then handed over a two shilling coin.
The shopkeeper - complying with the law by confiscating old currency and giving out change in new currency – handed over a two cent piece.
The elderly lady peered at the strange brown coin she had been given, then asked “What’s this?”
“It’s a two cent piece, love,” the hardware man explained.
I would be surprised if the lady could actually see the coin properly, but she was definitely surprised. “Two?’ she asked. “You owe me threepence.”
“Nah, love, it’s decimal currency. See, three pence is equal to two cents…”
“How can it be two cents when you owe me three pennies?”
“It’s the changeover, love, see… there’s only ten cents now, for a shilling. See, it’s twelve pennies in an old shilling but now ten cents is… well, anyway… it’s that way, you see…”
“Well if it’s the same, why don’t you just give me a threepence, or three pennies?”
“Oh, I don’t know why they don’t just wait til all us old people die, before they change things.”

Early gas stoves did not have user friendly thermostats, hence older cookbooks usually had a page explaining how many inches high a gas flame should be for a slow, medium or fast oven temperature.

Lighting the gas geyser involved turning on the water, then lighting the gas pilot, then turning the pilot around so the flame reached the gas ring inside the unit. Amazing I'm still here.

The secret of doing laundry in a copper is simple - hot water sets a stain. Start with cold water, and as it heats up this generates movement. BT - before tissues - this was the ONLY way to get handkerchiefs clean. Boil clothes if you want to kill germs, but don't boil man-made fibres [or wool].

Milk or soft drink bottle recycling was done mainly through milk bars. A "bottle-oh" collected and recycled beer bottles. Beer bottles were more common BW & BC - before wine and before cans - and there were more than enough to keep several people in business.

The ice man cameth until 1962 when he advised my mother nearly everyone had a fridge now, and he was going to retire. Most photos I can find of ice chests are of carefully restored oak chests. Ours was decidedly tatty and thinly veneered. People who have used ice chests know better than to attack iced up fridges with knives or hair dryers - just turn the fridge off, leave the door closed, and the melting ice will keep everything cool.

The changeover to a new currency was protracted and, for many people, quite painful - hence the name "dismal currency".

Horsetrough photo from a website dedicated to the Bills charity.

For more on the flying fox system, start here.

For more on vintage water-heaters start here.

For more on the bottle-oh [Georgie Singles] start here [you'll have to search for the relevant story].


  1. Connect with pretty well everything you had mentioned. You lived in luxury with a gas geyser when most of us only had chip heaters to heat the bath water. I wonder if the height from the gas flame connects to something that puzzles me, the English settings on stoves, mark 4.

  2. This is what i call a blast from the past because everything you describe i can relate to as i lived in Moonee Ponds at two locations the first one was an easy walk to Essendon Station and had a bp service station on the corner with Mt Alexander Rd and the other one was behind Puckle Street where Moonee Ponds Market used to be :-).

  3. Hi Andrew,
    I was chuffed after the Longford Gas Explosion to read that people had been rigging up chip heaters. Took very little wood to heat a decent amount of water. [Though taking a bath in "pee soup" after half a dozen others is something I'd not like to go back to.]
    I think the Mark 4 business is much the same as the flame height business. No thermostats to guarantee oven temperature, but sample marks to help with the flame height. I've always been impressed with the way people could regulate the oven temp of wood stoves - most of which had no built in thermometers.

    Levels of 'progress' seem to have differed all over the city/country. People my age often pooh-pooh my talk of outside toilets, chip heaters etc because they grew up in newer areas, and because they didn't move constantly like we did, so I'm glad to hear about your chip heater.

    Hi Windsmoke,
    If I remember correctly the BP servo was on the corner of St James St... ?

  4. A great jaunt down memory lane. You have a good memory. I can remember the chip heater and ice box and kerosine fridge and heater. We also had kerosine lamps for a while. The dunny man visited once a week. When we first came to Australia we lived in a tent and mum cooked outside on a wood stove sometimes holding an umbrella. I have written this story on m blog it is on my side bar under Migrating to Australia.

  5. Hi Diane,
    I had started to read your book before you went on your wildflower trip [of which I'm awfully jealous]. Your first chapter not only gave me a chance to experience life on one of those immigrant ships, it gave me a peek at a picture of you as a tin lid. Can't wait til the distractions of Christmas are over and I can get back to it!

    Sometimes I am shocked at how the pace of technological change is escalating, and then other times I am shocked at how much changed before computer technology started changing everything in a different way.

  6. Having lived most of my life in the U.S. there are some things here I don't relate to but they are all so interesting. What I take away from your post is my agreement with how most people really are kind.
    Oh yeah, and those polio shots, I remember them all too well.

  7. Hi Rubye,
    I'm very brave now about needles, but that might have a lot to do with me being much bigger and the needles being much much smaller. It just occurs to me that as a child I was able to "live in the now" without realising it - e.g. crying after those polio shots.
    I do sometimes wish I could somehow tell people - like that nice Italian lady - that even if I can't remember names there are lots and lots of kindnesses people have shown me over the years, and each one comes back to me from time to time. It would be nice to think the remembering gave something back to those people.

  8. I vacillated wildly between 'those were the days!' and 'those were dark times'!!! The needles thing resonates - I spent part of my childhood in Fiji - so every time we returned to OZ, we had (what seemed like) dozens of injections! But we got to keep the syringes to 'play' with ...

    There's a special Xmas surprise for you over on my blog in my 'Sunshine' post! Enjoy, and Merry Xmas!!!

  9. A childhood in Fiji sounds fascinating, Red.
    Can't tell you how much your surprise means to me - thank you!
    Merry Xmas to you and Pilchard too. :-)

  10. AWESOME post. I shall need to read it at least twice so I can ingest all the goodies.

    I love the old women's line about changes. That's too funny.

    I hope you and your other have a wonderful Christmas!

  11. Thanks Dina. Change can be a challenging thing, and astonishing in retrospect.
    I do remember the old woman was terribly distressed about her "change". The shopkeeper was both sympathetic and frustrated, but he couldn't afford to set a precedent by giving in, I guess.
    Christmas so far has been wonderful. Aunty joined in the excitement of checking out Santa's gifts, and is now off to spend some time with her children and their families for a few days- including a stay along the Great Ocean Road, in a house right on the ocean.
    I hope, in turn, that you, Jack and Tim and all your friends and family are having a safe and happy holiday season!