Sunday, January 8, 2012

'fessing up

By the time I was nine, our little family was ready for its ninth move – after some arguments between mother and a couple of power points, our little home in Moonee Ponds was checked by an electrician. Soon after that, The Housing Commission issued an order that the house be rewired. The landlord, presumably, was unhappy or broke or both. Once again, we packed our belongings, this time for a move to Flemington.

Flemington and its small, adjacent suburbs are respectable addresses today, and parts of Flemington always had been pretty posh.

The famous Flemington Post Office
Naturally, there were also parts that weren't so posh:

Of course this home is worth a fortune today,
but I'm sure you can see a difference between this home
and the home above

In the early 1960s parts of Flemington were vastly different from the way they are today – the Newmarket part was not just a world of racehorses, but a world of working horses, cows and sheep.

Before traffic became the challenge it is today, and the value of land shot through the roof, this little area was littered with urban house blocks occupied by small stables accommodating between two and four horses. There were also several farriers in the area, and a huge stock feed store in Newmarket St.

View Larger Map
Near the top of this little map is Illawarra Road, which was to be our address for the next two years.
At the bottom left of this map [where the number 35 appears] a roundabout marks an entrance to the Flemington Racecourse, home of the Melbourne Cup.

Somewhere in the centre and along the bottom, the map has a blue “tram” symbol, marking the corner of Racecourse and Smithfield Roads. These two roads formed two of the boundaries of what was once the Newmarket Saleyards.

The Newmarket Saleyards in Flemington provided a central stockmarket for sheep, cattle and who knows what else from 1858 til they closed in 1987. At one time, during World War II, this market was the largest sheep and cattle market in the world.

A few of the buildings have been preserved for posterity, but most of the ten hectares the stockyards once occupied have been developed with new housing.
Off the map and further along Smithfield Road was an even larger area – 23 hectares – occupied by Melbourne’s Abattoirs. This area, too, has been converted into a new housing estate.

For those who don’t know Melbourne, Racecourse Rd is rather close to the city centre, and a major traffic artery. Trams, cars and trucks travelling along Racecourse Road once competed for room with mobs of cattle and sheep that were being herded by dinky-di drovers and working dogs.
When we first moved to Flemington, the surface of Racecourse Road was pitted with huge potholes, sometimes awash with dung.

On market days, two men drove up and down this road in a little, motorised, three wheeled van, gathering up dazed or confused stray sheep and ferrying them to the stockyards in an effort to keep the road reasonably clear.

One of the reasons this crazy situation had developed is that a branch line of the railway passenger service looped around behind the site of our new home in Illawarra Road. Moving stock from these holding pens to the sale yards proper was – you guessed it – a job for drovers and working dogs.
When the market closed, this branch line had no further use; Crown Street and Newmarket Street were extended, and the rail yards area behind Illawarra Road was also converted for new housing.
But before all this modernisation took place, these holding pens were a great source of fun for my brothers and me.

One really fun trick was to climb up onto our back fence and wait til a mop of sheep or cattle were passing nearby and, just at the right moment, start kicking at the corrugated iron fence furiously. The idea was simply to scatter the herd and enjoy watching as dogs and drovers tried to round them up again, but occasionally a bull would go berserk and charge the fence. It took two hands and two feet to hang on, but what a ride!

Some days the pens over our back fence were empty and all was quiet. Up onto the fence, from there to the shed roof, then onto and down the power pole on the other side of our iron curtain we had room to run! It was also a great place to practice imitating the drovers’ voices as they swore at us. [There were even one or two words I understood!]

As a traffic-free thoroughfare it was the ideal spot for tippity runs* – naturally the first time the ball was delivered the batsman hit it straight into the muck in one of the holding pens. 

In the winter this muck in the bottom of the pens was green, stinky and viscous.
Poo fights were not that frequent, but even on days when we were really well behaved, somehow Mother knew where we had been.
“Have you been over the back fence again?” she would ask threateningly.
“No, Mum,” we tried to sound convincing, hoping the muck all over our clothes and limbs looked like normal kid-dirt.

At this Flemington address we dealt with grubbiness in the same way we always had; clothes started in the copper and, when transferred to laundry tubs, were given a final wash and rinse by hand. We all had our own assignments. If I never have to wash a trough full of dirty socks by hand again, it will be too soon.
There was no gas geyser over the bath in this house; the fact that the copper was both indoors and gas heated seemed a small consolation when water had to be transferred by the bucketful to the bathtub.

Enrolment at a Catholic School along with fasting, compulsory church attendance, scapulars, prayers and other reminders of God’s all-seeing eye had no impact at that age; bashing a fence to annoy animals and workers did not prompt questions of right or wrong.
God occupied a separate compartment in my mind, and it was a long time before I realised there was even supposed to be a connection between the spiritual and the mundane.
I must confess - we were naughty children.

In this street there were two stables, each big enough to accommodate about three horses. Apprentice jockeys slept in the tack rooms at night, and in the middle of the day had too much time on their hands. It was easy for them to impress local kids by bringing horses into the yard and making them “pigroot”*. 

Few of the stables in these streets were as grand as the Crown Street Stables
Most consisted simply of wooden horse boxes surrounded by corrugated iron fencing

My oldest brother - who has always lived in the space between the lines of books rather than in his body – somehow found himself one day watching one of these “shows”. He and some other lads were balanced precariously on the side of a float when a horse kicked out, hitting the side of the float and dislodging my brother.

He was taken to the Royal Children’s Hospital to have his broken arm reset. When my mother came home later that afternoon, he told her woefully that although they weren’t clean when he got to the hospital, he had put clean underpants on that morning.
So much for telling kids they must always wear clean underwear in case they have an accident.

For many years my mother’s sole source of income had been, and continued to be, from a number of cleaning jobs.
For relaxation she often took us to the trots [harness racing] time trials at the Showgrounds – entrance was free and the prize when a family member managed to ‘pick a winner’ - the right to feel smug for at least twenty minutes – was also free.

A pacer moves its front and rear legs on one side in the same
direction with each step [e.g. here both right legs are moving backwards]

Another [and for me far more loathsome] form of entertainment was fishing. I never have been and doubt I ever will be an early morning chirpy. We were dragged out of bed before the sun came up, and taken down to Station Pier in St Kilda.
The whole business was made more boring by my mother’s insistence that we remain quiet to avoid disturbing the fish. I saw this story for the load of old bootmakers* it was: After all, “new” Australians of Mediterranean extraction were always there, their tinnies* banging against the pylons beneath us as they harvested mussels.

A few years on, we moved from Illawarra Road to Edinburgh St – one whole street away. This time we were right next door to some stables. We might have lived in a sewered suburb, but living directly next door to stables taught me that there is more than one use for phenyl. Phew.

It was in these stables that one of my mother’s friends kept a pacer. The mare was a dead loss when it came to racing, but her owner was devoted to her.
My mother had grown up as a horsey person of sorts, but this mare was unusually crabby and unapproachable . For some reason, though, the horse had taken a shine to me.
As a short-stop, I thought it was hilarious to stand under the horse on my tip-toes and push at her belly with my head. [Yes, someone 11 years old can be that short].
Occasionally Ron would harness the mare to a sulky and ride down to the Showgrounds, where she could stretch her legs. Sitting on the [unpadded] side of the sulky when I was invited along, I became quite familiar with many of the pot-holes in Racecourse Rd.

At the Railway end of Edinburgh street was a long, rabbit warren of buildings, about three stories high and constructed almost entirely of timber. Of its original purpose I’ve no idea, but by this stage small areas had been leased to light industry, while some parts of it were deserted. 
[So many places to play, so little time away from school.]
In one part of the building, I watched fascinated one afternoon as a lone worker fed flat sheets of metal into a press and converted them to corrugated iron*.

It was an era when neighbours knew neighbours, so the streets around our house had a community feel to them. Our neighbours were so into sharing that, on Sunday mornings, we could listen to broadcasts of Newsbeat without turning our own wireless on at all. In the 60s Newsbeat was Reality Radio at its best.
Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, the presenter somehow showed up at every fire engine or ambulance callout in the greater Urban area – or at least created the illusion that he was. He was always on the spot, painting word pictures and recording the atmosphere and horror of each tragedy as it unfolded, just so we could hear about it on Sunday mornings.

oh, this is dreadful; just dreadful. I can see where the little pink Consul has left the road, gone over the footpath and then hit a lightpole. 
I don’t know who was driving the car, but they might have been drunk. But, oh, it’s a mess. There’s broken glass everywhere. 
The car has such a huge dent in the passenger side that it looks like it must have been wrapped completely around the lightpole before the lightpole fell over from the impact of the crash.
The ambulance workers are trying desperately to resuscitate someone on the side of the road. We don’t know yet who it is, but I can see a pair of ladies’ high heels poking out from underneath a blanket. They’re good shoes, perhaps she was just coming home after dancing the night away.
If I just move a little closer I might be able to … OH! Oh dear, this is awful...
And there are people out here in their pyjamas, shaking their heads, they must have rushed out to see what all the noise was.
Excuse me, this is Newsbeat, did you see what happened here?
So, did you come rushing out of your home because you heard a loud bang? Was there a sound of squealing brakes?
“Nah. Came outside cos a lightpole smashed frew me roof.”
You must have had a terrible shock!
“Nah, I knew not to touch the wires.”
Was anyone in your family hurt?
“Nah, but the lightpole knocked down me TV antenna, and the antenna hit old Mrs Smiff from next door on the head when she came out to see what the loud bang was.”
Oh… oh, do you have any idea yet of the harm done by your antenna crashing?
“It prob’ly doesn’t matter, mate, I never could get channel 9 on the tele anyway.”

[Personally, I don’t understand how anyone could find such ghoulishness entertaining.]

A country cousin of mine had been a sickly child, and often had long stays at the Children’s Hospital. On these occasions her mother stayed with us, as the hospital was only a short tram ride away. Aunty always squished in with me in my tiny bed. At some point in the night she always shook me awake and told me to stop snoring. Before I could count to 3 she always rolled onto her back and started snoring herself, keeping me awake for the rest of the night.

Coming from a quiet place to the city, Aunty was nervous and jumpy at the slightest background noise – especially stock trains shunting into the yards over our back fence. If she wasn’t complaining about snoring, she was shaking me awake to ask “What’s that?”, though by the time I was awake, whatever noise she’d heard had usually long ceased.

One New Year’s Eve, shortly after midnight, we were both awoken by an almighty explosion. The whole family was awoken. Through the window we saw what looked like walls of flame next door, and all rushed out into the street frightened the stables had caught fire and the horses were trapped. But the flames were just a reflection of what was happening down the other end of the street.
About 300 yards away, clearly visible at the end of our street, was the sight of the three story rabbit warren of wooden buildings ablaze.
People in New Years Eve finery stood side by side with residents in pyjamas, nighties and dressing gowns to watch the spectacle; the cheapest and most impressive New Years Eve fireworks display I’ve ever seen. [The Arts Centre Spire Fire looked like a mere spark in comparison.]

I don’t remember hearing about this on Newsbeat.

The burnt-out buildings were replaced by a massive overpass* leading stock directly over Racecourse Road to the saleyards proper. The overpass, in turn, was pulled down when the stockyards closed, and the land was redeveloped.

Tippity runs; a form of backyard cricket wherein if the ball and bat connect in any way, the batsman must run. I can't tell you more than that because my brothers kept changing the rules. If you don't know anything about cricket there is only one thing you really need to know - it is the sports freak's version of Waiting for Godot.  

Making horses pigroot or buck and kick out wildly was a sadistic business which involved pinching a nerve in the horse's back. Amazing to think someone invested megabucks in buying, stabling and training a horse, yet 15 year old apprentices were treating them in such a 'cavalier' manner.

A load of old bootmakers i.e. a load of cobblers. BS.

Tinnies, in this context, means aluminium dinghies.

Corrugated iron is not an Australian invention, but it is almost the Vegemite of building materials.

The mass production of Prefabricated housing in Australia began with corrugated iron during the gold rush era.

During the great depression, kerosene tins became the poor man's "corro";

The overpass
Some web-sites claim this overpass was constructed in the early 1970s, but this date doesn’t gel with my memories of where I lived and when. I know this bridge was built before we moved yet again: I could go to the State Library and trawl through old papers free of charge to see if I’m right, but of course I won’t. Just saying, that’s all.


  1. I remember tippity run cricket it was good fun. Lived in Racecousre Road back in the early 60's when i was a little tacker near the corner of Boundary Road and went to Boundary Road State School :-).

  2. Another great blast from the past. I had forgotten about tippity cricket. I certainly remember the smell when passing the Newmarket sale yards. My grandfather listened to Newsbeat. I think it damaged me. I could go on and on with memories, but I won't.

  3. Windsmoke, who has been stalking whom? Do you remember, perhaps, the smell of that disgusting little tannery next to the Macauley Station?

    LOL Andrew, I wonder sometimes if the chap who presented Newsbeat was a little damaged himself. Feel free to go on and on with memories - people's lives are fascinating.

  4. Love reading other peoples stories and this was a fascinating one. I doubt I would have liked the smells.

  5. Diane, some of the smells were a bit much. Traffic exhaust may be more toxic, but a little easier to cope with.

  6. Wow! Not only were you a virtual farmgirl, but a daredevil to boot!!! But I bet it didn't seem that exotic at the time ...

  7. Red, Cow-plop does not seem any more exotic now than it did back then. But I will admit, I sort of counted on becoming Annie Oakley when I grew up - seems I've still got some growing to do.