I loved growing up in West Heidelberg.
In the early 1930’s and 1940’s it still had a vast amount of open land and was sparsely populated. Despite this, there was still plenty for me to do. Our sizeable block (69’ x 185′) allowed plenty of room for activities and a variety of contents. As a small child I rode my three wheeler bike in the backyard or I would circle the house on the asphalt path with my tow-a-long toys behind. There were many things to inspect in my Dad’s garden – roses, dahlias, enormous sunflowers, vegetables, and fruits in season: apples, pears, apricots, oranges, lemons, cherries and nectarines. Across the back of the block, separating off about 30 feet, was a high chicken wire fence. Behind it lay the chook shed for our dozen or so poultry, the firewood heap, the manure heap (garden fertiliser), a small milking shed for milking our house cow Sally, and room for my Dad’s spring cart. Even when time progressed, my Dad never owned a car.
My Dad worked at the Gasworks, Heidelberg (bounded by Banksia, Jika and Yarra Streets). He drove a light spring cart to and from work, pulled by his pony Dolly. Dolly was also the family’s means of transport to most places we cared to go. As I grew a little older and became more observant, it was a thrill for me to hear the ‘clip- clop’, ‘jingle jingle’ of our beloved Dolly as Dad drew close to home. To top this off, after Dad had unharnessed her, he would lead me on her back from our back gate to the paddock next door. I think my love affair with horses started then.
If it were not for the war, I could have said that my brothers and sisters and I grew up at 40 Munich Street, West Heidelberg, postal area N23. Joan, Jack, Carol, Charlie, our parents and I didn’t move, but our street name changed. Germany was our enemy in WW2 so when I was about eight or so, ‘Munich Street’ became ‘Montgomery Street’.
Beginning school (West Heidelberg State School No 4267, now Haig Street Primary School) opened up a wider world. Most children in our vicinity walked to school. We enjoyed it too. You would leave home as one then the further you went to school the number would increase to maybe six. What company! What times! What a big world around us! There were two young boys who had the misfortune to be stricken with infantile paralysis (‘Polio’), and some of us boys would be happy and proud to have the pleasure and honour of helping to push them to school in their wheel chairs or in a mobile bed.
On our way to school we had lots of things to observe. Cows waited patiently to be taken from their ‘night paddock’ in St Hellier Street to their daily grazing further afield. These cows belonged to Norton’s dairy, which was on the corner of Edwin and St Hellier Streets. Nortons had not only the milking shed but also the retail Dairy where they processed, strained and bottled the milk ready for sale to the public. The Clydesdale horses owned by Mr Henry grazed in the paddock on the corner of Edwin and Altona Streets. They were always appreciative of the special treat we extracted from our school lunches and they repaid us with love, affection and appreciation.
Mr Henry lived only a couple of hundred metres away from us in Francis Street. On the vacant block adjoining his place he had a collection of heavy horse drawn vehicles including lorries, drays and carts. I had much fun perched up high in the driver’s seat showing off my imaginary four-horse team to the public.
Poultry farms were another attraction for kids and we were lucky to have four of these very local to our own homes!
Bonfire nights were joyous celebrations of occasions such as Empire Day and Guy Fawkes Day. I think the parents enjoyed them as much as the children. There were crackers, sparklers and other fireworks. We cooked roast potatoes in the fire and ate them in their jackets with butter! My Dad would recite the poem: Guy Fawkes Aye – hang him up high / Hang him on a lamp post, let him die / A loaf of bread to stuff his head / And a pound of cheese to choke him / A bottle of wine to wash it down / And a very good fire to roast him!
During the war years there would be ‘working bees’ at school to organise and dig the air raid trenches at the north-east side of the school ground. We would evacuate into these trenches during air raid practice drill.
World War II
The war impacted us at home. We had night ‘black outs’ and carbon paper would cover all of the windows to avoid lights showing outside. Tin headlight shields fitted over the light glasses also aimed to reduce the show of visible light. A small rectangular slot, cut and turned slightly down on the outside, made them look like a mail post box. The effect was to deflect light downward at an angle with a shorter range: ‘Remember, the Enemy is Always Watching’.
Daily needs of bread and milk were home delivered. I remember the Baker with his horse drawn cart. In the early morning hours you might hear the rattle of bottles, clanging of cans and clip-clop of horse’s feet – the sounds of the Milkman and his milk cart. Sometimes there was evidence of a small calamity – the milkman’s horse had bolted leaving broken bottles and spilt milk across the vacant blocks. Also strewn across the open land was money! Maybe pennies, half pennies, and small silver – threepences and sixpences. What a find for us as kids! We wondered, where and why has this money come from?
Sometimes there would be a knock at our door, ‘Could you please afford a billy of hot water to make a billy of tea?’ The request came from a swagman, or, ‘Perhaps you might have some small job I could do in return for the same.’ Such men were mainly remnants of the hard times of the depression days when there was lack of available work or money, or perhaps they came from broken homes. These men carried all of their worldly wealth on their body and in their hands. They had just the clothes they wore, invariably including an old overcoat, plus a blanket or rug, barely enough to keep them warm, and an old black billy can. The St James Park cricket ground with its gear shed and toilets was no more than about 150 metres from we lived. The passing swagmen often took the opportunity to make this a very convenient staying place for varying lengths of time. The shed was always kept locked but prying away one sheet of iron from the back wall gave them access to the comfort of a rather warm and very dry place to stay at their pleasure. These men usually had little to say but it still stirs my imagination to think what stories we could have heard and what knowledge we could have gained through another man’s eyes had we been able to hold a conversation.
April 9th, 1944 was a sad time in my life as a young boy. I lost my mother. She passed away at the Royal Women’s Hospital. I can still feel the tears in my eyes as I recall seeing the Policeman wearing his Bobby’s helmet, who came to our place to inform us of my Mum’s passing. He walked away, head slightly bent, as he headed along Alfred St towards Bell St to catch the red bus to take him back to the Police Station in Heidelberg.
About a year later I became proficient enough to manage to ride our faithful Dolly away and out of sight of home. Sometimes in the evenings during daylight saving time I would not be home before dark, although I had not been far away. Dad would then tell me, ‘Even the chooks know when it is time to go to bed (when the sun goes down) and so should you. So be home then, or no pony ride’. ‘Okay, Dad.’