Growing up in Warrandyte in the 1950s was pretty special. We had the river and the bush and a strong feeling of belonging. Call it plenty of community spirit if you like.
We McAuleys were a mongrel breed, part Irish, part German and with a bit of English and Scottish thrown in. Back then Warrandyte was still a country town but quickly developing into a suburb. My family had lived here for generations, my grandmother Eva Belzer came from German stock and attended the local stone-built state primary school that was built by my great-great grandfather William Masterton back in the 1800s. She married Sam McAuley, whose father James was born in County Tyrone, Ireland.
My grandparents set up their orchard and stable on a tract of land next to the school, raised their own livestock, baked bread and grew vegetables for their dinner table.
There was no electricity for cooking, heating or light. It was a time when people made their own music at special events such as births, weddings and wakes. My grand- father played the concertina and people danced and sang in the old homestead in the light of flickering hurricane lamps and candles. They had six children Evelyn, Gertrude, Jack, Bill, Lillian and my father Ralph, the youngest.
The family suffered many setbacks over the years, losing their home in the devastating Black Friday firestorm of 1939. Three years later, during WWII, my uncle Bill was shot dead as he led his troops across a beach in what was then New Guinea. I was proudly named William in memory of my Uncle Bill when I was born six years after the end of the war.
My father came home from WWII after serving in the Middle East and New Guinea. He met and married my mother Patricia and built our family home from fieldstone gathered in nearby hills and transported back to his building site on a horse-drawn dray.
In due course, my sister Sue and I were born and we grew up running gloriously free in the small town, through which the Yarra River meandered.
The river was the focal point of our lives. We kids met by the river, swam together in the river and with a trembling heart, when I was still as innocent as an angel, I had my first kiss by the river.
Our village consisted of a series of shops and included the Mechanics Institute Hall, the Post Office and a pub.
Across from the pub was Jack Moore’s general store. The atmospheric old shop was full of sacks of grain, hardware items and tools, glass jars filled with nuts and lollies and rows of biscuit tins. Buying a brown paper bag full of broken biscuits was a heavenly treat for us kids. Scotch fingers, Iced Vovos and Milk Arrowroots were my favourites.
The store was crammed with little treasures hiding in the shadows on the dusty wooden floor, a great place for a child to explore. Unfortunately, the old shop, a remnant from another age, burned to the ground when I was still a child; it was never rebuilt and the site has been used as a car park for the Grand Hotel ever since.
Jack Moore’s sister Aggy ran the milk bar next to the Mechanics Institute Hall, right where the community centre is today. In the late 1950s, matinees were shown at the hall every Saturday and the town’s young film-goers would gather in her shop at interval to drink the ‘spiders’ she made and to buy more Jaffas to roll down the aisles during the Hopalong Cassidy or Tom Mix feature.
Lime ‘Spiders’ were Aggy’s specialty and consisted of a scoop of ice cream stirred into a big sundae glass of lime cordial and lemonade. The delicious creamy concoction fizzed and oozed over the rim of the glass, the bubbles tickling your nose as you tried to drink it before there was too much spillage.
In June, winter rain turned the river into a muddy torrent that coursed through the valley. Rising above the yellow-brown river, the rain-misted hills were mostly capped with grey leaden skies. Winter months were cold, wet and depressing, the dullness broken only by local football matches, which were the absolute highlight.
In summer, the ever-dwindling river ran through tinder dry gum trees that shimmered in the oppressive heat. Wattle trees were laden with bright yellow blossom and the sharp scent of eucalyptus hung in the hot January air. The crack of ball on bat could be heard as the local cricket team crafted their way through another innings.
Sometimes during stinking heatwaves my father would wake me at first light and we’d drive down to the river in his 1951 Bedford truck for a swim before school. Steam rose from the cold muddy river as we waded in together to cool off. I’d cling to my father’s broad shoulders as we swam clear across the current to the tall rocky cliffs on the other side. I felt safe in the water with him.
The other local lads and I climbed cliffs and trees and dived into shallow water from heights of up to 20 metres. We were fearless and I suspect slightly mad, as we risked life and limb every day with our daredevil stunts. We congregated at a swimming hole called ‘The Log’, where a rope hung from a tall gum tree on the other side of the river. Time after time we’d swing out over the water and let go of the rope, flying like acrobats through the air as we somersaulted down into the owing brown water.
Our bread was baked in a wood fired oven in the village and delivered daily to each house, sometimes still warm. And milk was delivered each day by a local character, “Tiger” Flowers. He always wore a sleeveless Richmond Football Club guernsey.
He was our unofficial town crier: all our breaking news came from Tiger as he called out during his milk deliveries, “Mrs Chapman has had a baby boy”, or “The bush fire is coming from the north”. Though I knew Tiger all of his life, I never knew his Christian, or given, name; I always called him Tiger.
The iceman came once a week, a huge block of ice carried on a shoulder protected by a potato sack. Once in our kitchen he’d hoist up the heavy block and unceremoniously plonk it in our icebox. It was the time before electric refrigerators were common in 1950s homes.
The “dunny man” came once a week, too, to collect the pan from our outdoor toilet, with a grunt he’d lift the frighteningly full pan up and on to his head and carry it down to the dunny truck. It was an endless joke with us kids: what would happen if the bottom of the pan gave way as he balanced it on his head? Shit and disaster! That’s what!
Our old-fashioned telephone was attached to the wall. To make a call you held the earpiece at the end of a cord to your ear while winding a handle to ring the local exchange. Mrs Fitch, the operator, worked her magic from the post office, now the Historical Society Museum. Speaking into the mouthpiece on the wall, you’d tell Mrs Fitch the number you required and she’d connect you via telephone lines tangled like spaghetti on her switchboard.
Our mail was delivered by horse- back each day by old Bill McCulloch. Wearing a pith helmet, he’d ride his horse Silver right past our letterbox, up the drive and deliver the mail by hand saying, “Good morning, Mrs McAuley.” When we heard the clip clop of Silver’s hooves we’d scurry outside to pat the friendly old horse.
NEXT MONTH: The coming of television and the Melbourne Olympics.