Saturday, March 3, 2012



For all its size and density the throbbing busy metropolis of Sydney still has many surprisingly quiet little pockets where weary wanderers can bide a while and take in the view.  A view that nearly always includes the city’s famous coat hanger, the iconic Harbour Bridge...

It’s a far cry from the bush and kookaburra cry that greeted my convict ancestors of 1797...



1930’s Scene Sydney Railway Square – unknown photographer
I possess an extraordinary number of photographs; my own collection put together since my children were babies, plus albums passed on from my parents and my grandparents.  Many are duplicated, a colossal number are frankly either under or over exposed, but I can’t bear to throw any of them away.  To me old photos, like the loved ones they portray, are precious.

Back in my parents day a camera was a luxury and I’m frankly surprised they managed to amass the number of images they did, but not all in my hand me down collections were happy snaps taken by the family.

A lot were the work of Sydney’s then roaming professionals, their business details stamped on the back of each photo...for instance Memory Photos, Shop 10, Royal Arcade or Fifth Avenue Snaps, 12 Her Majesty’s Arcade.


At some time, an uncle or cousin must have acquired a standard box brownie but back then, during the war years at least, no one in our family owned a camera.  Instead, street photographers were kept very busy conducting an extremely lucrative business in various parts of Sydney’s inner city... and at times on the various beaches as well.

Looking back through the old photographs provided a great chance to observe the changing fashions.  The perky hats, rising hemlines and the change from gloves to bare hands.

Photographers set themselves up at key points in the city centre; on the concourse leading up from the bus stops at Central Station to the railway departure hall; outside Circular Quay; along Pitt Street and Martin Place; or near the Archibald Fountains in Hyde Park.  All over town, there was a busy, smiling, cajoling army of photographers, camera always at the ready.  It was hard to avoid them.

A snap quickly taken, smiles frozen in time, a ticket handed over and next day you could pick up a black and white five by two from one of the photographic kiosks that dotted the city arcades.

Sydney’s army of photographers wandered far and wide.  No park or beach escaped their attention.  This collage of beach snaps featured both my mother and Aunt Viti, and cousins from Newcastle.  The Beach Inspectors with me were friends of the family so we little Brown-Parkers always felt safe in the surf.
Not all the photos in my album were happy snaps though.  Some marked moments of sickness and loss.  They’re the photos without smiles.
Through these images taken by street photographers over a period of about fifteen years I can follow my Grandmother Maggie’s recovery from a stroke; my Dad’s consultation with doctors in Sydney’s Macquarie street; a visit back to Sydney when neither my mother nor I looked particularly happy;  and at Circular Quay the glum expressions on my Gran, Aunt May and Mother’s face while cousin Barry and little me snuggle together; that’s the year Grandfather died.

 Before Rewa my mother  married Dad she worked in Fosters Shoe Shop in the heart of Sydney on the corner of Liverpool and Castlereagh Streets.  This was deep in the Haymarket section of the city.  That’s the shop in the photo below.
Unknown Photographer – Historic Homes Trust
Rewa was the baby of the Brown-Parker family and no doubt accustomed to getting her own way.  Guy, my Dad was virtually the boy next door when both families lived not far from each other in Sydney’s western suburbs.
Rewa and Guy in their courting days.
 Rewa’s ‘hen’s party’ 1937.

My parents were a curious mix.  Dad’s family were practicing Catholics, while Mum’s American kin, way back, were staunch Quakers, though at the time of the wedding were of no defining religion at all.  When my parents married,  the officiating priest could have seriously asked if anyone had reason to question their union.  Both parties were after all named Brown.

Signing her surname as Mother had done all her life as Rewa Brown-Parker would only have added another dimension to the situation. You see,  I doubt my American grandfather Chas ever got round to legally changing his name from plain Brown to the contrived double barrelled one, Brown-Parker.

But all this was a possibility I’m sure never entered her head or the priest’s, nor  any of the guests.  For that matter Dad’s Brown family in turn may not have known anything of Chas Bertie’s double and at times dubious life.

My father, Guy Francis Aloysius Brown was a good-looking man, dark hair, brown eyes, and cheeky grin. He was 25 when he married my mother on December 18 1937, she was 18.  They made a handsome couple. Dad wore clothes well and faced cameras with grinning self-confidence. 

Looking at their photo as they swing happily along a city street you wouldn’t think they had a care in the world.  But the question of religion was apparently a thorny one. Their marriage alone was an example of a condoned catholic ceremony in the priest’s vestibule and not at the altar.

My father’s sisters, I’m told, later performed a cloaked in secrecy ‘do it themselves’ baptism complete with holy water on new born me in the hospital, unknown to my mother. Five years later when a prerequisite for my First Holy Communion required a Certificate of Baptism my father let the cat out of the bag about the first one.  My mother, Rewa was not amused.


 Among my treasured photos I have a black and white snap showing me clutching a fluffy toy rabbit outside the kiosk at Central Station. Another of Mum and Aunt Viti striding arm in arm through the Haymarket, each clutching two items wrapped in brown paper bags, both smartly dressed and looking well pleased with themselves.

Yet another shows Grandmother and Grandfather outside the post office in Pitt Street. A group shot of cousin Barry, Mum, Grandmother, Aunt May and me at Circular Quay isn’t a particularly happy one but was  probably taken on an excursion to Taronga Park Zoo. I can imagine no other reason for being at Circular Quay where the tram line ended and the Harbour ferries began.

Not only did these street photographs leave behind a visual record of the Brown Parker clan they also gave me an insight into my mother’s household budget.

I don't know why, perhaps note paper like plumbers plungers had also been requisitioned for the war effort, but Mother used the backs of these snapshots to work out the weekly expenses or write a shopping list...  For instance, on the back of the snap of me looking like a stand in for Shirley Temple in frilly white organdie dress, matching hat, black patent leather shoes and the cuddly rabbit is a shopping list...

              Half dozen bon bons and serviettes
              Floral dress

              Black and white shoes (crossed out and replaced with
              Navy shoes) 
                     And a reminder to lay-by bag.
Perhaps the items are preparations for Christmas, or maybe for a birthday party.   Behind another photo Mother has listed her expenditure in the currency of the day, pounds shillings and pence...

                 +   10.0       
                 £2.  6. 2

...which was then subtracted from £6.0.0 and rounded out to leave over £3.14.0;  Obviously a balancing act with the weekly budget.

Another photo of my smiling grandmother reveals a shopping list for:

                   Robyn, (for what may I ask)
                   Lunch (all of two shillings),
                   Beers (one shilling and sixpence!)
                   And ticket.

All this cost the grand sum of fifteen shillings, a massive difference from the budgets of millennium mothers. Another shows my mother’s weekly budget of rent, gas and groceries with one memorable deduction for my violin lessons.


Of the entire family, I can recall only Grandmother being musically inclined.  She was a pianist but we never had a piano and the only time I ever saw her playing one was at Cousin Betty's wedding in the church hall at Woollahra. An occasion I vividly remember because Gran made me climb on a table when a promising scuffle broke out among the guests. All of them relations.

 No doubt, she was the moving force behind the plot to turn me into a violin virtuoso, but it must have been apparent to everyone including the neighbours next door that my early venture into a musical career was a very bad idea.

Needless to say and no doubt much to the relief of the nuns at St. Anne’s I never progressed past Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star. 


The war continued, my parents health deteriorated and they made the move to the fresh clean air of country Warwick where I made friends with the Ambulance Superintendent’s daughter Betty Lefrancke.  A friendship we still share  nearly 70 years later.

Once again we were following in the footsteps of mother’s sister Aunt Viti and her new husband Erwin.  We were in Warwick when war in the Pacific ended and the town erupted in celebration.

But not in my Austrian Uncle Erwin’s second floor flat in Palmerin Street, where he must have heard the music and the singing and the cheering.  For the world the war was over, for the victims of the concentration camps and their surviving families their hell on earth had no end.

Robyn Mortimer ©2012

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