Monday, June 9, 2014


Odd isn’t it how you can focus back on a particular time frame from the life you lived and one bizarre incident stands out. For me a particular year brings instantly to mind our then family cat.



 Brisbane sixty three years ago finds me teetering on the brink of early teens: I look back now and for the most part remember 1950 as a very good year.

Brisbane before high rise

Looking back 1950: Robert Menzies still had 16 years to go as Australian Prime Minister; the Korean War had begun; the top movie of the year was Sunset Boulevard with William Holden and an aging Gloria Swanson; Guys and Dolls was taking Broadway audiences by storm; the world’s first Xerox copy machine hit the market; Neville Shute published A Town Like Alice; and on June 17 the world’s first kidney transplant was successfully performed in a Chicago hospital… while in Australia it was announced that war time butter rationing had at long last ended. 


     You have to remember way back then life was lived at a much slower pace.  Children of the 50’s spent most evenings with ears glued to a radio set; that much talked about box like machine the Americans called television was still a good 9 years away.  The highlight of the working week was a trip to the movies.  Few families owned motor vehicles so kids actually walked to school, home phones were a luxury, the postman walked his mail route twice every day and telegrams containing urgent messages were home delivered by young uniformed boys on bicycles. 

    Forget mobile phones and computers, the pill, global warming or digital photographs; they simply hadn’t entered the realm of possibility.

There I was, an only child, Sydney born with just a dash of country town Warwick along the way, I might have been approaching 13 but I was nothing like the precocious ‘know it all’ teens of today.  The me back then was probably very gullible and trusting: Naïve to the extreme.  My teenage hero’s and role models sprang from the pages of books and the screen of the local movie theatre.

We had an ice chest, so the iceman, like the local milkie, called every day as well except on weekends when 12 year old me wheeled my scooter six blocks or so down Constance Street, crossing over the railway bridge (with fingers superstitiously crossed if a train was passing underneath) to the local ice works in Wickham Street, carefully balancing the cold, quickly melting hessian packed load back home.  No dilly dallying along the way!

    Despite the shortages and drama of the war years, my home town Sydney had been a paradise of Bondi beach, trams, trains and double decker buses and an extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins:  Warwick, where I spent the last years of the war I remember for its easy laid back country town life, bush and farms, gum trees and river and people I still call close friends.

    It was a stroke of good fortune that we settled first in a small flat in the Brisbane suburb of New Farm. For me it was like living in a huge park.  No matter which route I chose to reach my new school (one of an ongoing total of eight) I made the journey to and fro along streets sheltering beneath a rainbow canopy of jacaranda and poinciana trees.  Even before I knew their names I delighted in the lush display of hibiscus and bougainvillea, savoured the fragrance of frangipani and jasmine and even enjoyed the peculiar mustiness of tropical vegetation rotting in the Queensland sun.  

    Not that I knew the names of these trees back then.  They hadn’t popped up in any of the books I had so far read.  Hovering on 13, I was mad keen on movies, seeing myself in romantic blockbusters alongside swashbuckling heroes.  For me it wasn’t hard to substitute sub tropical Brisbane for a Hollywood back lot, the setting for any one of the B grade movies I soaked up from the front stalls of the local flicks.  Remember those matinees? 

    I mooned around imagining Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall romancing on the veranda of our wooden stumped house during rain lashed tropical cyclones or a dashing Gary Cooper in the uniform of the French Foreign Legion manning trams that had right of way down the middle of the city's main streets. The Saturday afternoon adventures of Flash Gordon provided a 50’s peep into the cyber world of the future.

Notice the tram conductor’s resemblance to French Foreign Legionnaires?

The tallest building in town was the ornate City Hall with its curious oriental domes hidden to public view unless you were on a surrounding third floor level peering down.  Outside on Albert Street the City Hall was guarded by a statue of old King George forever sitting sentinel, haughty and frozen astride his horse.  

 There were no super freeways in or out of the city and it took at least two to three hours to drive to Surfers Paradise: that’s if you even had a car.  We certainly didn’t.  

               Brisbane’s grandiose Town Hall before Albert Street was closed to traffic.

    Years later city fathers closed the square to traffic reversing King, horse & lion  to face the other way.

    Brisbane had already started the big push outwards with new suburbs springing up where virgin bush and American army camps once stood. Only the older inner city suburbs were completely sewered and until Clem Jones became mayor most families started their day with early morning dashes outside to a variety of tiny box sheds variously called the toot, the loo, the thunderbox, the shit house or simply the dunny.

Uniformity was the key word
    Rental accommodation of any description was scarce in those days so for a while I became a young but happy boarder at Wynnum’s Mt Carmel Convent.  Then Mum and Dad were offered a tiny rental house in the Valley. For my mother especially it must have been a dream come true.

    For the first time in our lives we were living in a house all to ourselves and I had a bedroom of my own.   What’s more I got to choose a brand new bedroom suite from Trittons furniture shop up town in George Street.  I remember the dressing table well, white Queen Ann style.  We had new lino throughout the house, the patterns chosen by Mum, different patterns and colours for every room.  Gosh! At least all the walls were painted the same uncomplicated shade, white.

    I mention the house furnishings because they involved the practice of time payment, and that in turn has a fair bit to do with one cat squashed flat.

    But first back to the house: There was much excitement as we settled in.  We meant Mum, Dad and me; Charlie, the latecomer waiting in the wings hadn’t yet arrived. The house was a small timber cottage in Constance Street across the road from the exhibition grounds; within easy shouting distance of the Jubilee Hotel which I think Dad quite enjoyed, and next door to the Payne’s grocery store above which the Payne family lived. 

    Mrs Payne loomed large in our lives.  I reckon my baby brother owes his life to Mrs Payne.  In those first few months he suffered sudden and very scary convulsions and without a telephone to call for help we never failed to panic. It was always Mrs Payne who dropped everything, customers change or dinner on the stove and rushed in to plunge the poor stiff little body into tepid baths.

Me and baby brother Charlie
     He survived and grew into a gorgeous brown eyed little man with a mop of blonde curls who stubbornly delighted in hiding out under the house usually clutching Mother’s handbag.  The fact that the house was only a couple of feet off the ground meant that most mornings were spent trying to get him out from under which Mum eventually managed to do  after threatening, cajoling and finally prodding him with a straw broom.  I don't think we had a hose back then otherwise desperation would have driven us to water torture.  To be honest it’s a wonder we didn’t throttle the kid.

    For the first time too I had youngsters my age as neighbours.  Shirley Payne was a few months older than me, but light years ahead in pre-teenage bravura. While I was still playing school with dolls and blackboard, Shirley was wearing bra's and lipstick.  Peter Pritchard and Noel Mergard lived just a few doors away and while I had a crush on one, from the other I learned the patience needed to make and fly model aeroplanes.  But it was to Pearlie Sou San who moved into a house in the street behind ours that I felt most closely drawn.

    Pearlie’s father owned a Chinese shop in Wickham Street in the Valley in the days when we were both primary students at St Patrick’s Convent. (The Valley Fire Brigade now occupies the site.) Back then the Valley was the hub of serious shoppers who thronged the multi story emporiums McWhirters, Overells and T.C.Beirnes, mostly pronounced T.C. Bernies. Those shops were household names, every bit as big and popular as Myers and David Jones today.  Back in the fifties shoppers could browse through those three huge stores in the Valley or take a short tram ride to Queen Street in the central city and wander through even more department stores equally as large, Finneys, later to become David Jones, Allan and Stark later Myers and converted now in the 21st century to arcades linking Queen to Adelaide Street, Lambs, Weedmans, Bayards and Macdonald and East, way up George Street near the Roma Street station.

   Funny isn't it how fifty years later Brisbane city shoppers are left with a choice of just two major retail stores. What is the literal meaning of progress?  

    To me the Sou Sans epitomised the word inscrutable before I even knew what it meant.  Their dimly lit shop in Wickham Street was a mysterious treasure trove of silk brocades and carved boxes, fireworks, spices and sacks of rice; the whole place was absolutely drenched in the tantalising smell of the Orient.  I was a frequent visitor when they moved from rooms above the Wickham Street shop into the house near ours.  Mr Sou Sans nephews, newly arrived from China, lived in a room under their new house. They cleared the yard sifting away stones and detritus from every inch of soil and planted row upon row of vegetables, and on the clothesline they hung fish to dry.  The family seemed to have a never ending supply of teenage nephews, none of whom spoke English and Pearlie once scathingly  commented that the current one had never even seen soap before, much less knew what to do with it. 

    Sundays, when I could escape the minding of baby brother Charlie, Pearlie and I packed a lunch of sandwiches and lemonade, hopped on the tram to Hamilton and went fishing. Pearlie’s uncle was a gweilo, a tall fair European married to Mrs Sou Sans sister and he owned a comfortable yacht moored across the river at Bulimba near the ferry crossing. I doubted that the boat ever left the Brisbane River, but Pearlie was familiar with the dinghy access and we felt quite adventurous paddling the short distance from shore to ship. We did fish using handlines and caught a few unfortunate catfish but mostly we just daydreamed or read or imagined ourselves as heroines aboard a pirate ship going nowhere.

    Light years later, watching Julie Andrews in the movie Thoroughly Modern Millie, I was instantly transported back to the world of Pearlie and Mr and Mrs Sou San and the dim, cavernous interior of their Chinese Emporium.

    Of course the Sou Sans weren't the only Chinese in the Valley.  There were a number of Chinese restaurants.  The Tai Tung and the Cathay were the biggest.  The Cathay was Dad's favourite and when we had money to spare we would eat there in the upstairs part of the restaurant overlooking busy Wickham Street.  

Car park now where Embassy Cinema once was.
    I have a treasured photo taken following a school dance at St Patricks with we three, Mum, Dad and I on our way to supper at the Cathay. Again that was before baby Charlie arrived on the scene.
Feeling very self conscious in a long frilly dress

     That same crowded little area we now know as China Town also had three movie theatres, the Embassy in Duncan Street where the car park and China Town Mall is today, the Civic, better known as the flea pit, across from the Cathay, and the Rex Theatre which had a proper theatrical stage and sometimes presented pantomimes and stage shows.  Where the Rex once was is now just a huge fenced off hole in the ground.  It's been like that for a long, long time.

     I had my first paying job at the Rex.  The Hardens who lived next door to the Pritchard’s in Constance Street had the lolly concession in the downstairs foyer and all the older kids in the street at one time or another had part time work on Saturday nights mixing the orange and lemon cordial or stacking chocolates ready for hungry customers to descend and devour at interval.  Not only were we paid a few shillings each we also got to see the current movie for free. 

    We had, as a family some of our happiest days in that Constance Street house.  Dad, despite increasing health and mobility problems that prevented full time work, tried his hand at a few money making ventures.  There was for instance the sandwich business.  With several factories and work premises in nearby Water and Costin Streets and the nearest takeaway café blocks away in the Valley, the business had a ready clientele. Dad did the rounds in the morning taking orders and money while back at home Mum furiously buttered bread. Once the sandwiches were made and packed in their brown paper bags Dad would be back out delivering various squares of egg and lettuce, tomato and cheese on foot in time for the lunch break.  It certainly didn’t make their fortune but no doubt helped with the weekly budget. 

    Until we acquired our shiny new Westinghouse Refrigerator I never knew my mother could cook such amazing cakes and pastries. Maybe she was just inspired by the beautifully illustrated recipes in the glossy cookbook that came with the frig. It took a while longer before we traded in the old battered outdoor copper for a modern electric clothes boiler.  Washing machines were luxuries like vacuum cleaners that one only saw in the movies. (Think Red Skelton and the Fuller Brush Man.)

   Back then time payment was a struggling family’s best friend. When we moved into Constance Street the house, really a small workers cottage, was bare and had to be furnished from the floor up which wasn't as difficult as it should have been given our constant state of near poverty.  The exciting buying trip to Trittons when all the furniture was delivered to the newly painted little house came courtesy of the ‘never never’ and all Mum and Dad had to do was meet the weekly time repayments. 

    Easy when they were both in work:  I'm sure everyone existed on time payment in those days, need some new clothes, just whack it on the time payment, new baby on the way, no prob!  Buy the cot and the pram now and put them on the time payment: Just a few more shillings a week on the bill.

   Some of these repayments were made to collectors who made regular calls to customer’s homes.  I'll never forget one gentleman in particular and I've no doubt he always remembered us with absolute horror.  

   This particular collector was a small, balding, middle aged man, a little on the plump side and obviously myopic because he wore the thickest glasses I had ever seen. His name was Malcolm. Even though we obviously owed the money and had entered into a lawful contract and poor Malcolm was only doing his job I always sensed that Mum paid over the money reluctantly and with thinly veiled disdain.  I mean we had other door to door visitors, the Rawlings man (almost an institution back then; from memory, I know we bought vanilla essence from him) the bread carter, the green grocer who still used a horse and cart, even the postman who made two deliveries a day were all greeted with smiles and a glass of water on a hot day.  But not poor Malcolm; despite his greeting and efforts at a joke all he got from Mum was short shrift. 

   Now, we've always been cat people. Even back in Warwick we had a most memorable cat that unfortunately delivered kittens the same morning we were leaving for Sydney on holiday, delivered on my brand new chenille dressing gown:  A dual event that didn't go down at all well. 
   That's probably exactly where the cat and kittens finished up because I never saw them again.
 But back to Constance Street and the then current cat in residence:  She was a lovely little grey and white bundle of fur and fun, her name escapes me but we weren't very imaginative when it came to naming cats and it was probably called Fluffy.

   Fluffy loved the morning sun; chasing pretend mice across the front veranda down the three stairs and across to the gate; back and forth like a demented banshee. In those days before television she provided great entertainment … until the morning of Malcolm’s last visit to our front door: Fluff’s mad rush to the gate coincided with poor short sighted Malcolm’s entrance and as the two met head on, or I should say foot to head on, it was Fluffy who exploded, literally, in all directions.   That was one cat squashed irretrievably flat.

   Next payment day we had a new collector.

   In due course we acquired a new Fluffy.

   With little entertainment apart from the radio, fires and festivals became irresistible magnets.  First whiff of a good sized fire had Mr Payne cranking up the old grocery truck, loading as many kids in the back that would fit before racing off to help clog the traffic and bank up the trams.  That was how we watched the old Cremorne Theatre burn its way into history from a vantage point across the river probably where the current Supreme Court is now.

    St Patrick’s Day when we all wore green ribbons and adopted an Irish brogue was one festival I always looked forward to but it was really only celebrated by us Catholics.  The one I remembered best of all was a one off occasion and it turned Brisbane into a fairyland of coloured lights: Brisbane town Celebrations for the Queen’s Coronation.

    A competition was held to decide which building in Brisbane could turn out the best coronation day decorations.  Flags and bunting began to go up everywhere, but the age of neon had arrived and on the same designated evening every pub and department store switched on twinkling cascades of jewelled crowns, patriotic confections of the union jack and the southern cross, and even in some cases a head and shoulders replica of the Queen herself with jewels sparkling in all the colours of the rainbow.  We had never seen anything so breathtaking though it was a wonder the nations entire electricity grid didn’t instantly implode.

Queen Street before the Mall was even dreamed of.

    In my next to last year of primary at the Valley State School, (mother had taken me out of St Pats after a furious row with the Mother Superior) local radio station 4BH along with the Brisbane Telegraph ran a popular series of spelling bees that attracted young entrants from all over the state.  I reached the finals two years in a row, finishing in the top three.  It’s interesting to see my transformation from a little girl aged 12 or so to the almost teenager of 13.
   I didn’t know it then, but those spelling bees would become my stepping stones to a series of later jobs in the grown up world.

  Primary school and my Scholarship year morphed seamlessly into Brisbane’s Commercial High.    Each morning I left home looking like a pupil from St Trinians  in a baggy navy uniform, black stockings inevitably holed or snagged and lugging a brown port loaded with text books on typing, book keeping, shorthand, English, history, geography, and mathematics including the two totally incomprehensible subjects of algebra and logarithms. That school bag weighed a ton.  

Where Queen and Adelaide streets intersect... cute cars!

    Most days I walked down Constance Street past the Jubilee to Wickham Street in the Valley, crossing the dreaded railway bridge with fingers crossed, to catch the tram to George Street in the city.  There I joined the throng of other students from all over Brisbane meandering like brown’s cows past Parliament House and the Botanic Gardens to the vast complex of Commercial High housed in old two storey brick buildings roughly on the site of today’s state morgue.

   Tucked away at the bottom of Edward Street and separated from Commercial High by the Botanic Gardens was Industrial High and that's where the girls from Commercial officially mingled at weekly dance sessions with their male counterparts from Industrial. 

   This was an optional extra lesson we all looked forward to though other Catholic students like me would have been old hands at dancing.   The nuns made sure we all knew our Pride of Erin, foxtrot, Canadian two step, the ubiquitous barn dance and the deliciously giddy waltz.   I've often wondered how many fifties and sixties marriages originated from those first stumbling, flirting, embarrassing encounters between the girls of Commercial and the boys from Industrial.

   Teenage life with a little brother twelve years my junior was proving a little embarrassing.  It was extremely difficult to flirt with the boys in the hockey team at weekend matches when I had a mischievous little toddler in tow, even harder when I had to take him with me to the Saturday arvo movies.

   Dad’s health was worsening and my mother’s asthma was ever present.  By now I was half way through my second year at Commercial and I knew it was becoming even harder for them to make ends meet.  

    I soon realised that quite obviously Mum and Dad could no longer support me at high school.  One afternoon instead of catching the tram home I detoured down Queen Street, walked into the Telegraph newspaper office and asked to see the manager Mr Larkin who had been the spelling bee adjudicator.

   Dressed in my baggy uniform, wearing my battered school hat I asked him for a job. I started work the next day: All so easy.

That’s me second from left & spelling bee Adjudicator Mr Larkin far right.

   Kids like me were lucky to live in those days.  Jobs were plentiful, a variety of occupations there for the picking.  I don’t remember my parent’s reaction.  Surprise certainly, a smidgen of guilt on their part perhaps.  But so far as I was concerned ahead lay a great adventure; a long and exciting learning curve through all the mysteriously unknown ups and downs of growing up.

  Back then I had no idea that around the corner loomed a whole new way of life, that hula hoops would become all the rage, that kids my age would start bopping around to rock music, that Cloudland would be on its last legs, that bikinis would replace one piece swim suits. 

   I had no idea my life time choices would be lumped in with future ‘Baby Boomer’ statistics of the era; no idea that first job at the Telegraph would be the springboard to a succession of chosen occupations, each one adding a veneer of experience, a new level of understanding. 

   But before I could even start work I really needed a new set of clothes, after all I could hardly turn up in a baggy old school uniform…and to do that I needed to buy some brand new working girls gear. 

    Dead broke? No money to spare?  No prob! 

Just bang it on the good old time payment, a few shillings a week and I was guaranteed to look a million dollars.


Next:  Rock’n Roll and a Host of Acronyms.

Robyn Mortimer ©2014-05-31

War time Sydney the 1940's....