The people in my neighbourhood: 1950s Vaucluse

During my time at Sydney Kindergarten Teachers’ College, Waverley (1961-63), lecturers often mentioned the importance of teaching preschool children about ‘community helpers’, for example, the policeman, fireman, postman, and milkman..  And yes, that really was the terminology of the day.  Sesame Street of the 1970s was more inclusive, as captured in the catchy song about ‘the people in your neighbourhood’. Growing up in Vaucluse in the 1940s and 50s, I have fond memories of the people in our neighbourhood, some of whom remained dear family friends for many years. 

Helen experimenting in backyard, late 1940s

My childhood home near the junction of New South Head and Old South Head Roads was close to two small rows of shops, and a short walk from a bigger centre at Pipers Loop..  Our shops included a pharmacy, a flower shop, two grocers, a ‘greengrocer’ (fruit and vegetables), a butcher, a ladies’ hairdresser, and a private lending library.  All the buildings have been renovated and gentrified to the point of being unrecognizable today.

The first chemist whom I remember from childhood was a rather cranky man. One day, my mother and I overheard him snap at his small son, who had fallen over,‘You can pick yourself up’.  Strange that I remember that, and not more important episodes in my childhood.  He was succeeded by the wonderful Mr. and Mrs. B, both qualified pharmacists.  No request was too difficult for them, even to the point of taking the tram or bus to the nearest after-hours pharmacy to get medication for my mother during her many years of ill health. 

On the topic of health, doctors, of course, made house calls in those days – sensible, given that if you were sick enough to need a doctor, you were too sick (and/or too contagious) to travel to their surgery. Our Dr. P at Rose Bay came to our house frequently, especially when my father was in his 90s and had heart problems. Dr. P pronounced that brandy or whisky were good heart stimulants, and then contrived to make his house calls just before dinner, so that he could join my dad for a drink – and a good time was had by all. 

A different Mr. and Mrs. B, immigrants from Italy, were our greengrocers. Typical of the times, but inexcusable, most of their customers didn’t bother to learn their full 4-syllable surname, but shortened it to two syllables. I recently found out that Mr. B. was an opera fan, had a lovely singing voice, and used to go to the opera with the other Mr. B, the chemist.

The operator of the small flower shop near the 333 bus stop was Mr. S., who, it was rumoured, ran a side line as a bookie, using a nearby public telephone. Apparently using a public phone for placing bets was legal, or perhaps less illegal than using a private one. The block of flats on Old South Head Road had two other shops: a ladies’ hairdresser and a grocer. A small, dark ground floor flat with windows facing a brick wall was where my (honorary) Auntie Ada lived. As well as being my mother’s friend for many years, she was influential in introducing me to books, as I’ve described in a previous Balcony Fever post (balconyfever.com/2020/10/15/reading-writing-being/) Miss L, the hairdresser, rented a room from Auntie Ada, and my mother was a regular customer for a cut, or a cut-and-set (which was not the same as a ‘permanent wave’). When I decided I wanted my long curly hair cut, at about age 13, Miss L. was not willing to take that on, but recommended a very good (male) hairdresser at David Jones. 

The grocer’s shop, in the era before ‘cash & carry’, displayed all the products behind the long wooden counter.  If you asked for half a pound of sugar, the grocer filled a brown paper bag, weighed it, grabbed the corners, and twirled it in the air to seal it, a process I found quite riveting but could not replicate at home. 

My mother’s friends Mr. and Mrs P lived in the house beside the flats, and Mr. P and his employees built caravans in the large workshop at the back. They were the first and only vegetarians whom I knew as a child (‘food cranks’ was my father’s term), and Mr. P was famous for his invention of a folding caravan.

Both the milkman and the baker did their deliveries by horse-and-cart, and one milkman trained his horse to keep up with him as he went down the street on foot.  My father’s morning ritual included checking for manure. If it was within a certain distance of our back gate (not so far that neighbours would see him), he’d collect it with a shovel and apply it to the vegetable garden. In case you were wondering, he didn’t grow leafy vegies, just beans and potatoes. I was instructed to shake the milk bottle before opening so that the cream was evenly distributed (before homogenised milk was a thing) but I often cheated. Same with bread – I was told not to break off bits of warm crust en route from the front door to the kitchen, but I did. 

The private lending library is an outdated concept, but one operated for a few years in our neighbourhood. For a small fee, my mother would borrow books from the ‘Romance’ shelf, some of which I read as well as a teenager. They were more explicit than any book in Kambala’s library, but quite mainstream for the 50s. 

A memorable shop at Pipers Loop was Doyle’s takeaway fish and chips. I was often sent on a Friday to get three pieces of fish and a shilling’s worth of chips – all delicious, despite my father’s routine grumbling that it was probably shark (it wasn’t).  Alice Doyle was a relative of our neighbours, and I recall a visit, when I was about 5, to her mother’s little teashop on the beach at Watson’s Bay, the site that is now the famous Doyle’s flagship restaurant. 

Also at Pipers Loop was my mother’s preferred butcher, run by (old) Mr. W. She would make a point of waiting for him, rather than his sons or offsiders, because she thought he’d give her better meat.  Typical of the time, the floor was sprinkled with sawdust to catch the drips, the butchers wore blue striped aprons and belts with pouches for their knives, and they tended to call female customers ‘darling’. 

Writing this, I’m reminded of an essay I read a long time ago. The author suggested that, to the extent that our memories of childhood are positive, being young in and of itself is responsible for this phenomenon. Having had a mostly happy childhood, mine are mostly good memories.  Adolescence, I must admit, was a different story…

MOLONG HOLIDAY 1947

FROM HELEN IN TORONTO

My Grandma Evers spent all her adult life in Molong, a small outback town with a pub on every corner, a post office and a general store. I was about four years old when my mother first took me to visit her. Growing up in a Vaucluse semi, located between two blocks of flats, I had always been surrounded by neighbours, and had plenty of playmates nearby. Molong was a whole new experience.

As I recall, I had my first glimpse of isolation after the train left Emu Plains and started the ascent up the Blue Mountains. From time to time, we would see workers doing track maintenance. My mother told me that people would throw their newspapers out the window so these men could catch up with the news.

She also reminisced about the old days of steam trains, when the options, in summer, were to close the windows when the train went through long tunnels, and put up with the heat, or keep them open, and inhale the soot.

My Grandma’s modest house on the edge of town, in Boree Hollow. It had a dunny out the back (of course) and a cold water tap over a drain in the kitchen floor. The washing up was done in an enamel dish filled with water heated on the wood stove. I had a bath in a big tub in front of the open fire, and I suppose my mother made me do with a wash.

Sheep grazed int he next-door paddock, visible from the lounge room window and accessible through a gate in the fence. I named one Tommy the Baa-Lamb, and tried to make him my pet. A rooster used to attack me en route to the dunny, until my uncle gave me a stick to ward him off. My memories, aided by old photos, are a bit vague, but I do remember how much I loved that holiday.