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 ( 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…


Looking over the railing and other observations

Our apartment is on the top floor of a three storey building that doesn’t have a lift. Our enforced exercise regime includes (i.e. consists solely of) climbing down and up the stairs a couple of times, several times a day.

On the balcony, enforced internment has allowed us to dig over, fertilise and tidy up the plant pots. We don’t have much left to do in that department. So we’re spending more time in a time-hallowed pursuit – looking into the back gardens of the houses on the other side of our back lane. We hadn’t appreciated how interesting this could be. What adds spice to the pastime is the fact that most of the houses are rented so there is an irregular turnover of dramatis personae to keep up the interest level.

In the house on our extreme right is a young family. At least the children appear to be young. Can’t tell how old the parents are. P., who is given to communicating, called out to the mother the other day who responded warmly but then said she had to get back to her work-from-the-home. It seemed she was telling the truth and not just trying to shake off unwelcome overtures. After all, she wouldn’t know who we might have been.

Next to her seems to be rented out on short term leases. Oh the horror of Air BnB! For a time, it was occupied by two young women who wore short clothes (it was quite warm still at that stage) and lay out in the sun reading. Occasionally they’d roll out those thin foam mats and go into an exercise routine accompanied by loud music. And not the Waldstein either. Seeing that this was daylight hours, it was hard to object. In any case, after three weeks or so, they moved on. That was two weeks ago. We’re waiting with bated breath to see who moves in next.

The next two houses are definitely Air BnB. One hasn’t had tenants for a while but the next one staged a very loud dinner party the other night that went on until very late. There appeared to be at least 10 people crammed into the back garden. Too much for P. who, employing a different communication style, at about 11.00 p.m. leaned over our railing and threatened to call the police. – a hollow threat because we don’t know the houses’ street numbers since we only see the backs of them.

In response we were told to get lost and that everybody there lived in the house (very small) so a large gathering wasn’t against the isolation rules. I didn’t have the presence of mind to say “Yes. And I’m the pope’s grandmother.” Only three people have appeared in the house in the succeeding days. An inventive young man told P. to “Turn off your hearing aid.” But obviously, the threat of calling the police was effective since the assembly went inside and closed the back doors. Eminently satisfactory for us. The noise subsided and the partygoers increased their risk of a lethal infection several fold.

The last is a wicked thought, almost on a par with stripping supermarket shelves of toilet paper, pasta or face masks. Speaking of which, there are signs normality is returning. A couple of days ago, face masks and hand sanitiser were freely on sale at normal prices at our local hardware shop and P., cautiously shopping yesterday, bought a large pack of toilet rolls, enough, she calculates, to last us through to July, by which time things might have improved or, more likely, become a lot worse. We wait.