Elsewhere on this site, in the article Cars, Radios, TV and other Pastimes, I've talked about aspects of my childhood in semi-rural Thornleigh on the outskirts of Sydney, Australia. I've mentioned various aspects of school and things we did as kids.
A great many things have changed. I’ve already described how the population grew exponentially. Motor vehicles finally replaced the horse in everyday life. We moved from imperial measurements and currency to decimal currency and metric measures. The nation gained its self-confidence particularly in the arts and culture. I’ve talked about the later war in Vietnam and Australia embracing of Asia in place of Europe.
Here are some more reminiscences about that world that has gone forever.
Recently someone was on the radio saying that rural kids in the Hunter Valley still harvest wild mulberries and can be seen with purple hands and mouths when the berries are in season. The implication seemed to be that they were running feral.
In my childhood wild fruit trees were everywhere around Thornleigh, particularly along the railway embankment; and almost everyone had fruit trees in their garden.
This was not the only incentive to climb trees.
Many of us spent considerable time in trees; where we built platforms, hunted cicadas, or simply climbed for the view or the breeze. There were occasional concussions, broken limbs or worse, as a result of falls, but most were relatively uneventful.
The wild fruit was not of good quality, children often picked it too soon and higher, harder to reach fruit that did ripen was often attacked by birds and bats. But that didn’t stop us picking and eating it or just throwing it at each other.
The same location today; one peach tree left. Railway Parade was once dirt, often with street Cricket; and not a car in sight.
Apart from mulberries there were peaches plums and apricots – mainly peaches and plums. There had once been commercial orchards in the area but these had suffered from fruit fly and the land was developed for other purposes. Among the cottages there were still a few grazing paddocks for horses, sheep or goats. Some commercial egg and pig growers remained and near our house was a small commercial sweet corn grower and market gardener. Most people also had a vegetable garden.
Further out towards the west there were commercial dairies, orchards for all kinds of fruit and flower growers.
We generally visited the fruit trees in season on the way home from school; during lunchtime when we would escape the school playground; or on sports afternoon if we didn’t like the sport being foist upon us.
School ended at 3pm and we would often not get home ‘til 5 or 6 or before dark (the curfew).
No search party was sent out; and as only a few parents had a telephone and even if they did (we had one) it cost twopence (tuppence) to call from a public box. That was a lot of money for a kid; for threepence (a trey) we could buy an ice-cream. For sixpence (a zack) you could go to the ficks (the movies) and see two films; plus a serial and some cartoons.
Of course you could dial home and then shout into the earpiece that hung separately on its own cord. The mouthpiece was on the phone body that housed the rotary dial and the money box.
Needless to say we felt no compulsion to do this regularly as we would ‘soon’ be home. As a result we were generally incommunicado for a couple of hours every day.
Mulberries were inedible until ripe then in such abundance that we ate them by the hand-full.
The leaves were basic food-stock for our silk worms. These started as tiny eggs, laid by last year’s moths and kept in rolled oats until they hatched as grubs (worms). Kept in a cardboard box the worms were fed on mulberry leaves; then cabbage, if you wanted white silk; or violet leaves, if you wanted purple.
After they had grown to around an inch in length they began to spin a cocoon, from the outside in, somewhere in the box. This became denser and denser until it was a small egg shaped ball of yellow silk. After some had been set aside for next year, the remaining cocoons were soaked in water and then the outer end of the strand carefully released.
This is where the Meccano was put to use to make a winding machine. Several strands from cocoons bobbing in their water were fed through holes in the meccano to the winding drum to make a silk thread. Hours of fun followed as threads tangled or broke before the winding machine was perfected. Then of course we lost interest – what can you do with silk thread? Build a loom?
Meters of thread lay in our big wooden Meccano box until years later; when it was finally thrown away. Meanwhile the kept cocoons were chewed open at one end by their metamorphosised moths that emerged to spread their wings and repeat the process.
Blackberries also grew wild and could completely cover a piece of fallow land. The thorns are vicious and children often sported scratched legs; as a result of reaching for those particularly luscious ones. The best way of getting to them was to get a sheet of corrugated iron or a wooden plank and throw it onto the bush (really a tangle of vines) so that we could walk out towards the middle.
We were careful to make a bit of noise and disturb the bush, particularly if it had been left quietly all day, to scare-off any basking snakes. There were often venomous red-belly black snakes and brown snakes around; and we were constantly told about tourniquets; cutting and sucking wounds (no longer recommended).
One time we were having lunch in the bush and a Kookaburra flew down so close we thought it was after our food; only to see it snatch-up a snake from about two yards away and carry it up into a tree to be whacked to death against a branch.
A red-bellied black snake - usually around a meter and a half in length.
They can be deadly but not as venomous as the, less pretty, brown snakes; also common in the Thornleigh bush.
Source: News.com - Snake turns up in sandpit at Primary School
But I was never bitten and I don’t recall any of my friends being bitten either. Spiders and a variety of insects were a different matter. Particularly nasty were big black and yellow bull ants.
When there was no fruit there were lots of other things to do. Aspiring ‘Don Bradmen’ played cricket in one of the unsealed streets near the railway or on the local oval. But I disliked their obsessive attitude; it spoiled the game for me. A cricket ball is heavy and comes at a small boy very fast. I preferred to let them pass me by. But deliberately failing to catch-someone-out in the slips; or a ball that has been ‘skyed’; is not a way to impress some fanatical ten year-old who fancies himself captain of the Australian Cricket Team.
We did other things; like tadpoling or yabbying in the various creeks. I never caught a yabby (my friend did once). It was a bit like fishing; I lacked the patience. But I had jars of tadpoles and frogs eggs that were dually transferred to a fish tank; where I watched them grow legs and turn into frogs.
One winters evening after falling into the rather slimy creek and so covered in mud that we hosed ourselves off at a friend’s place; I was heading home with my tadpole jar.
A passing woman said: ‘Oh you’re going to get it when you get home!’ She said it with such vehemence that I believed her and getting to our garden hid my tadpole jar and snuck in, filthy and shivering with the wet and cold.
I was amazed and grateful when my mother couldn't care in the slightest about my muddy clothes and put me in a warm bath before giving me a hot drink in front of the fire. It was so nice to be home. I was around seven at the time.
School holidays were a time for new adventures.
These were the days before TV, first introduced in Australia for the Melbourne Olympics in 1956. As I have mentioned elsewhere we didn't have TV until the early 1960s. The Spencers were late adopters like us; but the McDonald's were amongst the first to get it.
Michael McDonald was the youngest of three brothers and had inherited a huge comic collection. Along their semi-enclosed veranda there were long window seats that housed this collection. We spent many hours sitting or lying around on his pleasant elevated veranda, that overlooked their huge apple and fig tree, amidst a sea of comics. His mother (Elsie) would give us green 'Mynor GI' cordial in water to drink.
Most of their comics were black and white or had just one or two colours; except for some American ones that were brightly coloured. The content could be quite lurid, women with flimsy clothing being carried off; femme fatale; and so on; but of course being boys they had none of those really soppy romantic ones that the girls at school surreptitiously read.
Comics were broadly blamed in the press and on the radio for juvenile delinquency and if they were discovered at school they were confiscated. Repeat offenders were likely to be caned.
But comics were everywhere. We had quite a collection ourselves, mainly brought home by our father, who always selected the very tame, but colourful, Disney ones; Scrooge McDuck and so on.
When we went to the flicks we were usually given two bob (a florin coin or two shillings) for both of us. We could go downstairs for sixpence; or upstairs for ninepence. We preferred to go up as this had a much steeper slope, to roll Jaffa's or other spherical lollies down, during quiet, tense or tender moments (roll-clonk, roll-clonk, roll...); and allowed things to be dropped onto the kids below.
That left threepence each (thruppence) to buy a sample bag or an ice cream. The sample bag typically contained an old comic; a sherbet cone; and two or three other kinds of lolly wrapped in paper to chew or suck.
There was, and still is, a big Scout Camp very close by; at the bottom of Pomona St. At age 7 and a bit I became a Wolf Cub and soon had my fire-lighters badge. You had to light a fire with a maximum of two matches; and then, obviously, keep it alight.
Your author in our front garden
If we were going ‘down the bush’ to play we might take sausages; potatoes tea-leaves sugar and a jar of milk in a billy for lunch.
We would make a circle of stones in which we would light a fire. The potatoes went into the fire, often becoming charcoal balls outside; but still steamy soft inside. Green forked sticks went into the sausages to be held in the heat until cooked.
The billy boiled; the tea was added; and the billy traditionally spun by its handle to settle the leaves. Tin mugs and camping knives, forks and plates then came out to serve our feast. Sometimes we would take flour and make ‘damper’ as well.
At other times we lit fires in the paddock next door; adding green leave or grass to make smoke signals; as we had seen at the flicks.
I liked the cubs and stayed to become a 'sixer' and to get my 'Leaping Wolf' and an armful of badges - Dib Dib Dib - Dob Dob Dob. I suppose that everyone knows that the Cubs is based around Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book, written in1894, and the adventurers of Mowgli. Akela is the head wolf and cubs promise her/him to do their best.
When I was finally old enough to join, I found the Scouts disappointing. I tried the Pennant Hills troop where someone stole my big sheath knife with the bone handle; and the Air Scouts; only to discover that they only flew model planes.
In high school I joined the army cadet corps. Apart from our own .303 rifles we got to fire the Bren and Vickers machine guns; and to use the radio equipment. Much more fun.
As I have mentioned elsewhere, my friend Bob Piper had a .22 rifle we mostly used it for target shooting but we also tried our hand at shooting rabbits. I had an air rifle but it was useless for hunting. The rabbits were hunted by one and all and were gun-shy (unlike today’s bold bunnies) and difficult to hunt as they have excellent hearing and you had to be down-wind.
Later, in high school, when I was in the School Cadets, I became better at this and actually hit them. Then they needed to be skinned, cleaned and cooked. In the bush the best way to cook them is to first sear the pieces in a billy with some butter then add a can of three-bean-mix, a clove of garlic, plus water salt and pepper to taste.
There were lots of feral rabbits around and at different times there was a bounty on them. Myxomatosis introduced in 1950 knocked the population back but they often bounced back.
In the 50’s there were still many men in Sydney who made a living, or supplemented their income, as ‘Rabbitohs’.
They would walk along the street calling ‘Rabbitoh’ and mothers would buy one or two for the evening meal. My mother cooked them in the French way; possibly learnt in Canada; delicious.
Rabbitohs seldom shot the rabbits as it is too difficult and slow. Instead they used rabbit traps or wire snares.
Traps consist of spring loaded steel jaws held open by a simple trigger that is released by an animal stepping on the footplate. An attached chain connects to a steel stake that is hammered into the ground. As children we needed to be aware of them. They were dangerous to small or bare feet and could cut off an exploratory finger.
A typical Rabbit Trap with the jaws closed - not yet set.
They were set by pressing down on the leaf spring with a foot or knee then closing the catch over one jaw.
They would be left in the rabbit-runs lightly covered with leaves or grass. A very light press on the footplate set them off
Picture source (and more information): About NSW
Like similar traps, designed to catch animals by the leg, they are now considered cruel and are banned in most places. The last such trap was manufactured in Australia in 1960; and so the Rabbitoh is no more; except for South Sydney Rugby League Team.
Since that time rabbit meat has gone up-market and is now most often found in small portions on the plates of expensive restaurants.
In 1995 rabbit Calicivirus was released in Australia and numbers were again decimated. But some rabbits persist and can still be seen, now quite unafraid, around Mosman parklands. There is even a large tame rabbit that grazes on the grass near the ferry wharf.
From 1948 onwards Australia opened the doors to migrants: first from Europe and North America and later from Asia and the Middle East. A massive building boom resulted. In Thornleigh a lot of inexpensive three and four bedroom cottages were built. We treated these building sites as playgrounds; wonderful for battles but also just to explore the timber frames.
Even as children we understood the construction process and were even critical of the construction quality. There were four basic standards: trench foundations, wooden frame, fibro cladding and steel, fibro or tile roof; similar with timber (weatherboard) cladding; deeper drilled foundations and outer brick walls (brick veneer); and full brick. We noticed if the timber plates had been properly knocked-in or just nailed and the quality of the floors and materials in general. The days of architectural flair were in the past; and the future. This was a time of production-line housing.
Typically the first sign of a new house was the pegging out. Sewerage pipes were laid, followed by a foundation trench filled with reinforcing then concrete around the periphery; upon which a low brick wall was built. Concrete pads within this outer foundation marked the location of brick piers capped with galvanised ant-caps. Within a few days the timber frame was knocked up and roof joists and ceiling rafters added for stability. Sheets of corrugated iron, upon which concrete was poured, marked the bathroom and laundry floors. The timber frame was then clad on the outer walls and wet areas with fibrous cement (fibro). The fibre in fibro was asbestos. Corrugated fibrous asbestos might also be used for the roof.
Workers typically cut fibro with a hand saw or a special long handled nibbling tool, creating a snow of white dust and/or lots of little chips; in which we played.
A particularly amusing thing for us was to light a fire of timber off-cuts then soak a piece of fibro in water and heat it until it exploded. Today this material is considered to be extremely dangerous. It is only handled using protective clothing and face masks.
I expect to die anytime soon.
From time to time, as children, we accidentally broke windows; usually with some projectile: a ball; a spear; a marble fired from a catapult; a slug from an air rifle and on one occasion a cricket stump.
But people who lived in fibro houses had the additional risk of their wall being broken. One day we were playing cricket at school when one of the bigger boys hit a six over the fence and smashed a large hole in the wall of the house next door. No wonder I didn’t try to catch those balls!
One of the kids knocked on the door and asked: ’can we get our ball back?’ He failed to mention that it had put a large hole in their house. People who live in fibro houses shouldn't... (that's all).
Bob Piper reminds me that we also risked our lives exploring the underground storm-water drains using burning newspaper torches – wrong on so many levels that it's almost unbelievable that we are both still alive.
Half a generation older than us, kids in their teens at the end of the war, began to adopt American cultural stereotypes, much to the alarm of proper society. Alienated teens were drawn to motorbikes and a new style of milk bars. These had pinball machines; and a Jukebox and often an area for dancing.
Through the 50’s the music developed quickly from jive to rock and roll. James Dean, Marlon Brando and Buddy Holly were icons. The boys were 'bodgies' and their girlfriends 'widgies'. They wore jeans or tightly ‘pegged’ pants open neck shirts and leather jackets. When the girls wore skirts they were full, so that they could be spun up while dancing to show their pants.
The boys were thought to be 'looking for a fight' and the girls were considered to be 'loose'. The expression ‘juvenile delinquent’ was often used as a collective noun. An academic paper on the period begins:
‘ In the latter half of the 1950s, concerns that Australia’s teenagers, and especially working-class teenagers, were becoming delinquent reached a crescendo. Law-abiding citizens observed with concern bodgies and widgies congregating in milk bars and on street corners. Violence and sexual license were their hallmarks, they believed…
In due course ‘bodgies’ developed into ‘rockers’ and later; into ‘bikies’; the girls into ‘molls’.
Thornleigh had two milk bars popular with these teenagers; and was the local focus for them. One was at the cinema but the main focus was the one on the western side of the station.
Bodgies and widgies could be quite frightening to smaller children but Tony Walker who lived in the house on the corner of Paling St was identified as a bodgie and was quite friendly; think West Side Story. My friend Michael McDonald’s older brother, our other neighbours, was friend of Tony’s and something of a bodgie fellow traveller. 'Fellow Traveller': another good 50’s expression; beloved of Senator Joe McCarthy in the States at the time.
The more educated teens were drawn to the American Beat Poets and a growing interest in French existentialism. ‘Beat’ has little to do with music; although it inspired Bob Dylan. The poetry was said to be beaten-down; it was an intellectual movement. Beatniks hung out in inner city coffee shops and jazz venues. Cool maan.
In the universities John Anderson and the ‘Sydney Push’ blended the pre-war libertarian views of the Lindsays and Archibald with the new American influences.
As we got older some of the kids I knew began to emulate bodgies and widgies while others were attracted to the new surfing culture; peroxide bleached hair and the ‘Stomp’. Just as there were running battles between ‘rockers’ and ‘mods’, the motor scooter riding, fashion conscious, teens in England, there was antipathy between ‘bikies’ and ‘surfies’ in Australia; mainly in pubs. But unlike the mods on their scooters, the surfies were difficult to catch on a motor bike; too wet.
By the time I went to University the jazz culture was giving way to folk music; via Woody Guthrie; Pete Segar; and Bob Dylan; on the way to the drug culture and ‘flower power’. Peace man.
The reasons for the moral panic were more social than real. There were, no doubt, some unwanted pregnancies; but these were by no means the exclusive preserve of Widgies; and the occasional additional scar or smashed head was mainly confined to the protagonists; the bodgies themselves. The rate of violent crime did not peak up in the 50’s. It continued its steady downward trend throughout the century to the present.
As usual, the media exploited the general public unease, that stemmed from rapid social change, to sell newspapers and ad time on the radio. But post-war youth was becoming the all-important driver of economic and cultural change; a market to be exploited. This is a status that the ‘baby-boomer’ generation has enjoyed ever since.
This was a time before ‘the pill’ or IUDs. Men used (or not) condoms and married women used diaphragms. But these things were generally not discussed, except in the Roman Catholic Church, where they were vilified; the work of the Devil.
There was still a running battle between Australian born Christians - ostensibly about the status of the Pope; the transubstantiation of the host (wine and bread becoming flesh); and some creatively introduced non-biblical sacraments (like extreme unction). This nonsense apparently required some local children to physically attack each other; hurl abuse; and make ridiculous claims about the other's prospect of an afterlife. But of course it was actually about class and a sense of past injustice; particularly among those of Irish descent.
During this decade Roman Catholicism grew much more rapidly than the protestant denominations from around 20% to 25% of Christians; due to mainly to Southern European immigration. The 50's were a golden period for Christianity.
Since that time the proportion of Christians has declined and with it church attendance as: non-believers; Buddhism (now the second largest faith); and other less popular religions (like Islam, Hinduism and Judaism) took greater hold.
Cultural diversity and cultural evolution have taken us a long way from the Australia of the 1954 Census; when more people reported a Christian faith than had in the preceeding two decades; or ever since.
2011 Census of Population and Housing data
Christianity remained the most commonly reported religion in Australia with 61.1 per cent of the population reporting affiliation with a Christian religion – a decline from 63.9 per cent in 2006.
The number of people reporting 'No religion' increased significantly, from 18.7 per cent of the population in 2006 to 22.3 per cent in 2011.
The most common non-Christian religions in 2011 were Buddhism (accounting for 2.5 per cent of the population), Islam (2.2 per cent) and Hinduism (1.3 per cent).
But unwanted pregnancy was not entirely a religious issue.
Post war fertility rates were generally very high in Australia and worldwide.
Although this seems unbelievable today, many young girls were so ignorant of sexual matters that they didn't know how babies were conceived and were alarmed instead of celebrating, as girls do today, when they first menstruated. This appalling lack of education, and contraception, led to the inevitable outcome.
Women gossiped; men, particularly those who believed themselves upright and moral Christians, condemned. Pregnant daughters risked being 'cast out' by angry fathers.
It was generally accepted that the best option was a 'shotgun wedding' but this was not always possible. The class system and religious differences were still major barriers to marriage.
As is still true even today; some innocent girls had been 'groomed' by an older man; a relative or friend of the family.
If a girl could be proven to have 'slept around' a boy could simply deny paternity. Genetic testing was forty years in the future.
Many children born to unmarried girls were spirited away to church run children’s homes or for adoption; resulting in another of the many apologies for the past that seem to be an everyday occurrence today.
It was not uncommon for a girl’s mother, often quite young themselves, to pass off their daughter’s child as their own.
The issue of adoption was sometimes quite confusing. There was a general debate about telling children that they were adopted. One classmate had a cousin who turned out to be his sister. Others had siblings who turned out to be their mother, aunt or uncle. Quite a few didn't know about this until they were adults and wanted a birth certificate or passport.
Peter and I were relatively well informed little boys. We had discovered our mother’s diaphragm quite early but didn't know its purpose for some time.
Most children at Thornleigh Public School had seen dogs mating; and other animals as well. Something about the playground seemed to suggest it to be a good location to the local dogs. They frequently had to be chased-off by the Headmaster or a teacher with a bucket of water. I remember arguing with another boy about whether humans did it the same way; I was wrong.
Boys at school also knew about condoms (frenchies) and so our father, concerned about misinformation, gave Peter and I more details; long before the infamously uninformative 'Farther and Son' sex education nights in high school. These simply stressed the risks of extramarital sex and failed to provide any information about effective contraception or human fertility cycles; except that our mothers or sisters may be emotional or less rational on a monthly basis.
Thornleigh station waiting room featured posters about syphilis and gonorrhea, listing horrendous symptoms and outcomes; including bits falling off, madness and death. Under the footbridge was a big billboard featuring a frowning woman, fingers to her brow, advertising Vincents APC - For the pain you can't explain. Every train journey a lesson in the facts of life. What's that daddy?
We soon became aware, when getting our hair cut, that the local barber sold condoms ‘under the counter’ to men who didn't want to be seen buying them at the chemist. The barber was also an ‘SP (starting price) bookie’, taking illegal bets on horses and dogs. So it was often hard to determine what he was up to when the clippers stopped giving someone a 'short back and sides' long enough for him to serve some furtive customer from behind his little counter; with it's display of cut-throat razors and shaving brushes.
He more openly sold cigarettes and tobacco; a good cover for his more illicit sales: ‘A packet of Craven A; ten bob to place on no 5 in the second at Randwick; and a Frenchy; please mate’. 'That'll be fifteen and six'. 'Thanks!'
I loved the ‘Craven A’ cigarette posters at the Barber’s. The original was a beautiful, sophisticated woman. It bore the slogan: ‘Craven A, they never vary’. This was later joined by a new one with a girl in a swimsuit at the beach. It said: ‘Craven A, better than ever’. I think he was expected to take the old one down.
Visiting the Thornleigh barber was like visiting the world of Orwell’s 1984: Victory Cigarettes – better than ever - and always have been.
Apart from adoption and contraception; abortion provided another option. In movies in the 50's and 60's abortion was usually only hinted at; but it never turned out well. If the heroine or fallen angle didn't die from it she suffered dreadful repercussions. But these 'moral tales' did not reflect the real situation. Reputedly some women used abortion regularly as a means of birth control.
More worldly women, often married with children, obtained a 'D&C' from a professional gynaecologist in a hospital soon after they realised they were pregnant. This was the preserve of those with knowledge; good connections; a big check-book; and who could be relied upon to be discrete.
Others were condemned to 'procure' a backyard abortionist, apocryphally with a sharpened knitting needle or wire coat-hanger. This was often later in the pregnancy as an abortion could take time to arrange and many sexually naive girls didn't realise that they were pregnant, or just prayed they weren't, for several months. There were many women, and not a few male doctors, who provided this service relatively cheaply to these girls. In the movies this was usually at the cost of a fur coat or jewellery; obtained for favours given.
About 30 maternal deaths a year resulted in Sydney. Stark black and white photographs of some 'back-yard abortionist' being dragged off would be splashed across the evening papers: The Sun and/or The Daily Mirror. The accompanying report always carefully avoided explicit language that might lead to we children gaining any real knowledge of these secret adult matters; to 'protect' us. Thus ignorance was perpetuated.
As abortion was illegal, accurate figures on the number procured are impossible to obtain. Based on the present numbers of legal abortions (estimated ten years ago at around 100,000 pa in Australia - with some uncertainty due to the morning-after-pill) then taking the lower population, higher fertility post war and lack of alternative contraceptive measures into consideration, suggests that around ten thousand abortions were carried out in Sydney each year. This is very close to the rate estimated to be still the norm in countries where abortion remains illegal: three to four deaths per thousand.
Obviously some unqualified abortionists became quite skilled, as over 90% of abortions were medically uneventful; contrary to the movie version. But late-term abortions are increasingly problematic; not just on physical medical grounds. There is increasing psychological damage to the mother the longer she nurtures the growing foetus; in addition to the moral issue around the death of a potential human with a developing brain.
As I got older and went to University I learned of girls who had illegal abortions and knew several others who had chosen to have their child. One who elected abortion suffered serious consequences including: high-level emotional distress, very high financial cost, fear of potential prosecution for murder and what was close to blackmail by a family member. Those who completed the pregnancy suffered even greater hardships, including forced marriage to someone they couldn't stand, resulting in domestic violence; alienation from their family; loss of prospects and career hopes; and in one case forced separation from her child.
I became a strong advocate of legalised abortion and I firmly believe that history has vindicated this stance.
There are now very few late term abortions in Australia, almost all for excellent medical reasons. It is now extremely safe. The risk of maternal death due to abortion is now less than one death per hundred thousand. The risk to a mother of carrying her baby to full-term is far higher.
On the other hand, the risks to society of an unwanted child, and the risks to that child, let alone the mother, are incalculable. Every child has a right to be wanted.
Couples and single women who want children try very hard to have them; as the increasing demand for IVF and surrogacy clearly demonstrates. There is no evidence that the ready availability of contraception, and if that fails abortion, reduces the number of wanted children.
World population is now consuming resources at an unsustainable rate and human fertility needs to decline. But the recent decline is neither due to this concern nor to abortion. It is due to obvious sociological changes, particularly in the status of women, since the post-war world of the 1950s.
In just a few years from those uncompromising days, the contraceptive pill would become available and with it a sweeping cultural change; including greater female emancipation and the ‘sexual revolution’.
The pill was widely accepted, even by otherwise strongly practicing Roman Catholics. When two of our Catholic friends were about to marry another friend asked them point-blank it they would be using contraception. He immediately said no but she said, in the spirit of the times: ’If you expect me to be a baby-machine you’ve got another thing coming’. They eventually had two. The baby-boomers got what they wanted yet again!
Colin Spencer next door was another friend my age. I mention him in the article on cracker night and making explosives. When he was five or six he was addicted to sugar and ate it by the bowl-full.
Whether this caused his kidney disease (nephritis) or was a result of it I never knew. But the outcome was the same, a long stay in bed with absolutely no sugar. He spent some of the time with his stamp collection, drawing and whittling balsa-wood models using a hard backed razor blade.
One day on my way home from school I bought a threepenny chocolate and having eaten it, carefully refolded the wrapper to look like it was still uneaten. I went in to see Colin and asked him if he would like it. Then I said: ‘Oh that’s right you can’t have it; it’s got sugar in it’ and threw it out the window. He jumped out of bed and ran around the house to discover the empty wrapper.
When he returned he was a little cross.
With the razor blade in his hand he began slashing at me. I raised my right arm to protect my face and he slashed it open. Blood began to squirt out of my arm at each pulse. Gripping it closed with my other hand I ran home and said to my mother: ‘Colin’s cut my arm’. ‘That’s nice’ she said. So I removed my hand and squirted her with blood.
She told me years later that the only thing stopping her fainting was the obvious need to stop me bleeding to death. A tourniquet was applied the doctor phoned. He came around within minutes. I was stitched up and bandaged on the spot but it was not fine surgery. As a result I still have a prominent three inch scar on the inside of my forearm.
Colin’s temper remained infamous, particularly in interactions with his father, until he was an adult but then he quite suddenly became the most peace loving of all my friends; a ‘flower child’. He even traded his sports car in on a Mini-Moke.
Another source of injury was our 'billycarts'.
Mine was the traditional central plank with a square seat over the back axle and a forward, pivoting, board under-which the front axle was mounted. It was steered by means of a rein-like rope; attached to the front board close to the wheels. A pivoting handle/lever provided a brake that, like those on San Francisco cable cars, pushed down directly on the ground. The wheels came from a baby's stroller.
Other children had different designs; some with ball-baring wheels; others with giant spoked 'pram' or 'bike' wheels.
Peter had a converted pedal car with a working steering wheel. We removed the pedalling mechanisms: a double crank in the rear axle connected by bars to the pedals, as this just slowed it down - the pedals flying back and forth dangerously inside, and replaced it with a straight rear axle. Then it went like the wind - the Red Flash!
As we reached billycart age, around ten, we quickly became very good at making axles. These were typically made of 5/8" mild steel rod purchased from the hardware store then cut to length with a hacksaw. Two small holes but large enough for a cotter (split) pin, or just a bent over nail, were drilled at each end; spaced to accommodate our chosen wheel; plus washers. I could do this either by hand, using my own hand-brace (very slow) or illicitly, using my father's centre-punch and very precious electric drill.
Thornleigh has some very good hills and billy carts really need a good brake. Peter's had good steering but relied on his heels to stop or slow down. Before taking it for a spin down Paling Street, our usual test area, we built a makeshift track down our steep driveway; around the house; down the side steps; and into the back garden.
Down went Peter in the Red Flash; clank clank clank went the Flash as it flew down the steps; scrissh went the dirt he made the corner; scream went Peter as he hit the vent of the septic tank at the far-side of the back lawn; and tore his leg open, He still has the scar.
Although my billycart was more mundane it was not lacking in speed and I wore-out several brakes down Paling street. A little over half-way down there is the intersection of Cavendish Street. This was still unsealed and ran down over the creek and then up; removing the need to brake on the downward run. I could do a very nice skid turn into the dirt at the top of this street but the surface further down was harder; un-even and rutted.
With each run I got more daring until the inevitable happened. In a hard rut the tyre on my inside front wheel came back and hit the central bar and it stopped dead. I went flying; sustaining gravel-rash to my hands, elbows, one hip and leg and the top and side of my face. It was all superficial but there was a very laborious removal of dirt and gravel from my wounds, and an even more painful disinfection with bright red mercurochrome. Then I had no use of my hands and could only drink my meals through a straw for more than a week.
Meanwhile Colin's engineer father, who was also a skilled carpenter, approached building a superior, fully-enclosed machine for Colin as a personal project. Colin may well have built his own simpler machine, as I did, but John was intervening, probably concerned about gravel-rash.
We decided to 'give Paling street a miss' as a test location for the new machine and instead went over to Bob Piper's place. Maybe Paling St had been banned.
Bob's street was much less steep but only because half way down was very steep section; a small cliff. As his brakes were suspect Colin elected to make his test-run down the footpath; without fully comprehending that even on a gentle hill, continuing to accelerate with no brakes could be an issue. This was particularly so as the steep section corresponded with an, appropriately named, 'flight' of steps in the footpath.
Colin survived. He wasn't even concussed when his beautiful sports-car-like billycart first became a small aircraft to rival the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk; clearing the bottom of the steps by at least ten feet; and then a pile of kindling.
Generally Colin and I played happily together. We ran a single wire telephone between our bedrooms, in our respective houses, and spent happy hours perfecting the arrangement of bells, buzzers and switches for ringing each other.
One school holidays we thought it would be nice to have a swimming pool. Colin insisted the pool should be in his place so we marked out a large rectangle on their lower lawn. Michael McDonald, our mutual neighbour of similar age was an excellent digger. He had some good digging tools including his plumber father’s mattock, pick and digging bar. So we set to work.
The lower lawn was hidden from the house by a long flower bed and no adult noticed our efforts for several days. Although how they didn't notice that we were dirtier than usual, I don’t know. Maybe we were always that dirty.
It was a lot of work to go very deep as we had marked out an optimistically large area. We wanted to swim laps. We were accumulating several very impressive mountains of dirt; mixed with a lot of grass but hadn't managed to make our big hole more than about a foot deep; maybe a few feet in places where the digging was easier.
Then one evening I got bitten by something that might have been a funnel-web spider (but wasn't). My worried father asked me to show him where it had happened.
‘My god’ he reported to my mother, ‘the kids have dug up Spencer’s lawn!‘ She was left to break the news to her friend Verna Spencer; who then had the task of restraining John Spencer from something close to murdering Colin.
Not long afterwards Peter, who had built one of his many cubby houses against the adjoining fence, let his little cooking fire smoulder, so that in the night it burnt down a section of the fence. We thought John Spencer would suffer apoplexy!
But that was just a preliminary trial to his blood pressure. I’ve mentioned the marble holes in his kerro drums elsewhere.
The idea of digging a swimming pool did not go away. Later we dug a more compact eight-foot-deep, six foot square, hole in the lower part of our property; in the old sheep pen. We gave up when we hit hard shale. It was initially used as yet another fort by Peter; who roofed it over with old corrugated iron and said it was the beginning of a tunnel to... somewhere. When discovered it was filled in, partly with old paint tins and other metallic junk, by our parents and John Spencer; worried that a Spencer child would be buried alive with Peter.
A year or so later I decided to swap my air rifle for something Peter had – I’ve long forgotten what that was.
To celebrate his new acquisition we hung up a target in the milk hatch – a little cupboard at the end of our long narrow laundry with two doors an inner wire mesh one and an outer solid wood one.
This was where the milkman delivered our milk; initially into our milk billy from a measuring jug, filled from a tap at the back of the horse drawn milk-cart; but later in glass bottles capped with aluminium foil. The bread was delivered there too; still warm from the oven.
We opened both doors. By lying on the kitchen floor we had a good view of our target all the way through the laundry. Just as we were getting some good groupings in our second or third paper target, the back door burst open and an enraged John Spencer appeared; in time to see Peter taking aim again. ‘Why are you shooting at my budgies?’ he demanded. Peter was outraged.
Of course we weren’t shooting at his birds; the aviary just happened, stupidly in Peter's opinion, to be in the general line of fire. Peter claimed the slugs later found peppering his veranda were actually dropped there by Ian Spencer; Peter’s younger apprentice at the time.
But we were in trouble.
To appease John and as a lesson about sensible gun use our father, Stephen, broke Peter’s newly acquired air rifle over his knee.
As a result of these incidents there was a cold war between Peter and John Spencer for long after; punctuated by various bangs; one so loud that John claimed to have been almost blown off his feet.
So, many years later, when we in our late teens, and John was watching the cricket on TV, he assumed that the spark-plug that suddenly shattered his big picture window and skidded to a halt at his feet, amid a shower of glass, was yet another attack by Peter. No one expects a spark-plug (it’s even more unlikely than the Spanish Inquisition); and it was the sort of bizarre calling-card Peter might devise. No doubt it had been fired deliberately at him using some sort of new-fangled spark-plug gun.
In fact it was a total accident. Peter was innocently mowing the grass where he had previously been working on his car. The lawn mower did what four-stoke rotary lawn mowers do; when no grass catcher is fitted.
Another of the Spencer windows bore a perfectly circular half inch hole that Colin, by that time developing his artistic side, refused to have replaced as it was so perfect. This was the serendipitous result of a very oblique glancing blow from a glass marble that I had fired from my catapult (slingshot). Again it was a total accident. The marble had ricocheted off a tree when I was attempting, unsuccessfully, to scare off the multitude of very noisy cicadas that were disturbing my studies.
Despite these occasional holes in things the Spencers were among our closest friends; and this included members of their extended family. Although we moved to a new house two suburbs away in 1965 my mother and Verna remained close until Verna’s death. By then we children had become adults; all married and dispersed to places distant. After Verna’s death John remarried and some essential glue had gone.
Now even the sites of those distant events, the land and the houses, have been cleared. They have made way for a dozen closely packed double-storey dwellings; and quite different lives within. Twelve houses have replaced three.
It has become a Christian enclave. The Methodist church in now Uniting apparently with some very large extensions and has moved nearer; consuming the Walker's house and land. No more Bodgies there. The Anglican church, one property in the other direction, has become Greek orthodox. No more doubters there. In 'street view' one of the houses on the old sheep's paddock even displays a large sign proclaiming Jesus.
The village of Thornleigh that I remember with its two lane road; the School of Arts; Barnes’ Bakery; Trace’s Produce; the Astra Cinema; and the horse trough is no more. Our old primary school is replaced in part by a giant McDonald's. Some changes are enough to make one cry.
As I said at the outset the world of Thornleigh, New South Wales Australia, is gone forever. And the world the children of those children live in has undoubtedly changed for the better.
The 21st century offers advantages to children, particularly to girls, that were only imagined in Utopian dreams in the 1950's.
In the 50's only those children who were migrants had been overseas, let alone flown in an aeroplane.
I first put my daughter Emily on a plane, unaccompanied, to visit her mother in England, when she was eight. She flew back and forth several times to England and France and later to Korea. Later in high school she travelled with her boyfriend. She is now a professional Engineer and living in Berlin. Her younger siblings are almost as well travelled; as are her cousins of similar age.
Today our children accept international air travel as a fact of life. Not because we are wealthy; it's a lot cheaper and they now largely pay their own way; but because their world has far wider horizons than did ours as children.
Women of my mother's generation had to fight almost overwhelming odds if they wanted a professional career; to leave and unhappy marriage; or simply to control their own fertility without interference from others; only a few succeeded. Girls of my generation at last began to achieve these things in significant numbers; and now, at last, our daughters, and society in general, regard them as a fact of life.
For some in that almost forgotten time, the 1950's, modern licentiousness was the stuff of dystopian nightmares. They would be profoundly shocked at what children would know from and early age; and the sexual freedoms that they would enjoy as young adults in fifty years. Brave New World, writ large:
From a neighbouring shrubbery emerged a nurse, leading by the hand a small boy, who howled as he went. An anxious-looking little girl trotted at her heels.
Aldous Huxley: BRAVE NEW WORLD; 1932
It is many years since parents were shocked to find a companion, of either sex, present for breakfast, having spent the night with their eighteen year old child.
It was actually our parents who were the first to deal with that; without calling the police or immediately organising a marriage. But I was a little older when my mother calmly asked what we wanted for breakfast when my girlfriend and I accidentally slept in. A friend was equally surprised when his mother crept in to play Santa on Christmas eve and left presents for both him and his girlfriend.
It is now a central tenant of anti-discrimination law that adults have the right to their own choice of partner according to their sexual preference. For some couples another law presently dictates that marriage is not an option.
We hope and expect that the decision to engage in sexual activity is our adult children's own, mutually based on their own desires and preference; not at the insistence of someone more powerful or dominant. They expect that we will respect their decision and know that they have the support and understanding of their family should they make a mistake or two in finding the right partner to share their life with; if any.
But because they have understood responsible reproductive behaviour for almost as long as they can remember our girls do not expect to become pregnant until they wish to.
These principles would have been scandalous and socially impossible just 50 years ago; even in Hollywood. There were some very nasty people about in Sydney back then; not just to unfortunate girls who, because of inadequate knowledge, unwanted attentions or accidents, became pregnant.
Homosexuality was illegal and sexism and racism was rampant. Even my mother, still a young English girl in her 20's, was mocked 'til she cried for her posh accent and English fashions. It took a lot to make her cry after that. Migrants from elsewhere were often much more cruelly treated. 'New Australian' was not a term of endearment.
Girls now have educational advantages once the preserve of boys; as well as access to a vast wealth of information only dreamed of in science-fiction in the 50's. They expect to match men in almost any non-physical endeavour. They assume without question that they will have a career and that they may well be relied on as the principal income earner.
Back then working women were paid less for the same work; could be required to resign when they got married and were not even permitted to have superannuation. The career options for girls were very limited: nursing, teaching, work in an office or shop, or perhaps modelling, cleaning or factory work.
Most girls expected a short working life and looked forward to attracting a good breadwinner as a husband who would be loyal; not a drunk, a gambler, or violent; who she could cook for and clean for and have children with. This was often the best that girls could hope for; it passed for 'love'. Boys looked for the most attractive girl who befitted their social status and 'pulling power'. Girls from 'good homes' went to finishing school to attract a better class of man.
Boys too, looked forward to a limited number of career options; more or less those that had been available to their fathers.
No one anticipated the the many new careers that technology would deliver in the next 50 years: the growth of computers; electronic media; communications; entertainment; personal services; and even new forms of banking and financial services.
Our children have much wider horizons in this way too. They know the the career they decide upon will change over time and may eventually be in an area that has not yet been thought of; or one that is still science fiction.