This article contains a series of recollections from my childhood growing up in Thornleigh; on the outskirts of Sydney Australia in the 1950s. My parents emigrated to Australia in 1948 when I was not quite three years old and my brother was a babe in arms.
Initially it was quite tough for both my parents; but particularly for my mother who was still quite young and had left her friends and family behind. Until she found some friends with wider interests (Verna, Ruth, Joyce and so on) she had great difficulty in relating to Australian girls of the same age. And largely because of my family background I found settling in to school quite difficult too. My brother Peter acclimatised more quickly.
In 1948 both my parents’ and my uncle’s family, separately, came to Australia from England. So did a number of British refugees from the Raj. During the War, Uncle Jim had been a British Army Officer (Engineer) based in India and he and my father both worked for British multinationals (although my father also worked Australian, American and Dutch firms at other times). As a result we had some passing social interactions with the British Indian expatriates; it seemed to me mainly at cocktail parties (Haw-Haw, Pims, ‘another G&T’, Noël Coward on the ‘gramophone’, ‘so hard to get a good gardener’).
It is easy to see how they pissed off the Indians. They certainly managed it with the Australians.
Although the motor car began its growth as a consumer product in America with the release of the first Model T Ford in 1908 and this corresponded with the first aircraft (the Wright Brothers first flew in 1903), things were not as advanced in Australia.
The First World War devastated Australia’s male population and, after barely 10 years of relative prosperity, most of the world suffered an economic recession followed by a slow recovery, from 1929 until the Second World War began in 1939. Despite very rapid technical progress during the wars, cars and air travel remained expensive luxury items in Australia until the 1950s.
Cars had started to become a hazard to pedestrians, bike riders and horses before the Second World War but it was not until the war ended that they really ‘took off’ as consumer products.
Cars soon proved to be incompatible with trams in Sydney’s narrow streets and cars were a lot more ‘cool’.
Sydney trams had been around since the 1890s and were associated with a past age. Electricity for trams (as for electric trains) was (and still is) generated using coal as the energy source. The Powerhouse Museum is now in an old tramways power station.
I remember the old ‘toast rack’ trams with multiple doors and ‘running boards’, commuters would leap on and off while they were still moving or slowed in traffic. Trams from the northern suburbs would terminate at Wynyard having travelled across the Harbour Bridge on what is now the Cahill Expressway and then underground to the lowest platforms. Elsewhere they would block narrow streets at every tram stop or unsafely disgorge passengers into the middle of busy wider streets. Trams can’t steer to avoid an obstruction and a carelessly parked car or delivery truck would cause traffic chaos.
As it happened, our next door neighbour was a civil engineer with NSW Tramways and I remember listening with great amusement when he explained how they had fished a tram from the harbour at Taronga Park after it had it had run out of control down the hill and through the buffers. This happened more than once and probably didn’t amuse the passengers as much as it did me.
The peak tram years in Sydney were during the war when petrol was rationed and over 400 million tram tickets were sold per year. But after an alarming increase in damage to cars and traffic chaos they were replaced by buses in city in 1958. By 1961 one of the largest tram networks in the world was fully shut-down (although the tracks could still be seen shining through decades later).
At the end of 1956 I gained a certificate for my part in traffic duty (barrier boy) at Thornleigh Public School. This involved wooden traffic barriers that were mounted on fixed posts at either side of Pennant Hills Road now one of the busiest roads in Sydney. When sufficient children had accumulated to let them cross the barrier was swung, from blocking the path of the children (and some parents), to blocking the path of the cars.
We were unsupervised by an adult and it was a cooperative decision between 11 year old boys as to when to stop the cars on this major thoroughfare.
But it was different times. Many children left school at 15 or 16 to go into a bank, an office, to become an articled clerk or to go into nursing or business school; or just to get a job in a shop or labouring. No respectable boy over 5 or 6 would tolerate a parent accompanying him to school (unless he was a 'sissy') and no one (boy or girl) was ever driven to Thornleigh PS without some very special reason.
In the 50’s Pennant Hills Road was a two lane concrete strip between wide dirt and grass verges and there was no curbing except in the shopping villages – Thornleigh, Pennant Hills etc. At regular intervals the concrete was interrupted with a tarred expansion gap and even if napping in the back of the car returning home at night, I could tell we were on the final stretch by the thump, thump, thump. Many side roads were still unsealed (dirt).
The tarred (macadamised) roads were maintained by the council steamroller (powered by coal). It was one of my joys as a child to talk to the steamroller driver who used to stop outside the paddock next door to fill up with water from the hydrant there, while he made a pot of tea with water from his boiler and stoked his fire.
Traffic came in groups as some cars were very slow and apparently were used to moving with a constant train of impatient followers waiting to overtake. This was particularly the case going ‘up the mountains’ or to Newcastle. When we were stopping the traffic we had to be careful because some of these older (pre War) cars and trucks still had cable brakes and took a long time to stop.
Everyone who could afford it lived within walking distance of the ‘Fast Electric Train’ (as it was marketed). The long distance trains and freight trains were steam driven, powered by coal.
Our school was near the railway and we were particularly interested in the trains, both the type of steam locomotive, particularly the new ‘Garrets’ and the ‘Newcastle Flyer’, and the goods being moved. A particularly illegal pastime was to put a penny on the track to have it flattened by the train wheels.
Many people rode a pushbike. The postman and several other officials (meter readers etc) got about on bikes. Milk, bread, firewood, coal and ice were all delivered by horse and cart. There were working horse (water) troughs in each of the village centres. In Thornleigh it was outside the School of Arts.
In those days the energy supply was still dominated by coal. Not only were steam engines still widely used in industry but Sydney had around twenty local coal-fired power stations generating electricity. Major power stations at Bunnerong, Balmain, Pyrmont, and White Bay supplied Local Council maintained electricity distribution grids and four, run by the Railways, powered the electric trains.
In the early 1950s the electricity Commission of New South Wales was established to consolidate electricity infrastructure in the State. Until this infrastructure was consolidated the electricity supply was in many hands and was very unreliable. Blackouts were regular occurrence and everyone had candles and kerosene lamps at the ready.
This was a major problem for urban development in Sydney. Until there was reliable electric power the construction of high-rise buildings with electric lifts and comprehensive reticulation of water or pumped sewerage was not possible. In some parts of Sydney there was no town water and a large area of the city remained unsewered.
Progressively new larger more efficient power stations were established near the coalfields in the Hunter, at Lithgow and the Illawarra, and all of the Sydney located power stations were shut-down. Although many of these old Sydney power stations have been demolished or reused, several of the sites remain undeveloped to this day, as the cost of remediation exceeds the value of the land.
By the Second World War electricity had already replaced gas for lighting (although both my Paddington and Newcastle houses still had the plumbing for gas lighting) but town gas was still widely used for cooking and heating.
This was generated in a number of gasworks producing town (producer) gas from coal. These were the predominantly located around Sydney Harbour, where coal could be delivered by barge.
There were 12 gasworks in Sydney alone and over 60 New South Wales. Early gasworks were extremely dirty, smelly industrial sites. Many of these were located on what are now prime Harbour residential suburbs including, Miller’s Point, High Street North Sydney (subsequently HMAS Platypus) and White City Paddington.
Well until I was an adult major gasworks were still operated at Mortlake, Abbotsford and Silverwater. The recollection of the smell of these suburbs left me with a prejudice against them that lingers to this day. Natural gas progressively replaced town gas in Sydney from the end of 1976 when the pipeline from South Australia was completed.
Apart from a wide range of chemical feed-stocks, a major by-product of gasworks was coke, a black porous rock like substance (around 90% carbon, the balance being ash – mainly silica, and water).
During the war it had been possible to run a car or truck on producer gas generated from coke or charcoal. This gas is generated by pumping steam through a coke or charcoal furnace, yielding carbon monoxide and hydrogen. The steam is generated using heat from the furnace and the energy balance is maintained by additional oxygen (from air pumped in). A modified petrol engine can be made to run on this mixture and the furnace can be fitted to a trailer, carried on the tray of a truck or in a boot with the lid removed. But it could take an hour or so to get the furnace going before use and of course it needs to be toped-up and stoked to remove ash regularly.
This was very energy inefficient, consumed a great deal of carbon, which was converted to carbon dioxide, and carrying little furnaces around, with coke to feed them, is not particularly environmentally friendly or safe.
Into the 1960’s coke was still widely in use as a heating fuel. At primary school each classroom had brown, vitreous enamelled, ‘Kosi’ cast iron stove with two doors, bottom for lighting and top for filling. In winter in each class, a trusted child was assigned to light the heater. This involved making a fire using paper and kindling and then adding coke to get it going. Another (usually naughty boy) would be sent out into the cold to fill the coke scuttle to keep the heater going during the day.
Today in Australia air conditioning is a major consumer of total energy resources. But in the 1950s domestic air conditioning was unheard of (and is not really needed in Sydney); indeed lots of households still had an icebox instead of a refrigerator with regular visits from the iceman carrying a block of ice to keep it cold (using wonderfully dangerous ice hooks).
The ice came from the Hornsby ice works, an industrial scale freezer using anhydrous ammonia as the refrigerant. When ammonia escaped from one of these large plants whole streets needed to be evacuated.
Similar but smaller industrial freezers (often combined with air-cooling) were found in butcher’s shops, where animal carcases hung on rails around the sides of the shop in full view of the customers and sawdust covered the tiled floor to catch any remaining blood. At the back of these shops water ran over a tower of timber slats to provide the equivalent of today’s air-conditioning cooling towers.
Because of distance, Australia has always been a leader in refrigeration. Hallstrom refrigerators were first manufactured in the 40’s but huge numbers of the now classic 'Silent Knight' fridge began to emerge from the Willoughby factory in the 50s. And Sir Edward Hallstrom made the fortune that enabled him to continuously and famously endow Taronga Park Zoo for many years.
I remember the night when our somewhat ancient electric refrigerator failed and we had to evacuate the house because the refrigerant used was sulphur dioxide. After that we got a gas refrigerator that employed the ammonia absorption cycle (partially accredited to Albert Einstein) and gave my brother and me an immediate physics lesson. How can a gas flame result in a freezing ice compartment? “Well, pull it out and look at the back – this bit is like a still; and this bit...”
In the 50’s my father needed a private car to get to work (he was the General Manager of a factory in Sefton) but the several hundred workers in the factory generally lived within walking or cycling distance of the factory (there was also a train service) and many went home at lunch time for their ‘dinner’.
The same applied in Newcastle as late as 1970 when I worked for BHP. Plant workers were generally expected to live in Mayfield so they could walk or cycle to work (as did the General Manager – but he had a large house, the formal driveway, car and driver).
Although initially low, car numbers were multiplying rapidly and along Pennant Hills Road, between the school and home, in less than a kilometre, three new service stations (Esso, Golden Fleece and Ampol) were built at the end of the decade, selling petrol at just over a shilling a gallon (about 3 cents a litre). When a shilling became 10 cents in 1966, petrol had risen outrageously in price to 5.5 cents a litre (2/6 per Gal).
The FJ Holden was released in Australia in 1953 but few of my school friends had a car at home until the end of the 50’s and then, suddenly at the end of the decade, wives were learning to drive, women driver jokes were in fashion and it seemed everyone had a car. Everything was drive-in, drive-up or drive-through; often drive-thru. Before TV our family regularly attended one or another of Sydney's many drive-in movie cinemas; a tradition Peter and I continued with our girlfriends as young adults.
Our neighbours initially relied on us to get their eldest child to and from boarding school at Castle Hill but by the time he was 20, all three sons had a VW beetle and their dad had a Ford truck. By 1966 our family had a car for each family member, and so did both our neighbours, and by 1970 Pennant Hills Road had been widened, twice.
The horse trough and the School of Arts had disappeared.
A car, it seemed, had become as essential as the Mixmaster (a device used by mums to make cakes, biscuits and desserts).