Irene therefore began to look around for a place for us to live whilst I went to work during the week, earning enough money for us to hang on by the skin of our teeth, and at least not need to touch our capital for everyday living expenses. Renting a room we decided was out of the question. First, rents were exorbitant. In the second place, we disliked the idea of paying for somebody else’s property. There had been enough of that in the old country. We weren’t about to start bad habits in the new one. Eventually Irene came across a temporary dwelling and laundry on the outskirts of Yagoona, whose owner was selling out for just over four hundred pounds. She made inquiries at the Bankstown Council and was told that there were no problems. We paid a deposit of forty-five pounds from our capital – equivalent to nearly two months’ wages at that time. We had just over two hundred pounds saved up. We hoped to raise the rest by loan from the Rural Bank.
Too late we learned that the land was to be declared unfit for building as it was subject to minor flooding. The solicitor, one of the tribe who inhabited small offices in large buildings in Hunter Street, told us that the legal position was that the land was still fit for building at the time of signing the contract. Therefore we stood little chance of regaining our money. Indeed, the vendor might force us to proceed with the purchase. At this stage it dawned on us that he was acting for both parties, a fact to which, in our ignorance, we had not paid any attention. Subsequent advice from other quarters revealed that we had been misled, deliberately, it seemed, and we were eventually able to recover fifteen pounds. However, the outlook seemed very black at the time. Moreover our money was in limbo for a considerable period when we had most need of it. Although it seemed a paltry amount today, it meant that when we did eventually buy land and build, we had to settle for something less than might otherwise have been possible. To this extent our unpleasant experience possibly affected our entire future life in Australia. For had we been able to build a better house at the beginning in what was to become one of Sydney’s go-ahead areas, I may have resisted the temptation, five years later, to leave the big city and go to the bush. In the event, the lesson we learnt was not to pay out a penny before making the best possible inquiries about land. One should never sign a contract without being advised by one’s own solicitor. Any deposit should always be conditional on there being no unforeseen difficulties that might vitiate the agreement. The world is full of villains without conscience seeking to separate suckers from their hard earned cash. Caveat Emptor! Trust nobody!
The strike was wreaking havoc with the economy and eventually Ben Chifley, the Prime Minister, decided to put troops into the mines to save the jobs of the majority and prevent social chaos. It was the correct thing to do, although it earned Chifley, a great Labour leader, the enmity of many in his own party. Power was always dicey in Sydney at that time. The Snowy scheme had not yet been constructed, and everything seemed to depend on the continuing working of the Bunnerong generating station. But with the mines producing again, trains were restored, and we could once again cook with electricity. Suddenly the strike was over. And as if to herald better times, even the rain began to abate.
One evening, when I came home from the city, Irene greeted me with the news that she had found a reasonably priced block of land in Caringbah, near Dolan’s Bay, a couple of stops along the railway line from Cronulla. We went out to have a look at it the following weekend. It was in Want Street, opposite the junction of Cook Street, at the foot of the hill. It was fifty feet wide by about a hundred and sixty deep, and the price was sixty pounds. Irene said she could just imagine our house there. Trees were everywhere, the road was gravel, there was no sewer. Although we were only three of four minutes’ walk from the main road, and the bus, we seemed to be in the heart of the bush. Kookaburras perched on age-old gum trees cackled joyfully morning and evening. We thought it was beautiful. We engaged a solicitor, had all inquiries made and bought the block.
Our next door neighbour, whose name was Jack, was the sanitary carter. He lived in a rather jerry built house with his wife, mother-in-law and several children. He parked the sanitary cart outside at weekends in order to get an early start Monday mornings. Fortunately he always emptied it of its contents Friday afternoons. From Jack we hired a tent for ten shillings a week, pitched it on our block and moved in. Thus we kept our promise to Oll to leave his house as quickly as possible.
We had no toilet, so for the time being we used Jack’s. His professional activities enabled him to supply an extra sanitary service at no cost. We bought cups and saucers, plates, knives, forks and spoons. One Saturday morning, walking back from Caringbah, I saw the bus stop at Cook Street, and Irene, dressed in a brown suit inherited from her mother, step off. She had been down town before me, and held clutched to her a collapsible tin box containing double primus stoves. She made a bee-line down Cook Street in the direction of our tent, and I had to call before she saw me.
She had picked up the cooker at a bargain price. Now we should be able to enjoy hot meals, always provided we could get the primus going.
Jack had lent us a couple of single beds, which just fitted into the tent, so we didn’t have to sleep on the ground. This was just as well, because shortly the rain began again. Only then did we discover that our block was a virtual continuation of Cook Street, and a main drain for all the storm water coming therefrom.
For a couple of weeks we were ankle deep in water every time it rained. In addition, the tent had a number of holes, and the water dripped in everywhere. Getting up and dressing every morning without getting one’s feet wet became something of a work of art. The inside of the tent became a haven for tarantulas escaping from the rain. We had never seen these huge, ugly spiders in England. Here we quickly got used to them, but Irene never did feel completely at ease when one of them parked itself on the tent canvass just above her bed. The other spiders were the red backs in the dunny. There were endless colonies of them. They seemed to be unaggressive, and I adopted a policy of live and let live. Many a time, in the dunny I have had eyeball-to-eyeball confrontations with red back spiders at the end of which we have both departed in peace. Only when the spider insisted on taking charge of a section of the dunny essential to my own purposes was I obliged to pick up one of the many stones lying around and strike it sharply on its red spot.
When the rain eventually stopped, I went up the street, borrowed a wheelbarrow from a neighbour, and made two hundred trips to the bush immediately behind our block. I pushed two hundred barrow loads of soil from the bush and dumped them on the footpath and the front of our block. I had to go about three or four hundred yards into the bush and the road back was all uphill, so I slaved for a long time over that job. Then I went even further down and dug huge lumps of sandstone out of the soil. These I either wheelbarrowed or bullocked up to the front of the block to make my own kerb and gutter which would never be washed away in a hundred years. I succeeded in diverting the flow of water from Cook Street at right angles along Want Street into a small creek a couple of hundred yards further along. Never again was our block subject to flooding with storm water.
We now proposed to build a temporary dwelling. We drew up plans and specifications for a garage and our own dunny, and had them passed by Sutherland Shire Council. We would be permitted to live in the garage for a limited period while we built our house. We were not permitted to live in a tent, but nobody knew that we were doing so, and before they did, we would have the garage erected.
Thus we laid our plans, but now struck a snag. We had run out of money and needed to borrow one hundred pounds to obtain materials for our temporary dwelling. We would also have to pay for a minimal amount of labour, for we were totally inexpert. With a block of land rapidly appreciating in value, there should have been no problem. But we had been in Australia only a few weeks, and we knew nobody who would vouch for our bona fides. Oll gave us a character reference, but he had only been acquainted with us for a short time. We had no money, virtually no belongings, no bank references, we were new arrivals, foreigners, in fact. Today, when banks throw money at you and want everybody to be their customer, the conservatism of lending institutions in those days is perhaps difficult to understand. I could not do very much about this matter, because I had to work to keep our heads above water. Irene went to the Rural Bank in Martin Place, where she made the acquaintance of a man, who was one of their small loans officers. Over a period of three months she went to see him almost every day. Eventually he lent us a hundred pounds. I am quite sure that he did it to get rid of her, because it had become obvious that otherwise she would waste his time every day for the rest of his life.
Irene and I now made the acquaintance of a friend of our neighbour the sanitary carter, who came over from Wentworthville most weekends to visit. This man was a bush carpenter. He agreed to lay out the foundations of the garage and a dunny for us, to cut and erect a frame, and organise the purchase of materials for roof and cladding. However, Irene and I would have to organise the foundations.
We borrowed a hand concrete mixer from a sympathetic neighbour; ordered sand, a couple of trailer loads of metal, and several bags of cement; and stored everything underneath the sanitary carter’s house. Our first effort at putting down concrete was the floor of our dunny, the most essential of all buildings. Irene turned the hand mixer while I shovelled sand, metal and cement into it in the proper proportions and added the appropriate amount of water. A few weeks earlier I had not even known what concrete consisted of, so it is easy to imagine with what care we poured the dunny floor, smoothed it over with a wood float, and sprinkled in just a dash of cement to give it a final finish. I do believe that that dunny floor was the most perfect piece of concrete I ever put down. It was a beautiful piece of construction, and the only pity was that it was to be forever hidden from public gaze. However, I gained considerable satisfaction afterwards in private contemplation of my handiwork.
We now had to put down the foundations of the garage, and as our land sloped to the rear, these foundations were a major work, requiring the formwork to be straight and robust. Also we had to meet a deadline, as the builder was to arrive at a set time one weekend to erect the frame. Irene and I worked all day Saturday and Sunday, then continued during the week after I came home from work, sometimes at night by lamplight, and on occasions in drizzling rain, covering the form work with old tarpaulin and newspapers to allow the concrete to dry and set. With this job finished, I began to put together the frame. Our builder arrived in the middle of this, which was just as well as I had not had any experience in squaring up, and although I knew what was required in theory, practice was lacking. Soon our builder was putting in the second hand corrugated iron on the roof, and Irene and I were putting up the weatherboards, which were to constitute the cladding. I gave the garage a coat of red lead, an undercoat, and two good coats of dark green, glossy “Dulux”. There was red piping at the corners and around the louvre windows. I painted the roof silver, and it gleamed like a mirror in the summer sun. We filled up the interior of the foundations with earth and ash, put hardwood joists across, standing on bricks, then nailed fence palings for a floor. We covered the whole with lino. One end of the garage was the wash-house-cum-laundry-cum kitchen-cum-living-room. This section had a concrete floor, two concrete tubs under a water tap, and a vitreous clay pipe poking through the concrete foundation at the back allowing sullage to spill out direct on the ground. How the building inspector ever passed it I do not know. He must have felt sympathetic towards us because we were obviously trying so hard. Such were the times.
We were the cynosure of all eyes in Cook and Want Streets. The centre of attention. I think all the neighbours were interested to see how the new immigrants were getting on. Whatever else they thought of us, Irene and I certainly showed them how to work, for in that first twelve months we never stopped once.
Thus, after only four months in Australia, we moved into our own place. It was an unlined garage on what was then the far southern perimeter of Sydney. It was unsewered and stood in almost virgin bush. Goodness knows it was a modest enough achievement. But we had saved every penny we could to make this small dream come true. Not knowing the first thing about building, we had put it together ourselves with minimal help. I cannot easily express the tremendous, absurd, bursting sense of pride that Irene and I took in owning that little garage in Caringbah. No other home we ever owned in the future meant quite so much to us as that dark green timber garage with the silver corrugated iron roof.