Ch10 Pt3 Owning our first car

With the commencement of the New Year (1950), whilst we were still living in the garage, I had commenced a course of instruction for my certificate of town clerk. The course lasted ideally for three years, but few people finished in that time. I found the accountancy and law extremely difficult to absorb after so many years away from school. I would go to the Sydney Technical College three nights a week direct from work. I walked from the College back to Central Station reaching it just before eleven o’clock. At this time, having had no tea, a packet of “Zac-a-Bag” chips from the stall that used to stand in the big square was very welcome. I would then hurry through the subway to board the eleven o’clock train, after which it was an hour’s run to Caringbah. Getting off there at midnight, with the last bus long gone, I would briskly walk the mile and a half back to Want Street. With the need to get up early in the morning to go to work, this timetable was strenuous and made one tired at times. Certainly I kept fit. I invariably walked to Caringbah station and back to save the bus fare, and at weekends, there was plenty of work in the garden. At Hurstville I worked for the most part at the counter, and was always dashing back and forth for rate accounts, subdivision maps, or valuation books. In the evenings, when not going to Tech, I sat in the garage and studied. This was all right in the summer. However, the garage was unlined and the eaves were not boxed in. I had filled the interstices with rolled up newspaper, but this was inadequate to prevent the draught coming in. Thus I got very cold, even though I sat with a heavy overcoat on that I had brought from England. On these occasions, Irene retired to bed to keep warm. When we got into the house, of course, the situation improved.

At this stage, we made further material progress. We threw out the old ice-box which we had been using to keep things cool and bought an STC refrigerator. It was the first refrigerator we had ever owned, and I wrote back home to England rather smugly to tell them about our acquisition. It cost us sixty-three pounds, which was about two months’ wages, and I bought it over three years on hire-purchase. We thought that now, with a house, a refrigerator, a carpet square, and a lounge suite, we were really making progress.

I passed the first part of the course, comprising various abstruse arithmetical calculations, commercial law, business methods and organisation, and commercial accountancy up to the dissolution of partnerships. (What good that would be in local government I never could fathom). I now commenced local government law and accountancy, which were far more demanding, and gave me a lot of trouble. My job as cashier at Hurstville offered me no insight whatsoever into accounting matters. Thus, everything I learned was theory, and I could not relate it to practice. Having reached a certain stage, and despite study on a regular basis, I seemed to get stuck. I realised that I would not have been allowed to undertake such a course of study in England due to what was deemed there to be insufficient basic education. Therefore, I had to see the thing through to the end, if only to prove to myself that I did indeed have the capability. 

I was thirty years old. I found the task tremendously hard. But despite some setbacks in examinations and many disappointments, I slowly edged forward. I told myself that if I persevered, I would beat other people who did not have the same constancy of purpose. But I wished with all my heart that I had had the opportunity of studying these subjects twelve years earlier. By this time, I would already have been well ensconced as a clerk to my own council, and the world would have been at my feet. My time in England and the war had taken from me those precious years, and I would never be able to regain them. I had no alternative but to keep on and do my best.

Despite our worries, Irene and I really liked the Caringbah district where we lived. Even though it started to fill up rapidly with houses and the shopping centre down the road began to mushroom, there was still a country atmosphere about our area.

Mary, our neighbour across the road was a typical country woman, wide-hipped, motherly, always in a calico apron. She was slow of movement, broad of speech, but always very kind and considerate. It was she who first taught Irene and me how to bathe young Patricia when she came home from hospital. For the inexperienced, bathing a young baby is rather like washing a large piece of blancmange. They slip and they slither. You know you must control them, but you are afraid of hurting them or dropping them. Mary knelt beside the basin we had placed on the floor, carefully soaped and sluiced our little bundle of joy, dried her gently but firmly, then played with her for a few moments before putting her to bed. 

She was an expert, having had innumerable children of her own. In fact, Mary had forced her husband to take up sleeping quarters in an old shed at the bottom of their garden thus espousing the simplest birth control system of all which says: “Out of sight, out of mind.” He was a ginger haired man, slow moving and with a sly grin. He worked on the Council, camping out on road jobs and only coming home at weekends. But when work finished and pleasure began, he was apparently a hundred per cent macho man, for Mary swore that she only had to look at him to fall pregnant. Her youngest child was a sandy haired boy of two or three years who was already the spitting image of his father. Before his birth, they had apparently sworn to have no more children. But one weekend Mary’s husband, feeling the pangs of loneliness, cunningly brought home in the pocket of his large overcoat a bottle of sweet wine to which Mary was particularly partial. She allowed a few glasses of the delectable stuff to seduce her, and before you could say “Jack Robinson”, they had popped into bed together, and another addition to their extensive family was on the way. They were friendly, uncomplicated and very kind people.

Just down from the Mary lived a woman of about thirty who made all the other ladies in the street jealous. This was because her husband used to do all the house cleaning and washing before he left for work, telling the neighbours that his wife was sick and not very robust. However, the moment he had gone, she would be up and about, dressed up to the nines, strolling around like a Hollywood film star. All the girls were jealous because there was no way that they could make their own husbands do likewise.

Next door to us but one lived old Jim and his wife. She was a strong, black-haired woman, and he a retired schoolteacher. He had gone back to do a bit of additional teaching, and also worked in the bush, coming home only at weekends. Old Jim wasn’t averse to a few glasses of plonk in the pub at weekends after the long, lonely week at work, and I often met him coming down Cook Street, merry of eye and garrulous of speech, carrying with him the faint aroma of fermented grape juice. He had two huge blocks of land with a small creek running through the middle, and the place was a mass of fruit trees, tree ferns and Christmas Bush. It was a sprawling, natural garden paradise where you could lose yourself. The big city seemed a thousand miles away. Their old weatherboard house had stood there for many years, but it was very comfortable. They were kindly, friendly Australians of the old school, not yet tainted by the fast buck philosophy of the twentieth century. When old Jim’s wife died, he married a widow from Wingham, where I had the pleasure of meeting him many years later, still firm and sprightly, though he must have been in his eighties.

I continued to work in local government at this time by choice.

I might actually have had a job in a real estate office in Caringbah at a period when there were only two or three shops in the main street. On another occasion, I actually obtained a job in the personnel department of Ampol Petroleum, but turned it down at the last moment to stay with local government, even though things seemed static and unpromising at the time. My reason for not leaving local government was that after seeing so much poverty in London during the depression, security of income and employment were of tremendous importance to me. This was more especially so since I was in a strange country, and there was absolutely nobody to turn to for support should I fall out of work and be unable to look after my family. I knew from experience that when an economic recession hits, private enterprise jobs can be sudden death for a worker who has reached a certain age, whom his bosses are looking for an excuse to replace.

By the same token, if Irene was to stay at home and look after the children in the way that both she and I thought was essential for their well-being, then I had to earn not just a wage, but a better than average wage. To do this, and to have security too, I had to obtain promotion within the local government service. This I could only do by first passing my examinations, then be willing to travel around to different Councils. However, there was a time restriction. I could only do this when the children were young. Otherwise, their schooling and general upbringing would be disturbed.

There was another thing. The old dictum, (and it is true), says, “A rolling stone gathers no moss…….”. 

So, I had chosen professionalism. But I still had to become a professional, then slot myself in somewhere within five or six years, and certainly before I attained the age of forty. This, then, was the way I had tried to rationalise our future in Australia, and was the plan I tried to follow for the benefit of the Foxon family.

I stayed at Hurstville Council for four years, and during that time applied on several occasions for a rise. Each time I was knocked back on the grounds of inadequate finance. I then began to apply for jobs elsewhere, but not too far from home. (Local government jobs were advertised on a weekly basis in The Sydney Morning Herald.) I was finally offered a job one grade higher at Sutherland Shire Council, headquarters of the local government area in which we lived. I accepted, and when I put in my resignation, my boss offered to lift me two grades if I would stay at Hurstville. I thought that I would gain more experience at Sutherland Shire, so I thanked him and refused. I have often wondered whether I did the right thing, because many changes took place at Hurstville over the next dozen years. However, it also gave me a secret pleasure to tell my boss, who had refused me a well-earned rise, that I now no longer needed his job. In addition, there is no doubt that by starting to move around, I was to enlarge my job experience in a way that I could not otherwise have done. Nevertheless, it was to give me some traumatic experiences as we went from one place to the other.

When I left Hurstville, I took my holiday pay and started straight away with Sutherland Shire. With the money thus saved, we bought our first car, a 1928 Austin Seven, with wire brakes and gravity feed of petrol to the carburettor. It cost us sixty pounds.                                           

In four years we had seen nothing of New South Wales except a limited amount of the City of Sydney. Now, in the Austin 7, already a vintage car, even in those days, and with a top speed with safety of about twenty five miles an hour, we travelled as far as Gosford in the north and Wollongong in the south. Any one of these trips took us all day.  

But our new mobility widened vastly our outlook and understanding of the area in which we lived. We began to appreciate the sandstone and gum tree beauty of the Sydney region, the extent of the New South Wales beaches, and the beauty of vast seascapes.

Ch10 Pt2 Our brick and fibro castle at Want Street

Alack and alas! We had barely been in it a week when there came a sudden downpour of rain – one of those tropical downpours which are so common in southern latitudes, but which we did not seem to experience in England. The rain came through the roof of our garage in buckets. It fell on the second hand chairs and dining room table we had bought. It soaked the second hand bed with its second hand mattress, spotted the second hand wardrobe and kitchen cabinet dividing the living area from the sleeping area, and gathered in pools on our new if somewhat cheap quality lino. Irene sat down and wept. I was at first filled with despair, and then with a blinding rage. After all this effort, was a leaking roof now about to defeat us? We ran around placing pots and pans in strategic positions. I swore that as soon as the rain abated I would fix up that roof so well that not a drop of rain would come in for the next hundred years.

The next day was Saturday and I climbed up to have a look at the corrugated iron close-up. It was second hand, and there were numerous small holes from where it had been previously fixed on some other roof. I walked the mile and a half to Caringbah and bought some bituminous mixture. When I got back, I first plugged every hole with bitumen. I then tore up small strips of tent canvas and put them on top of the holes. Each piece of canvass received a further coat of bitumen and then a coat of paint. When the paint dried, I placed more bitumen on the spot, another piece of canvass, another covering of bitumen, and a further coat of paint. Every nail that held the iron sheeting to the timber rafters was similarly treated. The roof never leaked again while we were there, and I will guarantee that it does not leak to this day.

My job at the Department of Local Government had proved a very present help in trouble. However, I was earning only a labourer’s wage. Indeed, a labourer might have earned more with overtime and odd jobs on the side. Since the Department had the oversight of all the local government Councils in New South Wales, I began to wonder if there might be some future for me in this direction. I therefore composed and had typed something to the order of two hundred letters of application, which I sent to every municipal, shire and county council in the State. I might have received at the most half a dozen replies, which I thought then and still think today was a very poor reflection on local government. However, one of them was from Hurstville Municipal Council, half way between Sydney and Caringbah. They were looking for a clerical assistant, and offered me an interview. I rang up George, the Town Clerk, thanked him for his consideration, and asked when he would like to see me. We arranged an unlikely rendezvous the next Sunday morning at the bus stop just outside Kogarah railway station.                                                

George was a tall, bespectacled, black haired, lantern jawed man of fifty. His accent was aggressively Australian. He chain smoked cigarettes through a long holder. His brown, spaniel-like eyes hid a shrewd and pragmatic mind. He thought before making a statement. But when the statement was made, you could rest assured that it was authoritative and was backed up by a lifetime of experience in guiding the affairs of a local government council. He was the first of a long line of town clerks that I came to know, whom you could recognise almost as you would instinctively recognise schoolmasters, doctors, policemen and bookmakers.

After he got out of his car at Kogarah, we had an impromptu interview on the street corner. He seemed to be satisfied, and invited me back into the car beside him, saying he would take me to look over the Council Chambers at Hurstville. We went into the neat brick and tile building (now regrettably demolished), and after I had looked through the tidy offices with polished lino floors, he asked me if I liked what I saw. I said I did. He explained to me that in this job I would gain a good knowledge of New South Wales local government in a substantial Council and that they would “train me up” so that I would have a steady job in a good atmosphere and something to back me if I went elsewhere. I took all this with a pinch of salt, but on reflection in later years, I began to think that George was probably sincere. We left with the understanding that I should give a week’s notice to the Department of Local Government, then start at Hurstville. I would be a “D” Grade Clerk, and would earn one pound a week more than I was then getting. Moreover, since Hurstville was closer to Caringbah than Central Sydney, my travelling time as well as my fare would be halved. I went home and conveyed the news to Irene with jubilation. Thus, although I did not realise it at the time, I took one of the most important decisions of my life. I decided how I was to earn the money to pay off the mortgage and enable Irene and me to raise our children. The field of endeavour in which I had arrived more or less haphazardly was to take us up and down the coast of New South Wales over half a lifetime, and thus have a decisive influence on the lives of our children.

After we had raised the money to build our garage, Irene had commenced work in the Coles store just down from St. James’ Station. She served behind the sweet counter and finally finished up in charge of the lemonade counter. I think she had the distinction of selling more drinks with less lemonade essence than any other sales assistant within living memory, thus contributing considerably to Coles’ large profit that financial year. Irene worked in Coles for about nine months, and during this time we paid off the mortgage on our garage at a record rate and also bought a very nice lounge suite and an Axminster carpet square from Bebarfeld’s the large furniture store opposite the Sydney Town Hall, in George Street, now occupied by Woolworth’s. It is necessary to realise that in England we had never been able to afford a lounge suite of similar quality to the one that now graced our garage, whilst Axminster carpet was something to which the working man simply did not aspire. We lived on the smell of an oil rag, got up very early, and worked very hard. One week, we had no money after paying debts, and existed on tomatoes grown in the garden and bread and milk bought on credit. But with Irene’s wages and mine we were paying off our commitments at the rate of ten pounds a week. After so many wasted years we were at long last getting ahead.

If we were solving difficulties regarding work and accommodation, on another plane Irene and I were having problems. I had always thought that no man was complete without a wife. Certainly I had found that Irene and I had been of tremendous help to each other during those first lonely and difficult days in Australia. But by extension, no marriage is complete without children. We had been married for three and a half years, and there were no children. Indeed, we had been led to believe in England that there was a strong chance that we should never have any. For me, this was a matter of great sadness, as I am quite sure it was for Irene also. I suppose that you see in your partner desirable qualities you hope may be transmitted to your children. Also there is a natural desire to be related by indissoluble bonds of flesh and blood. This, of course, is the mere beginning of things. What follows after is the serious business of raising the children, and this is what life is really all about. Life may be financially easier without children, but it becomes very empty. Love and affection, those important qualities no money can buy, must inevitably diminish. With children, love and affection increase, and a man and a woman achieve a sense of purpose.

We began to visit the Crown Street Women’s Hospital Sterility Clinic. It was not a pleasant experience. One feels like an animal on a clinician’s dissection table. However, they rapidly diagnosed a condition the pundits in England, by some strange oversight had completely missed – a minor obstruction of the Fallopian tubes, which was quickly rectified.

Irene became pregnant, but had a miscarriage, probably due to the need to carry buckets of water across our block at Caringbah before we had it properly connected to the garage. The next time, she had injections, and we were much more careful. Patricia was conceived in our little green and red silver-roofed garage in Caringbah, and born just after we had entered into occupation of the house we later built on the block.

I shall never forget the day my daughter was born. Indeed, I have remembered that afternoon with tenderness all the days of my life. I walked to the “Jacaranda” Hospital, near Cronulla. (We could not afford a car). Here I was shown an olive-skinned newly born child lying in a butter box. There had been many births that day, and they had apparently run out of cots. A fuzz of dark hair covered her head. Her blue eyes rolled in completely opposite directions, chameleon-like, as she tried to focus on what was possibly my vague shadowy shape bending over her, or perhaps sought to identify the direction that my voice was coming from. Her little soft red mouth seemed to pull itself into a kind of smile. She was bruised right across the face, from the forehead, across the eye and nose, diagonally to her chin, for it had been a difficult forceps delivery. That moment, a wave of tremendous love swept over me. Irene and I were both almost thirty years old. We had thought that we should never have children. Yet here was my beautiful daughter smiling up at me.

I went to say “Hallo” to Irene, but she was stretched out exhausted, and very weak. She had been in labour for four days, and the birth itself had been extremely difficult. I think she hardly realised I was there.

That evening I went round to the house of a friend who insisted on playing Richard Tauber records all night. Although Tauber was a great favourite of mine, I simply sat there in a kind of daze. The only thought that kept repeating itself in my mind over and over again was, “I am a father. I am a father.” The wonder of it dazzled me. The responsibility of it overwhelmed me.

Later, I took to washing out the nappies, as they did not do this at the “Jacaranda” Private Hospital. But my good intentions were undermined when I put tapioca in the sink in mistake for washing powder. The result was a bit of a mess. Subsequently, when she returned from hospital, Irene took over this chore.

Some months prior to Patricia’s birth, having paid off the garage and once again obtained a clear title to our land, we approached the St George Building Society for a loan. This was quite a small concern then, with headquarters in Forest Road, Hurstville. We had no money, so we were obliged to pick a plan showing a two-bedroomed house of minimum size – in fact, the overall area was six and a half squares, which most people today would consider laughable. However, we borrowed sixteen hundred pounds on the grounds that half a loaf is better than no bread. Our repayments were two pounds ten a week, and my wages at that time seven pounds.

The problem now was to get a builder. Irene had transferred from Coles’ in Sydney to a milk bar in Forest Road, Hurstville, so we were able to go into work together and come home together, the Council Chambers being just along the road. This enabled us to have more time to look for a builder. However builders were not interested. Most of them had work for the next eighteen months or two years, and simply could not fit anything in prior to that time. We went to builders all over Caringbah and Cronulla without success. I did not want to try to build it myself, fearing that I might not get a good result because of my lack of expertise. I feared also that it would simply take too long and costs would smother me. In the event, we ran a builder down who lived no further than the adjoining street. He agreed to build our small brick and fibro castle after nine months had elapsed. We accepted his offer with alacrity, knowing it was the best we were likely to get, and the house was eventually built just in time to welcome Patricia into the world. How proud I was, that although the place was small, it was entirely adequate at that time for Irene and me and that my daughter had a separate room and lovely surroundings to take her first faltering steps in Australia.

I was not a particularly devout Christian, nor was Irene a devout Jew. We decided that Gentiles have an easier time in this world than Jews, but that it is desirable for children to be taught the moral precepts common to both religions. We therefore had Patricia christened in the Methodist Church just down the road, on the grounds that this was the closest church in the vicinity, my own Church of England being a couple of miles or so away at Cronulla. Patricia’s godmother, our good friend Beryl, was a practising but very tolerant Catholic. Thus were the outward formalities of society completed.