SATURDAY, JULY 27, 2019
I am still living in the past as I remember things about houses of sixty five years ago.
Over one hundred years after Thomas Crapper invented the water closet most townships used a night man to collect the human waste. In the cities special lanes were built behind the homes so the night man could get on with his business unimpeded. Camperdown was no such city. Fred Jolly would go about his job as if he was invisible. His vehicle would pull up of the front of a house, and without a pause he would leap out raise a 5 gallon can, smelling sweetly of phenyl and stride to the little back shed. There he would lift a rear door, pull out the contents, cover it with a lid, and slip under the wooden seat the fresh can. In one move he had the exchanged can on his shoulder, loaded onto his truck and he was off. He made this visit to homes each week. Being out of town this work was done by someone who had to dig a hole in the ground in preparation of depositing the contents into it just as frequently.
Bill Evans and his bother Len substituted their farm income as builders. After the war I was born into, materials were scarce. This was especially so with house materials so building a house usually took twelve months at least to build. On days off school I would linger and watch these men build. Most houses were under 100 sq metres. The framing was made with green freshly sawn hardwood. It was heavy, splintered, and full of sap. The pieces of wood were sawn by hand and held together with long steel nails driven into the wood by hand with a hammer.
The simple house had three bedrooms a larger one at the front, but the others measured twelve feet by ten feet. A lounge room, with a fireplace, was also at the front of the house, a bathroom, and kitchen were tucked away out the back. The toilet was usually in the back yard for the convenience of Fred Jolly. The toilet paper most often was the previous year’s phone book torn into small squares and held together with string and hung from a nail on the toilet wall.
I tell you this because that same area hand some of the most significant houses in Victoria and I was lucky enough to visit many of them because of my close affiliation with the church. Rev George Mutten and his wife Madge, were responsible for conducting services in several outlying villages in the area every Sunday afternoon. Frequently I went with them to these places. Afterwards they were often invited to join the homeowners for afternoon tea.
One such place was Purrumbete House. The bluestone stables were many times bigger than the average new houses being built in town then. My first visit to the place was most memorable. On arrival we were shown into a parlour, off the foyer, and served afternoon tea. My visit was never forgotten either because of the magnificence of the entry and the formality of the visit. Coming in the front door I was gobsmacked by the wonderful Walter Withers mural of rural scenes on the wall above the second storey landing. In fact I am still. (I was much flummoxed when David Marriner purchased the property in the 1990’s for about $2m and then had copies of the murals made so as he could sell the priceless original artwork for more than he had paid for the property. Fortunately his project was stopped when authorities got to know about it and the work was saved in-situ.)
During the years of my youth I visited many similar pioneer buildings. Each one grand, and brimming with opulence surrounded as it was by beautifully kept gardens. Further afield were the houses of the Blacks at Noorat, and Moonambel in Skipton, of the McKinnons. These houses were rungs of class above my station in life yet manageable because of the welcome mat available at all times to the clergy.
Closer to home was Renny Hill. I became very familiar with this property when I became a virtual adopted son of the very humble Coverdale family. The single storey home and garden sits above Camperdown’s southwest. The home is protected from the northern summer wind by a high ridge cut into the hillside to accommodate the house. To the rear were a number of servants quarters and just beyond that timber workshops that blocked to westerly winds blowing from Lake Bullen Merry.
I usually entered the house from the back entrance. Just past the boot room was the huge kitchen. It had a large Aga slow combustion stove burning all year. The previous owners, the Gaffney’s, lived in a much grander manner than the Coverdale’s as I first remember visiting the home when it had hired staff. Outside the kitchen was a bank of bells. In each room beyond the kitchen a bell ringer was built in to the wall so the residents could ring for service. The house is grand but smaller than Purrumbete. It had about six bedrooms rather than ten. On the northern side the billiard room was the largest room in the house. Diagonally opposite the lower paddock lived Fred Jolly. Fred never needed to visit here, or the other places mentioned because the squattocuracy had Thomas Crapper WCs and septic systems. (Strangely the Coverdale’s never had a phone at Renny Hill because the were caught by some old clause relating to the PMG service. Claude refused to pay a bill left unpaid by the Gaffney’s at the time her purchased the farm and the PMG refused to provide a phone to a property with an unpaid bill.
I have but two other short housing stories. The first was a little house in Lilydale. My aunt Pauline took meals on wheels to an old lady. Her house was overgrown and to get in the back door meant fighting the foliage. She was doubled up with Osteoporosis. To keep warm she seemed to wear all she had and on her hands she wore fingerless gloves. After our visit I discovered flea bites. This was my first experience of visiting a house with flea infestation.
I thought we lived very simply in the caretakers cottage at The Park, yet while in primary school I went home with a classmate that lived almost opposite our primary school. We entered the house by the back door and to my amazement this house in the township had nothing but a dirt floor. Reading the stories of Henry Lawson and the Drover’s Wife I was aware early Australian homes had earthen floors but I was utterly surprised to see one in the mid twentieth century in Camperdown. I have alway considered Australia a fairly just society and yet I have seen first hand the difference in living standards between the rich and poor, and if I have fear. I fear we are quickly moving back to a period with ever greater discrepancies. It sends shudders through me to think we are becoming so uncaring of the poor again in 2019.