Since we began to tell our family stories in September 2015, the day has changed from Wednesday to Tuesday, the world has changed and much has changed in our lives. Sage, Margaret’ s grandson has joined the family, all of Sue’s grandchildren are now at school, Margaret’s consuming interest is singing lessons and choir and Sue, having built a house with Jono, is now saving the grassland at Billy Goat Hill. Our children are busy in their lives, reaching or approaching milestones with zeros attached, and doing an excellent job of parenting the next generation In between all this they are finding time to explore their own interests. Last but not least, we are pleased that, in our 2020 photo, we do not look terribly much older than in 2015. Well, we think so anyway.
Some days we have a clear run at our work. Sitting at our computers, we spend four or five hours of concentrated writing, stopping only to confer about choice of photos, or leaping from useful website to relevant old document. This is rare!
Tuesday is one of the days Sue’s grandkids walk here straight from school. A tsunami of the day’s gripes, injuries, triumphs and challenges, told through mouthfuls of toasted cheese and chocolate, sweeps through our concentration.
It seems to be just minutes after we have finished telling each other our own stories of the week. The kids settle into after school activities and we are back to our computers finding our concentration. Some days there are three lots of tutoring going on in various corners of the house.
The phone seems to be constantly ringing. Cakes need to be made for a meeting tomorrow. Family members’ crises demand discussion, analysis, comfort, advice, admonishment, emergency dashes and cuddles. And throughout, tea must be made and drunk with due reverence.
When we began, we felt that we needed to post every week. We had spent so long planning and learning, and now, at last we were getting some material “out there”. The feedback was very positive, and it was such a buzz to press “publish” and see our work there on the internet.
We found that the few hours we had were not enough to write, find photos, set up the Soundcloud snippets, fiddle with the spacing and proof read. So we did homework, and came with long written passages.
That lasted a little while…
As the months and years rolled by, the frequency of posts decreased. In our defence, the posts got longer and more detailed… but in 2019, we did only three posts for the whole year! We plan to pick up our game … a bit!
In 2014, as we began the planning phase of our project, we decided that our story should be published in a digital form. Our initial concept was a website that would tell the family history, show connections through family trees and archive photographs and other information. Over a month or two, we brainstormed the concept, dredged up memories from the past and compared notes.
The research took us into the realms of website design and a whole new world. The website idea stretched us to the limit, as none of the formats available for purchase were flexible enough to meet our needs. Then the light bulb moment …… we could use the blog format. That way, we were not restricted to chronological order or tedious exploration of family trees. We could tell our shared family history One Story at a Time. So successful has the use of the blog format been, that we have hardly used other aspects of the website. Michael offered to host and caretake our website and is our tech support when all else fails. Thank you Michael.
Eventually we chose Rapid Weaver: the website format and style suited our purpose and it offered a blogging capacity. On-line tutorials followed and a steep learning curve. We are well pleased with our website choice and our decision in that light bulb moment to use the blog format. We have been free to follow stories, themes and lines of research across the centuries, telling one story at a time and building a picture of our family history both in Australia and sometimes in the countries from which those early immigrants came.
The impetus for this whole massive project was the responsibility of preserving Alice and Marge’s family history recordings and picking up from where they left off. Thus, the recordings have been one of the main sources of information. Before we began, I had spent a lot of days digitalising, ordering and summarising the five hours. This made them far more usable. Many of our posts use extracts from these recordings, sometimes just as a starting point, and sometimes as the basis for the whole post.
An example of a post we wrote based entirely around the recordings is “Great Great Grandparents” from November 18, 2015. There’s a hint of a little research in this post… we found out a bit about Bismarck, and a little about the flax industry in Ireland, but we took Alice and Marge’s remembered details as if that was all we could know about these people. Later, we were able to bring these people to life much more fully, and to learn much more about their lives.
We also have many original letters: chatty newsy letters, happy birthday letters, travelogues, love letters. We have only used these a few times, but, as an insight into the times and the lives of the people who wrote them, they are priceless.
One post we based entirely around our collection of letters, was October 14, 2015. “Twelfth Birthday Letters to Alice”. In the post, we used the letters written by Alf and Freda to explore these two very different personalities. We published photos of the letters but also transcribed them: old fashioned handwriting is not always easy to follow.
Family photos are a useful resource. Often they are stiff portraits, but even those show us something of the people and their environment.
There are also school reports and our grandfather’s teacher planning books. In “First year Teaching 1909”, published on November 4th 2015, we wrote about Alf’s life as a “pupil teacher” using pages from his planning book. At Katamatite State School, in 1909, he taught Reading, Proportion (Maths), History “The Invincible Armada”, Grammar “Complex Sentences” and “Drawing with Instruments”. Lessons were meticulously planned and commented on by the headmaster. All this is fascinating to the many family members who have become teachers themselves, in later years.
Recently we have been in contact again with our childhood friend, and in my case, ex husband, Fred. He, too, has become a retired person wanting to explore and record his past. Fred has been trawling through hours of analogue film, and painstakingly digitalising and restoring it. He has been very generous in sharing the results with us. We have only begun to share these bits and pieces through our blog, and already we have had some surprising results.
Most notably is “Poowong Footage” from August 29, 2018. The post explains what happened when we decided to share the precious film of a 1976 visit to our father and his second wife’s home, in Poowong. It resulted in renewed contact with Bev and her son Grant.
Fred at work:
The most vast and useful resource has been the internet. It has yielded so much. Our favourite posts have been those that send us down an endless succession of rabbit holes, ranging widely through time and space. Along the way we have found suddenly that we are researching new territory. Sometimes, the jump-off point has been a story from Alice and Marge’s tapes, sometimes a skerrick of knowledge that we want to expand, sometimes just following the scent of the chase. A few of our favourite posts have been reporting on research that we have laboured over. The most notable of these is the Dau (Dow) Soldiers. (published on August 17, 2016)
We found these four great uncles, Frederick, Arthur, Charles and Wally by chance. We were exploring the seventeen children born to Martha and Joachim Dau of Heather Farm in Wandong. Our great grandmother had been one of those children.
Alice had mused about how there had been no war service in her wider family. And, when we had a sniff of these four soldiers, her father’s uncles, we were intrigued, initially about why she seemed to know nothing of them, and then about the four men themselves.
We researched two each, and spent many excited weeks ploughing through war memorial records, sharing “aha" moments, staring at grainy photos, reminding ourselves of the muddy and bloody battle sites of 1914-18.
When we finally wrote the post, telling the four men’s stories, it was with a sense of loss, like leaving behind new friends.
We knew a bit about the Pakenham Bourkes, (published on April 19, June 07 and July 05, 2017). Indeed, we had been to a reunion of the descendants of Michael and Catherine at the Pakenham Racecourse. In our research we found ships’ records, relevant letters from Governor Bourke and actual dates of where and when the family travelled and settled in what is now Pakenham. We faced the realisation that our great, great grandfather had probably physically chased the original Aboriginal inhabitants from his selection. Until we began digging, we had no idea of the scale of influence the family had had on the development of Pakenham. But actually seeing the number and prominence of the Bourke graves in the Pakenham cemetery brought it alive for us. We spent a day driving to the sites we had read about: the creek where Catherine and the children sheltered from a bushfire, the several historic homesteads, the preserved ruins of the original Bourke’s hotel chimney, the racecourse itself. Our excursion to Pakenham gave us a sense of connection to them.
Another example of an excursion we enjoyed was our walk to school. (October 26, 2016) We parked outside our childhood home and set off round the corner and through the familiar streets. So many houses and gardens seemed unchanged in leafy Box Hill South. To us, as children, the long walk across the creek had been wild, weedy, always too hot, too cold or too wet. In 2016 we found it a precious wild place in suburban Burwood, a much used off-the-leash dog walking area, and the larger backyard of Deakin University.
In “The Croydon Years” (published June 20, 2018) we traced our mother and aunt’s walk to school. The tapes had been a wealth of information about the Coates’ life at Croydon during The Great Depression of the 1930s. The Croydon museum gave us access to many photos and fleshed out the stories for us. But it was walking the streets and watching the kids playing the school grounds that made it come to life. Our musings over coffee, and in the car as we drove around looking for landmarks, filled in the gaps.
Our choice of topic has been fairly random… an idea would develop from a photograph, the time of year, a brainstorm. The balance between the minutiae of one person’s life and the exploration of grand ideas of our own time and that of our forebears, has developed apparently on its own. To illustrate this span we can take another look at two posts: “Auntie Bert, a sterling character”, published on March 12, 2019, tells the story of our great aunt, a single lady who played a big role in our lives, in fact in the lives of the whole family. In this post, our exploration of her life, and her generation as a whole, is largely based on Alice and Marge’s recollections. It focusses on one person’s life.
On the other hand, the exploration of political protest in our lives and that of our parents, crosses the generations and the decades. This was our “How to Rescue the World” (December 16, 2015). Approaching an overview topic like this gave us an insight into patterns that we were only dimly aware of. You could sum up the many, many issues that have fired up this family under the headings of the environment and social justice. Some battles we have fought many times, and they remain to be fought well into the future.
Over two hundred and forty days, and one thousand nine hundred and twenty cups of tea and coffee, we have published between forty to fifty posts.Our initial concept of a free form blog has been flexible for us to be able to explore the historical context of our stories.
On looking at our posts we are really pleased that we have been able in many cases to give a picture of the times in which the stories occurred and place them in an historical context. The post, ‘Cut out of the Will, (June 15th 2016), is a good example, We told the story of our parent’s wedding in the context of Protestant Catholic divide. Our father, a Catholic had to leave the Roman Catholic Church in order to marry our Protestant mother. This was an unusual occurrence, and one that brought with it both grief and anger. Dad’s sister begged him to not split the family and to ‘get married properly’ and his father cut him from the will. Hugh’s will names only two children when in fact there were three, our father being the third.
Another aim was to flesh out the lives of our forbears, about whom we knew little, and to give a glimpse of the very different worlds in which they lived. Because of the family divide, we knew very little of our father’s mother Grace McCormack. We discovered her birthplace was Molesworth, not Casterton, and through newspaper records of everything from cattle sales and property purchases, to society weddings, we were able to piece together a picture of her life. We even managed to take a photograph of the house in which she was born, Balham Hill, at Molesworth, (Grace McCormack, our other grandmother, May 25th, 2016)
We were inspired by Alice’s decade by decade analysis of the history she had lived through. On April 4th, 2018, we attempted to pick up the task, from 1950, where Alice finished, and take the process through to 1980. This was a very overt way of fitting our story into the greater story of our generation. We found, as Alice had, that we were able to find the “flavour” of each decade, and look at our own lives with that framework.
The finished post thus takes every decade from 1850 through to 1980, a vast sweep of Australian history, and places within it the individual and collective lives of our family.
We have found the research and telling of the historical context particularly fascinating and hope that it will give current and successive generations an historical context and a sense of their place in history. We are also pleased with our website choice and our decision to use the blog format. We have not been restrained by having to use historical order or follow the structure of the family trees. Consequently we have gone where curiosity and interest has led us. It has been a delight and a pleasure, full of fun and challenge.
We grew up in Box Hill South in close proximity to Surrey Hills where our family has had an association for five generations. 28 Moore Street was our family home.We all spent our childhood and early adult years there, before moving out on our own. The family ventured out into Box Hill in 1946 when our parents bought a block of land in a new subdivision. They paid one hundred pounds plus ten pounds in taxes. Jim and Alice also looked further out in Donvale, where, for a fraction of the cost, they could have purchased two acres of bush. Unfortunately this was not an option as there was no public transport and we did not own a car.
After the war, Box Hill South was opened up for new housing. The City of Box Hill revised its land valuation system and residential subdivision started to boom across the municipality. The small holdings of mixed farming and orchards, were quickly replaced by the unmade road network of the subdivisions. Electricity and gas were provided, but no sewerage until the 1950’s, so it was outside toilets for all.
Our parents could not afford to have the house built, so Jim decided to build it himself. He bought a book on basic carpentry and the tools, all hand tools of course, and proceeded to build. The house is still there today, straight as a die.
It was a very liveable and rather nice design, set on stumps, weatherboard cladding and with a low slung, pitched roof. It had the standard three bedrooms ,one bathroom, kitchen, dining room, lounge room and laundry. When first built there was an outside toilet attached to the single garage that also had a chook pen attached to it.
Over time, the surrounding paddocks filled with houses and our house changed a little too. The view of the Dandenongs from the french doors in the lounge room disappeared, the toilet moved inside and our grandparents built a flat on the back. The addition of the rumpus room and flat spoilt the spaciousness of the living rooms and the back garden. The old weatherboard garage, toilet and chook pen were removed and a new double garage and new chook pen took the new additions to the back fence.
Little appears to have changed externally to the house since Mum sold it about 1981.
When we were children, Wattle Park itself consisted of large trees with mown grass underneath, like a traditional park, but with native trees and grasses. It was owned and maintained by the Tramways Board, responsible for the tram system in Melbourne. The Tramways brass band played in a rotunda every Sunday in the park. Nowadays those grasses are no longer mown. It looks much more like remnant bushland.
The 137 acres opened as a public park in 1917.
The chalet, designed and built by a Tramways architect, opened in 1928. it was promoted as a dance hall and wedding reception venue and, amazingly, it still is. It is listed on both the Heritage Victoria and National Trust Registers.
Our own parents’ wedding reception was held there in 1945, after they had been married at the Wyclif Surrey Hills Congregationalist Church in Surrey Hills.
Box Hill Gasworks is now gone, but it was an important part of our parents' history. It was built early in the history of Box Hill:
7/1/1890 The Argus
Some twelve months ago the Nunawading and Boroondara councils granted permission to Mr. Thomas Coates, hydraulic engineer, to lay down gas mains in the streets of the two shires. Mr. Coates purchased an eligible site near Elgar road, Box Hill, upon which to erect the gasometer and the other necessary buildings. At the present time all the mains have been laid down in the shires named, and Mr. Coates is now in a position to light up Surrey Hills and Box Hill with gas. The local works are of such a nature that Mr. Coates contemplates being able to supply the wants of the district for many years to come without enlarging the gasworks. Last night a trial was made in Box Hill and Surrey Hills, when the corporation lamps were lit with gas for the first time. Illumination works were erected at the intersection of the leading streets. The trial was considered a very favourable one, the gas burning bright and clear. In connection with the lighting of these shires with gas a public banquet will be held in Surrey Hills next Monday night.
Over time three gasometers were built.
We don't know exactly when Jim started work at the Box Hill Gasworks, but in 1945 he left the Maribinong Munitions factory, where he had spent the war years. It was that year when our parents married and Jim moved into his in-laws’ Surrey Hills house. Soon after, he started work at the gas works as an analytical chemist. He worked there until began teaching in 1954.
Sue remembers him riding his bicycle to work, and later, a motorbike.
He worked in the laboratory, doing things like checking the calorific value of the gas.
Melbourne’s gas supply was made from Latrobe Valley brown coal, sent by rail to the various gasworks, owned by Colonial Gas Company. Box Hill was one of the biggest. As Melbourne expanded after the war, the demand for gas meant that the various gas works were very busy.
But, by 1960, substantial natural gas reserves had been discovered around Australia. Over the next five years all the Gas plants in Melbourne had closed down, and over 1000 workers were made redundant, by the discovery of natural gas deposit in Bass Strait. Over one million gas appliances in Melbourne were converted to natural gas in 1968. We remember the conversion time. There must have been plenty of publicity. Natural gas has no smell, and, for safety, they put in an additive to make it smell quite strongly. The flame was slightly different, but all the existing burners still worked.
The Gas Works are long gone. Box Hill Institute now occupies the site.
One of the fortnightly highlights in our simple lives was a trip to Box Hill Library. We loved this excursion, as we spent many hours reading on our beds. Books were expensive and we only owned a few. We had to rely on the Library so that we could finish our favourite series like Famous Five and the Billabong Books.It was very exciting if the next book in the series was on the shelf.
This small brick building was opposite the Town Hall at the end of the shopping centre. Whitehorse Road always had a wide, tree lined median strip, as it does today, and the library was right in the middle. It was later replaced by a grand modern library, but the small brick building is still there.
In our childhood, a trip to Box Hill shopping centre was quite an excursion, involving a four mile walk. In 2019 Google Maps says it takes thirty two minutes, but with small legs and a pusher as well, maybe it took a little longer. I remember it was fun and not arduous at all. The route went through suburban streets until Canterbury Road and from there it was ovals and open ground.
Box Hill Brickworks was one of the best sights on the walk to Box Hill, as the brickworks were still in full production. We marvelled at how small the men and carts were at the bottom of the quarry, and watched the procession of carts pass up and down the steep rail track to the actual brick works.
Box Hill Brickworks was founded in 1884 and was one of fifty or so brickworks throughout Melbourne, producing bricks, tiles and pipes for the building boom and ever expanding city. During the working life of the brickworks the clay was extracted from two clay holes or quarries. The first became Surrey Dive which became a popular swimming venue, but off limits to us. Sometimes however, we also gave ourselves the horrors, looking at green, mysterious waters. There were rumours of 'the dive' being bottomless and of swimmers disappearing in its murky depths. One story was of a man who took a very deep dive off the cliff side and simply disappeared. Some time later his body surfaced in Blackburn Lake, five kilometres away. No wonder we looked in awe and horror through the fence.
Today Surrey Dive is an attractive small urban lake used for swimming and remote controlled boat races.. A walking track around the ‘old dive’ and the brick works is planted with indigenous vegetation and a relaxing and attractive area.
The other clay hole was the quarry that was in operation doing our childhood. It was adjacent to the brickworks and kiln, now derelict but still heritage listed. Unfortunately no restoration work has been carried out. The kiln itself was a massive, red brick building constructed on two levels and, of course, with a huge brick chimney.
The quarry that was still in full production in our childhood, is now completely filled in. That cavernous hole in the ground is now a large mound covered in every weed known to man. On the horizon above the weeds, are the sky scrapers of twenty-first century Box Hill.
Box Hill shopping centre developed as a commercial centre, as soon as the railway line between Hawthorn and Lilydale was finished in 1862. It became an important transport hub for the eastern suburbs and beyond. During our childhood, Box Hill was the shopping destination for a big purchases. For instance, I can remember choosing a ‘walking’ doll with opening and closing eyes for a birthday present and the excitement of choosing a winter coat with a brown velvet collar. Another favourite shop was the delicatessen where such delicacies as rollmops, sauerkraut and frankfurters could be bought. Amongst the many single fronted small businesses were several large shops such as Taits haberdashery on the corner of Whitehorse Road and Station Street and Maples furniture shop. We also had a Coles variety store that sold anything from socks and singles to cosmetics, and MacEwans Hardware whose slogan was, “You can do it with McEwans because we’ve got a million things.”
This is a photograph of Box Hill Station and the surrounding shopping precinct in the 1960s. In the centre of the photograph is the old station, that is now underground. Today, above ground, occupying the whole block surrounding the old station, is Box Hill Central and surrounding shopping malls. The signal box, the tall structure on the left of the railway gates is now occupied by the thirty-six storey golden residential tower, called Sky-One.
In the twenty-first century, Box Hill, as a commercial centre and transport hub, continues to influence the built environment around it, as you have no doubt witnessed. Officially designated as a development hub, Box Hill now sports high rise office and apartment towers. The streets we once drove down are now shopping malls, the station is underground, the railway gates are long gone and the strip shops have been replaced by a multi storey modern shopping centre. When we were children the shopping crowds were white and Anglo-Saxon. Today they are predominately Asian and the shops and restaurants reflect the change in population.
When we, as a family, first started going to the local Presbyterian church, it was called Presbyterian, Wattle Park. We had PWP embroidered on the front of our blue gym uniforms. This was before the advent of the Uniting Church. Church services were held in a cream brick building, called Forsythe Hall.
Attached, behind it, was an older little wooden building. During our childhood, this wooden building, Staley Hall, was used for a kindergarten during weekdays. In the evenings, various groups used it, including church boys’ and girls’ clubs (PBA and PGA) and the mixed club (PFA- Presbyterian Fellowship Association), we went to as teenagers. Sue and I both learnt to dance there, and I broke my front teeth on the heater in that room.
We have many memories of Forsyth Hall… dances, performances, Saturday afternoon movies, gym classes and, of course church services.
Both our parents were Elders of the church. Our mother taught Sunday School, our father ran the PFA for a while, and was on the board of management. The church was their only real friendship group, and was the only social life we had, as a family.
In the early 1960s the church community began the project of building a new church on the site. The size and scale of the project was a source of much disagreement between our father and others on the management committee.
In the end, a very grand architect designed building was commissioned. The new building was designed by well known architects Chandler & Patrick. An 1887 pipe organ was relocated from a church in Melbourne and extensively rebuilt. The new church, renamed St James, opened in 1965.
I loved it, because I sang in the church choir, and it had a choir loft at the back and great acoustics.
The buildings are still there. Sue and I visited as a detour on our “back to school” walk in 2016.
These posts can be viewed as a virtual pilgrimage of the structures and buildings in Melbourne and how they relate to our family. Melbourne is undergoing a tumultuous time of change, as, in 2019, its population grows to nearly five million. Our family landmarks are inevitably caught up in the changes too, as you will see.
Our first post covers the suburb of Hawthorn.
733 Glenferrie Road is listed on the Glenferrie Road Historic walk as the ‘historic mansion Toolangi. It was built in1905 as a doctor's surgery and residence for William Clayton, physician and surgeon.’
This house is significant to our family as two generations of Bourke doctors lived and worked here and our father spent his teenage years here.
It was in the late 1930s that our paternal grandfather Dr. Hugh Bourke and family moved to Glenferrie Road from Koroit. Presumably Grandfather Bourke bought both the property and the medical practice.
At this time, our father was at secondary school at Xavier, where he had boarded until the move. He continued to live in the Glenferrie Road house until he was married in 1945.
After Grandpa Bourke’s death in 1950, Grandma Bourke moved out and Dad’s brother Jack and his family moved into the house. Jack took over the practice, which he ran until he retired.
I have clear memories of the house, both visiting Uncle Jack and, once or twice, the surgery. The house seemed enormous and imposing, and as we mentioned in a previous post, the paraphernalia of Roman Catholicism was very evident. Uncle Jack also had a greenhouse in the back garden where he grew orchids and Christmas Lilies. The garden shed and the greenhouse where still there until recently.
I still associate the perfume of Christmas Lilies with visits to Grandma Bourke at Christmas.
The building next door to Toolangi was the Hawthorn Motor Garage, built in 1912 . From the 1920s the garage was run by Albert James Kane and family, who had it for 20 to 30 years. They introduced the first electric petrol pump in Hawthorn.
The Hawthorn Motor Garage building is on the Victorian Heritage Register. It is the oldest known purpose-built motor garage in Victoria. Dad would have been very familiar with the Kanes and the garage: while courting our mother, he was lucky enough to be able to borrow his father’s car and use his petrol coupons to fill up at the garage next door. As it was wartime, petrol was strictly rationed but doctors received extra coupons, that Dr. Hugh obviously allowed his son to use.
In April 2019, when we visited it, the site of the house and the garage were in the process of being redeveloped. The garden and out buildings have been cleared away but the main structures of the Hawthorn Motor Garage and Toolangi remain. They will be repurposed as part of the new apartment complex being built on this corner.
At the other end of Glenferrie Road shops is the Catholic Church. An imposing bluestone structure, the Church of the Immaculate Conception still dominates this busy corner. The Bourke family would have attended Mass here every Sunday. Now I walk past here every six weeks on my way to have my hair cut. Time marches on.
After our grandfather Hugh’s death in 1950, Grandma Bourke moved a few streets away to Urquhart Street, still in Hawthorn, leaving Jack to bring up his family and run his practice from the Glenferrie Road house.
We remember this house well. Grandma Bourke was a keen gardener whose beautiful roses and bulbs were fertilised by the manure from our parents’ chooks. A huge weeping deciduous tree in the front yard afforded a play area for visiting grandchildren. The house was big enough for our aunt and family, who lived near Warrnambool, to stay over Christmas.
It had a coal cellar, accessed by a trapdoor on the back verandah, with fed the coke heater.
The house looks much the same in 2019, as it did sixty years ago, when Grandma served cake and tea in beautiful china in the front room to her visitors, and mugs of tea with slabs of bread and butter to workmen on the back verandah.
Our uncle and father, first went as borders to Xavier College for their secondary eduction. When our father began there in 1932, Xavier had already been there for fifty years. It was and still is, the premier Catholic Boys private school in Melbourne.
Initially they boarded at the preparatory school, Burke Hall. The buildings of Burke Hall were put together from a trio of mansions on the hill known as Studley Park, some bought by, others bequeathed to, the Jesuits. It first opened, as Xavier College’s junior school in 1921.
Xavier’s senior School is even older. The South Wing is the original building of Xavier College. The foundations date from 1872, the front dates from the opening of the College in 1878, the back half was completed in 1884. It was listed by the National Trust in 1987.
Xavier’s main chapel would have been being built when our father arrived. It was finally completed in 1934. The chapel is a fine building with a huge dome. I have sung in a concert under that dome, and Sue has been in the audience for another concert there.
These three young women are our grandmother Alfreda on the left, with her two younger sisters, Beatrice in the middle and Berta on the right.
Alfreda’s set jaw and determined look reflect her independence and demand for an education. I fancy I can see both the rebel and the farmer in Beatrice’s broad face. But look at the gentle, faraway, passive prettiness of Berta. What experiences are already clouding her young face?
About ten percent of the whole of Australia’a population, the country’s young, fit men, set off to war in 1914. More than half of them were killed, gassed, wounded or taken prisoner. There was no such diagnosis as “post traumatic stress”, but we can extrapolate from the modern experience of returning soldiers.
What happened to the equivalent ten percent of young women, who, in different circumstances, would have been marrying them and having their babies?
Our Auntie Bert became one of the many “maiden aunts” of that very specific generation. The family lore is that she “had opportunities” to marry but “chose to stay in the bosom of her family”. We do not know what the reality of her young life was. Had she been a boy, she would have been one of the 417,000 men who enlisted. One would presume that virtually all the young men she might have had a romantic interest in… brothers of her friends, boys from church, at work, on the train, in her neighbourhood… nearly all would have been absent for four years from when she was 18 until she was 22.
Berta Holm was born in 1896. Her childhood and early adult life was spent in St Kilda.
The family story is that Berta and Beatrice unlike their older sister, Alfreda, did not hunger for an education.
Alice and Marge said this in quite a disapproving tone, which made us wonder about the accuracy of the statement, that Auntie Bert left school at Grade 4, declaring that she would prefer to help her mother at home. In Grade 4 she would have been nine or ten!
At the time Victoria was a progressive state and proud to be the first Australian state to create a system of free, secular and compulsory education. This legislation introduced in 1872, required all children aged 6-15 years to attend school unless they had a reasonable excuse. Schools were built, and a system of inspectors employed to enforce compulsory education. Fines for non-attendance were five shillings and increased for further offences. Did Auntie Bert leave school at the tender age of nine or ten? We think it more likely that she attended a State school, maybe unwillingly and, after trying a private school for young ladies, left at the age fifteen. Their disapproval of the lack of enthusiasm for education, compared to their own mother’s, probably colours the story about their aunt. The view of Auntie Bert we were brought up with, was that she was good with her hands, but, to soften and elevate this statement in true Holm fashion, it was followed by, she was a superb craftswoman and much in demand: not academic but exceptional.
Some time after she left school Berta went to work in Flinders Lane.
At that time Flinders Lane was the centre of the ‘rag trade’ where many Jewish firms had their businesses. Amongst them was Slutskins, for whom both Berta and Beatrice worked doing ‘white work’. Whitework embroidery is the general term for hand embroidery worked with white threads on white fabrics. It is one of the most elegant and timeless styles of embroidery and was used on underwear, night gowns, table linen, handkerchiefs, baby bonnets, christening gowns and many other small items.
After some experience in this area Berta became forewoman, in charge of a group of other women.
We only have Alice and Marge’s childhood recollections from which to piece together Berta’s life.
In early 1925, when she was twenty-nine, perhaps moving away from her parents’ home for the first time, she left her job, probably that responsible position as forewoman. She went, for an unspecified time, to the country, to help her married sister with a toddler and a baby, and to help serve in her brother in law’s hardware shop.
Alfreda had given birth to Alice, our mother, in 1923. She had had a terrible time, alone, during her first delivery, resulting in the death of the baby. We don't know anything about Marge’s birth or the subsequent few years, except that they were quite near to family help. But when Alice was fifteen months old, Alf and Alfreda moved to Bacchus Marsh. Alfreda was “weak from the birth”. The descriptions of her crying, while scrubbing the floor and having to spend whole days in bed, apparently requiring the help of her unmarried sister, makes us think of post natal depression.
Alf too had what we would today call “mental health issues”. He was a gentle, quite scholarly person, and the business venture in Bacchus Marsh, on the eve of the Great Depression, took a toll on his health. It is no wonder Marge and Alice remember Auntie Bert as a tower of strength and support.
In 1928, the old dry house they had been living in caught fire. At the top of the burning staircase were the little girls in their nighties, Alf sedated, because he was in the midst of a “nervous breakdown”, Alfreda, reportedly trying to find her stockings, and Bert, who carried Alice down the stairs. Marge was carried down by her father, finally awake.
The destitute family were taken in by “the Pierces”. Nell Pierce was a lifelong friend of Auntie Bert. Did they meet there at Bacchus Marsh? We don't know.
The family stayed on for at least a year in Bacchus Marsh, but Berta moved back to Melbourne, once again moving in with her parents, probably her only option.
Now in her early thirties and unmarried Berta must have turned her attention to a job. As far as we know this is when she decided to start her own business as a dressmaker. At first she worked from her bedroom, building her business and reputation.
The business was eventually profitable enough to allow her to move to premises in Riversdale Road, Middle Camberwell and then to Burke Road in Camberwell, just over the junction.
I can remember the junction premises quite vividly. It was one big room on the first floor. Big windows looked out onto Burke Road, letting in light and sunshine that fell on the big work tables. Several dressmakers dummies stood in the corner where the fitting room was screened by curtains. It seemed a very busy place.
The big tables, that dominated the space were covered in the paraphernalia of dressmaking. There were several sewing machines, many reels of sewing cotton, several pairs of big dressmakers shears, other dressmaking scissors and many tins of pins. Rolls of fabric and garments in various stages of construction took up the rest of the table space. Another woman was sewing at the table, presumably an employee, so business must have been good. We were probably there for a fitting, as Auntie Bert made ‘good clothes’, for Mum. These beautifully tailored clothes were worn to Church and were for special occasions, including weddings:
She also made us beautiful clothes including these woollen dresses:
Auntie Bert had an account at Ball & Welch, a prominent department store in Finders Street, Melbourne. She needed an account for her business and a reliable source of good quality fabric for her clients. Its four floors occupied one third of the total block and stretched between Flinders Street and Flinders Lane.
Its many departments included gloves, umbrellas and handkerchiefs, fabrics, furniture, china, millinery, furs and corsets. At one time twenty-six assistants were devoted to the sale of lace alone.
Members of the family were generously given access to Auntie Bert’s account, making it possible to buy items on account and pay later. This was very useful at times, as there was no such thing as Credit Cards. At the end of the month, Auntie Bert sent out letters to all those who had used the account, and we reimbursed her by cheque. This was probably quite a task, not only the arithmetic, but also the sending out of all the individual letters.
I can remember enjoying trips to Ball&Welch. The lifts were staffed by attendants in uniform who recited the list of items available at each level as the lift rose between floors. Parcels were wrapped up in brown paper and string, on huge wooden counters. The expert shop assistants were reserved, formal and a little forbidding to a young child. The exchange of payment was quite a process. The shop assistants' job was to serve the customers, not handle the money. When payment was made, it was placed, with the hand written docket, in a metal canister that went shooting on wires across the departments and then upstairs to the Accounts Department. The docket was checked, change inserted, a receipt written and the canister whizzed back from whence it had come. Transaction complete.
The cash-ball system worked reasonably well, but the rails were intrusive and the interior layout of some stores did not allow certain counters or departments to be connected by inclined tracks. The ingenious Lamson then hit upon the concept of the “aerial railway” and set about tinkering with a gondola-like design, which became known as the wire-line or cable-carrier.
By the late 1880s, sales staff could secure cash inside a small wooden jar or canister, suspended by wheels from a taut wire that ran overhead from the sales desk to the cashier’s station, which was typically a cage-like booth situated in the center of the store. By tugging firmly on a spring-loaded cord or lever known as the “propulsion,” the canister would be catapulted along the wire, reaching its destination in mere seconds.
The cashier could then “return fire” with change and a receipt. Cashiers who worked in booths on levels above the sales floor could simply release the canister and let gravity return it to the appropriate counter.
Ball and Welch closed its doors in 1970, the end of an era .
Berta’s sister, Beatrice had taken up dairy farming in the early 1950s, near Cockatoo, in the Dandenong Ranges. The bulk of the work was done by her husband, and three sons. In 1955, the wife of Rob, the middle son, died, leaving a baby daughter, Julie, to be raised by her grandmother.
Into the breach stepped Berta. She moved into a small bedroom in the farm house, and became a second mother to Julie. We remember her room. It had been part of the farmhouse verandah, and the whole room was about twice the size of the single bed. It was neat, sparse and dark.
Our memory of Auntie Bert at the farm is solely inside the farm house. Unlike Auntie Beat, who mucked out the pigs, wearing layers of old jumpers and a woollen beanie, Auntie Bert was always nicely dressed. We remember her in well-cut woollen skirts, stockings and heeled court shoes, with classy jumpers and cardigans. We picture the two of them in the kitchen, both wearing aprons, turning out scones and cakes on the wood stove. Auntie Bert became a permanent and valuable member of the family, looking after the “boys” and Julie.
While her main home and focus was life at the farm, Auntie Bert continued, as she had her whole life, to be the family helper and nurse. She had looked after both her own parents in their final years, and she came to live with us to help out with her elder sister: our Nana, Alfreda, who had dementia. We remember her as a quiet unobtrusive presence in our home. A few years later she came again and helped with Alf, our grandfather, in his final weeks.
So Alice saw first hand, the skill and care of Berta’s nursing:
Apart from staying temporarily with other members of the family, usually to help out during family crises, Berta lived there at the farm, until her death in 1976, aged 80.
Alice reflected on Berta’s death and the simple generous life she lived:
From left to right, Nana, Auntie Bert and Alice:
Polly was the eldest and an eccentric character with a dry quick wit. Her sister Guelda, also eccentric, was an artist and part of the vibrant Melbourne art scene in the late 40’s and 50’s.
Guelda in her studio
A still life by Guelda
At this time Melbourne was awash with new modernist ideas in the arts and architecture. Guelda was taught by George Bell, one of the early modernist painters. In these classes she mixed with other influential young painters of the day, some of whom remained lifelong friends. It was likely that through this group Guelda met Alistair Knox, an emerging young architect, who the sisters commissioned to design their house at Templestowe.
Polly and Guelda with two other friends, also sisters, bought a working apple and peach orchard in Templestowe. Stella Park, as it was called, was named after the orchardists’s wife.They were not alone in moving to the outer suburbs, as the area was becoming a favourite with many young artists. John and Sunday Reid had already established their retreat at Heide, where they nurtured a circle of artists, writers and intellectuals. Heidi had become a place for the discussion, creation and promotion of modern art and literature. Alistair Knox was also working in the area, known especially for his mud brick houses.
The RMIT Design Archives have in Knox’s words a description of the project at Stella Park.
One day in 1948 I was approached by an executive of the Art Gallery of Victoria on behalf of four ladies who proposed to build three houses on a twenty-acre peach and apple orchard in Templestowe - a joint house for Polly and Guelda Pyke, and separate ones for Val and Yvonne Cohen. They were all unmarried at this stage, although Val was anticipating marriage in the near future and her mother proposed to live with Val's sister Yvonne in the second house. As the Pykes' was a joint building, the two women decided to occupy separate sections of the building, especially as Guelda required a private area for her work as a practising artist. They had independent means, and this gave me my first opportunity to produce three sizeable houses amid the pink and white plum blossoms that covered the northern slope and looked over the river towards Eltham. It was an idyllic scene, particularly as these would be almost the first houses that could be seen from that direction. This was before any orchards had been subdivided, and the unbroken pattern of fruit trees separated by lines of ancient pines had remained unaltered since the land was first settled by a largely German community a hundred years earlier.
I had opted for timber construction on concrete slabs because there was a slight improvement in the supply position and because I thought earth-building would prove too great a strain on my elegant artistic lady clients, no matter how they thought about it before it all began.
Polly in her lounge room (Photo by Fred)
Guelda in her kitchen (Photo by Fred)
Stella Park was very much part of Jono’s childhood. Below he has recorded his memories of that special place.
Left to right: Jono, Polly, Guelda, Anne, in the garden soon after the house was built.
Anne, Jono and friends in the orchard.
Anna and Thomas and I were also lucky to have experienced visits to Polly and Guelda at Templestowe. We too loved sitting on the floor at Guelda’s end eating hot chutney, Guelda bread and other assorted goodies, exploring the house and garden and walking to the Yarra.
Anna, Thomas and friends
Left to right: Pasquale, local vegetable grower, Polly, Jono, Thomas and friend
Stella Park was an ambitious enterprise for four very adventurous women. Polly and Guelda both loved their part of it. They lived there until in their eighties they could no longer look after the property. We were lucky to have have known it.