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Swansea Bridge, NSW, as it was

Pet emu ate the engine nuts: a guided tour of 1920s Swansea

Nearly every weekend and holiday from the mid-1920s to 1930, Maitland boy Neville Chant spent at Swansea with his family in their weekender on Black Neds Bay. Now more than 100 years old, Neville retains vivid memories of his beloved childhood haunts, and can paint an evocative word-picture of the people and places he saw. I recently sat with Neville and asked him to take me on a tour of the Swansea of his distant memory. Here is what he told me:

Neville Chant, sharing his memories of Swansea in the 1920s

You have to understand there was no electric light in Swansea until about 1931. Before that, it was kerosene lights. The main street was very dark and you needed a hurricane lamp when you went for a walk so that people could see you. A couple of people had acetylene lighting units that used carbide blocks. Water dripped on to the carbide and produced acetylene gas which you ignited with a little jet.

Leaving for Swansea, Christmas 1921. From Norm and Daphne Barney

There weren’t many businesses. There was the hotel, and of course the picture theatre at the corner of Lake Road. That was the Graceson, run by Mr and Mrs Dobinson. Mrs Dobinson played the pianola while the silent movies were on. It was a full house every time. Strangely enough you used to sit on the western side and face east. You looked back towards the street to see the screen. That was the way it was built.

There was a little mixed business on the corner: an old fellow named Lewis owned that, and then a couple of houses and the paper shop and the original post office which were both run by a man named Boon. In holiday periods people used to mass outside the door waiting for 9am for the post office to open. Mr Boon knew the locals and put their mail aside, but he had to call the names of the holiday people who had their mail forwarded there. When he retired the post office moved up the street, past Payne’s store.

The park in the middle of the street, Talbot Park, ran from the bridge to the hotel, and was eventually fenced off and had swings installed. Before that, in the middle of the park had been the old tram track that once brought stone from a quarry south of Caves Beach to build the breakwater. Back then there was a bridge, not a road bridge, on the eastern side where the current south-bound bridge is now, just to carry stone. That was all gone in our day, of course.

The bridge, with its lifting span opening, in 1949

The bridge I remember was the drawbridge. It was wooden with a steel opening section that had a wheel and counterweight. A fellow climbed up a 6 metre ladder and wound it up and down. There were gates on the bridge. The coal boats as they rounded Moon Island – or Green Island as we called it – at the heads would blast their whistles to notify that they were coming in. Bluey Watkins operated the bridge, and he lived about half a mile away. He’d hear the whistle and walk over, close the gates, then climb up and wind the bridge up. By the time he’d got the bridge up the boats would arrive. These boats used to go up the channel to the Belmont pit, which was between Tolls Point and Green Point. They would pick up about 300 tonnes each, taking all day, then Bluey would have to let them out again. One of the boats, the White Bay, got wrecked. Another one I remember was the Ident. They weren’t big but were effective for what they did.

Distant view of the bridge

We had a place on Black Neds Bay 100m past the hotel facing the water. It’s still there. The house with the parapet on top was owned by Joe Lang. It had a garage and a flat on top. That was a big family with relatives from all over: Sydney, Coomera – there was always 15 or 20 people in the place at Christmas. Binnies from the Coomera, the Rutledges from up in Queensland, the Masseys from Sydney. Our place is now two flats.

Some of the houses along Black Neds Bay, including the house with the flat top.

Drunks lay down with stray cows under the coral trees

Before the park was fenced in, stray cows slept under the coral trees in the middle, along with the drunks from the pub. If a fellow was drunk they led him across the street and lay him down under the trees. That stopped after the park was fenced, and then the new hotel came. The original hoteliers were the Mitchells. Mr Mitchell died and his wife took it on. Later on she moved to the Blacksmiths pub. At night they closed at 6pm and at 7pm you saw the water coming under the door as they sluiced out the floorboards onto the gravel outside, washing out all the spilt beer and spit.

An old postcard view of Swansea, circa 1940s

Next up the road was Mrs Charlton’s shop. Old Joe Charlton was the great-grandfather of Eddie Charlton, the snooker champion. Old Joe had a son, also named Joe, and Eddie was his son. Mrs Charlton made passionfruit ice cream and filled the cones with a tea spoon. Her shop was the only place in town you could buy ice cream. They had a billiards saloon at the rear where Eddie learned to play.

Garage owner’s pet emu ate the Chalmers’ nuts

Old Harry Tegg had the garage. His house was on the waterfront and the garage was on the Bowman Street front. Noel Tegg started there as a garage mechanic.

A Graceson cinema slide advertising Tegg’s garage.

Noel had a pet emu and one day it caused trouble when an imported Chalmers car was in. They had the engine out, and the pet emu ate some of the nuts and it was hard to replace them. The emu was a very territorial and cranky bird. If you went near the fence he’d have a go at you. We gave him a wide berth.

Back south at the bottom end of the main street was Andrew Croft’s bakery. He used to make dough in afternoon, bake next morning before breakfast then deliver the bread himself. All his ovens were fuelled by split she-oak timber. He advertised his product as “Kleen Maid” bread. Later he built a new bakery at the top of town, with a shop-front where he sold bread and buns, and he built new home behind that, facing Josephson Street.

Croft’s bakery was a feature of 1920s Swansea.

Next up the road was a little shop with a couple of old brothers. Mitchells was on the corner with a café run by Mrs Mitchell with her husband and his brother who were professional fishermen. They sold lobsters and made lobster pots. They had a stump in the ground with spikes coming up and they used to bend the cane or twigs – about as thick as your finger – to make the pots. They were the only ones you could get lobsters from. You paid two shillings for a lobster and you cooked it yourself.

All the streets were surveyed but were only horse and cart tracks made of grass. Lake Road and Belmont Street were the main ones that went back to the lake on the western end. Lake Road was swampy at the western end where Boyd’s shipbuilding was. About a third of the way down was Fox’s butcher’s shop. After that it was hard work to get through. An old friend had a house at the western end and the only access was through the bush at the other end of town. The bottom end of Lake Road was impassable for vehicles, being too swampy. Boyd had his ship-building there, but he got everything by water. Wood Street and Josephson Street were just grass with drains about 2 feet deep and when it rained the water lay in them for weeks.

Back to the top of town as you went down Channel Street there was the oval and the public school. Bluey Watkins lived next door to the public school. Then there was scrub and eventually a house up the top near where the caravan park is today at the Coon Island end. That’s where Thomas Humphries the boat builder lived. He had two sons, one named Colin. They were expert 16-foot sailors. He had a boat hanging up called Opah, that he’d built himself. It took eight men to lift it. All the knees and joints he cut from ti-trees with a crosscut saw. His main boats were made of beech with ti-tree fittings. He lost his life fishing off the bombora off Catherine Hill Bay. He was too daring in pursuit of fish. He was a quiet old fellow.

You had to think twice about the meat

Fox’s butcher shop was on Lake Road and Jones’s butcher shop was on the main street, two doors past Charlton’s. Old Eddie Jones’s meat was all local-killed with yellow fat and you’d have to think twice. The Newcastle and District Co-Op delivered groceries, fruit and vegetables, but they couldn’t deliver meat because there was no refrigeration. You could not get lamb, only beef. Fox’s meat was a bit better, I reckon. They killed the beasts down in the bush.

After Jones’ butcher shop was Thompson’s drapery store, then where Croft built his new bakery. On the other side from Bowman Street back towards the headland around the bottom of Black Neds Bay was a slight rise in the road. It was a gravel track the trades people used. The only thing past that was the pilot station, reached by a sandy track from the Caves Beach road that only horses and carts could pass. Only the baker and sanitary man went out there.

The milko was an old fellow named Cain who had his dairy where the present-day motel is on the Newcastle side of the bridge. His wife was a midwife. He used to do the milking and deliveries himself. The cows wandered in the bush between there and Pelican.

The Cain family provided milk in the Swansea area

The Cains had a couple of sons. One became a lorry owner who started bringing coal in. When Belmont pit closed they had a coal chute alongside the current boat harbour at Blacksmiths. Just on the town side they built a gravel ramp and put a steel chute. Boats would moor and trucks would tip coal straight down the chute. Later, across from the motel area – on the breakwater – they built a big coal box. It was a massive timber box they filled with coal, with a chute to the boat. Cain was involved in that too. You had to reverse the truck up the ramp, then drop coal into the chute. When the boats came the drawbridge would lift up and the coal would fall in. That was about 200m east of the old bridge. The coal was coming from the open-cut mine on the highway south of Swansea, about halfway to Catherine Hill Bay. There was also a pit on the right hand side between Nesca Park and Cams Wharf; a little walk-down mine. We went down it once with open lights. It went underneath the lake and they got a lot of coal out of there.

Down to the pub to wash out the coal dust

Many people at Swansea worked at Wallarah colliery down at Catherine Hill Bay. Old man Charlton had a covered wagon with solid rubber tyres and he used to take 15 or 20 men to the pit. He eventually got a Chevrolet truck with pneumatic tyres. Miners who went from Swansea to Wallarah each day (about 40 of them) left before 6am because the road, though only six miles, was shocking. The trip took at least 20 minutes. There were no washing facilities at the pit, so they came home totally black. Most had their baths in galvanised tubs in their back yards and then went straight down to the pub to “wash the dust out”.

After the power came on the Emelin brothers, Norm and Jack, set up the bus service.

Emelin Brothers ran the bus service

As kids we watched the boats come in past the bridge. We slid down slopes off the old tram track. We speared crabs in Black Neds Bay and watched people fishing. At the breakwater where the RSL is now there would always be 20 to 30 people catching blackfish. It was elbow-to-elbow.

Fishing at Swansea in 1939

On the RSL side were some professional fishermen – the Mackays – and an old fellow named Porter who lived in a boatshed. He used to get beautiful prawns. If you wanted bait you looked for a white flag on a post. A white flag on a post was the signal for bait. They would spread the prawns on a wet bag and they’d still be crawling around. If you wanted cooked prawns different people used to get them. They scooped them at the bridge and cooked them fresh: two shillings was enough to feed a family.

Fishermen at Swansea, photo courtesy of Arthur Burgess

Coon Island was where the Caravan Park is now, and it was connected by a little bridge. On the channel side it was an island, but on the lake side it wasn’t. There was a stream ran in there. The ferry that ran from Speers Point to Swansea had a wharf at Coon Island. Holidaymakers and weekenders had sheds up there. One fellow used to row from Salty Creek at Young Wallsend, down Cockle Creek to Coon Island and back of a weekend. People did such things to relax. People from Black Neds Bay who wanted provisions used to row to a spot opposite the picture theatre, anchor near the drain and go shopping in the main street.

A shack at Coon Island, photo from Kevin Parsons

Lots of Maitland people had places at Black Neds Bay: Former mayor Bob Pender, Harry Tegg – a real estate agent; Marcus Nash from the water board; the Fry family; Harry Payne the bootmaker. The Pilgrims, the Langs and next to where the motel is now was old Joe Woods place; he was a brewer in Newcastle years ago. The the Rourkes from Maitland, There was Atkinson the retired butcher, Skelton the shire clerk from Bolwarra, a Lorn fellow named McDowell, the Thursbys. There were lots of Maitland people.

Arthur Burgess’s family holidaying at Swansea in the 1920s

My father had a grocery business in Maitland. Every Christmas the Swansea holidaymakers would put in their big orders for six week’s supply and he sent a truck load down.

At Easter they used to have the yacht race Sydney to Swansea. The bridge operator old Watkins used to get on the lower level of the bridge and he got a bottle of wine from every yacht that came through.

Another character was Fred Warren. He’d go on the old drawbridge and climb down onto the pylons with a sugar bag tied to one and sitting on the other with his bamboo rod and four inch reel and a bucket of soldier crabs. He’d drop his line straight down and get a bream every time. He cleaned them and took them straight to the pub and practically made a living. We used to watch him fish. No-one else was game to fish there: if you fell in it would be the end of you. His father was old Daddy Warren and he lived in a big old boatshed in Black Neds Bay. He used to fish from his front doorstep.

Black Neds Bay used to rise and fall with the tide and you could catch bream, whiting, flathead, leatherjacket, crabs. We used to gather white cockles for bait. I loved Swansea in those days. It felt free.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Geoff Mitchell

    Does Neville remember Marjoie and James Black? Their house was near where the RSL is now. They were my great grandparents.

  2. Jennifer McQuillan (maiden name cain)

    I am the great granddaught of the milk Cain,my grandmother than started delivering milk once he become to old. My great grandmother was the midwife Cain, she delivered babies from blacksmith covering Swansea down south to Catherine Hill bay and surrounding and North covering to Charlestown. All done on horse and cart,
    My father chicks Cain as a kid had to do the milk run every morning when my man got too old.

    1. Greg

      That’s wonderful to hear, Jennifer. Do you have any photos of them?

  3. Colin Tegg

    Great article Greg. I would never have known about my grandfather having a pet emu before reading this.

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