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Nine decades of memories

Leonie Leben. Photo by Greg Ray

Leonie Leben grew up in the Newcastle suburb of Merewether and was a schoolgirl during the years of World War 2. Her father, Leopold “Bob” Hay, spent most of his working life on Newcastle Harbour, on dredges and tugs operated by the NSW Department of Public Works . Leonie is proud of her father’s seafaring background. Born in England in 1887, Leopold Hay went to sea as a ship’s boy in sail at the age of 12. After a busy career at sea he wound up in Newcastle, where he married and, after a short stint working for the railways, found himself back afloat.

Heavily tattooed, he told tales of wild times at sea and ashore as a sailor, and told his family how he’d been to San Francisco after the great earthquake there in 1906. From the early 1930s he worked on the dredges Antleon and Jupiter and later, according to Leonie, he skippered the tug Apollo and was also often aboard the dredge service boat Mayfield. He worked up and down the NSW coast, dredging the bars of river entrances to make shipping easier. He recollected the wartime incident in the port of Newcastle when the American cargo ship Davenport caught fire. Leonie said her father was working on the tug Apollo at the time, and he often described the explosions and burning debris that made the situation dangerous. (That incident is described in this article.)

Leonie remembered the war when, as a pupil at The Junction school, each child had a haversack containing bandages, acriflavine, cotton wool to use as earplugs and a rubber stopper to bite on. During air raid drills the children had to sit under the stairs with their ears plugged, biting on their stoppers until the all-clear sounded. The haversacks were kept in a cupboard. From time to time, while the war continued, the teacher would announce to the class (of about 50 pupils) that some pupil’s father or uncle would not be coming home.

Leonie’s memory of a frightening wartime plane crash is recorded here.

One day as Leonie was walking to school along the old railway line behind Mitchell Park she met a boy coming the other way in a hurry. “He told me not to bother going to school because the war was over and they were sending all the children home,” she recalled. She went to school anyway and was duly sent home. Back home, her mother dressed her for a trip to town and told her: “You are going to see something I hope you never have to see again”. It was an extraordinary day, Leonie recalled. “The streets were jammed, there was paper everywhere and everything that had wheels had people clinging to it, all going into Newcastle.” When the celebrations in the city ended, there was no transport home, so they walked along the old railway line.”

Read more about VP Day in Newcastle here:

After the war she remembers a neighbour of Scottish descent who had been a prisoner of war of the Japanese at Changi in Singapore. “He used to take his bagpipes to the top of the hill and practice,” she said. “He played laments, and they were very moving.”

Leonie remembered being taken by her parents to Hunter Street in 1954 to join the big crowds waiting to catch a glimpse of newly crowned Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip on their Royal Visit. They set up outside the Ritz Milk Bar, the owner of which was making money renting out wooden boxes for footsore people to sit on while they awaited the royal procession. At two shillings for the privilege it was a good earner. After a while Leonie got bored and decided to head down to the Scott Street overhead bridge to have a look at the two big Lake Macquarie yachts that had come into the harbour for the occasion: one owned by the Rundle family, for whom she worked. “A policeman asked me what I was doing, and I told him I wanted to look at the yachts,” she recalled. “He said the royal train would be along in a few minutes, and I would have to come down.” When she got back down she remained near the brick wall that separated Scott Street from the railway tracks. She heard people calling out, as the train came into view, to “look at the back”. As the train pulled up at the station, she saw the royal couple standing at the back of their special carriage, waving. She was thrilled to have been so close and to have such a good view, and later she lorded it over her parents, who had waited for hours on rented wooden boxes and scarcely had a glimpse for their trouble. Read more about the Royal Visit here:

Merewether Baths in 1937.

Life in Merewether was pleasant.  It was close to the beach and, despite its smelly reputation in times past for its proximity to the sewage outfall, the beach and baths were a magnet for youngsters. During the war the diving boards and other add-ons were removed from the baths and a trip to the beach involved picking your way around concrete tank traps. Leonie remembered Wal Tracey’s stables near the back of The Junction School, where children loved to hire a horse to ride on Saturday afternoons. “We called them Tracey’s hat-racks, on account of their ribs sticking out so far,” she said. “The only time the poor skinny things went fast was when it was time to come back for their tea.”

There was a low bridge over Llewellen Street and sometimes truck drivers would forget and their loads would hit. In 1958 Leonie recalled a truck carrying Eta peanuts lost several cartons of its load. Cellophane bags full of nuts in their shells were scattered around, and the driver told the people who gathered to take what they wanted. It was a different story when a tobacco merchant’s truck repeated the mistake: that time the police were on the scene in minutes, and nobody got anything.

Leonie and workmates at Rundles clothing factory

Leonie, a qualified tailor, worked at the Rundles clothing factory. “I hated it,” she said. “There was a bit of bullying”. That doesn’t mean she and her workmates didn’t have any fun. “Once we were all bored and we started singing this silly song. It started off with: ‘This is number one, this is how it’s done; roll me over lay me down and do it again . . .’ Well, the boss came out of her office and told us to stop because the customers in the shop could hear us,” Leonie laughed.

Read more about Rundles here:

Ken Watt, photo by Greg Ray

Ken Watt’s real name is Canice, but everybody calls him Ken. He was named by his mother in honour of an Irish saint – something of a giveaway to Ken’s Catholic upbringing. He was born in a house next-door to the Arnott’s biscuit factory and lived there until he was about seven, when the family moved to a semi-detached house in Corlette Street – again adjoining Arnotts.

Ken was born in 1927, just in time to be a youngster in the Great Depression. His father worked for various food-related companies, like John Bull, and the family had a steady income, unlike many other families. “My father’s wage was three pounds, seven and sixpence,” Ken said. “Out of that had to come 30 shillings for rent.” [Given there were 20 shillings to a pound, making the wage 67 and a half shillings, that’s a hefty cut to pay for shelter.]

Naturally Ken has plenty of memories of Arnotts. The famous biscuit factory was visited by people from all over the Hunter to take advantage of the big discount deals on broken biscuits and similar treats. For either a sixpence or a shilling, people could buy quantities of the broken goodies, loading them into pillowcases or even suitcases. “People would come from the Coalfields by train with suitcases to fill,” Ken said. At Christmas he recalls chunks of fruitcake also being available. “The pieces came out of a window and down a chute,” he said. In those days Arnotts made many different varieties not seen today, and not just biscuits but some other types of pastries.

During the Depression years Ken recalls the many ways people tried to earn a living. Some did the rounds of the suburb selling clothes props – essentially long sticks used to prop up clotheslines. Tinkers went from door to door looking for work fixing pots and pans. Some offered their services for “general repairs”. Some touted for gold and jewellery, hoping desperate people would sell their heirlooms. Another market for gold was the local dentist, who bought sovereigns to melt down as fillings. A woman known as “Gumtip Annie” sold crimson-toned branches of young gum leaves to housewives who wanted to brighten their homes.

A penny’s worth of milk

Nearly all births were at home, with the help of a midwife. When the time came word would be sent to “Nurse O’Hare” to came to attend. The only nearby person in the suburb that Ken remembered having a telephone was “Mrs Gascoigne in Corlette Street”. “If you needed to find out how somebody was getting on in hospital you had to ask to use her phone,” he recalled. Ken said that when his brother was born in 1938 the times were still tough. “I recall going to the shop for a penny’s worth of milk,” he said. Any money that anybody in the household managed to earn went into the family kitty. Ken had a couple of ways of earning a few pennies. Near the spot where the Services NSW office stands today were council yards for horses and drays and Ken knew a man who worked there who was willing to give the youngster the tip when “the good stuff” was available. Ken would pile his billy cart with manure from the draught horses and sell it to the suburb’s gardeners for a shilling a load, if he could get it.

Another little earner was taking bets from a few of the neighbourhood wives to the SP bookie. “There was a red post box on the corner of Bull and Corlette Streets and next to the Commonwealth Hotel was a barber shop. On the right-hand side of that was a window where you’d knock and a hand would come out to take the bets,” Ken said. Most barber shops did sidelines in betting, selling three-place horse cards. “They covered three races and you had to pick a place in any one of those three. If you picked three you were a winner,” he said. Doubles books were also available, where you could buy a “blind pick” or pick your own. Some people made money from the wilderness of blackberry bushes between Belmont and Redhead, gathering ripe berries and selling big mugs full of them to householders for sixpence.

For entertainment there was a movie theatre near the fire station, with white pillars. Ken watched silent films there, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He and his father used to watch the fights at the old Stadium alongside Birdwood Park. Boxing was a big sport then, and local trainer Tom Maguire used to help schoolboy fighters sweat their weight down to get into the most advantageous weight categories. When the Show came to town there would be a procession down Hunter Street with free sample bags from local manufacturers handed out as publicity for the event. Sometimes the circus came to town, arriving by train at Honeysuckle station, parading around town to promote sales, then setting up at Birdwood Park. Smaller tent shows were often seen at various parts of the city too. Ken recalls Sorlie’s big travelling show being stranded in Newcastle when the war broke out and its big tent remaining a feature for the duration.

Ken went to primary school at St Josephs at Merewether and remembers walking to school along Union Street over swampy ground where people lived in humpies. And he remembers the Diggers Camp, in the vicinity of Cooks Hill Fire Station and the present-day State Office Block, where impoverished World War 1 veterans lived. “I was told not to go there; that the blokes drank metho,” Ken said. Being a curious boy he went anyway. “I used to stand outside and the men would come out and talk to me. They wanted people to talk to. They couldn’t get any work,” he said. Ken recalled that his clothes were bought by his mother using a credit scheme known as “Workers Cash Orders”. “You got a page of coupons you could redeem at stores like Lowes or Cox Brothers,” he said. “You traded them over then paid them off. I used to go to their office above Krempins in Hunter Street with money for the repayments.”

Inside the Diggers’ Camp at Hall Street, Cooks Hill. Photo from The Newcastle Sun, 1931.

He did his intermediate certificate at Marist Brothers in 1939 and left school the day after – despite getting very good grades. A few days later he had a job at Goldrings warehouse on the corner of King and Perkins Street, Newcastle. “I was a warehouse boy. I used to go out with the trucks doing deliveries all over town,” he said. Goldrings sold haberdashery, soaps, cosmetics, cotton and fabrics. Both the firm’s truck drivers quit to join the armed forces and the company, struggling to get supplies during wartime, laid Ken off. He did the public service and railway department entrance exams and got a job at Cardiff Railway Workshops. He had missed the apprentice intake for the year so started work as a shop boy in the tool room. Applying for an apprenticeship as soon as he could – he was 15 years old – he was offered jobs in either Sydney or Cardiff. He took the Cardiff option, training to be a fitter and turner/machinist.

Ken still has great respect for the volume and quality of work done at Cardiff. “We would absolutely gut an engine that came in for overhaul,” he said. “We’d even take the frame apart. Everything from the little S-class tank engines up to the 35-class Nannies, the 36-class pigs, the 38s, the 57s and the Garratts.” During the war, he said, an annexe was added to the workshops to make dies and plugs to be sent to the munitions factory at Rutherford for use in shells for 25-pounder guns. There were large air raid shelters at the works and a system of warnings blown on the works whistle to alert wardens.

He clearly remembers the night of the Japanese shelling of Newcastle in 1942. “We were on the verandah at Cooks Hill and heard the hissing sound of the shells in the air. His father was in the Volunteer Defence Corps and attended Fort Scratchley at weekends, on guard duty or assisting at the gun emplacements at Nobbys or Shepherds Hill. “Dad and I heard the shells and he said to me: ‘Those shells are going the wrong way!’. And no siren sounded until it was all over.” Next morning Ken joined the sightseers who flocked to Newcastle East to inspect the damage caused by the attack. Read more about the attack here:

Parnell Place, the morning after the shelling by a Japanese submarine in June 1942.

Ken was visiting his grandparents in Sparke’s Lane, between King and Hunter Streets, the night that radio station 2HD was taken off the air. “One minute it was broadcasting, the next it was gone and it didn’t come back,” he said.

The city in wartime had its own sights and sounds. It was common, Ken said, to see ships heading out to join convoys, and the small grey naval escorts zipping around on protective duty. It was also common to see targets being towed offshore to give the shore guns some target practice. Like many other people, he went to see the aftermath of plane crashes at Broadmeadow and he remembers when a Beaufort bomber crashed. “I went next day and there were still pieces of plane and parachute in the nearby trees,” he said.

Another of Ken’s vivid memories is of a trainload of Japanese prisoners of war at Broadmeadow Station during the war. “I was on a train on the way to work from Civic to Cardiff and when we stopped at Broadmeadow there was another train opposite,” he said. “The carriages were painted all white, with red crosses on them. There were bars on the windows and armed soldiers at each end of every carriage. I’d often seen trains there loaded with Australian troops heading north, or with ammunition and guns, but this was different. Some of the blokes on the train with me got aggro and wanted to vent their feelings at the prisoners,” he recalled.

Ken took a transfer from Cardiff to Junee in 1947, having been offered a deal that shortened his apprenticeship by six months. A big new locomotive roundhouse had just been opened there and the department was hunting for workers to staff it. He spent five years in Junee, and met his wife, Joyce, there. A young man in the district locomotive engineer’s office invited some of the young bachelors from out of town to join the local ex-students’ association. This led to many friendships and introductions. Joyce – the daughter of a railwayman – was in the local basketball team and Ken consequently developed a strong interest in the sport.

Transferred back to Newcastle Ken was posted to Port Waratah. He and Joyce lived at Marks Point and he had to start work at 6am. “I used to get the bus at Marks Point, get off Gordon Avenue depot and pick up my pushbike which I left overnight in the depot toilets,” he said. “Then I rode like mad to get to work on time.” This awful daily grind led Ken to seek a new job and in 1953 he found one at the State Dockyard, where the starting time was 7.30am and a bus stopped outside the door. Alternatively, there was a ferry from Civic.

Ken liked the dockyard job but found the adjustment from railway work a challenge. The saving grace was his fitter’s mate, Aub Lewis, an ironworker and veteran of marine work who knew all the ropes and lurks. His first job was an overhaul of the veteran navy cruiser, HMAS Hobart. “She was old and leaky and full of fumes. She had four screws, two boiler rooms and two engine rooms. She’d been torpedoed during the war and they were putting her back into service,” he said. Ken’s first job every morning was to go right through the ship testing all the diesel fire-fighting pumps, to make sure they would work in the event of a fire aboard. He worked on the Koojarra, and was due to leave the dockyard for a new career when the ship threw a bolt in one of its three generators. He and his mate slept two nights aboard to get the repair done in time for sea trials.

One factor in his decision to leave the dockyard was the prevalence of strikes. “I was there only a few months and Joyce was pregnant when we ran into a six-and-a-half week strike. There were so many stoppages with the painters and dockers and we got caught up in them. I was worried about where all this was going to lead, and I couldn’t see a career path there anyway,” he said.

Always busy, Ken had been studying carpentry at Belmont evening college and one of his teachers suggested he sit his high school leaving exam. He took that advice and passed easily. Next he was advised to apply for a teachers’ college scholarship. He took this advice too and got one. It was a big decision but he took the plunge and in another three years – aged 32 – he was out teaching. first at Belmont, then West Wallsend and later Gateshead. He was a subject master by the time he finished up in 1986.

Asked about his teaching career Ken said he probably enjoyed West Wallsend the most, because that was the school where he felt he made the biggest difference to the lives of pupils. The other thing he liked about teaching was the difference between it and his dockyard work. “At the dockyard I was working on jobs with minute tolerances,” he said. “We had no lasers to help in those days either. Everything depended on precision and it was hard to achieve that. When I got teaching the tolerance was more like half-an-inch,” he laughed.

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