My name is James Leslie Clarke and I was born in Helensburgh on the 11 January 1932 and I have lived in Helensburgh all my life and worked in the Metropolitan Coal Mine for 35 years.
I was born in the Maternity Hospital in Short Street, which of course is not there now, but it was run by Mrs Chadwick. My grandfather was also a coalminer and his name was James Joseph Clarke and he was born in Maitland in 1870. My grandmother was also born in the Newcastle area and her name was Ellenor Buxton, and she was born in 1874. I can remember more about my grandmother because she lived a few years longer than my grandfather, but I do remember grandfather well, he was a short stocky fellow and he used to come down to our place pretty regular. I think my father used to be his favourite son, being the youngest, and he always had a couple bottles of beer with him when he called. Grandfather James worked on the pit top building skips, miners skips at the Helensburgh Mine. He held the record for building 22 skips in 23 days and I suppose it still stands even though they don’t build them now.
I don’t know when grandfather came to the ‘Burgh, I only know dad was born in Helensburgh in 1901 and he had a brother and two sisters. Mum was born here as well and her mother and father moved here from Bulli and lived in a tent down Camp Creek at the mine. This must have been when they put the shaft in or just when they opened the mine. Later they moved to Vera Street with all the family and there were quite a few of them, Mum was a ‘Hill’.
I remember we lived up on Parkes Street ‘till I was about 6 years, just after I started school, then we moved to Postmans Track. I can remember that we had lots of Christmas Trees in the backyard in Postmans Track, as it was a big backyard, and as kids we helped Dad when a florist from Wollongong would come up every Christmas to buy all the blossoms off the Christmas trees. He would pay Dad and pack them into chaff bags and we would help him carry them over to the railway where he would hose them down through the bag and all.
My brother John and I were very close and we would go everywhere together, because the next one born was our sister Judith. Our sister used to terrorise us, she’d give us hell, and of course we used to torment her, but she always got her own back, I can tell you. I had two brothers, John and Phillip was the youngest, and one sister Judith. John passed away, age 77, on the 11 February 2011.
We had an uncle that lived up between Vera Street and Old Tunnel Road, where he had a cabin ‘cause he never got married ‘till very late in life. Ike his name was and he had this little peach tree and it only ever used to get half a dozen peaches on it each year. John and I kept our eye on them waiting for them too ripen but we always left him a couple after we had taken a few. Anyway, one year he caught someone or someone told him that some kids had pinched all his peaches. He thought he knew who they were and he went and fronted them but they said they didn’t do it that “it was Jimmy and John Clarke that pinched them”. But they did not know that we were down at Wollongong on Holidays at the time when the peaches went missing, so they go lumbered!
I had quite a few ‘Hill’ Uncles like, Uncle Tom who was the eldest and then Uncle Ike. Uncle George got his back broken in the mine and I was only a kid at the time and he lived for quite a few years after that but he couldn’t move at all. Not long after that Uncle Ike was working at the coal face when they worked in pairs and the only thing in between them was the skip. They worked one each side of the skip shoveling the coal in when the bloke on the other side was killed by a falling stone. My uncle Ike standing on the other side of the skip never got a scratch. I cannot remember the man’s name that was killed but Uncle Ike, after the accident came to live with us for a while because it knocked him around a bit. He got very nervous and kept going to the Doctors for a good while after that, because it was only a matter of ten feet that separated them.
Mum’s brother was Uncle Les (Hill), Lawrence Hill’s father. He was the youngest in the family so he use to come up to Helensburgh and visit everyone. There were only certain trains running and they were all steam trains then. We would hardly have any trains during the middle of the day, but there were a few of a morning and a few of an afternoon. They used to catch the quarter past six train, I think, of an afternoon back to Port Kembla. Well Uncle Dave he had retired from the mine and in those days they did not recognize ‘dust’ and he still worked at the mine, but he was ‘dusted’. Uncle Dave used to always walk my Aunty down to the railway and they would call into our place where we lived on Postmans Track to say hooray, then he would always call in to get something off Mum on the way home. This particular day we waited and waited but he never turned up, so mum said to me, as I was the eldest, “you had better run down and see where your uncle is”. I found him laying in the gutter dead, he had a bloody stroke. It gave me a bit of a fright because I was only about seven or eight, I think. It was not very nice for a young fellow, but no-one recognised ‘dust’ in those days, they just put them on the old age pension so they didn’t have to pay them.
Harry Short, a railway man who operated the signal box at Metropolitan Colliery junction, used to have friends come down over the weekend and go blackberry picking. Blackberries were everywhere and a man down the bottom end of town, Ridley was his name, spent all blackberry season picking blackberries and he would take them into the market and sell, made a living out of it.
We had a picture theatre in town and I was allowed to go to the pictures on my own, I think I was about 8 or 9, on a Saturday afternoon. It cost us six pence to get into the pictures and three pence to spend. At that age I did not know what the hotel was but there was always a lot of noise in it. One afternoon, I think it was winter as it was dark when I left the theatre, I walked over to have a peek through the side door and as I just poked my head through the door someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was a rather large Sergeant of Police. He threatened me, showed me the size of his boot and told me to go home, I never went back there ‘till I was eighteen.
I can remember there were hardly any cars in town when I was a youngster. You could play in the street, it was quite safe. The first car I remember was Mr Coffey’s, it was a little black car with a ‘dicky seat’ in it. It was the only car down the bottom end of town and I can still remember the number plate, it was GB290. We had a lot of horses in town and there was a bloke that lived in Foster Street that had trotters, I think his name was Sommerson. He used to race them at Harold Park and everywhere, he built a trotting track over near where the Garbage Depot is now, besides the sanitary depot we had. It was a full size track even cut through the bush the same lap size as Sydney.
We had bike races in town from the main street down where the old club was, that is where they would start, they called it the ‘big block’. It went right around the block out to the garage on the Highway, back through Temple Road, past Kenny Luck’s house cnr Walker Street and down Cemetery Hill. We had some good bike riders in town, one was Jack ‘Wazza’ Wood he won the Goulburn to Sydney bike race. I did not play much sport but joined the Surf Club and did a lot of swimming for around six or seven years, then I got married. Anyway, George Jardine and myself, he won the 1949 Premiership for St George when he was playing Rugby League, bought a little Ford Prefect, it had a canvas hood. So we joined the surf club again and we used to go down every Saturday and Sunday mornings in his little car. George was an open belt champion in the belt swimming and he won championships on the coast. Stanwell Park Surf Club won quite a few championships for the coast in the surf boats.
I moved to Berrima after I got married and after one winter I chucked it in and moved back to Helensurgh and worked in the Metropolitan Mine.
We had some good soccer teams in town and even though Dad did not play he was their secretary for a number of years, including the cricket club. The head sports writer for the Daily Telegraph called George Crawford used to come to the clubs when dad was secretary. George Crawford married a Helensburgh lady and Janet Van Zyl is his married daughter. George visited many times with his wife visiting her family.
In the summertime there was always a shortage of water in Helensburgh. Everyone had a tank and that was all. So most times in the summer you ran out of water, lots of houses had a well but they used that water for washing. In Postman’s Track there was an old fellow called Sol Stanley that built a dam in the side of the gutter. The gutters were pretty deep down there and the water used to seep through the property up above, it was probably about six to eight foot high. The water would seep out of that into this little well he built and everyone used to get their drinking water there. Later on we used to go down to the old railway station and right up the other end where you walked to the tunnel, I don’t know how high but it would be a couple hundred feet at least water used to seep down through the ironstone there. Oh, it was cold as anything, beautiful, so we carried the buckets of water up from the old platform to our place in Postmans Track. This is the original Helensburgh Station platform when it was a single track line.
The Mine put a pipeline in, three inches round, all the way from the big dam to that tunnel when they pumped it from the tunnel to the pit. The Mine employed people to permanently go around checking the pipeline because of all the connections that leaked and had to be corked up all the time.
I think it was 1952 when they turned the water on in Helensburgh. We played in the local brass band down the park here when old Mrs Harper turned it on. Mrs Harper was a good age then and she was supposed to be the oldest person in town. The Harpers lived next door to us then in Boomerang Street, that is where George Jardine lives now. I played a couple of different instruments, but I played what they called the flugelhorn first, it is between a cornet and a trumpet. I left the band after a while. I went back a couple times and then it finished up (the band). George Ferhenbach, Earl Dowson and Geordi Kinnel were all in the Helensburgh band and they decided to join the Miners Federation Band and we used to practice at Balgownie. I joined the Band and I went down with Jimmy Blair, an amazing man. So as the years took their toll there was only me and Earl left. I think we spent thirty odd years in that band. At one stage there was about eight to ten of us, a bloke from Stanwell Park and a couple blokes from Helensburgh joined up with us and we spent a lot of years down there.
John my brother, he was the second eldest to me, served his time as a bookbinder at W C Penfolds, a printing mob that had a big factory at Surrey Hills. He worked there for 22-23 years, then he moved out west and came back and got a job on the Wollongong Council, he retired from there. My sister went to St George Girls’ High School, she was pretty cluey. She did a course and she ended up the private secretary to the head man for all the government stores departments in NSW. After she married she ran the TAB at Randwick for quite a few years. Phillip ‘Snow’ served his time as a bootmaker. I remember we used to take our shoes along to be repaired; now we just throw them out. Snow worked at a factory in Hurstville for a while, and then he chucked it in and went to the pits. He worked at Helensburgh ‘till he got retrenched, then Appin or Westcliffe out that way somewhere.
I’ll tell you a funny story about my sister. She was always tormenting us and driving us mad. The old Chinaman used to come around in a horse and cart selling vegetables and fruit. He had a big garden down where the Catholic School is. Just to be smart one day, when the old Chinaman went into the house next door, she snuck in and pinched two bananas. She hid them in the bush and then came and gave us a ton of cheek, but un-be-known to her, a neighbour who had a dozen or so goats would take them around past our place to eat the grass and this time they ate my sister’s bananas.