Walter Brooks

Walter Brooks was born in Helensburgh on the 13 December 1919 and this is what he wrote about growing up and living and working in Helensburgh.

The house he lived in (all his life) was bought by his father in 1917, a fairly old house then, made of fibro and weatherboard. It had three bedrooms, small kitchen, lounge room and dining-room combined, with a front verandah. Most other houses in the street were made up of corrugated iron, weather board and fibro and were quite comfortable. The old front fence was replaced by a cement rendered fence and there was a laundry and shower recess combined and a small back verandah. In the early days, before the water was laid on in about 1950, there was a cement water tank and a six feet deep well from which, when there was a drought, they were able to supply water for the neighbours. As there was no fridge or ice chest in the early days they had to depend on the well to keep the butter and jellies cool. They used to hang them down the well in billy cans, and before electricity came to Helensburgh the family relied on kerosene lamps and candles at night. They were a fire hazard and his parents were very much wary of them.

The home had a rather big yard in which Walter grew quite a few vegetables; potatoes, onions, lettuce, beans, chokos, spinach and pumpkin, and up the backyard, in a fenced off area, a young girl’s parents built a stable so that she could keep her horse in it. Walter cleaned the stables out, the weeds were kept down and he had the manure for his garden.

During the depression Walter’s father was out of work and he couldn’t get a job when he left school at 14, until he was 15½. His first job was to look after the shoes of a Sydney shop for fifteen shillings. After paying for fares and board he was left with two shillings. The family of three lived on five shillings a week, his mother made everything, pies and bread, and his father grew vegetables. Handouts of groceries were received from the government every now and then, they had to go to the picture show with an order form which they received at the police station. There would be a big line up and they would get gabardine trousers, boots like army boots, and some food. People would come round to buy jewellery and any valuables and gold framed spectacles.

The kerb and guttering down the main street was all done by men on relief work, and the roads were maintained by them. The work was very temporary.

When they played rugby one team would have guernseys and the other would be wearing old sugar bags with holes cut out for armholes.

Tuesdays and Thursdays cattle would be driven up through the town to the slaughter-yard. There would be four or five horses tethered out the front of the pub when they’d finish work. The slaughter-yard would supply butchers at Wombarra, Scarborough and locally with sheep, pigs and cattle. They’d bring the slaughtered meat in a dray with calico bags and leaves over it to keep the flies off. The meat was good, you just had to eat it quick because there was no refrigeration.

When he was a child Walter’s father brought a pianola – and he paid more for that than he did for the house. They used to have some great sing-a-longs in those days. The cinema had a pianola and Beech Pallier had a shooting gallery on the site of the picture show, the Empire Theatre. There was a target down the other end of a tunnel.

They used to be in the bush a lot as kids, down the creek at the bottom of Short Street and they would walk through to the pit. The crawchies were big in those days; they would get them in the dam and the creek. With a bit of meat on a string, you had to have a lot of patience to draw in the crawchie to catch it before it dropped off.

About 1950 Helensburgh got a water supply. Walter remembered Mrs Charlie Harper, the oldest resident at the time, turning it on, and dancing in the streets. New arrivals to Australia had to do two years’ public work before they could get private work. Doctors, lawyers, all sorts, were digging the trenches for the water for Helensburgh.

The mine came first: “When they got the crib room and urn I went out and got myself a mug and billycan to drink the tea. But it only lasted a week, the tea was so hot and when I got back to work I’d be sweating too much. I was going to throw them away when I left the mine but now they’re in the Historical Society. I was the last bloke down the mine with my own water bottle – ‘cause of the hot tea.

I was the first bloke to drive a shuttle car down the mine in 1950. I drove them for 29 years, better than driving horses and the wages were better. It was still very dirty until about 1965; the big fans would blow the dust away into the ventilating tubes.”

In the older days so many miners were dusted. Walter saw a man drop dead in the street and some were bedridden for 20 years. They got 1,000 pounds in those days to keep them for the rest of their lives. Before compensation the dusted and injured miners got nothing.

When he worked at the time they paid seven shillings and two pence a ton for coal for their use at home, plus the cartage. A concession that the Miners’ Federation won for the workers was that retired miners would get two ton a year free, they just paid cartage.

When his father worked in the mine they paid two shillings and ten pence a fortnight for health care for the family, that included the doctor, the ambulance and Prince Alfred Hospital.