Q This afternoon, I'm interviewing Les Atkins, who's going to tell me all about some of the early years in Preston in the 30's and about his experiences during the war. Thanks Les. Over to you.
A Hi there.
Q You mentioned Spencer Street.
A Yeah. I was born at Preston eighty-six years ago born in Clifton Hill really. I came up to Spencer Street in Preston and spent most of my life until I went into the Army at eighteen years of age. In our street we had an old fella Mr. Stevens. He had a big factory and he was a shop fitter. They put windows in shops and all that type of stuff and he had a big factory down at Clifton Hill. But he also had about three house blocks and he had a very palatial home himself in Spencer Street and he was in to trotters. I don't think too many people would remember that. He used to have three or four different trotting horses there and he did have one champion called Wongo Protto and he sold it to a bloke by the name of Sid Ritchie which was the worst thing he ever did because it won a lot of races. He always wanted it back but Sid would never part with it which I don't blame him. That was just a little bit on our street: there's not much more. I go back to the early days the bloke that owned the hotel on the corner was Joe Trainer and he was in to racehorses. But he used to.
Q Now are we talking about the pub on the corner in Preston?
A Yeah the corner of Spencer Street and High Street. The Preston Arms.
Q The Preston Arms that's right. They'd just had a recent facelift I think.
A That's right they did. They spent a lot and I don't know who's behind that. But he used to do up and he'd always smoke the big cigars Joe. I can see him standing out the front now - a great man on his golf. He wore the old plus fours. He used to do up to the nines Joe Trainer. Then we'd get back to Woods' grocer's shop on the corner and that took in quite a big property there. They used to have their horses and stables and he was a JP old Mr. Woods. Everybody would know that I think with a history of Preston. But it's a place that should never have been pulled down because I think it was the first grocers shop in Preston. It was a big double-storey place. Next door to that, or just down a little bit was a very old bluestone building. I've never heard it mentioned in any of the books and that. It was an old laundry and it sat back from High Street probably opposite old Mr. Jack's furniture. He had it right opposite Woods' grocer store down a hundred yards on the other side of High Street was old Mr. Jack's furniture. He had a very big storage and an old furniture van. And his brother was John Jack, the jeweller that was further down in High Street. He had a shop there for years John Jack well-known he was. But a family by the name of Camerons lived in that old bluestone building. It was a laundry. I don't know whether it was some sort of a library beforehand or what but one part of it was a laundry. I remember Bobby Campbell he was one of Preston's greatest footballers. That's going back I'd only been a kid of I suppose ten around about then. I remember Bobby playing for Preston. He had a brother Don too. We had another famous footballer two brothers that lived in Preston in our street Spencer Street the Dowling brothers Dicky and Jimmy. Jimmy won the Liston trophy playing with Brunswick and Dicky played with Preston for years and years. Their father: Papa Dowling we used to call him he was a casualty of the first World War. He had one arm blown off and one leg blown off.
A But nothing stopped him. He had an artificial leg and he used to get these nerve storms. We could hear him shouting from our place we were two doors up when the pain he must've gone through with those nerve ends. I was in a medical unit in the Army that's our statue up there. I’d have to mention the Dowling boys because they were a big part of Preston in the early days in the football.
Q That's good, because we've done some information on the football club on the Darebin historical encyclopaedia. So we're always looking for new information that we can add to that.
A Dicky was a real champion and so was Jimmy. I think they could've made a league club but they never ever bothered to leave Preston. Dicky had worked at Braithwaite’s tannery for quite a while and he worked at the Board of Works with his brother down at north.
A2 What about the tanneries?
A The tanneries would be a well-known thing because we had Braithwaite's which took in a whole block which went in to Clinch Avenue bordered High Street and Murray Road. I worked at the Braithwaite's tannery for a short time. Things were very tough you took a job where you could get one when I was younger. I worked there and I suppose I was there for about eighteen months working on what they called an oiling machine. They used to oil great big hides and come through this machine. After the hair was burnt off them the hides would come through this machine. Another bloke by the name of Slim - I can't think of his surname now. But I'll tell you how tough things were talking about getting jobs. We were working on this oiling machine and everything was run by steam back in those days. I was with Slim working on this thing and I stepped back and my foot went down in to a trap. When my foot went down in to the trap the steam hissed out and burnt my foot. It was a mess. My mother used to be a nurse in the early days. I went home and she said what's happened? I showed her my foot. Anyway it was one great big blister. Mum done the job that she had to do on it. I think she used stuff called [picric] *7.22 (1) acid on my foot then. She bound it up took the laces out of my shoe cut it right down to the toe I put my shoe on and went back to work the next day. The jobs were that tough to get. They talk about coots today taking sickies they wouldn't know what hard times were. Too many wimps about for my liking today as far as I'm concerned. Anyway, then we had Broadhurst tannery which practically took in a block. It came back to Preston station down to Mary Street and you had Cooky's timber yard down on the other side of Mary Street which backed a lot of the shops in High Street.
Q In fact it was really quite an industrial.
A It was practically all tanneries besides having Hutton's & Patterson's bakery we had those. But they used to.
A2 And then there was Zwar's.
A Henry Zwar. I know a lass Jane Dever and she is Henry Zwar's granddaughter. There's a girl you might get some info and photos of. Whether she'd want to be in it or not I don't know. But her hubby and I were great mates. We were close to one another and we went in to the Army together. Her name was Jane Dever. She lives at 13 Jenny Road Reservoir. I can give you her phone number I think. But whether she'd like to be in it or not I don't know, but you can give her a ring. But her grandfather was Henry Zwar and he was the backbone of Preston in those days. He carried that football club and he carried a lot of people. I don't know how many classes of food he would've donated to people around Preston through the Depression. He was a wonderful bloke. He had a great name. He was a member of Parliament for years. Old Dr. [Horgon] *9.27 (1) place used to be on the other side of Murray Road in High Street before he ever went over - I don't know how many people old Doc [Horgon] *9.27 (1) would carry too because there'd be a hell of a lot of people who couldn't pay bills back in those days. He was an old First World War bloke who was gassed a big tall man. He was wonderful I think half of Preston went to him in those days.
A2 Don't forget about the town hall with the lovely metal fence.
A The town hall with the old metal fence. You'd know about that I suppose the iron picket fence around the town hall?
Q I'm not so familiar with it myself but Gary probably knows.
A Yeah Gary probably knows that.
Q That's all right. Please tell me.
A I think there was a bluestone foundation, red bricks on top but up about two-foot-six high and the metal pickets right round about six-foot high. The only thing I reckon they should've had in High Street which they never did have was a clock on the town hall or on the post office. They still haven't got one.
Q That's right.
A I think they should. That's just my opinion. But back in those days everything was paddocks. I thought I'd mention the Grogan family because they - old Mrs. Grogan - she had sons. I don't know how many Grogan boys there were. But by jove were they tough blokes. You talk about tough fellas - you've never seen them until you met the Grogan boys. There was Jock Tim and Joe and they all drove the big drays. I think they had another bloke working for them: Micko Smith too. I worked with his son at Chatley’s and that was the first job I had after the war at Chatley's. They used to make toys in High Street. He had a factory behind his father's pram shop in High Street. Frank went on to build a very big factory in Mary Street. He became a pretty prosperous bloke with his furniture factory Frank Chatley. But getting back to the Grogan boys, the Grogan family had the contract for rubbish around Preston where they'd come round the streets with the big dray. They were up fairly high too I suppose they'd have to be up about five-foot-six high off the road. They'd have to lift the dirt tins in and dump the rubbish in. But I remember the circuses that used to come around on the corner of Wood Street and High Street it was all paddocks: paddocks right along there no houses whatsoever only shops – a few shops old Mrs Martin’s fish shop up a little bit. That was an old wooden shop.
Q Someone else mentioned that fish shop to me and said that it was actually.
A Mrs. Martin. I went to school with her son Freddie Martin. But the circuses used to be there on the corner. They offered five quid for any bloke that could ride this damn horse. They'd give the damn thing a bit of a jolt with a battery. But I forget which of the Grogan boys that rode it and the bloke wouldn't pay up the five quid so he knocked him out on the spot at the circus that was the end of him. If you had a blue with one of the Grogans you had a blue with the rest of them. But they were great blokes don't get me wrong. They were terrific blokes the Grogan boys but a real identity of Preston. Mrs. Grogan carried those boys for many years she lived in this old place. We had another family too the Dwyer boys and they weren't far behind the Grogans. But they were great blokes. They don't breed blokes like that anymore: they just don't seem to be about, that type of fella. They had hearts of gold but you wouldn't tangle with them. You'd say g’day and want to be mates with them. After my experiences at the tannery my uncle and my father’s whole family was in the tobacco industry. My old grandfather was what they call a smoky. He was a cigar maker and it was a real expert trade. They were all made by hand and they all had to weigh the same weight. Back in those days right in the early Depression days my grandfather worked piece work as a cigar maker and it was an expert trade. He used to finish at about two o’clock each day. But those fellas made pretty good money and he built a lovely home. They lived and were brought up in Collingwood my dad’s family. He was born in Collingwood with his brothers and sisters and then they moved out to Northcote to Simpson Street. My grandfather built a lovely home. How many bedrooms Joan?
A2 About four in those days.
A It was a pretty big house and the old home had pressed metal ceilings. It was on an immense block of land. It’d take in about three houses.
A2 A big old home with a lovely big verandah all round.
A A beautiful old verandah and stained-glass windows. Getting away from that the whole family was in the tobacco industry. My father’s uncle old Dan Wren who was one of the original blokes who put the money in for Collingwood to become the Collingwood football club. They were tied up with the Britannia’s and it’s in history. His name is mentioned on page 9 in the book Kill For Collingwood. I think there were about five of them who put the money up for Collingwood to become Collingwood when they broke away from the Britannia football club. That’s how the Collingwood football club was formed. Old Dan Wren first started his wholesale tobacco business in Smith Street Collingwood. The shop was well-known because it had this great big statue of an Indian out the front and it stood there for years just up from Foy & Gibson stores in Smith Street because Smith Street was the place to go in those days. Anyway later on he moved in to Flinders Lane and took over quite a big warehouse. They used to import cigars and tobacco from all the different places and also our own brands made here in Australia. Later on I was there for quite a few years until I turned eighteen. The sixth divvy of them had already gone away to the Middle East they were the first divvy to ever leave Australia the sixth divvy. I had quite a few mates who went away. They were a few years older than me. Later on from my uncle’s place I went in to the Army at eighteen when the Japanese came in to the war. Everybody was in. When you turned eighteen you were taken in to the Army. No-one had a say whether they were in or out. The whole country was in because Australia was facing peril.
Q That was in 1942?
A That was back in 1942. I left Wren’s to go in to the Army. I can remember we went to the old drill hall in High Street. It was called Central Avenue. I think it used to be a billiard hall. I can even remember the old sergeant who had a stomach like a Jersey cow Fyshwick. Sergeant Fyshwick was his name. He was an old First World War bloke. Three of us went in to the Army together: Kenny Pollows, Allan Dever and myself. Kenny lived next door to me in Spencer Street Allan in William Street. He married Jane Hughes who finished up Jane Dever. She was old Mr. Zwar’s granddaughter. We all went in to Central Avenue. Then we got taken over to Royal Park. We had to go over by train – old Sergeant Fyshwick – that was his job from Central Avenue – to take you to Royal Park. That’s where most of the blokes were. They did have a drill hall the 57th and 60th battallion belonged to the big drill hall down on High Street down near the tannery. But us blokes had an enlisting place over there at Central Hall. I think it was a bit of a sly grog shop with a billiard room. It was a book-maker hanging as well before the Army took it over. No-one knows what went on there a bit of shifty business I think. Anyway we go in to Royal Park and they take us up to Seymour. They put us in the training battallion at Seymour. For six weeks they taught us to kill. For six weeks we went out of a morning. They marched us out to where they had all the chaff bags hanging and the old sergeant got us out there. They give us kill kill kill We’d drive these chaff bags with fixed bayonets and we’d jab them. Then they’d line us up facing one another. We had to charge at one another and parry the bayonets off. I can remember they used to call me Mo because I had this great big red moustache, just for something to do so you wouldn’t go troppo. That’s how I got my nickname. But I can remember Freddie Garner. He was a Preston boy a very good singer too. He said, Mo – he used to put the shits up me – he said when you were out there with that bayonet I thought you were going to poke it straight through me. That’s the way they had us and we were ready to kill too. No-one would want to say boo to us or we’d be ready to hang one on. That’s just how we were: we were ready to go ready to fire up. It was a terrible way to be but they had to do it. They had to cram it in to you pretty quick too. Anyway while we were there three of us decided to come down to Melbourne. We went AWL which you shouldn’t do which we did. I think we paid eighteen bob each in a taxi and about six of us came down. We paid this taxi driver eighteen bob each.
Q That would’ve actually been quite expensive.
A Yeah that was a lot of money. We only got six shillings a day in the Army.
A Well every young fella that went in to the Army went in to that training battalion. I had to go through the same thing. But talking about we shot through coming down for the weekend. We’d only been in the Army a fortnight or something. When we got back to camp to our tent we found that our mattress [name] *0.26 (3) they were straw on the old floorboards had gone. Next thing down comes the armed guard. He marched the three of us up and we’re put under open arrest. We come up before the CO and he was a decent bloke. He said look you blokes you’re inexperienced. What you’ve done is a pretty serious thing. You’ve gone AWOL and there could’ve been serious consequences but I’m going to let you off with a warning. Don’t let it happen again. He turned out a good bloke. Anyway we finished our six weeks training and you had no say where you went in the Army. The three of us I’d say we’d been to hell and come back again. I’d say not only the three of us our mates had been to hell and come home again. The three of us went in to the medical unit. They were down in numbers. They said righto you blokes we’ll shoot you across to the fifteenth. A lot of blokes went in to the infantry the transport the artillery signallers – you had no say where you went – they posted you. The Army meds were down on numbers, so they shot us across to the fifteenth field ambulance which was a tremendous mob of blokes. Our CO was an ex-Melbourne football club doctor old Jackie Jones. We had about seven Melbourne premiership footballers in that unit: Shane McGrath, Dick Kingston, Wally Lock. Ronnie Todd from Collingwood was in the unit for a while Rowley Fisher you name them. Ian Pettingill great centre half-back from Portland. Jonesy had us full of star-studded athletes. You couldn’t say us blokes were athletes but we loved a game of footy and played in the spot. Anyway it became a very famous unit our unit.
Any way we went to the field ambulance and they were one of the greatest mobs of blokes you could be ever associated with. They were a pretty wild bunch. We served with the 58th 59th battalion 24th 57th 60th and the second third commando. The second third commando reckon our mob should’ve been a commando unit not a field ambulance because we worked right up on the front line. When the blokes got hit we had to get them out: our nickname was pick-them-up-and-patch them. We left Seymour and we did a march a ten-day march from Seymour to Albury and we went right up through the mountains. We averaged about eighteen to twenty miles a day full pack. We’d march about four miles to the hour roughly. We had a break for a smoko every hour and it was great. We lapped it up because we were fit as fiddles and jumping out of our skins all hard as nails we were. We really enjoyed that. It took us ten days and we finished up at the Hume Weir camp at Albury. It was that cold when we got there. At six o’clock every the morning the old bugle would go out you’d come shower parade. Down to the showers you’d turn the taps on and no water would come out because it was frozen in the pipes. The shower parade had to be put off for a bit later. From Albury we moved on to a place called Grafton in New South Wales. We were there and we had a ball. It was one of the greatest times I ever had in the Army at Grafton. We would service the three battalions and our camp hospital was right in the middle of the town. Half the time we were here it was so much closer and we were in the pubs and knocking a few pots over. One night while we were at Grafton three Mitchell bombers circled the place American Mitchell bombers and they thought they were over Brisbane and they weren’t. It was Grafton because Grafton’s only two hundred miles from Brisbane. Of course they had to land and the Grafton strip was nothing. When they landed they crashed right through in to the sewerage swamp and they were stuck out in the sewerage swamp. Of course they had to call the 15th field ambulance out because there were a few casualties there because they had to get them out of the pubs. They were all half-shot – half the pubs in Grafton – it took them an hour to get the whole field ambulance out. That was the first real action we were in to. But we got those yanks out and we had to wade through sewerage and muck up to our waists to get those fellas out of those aeroplanes. Only one bloke got really bad he got the top of his finger chopped off and he got meningitis. They had to shoot him we had him for about a fortnight I think it might’ve only been a week. We shot him through up to Brisbane but he did survive. The rest of the blokes had to crash through the wire fences. They did a wonderful job belly landing the Mitchells in the sewerage swamp and the three crews got out practically unscathed. We went out I remember the old staff car was stuck in the swamp. They couldn’t get the doors open because all the muck was pushed against the doors. Anyway we got over that and no-one would come near us because we stunk to high heaven. We had to get hosed down and they let us all go to the pub on the corner of the street at the Grafton Hotel and have a hot shower. I felt sorry for them because we used all the hot water that was available to the hotel. From Grafton we went to a place called Caboolture in Queensland. We were stuck there for a while not a house there. It was all pineapple plantations but now Caboolture’s like a suburb of Brisbane today there’s houses everywhere. From there we went on to Cooroy and Belli Park and that’s where we left. We left Cooroy and went overseas to New Guinea from Belli Park. We went over on a hospital ship Manunda and landed at Port Moresby. All you could see of New Guinea was just a mass of mountains. We were there and were stuck out a place called Shrapnel Valley. Why they called it Shrapnel Valley was because Morseby was absolutely ringed with anti-aircraft guns. They settled in air strips at Moresby and the place was ringed with anti-aircraft guns. They’d cut loose and of course all the damn shrapnel would fall down. We were in a place where it happened to be falling a lot of it called Shrapnel damned Valley. But the first day we landed I remember it plainly because we had no camp so we just camped on the ground and the damned whole unit was covered in ring worms from head to foot. We all shaved our hair off and we were covered in this stuff called Whitfield’s ointment and it burnt the hell out of you. You’d come up with all these rings in your head. Anyway we got over that. We were only there two days and we got a great initiation because there were a hundred bombers came over and blew the hell out of the place. You didn’t have to worry about when they were over the top of you but when then they were coming towards you was when you worried that’s when they dropped their eggs. The whole place was alive with shells and there was a great battle: air battle. The Lightnings the Kitty Hawks and the air recognisance it was incredible. The planes were over the top of us and we knew we were OK. And they were up there it was the greatest dog fight you could ever see in your life and we had a bird’s-eye view. That was our first initiation to warfare. From there they flew our unit in to Wau a place called Wau and we went up on the old bully-beef bombers. They were Douglas DC3’s. They used to drop the medical supplies and food and all out of these. We had three goes to get through to Wau. The airstrip was on a hill and only one plane could land at a time. It was something like this business at Kokoda the same type of air strip. But I think that is on the hills too if I remember rightly. But they had a place called the Gap you had to get through to get in to Wau. The bully-beef bombers would only get up to ten thousand and they had to get up to ten thousand feet to get through to a place called the gap. We had three attempts to get through and three times we had to come back because twice we had to come back because of the cloud you could just about reach out and touch the mountains. We were all sitting on the floor no seats all perched on the floor. The third time we got through. Our fighter escort took us up and they got through the gap. They waved their wings to us because they didn’t have enough fuel to go the extra distance and of course then our pilots who were terrific pilots they hedge hopped they came down as low as they could because the Japanese had control of the air. They hedge hopped so the Nips couldn’t get underneath them. Luckily we didn’t strike any trouble from the sky. But they said when you hit the drome at Wau you’ve got to start running because the Japs still partly had the dromes surrounded. We were as green as grass and only one plane could land at a time on the strip which they did. We hit the ground running in to the jungle and we stayed at Wau. We went in to that Salamaua campaign from there and that was a shocker. It was a terrible campaign. We were stuck up on those mountains for eight months and never came out. We had to go up through mud. Damien Parer said in his opinion it’s a trail that’s never been written up about. It was called the [Missen] *9.17 (4) trail. It lead into Salamaua and up through Kiapit and all those places. The [Darnell] *9.27 (4) mountain was a heart-breaker and there were fast rivers flowing mud slush and it was a real nightmare. The three battalions and second third commandos we were with another field ambulance. It was the second field ambulance. Between us and the 15th we serviced all the troops in that campaign which we did a wonderful job. Our unit got a great wrap they gave them a terrific wrap. That was done by hours the marching and that and we’d never have got those blokes out that got hit without the fuzzy-wuzzy angels. Our stretchers were a big long stretcher just made out of poles of wood with a blanket sewn and poked through. We met the Leahy brothers this is getting away from it a bit. They were the ANGAU officers. There was a documentary made on the Leahy brothers on Channel Two not so long ago. We met those blokes. We went in to country that no white man had ever set foot in. You couldn’t get in by foot from Port Moresby to Wau it had to be flown in. Gradually bit by bit they pushed the Nips back in to Salamaua and up through the Lae. It became the Salamaua/Lae campaign it was called. It was a real bloody campaign. It was a shocker. We were up there for eight months stuck in that campaign in contact with the enemy practically every day for eight months those blokes were. We’d bring the fellas out and they’d march from staging post to staging post. They’d get those stretchers back where the blokes had got hit and we’d have the walking wounded. I’ve got a statue there that Judy’s looking at on the mantelpiece. That’s two of us bringing out a walking wounded. With the walking wounded one of us would probably have to half carry one on a hip. We could’ve never done it without those natives never got those blokes out. Thousands of Australian soldiers owe their lives to those fuzzy-wuzzy blokes.
Q After your experiences when did you actually get back to Preston?
A I came back to Preston: I got out of the Army in 1946 because I met my darling wife who turned my life around for me because I was pretty airy-fairy when I came. We never came back the same person you were a different bloke all together. You couldn’t come home the same person no way. But I will say that it is a lot worse now at my age. You think these things wouldn’t disturb you a bloke of eight-six you think you’d forget about that sixty-six years ago. But you don’t. It’s in your mind stronger now than it was when you were there – it’s a hard thing to explain but that’s the way it is. You live with some shocking memories that’ll never go out of your head. Some days you get a bit sad because you’ve lost so many of your mates. There’s a bond that exists among us blokes that doesn’t exist in civilian life. You think of your mates and what you went through and you get a bit sad at times but you’ve just got to soldier on play on is the name of the game damn the torpedos steam ahead.
Q After you met Joan?
A I met Joan and I had a few jobs. I went back to Wills’. When at first Joan and I got engaged Joan’s father was very friendly with a man Mr. Pick who had a manufacturing jewellery business. He was near the Exhibition Garden in Carlton. He must’ve taken a liking to me I don’t know why. But he said would you like to become an apprentice to the jewellery trade? What it meant was you’d have to sit at this bench with a half-circle cut out and a sort of a canvas open on your lap and you’d be there eight hours a day and there was no way in the world I could’ve handled that, at that particular time. Perhaps I’m a bit sorry in some ways as it might’ve lead in to a really good trade for me. But at that time I couldn’t handle it. Through the war years my uncle sold out of his business. One of the Wren brothers took a stroke, so they decided to get out and W. D. H. & Wills took over their wholesale warehouse bought the place out took it over and I went there. Most of us either went to Wills’ to work or went to Godfrey Philips and I went up to Wills’. My uncle put a good word in for me and got me quite a good job at W. D. & H. Wills. I was there for quite a while I don’t know. I just got itchy feet and couldn’t settle down. I went in to the gas company. I left there and I’m not patting myself on the back but I was always a conscientious worker. They said you’ve got your job here any time you want to come back. It worked out they moved out from a’Beckett Street and Frampton Street and went down to Moorabbin. I don’t think I would’ve gone down all the way from Preston: it was too far to travel. So I went in to the gas company for a while reading gas meters. I don’t know my knees were knocked about a fair bit in the Army and I found the bending wasn’t easy going. You had to go round the back and get in to all sorts of places to find the gas meters and it was playing up with my knees a bit. So I got out of that and I got this job at Snow Elliott and Co a textile importers. They had some wonderful agencies. They had the Moygashel agency for linen which came from Ireland which was the best linen put out in the world. They had John Heathcote agency from England which John Heathcote fabrics were known world-wide J. G. Neff from Switzerland. Of course then a bit later on the Japanese started to come in to the favourite. We must’ve hundreds of thousands of pure silk shantung from Japan and cloth called dinner-date which was a beautiful cloth. You wouldn’t be able to get it in the country today it’d be too expensive to bring in. But I was there I’d say for about thirty-six years. I was store manager there at Snow Elliotts. We were in Flinders Lane for about thirty-five years. Then of course I retired and that was the end of that in 1982. I retired and settled down to retired life with my dear bride when I developed glaucoma. I had two operations on my eyes in 1982 and got over that OK and luckily I had a terrific specialist Dr. Nave looking after me which he still is. But I’m sorry to say now I’ve got macular degeneration which they can’t do anything about. You lose your sight and that’s the end of the penny section you’ve just got to go along with it. But I’m still here that’s the main thing.
Q That’s the most important thing. When did you have your family?
A In 1947 we got married. Joan worked for quite a few years and we built our own house of a weekend. I had a mate that was a carpenter. I dug every damn stump hole in that house Joan rode miles on her push-bike chasing materials. She had a Malvern Star.
A2 We couldn’t get anything couldn’t get bricks we couldn’t get any tiles.
A You couldn’t get bricks couldn’t get tiles you couldn’t get anything.
A2 It’s true.
A Luckily I managed to get on to some cement. I met a bloke that swapped me six bags of cement for corrugated iron. My mate was a sheet metal worker. I had another mate who lived in Williamstown. He was a brother of Allan Dever and he rolled out all that corrugated iron hand made for spouting which was on the house for years.
A2 Yes. It lasted and lasted.
A It took us twenty months to build a house. We got her built and we’re still in that place after fifty-seven years.
Q I was going to say this is the house?
A This is the house. The architects in war service came out and said it’s a solid, well-built house.
A2 After all this time.
Q You’ve done very well indeed.
A2 When they did the bathroom they could see all the things underneath. So you just go by their opinion.
A I think our first child was born in 1953 Grant William our son. He grew up to be a real pride to the family. He’s a school teacher teaching maths and science. Debby was born in 1956 who was another charmer. She was a real pride of the family too. We’ve been a very close family we’ve been lucky. We’ve had wonderful children that’ve never given us any trouble. I think it all starts in the home bringing up the children and what the children would turn out like starts in the home.
Q Did you continue to work after the children or once you had found that that was it?
A2 No. I did have a job later on when they were older.
A Her brother was the first bloke to start Dinkum Pies off Joan’s brother.
A2 I used to work for my brother there and we used to have people right down the street after Bill’s pies. That was the first lot of pies he had all sorts of pies didn’t they Les? They used to be everywhere.
A Yeah. They were beautiful. Bill’s pies and pasties are still out of this world.
A2 But there’s too much mass production now you know.
Q Not quite the homemade.
A No not like they were.
A2 So there you are: that’s Lesley for you.
Q Les, There was something you wanted to tell me.
A Yes. In my reminiscing about war time experiences something that I left was that our field ambulance the 15th when the Centaur was sunk off the coast of Brisbane there were a few that got off. I’m not sure how many got off but there were quite a few nurses and doctors and a hell of a lot of casualties that went down with the Centaur. She was all lit up painted white with a big red cross its lights blazing. Of course the animals that the Japanese were this commander of the submarine put a torpedo under her and sent her down with practically all hands. They gave us the option you can become armed if you want to. Our unit became one of the very few fully-armed medical units in the Australian Army I should say. Bill Refshauge was our colonel. I must say that our colonel finished up major-general Refshauge. He was knighted he was a sir. He was made Sir William but he was never a sir to us blokes. When he came down to the reunions Bill was the name. He was a big bloke six-foot-four. You wouldn’t argue the point with him. He’d give you a boot up the arse and tell you to get on with it. He was the colonel he was to us, but he finished up a major-general of the whole medical system in the Australian Army. He’s still alive I think old Bill but I think he’s not too clever.
Q You were telling me about what happened during the war.
A2 Dad was very clever with his hands especially with the garden. So he dug up all the front so it got the sun I can remember Dad saying that we’ve got to have sun and the back yard wasn’t terribly big Les was it?
A No. This was during the war years.
A2 Just a nice block but wasn’t big blocks like this one is. We were a big family there were five of us. We ate a lot of vegetables carrots parsnips everything cabbages. What else was there Les?
A We’d grow everything he was a wonderful gardener your father.
A2 Yes he grew everything.
A2 An abundance of everything. More or less the vegetables Dad grew kept us in our tucker. Mum would have to buy fruit. I can’t remember a whole lot of fruit. I can remember apples and bananas but I never had much in the way of cherries.
Q The more exotic sort of things?
Q Do you recall anything about rationing?
A2 Yes. I remember we heard about the Yanks getting plenty of nylon no silk stockings. We had to be very careful with our rationing. Les it was still in when you came wasn’t it?
A I had an austerity suit.
A2 He had an austerity suit.
A They were shockers they were. I’ll tell you a funny story about that.
A2 That’s right butter too. That was on rations.
A I must tell about Wally in Russell Street.
A2 Yes, Tell.
A I’ve got another mate who was mad: Wally Fowler. I used to work with him and he was in the Navy. Wally was on that Australia and he was hit five times by the Japanese Kamikaze planes. He was in number one gun turret.
A2 Tell Judy what a Kamikaze was.
A Kamikaze couldn’t penetrate the Aussie decks because they were eight-inch timber decks where they could go through a Yankee aircraft carrier made of steel. They could penetrate them but they could not penetrate the Aussie decks but they wiped away the superstructure. It must’ve rattled Wally around like a pea in a bottle just shaking it about like they get a hell of a belting. Wal told us a story about when he came out of the Navy. He went in to the London and American store to get his austerity suit. All our austerity suits were shockers.
A2 They had little tiny lapels.
A They used to call them the Seymour suits. You’d go out and you’d see more of your bum than the sea. Anyway Wally goes in to the London and American store to get his suit. The bloke says to him slip in there and try these trousers on and see if they fit. Wally takes his strides off. That’s funny. I can see a lot of shadows going past. He turns around and he’s only in the window there that faces in to Russell Street with old John L. Sullivan slipping into his trousers. There’s people by the dozen going up Russell Street. Wally swears that was fair dinkum.
A2 I think it’s one of his tales.
Q You mentioned about your dad digging an air raid shelter at the bottom of the garden but he didn’t finish it.
A2 No he didn’t finish it. I can remember a board across from one side to the other. We used to love walking across it. I can remember it ended up full of water at one stage but I can’t remember a lot of things like Les remembers.
A Your dad used to drill the volunteers down at the Preston drill hall.
A2 That’s right that’s something. We used to go down to watch where was it Les?
A It was on the corner of Ragland Street. It was the old 57th 60th drill hall.
A2 High Street and Ragland was it?
A Yeah. He was a sergeant from the eighth battalion in the First World War he landed at Gallipoli. He got wounded your father at Gallipoli.
A2 I can remember we’d say to Mum we’re going down to see Dad. As we went up Power Street to get to Patterson Street you could hear Dad’s voice.
A He had a hell of a voice your father.
A2 Anyway we were very proud of him.
Q Of course.
END OF TRANSCRIPT