About the Whitfields: Wandering Willie’s Tales

Note: go here to read about the trip The Rabbit and I took to Sutherland.

“Wandering Willie” is a blind fiddler who tells a tale-within-a-tale in Sir Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet, a novel I read for English I at Sydney University when I was 16. Looking back at all the places where I have lived, I find the name apt for myself and for my family. As a feat of memory I tried to recall all the places I had lived, none of them all that far from each other, but certainly many. Here is the result of my attempt:

Sutherland Shire 1943 – 1969

1. 1943-1952 Auburn Street SUTHERLAND
2. 1952-1955 Vermont Street SUTHERLAND (a)
3. 1956-1958 Avery Avenue KIRRAWEE
4. 1959 Box Road, JANNALI
5. 1960-1961 Oyster Bay Road, COMO
6. 1961-1962 Nicholson Parade, CRONULLA
7. 1962-1964 Vermont Street SUTHERLAND (b)
8. 1964-1965 Franklin Road, CRONULLA
9. 1965-1967 Gosport Street, CRONULLA
10. 1967 Willarong Road, CARINGBAH
11. 1968-1969 Woolooware Road, WOOLOOWARE

Wollongong 1970-1976

12. 1970 Finlayson Street WOLLONGONG (solo)
13. 1970-1971 Princes Highway DAPTO (family moves back ;))
14. 1971-1972 Gilmore Street WOLLONGONG (a) (first flat)
15. 1972-1974 Gilmore Street WOLLONGONG (b) (second flat)
16. 1974-1976 Gilmore Street WOLLONGONG (c) (solo flat)

Sydney 1977-1978

17. 1977-1978 Alexandra Road, GLEBE

Wollongong 1979-1980

18. 1978-1980 Church Street, WOLLONGONG

Sydney 1981-

19. 1981-1983 Forsyth Street, GLEBE
20. 1983-1984 Boyce Street, GLEBE
21. 1984-1986 Buckland Street, CHIPPENDALE
22. 1987 Bennett Street, SURRY HILLS
23. 1987-1988 Forest Street, FOREST LODGE
24. 1988-1990 Rose Terrace, PADDINGTON
25. 1990 Gipps Street, PADDINGTON (chez PK)
26. 1990-1991 George Street, REDFERN (M, Philip & Michael)
27. 1991-1992 Little Everleigh Street, REDFERN (just M)
28. 1992- where I am now, SURRY HILLS— THE RECORD!

On my old Diary-X blog I had a series that pleased some readers (one very much). For each place the idea was to recall a few stories, or to try to capture that time and place. I guess it is the sort of thing a poor old sod does in his dotage! Fortunately, some of the earliest ones survived the great Diary-X crash.

Auburn Street 1943-1952


Auburn Street: the front yard in the 1940s: my brother Ian, sister Jeanette and I

The house is still there; I saw it again about eight years ago, and even more recently with The Rabbit (December 2002). It has not changed all that much, even though its surroundings have. It is still large and rambling, with its tiled-edge verandahs on the north and west sides, its windows with leaded inserts. The palm trees in the front have gone, but the brick fence is still there, and, I fancy, the gravel drive down the northern side of the property. It still sits on the top of the hill from which there is a commanding view of the Royal National Park where fires raged through several remembered summers. Perhaps one day someone will take me there to see it again; I would like that. My brother did much the same when he came up from Tasmania in 2004, drawn as I am to this place and the memories we share of it, and the sister who never left it, perhaps. Part of me and part of him have never left it either, various though our ways have been in the intervening years.

I can tell only fragments; I was too young when I left that place. My brother could tell more.

There was a time when the lights went out almost every night. The adults talked a lot of Mr Chifley.


Mr Chifley

Candlelight, hurricane lamps, one bright Alladin incandescent lamp, and the fuel stove in the kitchen where apple pies and roast dinners filled the air with wonderful smells. At bath time I as the youngest usually scored the bathwater after my brother and sister had finished. The bath was never filled too much, for two reasons: my parents (and especially my grandfather who lived there too until 1948 or 1949) were country people and frugal with water; the other was we had no hot water system, but a chip heater–a woodburning bath heater that had to be fuelled and lit every time someone wanted to have a bath, scattering burning sparks from its narrow chimney that occasionally alarmed the people (Doyles) in the wooden house next door.

The street was a dirt road, washing away into great ruts when it rained heavily enough. Sutherland was still in touch with its semi-rural past then. The site of Gymea High School was still a dairy farm. Old Fred two doors down kept a cow, his backyard extending into a sizeable paddock. In his cowshed he had a gas mask from the war. It fascinated me. The cow terrified me, though its milk sustained me during the war and the period of shortages immediately after. In their backyard the Doyles had a goat.

My brother’s horse, Lassie, possibly the most placid and dopiest horse that ever lived, spent most of its time in the Saunders’s backyard on the other side of our place, but sometimes was let into our yard. My sister would ride it, and would climb the persimmon tree in the backyard. I was too big a woose for those sorts of things, or maybe too young. If Lassie was in our yard she would climb the back steps and stick her head into the kitchen so my mother would give it sugar or carrots. I am sure that horse could grin.

Peter the kelpie dog certainly did. When my grandfather and grandmother moved into a house of their own (which my father built and where an uncle still lives) Peter would accompany my grandfather when he walked from our place to Waratah Street, now Leonay Street. He would go on ahead, stopping at all the places where my grandfather regularly stopped for a chat, as was his wont, and would wait for my grandfather to catch up with him. Eventually Peter would come back home. But one day he didn’t — killed by a car on the Princes Highway. That is the first loss I remember.

Everyone had chickens, and everyone grew their own vegetables. Choko and pumpkin were only too plentiful. We once had a rooster that had been bought to be fattened up for Christmas. My sister, knowing this, christened him “Loppimoff” in reference to his fate. We all made friends with Loppimoff who ruled his roost with a morning crow and a swagger. When the time for his destiny arrived we kids (including my tough big brother, I recall) petitioned Dad to spare him. Chicken was a luxury then and Dad was unsentimental when it came to eating chickens and could not be persuaded. There were tears when the axe fell, especially as Loppimoff put on one last show by running around the yard with his head off. We kids absolutely refused to eat him, which cast a pall on that Christmas, when (as usual) the extended family gathered around the long oak table that had once saved my mother’s life–but that is another story!

That oak table was a wonder to me, great for hiding under. Its length could be doubled by adding pieces into the centre, a process that involved turning a crank that led to a mechanism that made a very satisfactory screeching noise. Twenty people could sit around it. I still have a matching bureau in English oak, which, like the table, had originally belonged to my grandfather and must be at least ninety years old. At a place called Braefield (near Quirindi in North-West NSW) that table apparently did save my mother’s family; they hid under it during a tornado (or willy-willy) while the roof came off their house.

The table was in the back room, I suspect a closed-in verandah. On the right was the kitchen, with its fuel range and enormous electric Early Kooka stove with a Kookaburra logo on the oven door. On the left was a partitioned off area, partitioned with mahogany, behind which I and my brother slept in the last years we were in Auburn Street. At an earlier stage, my Uncle Roy must have had that room, as I was still in a cot in my parents’ room at the front of the house, and my brother was in a sleepout on the side verandah, an area somewhat prone to spiders.

We had an outside toilet, of course, Sutherland not being sewered then; in fact I did not live in a place with a proper sewered toilet until we moved to Cronulla; Jannali and Oyster Bay had septic tanks. There were weekly visits by the dunny man, who came in a malodorous truck and left a Christmas Card in the toilet every year, a rhyming thing from “The Man Who Comes Around”. The custom was to leave a couple of bottles of beer in the toilet in exchange. It was good to keep onside with the dunny man, as he could easily spill his load where you didn’t want it, accidentally of course, if you offended him. Fear is having to go the toilet on dunny man day, knowing he might come barging in and take the can in mid act, so to speak. He never did of course.


Fear was also having to go there at night, since it was the abode of redback spiders (quite venomous) and one took a candle and newspaper to light, to flush the buggers out before you sat down. Happiness was being the first to use a fresh can. At night of course we usually used chamber pots, and the least enviable household chore for a kid was having to “empty the slops.” This is partly why every backyard had a patch of rampant nasturtium or pumpkin vines. I once caught my brother doing something strange into the chamber pot. He tried to explain to me there was something in his penis (a word he did not use — I think he just said “in there” as we rarely mentioned our bodily parts) and it had to get out, and not to tell Mum. I was suitably mystified.

Illness was an ever-present thing. Antibiotics existed but were still unusual. I used to take fits until I was about four or so. I once must have had one in the street outside the front of the house, because I passed out and cracked my head and Old Fred carried me in. The house was completely quarantined once when my sister had Scarlet Fever. Old Doctor Miles, who brought me into the world and saw my sister out of it, used to come at any hour of the night or day. I can’t recall ever being taken to his surgery while we lived in Auburn Street; he always appeared beside the bed carrying his big black bag, and looking remarkably like a koala. He prescribed, usually, very tasty cough medicines, and barley water, and beef tea. I do seem to recall having to take revolting pink cubes–sulfa drugs I believe–for something or other. I had to wear special shoes and visit a Macquarie Street specialist regularly as I had something wrong with my feet; I did not go barefoot (except at the beach) until I was about ten or eleven. I also had to swallow enormous amounts of fizzy calcium drinks, and cod-liver-oil emulsion which came, much to my delight, in a bottle shaped like a fish. Some brands tasted better than others. My grandmother believed in Friar’s Balsam on sugar as a sure thing for bronchitis. It is like eating tar. My father still believed that burning sulphur and breathing the smoke might cure
something: prepare you for one version of the next life maybe, but it is absolutely vile, I can tell you.

One of the mysteries in the back yard was a well with a concrete dome on it. There was a concrete slab covering the hole in the top, but you could still drop things in and wait for the splash. We thought it was bottomless, and quite scary at times. Quite possibly gnomes or bunyips lived in it.

At the bottom of the backyard was a line of gum trees, a paling fence with allegedly poisonous gourds growing on it, and in front of that the chook yard. The story goes, as I can’t remember this, that my grandmother (whose nerves were not good as she had two sons and one son-in-law away in the War) was coming back one day from feeding the chooks when an American in a Kittyhawk or a Mustang appeared at treetop level and chased her up the yard. Convinced it was a Zero and she was about to die, my grandmother dropped everything, screamed, and ran for the house.

I do remember sitting on my dinkie on the gravel drive, near the Dorothy Perkins climbing rose which I called Mrs Perkins and confused with the lady next door who I thought was also Mrs Perkins. A yellow biplane flew over very low and the pilot leaned out and waved to me. My mother later told me that must have been the end of World War II.


Tiger Moth

My father was a worried man. His youngest son had blond curly hair, a lisp, a certain sickliness, a teddy bear named Sookle, and too many years during the War of “petticoat government”. His older son was dark and lean, good with his hands, fond of horse riding and sports, and a good shot. His daughter–well, she was a girl, and none the worse for that–of a sweet nature, but a promising runner. The youngest son, though, needed to be taken in hand, and had a tendency to ask too many questions, give cheek, and not eat his vegetables.

“Listen son, if you have the Devil on your back, get him off or I will knock him off.”
“Don’t worry, Daddy; I have the Devil in my heart as well as Jesus.”

Father dissolves.

“Grandpa (Old Tom, Dad’s father, staying with us once) is he bothering you? If he talks too much send him out.”
“Who’s listening, love?” Old Tom indicates his hearing aid is switched off.

“Jussa, you know you make Daddy angry. Why do you do it?” My sister. I was called “Jussa” because when asked to do something (usually when I had my nose in a book and that was even before I had started school) I would reply “I was jussa gonna do that.” Mostly I didn’t do it. I’m afraid that habit is not quite dead.

Grandpa Christison had one eye, an eyepatch over the empty socket, the result of a too realistic sword fight with sticks in his own childhood. He had just retired from teaching, and was endlessly patient. Once he was down in the vegetable garden, digging, weeding, planting. This must have been before 1948. No, I know what he must have been doing–putting out snailbait, or picking snails off his growing lettuces or cabbages or whatever. I was very curious about snails, spending hours watching them. I asked him about snails, in fact to be precise I asked “What are snails for?” Even then I was preposition-aware! Grandpa gave me the complete rundown on snails, their life cycle, their diet, their mode of locomotion… “Yes, Grandpa–but what are snails for?” Even his patience had limits, as he called to my mother, “Get this kid out of here!”

The only other boy in the street, Alan, was maybe a year younger than I; his sister Deidre was in my sister’s set, along with Gail Mack from over the road (who once invited me to see her pee) and Connie down the hill, whose family kept ducks. Alan and Deidre’s father was a bit, you know, peculiar, not that I can recall seeing him more than once. Apparently he had escaped the Japanese in Timor in an open boat and made his way to the Australian mainland but was never the same again. Alan liked to play “rudies” under his house; it was all quite innocent really.

There is a photo of Jeanette (my sister), Gail and Connie in the front yard of Mrs Mack’s house. Hey, I’d forgotten–Gail had a brother called Geoff, but for some reason I never had much to do with him; he later went to Sydney Grammar, I know that. I am, as usual, crashing the girls’ party. I am squatted down in front of them with a truly evil squint on my face.


…a truly evil squint on my face…

After my grandparents and Uncle Roy moved out to their own place around 1949, and I had just begun school where I shocked the Kindergarten teacher by writing “Sydney Morning Herald” and the date on the blackboard but showed no aptitude in craft, I made a new friend. I spent more and more time with Tommy, Old Fred’s son; he had the most wonderful books which he let me borrow. Mostly they were the old Warnes “Wonder Book” series, prewar most of them, but I devoured the lot. Tommy showed me color slides too of overseas places and flying boats taking off. It was wonderful.


Rose Bay Flying Boat Base

He showed me his rock collection, and I decided then and there I would be a scientist. I seem to remember announcing to the family that I would be a professor one day, and once when we drove past Sydney University for some reason said “I’m going there.” No-one in my family had, up to that point.

Well, a bit of it came true. And if you want to know who Tommy was — he died just a few years ago — read the passage just below these paragraphs, and this review of his last work. When I arrived at Sydney University as a sixteen-year-old in 1960, one of the first people I saw was Tommy who greeted me warmly; I was surprised he recognised me and a bit shy to be so addressed by the eminent petrologist Doctor Vallance.

Tommy was, as you might gather, a bit older than I; I seem to recall my parents apologising to him if I was making a nuisance of myself, but apparently he didn’t mind my frequent visits. I still remember an argument Tommy had with Old Fred, though this may have been later, when I was living in Vermont Street but used to go back to Auburn Street every now and again. The Vallances were strong Methodists, but old Fred apparently (and surprisingly) had a liking for Alexander Pope, and the argument was about Catholics. “Well,” said Tommy to Fred, “that Alexander Pope you are so fond of was a Catholic.” “Pope by name and Pope by nature, eh,” replied Fred. A bonus in visiting Tommy was that Mrs Vallance was always making cakes and let me lick out the mixing bowl. She was a Scot who reminded me of the Queen (no, not that one–the Queen Mother; George VI was still alive at this point.)

My Uncle Roy kept in touch with the Vallances; he was a regular visitor to Old Fred up until Fred died at a very advanced age; I can remember Roy bringing Old Fred down to Wollongong to visit my mother some time around 1973 or 1974.

The Vallance collection, purchased from the private library of the late Professor Tom Vallance, contains between 10,000 and 15,000 volumes as well as 3,000 offprints and 1000 maps, as well as some long runs of geological journals. The collection contains major works in mineralogy, petrology, palaeontology, natural philosophy, geology and geography from the 19th century and selected works from the early 20th century. (www.lib.unimelb.edu.au/cmc/ESCI.PDF )

A couple of clarifications:

My speech defect was more what you might call an Elmer Fudd phenomenon, not uncommon, and had passed by the time I reached school. I do recall being “chipped” about it when we were having a holiday at Dunsters’ Guest House in Shellharbour. I was fascinated by the still very visible wreck of an American oil tanker that had come to grief on Bass Point during World War II. Or “the WECK” as I kept calling it–“wunning down the woad to see the weck” seemed a good thing to me. Interestingly, I still have a trace of another phonological problem I had, a difficulty with the F sound. If you know me, listen carefully if ever you hear me speak.

“Rudies” sounds a bit risque to some perhaps, but consisted (did you really want to know) in flashing a bit of bare bottom at each other! Little boys! Oh, I passed up on Gail’s offer, by the way. Now that may have been significant! 😉

Sookle was probably the ugliest bear the world had ever seen. I think he had one button eye missing when I last saw him. I had given up Sookle as a regular friend well before I went to school, but used to visit him in the hall cupboard where he lived from time to time. I do remember being very upset when my father decided to burn him, though–so was my mother I seem to remember. Decades later Cedric, a therapist, seemed to think this was a rather important moment in my relationship with my father…

Return to Family Pics for My Brother.

Read about the Christisons.

6 thoughts on “About the Whitfields: Wandering Willie’s Tales

  1. Yeah we lived at 137 Acacia Road – next door to the macleans who you may have known.Mr Vallance was in the house directly behind us. When I asked mum about it on the weekend she recalls old Mr Vallance giving us ducks (she has dementia but recalls these things). Our chook yard and the vallances chook yard backed on to each other. We did not get to Sutherland until 1960 so I do not know who was in the house before that – I think it was about seven years old when we moved in. PS Bit worried about my icon!

  2. Thanks, and what a coincidence! Yes, Fred was alive well into the 1970s at least! His place (like ours) backed onto Acacia Road properties. My uncle Neil Christison lived in Acacia Road for years.

  3. Again I hope this gets through to you. By coincidence I have just left a comment on your Surry Hills blog seeking info on Surry Hills as I lived in Surry Hills between 1953 and 1956. Then I see where your site has a Sutherland link and as my family moved to Sutherland in 1960 (now five children under 9) I was curious to read your descriptions of living in Sutherlad during that time. Even though we arrived in 1960 (lived on Acacia Road just off President Avenue) reading your stories of chokoes, outhouses, chickens,, dirt roads, etc, was like reading my own story. So thank you very nmuch for evoking such memories. I also remember the name of Fred Vallance but I cannot place how I knew him – maybe a name that Dad knew.

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