Interview Transcript from Illawarra Stories Wollongong City Libraries Oral History Project – Bert and Phyllis Ferry
Interviewer: Tom Hadley
Interview Date: 30 June 1995
Tom It’s Friday the 30th of June and I’m at uh, Bert and Phyllis Ferry’s house in Corrimal. Hello, I’m Tom Hadley and you’re listening to In My Day. Oh, my guests are Bert Ferry and Phyllis Ferry from, from Corrimal. Bert was born in ah, Sunderland ah, in 1921 and um, and his wife er, Phyllis was born here in Corrimal ah, seven years later. Ah, Bert came to Australia um, uh, when he was four years of age with his father ah, who was um, working on ah, on the Sydney Harbour Bridge. So ah, where should we begin Burt?
Bert Well ah, I suppose we should ah, begin ah, where I was born in Sunderland.
Tom Ha hm.
Bert I was born in a ah, heritage area, what is a heritage area today ah, born at home like everybody was in those days. Ah, I was born ah, with a terrible depression in the left side of the head. That ah, quite alarmed my parents. They thought that I’d never be normal, but it grew out over a lot of years, and the hair used to be combed over it so nobody could see that it was there.
Ah, then we came out by boat ah, separately. My father six months ahead of us to set up home and we followed six months later with a mother and the four children. There was 250 children ah, had ah, measles on board the boat, and I was one of them. Uh, we arrived in Australia and Dad had bought second-hand furniture, rented a place and set things up for us. But the, the, their furniture unfortunately was full of borers. The length of time we had it, we could see ho-, more holes going into the furniture, dust falling out everywhere before it finally collapsed, and we had to get new furniture. We’re in Sydney, we were living there ah, on the North Shore side before the Harbour Bridge was built of course, and it was ah, a beautiful area then. It was ah, the harbour was lovely, and I spent most of my young boyhood days around Middle Harbour and Sydney Harbour in boats and canoes and swimming. It was great. Ah, we were in seven places in Sydney, because the people that rented the homes out, they put the rent up. They’ll have it low for you to get into it. Then after a certain time they keep putting it up, and it went from 15 shillings up to 30 shillings a week and by the time it got to 30 shillings, we moved out and started all over again at 15 shillings a week. And finally, we, we, er, we settled in one place after many years. And we stopped there for quite a few years.
Tom And so um, and I understand that you were a, a keen cyclist in those days, and-
Bert Yes, I, I was a member of ah Northern Suburbs Cycle Club. And we used to go to er, in the summertime, we used to ah, cycle on the track. Was a all-road cycling in the winter and ah, track riding in the summer. We’d go across the Harbour Bridge with the, without lights on, without brakes that were fixed wheel. We used to go to ah, Pratten Park at Ashfield.
Bert And ah, we’d, we had many falls, many spills but we, none of us got hurt badly.
Tom Except I understand that there ah was an incident with your brother coming down the Bulli Pass once, is that right?
Bert Ah yes, that was one of many instances. He, we, we rode down to Wollongong one day, and ah, I was in front of him and I, I just got round the elbow. But unfortunately for him he, he couldn’t get round and he went over the safety fence. I waited for him for 15 minutes to arrive down the bottom of the Pass. I realised he’d had an accident, and he came down with skin and bruises, at the bottom of the Pass [laughs] but we still continued on to Wollongong, nevertheless.
Tom I also understand that um, er, you used to collect bottles in those days, soft drinks bottles-
Bert Oh, yes.
Tom to get the money back.
Bert Yes, we. When we, at the time we, we switched from ah, slip wheel to fixed wheel for the track season, the brother was collecting soft drink bottles and he stuffed them all down his shirt and he rode down to get the money for the soft drink bottles. And he forgot he had a fixed wheel and he went to slip wheel, and he went over the handlebars. All the bottle cracked, there’s bits of glass [laughs] But ah, he ran into the back of a double decker bus one day, because we used to get the vacuum behind the double decker bus.
Bert They used to draw us along, and he didn’t put the brakes on quick enough and ah, it bent the whole frame of the bike, and the wheel come alongside the bike that [laughs] that was another one of the incidents.
Tom Yeah well my ah, my first bike was a fixed wheel too so I know, I know the feeling, they were really fast but they’re a little hard to stop. [Bert laughs] And, and your father was a, what was called an, an anglesmith on the Harbour Bridge.
Bert Yeah, actually they called him a frame turner in England and he used to do ah, all the framework for the ships, and he used to bend it all, all had to be done in a furnace. He had four mates and they had ah, cranes of some sort, description, to lift them out of the furnace and bend them. [clears throat] Very hard work and it was all piece work, and they got ah, a different price for all the different types of material they used, they got a different price.
Bert So he had a big book when he come to Australia, he thought when he worked on the Harbour Bridge it would be piece work.
Bert So he brought his book with him, but he never needed it, there was no piece work on the Harbour Bridge.
Tom And ah, then um ah, you ah, you left school at ah, what 14?
Bert 14, yeah
Tom Did you go into the same um, trade that your father was in?
Bert Well, Dad never wanted me to go into ah, any sort of ah, the type of work he’d been in, physical work ah, any sort of a trade, because it was terribly hard work in his days, and he didn’t want his son to follow into it. So I went into office work and I had two years in office work in Sydney. It was various companies and ah, I never could stand it. Never, it was ah, something that was ah, just not, I wasn’t suited to it
Bert So we, I moved, came down to the coast and I served me time at the Steelworks as a Fitter and Turner.
Tom So what was it like ah, working in the Steelworks back then Bert?
Bert Well when I first started serving my time in the first two months I was down there, I used a hammer and chisel,[laughs] with a lot of other apprentices and for eight weeks all we did was use a hammer and chisel. But ah, [inaudible] starts with that, I was, I had some very interesting times, when I served me time. Oh, ah, 12 months in their power station, Steelworks Power Station, which was very interesting. At the, actually ah, by the time I finished serving me time, I was enjoying the trade.
Tom And you lived what, with em, an, an Irish couple, the O’Reilly’s for some time
Bert Ah, when we first came down here it was very hard to find a place to stop. And er, we got in touch with an old Irish couple in High Street, Corrimal and it was an old Irish sheep farmer with his wife Bridget. And they gave us a, a, a room in the front of the house which the furn- their parents packed all their furniture around them. All they had was in this one room and the bed was in the middle of it. And I was on an open front verandah and ah, we stopped there for a lot of years in this one place ’til we saved up enough money to, to get the father to buy a home.
Tom And ah, are you, I recall you telling me a story about when your father was living um, or when you were living um, near Middle Harbour and your dad was given a job to er, to dig out a, a, a, a fig tree.
Bert Oh yes, my father got the offer of a job to, to dig out a fig tree so ah, he spent a week, at least a week on it. Trying to dig this great fig tree out, and he got 10 pounds at the end of it. And finally they, they blasted it out with dynamite.
Tom So this was um, this was what, during the, what they call The Depression. Is that right?
Bert Dad was out of work from 1932 to 1935. He had two gardens about a mile apart and one of them, that was a, the mile away, it got raided and he lost all his vegetables so that finished that garden. He didn’t use it anymore. But ah, one instance he had ah, he used to go down the bush to ah, cut stakes for his tomatoes and he stood on an ants nest, a bull ants nest. But uh, cut these stakes and didn’t realise that, that the bull ants [laughs] any rate, all of a sudden we saw Dad racing home run through the house and he couldn’t get his clothes off quick enough. [laughs]
Tom So he was he was um, he was an Englishman in Australia really, was he?
Bert Well, they weren’t used to this sort of thing, you see. They didn’t realise about the ants ah, about the mosquitoes, and, and they didn’t realise about the noises in the ground of a night time. And the mother she wouldn’t go out of a night time when she first came out here. She heard all these noises in the ground and she was frightened to go outside ’til she realised they were harmless.
Tom So ah, is that how you survived with the veggie gardens? What, was there something called the dole or something [inaudible]
Bert Yeah, there was the dole. It was ah, only six shillings and eight pence a week. And Dad got a little bit of relief work now and again, it got a little bit of relief work and he, he tried to pick up odd jobs. He used to put a concrete path down, or something like that and we struggled through. Ah, the brother he worked on a, on the bread cart and he worked on that for years, and then he, he worked in a pastry cook shop and learnt to be a pastry cook.
And he went to the war. And ah, he went to England and he met his grandmother in England, after all the years, he was separated from 19 ah, 25 to ah, he went over there 19 ah, with the start of the war in 1939. He was in the 6th Division and they went to England because they thought Hitler was going to invade England. So he went up and met his grandmother, and that was great for his grandmother you see, and unfortunately he got killed in the Middle East.
Tom Oh did he.
Bert He went to ah, he went to Greece, Crete and he was in Africa, Northern Africa, and then he was in ah, Syria. And he got killed in ah, in Israel.
Tom And ah, so er, how old were you when ah, you and Phyllis met?
Bert Beg your pardon.
Tom You, you and Phyllis met in what, around about 1947 is that?
Bert Yeah, Phyl was ah, when we met Phyl was ah, she was not quite 18. She was 17 and I was 24. And ah, we sort of hit off straight away. We really got on well together and ah-
Phyllis Still do.
Bert We were going to, we were going together for 6 months, 7 months actually, we got engaged.
Tom There was a-
Bert 12 months after we got married.
Tom Oh really, oh. I, I understand that there was a minor incident with a with a surf ski. I think you were one of the first people to have surf skis.
Bert Yeah, I the first one to get a ski in Corrimal Surf Club and ah, I had a double ski. I took Phyl’s friend out on the ski and ah, she got frightened and I warned her that if I turn sideways, we’d get tipped off and we’d be in trouble, but she, she wouldn’t go out any further. So I turned sideways and I got tipped off. I held her up and put me arm up and one of the other blokes come out from the, from the Surf Club and er, and took her in to the shore. When I got back to shore, I asked Phyl to go out with me and she was great. We went out two years, and we never came off once in 2 years and she wasn’t a bit frightened. She was game as anything.
Tom Before the break we were talking about the time when um, um, Bert met Phyl, and ah, perhaps you could now tell me something about the sharks that er, were around at that time.
Bert Well at that time there were a lot of sharks in the ocean and there was people, every year in Sydney, somebody was taken by a shark in the harbour. People were very afraid of sharks. They, they realised they were, were a danger. There was a carnival at Wollongong City Beach and there was about 1,000 people on the beach this particular day. Quite a good surf rolling, at ah, Tim Finn of Corrimal Surf Club, he drew the patient swim and he very, he was the fastest swimmer on the coast at that time. He got to the tins ahead of everybody else and the people following, the two patients following from the different clubs. But just as they were going through the curl of the wave there was two sharks swimming towards them, one directly towards one swimmer er, he would only be an arms length away from this shark, the other one was swimming along the wave towards the other swimmer. Both swimmers look directly at the shark and everybody on the beach screamed when they saw these sharks so close. They turned and went back to the beach and the boats endeavoured to chase the sharks away. There was five in total, five sharks, and they had to cancel the surf the ah, the ah, the surf carnival because the sharks never left. They kept, were there the whole time. But ah, but Corrimal Beach, we had sharks following us and we used to chase them by hitting the water with the flat on the paddle. They often used to follow us ah, they were bronze whalers. Tosser Green and I often had experiences with the sharks. I had one, one day ah, when I was fishing. We used to fish off the skis, we had little seats that sat on the skis and we used to tie up our ah, bag with our fishing lines in onto one strap with our seat onto the other so we wouldn’t lose them. We’d stand up when it was calm, the sea, and we’d paddle out, sit down nice and dry and we go out 3 mile fishing. And ah, this particular day I was on my own and I was out fishing and the whole sea was full of whitebait and ah, this big shark swam right underneath the ski. I didn’t bother pulling up the line, it looked too sinister. So I paddled probably 4 or 500 yards. I thought oh, I’ll be right, I’ll fish here, and then unexpectedly, this shark came right out of the water. And he didn’t enter the water like what porpoises or dolphins come in and out the water. He just flops straight in the water sideways. The spray come all over me. Really frightened me and I, I, I paddled into the beach and I thought that’s too close for safe, too close to stop out there when it’s like that. But ah, we had school sharks used to come along the beach, we used to chase them. But there was many times when we went out fishing, we’d have circles, sharks circling round as well. We went out 3 mile, on the flathead, we used to catch the flathead out there, but these sharks used to circle around us. It was an awful feeling when they got behind you [laughs], it’s alright while you could see them
Tom And did, did you see porpoises and dolphins as well?
Bert Ah, dolphins, they used to ride the waves in with us. We used to get the, the, oh there’s so many dolphins in those days. We’d ride the breakers in, on the reef out there, and they’d be coming in all round us. It was a terrific experience, but ah, all through the years I’ve had dolphins around me, I’ve had them under me feet. Even, even in recent years, I’ve had them all round me. It’s a, it’s great to be out with them.
Tom Yeah, yeah they say they’re very intelligent and communicate with people.
Bert Ah, it’s a marvellous feeling to be out with these wild dolphins. We were actually in New Zealand and we, we, we, we saw a whole, what would you call it? Ah, school of dolphins. There was hundreds, as far as you could see, and as soon as they saw the boat, they come straight for the boat. They love boats to play around the boats and this was at ah, Kaikoura
Tom Ah ha.
Bert Kaikoura, that is, the Maori’s take out to, to see the whales and dolphins and ah, I’ve never seen so many dolphin.
Tom So you’re still swimming and surfing regularly?
Bert Ah yes, I, I love the surf. In the, in the summertime, I spend an hour to two hours in the surf, when the water’s warm but the wintertime I have been me swim and get out.
Tom And you still see dolphins and porpoises?
Bert Oh, yes, I, I ah, actually I was swimming at North Wollongong last year. Ah, I’ve seen them quite often, but this particular time I was swimming er, like at North Wollongong Beach and I could see this, what I thought was a fin behind me. I thought is it a, is it just the choppy water, or is it a fin or imagine things you know, and I said, I kept on swimming and then, all of a sudden there was a school of porpoises around me. I realised I was safe then. [laughs]
Tom So there, there are no sharks where there are porpoises or?
Bert No, no, that’s not true. There’s sharks where there’s porpoises. If porpoises are feeding on ah, if they feed, or dolphins, if they’re feeding on fish, the sharks are around, could be around too. It’s unlikely these days because there doesn’t seem to be many sharks around.
Tom Yeah, yeah, so you think they’ve been netted?
Bert I think so. I think the ah, the foreign ah, fishing fleets have, have ah, got rid of a lot of sharks.
Tom And um, how many children have you, have you two had?
Bert Two. We had a boy and a girl. The son now, he’s a, he’s a school teacher. He’s got to, he’s a science master and ah, he’s now at, working at ah, Wollongong University.
Tom Yes, yes.
Bert The daughter, she was ah, Dux of Corrimal High School, Captain of Corrimal High School, and ah, she befriended that ah, a Chinese girl from Hong Kong, Christina, Christina Lamb. And ah, she brought her home and for two years she was bringing Christina home, and the son and Christina started going out together, unbeknown to mum and dad. And the next thing we heard, they were engaged. And of course mum and dad got a bit of a shock at the time, and they thought, what about the children? But then we decided that was stupid.
Bert Times are changing, there’ll be no problem with the children.
Bert And we, we, we, we, we, decided we weren’t going to worry about it, and there was no need to worry about it, it was great.
Tom And you had um er, two weddings in, in a short space of time as well, is that right?
Phyllis That’s right, yes
Bert Yes, they had their weddings close together, then they had their children close together [laughs]
Phyllis Pregnant together with their first child, and together with their second child, and my daughter in law decided, well you know, that was enough but my daughter, having had two boys, decided she’d have a third try for a daughter.
Phyllis And on the third time, she got twin sons, so finished up with four boys [laughs].
Tom So um, so do you go surfing and swimming with your grandchildren?
Bert Oh yeah, they ride the breakers great? My daughter does. She, she goes out there and she rides the breakers to the beach. But they all do. So I get out there with me four grandchildren, have ah the boys, but the girls are good swimmer’s but they don’t go out surfing but the, the boys do. Have the, the daughter and the son, and we’re all out there riding breakers into the beach together. It’s great. I never thought I’d be doing it [laughs], I’m lucky I am.
Tom Well, I think perhaps because the more you do it, the more you’re going to do it, you know.
Bert Oh, I enjoy it and I, I, I thought when I had the heart attacks that would be the finish but it was different altogether. I’ve got over them that well, no trouble.
Tom Bert and Phyllis it’s been a real pleasure speaking with you and I look forward to meeting you again, perhaps hearing some more of your stories.
Bert Ah we could go on forever but whether people are interested in our stories is another matter [laughs].
Tom I think you’ll find that you’ll probably start getting some fan mail as well.
Bert I don’t think so, we’re uh, we’re lucky in life, what we’ve had, we’re happy with what we’ve got in life.
Tom Thank you again.
Phyllis Thank you.