Interview Transcript from Illawarra Stories Wollongong City Libraries Oral History Project –
David John Ritter (Part 5 of 6)
Interviewer: Jo David
Interview date: 22 April 2016
Jo: Dapto Oral History Project. Today we are talking to David John Ritter, of Dapto born on the 5th November 1944 at Crow’s Nest, New South Wales. Hello David, thank you for speaking with us today.
David: That’s all right.
Jo: Now David you attended St. John’s school here at Dapto.
David: I sure did.
Jo: Yeah, you’ve got a little bit of background about St. John’s you’d like to share with us.
David: Yes. We don’t know if, was St John’s but in 1880, Mary MacKillop, now Saint Mary MacKillop, approached the Bishop of Brisbane asking if she could set up a school in Brisbane, or, and the Bishop up there refused. So undaunted she came down to Sydney, saw the Bishop in Sydney and the Bishop said, “Yes, you can set up a school in Dapto.” So, in 1880 she, she arrived with, I think it was with four Nuns, arrived out at West Dapto. Out there at that stage was an old school, the church, and of course our Parish priest, and the Parish priest at that time was Father Petrie. When they arrived Petrie said, “Well, you better live at my place.” And he moved out, and he went down to Albion Park, and in 1881 he became the Parish priest of Albion Park. So, in 1880 we obtained a school, but lost our Parish priest. Right – so the school was set up there at West Dapto in 1880, then in 1900 it was moved from West Dapto to Jeramatta Street where it is today. The reason it was moved was because a) the old school was right in the middle of a flood plain, and they got flooded out a few times.
So, I actually started at St. John’s in February 1950. In that, those days it was just a little school in a L-shaped. There were 3 classrooms, the front classroom on to Jeramatta Street was 5th and 6th class. The, um, little L-shape that used to face out towards the old church was 3rd and 4th class and of course, ah, the back section, closest to the Convent was where 1st and 2nd class was. There was no kindergarten, no preschool in those days. You started school when you were 5. I think if you turned 5 before 30th June you could start that year, but if you turned 5 after the 1st, on the 1st of July or after, you had to wait to the year after to start school. When I started at school, I think there would have been no more than 60 students in the whole school. Ah, as I said there were 3 teachers, each teacher would serve, have 2 classes going at the same time, teaching both 1st class, 1st class and 2nd class and 3rd and 4th class.
Ah, the Sisters I remember when I started were Sister Bernard Joseph who I think was Mother Superior, Sister Benedict and Sister Cornelius. Now Sister Cornelius was the scourge. [laughter]
Jo: Had to have one I guess, eh!
David: Ah, I remember when we were in 2nd class and heading towards the end of the year, we keep saying, “We hope Sister Cornelius is not doing 3rd and 4th class next year.” [laughs] Oh! We were terrified of her. Anyway, we were lucky because in 3rd and 4th class we didn’t have Sister Cornelius, she went on to do 5th and 6th class, I think, and we got another teacher.
Um, some of the children I started school with, Athol Duff, Bob Heininger, as we know Heininger house over here. Carl Neilson, ah, Michael Raft, ah, a boy known by the name of Tony Noonan. Um, Sammy Downs, they started in my year. The girls I remember, I don’t remember all of them, but I know there was, ah, Gloria ?Vanero?, one of the old families from Dapto here, and of course, course the Campbell girls, Jean, Gwennie and Jeanie. Actually, it should be Jeanie and Gwennie because Jeannie was older. Ah, they started the year I did. I remember at the same time there was a young novice had just started in, in St. Joseph’s order. And, ah, I remember saying to myself, “Why would such a young, lovely young woman, give up her life to become a nun?” She went on to become Sister ?Dara?
David: Right – now things I do remember about the school, ah, apart from being in the school of course, on the Friday afternoon the Sisters would go over to the Presbytery and get out the brass candles and polish them up. So, I’d go over there on a Friday afternoon and help polish up the candle sticks and I’d get some chocolate biscuits.
Jo: Ah hah! [laughter]
David: The sisters also had their own garden; they grew a lot of their own veggies. They had a lovely plum tree, it’s no longer there, but beautiful plumb tree, red plum, blood red plum tree. Ah, they grew a lot of their own flowers for the Church. Ah, most, the first couple of years the Sisters were quite timid, didn’t do much at all. Then we, when we got, oh, by the way when I started in 1950, it would have been the 50th anniversary of St John’s in Jeramatta Street.
Jo: Oh, ok, been there 50 years, right.
David: Been there 50 years ‘cos they got there in 1900 and I started there in 1950, so it would have been their 50th anniversary at Wero-, in Jeramatta Street. And then when I was in 5th class, it would have been their 75th anniversary of being in Dapto. Right, ‘cos they started 1880 and I was there in 18-, 1955. In, in 1955, when we got to 5th and 6th class, we had a new teacher arrive, her name was Sister Gerrard ?Magella? not as bad as Sister Cornelius, but not far off! [laughter]
Jo: So, were these extra teachers because there was more students or they were being replaced?
David: No, they’d be replaced, usually replaced.
David: Teachers, teachers, the Nuns got replaced on a pretty regular basis. Ah, by the time I got to 4th and 5th class Sister Benedict was gone, Sister Bernard Joseph was gone, and some of the others had gone. There was about 6 Nuns there at the time, 3 teaching, 1 music teacher with the fourth teacher, and the other two usually did the housework and general, you know, cooking and so forth, round, round the house.
Ah, I do know that the Sisters used to get their groceries from a shop on the highway, owned by um, Mr Thompson. That’s where they got all their basic groceries from, they would have an account with them.
But getting back to Sister Gerard Magella, now she was rather intriguing because to me she was like a Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde character, right. In classroom she could be very, very strict, but when it was play time or lunch time, ah, she’d come out in to the playground and if the boys had their little 24 inch bikes, she’d get on the bike and she’d ride the bike around the class-, around, around the yard. Ah, she played vigoro with the girls. Now people might ask what’s vigoro, right. Well in those days’ boys played cricket and girls played vigoro.
David: Now vigoro was basically the same rules as cricket, right, but the bat was a pad shape and had leather padding on it. The girls bowled under arm, not over arm…
Jo: Oh, okay.
David: But it was basically a girl’s form of cricket, not heard of today, girls play cricket, but in those days, it was vigoro. Ah, I remember because in those days 30, 31, 30, 32, 34 and 36, those four blocks in Werowi Street were our playground. Now, we used to play ‘piggy in the middle’. Sometimes at school, piggy in the middle, sometimes at school, ‘British Bulldog’, depend-, depending on where you are and who’s there. We would be down on the western end, that would be our section, and the girls had the, ah, the eastern end, they played up in that section. There was no mingling of the girls and the boys during, during periods of time like that. Only in classroom, but even there the boys sat together, and the girls sat together.
Jo: Did that happen naturally, or did the, the nurses separate, ah the Nuns separate you?
David: I don’t know, I think it’s just natural, they just put the boys together and the girls sat together. Ah, one of my recollections of that, of, ah, going to St John’s was, every lunch time I used to get a bleeding nose because Athol Duff used to punch me on the nose. [laughter] Why he did it I do not know but every day I used to get this bleeding nose from Athol.
Um, now some of the boys that I remember were, um, and this is interesting because we had kids coming up from Marshall Mount, West Dapto and even as far as Unanderra, used to come to the school. Now are you aware of Hayward Bay?
Jo: Uh huh.
David: Right, well the family that lived on Hayward Bay back when I was going to school, was a family by the name of Downses. There was Mervin, Beverley and Sammy. Now they would work, get up in the morning, do their chores then go up to Yallah Station catch the train at Yallah Station, come to Dapto, come up to the school, attend school, after school they’d go back, catch the train back to Yallah, back home and do more chores. We had another family of Downses that lived out at, on Darkes Road. Um, they were related.
Jo: Okay. [Laughs] [DR] How related the Downses. The other, had other families out further on West Dapto that used to come in by the milk lorry.
David: Right. Ah, then of course down the end of Fowlers Road, up the end of, um, Kanahooka Road, virtually the last house at the end of Kanahooka Road was the O’Leary’s, ah, Gwyn and, um, Lorna O’Leary. Now their children were, Peter, Rosemary and Paul, about my age, or Peter and Rosemary were slightly older than me, then there was Paul was either my age or younger. This was in 1950 to 1956.
Then in the late 1980’s I found out that Lorna O’Leary’s children were my third cousins.
Jo: Oh really. [laughter] There you go.
David: You don’t know who you go to school with.
Jo: No, no that’s right.
David: Um, so, then, we had then a, basically, in the first year we had a fairly large crowd of kids there. Ah, I had a photograph which I didn’t bring down with me, and in that photograph you have Neil Neilson, you have the Clarke twins, you have I think Raymond Downs, there’s, ah, Blue Podnicks, Mervyn Downs, Sammy Downs, you’ve got Phil Noonan, you’ve got Tony Noonan you’ve got Bob Heininger, um, myself, Athol Duff, and there’s a couple of others that I, not quite sure.
Jo: Is this for the school photo?
David: This is a school photo. I’m trying, trying to figure out when the year was. It was either ’52, I think it’s ’52 or maybe ’53 but definitely no later than 50-, ’53. And then of course we then got the influx of the English kids coming in, or the £10 Poms came in, and of course then our, then our class, then our school changed slightly. Some of the ones that had been there, the Neilson’s moved out and they went up to, to Hunter Valley. Um, Lou Podnicks then moved on to high school. And then we had the likes of Johnny Bulger, who was from Northern Ireland. Johnny had to repeat a class, because of the trouble in Ireland, Northern Ireland, they, his family came out here, and his mother worked at the Dapto Post Office as a postie. Um, then there was Dennis Sleigh, they lived down the bottom of Yalunga Road. Um, who else was there? Oh, Brian Pearson, the Pearson’s came out from Corrimal way and they had the little shop across the road from where McDonalds is today.
Jo: Oh, okay.
David: There was a little shop there that they ran there. Um, who else was there? Phillip Hartley was there. Also, in year 5 there was Warwick Walters, Paul O’Leary, and then of course the girls had changed by then too, some girls had left, others had come. Um, we had the likes of Patricia Fay, um, Loretta, Prim-, ah, Loretta Primmer was there, a girl of Timbs. I remember the girl of Timbs because she shoved a pencil into my leg, [laughter] broke, broke the lead off in me leg. [laughter]
Jo: Oh, dear.
David: Ohh, nasty girl she was, nasty girl. Her father, her father was the, ah, barber in, in Bong Bong Road and also the S.P. Bookie on, on the corner of Station Street and Bong Bong Road.
Um, then of course in 1956 was our final year there. Um, and that year we were sitting for our primary final, and also we did Confirmation that year, so it was pretty intense.
David: And I remember in the class Sister Gerard Magella used to pick on poor old Johnny Bulger and Patricia Fay, oh, quite you know, all the time, forever picking on them. And I remember one time there Sister Gerard Magella said to John Bulger, she said. “You’re not going to pass your primary final this year John.” She said. “If you do, next year I’ll teach your chook!” So, everything went all right, we all sat for our primary final, waited till the results came out in the Mercury the following January, and of course Johnny Bulger passed. So, we off to Christian Brothers college in Wollongong, and coming home on the train one day I said to Johnny, I said. “Oh, let’s go up to the convent to see Sister Gerard Magella.”
John says. “Why?”
I said. “No particular reason.” So, he wanders up the road with me, because he lived just up, up the hill and down Mulda Street from where I was, so we goes up to the convent, knocks on the back door, one of the Sisters, Joseph, comes out and says, “Yes boys? What can I do?”
I said. “Oh.” I said. “We’d like to see Sister Gerard Magella.”
She said. “Who’s calling?”
I said. “Some ex-pupils.”
So, she goes in and next minute Sister Gerard Magella comes out to the back door and said, “Oh, David and John, how are you?”
We said. “Good.”
I said. “We just called in to see how the chook was going!” [laughter]
Jo: Gunna hold her to it.
David: Oh, well basically let’s face it, if a Sister, Sister of Joseph tells you something you think it’s, “Well this is gospel.” She had to carry it out.
Now one of the things I, I think I should mention this time, one of the first things I remember we were told when we went to St John’s, the Sister got up in front of the class, and she told us how Dapto got its name. Being little 5-year old’s, we were quite intent, and she told us the story about back in the early days in the early 1800’s, apparently there was a ship being unloaded in Lake Illawarra, because it was a lot deeper than what it is today. And apparently there was an Abor-, Aboriginal chieftain round here who was helping to unload, and apparently, he dropped a crate or something on his foot. And of course, when he did, he was bouncing around, and they said he was saying, “Dapto! Dapto!” and that where they think they got the name from. Now we didn’t know whether that was true or not, but we thought, “Hey if the Sisters of St. Joseph were telling us that, there must be some truth to the story.” Because, you know, they wouldn’t tell a lie, [laughter] otherwise they’d have to go to confession and tell if they told us a white lie.
And then many years later I was down the Dapto library, it might have been this library here, and there’s a book – it might have been the other old library – there’s a book in here on, ah, the early history of Dapto, and in there they said that the Aboriginal meaning for Dapto was a lame man. So, whether the story that the Sisters told us was true, I don’t know, but it seems funny that a) it does have this strange connection to a lame man…
Jo: Yes, yes.
David: which if someone drops something on their foot, they are lame for a little while. So, there might be some truth to the story.
Jo: There could be.
David: We don’t know.
Jo: Yeah, yeah.
David: And unfortunately, the Sister would be passed away now so I can’t really go and ask her whether she was telling me the truth or not. [laughter] So, you know, so, yeah.
Jo: That’s interesting isn’t it.
David: I was talking to one of the teachers the other day as the, um, kids were crossing the pedestrian crossing that’s not a pedestrian crossing, if you know what I mean. It used to be a school crossing, but nowadays, the crossing’s still there, but everybody seems to use it for doing U-turns in it.
Jo: Oh, ok.
David: The teachers won’t come out and, and patrol it because they’ve got to go and do a course on Lollipop people…
Jo: Traffic control.
David: …which is ridiculous, it is a school crossing. Anyway, they had a fair crowd crossing the school the other day, and I mentioned to her when I was there, there was only about 60 kids in the class, and she said.”Well,” she said, “We’ve got over 600 now. And it, and it’s getting too small!”
Jo: That’s really grown hasn’t it?
David: It’s really grown, um, so…
Jo: Can you remember what sort of subjects you studied? What, what subjects did you have?
David: We had English, ah, Arithmetic, ah Geography, and of course Religion. Um, I think they we’re basically the only subjects we actually did. Because I remember, I remember we did a fair bit about, um, soil erosion. Right – because back in those period of time, soil erosion was very, very bad. And it’s quite simple to see why it was so bad, you know. I’ve seen a photograph, a painting of what Mullet Creek looked like back in the early 1830’s or 1840’s, and you would not know the place, you know, it was, it was like a rainforest. And when now you look at it, there’s hardly any trees along there at all. There’d be all the section behind us between Mulda Street and the Lake, there were very few trees. Ah, and of course the trees hold the ground together. Once the trees go away, um, there’s nothing to hold it there, the soil.
Jo: So, all the farming, clearing and that, yeah.
David: I know from my own experience, ah, from my own family, ah, they came to Australia in 1853, didn’t come to the Illawarra, they went up to the Hunter region. Um, but it took them a year to clear an acre of land, and in that, after that year they could build a house on it, and grow some vegetables, run a cow, some chickens, a couple of pigs, ah, and that basically, it took them 12 months to do that. So that’s how thickly it was, dense the Bush was. Well Dapto would have been the same.
Ah, but I recall we used to go and watch at the back of Mulda Street, where the expressway is now, um, used to go and see the soil erosion there, you know, you’d see these big bits in the gully where the water’d come down and just wash the soil away. Um, the only bush areas we had were along Bong Bong Road, ah, behind the Showground where ah, I don’t know if you know where Craig Crescent is on the other side of the Showground, ah, that used to be a bush there which had basically paper bark trees in there, um, we used to go down there ‘cos it was nice, nice and cool there, down there during the summer with all the trees. People don’t realise when you’ve got a lot of trees around it’s cooler, when you’ve got no trees, it’s hot, it’s hot as anything.
Jo: So, they were all cleared for, make way for housing?
David: No, it was all farmland.
Jo: Oh, okay.
David: Oh, this is long before, this was long before, um, the houses ever would’ve [indistinct]. Ah, not long after we moved in we were told about the expressway which took about another 15 years before it ever came through, um, and of course then we had the situation where they had the block of land on Fowlers Road for the Dapto hospital – no hospital they sold it!
David: Ah, yeah, they, they I don’t know, people don’t have any forward planning in this country, um.
Jo: Well one thing that really did work obviously was St. John’s didn’t it?
David: Oh yes…
Jo: Because it certainly has grown…
David: …it has grown and…
Jo: from small Catholic schools wise.
David: Yeah, our biggest problem is, of course, now we got very upset a couple years ago when, ah, Father Rhineberger was there and ah, he was given, given a grant by the federal government, the labour federal government, at the time, so he pulled down our old school and, um, put a library there. He called it the Annexe. And we were very upset because part of the, the front part of the school was actually part of the old school from West Dapto, it had been transferred from West, transferred over and basically it was like a little vestibule at the very front. The only people who were allowed to use that vestibule were the Sisters. [laughs] We had to come in the side door. Um, and it was pulled down and made…
Jo: What a shame.
David: …and made, a, made a, a lib-, a new library there, so… We were very disappointed because, you know, ah, we thought maybe if they could have found some other land, they could have built the library on…
David: …ah, but that basically, ah…
Jo: To take that original bit of the school.
David: To take that original building, you know…
Jo: It was a bit of a shame, wasn’t it?
David: It was. And as I say, the convent’s still there, but the convent has been modified from what it was when we were there. It’s got things on it that weren’t there before, you know, which, it’s now got a, ah, heritage tru-, listing on it, the old, the old convent. Ah, but, yes, you know it’s, it’s quite, quite different to what when we were there.
David: Um, running around that great big playground. Now, the kids, they’ve got 600 kids playing in a, in a [indistinct] paddock half the size that we had.
Jo: Half the size you had, 60…
David: But the 60, 60 of us kids were running around in. And of course, the other thing that we used to do a lot, ah, during the playtime, the lunch time, we used to come down to the little cake shop across the road here or we’d go to Fairley’s and we’d buy a halfpenny’s worth a broken biscuits from Fairley’s, or we’d come to a little, um, cake shop here. And we were coming down one day and riding along on the highway there, just past where the medical centre is there, because there’s, ah, that was Fairley’s, and then there was two beautiful houses between there and the Church, in, it was the, ah, Presbyterian Church in those days, not the Uniting Church, and we were riding along there, and all of sudden this nice well dressed, man was walking along the footpath and we nearly ran over him, and he pulled us up and told us we weren’t allowed to ride on the footpath. And we asked him who he was, and he turned around and he said, “Constable Carter”. [laughter]
Jo: So, you then had to get off the footpath.
David: So we had to get off the footpath because Constable Carter, the new policeman in town told us we weren’t allowed to ride on the push-, on the footpath, but you couldn’t ride on the road because the roads are dangerous, you know, so.
Jo: Yeah, yeah.
David: Oh, yes.
Jo: Oh, that’s lovely. Those are great memories. Thank you so much for those David,
they, they were really wonderful, giving us an insight into, um, St. John’s.