Interview Transcript from Illawarra Stories Wollongong City Libraries Oral History Project – Elsie Baird
Interviewer: Trish Regal
Interview Date: 1 December 2016
Elsie Yes thank you.
Trish The following interview was conducted by Mrs Elsie Baird on behalf of the Wollongong City Council Local Studies Library for the Wollongong Oral History Project. It took place on the 1st of December 2016 at Mrs Baird’s home 31 Heaslip Street, Coniston. The interviewer is Trish Regal.
So can you start by telling me your full name and your maiden name please.
Elsie Aha good afternoon my full name is Elsie Mary Baird and my single name was Elsie Mary Looney spelt L double O N E Y and I’m 93 years of age ahh.
Trish Where were you born?
Elsie In Wollongong
Trish And what year was that?
Trish What are some of your earliest memories?
Elsie Ahh my earliest memories are living in Osborne Street with lots of playmates.
Trish That’s in Wollongong itself?
Elsie Yes, Wollongong itself. My parents then built a home – still existing – in Gladstone Avenue and we moved there and I lived there till I got married, and I have been here about 70 years.
Trish So you’ve always lived in this immediate…?
Elsie I’ve lived always in the Wollongong area. My parents had a business in Crown Street in 1923, where David Jones store is now…
Trish What sort of business?
Elsie And that store was a produce store to service all the farmers in the area. Sold bran, chaff, wheat, corn, er, pumpkin, potatoes and onions, ah, birdseed, dog biscuits – all various things that the, ah, the people on the land needed. Ah, we served them there for many, many years. I can’t remember worked at the moment, how many years. I think Maureen might be…? How many years. We moved to Station Street, which suited my father because the goods came in at the end of the goods yard: so he could still unload trucks on a Friday afternoon rather than pay demurrage. It was a very successful business, a lot of hard work. But the mines became – the coal mines – became mechanised, which was a big blow to him. Because all the mines had to dispose of the pit horses, and, um, so he diversified and went into other types of – anything that he could sell for a few years.
Trish Do you know about what year that was?
Elsie I’m sorry, I’m not too… I could…
Trish How old would you have been about this time? Do you remember that?
Elsie What’s that, dear?
Trish How old would you have been at that time, do you remember that?
Elsie Well I was…Um. Oh my arithmetic’s not…60, 19.. – ten years. Well I’ll say 1970 as a guess. Yes I got married, ah, to Tom.
Trish Can we just go back? Where did you go – where was the first school that you went to?
Elsie The first school that I went to? I went to the first little primary school that was at West Wollongong. A public school. Ah, I [had] magnificent teachers – absolutely. And we went to first – kindergarten, first class and second class. That was a lot of fun. And then we went to, when I say ‘we’, six of us were Catholic children, and so we went along with that’s what our parents wanted at the time. We went into Wollongong Public School. But then my parents decided that I needed to go to St Mary’s. And from St Mary’s, oh for many – seven years and …
Trish Was St Mary’s a high school?
Elsie Yes, yes. A primary and high school in those days. Um, seven years, and I went the last year,1960, um, to the Marist Sisters at Woolwich. A wonderful school. So…lots of schools.
Trish How did you get to the school at Woolwich? Did you board?
Elsie Yes, yes I did. I boarded at Woolwich. And a very, a very nice school. Um, I don’t think I liked – really like any school! Ah, so, ah, it never bothered me.
Trish Do you have any memories of school though, down in Wollongong?
Elsie Ah, um, ah, yes lots of schools and lots of lovely stories. A lot of girls were boarders. Maureen was a boarder. Um…yes, and girls that, um, parents knew parents knew grandparents. Ah, but that’s what Wollongong was like in those days. A lot of new friends have come to the area and have said to me – well new friends say, over the last 20 years. Um, very class distinction when I was a little girl. And I’ve heard that from older…
Trish In what way?
Elsie Um…Well you were…Your doctor was considered the head man. Very respected. Nearly walked to the other side of the street for him. Then I would say, ah the solicitor, didn’t have to be your solicitor… but Mr So and So, the solicitor. Then you came to your high school principal, even though he wasn’t drawing a good salary he had to wear a suit. And he again was respected. Then you, um, deviated to business people, which my father would have slotted in. Business people. Then it would have been the dairy farmer. Or then the coal miner. And you didn’t step over the border.
Trish Very clear.
Elsie Yeah, yeah very. It was, it didn’t impact on me whatsoever.
Trish What about the children at school? Were they aware of where they stood in the…?
Elsie Yes, very much so. Very much the children. I was only speaking this morning at the hairdresser’s how…the depression, the terrible depression. Yes. Up until about 1933. I really don’t know how long it lasted. But the restrictions and privations on the working class. When I use the word, the term “working class”, I’m not downgrading that – great respect. But it was hard times. It was hard times for the children, and it was hard times for the mothers. You see I’m a little bit mother-minded, so I suppose a hard time for the fathers. Ah, my father was able to put on a couple of extra men. And now I’m just starting to think, “Oh, they already had jobs”, but they were made redundant, and my father took them on. And I can say on record, I think they were paid at cash in hand because unions, um, they broke – they were fantastic men, wouldn’t do anybody any harm, but they were desperate; they needed to take money home to their wives and children. And to work for my father was a hard job. A produce store is very hard, manual business. He did his business – the administration side of it, but also he’d work alongside of the men. So, um, that built up a bit of comradeship, I suppose, with the men. The boss was one of them. So I often think those men did break the code. But they were very well-respected men. They had to take money from somewhere…
Trish And obviously your father’s business was OK during the depression. It didn’t suffer, if he was able to pay men to come and help?
Elsie Oh yes, yes he could somehow or other. I don’t want to know how that came about. No, you’re right, I don’t want to know really. But I…
Trish That’s wonderful.
Elsie I… I… There’s nobody around then that I could ask. Um, and no books are kept. Ah, but I often wonder…and too late now at the taxation department. That’s right we’ll say we’ll leave that! And whoever’s reading it, they can get in touch with you. They might be able to know, but I am the only one now, there’s nobody hardly that I can…I’m doing family history, so I’m working on that, but they wouldn’t be interested in that question. You know I never did work with him, but, um, no, a good point. I often admire him for breaking the code, if you can call it that; and I admire the men. They went back to their jobs. So their principal never held it against them. And they probably said, ‘Will we get our job back when times get better?’ But times were…Many times they couldn’t, the customers couldn’t pay my father for their meagre chook food and their little bit of this and that. And so I can recall, um, they would buy…We did sell flour from Mungo Scott at Summer Hill and it came in nice, nice, black flour bags. And the ladies would come in, I suppose a little bit embarrassed. They’d buy a bag of flour, goodness knows they might have had a horse and buggy. They might have been lucky to have a little car. But they bought the flour, and they would make bread. And they’re cooking with that flour. Boiled down the flour bag and made their children’s clothes. Er nothing was wasted. I used to worry at certain people buying our dog’s biscuits. I never asked any question. I even tried to eat the dog biscuit. It tasted all right if they didn’t break every tooth in your head! But some were able, as a pastime, to still carry on with a couple of greyhounds. And, well, OK, um…
Trish So was there racing?
Elsie Yes, trying to keep it a…I don’t know if they went into a redundancy or something for a while, but that was one of their hobbies, and I know it was betting. We didn’t turn an eye to that, not, not at any time. So, ah, your good times and bad times, the …
Trish When do you think your father…do you remember when your father’s store closed in Crown Street?
Elsie Oh, um. About 19.. Well, he was sick for quite a few years so…I think he tried to carry on for a few years. I would say 1960 that we closed the doors.
Trish What was the name of the store? I don’t think I …
Elsie A C Looney – Alfred Cecil Looney, ah, Produce Merchant. You had to write on everything “Produce Merchant”. He was very proud. Apparently, a young boy from working class family. Apparently, always wanted what they call ‘do good’. Apparently, he wanted to study for, to be a solicitor; his parents couldn’t afford anything like…Anybody can go to University now, but it was a bit selective in those days. So, ah, during the War he was exempt from service as being an only child.
Trish Is this the First World War?
Elsie The, yes, the First World War – no the Second World War.
Trish The Second War?
Elsie Yes, my grandfather was in the – went to England for the First World War. And, um, so he, he grew vegetables and sold them to people. Applied to the railway. The railway wouldn’t accept him because he had flat feet. Which we all used to tease him about. Um. Asked. When he got married, the very year he married my mother, he asked his mother for the loan of a 100 pounds. She gave him the 100 pound to buy the business, and she said, “You pay me back on the day in 12 months.” He paid her back on the very day!
Trish That was a lot of money.
Elsie So from there on in Crown Street, um, he, with two gorgeous big semi-Clydesdale horses pulling a dray outside…Can you imagine? You have to imagine with their nose bags on, waiting to be loaded up. They were gorgeous animals, and they worked so hard. I’m sure he overloaded that dray. And could you imagine a man sitting on a little box, a cedar box? As a little girl I tried to sit on it and rein those two big giants…lovely, quiet horses and worked so hard. Um, and where Myers is now, I think it’s David Jones, there’s a little park and it’s called the Rest Park.
Elsie Now that was where my father had the stables that kept the horses. Because on the corner and, still David Jones, corner David Jones, and Church Street – Crown Street and Church Street – ah, was the – I don’t know – Commercial or Commonwealth Hotel. And my father leased the shop and leased the stables at the back. But of course, I was a little girl going down with my father at night time to feed the horses and the lighting in Wollongong was very meagre – I think it was nearly gas – and, ah, well I’m not sure, but I used to be terrified sitting on a bag of chaff, my father feeding these two giants in the dark. And I could only see my father for his cigarette light. And it’d be, “Whoo back Darkie, whoo back Boy.” And I’d think, “They’ll kill my father if they step on him. And how will I get back home to Gladstone Avenue?’ Thinking of myself of course! So when I laugh I thought, “if he could only see – it’s called the Rest Park!” But it used to be ours, we said, leased from the hotel, the horses’ stables. I think it only took the big horses. And then he made enough money to buy a Fargo truck. Now if you owned a Fargo truck, well! And Mr Herbie Degan from Corrimal or Woonona – that area – had the dealership to sell these trucks. And Mr Herbie Degan, as a cousin to Mr Senior Rex Connor, who was, what, premier for a little – Prime Minister was it for a little while? Those two men were cousins, and Rex Jr will verify that, too. Ah, cos I make it a bit different sometimes. Ah, we bought it from Mr Rex Connor, but it’s his cousin. Ah, in those days you stretched, er, the truth a little bit, y’know, as I say! So, um, good days, as I say. The Depression, ah, was a terrible business.
Trish Did you know about the Depression as a child? Did you
Elsie Yes I was a child…
Trish You were aware…
Elsie Yes I knew as a child. Also I can remember my father sitting on the back steps of the house in Gladstone Avenue, reading out the news in the Sun Herald and it was all bad, bad news sort of thing. Um, as I say, no criticism of any person living or dead, that poor people couldn’t pay. They couldn’t. So, a businessman, he would, say, he’d let them run up an account, and ask our bookkeeper, ‘How are things going?’ One particular lady, she’d be gone to heaven by now, she would travel from about Coledale by train to pay off the account. A very shy lady, must have been embarrassed, and he came up… he was a hard businessman – but he came up one day and he said, “How much does she still owe? “Mrs Davidson?’ Mrs Davidson: ‘So much.’ He said, ‘Write it, finish that off.’ He said, ‘She is spending as much money to come in by train to pay me. And start the books again.’ So when she did come in, we didn’t, no phone, nothing to send, when she come in she said, “That’s quite all right, Mr Looney, ah, we’ll start a new page.” She thanked him profusely, and away she went and she…That’s how…er he had to do that with the dairy farmers, too.
Elsie Now there’s a lot of descendants of the dairy farmers still in the area, so I don’t… ah, they just work hard. They didn’t squander it ?or in any other way? They had to keep their farm. And what was the use of my father if they lost the farm? They might have got the other produce merchant to sell to, so…
Trish Do you remember what number in Gladstone Avenue that you’ve lived at?
Elsie Oh yes, the house is still there!
Trish What number?
Elsie Yes, yes. Everybody knew 29. Ah, it’s been bought by somebody. After mum and dad died, I sold it. Um…
Trish Can I just ask, how old were you when you got married?
Elsie Um nearly I’ll say 23, nearly 24.
Trish How did you meet your husband, what was his name?
Elsie Ah Tom, Tom Baird and we both had a common interest of horses. It came strongly from my mother. My mother was Eileen Philips from Mount Keira. Now you had to say Eileen Philips from Mount Keira because that – they knew who that was. Maureen’s mother was Daphne Philips from Mount Keira. My grandfather was the hostler, as you would call it for Mount Keira Mine, and also under-manager. And he had an expert eye, as they would say, of the horseflesh. He was gifted. I don’t know, like a violinist, a pianist. So he bred his own pit ponies and then it abled him to make extra money somehow. He was a devout Methodist and we were – two wives were Catholics, and his eight children were Catholics. That’s what it was like in those days. And he was able to gradually purchased jumping horses for the shows. The shows stayed open for many years, even though Depression they downloaded a lot in Sydney Show. And but I know it was very low key for when the War was on, but I don’t know what they did. So my grandfather Philips, John Philips, he purchased, gradually, these magnificent horses, jumping, only…
Trish What did Tom do when you met him?
Elsie Tom was interested in the pit horses at Mount Kembla, hence the relationship, I suppose. And so, ah we rode…that [unclear] the big yard, we had a couple of stables, a couple of horses and everybody would want a quiet horse around here. They all had nice little front gardens, but El said the back garden scrub, “Could we borrow one of the horses, a quiet horse?” And Mr so and so would take the horse down of a morning with the halter, let it chew away and chew away, and bring it back that evening.
Trish That’s the lawn mower.
Trish It was the lawn mower.
Elsie It was the lawn mower. And one that was very good on pruning roses. So it was horses and then polo cross started to get popular after I was married. Um…
Trish How long were you married for?
Elsie Forty, forty…45 years I was married, and we didn’t have any children.
Trish I saw that your husband had a business too.
Elsie Ah, yes he was contracted to the Water B…
Trish Did you help him out or… Did you help him out? What was your role?
Elsie No, it was expected.
Trish I’m sure it wasn’t nothing.
Elsie To spend the wages [laughter]. Now contract at the Water Board and that we had a trucks contractor who was at Water Board. And that was quite, quite a good job, I mean respectable and he liked it and he had the other young fellows like him. He was a very easy, quiet man and, um, yes, I’m just thinking, and he had a brother and a sister and they had children, so hence into Aunty Else and Uncle Tom for school holidays. Well, it suited me fine because I could spoil them [unclear] and pass them back. Now some of them still keep in touch with me, which I consider a great honour. They’re all grown up men and children and had tragedies in their life. But they’re my husband’s children. And Maureen had two beautiful daughters…So we both loved children. So it wasn’t that…It didn’t happen. It wasn’t to be.
Trish So did you work?
Elsie No. I, Tom was rather old-fashioned that way. No, even if I went to work for my father while the bookkeeper had a holiday Christmas time, he wasn’t too happy. That was for 10 days. “And why are you unhappy?” “Because people will think” – and true in those days – “that I can’t afford to keep you.” Oh well, what an old-fashioned… but, in a way I was rather happy with that. Tom’s housekeeping money was always adequate. I wouldn’t think I wanted for anything. If I wanted anything very special, still an only child, well my parents gave it to me. So, no I can’t say I ever saw personally the hard times of Wollongong. Ah, but again I don’t want to make a big issue being true Australians. And of course when I say that, after I was married and here the overseas migrants came and I had lived here for 55 years next door, all around, watched their children grow up, watched their children go to University… Where dad worked at the steel works in those terrible blast furnace. Ah, they worked hard, the new Australians – no issue at all. Their wives we’ve swapped gardening things. Um…to me that’s worked out very well, and I’ve lived amongst them. I never thought I would live at Coniston, and that might sound snobbish, but it was the land. I needed something with paddocks.
Trish Was there a lot of housing here?
Elsie Ah, yes only if you lived down this street, down the bottom a little bit further.
Trish Where were the farms? How far away were the farms?
Elsie Um, up over, when I say farms, somebody with a few acres. Um, at the top of Heaslip Street, um, to the left more, to the right, because that Fort Drummond was to the right, to harbour the big gun to look after the Port Kembla Harbour. Um, and they’d be more like orchards, and there’d be a couple of house cows, or may be the sulky horse or something like that. That’s back further than when the, um, the new Australians… I can’t think… And also when I came here, the sewer wasn’t connected and so the men later dug trenches. You can only see their helmets and their shovel, and they’d work for hours right up to the top of the hill. Now one of my ponies, after Tom’d go to work – I would ride in clothes, always proper riding clothes, and a little, a saddle, a little bag, a proper bag on the side of the saddle. And I would ride my pony all on my own, up over that hill, down the next one. Over to the next, which was by then complete bush. Um, I’d find a little walking track that way, and then I’d get my way down nearly to Westfield. Then I would have to turn and get myself towards Mount St Thomas. And through the bush she would stamp and I said, “Don’t tell me it’s a snake! Please don’t!” My fault – I’ve made her go there! And then I thought, well I’m too high up to be bitten. But I came right around to the butcher at Mount, at Coniston. Get my meat, put it in a saddle bag. Straight home, er to put it… Er, well, by then I did have a fridge. But when I was first married it was the iceman, and that was awful because he’d deliver the ice about 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning and I didn’t want to get out of bed to put ice… So it was nearly all melted by the time I got up! That didn’t last very long. [microphone noise] I do waffle on Trish.
Trish It’s all right. I’m just wondering, did Tom have to…Did he get called up in the Second World War, or go to the War?
Elsie He had to do service. Ah he went to Greta, near Newcastle somewhere and was, as I say, a good horseman, so they put him in the Light Horse. As if they’d ever used a gun! But I had… did have photos of him um, on a horse there, a horse there, and two more horses there. And that was supposed to pull a gun, I suppose. It wouldn’t fire anything. Um, I wouldn’t know what that stint was. Now I have a feeling, and I wouldn’t know if he…And cos it was long before I knew if, if he was subsidised with…I suppose the Army paid him. I guess that’s what it would be. I know he won a competition. They used to compete, I suppose, to keep their mind on the job, ah, with other soldiers and he won whatever he had to win – full gallop – and he was presented with a watch!
Trish And that was in Australia that was up near Newcastle?
Elsie Yes, up near Newcastle.
Trish He didn’t go overseas?
Trish He didn’t go overseas?
Elsie He didn’t go. He was a protected, ah, occupation. And so he didn’t go overseas. He had an uncle who came out from Canada, an Englishman, out from Canada, who served in the Canadian army in the First World War. And my grandfather, on my father’s side went to England and joined up with, um, the Salvation Army. And when he came home, four years later or something, he couldn’t speak highly of what they were doing at Waterloo Station, or whatever Station, bringing the injured home. Could you imagine? Even the nurses, could you just imagine what it was like? Bringing them home, never to recover from their ah, er… their injuries? Um, he met my grandmother in England, and she came out. Her name was Sarah Wilkinson. And I can’t – I’ve come to a dead end with her history.
Trish So she was English?
Elsie Yes, she was Manchester. Shame, shame shame Elsie! Either Manchester or Lancashire – I get them both mixed up! She would be horrified. Um, so yes, it, um, and they only had my father. Um, a little story, and it doesn’t matter–it’s on record, because I was always led to believe my father had a sister. Or he led me to believe. And her name was Elsie, that’s where I got Elsie from. And it’s popped up like it…Well, with these history things. She was my father’s cousin and reared by my parents. So, I’ve got to meet up with a couple of girls whose father and mother der-der, der-der; they’re coming after Christmas and we’ll go through that. That’s another long story.
Trish We might finish there if you like.
Elsie All right Trish