Interview Transcript from Illawarra Stories Wollongong City Libraries Oral History Project – Jim Powell (part 1 of 3 )
Interviewer: Edie Swift
Interview date: 1 June 2018
Title: Jim Powell Part 1 of 2
Edie: I am Eddie Swift and I’m interviewing Jim Powell at his home in Helensburgh. We will be talking about Jim’s memories of Helensburgh from 1945 to the present. The oral history will go to the Local Studies Library at Wollongong Library. So, would you like to start talking about your memories of Helensburgh? You were born here in 1945.
Jim: Ah, Edie yes, I was born here in- on the 8th of April 1945, where the swimming pool is today. There’s a place opposite owned by the Optometrist and that was originally Croftside Maternity Home. And that’s where I was born. The place is still there today. I was– at that stage my parents had come to live in Helensburgh. My mother already lived in Helensburgh before she was married, she came out with her parents in 1928. Um, her father
Edie: What was her name?
Jim: Rona, Rona her name was Rona Foulds. Right then she married James Walter Powell in 1942.
So, she came out in 1928 with her parents, Sarah and Jack Foulds and her brother John. Her father worked in the mine down here with his brother and brother in-law. And they lived and had property up on Blue Gum, which is the old Princes Highway, just south of Helensburgh here, near Binners Poultry Farm. And they had property there. Apart from working in the mine, he also grew vegetables, flowers, fruit trees, etc. Cause my grandmother was a florist.
So, they had that business of the floristry as a supplement to their wage and during the depression. It was very handy for them to be able to supplement their income, which was minute in those days with the depression. They weren’t getting the hours that they normally would get down the mine, and at one stage he actually went and worked carting sand for the Woronora dam, to build the Woronora dam during the depression. So, they came out there in, during the…
My mother went to school here and through primary school. She then went to Saint George Girls High School, and she ended up doing at the teachers college, her diploma for teaching and then she came out of that in 1940 and her first job, in those days you couldn’t work in the Metropolitan area you had to do what was called country service, so you didn’t have to pay to be tutored as a teacher. And she went to Junee, and from Junee, that’s where she met my father Wally Powell and they move back to Helensburgh after she done a two-year training of country service.
And the first job she had here when she moved back– and they were married in ’42– was the Croker Island children who were evacuated from the islands off northern ah New Guinea well, virtually just off Darwin and they came down by road, by rail, by truck, by whatever means they could. Mothers and children were evacuated from the island. They were all Aboriginal children or half caste Aboriginal children and they eventually, after a long journey got themselves to Otford where they were in the camp at Otford School.
And my mother was their teacher, the infant’s teacher. There was only two teachers at the school. The fir- the headmaster was Mr Greentree, and he taught the senior children and my mother taught the infants. The senior children from Croker Islands actually went to Scarborough School, so it was only the infants that were there, and I’ve got lots of old photos of my mother with the children, the Aboriginal children at that stage who were at the camp. They used to milk the cows, grow their own vegetables, everything was self-sufficient in those days. And she often of a weekend would take the children into Sydney to the Taronga Zoo or to Luna Park etc.
So, that was sort of the start of my life and I was born in 1945. I’m one of the few children and I think about 1% of the total population. My mother was a teacher at this school down here in primary school, but from the day I started kindergarten in 1950 till the day I finished sixth class in 1956, I attended every day of school, I never missed one day of school in those seven years. I was always in the top three in that class, along with Paul Tynan and Sand Raglan, always between the three of us. And then I went on to high school.
Edie: And what was your father doing at this stage?
Jim: My father was a carpenter. Originally worked on the railways and then when the war was over he was a Signalman in a Signal Corps in the army and he got a job with the PMG making the telephone cabinets, the old red telephone cabinets you see everywhere. That was his job and then later on, he started building homes and things like that. But initially that’s what he was, he was a cabinet maker.
And he used to travel from Helensburgh into Sydney, into Sydenham to um do the, make the telephone boxes and my mum, as I said was a school teacher and all those years when I was in school– at nine years of age I joined the Helensburgh band and learn to play the cornet and the band. I was there for 15 years. I played with the Helensburgh Band, Trumpet and Cornet ?Jennifer?–
And then all that time as well, I was playing soccer from the age of eight and ended up representing Illawarra. in soccer from 12, under 12’s, under 14’s, under 16’s and then later on under 21’s in the senior group of um soccer players. So, um…
Edie: So how has Helensburgh changed?
Jim: Well I can go back to you know, just memories of what my mother was saying. When they first arrived here in 1928, the first thing they saw, when they moved up to the house, that the grandfather had built. Was to see a bullock team come past with big logs on, heading for Bulli, 8 bullocks pulling this great big wagon with logs on them.
An’ that highway was dirt in those days. It was virtually just a road, a dirt road. It wasn’t bicherman at– but that was done during the war. They started to bicherman all the highways to make it easier to move big vehicles. So that was right back then, but it’s changed dramatically since I was even born. Because when I was born, the only bicherman started at the old Princess Highway with the Ampol garage was. All the way down to the hotel on the corner of Walker Street and Park Street here, an’ it finished there. It was dirt all the way down to the railway station. It went along the Main Street to the bottom bus shed, near Witty Road and that was the only tar. The rest was all sandstone gutters, they were all made out of sandstone an’ they were dirt roads.
And then slowly it changed. In 1951 the water start– we got a local water supply, wear before we were on tank water. Electricity was supplied by the coal mine in those days. For Helensburgh, Garrawarra Hospital North, down to Coalcliff in the South was all supplied by the Helensburgh Metropolitan Colliery an once a month on a Sunday, would be off the air for four hours while they did maintenance to the electrical power station at the mine. So, you used to have power off for four hours once a month. When the water was laid on, it starting ’51 it took till 50- 1953 before it was completely done with articulated– reticulated water, throughout the town. There’s a big celebration in the town for the opening of the water supply. A big parade and I’ve photos of that in the Historical Society, of the opening of the water supply to Helensburgh. And then later on, the sewage never came to Helensburgh till 1983. So, it was quite a few years before sewage came in Helensburgh even since then so.
The township itself, the population it varied considerably, because during the early days just after 1900’s, when everything was done, ah, labour wise as far as the mine went, you gotta remember that the people in this area were either miners, they were timber cutters or they worked on the railway. They were the 3 occupations that–
And of course, the railways were in transient, they’d move from one to another working. But it was here for a good for all, because no sooner did they fin-, finish the single track an’ opened up in 1888 to Metropolitan Colliery in a little bit further South. That they started to duplicate the line, because it was such an awkward, useless line. As far as moving stuff, that they re- restart to do it 1912. So, it wasn’t a great time from the miners who were supplying the coal.
And they had to get transport because, before then, before they got the railway. That was why the railway was put here for. It was to move coal to Sydney, wasn’t done for passengers or anything like that. It was done to purely and simply to move coal, because it was too dangerous moving by ship as they used to. They use to load jetties at Bulli an’ and Coalcliff and those jetties. Many of the colliery vessels floundered losing lives and coal as well. The weather conditions were too bad in some circumstances. So, the alternative was to put in a railway. Which they did.
Like I said, it opened in 1888, the same as what the Colliery did as far as supplying coal. The town of Helensburgh was 1884, when it was designated as a town, and they would– at that stage we’re drilling the shafts and getting the mine ready to for operations and the first coal for commercial purposes came out of Helensburgh Mine in June of 1888 and 1st movement by rail was in October that year. So, there’s a few months of stockpiles of– till they got the railway to open and move on so.
But in those days because it was all hand pick where they would just pick, and someone would shovel and load the skip. They worked in pairs. It was highly labour intensive. So therefore, there was quite a large number of– there was something like 1200 men worked in the moment those stage– in those days. On a two-shift basis, virtually 10 hours and they work through that day and they would have the–these two shifts of these people. In the various parts expand the mine.
This mine is the oldest still operating underground mine in Australia. It’s continually operated since 1888. It’s still going today. In 2013 they were given another 25-year lease from the state government for another 25 years, so it will still continue at least for another 20 years. If there’s, you know money for coal still in those times, but yeah. So, that was back there, so it’s the longest continually underground operating mine in Australia. Others, there was early ones, but they’ve all closed since that, but this one still going. They have been right under the National Park out to the ocean, and now out heading Southwest out west part.
Ah, there’s two seaming. One was excellent steaming coal. The other one was coking coal and they still operate most is sent overseas. Now most of it shipped overseas. It’s not used virtually in Australia a little bit for stainless steel into Newcastle. That’s about all.
So, that’s our mine, but the people in those days, as I said there was population of nearly 2000 people then. And when I was born in 1945, they were still waiting roughly 2000 people. People lost lives through the war, moved on. And you know, things have changed the mechanical operation. This was the first mining Illawarra to be mechanized in 1953. And so, they had machinery that in 1953 it was a mechanized mine. And therefore, there was not the number of people needed to, to actually mine coal with machinery. So, it dropped once again down around about 600 and even then, left about 300 and it’s fluctuate all the time. I think around now is about 300 people actually work down the mine today.
So that’s the being the main occupation of Helensburgh is being the mining industry and as I said before, the railways are also a big industry. A lot of small private investment things like chook farms and other things, enterprising things like manufactured roller doors. We had a factory here that used to manufacture nuts and bolts and things like that. So, it was small manufacturing but not only large scale, so either work on the railways you worked on the railway. You work on the water board was another big thing. Or you work in the mine or you were in private enterprise or you travelled, and a lot of people did travel.
I travelled when I first started work, I travelled, I did a jewellery apprenticeship as a jeweller. I did five years, travelling to Sydney every day. And for the trains, but the trains that I would travel on would be packed from people from Helensburgh, are all worked in Sydney around Sydney area. From Sydenham, right into Sydney, there all people that travel. They were in the printing game, they were in all sorts of trades and they had to go right into town, some were in banking. So, we had a diversity in those days in the 50s of people who were travelling, to work into Sydney. Very few travelled into Wollongong. It was mostly into the Sydney way they went that way, from Helensburgh and there’s still a few local in our retail and things like that was still in Helensburgh. So those days back in the 50s were really good days because it was a time when this town. Was quite, quite profitable, the people and the– had good jobs and consistent jobs an’ you know there was plenty of work available for anyone who wanted work.
And the advantage of being in Helensburgh (A) even today it’s still a village– could never be expanded. We’ve got all the National Park on the eastern side, the railway line, you have all the water catchment area for Worranora on the other side. So, you’re surrounded by a green belt all the way and that can’t be interfered with, so it will always be an isolated like village type Hamlet surrounded by green me. It’s a danger with bushfires of course, but other than that you got this nice sort of lifestyle.
You’ within an hour of Sydney and within half an hour of Wollongong by road. So, you’ve got the best of both worlds. You’ve got 2 cities on either side. You’ve got a coastline, beautiful coastline with all the beaches and everything you could possibly want. National Park everything you’ve got everything at your fingertips.
And for young children it’s a great town of being because there’s so many activities for children. For everything from horse riding to all types of sports, even BMX riding, Motorbike Cross, Rally, Rally Cross type work. There’s so many things for children to do in the morning.
Edie: When you were a child and you were growing up. What did you do for recreation here?
Jim: Well see that was it. We all played apart from playing soccer, which most of the boys played soccer and the girls played either hockey or netball. We used to entertain ourselves. We would go with the big dam. We use to make tin canoes out of sheet of galvanised iron and a bit of bitumen and seal them up and make canoes out of the– an’ sail ’em on the big damn. You just wandered through the bush, used to have Shanghai fights, you know, trying to hit one another with shanghaies, you’d think half the population would be without eyes or whatever you know, but those were the days. And everybody just found that there was– you could entertain yourself. There was no television, versus the television to start lining ‘56 when just before the Melbourne Olympics.
So, until then, you had a radio you could listen to the cricket and then on the radio. But you’re always outside, you know, the only time you were inside when it’s pouring rain and you wanna get wet. ‘Cause there was so much to, just wander. You weren’t frightening that you know that those days you could. I use to travel home as a teenager from Sydney on the train at midnight at night. You know, you wouldn’t even as an adult these days because of, you know, what happens to people these days? So, it was a different world in those days, everyone’s back door was open. No one shut lock the house up in Helensburgh.