John Arney – Interview Transcript (part 1 of 2)

Interview Transcript from Illawarra Stories Wollongong City Libraries Oral History Project – John Arney Part 1

Interviewer: Edie Swift

Date: 6 June 2016

Edie  Today is June 6th 2016. John Arney, a shack owner at Bulgo in the Royal National Park will be talking about Bulgo. I am Edie Swift and the oral history project is called Shacks at the Royal National Park. The interviews will go to Local Studies and that will be at Wollongong Public Library and the State Library of New South Wales. So John, can you just start with your parents and grandparents names?

John  Yeah, good morning Edie. It’s um, well my father was John Arney and my grandfather was George Arney. My grandfather was born in 1880 in Paddington and um he probably first went to Bulgo at the end of the 1800’s, late 1890’s. He started at the mine at Helensburgh, in 1895 when he was 14 years of age and um I guess from there he was um, party to all of the ups and downs of the coal mining industry through to the time when he retired which would have been about 1940, you know, at the age of 60 years.

My father was born in 1915 and he was a Bulga boy. I don’t know much about him, he died when I was 5 years old, he died a couple of days after I turned five. He’d had a road accident on the 15th January 1951 and um, he died on the 21st January ’51. And um I’ve just got faint memories, faint glimpses of memories of him. I have got a couple of faint ones of him at Bulga, so that’s really good. Um, I didn’t have a shack of Bulga, or the family didn’t have a shack at Bulga ’til I built one there in 1962 and I say those early memories of being down there with dad was probably when I was 4 years of age, I can’t remember much before I was um, before that. Uh, one of the reasons is they went to Bulga and they forgot to take my woolly blanket down and uh it was quite distressing for me, and uh apparently, I put on quite a show uh wouldn’t go to sleep without my woolly. And probably the reason I remember it is because my mother kept reminding me of the performance I put on at that time.

Just a little bit about um, Bulga. To me in those early years, it was the things that come back to me now are the sights, the water glistening when we came down the hill and the sound of the ocean, the smell of the lantana, which was a really dense weed on the hill when I was young, my son has gotten control of it now. It’s being replaced by other weeds but uh [laughing] that’s another story. Before people went down to Bulga the men would get together and have a big clean up of the crack on the hill and it was, they’d go through and slash the lantana so when I went there, you had this really strong smell of lantana and um, I associated that as I do today, with something really good which was getting down the beach. When we got there there’d be the smell of the bait in bags around the shacks and uh the smell of the fishing boats and the salt air and the seaweed and so on. There was the, the feel of the touch of the sand and the saltwater which I didn’t really get too much, apart from going to Bulga. It was all, I guess the things, the senses that really impacted on me, my senses of sight, sound, sound of seagulls and sound of the waves, as I said, and the other things I mentioned, the tastes. One of the things that they did have in their fridge down there was condensed milk and one of the challenges for the kids was to now and again just uh, pop in and um have a, have a sip of condensed milk out of the tin when no one was looking. So uh, I keep an eye on the kids these days if I’ve got condensed milk in the fridge, just to make sure [laughing] they’re not taking too much. Yeah, yeah, so yeah look I uh, when dad died I was sort of half adopted by a family in Helensburgh, the Hewitt’s, Jim and Ann, they had no children of their own but quite often they would take children to Bulga, as a bit of an excursion or a break for their parents and um I was fortunately one of those and I stuck and um I stayed with the Hewitt’s, I guess from the time I was 5 through ’til when I was 16 and um, I fished with Jim and Ann and stayed in the shack. I went down Friday nights and would come home Sunday afternoons but ah the reason I had to build my own shack was because when I got to uh just, I think it was either ah 15 or just on 16, Jim said to me, “son I think it’s about time you want to get your own shack”, you know, he was giving me the big hint, I was like a oversized child, in the, in the nest and ah we did. We cleaned off an area that he knew about not far from his shack and um we built a shack and uh, it was well made. It was built by Bulga standards, it was really well made. It was made of 3 be 2 timber, to regulation sizes, standards for studs. Regulation distance apart and had the right amount of timber in the roof and it perhaps needed to be because it was in a fairly exposed position, around to the southern end of Bolga sitting over a really steep drop off, down into the little sandy beach. We bought the timber from Peakhurst Timber and Hardware and I’ve still got the receipt of that. I think it was all, cost me about 45 pounds, now I’d been working at that time for about 16 months when I lashed out and bought the shack, I bought the materials for the shack. It was cut out, the frame was cut out on my home lawn at Helensburgh and um, and uh we loaded up on sleds and I didn’t do much, I was say only 16 but the community pitched in and were able to get all the material down for me. The cement I took down by myself, I had 7 bags of 100 kilo cement, and I’d been shown what to do there and that was to put it all in the potato sack or put a bag in a potato sack drop that into another potato sack and then drag it off down the hill so to go over the steep part of the hill, down the timber track and uh for 50 percent of the way down the hill it was a matter of almost following the load and then for the rest of the way we just dragged it. It was pretty hard work but it built up the muscles, I can tell you, and that sort of got me ready for when the timber and the iron came down and I think we had something like four sleds of material to take down, it was the timber, two were for the iron, for the roof and the side walls, the corrugated iron, and uh one for the refrigerator. I remember the fridge very well because there were no accidents, there were seven men and myself. We had initially two at the front to guide the, the fridge over the bumps and so on, it was made like a litter that you’d see uh, what do they call them, um, the American Indians, had them, a papoose and um, two men at the front with the fridge at the back and dragging it, a solid floor in it to protect the uh, the working parts of the fridge at the back and there were five men on a very long rope who were holding it back stopping it going and getting away. The rope was wrapped around tree stumps and so on and eased down and then when we got to the below halfway where the track levelled out a bit we had four men at the front and they took turns of swapping around and dragging the fridge down to the shack, yeah. I had to provide uh beer, which I was too young to buy it, so my parents bought the beer and I took it down and uh my mother made Sao’s and biscuits on those days when the sleds come down. Only one on each day, so it was a fair bit of work in getting the material down there. My father, well stepfather by that time, mum had remarried in 1952, sorry the end of 1952 so it was almost 2 years after dad died, mum remarried and my stepfather was quite handy, so he knocked up the shack with a bit of help from others around the way, and before long, I think it was probably around about June or July, I was in my shack.

Edie  And what year was that?

John  That was in 1962. So it was one of the later shacks that were built at Bolga. Um, there was a couple built after that but uh yeah it was one of the later ones that were built and it’s still there today. I’m not in it.

Before National Park took over in 1976, by 1975 when Parks were looking to take over the area, there was some family friends who had a shack on the beach which was, I’ve said before, my original shack was at the southern end of Bolga and I was a real keen young fisherman at that time and it really suited me. But in the meantime I got married, so by 1975 I had three children and I also mentioned there was a steep cliff at the front of the shack, which was, the kids soon learned, um, to get around and frightened the living daylights out of us at times to see them sort of peering over this great drop off, maybe about 6 or 7 meters down to solid rocks but they were quite comfortable, we weren’t. And uh, my wife if she wanted to take us, the family down to the beach, it was a matter of packing up all the things, all the nappies and so on, it was, it was an expedition but it was just a little bit inconvenient and um we would take the kids down to the beach and maybe have something to eat down there for morning tea and then we come back up to the shack for lunch and maybe go back in the afternoon. So when I had the offer of a shack on the beach, in um, as I say 1975, I, I grabbed it, I bought it and uh we moved down. Now I paid, I think at the time a thousand dollars for the shack, it was in a prime position and I sold mine for five hundred dollars to some neighbours, now the neighbours weren’t Bulga people, which is a little bit unusual because most of the people at Bulga had had a long history of association with the place but the Hawkoms who we sold it to, Doug and Cheryl, they’d being coming down with us at odd times before we sold and when the shack went up for sale, they grabbed it. So yeah, really good. Now they, they’re no longer there, they moved away from Helensburgh and um it’s now has been changed, its changed hands something like four times since I sold it, yeah, which is probably the um, the average number of owners, when I’ve researched the shack ownership going right back to before the Depression and before the shacks, it was the shack sites where the family set up their tents um there’s been on average four or five, some a little bit more and some a bit less um, owners, yeah. Now in 1976 as I say National Park took over and they, you could use the license and a rental fee. Prior to that we um, we didn’t pay rent and we, most of the shacks were thought to have been built on a Crown Reserve. I think as it’s turned out later, not so.

Today is a really good day for the interview because I just might have mention that, um, this morning I was at the shack looking down from the top of the hill and I can see where the sea had been up and into the shack. I’ve yet to get down, I’m hoping there won’t be much damage there’s a couple of others where it will be a bit more work required but it’s one of the great things about Bulga that when there’s something, or a problem, or the shacks damaged for whatever reason, fire or whatever, the community really pulls together very quickly and looking down the hill this morning I could see several people and there was a lot of cars in the carpark of people who are down there and the sea’s not really abated yet but they’re getting stuck into it and getting started on the cleanup.

Yeah so, I might just go back to the Hewitt’s, Jim and Ann, gee they were characters and as I say, I was more or less, not bought up by them but I spent a lot of weekends with them and um they were a really lovely couple. Ann liked to have a little bit of a drink now and again and so did Jim, but Jim would drink and have a beer on Friday nights and he’d probably come down to the beach with us with a few too many in, and he would stagger down the hill and there’s occasion that I’d pull him out of the bushes where he’d fall into the bush with his, with his load of sugar bags with his beer and food and clothing in it. Ann was fine and, ah, we would make our way down and then come Saturday morning, Jim was fine, he’d be right all weekend and um, yeah really good, so we fished.

The couple lived a very simple life they were really, um, they had, they lived both at home at Helensburgh in the house, they had just the basic essentials to get by. It was probably a lesson I haven’t learned very well because I’ve got a bit of clutter myself all the things you must have. But uh, with Ann in particular, if someone was to give her a gift, if they bought a gift at Christmastime or a birthday or whatever, she would always give it away so, a person would come in with the gift and the next person to visit would walk out with that gift generally, “Here” she would say “here take this I don’t need it” and um no insult to the person that had given the gift, but uh, yeah, yeah, so simple and the shack at Bulga reflected that as well, they had two beds in the shack, it was just the one room, the cooking stove was set in a little alcove at the end. There was a fridge, a little storage cabinet like a little safe with a wire screen door on it and there was a set of drawers where Ann kept her bits and pieces, her blankets and so on and clothing and basically that was it. In the cooking alcoves there was two kerosene stoves pump up things, there were a few pots. Jim, I don’t know that he even had a change of clothes, he just went for a swim when he needed to and yeah, or rest his shorts and put them back on wet and dry it out. If the weather wasn’t good enough for them to do that, they would go home. They lived you know, reasonably close to Helensburgh, so yeah, but quite an interesting simple living couple.

Jim had a canoe and it was like a large kayak, it was enclosed at the top and a little, small cockpit, he would sit in the cockpit to row and I would sit up on the deck facing him, rather precarious position I felt, and it took me quite a while to get used to that. The first day he took me out in the boat I hooked a big groper and got it to the top and I say we had a simple life, we had no gaff or means of getting the groper into the boat he wanted to tip the boat into the, the edge of the boat into the water, he said “we’ll tip it in and I’ll float the fish in” but there was no way I was going to get wet so every time he’d lean one way, I’d lean back and eventually the fish came off and Jim didn’t hesitate, he dived over after it and he disappeared, he was a really good swimmer and a good diver. I thought oh he’s gone, and next thing he pops up out of the water and I was speechless and he, the first thing he said was “oh I missed it son,” he said, “it just cruised away from me” [laughing]. And then we had a couple of minutes battle getting him back into the canoe because he had to climb over the, the front end of it to get in and I guess at that time, he was probably in his forty’s but he got in all right. He had a great coat on, when he got in he dug into the pocket of the great coat and pulled out a tobacco tin. The tobacco was wet, he wasn’t worried about that but he had uh, underneath the tobacco it was the paper and underneath the paper there were 2 quid, he said to me, “well there’s 2 quid Ann didn’t know I had” [laughing]. So yeah, quite an eventful first trip out in the boat.

I was by that time, probably about 13 or 14 years of age, yeah, quite an adventure and um I must say if anyone came up, up from Cronulla or Wollongong in a big boat, they would, they would look at us and stare, you know, I think in those days to go out into the ocean in something small was a seen as a sure recipe for being eaten by a shark. We didn’t, I’d seen sharks and from my canoe but never had we ate one, and come anywhere close to us or never saw a big shark, yeah. And um, again in the line of simplicity Jim was only interested in catching a feed. So he was never out there to catch a really big fish and we would go out and use 1/0 hooks and if we got broken off by a big fish, well that was just bad luck, we’d would just catch a lot little fish and he used to say to me, “son your always sure of catching a feed if you use a little hook”, you know. So yeah, he’s quite uh, quite an interesting-. Jim and Ann they’ve got a very