Interview Transcript from Illawarra Stories Wollongong City Libraries Oral History Project – John Arney Part 2
Interviewer: Edie Swift
Interview Date: 6 June 2016
Jim and Anne they’ve got a very interesting headstone on their graves at Helensburgh. Jim died after Anne and he had the choice of putting the epitaph on the grave and it’s I think it’s pretty well known and for Anne’s site it says “Here lieth the body of my lovely dear wife Anne who plays the poker machines whenever she can” and on his side it says “Here lie the bones they called him Uncle Jim, he sits and drinks while she puts his money in.” And I’ve never never known what motivated him to write that whether he was a little bit resentful of the amount out of money that Anne put through the poker machines but I must tell you that, they had a really good relationship, he, a really good loving relationship and, um, there was never any animosity that I ever saw between them and it was, that’s, that upbringing for me was just wonderful, it was, ’til the time I got to sixteen I didn’t have much interest in learning I guess, or like to be scholarly but I certainly had an interest in all the things that were around me the bush and the ocean and the fish and so on but all had a sort of general interest level, not at an academic level, I think that might have perhaps come a bit later, yeah.
When National Park took over in 1975 they forced us to sign a licence agreement which said that um, on the death of the occupant or the licensee, and we were only allowed to put one name on the licence initially, or through default of paying rent, that the shack would be demolished and we lost up to 1990, I think we lost about five shacks either through the death of the owner or a couple of them, um, didn’t pay the rent. Now, the rent at that time was initially it was $5 per week, it wasn’t much by today’s standards but we still had people who didn’t pay it. Either they couldn’t afford it and it’s perhaps a reflection on the type of community that was at Bulga, they were not well off in a sense but they certainly they were not um, they didn’t miss out on anything, they, what they had, generally they shared and they still do today. It’s quite an interesting exercise or has been for me, to go back through and look at the history of the ownership and now with the Trove Historic Newspaper Project through the National Library, being able to go back and pull out little bits and pieces that relate to the history of the cabin communities, it’s been, um, really good. Now there are, just on that, talking about the cabin communities there are four of them, four cabin communities in the Royal National Park, at Little Garie there are twenty shacks, at Era there’s around about ninety three, at Burning Palms I think it’s about twenty six and at Bulga we’ve got fifty five plus, uh, four boat sheds and a safety shack where we keep a bit of safety gear. Yeah, so, all the shacks now are currently licensed or still licensed to National Parks and Wildlife and the three northern communities have got State Heritage listing, Bulga is not and the reason for that is that when Parks did a Conservation Management Plan for the four communities, they did that in 2001, the draft was put out for public exhibition and then taken back into Parks for adjustment, but they didn’t just adjustment, adjust it, they took to it with a chainsaw and a scalpel, they took out a lot of significant words, individual words but they also chainsawed out of it a lot of um, pages and paragraphs. They really diminished the document, all the statements in the document. So that was endorsed in July 2005 and I started to take an interest in the history of the area and when I read through the new document and saw what they’d taken out of it, I was, initially I was shocked, um, but in another way I was spurred on to continue the research and just see, try to get an understanding of what the real history of the shack areas were. Now, I was my belief the very basis of a State Heritage listing should be a proper conservation management plan and shamedly, the conservation management plan as it stands today is a fraudulent document. It was so heavily altered yet it retained a lot of the errors that were in the original draft and actually introduced more. So whoever did it was obviously not familiar with the communities and I’ve said that Robert Mugabe would be really proud of what happened to our conservation management plan. When it came up for State Heritage Listing the other communities pushed for it, they actually engaged their own consultant. We were offered to, an opportunity to join them and we said no we would really think that the basis listing should be the conservation management plan and we would not be joining an application to State Heritage Listing until a proper plan was prepared and I just heard just recently that, that may happen which would be really good. Um, I think that the person who did the original editing of the draft plan should be counselled as well because um what they did, as I say, was quite shocking and um, we don’t accept stuff like that in Australia. That sort of got me going, I started to read things like George Orwell 1984 and um, I can see a real parallel in it, I think uh, that um, you know it was really um, it really, for me a groundbreaking introduction into what governments or representatives of governments will do when they are not happy with something. Yeah so, it shows that, now if something comes out, I read it very carefully and uh look, try and look for evidence to support what’s being said. Yeah, what else can I tell you about Bulga.
In the in the research, in the early days, as I say, families were very poor and I’ve got a couple of photographs there which you can see from the dress of the people that they weren’t well off but the story is, in the interviews that I did with some of the older people a couple of them now passed on, was that to say that they felt, they didn’t feel as though they were poor they wouldn’t, they never did without, there was always something for them, they never went hungry, they were well loved, everybody else was the same. If there was any hardship the community would pull together to, to assist the person who, or people who are in trouble and um I can see that flowed through to where we are today, yeah. The Bulga community are rather unique too, in as far as the other communities go. The people from Bulga and some of the people from the other communities are Helensburgh people. So, and it’s quite interesting when you look at the backgrounds of those people, the men in the majority worked at the mine. Um, and the women worked at the various industries around Helensburgh in the early days from 1945 onwards when women started to work during and after the war. The um, there was a clothing factory at Helensburgh and a lot of the women from the families at Bulga worked at the clothing factory so you have this situation where people were working together, playing together in the local sports and so on, they drank together at the local clubs and so on, and they also went to Bulga and they shared their recreation time together so, I think that’s perhaps a little bit unique. And it’s not been fully explored, it certainly in the conservation management plan, well I was hinted at. I’ve built up associations that, or been able to build up associations with people that I would never be able to build up in everyday community. I now live at Gymea and although I’m on speaking terms with a lot of people I don’t have a very close association with them like Bulga and I’m really, I guess in a sense proud to be part of that. I’ve um, I’m a little bit different to the men who worked at the mine, I started at the colliery at Helensburgh in 1966 as an electrician, I was sponsored by BHP to go to TAFE and got my engineering certificate which allowed me to, to um, sorry, get my electrical engineering certificate of competency as a mine electrical engineer it’s a state government thing, it’s not a tertiary qualification but it’s, it was a document that allowed me to go to Appin in the early 1970’s for two years, first as assistant to the engineer there, for some training and then to be the engineer in charge at Appin Colliery for a year and then a job came back up at Helensburgh and I went back there and I worked there for 28 years as the engineer in charge, so I was part of the staff and a lot of the Bulga people that I associated with, well you know what coal mines are like, they weren’t the enemy but um, there was some pretty controversial times and um, but I always stayed part of the community at Bulga and it was always part of the, the community at Bulga. I must say at times I was a little bit on the side but yeah, [laughs] yeah. Now what else can I tell you about Bulga?
The research into the history of the area has been great. I um, I went down to Canberra a few years ago to have a look at one of the interviews that uh, yourself had done with Richard Dare, who was a shack owner at Werrong. Now, I can’t ever remember meeting Richard but I did, I did phone him after I’d been to Canberra to have a chat to him about what he’d written and uh yeah, it was a great interview. I think there were several half hour sessions and he had a really interesting and full life at Werrong Beach with his dad. His dad, if I can say, took his own life in about 1967, ’68. At that time he was under threat from being thrown out of Werrong. Parks in ’66, had just taken over the area and they had given eviction notice to all the shack owners there and uh, a couple of the shacks had been burned out and a suspicion had been sort of thrown on people who might of had a Park’s background of doing that, and it was a very tense situation and around the Christmas of 1967 I believe that’s when it happened, um, Dick Dare who was actually Raymond Dare took his own life down at the beach, yeah. Uh, it’s, to me, besides the tragedy it also on reflection shows the strength of association that people have with place. It looks like Richard Dare went there in the 1940’s and he’d only, only been there for less than 30 years, but in that time, he’d come to, it come to be part of his life and his children were bought up there. And um, I can see parallels with my feelings for Bulga and um, the feelings of others for Bulga and that those feelings come to the fore at times when Parks had threatened to kick us out, which they actually initially did in 1975, before they took over officially in 1976. They put notices on our doors to say that we had 12 months to get out and um it was only through negotiation with the Labour Party Minister for Lands, Bill Crabtree, that we were able to turn that around and were able to stay and here we are we’ve been since we went on the licence in ’76, it’s not quite forty years, so, at the end of this year we will be um, at the end of 1970, 19, was it the end of 1976, we signed the licence, early 1977 we’re going to be up for forty years, so. I’m third generation, children and grandchildren now, so there’s a fifth generation but we’ve got a young lad down there now who’s a seventh generation Bulga boy and um, they’re fast breeders down there but um, [laughing] their um, his ancestors were going to Bulga in the late 18 hundreds and we’ve been able to trace that through. We’ve got photographs of the family down there, of the original great, great, great grandma and it’s really good, you know I had access to a lot of those photos and so on. Um, twenty years ago I saw them and hadn’t, I’d looked at them, but hadn’t really looked into them, and now when I see photos like that I find them of great interest. You look at the photo and you look at the dress and you, knowing the history you start to understand what it was all about. Quite, quite um, satisfying, it was, yeah.
Edie Do you want to tell us about what you have in your shack now?
John Right well, I’ve got bunks, I’ve got a double bed and four single bunks up there, sorry, two double single bunks. The shack sleeps six. In the early days we had a cot, so would have slept seven. Those days are long gone, the grandchildren don’t look they’re ready to start anything too soon, so we’ll have to wait on that. I’ve got a gas stove and uh, my lighting is solar, the refrigerator is now electric, I’ve got a kerosene fridge, a Charles Hope brand refrigerator in the shack, but it doesn’t work anymore, it’s a kerosene fridge. It’s a little bit of history about that as well. When I took over the shack in ’75, the Boyle’s who owned the shack, and Joe he worked for a furniture store at Helensburgh and a lady came in, in the 1950’s, and said to him, “do you trade in a kerosene fridge for an electric fridge” which was all the go then in the 1950’s. They were selling off refrigerators, power to the town and Joe told me, he said, I said to her, “what brand fridge is it?” And she said to him “it’s a Charles Hope” and he said, I said to her, “yes madam, we’ll trade that in for you” and uh, he didn’t, I can’t remember if he told me how much he paid for it but uh, he said to me “I wanted a Charles Hope fridge because it was just a little bit better than the Silent Knights were a bit more stylish than the Silent Knights or the Kelvinator’s that the other shack owners had.” And uh that, I can remember that fridge going down in about the mid to maybe late 1950’s and uh, it was, it had pride of place in the shack and I’d since it was working quite well when I took over but it’s probably now, um, well seventy years old, the fridge. I’ve got a, I would like to convert it to solar but it’s a very heavy fridge and it’s going to be a matter of getting it back by boat to one of the ramps. I don’t want to do away with it because it’s from a historic point of view and the aesthetics of the shack it’s, it’s an important bit of equipment in the shack, yeah. I’ve got as well, I’ve got a kitchen cabinet which a lot of people drool over, its lead glass windows and on the, I’m sorry, lead glass on the doors, three separate compartments in it. It was in the shack when I first went there and now when we do our heritage days and people come in the shack, the ladies will say “oh look at that,” you know [laughing]. Yeah, it’s quite good. I’ve got um, solar hot water, I had a system which was a gravity fed system, which went for about thirty years, with very little maintenance. It finally fell over on to the solar panel so I’ve, in the last few years I’ve got another solar panel and I put the tank on the ground and I use a solar panel, electric panel to connect to a pump so when the sun comes out, it heats the water and it starts the little solar pump and it circulates the water through the tank and it works quite well in summer, but it’s a bit cool in winter. I’ve got some ideas to try and uh, fix that. The size of the shack, it’s 20 foot wide by 18 feet deep. So six and a bit metres wide and around 6 meters deep. It’s um, a fair bit of fibro in it, not, might not want to disturb it, it’s um painted and well protected, the fibro, so, there’s a little bit of demonizing going on with fibro at the moment or the last few years but I don’t see as being a problem where I am at Bulga. And just maintenance from time to time, I’ve had termites in and had to replace timber and so on but the majority of the shack is not lined so termites were to get in, I’d pretty quickly see, you know, where the problem were, was, and be able to replace the timber, touch wood. I’ve not had a problem for about 10 years with termites, hmm.
Edie Well um do want to conclude the interview? You’ve certainly covered almost everything.
John Yeah um, Edie, I guess um. I’m 70 years of age, you know, I was born in January 1946. I think I’ve still got a few years left in me and in that time, I’d be hoping to continue on with the research into the history of the Bulga community and the other communities. I’ve got an interest in the Royal National Park in general. I currently, at the moment I’m currently the Chair of Friends of the Royal National Park. It’s an organization with a lot of people who have a love of the park and advocate for the proper management and maintenance of features of the park and also the wonderful natural features of the park. We’re not, we don’t want to see people locked out of the park, we’d like to see them provided for in a way that they have minimal impact on, on the park, yeah. I’m currently researching the history of fatalities in the coal mines, in the southern division of New South Wales, I’ve been at that for some time. I’ve added a hundred and thirty odd names to the known lists and I’ve really got to get my finger out there and get, finalized that, it’s taking up a bit of time. I’m in the Australian Plant Society, I’m in the southern group which is the wonderful group of people who, they’re not only interested in native plants but a whole range of different things and uh, I’ve had some great times with them in recent years of trips away and um, and uh, just improving my knowledge of plants and so on but in the, particularly within the Park, yeah and the environment that I’m in at Bulga, so yeah. As I say, I had a, perhaps a simple childhood and I like to think that I’m paying for that now, [laughs] I’m uh, instead of going into retirement, I’m now working I used up all my free time when I was young, now I’m starting to pay for it so.
Edie Well thank you very much John, it was a wonderful interview. Would you donate this to the New South Wales State Library and the Local Studies Library in Wollongong?
John Yes Edie, no, no problem at all.