Interview Transcript from Illawarra Stories Wollongong City Libraries Oral History Project – John Garcia
Interviewer: Paul Bryson
Interview date: 30/11/2016
Paul: Hello everybody and welcome to Warrawong Library’s Oral History Project. I have a gentleman with me. Um, can I get your name please sir?
John: John Garcia.
Paul: And John, I know you’ve been in the Illawarra for quite some time, but can you tell us a little bit about where and when you were born, please?
John: Ah, yes, I was, ah, born in France, in the south of France, ah, in 1940. Um, I was born in an actual, um, refugee camp, because my parents were involved in the Spanish Civil War, which unfortunately they lost, um, against the fascist regime of Franco. And, uh, I spent my first 12 years in France. Um, my mother had, ah, I had two brothers, so there were three of us, but because of the post-war problems et cetera, my mother’s twin sister, who was always with her and was also in France, [hm hm] in a sense adopted me. So, I spent my, um, school years with my mother, with my aunt, who was my mother’s twin sister, in Toulouse, which was the capital of the south basically. And also, at the time the capital of the Spanish refugee community.
So, they were very active, um. So, I adopted their name Garcia; my actual, my brother’s name is different, it’s my middle name Andreas. And after twelve years there we decided because of the situation – I mean my father, my uncle and my father, but my uncle in particular, was fairly politically involved. He’d been quite involved in the, in the movement in Spain, um, as a member of the, um, Socialist Workers Party there ah, and also as a union member. And, um, and during the War he was a captain in the Transport Brigade. But after twelve years there, we realised, and he realised anyway, the situation in Spain, wasn’t going to change, not with the Americans recognising the regime. So, we emigrated to Australia.
And first of all, we emigrated to Victoria, to a little place, ah, which is, ah, now a ski resort, Mount Beauty, which at the time was a workers’ camp. Because, ah, my father came with ah, French, employed by a French company who were working on the Kiewa Hydroelectric Scheme, which was a precursor to the Snowy. So, I spent the first three and a half years in this lovely little town. And because it was a new town, there were a lot of very good facilities for us. So as a migrant, I was very lucky. It was a small community, and the community was conscious of sort of establishing all sorts of activities for the children there, et cetera. So, I always thank that period of my life, compared to my brothers who came later.
Paul: And the worker’s camp, did they have their own school for the children?
John: Oh no, no. This was a proper town.
Paul: A township, a proper town.
John: A new town. It was all built by the same company, the SEC, the State Electricity Commission, and they were all… the best houses we’d ever seen. Because in France we lived in a single room, my uncle, my aunt and I. Ah, and here we had a house with, ah, two bedrooms, three bedrooms from memory, and a lounge room and a kitchen and a garden, and a shed. Everything! So, it was a lovely place, yeah. And, ah, it had a school, Kiewa Hydroelectric, Hydro, um, Elementary School, and that’s, ah, where I spent my first, er y’know, years of English, y’know Australian study.
Paul: Was this what they called the Snowy Mountains Scheme?
John: No, no, no. This was before the Snowy Mountains.
Paul: It was before?
John: Yeah, it was in Victoria. It was called the Kiewa Hydro – smaller scheme but based on the same principle of foreign workers, migrant workers and so on. Hmm. Yeah.
Paul: Hmm. Okay so, um, you were there for…?
John: For a three and a half years. And then the, the work stopped; it finished, basically. So, a lot of the workers that ah, and there were quite a big community of Spanish, same as my, my parents: not Spaniards that came directly from Spain, but rather Spaniards that were refugees in France, with a lot of French young people as well and families. So, it was quite an interesting sort of, y’know, a French-Spanish community. Ah, and, ah, when it finished – when the works finished, well some went down to Yallourn, to Moe, to work in the brown coal mines. Others went to the Snowy Scheme that had just started and was employing a lot of people. [coughs] And, ah, three of the family that I was associated with, ah, came here to Wollongong.
So, my uncle got a job in mining, Kemira Colliery, and, ah, there were two other families; there were three Spanish families, and to my knowledge, I’m pretty sure that’s right, we were the first er Spanish families or migrants in this area, because this was before the actual migration of Spaniards to this area started. Um, and all three families, the Garcia’s, the Alire’s and the Lopez, ah, came from France.
Paul: So, you’ve arrived in Warrawong, and…?
John: Well actually I arrived in Port Kembla, because Warrawong was pretty small. There wasn’t much, except there was a lot of vacant land for sale. [chuckles] And in Port Kembla we shared a house with, ah, a French family and also a Maltese family. And, ah, from, from there – the house was in Port Kembla, it was opposite, ah, Green Gables, which at the time was run by two spinsters, Miss ah, well the one we knew, Miss Nixon, Miss Dixon. It was a seaman’s mission. And Miss, ah, Dixon was a wonderful lady, always helpful in orienting us and introducing us to, y’know, to the area.
And, er, we weren’t gunna stay in that house for too long – my uncle very soon had enough money to put a deposit on a block of land – and in Warrawong, in Lee Street. It was on the slope, um, down from the hospital, which was pretty well empty. There was a row of, ah, housing commission homes on the, ah, lake side of, ah, Lee Street. But on the other side basically new.
And so, we started building a house there. And, ah, it meant that from there on we worked every weekend, digging on the land. The land was on a slope. And, um, as we dug, we realised there were a lot of stones in there. The rocks basically, some of them pretty big, ah, because it was the, what do they call… conglomerate. And, ah, so we realised, well my uncle realised, that we could use that stone to build the house.
So, we [chuckles] we spent all the time breaking these huge boulders into manageable pieces and we built, ah, the, the basis of the house, which was, ah, something which migrants traditionally, did when, ah, they bought a block of land, and so we built a garage with a workshop and a, and a porch, which would then, the garage would be the living room, the porch would be where the kitchen and the workshop would be the bedroom. And that’s where they would live while they finished the rest of the house. So basically, what we built was ah, that, that base. And, ah, the walls, well the walls were, are still, about two feet thick, half a metre thick, pretty well. Ah, pretty solid. Yes…
Paul: And you helped a fair bit? Or when you could?
John: Yeah. Yeah, I helped. All the weekends were pretty well busy there. I, I wasn’t a slave to it. I mean I did go to Port Kembla Beach. Ah, yeah, ah, and I had girlfriends, and y’know… I was a teenager! I just missed out on surfboards, which is a shame to this day ‘cos in those days they had the long boards, you know, which were you couldn’t just get one for yourself… But I always regret that.
Paul: About the building of the house. Do you think men were much more, um, well I don’t know, er the word I’m looking for…But people were building their own houses with their bare hands then weren’t they, quite a lot of them?
John: Yes, yes. Well I mean you had to, to find the cheapest way to build, y’know, some, some sort of a house. So, most of the houses in those days, yes… Very few were actually commissioned to be built by builders you know; they were sort of built by the people themselves. Now we, we, and I think other groups had, had the same situation. One of the families that came with us, the Lopez, he was, he’d been a builder. Well he’d been a bricklayer back in Spain. And he had some pretty good ideas on how to build. And he was a paisano, as they say in Spain, of my, my uncle. That means they came from the same area.
Paul: I’ve heard the word, but I don’t…
John: Yeah, the Italians use it – paisan. If the Italians, they say paisan, it means they come from the same village, basically. And ah, he was very helpful. He built the house behind ours, and every bit of that house was handmade, including the first time in Australia that they used, ah, a system which was very popular in Europe, where you have beams and then in between you had curved, ah, like vaulted, ah, tiles, and this formed the slab of the first floor. Um, he made [coughs] ah, he made a special sort of, um, mould, metal mould with a press to make, ah, tiles. With a ceramic top as it were, not ceramic, they weren’t cooked, but they were sort of… terrazzo top. So, that’s, that’s a masterpiece that house, really. And he helped us in you know giving, ah, instructions, about y’know how to mix cement and concrete and stuff like that.
That house of his became a doctor’s residence; a nunnery; a centre for um, um for teenagers, y’know teenagers needed, ah, to be, ah, supported et cetera. So… And, and it’s still going there. But that’s always been… That in a sense inspired me to become an architect [laughs]. But our house was just slowly built.
Paul: Slowly coming together…
John: Yeah, and, ah, we had to get bricks. There’s not much brickwork there, but we had to do some brickwork, and we used to go down… Well I used to drive, y’know when I got my licence, [whispers confidentially] and before it too! I used to drive down to a dump, a building materials dump from the steelworks, where the, ah, chimney used to be, and they were bricks that came from the kilns. And they were tough. You had to spend all your time… And my aunt and I spent all the time chipping. Chipping away at cement.
Paul: You had to clean ‘em up a fair bit before you could…
John: We had to clean that’s right, yeah. They weren’t, um, pretty clinker bricks, they were pretty rough. But still they were rendered over anyway. And, ah the ceiling of it, of the place, the joists across the top – because they were gunna take another floor… Ah, they, they were rails that we got from the mine. Ah [coughs] y’know old rails there that you could get access to, y’know, being a worker there. And even the ah, the gravel that we used for the concrete was slag, which you could get quite cheaply from the steelworks. So, all in all, most of it was pretty well handmade.
Paul: Whereabouts did you do your secondary schooling John?
John: Ah well, I, I went to, I did the last two years of my, ah, high school period in, ah, at Wollongong High School. And, ah, this was the new site for Wollongong High School. The first – we were the first students in the new site. The school had been on Smith Hill before that. Um, and, ah, I used to get the bus. In those days the bus didn’t go along, um, what’s that road that goes through the middle of the steelworks?
Paul: Masters Road? Five Islands?
John: Five Islands I’m thinking of… No, no, anyway whatever – I can’t even remember [laughs].
Paul: One of those!
John: No, the road used to go along the beach…
John: Springhill, that’s it! The road used to go along the beach, and I always remember going to school and you had the beach on the right, on way up north. Ah, and it used to drop us off – ‘cos there were no high schools south of Wollongong, they were all, all the high schools were in the north, well, there were two or three I think, I can remember, not a huge amount. And, ah, I remember we used to be dropped off at, um, ah, the bottom of Crown Street, and it used to be crowded with kids with different uniforms from different schools, y’know. And the girlfriends and the boyfriends talking to each other and all that sort of stuff. And then you got a bus that took you to north to, um – ours was short trip to Fairy Meadow, but others went to Corrimal and probably, yeah, Corrimal.
Paul: So, all of the people in the southern suburbs went to school either in Wollongong or north of Wollongong?
John: For high school, yes.
Paul: For high school.
John: There were, there was a primary school in Port Kembla for a long time. Actually, I think 1902 or something it started. Ah, yeah, so we went and, um, the headmaster was Tom Lenahan – very, very austere man. His son eventually became a doctor and he was my mother’s and my aunt’s doctor here in Warrawong for years and years. Lovely man.
John: Lenahan, yeah. But his father was very, very steely, a very hard man [chuckles].
Paul: Were there any famous names at school in those days?
John: Yes well, there’s, um, a reunion now, um, tomorrow night in, ah, no it’s not, it’s Saturday night, here in Sydney, in, um, in, ah, Wollongong, and, ah, celebrating a hundred years of Wollongong High School. Oh, some of the, ah, my, my favourite name is Bobby McDougall, she was in my year and she’s quite a very well ah, respected [coughs] um, academic and a bit more. She was one of the first to go to China. She was the daughter of a waterside worker. But I always, ah, I always looked at her with, ah, a certain interest – I never got close to her, because she, she was obviously a red, and I was a red, but I was afraid to sort of… Y’know in those days – under the Menzies period y’know you didn’t go around saying “I’m red” or whatever.
John: And, um, I hope I can talk to her on Saturday. But she’s one of the celebrities.
Paul: You’re going to the reunion?
John: Oh yeah. And the other one is Brian Taylor, who was a, um…
Paul: A wicket keeper!
John: Exactly! For, ah, for Australia. And when I was, ah, away, I didn’t realise, I only learnt later when we had a reunion that he’d been a wicket keeper. Barry Ross, he was a, um, a commentator – big mouth Barry Ross!
Paul: He worked with Rex Mossop, um.
John: Yes, yes.
Paul: As a rugby league commentator.
John: That type of thing. And again, I didn’t realise till about late eighties he’s written a book about the history of the school actually. Um, they’re the only ones I can… Oh Robert ?Weirway? was professor at university but also one of the bigwigs in engineering at uh, at the steelworks, people like that… yeah.
Paul: So, after you left school at Wollongong High John, what happened then?
John: Ah well, I decided to do architecture and, um, I got a, I went to Sydney University Architecture School and, ah, it was a full-time course. So, I lived in – my mother and my two brothers had arrived in the meantime, ‘cos our migration pattern was quite scattered. We, first of all my uncle came here. A year later I came here with my, ah, my aunt. Then later my father came, and then later still my mother and my brothers came. So, it was a question of when we had enough money, because they were not assisted passages.
And so, I lived with my mother and my brothers in Pyrmont while I went to Sydney Uni, ah, to do my architecture course. I did an architecture course and then a town planning course after that. And, um, ah, I used to come down here for the holidays. And, um, the first holidays, long holidays, summer holidays, I spent with Tassie Barnett ,who’s a builder. He’d also been a, um, a famous local swimmer. Tassie Barnett I was told that had, um, almost been selected to go to the Olympics, but he was too rough. [laughter] So he didn’t, but he was a great swimmer. He was a lovely fella.
Paul: I’ve heard of Tassie.
John: Yeah he, he, ah, he used to, ah, – so he, he got me, y’know, I said ah, he said, “What – A Uni student what are you doing building?”
“Oh,” I said, “I want to get my hands dirty, y’know” [laughs]. So, he got me to do all the dirty jobs. And, ah after that I, ah, I did go overseas and, ah, went there and came back a few times, but I always came back to, ah, to Warrawong because this was my base, my parents’ house.
Um, and at different stages I worked here at one stage, I came down here and I worked with a local architectural firm, and they, at the time it was, ah, um, ah, I can’t remember the name, but, ah, Bruce Bowman was one of the people involved in it. Graham Bell and Bowman was the architectural firm. And, ah, they used me because I had a town planning degree, and they were doing some work, well they had, they had some connections with the university and, ah, so they used me to do a, draw up a plan for the future of the university. Their interest was, once the plan was drawn to sort of get commissions for the different buildings, and they did a few buildings on campus. So, I could say that I, ah, I started the plan for the future of the university. This was in about ’81 or ’82, something like that.
Paul: Well done. And what about organisations John? What about the Spanish Democratic Centre, did you have anything to do there?
John: Yeah, yeah. Well, that, we, ah, we came from a political background. So, when a lot of Spaniards starting, started to arrive in Australia, ah, in the early ’60s, a few of us, not just here but in, in, ah, Sydney as well, because the community, we had connections with other refugees who were in Sydney and we used to meet all the time with our different families and stuff. [coughs] And we decided it was time we, we set up some sort of an organisation, y’know, a legal organisation, ah, that was there for the purposes of, um, informing the newcomers, y’know, about what the Franco regime was really about, and what democracy was all about, and why, you know, because they used to say in Spain that the reds used to eat babies and stuff, and crap like that, y’know. So, we wanted to clarify, and ah, so we set up the Spanish Democratic Centre. And my uncle was the president of it and I was the, ah, the secretary for many years. And the most interesting thing for me was my uncle, who was very political, and when he came here language was a barrier. I mean he was pro-labour and that. He had, ah, ah, connections with, um, um, Fred Moore.
Paul: Fred Moore yes?
John: Fred Moore was a delegate up there that I later sort of reconnected when I was in Brisbane. And, ah, when this organisation was set up, I saw him come to – he, and not just him, but a few others, y’know, come to the surface. As all of a sudden, they were able to sort of speak, y’know, and speak in their proper lang… in their own language, and sort of explain themselves, y’know, and they were brilliant orators all of them. So that was… But a lot of the young people who came from Spain, ah, joined and, ah, helped us to – my wife and I used to, at the time we used to, ah, print, ah, a monthly magazine, or roneo, it was called the Democrat, with excerpts from different papers, y’know, around the world and so on. And that kept going and it was sort of er at least an informative paper y’know about the, something which was not pro fascist like are the official Spanish organisations, y’know, the, ah, the embassy and the consuls, but was, y’know, sticking up for democracy. So ah, we, we – this was at the time when the anti-war movement was on, the Vietnam anti-war movement, and so we had a lot of help from the youth. People like Bob Gould, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, but he was very active in the…
Paul: Bob Gould?
John: Yeah, and the Percy brothers, who set up a sort of, ah, a Trotskyist organisation, and, ah, Hall Greenland, people like that when they heard, y’know, there were Spanish refugees! Were there any anarchists?! Well you could see everyone was fascinated by what anarchism did in Spain. Um, and so [coughs] my uncle was invited to talk to different groups, and I had to go and interpret. Um, and it was quite a good period for him to get involved. And eventually when he passed away, my aunt joined the Labour Party and she was a stalwart of the Labour Party for years and years. And ah, so their political involvement eventually was – came to fruition, if you like. I went on and I, I did a lot of political work. I became an activist. I was involved with the Aboriginal movement in Brisbane. And then I was involved in solidarity committees with Central America. I went to Spain when Franco died, and helped in a little way to sort of, y’know, bring democracy there. Um, and, ah, then later I, ah, travelled to the, ah, Pacific – because of my ability with languages – French, Spanish Italian – I was able to, um, act as a correspondent. And I went to, ah, I was able to go to Vanuatu when it started, um, and, ah to the French, the French, ah, colonies and territories in the Pacific, New Caledonia and Tahiti. And then later I also went to Cuba and Nicaragua. Um… So, all my life I’ve had a certain amount of political involvement.
Paul: Yes, well John, I can say that you are very welcome addition to Australian society, and especially Port Kembla – Warrawong society.
John: Well thank you! [chuckles]
Paul: Ok. Well thank you very much for coming in and talking today.
Paul: Okay then bye for now.