Interview Transcript from Illawarra Stories Wollongong City Libraries Oral History Project – Neale Armstrong
Interviewer: Jo David
Interview date: 1/09/2016
Jo: Dapto Oral History project. Today we’re speaking with Neale Armstrong of Dapto. Neale was born in Wollongong in 1936 and grew up in Avondale. Welcome Neale.
Neale: Thank you very much.
Jo: So, what it was like to grow up in Avondale back in the ’30’s and ’40’s. What’s the first things you can remember?
Neale: Reflecting on it, it was a wonderful place to grow up and, uh, I do, or I’m able to reflect very much because I lived in and then subsequently lived in the very home that I grew up in, and have only just, 12 months ago, left that property.
Jo: Well that is a unique experience isn’t it?
Neale: Yes, so I’m able to look at the mountain and look around the district and, you know, appreciate the changes that have occurred. Growing up in Avondale was a lot of fun. We were pretty free and had plenty of land to wander over, and I think, you know, we were without shoes for the first 10 or 12 years.
Jo: You grew up on a farm didn’t you Neale?
Neale: Yes, yes. And, ah, it was very much doc- dictated by the seasons and, um, the fact that it was a dairy farm that was operational 7 days a week. And, uh, the outings where every fortnight my parents’d go to Wollongong and have, have a meal at the C.W.A. Rooms and, ah, when you reflect on it, it was a pattern that was just repeated over and over. School was at the Avondale public school. A one teacher school, and um, again it was a good experience. The, ah, I can still recall the teachers, and the fact that they would come around to the various homes of an evening. And of course, Bill Collins was quite a tall fellow and my mother’d dust the mantelpiece because [laughs] …
Jo: He could see on top!
Neale: Very much.
Jo: A part of the community were they, the teachers?
Neale: Very much part of it. Then, ah, another teacher, ah, Bevan Crater lived in Wollongong and used to drive out each day, and, ah, if there was any delay, ah, we were able to see his car come over the hill, and so if he was delayed in arriving we would have scurried off and gone home and said, “The teacher didn’t turn up!” [laughter]
One of the local lads, Bill Brown, he’d set his, ah, eel line in the creek of a morning, and then after school he’d go and check whether he’d caught an eel or not. On one occasion he scurried up a pine tree and, ah, Bevan Crater arrived and said, “Come down.” And Bill decided it wasn’t a good idea to come down, [laughter] so he stayed there for the day. And then when Bevan went home, he came down and went home.
Neale: Um, we built an air raid shelter, or we didn’t actually build it, but the, ah, you know, there was an air raid, um, trench, um, zigzag trench was dug so that in the event of passing through the War years that we would be able to – we all huddled down in this trench.
Jo: Yeah ok, and, and it never got used?
Neale: No, it never got used, no.
Jo: Do you remember what year that would have been Neale?
Jo: 1940, yes, it would have been, definitely, yeah.
Neale: And then there was a, err, hall, a community hall, that was set up quite near the school, and that was a Army building from Port Kembla that was cut up and brought out and reassembled.
Neale: And, and to be part of, you know, that because it was quite a big event to have a hall out in Avondale. It’s still there…
Jo: Is it now?
Neale: an old galvanized shed…
Jo: Yeah ok.
Neale: and I show my grandchildren. And that’s where I had my 21st birthday party and they….
Jo: I was gunna say what sort of things went on in the hall?
Neale: Um, um, birthday parties and, um, ah, Christmas events and, ah, Santa Claus. And of course, that would be Mavis’s husband, ah, Keith Chittock, in his…
Jo: Oh ok.
Neale: rubber boots. We’d recognise, we’d recognise the boots despite the disguise. [laughs] So a lot of, a lot of good memories and, um, the, the community was a very close-knit community. My father was of the view that it’s better to be on good terms with his neighbours because you never know when one needs the other or what have you. And growing up we spent a lot of time with my father, um, up in the hills cutting timber and, and fencing and whatever pursuits were on.
Jo: Yeah, yeah, life, what was lifelike on the dairy farm for you? It would have been long hours I image.
Neale: Long hours, but they were, that’s what they were trained for, or what they accepted in life and, ah, they just rolled with the, with the punches. Good seasons, bad seasons, um, 5-year droughts and, you know, really searching for water for the stock. And, ah, then of course floods and you’ve got the reverse situation then.
Jo: Explain to us how your parents ended up, um, on the dairy farm in Avondale.
Jo: How did they come to be in Avondale?
Neale: Because their parents, um, purchased the property for them to go to, go into dairying. And so, ah, effectively it’s one of four, four generations on the one property.
Jo: And so, when did that finish. Can you remember?
Neale: About 20 years ago, and at that time, ah, there was initially 22, 22, um, dairy properties in Avondale, and then as the farmers got older and the next generation were disinclined to continue with the farming, then it shrunk back and shrunk back and ah, and um, the last dairy farm was, you know, ceased dairying only a matter of about 5 years ago.
Jo: Ok. Do you know what, what now or…?
Neale: No, it’s owned by a local plumbing contractor, and he’s very much, um, continuing with the, um, you know, the sort of rural, um, aspect, and, ah, it’s historic [unclear]. The buildings are, um, historic significance,
Jo: Oh ok.
Neale: and so, everything’s got to be preserved. The silo building, the two houses, the bridge across the creek…
Jo: Oh, that’s good isn’t it it’s.
Neale: it’s all under the, ah, local government, um, because the local government see it as quite unique. There is the old house which is 120 years old. The younger house, which is probably now about 80 years old, and the dairy building and the silo, it’s all still there.
Jo: Oh wow.
Neale: Um, it just hasn’t been in effect changed and the dairying operation has continued around that.
Jo: Quite a heritage aspect hasn’t it?
Neale: Yes, yes.
Jo: Yeah hmm, ok. ok, so Neale, um, after you finished primary school, what, what happened then with your education?
Neale: We, being myself and two brothers, were bundled off to Hurlstone Agricultural High School,
Jo: Ok, tell us what that was like.
Neale: a boarding school, up at Glenfield. Quite traumatic in its initial form, but then we simply grew to accept that, um, the sacrifice that our parents had made to enable us to attend a boarding school, and the benefits that flowed from that.
Jo: Yeah, yeah.
Neale: Life at Hurlstone was a lot of fun again, an Agricultural High School, so we were up at 5 o’clock if we were on dairy, and, and then a lesser rising time if you were looking after the horses or pigs and poultry. So, it was an operating farm, and, um, we were, we were actually, along with the farm hands, part of the running of the, ah, the operation.
Jo: You were growing up on a farm already. [laughs]
Neale: We always thought we were [laughs]. I have subsequently, um, travelling overseas, applied for a position on a ship to transport stock from, um, Glasgow to Montreal, and of course in the interview, because I knew all about stock and, ah, got the position as a result of it.
Jo: Ok. What was that like? That would have been and interesting experience.
Neale: Again, a wonderful experience, last crossing of the North Sea, because it became far too rough after that, and they terminated. And we took Clydesdale and stud stock across to Canada. The Clydesdales to go into one of the brewery teams.
Jo: Ok, so, um, at the Agricultural School what were – did – you had classrooms too I presume?
Neale: Oh yes, yes, hmm.
Jo: With the, with the normal study.
Neale: Yes, there were boarders and there were day-goes.
Jo: Explain that to us. [laughter]
Neale: “Day-goes” are children that come to the school for the day’s tuition and then leave and go home. As opposed to the boarders who are the “bed-bugs” [laughter] – they reside there overnight.
Jo: Day-goes and bed-bugs.
Neale: Yes, yes.
Jo: Ok. [laughter] Interesting.
Neale: And there was a clear distinction between them, because the boarders tended to form a unit. The boarders were children from all over the State, and, ah, so there were some wonderful connections and, um, you know, friendships that were developed. And, ah, there were a lot of breadth of experiences too, because if someone came from Cobar or Bedalla or, or, then they’re bringing their life experience into that melting pot.
Jo: Did you come across any others, ah, from the Dapto area?
Neale: Yes, yes. Probably about half a dozen, um, and not necessarily at that exact point in time, but over the subsequent years.
Jo: Ok so it was a common, not common, but it was a known to be a way of educating rural children from this area.
Jo: Yes. Oh. Very good. So what was it like when you came home for holidays, you know, from boarding school?
Neale: A weekend once a month.
Neale: And that was travelling by train into Central and then waiting for the South Coast connection, and then by train down to Dapto station.
Jo: How long would that take in those days – most of the day?
Neale: [laughs] No. 2 or 3 hours, I guess. Um, and the old steam train coming through the tunnels, dealing with soot, you know, if the windows weren’t all closed. And then an observation there was the newspaper with the left-over fish and chips sitting on the floor and this was quite a, you know, new experience to, um, to see how careless people could be. And, ah so that was a, that was a welcome time. At school we had a tuck shop and a, an allowance – 2 shillings a week I think it was. And of course, you’d have to spend that sparingly otherwise, yes otherwise the fortnight’d run out and, ah, you’d be without, ah, money. Probably the wrong things without being able to remember or recall.
Jo: No doubt, no doubt. [Laugh]
Neale: They were the, that was before there were clear restrictions on tuckshops. So, it was probably all the wrong… The meals were, um, pretty ordinary, out of a, a, you know, large kitchen and…
Jo: Did you miss your Mum’s? Cooking?
Neale: Yes, um, without being able to sort of recall with any concern, it wasn’t unlike a friend that used to come back to Kangaloon and his only diet was potatoes. And so, he’d really last all week without eating much and then he’d go home, and his mother would have a big pile of potatoes. [laughs] And that was his staple diet.
Jo: Did you have a favourite dish? When you were growing up?
Neale: No, no, I’ve got a very wide, you know, interest in food, and, ah, as a result of quite a lot of travel of, you know, being able to experiment and experience…
Jo: Different foods.
Neale: Different yes.
Jo: Yeah, yeah, ok. So, um, coming back during holidays and things like that, did you hook up fine with other kids that didn’t go away to boarding school again, or did you feel…?
Neale: We were physically distanced from them in that Avondale was a long way from Dapto. I know it’s only [laughs] a five-minute journey now, but it was, we were back in Avondale, not back in Dapto, and so we didn’t have that sort of contact. We had sufficient with our own little team out there. And then I realised that our social contact was more with relations, and so cousins would come and stay, and, um, and then we’d go to evening functions. It was usually a relation or neighbour or close friend and, um, that was that was what socialising was all about.
Jo: Ok. Yeah, with those that were there…
Jo: rather than trying to organise meeting with other people.
Jo: Yeah, yeah, ok, good. So, any sort of event that stands out in your memory back then, a dance or a party or…?
Neale: No. I can still remember my 21st birthday party in the school hall, or community hall. It wasn’t actually a school hall, and…
Jo: What did you do for 21st birthday parties in…?
Neale: Cousin came along and sang a song and people gave me a lot of, you know, presents…
Jo: Was there music? Did you dance?
Neale: Oh yes, yes, a bit of dancing and then there was, ah, all the presents, where, you know, clocks, they were bedside, you know, [sound of finger click] fold-up clocks.
Jo: Alarm clocks, and thing yeah, yeah.
Neale: and cufflinks, and…
Jo: All the things that a young 21-year-old needed.
Jo: [laughs] That’s good. And so, would there be a big spread of food, and everybody’d cook something, or did they do that for the party too?
Neale: Yes, the catering was always done by the community for a party, and people would bring a plate along. Some people’d get confused, but in those days, everyone realised the plate needed to have food on it! [laughter]
And, um, another recall and, and, err an appreciation of how my parents handled it, my brother dived into a dam as that was our swimming pool, and, ah, he got a, ah, very big splinter in his knee, and the, ah, x-ray of course doesn’t detect timber, and so it went undetected, and he ended up with a enormous infection and was bedridden for 18 months. And so, in addition to running the dairy farm, my parents had a, one boy in a, in their bed because they vacated their bedroom and set him up in their bed with his leg in traction with a flat iron hanging on the [laughs] rope. Well you get the nearest object that weighs the right amount! And, um, and they coped with that without any external outside assistance.
Jo: So, there was no doctor visits?
Neale: Yes, yes, Dr. Rail, I think, was the doctor at the time and he would come out. The, the splinter at, finally, you know, discharged itself. Um, and, ah, I often think that, ah, that was an added challenge because they had the two other boys that were still running around and, ah, and the dairy to run, and, ah…
Jo: How old was your brother?
Neale: Probably 12, 12 to 14.
Jo: That, um, surely that was quite common for you, you boys to be hurting yourselves out there in such a rural environment. No?
Neale: No, no, no breaks other than this, you know, injury of the knee. But, ah, I can’t recall, you know, broken arms, or… Sprained ankles, yes, um, running on uneven ground. But it’s interesting, a friend that I work with now, he’s observed that the city folk come out to his farm, and he takes them for a walk, and they’re very unsteady on the uneven ground. And we take it for granted and, and I now, if I’m walking in town, I walk on the grass or the uneven ground just to try and preserve a little bit of balance.
Jo: Yeah, well you grew up there in bare feet as you say…
Jo: Those first few years, so you – exactly.
Neale: Occasionally, we’d be wearing the, you know, the gum boots, rubber boots. And the cow yard in winter would become just one great bog. And if we went down to round up the cows, quite often your foot would plunge down into the mud, and then you’d try and retrieve it, you retrieve your foot but the boot’s still [laughs] in the mud. Learnt how to clear a yard full of cow manure, just one clean sweep with a shovel, and then continue the motion over and onto the heap. I can still do it with great skill!
Jo: Yeah, I’ll bet you can. [laughs] That would have been a daily job too I’m pretty sure?
Neale: Yes, yes. At the end of every milking the dairy had to be, you know, cleaned down and the yard.
Jo: So, it was twice a day?
Neale: Beg-twice a day.
Jo: Twice a day.
Neale: That’s right, 7 days a week twice a day.
Jo: You three boys would have been quite an asset to your parents, I think.
Neale: They did not call on us to be involved with the dairying. It was more an invitation, an opportunity if we wanted to help.
Neale: It was a, a skill that I admired with my father, that we were keen to help without being directed to help.
Jo: Ok, that’s interesting.
Neale: It is. It was, um, it’s only in the latter years that one is able to reflect on aspects like that.
Jo: Did he have, um, a large family?
Neale: No, just himself and his brother. Ah, there was no – there was the occasional swagman that would turn up and offer to, you know, fell the trees or split posts or something like that, but that was the occasional – there was no regular farm hand.
Jo: And they would come in and do, do a job or ask to do a job and then leave again?
Neale: Or if there was picking peas then sometimes bring some outside helpers on that. We were pretty skilled at picking peas and…
Jo: Ok, so you had, you had, did have some vegetables, did you?
Neale: Yes, and then sewing the bags up with the ears on the corner and, uh, transporting it. Deciding whether to send them to the agent Cooper’s or the agent Yates. And we, we were allowed to make that choice.
Neale: And then you put the tag on it and bring them out and put them on the train at the station and off they’d go to Sydney. And I guess in due course there’d be a cheque returned. The milk was in, um, 10-gallon cans, and it had to be transported from the farm down to the pickup point on Avondale Road, which was only a matter of some 500 metres, and then the carrier would come by and put the carri-, the cans on the back of his truck and take them to the station -err, the Dapto factory. And of course, they’d be trained off to Sydney. Of course, this carrier was the ears and eyes of the district. And he had a nickname for all the farmers around the run. And there was the farmer that was a little bit frightened of heights and when he got to get on his tractor he was always hanging on to the guard. My father was rarely delivering the milk to the carrier, his brother used to do that. And they were both religious men, and so they had the nickname of Silent Night, Holy Night [laughs].
Neale: Because one was seen and the other was rarely seen. [laughter]
Jo: Very good. Do you remember any others?
Jo: Only if they’re repeatable.
Neale: There was one, there was one lady up in Avondale that was, had the nickname “Westerly Wind”, because if any suitor approached the house it was as if there was a strong draft of wind that was forcing them away!