Interview Transcript from Illawarra Stories Wollongong City Libraries Oral History Project – Robert Parsons
Interviewer: Jo Oliver
Interview Date: 11 February 2019
The following interview was conducted with Robert Parsons as part of Wollongong’s City Council Library Illawarra Stories’ oral history project. It took pla… place at Uniting Care at Unanderra on the 11th of February 2019 and the interviewer is Jo Oliver.
Jo Well thank you so much, Robert, for being willing to share your story with us. Could you tell us about how you first came to the area, to the Illawarra?
Robert I was a typewriter mechanic for Dave Elbern Pty Ltd–the makers of Imperial Typewriters. They opened a place down near Circular Quay–Reiby Place and err… in an old building there. And you just got a lift up to the fourth floor and that’s where I started on typewriters and calculators. Most people who use a typewriter will know that the top row of letters is Q-W-E-R-T-Y-U-I-O-P and you can make a sentence out of that and the sentence is– ‘The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog’s back ‘. So look it up and you’ll find, ?or you might?. Yes… each one of those–the letters used You just had to soldier on. It was a very demanding, slow job. Met a lot of interesting people.
Jo And you were single when you were doing that job in Sydney, were you? This was… Robert Yes, I was single.
Jo How old would you have been when you learnt the trade?
Robert Oh I became an apprentice typewriter mechanic when I was 15 years of age and I did a five-year indentured apprenticeship. In those days you did a university degree in 5 years. But I enjoyed life and I enjoyed singing. And then I moved to Corrimal–East Corrimal. 14 Aldridge Avenue, East Corrimal. My son, Roger, lives up the other end of the street.
Jo So how did you come to this area, though? You were a typewriter mechanic and what brought you to East Corrimal? Was there a job down here, or…?
Robert That’s a good question. (laughs) I came down as a typewriter mechanic at Dobell Pty Ltd and opened a… a shop at Port Kembla. Typewriter mechanics were in big demand and you could name your own price, you know, because we were repairing things and I joined the Lamplighters… theatre group and played the part of a Japanese pirate in The Mikado and I’ve had an interesting life. I’ve got a wonderful family.
Jo And you lived in East Corrimal. Can you tell me about the house–the house you lived in there?
Robert Yeah, it’s still there.14 Aldridge Avenue, East Corrimal. And we had our own… I had a little Ford Prefect car. And we had our own cow… Molly– a jersey cow. I bought her from a a dairy farm in Coniston and walked her home from Coniston. After the first day’s walk I was absolutely exhausted, so I tied her up in the… in the bush there on Squire’s Way. ?Mara? came back the next morning to get her… she was gone and so I was talking to some young fellows and they said ‘Oh that’s Elliott’s… we saw Elliott’s with your cow and they took her and tied her up further up in the bush, but I found her.
Jo So you got the cow back again?
Jo and did you?
Robert I had Molly.
Jo Did you just graze her on your… in your backyard or did you have a bit more…?
Robert Yes, no, we er… I used to take her and tie her up along the street on the footpaths. But people got annoyed because she’d… she used to lean over the front fence and chew their roses and flowers off. (laughs)
Jo And did know how to milk a a cow?
Jo You already knew that…
Jo So you’d milk it every day, twice a day?
Robert Yeah… twice a day and I taught my wife to milk it and then Molly didn’t like my wife. She lifted her foot up and put it in the bucket of milk.
Jo Oh, no!
Robert So I banned her from doing it there.
Jo And what would you do with all that milk… would your… would your family use all the milk?
Robert Yes and I used to sell it all up and down the street. ‘Cause the milkman used to come down in the milk cart with the horse and buggy and two taps on the back. The milk wasn’t pasteurised, with full cream on the top. Yes, Molly the cow. Oh yes and… do you know Street’s–Street’s ice cream? Yes, Yes. Well, we used to live at East Corrimal. I used to tie her up down near the creek. And yeah, Mr Street had a beautiful garden, with cabbages and plants and everything and because everybody knew me and the cow, down on the corner selling newspapers with the cars going past. So anyhow, there was a knock on the door and Mr Street was there and he said: ‘Tell that bloody husband of yours to get himself down here and see the damage. It’s going to cost him a a lot of money.’ Betty was about eight months pregnant, built like the side of a house out the front of her. ‘So, I’m not going down and be abused by him. I’ll drive you down in the car and you go in and see him.’ I got out the car and knocked on the door. And he opened the door and, of course she looked like the side of house standing sideways and she said: ‘I’m Mrs Parsons, Robert Parson’s ?’ ‘Where’s that so-and-so husband of yours?’ and he abused…
Jo But you got the cow back?
Robert Yeah, I got the cow back.
Jo And were Street’s making–were they making ice cream there, at the time?
Robert No, they made it at, er, up in Corrimal. Just opposite the not far from the library in Short Street.
Jo And would you make butter out of the milk as well, or cream or anything?
Jo Yeah. It must have been wonderful for your children to have all that fresh milk. And what–what other things would the family do when you lived there? Did you go to the beach or…?
Robert Yes, the beach was just down the end of Aldridge Avenue. We were in number 14. She got to know all the people and I used to deliver give people cream… a jersey cow produced a lot of cream on the milk.
Jo You ran the surf club?
Robert Yeah. Before I moved down to East Corrimal, I was in the North Bondi Surf Club when I was an apprentice typewriter mechanic, working for Dobell Pty Ltd in Sydney. I started smoking when I was about 14 and gave up when I was 16. In the Surf Club, you had to swim out to the buoys and do your swim every year and you had to do the swim in a certain amount of time. If you failed three times you got kicked out of the club. So, I failed the first 2 times. So, then I gave up smoking and then I went from strength to strength.
Jo So you were a very fit young man. And that was unusual, really, to be such a good swimmer at that time but then a lot of people couldn’t swim. So, did you–did you have to rescue anyone at East Corrimal?
Robert No, at North Bondi I did. At the Surf Club there–on the southern end of Bondi Beach. It was the very rough seas. I did a couple of rescues.
Jo And I can see some pictures here of your family at the beach. So how many children did you eventually have?
Robert 6 children, 3 boys and 3 girls. I planned it that way. (laughs)
Jo Well done! And it looks like you had a bit of a garden. Did you–did you grow vegetables?
Robert Yeah. I was a very keen gardener. I grew everything.
Jo What sort of things would you grow?
Robert I grew peanuts. They grow underground. Oh, turnips and everything… No
the soil’s pretty good. I did improve it. I used to go up to Ziems’s Abattoirs. Ziems’s was the butcher on the Princes Highway. And the abattoirs would keep a lot of cows there, so I used to go up and, yeah, get the manure from there and then when the cow came into season, she started bellowing. The bulls could hear her up at Ziem’s paddock. I was advised to take her up there and see Mr Ziems. Just used to try and have it serviced. Yeah, I’d tie her on the back, and she’d trot alongside. I’d wind my driver’s window down and her head was just level with me. And we’d go across Bulli Crossing–the gate and everyone was absolutely amazed. Straight up Railway Street to where the hotel is on the corner at Princes Highway there. Turn left and people would just… you’d see their eyes popping out of their heads. (laughs)
Jo Yeah, she must’ve really trusted you to do that. When did you first get involved with the Arcadians… the Lamplighters?
Robert The Arcadian’s Theatre is still there in Corrimal.
Jo And was your wife involved in that too? Or is that more something that you liked to do?
Robert No, Betty formed her own choir of ladies–a ladies’ choir–the Wollongong Harmony Chorus, yeah. They sang four-part harmony See that’s when I learnt to harmonise so I sang top tenor.
Jo So you were both very musical. Had you learnt music earlier in life?
Robert No I didn’t, but Betty did. And later on in life she taught music, didn’t she?
Jo And where did your children go to school?
Robert Oh, they went to Corrimal High School. You know.
Chris (daughter) Mum and Dad were instrumental when Bellambi’s school was built.
Robert Yeah, that’s right.
Chris (daughter) The front of it that fronts up to McCauley Road was all swamp then. And you organised to have all that filled up with coal wash.
Robert Yeah. To make playing fields. Yeah, they were on the–they formed the first P&C. Then they formed the neighbourhood committee. I was president of that. for a number of years.
Jo And what sort of things did that–did that group do?
Robert Get the roads fixed… the footpaths done. We were the first street in the district to have curb and guttering done, because to get into my place… I worked at the steel works. I bought a second-hand big, steel pipe to put in the drain of the open drain. And they were, and I put that down in front of my place and filled it over with coal-wash and you could drive into my place and everybody in the street would think ‘ What a good idea that is! Can you get us some pipes?’ I said yeah.
Jo And would you drive to work… down to Port Kembla?
Robert I used to go by train and then, when I got a licence, I finished up… my first car was a Willy’s Whippet, wasn’t it? Wooden spokes and I got a…little Ford Prefect and I had a Triumph, wasn’t it? At the time… a Humber… a Humber Hawk.
Jo So you liked your cars, by the sound of it.
Jo Would you take the family for drives in the car, or was that mostly for going to work?
Robert Oh, no… took you for drives, didn’t I? I took you up the Blue Mountains, once, didn’t I? And the Snowy River… yeah, that’s right.
Jo And how long did your trade continue… your work as a typewriter mechanic? Did you do that for the whole of your life?
Robert No, tape recorders came in then.
Jo Did you learn how to fix those as well?
Jo Right. So that was quite different to what you’d done before. Was that with the same company?
Robert I worked for Dobell Pty Ltd. I’ve got another one at old Remingtons. A couple of different companies I worked for.
Jo And when did you retire, Robert?
Robert I’ve never retired.
Jo Oh, OK, that’s good. (laughs)
Robert I still get my memory’s still working.
Jo You ended up at the Steel… working at the Steel Works. What were you doing there?
Robert Well, I used to drive taxis for Burgess. And then I got a job at the Steel Works. I started off as a lid man at the Coke…Number 1 Coke Ovens. We were, you have a a big thing and you pull the lid off the top of the oven where they dump the coal in. Then I graduated from being there to shunter… a shunter, where you pull the points over and you direc… direct the trains and give the signals and wave the flags. I did that and then I became a locomotive driver… steam locomotive driver. I used to drive the trains up to Nebo Mine and back and then Wongawilli. So, you had to pass the railway exam to get on the main line. No, I’ve had an interesting life.
Jo Umm, well that was quite a different job than what you’d done before. Did you enjoy that–driving the trains?
Robert I did, yes. I still enjoy life. I still think a lot.
Jo That’s good. What… what what sort of things do you enjoy now?
Robert I don’t do much singing now. I do a… do a couple of solos.
Jo You said you might like to sing us a song. Would you… would you be willing to sing us a song?
Robert (sings) I got married last Friday. My new wife there beside me. A picture of joy. A girl and a boy. Side by side. We were glad we were wed then. We got ready for bed then. Her teeth and her hair, she placed on a chair. Side by side. One cork leg to follow… one glass eye. So small. She unscrewed her left leg and hung it on a chair by the wall. I stood there broken-hearted. Most of my wife had departed, so I slept on that chair. There was more of her there. Side by side.
Jo So wonderful! And what a fantastic voice you’ve got.
Robert Oh, thank you.
Jo Yes… very good. Yeah… so is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your life?
Robert Mmm… I got charged by a rhinoceros in northern India, near the border of Nepal and India. I’ve walked the 10-day walk to Mount Everest Base Camp. I’ve had lots of interesting times.
Jo And does some of your family still live locally?
Robert Yes, my eldest son, Rodney, still lives at the end of Aldridge Avenue. It used to be a shop, but now, he’s turned it into a house. Christine lives in Wollongong.
Jo Wonderful! And do you have… do you have any grandchildren?
Robert I’ve forgot how many. How many? 13, isn’t it?
Chris (daughter) 14.
Jo 14 grandchildren.
Chris (daughter) And lots of… he’s got great grandchildren.
Jo And you’ve got great grandchildren.
Robert They’re the ones I know of. (Laughter) Because I’ve travelled a lot.
Jo And you’ve got great grandchildren, as well.
Jo Yeah, ooh and you must be proud of them. Wonderful.
Robert Yes, one, err–Sarah… have you heard of the Suzuki method on the… Well Doctor Suzuki was a Japanese man and I’d saved up enough… enough money and I wrote to him and I sent my granddaughter to Japan and she went over there and played for him.
Jo So the musical tradition of your family has continued…
Jo Down to the grandchildren and maybe to the great-grandchildren, too? Well, it’s been wonderful hearing about your life and I’m sure the people will enjoy hearing about it and especially what life was like in East Corrimal and about Molly the cow. But thank you so much, Robert, for being willing to talk to us today.
Robert Oh, it’s a pleasure.
Jo Thank you.
Chris (daughter) Thank you.