Interview Transcript from Illawarra Stories Wollongong City Libraries Oral History Project – Ron Knowles
Interviewer: Jo Oliver
Interview Date: 18 June 2018
Jo This is an oral history with Ron Knowles and the interviewer is Jo Oliver and today is the 18th of June 2018 and we’re talking today at Wollongong Library. I thank you Ron for coming along and being willing to be interviewed and I understand your connection and your family’s connection to the area goes back a long way so I can you tell us a little bit about that?
Ron Well thank you for speaking to me I hope this, may, oral history may contribute. I’ve roughly called it growing up in Rosemont in the 1950s and 1960s although my family have lived in that area for over a 100 years. My name’s Ronald Charles Knowles, I was born in December 1950 the youngest of 3 children of Harry and Eva Knowles. My sister Judith was born in April 1943 and my brother Richard was born in October 1945. The area Rosemont probably not known now, but Rosemont was a suburb of Wollongong, West of Wollongong hospital bordered by Crown, Fisher, Greenacre, and Mercury Streets. East of Rosemont was Garden Hill the suburb immediately West of the South Coast railway line around Wollongong Hospital and South and North of Crown Street. Rosemont was probably a working-class area but we were proud of our area having our own bus route operated by Watts. The area up was mainly sub-divided in the 1930s and most of the homes were built in the 1930s and 1940s although there were some built around the federation of 1900. South of Crown Street was Mangerton, which was the elite suburb where the leading citizens of Wollongong lived and was full of our local opposition. When you’re young you tend to have group loyalties based on where you live. In our suburb, Rosemont still had many unsealed roads, not all the streets had curb and guttering and we all had outdoor toilets with the dunny man coming once a week to empty out dunnies. Not an enviable job. There was at that stage no indoor toilets. Um, I very much enjoyed my time in Rosemont almost, it was an almost entirely contained individual houses on separate blocks and most of the lots was sixty foot by a hundred and fifty foot so there’s plenty of outdoor space. Most families had chickens and often had chocos growing over the, ah, toilet or over the chicken pen area. Obviously we didn’t have the conveniences of supermarkets although by about 1960 Coles were established at Piccadilly. My father grew up in Macquarie Street which was on the north western end of Garden Hill. His father was a Colliery Clerk at Mt Keira mine for about forty odd years, and the house where he grew up was rented as part of the employment contract with Mt Keira mine. Initially Mt Keira mine was owned by the Osbourne family when my grandfather worked there. But in approximately 1937 it was sold to Australian Iron and Steel when Australian Iron and Steel, a subsidiary of BHP, was buying a lot of the collieries in the area so that they could ensure their coal supplied to their steelworks, which was constructed at Port Kembla in about 1928. In our area there were few residents who actually came from Lithgow when the Hoskins re-established their steelworks in Wollongong at Port Kembla so there would be some who came down to Lithgow obviously they were quite young when that came down from Lithgow. When my grandfather retired in 1955 he was given the opportunity to buy the house in Macquarie Street which he did. The house was on about three quarters of an acre and had a tennis court. And early in the history of St Mark’s where my grandfather’s was the longest serving church committee, they held garden parties there to raise money for St Marks. St Marks was also fortunate in that Mr Sid Hoskins the younger of the two Hoskin brothers donated a 100 pound to the establishment of St Marks and later on made additional donations. Like my, like his father, my father had the same employee, employer, for all his working life which probably sounds unusual in today’s world but then it was generally thought that your employer would keep you on for your whole working life.
Ron There wasn’t sort of changes that you were redundant although there were some redundancies in the coal mining industry because some of the coal mines being underground were coming to the end of their working life. Um, my father completed his fitting and turning qualifications and became a mining engineer. He actually worked in quarrying during the World War because mining and quarrying was an essential part of the Australian Defence during that period and Mr Essington-Louis the Managing Director of BHP was in charge of the, ah, war effort producing planes like at the Commonwealth air company, producing kerosene like at Glen Davis an old coal, shale mining area in the, near Lithgow. My father retired in 1976 at the age of 60. Generally the mining industry had people retiring at 60. My mother grew up in Spring St, Mt Keira. There was a dirt road no curb and guttering and no sewerage. She sold the property in the late sixties because council were curb and guttering, sealing the road and putting in sewerage and she could not afford to pay for those out of the rent of 1 pound 5 shillings she was getting. The land on the west side of Spring Street was open land but by the late 1980’s it was sub-divided with homes being built there. Spring Street is now bitumen sealed curb and guttered and sewered. That was about 1970. Her home was that of the typical miners cottage. Two rooms each side of a central hallway with a bullnose verandah and a kitchen out the back. These miners cottages which were very photographic and had long been existence because most of our mining areas like Mt Keira and Mt Ousley and Mount Pleasant are now high income suburbs. The 3 of us my, brother my sister and I went to West Wollongong Infants School, West Wollongong Primary and then Wollongong High School. Those born before 1941 in the Rosemont area would have only known West Wollongong Infants School. Now the West Wollongong Infants School has been sold and it will probably be developed for housing. In the 1950s, this might sound strange to people born in the 19?9s? or later. 1. very few people had their own motor vehicle. 2. virtually no one had television in their own homes. Um, the first Television in Hillcrest Street was 1956. The other thing I noticed is that virtually no one travelled to Sydney for work on a daily basis, whereas now I believe there’s about 12,000 people daily commuting to Sydney for work. Most of the people were employed at either the steelworks, that’s BHP or Australian Iron and Steel for us old people or in the mines. Most were Anglo-Saxon. From memory I can only remember two people at primary school who weren’t Anglo-Saxon, one was a Dutch girl because there’s a bit of Dutch migration the late fifties and early sixties and an Italian boy. The steel works grew in the late 1950s especially around the front products areas and we had many migrants from Europe then. Many were Yugoslavians, well that stage we call them Yugoslavian, but most now call themselves either Serbian, Croatian or Macedonian or some of the other countries that are now separate from the old Yugoslavia. Probably the most famous local in our area was Karl Kruszelnicki. Karl the Science Doctor, who’s often seen on T.V. He grew up at 14 Hillcrest Street, the son of a Polish father and a Swedish mother and went to the University College at Wollongong in the early 1960s, over 10 years before autonomy was granted. He was educated at C.B.C. Wollongong. C.B.C. being Christian Brothers College which was at the top of Crown Lane. The school has been relocated to Mt Keira and is now known as Edmund Rice College. The big change for most of us at the end of primary school was that the children of wealthier parents who we went to primary school together often went to SCEGGS Glennifer Brae or The Illawarra Grammar School. In those early years, the 1960s, TIGS was just developing and did not have a reputation for academic achievement. And it originally started in the back halls of St Marks Anglican church, whereas now I believe there’s over 1200 students and it’s a very strong academic, and it’s very much supported in the local communities. Our life was fairly simple with no television. Childhood games generally involved jacks, dominoes, pick-up-sticks, test cricket. But one which almost all of us young people were primary interested in at school loved, was racing our paddle pop sticks down the hill in Hillcrest Street in the gutter. I don’t think children would think that’s exciting but to us it was really exciting. We had none of those modern equipment which children now think are essential. We all walked to our infants and primary schools and knew virtually everyone in our street. Even now over 50 years later I can recall virtually all the names of people living in our street. Personally, I went to uni 1970-72 and by then Wollongong had changed significantly, even our suburb names were changing. Rosemont, I think, was virtually lost, we had lost our corner shop which was ‘Kitchens’ in Greenacre Road and the three local Butcher Shops in Crown Street, ‘Kirkwoods’ opposite the hospital, ‘Staff’s’ on the corner of Crown Street and Mangerton Road, and ‘Parrish’s’ opposite West Wollongong primary school. They have all closed but during the odd time they would home deliver. Something that I don’t think happens much. In my own case I have seen two corner shops close, the supermarket at Brown’s Corner on the corner of Gladstone Avenue and Crown Street, and ‘Louie’s’ on the corner of Church and Campbell Street. They’ve all closed in the last three or five years. Now all of these have gone probably no longer financially viable with Coles and Woolworths driving them out of business. At the time of my growing up most of the shops, even in the centre of town where locally owned for example, Water Lance & Company, with the Lances living in Mangerton, and Green’s newsagency with the old Green’s family home on Crown Street which is now the site of a DA for a 18 story residential development and 12 story residential development. As I look back I think the biggest changes over these last 60 years have been the construction of the Piccadilly Shopping Centre. There are no longer the crowded trains taking workers to the Steel Works. When I was growing up the trains were full and most people travelled to the Steel Works by train because people did not have their own motor cars or because migrants came to Australia were trying to get established to raise money to buy their own home or to bring their wife and children from Macedonia or Yugoslavia. It’s amazing when I saw a lot of people in 1980s especially from Smithfield, how many of them recall that some of them weren’t actually born in Australia they were born in Macedonia. I think we’ve also seen the loss of locally owned shops, the loss of suburban identities including local bus services. I still refer to a lot of suburbs by their old traditional names. People look at me as though I’m speaking of something that doesn’t exist. I also notice that children no longer walk to school but are driven in cars, and I think the introduction of the television in the 1950s changed us. One thing that also was changed and it was probably about 1985 to 1990 was the last of the drive-in at Fairy Meadow. As kids we often went with our parents to the drive-in because we didn’t have a T.V. Um, we also noticed a much greater multiculturalism in Wollongong which is a great thing. By the 1950s, 1970s I mean, flats were being built. And now I’ve noticed that computers have replaced our old learning techniques, a slide rule. I don’t think modern children know what a slide rule is. We had mathematical tables where we used to look up and use tables to work out cosines, tangents and things like that. West Wollongong primary school was probably regarded as the best school in the area for primary. It dominated the number of students at Wollongong High School which was then a selective high school with Mr J. E. Lenihan as the headmaster. He didn’t like the term as principal and drove us to academic success. The church in my family’s case was one of our major involvements, Anglican St Marks was very important. My dad and my Grandpa served on the church committee. For employees of BHP, the Hoskins Scholarship named after the two Hoskins brothers who moved the steel works from Lithgow to Port Kembla in about 18…1928 was the ultimate achievement. In my year at school Roslyn Southwood-Jones won it and went on to complete her PhD and I believe she has recently retired as Deputy Vice Chancellor of at the University of Technology Sydney. Cricket was our major summer sport although I did not play local cricket as a junior because of a residential requirement which meant I would have to play for Keira. And we had both my father and his older brother Charles were regarded as two of the best cricketers in the 1930s and 1940s. I didn’t want to play with Kiera as I thought that I might have been selected to play just because of my parents. Football was our winter sport but I did not play, but I played tennis because Grandpa had a tennis court at his home. Both my sister and my brother worked at the Steelworks and this was common for many families. My sister was in surveying when she met her future husband Terry, and Richard worked on the plant. Virtually none of us were wealthy enough to go for overseas holidays. Wollongong in the 1950s and 1960s was a fairly small place, with most of us knowing each other or our brothers or sisters knew someone else’s brother or sisters. Finally, I think we have lost our sense of community, and that I regret, but I suppose it’s part of modern day life where things are now international and local areas are almost forgotten. Thanks for this opportunity to look over my past and my growing up in Rosemont in the 1950s and 1960s. I hope it might be helpful to people to have a better understanding of what Wollongong was like immediately after World War II with the growth of the Steel Works.
Jo Thank you Ron that was a wonderful, wonderful overview of your early life and your experiences. Ah, you’ve covered many of the things that I would have asked you. Uh, I just have a few questions to bring out a little bit more detail. Um, so the house you grew up in the houses there are they still standing?
Ron Most homes are still standing, because the blocks are 66 by 150 on the western side of Hillcrest Street where I grew up you could not build flats, on the eastern side you could but not on the western side so when the homes become old they’re either bought, knocked down and big, big big homes being built some homes are now over a million dollars in what was a working-class area, or else often the house is knocked down and three villa homes or four town houses are built. Rosemont’s now a very desirable area because it’s 1. very close to the hospital, close to town, close to Wiseman’s Park Bowling Club and the City Tennis Club and close to the University, so it’s no longer working-class in my opinion [laughter]. In some cases the houses are just as dear as in Mangerton.
Jo Right, interesting. And you mentioned going to the local drive-in, I’m also wondering whether you use to visit any of the picture theatres in uh, town?
Ron Um, not really I don’t think I was a picture theatre person and we saw three of the picture theatres close, one became the Town Hall that’s Civic Theatre, the Savoy became the David Jones parking area and I’ve forgotten what happened to the third one. The Regent Theatre was still there but we didn’t really go to the theatres but I do remember my mother in Spring Street, remembering as a child probably the late 1920s she’d often walk from Mount Keira into town to the theatre so she could save her money which would be spent on bus fares, to buy lollies or ice creams and that’s what happened. People did not have the money that they now have so we had to virtually make our own entertainment cos often we couldn’t afford the charges that were involved in going to the theatre or even the drive-in. The drive-in was a major event basically once a month.
Jo Mm mm, and you mentioned, um, St Mark’s as being significant in your family. Was that significant for you, were you part of any fellowship or anything there or?
Ron Well see, I was because of Dad and Grandpa. I attended the fellowship and um, I was confirmed by Jack Derrett he was the minister at that time immediately before him was Roy Grey, and Roy was a very popular minister because Roy had sportsman’s lunches and sportsman’s evening meals and his sons were, especially his eldest son was an outstanding cricketer. Um, the late Roy Grey I think was president of the church’s cricket association for probably 20 plus years. St Mark’s was a very strong church and the new church building was built in 1963. Um, They also had a tennis court there and quite a number of the members of the youth fellowship became ordained Anglican ministers.
Jo Interesting. And would you play, you were a tennis player would you play tennis, um, was there social tennis at those courts at the church?
Ron They had tennis but because Grandpa had a tennis court and I was a member of the city of Wollongong tennis club at Beaton Park, I generally played there.
Jo Right, and were there social activities for young people that were part of the fellowship? Or…?
Ron There were. I didn’t attend most of those social programs because I was encouraged by my parents to concentrate and try to get a good result in my HSC.
Ron And maybe I didn’t get as a good result as they had hoped for. The problem was with Karl Kruszelnicki living just down the street, Karl was an amazing student he had so many interests and obviously his role in Sydney is so important he’s so often seen on TV, and they often quote him and I think he’s written about 35 books as well.
Jo Yes, yes
Ron Obviously he was keen fanatic of Professor Sumner Miller who had a television show in the sixties.
Jo Yes, yes. And you well you obviously did well enough to go on to University College. Can I ask what you studied there?
Ron Um, to the embarrassment of some of the staff I studied Commerce and um, most of my lecturers have now died or retired. I remember Bob Castle who retired in one of the most senior positions. He used to say, “you one of my guinea pigs” because he started as a lecturer in the December 1969, so his first year lecturing was 1970 and that was my first year on. I already remember Bob because he had a picture of, ah, Barbarella, from the movie and a banana chair in his study tutorial room.
Jo Really? And ah, did you go on, what work did you go on to, and did you work in the local area?
Ron Um, I only worked for the BHP one year and then went to Armidale to work in the non-academic staff at the Armidale College of Advanced Education. That was the old teachers college and now it’s been incorporated into the University of New England.
Jo Right, and so you were away from the area for quite some years then? Yes. And when did you come back?
Ron 1974 to 1986 I was away. I returned because I lost a lot of money in a business venture and at that stage my parents were aging so I came home to assist Dad with Mum. My mother, unfortunately had Alzheimer’s disease and one of the hardest things I’ve found, was when we had to take Mum from the family home to Saint Mary’s at Berkeley where they had a special Alzheimer’s disease wing. Alzheimer’s disease is a terrible disease because usually the person who is suffering from it doesn’t realise it so their the next of kin really suffers and that’s why I have been a firm believer that you should always support the next of kin to someone suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Jo Hmm. Now we live very close to the coast here but, um, you haven’t made mention of that in your experience. Is that a significant part of your life? Are you a swimmer? Or…?
Ron Um no
Ron No, I didn’t do swimming at school I didn’t do anything. No, I’m not quite sure why I didn’t. Probably cause I’m Anglo Saxon and I have a very fair complexion and whenever I go out in the sun, you can be bet your bottom dollar I’ll almost be a beetroot at the end of the day or even after a few hours.
Jo Right. So yeah right, so you had to be very careful. Um, you mentioned, ah, one local character, do you remember any other local characters or are there any community events that you remember from your early years here?
Ron Well, another thing it was a character who were very influential men was J. E. Lenahan. I often joke that he started with my sister in 1955 and he ended with me in 1969. My sister starting at Wollongong High School in 1955 when J. E. Lenahan was appointed, I finished in 1969 when he retired. J. E. Lenahan was a very strong disciplinarian and made all us feel as though we had to go on to University or College. He really pushed academic standards and some people now think he was an academic snob. He tried to isolate us from other students from other schools and I think that was a form of academic snobbery. But many I know, feel he really pushed them on and that’s why they succeeded.
Ron I remember in one case, two of the students left early in the year, when I say early, probably about the end of November, 3 weeks before school was done. Then they wanted to come back to complete years 11 and 12 and J. E. Lenahan wouldn’t allow it so they had to go to another high school.
Jo Right, right. And you’ve uh, you’re retired now? Are there anything you’d like to talk about and how you’re spending your time now in the area and any community involvement that you have?
Ron I don’t have that much community involvement now, because I’ve got some very sore legs and I’m finding I can’t, I was 18 years old ?involved with? the taking people in wheelchairs down to North Beach with Suzanna Cavelle and Barry Hallsley and a few others. I retired from that group about 18 months ago because I suddenly realised my knees were failing and I could not be assured that I could stop a wheel chair from getting away. Um, I did that because in my early life in Armidale I was secretary of the community-based retirement village. In Armidale was a community-based retirement village with Legacy, the churches and all of that involved. Whereas in Wollongong, Wollongong is now a very big place. When I look at IRT I went through Uni with Chris Diamond who was the son of Dr Max Diamond who set up the IRT in 1969. I now see IRT as a huge organisation, significantly different to what it was in 1969. Their first building, Diment Towers is built in Staff Street at the rear of St Mark’s Anglican Church.
Jo Mmm. And you’ve mentioned how the area is changed and uh, what do you think about the future of Wollongong?
Ron Um, well I feel Wollongong has a great future. 1982 was a difficult time because the Steelworks reduced staff. At one stage I think it was 22 and a half thousand employees of the Steelworks, let alone the contractors and others. Now I believe there is only about 2000 employees. But what has changed is the grab for the University of Wollongong. When I was there, there was about 2000 students most of us knew each other as students and we knew most of the staff. Now I believe the University has about 33,000 students enrolled. Not all here in Wollongong, some from in Dubai, Singapore and other places. But that’s where the growth has been and that’s where the future lies. The other growth is the aged care. Um, with the aging community and estimates of over 30 percent being over 65 by 1930, then obviously aged care retirement living is a big growth area. I don’t think that we’ve got that much hope of tourism because as I see it most people come from Sydney as one day, day trippers as I call them rather than tourists. There’s places like Newcastle, maybe the Blue Mountains and the Southern Highlands with much more tourism potential because they tend to get longer stay tourists. Also, I remember they tried the Merinda on Lake Illawarra as a boat and it was relocated because they didn’t get enough tourists. To me the two successes in tourism has been the Jamberoo Recreational Park and the other one has been the Science Centre which is associated with the University, where Glen Moore was the Director for approximately 20 years after being a physics lecturer and obviously that is a very important part because it helps children especially at school understand more about science.
Jo Right. Well thank you, you’ve covered a lot of detail in a relatively short time. It’s been really fascinating to listen to and is there anything else that you’d like to add Ron?
Ron Not really, I hope what I’ve said is of interest. I think I’ve checked it’s mainly factually correct because sometimes memories can play around. But I’d like the younger generation to realise that what they take for granted is something that we never knew. We never knew of computers at school, we never knew of mobile phones and for some of us, television was a great innovation when it came to Wollongong in the late 1950s.
Jo Mmm. There’s been a lot of changes. Well thank you so much for your time today, it’s been a great interview and I’m sure it will be very much appreciated. So thank you.
Ron Well thank you Jo for giving me time