Local NeighbourhoodsSurrey Hills

Surrey Hills Reminiscences

By 25 April 2024May 2nd, 2024No Comments

Eastsider News wants to share the beautifully written and evocative articles that Surrey Hills resident, Gill Bell has written about her experiences of living in this pleasant suburb with its tree lined streets and its strong community spirit.

Thank you Gill, for these lovely pieces.  To read Gill’s account of the family’s day trip to Kallista, go here.

Elegy for an era

Gill and the old Surrey Hills station ca 1971

Gill Bell

The magpies are warbling their delicious song as I step out of the shade of the trees lining Windsor Crescent into the joyful brightness of a summer morning. It is my last year at school, and this place and I are on the cusp of change.

In the small park the oak leaves are still a soft green, and the tender grass has not yet been dried by summer heat. The air is fresh, but there is the heady hint of warmth to come.

I settle on to a seat and the morning wraps me round. I hear the distant breath of the city, which sounds like a giant mother hushing her baby to sleep.

‘Husssh,’ she says.

This park by the station is a magic place. This is the beating heart of Surrey Hills.

The magpies have watched over this place for millennia. They have seen the Dreamtime and lifted the veil of darkness from the earth. The first peoples slipped through the trees, protected by Bunjil, and obedient to the voices of the wisdom keepers.

A blink of an eye ago, tall ships sailed up the bay to lay claim to this land. The sounds of sawing and hammering pierced the bushland calm.

The undulating slopes of wiry grass, carefully cultivated for thousands of years, are churned up by lumbering fat animals. They are easy prey for hunters.

Iron rails are laid across the countryside, and monstrous black machines hiss and roar their way along them. The kangaroos take flight and retreat ever further inland. The kookaburras laugh in despair as trees crash to the ground. And the first nations people, bewildered, abandon their lands.

The Windsor Park estate is pegged out in generous housing allotments. There is plenty of land. This in the bush, that mysterious area ringing the young city. Stringybark and messmate are replaced by saplings of oak and plane trees brought across the seas from ‘home’.

The train line follows the course of a pretty creek thick with maidenhair fern. Travellers from Melbourne catch the train from Princes Bridge to Camberwell, where they alight and catch the little country train to Surrey Hills. As the train makes its way up the incline, passengers are often called on to dismount to lighten the load, and on frosty mornings their feet slide on the icy rails.

In summer the day trippers carry with them packets of sandwiches wrapped in cool cabbage leaves for freshness, and they picnic on the grassy slopes. Children, intoxicated by the fresh air and the bird song, splash in the creek and play on the fringe of the scrub.

‘Don’t go into the bush!’ warn their parents. ‘Stay close!’

The story of little Clara Crosbie, lost in the bush east of Melbourne a few short years ago, is fresh in their minds.

Violet farms flourish along Warrigal Road, and I like to think of the day trippers buying little posies to take some country freshness back to the city with them. Almost one and a half centuries later, violets still spring up in neglected flowerbeds in gardens around the district.

In a few short decades Surrey Hills is settled. The houses are decorated with pretty ironwork in the Victorian style, and behind the scenes nightmen travel down the bluestone laneways to remove their waste. The rag and bone man makes his rounds with his mournful call, and the milkman’s horse clops dreamily along the route it knows by heart.

The Great War casts its shadow over the world. New street names recall the foreign conflicts: Lille, Verdun and Amiens.

Returned soldiers raise their families with hopes of a peaceful future, but just twenty years later war comes again. The sons of survivors of the Great War set out again to do their bit.

Trains bring loads of eager young recruits who disembark at Surrey Hills and tramp to the barracks and parade ground beside the track. They sing as they march. Their destination late in the war is northern Australia, where they will play mostly a waiting role.

After the war the pace of life accelerates. New smart red brick houses, with modern luxuries like kerosene heaters, fitted carpets and even indoor toilets, spring up. The streets fill with chattering children. They roam over the suburb and play games in the street until dusk, when their aproned mothers call them home.

The last of the steam trains are phased out and red rattlers reign…

In the sunlit present bells start ringing and the railway crossing lights flash. The heavy white gates are pushed across Union Road, barring the path to the morning traffic. The stationmaster in his navy uniform sternly shuts the gate in the face of latecomers panting across the footbridge. He blasts his whistle and waves his flag and the train pulls out, letting silence rush in.

I sit dreaming in the park.

The Victorian timber station with its solid panelling and decorative brass work will soon be demolished. A brownish pebbledash station will replace it.

Eventually this station too will be found wanting and sacrificed to the god of traffic. It too will be demolished. Earth-moving equipment will move in and tear down trees to create a great gash across country. A white metal and glass unit will be dug deep into the earth and named ‘Union’.

I will mourn the gash torn in the earth. I will mourn for the little park with its graceful trees. I will mourn for the pretty station with its fringed veranda. I will even mourn for the ugly-duckling pebbledash station.

Somewhere in the Dreaming, people of the first nation still move silently through the trees. Somewhere the creek still gurgles over stones, and the magpies sing.

I step back into the present day and set off into the morning.

Growing up in Surrey Hills: Summer

Craig children at Rye late 1950s with friend Glenys (left). Gill kneeling

Gill Bell

To be once more a little child

For one bright summer day.  Lewis Carroll

The summer air was already warm when I tiptoed out of the bedroom I shared with my brother and sister and made my way outside. Bees were buzzing about the flowering bean plants and the white clover on the lawn. My bare feet tingled with the remembered pain of a recent sting.

The summer garden was heavy with fruit. The blood plums hung like Christmas baubles on the gnarled plum tree, and figs were slowly turning purple with the promise of sweetness. The hens crooned softly in their cages.

It was the start of the school holidays, and the whole of summer stretched before me. I perched on the garden swing and opened my book. I was just finishing We of the Never Never and had been immersed in the scrub and red earth of the faraway Northern Territory. I was fascinated by tales of Aboriginal people and their almost supernatural powers of tracking. I had a secret project to make my feet as tough as theirs. I had been practising walking on footpaths baked by the midday sun and on prickly grass, but my feet remained stubbornly tender.

I said a sad farewell to Elsey Station and closed the book. Inside at the breakfast table my sisters and brother were already eating their cornflakes sprinkled with sugar and topped with full-cream milk from the floral jug. Dad had already left for work.

I was full of delicious anticipation at the thought of my reading for the morning. I had a treasure heap of books from the Box Hill travelling library, which lumbered along Riversdale Rd to Wattle Park on Thursday afternoons. I would browse through the shelves, sniffing the exciting odour of the books. I had recently graduated from Enid Blyton to Edith Nesbitt, and this morning I was about to enter the exotic world of the Phoenix and the Carpet.

Dishes dried and bed made, I headed outside again, book in hand, to my very favourite spot to read: the oak tree. This was my own faraway tree, a threshold to magic. I swung up to my reading branch and settled my back against the trunk. I gazed up at the scalloped edges of the soft green leaves, bobbing gently in the warm breeze. Inside the house Mum would be closing windows and drawing blinds against the first real heat of summer.

We children moved easily through the heat but our mother fought it, becoming flushed and irritable with the effort. Gus, our black and white cocker spaniel, would spend hot days sprawled on the cool concrete floor of the outside laundry.

Lunch was a simple meal of bread – slices cut from the white loaf delivered that morning – and Kraft cheese or peanut butter.

In the afternoon my older sister and I played stilts in the street. Dad had attached footrests to two simple wooden poles and we practised walking tall like the grown-ups. The day was growing steadily warmer and my skin became flushed and prickly, but there was no thought of sunscreen or of taking shelter.

In those far-off days the neighbours were extended family. As five o’clock approached I trotted into the Longs’ house to watch the wonder of a flickering black and white TV. My favourite shows were Whirlybirds, starring law enforcers in a helicopter, and Superman, starring a chunky-looking Clark Kent. Kind Mrs Long never complained about the extra children underfoot while she was trying to get dinner.

Our evening meal made little concession to the heat. Tonight, it was golden salted cod in a cheese sauce with mashed potatoes, and apple crumble for dessert.

In the long evening I took Mum’s old bicycle and rode dreamily up and down the street. In all my activities that day I had been rehearsing adulthood: growing taller, travelling away and finding adventures. Now my heart yearns for that golden day.

The cicadas started their shrill call as dusk fell and lights came on in the neighbouring houses. I wheeled the bike into the garage and said goodnight to the setting sun. Another exquisite day of my childhood had passed.

Craig family outside 13 Sherwood Rd Surrey Hills. Left to right: Harry, Cliff, Mary, Walter, Effie, Hector.

Hector’s first day at work

Gill Bell

It is a bright Monday morning on 3rd January 1938, and sixteen-year-old Hector Craig is preparing for his first day at work at Challingsworth steelworks in Richmond. He is a slender but muscular lad, good at sports, winning a silver cup for running at the school sports the previous year. He has wavy brown hair and a shy smile. Hec is nervous, but his father Walter who will accompany him this morning is calm. He is already a veteran of almost twenty-seven years at Challingsworth as boilermaker and foreman.

Mary, Hec’s mother, hands them their brown paper bags of sandwiches. Walter claps his grey felt hat on his head, and together they set off. The large oak tree in the front garden waves a wistful goodbye to Hec’s childhood.

In the street a small stream of workers is making its way back to work after the New Year break, along the quiet streets of Surrey Hills to the Wattle Park tram stop. From down the street Mr Neil waves. He is tall and rotund with a booming voice. He is off to his job at the Ruwolt’s steelworks in Victoria St. They will all travel the five miles to Richmond on the edge of the city. I can see them now, three distant figures, one tall and well-built, one stooped and balding and the third walking eagerly into the future.

Hec is fidgety with excitement as the green and yellow tram arrives. The conductor has his hand on the bell cord, ready to signal their departure. The striped canvas doors are open to the fresh air. It is pleasantly cool on this sunny morning, but when the southerly winds blow in winter the centre compartment, designated for smokers, will be icy cold.

On the Middle Camberwell hill, Hec peers up at the crisp new grey and white St Dominic’s church, open less than a year. Its crowning spires will be added some twenty years later.

At the foot of the long slope the tram clangs its way through Camberwell Junction. There are as yet no traffic lights, and the six-way junction is thick with traffic. Pedestrians dodge amongst the cars, and an occasional cyclist threads his way through the melee. Onward goes the tram, stopping every few hundred yards to allow more passengers to board. The tram is now jam-packed, and the conductor with his heavy leather bag of coins and multi-coloured paper tickets can barely make his way along.

On this sunny day Hec cannot possibly foresee the years to come. In almost exactly one year the disastrous Black Friday fires will swallow much of Victoria. Later that same year, a second World War will break out in Europe.

Mary, Walter’s wife, had two brothers, Hector and Harry, who eagerly enlisted for the great adventure of the First World War. One was killed at Gallipoli and the other in France. She grieved for them always and named two of her four boys after them.

Walter had a different experience of war. By a twist of fate he escaped being sent to the front line. He had worked since 1910 in the din of the Challingsworth steelyard and had already become stone deaf, rendering him unfit for service. So instead he was sent to Southampton in England to work in ship-building for the war effort. In a mixed sort of way Walter is grateful to his firm for his disability.

They alight with relief from the crowded tram and enter the Challingsworth forecourt. From the dark red brick office comes the sound of a typewriter, and from the steelyard comes the clang of metal. Hector breathes in the heady scent of fire and steel and opens the office door.

Growing up in Surrey Hills – A Winter’s Day

Gill Bell

I floated up from a dream to the sound of the milkman’s horse clopping its way along the street. There was the familiar clink of our six daily pints of milk. I drifted back to sleep and woke again to the sound of my older sister practising scales on the piano. It was 7 am on a freezing July morning in the nineteen fifties.

I made a shivering dash to the outdoors toilet. The backyard was carpeted in white frost and the chooks crooned softly in their cages as they scratched in the dirt. The water bowl of Gus, our black and white cocker spaniel, was covered with a thick sheet of ice.

Mum was standing at the kitchen stove, smoothing back her soft dark hair as she stirred a steaming pot of porridge. She had already stoked the Warmray and the hot water heater with briquettes and had hung our clothes on a rack in front of the heater so they would be warm to put on. The kitchen was cosy and there was the delicious scent of frying bacon.

Mum had finished packing our lunches: five sets of sandwiches and homemade biscuits all wrapped in greaseproof paper. There was also an apple each.

Mum served our breakfasts. I poured milk carefully around the edge of the semolina and added a generous spoonful of honey. I loved this porridge. Next came fried eggs and bacon. On special occasions there might be a fluffy souffle-like omelette. Sometimes there was lambs fry, which Dad loved, perhaps with bread fried in dripping. Finally came thick slices of white toast with butter and homemade marmalade. It was well before the days of pre-sliced bread and pop-up toasters. I have no idea how Mum managed to juggle toasting, frying and serving.

We girls left together for school, a tram-ride away. I was in Grade 4 and my two sisters were in Grades 2 and 6. I envied our little brother who could stay home in the warmth with Mum.

The tram was icy. The central section, reserved for smokers, was shielded from the freezing air by a single layer of canvas loosely pegged at the base and flapping in the breeze.

At school we lined up for assembly. ‘I love God and my country’ we chanted. On Mondays a flag was raised and we sang ‘God save the Queen’. We marched inside and sat at wooden desks with white china inkwells full of blue ink.

The boys had the important task of mixing the ink powder with water.  The boys had all the exciting jobs. Not only were they the drummers for school assembly but they were also allowed to fetch firewood for the open fireplaces. These were picturesque but barely warm, especially if a teacher stood in front of it, enjoying the warmth. I suffered chilblains on my toes from the cold. They burned and throbbed through winter.

At lunchtime I wistfully eyed the steaming meat pies of some of my classmates. They were so lucky to be allowed to buy their lunch! but pies cost an impossible shilling each. After eating my cut lunch I went to the tuckshop. ‘Threepence worth of mixed lollies, please. Chocolate bullets at eight for a penny were especially good value.

When we arrived home from school Mum was standing at the kitchen table ironing. No ironing boards in those days, just several layers of old woollen blankets and a sheet on the kitchen table. The old polished wooden wireless was tuned to 3AR. The wireless had a little lighted window, and a square of oatmeal-coloured fabric hid what was inside. I used to imagine that tiny people were in there behind this curtain, speaking and playing music.

By five o’clock dinner was underway. The meat was mutton left over from the Sunday roast. The pressure cooker valve hissed and whirred away to ensure the vegetables were well cooked. We had a hot pudding every night. Tonight it was chocolate delicious with tinned cream. Despite our solid meals we were all slim.

After dinner Mum filled the kettle and set it on top of the heater. It hummed to itself as the water simmered for Mum and Dad’s bedtime cup of tea. We did our homework at the kitchen table. There was no television to distract us.

By nine we were in bed, tucked up under layers of heavy woollen blankets. As I write today tears come to my eyes at the thought of the carefully ironed clothes, the lovingly made lunches and the little garments so thoughtfully warmed for us.

The bare oak tree branches outside bobbed in the winter wind, but inside we slept peacefully, cocooned in the warmth of family.

Canterbury Sports Ground in winter fog