Perspective 2011

by Dorothy Bremner

I cannot remember steam trams at Ramsgate, only trolley buses which were smooth, comfortable and quiet, but the connecting pole sometimes came off the wires, especially at corners, causing sparks to fly.

At times I crossed the Harbour Bridge by train, tram and on foot until I left school in 1950 and the tram tracks were co-incidentally removed to form two more car lanes.

When the Cahill Expressway was built there was further depletion of Fort Street grounds. Much has changed! But “Each man is the maker of his own fortune” remains the motto. We can create for ourselves a satisfying life.

The interpretation of the motto may have changed, but it is still valid. Each person has a responsibility to consider his actions and decide whether or not that action has an unnecessary negative effect on his fellow man and the environment. Being too lazy or selfish to stop and think about it is no excuse.

In 1912 when Viola enrolled at Fort Street Fanny Cohen was the Maths Mistress.

In 1913 her salary was increased from £250 to £300. She was a dynamic Jewess had warm brown eyes, a sense of humour, made quick reproofs, was the champion of equality of opportunity for girls. She felt a need to combat Department inertia and combat social prejudice.

When members of the next generation were at High School she was the headmistress.

For me she encouraged academic excellence in keeping with the school motto that our futures were in our own hands. "Doing well" meant getting a good pass in the Leaving Certificate for the "honour of the school". No allowance was made for extra curricula activities that detracted or distracted from the main game, but there was understanding and concern for my mother's illness and my welfare.

By then Fanny Cohen had brushed white hair and was approaching retirement. In 1975, aged 88, she died, a much venerated woman. The same year Petersham School became co-educational with a much broader range of activities and challenges and the old school on Bradfield Highway became headquarters for the National Trust and art gallery. In 1999 there were major celebrations for Fort Street’s sesquicentenary.

George VI was king from 1936 to 1952. I was returning from bushwalking in the Reserve, Tasmania when I heard that he had died and his daughter born 1926 was Queen Elizabeth II. Her tour in 1954 was the first time a reigning monarch had set foot on Australian soil. Many people went to a great deal of trouble to wait for hours for a glimpse of the popular, pretty young woman. I was among them. Her great-great-grandmother had been the queen during the early years of Currie migration.

RTA (Roads and Traffic Authority) planned a Freeway which would have gone through KY. The people who bought it from Ida and Charlie put a flush toilet in the bathroom/laundry and lived there for a while, but it was too small for their growing family, so they rented it out. The tenants added sheds and some amateurish “improvements”. The cord-operated lights, pantry, cement tubs remained. In 2009 the Freeway is still “on the books” but the property with the little house, hardly changed, sold for $296,000.

I have no personal memories of Granny Smythe, but I think I now know something of her, what made her tick and what I have inherited. What would she make of the world today? She would certainly have an opinion. Born in a tiny primitive hut, she died in a brick cottage with running water, electricity and gas.

Two of her children suffered illnesses which left permanent damage to the heart, some of her grandchildren and great grandchildren had the same illness but treatment was available. Medical procedures would keep alive many very frail and incapacitated.

In her lifetime the Government gradually took the responsibility for social welfare, with old age pensions, followed by maternity allowances, widows' pensions, child endowment, unemployment and sickness benefits. In the later part of the 20th century credit would become readily available, encouraging a throw-away mentality. The population explosion was becoming undeniable. People would help each other less and take less responsibility for themselves and their environment. They would lose their connection with the origin of their food and with each other. Their obligation to neighbours and the community would decline. Family sizes are smaller, houses are bigger, full of material goods often with double garages and what goes in them. Young people have come to take all this for granted, never having known anything else. The luxuries of yesterday are now commonplace. Most of it is soon thrown out. But are people happier or better off?

In the words of George Santayana "Those who cannot remember the past are bound to repeat it."

Those who do remember and can see that all changes are not necessarily real progress, are coming to understand that the world’s resources are being wasted and the habitat of our fellow creatures is being destroyed. We depend on a healthy total environment for a healthy society. But many are so alienated from their roots they cannot see the obvious.

In looking back from the year 2009, through our lifetimes and embracing the knowledge gained from our collected story, we can learn what really makes people content. It is the same as made our ancestors happy. Enough food, clothing, shelter, friendships and relationships, a healthy environment and a goal or goals which are rewarding and which we are capable of achieving with some personal effort.

Granny Smythe had courage in the bad times and was generous in the good times. Today she would know that we must consider the earth itself, and everything it supports, not just mankind. I think she would deplore the waste of the world's resources and have a strong Green leaning. She would do her bit to maintain our heritage and would not leave it to the Government. She would say that people should be satisfied with enough and should not crave ever more, but be willing to give something back to the community. We can each leave something better than we found it.

Her grandchildren maintained contact with each other at family reunions, birthdays and casual visits. Family ties and connections are strong. On these occasions original limericks and other poems are recited, anecdotes repeated. The Smythe story has been recorded so that it will not be lost.

The storytellers of old are no longer with us. We look to written and electronic information to learn of our past. To make a good assessment of our present day actions we need to be able to understand how things were for our ancestors, to avoid repeating the mistakes of past generations. Lacking a time-machine we have only records of family history such as this, based on stories from our own “seanchai”. Story-telling is the most effective way of passing on our values and our heritage and learning from our past to shape our own contented and rewarding lives.


Update: Dorothy Bremner passed away 4th December 2011