Chapter 4 STARTING SCHOOL 1940
My parents hesitated to let me start school, partly from the idea of protecting me from "worldly" influences, partly because we lived quite a long way away. Mum had helped me learn to read, also to knit, sew and crochet and that seemed to be sufficient feminine accomplishments for a six-year-old. However it was compulsory to send children by the age of seven, so the day eventually arrived when my school career could no longer be postponed. It was 1940.
Mum was ill so she asked a neighbour's "big girl" to take me to the Infants' Mistress. I followed her, wearing a floral cotton frock, my thick dark hair neatly pinned back and carrying on my shoulders my new leather school bag with sandwiches for lunch. We walked past the swimming pool, crossed Chapel Road and found the Infants' Department. The "big girl" deserted me at the door, she knew nothing about me anyway. My enrolment went something like this:-
"Yes?" asked the headmistress.
"I have to start school."
"Where's your mother?" she asked with a note of exasperation in her voice.
"She's sick." I told her. I think she had never before been confronted with such a situation. She obviously did not approve of children who left it until nearly seven to enrol, and then came unescorted. The forms presented a problem, also Mum's note that I was not to salute the flag or sing "God Save the King" or attend Scripture. This was because Jehovah's Witnesses believed it was paying allegiance to a worldly ruler.
"What's your father's name?"
"Mr Kinny" was somehow not what she wanted.
"What is his first name, child? What does your mother call him?"
"Mum calls him Dad, but his name is really Harold."
"And your mother's name?"
"Rita." (although she signed herself Mrs Kinny). Date of birth and address presented no problem.
The headmistress said I should not go to Assembly. This was because a part of the ceremony was to do with saluting the flag and singing patriotic songs. She sent me to the Kindergarten class, and when they went to Assembly I went too, not knowing where we were going. When the headmistress saw me she closed her eyes and said "Get out of my sight." This was a shock. I tried to creep out inconspicuously. A kindly teacher said "Come this way. Never mind dear" and gave me a book to look at.
Being older than the other new entrants and already able to read I was promoted to First Class the next day. I was embarrassed when reading in unison a four-page booklet about elephants, I knew the word "Africa" and the others did not.
"Keep together" (all 45 of us) the teacher reminded me.
Another "reader" was about Bob and Dot. I did not realise I was a "Dot".
The teacher read stories such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Little Pigs and Snow White. In Henny Penny, the silly chicken was hit by a seed falling from a tree and was followed by Ducky Lucky, Goosey Loosey and others off to tell the king the sky was falling. These stories were very trite compared with those I knew from "The Children's Treasure House" in which I had met such characters as Toad, Rat and Mole, setting out in a horse-drawn caravan until an encounter with a motor car created in Toad a new fixation.
We practised on slates or in books with pencils, doing numbers and rows of "pothooks" (J J J J J and reverse hooks), in preparation for cursive writing. Our book work should be perfect on the first attempt.
In the playground we played hidings, chasings and simple skipping games. I had seen and heard most of these when visiting my cousins, so felt quite happy to join in. There was "hopscotch", "follow the leader", "hide-and seek", "chasings" in which wood was usually "bar" as played by the bigger children. Some boys would not join the girls but this was not so obvious in the early years. Usually if a game was good, it was suitable for all.
Billy wanted to start school when I did. I was keen and he felt left out of the adventure.
Because of the war, air-raid shelters were dug in the school playground and each child had to bring a tin with ear-pads to wear to protect the hearing in case of air-raids and barley sugar to chew. My mother made ear pads out of little cotton bags filled with cotton wool, tied over my ears with tapes, and put them and the barley sugar in the precious little brass tin, an heirloom from WWI, which Mum had been using until then as a button tin. Any tins such as biscuit tins were always valuable as containers.
As often as Mum was well enough we went around the streets "witnessing". I wore an apple-green coat and matching hat, Billy his suit and Mum wore a coat with an imitation fur collar and hat.
We were taught that the earth had been created in six days, presumably complete. When I was about six there was a major earthquake in Turkey with great loss of life. "Earthquakes in diverse places" were spoken of as preceding Armageddon. I wanted to know "Who made it? Why doesn't God stop them?"
At the age of seven I was sent to the Jehovah's Witness printery at Strathfield by train to help with folding magazines, stamping and addressing the covers. Finding the place was no problem. I had been there before and was used to finding my way around, asking when necessary. I spent more time watching the printing press than doing any useful work, but was told I was a "good girl". I seldom heard that at home. The possibility that we might be otherwise was unthinkable. I had been brought up "the way I should go". Any credit for anything I did well was because I had good training as a Jehovah's Witness who were the only people in the world to know the truth. Mum demonstrated her confidence in me and I was trusted to find my way around alone. And I had learnt that being agreeable and happy to help gained me more approval.
In the summer I was baptised (immersed in a cool river on a hot day) to show that I had accepted the beliefs of the Jehovah's Witnesses. I had little understanding of any implications. Perhaps the man who immersed me was just mollifying me and other children who had joined the queue. I had a questioning turn of mind and did not simply "believe" or "have faith". I knew it was good to think for myself and not be influenced by other children, but this did not extend to questioning "the truth". When Mum and I were in Sydney we saw "Eternity" chalked on the footpath near St James station. I wanted to know what it meant and who put it there.
"Eternity means forever but the man who did that does not really know because he is not in the truth."
I did not seriously question my parents' beliefs and learnt to take care that my questions did not sound like an attack on the "truth". I knew that not everyone was "in the truth", but I didn't realise then that I had a choice. I was severely reprimanded by Mum for suggesting that God was lazy when he did not get rid of the devil and evil and when I asked if all the thousands of stuffed birds and animals in the Sydney museum had been able to fit in the ark with enough food and water.
Children playing at the meetings teased each other about the devil and other fantasies. "The devil will come and get you. You're bad." And the unbelievable story about babies was repeated. "The man does it with - you know what - what he puts his pants on to hide."
There was never any swearing in our house. My parents believed that words like Gosh, Crikey, Heavens, Hell, Blast used as expletives were not acceptable. We sometimes heard the words away from home but were not allowed to use them ourselves as they were euphemisms for religious words (God, Christ and so on) and were blasphemous. The worst word I heard was someone describing a really bad person as a hypocrite. I didn't really know what the crime had been, but I once used the word myself when I wanted to insult someone. Even when Dad was provoked into shouting he did not swear. When he disagreed with anyone about the way something had been done he frequently said "They should have their heads read" (examined).
When he was home, Dad took his dinner to the dining-room and sat at the red cedar "best" table, while we as usual ate in the kitchen. His teasing comments were now more angry and scornful. One day he came out with his plate of dinner and threw it on Mum's plate (she thought he was tempted to smash it on her head?) Billy and I were crying, he gave us children each 2/- (two shillings) to buy more dinner (where?) and left the house.
During the war Jehovah's Witnesses were banned by the government of the day as they were pacifists and did not support the war. The war was wrong. Killing people was wrong (except Abraham who was prepared to kill his son). The announcement of the ban was made a day early by mistake and this gave time for books to be moved from the printery at Strathfield to people's homes. We had a number of boxes stored in our spare room. Billy and I each had an empty carton in which to store our "treasures". When the police came to inspect our place, they looked only in those two "treasure" cartons, and did not find the other books, which my parents interpreted as "God's will". Some people suggested Jehovah's Witnesses were helping Hitler although he also had banned them and put them in concentration camps. They had previously sent Hitler a telegram protesting about his actions.
A man came and dug up all our large yard for a market garden. He turned over all the weeds. Mum said the weeds would grow again. Dad, who had authorised the project, said he knows what he is doing. The weeds grew, the plants did not.
A severe shortage of petrol and tyres began. Some car owners bought gas which was stored at low pressure in a fabric balloon on the roof of the car, others put their cars up on blocks for the duration. Dad had a gas producer. There was a generator on the back in which charcoal burnt in a restricted air supply. The carbon monoxide could be dangerous and the engine was less powerful than with petrol. Good quality charcoal was needed, produced in covered pits at an even temperature. Many people who had suitable timber made charcoal pits.
There was barbed wire on the beaches and at times search lights in the night sky. Women knitted socks and other items for the war effort. They also knitted items for sale or to raffle. Parcels were sent overseas to friends or relatives where rationing was more severe, with eggs set in tins or cake tins of fat. There were tables in parks where these goods were sold. Mum never bought raffle tickets as it was a form of gambling which was the Devil's work. We did not support the war in any way and had no family overseas.
Clothing and some food were rationed. For adults a pound of tea had to last over a month, a pound of sugar a week, a pound of butter two weeks and two pounds of meat a week. For my mother and most people we knew this was no great hardship. Sweets, especially chocolate were very difficult to get. Elastic was scarce, especially anything good. Plackets with press studs were used in dresses and skirts as there were no zips. Because of frequent blackouts when Bunnerong Power Station broke down, everyone kept candles handy. No electricity was wasted in our house as lights were switched off when we left the room. Most people had gas or fuel stoves for cooking. Mum's brother Viv was recalled to active duty as a Captain and was posted as Camp Commander near Bunnerong, responsible for Coastal Defence. He knew how dirty and noisy the power station was.
At school we knitted squares for rugs for soldiers, and as I excelled at that I was allowed to knit myself a pair of bed socks. Most of the wool we had had previously been used for something else and was already wound into balls. If it was new, it came in skeins and was difficult to wind except with the help of a second person who held out his or her arms to hold the skein while the other person wound.
I always had cold hands and feet and would have liked to knit a pair of warm gloves and socks for the colder weather, but Mum insisted I would have to wait until I was a bit older. She would not be able to help as gloves and socks were beyond her. Apparently Mum had the same problem of cold feet and made the comment that my father had always complained of her cold feet in bed. She just put up with the discomfort.
Occasionally I was allowed to buy my lunch on a Monday, when many children did, as the bread from home was Friday's but fresh bread had come to the school "tuck shop". Buying lunch was not the norm for anyone. A salad roll was 2d, (two pence, tuppence) a cream bun 1d (a penny). One day some people came from the Gould League and I used my lunch money to buy a bird card for 2d, my picture was a Willy Wagtail which I recognised. The Gould League had been founded thirty years earlier by John Gould to help protect Australian birds. Birds were to become a growing interest for me.
The only drink was water from the bubblers. Near every tap at home, school and railway stations was a sticker reminding us "Don't Waste Water" and "Stop that Drip". Sydney's water came from Prospect Dam, augmented by Warragamba emergency scheme which piped more water, but still could not cope with the growing population. There was talk of increasing the capacity at some future date. In the meantime it was patriotic to use the minimum of water.
There had been a record drought period (9 years). We were used to being careful with water. Like everything it was not to be wasted. Mum washed the clothes once a week, the chip-heater was lit once a week for baths, if the water was too cool for the last person, usually Dad, he topped it up. Washing up water was thrown on the garden.
At school at Easter I was chosen to select a "prize" for good work. The choice was an Easter egg or a bunch of flowers. We had plenty of eggs, and not understanding what an Easter egg was, but knowing that we did not celebrate Easter, I chose the flowers. Lucky for the boy who got the chocolate! Suddenly I realised I could have eaten it and no-one need have known. All sweets including Freddo Frogs and Violet Crumble Bars (an Australian invention) were scarce due to rationing and I saw no moral problem with eating chocolate in the shape of an egg or any other.
About this time Mum had to have the doctor (probably called by Dad from the telephone booth near the shops), which was rare in spite of her poor health. When the doctor came she was wearing a new nightie she had bought from a travelling hawker. The doctor roused on her for not being more warmly wrapped in sensible flannelette. I didn't hear any other health advice.
Her ill health she could face bravely and cheerfully but she was unable to cope with the continual domination and did not know how to react to Dad's criticism and negative attitude. She could not argue, nor even doubt her husband who was "the head of the house".
Mum as a parent was quite resolute, but patient. She made the rules and firmly enforced them. She always explained calmly how to do something, and told us why, but there was no question of if. Most of the time we could do as we pleased. She tried to keep us from influences which might make us doubt her teachings. "Adults know best". She backed up her opinions with mild punishment if necessary if I tried to push the boundaries. I was inclined to question, Billy was much more compliant, usually did what he was told and avoided reprimand. Mum mostly made fuller explanations, used more diplomacy and motivation than Dad, but with a similar final result of obedience. Generally I knew I had Mum's unspoken approval. However I continued to test the limits.
Most children had a lot of freedom as there was no fear of strangers and houses were seldom locked. If our door was locked because we were going away the key was left under the mat in case someone needed to get in. We could do much as we pleased within our own yard, could make up games how and where we chose with few restrictions. We played in the drain, originally a creek diverted into a channel along our southern boundary, where the bushes were suitable for cubby houses. We took for granted the frogs' eggs which hatched into tadpoles, and finally developed legs and hopped away at our approach. Or we climbed one of the big trees in the back yard. It had many branches, one was horizontal from which hung a rope swing. The other tree was tall and smooth and unclimbable and therefore less memorable.
We led a sheltered, even cloistered but unworried life. I was not encouraged to have my school friends to come and play nor visit them. On one occasion when someone came, I was persuaded to go part of the way to see her off. On the way back I took the short cut through the bush, leaping in the air unaware that I was observed from our kitchen. I fell and grazed my knee and went quietly to the laundry to wash it. My mother sent me to the bathroom to put a bandage and ointment on it and roused on me mildly for not asking and being so silly as to leap about.
"Because other people are silly, it doesn't mean you have to be. You have more sense."
She saw little need to allow us to work things out for ourselves by trial and error. Both our parents believed that it was an important part of their duty to control us, to impose their own views on the young mind, not to allow children to reason things for themselves except when she decided it was appropriate or display too much initiative, but we were still supposed to be independent.
I remember being lined up in the kitchen (always Mum's job) and lectured about some misdemeanour, the misdeed long forgotten, scriptures quoted, then my mother taking down the strap from behind the kitchen door to be used on such rare occasions. We were encouraged not to cry but to take our medicine and "crack hardy", with the assurance that "it hurts me more than it hurts you". Another time I was given time to think over my wrongdoing and repent, having been promised the strap before bed. I did not agree with my mother's belief in "spare the rod and spoil the child" so I contrived to become suddenly sleepy, and hoped thereby to avoid my punishment. But Mum was not quite so easily fooled.
At home bare feet were the norm. Once I even went to school forgetting to put on my shoes, but probably nobody noticed. While playing in an old car in our yard I cut the underside of my big toe severely, but washed and bandaged it and didn't tell Mum until later when she saw me limping. I must have damaged the tendon as it was never the same again and my toe still won't bend properly.
In August I managed to contract whooping cough combined with measles. Mum and Billy also caught whooping cough, so we three slept together in the main bedroom in the double bed, with some sulphurous substance burning continually in an old treacle tin which had a hole cut in the side. The fumes were supposed to ease the coughing spasms. Dad escaped to the spare bedroom and stayed out a lot. He was always doing something for someone else, working on his other house, fixing cars or doing maintenance jobs. There was no time for domestic chores or to repair things for Mum. To help sick family members was not his job.
As we were recovering from the illness, Mum discovered bed bugs which were common. They spent their lives in houses hidden in crevices in walls or furniture, seams of bedding, under buttons on mattresses. A single female which was active at night could soon cause a large infestation. When she felt them, Mum got up, looked with a candle, caught them and dropped them in kerosene in a tin. They were worse in wooden beds, but like most people, we had nothing else. One couch was so badly infested that Mum pulled it to pieces and burnt it under the copper and in the chip heater which sounded like a steam engine.
Bankstown Class 1C 1940
Dorothy 2nd from right, standing
The next three months are very hazy. My memory is of being back at school in December just in time for the end-of-year clean up. I was inexplicably promoted to Second Class in an upstairs room for a few days and learning about naughty Peter Rabbit who went into Mr McGreggor's garden and his good little sisters Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail, all very delightful and memorable (Beatrix Potter). I was an angel in the nativity play and wore my mother's white nightdress and a pair of wire-coat-hanger-and-mosquito-net wings pinned on. After school finished for the year I went on a "boat ride", a Christmas activity at Anthony Horderns in the City, a department store and got a gift of plasticine, also saw a stage show of dance and songs by children in bright costumes singing "Aeroplane Jelly" and "Bushell's Tea" .
Dad mostly ate and slept elsewhere, presumably in his house at Peakhurst. I don't think this surprised me. He had been preoccupied, made derisive remarks, took little part in our lives. He certainly had ceased to talk about taking us to Scotland one day, no longer drew us comical pictures. There had been arguments, generally not directly in front of us. We were not encouraged to think that family affairs were any of our business, we were only the children. He could come and go as he pleased.
Billy was given a rabbit in a hutch which was left out one night and the rabbit got killed by a cat or dog tearing the corner of the wire off. Mum had to bury it and listen to Dad's disbelief that the hutch was not strong enough.
In the Christmas holidays we had a holiday at Austinmer Beach staying in a cottage Auntie Vi had rented. Billy and I played all day on the beach with our cousins of the same age and got blistered from sunburn. Billy and I both have poor tanning skin, go red and peel and freckle rather than tan. There were Crispies (packets of processed wheat flakes) for breakfast instead of porridge. Normally we did not get presents, only what we needed but Auntie Vi included us in the gift-giving, I got some pretty writing paper and Billy got plasticine. We had not been told about Santa Claus except that he was not true and what we overheard from our cousins.
People gave me bottles which I took to the shop to get the few pence refund. Any money I earned or was given I had saved in a tin Commonwealth Bank money box until it was full. The coins were very difficult to get out without destroying the box but we persevered. I found I had 14/6 which was enough to buy a pretty pale green dimity frock, displayed in a shop window in the shopping centre at Bankstown, the only new frock I remember owning as a child until I learnt to make my own. It was kept for best, never worn to play in.
Sometimes Uncle Eric came to visit, often for a meal and a bed for the night. I remember to my astonishment that he spread Vegemite as thickly as jam on his bread until he realised his error. He scraped it off and we got an extra share. In summer he slept on a stretcher on the veranda under a mosquito net. He had two sons, one was my age, the older one was obviously retarded. We were taught to be tolerant of Gordon when we saw him although he was a big strong boy and often unintentionally spoilt our games. We all swam at Bankstown pool where I taught myself to swim by the age of eight. Children who could swim often went alone to the pool to swim or play on the swings, razzle-dazzles, slippery dip and climbing frame. Occasionally there was a "Ha'penny Scramble". Any coins retrieved were spent in the kiosk. There were always plenty of adults present and never any trouble.