Chapter 13 WORKING GIRL 1949
Most schools were Intermediate High Schools and offered courses to boys such as woodwork and technical drawing and to girls domestic science courses, including cooking and sewing. Most children especially girls of my age left school. Many girls got factory jobs or took up nursing or went to business college. Fort Street girls were encouraged to stay at school for two more years to the Leaving Certificate and further education. Most of them did. At the end of the year Beverlee would finish school, after the Leaving Certificate and intended studying Agricultural Science at University.
We were reminded that our futures were in our own hands and the Leaving Certificate would give us a greater choice of careers and probably a higher wage. But I planned to leave school after third year and the Intermediate Certificate. Dad thought I should become a bank clerk and offered to contact his brother-in-law who was a bank manager. Finding work was done through relatives or friends, or by going around asking possible employers. Clerical work did not appeal to me, especially the idea of transacting other people's money. Did I leave school partly because I would no longer have Beverlee's regular company on the train? Or was it more the lure of earning a wage now, rather than postponing that goal for at least two more years? Mum was happy whatever I chose. There was not a lot of encouragement to stay except from Uncle Perce.
"Whatever you learn is an advantage to you all your life," he argued.
"Yes but I'm tired of not having enough money for clothes or to go anywhere."
"What about a part-time job?"
"I already do knitting and baby-sitting. I get enough for shoes. But I find that the shoes I can afford hurt after a while. Nearly everything else I make myself, but it still costs money for material."
Colo Heights store
A letter arrived to say that Mrs Mack was once again "infanticipating". Mum said she had believed she was "past it". In recent years I had not been to Colo Heights as frequently as I had previously. But after this news I went for a short holiday before starting work and took my camera for photos of the farm and family. A couple of years earlier they had built a small store supplying basic groceries to the locals and had even got a telephone. Their visits to town were more frequent, their car faster and more reliable.
Gracey was making a taffeta evening frock which I tried on and posed for a photograph. I felt like a princess. While away I wrote about calf-branding and earned another Blue Certificate from the Argonauts. I also earned two Certificates for an illustrated dramatic version of Cinderella. My contributions had mounted to the point where I won a book prize "The Tower of London", set in 1550s, by WH Ainsworth, a historical novelist of 19th century.
Although the doctor's examination found Mrs Mack to be in excellent health, he considered it wise for a woman of her age to spend the final month of the pregnancy in Crown St Women's Hospital in Sydney in case of complications, leaving her daughters, mainly Gracey, to keep house for their father and brothers. Mrs Mack came down, as advised, to have her tenth baby at the age of 52, nine years after her previous child. Mum and I later visited mother and baby in hospital and found them both thriving. Her tenth child was produced with no more fuss than any of the others. Another boy, Glen, distinguished at the time by being the baby with the oldest Mum on record.
Dawn and Grace
I put my name down with an employment agent who charged a fee. I tried a low-paid job with Kodak in the city believing it was a step towards a career in photography. With trepidation mixed with eagerness I approached the unattractive address at East Sydney in the Wooloomooloo area - a photographic firm, where I was issued with a card and shown how to "bundy on" and "bundy off" each day to record my arrival and departure times. It was a dead-end, assembly line job, sorting photographs that had been developed and processed by mature women in a dark room. Each print had been stamped with a letter and number and had to be matched with the same on the folder containing the negative strips. The sorting was done by girls my age sitting at a conveyor belt. I saw no boys or men other than the bosses. I had little in common with my work mates, their conversations were very trite. When I got my brown pay-packet with my name on the front, and my money sealed inside, I took it to the city shops on my way home and bought some warm material for a "topper" (jacket). I opened a bank account and always tried to save a little after paying some board and buying some material for clothes. Not the joyous experience I had anticipated.
Coming home I often went to the Municipal Library in Queen Victoria Building to borrow books. In the same building was the largest ironmonger's shop in Sydney, the fascinating Nock and Kirby's who employed a newly arrived Londoner to demonstrate their household gadgets which had recently come on the market. He was very entertaining and became known as Joe the Gadget Man. Most of the building was occupied by the Sydney City Council which had a series of display windows along George Street. When Laminex and chrome came on the market there was a "kitchen" in each window, showing different possible arrangements, with "built-in" cupboards, (prefabricated units with a kitchen sink) tables with rounded corners, chrome legs and Laminex tops in different colour schemes, and matching plastic moulded canister sets in graded sizes. Laminex was so easy to wipe clean and replaced timber free-standing cupboards and wooden tables which had to be scrubbed. I was drawn to the displays and planned my dream kitchen. Cream and green was the standard, but my favourite was pink and grey. The idea was to promote the use of electricity, controlled by the council.
When I decided that my Kodak job had no future I began a traineeship with an exclusive dressmaking business where I was to learn the basics in the production of well-made and expensive clothes for a city boutique. As it was not too far I could ride my bike to work each day.
After a couple of months working I found it just as tedious as the student world, and there was nothing better to look forward to for many years, too far ahead to consider. There was little dressmaking involved in the tasks I was given. I persevered, buying material and making lots of clothes. In town I bought some blue linen for a frock, four yards for £1, taffeta for a skirt, three yards for 12/-.
One day I was told to tack up the hems of several skirts which I understood meant to make a temporary hem. I couldn't ask because that would show my ignorance. My work had to be undone and done again. I was rebuked in front of all the other girls. Mistakes in the working world resulted in, not just a lower mark but a sound public humiliation. I knew I had made an error in leaving school. Would it have been better if I had stayed? How was it possible to know what was best? Did it matter anyway? At least I didn't have to spend my evenings doing homework, but could read, write letters and contributions to the Argonauts, sew and knit. Cousin Charlie had also left school and had started work for the State Department of Agriculture. A large part of his wages was spent on tenor records (78s in those days) to play on a wind-up gramophone. I developed an interest and began to think of the ultimate delight of being admired by a tenor who would serenade me with so much skill, expression and emotion. This music "spoke" to me.
Mary, Ida, Rita and Dorothy at Hazel's wedding
After the war it had become a "game" to devise a three bedroom house with an open-plan living area in the smallest house for which people might in time be able to get the materials. Having an ordinary house was a dream for many people who tried to design such a house within ten "squares" (100 feet square). Many people taught themselves with help from tradesmen family and friends to build, repair or extend somewhere to live. Uncle Bruce (Dad's youngest brother) and Auntie Mollie were building at Oyster Bay, living in a temporary part of the structure with three little boys. As they were a fair way from the shops and had no car, Bruce had to bring home anything he needed (even long lengths of timber) in a wheelbarrow along a rough track.
Nearly two years after Carol was born, Margaret and Leo finally got a place in barracks, converted into "flats" to relieve the desperate housing shortage after the war. KY became less crowded, my youngest cousin had her room back.
Uncle Viv, Mum's oldest brother came home from Rabaul on leave. In many ways he
was like Uncle Perce. The brothers had both fought in WWI, were both of medium build and had neat refined moustaches, which gave them the appearances of army officers, but neither had the temperament I would associate with military men. After WWII Uncle Viv had been in the New Guinea area in charge of POWs, and had applied for a job in Rabaul to set up a Telephones Department. He liked the climate and the life in the Territory. Like his brothers he had left school at an early age. In the 20s he had tried farming on a soldier settler block in western NSW. He was 53 at the end of WWII when he began to train staff and extend telephone lines in that part of the Territory. He was also one of the foundation members of the RSL club in Rabaul.
On furlough he called on us, bringing an apple pie from the cake shop, a great treat for us, although because of mature age onset diabetes he was supposed to be very careful about what he ate and only had a small slice. Mum cooked extra vegetables and stretched the dinner to feed three.
"Now what's this I hear about you leaving school? A girl with your ability is wasted without an education especially these days. I know."
"Well I'm trying to find a better job."
"What about going on to get your Leaving Certificate? My children have all left school now and are working so I could help you with some regular financial aid. With your bursary you should be able to manage for another two years. It will be worth it I assure you. You'll have more choice of careers and a better income. But it does mean postponing that day."
I wondered how I could face all the girls again but Mum and my uncle reassured me and I didn't need too much persuasion. Uncle Viv went to the school and made arrangements and got my bursary reinstated while I put in my resignation from work. My employer agreed I should continue at school and wished me well.
The school year had already started, it was now several weeks into first term. This was a very special year, the centenary of the school, with big celebrations planned for the following month. I would continue with French and German, Maths 1 and 2, English, the science had been set as chemistry rather than physics and I was glad of that. This limited choice of subjects was the only attempt at democracy. Probably the demographics of organising a choice of classes with limited facilities for so many girls was too onerous to allow too much freedom. Most decisions were made by the teachers.
While the other girls were rehearsing for the plays, dances, choral items and displays for the centenary pageant, which was to be held at the Conservatorium of Music in April, I spent my time copying up the work I had missed in the early weeks. We still had a period for hobbies which I spent also "catching up". There was no time for me to sew the material I had bought or to write to the Argonauts. Most of my friends had a part in the pageant, a maiden in a silvery outfit doing a Bubble Dance with a silvery balloon or The Three Little Pigs in French (even if it was as a tree which could sing). Elizabeth was Queen Elizabeth I, Christina was Governor Macquarie. I was to be an usherette in a plain white frock, my speech day frock.
Soon afterwards there would be a garden party at the school (we girls would be waitresses) and the foundation stone would be laid by the Minister for Education for the Fanny Cohen Gymnasium on the other side of the "Grand Canyon", a dinner at the Wentworth Hotel and a ball at the Trocadero in May both very expensive for ex-pupils, not for us.
Beverlee gave me her old uniform and I acquired another, also not new, which together and with a great deal of careful mending would see me through the next two years. A new uniform would have cost 31/6 (£1 16s) and three or four clothing coupons. Uncle Viv took me shopping and told me I needed to learn to spend money wisely, not just save.
"I don't know how you have managed until now," said Uncle Viv.
"We mend and make do."
"I know all about that from my young days and no doubt your mother has taught you that very well."
Uncle Viv and Uncle Perce met unexpectedly at Mum's bedside in St George Hospital when she was again hospitalised. They had had a falling out years earlier over money-matters. Mum effected a reconciliation, which greatly pleased her. At least they and their families no longer avoided meeting at family events and afterwards on occasions visited each other.
When he returned to Rabaul, Uncle Viv would regularly send a money order or cheque for £7 a month and my bursary was £10 twice a year. These had to be cashed using my bank account. As well Dad gave me an occasional pound and I earned money baby-sitting and knitting totally about £2 a week. I paid Mum £5 a month for board. The rest went on clothes, books, shoe repairs, dentist and an occasional outing or present.
During the year Mum decided to take a room she heard of at Lugarno with people she met at the meetings and so we had to pack again. This was our fifth move in as many years. Our room at Ramsgate was removed. The crowd which had worried Auntie Ida was now reduced to five people.
Ida at the front of KY