There wasn’t much poverty in Box Hill, my old town where I grew up in those years at the conclusion of World War II. There were plenty of shortages and everything was rationed. You needed ration books for tea, butter, sugar, petrol, clothing, and seemingly everything else. But we were not what you would call really poor.
When my Mum and Dad first moved to Box Hill and purchased their bakery business, they purchased it right at the peak of the boom just before the Depression. As a result, right through the 1930’s before they had me they had a great struggle to keep up the payments on their business. Both of them worked to keep their business going. I know times must have been very difficult then. My father’s mother lived with them and she would do most of the cooking and the housework while both my mother and father worked 14 hour days trying to earn enough money to keep the business going. My mother used to tell me that in those days they always had a lot of soup and that everything that was left over would go into the stock pot on the stove. Every night they drew out ladles of soup in almost an endless supply. She used to buy, every Monday, a sheep’s head from Jacky Walters, the butcher. That sheep’s head would boil away in the stock pot throughout the week. Laughingly I remember her telling me when I was young that she used to say to the butcher: “I want a sheep’s head with its eyes in, because I want it to see me through the week’”.
We never really suffered poverty. We had the same clothes which we wore every day of the week when we went to school, some old clothes which were worn on Saturday, and some Sunday best clothes that we put on to go to Sunday School. I do not think we ever had more than three changes of clothes. All of us wore clothes that had previously been owned by someone else. Even as the eldest in the family I did not always receive new clothing to be handed on to the other children. Clothing from neighbours or friends was shared round as each of us outgrew a particular garment.
I guess the thing that we missed was money to buy sweets or lollies. Very rarely did we ever have that privilege during those tough days. Sometimes I would go in and talk to my friend Mr. Massoud in the milk bar and many a time, seeing my eyes lingering on the glass showcase, would produce a “Freddo” chocolate frog as a free gift.
There was an elderly lady who lived near us who always had sweets in her handbag to give to children. We called her “Miss Liquorice”. In her handbag, Miss Liquorice always had a bag of liquorice allsorts and if you stopped and asked her in the street she would rummage through her bag and give every child a liquorice allsort.
I remember two things about Miss Liquorice. As she grew older her sight got progressively worse and she was not quite sure what she was giving us. One day when I asked her for a liquorice allsort she rummaged through her bag and gave me one which I promptly put in my mouth. It tasted terrible and I just as quickly pulled it out and checked it. True it had a piece of liquorice that somehow stuck to it, but it was in fact a used bunion pad which she had taken off her foot and put inside her handbag.
The second incident concerning Miss Liquorice was the day her cat died. It was a fat tabby cat of great age and when it died she could not bring herself to bury it in her garden. As we found out later, she took a small case that she no longer wanted, put the poor deceased cat inside the case and decided to leave the case in one of the municipal rubbish bins. However, the case was too big to get in the top of a rubbish bin. Sitting on a park bench she decided to leave it there when she left. However, a passer by noticed the elderly lady leaving the case and ran after her and promptly returned the case to her. Feeling somewhat defeated she walked back towards her home when one of the most unusual things to occur in our district at that time occurred. A young man, poor and desperate, decided that robbery was his only way of gaining some money and running up against Miss Liquorice, snatched the case from her hand and ran off with it up a lane. Miss Liquorice was terribly surprised by this. Then it slowly dawned on her that all she had lost was the mortal remains of her pet cat! She laughed to herself and thanked God for providing a young man who would take her poor pet away for a decent burial.
My mother told me the rest of the story. The young man ran up the lane with the case. He finally stopped and eagerly opened the case to take out any valuables. Finding nothing but the body of a dead cat he threw the case the cat over the fence and ran off up the lane. When Miss Liquorice went down the back yard some days later to hang some washing on her line you can imagine her surprise to find her old case in the back garden and, not very far away, the remains of her cat who had come back home!
Apart from Miss Liquorice the only other person who gave me sweets was my friend Monty Stone, the big blacksmith. He used to shoe horses in Station Street not far from the Masonic Temple. Monty Stone’s Blacksmith and Forge was a treasure trove for young boys. Everything was black and grimy with a huge fire which burnt coals and coke in the corner. Great bellows were attached to the base of it. That fire never went out. Monty always had a huge Clydesdale draught horse or some other horse in his forge and hammered away at red hot pieces of iron making them into horse shoes. We used to ask if he would mind us jumping on the huge bellows and making the fire roar with flame. He never minded us doing that and sometimes on a cold and wet morning on the way to school I would call in to be warmed by his fire and to work the bellows for a while.
The horses came from the horse carts of our area. They were used by the baker, the milkman, the council men and the garbage men. There was always the fresh smell of manure. One day in Monty’s shop he was cutting off a huge piece of hoof from a draught horse. I asked him what happened to the excess nail from the hoof that he was trimming off. He told me that he used to send all of the remains of horses hooves into Wrigleys who turned it into chewing gum. “All that is required, young Mick, is for you to chew the hoof for a while and you will discover that it turns into chewing gum.” Monty looked so assuring, his eyes seemed to be so genuine, and my desire for chewing gum was so great that I willingly accepted the piece of clear nail from the draught horse’s hoof and promptly popped it in my mouth.
All the way to school I chewed on that piece of hoof. Miss Higgins, seeing I was chewing something in class, called me out and asked what I was eating. When I told her the story she and all the other children in the school class laughed so raucously that I realized I had been taken in.
There was one very poor family who lived near us. The Skidmore’s had many children. They lived in an unlined fibro cement sheet house with only three rooms in it, a front room, a large bedroom in which the entire family slept, and a kitchen cum dining room with a skillion roof out the back. Down the backyard was their outhouse toilet and I always remember it because in order to save money the Skidmore’s did not have the night man calling. Instead they had two kerosene tins, one underneath the plank upon which you sat, and which they emptied into their garden once a week, and the other which the boys used standing up. The tins were called No.1 and No.2, and they were regularly emptied into the garden and upon the roots of the old lemon tree.
There were no curtains in their house except some old sheets that hung from nails that could be pulled across the front bedroom window. The several children slept in a bed and the bed always smelt wet. Their clothing was skimpy with the girls wearing ragged cardigans. I remember vividly to this day that whenever the girls were running or playing their home made pants, made out of unbleached calico, always hung below the hem of their dresses. The Skidmore boys were tough fighters and as a family stuck up for each other very strongly. Mr. Skidmore was an invalid pensioner but I cannot picture what he was like. Mrs. Skidmore was a thin woman with her hair drawn back into a tight bun. She always wore an apron and slippers through which her toes poked. The family never went out, never had any kind of entertainment not even to the Saturday afternoon theatre matinee. The food was always potatoes and stew of one kind or another and rabbit was a frequent dish. The Skidmores were too poor for a sheep’s head. One of the Skidmore girls used to come to my parents shop and buy loaves of stale bread every couple of days. Out the back of their house they had the biggest potato plot you could imagine, with the biggest potatoes you have ever seen, grown with some of the freshest fertilizer you could ever imagine.
We were not all poor in our community but those that were had a very tough life. I was often glad I was not among them as I walked home, up Bank Street, along the railway line, to the top of the hill and to No.5 Miller Street, Box Hill, a great city which was only a village, where the adults were kind and the children grew up responsibly.