Throughout the ages the collective memory of primitive societies has been preserved by what we call “the oral tradition”. It might seem unlikely now in this age of the internet and digital space, but before the invention of the written word, oral tradition was often the only way that human beings were able to preserve the record of generational knowledge outside the superfluous grey matter found between their ears.
We might think we’ve come a long way since but in some ways the power of memory is as important now as it ever was. Oral history, as opposed to oral tradition, is an academic discipline which can be defined by the collection and study of historical information using recording devices and interview techniques, a process which strives to obtain information unavailable by other methods. Publishing these personal histories has never been more popular with desk top publishing and cheap printing making the process relatively easy.
Locally, the Greensborough Historical Society has taken a leaf out of what could be called the oral history book by publishing a couple of recent companion volumes, “As I Recall” and “Do You Recall?” which feature stories drawn from the memories of long-time residents of Greensborough and nearby suburbs. Last week while travelling on the 293 Greensborough bus with my nose buried in the pages of one of these tomes which happened to be opened at a chapter describing the history of the now defunct Diamond Valley Community Hospital, a woman sitting next to me after first apologizing for reading over my shoulder pointed at the page and said, “I was born at that hospital.”
“You and about 10,000 others,” I said, quoting directly from the pages of the book.
What followed then turned into an interesting chat about her memories of the local area before I had to let it go and get off at my stop, leaving her story only half complete. It was a loss in one respect. Given longer I’m guessing I might have turned her story into a post, but in another respect it was a gain as it got me thinking about history and the importance of memory within the spoken framework. As it happens, both GHS volumes contain chapters recording the memories of one Eric Barclay and are complete with his impressions of what it was like growing up in a Post War rural environment on what was colloquially known as the Grace Park Estate, Greensborough. This estate was located more or less on the northern boundaries of Yallambie and at one time was home to a rough and ready, 9-hole golf course. It was an area parts of which remained semi-rural into the last quarter of the 20th century and Eric’s story makes an interesting tale.
Born in 1938, Eric Barclay was the only child of Henry and Dorothy Barclay who were aged 60 and 40 respectively when their son surprised them by being born. The family owned a small weatherboard cottage on a 10 acre farm in Elder St, Greensborough, south of where Henry St ends at the T intersection. The Barclay property was located about an equidistance from Greensborough, Montmorency, Watsonia and Lower Plenty and could only be accessed along unmade roads and bush tracks. The house, which had been relocated from Collingwood in an earlier era, was without power, sewerage or mains water and although basic in its necessities, it proved to be a happy and healthy childhood environment for young Eric.
“We were hillbillies. We never ever got the light on until the early 50s…. We were very primitive out there. One thing about it, when we were hungry we had a bit of an orchard. Dad was a good gardener. We had vegetables. We had plenty of chooks, plenty of eggs.” (Eric Barclay, “Do You Recall?” GHS, 2017)
Much of Eric Barclay’s story as related in the two GHS books is devoted to what he called his memories of “The Big Paddock”, (the title of his chapter in “Do You Recall?). The Big Paddock was a 600 acre area roughly bounded in the west by Greensborough Rd, in the north by Nell St, the east by the River where the unmade track that was Elder St petered out, and by Yallambie in the south.
“It had a wire fence around it and besides briar bushes only had cattle, kangaroos and hares in it… Every year The Big Paddock used to get burnt out. We had no fire brigades in Greensborough in those days. The locals would get out and fight it, my father and Mr Bell and others. Almost every year up to the late 40s our area’s 5 to 10 acre farmlets had a planned burn off and they’d do maybe three places one night, all the men. The women would have a central place where they’d have cups of tea and a few beers later on. We did that until all the tussocks had been cleared off. We’d look forward to it as kids, we’d have a bag each and go round beating out the posts so they didn’t take fire.” (Eric Barclay, “Do You Recall?” GHS, 2017)
Eric’s father, Henry was employed at “Stubley’s”, a produce merchant in Main Rd, Greensborough with ties to a motor garage and service station of the same name. Later Henry found work at Annie Murdoch’s Yallambie, a circumstance that will be of particular interest to readers of this blog. The following words are reproduced here, directly from the pages of the Greensborough Historical Society volume, “Do You Recall?” published by the Society in 2017.
My father Henry Banwell Barclay ended up working at Yallambie House, the mansion. They used to have quite a market garden there, they would have had a couple of hundred acres I reckon. They had river frontage on the Plenty. The driveway of Yallambie House ran through to Lower Plenty Road.
Going through the paddocks I’d take Dad over his lunch and a bottle of cold tea. Dad worked down there on the river flats. They had vegetables and fruit trees. It was pretty substantial. Old Joe worked there as well as Dad who was 60 when I was born in Whittlesea in 1938.
The people that had Yallambie, the elderly lady was Mrs Murdoch. She was the owner, the matriarch. Her daughter married a Mr Bush. They were lovely people. They had two children, Elizabeth, about my age, and Billy who was a lot younger. I can remember Elizabeth going to Ivanhoe Grammar.
They had two Daimler cars and one day Mr Bush said “Now, young Eric I’d like to give you a bit of pocket money.” I used to wash the two Daimlers once a fortnight and get three bob… three shillings, which was good. We didn’t have a lot of money. My father had spent a lot on his children (from his first marriage) in the earlier days setting them up. I would have been about 11 at the time. He was 71 and still working over there.
They had an asphalt tennis court there and a year or so later Mrs Bush said “Eric, if you’d like to bring some of your friends over you can play tennis.” So Leslie Dunstan, Donny Bell, Robert Collins and myself would go over there and sweep the leaves off and mark the lines and play. There were elm trees and a big verandah out the back and Mrs Bush would come out and she’d say “Righto boys!” She’d have a table set up on the verandah and we’d have lemonade and butterfly cakes and that. They were terrific.
Each year around Melbourne Cup time they’d put Dad and Mum and myself in the Cup sweep and I’d have to go across Melbourne Cup morning and see what horses we had.
There was a manager’s house there, the cookhouse, the whole lot. In the early days the manager was a Mr Gardiner. The cook was Nellie.
Eric’s story continues with his memories of the Plenty River, the riding school at Woodside, (Casa Maria) and Wragge’s Anglican Church of the Holy Spirit.
Us kids learnt to swim in the Plenty River, you’d get holes 20 foot deep. There were platypus and water rats. It was a beautiful stream. When I was a bit older Leslie Dunstone, Donny Bell and myself used to fish it from one end to the other, nearly down to the junction with the Yarra River. That’s a long walk. We’d take hurricane lamps and the dogs with us, a tin of baked beans and a bit of bread.
Along Yallambie Road, which was a gravel road, on the left was Bellamy’s. They had a poultry farm, there were very few houses. You went right along and there was a gate. You’d open the gate and keep going and right down the end of Yallambie Road was Nancy Hosack’s riding school. She had a nice home and the riding school and the stables and so forth. Nancy used to compete in a lot of the gymkhanas and Benny Weir, who lived in Greensborough off Alexandra Street down near the river, was probably one of her greatest competitors in them.
Past the gate, on the south side of Yallambie Road, going west, was the army camp land. Years later they brought all the people in from Camp Pell, which was like a Housing Commission kind of setup in Royal Park. That’s when all our chooks started to get stolen and so forth. They brought them out to the army camp for housing up at the top end of the camp in Yallambie Road.
Where the petrol station is now, there used to be a church there. It was a little brick Church of England church. I think they used to have a service there about once a week. A lot of people wouldn’t know that had been there.
Benny Weir’s swimming hole was probably one of my favourite spots on the Plenty. They had a rope hanging over the river and kids would go swimming there.
In about 1950 Eric’s father began selling off parts of their 10 acre farm. Australia’s leading Greyhound trainer, Stan Cleverly bought half and built the substantial brick home that stands today on a double block at the top of the rise in Elder St at the Henry St intersection. Stan installed a straight greyhound training track alongside his home where he trained from 50 to a 100 greyhounds at a time, although in the words of Eric, “Later on, it paid him more to get dogs beaten. He got outed for a year.” Eventually, Eric sold the last 3 ½ acres of the Barclay farm and moved to Macleod in 1966. His family’s presence is remembered in the area in the name of “Barclay Park”, a small reserve in Plenty Lane, Greensborough.
The importance of these spoken histories has also been recognized by the Heidelberg Historical Society which has recently put out a call for volunteers prepared to offer their services in recording the oral stories of older residents of the Heidelberg area. In reading back over the two companion volumes of oral history published earlier by the Greensborough Historical Society, I am of a mind that the more successful chapters of such books are those that, like Eric Barclay, allow the interviewee to tell remembered personal anecdotes as opposed to dry lists of unchecked facts and figures. Oral history is not about the replacement of the established order of historical sources. Go struggle with a University thesis if you want that. Oral History instead is about the perspective, thoughts, opinions and understanding of interviewees in a primary form.
On a personal note, as previously mentioned in this blog, around 1980 my late father sat down with a cassette tape recorder and recounted a life time of memories. As a lad I used to wonder about what he was up to. It seemed to me he had taken up the habit of talking to himself behind closed doors. Only after he was dead could I recognize, as he had probably done earlier, the importance of an oral legacy. A decade later I turned a transcript of those recordings into a book, the larger part of which records his impressions of World War 2 and his life as a POW of the Japanese. To my mind today, it makes an absorbing read, not as a history of that War but as the impressions of how the War affected the life of one man, caught up in a world conflict far beyond his control. My father’s was just one more voice from an otherwise unheard viewpoint falling from the pages of the history of the vast tragedy that engulfed Western Civilization in the first half of the 20th Century.
“Now, about five o’clock the next morning, our commanding officer, Major Keith Lawrence, gathered us around in a group. Not in ranks or anything like that and with words to this effect. He said, “I have a few things to explain to you here.” And he went on to tell us, you know, the position as he knew it. That the war had virtually ceased on the mainland and that we were now all gathered on Singapore Island and we had to make the most of what we had. And then, I suppose I’m only one of the two hundred and fifty or sixty men within our unit. I’m sure the others were just as shocked as I as when he turned around and said, “There is not a mile of barbed wire anywhere in front of us.” In other words he meant, we had no fortifications at all.”
(Spr McLachlan learns the truth of the myth of ‘Fortress Singapore’, from “Titch – Telling Tales of T C McLachlan”, Yallambie, 1999).
So if you know an old-timer, sit down with them sometime soon and listen to their stories. It can be a pretty rewarding experience for the listener, but make sure you write down what you are told or even record it on your iPhone if that’s the way you work. There’s a gold mine of undiscovered primary history sources out there just waiting for someone to sit down, to stop, and listen.