Connections: Remember the thunder box? And billy carts?

Peter Harris recalls the dangers of the dunny and other fab ´50s institutions.

Peter Harris loves to write. He’s written his own life story – for his family and close friends – just because he could, and because he enjoyed the challenge. In the process, it revived many memories of life back in the 1950s and ´60s – the backyard thunderbox, hours spent listening to the wireless, kick-to-kick during half-time at the footy, and drive-in movies. He shares them here so you can tell the kids and grandkids – or just reminisce.

The outside toilet
The night cart would come along during the night and a bloke with a leather cover over one shoulder and half his head would come around to the backyard and replace the toilet pan with an empty one. The pan was removed and replaced through a trapdoor opening in the back of the dunny (toilet) which was usually an unlined two metre squared wooden construction with a wooden seat.

The Australian outhouse, or thunderbox or ‘dunny’, as can be imagined, had a smell all its own. The cleaning involved a wipe down with Pine-O-Clean or Phenol disinfectant, which cleaned the seat but only covered up, never removed the odour. And usually there were spiders of some variety including redbacks and other biting nasties hovering about. Not a place to go at night. Oh, and the toilet paper was hard, shiny and barely absorbent. It was absolutely nothing like today's options.

We had our first telephone line installed in 1954 when I was about seven. It was a party line with our back neighbours. This meant that we could only use the phone when they weren't and vice versa. When they picked up their phone, ours would give out a ping and then we would have to wait for their call to end.

When direct dialling came in we thought the technology was brilliant, hardly imagining where it would lead to in the future.

To call Dad at work, we would pick up the receiver, dial Y and wait for an operator to answer. Then we would ask for the number like Central 26, and she would connect us with the phone at Dad's work. No automatic dialling. All calls went through an exchange, where a person, usually a woman, would then direct and connect the call.

The police in those days of the 1950s and ´60s usually rode bicycles. They never carried guns, and would tend to deal with bad behaving youngsters with a clip (hit) over the back of the head and a trip home to the father. The parents took on a much more responsible role for their children's behaviour.

We didn't need to lock our houses. And we could leave money on the front gatepost for the morning milk delivery, entrust our neighbours with our children and leave our bikes outside shops with no fear of theft.

Drive-in theatres
These were really wonderful for families, mates and for dating.

Families could buy dinner at the on-site cafeteria/restaurant and kids would often be in their pyjamas and dressing gowns. The audio was through a speaker which was attached to a pole in our designated parking space and we would hang the speaker on the inside of the driver’s or passenger’s window depending on which space you drove into. The car was on a slight slope and arranged in a giant semi-circle in front of the huge movie screen.

As the entry fee was on a per person basis, many times you would see a car park in a space, the driver get out, open the boot and two or three of his mates extricate themselves from the boot and into the car.

You’d also see the occasional ute or station wagon back into a space, the back tail-gate drop and the party begin.

Radio and television
For entertainment at night in the ´50s we would sit around the radio (before the wireless) and listen to radio plays and quiz show entertainment.

Then came the ‘wireless’, which was a radio with batteries. The portable radio was a big move forward as this enabled us to put music into the car by resting a leather-encased transistor radio on the dashboard. I remember one brilliant moment when a girl called a radio station from a pay phone at the beach and said that her radio batteries were running flat so could the station please turn up their volume.

Some of the radio programs included:

  • The Goon Show – Absolutely crazy and hilariously funny show from the BBC.
  • The Calder Hour/Theatre of the Air – Usually heavy drama (Calder was a brand of refrigerator).
  • Blue Hills – This was an Australian-produced serial for the mums. My mother and her mum would listen every day and if one missed it, the other would have an update. This was the world’s longest-running 15-minute serial with 5795 episodes over 27 years (1949–1976). A simple story line and drawn out plots around a family from the Australian country, and all the episodes were written by Gwen Meredith.
  • And, of course, Pick a Box – a quiz show hosted by American Bob Dyer and his wife Dolly.


Television in the ´60s was transmitted in black and white with mainly imported programs.

Football matches
When I was a little kid, my pa would take me to Essendon to watch the Bombers.

A group of us little kids would gather behind the goals to watch the great John Coleman take his spectacular marks and kick goals. We actually ran to each end at the quarter changes so we didn’t miss anything.

Later in life, Dad would take us to Glenferrie Oval to follow the Hawks.

Dad actually made himself a little fold-up stool to stand on to enable him (or us) to see the game, or we would stand on boxes or empty beer cans grouped together.

Spectator facilities were very poor in those days compared to the seating comforts and services of today’s sporting venues.

The spectators were allowed in the players’ rooms before the games and on the field during the quarter breaks. And we always had a kick of a football on the ground after each game.

Other ways of life lost …
Our cots were covered in lead-based paint. We just didn’t eat it.

We had no childproof lids or locks on medicine cabinets. We knew not to go there.

When we rode our bikes everywhere, including to and from school, we wore no helmets. Trouser leg clips were used on our long pants to stop them tangling up with the chain. School bags were propped onto the handlebars.

We took to hitch-hiking, which was a means of moving around Melbourne and holiday resorts, day and night. And it was safe to do so.

We would ride in cars with no seatbelts or airbags.

We used hand signals to indicate intent to turn and stop – hail, rain or shine.

Riding in the back of a ute on a warm day was always a special treat.

We drank water from the garden hose and not from a bottle.

We ate lots of cake, butter, even dripping from the Sunday roast and our fizzy drinks were loaded with sugar, but we were never overweight because we were always outside playing.

We would spend hours building billy carts out of scraps. Usually, we didn't worry about brakes but on a steep hill, we soon learnt how to avoid killing ourselves.

We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on.

We ate ‘Dagwood’ sandwiches, which were sandwiches super full of fillings, in multiple layers of bread.

Tomatoes had a distinct flavour rarely available today because we usually grew them at home, all year round.

No one was able to reach us … all day. No mobile phones. When we needed to speak with someone we would either visit a home with a phone or use a public phone box.

We did not have Playstations, Nintendos, video games, cable TV, surround-sound, personal mobile phones, PCs, Facebook or Internet chat rooms. We didn’t need them. We were so, so busy.

We had the wireless and we had friends.

If we didn’t have a friend to play with, we went outside and found them.

We played footy in the street and sometimes got hurt. But we had to learn how to deal with that.

We fell out of trees, got cuts and broken bones and teeth, and there were no lawsuits from these accidents. They were ‘accidents’, and no one was to blame but us, so we had to be responsible for our actions.

We rode bikes or walked to a friend's house and knocked on the door or just walked in and talked to them. Usually, their mother would feed us scones or sandwiches and other assorted snacks.

Our actions were our own responsibility. The idea of parents bailing us out if we got into trouble at school or broke a law was unheard of. Parents actually sided with the school or the law. Imagine that?

There were no credit cards.

Until I was 25, I called every man older than me ‘Sir’. And after I turned 25 … I still called policemen and every man with a title, ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr’.

What are your most vivid memories of life as a kid? Was life much simpler then or is it a case of some good, some bad?



    To make a comment, please register or login
    18th Nov 2018
    dunny man ? we had to dig a hole out the back & empty it ourselves .one of my early jobs was driving a truck & I had to drive with window always open because there weren't indicators in those days & there was a big hand on the end of steel rods bolted to the door you had to use for hand signals.
    18th Nov 2018
    Didn’t know they had telephones in the 1050’s
    18th Nov 2018
    Love these stories, but feel sad that the world has become unsafe, and more complicated. Children these days live complicated lives with a lot of pressure to conform and not just be themselves, so many want to grow up too quick too.
    18th Nov 2018
    As head teacher at a country school in the early 60's, one of my jobs every Saturday was to empty and clean the two dunnies for the princely sum of 6d (5c) each. It was hardest in summer with the flies and the rock hard ground. I also had to do our own.
    Our residence had only tank water which was bucketed into the copper to heat then bucketed into the bath, so bath night was Saturday. Heating was wood open fire and wood fired stove.
    18th Nov 2018
    I remember the out door dunny, but we had a dunny man come an collect. Rugby League man, remember my Dad taking me to Cumberland Oval in the 60's to watch Parramatta my team, used to sit on the dead ball line and watch the great Parramatta fullback Ken Thornett catch the ball every time and Arch Brown run like a scalded cat and just hope he hung onto the ball.
    But whenever they played St. George, Reg Gasnier would carve us up repeatedly. What a great player he was, but he had lots of support. I think 11 or 13 players were Internationals with St. George then. I was there the day they played the last game at Cumberland and the fans, disintegrated the fence for souvenirs. What great memories.
    18th Nov 2018
    My memories would consist of all of the above! What a great time it was to be a kid.
    18th Nov 2018
    All of the above, but what a disaster it was to bring in credit cards, its at the very core of diminishing personal responsibility.

    Now a person cant have a savings bank card without a credit function being put into it.

    In 1950's primary school there was a poem called "The Ant and the Cricket".. A cricket tries to borrow from the industrious ant and gets a big knock back.

    "Thus ending he hastily opened the wicket and out of the door turned the poor little cricket"

    We were lucky to have a beautiful Grade 4 teacher who still spoke with a posh english accent, so the word "poor" was not pronounced "paw" but "poo-er."
    21st Nov 2018
    Don't want to be picky, and it's easy to get it wrong, but the brand of refrigerator in the fifties was COLDA, not Calder. Was the show maybe called 'Colda Police Files'? Good memories...

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