Connections: Living life to the full in the ’burbs in the 50s and 60s

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Peter Harris is 71 and has energy to burn. He says his earliest memory was when he was either two or three, when his brother tipped him out of their toy pedal-driven truck. He loves to write and has compiled a wonderful list of how his world worked back in the 1950s and 60s. He shares some of them here.

We shopped pretty much on a daily basis at the local grocer or milk bar.

The milk was home-delivered by horse and cart around dawn each day in one-pint glass bottles. We left the money – and empty bottles – at the gate. The bottles were never vandalised and the money was never stolen. The sound of the horses at dawn was wonderful.

The morning paper was delivered by a kid on a bike who would get up at 5am to do the round before school for pocket money.

Chemist prescriptions were also home delivered by a kid on a bike after school. That was a prime after-school job because most of the chemist shop assistants were pretty girls.

Bread was delivered daily by the baker who would drive his van down the street. He would call out, “Baker!” and deliver warm fresh bread to the door. There were no sliced loaves.

The AMP family insurance man would visit once a month for our insurance payment which my mum would pay with saved cash. He would tip his hat and it was always “Mr” Pullen and “Mrs” Harris even though he called regularly for years. Those insurance policies paid for my brother’s and my 21st birthday parties.

The bottle-o would drive his horse and cart down the street collecting empty bottles every few months. He would call out, “Bottle-o!” and go around to the backyard to where Dad would have empty beer bottles stacked against the fence. The bottle-o would put the empties into hessian sacks, stitch the sack with string and carry them back to his horse-drawn cart and stack them up really high. I don’t think he made much of a living but in those days people worked hard at whatever job they had.

For the groceries, Mum would either shop daily or sometimes get the local grocer to home deliver. There were no refrigerators like today; we had an ice-chest. Two or three times a week there would be an ice delivery in the form of a block that Dad would break up with an icepick and hammer.

Lunch and dinner
Each Sunday we would have my grandparents for lunch or we would go to their place. We always had a roast, which was usually lamb or beef as chickens were too expensive in those times. Dinner on Sunday night was usually sardines on toast or soup and toast.

We ate at home pretty much every night and that was at the dining room or kitchen table where we sat until our plates were clean. We learnt to like all the food Mum prepared as we had no choice. “Eat what was served or go hungry” was the edict.

And we had to ask to leave the table after thanking Mum for dinner.

People weren’t able to travel anywhere near as freely as today. Very few people we knew had been overseas – and those who had usually went by ship – and not every family had a car. There were no credit cards. We used travellers’ cheques when overseas and cashed them in for local currency. I was never driven to school as I had a perfect pair of legs or a bike. No helmets were worn.

Cars had headlight dimmer switches which were buttons on the floor on the left of the clutch. Obviously there were no automatic cars until the1960s and `70s. We didn’t have stop lights or direction indicators, so we indicated stopping and turning with hand and arm signals from the opened driver’s window in all weather. There were no radios or heaters either.

Cracker night was celebrated on Guy Fawkes Day every 5 November. On that night we would fire off crackers and fireworks of all sizes and explosive power. If we didn’t let these off in our backyard, there would always be a bonfire somewhere in the local area. Great fun, but this was banned in 1980 as it was deemed too dangerous.

The laundry
Mum washed clothes in a ‘copper’, which was a clothes boiler. The water was heated by a gas flame under a massive tub. Mum would pump the clothes up and down with a broomstick which was so bleached that it looked like a piece of driftwood. She would then lift the clothes out of the copper with the stick and into the first of the two cement troughs where the surplus water would be squashed out and then the clothes were rinsed and squeezed through a hand operated wringer into the second of the two troughs. The clothesline was a wire strung across the backyard with a pole lifting it in the middle to suspend the clothes. Rotary clothes lines arrived in the 1960s.

Church and Sunday School
Every Sunday for years we attended church as a family.

The local church was very much part of our lives in the 1950s and 60s. We enjoyed Saturday morning tennis and Saturday afternoon cricket in the summer and went to Sunday school every week. This would last for about an hour. Usually Mum and Dad would then arrive for the 11am service, after which we would all go home for the Sunday roast.

At the movies
In the local theatres, before a movie session started we would all stand for the National Anthem. There were matinees at 12.30pm on Saturdays with Westerns for the kids. The theatre manager would come on to the stage and announce all the birthdays being celebrated and the whole crowd would sing Happy Birthday. We would take water-pistols and squirt water onto the kids a few rows in front. Sometimes we would wear our cowboy outfits and have our cap-pistols in holsters – always to emulate our on-screen heroes like Hopalong Cassidy, The Range Rider, Tom Mix, The Cisco Kid and of course, The Lone Ranger and Tonto.

After the matinees on Saturdays there was the intermediate session at about 4pm. This would be the place for teenagers to take a girlfriend and sit up the back of the theatre and kiss their way through the movie. In those days it was one of the few places where we could do this with all the time in the world.

Television came to Australia in 1956 in time for the Melbourne Olympics, but I was in my teens when we got our first TV, which was, of course, black and white. Transmission started at 6am and ended at 11pm after the National Anthem was played with a background of the Queen in full ceremonial gear on a horse. Then there was a prayer, The Epilogue, then a test pattern until morning. Most programs were imported, mainly westerns and family-targeted shows, such as Wagon Train, Rawhide, Bonanza, The Nelsons, Disneyland and Father Knows Best from the US.  We also had many daily and weekly live variety shows, such as In Melbourne Tonight, The Tarax Show, Sunnyside Up, The Hit Parade and Bandstand.

After-school play
Each day after school until we were in our teens, we would play – usually in the street with our mates. We would ride our bike or push our billycart to a mate’s place and get home before dark. We’d race or do time trials in our billycarts down hilly streets. We’d play cowboys and Indians or get serious with roles from World War II. This was in the mid-1950s and the war had ended only a decade earlier. Depending on the season, we would play football or cricket.

As we grew older we would hang out at the local park and play footy or visit a girl’s place and sit around listening to records, although we were nearly always doing some sort of outside activity.

The curfew would be around 5pm (street lights ‘on’) which gave time to get home before dark for dinner.

Do Peter’s memories spark many of your own? Were they simpler, easier times in your view? What do you miss the most?

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Total Comments: 15
  1. 0

    Yes Peter, those were great times, a lot simpler as well. I delivered milk from the age of 11- starting at 4am! All the pretty girls went to church and I met my first girlfriend there at age 14. I also recall the insurance man calling and we had fresh rabbit weekly from the rabbitto who also had a horse drawn cart. No, I didn’t live in the country, but at Hurstville, 15 minutes from the centre of Sydney.

  2. 0

    Hi Peter,
    My memory of fireworks or cracker night as we called it, was 24TH May celebrating the Queens Birthday, back then was Victorias birthday not the current Queen. Also for milk I had to take the billy to the local milk bar where we would buy what was probably a gill measure. No bottles in the early 50’s! As for the ice for the ice chest the kids would chase the cart hoping for dropped pieces of ice as the blocks were picked up and delivered to the homes. They were wonderful days , kids played cricket in the streets using the garbage can as a wicket, you went home when the street lights came on and we left our doors unlocked and all our neighbours were Aunts and Uncles never called by their first names. Thanks for reviving the memories.

    • 0

      My memory was of Empire Day…we went to school for half a day, drew pictures of flags and had a school assembly then went home and got ready for cracker night with tuppennany bungers and 1 penny rockets.

  3. 0

    I am a 10 pound Pom who emigrated to Perth in my twenties but I can recall the milkman coming around with the horse and cart and the chap with onions hanging from his bicycle. Life was certainly simpler then and I must say I find some modern technology frustrating, especially as it becomes more and more complex to use, for example smart phones that do everything than boil an egg!

  4. 0

    We went to Townsville straight after the war. We had the milko, who put a quart of milk in the billycan at the front steps, no glass for bottles available yet.

    We also had a Chinese fruiterer who came once a week, the ice man who came daily in that climate, no refrigerators available. We finally got a fridge in 48, a kerosene thing which did stink a bit, but we could now make icecream, the first icecream I had tasted.

    Cracker night was a big deal but with a lot of fathers just back from fighting, we could handle the “danger” unlike todays milksops. One girl in my class actually wore shoes. The rest of us didn’t, as they were expensive & still in short supply.

    Later we moved to Bathurst. A bunch of us kids with access to horses used to do a “Ned Kelly” & hold up the baker on his horse & cart. He would surrender & give us a few buns of a loaf to share. I worked on the cart one Christmas, for the week before, when deliveries were high. I also did a week on the milk cart one year. The horse would walk free to each next stop while the milko delivered to half a dozen houses from his large basket.

    I also had a paper run each morning, about 6 of us would load up our bikes each morning at the crack of dawn. My round included the 2 largest pubs in town. The reception desk would give me a list, & I would deliver the papers to the door of each guest who had ordered them. In 1962 the first motel appeared, & that was on my round. The charge was a pound [$2.00] a night.

    A few of us kids used to earn fair money rabbiting. We would go out after school or on weekends with a mattock & a spade digging them out of the burrows. One kid had a good rabbiter dag, who could tell us which burrow had rabbits in it at the time. We would take a couple home for the pot, but it was really the skins we were after. I earned more from the skins than my parents could ever afford to give me as pocket money.

    All these little earners meant I could buy myself a horse & all the gear to go with it. When I went to uni, the sale of all that was enough to buy myself a car, a 1934 Morris 8/40. Of course running & servicing the thing was a different story.

  5. 0

    My earliest memory was watching the coronation on my grandparents’ brand new TV. We lived in Wales, my grandmother refused to allow English to be spoken in her house (not sure how my beloved Grandpa persuaded her to buy a TV). Sundays were primarily spent at chapel twice a day – no cooking or newspapers. Grandpa always offered to take my brother and I to chapel for Sunday school. On the way home we stopped off at the pub and were bribed with Smiths’ potato crisps! I remember the hushed voices when my brother was diagnosed with polio and the child next door died of whooping cough. Australia was probably the most distant country from the strictures of Welsh Baptist living my father could find. We swapped chapel for the beach. Yes life was simpler for many Australians in the 1950s but it is nice not to have to go out to the dunny in the rain. I survived childbirth but many of my relatives did not. My children did not die of TB, whooping cough or polio. I had a professional career which I loved, attended uni, travelled and kept my income but my grandma a very clever woman did not. My children weren’t conscripted but my brother was. It’s just different. I wish I could remember the name of the ‘pop’ a man in a van delivered though.

  6. 0

    That is the Australia I came to live in the 60’s…. Clean, safe full of great and friendly people, lots of opportunities, very very healthy place to live ….. I remember and it is terrible the way our beautiful country has deteriorated over the years in all areas specially in safety

    These days have to have double bolts on your doors and secure all windows before going to sleep

    I remember a night out walking and having a great time late at night in the city, Kings Cross and around the beaches …..sorry not now all that good stuff is gone …. now watch TV and stay home

    Sorry but Beautiful Australia we use to have is Gone …. still a beautiful country but is hard to live this days to expensive and not as safe as use to be …

    I remember about the raffles in the Pub’s for a basket of goodies for 2 Bob (wrong spelling ??) was great to have a drink in peace with your mates that call me Wog he he he he all fun and great times … all gone

  7. 0

    remember? desert once a week ” Sunday lunch” & Watermelon was a Xmas time treat .

  8. 0

    Great stories, but I am sure there were not all as rosy as it seemed.
    Although I am a little younger than those here and my stories are not so amazing as others, I did grow up with an outside toilet which I was scared to go to because it was so far from our house and I used to have nightmares of falling in, was a huge hole to me when I was little. Later dad(Italian immigrant) built a new toilet closer to the house with a tin can and used to put it in to the garden where he grew the vegies, but I think he dug it in really deep. I remember mum having to pluck the chickens and I hated the smell from the boiler. But my brother and I spent hours running around the farm exploring, built our own golf course, billy carted down our steep gravel driveway, played cars under the house. My favourite memory is when the cherries and plums were reading for picking. I remember getting my first push bike and preferred to ride it miles to school rather than catch the bus. Yes it was safe in those days, would not dream of letting a kid ride all that way along a main road anymore. I also remember riding our pet sheep that dad ended up slaughtering and my brother and I refused to eat our pet, most likely set the seeds for me going vego later on.I feel so sad kids are growing up in a fake world where there only fun is how many likes they get on social media or how many games they won on online gaming.

  9. 0

    We were on a farm & had no Electricity till I was about 5 My mother used 2 light these wonderful kerosene lamps. We had an outside Toilet for which we needed a lantern 2 visit @ night . The big hairy Huntsman spiders used 2 wait on the back of the door & watch U all the time U were there with eyes Gleaming . Our river out the front used 2 flood about every 2nd year & it was a wonderful sight , Thankfully it didn;t overflow where our house was We had cows pigs horses dux both kind geese calves of course , sheep , cats & of course dogs . Have many an interesting tale of those times

  10. 0

    I agree Peter. They were great times – though only on reflection as there was nothing to compare it with then. It was just life. My experiences were similar to yours so I enjoyed the reminiscing. We always ate meals at the kitchen table – laminex top tables were the go with matching chairs. I grew up in a country town (now a major regional city) that saw 2 major housing developments following the growth of two major ndustries – the SEC and the Australian Paper Mill – the APM being responsible for building over 1000 homes within a short space of time, the SEC followed close behind. This meant that families were mostly in the same social bracket – all working class and all on an average wage. And it was the baby boom years so there were plenty of children. Your reminiscing on the bread delivery, the milkman and the iceman brought back many memories and for us all, there was the nightman who collected the outside funny cans – thank goodness for sewerage eventually. There were few indulgences – very few owned a car so buses and shanks pony were the go. Neighbours would call out at the door that they were going down the street, did you need anything. Comics, board games, cards and the radio programs with Smokey Dawson tales, the Teddy Bear Club, Dad and Dave were some I enjoyed. Or you played outside. Weekends we would pack a lunch, take a drink and with friends and siblings go off on our bikes and would be gone all day. Our parents never worried as they knew all our friends. As long as we were back by 5pm. Or if we were in the neighbourhood all us kids would here one of our mothers calling from home. Never missed hearing them. Sometimes we would put on neighbourhood shows and charge a penny. Our mums may bake for it and all the money would go to the local hospital. As Enid Blighton was popular with her Secret Seven books or her Famous Five stories we would form secret detective clubs though they never lasted as there was never a crime to solve. Then came TV and everything changed.

    • 0

      Sounds like you grew up in one of the towns in Latrobe Valley, I was born in Yallourn which then got dug up, not many people can say that the town they were born in is now a great big hole. i remember going to see Sound of music at the cinema there, it felt so special to be taken to see a film.Even though TV had been around for a few years my parents were yet to get one.

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