A whiff of life from the ´50s

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?

Related articles:
I wrote a book; you can too
What has rocked your world?
Slow death is killing me and Mum

Written by YourLifeChoices Writers

YourLifeChoices' team of writers specialise in content that helps Australian over-50s make better decisions about wealth, health, travel and life. It's all in the name. For 22 years, we've been helping older Australians live their best lives.

Leave a Reply

Who can access your data?

Can you travel plastic free?