Castle Hill - Heather Watson

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Interviewee: Heather Watson, born 1926

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for Baulkham Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 24 May 2006

Transcription: Catherine Sapir, Dec 2006

Heather, can you tell me a little bit about your early childhood. The sort of formative influences on your life that happened at that time?

I was an only child which of course made my life quite different than if I had been a member of a big family, so that I did a lot of things with my parents. We lived in a weatherboard house that had verandahs around it. We had a couple of cows and a horse, sometimes a couple of pigs. There was always a chook run and birds in cages, canaries and cats around the place. We were regular attendants at the Methodist Church in Castle Hill so that before I started school I did a lot of things with my mother and we walked around the district visiting relatives or people who were sick. There was a lot of neighbourly atmosphere so that if someone arrived in the district someone would come to visit. I visited my grandparents and I had a large number of cousins but essentially I spent my childhood with my parents and my mother was constantly encouraging me to learn poetry and to draw things like that and in due course I began to attend the Castle Hill Public School.

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 Elbert Kentwell and his horse 'Jimmy'

Heather tell me a bit more about your father’s work.

My father didn’t marry until he was 44. He was 46 when I was born and my mother was 40, which is perhaps why I am an only child and he had a bachelor establishment which was also in Showground Road. He had a two roomed house and there were outer buildings and he had a small orchard there.

When my parents married he built a home that had nice big rooms and lots of verandahs, as I mentioned, and he did a lot of work there, but when I was 3 when that house was finished and I can remember going with my father in the horse and cart to the train terminus at Castle Hill and picking up 33 fruit trees that he had ordered. These were planted in three rows near the house. There were two and three of different varieties of peaches and oranges and the like. We had apples, there were persimmons and a banana tree and things like that. We were self sufficient because we had the chooks for eggs and poultry at the table and the cows provided milk and butter of course and occasionally my father would buy one or two sucking pigs when he had two cows and when they became a reasonable size, don’t ask me what size that was, he would enlist the help of one of his relatives and they would butcher the pig in the backyard and my mother would cure the shoulders, in particular, and of course the person who helped my father butcher the pig was also given his share of meat.

The feed for the cows was grown. There was corn and sorghum and oats and barley and the horse of course was used to plough the ground and all of that sort of thing with planting the green feed but when it came time to make the hay dad would cut the hay with a sickle and lie it down in rows, leave it in the sun for a few days.Then mother and I would turn the barley and oats over so that it could dry on the other side and then at the weekend mum and dad and I would go out and make sheaves out of the hay and dad had a hay shed which was well up off the ground so that no rats could not get in among the hay but the cats, when they wanted kittens, always managed to get in and have the kittens on top of the hay in the hay shed. Even though we didn’t have severe winters it was still useful to have that hay during the winter for the animals.

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Heather (aged 5) and mother Alice Kentwell 1931

Was it a fairly typical lifestyle of the time do you think selling your own milk and eggs and butter and stuff?

I wouldn’t like to have had to bother with the milk morning and evening. It was quite a chore. Some people separated the milk but my mother used to put it in shallow aluminium dishes on the top of the stove and it was scalded and the cream rose to the top and the cream was then skimmed off and left until the next day and then butter was made, so this was a constant chore to make the butter and skim the milk, so that it’s understandable that there was plenty of milk left over for the pigs when we had two cows. Occasionally neighbours would buy butter, eggs and milk. We had a neighbour opposite but if their cow was dry they would buy milk from us and butter as well.

Now you were old enough to live through the Great Depression. Tell me what you remember about that time.

I met my husband when I was 18 and his family had suffered a good deal because of the Depression and it made me realise that we were not affected greatly by the Depression simply because my father had his own work. He would do additions to houses, repair, paint, he would do almost anything and build houses of course with the help of a brick layer and a plumber and an electrician. He would have those people work for him when he built a house but we had plenty of food on the premises and we always had some income.

I didn’t feel in any way deprived during the Depression because everybody then lived a much more frugal life than they do now and I was aware, even though we didn’t get a daily newspaper, that times were bad and that some people were suffering and some people couldn’t get jobs. I was very much aware of that and I can remember one evening my father was asked to go a few streets away where a chap had tried to commit suicide. He wasn’t successful, my father was called upon and that was an affect of the Depression and that was something that I remember of the Depression and was very horrified that this person that I knew could be so upset. I was only quite young at the time and I didn’t fully comprehend what had happened, but it was still a big event in the Depression and I heard because, again I was an only child, I listened to my parents talking and to visitors talking and it was in that way that I picked up the feeling of the atmosphere of the Depression and I remember people talking about Jack Lang and of course very much aware of when the Harbour Bridge was built and other Government initiatives were taken, roadworks and things like that to give employment. I was aware of that, but as a child it’s not very close to you.

How do you think your family survived the Depression?

Well simply because my father worked so hard. Our house was on Showground Road but behind it was about 14 acres of ground that was partly paddocks and partly trees so that there was always plenty of wood there. We didn’t have to buy wood and that was one of the things, I don’t remember my father doing it, but my mother said that he used to fell trees if necessary and when the house was built trees were felled to make room for the house and the garden and as a child Alma and I used to play on the logs that had been piled up from the area where the house was built. We had lots of fun running around on those and my father would sell the wood. It didn’t bring in much money I’m sure.

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Heather and her grandfather George Kentwell 1931

Did they really survive the Depression because they had their own food, they grew their own food and so on? Did your mother make preserves, fruits and all that sort of thing?

Oh yes. Jams and preserves and there was a lot of exchange if you had an apricot tree and somebody else had an orange tree you would share the produce and there were during the Depression men who would come to the door selling small things like combs and shoe laces, packets of pins and things like that and most housewives who could afford to bought something from those people because they were doing that to support their families. There were swaggies who would come and ask for a meal or some tea and most households would be very generous with a swaggie who came. Several of them stayed down opposite the Showground on the ground there that is still timber at the corner of Gilbert Road and on the Showground because the Showground was there and there would be shelters where horses were kept during the show. Many a swaggie spent the night down there in those shelters.

You told me earlier that you could tell a person in the Depression because of the shoes they were wearing. Explain that to me.

Yes. I don’t really understand fully and I’ve never researched what Government aid was available to people during the Depression, but one of the things was the dole. There was a clothing allowance and I’m not sure whether the clothing was given to you or whether you were allowed to buy the clothing, but one thing that comes to my mind very clearly is that there was a very, very plain lace-up shoe that was handed out obviously from the Government to people who couldn’t afford to buy their own shoes and you could identify a person who had to go on the dole by these, and they were always black, never anything else, just these black, simple, lace-up shoes and they were probably very uncomfortable. We’re spoilt now with fractional fittings but it was quite different then.

Now let’s get on to the school years. What was the first school you went to?

Well there wasn’t much choice in Castle Hill then. There was just the one school – Castle Hill Public School. That was opened, the date on the school is 1879, but the school was actually opened in 1880 and that was the only school then. There had previously been St Simon’s school and St Paul’s school but that’s earlier history and by the time, the population of course was gradually increasing, I was due to go to school there were too many pupils to fit into the accommodation and there were three new classrooms being built but in the meantime there was a class being held in the weather shed that was in the playground. It had one open side, but the first and second class was being held in part of the Methodist Church that had joined the school in those days, so I went to Sunday School on the Sunday in this hall and during weekdays I went there for my first schooling. That was in 1932 I started school and in 1933 the new class rooms were opened and we had extra teachers then so there had been composite classes and there were fewer composite classes then.

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Castle Hill Public School c.1920

Do you recall the names of any of your teachers?

Yes. Miss See, Mrs Fenner. Mrs Fenner was an English widow who had one son and she taught school for ages and ages and on a Friday afternoon she would read fascinating tales out of what I thought was an encyclopaedia but it must have been a collection of quite large, well bound books with stories in them and I was quite fascinated by that. There was Mr Pearson who was new, when I was going into fourth class I think it was, and he was quite different. The school house was attached to the school and the headmaster during the time that I was at the school was Mr Ross. He could play the piano very well. He had curly hair and a wax moustache, he was quite a character. There was a Mr Gleeson who arrived when I was going into fifth class and he and I clicked very well.

Amazing your memory. It’s very good.

So we are celebrating Empire Day today. Nobody knows about it.

Yes, nobody knows about it.

So after your time at Castle Hill Public School you went to Parramatta High School.

Yes.

What were those days like?

I was a reasonable student and before you went to Secondary school in those days there was what there was called a Primary Final Examination which was an external examination and by the time I sat for that examination it was only necessary if you wanted to go to a High School.

Some people just wanted to go to a Technical School or Domestic Science as they were called then and so the few who wanted to go to a High School, which by definition meant that you were going to a Selective School and you were going to a school that taught languages, so that if you had any ambition to go to University you needed to go to High School and I think it was just because I was near the top of the class that it was suggested that I sit for the Primary Final and there were just two from the school who passed to go to High School in the year that I went through. There were probably about 200 children at that stage at the primary school. The other chap and his family had come from Germany and he went to Fort Street in Sydney. He didn’t go to Parramatta High School because they moved and so we went by bus to Parramatta Station and then we had 10-12 minutes walk up to Parramatta High School and it was a co-ed High School, the only one in the metropolitan area that was co-ed and as such it taught science whereas at the Girls High Schools, I think I’m correct in saying, that science wasn’t taught and Latin, German and French were available. Business Principles, Maths 1 and Maths 11, English, History and Geography. We had Scripture sessions of course there and they were held in the school and put into the timetable. That’s changed a little bit now but Parramatta High School in those days had a very big area from which the pupils came. It extended down as far as Picton, up as far as Emu Plains, Schofields, out to Glenorie and Kenthurst, to Eastwood and down to Lidcombe and so I met there a collection of people from all sorts of different walks of life and different geographical areas. I really enjoyed my time there.

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Making stainless steel pressure vessels at Baldwins 1940s

Heather, tell me a little about the war years in Castle Hill. What were they like there?

The first thing that impressed the war time on my memory I think is the fact that I began school in 1939 at Parramatta and we were asked to go in one weekend and prior to that we’d been asked to take lace curtain material in so we had a working bee and there was glue, I don’t know what kind of glue it was, but the school had small panes in the window and the lace was to cut out in small squares and there the students were pasting the lace on the windows so that if there was a bomb and glass shattered then no one would be injured. I don’t know how they managed to get that off all those years later because I’d left school by then. That was one early thing.

The disappearance of some of the relatives and others into the Army was another impression. I’m not sure of the date, but there was an Army camp on the Showground, and of course as we lived on Showground Road, the transport was up and down Showground Road and as it was a county road there was lots of troop movements on the road. But it was a Victorian Ambulance unit that were first on the Showground and my mother being the sort of person that she was organised with a couple of friends, cleared it with the commander of the camp, that we should go down there one afternoon a week and in school holidays I was able to go and we sewed stripes or colour patches on the uniforms, we darned socks, we darned knees of uniforms, all of that sort of thing. We would walk down and sit on the verandah at an Army table and we were always given scones and a cup of tea for afternoon tea and then if there happened to be a vehicle going home, going somewhere in the afternoon, we would get a ride home. So that was a wartime activity.

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Keith Stephens & Doreen Bowden at Scout & Guide picnic at
Castle Hill Showground c1942-3 with Army tents behind

The Church, in order to provide some amenities for the soldiers, had a club in the Church hall three nights a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday and there were such things as bobs which is a sort of form of snooker, quoits, table tennis and a variety of other things like that and there was sing-songs around the piano there and some of the people from the Church, the ladies would go along and this is where having your own cow was helpful and butter because my mother could supply butter to the other ladies to make cakes so we always had supper afterwards. Somebody had to surrender their coupons for the tea and the sugar and during the war and of course there were clothing coupons as well that was very significant to someone in their teens to have to ration their clothing. That was part of the presence of the war right in Castle Hill and a lot of people would find it difficult to imagine that there was an Army camp on the Showground. There had been a grandstand at the Showground and underneath the seats there was a room where refreshments were served and during the war it wasn’t maintained and so it disappeared after the war and such a grandstand has never been built since but the Show was a big part of the life of Castle Hill earlier on and of course the Show was abandoned during the war.

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Showground Road Castle Hill near bridge photographed by Karl Lothringer c1930

Other wartime memories were of the petrol shortage and the way people had to adjust their needs to use their car to the amount of petrol that they had and some people had gas producers on the cars and all sorts of strategies like that. Some people reverted to using horses again. The women slipping into the workforce after the men had gone was another thing that was very obvious to me at that time because during the war all building materials were required for Army camps. Things that came in from overseas no longer came in at the same rate so that building materials were first priority to the Army and houses weren’t built.

Go To Part Two