Kenthurst - Malcolm Johnston - Part 2


Interviewee: Malcolm Johnston, born 1947

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for Baulkham Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 19 June 2006

Transcription: Kevin Murray, Nov 2006

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

Apart from the fruit picking that you did as a child, what other chores or duties did you have at home or on the farm?

On the farm? Well, we had the odd cow, so the kids generally milked them. I know Owen Parr had a cow there, and Stanley Baildon - a good friend of mine, even today - he was just a couple of years older than us, and he had to milk Parr's cow, as well as his own father's cow. We used to mill around while he was milking. He used to put the cow in the stall, its head jammed into the stall, eating its hay, or whatever, and then one of its legs would be tied with a rope around to the side of the stall so it wouldn't kick him, and its tail would also be tied up in this rope so that it couldn't whack him in the face with its tail, 'cause the flies would irritate it. Stanley would sit on a box, there, and milk the cow. But we used to get great pleasure when he'd tell us all to open our mouths and we'd stand there near the udder and he'd squirt the milk straight into our mouth, warm and all. But he'd generally try to miss and make sure that we were messed up a bit elsewhere. Yes, and we had a cow which was tethered a lot so it was our job to pull the peg out of the ground and move the cow around the spots where there was grass, and make sure it had water. And then if there was a shortage of food, after school every day I had to walk probably 2 kilometres with a bag and pull a particular weed - it was a daisy, that the kids used to make daisy chains out of, a big yellow flower. I had to fill the bag with this weed and bring it home and feed the cow every afternoon. The daisy chains, we used to pick the flower with the stem about 6 inches long, make a little hole in the end of each stem, and you could thread them through each other, and kids used to wear them around their necks -only the girls, I might add. We didn't go for it too much!

Where did you play as a child? Which gullies and places that you'd go to, and what did you do there?

Well, on Porter's Road, which was on a ridge, we used to go both sides of Porter's Road. We used to leave, especially on weekends, we'd be off probably at eight in the morning, after a good breakfast of eggs and Weetbix and toast and jam, and all  that stuff, and there'd probably be three or four of us - there would have been John Baildon and Tony Thatcher, my brother Alan and we'd be off down the gullies. It was our domain. No fences, no rules. It was all ours. So we'd go for miles. But we had our spots where we used to hang out. We had a water hole down behing Nollands, which wasn't really that deep, but that was our swimming hole, and we built a hut on the side of the creek there, out of brambles and so on. We'd spend a lot of time there. There were a lot of crayfish in those waterholes - they were actually like freshwater lobsters in Kenthurst, real different to most places. There'd be a lot of those in the waterholes. There'd be foxes - we'd find fox dens. I remember finding a fox den down along that creek and there were cubs in it. To get them out, I remember that my grandmother told me years before how to get a pup out of a really tight enclosure... you'd get a forked stick and you'd push up in there and you'd twist the stick, and that would entangle its fur, and you could pull it out. So we did those sort of things - but we'd always put them back again. They were hunted as a real pest in Kenthurst, actually. These gullies, yeah, we'd spend  a lot of time down there. One particular place, there was a spot where it was a clay bed on the creek - beautiful white, like porcelain clay. We'd make ornaments, pretty rough ornaments, and shape them and leave them on a sandstone ledge and they'd dry in the sun and we'd come back to look at how they went a few days later. But with the foxes, the foxes used to kill a lot of fowls, and there was a bounty on their heads, and there were fox hunters. Some of the local fellows had hounds and guns, and you used to hear the hounds through the gullies.

 Platypus pool in Kenthurst 2003

I was talking to an old fox hunter recently who gave it up 40 years ago. I asked him all about it and he told me how his dogs would sometimes chase foxes and sometimes not come back for a couple of days. And when they finally did come back, they had their pads worn out on their feet, chasing foxes for miles. But as, even ten year olds, a fox was worth 30 pounds, which was twice my father's wage, so if you could catch a fox that was good money, but, very hard to catch! They used to jump, in some case, six foot fences and use the fences as springboards - they'd actually hit the fence half way up and kick it in and keep doing that until they got a springboard and they'd go over, and you'd have to set three or four traps to catch a fox, because if he got caught he'd actually chew his leg off and escape. Often we'd see a fox with three legs.



Were there any rabbits as well?

Rabbits? Yes, hundreds of rabbits. That was how we earned extra money, other than picking fruit. Still, before I was 10 year old, and even a little later, 12 to 13, by Porters Road we'd set our traps every night - probably half a dozen traps - not very humane by today's standards. But we'd set our traps and maybe catch three rabbits, and we'd skin those rabbits before school and we'd eat some but sell the others to our city relatives who'd come out on weekends and think that was fantastic. We'd sell the skins. After the rabbit was skinned we'd put them on wires, stretch them out and dry them on the shed. Once we got up to about thirty or forty skins they'd be taken to the market by Peter or Ned Voight, who were the local fruit carriers. They'd take them down to the markets and we'd get a shilling each for the skins. I think they were turned into Akubra hats, said someone. Some of the skins we'd actually tan. My grandmother taught me that you'd stretch a skin out over a wire - we used to use coathangers, actually, a lot. Shape them into a C-shape and push them up through the skin - and we'd tan them with Alum powder... Alum, I think, you use for ulcers of the mouth in those days. If you had an ulcer in your gum you'd put this on. So we'd use that. Or we'd use the Wattle trees, the Black Wattle, Acacia decurrens. We'd take some bark off the wattle and then boil it, and then we'd dunk the skin into the solution and then hang it out to dry in the sun, and that'd stop the fur falling out later on. But these same wattle trees, they used to get a borer or bug in them which they'd ooze sap and that sap we used to eat. It tasted alright actually, because we didn't have much in the way of sweets, lollies and things. But a funny thing about it is that, all this bush tucker stuff I've pushed onto my grandchildren which live in Kenthurst still and the other day I gave the three-year-old a bit of a taste and she didn't think too much of it, but at least she has and she won't forget it. But I was talking to my wife's uncle, he's gone now. He died only a couple of years ago. But he was ninety and he also did the same thing. He was telling me he used to eat the sap off the wattle, so this has carried down through the generations.

What other bush tucker was there?

Bush tucker? Well, while I was at Kenthurst School there were things we used to call "plum puddings" growing in the school grounds... a little grass with tiny little leaves and a little pink flower... and then it would get a little fruit on it, and we used to pick these little fruits, only half the size of a pea, and eat these little fruits. And then we used to also dig them out of the ground and eat the little thing underneath - like a little corm - underneath. There again a funny thing happened. One of my granddaughters - she's 15 now - but when she was about 6 she also went to Kenthurst School and she used to come home with something different every day, either a leaf or a little stone. One day she came home with a little berry and she said "Pop, what's this?". And I said "Oh, goodness, that's a plum pudding", and I said "Try it"... They're still there, but they don't know about them, the kids, unless they're told. As far as other bush tucker, I just trying to pick what else we...

Kenthurst Public School upper division 1954

Tell me a little bit about attending Kenthurst Public School what was the school like when you first came and who were the teachers?

The school itself was only one room our room is still there today. It’s a brick building and it’s now the library. From the time we went there was probably fifty, sixty pupils when I first started and it actually went up in the 70’s to about seven or eight hundred so the school did grow considerably, now it’s dropped off again down to probably one hundred and fifty children. To get to school we had to ride our bikes to school and or walk and that was during the summer months too. The roads were really bad you could rip tyres and you often had a puncture. I remember one time riding to school I got in a little bit of trouble I thought it was a good idea to ride through every puddle of water on the way no matter how big. When I got to school I was just covered in mud, drenched and Mrs Minnie Stranger she was a teacher at the time, she was a disciplinarian, she was very strong on discipline and she sent me home for a change of clothes which was probably seven or eight kilometres away so I got in trouble there and when I got home I was in trouble again. I started off in Mrs Stranger’s class this brick building was divided into two all the younger children at one end and the older upper classes in the other side with the partition and she used to use a ruler. You know if your spelling was wrong or your arithmetic was wrong she got tired of telling you the same thing again, she’d take your hand, put your hand out, she’d take to your hand with a ruler, whack away until she extracted a tear from you or the ruler broke, which it did at times. We all looked up to Mrs Stranger and we still love her today but in the playground if there was any nonsense going on she’d clap her hands and everyone would freeze. I remember the times we used to have our school concerts of an evening at the local hall, Mrs Stranger ran the concert and she made the clothing for our event and she was very proud of these evenings and if one of the parents was talking while the concert was on, she’s also clap her hands and the parents would freeze. So we got our discipline from her, the same Mrs Stranger was Kenthurst’s School longest serving teacher, I think, she was at Kenthurst School for thirty years. She actually taught myself and my wife and she taught my father-in-law as well. After she’d finished with us we went onto the older class with Mr Duffy. Mr Duffy he was a good teacher, he was an environmentalist and he taught us a lot about environmental factors.

Johnston family's first home in Porters Road Kenthurst

Let’s talk a bit about the houses that you lived in Kenthurst, first the house of course when you moved the first time. Tell me about that house could you describe that house for me?

Owen Parr had that house built it was a workman’s cottage it had a fuel stove which is great we spent a lot of time in front of the fuel stove. Mum used it for cooking of course and baking cakes and baked dinners and all those nice things that mothers cook. On the mantelpiece above it was our radio and we used to listen to the radio at night and I remember listening to Smokey Dawson mainly at the time. The front of the fireplace was open and it used to keep us warm in the winter as well and I remember we cooked toast in front of the opening of the fire and seemed always to taste best at the time. Cocoa we used to have cocoa in milk, they were great days. So that was the kitchen part and then in our bathroom we had our bath of course, we had a copper at the end of the bath where the water was boiled in a copper. It was bricked up and it had this copper insert in the top which was filled with water and underneath you’d light a fire. That copper was used for our washing actually, the clothes were all thrown in there in the boiling water and my mother had a stick and she used to stir the clothes around a bit in there. That also boiled the water for our bath so we’d bucket the water out of the copper into the bath and generally you only had a couple of inches of water and everyone used it, because there wasn’t much water at that time either. We had tanks and water was valuable, but we got by like that, it was fine. It had only two bedrooms, later on when I got older they built a little, we had a verandah at the back and they built a little sleep in there for me, I can remember lying in the bed there and looking out at the stars through the Cooper louvre windows and they had a little crystal set there that my father made for me at the time, used to pick up sounds anyway on the crystal set.

You had you own bedroom then, did you?

Yes and I remember my father coming to me and saying “you're twelve years old now, don’t tell your brother and your sister, but you're twelve and you can stay up ‘till eight o’clock” so that was a big deal in my life.

What was the entertainment at home in the evenings, was it mainly the radio that you used to listen to, or did you play games?

No really only radio, no only the radio at the time and we went to bed early. Went to bed early, supper was the highlight of course, but it was early to bed early to rise and we were up at daylight and off to the bush especially if Mum wanted to clean the house. She’d say “out” and she was a fanatical cleaner although it was only a small house and we didn’t have much, but she always liked to keep the house clean, everything shiny and if we were home before dark she’d think “what’s happened” we were expected to be away all day not because she didn’t want us but that was what we did.

Kenthurst-Annangrove display at Castle Hill Show 1951

Now the Kenthurst environment what did that look like at the time, in the 1950’s and early 60’s can you describe what Kenthurst was?

It was all orchards, fruit trees and they were beautiful trees the very large orange trees on the roadsides, nearly always coloured with fruit, around flowering time the blossom on the trees always smelt beautiful. Then there was the chooks they were part of the environment, not a weed in the orchards, every weed was pecked off by the chooks before it came to anything. It was very dusty, if you had dry periods, lots of willy willies, it’s like a very small tornado, a whirlwind and I remember one time one actually came in our back door went down the hallway and out the front door, which I haven’t told a lot of people because it sounds like a bit of a tall story, you know. It actually knocked the chairs on the front verandah over as it came out, it twisted its way through the house. They say that a willy willy is an Aboriginal woman. But we don’t see them often now a willy willy because there’s grass and the roads are sealed. Often you’d get one going up the road out the front. Most times the orchards were very lush as far as the trees go and there were chooks and at the same time as the chooks we had lots of sparrows they used to come for the feed, sparrows, lots of crows, crows would come for the eggs and for the dead chooks. So the skies would be blackened with crows at times. As far as birds go, the crows are gone, the sparrows are gone I suppose these days there are more birds coming back because there’s more suburbia. People building a house and having a garden are getting back honey eaters and rosellas and so on. The gullies were basically untouched it was mainly the ridges, so we’ve gone through a different period now.

What about shops and facilities, what was there in terms of shops at Kenthurst?

We didn’t have a shop at the beginning but McKnight’s shop came and I think it was the late fifties when McKnight’s shop came, but it was a long way for us to get to. Gordon McKnight and his wife Nancy McKnight they opened the shop and that enabled us to have the odd sweet, although we didn’t have any money, our parents didn’t have any money for that sort of thing anyway, it was a bit of a treat. Sometimes we just accompanied somebody buying a lollie and sort of envied them a bit, but it didn’t really worry us. Gordon McKnight in himself his family came to Kenthurst after the Second World War but Gordon was actually a prisoner of war at Changi Prison so he’s quite a story in himself. Anyway I think the shop lasted about twenty years and then it closed and it wasn’t long after that the little Kenthurst shopping centre came.

Was there a post office right at the beginning?

There was always a post office right back in early times, in Kenthurst, I think the Fields were early post people but in my early stage Mrs Bridie Oak (?) she was our post mistress and the Becks, Nancy and Jim Beck took over the post office during the late 1960’s and now their real estate is on the same site, Beck’s Real Estate, and they’re still in business and the post office has gone to Kenthurst Shopping Centre. We were always pretty close to our mail delivery people, Mrs Beck used to send the mail down and if you wanted something at the shop you’d leave a little note and Mrs Beck would have it sent down with the mailman of that day. A lot of local people were the mailmen at different times I think Mrs Bessie Smith was a mail person for a while and then during the war years I think my wife’s auntie she worked for the forces, she was in the army as a post person and she used to deliver the mail on a push bike. Even today our postman’s been there for many years the government got rid of him recently, subcontracted, and the local people made a big thing about it, and he’s been brought back. So we rely on a good postman even today.

Wrench family citrus farm, Pitt Town Rd Kenthurst

Now in terms of who your neighbours were in Porters Road can you remember any names and who was next door and the families that lived there?

Well Owen Parr of course, who my father worked for, he was next door and then down from him was the Baildon family, Jack Bailden he was there round about 1930 he moved there and that home that he lives in belonged to my wife’s family prior to him. They built that house about 1920, I just can’t think of the name of the house now, he was our neighbour and we actually grew up with there was Stan Baildon and John Baylen and John was in the Scouts with me and I do see the family even now although they’ve gone far and wide most of them. Down from there were the Thatcher family, Tony Thatcher was a good friend of mine and he lives in Queensland now but he was part of my life and further on down were the Wrench's the Wrench's were a pretty important family in the district, there were some on Annangrove Road, Kenthurst, Pitt Town Road, Kenthurst and of course Porters Road. Then there were the Rollason family they were way up the end of Porters Road they were living down in the gully there in Porters Road and Norm Rollason and his wife Joyce they lived out there, Glen Rollason and his sister, just can’t remember her name, but Glen had to do school by correspondence because although it was only six mile to Kenthurst School it was too far. The road was too rough it would take too long so he did it by correspondence. But the Rollasons and the then there’s Cadwells Road out there too and the Cadwells also lived right out the end of Porters Road. On the other side of us were the Nollands which are a very old family, and opposite them the Jacketts and then the Roughleys. I could actually go through and tell you all the families from our home to Round Corner Dural, but we did know everybody or know of everybody at the time and hardly ever a stranger went past.

Fruit box label for Sorbello Bros stone fruit

Now Malcolm as a poet you’ve written a bit of poetry can you read one or two for us?

I have a poem yes, this poem it’s called “Sandstone Country” Hawkesbury Sandstone whenever I go anywhere else in Australia I can’t wait to get home to see the Hawkesbury Sandstone so it just reminds you of growing up as a boy and all the things that happen in the bush. Environmentally it’s a poem I really like, so I’ll read this one to you.

As a country boy from Kenthurst I grew to love the land
To live with Mother Nature and always lend a hand
I love the Hawkesbury Sandstone all mottled blue and grey
Where blue tongue lizards lay to rest and soak the warmth of day
At times I’d watch the yabbies swim in brackish waterholes
Or spot a brush tailed possum nest amongst the Banksia cones
My noisy friend the soldier bird would make my presence known
Warning other fauna to promptly head for home
The black, the brown and carpet snakes were never far away
Grass parrots come to drink and feed before the close of day
The bandicoot was a common sight with its coat of brown and grey
Chicken hawks would hover high to search the fields for prey
I searched to find the waratah or hive of native bees
Bush orchards grew on a rocky ledge in a log or hollow tree
I wondered if a pot of gold was at the rainbow’s end
Or if the distant mountains were blue or just pretend
I loved a winter sunset with skies so crystal clear
To feel a summer thunderstorm as end of day drew near
I miss the isolation and citrus trees in bloom
My fears for Mother Nature are nothing less than doom.

I like that one.

It means a lot to me maybe the last line is a bit hard but it’s my fear for Mother Nature not really the people that are coming.

No, it’s very good; tell me a little about what you’re doing at the moment the environmental side of your life, the work side?

Well for the last twenty four years I’ve had an Australian Native Plant Nursery, which became quite well known. Annangrove Grevillea Nursery we’ve sent plants all over the world. We’ve had people take our plants our native plants back to France, we had some people from a garden in America, I’m not sure of the area, but Longwood Gardens which is really something in America. We’ve had Japanese people come to our nursery and take Mint Bush back on an aeroplane to be studied in Japan. All the plants over the years that we’ve sold at our nursery we’ve grown ourselves from cuttings, we’ve sold native flowers. Prior to that I worked for a wholesale nursery to get my experience to do what I’m doing now and before that I was a bookbinder for many years fourteen years, I used to do hand bookbinding all the gold work and restoration. At the same time as being a bookbinder I always had plants for sale, native orchids, and I had a little nursery at home. I’ve sort of been in touch with the native plants since I was a kid and even back to when I was a kid we used to search out native plants in the bush and we’d like to see a waratah or so and so. Right through life it’s always been getting to the point where I had my own nursery, now we’ve got native gardens that we’re opening to the public that I take people on a walk down into my rainforest and talk about bush tucker and the birds within that area. It’s all an environmental thing.

It must be very satisfying work that you’re doing?

It is and probably become more satisfying but for the last fifteen years or so I’ve been interested in the local history, try to keep that alive. Especially the farming period when you look at the big scale of things it was really a short period in the history of Kenthurst and a lot of people don’t think it was an important time but now they’re realising it is an important time so they’re all, the locals that I know, willing to help out with their stories.

Free range poultry farm at Kenthurst 1950s

Malcolm what are the big changes that you’ve witnessed around Kenthurst, what have been the big moments in Kenthurst?

Well the big changes probably start in the seventies when properties were split into five acre blocks and at the time I wasn’t too happy with the situation. We had thought of going but we had our business and we really didn’t become involved with the new thing going on because it was in the nursery and home and in the nursery and home again. We didn’t see the wider scale of things happening around us although we knew it was going on and the people were coming and in the first instance the people were a bit like us anyway. They were the tradesmen people and they came to Kenthurst because they liked it as it was so they did look after their part of the environment while they had their house they enjoyed the birds. Things now are changing because new people are starting to change the landscape. They’re starting to get into our gullies that were my start in life. There’s a bit of resentment starting to come in I can see.

Those people that sold their twenty acre blocks, and turned them into five acre blocks why did they do that? Was it getting too expensive to maintain them?

In the seventies they were coming down onto the breadline they were people who had done reasonably well from farming for years and then we had the boom time and land was becoming worth more money so that was their chance to get out and maybe retire and start enjoying themselves. A lot of them left the district to start a new life. I feel they could have stayed in the district and had a better life.

There’s hardly any citrus growing now is there?

It’s all gone now.

When was the last crop?

Well my wife’s family until the 1990’s the Branz's. Kel Branz he probably sent the last lot of fruit out. In the late seventies my wife and myself still had five acres of citrus which we were sort of in partners with the father-in-law. He’d gone but at the time we thought we’d hang onto the five acres of citrus, we’d work it and sell the fruit. We were one of the last as well my wife and myself.

So the changes that have happened at Kenthurst have been pretty major, that’s change from a fruit growing area to suburbia, what’s happened to it?

Basically it is, the five acre block in most cases might have a couple of animals on it. Horses maybe, goats, cows, there’s a few growers like flower growers around, even the vegetable side of things appears to be on the brink, there’s not too many of those people. And water, drought is a problem water is becoming expensive so I think that will finish those people as well because we’re going through another period when the land is worth money again so a lot of people tend to opt out. Our business growing native plants and selling native flowers, we’re one of the few people living off the land now and we do it for our own reasons anyway. We love it.

Has the rural character of Kenthurst largely disappeared now?

It has in most cases yes and I think now, right now, we’re going to go through a big change because the big homes are coming to Kenthurst so the land behind they’ll try to create new land by filling it and changing the contour of the land.

How do you feel about all that personally?

Not real happy at all it should be saved. Maybe it’s because we grew up in that bushland so we feel a part of it and its part of us. No we’re not happy about that.