Confessions of a Wangi Boy
Ron North is a long-time resident of Western Lake Macquarie, with his early years spent at Wangi. The excerpts from Ron's memoirs "Confessions of a Wangi Boy" recounted below, provide a unique insight into life at Wangi during the 1930s and 40s.
Ron's father was Abraham North, the son of William Henry and Rubinnia North. Abraham married Florence Annie Boddy in 1914. The Boddys were well known in Newcastle as photographers and prominent members of the Baptist Community. William North was a publican, and when it became apparent that William was intent on marrying into a staunch anti-alcohol family, he placed the following advertisement in the Newcastle Herald of 26th June 1909.
Florence Annie's parents were Charles and Eleanore Boddy, who had arrived from England in 1883. Charles had the dubious distinction of establishing one of the earliest small industries in Lake Macquarie, "Charles Boddy Steam Paint and Varnishing Works", at Violet Town (now Tingira Heights). The business eventually closed and he commenced as a clerk on the railways.
Around 1920, William North started up a contracting business doing earthworks. The Wangi Wangi area was in the early stages of it's development at that time, and William was contracted to landowner David Israel for the construction of new roads. Abraham went to work for his father, and Abraham and Florence decided to stay at Wangi while the work was being done. The three years they spent at Wangi began the family's long involvement with the area.
The depression years meant a downturn in business, and no money coming in to the household. Eventually the family moved back to Wangi where they could grow their own food and fish, making it easier to survive.
Extracts from Confessions of a Wangi Boy
"The only alternative was for dad to take us back to live at Wangi, at the waterfront home where our grandparents had lived during the road building project of the 1920s. With great trepidation mum gathered the family together and so began the trip to Wangi. We travelled first to Toronto by train, then a long 1 ½ hour trip by ferry to our destination."
"For a small boy of four, being on the ferry was a wonderful adventure. I could not comprehend the vastness of the lake with it's changing shoreline and the bush extending to the hilltops on every side. It soon became obvious that the houses at Wangi seemed few; at least we thought so until we came ashore in the middle of the village. Stores of fresh food, meat and the mail and newspapers were unloaded, and a group of people were waiting to take these to the nearby shops."
"There were two shops nearby: McLaughlins and Marshalls, situated on the opposite side of the wide roadway that led down to the waterfront reserve. Marshall's shop boasted the only hand-pump petrol bowser for miles around. This was of minimal benefit as the number of cars in town could be counted on one hand. At the rear of Marshall's store was a large hall built of corrugated iron. This served as the district's social centre for most occasions."
"On the other side Mac's shop had the benefit of a substantial fresh water supply, from two large underground wells close by. Displaced miners during these Depression years had taken advantage of these wells and established themselves in makeshift homes that they built themselves from an amazing variety of materials."
"Our favourite place was the swimming baths on Wangi's south side. Here we learned to swim with the help of the Newton brothers - 'Digger' and 'Ticka', both unemployed young men. We took it for granted that even girls and young adults would join us in our games, be it big-ring marbles or rolling one another down hill into the lake at the baths while clinging inside the rim of a car or truck tyre."
"We were reminded often that there was still no money, or the chance of a job for dad. It was back to reality when the big black police launch from Toronto would glide into the bay. The unemployed men lined up at Marshalls hall to sign up with the Sergeant for another couple of weeks food relief."
In about 1933 Government grants were made to local councils, making it possible to start employing married men with families, and Abraham North obtained work repairing roads in the area - the same roads he helped his father build in the 1920s.
"It was a welcome change for our family to have access to a little bit of cash. Mum would vary our diet now. and perhaps get Ernie the greengrocer and Jack the butcher (with his horse and cart and rear-guard of blowflies) to make weekly calls. Maybe she wouldn't have so many fish to clean."
"Dad would make a wager now and then with the SP Bookie at Mac's shop. This was an institution at Wangi, particularly at holiday time, with the radio blaring out across the green while the men laid their bets. Sometimes a raid was rumoured, calling for 'cockatoos' to guard vantage points, who could indicate the presence of police in the vicinity."
"We could now consider going to the pictures from time to time. The big ferry Jocelyn made regular Saturday night excursions to the Melvic Theatre at Belmont. With a piano on board, and the local barber Peter at the keyboard, the occasion made for a favourable social outing for all."
"As a small boy, the ferries meant a whole new world for me. I would loiter around the jetty hoping that Les, the captain, would go on board to work on the motor. Maybe he would start her up for me, or let me blow the hooter."
"During school holidays, especially at Christmas, a visiting tent city appeared along the foreshore reserves. A gypsy caravan of spring carts and tent poles, chooks in cages for Christmas dinner, pets and people made Wangi their home for a while. Others came by Foggs yellow busses from the coalfields with camping gear piled on top."
"The Wangi dances at Christmas were notorious for miles around. There were no police or a pub in the town, but that wasn't to say strong drink wasn't available. Suspicious looking cars parked nearby, with windows wound up or celluloid curtains in place - even when it wasn't raining. I would guess to this day there are still some very old ladies wondering what happened to them at the Wangi dances."
"At weekends there was Sunday School. Mrs Millington held classes on the Cox family's verandah. Nurse Henderson provided the music and a young lady helped with the instruction of the younger children. For me, the annual Sunday School picnic was the best reason for my attendance. At last the day came and we boarded the ferry Jocelyn with our mums and dads, bound for Speers Point Park. When we reached the Speers Point jetty, dad had other ideas and veered off towards the nearby pub."
"At the park, Mr Pill the Methodist minister took charge of organising us into age groups for the races. Mr Pill seemed to be everywhere until finally the races were over and it was time for lunch and time to open the ginger beer keg. The young lady teacher handed out bags of sweets and we joined the other families to share sandwiches. Sadly, the ferries were soon to be no more and our picnic day on the lake was to be our last trip with Jocelyn. A regular bus service now connected Wangi with Toronto. The ferry captain retreated with his boats to the southern end of the lake, working full time at gravel dredging, using the Jocelyn as a tug boat for his barge. This enterprise proved to be short lived when the barge foundered and sank not far out from the mouth of Dora Creek."
"For me, it was love at first sight. I will never forget the day I first saw her. The ferry Jocelyn appeared from the direction of Pulbah Island, nudging this monster alongside. She was clearly a relic of the past. Her iron hull was rusted and patched and the huge rear paddle wheel obviously hadn't turned in a long, long time. Near the bough, just discernible through the rust was her name - 'Anna Maria'. A rickety wooden companionway with rust handrails led up to the wheel house. Inside was an incredible steering wheel, about six feet in diameter, it's brass work now dulled but otherwise all intact. Although Anna Maria had plied the Hunter and Paterson Rivers in earlier times, she had been towed to Lake Macquarie minus her steam propulsion engine. The ferry master, Les Cox, had purchased her and made use of the boiler and steam operated gear in his dredging operations. So now she was laid up close to shore in Wangi Bay even after the ferries were gone."
"After a short swim we could scramble up the old paddle wheel and board our 'dream boat'. Many fanciful voyages were made to wherever we chose, clinging to that large wooden steering wheel, as the phantom paddle drove us to who knows where. Time had flown and soon we were greeted by a fiery Wattagan-Wangi sunset and it was back to reality again with someone on shore yelling 'come and get your tea'."
"One day when it seemed that Anna Maria would rot where she lay, the unbelievable happened. An extra high tide and a favourable breeze served to float her free of the clinging shore which had held her captive for so long. Alas her freedom was short lived as her westward course took her back towards shore. She came gently aground at Lake View alongside the old swimming baths there.
That was the end of her. As scrap iron she was worth some value to someone. We watched as she was cut up bit by bit and hauled away."
"Our tin hall was also very versatile as a place for entertainment as well as being our school house."
"In mid 1935, the new classroom at the school on the hill was complete. Time for us to to move from our temporary home at Marshall's hall in the village, and meet our new teachers. The present headmaster was Dennis Obrien, in charge of classes four to six. Miss Taylor became the new teacher of the junior classes. A sliding glazed partition divided the two class rooms. There was a cosy wood stove in the corner of each. Midway between the rooms a new piano was installed to serve both rooms at the same time. This way the whole school could combine for music lessons."
"Members of the P&C ran a soup kitchen in winter months. At Christmas time was an excellent concert and Christmas Tree. Every child received a gift to the value of seven shillings - as much as my brother earned in a week working on the chook farms. The possums in the big trees along the waterfront were nearly blinded for a short time by the big Eveready torches - the Christmas gifts handed out to the boys at school. That was until the batteries went flat."
"At the end of 1939, our much loved headmaster was transferred to Greta Public School. Our new headmaster, Ross O'Donnell began duty in 1940. He rearranged our playground activities somewhat by resurrecting both the school's cricket pitches. Somehow he persuaded the P&C to provide the boys with 2 sets of boxing gloves, and under his instructions we were taught the basics of self-defence."
"Already the war in Europe had begun, and even at Wangi School plans were made to take precautions in case of possible air raids. We were sent to the lake shore among the tall trees and big rocks to find places to shelter if our school should be bombed. The area was open to the sky. A marauding plane probably could have wiped us out in one sweep."
"One day during air raid practice, a strange looking plane approached from the south. It was some kind of sea plane with high mounted biplane wings, and a pusher-type motor facing towards the rear tail. As it circled to land on the lake, it revealed itself as one of our own, with RAAF markings. So it was that the appearance of the Walrus flying boat or Duck as it came to be affectionately known, heralded changing times for Lake Macquarie with plans to establish a flying boat base at Rathmines already in place."
"It must have been summer as we approached Rathmines on the way home. The huge Catalina Flying Boats were circling in a holding pattern, waiting in turn to alight on the bay and tie up on the newly prepared mooring buoys. I'm not sure how many there were, but the Catalinas would come to mean an integral part of days and nights for us at Wangi. More families arrived to take up residence."
"Events in our town were causing some surprising changes. The reality that our Air Force planned to convert the local footy field into a dump for aviation fuel for the Catalinas came as a huge shock. This was hallowed ground - an almost sacred site, home to heroes of the local rugby league and cricket teams. Especially the cricket! Way back before the war, in the early 1930s, a special event was to happen. It took several days to clean up the pitch and round up the cattle. On that weekend, our team was to host a visiting team from Sydney. The guests they bought were none other than Don Bradman and Stan McCabe. I can't remember which team won, but I hope the Don was kind to us. So it was that the cricket ground was lost. The whole area was covered up by a huge mat of camouflage netting, so making it more conspicuous from the air, superimposed as it was between the waters on the narrowest part of the peninsula. On another part of the dump perimeter was the post office and the town's only public telephone."
"On the highest hilltop to the east, the concrete bunkers for an anti-aircraft gun emplacement were put in place to protect the Catalina base."
"At weekends for us it became a ritual to attend the Toronto Victory Theatre picture show. On the Wangi bus we would join in a sing-a-long; the topical songs of the day as well as those of yesteryear, which the oldies could remember. Leading the group was a trio of sisters we called the 'Andrews Sisters' - their big brother's name was Andrew. They sang so well in perfect harmony, reflecting that of their real-life namesakes."
"As time went by it became obvious to us that some of the girls our own age weren't coming to the 'flicks' anymore. Regular dances at the Yacht Club or the one at Blackalls Park Hall became a choice for them. Now where could we go? The yacht Club or the tin hall at Blackalls Park? There was booze at the Yacht Club. Girls could fake their age, but not so a fourteen year old boy. Blackalls Park it would have to be. Anyway I would probably be in familiar company there."
This work by Lake Macquarie City Library is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License