Lake Macquarie History

Transcription of an oral history interview with Eric Merrion, of Merrions Bakery, Cardiff.

Interview conducted 21st August, 1987 by Elizabeth Cox. Transcribed by Library staff.

Elizabeth:

My name is Elizabeth Cox. My interviewee is Eric Merrion, whose father founded the Merrions Bakery at Cardiff in 1922. This is for my term 3 history assignment for the 1987 open foundation. The date is the 21st August 1987, and I am at 44 Russell St Cardiff.

Eric:

I was born on August 18th, 1905, in Union St, Cooks Hill next door to Arnott's Biscuit Factory. My father's name was Herbert Oliver Vincent Merrion. My Mother's single name was Ann Greener. My Father served his time as a Baker with William Arnott.William Arnott built a factory at Hamilton and he asked my father to go down and bake some bread in the oven, he built two ovens. He wanted to separate the bread from the biscuits. So my Dad baked the bread which entailed about 16 to 18 hours of work, and on the Saturday morning when my father went to pick up his pay, Mr Arnott said to him- the original Mr William Arnott - said "Bert, there's half a crown". And my father said to Mr Arnott "Mr Arnott, I will never work for the boss again." And he never did. And he shifted and his father built a small bakery off Aberdare Road, Cessnock - and that was about 1908. While he was in Cessnock he used to have to cart his own water from the creek plus cut their own wood. One particular occasion when he had the horse backed into the creek to get the bread to get the water, he's about to move out with a tank of water and the back van broke and up went the water back into the creek.

The miners had a strike what they called the ‘Peter Bowling' strike that was in 1910. It went for 6 months. My father said after - a fortnight before the strike finished, "I can't go into debt for the miners", so he sold out. And he moved to a little place called Clarence Town. And Clarence Town, he stayed there for something like 3 years. While he was at Clarence Town, he played cricket and he created the football club in Clarence Town - rugby league - and the sweaters were black with the red Waratah emblem on them. And amongst those footballers were some of the big auctioneers and cattlemen in the Clarence Town/Dungog area. Mainly Tom Carlton, Vince Carlton, and Austin Carlton, the 3 of them, the big people in the Cessnock and the Dungog area. We moved from Clarence Town then to Denman. He only stayed there 12 months because there were too many rabbits and too many prickly pears. From Clarence Town, from Denman he went back to Dungog. And in Dungog, he didn't have a Bakery but he managed the School of Arts and he done the books. He was the secretary for Tom Carlton the auctioneer and Dick Abbott the auctioneer, as well as bookkeeper for Jones Brother's Butchery. Whist we were in Dungog, the word came through there about 3 years, word came through that the North Coast Bread Company were closing down. These were bakeries built by the company all up the coast as far as Lismore. So the flour mill asked my dad if he would take South Grafton, so he did. We moved to South Grafton. We were there for 6 years and the first 2 years were real good. We made money - and then we struck a drought and then a flood - and when we left there we were feeding 25 horses and had the bakeries at Ulmarra and South Grafton, and we left there broke. We started off in Cardiff in 1922, and we built a little bun-room bakery on the corner of Harrison Street and Main Road Cardiff. This is occupied today by Abrahams shoe store. Later on, we moved across the road in Harrison Street and built one section of a bakery which was on one block of ground, and whilst this was going on, we bought 2 blocks next door. And my dad died just before we opened this bakery and he thought we would never own it because we borrowed something like £22,000 to build the place.

Well then, just prior to opening that new bakery, the Boolaroo Co-Op Store closed their doors.And I went out myself and leased the bakery from the Boolaroo Store for 3 years, as we didn't have any sliced bread in those days and everybody else had sliced bread but Merrions. So, when we leased the bakery we had a slicing machine and ammenities that we didn't have at Cardiff. After 3 years, the Newcastle Co-Op bought the Boolaroo property outright, and they didn't want Merrions in the bakery so they wouldn't extend our lease for [another] 3 years. And that's when we moved into the new premises and built it in 3 sections. And after so many years, we brought a Managing Director into the place - in fact a Secretary/Manager really – [by] the name of Mr Allan Sheehan. We went from strength to strength. When we moved into the new premises, we had something like 14 deliveries. This went up to - when we closed our doors - to 40 deliveries.

Elizabeth:

In your childhood, Eric, what was it like with dad moving every 3 years, and how did you move and who moved you?

Eric:

When we moved from Newcastle, Cooks Hill, to Cessnock, I remember one occasion my brother Ken was only in Mum's arms, she was carrying him. My dad came to Newcastle to do some business, but when he came home at night, it was all tea-tree scrub around the bakery and the home where they lived as it was attached to the bakery. And she went over to the neighbours after dark till dad to come home. And there was a man [who] came out of the tea-tree bush with a big white sheet over him to frighten mum. When dad came home, she told him and [he] went back to Newcastle the next day and bought a revolver. That revolver was in the family until they called them in during the war. So dad bought the revolver, and next time he came out - they waited for this chap, and the next time he came with the big white sheet on, he fired a shot over his head and they saw the ‘ghost' again. That was one occasion.

I would only be 4 or 5 years old at that time, and my grandma was rearing my sister because she wanted to get her a good schooling - and she finished up as a school teacher - and so she lived with my grandma until she went out teaching at school. When we were at Clarence Town, of course, it was a nice quiet country town - which it still is - and we learned to ride horses and what not there, my brother and I. And from there when I went to Grafton. When we went to Clarence Town first, we had to go up by a little launch from Newcastle and that took the best part of the day to get there because they would pick up cream cans all along the river - the Williams River. They had an Indian cook on the boat to give us dinner and his name was Ranjiv. He finished up as the cook at Newcastle Hospital and died there. When we left Clarence Town to go to Denman, we were still in horsey country but we didn't bother much with them there, we weren't there very long. When we went to Grafton, we all had our own ponies. We had a wonderful time in Grafton and we never liked to leave there. My sister taught school in Grafton and when we came back to Cardiff, she followed us. She went to Kendall and later on she came to Cardiff to teach, and then went to New Lambton, and she taught out in Broken Hill for several years but she retired from school - then she died just a few years ago.

Elizabeth:

How many other brothers and sisters do you have?

Eric:

Another sister [Gladys] was born in Denman, 1914. Mattie [Martha Bessie Merrion] was born in 1903, 1905 Eric, [Ken was born 1908], 1914 Gladys, and 1918 ‘Bonty' - Herbert Leslie Charles - and Stanley Merrion in 1920, then we shifted to Cardiff in 1922. There was always a love of horses and ponies and dogs. We all loved our dogs and horses."

Elizabeth:

Did your brothers go into the bakery too?

Eric:

All my brothers went to the bakery when they left school. I left school at 13. My brother Ken left when he was 14 at Cardiff and Bonty went to High School, he left school when he was 15-16, and the other brother Stanley left school when he was 14. Stanley my youngest brother went to the war and he came back and he died several years afterwards, I can't just remember the date [1969]. My sister Mattie died at Speers Point where she lived with Gladys - Mrs Graham her [married] name, her husband only lived a few years and then he died, Mrs Graham's husband.

Elizabeth:

What made your father decide to settle on Cardiff after all his moves?

Eric:

Well when he came [after] he sold out in Grafton and he decided, he looked for a place just starting to grow so he came to Cardiff. He got out at the station at Cardiff, walked up onto the platform. There was a bridge over the railway line at the station, and he had a look up and down the hill, and most of the business houses were up the heights. So he said "well, everybody that gets out of the train, new people, they would walk downhill, they won't walk up". And of course the old timers in the town said in those days "Oh, you will get flooded out down there". Cardiff only had what you call Winding Creek which you can jump over anywhere at anytime which was only about 2 feet across. So he decided to go down on the flat and that's where he built the bakery on the corner of Harrison Street and Main Road. That was 1922

Elizabeth:

Then he went to Sydney?

Eric:

He stayed in Cardiff for 5 years. He owned the property, the bakery and the block of ground. He decided that he had one boy in the business, but there were 3 more boys coming from school and they'd want jobs - and Cardiff was a little bit slow going those days. So he decided to sell out and go to Sydney and look for a growing suburb with a small bakery so that he could expand quickly and give the boys a job. We found that after we sold out [and] he went to Sydney that the same bakery in Sydney was worth 3 times more than what he sold his for, and he couldn't afford it. So he came back home to Cardiff where we still lived, and the 2 chaps that bought him out decided that they wanted to sell out. One of the two wanted to buy it but he couldn't find the money, so my dad gave them back exactly what he'd sold [it to] them for. They'd lost quite a lot of business. After he bought it I said to him "Well you're not going to shift anymore old fellow". He didn't. He finished up, he built a house and settled down

Elizabeth:

What type of people were his customers at that stage?

Eric:

Well it was very hard to get customers in those days because we had 3-4 bakers that were coming into the town as well as us. And one was the Boolaroo Co-op Store, the Wallsend Co-up Store, people by the name of Nesbitt from Hamilton and Thompson's from Wallsend. Well when we would go into a houses we would have a basket with a nice white cover on it, the bread covered. We would walk to the back door, and the bread carter from the opposition – the Nesbitts - a man named Fred Laughton. He's been reared In the town as a state school boy. He worked for Nesbitts from the time he left school. And he'd come down the street and down the hill and just blow a whistle and get an armful of bread and [as] he would walk from door and he would sing out and say "How many Alice?" She'd say "two Fred" and I would go round the back [with] the basket and she would say "None today baker" And I might sell two half loaves a week to that woman. And this went on all day. It was that was hard to get in and get business. However we sold 24 loaves the first day, then [when] we eventually sold [the business] out, it was something like 100,000 plus, 1500 dozen pies on the Saturday and 800 dozen each day through the week which was a lot of pies, 1500 dozen. A lot of pies.

Elizabeth:

And how were your deliveries made to other areas?

Eric:

The deliveries were made by horse and cart, and later on during the depression, they bought a second hand truck that went to West Wallsend - and we sold quite a lot of bread at West Wallsend. And then we were balloted out from there – during the war we were all given sections of the town to serve, even though we had a bakery in Warner's Bay at the time. When the war broke out, they took 5 boys out of our bakery. We had the bakery at Cardiff and one at Warners Bay, and I was in the Warners Bay bakery with one apprentice and we carried that on for some 2-3 years. But when the war came along and they took 5 boys away from us, my 2 brothers, my apprentice, the apprentice at Cardiff and the bread carter. It almost closed us up, so dad decided to sell the Warners Bay bakery and bring me back into Cardiff and that's how we continued on - the two brothers, Kenny and myself - until the war was over. And then my other two brothers came back from the war and my sister came back. But my sister never took any part in the bakery. My daughter did later on, she came into the bakery and my son came in when we put in the automatic slicing machines.

Elizabeth:

What about the changes Eric, over the years. You would have started off with wood fires

Eric:

Well, the ovens were fired by oak wood in those days and we had to dry the wood in the ovens and pull it out, to start work. Then we converted into oil burners from wood, when we bought the Boolaroo bakery. Then once we'd moved from the Boolaroo bakery back to Cardiff and the new bakery, before we got into the new bakery, we put oil burners in the old bakery then when we went over to the new bakery we had ‘travelling ovens' which were more or less conveyers of bread. It had shelves and you'd put 20 loaves on each shelf and that would revolve until it was cooked. Then we started to get into motors which was around about 1936-1934 we had our first motor vehicles. When we moved into the new bakery we had to get rid of our horses because the vehicles would back into the bakery practically to load up, because we had about 12 deliveries then and you couldn't have the horses right in the bakery so we had motors. And then as it got bigger we built one big loading bay - which you have the photo of - and we finished up with 40 vehicles.

Elizabeth:

What areas did you deliver to in the end?

Eric:

Well in the first ten years we were here, we didn't go over the boundaries of Cardiff. But then we found that every baker in the district was running to Cardiff, there was the Boolaroo Store, Wallsend Store, Newcastle Store Nesbitts from Hamilton, Pearce from Hamilton, Hamonets from Boolaroo, West Wallsend Co-op, Thompsons from Wallsend. I think all together there were 13 bakeries coming in to the town in those days.So then we started to move out into the different districts like West Wallsend, Boolaroo Toronto. And the flour mill we were doing our business with had bought a bakery in the Junction Newcastle. Belonged to Mr Tom Williams and Frank Williams and Fielders Flour Mill brought them out. And when they were bought out, the manager they put in – we had an agreement before that that this flour mill that sold us our flour would not encroach into our territory, and we didn't go into Newcastle.But then, one day they put a new manager in and he came and canvassed all of our shops in [the] Cardiff, Speers Point, Warners Bay district. So we decided then we would reciprocate by going into Newcastle. Which was the best thing we ever did because we got so much business from Newcastle that we'd gone from 15 deliveries up to 40. So this was how we increased our business. It was all motorised then, there were no horses, we done away with the horses. We started off with one rotary oven when we first went in to the new bakery and we finished up we had two rotary ovens and one fully automatic which not only baked the bread but conveyed it right down onto the slicers. And we had another oven out the back in what we called the pie section so that made us with four ovens in the bakery.

Elizabeth:

When did you find that the larger bakeries were starting to move in and buy out the smaller fellows?

Eric:

Well, as the flour mills gradually bought bakeries out. We had the Buttercup Bakeries were in a big way, Allied Millers, and then there were Fielders – they were a separate identity. Bruntons were a separate identity. And then later on Tip Top and Buttercup came in and they bought out bakery after bakery because In the early days there were something like 40 bakeries originally in Newcastle which had all been gradually taken over and taken over. So we were really one of the last. The one at Belmont it closed up - they went broke - and they call that Pro Roll today. They took the boys from Pro Roll, Tip Top bought us out then they took over the liabilities of Pro Roll and they've carried on. And then they finished up I think they got Williamsons which was Fielders. Yes they took over Fielders bakery at the Junction which was E T Williams that was the biggest bakery in Newcastle outside the Newcastle Suburban Store. In its boom days it was the biggest bakery in [inaudible, gap in the recorduing.].Breads were made when we got cut off on the other side. Yes we made all types of bread. We made the long French sticks that they're called today and fancy bread rolls that they called knots, and sesame seed rolls. All kinds of wheatmeal bread such as wholemeal bread, high protein bread, and the ordinary old tin loaf breads which everybody today loves - if you can get one but they're very scarce.

I would also like to mention some of our employees who were some of the greatest – great boys over the years they were with us. One boy in particular Lindsay Gee was with us from the time he left school till he passed away. Alan Sheehan was with us something like 20 years. Kevin McCarthy was another one and is still with Tip Top today. And my son of course has been with the company now some 25-30 years. Another boy named Ronny Cannon served his time with us and he's had a stroke today, but he was always a great boy a great worker and always done the best he could for the Merrions. There were so many good employees too many to probably mention Some of their wives even worked in the bakery. Kevin's wife and Bonty's wife and my wife, Applebys and Mrs Cain, Paul Cain's wife. Paul Cain was an apprentice and he today drives buses. He served his time as a baker with me. He started in Boolaroo and he finished up at Cardiff and when we sold out he's left the bakery and he's gone on bus driving. Oh there were so many, too many really to mention but those few really stood out.

Elizabeth:

Can you give us some funny incidents that you remember over the years?

Eric:

Yes there was on incident at We had a flood, after we went into the new bakery it was before Alan Sheehan's time and the bakery was in progress then with these two rotary ovens and we got a flood on Saturday afternoon. And I went over to the bowling club to get my brother to come over and a couple of the boys who worked for us there. By the time we got over to put sandbags at the door to keep the water out it had got through the doors and was flooding the new bakery out. So my sister and myself and several others were in trying to lift up tins and stuff off the floor as the water came through and by this time it was dark. Lindsay Gee was there and the lights went out and he was around trying to switch the machines off because once the water covered the electrical part of the machinery it would all start up. When Lindsay went around to switch the power off everything went black and I thought he must have got electrocuted so I was singing out trying to find him. And then the next thing we had some old trolleys there which were about 18 inches off the ground and my sister and I stacked all of the tinware on top of the trolleys and the next thing the water got so high it tipped the trolleys over and all of the tinware went into the drink, into the water.What a night I said I'll never forget it. We had people by the name of Whitsons electrical people came around and there were something like 60 electric motors in the place and they took all of the motors off the machinery and dried them out on the Sunday. And we didn't work on the Monday. We had our bread baked over at Thompsons - George Thompsons Bakery at Wallsend And we sent our trucks in at about 1 o'clock in the morning, loaded our trucks up and brought them out to do the runs. And then Thompsons went in and baked their bread then and then their carts would leave the yard in the morning at 6 o'clock. However we only had the one day off from production the whole time we were at Cardiff, and that was that particular Monday. From then on ,everything seemed to go apple pie.

Elizabeth:

Right. Now you were telling me about an incident with one of your [horses who was a ‘bit of a goer']

Eric:

Well we did have a horse. When we first came to Cardiff we bought a horse locally from a Mr Taylor. And this horse, on three occasions it bolted. Twice it smashed the cart up to smithereens, and the second time she bolted she went down around the hotel corner, hit a grocery cart and straightened it onto the road. And she galloped right through the subway and she never stopped until she got out to Young Wallsend. [It was] almost through Young Wallsend when a chap just stepped off his butchers cart and caught her. And then we went out and drove her home again. But the next time she bolted we decided to sell her and get rid of her. So we approached Mr Mark Murphy who was the hostler for the Co-op Store and we bought a couple of horses off him. We could by them off him in those days for 5 or 6 pound and if you put an extra 10 bob with it he'd give you a collar to fit the horse.

Elizabeth:

I would like to thank you Eric, for sharing your time and your memories with me.