Lake Macquarie History

Growing up in Belmont in the early days

by Ernie Cox

Ernie Cox is a long-time resident of Eastern Lake Macquarie, with his early years spent at Belmont. The excerpts from Ernie's memoirs "Growing up in Belmont in the early days" recounted below, provide a unique insight into life at Belmont during the 1950s and 60s.The complete document is available in the ephemera collection of the Community History department at Speers Point Library.

Family

Mum was born in Paddington in Sydney NSW and Dad was born at Beulah in Victoria, they both were Salvation Army and were married on 6 June 1929 at the Salvation Army Citadel, New Lambton, NSW.

Our home was for years number 13 Glover Street, Belmont, later on it was changed to number 20 Glover Street. Mum always told me she and dad won money in the NSW Lottery and that's how they bought our home for 13 pounds.

Mum had 6 boys, there was Ron the eldest, then Norman, Ivan, Laurie, Ernest (me) and the youngest was Trevor.

Our house was a small 2 bedroom wooden house, originally we had a corrugated tin roof, but it became a little weather beaten over the years, so Mum and Dad had it replaced with tiles, the main bedroom at the front was Mum and Dad's. The second bedroom was at the rear of the house and had 2 chrome double bunk beds, Ron, Norman, Ivan and Trevor shared the bedroom at the back. My brother Ron had closed in the front veranda so it could be used as a 3rd bedroom for my brother Laurie and me.

We had a small lounge room which had an extra big wooden table which we needed when we all eat and did the normal family things. We had an open wooden fire place in the lounge room which was great on cold nights.

Mum had a hand mincer in the kitchen, I used to love mincing the meat and vegetables for her for cooking.

Our bathroom had a gas heater at one end of the bath for heating the water for baths and showers, I remember you had to turn on the gas, then lit the wick, most times it would give a little bang when it lit, but that was normal in those days.

Our toilet outside had a wooden seat on a black dunny can. The dunny man used to come around once a week by horse and cart to replace the full one with an empty, later on he got a truck.

I was born at "Nurse Dick's Private Hospital" in George street, Belmont. Later on it was renamed "The Roslyn Private Hospital". I was one of 5000 babies to be born there by Nurse Dick. It is still there today, but it has been converted back to private residents now.

Mum never had a washing machine back in the early 50s, just a round copper boiler in which she would add washing powder and the clothes, she would use a broom handle to lift the hot clothes out of the water. She had a wood and corrugated glass clothes scrubber board, she would use it with sunlight soap and scrub the very dirty clothes especially the sleeves or collars.

Mum's backyard clothes line consisted of two wooden posts, one at each end of the yard in the ground with a cross post to form a Tee with wire lines attached. There was also a long pole with a notch cut out to prop the line up in the middle to stop sagging.

Mum and Dad had a HMV wind-up gramophone which used to play the old 78 rpm records, I remember as it ran down you had to wind it up again and the head had a screw on the side, you simply unwound the screw, put a needle in and screwed up tight. The head was very heavy.

We had a pianola in the lounge room, you simply slid open the little door above the keyboard and inserted the pianola rolls of music to play, you could either play automatically or you could pump the peddles to play.

Mum used to buy things from Waltons and Dickens and Carey who were department stores back then, and they would send collectors to the house every week to collect payment for goods purchased. Mum was always paying things off that way.

I used to love playing marbles on the cement path in front of the house, I would draw a large circle with chalk, then place the marbles in the middle and try to knock them out by using my thumb and index finger which held a marble.

We used to have bandicoots digging up our backyard at night, so I made a trap from a wooden fruit box with a stick to prop it up and string attached to peanut butter on bread and the bandicoot would simply go under the box and pull on the bait and this would set the trap. The only problem was, because they have very sharp claws for digging you had to wear gloves to take them out. Once caught, I would simply take them down to the bush at the end of our street and let them go.

Mum used to hang the dead chooks upside down in the laundry on the line to bleed at Christmas time just before we would pluck out the feathers. Norman and I would go into the bush and cut down our own Christmas tree, and bring it home. We would set it up in the lounge room in a bucket of sand and decorate the tree with tinsel, baubles etc., we hung cotton wool all over the tree to represent snow and we always put the star on the top of the tree to make it complete.

Entertainment

There was no TV back in 1953, it didn't arrive until 1956. There were kids who would sit by the radio on Sunday morning to listen to the string of programs such as, Superman. Leonard Teal was the voice of Superman back then. Then there were other programs like Popeye, Ginger Meggs. They also had a "Charlie Chuckles Club" you could become a member as a kid, it was free you just had to write in with your name and address. They sent you a badge saying "Charlie Chuckles Club", the badge was a kookaburra, hence the name Charlie Chuckles

In 1956 when television was introduced to Australia, some electrical stores used to leave their sets on in the window till late at night, then they would automatically turn off. I used to stand outside Reg A Baker's electrical store up on the main street of Belmont. We couldn't afford TV at first, so this was the next best thing. There was another shop up the highway that used to have TV on at night in their window whenever Baker's wasn't on, I used to watch one of my favourite TV shows, "Rin Tin Tin", all in black and white of course.

Before TV it was a regular occurrence to go to the Melvic theatre and watch the movies in black and white. Back then it was Abbot and Costello, The Keystone Cops, Marx Brothers, Ma and Pa Kettle and of course the singing entertainers such as Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson.

The Melvic Theatre in Belmont had 2 owners, a Mr Payne and Mr Sanderson. Sometimes on Saturdays Mum would give me a plain sealed envelope to give to Mr Sanderson, she told me I would find him in the milk bar of the theatre. Now I didn't think anything of it at the time, I just did as Mum asked. Many years later I found out that Mr Sanderson used to take bets for the horses and Mum unbeknown to Dad was having a flutter on the horses.

The Melvic Theatre as well as movies used to host live charity shows with Matthew Tapp as compare, he was brilliant with audiences, I don't know how true it was, but I was led to believe he was one of the original "Dam Busters" in WW.2 as a bombardier. Saturday was always matinee times at the Melvic, I used to go along and watch Charlie Chaplin, Ma and Pa Kettle and the Lone Ranger, the movies were in black and white in those days.

Cracker night was a big deal back in 1954, everyone spent weeks building bonfires in their backyard ready for the big night, we never had restrictions back then and open fires were a normal thing. We used to go to the newsagents or paper shop as they were called back then, up on the highway and purchase our fire crackers, there were Tom-thumbs, Jumping-jacks, Catherine-wheels, Roman-candles, Sky-rockets, Double-bungers, and many more.

Saturday nights at our home we would as a family play games together, television hadn't arrived as yet, one of the regular games we played was Housie as we called it ( Now bingo). Mum and Dad never bet for money instead she would send me up to George's Cafe on the highway with a 10 shilling note to buy lollies as prizes. Now 10 shillings back in those days bought a hell of a lot of lollies, we would sit around the big wooden table in the lounge room and someone would take turns of being "The Caller". Mum would put a heap of lollies in a dish in the middle, that was the prize, We had oblong shaped cards with blue numbers, the Caller had round wooden numbers which were red.

Finally we got black and white television. I remember the man installing the TV antenna on the roof, the aerial post was very high approximately 9 metres ( 30ft ), and was secured to the roof by a number of wire cables. When the TV was installed, we all sat on the lounge room floor and ate our lunch, we were so amazed at what we saw that day in 1957, one kids show we watched was "Captain Fortune" held in the television studio of ATN 7 and Alan Herbert was Captain Fortune.

School

My first day at kindergarten was a horror for me, I was 5 yrs old and I remember the wooden building only too well. It is in the same grounds as the primary school, it is on the corner of Walter and Victoria streets, I remember my teacher Mrs Hazelwood.

I remember once I was in kindy class and we had to lie down on a mat for sleep time, I must have been very tired and I fell asleep, next thing I knew, my teacher carried me home to Mum's.

In 1955 when I was 9 years old, at primary school our headmaster was Mr Hill. He was very strict, when he wheeled the cane he would get you to hold out your hand and he would raise the cane above his head and strike your fingers very hard. And then he would repeat it again for good measure. I remember being in class, my teacher, Mrs Scatt, asked me to do my arithmetic and I refused, she sent me to Mr Hill who gave me two cuts of the cane, my fingers were numb for a little while afterwards.

Lunch time at primary school was a bit of a rush hour. When the bell went, we kids would make a dash for the fish n chip shop just around the corner where we would line up in turn. I remember they would wrap the chips in white butchers paper then newspaper, I used to put heaps of salt and vinegar on mine.

At primary school there were two huge old fig trees growing in the school grounds down next to the highway and us kids used to climb and play all over them at lunch time. Down in the very corner of the schoolyard, next to Victoria Street, we had a large storage shed for the school equipment and outside there was a large Maypole. We had wooden writing desks with plastic (Bakelite) ink wells in each desk. The desk had a top which lifted up to store your pencils and books inside, we never used biros back then - it was pens with nibs to write with.

We had a brass bell with a rope attached in the assembly ground, it hung on a wooden post, it was next to the toilet block opposite the class rooms. The teachers used to ring it when it was time to start school or finish. We had assembly every morning and a roll call.

Mum used to take me to "Joe Sabres" menswear shop up on the highway to buy my High School uniforms, Joe was a Greek and a jolly sort of person, and always gave good friendly service.

Neighbours

Mr Murphy had a small farm at the bottom of Macquarie street, he owned chooks and I snuck in a couple of times to pinch his eggs, it's funny I never ever saw him.

Across the road from Mum's there was a vacant block of land next to the tennis courts, and behind that was the bowling greens. I made a cannon from a bike pump once and put a firecracker inside the hollow cylinder with the wick protruding through the air hole, and then I would load in a marble, when it went off the marble would shoot over onto the bowling greens club house roof from my place. I did not realise at the time how lethal it was, but as a kid you never think of the dangers involved.

Harrison's who lived next door owned a grocery shop up on the highway, I only went into their shop a couple of times to buy lollies.

Starting from the top of our street there was Howard Bowdage, I used to go to his home and play when I was a boy.

Then coming down the street was Philip Leeman, he lived on the corner of Church and Glover Streets, he was another mate of mine.

Then there were the two brothers, Jack and Lionel Cooper, who were grown men. Most of the time they would sit on the front veranda of their home, we always said G'Day when I passed their house.

Then there was Mrs Harrison who lived next door to us, when the Harrisons left the Whites moved in.

Mr and Mrs Elliott were our neighbours on the other side. They had a son Peter (he and I were good mates) and a daughter Sue who were about my age, sometimes I would go over and play with them.

Then there was Mr Ham who had a son called Jeffrey who was also my mate.

Then next to them was Ronnie Cooper.

Then Noel Barrett. His house was a plain fibre home set back from the street a little, I used to play with his son Ian who also had a sister Cathy .Mr Barrett made his own ginger beer, when I went to his house. I would often hear some ginger beer tops pop, he had dozens on his back veranda.

The next house was the Ireland's. I used to play with their son Greg.

Then Heslop's. Keith Heslop was also a mate of mine and we hung out together lots. Often when I was in the front yard I would see Mr Heslop going off to work in the afternoons. He was a waterside worker in Newcastle, and would walk up past our house to the highway to catch the bus.

Mr Vincer lived down our street and around in Gibson Street. He had a big wooden car ramp on his footpath for servicing his car. He used to make lots of things with wood and he would dump his sawdust waste across the road from his place in the bush. I often would fossick through the sawdust heaps to see what wood scraps I could find. He had a daughter named Karen who went to Belmont High at the same time I did.

Whenever I went for a walk to the beach from my place, I would take the clearing at the end of Gibson St which led to the end of George St. Now George St finished at a grass clearing and at the other end of the clearing - which was approximately 200 metres - there was a steel greyhound training starter box. The greyhound owners used the clearing and the boxes to train their dogs.

Sometimes I would walk to the little milk bar shop up on the highway for one of those "soft serve" ice creams. It was next to "The Store", which was a large grocery store opposite the Melvic Theatre. They had the best ice creams ever.

On the corner of Glover St was a dark red brick building which had offices for doctors, accountants and lawyers. There was a pathway which was outside with a clump of trees in front, I happened to find a big bunch of about 20 keys on a ring, I picked them up and gave them to the people inside.

Up at the top end of Glover St was "Fred" the boot maker. He had a small boot repair shed next to the old Ampol service station. I would take my Indian leather parts to him and he would spray dye the leather for me.

Then coming down our street once you crossed Ernest Street was Mrs MacLachlan's property which was next to the swamp. Then there was the tennis courts. Next to that and opposite our place was the vacant land plot which always filled with water when it rained.

Next was Zoe Richards who had a daughter called Sandra.

Next to them was the Hendricks,

Then of course not forgetting our lovely neighbours, Mrs Wrigby and her husband Joe Richards.

Next to the Wrigby's was a dirt roadway which took you to the Sporty Club, then there was the baseball shed and oval.

Mum used to send me to the butchers in Herbert St up on the highway to pick up the family meat every week, she would give me a list and the butcher man would fill the order. He would wrap the meat in white butchers paper and then I would place it in the red string shopping bag and take it home to Mum.

In 1955 we had a huge bush fire down the end of Glover Street, there were fire engines everywhere that day trying to put out the fire, the flames were above the 50ft gum trees, eventually they put it out, took hours.

Originally they brought an old wooden building down on a big trailer and placed it where the Sportsman Club is today - that was the start of the Sportsman Club in Belmont.

Fun

In the mornings I would go over to the bowling greens which were just behind the tennis courts, and catch the tortoises that had found their way into the bowling green ball gully - there were lots. The poor things could not get out so I would take them back to the swamp.

Sometimes Norman and me would go to Belmont Lagoon where we would fill a plastic bucket with prawns. This was not an unusual occurrence back then because the prawns used to make their way from Lake Macquarie up Cold Tea Creek (now Cold Tea Canal) to spawn in the lagoon.

My all-time favourite thing was Blackberry picking. I would go down to the railway station to pick wild blackberries - the area around the station had an abundance of berry bushes. You had to be careful when picking them because of the thorns on the vines - many a time I would come home all scratched and bleeding, but it was worth it just to have Mum make homemade blackberry pie.

There used to be a small creek with a line of young gum trees on the far side of Cahill Oval back then. My mates and me used to have sling-shot fights. We would hide behind the trees for protection. I'm surprised no-one got hurt, as kids we never realised how dangerous that was back then. There were some wild horses in the vacant paddock behind the bowling greens. One day, I remember hitting one on the rump with my sling-shot and they got such a fright they bolted.

Norman and I fished the Swansea Bridge a lot at night for chopper tailor when they were on the bite. One night in particular almost every time your line hit the water you caught a fish.

I used to go fishing down on Belmont Baths in the mornings Now back in the 60’s you could walk completely around the baths. On the left side walkway it was a lot narrower than the rest. It was approximately 60cm (2ft wide) until you reached the end of the baths, then it became wider all the way back to the shore line on the other side. At the ends and in the middle there were 3 diving platforms with ladders. It was very popular for the local fishermen. Sometimes there would be a dozen men sitting on the baths at the end fishing - one man saw me tying my hook on with a knot and he was kind enough to show me the correct way to tie on a fish hook.

I sometimes would play amongst the stringybark trees which were near the Belmont Lagoon. The young stringybark trees weren't very big back then, and there wasn't much ground cover close to the water. I used to like going there.

Some mornings I used to go to Belmont South crabbing in the lake, with a hand spear which was made up from a barb tied to a broom handle. I would wade through the shallow water which wasn't very deep - you could see the sand crabs sitting on the bottom.

Norman, my brother, used to spend a lot of time at night at the Mobil Service Station up on the highway fixing his car. He and the owner were good mates. Percy Gibson had a car electrical workshop on the highway just a few doors away from the Belmont Hotel. His garage is still there today, it has been at the same address since 1945. Percy knew our family well. He was from London, a real Cockney. Percy was very flamboyant, and had a broad accent. He was a very happy man - the life of the party - and used to dress in his traditional Cockney outfit. Everyone loved Percy.

There was a little old lady who owned a bait shop at Belmont South across the road from the lake. She also hired out the wooden row boats as well. The bait shop was at the back of the house - if you wanted bait or hire a boat you would just ring a bell which was attached to the shop. It didn't matter how early you were, she was always there to help.

My brother Laurie and his wife Betty owned a corner grocery shop at Dora creek on the corner next to the river. Sometimes I would get up before daylight and we would go to the markets to buy his fruit and vegetables. There used to be a barge which would travel up Dora Creek, past his shop. Sometimes I would come to Dora Creek by passenger steam train. The old train used to blow lots of smoke, it was specially bad if it came in the windows.

Belmont North community hall used to hold Square Dancing there at night regularly every week,

In 1961 just prior to leaving school, they excavated the large hole for the Belmont Hotel. The Belmont Hotel was just around the corner from Kynton Street, where my Aunty Joyce and Uncle Ken lived.

Back then there were only two ovals. Cahill Oval, which was the main one, was named after Pat Cahill who was a foundation member of the Belmont Sportsman club in 1956. Cahill is the home ground of Lakes United RLFC. The second oval is at the bottom of Glover Street and is home to Baseball and Cricket.

At the side of Cahill Oval - many years ago before the oval was completed - there used to be lots of trees joining the bushland. One particular small tree I remember was around 15 foot high. One day there was a swagman camped under it with his swag fast asleep. The next day when I passed that tree he was gone, but he had left heaps of sixpences on the ground - they must have fallen out of his pocket at the time.

I used to walk to 9 Mile Beach from my place to play in the sand dunes. Now the beach is not a swimming beach - it's too dangerous and only used for fishermen. To get to the beach from my place you had to cross the rail line just past the clearing at the end of George Street, then walk through the bush track which ran beside the Belmont Lagoon. There were a couple of creek crossings, and just before you reached the sand dunes on either side of the track were sand pits - where the rain water had washed away the sand - and there were always empty snake skins everywhere but no snakes thank goodness.