Mayfield Walk No.3
with Helen Marshall
[This ‘walk’ was partially conducted in a car]
H.M.. Let us go up Woodstock Street, left on the Industrial Highway and right along Tourle Street. This was a paddock with rabbits and horses and cows in it, the whole area right down to the river was farmland. We are going to the new orphanage. This was a watercourse along here, see we’ve still got the willows [at the corner of Tourle Street and the Industrial Drive].
G.D.G. The road wasn’t here?
H.M.. No. This was a paddock, there was no road here, no Industrial Drive. Bull Street ran to Ingall Street and was a dirt road. It was beautiful around here, there were flowers growing along. There were alot of watercourses running down to the river, and BHP filled in all the gullies. There were very deep gullies and high ridges for that reason. The contours have all been altered by BHP dumping slag during the war.
[We arrive at the top of the hill] The Health and Fitness Centre, but anyone who lived in Mayfield called it the “new orphanage”. It was the Murray Dwyer Orphanage, and the old orphanage, seeing this was the new one, was over there in the centre of that grove of bushes and trees. Now, this doesn’t look so high, but this was quite a high hill, the gullies have all been filled in and brought up closer to the top of the hill. And the river was right to the foot of this hill, directly down there (pointing NE), it was quite steep, there was a path that ran right around the foot of the hill.
First of all this land was given to a man named Platt, a Lieutenant who fought Napoleon and suffered from asthma. He was given this land grant from Ironbark Creek right up to Port Waratah, nothing to do with Waratah the suburb, just Port Waratah. He came here in 1823 and tried to grow wheat and it was a failure. That is why they called it Platt’s Folly. This is the site of the house where the man lived that gave the Folly its name.
G.D.G. So Platt’s house would have been right here?
H.M.. Platt’s house would have been right here. According to my father, it burn’t down once, and his two little children were burn’t to death. They had a cemetery somewhere around Mayfield West, but no one knows where. He rebuilt the house nearer to Sandgate, but he died in the 1830s and his wife died much the same time, neither of them lived very long and their children went to live up with Close at Morpeth, who built the Morpeth township. They married well, one of the Platts married a girl whose parents owned a lot of land out at Wallsend, and that was called “Platt’s Estate”, but this was also called Platt’s Estate, so there was a lot of land called “Platt’s Estate”.
Platt also built a lot of things, he built a big mill to grind this wheat that didn’t grow. He put his money out before he had anything to prove with what he’d grown. In my early childhood there were a lot of buildings and improvements along the river which were either put in by him or by The Australian Agricultural Company, the A.A.Company, which was formed by John Macarthur and finished up as BHP. So, there’s a link right through. These improvements turned the place into what I’d say an english farm, there were stiles over fences, you would come to a fence and there would be big wooden steps, like the english stiles.
There were beautiful homes, at least three beautiful houses along there (pointing to the NE), one of them was Simpson’s which had nothing to do with this, it came much later. There was another beautiful old house with a fence all around and a big hedge, so we never ever saw that house but you could see the roof of it from up on the hill. There was a well. I’ll get a drawing of the well out.
You would sit here and you would look out at the Spit (points to the map) which is that one, and beyond that you’d see the other islands and river blending between the islands. The river was shiny and clear and green, a beautiful green colour and when the tide changed and the water came up you could smell the salt which the breeze would bring up, seagulls were flying and it was quite beautiful. All these little launches with picnic people would go up all the way up the river and the 60-milers would go up from Sydney up to Hexham when I was young and load coal up at Hexham. They didn’t come up the Spit because that was Platt’s Channel, they would have gone up there.
G.D.G. This would have been a bit like the Hawkesbury?
H.M.. Yes. The oyster racks were all down there and the fishermen use to work on them. They use to catch very big fish down there. The unemployed camp came up here in the 1930s and they use to catch fish as well. Also, when we’d go for walks we’d go up here a little way and there was an old coal mine there with smooth worn wooden railway tracks going down to the river where they loaded the coal onto barges and took it down the river to the harbour mouth. And I don’t know if that was Platt’s coal mine because he did mine coal here, or whether it was the A.A.Company that took everything. But there were also bits of skips and wheels leading into the tunnel where the coal mine was leading into the hill but has since been filled in. That was just up there on the bank of the river. Platt died and the A.A. Company bought the place.
G.D.G. When was the orphanage built?
H.M.. The orphanage,they used the A.A.Company house, they must have pulled down Platt’s house. The A.A.Company built their manager’s house here. But they took it over in the 1920s, it was built a long time ago. There were only boys here and the nuns ran it. The Board were very strict with them, they did let them swim in the river I think, and the nuns use to swim in the river, but that might have been unofficial as we did see swimming costumes hanging on the line as we came past. They had boats and boat sheds down there, but I dont know whether they used them or not. They had a big wooden gate coming up here and you pulled the handle to open the gate. This was the 1930s.
G.D.G. When did they start filling all this in?
H.M.. At the beginning of the War, when they dumped the slag (ca.1940), because they expanded all the industries who came down this way to build factories to make bombs and bullets and guns. The War made all this expand, but only really then, but the slag trains worked day and night. Through the night the windows would rattle down at Mayfield because of the slag hitting the water where they were filling this river in, and the red hot slag would go into the water and there would be a terrible explosion and blasting and every window in the town would rattle. The next day you could walk down, you couldn’t see it once it was in the river, but on the edges of the river you could see all this red hot smoking slag still, you’d break the crust and underneath would be like a volcano of lava. Red hot and quite dangerous, children were burn’t sometimes from walking on it. If the trains came along and there were children there the train drivers would throw lumps of coal at them to get away. They also took all the iron railing fences to melt down.
G.D.G. It was one hell of an effort to fill in the whole thing!
H.M.. They worked 24 hours a day, and the little train line came all the way up here, and the little train worked all the time. The slag was in big buckets which tipped up. And in the early 1930s when the Depression was still on, there was a huge fig tree down there, it was hollow and people lived in it, in the tree, unemployed people camped in it as they went through because everybody headed up north, they had to look for work, so they went to where it was warmer because they didn’t own anything, they carried what they had. And we would come down here, my sister and I loved it, it was like a cubby house. People would be sleeping in these little alcoves, it was burn’t out by fire, we don’t know whether it was the Aborigines or convicts that did it. It was made into a dwelling, this tree.
G.D.G. Its not there anymore?
H.M.. No, it was covered up. The people who could not get into that put sheets of iron over lantana and crawled in underneath the lantana and slept in there. They would leave things for each other, there’d be a billy can, or an old fry pan and an old frame to cook on, to hang pots on. It was sort of a system and word got around because there were always people in it moving through. The Pommy Town ladies were kind, they sometimes washed the shirts of these travellers.
Oh yes, when the unemployed camp was put up here there were married families over there, but the single men lived along the river bank. They built their homes on what must have been jetties or wharves belonging to the A.A. Company. You could see my father called in there sometimes to talk to a man who he called Uncle Bob. He wasn’t an uncle of course. But the BHP put those men off there, they pulled the houses down, that the men lived in, and they still haven’t used the land.
Now those men had no where to go, they were unemployed and they were chased off there by the BHP, and surprisingly the Communist Party were helping them argue it out with the BHP and all the nuns who were in this orphanage were often writing their letters, because they had a typewriter and not many people did, and the unemployed men would come up and sit in the kitchen and Sister would type away what they wanted to say, and she’d make them a cup of tea. They had a friendly relationship, the men came up and did the gardening, and the sisters would bake them a cake.
People were different. People looked after each other and helped each other. You would not throw a piece of bread in the garbage bin if you were cleaning up, you’d think “Who could use that?”, and you’d keep it for someone , you’d actually give your old slices of bread to someone because they were poorer than you were. The nuns here had that relationship with the unemployed people. But the police came up here one day, with their big car, and tied ropes around the posts of the men’s homes and just pulled them all down.
There was a quarry up the end there, about a mile up there (looking to the west), you never walked up to that because it was too lonely, my father wouldn’t let us walk up there alone. But the Spit was about where that road is (looking to the north) because this was called Platt’s Channel and the rest of it went on from there. The men that lived on those islands were farmers and fishermen and boat builders. They’d build their own launches. But no one lived on the Spit as far as I know.
G.D.G. So these islands weren’t just mangroves?
H.M.. Oh no, they were farming land. I can introduce you to a man that was farming there. Yeah. Alot of them were farmers, there were the Dempseys, the Rosses, they lived over there. The Ranclauds, Lintotts, Engel, quite a number of families, and they took their cream in their launches down to the Ingall Street wharf, and that was called the Black Wharf, and it was there that they unloaded the cream cans. And the kids came to school on that cream launch, and went to the Mayfield East School. I think some of them would have gone to the west school, some of the children rowed themselves from the islands to the schools.
But this was beautiful, and where we are was a place called Pebbly Beach, it would be over there, and it was a lovely…of what they call hail stone, those little white pebbly stones right along, like shingly, and the water was clear and this little shingly pebbly beach, and a little creek going down through it.
G.D.G. And someone dumped slag all over it.
H.M.. Yes. Just dumped on top.
G.D.G. They transformed everything.
H.M.. The Council gave them the river. You’d smell the tide and it was beautiful fresh air. But you couldn’t smell anything like that now. And, each time the tide came in that salt air would come up. There was the Spit, [referring to a map drawing of the original islands], Ash Island up there and Dempsey, Mosquito, it looks swampy there, but they weren’t that swampy because the farmers drained them. And in the 1950s the salt water started to come up. Mosquito Island even had a little street with about two houses that side and two that side, and they brought a launch with a top on it somehow and they took a motor car over onto the Island with this little street about half a mile long, driving around Mosquito Island.
G.D.G. It’s all hard to imagine.
H.M.. It is all hard to imagine.
C.K.D.G. And now look at it.
H.M.. Platt was an engineer, so he built things. And the beautiful stonework in that little well, he wouldn’t have built the stiles, he would have done the designing of them. And the way the path came around there, and the gate that you pulled with a handle somehow and then further down the wooden rails on the rocks down onto the river covered in oysters and …not pippies, those mussel-type things, tiny cap shell things, it was quite quite beautiful.
A friend of ours was rowing over there one day to have a look at the oyster racks, and he had his retriever dog in with him, and the dog jumped out into the mud and he wouldn’t let him back in to the rowing boat, and so the dog swam behind him and a shark came along behind him and took him, just took him! He only found half the dog after that. But they caught the shark, they set a trap, with bait attached to an empty kerosene tin which the shark couldn’t pull under..
[Walking around the top of the hill and viewing the pine] That tree has always been there. Ever since I remember. And I can remember back to 1930. And the coral trees have always been there.
G.D.G. How high did it look in the 1930s?
H.M.. It looked as high as that. I’m not really sure, everything looked tall to me in 1930, but, I wrote to the National Trust and the woman came out and had a look at it, and they have named it, so the BHP can’t get rid of that tree without insulting the National Trust. It’s a Cooksey Island Pine. They also had Coral trees, and, along the bank they had Chinese Tallow wood trees, that’s not their botanical name, but their common name. But they had a whole row of them, coral trees and tallow wood and they all rustled, it was quite beautiful along that little park.
That was where the migrant camp was after the war, up there [pointing to the west], they brought out what they called the “Balts” out and put them into those buildings up in there. All those rounded roof buildings were there to house the Balts.
G.D.G. There is so much vacant land, I can’t get over it.
H.M.. They’ll eventually fill all that in. That’ll all be built on. The only place BHP existed was down at Port Waratah when I was young, all around that main office. And the road to Maitland wasn’t over this far, it was over that way, when I was young, so this was all paddock. There were deep gullies with huge ironbark trees growing in them. It’s really depressing to see it now. It’s really sad.
G.D.G. Who would want to see this now?
H.M.. That’s right. You can see this all over industrial England, Europe, Chernobyl… They’d all come from unemployed times, when no one had a job. Hardly anyone was working, then the war came and everyone had a job. And if you didn’t have a job, the manpower found you one. You weren’t allowed not to work. [Looking over the edge of the hill] And the river curved around this hill, which wasn’t this big. It came up a bit closer here, and further along there was the pottery place. [Looking towards the East towards Mayfield East School]
G.D.G. They seem to have left a clump of trees over there.
H.M.. That belongs to the Council. And with a friend of mine, we worked on that for about a year, pulling out weeds, doing all sorts of things, to make that grow, but, they’re poisoned by the pollution and they won’t grow much bigger. They don’t look any better or any healthier. The man who was working on it died, accidently walked under a train, because he was deaf and didn’t hear it coming. The area near the trees (Heritage Estate) was once paddocks, and held horses, cows and rabbits. It was a rural area.
G.D.G. Where to now?
H.M.. Drive back down here and I will show you where the watercourses once were. This hill was more of a knob in those days, because the ground dropped away, the gullies were deeper.
[We get in the car and turn right onto Industrial Drive, heading towards the west]
[We pass the Park on our left]
[We now travel down Industrial Highway, due east, passing the Mayfield School on our right.]
H.M.. You see Mayfield West School, during the War, an aeroplane flew between the two old buildings, between the infants and the big ones. That was the Americans, and they did things like this all the time. They use to all fly under Sydney Harbour Bridge, just showing off. They were young and had no fear.
Down over here, somewhere, on the left [We approach an industry called Sandvik], over here there were all paddocks and farms, in the middle they had the pottery, where they made the pots and tiles, everything the pottery could make. And a great big dam, just about where that big blue-green building is, the river would have been there. The pottery had its own clay pit, and they had a little train that worked from the clay pit over to the pottery, just scooping up clay and bringing it over. And the boys all swam in the dam. And over here, right in there where that clock tower is, almost there would have been Waratah House. There was Chinaman’s Gardens just along here, and some more wells, that they had. The water course went right along.
G.D.G. You were telling me that the vineyards were around here as well.
H.M.. Yes, well this is old Bull Street, which was a dirt street, but it would have gone along over that way, in a straighter line. Bull Street ended at Ingall Street at Peter Crebert’s big gate.
[We turn left into the BHP works]
I’ll show the entrance into Folly Park. There was a quarry there, just about where that road is, that was part of the school grounds. And about here was the entrance to Folly Park, [the location of the old Apprentice Training Centre, also later the site of the BHP’s Ribbons of Steel theatrical closing ceremony] That was bought by Peter Crebert, who purchased 14 acres in the 1850s.
Peter had a wife and one child when he moved here from Germany. He worked over in Stockton at Mitchell’s Tweed Factory, and later came here and bought this piece of land, because he was a gardener and a vine-dresser. And he grew grape vines, orchards, her had everything there, and he turned it into a pleasure garden. And on Sundays people would come out and, like going to the Botanic Gardens, and have picnics and buy wine, and his house was still there when we had Sunday school picnics. And people would stroll around, and could still pick fruits from different trees that were still around here. But then the BHP wasn’t anywhere near here, they were far away, you could see Nobbys from here, that’s how clear the ground was. Peter Crebert had a big family, around eight or so children, and Joseph, his son, was a friend of my father, but only because Joseph’s sons went to the War with my father, some of them got killed. These were the grandchildren of Peter Crebert. They built everything themselves, they toiled and slaved and worked there, they were also a musical family. He brought his mother and father out, and all his brothers and sisters out from Germany. And they had a band, a German band. There was another well over on that property there, because that was a Chinese garden, near where that park is. Now, further along, I think there is another palm tree.
G.D.G. You were saying before these palm trees…
H.M.. They marked the wells. I don’t say that they did it purposely, but everytime you see a palm tree along these places that’s where a well is. And another thing i forgot to tell you, the milkmen had wells in their back yards, to keep the milk cool. They lowered the cans down the well.
[We stop at Ingall Street]
Now, that was Ingall the Draper’s House.
[We pass the one next door]
Now, that house, I don’t know anything about it, but during the 1930s, BHP had a laboratory in there and they were experimenting to get oil out of coal. That’s part of Peter Crebert’s land. One of the girls I went to school with had a brother who worked in it, and he kept saying they were going to be blown up in there, and we believed him, whether it was true or not, I don’t know.
But, up in Duckenfield, towards Raymond Terrace, there was a house there that belonged to a man who had a title, a very important Englishman, who built this enormous house up at Duckenfield, near the junction of the rivers up there.
And BHP got the blocks and put them on rafts down the river, unloaded them at Black Wharf, brought them up here and built that house. And if you go down to the Baptist Girls’ Home, which was run by Mr and Mrs Dyer at Margaret Street, the one behind it is the same. Built with the same blocks. Peter Crebert owned all of this land down to George Street, where the site works are. And the people who came to work out from America for the BHP, their son’s name was Woodrow, I was trying to think of it. Woodrow [Hemphill]. And they called that bit of vacant ground that I showed you, ‘The Reserve’ when I was young. Peter Crebert’s house was huge, but, it had the tiniest little bedrooms, about as big as cupboards, and his house would have been just about where those two black and white signs are, about there. See that big fig tree, I’d say that was their tree, and the house was just east of that, behind that hill. And BHP pulled it down, and all the local people came down on the weekends, when BHP wasn’t there and stole the timber. And Peter Crebert had planed every bit of timber, sawned it, cut down the trees, sawn the timber up, cut the blocks himself from the quarry to build the house. The work those people did! And the Crebert sons lived all over the Mayfield area.
[We walk around The Reserve, with its lovely old trees, she shows us a clipping from the Herald, with an old photograph of the Scholey house with the maid and the butler out the front]
H.M.. That was the gardener, and even in the 1930s, a man named Tom Robson, who was a friend of my father’s, worked as a gardener there, and he had to wear a waitcoat, and a watch and chain, he wasn’t allowed to wear a wristwatch. And he had to wear a hat, and he wasn’t allowed to take that waistcoat off. So, in this photograph, that is the gardener and the maid, because that’s how they dressed in my day. She had to have a lot of clean white aprons, they weren’t allowed to keep a dirty apron.
And did you know, that where the swimming pool is in Ingall Street, is over a coal mine? And there was another, where the football field is at the Technical College in Tighes Hill. Where the bank drops down to the football field, there was a mine entrance there. And a big hole fell in at Carrington Street, and the Council said they had no idea that it had been undermined. But right there was where the air shaft was. And there was another at Ferndale Street, Tighes Hill, the street is called after the coalmine there near the trainline. Now, if you go down William Street…this place use to be called ‘Frog Hollow’, and they were all Australians who lived around here, and when Pommy Town came along, now there’s a little worker’s cottage there, No.29 William Street. I’d call those miners’ cottages, and some of those would have had dirt floors out the back, they were very poorly paid, and some of those people would have had around seven or eight children in those houses. But, they slept four or five to a bed. There was a well there, and we use to call this down here [‘The Farm’?]. We’d walk down here to the park, through to the river, past Waratah House. This whole area floods in really bad weather.
[We travel to see the Upfold’s House, he was one of the family which owned of the Soapworks]
This was one of the “grand houses” of Mayfield. It has seen better days, its very neglected, but once had trees and gardens all around in a big yard. We would sometimes see visitors arrive there on Sundays, after service at the Cathedral wearing striped pants and a short coat and to our great interest, a top hat. I believe one of the visitors was interned during World War II.
Another family that we knew who were German, lived in Barton Street, and he worked at the BHP, and he had to report every so often to the police. And at two o’clock in the morning the police came one morning and got him out of bed and took him away in his pyjamas. He asked them to wait until morning, so that his wife and children would not be upset, but they told him that they had orders to take people away without the neighbours being aware. And they just took him in his pyjamas, took him out of the house, and he was interned. He didn’t come back until the end of the War. I thought that was a really mean thing to do.
This is where Hemphills lived. I’ll tell you a strange custom, on Saturday afternoons, when children were playing, they’d often get their swimming costumes and go into someone’s house and have a bath. And Hemphills use to let all the children go in there and have a bath. They were popular people, and well liked. The children didn’t have any entertainment, you’d do your own thing, whatever it was. You’d have a paddock, and it was yours, and the kids would play in that paddock and dig things, and make things, have holes dug, and children got dirty and grubby. You don’t see children dirty and grubby now. And they didn’t have the backyards like they have them now. They all had a fowl house, and a tree, and a corner where the kids had their cubby. And you just amassed all this junk from the house that was yours to play with.
Transcription of interview with Helen Marshall conducted in the winter of 1995. Originally transcribed in 1998, with corrections and additions in March 2000.
Copyright 2000 Helen Marshall and Gionni Di Gravio