Marjorie Wheeler

Interviewed in 2010

Q I’d like to introduce Marjorie Wheeler, who is a long resident of Reservoir and was born in the district in the area of Darebin. We’re just going to talk about some of her experiences at school and whatever else you can tell me. Okay Marjorie, I know when we’ve spoken before you said you didn’t actually start school until you were nearly eight because you spent some time in hospital. Can you just tell me all about that?

A Well back in the early 40’s, we had a scarlet fever epidemic. The worst cases were taken to Fairfield, and places like the Exhibition Building.

Q Now was this after the war had started?

A This could’ve been during the war. I was around about three or four maybe. I was born in ’37.

Q So around about 1941.

A Yeah. You weren’t allowed to stay at home, you had to go to some accredited place. The Exhibition Building was a hospital. Everything was filled up. There was no penicillin. I was a guinea pig for that and ended up very, very allergic to it. The Health Authorities came out, they fumigated your house, and they fumigated the drains. It was really full on. It leaves you weak. I was 12-months at Fairfield Infectious Disease Hospital.

Q That’s an awful long time.

A It was. They were experimenting and they were using penicillin. I think that could’ve added to it, but I was in a bad way. I was delirious with it and everything at home. I went with the boy next door in the ambulance. At Fairfield, you couldn’t go around through Heidelberg and cut through, you had to go a long way around. I can’t remember, I think it went down Westgarth Street to get into Fairfield in those days. You would’ve gone down through but you didn’t have the overpass or anything like at Clifton Hill. After that, we went through the usual, measles; mumps, whooping cough, everything and then we hit polio. That was during or just after the war polio was on too, because I can remember I went to South Preston School. The air raid trenches were on the PANCH site, running the same way as Bell Street, there were big trenches, not covered but trenches that you went through. My mother had a friend that lived just across the road in South Street that had a daughter that had picked up polio then. She was all in plaster from her armpits right down. I’ll never forget that, Mum took me there to frighten me. I had to go to school. I had a great way of picking everything up after being sick. I was only allowed to go to school. I came home for lunch, I was given five minutes, because we only lived around the corner, to get back to school, straight home and that was it. That’s how frightened Mum had become of everything that was going around.

Q Well if you spent 12 months in hospital. Your family wouldn’t have been able to visit you in hospital.

A No, you were not allowed.

Q To actually visit you at all.

A Mum didn’t have the phone. They’d notify the police and the police would come around and they’d say, “The Fairfield Hospital rang. They said you’d better go out and see your daughter, things are not looking good.” Mum said they’d turn around and there was a big window, I presume it was like in the maternity ward, and they held me up there for them to see me. That’s as far as they could get before I was taken away. It was a completely – that’s how bad it was. They’d isolate you completely. I remember the dreadful feeling. They forgot to tell Mum to shave my hair off and it fell out in big handfuls. Let’s put it this way, it doesn’t seem such a great disaster now, but when you think about it, back then when you didn’t have…

Q You were only a youngster and you were separated from your family.

A I went in very plump and I came out very skinny and I had long hair to make matters worse, real long hair.

Q But the separation from your family, that can’t be…

A It was complete separation. My Mum had my brother, he was 20 months younger, but they’d just come out and they had to get a taxi because they didn’t have a car or anything. Horse and cart were still around. The milkman came in a horse and cart. The bread man came in a horse and cart. We had the iceman to call. You could pay your electricity at the door or the gas when they read your meters in those days. You can’t now.  There’s nothing like that now.

Q Would that have been a bit late for the men emptying the night soil.

A No, we lived on Raglan Street, on the corner of Raglan and Collier.  It was a big Californian bungalow, it still is there. Down a bit from the back of the PANCH Hospital. There were a lot of children down there in those days. No Northland, you got down to Newcastle Street and it was supposed to be a government road. They turned it into one that all the elderly people had to pay for their roads, even though it was bad. It was all paddocks down there, you could walk across those to Northland, right across to Tyler Street. There was Haxby Park down there, that’s where – it was across the road from CIG, it wasn’t as big as it was. There was a park there. I think this could be where OfficeWorks is and all that, it could be where...

Q In that big block.

A Yes, that was a park.

Q So there is an oval there.

A That’s a trotting oval in Murray Road.  I can’t remember it being there when I was young.

Q Yes.

A They still use it.

Q I know that they use it. I’ve seen people walking around it.

A I haven’t seen so much, I don’t go down there but in the last 12 months I saw someone there.

Q Oh really?  Okay I didn’t realise they were still doing that.  <crosstalk>  When you actually started school, you said you were…

A I started school. I got measles, mumps or something. I got Whooping Cough and I couldn’t go to school. They said I had it for a long, long while and they started to worry about the lumps. They said to Mum, “Take her to the sea for a fortnight, money wasn’t too good” Mum managed to scrape something up but that didn’t work, so they took me to the mountains. I had that cough, I only have to get a sniff and I’d be whoop, whoop, whoop coughing. I had that right after I had the babies. I don’t get that whooping. It’s dreadful.

Q It’s a scary noise as well.

A It’s dreadful.  It’s embarrassing.

Q So when you finally actually spent…

A I spent some time at school. I started and didn’t succeed.

Q Now which school was that again?

A South Preston.

Q Where exactly is South Preston?

A South Preston is behind the PANCH Hospital and Hotham street. They started me off, I didn’t work. Okay, I was off for a long while, then they started me again. I got sick again and then finally I got there. They put me in the prep grade. I’d done half a day because they sent you home because they only work half a day. They sit down and then I’d start from Grade 1 again, this that and the other. Six months in Grade 1, six months in Grade 2, they caught me one.

Q It was almost like an accelerated learning.

A Very lucky because Dad was very good with sitting at the table. Mum was alright with nursery rhymes and that, but Dad was the one with maths and all that sort of thing. Spot on. He liked the fact that you weren’t going to be behind at all. I went to Grade 3 and halfway through Grade 3 and because of the pushing, I was still pushing myself in Grade 3, I had a breakdown. I was not allowed a book outside of school times.  I was allowed a fancy book. I joined the Preston Library.

Q Okay, very important.

A I read and read and Mum used to say, “Thank goodness, I think we got her nose out of a book.” Then I had to come back and I’d go back down to Preston, it was in the front of their Town Hall. When you looking at the Town Hall on the left-hand side and the Post Office, it was in between, that’s where the library was. It was like, “Are you back again Margery?” Then I wanted to join the bigger one, she said, “No, you’re not ready for some of those things in the book.” I think it was 12 you had to be before you could join the senior library. It was separated and they were very pretty well spot-on on not taking out things that were not suitable, which was good when you think about it.

Q So it was actually in a separate room or a separate area?

A I’m just trying to think whether they added on to that bit or whether it was just there on the end. I think they added on to the left side of it.  You didn’t go through the main door, there was another door. You walk in and it was a big room. It was more separated than it is now.  It was more pronounced.

Q This was all during the war time. Was your family affected in any way with war?

A We had blackouts, we had air raid warnings. There was a big siren going down on the army hall down between Plenty Road and High Street, if you’re going from Plenty Road to High Street, on your left there’s an army hall. There was an air raid siren there and it went several times, a lot.  We got into trouble because the blackout wasn’t <inaudible>  so we got into trouble for that. The air raid warden was the gentleman that came around there, travelling lightly, he used to go around to people’s homes with books. Mr. Jenner. I remember that.  I remember the air raid shots.  They dug a big pit. I lived at 194 in those days, 196 we bought though, we bought the house next door. Dad dug a big pit under his shed and reinforced it and there was tins of fruit he put down there, water was put down there everyday. He knew Mum would panic and would never make the air raid trenches. If there was anything that happened, we had to get in it. Dad worked shiftwork, so that was for us to get down into there and pull the board over. Dad said if anything happened, that would be where he would look for us. It was Newport and Spotswood he’s taken off the boats because he worked on the tanks and the gun shells were made from Spotswood and Newport, the shells. Not the ammunition. The ammunition was in Maribyrnong. I think it was only recently it’s been shut down.

Q I think I know where you’re talking about.

A Of course we weren’t allowed to play on the front veranda we had to be quiet, father sleeping. I remember him getting up very early and missing a lot. I can remember coupons. Coupons for shoes, coupons for clothes, butter, tea, sugar. I can remember Mum drying tea leaves to make them go further.

Q Goodness.

A Yeah, I can remember all of this. I suppose Mum and Dad when you think about it, they probably had bread and dripping when we had bread and butter.

Q Yes, the rationing coupons, that’s something that people don’t realise that at that time there was a vast shortage of a lot of things that people these days just…

A We take it for granted.  It’s similar with the water, people take it for granted. All these people who take water for granted need to go to the country and be given two cups of water to clean your teeth and have a wash. That’s how bad water could be in a tank in some places. I had it done. You learn. You learn hard. They should have to go back to it sometimes I think, when people are over extravagant. I remember my uncle, he was in the war, he was in New Guinea as a gunner, they were going to get married. Of course you couldn’t get satin or anything.  Don’t ask me where he’d got it, but he ended up with a parachute and my aunt’s wedding frock was made out of it. These were the sort of things that went on.
Q He must’ve worked out something with somebody.

A He probably did.

Q Behind South Preston was a brick kiln.  It was a fun time.  Next to South Preston they built joint houses, semi attached. They were commission homes. They went from South Preston School in Hotham Street and down to Raglan Street. In that area where they were was this great big hole. The house that we bought belonged to the people who owned it, the Brickhills, they lived in that. Under our house was a brick well, they kept all the exploding powder and everything.  Dad had always said to Mum he’d put a couple of bodies in there, so Mum got frightened and Dad had to fill it all up with bricks.  Under that and in a container of brick kiln, where they made the bricks for some time, they pulled it down, but this rotten great big hole had water in it. Dad said there was a horse and cart looking at that and the driver and they never got them out. It must’ve been pretty deep. At school we had a set of twins and they lived just around the corner from us and they must’ve gotten over the fence and they were playing in there. And of course if you could get down, and one must’ve kicked something in and fell in and the other one went in to help him and the other one had drown. So Dad took us over there, my brother was over there more than that, but he took us over there and we had to watch for ten minutes police dragging that place to teach us a lesson to show what would happen.

Q That’s a lot for him to show what would happen if you crossed the line.

A They filled it in. There was going to be a lot of things, I think the school was hoping they might get some of it. In the end they rented it out for a very small fee I believe to a soccer club, because you can’t build on it because it was subsided. The agreement was that they’d have to put a fence around it. In the end they left there and they moved the tennis courts from the corner of - across the road from the PANCH Hospital there’s a park, a bigger park, I can’t think of the name of the street.

Q So we were looking at the Melway that it’s Patterson Street and then they actually moved <cross talk> the tennis courts around there into Collier Street. So that’s that whole little area of Bell Street, Raglan Street and that corner with Plenty Road and all over there. We’ve just been looking at the Melways to work out exactly where we were talking about.

A Mum came from Melton in 1924, they came to live down here, they were farmers. Grandma was looking for a home. She wanted to buy a home on the corner of Bell Street and Hotham. She looked at a house there and they told her then that it was going to be pulled down for road widening. So she didn’t buy that, she ended up buying a house down at Raglan Street. It was on an unmade road and she was told she would have to pay for it. It was over near Newcastle Street. She could’ve lived her life out there, that’s how long it was marked, Bell Street widening was marked.

Q Really?

A Yes, my grandmother could’ve lived her life out there in that house before it was dumped. I remember all those houses being pulled down, all down through there. There was a lot of houses pulled down and they were brick homes.

Q So when the widening on Bell Street – because it is a very wide road, so that would’ve been done…

A 1924, Mum was 14 when she came. They knew that the Council were going to widen the street. She was told then that the house was to be demolished to enhance the road. It took a long, long, long time. The road was widened in the 1960s.

Q Now let’s actually talk about the school. When you had the breakdown and weren’t allowed any books for a while, during your school times, are there any particular event that you recall?

A Mr. Turley was headmaster there and he was headmaster there for many, many years after I left. The classes were big as you know. Those days we had grades seven and eight and we also had what was known as an opportunity grade. Those were for children that couldn’t write. It didn’t matter what happened, they did their best but they could only learn very minimal. They couldn’t be put into a class.

Q So it was called an opportunity class.

A It was called an opportunity class. They taught them the best they could. They taught them how to add and they taught them how to subtract, the simpler parts of it. They did a lot of singing and a little bit of craft and then they’d do something more just to try and bring them up so that when they went out into the world, they at least had some knowledge. It makes me wonder whether it was just because they were put in a too hard thing or what. I know, I can’t say how I know, I know two people who were in it and they’ve gone out in the world, they managed.  They’ve been able to manage their own money. They’ve always come through as a little slow, but they’ve managed. They were in that class and it didn’t make them not want to go to school.

Q So they must’ve gotten something out of it.

A We always say, “They got it easy,” we didn’t realise at the time that that was their capabilities and they were just trying to stretch those capabilities a little bit further. We also had a seventh and eighth grade.  We had an ex-army officer, Mr. Mitchell in that grade. He had a blackboard; he divided it into three for English. If you were a bit behind, you did that section. If you were with it, you did the middle section. If you were smart and you thought you were smart, you did the whole thing. Now he did that for English and he did that for maths. We also had a boy in that grade that even the harder board wasn’t anything. He did special work that boy.  He’s pleaded with the parents to send him on and they said they couldn’t afford it.  He did the extra tutoring himself. We had wood fires in the classroom.

Q Not something you would see now.

A Well that was the only heating; there was no heating and no cooling in the summer. Everything was taught parrot fashion. Good morning Mrs. Gillespie. “We’ll open up our books, we’ll head it up.  It’s Monday the 26th of February 19 whatever it was. Now, we’ll start with the words you were supposed to have learnt last night.” Then while she was walking around collecting that, we’re saying our sums or our times tables starting from two and it went on. That’s how it was done. We learnt history.  We learnt geography. There was a school paper that you got every month and you paid a penny for it, it went into a folder. The first one of the year always had the spelling list and it was ruled off so much that you learnt each night. It had history bits.  We had a history book.  We had a geography book. We didn’t do a lot of – we did I suppose you’d call it PE, once a week we had sport Friday afternoon.  It was the last thing; the whole school got out and did rounders or something. The school did compete in rounders.  You walked to the school, there was no such thing as a bus. We would play down at Wales Street. Everybody bought an orange to be cut up and walked into Wales Street, you played your game of rounders, whether you won or lose and you walked back to the school. You had swimming lessons down at the Preston Baths in St. Georges Road. Do you know where that is? Where the NMIT, they shut them down.

Q I didn’t realise that.

A Coming from this direction, coming from this direction, just over Gower Street. There’s a swimming pool there. You met down there in the morning. You were marked off, you paid your penny for your swimming lessons, you changed then after lessons you were marched back to the school. You walked. 
 During the war we had what they called Oslo lunches; I think they were six pence. Brown bread sandwiches and fruit and I think a drink of milk.  We also had milk delivered to the schools. Glass bottles with a little cardboard top on. We had that too after the war. I can’t remember if it was after the war or during the war, we had that. It wasn’t refrigerated on either hand, it was warm milk.

Q Why were they called Oslo lunches?

A It was some brand, I’m not quite sure but it was brown bread, I know it was brown bread. It was mostly very healthy because we didn’t get it very often. We were home for lunch mostly unless Mum went out for the day.

Q So the Oslo may very well have come from the name of the company that made the bread or something.

A I don’t know. It was something to do with health. They also, after the war, they used the army camps, it was down between Point Lonsdale and Point Nepean, there was a lot of army camps. We’d go down there.  We went down there for ten days. Some of the kids went for a holiday down there for ten days. It was no schooling. It was a lot of sport and active things, going walking and that sort of thing. I’m just trying to think what else. We didn’t have excursions per say. There was no excursions like there is now. We did have a bit of craft. During the war we were supposed to knit squares, big long squares and we’d turn them into pixie hats to send to the kiddies overseas.

Q How old were you when you actually finished school?

A I finished school at 14 that was the age.

Q Did you go to work?

A When you left the state school to go to high school, you had to be recommended. When you went to school, only in the area you resided. You did not go to school outside that area. So South Preston that would’ve been in the Preston Girls School.

Q In Gower Street?

A Yes.  There was two schools there, the Preston Girl’s School and the Preston Girl’s High School. One was domestic and the other was high  I went to another high school. Mum put me in there and I finished about – then I had to sit a round of exams at different schools, entrance exams and I got in at Helen Street, Northcote. I was put in up there. There was a Girl’s School there. There was a Boy’s School there, divided by yards and a small state school.

Q Was there a school over where NMIT is now? Is that were Preston Tech used to be?


Q It goes up the hill and there’s a mosque up there now.

A That was Preston Tech, St. Georges Road that was what they called a trade school. It was for people who wanted to go into trades. They also had things like the Air Force Cadets there. My brother went there. Next to that was a swimming pool.

Q What we were talking about before.

A Yes, a swimming pool. That was a trade school. The one up here in Marylands, that was another trade school, but I don’t think that was there at the time.  That was a new area, more up through there then. That was the Preston Tech there. I’m trying to think where else there was. There was a state school down also where Haxby Park was, there was a state school there where the overpass was. That’s shutdown, that’s gone.  Everything is disappearing.

Q So when you actually left the state school…

A Because I’d been in this grade, I wasn’t in this grade I was in the sixth grade and they put me in this grade for certain things, they took me out of six for certain lessons and they took the photo and forgot about me so they stuck me in that grade with them. From there you went to the high school.  Because I’d done that grade, when I sat the entrance exam they wouldn’t accept me in Form 1 anywhere. I knew too much maths, I hated English but I knew enough to make a point. So I managed to get into the Northcote High School under a condition. When I sat for the entrance exam, they tested me on a music exam. I learnt the violin; I played in the Preston Orchestra.  Not too bad at that too. Anyway, they tested me on that and I knew enough that when the time came for the exam, I didn’t have to go to music but I could pass it. They learnt Latin.  It wasn’t a church school or anything, but you learnt Latin roots. I had to do extra Latin lessons. They put me in Form 2.

Q So basically you skipped Form 1.

A Yeah and I went up to Form 2.  I did Latin and those things. They also did things like a mothercraft nursing. We had cooking. We had home management. We had art. We had sewing. We had history, geography. It was a well rounded school.

Q I was going to say, you covered quite a bit.

A It was only a little school, don’t get me wrong, it was only little. When the people that were in Grade 1 or Grade 2, they were clever, they went into another class called ? they were smarter and they did part of Grade 2 and part of Grade 3 work. That shell became the prefects and the house captains and everything like that. We had no room for sport. We used to march. We marched from Helen Street School down to the Northcote High School where we did our sport on a Friday.

Q So you got lots of exercise, not just with the sport but with all the walking between the schools.

A I can’t think much else.  I missed the reunion unfortunately.