Posts Tagged ‘Balmain Watch House’

Extract from ‘Frank’s story’ Babysitting in the seventies

January 20, 2014
The curry of G.

The curry of G.

These were happy times, and soon Helvi and I had another daughter, delivered at the same hospital and by the same doctor. Our children were growing up with many other young children in the same area. We befriended many other couples. None of the child-care centres that are now so proliferate existed then and one enterprising mother thought up the idea of playgroups whereby both children and mothers could get together. These were supreme examples of communities getting together.

The playgroups and babysitting club came to being through a community organisation that was set up to preserve an old police lock up and ‘watch house’. It was an historic double story sandstone structure and in need of restoration. The National Trust which was set up to preserve old and historic buildings of national significance also included the ‘Watch House’ and decided in its wisdom to fund some of the cost of restoration. Money was also raised through the community having ‘fund raising’ dinners or events and through membership fees. Those members belonging to the association were mainly young and professional couples with children and it was a logical extension to get together with the kids and parents, mainly mothers. This was happening in parks, playgrounds or people’s homes.

As many of the couples became friends and started to socialize it was inevitable that someone thought up the idea of setting up a baby-sitting club. This would then allow parents to sometimes go out and know that their baby or young child was well looked after and at no cost. For every hour a baby was looked after, mainly during evenings, the parents of the baby would be charged a minus point and the baby sitter would get a plus point. To get rid of the minus points it was expected for parents to baby sit in return. There was a limit in racking up minus points and anyone exploiting the system would receive a notice that baby-sitting was expected, or else the baby- sitting for the offending couple would cease.

The system worked perfectly, and by and large the point system remained fairly balanced. After all, who wanted to be known for being a perpetual ‘minus point couple’? There was one hiatus, males doing baby-sitting. The last bastion in the late sixties for males to break down was the right to baby-sit. Women were in the throng of burning bras and going girdle less, stockings with seams were passé and Germaine Greer had announced ‘Bras are a ludicrous invention’. So, while women burned bras because they were seen as accoutrements of torture, men burned their draft cards avoiding real torture and felt liberated until they tried to baby-sit in Inner West of Sydney.

As it was I turned up one evening and with the household all dressed to go and dine somewhere or see Zorba the Greek, I noticed a distinct cooling towards me. They made a discreet phone call and decided it would be safe for a man to be allowed to baby sit, just this time. ? Of course, many of the parents that knew each other through social events knew each other as couples or, in the case of play groups, were mainly always women. For a man to be on its own, solo, and at baby-sitting in the evening was not that far advanced in acceptance yet. There was a meeting and the majority approved ‘male baby-sitting’.

I don’t know what the objections or criteria were for being suspicious of males doing baby-sitting. Curiously enough, the mother that was surprised and taken aback somewhat when I presented myself to baby-sit, thought nothing of taking her clothes off for a life drawing session. Were males going to do evil things or was the reluctance because of lack of skills? It was not that much of a challenge though and much depended on what sort of facilities the parents had provided. Real coffee instead of the instant variety was preferred. Sometimes, there was a good book or a television program. Sometimes, especially if it was after midnight (double points) you would just go to sleep on a couch if available.

Soliloquies and Images from Balmain

June 8, 2012

Soliloquies and Images from Balmain

When we moved for the first time to Balmain it did not have a library. Balmain was regarded as a place best avoided, known for its crooks, killers and itinerant rabittos. Apart from those flacid rabbits; milk and bread would also still be delivered. It was still endowed with having dozens of pubs with Friday-night booze-ups and fights being very normal. On Saturday mornings same pubs would be hosed down and mopped with hospital strength disinfectant, used as a fumigant against the pervasive odor of drunks and their much loved piss-ups.

Bib-n-Brace overalls would be hanging from Hills Hoists. Walking the streets at those times had the smell of mutton bone inspired poverty and sounds of clunky working boots on their way down to Harry West’s Stevedoring. You would never give your address as Balmain, especially if you wanted a loan from The Bank of New South Wales, except if you knew the local manager. I still remember his name when he gave us a stern warning when buying a house for $ 12.000 with glorious harbour views. His name was Alan Jackson. “You are buying just a shed”, “it’s just a dump”, he said with a smile.

After the advent of the coal-loader and ship’s containerization the Balmain peninsula became a bohemian ‘in-place’ with cheap wine casks slowly replacing long-necks of ale. Properties that were shunned for decades started selling. University lecturers with their lover students started moving in. Dope smoke and songs of Sonny and Cher, ‘I’ve got you Babe’ and later Carly Simon, ‘oh you are so vain’, filtered down onto liberated streets. In with the new.

One such brave man was Larry Lake. (1916-1989) He moved to Balmain from Canberra where he had worked as head of the National Library for many years and also previously as  Liaison Officer and Chief Selection Librarian in London. He bought a small workers cottage not far from where we were living at the end of the peninsula and close to the water’s edge. When large boats reversed propellers and their engines, the landmass would shake and our mugs hooked onto the kitchen cupboard wall would do the rattle and shake.

We met Larry Lake through The Balmain Association which had formed during the late sixties. The president of The Association for many years was John Morris, who at the time was also the president of The National Trust. Monthly meetings were held in the Balmain Watch-house which wasn’t used anymore. The ‘Watch-House’ and Police lock-up had fallen into disrepair. Its original purpose was a sleep-over for knock about delinquents and the permanently inebriated rough necks of the Balmain and Inner West during the period that Balmain was one of the roughest neighbourhoods in Sydney. This ‘Watch-House’ designed in the Georgian style by the Colonial architect Edmund Thomas Blacket was rented out to the Balmain Association for a nominal ‘Pepper and Salt ‘fee.

Helvi and I became members of this Association and Larry Lake suggested we could transform one of the Watch House cells into a children’s library. We couldn’t believe our ears. A library? At this time Balmain must have had some books but they would have been far and wide in between. Hooves and Horses more likely with Woman’s Weekly and Pix scattered around some of the more affluent terraces.

It was a hay day for communal living in the truest sense. I am unsure if this ‘community spirit’ is still thriving elsewhere. Perhaps it has and is blossoming in those new mining communities with the influx of so many young couples keen on making it. It certainly has disappeared in Balmain. There are hardly children about with none playing about with Billy-carts. Where are they?  Are they perhaps inside with X-boxes or have they been with replaced by remote roll-a-doors and multimillion extensions with huge micro wave ovens and security devices. Both parents are most likely working and pale looking. Children in Child-care at $ 100. -a day, who wouldn’t look pallid? The kids remain well hidden.

But, going back, it was extraordinary how so many good and gifted people got together and all at the same time. Larry Lake, a book expert. John Morris a conservationist and President of National Trust, right at the time of large scale demolition orgies throughout Sydney. The Balmain Watch House and the Children’s Library kept functioning till Leichhardt Council decided to stop the book famine and gave Balmain its own library. There were some odd ball aldermen too, Nick Origlass and Izzy Wyner, ‘spindle legs’ Phillip Bray and so many others.

We went to Larry Lake’s wake. He was a terrific bloke and good friend. He had a hand in saving and restoring “The sentimental Bloke” a very good Australian film.

They were the good times.