A Woodline Childhood in the 1940s – by Ron Matthews

From the late 1890s until the early 1950s because all heavy machinery was steam driven, vast quantities of wood were required to fuel the boilers, coal was too expensive. Consequently Wood Lines were born. The last surviving company was “The Western Australian Goldfields Firewood Supply Limited” which ceased operations in 1964. From early 1946 until the end of 1948, I lived with my parents on the Kalgoorlie-Lakewood Woodline.

In 1946, Ben Chifley was Prime Minister of Australia, Joe Louis was Heavyweight Champion of the WorId and I was a fair haired, scruffy ten year old boy living with my parents on the Kalgoorlie-Lakewood Woodline. The Woodline was contracted to supply fuel to the Kalgoorlie Power Station for their wood-fired boilers, to the larger gold mines for use underground as shoring-up timbers and fuel for their gold roasting furnaces. Other major users were the KalgoorIie General Hospital. The company had secured a ‘concession’ on a huge tract of land one hundred miles square, reaching almost as far south as the Eyre Highway.

Lakewood Bake House and Store – photo Phil Bianchi

My father ran the company store at the Number Three Camp. He was also the first-aid man, post-master, immigration official, tax advisor, letter writer and S.P. bookie. My mother complained about the heat, dust, flies, stale bread, lack of electricity, running water and shops. Valerie, my seven year old sister, played with her dolls and tea set, while eighteen months old brother, Leigh, ate the red dirt, cried at night and frequently wandered away from home and got lost in the bush.

As for me, I helped Dad in the store by day, where I stole ten ounce tins of Nestle’s sweetened condensed milk, and at night, did my correspondence lessons by the flickering light of a hurricane lamp. It was a very lonely place for an active ten year old who loved to play cricket and kick a football. I had acquired an extensive collection of feathers and eggs and could readily identify which trees were best for burning and those suitable for use underground. I had also developed a love for the bush; the smells, especially after rain, and the subtle, whispering sounds of the gentle afternoon breeze referred to as the ‘Esperance Doctor’ .

A Woodline Family in their Bough Shed – Photo Phil Bianchi

 

Sometimes, after dinner, Dad would say, ‘I’m going to see Mario Bonelli, to help with his families immigration papers, do you want to come?’ If I had finished washing the dishes and my school work was up to date we would walk, through the bush, to Mario’s camp. With the paper work out of the way, a button accordion, a couple of bottles of wine, a loaf of bread and a large, smoked ham would appear from the dark recesses of Mario’s tent. It was time for music. Almost immediately, other shadowy figures would emerge from the darkness; some with wine, others with a musical instrument and we would have a concert under the stars. I would drink a glass or two of greatly diluted, sugar sweetened, wine and try to sing, in Italian, as loudly as the home-sick wood cutters.

Life changed when Tony Dominkovic and the Yovitch family arrived with their two daughters. Being of school age, all three were compelled to enrol with the correspondence school and because neither of the adults in either family spoke sufficient English, mum reluctantly took on the role of teacher. Now we had five pupils in our little class room in the bush, but only two could speak the language.

Each month every worker was permitted, to buy, one crate of Hanna’s Lager, containing four dozen, 26 ounce bottles or one five gallon barrel of wine. The shanty operators would dilute the wine, decant it into beer bottles then sell it to those who had already consumed their monthly allocation and were prepared to pay the grossly inflated prices. Some people die of thirst but most on the Woodline tried hard to avoid such a cruel fate. One Christmas my father purchased a keg, accumulated sufficient bottles and went into the wine business. His brew needed a name so he made a stamp by carving the name backwards into a large potato, then with an office ink pad and some brown paper, produced his unique label. He called it, The Savior, because he said, ‘After the first mouthful most people caught their breath then cried out loudly, Jesus Christ!’

Workers on the Woodline were paid monthly and because their living expenses had been deducted, the cash they received was spending money. Any New Year resolutions or thoughts of saving for a rainy day were quickly forgotten, as most made their way to a drinking shanty or the two up ring. By Monday morning the redistribution of funds was complete, a few would be considerably richer, most much poorer. The camp would be strewn with two or three hundred empty beer bottles. Some would be in untidy heaps beside their tent, but most were scattered, willy-nilly around each camp-site, lying where they landed after being thrown backwards, over the drinker’s shoulder. A dealer in another camp was willing to buy the empties for five shillings per case, providing they were stacked neatly beside the railway line ready to be collected. To Tony and me it was pennies from heaven. Every Monday morning we would borrow my baby brother’s pram and walk the length of the camp collecting and stacking the empties. Some months we made as much as six pounds, about half a week’s pay for an average wood cutter and we thought we were rich.

Woodline Children – photo Phil Bianchi

Then the bottom fell out of our little gold mine when one morning there was hardly an empty bottle to be found anywhere. We knew that the brewery hadn’t burned down, the weekend supplies hijacked or the Temperance League been and recruited new members; so, where were all the empties? The mystery was solved when the Yovitch girls arrived for school and calmly informed us that they had moved into the bottle collecting business. We were furious. How could they steal what we considered, rightfully belonged to us? ‘You have two choices,’ said mum. ‘Pool everything and split the money four ways, or they have one side of the line, you boys the other. What’s it to be? We chose the Eastern side, but were convinced that May and Ann got the better deal. Any suggestion that Tony and I sometimes rose very early and raided their hoard is vehemently denied.

Before the other children arrived, my favourite pastimes had been playing with my number 8 Meccano and building cubby houses. I made cubbies everywhere. In trees, under trees, underground, in bushes and under bushes but the most unusual was the one I made out of bread! Inexplicably the Lakewood baker sent us fifty extra double loaves, the next day, fifty more and the day after, still more. The surplus bread was dumped in a large hole. To construct the walls, we laid the loaves on the ground like house bricks, about five or six layers high. For the roof we used lengths of pine from the crates that the American ‘Plumb’ axes came in and spread wheat bags over the top.

Main Camp Cubby – Photo Phil Bianchi

For about a week we played in it at every opportunity. Then one dreadful day it was discovered by a tribe of wandering Aborigines who knocked it down and took away the ‘freshest’ pieces. The consequences were three fold. We discovered a new kind of cubby, the baker’s assistant lost his job and the Aborigines sat on wheat bags and dinned on stale bread for a month.

Late in the second half of 1947 an Australian couple decided to return to Perth and I went with them so I could again attend a regular school. I returned to the Woodline, just before Christmas, to the Main Camp, where Dad had been made manager of the much larger store. The Main Camp was different in a number of ways. It was the rail head and administrative centre; there was a policeman, the line boss, the company surveyor, a sort of privately owned shop, a boarding house and about ten other houses like ours on wheels and best of all a ‘school’.

Woodline School in a Rail Car – Photo Phil Bianchi

To the best of my knowledge our school was unique in W.A. because it was in an old, converted railway carriage. The number of students varied between twenty eight and thirty two, ranging in age from five to about fourteen including a boy called Guido who was studying for his Junior Certificate. It must be extremely difficult being the teacher in a one teacher school at any time, but when half the students can speak only in broken English and several can’t speak it at all, the job must have seemed almost hopeless, but to his great credit Mr. Larry Hunter stuck to his task with remarkable enthusiasm and courage until, according to my mother, a Zone Inspector arrived and suggested that despite the language difficulties, we should all be taught more poetry; particularly Shakespeare, and some singing. Poor Mr. Hunter! I can still remember the words of ‘Where are you going to my pretty maid’.

About one hundred and fifty metres away there was a large tea-tree thicket, it was more or less circular, perhaps, a hundred metres in diameter and was our favourite playing place. Every spare moment we had was spent in the thicket, clearing away the unwanted trees to make our own little town. We had a store, well-stocked with empty tins, packets and boxes from home. For currency we used beer bottle tops and labels, giving each type a different value with Emu Lager labels the most valuable. There was a jail, a hospital, a camp for the boss, a couple of sly-grog shanties and lots of houses, all linked together by a network of paths and jam-tin telephones. Team sports were out of the question but our village game in the thicket was something we could all enjoy.

‘Good morning boys and girls.’ ‘Good morning Mr. Hunter,’ we would sing in reply. ‘And who would like to start the day by telling us about the birds you saw on the weekend?’ Mr. Hunter was very much a nature lover and like myself, a keen bird watcher, so when he suggested that we have a bird watchers’ club at the school I was eager to become a member. Actually I was the first and perhaps the only president of the Woodline branch of the ‘Gould League of Bird Lovers.’ I was also the only student who had access to a pair of binoculars.

Woodline Class with Mr Hunter – Photo Phil Bianchi

Monday mornings started with a half hour session, where we were encouraged to talk to the whole school, (all twenty eight), about the birds we had seen during the weekend. There was one girl who would always be the first to cry out. ‘Mr. Hunter! Mr. Hunter! Please sir, I saw one.’ Pauline certainly had a wonderful imagination because she would describe in great detail every bird she said she had seen. Mr. Hunter was very understanding and never questioned her powers of observation, even though I was fairly certain that there were no birds in the area, or anywhere else on the planet that had a bluish, greenish tail, a bright yellow head, red stripped polka dot chest and purple feet. Once each quarter I had to send, to the League, a report about the local bird life and I dreaded the thought that one day she would discover I never included her incredible sightings.

By the standards of today I suspect that sociologists, counsellors, welfare workers and the like, would all say that we were under-privileged, neglected, and disadvantaged but no-one ever told us, so we didn’t know and were probably the happiest bunch of kids in the country. There were no gangs, no school bullies, and everyone was well fed. Yes, we were a rather scruffy bunch who only had a bath once a week, rarely combed our hair and never wore shoes. But we had great friends, made our own fun, never ate junk food and had clean air to breathe in the beautiful Australian bush. Consequently we enjoyed a wonderful, carefree, childhood. As teenager I regretted the years of isolation and neglected education but now I treasure those memories and think just how fortunately I was.

Woodline Children – The Fortunate Ones photo Phil Bianchi

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My name is Moya Sharp, I live in Kalgoorlie Western Australia and have worked most of my adult life in the history/museum industry. I have been passionate about history for as long as I can remember and in particular the history of my adopted home the Eastern Goldfields of Western Australia. Through my website I am committed to providing as many records and photographs free to any one who is interested in the family and local history of the region.

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