Cowboys and Indians

In 1953, I began life in Curlewis Street, Bondi, among the many migrant and local families, who inhabited the blocks of flats at the top of the hill, just up from the beach. My recollections recorded here are those of a child growing up in Bondi between 1953 and 1974, when I completed school, began work and part-time University and eventually married and moved away. So, if I get things wrong, forgive me. After all, it was a long time ago!

My father was a ‘returned man’, who had been involved in the formation and functioning of Tobruk House RSL Club, known fondly as “The Rat House”. In my childhood, I spent long hours wandering about the club, while my father attended to business, especially when he was Secretary Manager of the venue—a largely unpaid role. The Club Library and reading room was a fascinating place for a little one; as was sitting on the bar, putting pennies in a poker machine—no doubt to keep me quiet. I was four at the time.

Rats of Tobruk

Rats of Tobruk

The original club was just up the hill from the current place with “the million dollar view”. I recall it as a rather drab old building that had been provided for the cause of creating a home away from home for men who had survived the Second World War, but needed to be in a place where others understood some of the demons they carried with them.

The Rat House under construction

The Rat House under construction

The old building in Ramsgate Avenue had outlived its usefulness and, led by Club President Harry Gibson, a syndicate was put together to acquire the land on the corner of Ramsgate Avenue and Campbell Parade, for the purposes of building the current club, which opened in 1962. The design was modern and contemporary and had the benefit of that amazing view. Unfortunately, my Dad was never to see this dream fulfilled, as he died in November 1959, from his wartime injuries.

My Dad was also a member of the Bondi Bowling Club, perched at the end of Barracluff Park, in Warners Avenue, where the occasional game of bowls—followed by the occasional beer—was on the cards. I also have memories, as a toddler and later, in the park, watching my Dad and his mates play what seemed like endless games of bowls.
Barracluff Park was also ‘our’ park. It was where we went to play cricket in summer and rugby league in winter, as well as to play on the swings, the monkey bars and the giant slide in the area behind the fence, at the top of the park, at the Old South Head Road end, not far from the fire station. Later, at school, Barracluff Park was also the venue for football, athletics and cricket practice.

For kids who lived in the old blocks of flats, when it was not a beach day, Barracluff Park was the place to meet friends and rivals and achieve famous sporting feats like using the top of the swings as the cross bar for goal posts and kicking them from far out at an angle with footy legend and commentator Frank Hyde’s “It’s long enough, it’s high enough, it’s straight between the posts” ringing in my ears.

While the block of 12 flats I lived in had a small yard, that was the place to grow flowers and vegetables and hang out the washing done in the coppers in the downstairs laundry—not a place where lively kids could play. The noise was also a problem for the shift workers who lived downstairs at the back. Being wharfies, they were usually rather specific with their language, should a small child upset their sleep by playing Cowboys and Indians in the back yard. Community living at its finest! There was the hill behind, the remainder of the sandstone quarry walls, which was also our adventure playground. Clothes lines were strung from a pulley on the back window sill to a similar pulley on the hill side and the clothes hung out to dry. Swinging on these clothes lines was strongly frowned upon. We did it anyway and used the terrain between the various blocks for Cowboys and Indians and other childhood games.

The blocks of flats had been built in a row from Glenayr Avenue West. The block I lived in was originally 61 Curlewis Street, until a large unit complex was built behind what was then the Golden Fleece Service Station in Curlewis Street. When that apartment block was created in the 1960s, all of Curlewis Street was re-numbered, so that the block known as “Locksley” became 71 Curlewis Street, instead of 61. No doubt this was terribly confusing for the postie, who came on foot twice a day and blew his whistle to let you know he had delivered the post. The five blocks of flats in this row were built during the early days of the Second World War and were referred to as “Gerry Built”.

I always assumed that this meant they were built by German prisoners of war and that this was generally a term of derision related to the poor standards of construction applied. These flats were all built on the remains of a sandstone quarry that had obviously come to the end of its useful commercial life. My only comment about the structure was that, as a small child, I had a wind-up Hornby OO train set. When it went towards the window, and hence the sea, it would speed up dramatically. When the train came back the other way, it would go slower up the hill.

The other interesting thing about the construction was that the mortar mix for bricklaying had a large component of sea sand in it. Why not? The beach was just down the road. In any event, you could easily remove the mortar between the bricks, as it crumbled easily. Miraculously, the blocks are still standing and no doubt individual apartments sell for enormous amounts of money. We, like everyone else who lived there, were renters, so this concept of home ownership was extremely foreign to us.

There were two specific pastimes that were pretty dangerous. The bannister on the flights of stairs had highly polished rails. Not because of exemplary cleaning habits, but because of the various seats of pants worn out, sliding down them on wet days, when there was nothing else to do. There were claims that some junior residents had gone down the bannister front first, though I never saw it for myself.

The second feat was the true test of manhood. Wellington Street Hill, from Roscoe Street, down to Curlewis Street, was a daunting sight for a child. It was the perfect billycart hill. It seemed that we reached enormous speeds down the hill and, with no brakes to speak of, there was many a tumble trying not to end up on the road. If all else failed, the tram tracks would stop you. Luckily, there was substantially less traffic in the 1950s and early 1960s, when this was the thrill-seeker’s choice of entertainment.

Yes, there were electric trams that ran the length of Curlewis Street. Then, in the early 1960s, these relatively pollution free forms of transport were replaced by Diesel fume pumping, double decker buses. That was progress? They ripped up the tracks and suddenly, the car was king. Given that none of the flats had any parking built in, street parking for an ever-wealthier group of residents in the 1970s, became a premium to be fought over if need be.

As a primary school boy, I would navigate my way down Glenayr Avenue to school in Blair Street. During what turned out to be Jewish Holy Days, there were several old ladies who would ask me to come inside and light the gas or perform some other simple household task for them. It was many years later that I learned that these devout orthodox people were forbidden from performing tasks like lighting a fire at this time. However, it was quite okay for the young Catholic lad to come in and do so.

It was during these early days that I first saw the tattooed numbers on forearms of local people and shop keepers. From the corner of Curlewis Street, up Glenayr Avenue, towards Roscoe Street, were the local shops, on either side of the road. On the beach side, there was a fruit shop, a hardware store, a milk bar, a hairdressers and a solicitor’s office. On the western side was another fruit shop, a delicatessen, a cake shop, a chemist and a florist—at least, that’s how I remember it.

It was in the delicatessen that I first saw the tattoo on the arm of the elderly Hungarian proprietor, who sold all kinds of mysterious things like walnuts loose in enormous hessian bags and roll mops in oil and salami and other preserved meats, along with other groceries and canned goods. As a five or six year old, I had been sent to buy milk or bread or something, when I saw the purple mark and, with the innocence of youth, asked what was wrong with the inside of his arm? He hurriedly rolled down his sleeve and completed the transaction. I recall his name was Mr Osborne, though that does not gel now with his Hungarian background. While Mr Osborne did not mention it again, some years later his wife, who also worked in the shop, took me aside and told me the story of his escape from a Nazi death camp and subsequent migration to Australia, as a displaced person, at the end of the Second World War. I was shocked and horrified and somehow saw these people with different eyes. I was older now, perhaps eight or nine.

The fruit shop on the corner, on our side of Glenayr Avenue, was run by the Vigliante family—a rather large and raucous group of Italians, whose home had been destroyed in the war and who also migrated to Australia in the early 1950s. Joe & Rosa, Paul & Tony, were in a new country, but carried on the family tradition in fruit and vegetable growing and selling. The younger ones, who became my friends, taught me Italian swear words that later got me into trouble. Their generosity and energy marked them as very special people, who greatly added to the cultural mix.

Further up the Western side of Glenayr Avenue was Herbie Cook’s Chemist shop. Here, huge bottles filled with colourful liquid were on and behind the counter, their necks finished with enormous glass stoppers. There were all kinds of paraphernalia used to make medicines and he sold newspapers—The Sydney Sun and Daily Mirror, to name but two. Later, my mother and Mr Cook would almost come to blows, when he accused me of pinching a couple of pennies from the honour system plate, when people bought newspapers.

Speaking of pennies, the red telephone box on the opposite corner of Curlewis Street and Glenayr Avenue, heading down to Beach Road, required four pennies to make a call. The pennies were lined up in a slot at the top and rolled down the slope into the box, when the call was answered, to connect the call. The telephone number for the talking clock was BO74 and many of us would dial that number (without pennies) and still be able to hear the time, by listening really carefully—an enormous advantage, in the days before poor kids had wrist watches.

There are probably more memories I could exhume, but suffice to say that by the early 1970s, the hundreds of migrant families that had arrived had worked and saved and bought blocks of land in new suburbs like Blacktown and North Balgowlah, where they built the great Australian dream on a quarter acre block devoid of trees. The families were now gone and the gradual deterioration of Bondi as a family oriented place had begun. I’ll leave it to others to mark the rise and fall of Bondi in the last quarter of the 20th Century until today.

I hope this brings back memories that others might like to share.

Brendan Horgan


2 thoughts on “Cowboys and Indians

  1. Hi Brendan, my parents, my sister and I lived at what originally was 63 Curlewis Street, “Mayfair”, it later became no. 73. I was born there in 1942 and left when I got married in 1960. Mum and dad stayed until around 1975. I remember Mr and Mrs Osborne well. How very interesting to read your story.

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