Tag Archives: #MetroFarm

Farm Reflections: The Migrant Camp

Monika and Voldemar cottage 67 1962

Monika and Voldemar Steinbergs outside cottage 67 on the Farm, 1962

A writer nurtures stories, develops and grows them to be the best they can be. It’s a little like a parent nurturing a child or a gardener raising a plant from seed, laced in love and care. Each story is different just as each child or plant is different, unique with its own set of qualities and characteristics.

Writing an honest account of what life on the Farm might have been like requires immersion into that lifetime. Speaking to people within the Farm (the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works Sewerage Farm at Werribee) community is one of the best ways of gaining that understanding of Farm life. Each person I speak with provides an account relevant and original to them and as a writer, each story provides the most fantastic insights. There are never any favourites.

But sometimes, there’s a click and you can see, smell, hear and taste a story to almost touch it. The connection might be to the story or with the person sharing their recollections. Either way or both together, every tiny fibre of their recall seeps into your bones, and it happens more times than not. Spending time with Gertrude recently, talking about the Migrant Camp on the Farm, was two hours of soothing seep.

Uncovering a story is like loosening the snib on the lid of a Pandora’s box swathed in layers of crumbling cobwebs and disintegrating dust. You never know what you’re going to hear when that lid pops open. It can as uplifting as it can be heartbreaking, and everything in between.

There are the charmers and the playful stories, the easy-going ones that smile regardless of what’s bubbling underneath and it’s not until chipping away at that sometimes gleam of gloss surface and pinching through the delicate fissures that you begin to understand the smile as hues of emotion.

The scallywags and jokers tell stories in streams of quips and weaving through the ‘you know, clocks fall into sheep dip to lose their ticks’ and ‘have you heard that sleeping bulls are bulldozers’ can sideline a deeper story. Centring and refocusing to decipher the banter and capture the snaking story can add insights to the fun and jovial.

Some only reveal what they’re comfortable to reveal, and that’s okay. Others tell the story as a stage manager directing a play or a tale that’s become a legend. Extracting its essence can be like trying to catch a Growling Grass Frog tadpole coated in thick slime and living amongst reeds swarmed in mosquitoes.

There are those with ideas and interpretations that sit outside of the box, sometimes the black sheep of the mob. Exploring those can be akin to mining for gold within an infertile reef, but oh the joy in striking that gold. And of course, there are the prickly, smothered in the finest of spines that have the ability to sprout as poisonous thorns if not handled carefully.

The honest that tell it how it is are the easiest to work with. No guess work required, only a thick hide. They’re in stark contrast to those wanting to cover up, where you can sense a teetering of not saying too much and watch eyes of distrust darting, lips quivering. Compassion and understanding for why that is, is be best here.

Ultimately, all are individual with their own self to contribute to a bigger story. There are never any favourites. However, speaking to Gertrude was without doubt, one of my favourites in a collection where there are no favourites. Gertrude Ropa. Even introducing her warms me.

Gertrude at 94, looks more than 15 years younger than her birth age. Whether it’s good genes or good living, I’m not sure. She has one of those permanent smiles, that gentle grandmotherly grin that’s seen a lot of life.

Gertrude motions me to sit beside her on the two-seater settee as soon as her son, Roland, finishes introducing me and leaves, before I could say anything or drop my leather bag loaded in notebooks and pens and a most kitsch bag adorned in European landmarks carrying my heavy-duty microphone and laptop, on the floor. Meeting with people and talking to them about the Farm takes me back to lugging baby things everywhere.

‘Gertrude, your accent, where are you from?’ I say as I ease beside her. Her soft words sing in that typical German way yet are fringed in a velvet lush, probably due to the combination of dialect and living in Australia for many years. It was more than familiar to me, charming me into a comfortability that over the next two hours, made me constantly look at my notes and questions to remember why I was there.

‘Bavaria, in Germany.’ Her eyebrows tilt up.

‘It’s like my father’s,’ I say. ‘And my family in Austria.’

Gertrude smiles more broadly; eyes of knowing lock in.

Gertrude is the wife of now deceased, Wally. Many linked to the Farm, whether as a resident, visitor, acquaintance or vagrant passing through looking for work would know the name Wally Ropa.

Wally, whose real name was Wladyslaw, was a teacher in Poland and an officer during World War II. He was captured by the German army early into the war in 1939 and remained a prisoner until 1945 in a camp near Gertrude’s village in Bavaria. It was in the camp that Wally learned how to speak English.

Gertrude and Wally met and soon after the war ended, had Marianne and Roland. Gertrude and Wally fled Bavaria with their children to arrive in Melbourne on Christmas day in 1949.

‘We had to stay on the boat because no one was working to get us off. We had lunch on the boat and the children couldn’t eat it. It was a single lettuce leaf, a slice of tomato and a piece of meat.’ Her words are considered.

The next day, the family was ushered onto a train to the Migrant Camp at Bonegilla, along the Victorian-New South Wales border.

‘It was such a long trip, like we were going to nowhere. Villages at home were only a few kilometres apart but travelling to Bonegilla, we saw much nothing. And I was so homesick for my family. I left them all behind.’

‘Why did you leave?’

‘It was impossible to live in Germany or Poland after the war.’ Gertrude’s always-smile fades as though a cloud passes over. ‘We couldn’t live there because the two countries were enemies.’

From their first night in the Migrant Camp at Bonegilla, the family was separated: Gertrude and the children stayed in one part of the camp while Wally was allocated a bed in another section with the men. The camp began two years earlier when the first intake of people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania arrived, many fleeing their country and looking for a fresh start. In exchange for free passage and help on arrival, migrants would work for the government for two years. They were processed and allocated jobs from the camp.

Employees of the government visited the Bonegilla Camp regularly and in January 1950, within weeks of Gertrude and Wally’s arrival, Wally accepted a labouring position the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works offered him to fix fences on the Farm. That meant Wally moved into the Migrant Camp on the Farm to live with other migrant men.

‘It was hard for my husband,’ says Gertrude. ‘Wally didn’t know how to use a hammer very well. He stayed on the Board of Works Farm while we stayed in Bonegilla, until we had a house in Werribee.’

The Migrant Camp on the Farm was set up in the old barracks used by the air force during World War II on the air field at the top of Farm Road. The barracks included a kitchen and dining room where meals were prepared and served to Farm workers. When Wally moved in, ‘Bill’ was managing the kitchen. It’s believed Wally Steinbergs helped Bill cook in the kitchen while Wally’s (Steinbergs) wife, Monika, and son, Ventis, remained in the Migrant Camp at Bonegilla also. Wally and Monika went on to live in a few homes on the Farm with their four children and were one of the last families to leave the township by 1971.

Over the next few months in 1950, the number of men moving into the Migrant Camp on the Farm increased and Bill decided to retire.

‘They asked, who wants to help in the canteen,’ says Gertrude. ‘Of course, my husband straight away, put the finger up. And the boss, Mr Speckman, he likes Wally because he spoke English and most people couldn’t talk English.’ Gertrude’s love for Wally sings in the tone of her voice.

The Farm management however, changed the job somewhat and Mr Speckman asked Wally to manage every aspect of the kitchen as a business. That meant Wally had to resign from his labouring position on the Farm and Wally Steinbergs leaving his role as helper in the kitchen to return to other Farm work. By now, it was 1951.

‘Did Wally teach English to the other migrants too, if he spoke English so well?’ I ask.

‘No. A woman came from Werribee at night to teach the men English.’ Gertrude pauses. ‘I don’t remember her name, she came once a week. But Wally … he would help the men with their English. He would buy soaps and cigarettes, washing powder, some razors and special drinks like lemonade for the men, and they paid Wally for those things.’

For the next four years, Wally managed the kitchen with 3am starts. He’d ride his bicycle the almost two kilometres from his home the family had moved into in Werribee, to the Migrant Camp on the Farm each day. He’d make breakfast, lunch and dinner, for which the men living at the camp would pay for.

‘He would make the breakfast what old Bill made, I think bacon and eggs. And he had to make sandwiches on a big bench. Three sandwiches for each person, in the beginning for about 20 people. One sandwich with cheese and two with sausage. He had a little bag, he put one spoon of tea in that bag and a spoon of sugar. And that was wrapped and when the people came to get their breakfast, they take the lunch already made and the tea with them to work.’

The number of men living in the camp increased over time and Wally would feed around 80 men each day.

‘It was a lot of work, we didn’t have a helper, nothing. Only my husband did that.’

Wally would place food orders and clean the kitchen and dining room while the men worked, and once Marianna and Roland went to school, Gertrude would walk to the camp to help Wally in the kitchen and prepare dinner.

‘I didn’t do the cooking, Wally did that. He’d make soup for tea. He’d fry the meat and make a sauce with it, and sometimes spaghetti. He’d make pudding and on top of the pudding was fruit from the tin. I peeled lots of potatoes and pumpkin. We had to slice the bread and put it on the table with the butter. Sometimes, we had some bosses coming from Melbourne, they went visiting the Farm, like vets, and they would come and have lunch and I have to serve them.’

Three or four times a week, Marianne and Roland would ride their bikes to the kitchen after school.

‘They used to have milk churns and we’d have a cold glass of milk and milk arrowroot biscuits,’ Roland recalled when I’d met him, before introducing me to his mother. ‘It was a treat my sister and I enjoyed. We’d sit there while our parents were working. Sometimes we’d ride to the village to swim in the pool.’

Once Gertrude finished helping Wally prepare for dinner, she and the children went home.

‘The boss had a son who made university and he picked him up on the station. I would get a ride sometimes, he took me home.’

‘What time would Wally come home after he’d finish for the day?’

‘When he was in the camp, he done the kitchen, cleaned all the plates. He had a big trough and put all the plates and cleaned them and washed them all, filled up all the bottles for sauce, cleaned the table and the floors and he come back home at seven o’clock.’ The kitchen ran seven days a week.

‘When the people left slowly, there were less and less, and my husband said I can’t do it anymore, I must do the same work for a hundred people for what I do for 20 people and 10 people.’

Wally finished managing the kitchen when it became unviable as a business. He returned to the Farm as an employee, taking on the role of security. He worked in that capacity from the mid-1950s until he retired at 65 years of age in the early 1980s.

We finish talking about the Farm and I pack my books and equipment back into their bags. ‘Thanks very much for all your stories,’ I say to Gertrude. ‘I think we’re finished.’

‘Do you need to go back to work?’ she asks. ‘I have some photos, but they’re not from the Board of Works. They’re of Wally.’

‘Okay,’ I say, sensing Gertrude wasn’t ready for me to leave yet. Gertrude shuffles over to a cupboard and pulls out a photo album. She almost trips on the way back and I instinctively put my hands out to catch her.

‘It’s okay,’ she says. ‘These slippers, they catch.’ She plonks back beside me and leans into me to show photos of Wally in the album: Wally running in athletics carnivals, skiing too, in the prison camp with thousands of men, looking fit and healthy to my surprise.

Gertrude’s stories about the kitchen in the Migrant Camp provide such insight into an area with so little information. Finding any photos or people to talk to about living in the Migrant Camp has proved difficult to date.

Certainly, spending time with Gertrude was a delight and is something I would repeat any day. It wasn’t a-twirl-around-the-kitchen one, two, three, four salsa, hip to a maraca type of chit-chat, or a choppy waters foaming at their tips in curls of white kind of ponder over the 1890s.

No, it was more a laze in silken grass under a grandmummy of a maple tree splaying an umbrella of lush green from a wise trunk in Stadtpark in Vienna, licking bitter chocolate and apricot gelato dripping down the side of a cone, with humidity kissing the nape of my neck type of natter.

No favourites though. Ever. Even a cactus thrives and allures in its succulence and flesh and magnificence of pinks, reds and blues flowers.

 

NOTES

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on the sewerage farm. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1974; the last family moved off site in 1980.

The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) Sewerage Farm at Werribee and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

The Board of Works is another term used for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) Sewerage Farm at Werribee.

 

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Farm Reflections: Truth

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Truth, honesty, I could throw justice in here as well … words that stir memories of the opening credits to The Adventures of Superman.

Truth and honesty form the basis of creative nonfiction writing, and writing about the community that once existed on the Sewerage Farm at Werribee (the Farm) for more than 70 years. It’s a community that mostly disbanded from the Farm by 1974, with one remaining family leaving in 1980. And yet it’s a community that is still very much alive.

Truth can create speculation, however. What is true to one person may not be truth to another and could in fact be something entirely different. Take a football match of the early 1950s that women from the Farm played in that was recently discussed.

‘That’s Charlie in the middle,’ says MC.

‘No, it’s not,’ says MH. ‘That’s definitely not him.’

‘Yes, it is. Look at this other photo. It’s the same person.’

‘No, I don’t think you’re right. That’s not him.’

And on went the conversation. Yet the two discussing Charlie at this event of more than 60 years ago, were both there, both in the photo with Charlie.

Writing about life on the Farm involves various forms of investigation. Examining archival material to gather factual data is important, but at the core of this research is the capturing of the oral history. This is done by conducting interviews that can often extend over several hours and involve further questioning and talking.

People recollect memories that are discussed and captured as true stories. Truth can come unstuck here though because memories and recollections can be considered as subjective, with some believing they cannot be regarded as ‘truth’. They question, what is truth?

I’ll throw in some theory here where the creative nonfiction form of writing can be defined as a vehicle for telling true stories. Creative nonfiction is “true stories well told” (Gutkind, 2012).

Creative nonfiction allows for capturing the oral history of the Farm community through the exploration of complexities in events and people in full humanity. (Ricketson, 2014) Writing in this way provides an opportunity to explore and be curious, to discover what’s going on in the world. It can be a motivator to seek the ‘truth’.

Another story told recently is of the grocer from many years ago who made deliveries to households on the Farm. The grocer would take orders one day and return a few days later to make deliveries one household at a time. He’d never stay and move quickly from one place to the next, except for one home where he would stop for two or three hours.

He’d leave his horse and jinker loaded in goods outside and in that time, his horse would slowly make its way along the street while eating the grass. After a while, the local kids noticed this and the goodies in the unattended jinker and helped themselves to fruits, lollies and soft drinks.

Upon realising the missing, unpaid for goods, the driver soon stopped making his long house visits to Miss H.

L said to me before he told me the story, ‘Now this might be telling tales, but it’s the truth.’ It’s not only a truth in L’s eyes as he was there and saw it and was one of the kids doing the taking, it’s a truth as part of a life that is full of nuances, a true reflection of life in its full spectrum. It’s a truth expressed.

Sometimes, truths take time to germinate in that vessel of trust, like the story of a head bobbing in the sewage as it flowed in the channel onto the Farm. Upon close inspection, it was realised the head belonged to a foetus, an aborted or miscarried baby. That story took some time to be told but once it was, unravelled further. It was found that many foetuses had flowed into the Farm in the sewage channel. These were aborted babies in a time where abortion was illegal and thrown into the sewer, along with miscarriages. Watermen would find these foetuses, haul them out and bury them on the Farm. These whispers took months to be spoken of and can now be confirmed as true stories.

Seeking the truth is fraught with considerations and dilemmas. There are truths that aren’t expressed, for fear of reprisal, being outed and embarrassed, and of repercussions or being held accountable or liable, or because of an inability to face the truth for whatever reasons … can they be considered an untruth? Perhaps a lie?

Recollections expressed as a ‘pure truth’ as distinctly remembered or even a twist on the truth that has slowly grown into a legendary tale over time, they’re easy to work with. A fabrication however, where a memory can’t be recalled even though it has been well documented and in the public arena, that kind of ‘non’ recollection requires patience and persistence to carefully think through, investigate and discern, especially when it can impact other people.

Many recollections can be the only remaining truth in existence, to become the only truth. They can’t be verified and sometimes capturing them can become a race against time, where people that are part of the Farm community become unwell, too unwell to recall memories, and cease to live. I have arrived too late to speak to many who would have had a garden full of wonderful recollections to share if their memories and heart allowed.

Sometimes when the memories become so scattered and confused, only the heart knows the truth and miraculous things can happen. A stirring of the heart can shine a place of pure, unfiltered truth. It can emerge as a most glorious sunrise when us humans allow it.

Sharing truths, recollections and memories, can stir the heart and get people talking and asking questions. That’s got to be the silver lining in a project that has set out to document a social history.

 

NOTES

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1974; the last family moved off site in 1980.

The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) at Werribee and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

Farm Reflections: A land faraway

Mavis & Keith Warfe with Shep the dog

One year and one day to the day, I began this PhD research of the community once living at the Metro Farm, also known as the MMBW Farm, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works at Werribee and fondly, as the Farm.

One year and one day to the day has seen many recollections shared and some intimate memories provoked to prompt nostalgia and expose emotion that has been locked away for many years. A few tears have been shed too. It’s been an honour to be privy to those.

I never expected to know what I know today about the Farm or have met the people I have met, encountered such warmth or be affected in the way that I have, both professionally and personally. But that’s the beauty of life – full of life-changing surprises. It’s to the credit to all that support this work that knowledge is emerging of what it was like to live on the Farm and that it is being recorded today.

One year and one day to the day and I never expected to encounter a very living Farm community.

~~~~~~~~~~

A land faraway

A living town in a life at honey speed, a calm and peace unwavering in the howl of withering leaves. Crested cockatoos cascade between trees of bare, shrilling whistles of a time unmoved, of a life once was in a land faraway.

Cannon balls in the swimming pool and escaping a wrath after hiding knickers … playing cards into the morning and women scuffling for the football on the MCG …

Ghosts of yesterday dance to a squeeze box on the thread of glistening webs. They guard over full-as-bulls battles that spike in the dark near homes trimmed in baubles of roses and hydrangea, and stems of gladioli rivalling to be the best.

Families play and explore in a back yard of a vast faraway.

Today is little of the physical, of faded plum trees and pumpkins entwining along drains, of cream lilies and milk coffee and the horse and jinker tearing its sleeping traveller home as the epitome of the driverless car.

No. It’s not gone, not this life in a land bewitched on an elixir of memories, not within the dusty veil of isolation and cone of connection, where children mushroom and play hyekio and stockman call to their dogs.

Ghosts rejoice from sleeping ruins at the telling of their tales, from the tops of date palms and cypress trees and while watching football and sipping beer behind the goals, from under the water tank in a bass of riff, within a place oozing smiles more spirited and permanent than the Mona Lisa.

Cheers to a life in a living ghost town, a life at honey speed, wistful of lands faraway.

To some, it’s an honouring that’s grounding in subliminal bliss and stark in harsh reality, of little boys and girls scattering and fleeing, some in the clan ducking and weaving … a devastation that can coil as molten lead in sludge fused in hues of rotting seaweed.

All box tight in an infinity of recollections more fertile than the most precious, a box that holds the pause to remember a life that pulses through the veins of the salt bush, in the cooling dip in the bay under a biting sun where friendly flies line tent walls as a film of black or in the darkness of a waning moon with only a fire on the sand. Sea birds call on bellies plump and ripe … pretty and pristine in smashings of greens and tints of blue.

Through the feathery tufts of yellow as a roadside guard of honour is a house and two cows …

A life in a living ghost town, a life at honey speed in a land faraway.

Hinged in a haunting of melancholy is a place that once thrived. Listen carefully and you’ll hear it, the deep gloating of lifelong love, of wood being chopped for the stove and to heat the copper, feeding the pigs and milking the cows, churning the cream and butter to a one, two waltz in the Farm hall, a chasse to the Pride of Erin.

Amid this place of serenity are the giggles of mirth from boys peering behind bushes at men searching for their bottled stash, and scallywags scramming after pulling handbags tied to strings from the grasp of the inquisitive unsuspecting … the freedom to be without fear.

Bachelors living together, women and their cottage industries, ice boxes and kerosene fridges, tilly lamps and picking peas … the rose-gold worn as a cherished adornment of never-ending love that connects souls over lifetimes.

The sun prods for its always opening above foaming curls of white, rhythmic in their crashing and laced in the emotion of Antarctica. This space of breath, expanse of clarity of sight reveals the full beauty of perfect imperfection.

Cheers to a life in a living ghost town, in a life at honey speed, of a house and two cows in a land faraway.

 

NOTES

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1973; the last family moved off site in 1980.

The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm/

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) at Werribee and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

Farm Reflections: The Hickeys

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Choppy waters foam at their tips in curls of white, churning waves into shore as a milkshake blending in the darkest, richest chocolate. They break against small, jagged rocks strewn over a bed of shell grit, rhythmic in their crashing, rousing a deep pondering. In skies of heavy murk and gloom tinged in highlights of mauve as the sun prods for an opening, I gaze out to Portarlington in the distance to the west. What a day to be out here. I scan over the bay through sheets of fine mist, to the east at Werribee South and further around to Melbourne.

Ice cold flinches off the water, spearing breezes that swirl in Antarctica emotion and blend with shades of rotting seaweed. It’s the kind of chill that gets in, biting at my jaw and bare neck, sneaking in under my thick beanie knitted for Alpine conditions. Thankfully, the thermal socks I’m wearing are keeping my feet warm, although I don’t know for how long after wading through ankle deep water that flooded the road and trekking through sodden salt marsh after heavy overnight rain.

Anyone that knows Melbourne would say it’s a typical winter’s day.

Finding the flattest rock to sit on is almost impossible. They’re all pitted after having been spat out as molten lava millions of years ago and cooled to popped pockets of air bubbles.

I wonder how the Hickey family coped, living here along the foreshore of the Farm.

Annie and Michael Hickey arrived at the Farm in 1898 looking for work. They lived here on the foreshore in tents with their children: 10 under the age of 15, including a set of twins, within a year of their arrival. They were offered a house and two cows for milking in 1911. It’s unclear yet whether they remained in tents until that point or when Michael was offered employment.

Back then, the sewerage farm was a prime place for work. It was one of the largest public works undertaken in Australia in the nineteenth century and provided job security for many farmers during the 1890’s economic crash and 1930’s depression.

Up until this point, Melbourne’s only system for disposing sewage in the 1800s was to throw it into the streets, giving it free reign to meander into waterways. A typhoid and diphtheria epidemic broke out and British journalists were dubbing Melbourne as Marvellous ‘Smellbourne’. By 1891, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) was formed to set up a sewerage farm at Werribee to treat Melbourne’s sewage. Interestingly, Werribee was chosen over the other option at Mordialloc, which was closer to Melbourne and already gentrifying Brighton in Melbourne’s east. That’s another story for another time. The Farm still treats sewage and is known today as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. It’s about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

As Melbourne grew, so did the volume of sewage and the workforce required to manage it. Work was plenty at the Farm and Annie and Michael understood that. They knew too, that because of the distance between Melbourne and Werribee, and between the Werribee town centre and the sewerage farm, that those who worked at the Farm were offered a house and two cows to rent, to them and their families to live in.

Michael came from County Clare in Ireland, Annie (Welham) from Ballarat via a convict ship from England that landed in Perth. They must have been accustomed to the cold, but I wonder about the landscape. It’s pretty and pristine out here in its tints of blue and grey, but that can change in an instant. The Australian landscape is known for its chameleon dexterity. It can arouse the harsh and extreme in all hues of a brash and unsettling that many writers at the turn of the 1900s attempted to capture in a most lyrical romantic form. Sitting here wearing two jumpers, a coat and corduroy jeans, beanie, thick socks and safety boots, I wonder how the Hickeys managed, how the children handled living here.

Food and water was plenty: fish in Port Phillip Bay and the Werribee River, eels, rabbits and ducks to catch, chickens and their eggs, pigs reared for meat, sometimes sheep too, cows for milking and making cream and butter, and for producing cheese. People ‘lived off the land,’ as many have said. Water mains across the Farm and into Cocoroc South, also known as the bottom end, provided fresh water. I’m still piecing the story together but I can see from a recently, very generously donated 1906, hand drawn and painted map of the Farm that these were established. Two cottages and the Cocoroc South School with a teacher’s residence are also marked on the map in this area.

Sitting here with the sun now radiating on my back, water resolute in its reeling in that rhythm that you can lose yourself in once you tune in, no one else about, quite secluded considering Melbourne is around 25 kilometres away … it’s quite a place to be. Those Hickey kids would have coped, in a most wonderful playground of salt marsh and grass to run through and play, swimming and fishing. They most likely attended Cocoroc South School, which opened in 1906 nearby. Cocoroc West School in the north-west of the Farm opened in the same year. Cocoroc School in the township had already been operating for 10 years after a residents’ petition to the education department requesting a school be established, considering 40 children lived on the Farm at that time, was successful. It was a sign of the Farm’s rapid growth.

The paddock I walked through to get here is known as ‘Loozy’s’ by many, after the fisherman, Mr Losevitz. He paid an annual licence fee to the MMBW and was appointed Ranger of the foreshore and jetty reserve between 1922 and 1946. Mr Losevitz also cared for the MMBW boat that was moored at the jetty here. Many enjoyed Loozy’s and school sports between the four schools (Murtcaim School was established in 1939) were often held here.

This place is peace, even if parts of me have become numb. It’s a place to think and process, digest all that is this Farm … the Hickeys living here in tents, with 13 children. Summer would have been very different to today: flies lining tent walls in a film of black, gathering as a sheath on warmed water in the copper. And sweltering under a 40-degree Celsius day … cooling with a dip in the sea under a stark summer sun or a full moon on a hot night, in the darkness of a waning moon with maybe only a candle or fire for light.

And the next generation of Annie and Michael … riding eight kilometres on horseback to the town pool or on push-bike with a dog that guarded the bike to stop every kid at the pool from riding it, games of ‘hiekeyo’ (not sure of its spelling) and handbags tied to strings placed on the single-lane highway to Geelong. Inquisitive motorists would stop to check on the handbag, only to have it drawn away from them by a group of scallywags hiding behind bushes on the roadside, who then bolted when that person of unsuspecting chased after them. Then there were the mischievous boys who moved the bottles of beer that men at the weekly dances would stash in bushes outside, and those boys hiding and watching in mirth of giggles as those men searched for their beer … the freedom to play and wander, to explore without fear.

Three to four generations extend over the Farm. Some children walked or rode five and six kilometres to and from school each day, some hitch-hiked from the highway into town … there’s Uncle Frank who never married and lived in a caravan on the foreshore near the Werribee River while working as a waterman. He fought in World War One, got shot, returned to Melbourne to recover, went back to the front line, only to be injured again and returned to Melbourne to recover. He remained a waterman at the Farm and eventually moved out of the caravan and in with his brother and family until he retired. There were ice boxes and kerosene fridges, tilly lamps, bread and mail delivered in the same box down near Murtcaim, picking peas at Little River … and the little boy that sits in my gut as a weight of unwant, the devastation of him.

Then there’s the granddaughter of Annie and Michael who lives in the home her grandparents once lived in, an old house relocated from the Farm into Werribee … and Annie’s rose-gold wedding ring still worn today, a precious adornment of never-ending that connects souls over lifetimes.

I didn’t think it possible, but I’m thawing out. That Melbourne winter warmth that comes from a southern hemisphere sun is turning on its toasty charm. Winter here is different to anywhere else I’ve been, different to the European winters of bleak and fog that can choke to a breathless gag, laced in a pollution that permeates every pore until you can taste it in your every swallow. This space of breath is undeniable, a vast expanse of clarity of sight where nothing can hide and every skerrick of flaw is revealed in full beauty of perfect imperfection, and when cleansed by a sweeping of rain, sharpens in pristine splendour. The veins in the leaves of the salt bush, the life pulsing through them … the shrilling whistles of crested cockatoos streaming between bare-leaved trees, sea birds calling on a belly plump and ripe, waders stealing over mudflats … the stirring of senses in full flight.

The tide’s rolling in. Annie and Michael would have understood those tides, how far they came up and down, where to perch their camp to be clear of even the occasional king tide. The overnight rain too, and the impact of that rain on their camp.

While today with all our mod-cons, living in tents on the foreshore might seem full of challenges, sitting here is this cacophony of crashing waves, bristling breeze and trilling glee, it’s gloriously serene. And with the privilege of time to stop and think, it’s incredibly insightful. Life here was full, and simpler I imagine to some extent, with fewer distractions and an abundance of personal, sensory pleasure.

It’s time to move off the volcanic rock of hard, time for the blood to pump back into those damp parts of numb. Back over these rocks I climb, unsure of my footing sometimes with the wet and dense bush covering, through the salt marsh and over squelching mud beneath my boots, over a wire fence, careful not to knock my laptop. I look for the fine line of gravel on the road that breaks the water’s surface, but am soon in ankle deep water again. Back to my car, covered in dried, tawny mud, back to this mod-con world.

 

NOTES:

These reflections come from a PhD research project investigating a community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1973; the last family moved off site in 1980. The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm/

The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

 

Farm Reflections: Beryl

MurtcaimShe cups her hands under my jaw, drawing me close. Her touch is soft, a stark contrast to the arduous work she began at 10 years old. She kisses my cheek, skimming the corner of my lips. It’s the kind of exchange that exudes the nurture of a mother’s kiss, of appreciation and protection. Those few seconds are tattooed inside of me, such is the power of her touch.

‘Thanks,’ I say. ‘For giving me so much of your time today.’ I had tried to leave hours earlier through concern of taking up too much of her time, before a plate of pointed egg, and ham and cheese sandwiches appeared.

She smiles. ‘Thanks for coming, dear. It was lovely meeting you.’ Her smile is unfaltering, more spirited and permanent than the Mona Lisa.

I pull out the red capsicums from the box and bunch of rhubarb bound by an elastic band with leaves browning at their sliced tops, and toss the Spanish onions and tomatoes into the bowl in the pantry. SBS Chill plays smooth over the radio, although the tunes seem to hinge in a haunting of melancholy. Shuffling, stomps in boots on floorboards with no time to kick them off or wipe away the lipstick from the day, from one cupboard to the next, doors opening and banging with bongo beats of intermingling that flee to the other side of the world.

‘Here, have you seen this?’ he asks, handing me a bluing photo of footballers wearing Geelong AFL jumpers.

More football, but it seems to be what people are passionate about. It played a big part in the community over the years, with many attending weekend games and dances that followed in the Farm hall.

‘She played on the MCG you know.’

I look up over my spectacles, unsure of truth or jovial yarn.

‘She did! I’m not telling any tales.’

Beryl smiles broadly from her arm chair. ‘Yeah, it’s true,’ she nods.

I look closely at the photo. These footballers are women, having played in 1952. ‘We’ve got photos of women playing football in 1950, ‘51 and now ‘52!’ Women took to the field to the upturned noses of some and admiration of others back more than 67 years ago. The hype of women’s football today was built on the strength and foresight of those women and men.

‘I played in the ’51 and ’52 games. Bob Davis was our coach in 1952.’ The sun streaming through the dining room window casts elongated shadows that autumn is known for, lighting Beryl from behind. ‘Sunny Stewart and Linda Tetsil would fake a fight every game.’

I laugh. ‘I thought fake fighting only happened in wrestling!’

A sip of rosé, the green stem of the wine glass reminding me of faraway. Back to the pantry I prance for that onion already packed away. Peeling and chopping, grating in mechanical auto pilot … a slip of the knuckle on my thumb. Onion juice soon seeps into the graze. It stings but I don’t stop. Blood begins to streak, forcing me to search for a band aid. When the boys were little, band aids always disappeared into that black hole of socks. My grating of fingers is all too common in our household and at the suggestion of one of those boys who is now a man, band aids today live in the kitchen. I wonder how many times Beryl grated her fingers in her day, or worse still, gained splinters and cuts from the logs she chopped.

‘I was Dad’s helper up until he died when I was nine,’ she says.

‘That’s young,’ I say, in jarring knowing of loss as a child.

‘Because I was the second eldest in the family, I took on the outside chores when Dad died. My older sister helped Mum inside. I’d have to chop wood for the wood stove and to heat up the copper for washing clothes.’

‘For bathing too,’ says Don. ‘Don’t forget the bathing. You were a hard worker, love.’

Beryl nods. ‘I’d feed the pigs and milk the cows, and churn the cream and butter.’

‘You’ve got to understand that era,’ says Don. He reminds me of my grandfather, trying to teach me of the “old life”. ‘You had no choice. They had no father, no electricity because they weren’t in the town. Beryl had to do those things with no father.’

‘And you milked the cows twice a day?’

Beryl nods. ‘About five or five thirty at each end of the day.’

‘She’d do that before and after school and when she went on to work, and she’d have a five or six-mile ride on her push bike to and from Werribee to get to work.’ Don’s gloating is of that other admiration, one of deep and lifelong love between two people.

‘And before Beryl and her family got to the 40 Road and the house in Clover’s Yard where they stored fencing posts and concrete pipes and those sorts of things, before her father died, they lived out at Murtcaim near us. In a stable.’

Beryl giggles. ‘The horse would stick its head through the kitchen window.’

‘Why?’ I asked. ‘How could a family live in a stable when every other worker and their family had a house?’

‘Again, it was the era. A single man would look after the horses and live in the stable with the them. It was an oversight to have a family in there. Mr Vincent was the Farm manager at the time and he didn’t know they were living in the stable. But as soon as he found out, he arranged for a house for them to move into.’

‘We moved in on Boxing Day 1939.’

‘Beryl’s Mum had trouble adjusting after the stable. She didn’t know how to use the electricity,’ says Don. ‘She wasn’t confident with it.’

Beryl giggles again. ‘I used to crank the handle for Mum on the car too.’

‘What do you mean?’ Surely her mother hadn’t been driving that far back?

‘Mum learnt to drive in a Whippet after Dad died and I’d have to crank the handle to start the car for her. She would’ve got her licence in 1949 or so.’

I feel her cupped hands at my jaw again before striding out to feed lettuce and cauliflower leaves, carrot tops and onion skins to the chooks.

‘Here chookies,’ I call, swishing through already building dew that sends droplets onto the points of my suede boots. They come scuttling from their foraging behind the bottle brush when they hear me. I think it’s more that they notice the blue container, an ever-reliable source of sustenance for them.

‘The Board had a policy of no women working on the Farm back then,’ says Don. ‘But they gave Beryl’s mum a job when her father died.’

‘Mum cleaned the offices so we could keep living on the Farm. You couldn’t stay in a Board house if you didn’t work there on the Farm.’ Beryl barely moves in her armchair. She doesn’t look unwell, with a healthy glow and one of the kindest smiles I’d seen, yet a walking frame on wheels sits by her.

‘Mum had five kids to look after and she was determined to keep her family together. She’d iron for some of the mangers on the Farm and clean for them too to earn enough money.’ Her quiet spoken words are edged in zeal, revealing a wider spectrum of strength. In her position of centre half back on the football field and as a woman that would tower over me even now, she would have flung me like a frisbee rather than tackle me to the ground if I had played against her.

Don wanders off into the bedroom, I’m hoping for photos of where he lived as a child on the Farm, in the Murtcaim area. I don’t yet know a lot about Murtcaim.

‘I’m not very well,’ says Beryl, almost whispering. ‘My heart’s not working properly and they can’t do anything more for me.’

‘What do you mean? Why can’t they do anything?’

‘I’m too far gone.’ Her look becomes one of pensive contemplation.

‘But you don’t look sick, Beryl.’

Don returns, clasping a few small photos. ‘Look, here she is. Beryl on her bike and on the fence post. Look at that smile.’

And there she was. Perched on the flat top of the fence post, holding her knees in close, looking so relaxed and content and with an air of cheery chipper, even with all the responsibilities of back then.

‘And look, my car,’ says Don. He throws me three photos. ‘It was that car that made Beryl go out with me to the movies. My black Austin A40 convertible with white wall tyres. How could Beryl resist!’

I bound back into the kitchen to a spicy Latin rhythm, perfect for the salsa … what’s next? I find myself almost shuffling a one, two, three, four around the kitchen … carrots and lettuce for the fridge, broccoli to squeeze into the vegie drawer, a hip to maracas, a thought of him, more of her and him. Zucchinis into the fridge and rhubarb shoved in half an hour earlier pulled out for stewing, although I’m not sure how to cook rhubarb. With lots of sugar I think I’d heard it said, to offset the rhubarb’s tart or sour or something. With apples too I recall.

One, two … Beryl and Don dancing at their wedding reception in the Farm hall, the band playing on stage behind the bridal table across the front of the hall. Guests eating and drinking into the night, joyful and jolly on three long tables adorned in flowers that stretch from the bridal table up the length of the hall … I reach for that wine glass again, celebrating a life, wistful of what’s to come with lands faraway.

‘They can’t do anything more for Beryl you know,’ says Don. ‘She’s had her cancer treatment and now this heart. They can’t help her. But that’s what I’m here for,’ says Don. ‘I’m a fulltime carer now, after all the looking after Beryl has done for me.’

My son walks in. I don’t want to talk about where I’ve been today, or Beryl, or any of those intermingling thoughts. Apple skins into the chook container … his eyes follow me.

‘Thanks again, Beryl,’ I say. ‘I’ll bring your photos back on a Monday when I’m in the area with my son at karate.’

‘Take your time,’ she says.

Don walks me out and levers the door open for me to walk through. I kiss the side of his face and hug him. He’s nervous with his embrace back, unsure of what to do with his arms. We walk to the mail box together.

‘My mum spoilt me,’ he says. ‘She did everything for me and my grandfather lived with us so he did a lot of the chores that Beryl had to do. And then Beryl spoilt me once we got married. I’ve been a lucky man. It’s my turn to look after Beryl now.’

Something catches in me. ‘Well you know how to spoil then because you’ve been so well looked after, your turn to spoil Beryl.’ The words fall from my mouth, my thoughts spoken before I have time to consider them.

Don gives an uneasy chuckle, appearing to be searching for a reply to my candid comment. He nods. ‘You’re right. I will.’

I drive home to the box of vegetables delivered earlier and waiting to be unpacked, thinking about the sensitivity of Beryl’s hold, her appreciation of time to reminisce. Perhaps that’s stronger when you reach an end of life you know is near.

Gratitude’s a very grounding thing. People sharing stories, sometimes deep and personal memories only they can recollect. It’s an honouring that grounds me, an appreciation and trust of memories in extremes of harsh reality and sublime pleasure, the challenging and enchanting, all collected in a tiny box locked in the life time of one’s heart.

As bearer of these recollections to record as a moment in time, milling over them, mining the jewels that lay among a reef more fertile of the most precious … there’s much satisfaction in holding that pause of time to reminiscence, of life on the Farm.

 

NOTES:

These reflections come from researching a community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families that lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the township in 1973; the last family moved off site in 1980. The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of the island of Santorini in Greece.

For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm

Geelong AFL is a team in the Australian Football League.

The MCG stands for the Melbourne Cricket Ground, an Australian sports stadium located in Melbourne.

The Farm is a colloquial term for Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.

The Board stands for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, the organisation first responsible for establishing and managing the sewage treatment plant. The Board became Melbourne Water in the 1990s.

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