Tag Archives: #TheFarawayLandOfTheHouseAndTwoCows

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.

It’s done.

Cocoroc townshipCocoroc town; photo courtesy Melbourne Water

It’s been so long since I’ve posted any thoughts here. But contracts are now signed and time’s ticking to lift-off. Gestation has been long; 10 years from the initial idea to now, with the last few months being the most intense.

Just days away from beginning, I’m like a cub salivating and frisky for the ostrich egg gleaming in the sun, champing to sniff at it and bat it, to push it and roll it until it cracks open to reveal riches yet unseen, with Mum watching and grinning as the proud lioness and all in the pride purring whispers of, “You go girl!”

I’ve signed on for a three-year research project. A PhD within the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University, with a book and theoretical exegesis as end products.

Many writers seek to write the story that’s not been written. And I’ve found one of those.

British journalists in the 1800s dubbed Melbourne as Marvellous ‘Smellbourne’ because of the raw sewage being disposed in the city streets. By 1891, the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) formed to treat Melbourne’s sewage, 30 kilometres away from the city at Werribee.

As Melbourne grew, so did the volume of sewage and the workforce needed to manage it. Workers rented a house in one of four towns on site for their families and single, migrant men lived in tents with a communal kitchen at the camp’s centre. Communities grew and connected through schools teaching children, football and cricket teams playing in local leagues and other social activities. The place was one of the largest and most important public works undertaken in Australia in the nineteenth century. It provided job security for many farmers during the 1890s economic crash and 1930s depression.

Little oral history has been recorded of the generations that made up the MMBW community. My project will seek to capture that social history and document previously untold stories of MMBW community life from 1900 – 1975, as a creative nonfiction book. It will explore social and political values of the period, the conditions the community as a company town endured, and not, and the social fabric and values that bound people to live on site while managing Melbourne’s sewage. I hope to give some insight into the people that made that community and the role they played in helping Melbourne grow into the metropolis it is today.

Perceptions (and illusion) have always interested me, the unseen story behind every face. This project is loaded in both: a story unseen and untold, and negative perceptions about sewage that can be seen as far back as 1899 with the Yea Chronicle reporting on the appointment of new teacher, Miss Schwiige, to the Cocoroc School on site. It referred to the town as, “a small but rapidly rising township between Little River and Werribee … chiefly noted as a health resort, guaranteed to contain a more varied collection of germs to the square inch than even Footscray … Miss S. is fortunate.”

Interest in the project so far has been incredible. So many are attracted to it and want to be part of it. I’m absolutely looking forward to it. It’s such an opportunity (and indulgence) to be able to focus on it for three years.

The need to tell the story well and with the merit and respect it deserves will keep me on my toes though, to make sure that egg cracks in just the right spot so all inside can bask in full glory. I’m sure that responsibility will weigh heavy on me at different times over the next few years. Thankfully, I have a most fantastic team to work with and couldn’t do the work without them. Thankfully too, I have people around me who believe in me. That counts for more than I can define.

My penguins are almost lined up in a row. Just waiting for one last scallywag to fall into line. Then I’ll be more set than Antarctic ice.

Go to https://www.facebook.com/MMBWFarm/ to follow the project or hear more about it.

 

 

 

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