Willow Bank, Littlehampton

Willow Bank was fifty acres of farmland on an eastern facing slope. There were nine main paddocks, my favourite being the ‘top’ paddock, which was still partly wooded, including many large gum trees. Right in the middle, with a commanding outlook across a valley to a couple more farms was the farmhouse. Behind the farmhouse was a smattering of sheds, the largest being the hay-shed, the rear of which was a tall corrugated iron structure, while the single story to the front of it had timber slabs for walls. Another shed, with a couple of ‘bails’ for milking cows by hand, was also of wooden slab construction. At one end of this shed was a full blacksmith’s compliment of utensils, with an anvil, and a coke-burning ‘forge’ which heated steel to almost white hot when air was cranked through it. Tongs and heavy hammers completed the outfit. At the other end of this shed was a chaff cutter. Behind the milking shed was a dam, which collected the run-off from the top paddock. A windmill also fed the dam from a bore, and this was the main water source for the farm. House water was supplied by tanked rainwater from the house and shed roofs. There was also a small spring-fed dam amongst the southern paddocks, which seemed to be full all year long. A deep well at the front of the house rounded out the water supply.

Willow Bank

There was also the stone barn, which served as a garage for the car, a workshop, and a repository for all manner of interesting junk. A loft above housed even more interesting stuff, turning up old shotguns, powder flasks and ball bearings, old photographs and so on. The barn would also later serve as the table tennis room. Beneath the barn at the downhill end, was a small damp room which served as a cool house, and below that a cellar containing a milk separator and a butter churn. A brick shithouse serviced by a large bucket, which required emptying into a hole every month or so, stood lonely at the back. A small section of the back verandah contained a bath, for which water was heated as it ran through a cylinder, through the centre of which a flue, heated by wood chips ran.

The house was built of solid stone, with four main rooms, a separate kitchen out the back, and my parent’s sleep-out on the front verandah, elevated because of the slope of the land, and served by a set of concrete steps enclosed in curved borders. Leaning on the rail on the verandah one overlooked the ‘lucerne paddock’, a railway line which ran slightly uphill to the left and separated the farm from Junction Road which ran past below, and the rolling farmland opposite. Mount Barker’s wooded summit peeked over the horizon from three miles away as one glanced to the right, and further to the right – a quarter of a mile away, the soporific village of Littlehampton nestled in its valley, albeit somewhat disturbed by the interstate traffic to and from Victoria along the Princess Highway which split the town. Littlehampton was light years from the dramas I had endured over the previous seven or eight years, but in a very real sense represented my true homecoming.

1956 looms large, even today, as the year I moved back to the town of my birth. It was the year of the Olympic Games in Melbourne, the year I was happy at my school and making friends, and the year I realised I was more capable at school-work than my miserable experience at Grange Primary had led me to believe. Magazines such as Pix, which was pure Australiana, featured photos of the huge Murray River flood of that year, which saw the river swell to miles in width, and the towns along its length drowned in metres of water. Pix also featured Aussie tales of crocodile hunters, Australian humour and bikini babes.

It was like a re-birth for me after the years in hospital, and although there was always some torment about my affliction, I generally made friends, and eventually threw away my crutches and splint, and became much fitter, even participating in chasing the Aussie Rules footy around, playing cricket, (badly) and eventually playing competitive tennis, (I developed a rocket serve which compensated for my lack of agility somewhat.)

This idyllic period however, was to suffer a rude interruption. I was told that I would be going into hospital again in 1957, for an operation on my hip. I guess it was necessary, because my left hip had been ravaged by the TB, and now that new drugs had the disease under control, the intention was to stabilise the joint by fusing it to the pelvis. This, as it turned out, resulted in a shortening of my withered left leg by more inches, and of course resulting in a life-time of restricted movement. Sadly, I recall one day at the school before the operation, when I ran freely on the oval, impressively enough for a friend to comment on it. I never ran freely again after 1957.

My recollections of hospital life were not so far removed from my memory as to make me sanguine about returning; it was an extremely traumatic experience after my taste of freedom. I was returned to the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, and as we still owned the house at Grange, my mother was able to visit easily.

There was no anticipation of the severe pain to follow, and I went into the operation with wide eyed innocence, even to the point of naivety when they shaved both my left hip and my right shin.

“Why are you shaving my shin?” I asked. “They like to keep the area clean,” was the bland answer.

A shy young parson who came to visit me the day before the operation, intrigued me with his nervousness, rather than alarmed me. The next day I was wheeled into the operating theatre in a semi-drugged state, and hours later I woke up with excruciating pain in both my left hip and my right shin, and clad in plaster from my waist to the toes of both legs. My mother was there.

“Why does my right leg hurt too?”

“They took some bone from your right shin, to help to splice your hip into place.”

As bad as the pain was, there was an even deeper hurt at not being told what my operation would entail.

Now that I had had a taste of home, a hospital bed was intolerable, and what seemed to be weeks of pain killers, enemas and lousy food was eased a little by an escape into Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I floated down the river with Huck and Jim, and longed for the days of a similar freedom.

I finally went home, still clad in plaster for another month, and when it was finally cut off and I began to painfully move about, had to suffer the trauma of being put into plaster again for a month, though only on the left leg this time, as the knitting had not established itself sufficiently. Finally I found myself back at Littlehampton School again, my left hip forever fixed in place, and the leg considerably shortened. For weeks the slightest bump on my leg caused sharp pain, but gradually the pain eased. One day a bone shattering bump from a lad I was playing footy with (keep-the-ball-away-from-the-other-team game) dumped me squarely on my hip. I guess it was my punishment for playing the part of a double agent, pretending I was on one side, then claiming victory as I clasped the ball when the recess siren sounded. For weeks every move was sheer agony, but I never said a word to any one. There was no way I was going into either hospital or plaster again.

At the same time as I was emerging from my incarcerations, rock ‘n roll was rattling the windows and kicking at the doors, and humanity rocked into the second half of the century. Youth snarled at the ‘squares’ and the squares tried to ignore us as they worked at blowing the planet into the next millennium.

One Thursday evening I attended ‘picture night’ at the Littlehampton War Memorial Institute, to see a movie called “Loving You”.

Here a black-haired blue-jeaned punk with a sneer on his face, a pelvis out of control and a voice like a coyote howling at the moon, said it all for us. For a few fleeting years, Elvis was God. Thrust into the glare of the public gaze, a legend barely out of his teens, Elvis was The King. Then Uncle Sam called him into National Service, and Elvis, at the bidding of the crook who managed him, did the all-American boy trick, and allowed himself to be shipped off to Germany for two years, as his Mother died.

When he returned, ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker signed him up for a string of crappy movies for eight years, and although Elvis made a triumphant come-back in 1969, the boy’s career had been handed a severe back-hander. I slicked back my greasy hair, threw a sneer on my face, tightened my jeans and told myself I was tough.

Back on the farm I pursued the obsession with guns I had nurtured over the years, a legacy of all the cowboy comics I had consumed no doubt. My brother Dean, and Dad were both rabbit shooters, and rabbit was often consumed at our table, along with the sheep Dad would kill and dress and hang in the cellar. I would rise with the sun, and take my single-shot .22 and dog ‘Ruff’ off into the bush in the hills behind our farm. I now realise that I never really enjoyed the killing of rabbits, but the long walks in the early light were wonderful. One day I topped a familiar ridge and found that the bush-covered valley had disappeared, and had been replaced by a shining ocean dotted with islands. It took a while to realise that the ocean was a sea of mist, and the islands the tops of trees.

Sometimes, when least expected, a fox and I would meet, and for a moment we would gaze at each other in amazement, then the fox would turn and streak away at incredible speed before I could raise my rifle above my hip.

On the farm we milked three or four cows, a job Dean would usually do, and I would turn the separator. Skim milk would go to the pigs, and fresh cream would be sold to Jacobs milk and cheese factory. About three hundred chooks would roam the farm laying eggs where we made nests for them, and often in nests they made for themselves. I would usually collect the eggs when I came home from school, gathering them in a cane basket. Mum would raise calves with buckets, which would be sold for beef when they matured and we also had sheep on the farm. Dad would also grow potatoes, which had to be artificially watered, and he would spend hours moving the aluminium pipes along for the next section, before running the motorised pump from the dam to feed the sprinklers.

The pigs were always a drama. Often we would come home from an outing to discover that that they had all escaped their pens (mostly wooden constructions assembled from old car crates the Old Man had gotten hold of). The pigs would somehow nose their way out, and the seven of us would spend the next hour or two trying to round them up. On one occasion a pig eluded us all for what seemed like hours, but finally, exhausted, it flopped under a sprinkler in the vegetable garden. We had to drag it from the mud and flop it into a wheel-barrow to return it to its pen.

After exploring various options, Mum and Dad selected a Rayburn stove for the kitchen. This slow combustion stove could cook, bake, and heat water for the home, and would rarely go unlit, dampened down at night and fired up for breakfast in the morning. The firewood was gathered from wood-fall on the farm, and carted to the saw-bench, a large jagged circular blade sitting at its centre, which was spun by a belt on a pulley driven from the pulley on the old Farmall tractor. I would pass the branches to Dad, he’d cut them into lengths with the screaming steel and the tractor roaring in unison, and throw the wood into a heap, which would then be carted down to the house and stacked in the wood-box.

Discussion of the Rayburn brings back a painful childhood memory. A second cousin had married a great guy called Ken Hoppy. I recall their marriage, their many visits to the farm in his sparkling FJ Holden, the birth of their child, and the many ways he helped to contribute to the running of the farm. A real handyman, Ken installed all the copper pipes which conducted the hot water from the Rayburn through the house. He also built a table tennis table for us, which was carted up from Adelaide when completed, and set up in the barn. In those days before television, we would spend many many hours learning to whack that little white ball at each other, eventually resulting in myself, Flossy (Lynette) and Dean all playing competitively in the years to come.

Ken always seemed to be laughing. He would also come out in his FJ shooting rabbits with us, particularly on the Callington Back Road, a nearby dirt track I still rumble along often to this day.

One day cousin Dot rang the farm to ask if we had seen Ken, as he had not been home for many days, a complete mystery. Then one day Mum took a phone call, and I knew immediately that he was dead. It transpired that Ken had driven to the Callington Back Road in his beloved FJ, put a hose from the exhaust through a window, and turned on the radio and started the engine. No explanation for this was ever forthcoming. Nothing could have upset childhood innocence more than this total shock.

Usually I would walk home from the school at Littlehampton, a meander along the bitumen road which had creek beds to explore and various childhood diversions. Once, under a bridge which crossed the creek, I found some watermelons. I took some home, and boasted of my find, only to be taken aside by brother Dean to be informed that they were ‘his’, a result of some midnight excursions with his mates. (Dean was driving at this stage, and doing a motor mechanic apprenticeship at Gilbert Motors).

One day I was picked up by a friendly young man in an old jalopy, and given a ride right up to the door of the farmhouse. It turned out that the young man, who lived on one of the farms across the road, had noticed my sister Yvonne, and was taking the opportunity to get to know her by taking me home. They dated for a while, although his failure to secure his car on the slope at the rear of our farm-house resulted in it careering into the house one day. ‘Bob’ became quite close to the family over the years, although we all agreed in the end that Yvonne was well rid of him.

What mere words can sum up the joy though, of living at Willow Bank? I always liked to sing, and would roam around in the paddocks singing to myself a lot. I practised remembering the words of songs. There were a lot of Elvis’s songs, but also Roy Orbison, Del Shannon, all the major artists of the day, but perhaps a song of a completely different nature sums up that period of my life better than any other. I might have had a rifle in my hand, but I would pause on a hill overlooking Littlehampton, and sing to myself the following song, a more sedate hit of the day.

“There’s a village, hidden deep in the valley,

Among the pine trees half forlorn,

And there on a sunny morning,

Little Jimmy Brown was born.

All the chapel bells were ringing,

In the little country town,

And the song that they were singing,

Was for baby Jimmy Brown…..”

And the song of birth, life, love, marriage and death wasn’t Jimmy Brown’s song, but my song.

And Littlehampton was my village.

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More Early Years

This period includes the final couple of years living at Grange, my emergence from my wheel-bed to crutches, and my attendance at a ‘real’ school for the first time in my life, in my tenth year. It then covers our move back to Littlehampton, to the fifty acres called “Willow Bank.’  
Living at Grange continued to be a combination of discovery and misery. My education was by correspondence, with Dean, Yvonne and my Mother sharing the ‘teaching’ or supervision roles. Sometimes I would be visited by a head mistress of the correspondence section, and although my learning was steady, and there was much to absorb outside the education system, I did lose a year of study during this period. One highlight of the period was a visit by one of my cowboy heros, the Hollywood actor William Boyd, known to the movie-going world as ‘Hopalong Cassidy”. A near neighbour, on hearing that Hopalong was going to pass nearby in an open car, came to our house and offered to wheel me up to Military Road nearby, to see this legendary (as he was then) movie star.

That was a great thrill, but a few days later the ‘Crippled Children’s Association’ had arranged for many in like condition to myself, to attend the wild west display at the Norwood Oval. Cowboys and Indians rode wildly about the arena, shooting each other off their horses with a lot of blood curdling screams, and I recall a ‘trick shooting’ display, wherein the horsemen would shoot target balloons as they galloped by, firing from under the horse’s necks, under their bellies, and every other combination you could imagine. It was very spectacular. Even more exciting, Hopalong came and shook hands with each of the line of ‘cripples’ in their wheel beds and chairs, including myself. My great eternal regret about that night, was the fact that Hoppy stopped just one bed away from me, and posed for the photographers with an excited boy. How I wished it had been me! One unfortunate spin-off from my Hopalong enthusiasm, was my old man’s labelling of me with the nick-name ‘Drop-along’, a moniker I hated, and which I was to wear for many years as the shortened ‘Drop’. It says a lot about the relationship I was to have with him throughout my life.

In 1956, soon after I had finally managed to start tottering about on crutches, I fronted up to Grange Primary School.

Although still encumbered by a ‘splint’ worn outside the clothing, which strapped around my left ankle, shin, thigh, waist and culminated under my armpits, I was able to hobble the five blocks or so to the school and home each day. Dean had moved on to high school by then, and Lynette and Max were still too young for school, so I was alone. One consolation was Aunty Gwen, married to my father’s brother, Uncle Ken. They had recently moved from their farm near Littlehampton, where my grandmother had raised George, Ken and Don, and their half-brother ‘Chappie.’ Gran Mount, (she had remarried after the death of her first husband in Fremantle, and moved back to her native South Australia) was a wise and wonderful lady, who had outlived her second husband when I first came to know her.

Ken and Gwen lived on High Street, Grange, which was not too far from the school, and which I walked daily. Their children were John, Barbara, Shirley and Kaye, all older than me. Their house was a little oasis for me. Most days I called in for a glass of cordial, and importantly, a rest, after a long day of struggling around on crutches, absorbing the taunts of the other children, and fighting back with whatever means I could. This was generally restricted to spitting at them, hitting out with a crutch, and to lashing them with my tongue. Occasionally I would corner one of my tormentors in a locker room where they could not simply run away, and by then my shoulders had developed considerably, owing to the constant use of crutches, and I was able to hold my own with a bit of biffo. One day, in a quiet lane on my way home, I found myself at close quarters with one of my tormentors, and to his surprise and horror, I jettisoned my crutches and launched myself at him, landing heavily on top of him. I don’t recall him bothering me again. 

Grange Primary School was of course in the suburb of Grange, which I believe was named after Captain Charles Sturt’s cottage, ‘The Grange’ which happened to to be opposite the school. It was (and still is) maintained as a museum. Sturt was the explorer who had undertaken the epic voyage down the river Murray in 1829-30, following the river to its termination of two lakes, the Coorong, and the disappointing outlet to the sea. Nonetheless his explorations revealed much potential for further settlement and colonisation, and he was later to conduct further exploration into Australia’s desert interior (optimistically carting a whaleboat with him, hoping for an inland sea) and was the first to drive cattle from the eastern states to the fledging settlement of Adelaide. Sturt was appointed Surveyor General during his residence in what became the city of Adelaide, and the suburb of Grange. He retired and spent his final years in England. Sturt Street, where we resided, was of course named after him.

My grade four class had fifty three students, and a teacher called Mrs Renfrey. She was a teacher with an enthusiasm for history, and a large plaster relief map of South Australia dominated the front of the class. Her detailed descriptions of Flinder’s voyage along the coast in 1802, as he mapped the coastline and met with the french explorer famously at Encounter Bay, fascinated me, as did her equally vivid description of Sturt’s river trip. I was also particularly excited by her sparse description of Captain Collet Barker’s death by spearing at the Murray Mouth, just over a year after Sturt had visited the area. Mount Barker, named in his honour, was visible from the farmhouse at Littlehampton.

Although this first foray into the wider world had many positive aspects, the time spent at that school was in general very stressful. There was a sadist deputy headmaster who delighted in wielding his cane. One day in an unpaved shelter during lunch, he came across children playing, and he lined everyone in the shed up (except me) and gave them three cuts each across their calfs, for ‘raising dust’. I was also spared the Nuremberg type rally known as the school assembly, sitting in the class room while patriotic chants and allegiance to the queen were chanted, and the raving looney terrified everybody with his hatred from the dais. The stress, the exhaustion, the crowded school room and the preference for the ‘brighter’ students, saw me struggling through the year, and I was convinced that I was destined to spend another year in grade four. The death of my grandfather at Littlehampton was to change that, and before the year was out, we would be moving back to the town of my birth, and living in the house my mother was born in.

There are more random memories of living at Grange before the move to Littlehampton though. At one point we got hold of an old gramophone, (I think from Uncle Ken’s when he moved to the city) which played a collection of 78 records of diverse styles, ages and quality, provided one kept the spring wound up on a regular basis. There were country and western songs, like ‘You Only Have One Mother’ George Formby’s ‘When I’m Cleanin’ Windows’ Fats Domino’s ‘Blueberry Hill’ ‘The Golden Wedding.’ And edging into the ‘hit parade’ in those days more like a weekly event on the radio rather then the wall to wall music of today, a phenomenon called Rock ‘ n Roll. I still have strong memories of music from those days, not only from the records and the radio, but Dean and Yvonne seemed to have quite a repertoire of songs which they taught me, and we sang together. ‘There’s a Hole in the bucket, dear Liza dear Liza…..,.. and ‘He sat by the window and smoked his cigar, smoked his cigar….’ and the like. Other songs like ‘Sixteen Tons’ and ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ were hits on the radio, and I once found my self on front of Mrs Renfrey’s class singing ‘Sixteen Tons,’ a potential budding career which never materialised.

The move to Littlehampton was incremental. Firstly we wound our way up the twisted route, around the Devil’s Elbow, stuck behind the semi’s for miles at a time (it was highway one after all) and into the time/space warp which was Willow Bank every week-end. As well as the clydesdales, we somehow came to be agisting a so called ‘show pony’ which Dean took to riding every week-end. This continued for some time, but one week-end this horse was particularly ‘frisky’ and threw Dean. He was never able to ride it after that. This beautiful tan and white spotted steed became very unpredictable, and could stand docile and be patted, then suddenly begin rearing and lashing out with its hoofs, forcing a very rapid retreat. A couple of years later, when myself and Lyn were too frightened to cross the yard for our evening meal, Mum came rushing out of the house to shoo the horse away, and ended up fleeing for her life to the kitchen. He departed the farm and our lives soon after that.

Somewhere in the middle of 1956, we made the full move back to Littlehampton, and the nightmare of Grange Primary School was behind me.

Returning to Littlehampton to live was the completion of the circle which had taken me away from what ought to have been an ordinary 1950’s childhood. To go to Littlehampton Primary School with an attendance of 100 in total, including my cousin Geoffrey Smith, and twenty to thirty students in my class, (which consisted of grades three and four, under Mrs Scott), was vastly different from the crowded chaos of Grange. I soon found out, with better supervision, that I wasn’t as bad a student I thought myself to be. 

The mornings began with an assembly outside of the main stone building, which contained in two rooms all of the grades from three to seven. We would swear allegiance to Queen and country, (I am an Australian, I love my country, I honour our Queen, I promise to obey her laws) raise the flag, and to drum and fife we would march the twenty or thirty feet or so into the rooms.