Tapestry series no. 79

Date contributed: 24/4/2001

Contributed by Patricia Degens

I was born on 1st November, 1931, at the height of the great Depression, at home in Elimatta Street, Canberra, when the fledgling capital had a population of 7,290 people. Certainly in 1931 it was unusual for anyone to be born in Canberra, known as the ‘Bush Capital’. All the streets in Reid were given Aboriginal names, the only suburb to do so. ‘Elimatta’ means ‘my home’ and many years later that was the name chosen by my husband and myself for our new home in Coffs Harbour.

My mother, born in New Zealand, was a professional woman and thirty three years old when I, her only child, was born. Sewing was mother’s favourite hobby. The old treadle sewing machine would race as more seams were stitched. When I trained to become a school counsellor in the NSW Department of Education, family dynamics were discussed at length. The new phenomenon of nuclear families was dissected and dismembered. There was nothing new about it for me. All the families in Canberra in the thirties were nuclear families. Canberra was just a village of uprooted people. Mother and Father drove back from Sydney in Dad’s new car, the Chevrolet, which he was proud of, after their wedding and honeymoon at Cronulla. They drove from Goulburn to Canberra via Queanbeyan, the pastoral town which had refused, to its later regret, to be incorporated into the Federal Capital Territory. There was no direct road from Goulburn to Canberra, let alone a highway. Canberra was a prohibition city so anyone who wanted to drink alcohol had to drive to Queanbeyan, only ten miles away to the south-east.

Dad loved watching cricket but most of all Australian Rules football. Saturday afternoon in winter was lunch and off to the football for Dad, Mother and me in the Chevrolet. My Uncle Jim in Melbourne had bought a car too but sold it as he could not afford to run it. We kept ours by mostly keeping it in the garage. Dad walked to work and came home by bus. Mother walked to Civic Centre shops every day so did her shopping in little purchases except for one large shopping once a fortnight. I loved walking around with Dad at the football. Mother would sit in the car and watch or more likely knit or read. At half time out would come the thermos flask and cups, sandwiches and cakes, with a piece of fruit to finish. Mother would say “Stoking up the body” to keep fit in cold winters!

There were no women clerks in those days nor could a woman get a government home. Women could be typists and secretaries only.

The government had decreed that a man’s salary determined which suburb he could live in. The friends who started off living near us in Reid moved to ‘better’ suburbs such as Deakin and Forrest as they advanced through the Public Service hierarchy. The real hurt came later when some refused to say hello to may parents when they passed them at Civic Centre.

In the early days of Canberra we were socially on the wrong side of the river. Reid was less than a mile from Civic Centre which was designed to be the CBD of the city. Only one and a half blocks of “old Civic” were built, the Sydney and Melbourne buildings. Roman colonnades surrounded the white cement-rendered shopping centre. When I visited Bologna is my twenties I felt immediately at home under the Roman arches. It is a superb architectural style for a hot or wet climate. Shoppers walk protected by shade in the cool colonnades.

The book, Reid, Australian Capital Territory by Shibu Dutta, 1980, describes the area which has become a heritage suburb. Most of the early houses were of white stucco with a red tile roof. All the woodwork was cedar with brass door knobs. Dad had a verandah placed at the front of the house with a Roman arch at the entrance. The house was double brick like all the houses in Reid so was terribly cold in the winter but cool in the hot, dry summers. It was amazing to me in later life that the architect had designed a home in Canberra with not one window facing north to gain the winter sunlight. My small bedroom faced east so it was a delightful room with winter sunshine coming in in the mornings.

As my fifth birthday approached Mother bought my school uniform and on 1st November 1936 she drove me up to Ainslie Public School. It was the original white cement rendered building on the corner of Doonkuna and Donaldson Streets Braddon, and later became the Infants’ Department, then Questacom and later a community building.

The Infants’ Mistress looked very startled and said that they would not accept me until the following year. Mother said that in New Zealand children started school on the day they turned five. She was very upset about it and the topic was discussed at great length around the dinner table that night. It still amazes me to think that no one had bothered to ask the school but, of course, this was in the day before most houses had a telephone. It was my first lesson in comparative education.

Whenever I read someone’s autobiography and they tell of the horrors of school, particularly the public schools of England, I feel so sad for them. I went to two simply marvelous schools which opened a world of wonder to me, a world of seeking after knowledge and opportunity and great and lasting friendships.

Ainslie Public School was only four blocks away, a pleasant walk crossing the paddocks, and Canberra High School which I rode to every day gave me five, productive, happy years, leading to an academic life at the University of Sydney where I studied to be a secondary school teacher.