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Rabbitohs and memory

October 11th, 2014

In the course of a recent minor tiff on Twitter, accused of bandwagon jumping, I asserted that I had not only supported the Rabbitohs since (just) before their last premiership, but that I was old enough to remember actual rabbitohs, that is, itinerant sellers of rabbit meat. Now I’m wondering whether I’m conflating rabbit as an occasional treat with bottle-ohs, early recyclers who, as the name implies, went door to door collecting bottles. I can definitely remember a bottle-oh with a horse-drawn cart (this would have been around 1960 in Adelaide).

Any other readers of a certain age want to weigh in?

Also, is there a word for Twittertiffs?

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  1. October 11th, 2014 at 19:00 | #1

    rabbitoh
    /?ræb?t???/
    noun
    1.(Austral, informal) (formerly) an itinerant seller of rabbits for eating
    Word Origin
    C20: from such a seller’s cry

    Collins English Dictionary – Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition

  2. October 11th, 2014 at 19:03 | #2

    Oh, wait – you’re not suggesting you mistakenly conflated the words, but whether you actually remembered rabbitohs in 1960s Adelaide.

  3. Robert (not from UK)
    October 11th, 2014 at 19:09 | #3

    I think that there was one rabbitoh – there was certainly more than one bottle-oh – during my 1960s childhood in rural New South Wales, which in terms of general culture abounded in phenomena that had died out in Sydney at least 15 years before. What’s more, I’ll swear that everyone in that village my age or older knew what a rabbitoh was, even if we had not ourselves encountered one.

  4. 2 tanners
    October 11th, 2014 at 19:21 | #4

    JQ

    As someone raised in the same city around the same time, I recall the bottle-o, who bought (for a trivial sum) beer bottles, but not wine bottles, the baker and the milko with their horse-drawn delivery carts, but not a rabbitoh. OTOH you could buy rabbit pretty cheap at the butcher’s. Grocers and greengrocers were (separate) local shops and if there were markets, I was too young to know about them. Of course, sample of one, proves nothing.

    For the record, I don’t follow or understand NRL, so I don’t have an axe to grind.

  5. jungney
    October 11th, 2014 at 19:29 | #5

    What a great post, JQ. I remember the local workers’ co-op bread van, horse drawn, ’round the streets of Weston and Kurri-Kurri. You could smell the hot loaves coming. Gardeners in the street would scoop up the horse poo for their gardens. Years later, I lived alongside Bert, who had a prawn run around the local pubs in Newcastle during which he sold fresh prawns from his Holden ute, the tray of which was full of ice and loose prawns. Bert and his mates would gather on a Saturday arvo in his garage and play darts, drink beer and eat prawns. At fourteen, I was welcome and imbibed fully. What great days of ecological plenty! Trust your memory, especially when smells and sounds take you back…

  6. ChrisH
    October 11th, 2014 at 19:30 | #6

    I remember growing up in the early 60s, in the eastern part of Redfern (just east of the housing commission low and high rise blocks themselves to the east of Redfern Oval, where the Rabbitohs played then). I lived on a back lane. And I well remember rabbitohs with small carts going up and down the lane from time to time.
    As I was too young to be real League aficionado, I don’t know whether this is true: but I was told that in Redfern many league players maintained a living by being rabbitohs, still, in those years (and that this sideline by players was where the name of the club came from). I didn’t recognise any players then.
    (And later I lived towards Clovelly, near Clive Churchill’s bottle shop; but that’s another story.)

  7. Ikonoclast
    October 11th, 2014 at 19:44 | #7

    With respect to the old days, I can remember;

    The “Hunter Brothers” truck which collected night soil from the back yard dunnies. The men conducted their job at the run on the way in, carrying an empty can, and at a brisk walk on the way out carrying full cans of nightsoil high up on one shoulder, often full and slopping to the brim. The cans were black; coated and recoated in creosote.

    After each visit to the backyard dunny in those days for a number 2 we had to sprinkle sawdust to keep the fly numbers down. Our favourite kids’ joke on the general topic was “What’s the fastest vehicle in the street? The Hunter Brother’s truck. It has a hundred piss tins (pistons) and flies.”

    The ice truck which brought block ice to our ice chest. Few people had new-fangled refrigerators. The milko of course: unhomogenised milk in 1 pint glass bottles with gold aluminium tops. The fisho, the baker, the greengrocer and the butcher van. All of these guys had small tray trucks or delivery vans by the times I can remember. I can’t remember delivery horses.

    My mother still had a “copper” for boiling laundry when I was very young. Application of the Reckitts Blue Bag was the standard home remedy for bee stings. Poinsettias, ornamental chillie, roses, frangipani, citrus, nasturtiums and edible fig (not native figs) were much in vogue in my parent’s garden at least. “Lawns” had a great component of clover or paspalum depending on season and were mown with a push mower with a “cylinder” blade set up.

    Cracker night (Guy Fawkes night) was still legal and my brothers and I were little terrors 365 days a year. I could go on and on.

    * * *

    My support of South Sydney (as a Brisbanite) was very recent, measured in months, and based on various emotional and human interest factors with a bit of pro working class sentiment thrown in;

    (1) I detest the “silvertails” and “protected species” of the NRL like Manly, Easts and the Bulldogs.
    (2) Souths have at least a working class past and present working clasee support even if the players are overpaid, perrforming class rather then working class.
    (3) There were a few Queenslanders worth supporting (pure parochialism).
    (4) I liked the story and human interest of the Burgess brothers.
    (5) I didn’t really care who won but it’s always fun to hope the team I detest loses.

  8. 2 tanners
    October 11th, 2014 at 20:54 | #8

    Great post, Ikonoclast. I remember the smell of creosote on the paling fence – we were in a new suburb and had toilets, not night carts. The aluminium bottle tops which you could flick like flying saucers. And the wonderful time that East Sydney applied for an increase to their salary cap (as opposed to everyone else in the league) on the basis that the cost of living in the eastern suburbs was so much higher. The response, as I understand it was along the lines of “We don’t care how much your hairdos cost, the answer is still no.”. The good old days shouldn’t be exaggerated for their goodness, but they do contain fond memories.

  9. Fran Barlow
    October 11th, 2014 at 21:11 | #9

    As the practice of players selling rabbit meat to earn extra money dates from the early 20th century (presumably around the time the club formed in 1908) though I suppose it might have predated them leaving the Rugby Union, it seems unlikely you’d be recalling this. If you were born mid-50s (like me) your memories are bound to be about half a century too late — unless they were still doing it in the 1960s.

    I do have fond memories of jumping onto the back of the potato truck in West Ryde in the mid-60s of course. Mayhem as potatoes hurled onto corrugated rooves.

  10. Nicola
    October 11th, 2014 at 21:32 | #10

    If you grew up around Torrensville, Mile End, Thebarton or thereabouts your memory does not deceive you because I remember one in the early 60s when I was a toddler but his visits were rare. And he was an old bloke in an ‘orse and cart and he also sold Caltex heating oil from the same cart. When he pulled back the hessian bags there they were, lined up in rows, backs to the sky and limbs fully extended looking like they had been skinned in mid-flight.
    The bottle-oh I don’t remember – there would have been slim pickings in an Italian/Greek ghetto when the 5 cent deposit was in force and 15 cents got you a pack of Escort 10s.

  11. October 11th, 2014 at 23:43 | #11

    I spent my early years in a place called Halfway House in South Africa. I’m told (though don’t remember) that both running water and electricity arrived after I was born, but before we left for Australia in 1965. I certainly remember the digging of a long drop toilet for the servants.

    But certainly by 1965 in Perth, rabbitohs did not exist where I lived.

  12. JKUU
    October 12th, 2014 at 01:27 | #12

    Oh yes, there was a guy selling rabbits out of a horse-drawn cart in my Sydney neighborhood in the 1950s. He was known as a “rabbit-oh.” His cry was “Rabbits! wild rabbits!” My dog could hear him blocks before his cry reached my ears. She would yelp and jump up and down until a family member unlatched the side gate and went out to make a purchase. The rabbit-oh would dress the rabbits for us from his cart and give the offal to my dog (which explains her great enthusiasm for his visits).

    Thanks, JQ, for evoking a memory from childhood. I was always a St. George supporter (since I lived in the district). Nevertheless, I have a fondness for South Sydney. Somehow, they seem “authentic” to me in an age of highly commercialized sport.

  13. Frank Knight
    October 12th, 2014 at 01:29 | #13

    YES, definitely rabbitohs in Adelaide in the early 60’s. One cry was: ‘Buy a rabbity rabbit!’ Repeated ad nauseam. Around Beverly (bus stop 15, Port Road), at least).

  14. October 12th, 2014 at 05:33 | #14

    I grew up on a farm, about 80ks from Adelaide, in the 50s and 60s. People used to trap and sell rabbits to make a bit of money all the time. We had a bottle-oh with a horse and cart, we used to see him when we were walking to school. I don’t remember if there was a rabbit-oh but there could have been, they would have gone into local towns I guess.

    We used to go out at night spotlighting (shooting from the back of a vehicle with a spot light) for rabbits. I was allowed to have a go probably when I was about ten. Ah the good old days, eh?

    I told my kids about spotlighting once and my youngest (about eight then I think) said “did you used to SHOOT bunny rabbits?”, looking at me big-eyed like a child who has just found out her mother’s a murderer. Related – my first child once asked me, when she was about five or six, and I was cooking chicken for dinner: “Is that a dead chook in the oven?”. No wonder I’m a vego now.

  15. BilB
    October 12th, 2014 at 08:24 | #15

    Twitterspats?……Timewastoh!

    On a beautiful carved stone clock on London’s Liberty store is the inscription

    “No minute gone comes ever back again, take heed and see ye nothing do in vain”

    I think that that Victorian England would have rejected Facebook and Twitter.

    http://www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WMFFM9_Libertys_Clock_Great_Marlborough_Street_London_UK

  16. Ikonoclast
    October 12th, 2014 at 08:41 | #16

    @BilB

    There was a clock in Brisbane city, I think in the old or original Commonwealth Bank Building in Queen St. which had the inscription:

    “You know my time. Do you know your own?”

    Or words close to that. I am sure that clock was there until the 1980s and or 1990s. It may have dated from the 1920s to the 1950s roughly. I don’t know without checking. It was certainly not Victorian era but it’s interesting how earlier times erected momentos mori (reminders of death) to sermonise to people in public places.

    Our Western culture now has become more death-denying I think, in the sense that more then previous eras we like to pretend death that doesn’t happen and sweep all that awareness under the carpet.

    I find it ironic that I lasted on after that clock. Smartass clock! It disappeared so far as I know during a refurbishment as the Comm Bank moved to a new HQ building (across the road?). Of course, this will only bring back memories for old Brisbanites.

  17. Ikonoclast
    October 12th, 2014 at 09:00 | #17

    @Val

    This brings back memories tangential to the original topic but about spotlighting and shooting. In about 1974 I think I was working on a sheep and wheat farm in the Shire of Mingenew, W.A. The closest decent sized town a bit north was (and is) Geraldton.

    One day (and night) a bunch of shooters came to the neighbours property and they were planning to go out and shoot roos. The farmers were quite happy to let them on to their properties. These young fellows were young army guys on leave. They brought mainly .303 and/or .22 semi-automatic long cartridge or high-powered rifles I think. They were skiteing about having brought along tracer rounds and soft-nose or hollow nose bullets amongst their ammo. I went out with them to watch and I certainly saw evidence of both types of rounds in the action and results as I recall.

    The most bizarre aspect was that mid-evening we stopped for refreshments at the neighbour’s farmhouse. Of all things, Monty Python was on the TV, and of all sketches, a shooting sketch was on where the Pythons were blasting all sorts of quivering, furry wildlife with huge, over-powered weapons. The army fellows were screeching and rolling around with laughter. I was never sure whether they were so dumb they didn’t realise they were being satarised or whether they just didn’t care and it was a badge of honour to blast every moving thing in the animal kingdom to kingdom come. I didn’t and don’t have a problem with roo shooting when roos are in pest numbers but I did and still do disapprove of people acting like it’s a lark rather than a serious and distasteful task.

  18. Ikonoclast
    October 12th, 2014 at 09:03 | #18

    Sorry, “satirised”. One of those dumb mind-typos rather than finger-typos that makes it look like one can’t spell at all.

  19. ZM
    October 12th, 2014 at 10:47 | #19

    When I was a child in the 80s the town I lived in did not have sewerage connections – at our house we had a septic tank , but others would have the old outdoor toilets with buckets which I guess the night soil man would pick up regularly although I don’t remember him. I don’t think it ever occurred to me at that age to wonder what happened and ask.

    People still shoot rabbits here, and kangaroos (and foxes also). Nobody goes door to door – people just know people. I’ve an idea when I was young the butchers would sell rabbits locally shot – but I’d imagine this is against regulations these days.

    We had a milkman in a yellow ute who did deliveries. And in the bigger town a man did deliveries if soft drinks in reusable bottles he would take back and reuse. Before I was alive in the bigger town there was an egg board – so people would clean their extra chook’s eggs and take them down to the egg board for reselling.

    my mum told me when she was a girl growing up in Melbourne it was very important to leave Christmas presents for all the people who made deliveries to your house – the postman, the milkman, the paperboy and so on.

    Bottle-ohs are liquor shops here.

  20. Fran Barlow
    October 12th, 2014 at 11:47 | #20

    @Ikonoclast

    The most bizarre aspect was that mid-evening we stopped for refreshments at the neighbour’s farmhouse. Of all things, Monty Python was on the TV, and of all sketches, a shooting sketch was on where the Pythons were blasting all sorts of quivering, furry wildlife with huge, over-powered weapons.

    That was probably the first Monty Python skit I ever saw. I sat watching it with a friend c. 1973. It was hilarious, including the whimsical distinction between things that produced ‘woody’ sounds and those that were ‘a bit tinny’.

  21. John Quiggin
    October 12th, 2014 at 11:47 | #21

    Some interesting emails on this.

    My Mum tells me that I’m correct in remembering the bottle-oh, but that our rabbits came from the butcher. As a colleague points out, myxo in the 1950s had a bad impact on the image of rabbit as well as the supply.

  22. John
    October 12th, 2014 at 11:57 | #22

    Born 1961, can also remember the Myers delivery truck, bread deliveries and a chap on a horse drawn cart collecting aluminium alfoil. Mom gave him the alfoil as he seemed poorer that we were. Also Adelaide.

  23. October 12th, 2014 at 14:14 | #23

    Oh yes I remember myxomatosis now. When did that start? Maybe with the trapping and selling I’m also remembering things my older brother used to talk about, though I definitely remember going out spotlighting and being allowed to have a shot, and I’m sure I wouldn’t have been more than ten.

  24. October 12th, 2014 at 14:15 | #24

    @Ikonoclast
    I suppose you have seen Wake in Fright? Horrible stuff.

  25. rog
    October 12th, 2014 at 16:58 | #25

    I remember the door to door seller of rabbits, they were by the pair. They were a bit gamey, underground mutton they were known as.

  26. ZM
    October 12th, 2014 at 17:29 | #26

    Val,
    “Oh yes I remember myxomatosis now. When did that start? ”

    It was around in the 80s – I don’t know when it started to be used. The rabbit situation is a big problem – I think shooting them is kinder if they are shot and killed and not left wounded. Poison 1080 is also used which is cruel and now calicivirus which is a bit like ebola for rabbits – their insides start to liquefy so it is very cruel. The people who work in environmental management say calicivirus has made a decline in the numbers of rabbits. But it is very cruel.

    As a child I would be walking to primary school and see a little rabbit – and usually they dash off quickly if they see you – so if seeing a little one going slowly is very excited because I would think I will try to catch it and cuddle it – except when I would get close I could see it had got mixamatosis and was very sickly and unwell and would die soon. It is a very sad situation with no good way out.

  27. Ikonoclast
    October 12th, 2014 at 17:31 | #27

    @Val

    Yes, I have seen Wake on Fright a couple of times. Once round about release, once in the last five years or so. As a feckless youth it didn’t bother me much. The second time round was hard going. I could barely stand to watch it to the end precisely because, as Scorcese said, “Wake in Fright is a deeply — and I mean deeply — unsettling and disturbing movie.”

  28. October 12th, 2014 at 21:52 | #28

    @ZM
    Just wiki’d myxo (or Greg Hunted it, as Dorothy Parker at Loon Pond says) and apparently it was widely released in 1950. Rabbits have become more resistant and apparently it now kills only 50% of infected rabbits, hence calicivirus, as you say.

    I know they were (and are I guess) a huge problem to farmers, but all that poisoning is gruesome. Much better to kill them for food. I used to like them, when I ate meat. I still believe the only justifiable way to eat meat is you’re prepared to kill it yourself. If not you shouldn’t eat it, I reckon.

  29. stephen
    October 13th, 2014 at 10:25 | #29

    I remember a person with a horse and cart from the early 60s in Adelaide – my recollection is rabbits, but he might have been a bottle-o (for me as a small child the horse was much more interesting). It was a slow plodding horse, wandering along almost without guidance while the seller went from house to house. The cart was a simple flat bed tray sort of thing, so the seller could get to what was on it – which makes it more likely rabbits, which don’t tend to fall off.

  30. peter
    October 13th, 2014 at 12:21 | #30

    Bottle-Os were in the inner suburbs (Newtown) of Sydney in the early 1970’s. Incidently you can still make money recycling ‘longies’ – 750ml beer bottles. Home brew shops were paying me $5 a dozen when desperate to enlist new customers to the craft. But anything less than $3 was to be sniffed at.

  31. David Irving (no relation)
    October 13th, 2014 at 12:30 | #31

    Dunno about as late as 1960, Prof Q, but I definitely remember the rag’n’bone man, who had a horse and cart and smelt nearly as bad as his cargo. I’m not 100% about a rabbitoh, but I remember we used to eat a fair bit of rabbit (until mum got the gig at IMVS investigating chicken nutrition – we ate a shedload of vitamin-deficient chickens after that) because it was cheap.

    I also remember the milky (horse and cart again) and the iceman, till we got a fridge in about 1958.

  32. Paul Norton
    October 13th, 2014 at 14:18 | #32

    I can attest that on those occasions when my father brought home rabbit for dinner, he tell us that he had bought the rabbit/s from the rabbitoh. There was one occasion that I will not elaborate in in the interests of delicacy, but it entailed the rabbitoh leaving the rabbits exposed for longer than one could wish, and my father seeking to demonstrate the iron of his constitution.

  33. Paul Norton
    October 13th, 2014 at 14:44 | #33

    *he told us that*

  34. Paul Norton
    October 13th, 2014 at 14:47 | #34

    And in the 1960s the milko would drive his horse and cart around the streets of Reservoir delivering the two bottles every morning, and until I was six years old one of the motorists in the family would periodically have to drive to the ice vendor in High Street to buy a big block for the ice chest.

  35. Paul Norton
    October 13th, 2014 at 14:50 | #35

    Another early childhood memory is that in my first few years the streets in our part of Reservoir were still yet to be sealed. I recall the bitumen being laid and rolled about the time I started primary school.

  36. Kadaitcha Man
    October 13th, 2014 at 16:26 | #36

    I have definite memories of a rabbitoh with horse drawn cart in Adelaide in the late sixties (in the suburb of Findon). He would come by once a week, perhaps less frequently. I told my wife this after the grand final, but she scoffed as she usually does when I relate tales from early childhood.
    The horse was big, with blinkers.

  37. DaveWA
    October 13th, 2014 at 22:47 | #37

    The mentions of the night carts reminded of one of the Whitlam govt achievements. I worked in Tom Uren’s dept which worked on the national urban sewerage program to refit houses that had tanks or night carts.
    In early days I remember horse drawn bread carts in Newcastle and ice carts. My wifes grandfather still made some money from rabbiting in the 60s, selling in Melbourne

  38. Jim Birch
    October 14th, 2014 at 15:49 | #38

    I recently found a birthday card from you sent for my zeroth birthday. This would be an extreme case of precociousness since you were a few months old at that time so I put the author down as your mother. This aside is not strictly relevant but demonstrates contemporaneity. We lived in what was then an almost rural, very outer suburb of Adelaide. I do remember seeing a bottle-Oh with a horse drawn cart but can’t remember if this was local or elsewhere around Adelaide.

    There was a bit of rabbit shooting and maybe some trapping in our area around that time (~1960) but I didn’t know the term rabbitoh. I think it is not a word South Australians used but this might be just my limited experience, not a word my parents and my peers used. I first encountered it as a older teenager reading stories set in the depression. It’s such an evocative term for me, linking to an entirely different world, both socially and economically.

    I hadn’t heard the of the rugby league team of that name until much later still. If I ever supported RL – and I won’t – it would be the Rabbitohs, solely on the basis of the name. It’s an absolutely Australian moniker, unlike say the West Coast Eagles or the GWS Giants. But I am pleased they won the comp after being poor cousins for so long, though presumably not so poor that they live by rabbit trapping.

  39. October 14th, 2014 at 19:53 | #39

    Growing up outside Bacchus Marsh in the early 50s, Dad had a 22 in the boot of the Ford Prefect or Austin A40 and was known to shoot a rabbit for the table on his way home. He always called it “underground mutton”.

    He also told me (which means not necessarily true) that the small public hall was financed by the sale of rabbit skins. The locals performed a rabbit drive every weekend across the same paddocks.

    When we moved into the town, our dunny cans were carried away by Dick Stewart who perched them on his head – he had some kind of reinforced hat.

  40. John Quiggin
    October 14th, 2014 at 21:00 | #40

    @Jim Birch

    Yes Jim, I can remember coming out to your place, back in the day. Two particular memories

    * Playing with mercury – I’m sure this would be utterly forbidden today
    * Our parents singing “41 today” on a birthday, maybe my dad’s. It seemed an amazingly great age at the time

  41. Megan
    October 14th, 2014 at 21:21 | #41

    @John Quiggin

    Was there a dentist in that circle of friends?

    I remember playing with mercury (and getting into lots of trouble for doing so – although it wasn’t out of concern for our wellbeing) in the ’70s.

  42. David Irving (no relation)
    October 15th, 2014 at 11:21 | #42

    @John Quiggin
    Yes, I remember playing with mercury as well (although my mum, a biochemist, was less sanguine than most parents of the time would’ve been).

    Also, some years later (early 1960s), it was still possible for a kiddie to go to Selby’s in town and say, “Excuse me, mister. Can I please have a pound of ground charcoal, a pound of flours of sulphur and a pound of saltpetre?” without getting reported to the nanny state. Good times, good times.

  43. Jim Birch
    October 16th, 2014 at 08:23 | #43

    @DavidF
    Hence the old expression “as flat as a sh!t carter’s hat.”

  44. Ikonoclast
    October 16th, 2014 at 10:17 | #44

    I wonder if people will indulge a longer “early days” reminiscence. I born in 1954 and started primary school in an north Brisbane suburb in 1960. This suburb was near Kedron but not actually Kedron.

    In the early 1960s, I walked to my Brisbane primary school every week day in bare feet, baggy grey homemade shorts and a dark blue cotton school shirt. I wasn’t hungry or deprived. In the hot Queensland climate this was the most comfortable way to go to school. On my back I carried a red cardboard school satchel with narrow leather straps and a wooden pencil case rattling inside. My mother tried to get me and my brothers to wear horrible red plastic sandals which instantly became slippery and greasy on our feet in the sweaty heat. Playground dust – the playgrounds were all stones and dust – would collect as tiny brown spots in our sweat pores and as black grime between our toes. We took off our sandals right outside the front gate, stowed them and headed to school.

    My abiding memories of primary school include the 1/3 pint glass bottles of free milk doled out at little lunch. Our headmaster forced us to drink the remaining sour milk at big lunch after it had stood in the hot sun. At big lunch, we avoided the “milk depot” and our headmaster as best we could. I guess the social memory of rickets was still fresh. Maybe my headmaster had had rickets or polio as a child. He certainly stumped about the school-yard with one good leg and one stiff, braced leg. Behind his back we called him Pegleg. I remember the polio vaccine too, a strawberry pink fluid in a plastic spoon. Smallpox vaccination was a nasty needle scratch on the left upper arm even if you were left handed.

    In contrast to these new and enlightened public health measures, I remember violent, bullying classrooms and playgrounds. The pupils, or at least the boys, were often fighting; bullying or being bullied. I certainly fought a lot. I was both bullied and a bully. I was average in height, of scrawny build but I did well enough in a scrap. Many of the other boys were equally adept as playground fighters. Some teachers, always the males, were openly violent, cruel and vindictive. Corporal punishment was the norm and it included the sanctioned and the unsanctioned; caning, belting with the hand, throwing children into walls or port racks and throwing chalk and chalk dusters across the classroom at children. Hair twisting, especially at the temples, occurred too.

    Children in the younger grades who wet themselves or cried were subjected to ritual humiliations which included standing them on chairs in front of the entire class. One teacher conducted my class in singing of “Baby Face” to an unfortunate child. Not knowing any better, we participated, signing the words with gusto.

    Another teacher, considered in retrospect, had clinically obvious post-traumatic stress disorder, a skull plate repair, head and face injury scars and routine memory lapses; all apparently from wartime concussive and shrapnel injuries. He would often accuse pupils of things they had not done – at least not at that particular time – and violently shake and belt them. He would sometimes give tests and answers simultaneously, forgetting he was at the testing phase and not the answers phase. We were happy to get the answers without having to cheat off a neighbour.

    When we went home, we never commented on any of this as it was our norm. Occasionally I might look roughed up and sad or have the caked remnants of a bloody nose from a schoolyard fight. The standard paternal advice was “next time belt HIM harder”. My mother was more sympathetic but had no practical advice except to “stay out of fights”. This wasn’t always easy to do. At least we had a code in the fight ring which formed around the boys’ fights. The code was this. Only one-on-one fighting was permitted. No scratching, hair-pulling , biting or eye-gouging was allowed as that was “for girls”. Of course, we were little sexists. Punching and kicking were allowed but not in the groin.

    Tripping, leglocks, choke holds and even bashing the head on the ground to a limited extent were all permitted. Standing and kicking someone who was on the ground was not permitted. By mutual agreement some fights were limited to boxing or wrestling. There were a few grey areas but the ring would police the code by “outcry democracy” or even throw someone out of the fight ring and deliver the group judgement that the outcast was a dirty rotten cheat who had lost. He would remain an outcast for an hour or two. Anyone was allowed to cry out “I give up” and the fight ceased with that person more or less declared “the loser”. No shame was attached to giving up after a decent fight. A “chicken” who gave up too soon would usually cop a few extra departing blows and these were permissible.

    The ring would keep lookouts and scatter at any sight of a teacher. It was a playground practical joke that several of the fight-ring would rapidly walk off in different directions arms-over-shoulders like best mates and the fighters would do the same thing to disguise who had been fighting. Strangely enough, this ritual was often enough to make the fighters instant mates again or at least accept each other and forget enmity for the time being. The teachers were a greater common enemy in the main although we did like a few of them.

    We played informal tackle football, rugby league, with large, anarchic teams on a stony oval. The quieter kids would loiter on the periphery as multiple wingers and fullbacks. Other fools like me were in the dusty thick of it. Sliding tackles were generally avoided and standing tackle submissions were common. Anyone who tried to keep progressing was flung to the stony ground with a sling tackle or a Cumberland throw. Around the edge of the oval some neglected grass grew, often to knee length. We used to grab a bunch of long grass in each hand and tie them in a knot. Children running through the grass would put a foot through the loop and fall flat. Childhood then often was a schooling in gratuitous cruelty and payback.

    The boy’s toilets were filthy and disgusting even to the grubbiest urchin. As young as six or seven I avoided to having to do a “number two” at school. I do remember having a lot of stomach aches as a young kid. All males, but especially little boys, don’t know how to use urinals properly. Most us were in bare feet so nobody stood close enough. As the day wore on we stood further and further away. By the end of big lunch recess, half the floor area was wet with urine and boys were standing at the dry-wet boundary peeing on the concrete floor. If Pegleg, the headmaster, came in he would clip you round the ear, grab you by the arm and frog-march you, bare feet and all, over the pee-wet floor to stand right up at the urinal.

    Those were the so-called good old days of enlightened schooling and parenting in Queensland! Home discipline included being clipped over the ear, belted with an open hand, whacked on the backs of the legs with sticks and strapped across bare buttocks with a razor strap. On the other hand, we did get up to a lot of mischief. I can remember ivarious ncidents including a brotherly fight that ended in someone putting a hole in the fibro wall. A large stand of backyard banana trees went up in flames (all the dry fronds anyway) and the adjacent dunny nearly burnt down. A neighbourhood kid was convinced by me to eat birds-eye ornamental chillies. Then he cried and rubbed his eyes with the chilli stain still on his fingers. He was screaming for about an hour in his bathroom having his eyes irrigated.

    When we got a little older, our experiments included many with firecrackers, rockets and gunpowder. Cracker night was still legal. There were bunger fights, rocket duels, exploding letter-boxes and plastic soldiers immolated with improvised gunpowder flame-throwers. My brother nearly had his fingers blown off in a firecracker accident while squatting and examining a smouldering half of a large bunger. His hand was numb for days and his inner thighs tattooed with gunpowder and soot blasted into the skin. Older kids were making jokes asking if he still had his “family jewels”.

    Then we moved on to our chemistry phase. Hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide were obtained by various nefarious methods and reacted in large soft drink bottles with metals, usually aluminium milk bottle caps. There was an art to making the hydrogen balloons we floated over the neighbourhood. Put in too little of the reagents and not enough hydrogen would be generated. Put in a too much and the reaction got too hot, boiled and put water vapour in the balloon which then would not float. Far too much of the chemicals meant the bottle would crack or explode spilling acid or alkali everywhere on the concrete. Spontaneous combustions were created with Condy’s crystals and glycerine. Strip magnesium was obtained and used as up-market wicks. Cracker cannons were made along with ball-bearing pressure guns. Pressure cans were used as flame throws and blown up inside backyard incinerators which were still legal in those days. Incinerator rubbish was doused with a cup of petrol which was allowed a few minutes to evaporate in the summer heat. The incinerator lid was put back on and it was lit with a rolled newspaper wick through the bottom grate door. The steel lid, 18 inches in diameter or so, was blown about 15 feet in the air.

    The next stage was home-made go-karts. My older brother and his mate were most adept at this phase. An old go-kart frame or two was obtained along with a semi-functioning Vesper motor scooter. From this they constructed a working go-kart with a Vesper engine and gearbox. A neighbour’s yard became a go-kart track with a bare track was worn right around the house. Though they were strict disciplinarians at times, the parents of that time could also be remarkably tolerant. Did they know all the mischief we got up to? Certainly they did not. Did we get severely punished at times? Yes, we did. Did they turn a blind eye to some of it and just ignore things for a bit of peace? They did that for sure.

    We were rough and ready kids and had a lot of childhood adventures. Some of it really was too dangerous and should have been stopped. Some of it was pure vandalism. But the cotton-wool and strictures modern that Australian middle-class kids are put in is probably excessive in the other directions. On the other hand, the punishment regime at my primary school and even in some homes of that era was disgraceful and some of it was outright child abuse. Parents of that era, at least the basically loving and caring ones of whom there were many, have to be judged by the standards of that era and by their own upbringing in the 1920s, which was even tougher and featured some genuine deprivation. Such things have to be taken into account. On the whole the neighbourhood’s parents were good and became more enlightened as times progressed. My recollections of high school convince me that Queensland, as a society, had already rapidly entered a considerably more enlightened period by that stage. Either that or I had somehow been turned from a little savage into a more or less civilised person by about age 13.

  45. October 16th, 2014 at 11:42 | #45

    That’s a very interesting story Ikon, so ok that it’s long. I am bit older than you and I went to a tiny one teacher school in rural SA, but have many similar memories. Being a girl, I wasn’t involved in so many physical fights, although I did have a few! About half the kids at the school came from two families, mine and a large family down the road. They were of Aboriginal background, although that wasn’t actually talked about in those days. Marilyn Lake, the historian, has also written about her childhood playmates in rural Tasmania whom she later realised were of Aboriginal background, although it wasn’t talked about. I think adults probably knew but children didn’t necessarily know about such things. We certainly could be cruel but in a way we didn’t know enough about race to be racist, strangely enough. One of the oddest memories I have from childhood concerns one day when I went to my best friend’s house (from that family) and her mum invited me for tea, which they had very early. They were very poor and their house had dirt floors but again I was too young to understand the significance of this. We had broad beans with our meal which I had never had before and was a bit suspicious of. Later when I got home my mother was worried about me as I was late (we walked two miles home from school) and I got into trouble.

    We would never have been told not to play with these children and weren’t exactly forbidden to go to their house but somehow we got the message that they could come to our house but we shouldn’t go to theirs. My mum might have said something about cleanliness or hygiene, anyway I was too young to understand these social complexities and for a long time mainly felt that the vague risks I sensed I had been exposed to had something to do with broad beans.

    Children can be awful to each other, but the real wrong was in our society rather than us, and as you say our parents were products of their time also. Basically my parents were enlightened by the standards of their time of their time, sad though that is. The other thing about this is that some urban people think country people are conservative and backwards and they often are, but there’s also ways in which living in such small communities could be more socially inclusive, even though also kind of feudal. I have lived in other parts of rural SA where there was absolute overt racism though, and it shocked and frightened me, but that’s another story.

  46. John Quiggin
    October 16th, 2014 at 13:02 | #46

    “My abiding memories of primary school include the 1/3 pint glass bottles of free milk doled out at little lunch. Our headmaster forced us to drink the remaining sour milk at big lunch after it had stood in the hot sun”

    A massive own goal for the Australian dairy industry. Put me and most of my generation off milk for life.

  47. lesleym
    October 16th, 2014 at 13:05 | #47

    I’m about ten years older than you, Ikon, and my memories of another Brisbane northern suburb state school are similar to yours. The boys fought every day, down on the flat, the girls formed little cliques and set up cubbyhouses under the canary palms. The physically inept always were only reluctantly allowed to join the tailend of the rounders teams. In Grade Eight, I learned about “the curse.” What made it worse was the teacher’s (an ex-AIF man) habit of encouraging children to come and stand next to his desk if they had a problem, or needed some extra drill. He would place his hand casually on the lower back of each child, but always seemed to let it slide to where he could establish that a girl was wearing a home-made menstrual pad. I hated him for this, and my first purchase when my allowance was increased so I could travel by tram to my girls school in the next year, was of course, my own disposables that “didn’t show.”

  48. David Irving (no relation)
    October 16th, 2014 at 13:12 | #48

    @John Quiggin
    Me too, Prof Q. I still won’t drink milk.

  49. lesleym
    October 16th, 2014 at 13:15 | #49

    Re the free milk scheme. There was regularly an imbalance between the amount of milk sent, and the number of children present. At our school, teachers supervised fairly closely that everybody actually consumed the milk. I do remember the day when there was so much left over that we were allowed to have a competition to see who could drink the most. I won. It was either eleven or thirteen bottles (it was a long time ago…) I sometimes wonder if that’s why I eventually developed an intolerance to milk fat.

  50. lesleym
    October 16th, 2014 at 13:41 | #50

    I cannot remember a call from the rabbit man, although I know he did sometimes come (but I do not remember him being called anything other than ‘the rabbit man’. I never heard the term rabbitoh prior to its use by the Sydney team.) I do remember the ‘clothesprops’ call – a long and low first syllable, then a rising inflection almost an exclamation at the end. The ‘milko’ you could hear him call, as well as recognise the jingle from the cans strung under the milkchurn tap. The iceman always came in a hurry, with a big hessian bag over his shoulder for the ice to rest on, but my father being an electrician obtained an electric fridge before I was five, so the iceman is a very dim memory. I also remember the Chinese gardener who came around with fresh vegetables. My mother would never buy lettuce from him, only vegetables that would be peeled, then boiled. (I sometimes wonder whether her fear that human nightsoil had been used in the production of these veges was justified, or whether she just read a bit more widely than many of her fellow housewives.)

  51. Ikonoclast
    October 16th, 2014 at 14:40 | #51

    @lesleym

    I don’t recall any rabbitohs in Brisbane. Maybe Brisbane didn’t have them or maybe only those older than I can recall them. I do remember quaint signs like “NO EXPECTORATING” in the butcher’s shop. I had to ask my mum what it meant. This butcher had quite literally a huge cyclindrical stump or block for chopping meat on and sawdust, over tiles I guess, on the butcher’s side of the counter. The customers’ side of the counter had tiles, marble tiles I think.

    Quite a few shops and some residences also sported the NO HAWKERS sign. I had to ask what that too.

  52. lesleym
    October 17th, 2014 at 06:54 | #52

    BTW, ProfQ, what’s wrong with ‘twittertiff’? Is Twitter really the space for anything more formal?

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