MY father arrived in Kilcunda from Val Nuvula a tiny hamlet three kilometres from the village of San Donato, in the province of Belluno in northern Italy in 1950. My mother arrived in 1951. They married in Carlton then lived in a shed in Mine Road, Kilcunda. Dad worked at the Mitchell mine across the road until it closed, then started work stripping the pillars at Number 20 shaft in Wonthaggi.
In July 1952, my parents moved to an old four-roomed cottage in what is now called Sanderson Street. The Chambers family had been among the previous occupants. My parents shared this place with another Italian family, Pietro and Gemma Bee, and a Dutch family. The only water was from a tap in the front yard but that was more convenient than having to break through ice in the Alps.
In 1956, when I was three, my father paid about a week and a half’s wages for a blackberry and rubbish-filled vacant block at 76 Reed Crescent, on the south side of Wonthaggi. It was a tough mining town but the adversity of mining life had fostered neighbourliness and co-operation in the town so we were made very welcome. The Legges next door taught us English and introduced us to the joys and bounty of the sea, Charlie Taylor taught us the art of ferreting, the Sleemans showed us how to kick a footy and build a bonfire and Mrs Coleman made us apricot jam. They all showed us by example how a good neighbourhood operates. They would share vegetables, eggs, honey, rabbits, fish, including crays, jam, chutney, cakes and scones.
In the days before television, families sat around the black coal stove in the kitchen talking, telling stories, mending, knitting, reading, writing letters. Italians would pod out dried beans, a winter routine dating back centuries. Other Italians would call around to visit to see if there was any news from “Over There”, which is how they referred to Italy, probably because the Italy they grew up in, run by the Pope, the monarchy and a popularly elected leader, had brought misery and death to millions.
My first memory of the mines was at 20 shaft, where my father was working. He dinked me everywhere on his bike. One weekend when we were riding past, he gave in to my nagging and took me in for a look. There was no fence or barrier around the shaft, and all I saw was a large scary black hole in the ground. I’d seen enough to last me a decade. Nearby, I can remember a more pleasing sight, a large cage of colourful canaries.
Those of us who have lived in the town for a long time probably take its union influence for granted. The Miners Union had a heritage going back to the first miners’ meetings at Bakery Hill in Ballarat, where for over a year miners from 23 nations met, debated, argued and eventually agreed to petition the Governor for a fair tax, the right to vote and the right to own land. The Murdoch media would have us believe it was only about gold licences. Does anyone know the anniversary of the Eureka stockade?
The union was Wonthaggi’s collective brain – the miners and their leaders accepted their responsibility for the community. The Davidson Royal Commission of 1945 stated: “The Wonthaggi branch of the Miners Union, especially its president Idris Williams, have furnished the best example in Australia of self-help in the provision of living amenities for the mine workers.”
What do we imagine when we imagine better times? Winning tattslotto and moving to a bigger house, buying a better car? The union men and women of Wonthaggi enriched our lives by imagining a better society. With confrontation, negotiation and sacrifice, they and their families established a medical benefit fund, helped build the hospital, established the dispensary, started a brass band, built a public theatre and established the co-op store and bakery.
Scottish author Andrew O’Hagan said, “There is no nation but the imagination.” Without unions speaking the truth to those in power, the work and social conditions that people have today would be just another dream.
The union had a far-reaching effect on the social and community life of Wonthaggi. I can remember riding on the bus to the Miners Union picnics at the Glade in far-off Inverloch. Frank Coleman was the MC, organising the races and throwing handfuls of lollies to a swarm of us kids as though he was feeding the chooks. He organised races for everybody, even for the men and women over 60. We all got an ice cream – a luxury. I can remember licking mine very slowly.
Frank Coleman also delivered our bread with a draft horse and cart. Frank would leave the horse to feed on the nature strip while he had morning tea with his mum, who lived across the road from us in Reed Crescent. Us kids would gather around to breathe in a long deep smell of wood-fired bread from the co-op bakery. She and her house came from Outtrim to Wonthaggi by bullock team. In an old trunk in the bedroom she still had the old thick canvas tent from the tent town days. When she arrived, residents got their water from the spring at Tank Hill, in Reed Crescent.
Our neighbourhood had more than its share of legends and learned elders. All of them were free of ambition, greed and acquisitiveness. They had an accumulation of human wisdom. Mr F. J. Goldsmith at No. 80 had been an experienced and expert miner, a long-time militant Miners Union rep, an excellent debater and a fluent orator. Norm Legge next door had sailed around the world for years. Tom Drummond at no 90 drove the steam train and I thought he must be the luckiest man in the world. At No. 63 lived Henry Williams senior, a father of 10 who had a hut at Shack Bay. He had worked in the mine at Outtrim before the turn of the century, living in a humpy. He told us most men there went barefoot because it was impossible to buy boots. Wages were 2 shillings and 6 pence a day for a 12-hour day - that’s 2. 5 pence per hour, which helps explain why so many went off to the First World War.
My father caught Jungle Sloan’s bus at the corner of Matthew and Reed Crescent with other neighbourhood miners, Niga Undy, Antonio Gervasi, Alec Stevenson, Jim Hudson and Paddy Sleeman. I didn’t find out until after he died that Paddy Sleeman had been in Italy during the war, He must have known that my father was on the other side. There would sometimes be deep and serious discussion that stopped when us kids came near. Paddy was a great neighbour – he and his family were always very kind to us.
I was in grade 5 when the fire in the engine room at Kirrak left all the miners, including my father, stuck down below. On TV that night we got to see some of those we knew climbing out into the daylight. Some of the older ones had really struggled on the climb out. It wasn’t a pretty sight.
There was a lot of sharing of kids in our street. In my early primary years, my mother led a picnic excursion of neighbourhood kids and their dogs up Shandley Street into East Area, up to the top of the red stone dump. It was much bigger then and it was a memorable adventure. It wasn’t the Dolomites but for us kids it was a great view over the town and out to sea. As we got older and our world expanded, it became – along with the tip and Tank Hill – part of our regular entertainment itinerary.
In summer we played cricket on Strongs Reserve until it was too dark to see the ball. This is where we learnt about the fair go. When we couldn’t see the ball we hung out under the street light on the corner of Matthew Street.
In the early 1960s, dads went to work, mums stayed home and us kids played anywhere simple. Walking everywhere, from school to the shops to the beach, made simple food good and tasty. Most kids had free range to explore the world and the older kids looked after the little ones. We could go anywhere as long as we were home by 6 o’clock. People lived a life of frugal comfort. We didn’t get what we wanted but most of us got what we needed.