Canterbury's People: Talking to Les Hall conjures up a fascinating picture of Canterbury as it once was. It was a time when children had freedom to roam and have adventures, and you had to invent your own fun and be ingenius to get by in hard times.
Les Hall was born in Campsie in 1924 and has lived there almost all of his life. His father, Robert Roydon Hall was a plasterer and a veteran of World War I where he suffered shrapnel wounds to the right wrist and was exposed to mustard gas. The gas ate the lining of Robert's stomach, and every room in the Hall household had a tin of Hardy's anti-acid powder to help him. The effects got worse as he got older and he intermittently had work. He didn't ever receive a war service pension.
Les' mother, Doris Linda McKinnon, was a dressmaker at Farmers department store before marriage, after which she didn't have a paid job and worked as a homemaker. The family mainly lived at his grandmother's home until her death.
The Great Depression
In 1929 the Great Depression began, and this was a formative influence on Les' family life, already affected by his father's ill-health and inability to work full-time. Many locals were out of work. Instead of the dole, unemployed people received government coupons that were exchanged for food at the local grocer.
Les and his two brothers helped out the family economy in a number of ways. He sold old newspapers to the fish 'n' chip shop, home-grown parsley to butcher shops and collected bottles to sell. He collected horse manure from the horse-drawn bakers carts for sixpence per billy cart, and sold it to regular customers for their gardens. He would stack soft drink boxes or clean windows for the deli owner in return for some slices of ham.
While he didn't go hungry in the Depression, food was not plentiful. If Les ran a message for someone and was given a biscuit as a reward, "you would not eat it straight away, you'd put it in your pocket as you knew you'd get hungry some other time".
When Les speaks of his old neighbourhood, he recalls people helping each other:
"You'd get home from school and mum would say 'Right, you go over to Mrs Dunlop over the road or Mrs Faulkner who lived next door'."
The family would lay-by clothes at Lesley's Menswear, but if Les needed a new shirt for a special occasion, the owner would allow him to take the item early and pay it off later.
Les himself was the recipient of unknowing help. In these hard times he and his brothers and friends 'had nothing, no money', so they had to entertain themselves for free. With no money to go to the movies, the boys would get in for free by using a razor blade to split the pass-outs of friends who had paid to get into the Excelsis, their nearest picture theatre. Les found out later that the owner, old Murphy, knew of their scam, but he knew they could not afford to pay, so he turned a blind eye to it.
Some of the boys' escapades supplemented the family larder – "you'd go to Hughans when they were loading the fresh bread onto the cart, and Mr Hughan would give you a loaf of left over stale bread" – and Les was adept at distracting the driver of the cart – "you'd put your stale bread in the middle of the fresh bread and take the fresh bread".
Another larrikin pastime was to stand on the Lock St railway overpass- bridge, throwing billy-cans of water onto the steam trains passing below to tease the drivers. In retaliation, the drivers would throw coal at the kids, which the kids would collect for the family fuel stoves.
Les suffered from polio as a child, a common disease at a time, before the polio vaccine was developed. Polio affects the muscles, and some kids needed irons to support their legs to walk. Les only needed special boots and he learned to walk by the time he went to school. But he could never run and still has a disability with one leg shorter than the other. This did not stop him climbing ladders and around on rooves in his job as a carpenter, "you were working so you put up with it".
Swimming was prescribed to help Les build up his polio-damaged leg. There was no local swimming pool at the time, so Les swam in the Cooks River, Cup and Saucer Creek or Wolli Creek. There was a popular large swimming hole at Flatrock on Wolli Creek, [near the current Flatrock Road]. At this time in the 1930s and 40s the Beverly Hills area was all paddocks, and many areas were unsewered. Canterbury Council tipped the night-soil dunny cans into trenches at their sewage depot on Moorfields Road (now Garema Circuit). When it rained, sewage leached into the creek from the depot and Les and his friends then swam at another waterhole further up-stream where it was cleaner, near Moorfields Methodist Church in Kingsgrove.
Les started his school life in 1929 at Rozelle Public School when the family briefly lived in Leichhardt. He quickly showed himself as high-spirited and determined to stand up for himself and was expelled on his first day at school! He soon moved to Campsie Public School where he has strong memories of the physical punishment that teachers used to enforce discipline. Teachers "liked using the bamboo cane" to punish students.
Once, he got his revenge on his teacher:
"You'd split the cane an inch down from one end and you'd get a bit of horse hair from the tail, the thick part of the tail, and you put it in [the cane] with a razor blade, and when he came to hit you, the cane split and he blistered all his hand. No-one knew who's done it of course."
The school had an English ex-army sergeant named McMoore as deputy headmaster, and if one child gave him cheek and he couldn't find out who did it, Mr McMoore would punish the whole school. He would have them out in the hot sun doing physical jerks for half an hour. Les' polio-affected leg came in handy at these times: he was excused from doing physical jerks, and if he was in trouble, he could only be hit across the shoulder, not on the legs.
Another favourite trick in those days before biros, when students used a pen dipped in an inkwell on their desk, was to catch a blowfly, dip it in the inkwell and put it on your ruler over a pencil. You would then flick it up onto the ceiling and the kids would watch it crawl across the ceiling, leaving an inky mark.
In Les' school days there was some animosity between Catholics and Protestants. The kindergarten classes had hand bells in the classroom and Les and his friends would "borrow" the bells and go out the front of their school near St Mels Catholic Church and School, which were next door to Campsie Public. They would sing out "Protestants, Protestants ring the bell, all you Catholics are going to hell". Old Father Longley from St Mels would come running up in his long cassock with a cane in his hand, but by the time he got up the hill the boys were gone.
Memories from his mischevious youth
Les has a host of amusing stories about his escapades as a youngster.
Les did not enjoy schoolwork and often found more exciting things to do than go to school.
"If you wanted to wag school you'd just hop down the drain near Claremont St [in Rudd Parade] which goes underneath all the way to Cooks River. It's an old creek that starts near Canterbury Hospital, it used to be an open drain about five feet deep and you could walk all the way to Cooks River between Second and Third Avenues [in Campsie]."
His friend Kenny Roper lived near the bottom of Third Avenue and the pair made makeshift canoes out of whatever they could scavenge. They kept the boats at Kenny's place. The main material was sheets of galvanised (roofing) iron. He explains the method:
"If it [the iron] had nail holes in it you'd give it a coat of red lead paint, then you'd put a bit of canvas and coat the canvas with paint again to water-proof it. Then you took some pitch [bitumen] from around telegraph poles, heat it up, and patch up the front of the canoe, where the front section joined, same at the back, get a boom handle, nail on a bit of fence paling and that was your paddle. … It never leaked. You'd go [all the way] to Botany Bay."
His parents of course did not know of these boating activities: "if your mother found out you'd get killed, she didn't find out, thank God".
Many of Les' childhood anecdotes revolve around animals.
On Friday afternoons the pigs in cattle trucks would come into Canterbury Railway siding to unload pigs off the train.
"You'd hear train shunting, you'd hear the pigs squalling, you could hear them for a mile, so after school we'd race down, and you'd help block off Canterbury Road and they used to drive the pigs down to the holding yards at Huttons Bacon factory [the Sugar Works building] … and you'd go down there on a Monday morning before school … a sow might have a litter of 16 or 17 little piglets, they'd give them to you, they wouldn't kill them [the piglets], and you'd take them home … and flog them to the dairies. You used to get two bob each for them."
The dairies would then fatten the piglets on their waste milk to sell.
Another story Les reveals is about kids catching snakes at Nanny Goat Hill in Earlwood. They'd catch a mouse and place it inside a treacle tin with its tail tied around a hole so it couldn't get out. This would lure the snake which the boys would catch. They would sell the snakes to a man who made snake-skin belts for "two bob" (two shillings).
Les and his friends also trapped zebra finches in Wiley Park. They used a zebra finch in a cage to lure wild finches which lived in the bush in the park. They sold any finches they caught to pet shops for sixpence each.
Catching tortoises was another activity. There used to be a waterfall on Cup and Saucer Creek at Earlwood (which is now a concrete drain). If Les caught a tortoise, he would drill a hole in the back of its shell and tie it up in the garden, where it would eat the slugs and snails.
"Mrs Dunlop was a very proper and religious neighbour who would 'dob you in' if she saw you doing anything. She had a pet cockatoo that had learned to talk, and it would 'yak' all the time."
Les taught the cockatoo a few swear words. When Mrs Dunlop heard the swearing she was so upset she was going to have the cockatoo put down (killed), so he had to stop teaching it to swear.
Working and married life
In 1936 Les finished primary school and went on to attend Belmore Technical College (now Belmore Boys High School). Like his two brothers, Les had to leave school as soon as he could to help the family income. Through helping his father, who was working for the builder E.A. (Teddy) Price, Les was offered a five year carpentry apprenticeship, and similar to his brothers, he started work on his fourteenth birthday in 1938. He went to Tech in the evening for the apprenticeship. There was no annual leave or sick pay in the building trade then, and much of the work was casual.
When World War II began, Les was rejected by the Army on health grounds but nevertheless was required to work towards the war effort. He was sent to Clyde Engineering Company where he worked patching up bullet holes in aircraft such as Tiger Moths and Lancaster Bombers. After the war Les worked for the building firm Campbell & Smith and ended his working life as a carpenter at Sydney University.
Les lived with his parents in Claremont Street, Campsie until he and his wife Dulcie were married in 1947. They have spent most of their married life in Claremont Street near his parents' home. Les and Dulcie have two daughters, Lorraine and Dianne, and two grandsons.
Genealogy and local history
In the 1970s Les became interested in researching his family history. He became the founding president of the Canterbury Genealogy Discussion Group, a position he still holds. Les has a great sense of history, and joined the Canterbury & District Historical Society in the early 1980s and became an active member and office-bearer, including research officer and president for six years. In recent years, Les has suffered from ill-health caused by 'post-polio syndrome', and this has curtailed his involvement in community activities. He is a volunteer in the genealogy section at Campsie Library, and retains his great sense of humour.