Gladys Allen

Gladys Allen

Canterbury’s People: Gladys Allen has lived in Campsie since she was married in 1944. Her husband, Alf, ran a fuel and ice business in Campsie for many years. They raised three children in the area and had a long association with the Campsie Salvation Army.

Gladys’ childhood

Gladys Lillian Allen nee Harris was born in Bathurst, central west NSW in 1911. In 1918 Gladys and her family moved to Lithgow. Gladys was the eldest of seven children and when not attending primary school she was busy helping her mother with the smaller children and the general routine of keeping a home and family. When she was eleven years old Gladys was awarded her “permit to enrol certificate” which allowed her to attend the local secondary school. Here she excelled in domestic science and took great pride in applying her knowledge of cooking in her home.

Christmas holidays were a time of childhood excitement and celebration. Her extended family all spent the holiday with her grandmother in Arncliffe, Sydney. Perhaps the most exciting part of the holiday was the journey there by train. A “horse bus” dispatched her mother, father and siblings to the railway station where they caught an old steam train down to Central.

The children spent the journey looking out the windows and spotting the Griffith Brother’s Tea Factory signs every mile, which said for example “24 MILES TO GRIFFITHS BROS TEA”. In the heat of summer they travelled with the carriage windows open, but they had to make sure they closed the windows before the train entered one of the tunnels on the Blue Mountains line. If they failed, the carriage would be filled with smoke, steam and soot from the lumbering steam train.

The landscape changed as they neared the city. At the foothills of the mountains were small farms and market gardens, and the more built up areas of Sydney began at about Parramatta. The family changed trains at Central for the train to Arncliffe, through the numerous Chinese market gardens that bordered the train line.

Leaving school

When she was thirteen years old Gladys had to leave school to help her mother look after the family. Her mother Lillian was not in good health and soon after leaving school the family moved to the warmer climate of Ipswich, Queensland. Her father found work on the railway there and Gladys went to work for 11 shillings a week at the local greengrocer’s shop.

The family’s sojourn in Ipswich proved ill-fated. Her mother’s health worsened in the overpoweringly warm and uncomfortable climate and her small brother became ill with diphtheria. The climatic conditions were made worse by the fact that the region was experiencing the worst drought it had seen for a number of years:

“It was terribly hot and I had quite a long walk into Ipswich every day for work. It was so dry during that drought the local river, the Bremer River almost completely dried up. Often we would see huge storm clouds moving in over the town and we’d hope for rain but they would only bring thunder and lightning – no rain.”

Living in Sydney

The family decided to return to Sydney in the late 1920s. Gladys’ father, Henry Harris, found work and the family lived in Auburn.

As they were becoming established and more secure the years of the Great Depression hit and like many men, Henry was laid off work. The family subsisted on a government allowance of 30 shillings per week for groceries, plus the small wages Gladys and one of her sisters brought home from their part-time jobs at the Arnotts biscuit factory. Before the Depression years the three Harris girls had full-time positions at the factory but when things became tough the factory had a policy of sharing the meagre workload between all the families who worked at the factory.

As the Depression lifted, Gladys’ father regained his job and Gladys increased her hours at Arnotts, where she worked for 14 years. By then, Gladys felt the need to improve her situation so she trained in shorthand and typing and took a job with the Central Office of the Salvation Army.

The Harris family had had a long and loyal involvement in the Salvation Army. Her father and mother were solid members of the church in Lithgow where her father was a Salvation Army Band member and her mother was the organ accompanist for Sunday services. Both her parents had beautiful singing voices and they used this gift at church meetings and services.

Gladys’ involvement in the church was as committed as her parents. As well as working with the Central Office, she attended regular church meetings, services and associated social engagements. It was within the community of the church that Gladys met her future husband, Alfred Allen, in 1943.


Gladys met Alf at a party. Gladys recalls that:

“Although we did not really talk much, Alf spotted me and must have been impressed because he sent me a letter the following week suggesting that we get to know one another.”

After almost a year’s courtship and engagement, Gladys and Alf married in the Salvation Army Church in Campsie in 1944. It was at the height of the World War II restrictions and government rationing, and they were allocated a total of twelve photographs and one box of confetti for the wedding. After a simple reception the couple travelled to a guesthouse in Austinmer (between Sydney and Wollongong) on a train littered with sleeping soldiers on leave. At 2am they arrived and made their way to the guesthouse in the inky darkness of a wartime blackout.

Gladys’ in-laws: the Allen family

Campsie had been home to the Allen family since 1918, when they arrived in Sydney from Bellingen, northern NSW. Alf was eight years old when he and his family moved to Campsie. Alf’s father established a business on the corner of Beamish and Campsie Streets selling wood, coal, coke and produce [food for horses, chickens and other domestic animals]. A couple of years later Alf’s father purchased a house and property in Campsie St from which he continued to operate the fuel and produce business.

Alf Allen’s fuel, coal and ice business

In 1928, at the age of 18, Alf Allen purchased the fuel and produce business from his father. After some tough years during the depression in the 1930s, things gradually began to improve, and Alf took on an ice run as well.

Coal arrived at Campsie railway station in huge coal trucks. These could be heard clanging their way into the station in the early mornings at around 2am. Coal was unloaded at the station into hessian bags using a council sanitary pan that Alf had found somewhere. This was used because the pan held exactly half a hundredweight of coal, and the coal was sold in bags of this amount. The bags were taken to his home in Campsie St and stored in the coal shed.

The ice works was located on Ninth Avenue, Campsie and Alf picked up his supplies of ice three times a week for his regular ice run. During the years of World War II the ice rounds were strictly regulated between delivery businesses, as were most jobs. Alf had a run that extended to several streets close to his home in Campsie St. This was before the age of refrigerators, when families used an ice chest to keep their perishable food cool. At each house on his run Alf would call out to announce his arrival, manoeuvre a huge block of ice out of the truck with his ice tongs, run around the back of the house, put the ice in the top of the ice chest and wait for his payment.

Living in Campsie Street

From the late 1920s the produce side of the business waned as people stopped keeping livestock in their backyards, and the vacant paddocks were gradually built on. So after the police station was established near their house in 1929, the produce shop at the front of Alf’s family home was remodelled into two offices and rented to solicitors.

It was to this house in Campsie St that Gladys came to live as a new bride in 1944. The young couple shared the home with Alf’s youngest brother for some time. Alf’s mother had died and so Gladys took on the role as the woman of the house.

Setting up house during the war years was often a challenge as household goods were in short supply. Gladys spent many days before and after she married looking for pots and pans and other household items. The new couple’s bedroom and lounge furniture requirements were available only through a system of strictly applied rationing. When Alf’s father started to renovate the kitchen for Gladys, she found a stove at the local appliance shop, but had to apply to the appropriate government department for permission to buy it. At first they were refused, until they wrote again pointing out the safety risks involved in using the old gas ring and fuel stove they had used for years.

Shopping in Campsie

During her early married life, Gladys was able to do all her shopping in the stretch of Beamish St from Campsie St to the railway station. Here she shopped at either one of two pastry shops, a hardware shop or one of two fruit shops. At the local Mansours she found all her manchester needs [linen, towels etc.], at Miss Martins she found all the necessary haberdashery items [sewing etc.]. Martins the chemist and a well stocked delicatessen completed the list of shops. It was only rarely that she needed to go beyond the railway line to the PDF shop [Preserved and Dried Fruit bulk store] for honey or grains.

The closeness of the shops was a blessing for Gladys, as they had no refrigeration in their home when she first came to live in Campsie. Like most other people their perishables, vegetables, cheese, milk and meat, were brought daily from the local shops, in preparation for each meal, and stored for a short time in ice chests. The ice chest was a bit of a trial at times, since you had to keep the drip tray empty – despite the gradual melting of the ice – or risk a great puddle of water on the kitchen floor if the tray overflowed.

Home and children

When she was first married, Gladys’ daily routine included a number of tasks without the help of modern electrical appliances. One of the most memorable and time consuming was the washing of the family’s clothes. She had a very dirty wash given the nature of her husband’s job selling coal! She loaded the dirty clothes into the copper filled with water, lit the fire underneath it to heat the water and boiled the clothes for a while. She then scooped the clothes out of the boiling copper with a long “copper stick” and plunged them into a rinse tub of water saturated with ‘blue’ for whitening, and then later starch for stiffening. This process took up much of her day.

War-time restrictions meant that other regular domestic chores included sewing all the clothes for the family and tending a large vegetable garden. With meal menus restricted by what was available in the shops, the vegetable garden provided a bit of variety. Gladys and Alf always had a beautiful crop of tomatoes in the late summer and other vegetables in season.

Gladys and Alf had three children, Bruce, Ross and Margaret, born in 1945, 1947 and 1954 respectively. Her sons were born at the Macleay Private Hospital in Belmore and her daughter at Bethesda Private Hospital in Marrickville, and they all attended local schools, Harcourt Infants School and Campsie Public School as had Alf and all the Allen children. They later attended Canterbury Girls and Boys high schools.


In the 1950s Campsie St and the surrounding neighbourhood was full of children and Gladys remembers her children hosting many a game of backyard cricket. Her daughter was always included with the boys and was more often than not the umpire.

During the school holidays Alf, Gladys and the three children would often pack the big bull-nosed Chev truck with mattresses, tables, chairs and whatever else they needed and set off for Stanwell Park, close to Austinmer, to camp at the beach. The Chev was usually used to cart ice or parcels for the business, and also provided transport for those attending the Salvation Army Sunday School picnics that were held at places such as Shelly’s Beach at Cronulla in southern Sydney.

Entertainment closer to home included attending the circus that often pitched its tent on a vacant lot in London St, Campsie. The family also celebrated Empire night or Guy Fawkes night with friends in their backyard or at the Byron St section of the Cooks River Reserve.

For many years Gladys’ family participated in the local Anzac Day march, as members of the Salvation Army band. The males played brass instruments (Alf the baritone, Bruce the bass and Ross the cornet) and Margaret the timbrel (similar to a tambourine). The service was held near the Clock Tower Memorial in Anglo Road, Campsie. The band members would then have breakfast at the local RSL club and catch the train to attend the Anzac march in the city.

Campsie Salvation Army

Alf began his musical career in the Salvation Army Boys Band in the 1920s and then he spent almost 70 years with the Senior Band. He became Chief Steward to the local Minister and regularly attended the open air meeting held on Friday nights in Beamish St. “Church in the Street”, a meeting held in Anzac Square each Sunday, is another Salvation Army tradition. It used to include a march by the band down Beamish St until the traffic became too busy.

Gladys herself is still an active member of the local chapter of the Salvation Army and has made a full and respected contribution in various ministries in the church, including a long-standing commitment to teaching at Sunday School. Gladys still sings with the choir and plays the timbrel and is dedicated to participating in the Lady’s Choir program of visiting seniors groups and nursing homes.

Now in her 90s, Gladys has enjoyed a rich and fulfilling life in the Campsie area. She has seen many changes in the local scene and has made a range of contributions to the local community, both through her ministries with the Salvation Army and through her personal life.