The POWER FAMILY by Bryan Power
North Shore was a great place for a boy in the 1940s. There was excitement aplenty with the outbreak of World War Two which saw the conversion of the relatively new International Harvester tractor factory to an R.A.A.F. base. Within a year or so the base was taken over by an American Kittyhawk Squadron and there was hardly a dull moment while the Americans were creating a buzz in North Shore.
Merchant ships, bristling with anti‑aircraft guns, were constant arrivals at the Lascelles and Ford wharves with their crews of all nations. Bren gun carriers and trucks manufactured at the Ford factory for the army were tested up and down the cliffs near the Ford wharf. The threat of enemy attack was in the air and families began digging air raid shelters. And when the war finally came to an end on 15 August 1945 with only one angry shot having been fired in North Shore, the tight security that prevented any of us reaching the merchant ships was lifted. And what a wonderland was opened up to us!
We climbed unchallenged all over those ships ‑ up to the bridge, down to the engine room, and onto the gun decks where we enjoyed make‑believe combat with diving Japanese Zeros as we sat in the gunners’ seats. As well, we became shameless scroungers, collecting foreign coins, stamps and magazines from the friendly crews. Best of all were the slices of hot bread and cake served up to us by the cooks in the ships' galleys. Once I was even slipped a never‑before‑seen luxury ‑ a large can of Canadian salmon ‑ that I smuggled home to become the basis of a very special family meal.
And, of course, there were all the other enjoyable activities that a sea front location offered such as fishing, swimming and the highly dangerous task of searching for pigeon eggs along the crossbeams below the decking of the North Shore wharves.
The Power Family in North Shore
In 1931 my parents, Joe and Tas Power, came to North Shore where they first lived at what is now No 29 Myrtle Grove. (There were so few houses in those days that the houses weren't numbered.)
My father had been born in the tiny gold mining settlement of Dellicknora in north-east Victoria but shortly afterwards his family moved to Broken Hill where he lived until his early teens. At that time his uncles insisted that young Joe not become a miner and they banded together to send him as a boarder to St Peter’s in Adelaide. During that time his family moved to Melbourne and Joe joined them there in 1917.
Dad had developed an interest in science while at St Peter’s and obtained a position with Pivot Phosphate and was encouraged by Pivot's founder, Gus Wolskel, to keep up his studies in industrial chemistry. Dad successfully completed courses at the Workingman's College in Latrobe Street (later to become R.M.I.T.) but when he was asked to move to Geelong to work at Pivot's new factory in North Shore my mother dug her toes in.
Tas was a city girl and there was no way that she was going to leave her family, friends and her city interests to move to “Sleepy Hollow”. She convinced Dad to resign from Pivot and obtain a position with Brooks Robinson, Melbourne's biggest shop‑fitting business, with whom he trained as a French polisher. However, as the Great Depression started to bite more deeply, Dad could see that it was only a matter of time before he would be laid off, and with new‑born Kevin to provide for, Mum and Dad agreed that he should eat humble pie and seek to regain his old job with Pivot. Fortunately Mr Wolskel took him back but the move to North Shore was an inevitable condition.
Mum found sparsely populated North Shore a lonely place but she and Dad made good friends with a Scots couple, Bill and Ettie Hunter, who lived across the road from them at 36 Myrtle Grove. Bill and Ettie had no children and they were delighted to have ready access to baby Kevin on whom they doted.
Joe and Tas were not long in North Shore before they agreed to rent a home at 3 Seaview Parade (later to be renamed Phosphate Road) from Jim Allen. When the Hunters heard of this they made a counter offer: Mum and Dad could buy a house the Hunters owned two doors down at No 7 Phosphate Road for four hundred pounds, interest free, to be paid off at the same rate of rental that they were going to pay Jim Allen. Obviously this was too good an offer to miss but Jim Allen was understandably angry when Dad broke the news to him.
In December 1932 my sister Valerie was born and I followed two years later.
By this time Dad had bought a T‑model Ford (for five pounds) which he later replaced with a fifteen pound T‑model, a decision he always regretted, as he claimed the five pound T‑model was the better car. The two cars I recall Dad owning in the 1940s were both heavy, square English sedans, an Armstrong Siddely that suffered badly from ‘steering wobbles’ and a Foden. I had the task of turning on the ignition while Dad cranked to start these monsters.
While Kevin and Val were still small children Mum enrolled them in a dancing class run by Min Harrington of North Geelong. Mum was a talented pianist and was soon playing at the classes as well as at the end of year concerts held in the Plaza Theatre in Geelong.
A terrible tragedy was to strike our family in 1937 when Kevin was killed at school. Kevin attended St John's Catholic School in North Geelong where the children were taught by the Sisters of Mercy who lived at Stella Maris Convent on the cliff front not far from the school. Each day two or three of the boys were sent over to the convent to pick up the “dixie”, a metal container holding the lunches for the two nuns at the school. On 23 July 1937 it was the turn of Kevin, Douglas Chislett and Teddy Welsh to take the short walk through St Helen's Park to the convent. While waiting for the dixie at the convent door Douglas grabbed Kevin's cap and threw it into the garden. Kevin ran to retrieve it but slipped and struck his head against the wall. He suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and did not regain consciousness.
Mum and Dad were devastated by this cruel tragedy and never got over the death of their dearly loved eldest son. Mum would never talk about Kevin when we were young and it was not until she was well into her eighties that I could ask her about him. One story she told me was how on the day of his death Kevin had, as usual, run out to the letterbox to bring in the Sun which he then spread out on the kitchen floor to read the comics. On that particular day Mum told him to hurry or he'd miss the school bus and that he could read the comics when he got home. Of course, he never did come home to read the comics and, as a result, my mother carried that fragment of guilt with her throughout all of those years.
Vernon ("Jack") was born in 1939 and then, after many years, two pleasant surprises turned up: Jenny in 1945 and Shirley in 1946.
The War Years
The outbreak of World War Two saw the newly established International Harvester complex taken over by the R.A.A.F. My memories were mainly of the Fairy Battle bomber, a large single‑engined plane that looked something like a stretched version of the Hawker Hurricane. I learned later that the Fairy Battle bombers were already obsolete planes and were shipped here to be used to train pilots under the Empire Air Scheme. However, to us young kids they were magnificent machines, and we spent all the spare time we could find admiring them. The Australian ground crews were very easygoing, allowing us to closely inspect the aircraft when they were out on the airfield and even, on one head-spinning occasion, letting us sit in the cockpit to "fly" the plane.
The ground crew consisted of at least four men. To prepare the plane for takeoff they would take it in turns to slowly wind a crank handle (similar to what was used to start the old cars at the time) for about 15 minutes. The crank handle was inserted into the starboard side of the engine about a metre in front of the cockpit. The pilot would then start the engine while two of the ground crew stood on either side of the plane holding onto ropes connected to the triangular shaped chocks jammed in front of the plane's front wheels. The other two ground crew had the more difficult task of lying over the rear wings of the plane to keep the tail from rearing up as the pilot revved the engine. For us kids the noise was ear splinteringly delightful, the smell of the high‑octane exhaust fumes intoxicating, and the grass‑flattening slipstream that tossed us rolling along the ground was sensational. It was the sort of fun that no child would be allowed anywhere near today.
When the pilot was satisfied that everything was OK, he'd signal to the forward ground crew members who would jerk the chocks free. As the plane moved forward the two ground crew at the rear slipped themselves off the wings and within seconds the plane charged off down the paddock, taking with it the noise, the fumes and the wind rush. For the next few moments we kids charged around in circles in manic excitement, our only thoughts focused on when we'd have a chance to be part of the fun of the next take off.
Another type of plane I can recall seeing close up at North Shore in the later R.A.A.F. days was an Avro Anson, a two‑engined light bomber. (The R.A.A.F. returned to North Shore when the American squadron was posted north.)
I can vividly remember an exciting incident that occurred one afternoon in 1943 after the R.A.A.F. had returned to the North Shore base. I was riding my bike home from St John's past the base while air force men in all sorts of vehicles were racing out and heading west up North Shore Road where a large fighter plane was circling the paddocks. As I arrived the plane landed in the area of what is now Waverley Street and bumped to a halt about 50 yards from where I was standing. The plane was an American Thunderbolt, a huge single engine fighter. The pilot slipped back his canopy, stood up in the cockpit and testily declared to the horde of air force men: “I couldn’t see your goddammed field!”
It was little wonder that the pilot couldn’t locate the airstrip. The official airfield was the stretch of paddocks on the western side of Seabeach Parade that extended all the way from The Esplanade to St Georges Road. But that was all they were ‑ paddocks. There was nothing to mark them out as an airfield from the ground or the air so it was not surprising that the pilot couldn't find “the goddammed field”.
Things had changed drastically with the arrival of the Americans in 1942. They were very security conscious and we were not allowed near their Kittyhawks. Their security reached laughable proportions at times. For example, they put up signs of the “Keep Out” and “No Entry” variety all round the base but the one I remember best was the sign at the end of the runway in The Esplanade which read: “STOP ‑ KEEP MOVING”.
There was one incident that we kids found quite exciting but I remember my father being so angry about it that he went up to the base to voice his displeasure directly to the commander, a Lieutenant named, I think, Kowlaski.
One afternoon, as usual, we boys had jumped off the school bus when it stopped at Hinksman's shop and ran down to the International Harvester tip to ferret amongst the treasure trove of stuff thrown out from the base. On this particular day we couldn't believe our eyes. There, in the tip, was the wrecked fuselage of an American bomber (a Flying Fortress, I think). We raced down to it and within a minute had found sticks or pieces of piping that became guns as we thrust them through the holes in the fuselage. With us making all the appropriate sound effects we were soon engaging and shooting down imaginary Japanese fighters. We had just despatched an entire enemy squadron when we heard shouting – American-accented shouting.
Four servicemen, one of them with a pistol in his hand, ordered us out of the wreck, escorted us to the boundary fence and sent us on our way. I suppose it was no wonder that my father nearly blew a fuse as I excitedly related the story that night over the dinner table. We were disappointed to find on the following afternoon that the fuselage had gone. However, our daily visits to the tip were never challenged from then on.
One of our favourite tip activities was scratching through piles of sand to collect bullet heads. At the base there was a large open‑fronted shed filled with sand into which the machine guns of the Kittyhawks were test‑fired. I remember one day being stopped by a guard when this test‑firing was taking place and I was made to continue my bike ride to school that day via the Melbourne Road. I saw that the Kittyhawk had its rear tailplane raised on a stand so that it was perfectly level while its guns were tested. Every month or so the sand in the shed was replaced and the bullet‑laden sand was dumped in the tip ‑ much to our delight.
One of the favourite activities of the American guards stationed at the gates of the base was throwing rocks at each other's guard box. They'd take it in turns to hurl the rocks with the action of a baseball pitcher. They were pretty accurate too and the rocks made a loud bang when they hit the guard boxes.
Their pilots were equally devil‑may‑care. They seemed to delight in flying very low over our homes causing the windows to rattle and all of us to jump with fright as they flashed overhead. One day Billy Nelson and I found a dead dolphin washed up on the rocks near Fords Wharf. It had several bullet wounds and we assumed that it had become a target for a Kittyhawk pilot.
To the west and north of the base at distances of several hundred yards were storage dumps of 44 gallon drums containing, I presume, aviation fuel. According to my father it was an alleged sabotage attempt on these drums that led to a major incident that resulted in North Shore's only war‑time casualty. Dad's story was that one night the Americans allegedly saw someone near one of these dumps and before long they were scouring North Shore for the offender. It must be remembered that during the war blackout restrictions prevailed after dark so there would not have been any lights at all to see by. Apparently one of the Americans challenged when he saw a vague shape moving towards him. When the suspected saboteur failed to stop the American fired and brought the suspect down ‑ only to find that he'd shot Phil Wildman's cow!
The drama continued into the next day when the Americans apparently were convinced that the saboteur was a crewman on a Free French ship unloading at Lascelles Wharf. While a Kittyhawk circled the ship menacingly, the air base commander drove onto the wharf in his jeep with a detachment of troops and demanded to be allowed aboard to search the ship. The captain was absent but the first mate refused the demand and ordered his crew to man the guns. At this stage the Phossie workers on the wharf and on the weighbridge decided it was time to clear out. Fortunately, the Americans decided to back down and so no one else had to suffer the same terrible fate as Phil Wildman's cow.
My father constructed an air raid shelter on the south side of our house. He dug a pit about five feet deep and shovelled the soil from the hole into four packing cases that he'd set along the four sides of the pit. On the side of the shelter facing the house he'd installed the smallest of the packing cases thus allowing a narrow entrance to the dugout. I remember being intrigued by a band of fossil sea shells that ran all around the wall of the pit about three feet below ground level.
There were several large air raid shelters in North Shore and they became play places for us kids and good spots to have a furtive smoke. One Sunday afternoon Billy Nelson and I were caught having a smoke in the Pivot air raid shelter by the Phossie watchman. He looked at us hard and then said to me, "You're Joe Power's boy, aren't you?”
”Yes, but don't tell Dad,” I pleaded. “This is the first smoke I've had in about three years.”
I was only seven at the time so it was not surprising that he threw his head back and laughed loudly and then told us to clear off.
Four ships owned by the British Phosphate Commission regularly called at Lascelles Wharf with their cargo of phosphatic rock from Nauru and Ocean Island. They were all "Tri" boats: the Trienza, the Triaster, the Triona and the Triatic. None of them survived the war and I recall being told about the fate of one of the ships. Apparently it was stopped by a submarine and all of the crew members and passengers were taken
prisoner. The ship was then blown up and the captives were taken to be interred in Japanese prison camps. There were a couple of women on board and they had the good fortune to be brought back to Australia through the efforts of the Red Cross. One of them was a North Shore woman, Mrs Alvina Knight (whose maiden name was Nicholls). Happily her husband survived his internment and they were reunited after the war.
The North Shore Hall was also a focus of good fun. We kids attended the adult dances and joined in the “jump-the-mat” game held before supper. On Saturday mornings many of us went there to attend
the dancing classes run by Min Harrington. Min taught us ballroom dancing as well as tap, and the junior debutante balls were always attended by large crowds. Shortly after the war Ron Evans senior, Frank Burns and Harry O’Brien started a boys’ club at the hall on Thursday nights and we enjoyed those nights tremendously. Boxing and gymnastics were the main activities but we also loved rough house games like poison ball and hoppo bumpo.
Out of the Boys’ Club there grew the North Shore basketball club and I captained (pretty badly) the junior team in the Geelong Under 15 competition. In the first couple of years we were too young and had no success but when we reached the maximum age we had a marvellous season and won the premiership.
When Val, Jack and I had finished primary school at St John’s North Geelong we went off to different schools: Val to Matthew Flinders, I to St Joseph’s and Jack to St Mary’s Tech. Our younger sisters, Jenny and Shirley, started at the new St Thomas’s in Norlane. They had the misfortune to be children of the baby boom years and so were crammed into oversized classes of 50 or more whereas we older ones had enjoyed the luxury of very small classes at St John’s. After Grade 6 Jenny and Shirley went to Sacred Heart.
After only three or four years of secondary education we were all off to work: Val to the Federal Mill in North Geelong, I to the Commonwealth Bank, Jack to the International Harvester, Jenny to the Public Service and Shirley to hairdressing.
I played in a good North Shore cricket team (although we always seemed to falter in the finals) and became club treasurer for three seasons. I was also one of the young players in the reformed North Shore Football Club when it rejoined the Geelong League in 1953 after dropping out at the end of the 1948 season despite having won the premiership that year. We were thrown to the wolves by the League when they placed our team of youngsters in the first division (the Evelyn Hurst) and we were thrashed in almost every game. I grimly remember the first game against Bannockburn when we were belted by about 38 goals with the former Geelong full forward, Lindsay White, kicking 22 goals. The next match was at home and we unfurled the 1948 premiership flag only to be humiliated again by a very strong North Geelong side. In 1955 we were, thankfully, dropped to the second division where we began to record some wins and by 1956 we made the finals.
I hated the bank at Geelong but enjoyed it a little more when transferred to St Kilda after finishing National Service in 1953. Nevertheless I was determined to resign and went to night school at Taylors to study for the Leaving Certificate to qualify myself for entry to Teachers’ College. While at the bank in Geelong I had started a basketball team and was amazed by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd that turned up whenever we played the Geelong Teachers’ College team. I thought that the college students had a wonderful life and I found that to be true when I passed the Leaving exam and started teacher training in Geelong in 1955.
What a great two years I had there with the bonus that I was paid a studentship that was only slightly less than I had been earning after four years with the Commonwealth Bank. And, of course, I met there the love of my life, Mary “Jock” McKenzie, who went on to become a teacher of the deaf. We were married on New Year’s Eve 1960 and, ever since, our anniversary is celebrated with fireworks throughout the world. Our five children are Tony, Megan, Matthew, John and Bart.
In the meantime Val had gone to New Zealand on a working holiday with Wilma O’Brien. In Wellington they both met their future husbands and settled and raised their families in that city. Val’s five children are Peter, Paul, Alyson, Andrea and Robyn.
My brother Jack married a Norlane girl, Mary McNaught and they have Janie, Grant and Sally.
Jenny married a Public Service colleague, Andy Chmielewski, in 1965 and their two daughters are Renee and Simone. Sadly, Andy died of a blood clot following an appendectomy in 1993 and Jenny succumbed to a melanoma in 1996.
Shirley married Brad Doak in 1971 and their daughters are Emma and the twins, Jenny and Kate. Tragically, Brad was killed in a car accident four months before the twins were born. In 1991 Shirley married a former North Shore boy, Graeme Johnstone who was to become the State Coroner. Sadly, both died of cancer in 2013, Shirley in July and Graeme in November.
Jock and I have retired to Gisborne after 30 years at Rowville. I finished up in 1989 as the Deputy Principal at Lyndale Secondary College in Dandenong and Jock’s final teaching years were also spent as a Deputy Principal at Carronbank, a school for the deaf-blind in Glen Waverley.
Jack and Mary are now at Lara.
Our father, Joe Power, retired from the Phossie, where he had been in charge of the acid plant, in the early 1960s and he and Mum became involved in the establishment of the Norlane Bowling Club. Dad, together with Roy Green and George Evans, were awarded the club’s first life memberships.
Joe and Tas left North Shore to retire at the Brotherhood of St Laurence Village in Lara. My brother Jack and his wife Mary bought the house at 7 Phosphate Rd from them and many years later they sold the house to their son Grant and his wife Rennette. And so the home has been in the Power name for almost 80 years.
Dad died at Lara in 1978. Mum lived on at the Village for many years before dying there in 2002 at the age of 98.