THE FLETT FAMILY IN NORTH SHORE 1930s, 40s and 50s by John Flett
Jack and Ada Flett came to North Shore about 1932 when Jack’s business in Melbourne folded due to the Great Depression and, with jobs hard to find, he was glad to accept work on the construction of the new Pivot Phosphate works – the Phossie. When the plant was completed, there were very few people who knew how to operate it and Jack became the Dens foreman because of the knowledge he gained when working on the construction.
They lived in Donnelly Avenue when they arrived, later moving to Mr Berwick’s former home in Seabreeze Parade close to the works. When he first started work Jack went off in a three piece suit each day as that was all he had in the way of work clothes! He wore a waistcoat to work for the next twenty years, even under the “prison uniforms” which were supplied after the war.
When the war began, Jack wanted to volunteer – he had fought in the First World War – but the Phossie was deemed essential work so only one of the foremen was allowed to go to the war and the younger foreman, Jack Hosford, was chosen.
Ada, formerly Ada Ferguson (Ferg.) had been a secretary at the Children’s Hospital in Carlton. She became involved with the Geelong Hospital Auxiliary and the Red Cross during the War, and both she and Jack were conscientious members of the ARP (Air Raid Post) in North Geelong.
From former comrades who were still in the Army Jack seemed to know rather more than was released to the public about the Japanese successes in Darwin, the questionable record of the Australian forces in Malaya and the poor handling of the campaign in New Guinea and, I think, was convinced an invasion was inevitable. Consequently, we had a camouflaged caravan and camp set up in the bush near Smeaton, complete with guns and ammunition, ready to join a guerilla campaign if necessary.
I was born a couple of years before the war, in 1937, so childhood was a wonderland of ships and aeroplanes, soldiers, airmen and sailors at a time before the nanny state had removed all the exciting things from childhood, and as kids we roamed on the ships in port, under the wharves, along the cliffs, fished from the jetties and the rocks, wandered around the aerodrome and through the factories. Indeed, I credit the Goan cooks on the ships bringing phosphatic rock (guano) and sulphur to the Phossie with developing in me a lifelong love of curried rice.
One exciting sequence of events, which went rather beyond acceptable limits stays firmly in my mind. Billy Nelson and I had, one day decided to play cowboys and Indians. As I had a toy rifle (I was about six years old) and Billy had none I ‘borrowed’ a rifle of Dad’s and some bullets to go with it. Billy and I settled down to shoot it out, he on one side of the Phossie railway siding and I on the other. This was probably a fortunate arrangement. Billy proved to be a poor shot, so I survived unscathed. I, on the other hand had been taught to shoot from an early age and, had I had the rifle, would certainly have wounded him or worse. The following day, Chewer (Iain Davie), having heard of this fun, thought he would like to try his hand at real shooting too. Once again we repaired to the Phossie paddock next to the railway siding where Chewer decided to shoot some birds in the trees. Of course, this meant the trajectory of the bullets was high. Meanwhile, high on the walkway ninety feet above the floor of the Phossie supershed, Charlie Ward was doing some repairs to a conveyer. Suddenly, bullets came bursting in through the roof on one side of him and out on the other. A supercharged Charlie tore down the long flight of stairs to the ground yelling to my father, “SOME BASTARD’S TRYING TO SHOOT ME! SOME BASTARD’S TRYING TO SHOOT ME!” I have never understood how Dad leaped to the right conclusion so quickly but, as Chewer and I were sneaking home to return the rifle, there came Dad at top speed. Chewer got a boot that sent him home almost without touching the ground, and which brought Mrs Davie round to find out why anyone could be so cruel to her poor little boy. I got a hiding I have never forgotten.
Another memorable incident, which also involved Chewer, occurred as he and Johnny Way and I were fishing from the Pump Jetty. This jetty was theoretically out of bounds – a restriction honoured more in the breach than the observance – and was an access platform for the pipes which sucked water for cooling into the Phossie and returned the ‘used’ water to the bay. Chewer was on one side of the jetty where he caught a fish. Wayie was on the other side and rushed round to see this catch, but slipped and fell into about five metres of water. John was one of the few kids in North Shore who couldn’t swim well and immediately started to sink. I still have vivid memories of him sinking and rising, still with his woollen beret in place, yelling “Help –b –b- -b- b- Help –b – b –b,” until we pulled him out. When he went home, he explained to his mother that he was soaking wet because Fletty and Chewer had chucked water on him.
I started school at the North Shore School, going by bus in the mornings and walking home across the aerodrome in the afternoons. I have a vivid memory of the occasion when a Tiger Moth crashed behind the Kings’ house. As all that we could see was the tail sticking up we assumed that the rest of the plane, complete with the airmen, must be buried. We couldn’t wait to get home to pass on the news and were, I suspect, slightly disappointed to learn later that the men were OK. After grade three I was sent to Geelong College on a scholarship. I continued there on part scholarships until form five (Leaving).
I imagine a majority of people think of their early times through primary school and teenage years as some of the best of their lives, just as I do. It is hard to believe, however, that many youngsters have had a more stimulating environment to grow up in than we did in those years at North Shore. Not merely because we were free to roam the wharves and ships, the industrial tips loaded with childhood treasures, the factories and nearby farmlands, but because there seemed to be no status bars to mixing with kids from all sorts of homes. I don’t think it was just that I was particularly naïve, but I never was aware of the sort of snobbery that stopped the children of managers or executives playing with the children of labourers or tradesmen. North Shore was very much a country town. As we have lived in the country for most of the last forty years we find the similarities are striking. Every child was every mother’s responsibility and would be given a smack or a piece of bread and jam – or, at our place, bread and dripping – whichever seemed appropriate at the time.
When I left school, I joined the Education Department as a Student Teacher. I was based at North Shore State School at the time when Norlane was growing at a tremendous pace and, in the year Frances Fry and I were students there, grew from a small school of just over 100 kids to (I think) something over 400. The Head Teacher, Bill Cowan, seemed to spend most of his days with his hat on the back of his head and a cigarette hanging from his lip looking bewildered. His chief role seemed to be ringing the Department for more portables. These filled up and overflowed as soon as they arrived. The little ‘staff rooms’ between the classrooms were used as classrooms – even the shelter sheds at times.
The following year Frances and I, together with a number of other youngsters who had been too young to go earlier, went on to Geelong Teachers’ College for two great years. On graduation there, I went on to Melbourne to do the Trained Special Teachers’ Certificate.
As the Norlane area expanded, new kids were constantly appearing on the school bus. One day an attractive looking sheila (there were no birds or chicks then) got on the bus. I determined to make her acquaintance and learned that her name was Viera McPhee. At the end of my last year at Teachers’ College in Melbourne, we changed her last name to Flett, which it still is. Viera later did a BA and Dip. Ed. whilst we were farming and worked as a secondary teacher. We had four children: John, who is a Director at TAFE, Hugh, CEO of MVCB (Murray Valley Citrus Board), Tony, after graduating with a degree in Business Management runs his own dairy farm and Rebecca, Manager of the Psychiatric Services at Maroondah Hospital. We have eleven grandchildren.