On Song in Geelong

by wandering freditor / Feb 13, 2011 / 0 comments

The name “Geelong”, the second largest city in the state of Victoria, seventy-five kilometres south-west of Melbourne, always sounds half finished to me! You know, as if it belongs to a short sentence, as in “Geelong time, no see”. Or a question often asked of me, “Geelong to go back to Australia after all those years abroad?” As with so many Oz place names, the name has Aboriginal origins. Geelong began as a settlement in 1837, and then gradually developed as a port city. The rich wool clip from Western Victoria, was sent to England so that it could be made into garments and other woolen products, which were then sold back to ‘Australians’ at a goodly English profit! With the discovery of gold in 1851 at nearby Ballarat, Geelong thrived, and it hasn’t really looked back since. It has become a centre for manufacturing, oil refining (at nearby Corio), paper manufacturing, and the production of a rotgut product that dared claim to be a whiskey! It is also the home of Ford Australia, and when Geelong’s famous football team, the Cats are playing at Kardinya Park, all the Ford flags are fluttering at mastheads, all over town.


Near to Geelong too, a numskull Englishman released some English rabbits, “For a spot of shooting, old boy”, without for a moment thinking that in Australia, those fornicating furries, without many natural predators, would multiply into plague proportions, necessitating the building of not one, but two, Rabbit Proof Fences across the entire length of the country, north to south! It did no good however, as the little fast breeders still got through to the West, and it was only when “Rabbit kryptonite” in the form of myxamytosis, killed them in millions, that farmers again got some control of the countryside! Mind you, the survivors became “super bunnies” and they are again a problem in rural Australia, despite the same English ilk then introducing foxes, “For a spot of hunting, Old Boy!” The Tally Ho and Toodle Pip brigade therefore landed us with another problem, and now feral foxes are a blight on agriculture as well!


I had been, briefly, to Geelong 20 years earlier, and remembered that as though Epsom salted, we quickly wanted to pass through the smoky and grimy town. And now, 20 years later, when my son dropped me off at the grassy waterfront, opposite the Cunningham Pier, with its rail lines still set in concrete, and from where steamers had once sailed for the world, Geelong now screamed at me “But hey, look at me now”! That once dismal area was now full of restaurants and coffee shops, sturdy stone wool stores, a handsome marina, galleries, a beautifully refurbish early 20th Century swimming baths with an old wooden diving tower. And along various sements of a broad bay walk, there were beautifully painted bollards featuring over a hundred characters depicting the history of the Geelong area. They depicted the earliest Aboriginal inhabitants, moved through colonial times, to last century with an old sea dog chatting up a comely wench, to surf lifesavers all in a row. An enterprising artist had taken many of Geelong’s timber pier pylons, and created a ‘historic trail’ around the foreshore. They are a huge attraction for locals and ‘foreigners’ (anyone not a Victorian!) alike, and one telling factor of their general acceptance is that there is not a blob of graffiti on any of them!

A colonial bollard band, on Geelong’s foreshore at Corio Bay
A colonial bollard band, on Geelong’s foreshore at Corio Bay

Rain threatened, and seeking shelter, I ran – ok, galumphed – past a beautiful old Customs House, and made it to the National Wool Museum before the blobs formed a mob. The fine bluestone building was built in 1872, for an enterprising Scot, and was the ‘ants pants’ of wool storage as it had a glass cantilevered roof, facing south, which maximized the light, so that buyers could see the fineness of the wool. It is now, a most impressive museum which takes you literally, from the sheep’s back to the clothes rack, and on the way shows you Axminster carpets and other woolen items, which were later manufactured in Geelong.

Even in my youth in the 1950s, there was still the belief that “Australia rode on the sheep’s back”, and the museum gives a graphic depiction of the often hard life and the “Hard Yakka” (work) faced by shearers, who often traveled alone, with just a working dog for company, or in teams of seven or eight (usually) men, who carried all their worldly goods in a small cardboard suitcase. Where the train or coach routes stopped, or where the grazier didn’t come to collect them, they walked, or rode bicycles, looking for work at shearing time, and were paid precious little till long after the great, but unsuccessful, Shearers Strike of 1891 But the strike did eventually lead to better wages and conditions in the industry, and the formation of the Australian Labor Party, the same party, which now governs Australia.



The National Wool Museum in Geelong
The National Wool Museum in Geelong


The museum has a well depicted shearing shed with plenty of fleeces on the sorting tables for you to touch. There are also full size sheep on display and for the first time I appreciated how big some species were. Grappling with a struggling sheep and getting it into the right position for shearing, must be back wrenching. Merino sheep are big and heavy, and even before the wide-combs became standard clippers, ‘gun’ shearers (the best) bent over more than two hundred sheep in an eight hour day, in shedding them of their fleece. It was hot, dirty, dusty work, the heat and flies unbearable for the shearers and their helpers. Their toilet was often an outside drop-pit, in a corrugated iron dunny, which was alive with the buzz of flies, and sanctuary for the odd snake and spider. Graziers had adopted European farming methods, which the delicate Australian ecology could not support, and over-grazing meant that paddocks became dustbowls, and quagmires in the wet.


The shearers ‘digs’ as shown at the Museum, can only be described as squalid.  At the end of a full day’s shearing, they retired to ‘quarters’ often hot from the sun, a haven for flies and at night mosquitoes, with a cold water zinc bath-tub if they were lucky, so they could have a scrub-down. Then again, in areas where water was scarce, there was not that luxury. For dinner, the cook generally served mutton, and whatever else they could scrounge, and often served the same for breakfast and lunch too! No wonder many turned to drink – if there was a pub nearby – and fighting, because work was cyclical, uncertain, and life was tough. And no wonder shearing teams volunteered in droves to go to WWI and even WWII, because they didn’t believe the Germans or Turks could be any tougher, than living and working in the Australian bush!



 The carpet loom at the National Wool Museum, for making Axminster carpets

The carpet loom at the National Wool Museum, for making Axminster carpets


Other side of the museum which is labeled “From Fleece to Fabric”, interested me less for it was all about the factory system, the sloshing, scouring, clacking and whirring of machinery, and the playing of gramophone records ‘to keep the staff contented’ during their mundane day. But there was one thing that brought to me both a chill and thrill, an authentic1960’s house! Oh I had forgotten how high the door handles and the nipple-like light switches were set, spring latches on the cupboards of the kitchenette, the cast iron stove, the chess-board patterned lino on the floor! Everywhere I looked there was an overflow of nostalgia, the metal sink with two tap handles, a row of progressively smaller plastic canisters labeled flour, sugar, tea, the high, pressed metal ceiling, the single light which dangled down on a cord, one that ‘progressive thinking folks’ sometimes decorated with a Chinese lantern! There was a Laminex table, and above it a sticky strip which hung from the ceiling, and which trapped flies, giving them a slow and grizzly death, a round-shouldered fridge, a teapot under a knitted tea-cosy, an apron on a hook, a broom behind the door. On a small table in the hall was a Bakelite black phone with the dumbbell-like receiver in the cradle, there were low vinyl lounge chairs, no coffee table, but in the corner of the room, the idolized television set, black and white of course! As kids, we would lie on our stomachs on the floor, fascinated by American shows like Rin Tin Tin or Lassie, while the adults sat on the lounges. And if anyone had the temerity to speak, there was a chorus of “Ssshh” and the only activity was when everyone jumped up to do things during the commercial break! I had forgotten how small everything was, the frosted glass on the bathroom door, just off the hall, the dark walk at night to the outside toilet, the back veranda where you played on rainy days or slept out on hot nights. Ohhh, the past spilled over me like a little rain cloud. Once, I too had lived in a little house like that, when we were our own ‘first settlers’ in a new land, and seeing this all again, I was grateful for how far we had come. The young of today would never believe it.




 Johnstone Park with Victorian Rotunda and the Art Gallery with art on the outside
Johnstone Park with Victorian Rotunda and the Art Gallery with art on the outside


The sky had dried, and my eyes had too, by the time I stepped outside again, and I wandered up Moorabool Street and made my way past a number of handsome buildings to Johnstone Park, the site of a former dam made into a sunken garden in the late nineteenth century. Today, it is a beautiful grassy dell, with the city’s handsome senior citizens, the Town Hall, Library, Law Courts, War Memorial and Art Gallery, all looking on. There is too the octagonal Hitchcock Memorial Bandstand (1873), and I closed my eyes to imagine a tartan-clad band, with buckles and instruments glistening, playing gentle Scottish airs. Or in later years, a vigorous rendition of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, to much foot-tapping from damsels showing delicate ankles, and mustachioed gentlemen with spats! Even now, that little bandstand still gave off those long ago vibes, while under a shady tree a couple canoodled to their own brand of music. I walked to the Art Gallery, now closed, but not to matter because it wore some of its adornments on the outside, four huge panels, full of the brushmans art, depicting the development of the district and the changes to the land.


I wandered back to the foreshore, the arranged meeting place with my son, while the previously absent sun dazzled the golden limestone fall of the bluff at distant Limeburners Point. There too, were the large and rakish houses, with their soothing verandahs and splendid gardens, the wealthy end of town. Once they must have looked down on industry and frenzy, but that had gone now, replaced by calm and grassy places, now blue water, and a welcoming beach. And there, in the town of Ford, as though taunting, was parked its long-time rival, an original FX Holden, Australia’s own car which had been designed in 1948 as a ‘people’s car’, to take on the big US giants, Ford, Nash, Chrysler, De Soto and Studebaker. First I’d seen the house, and then the car, my dance with nostalgia was complete! I went down and stared through the windows of a car almost as old as me, as though I once again stood before that sweet-shop window.



Australia’s first mass produced car, the 1948 FX Holden, later taken over by GMAustralia’s first mass produced car, the 1948 FX Holden, later taken over by GM

Australia’s first mass produced car, the 1948 FX Holden, later taken over by GM


The old girl looked tired, as well she might, while the in cabin instrumentation was simply basic by today’s standards. And when an old man came and started her up, she coughed blue smoke, like those Holdens always did. He engaged the column shift, gave me a knowing smile, and slowly the FX burbled away. No doubt it is only people like me who now came to gaze at such an ‘old banger’ and he’s seen them many times before!


In our most modern motor carriage, we drove to Newtown and along Pako, or more properly, Pakington Street, a continuum of small boutiques, coffee shops, eateries, stores and those wine-shops built for browsing and drooling, and had a counter lunch at The Barking Dog pub, beautifully renovated and now with hip clientele. I thought of asking for a Dogbolter (a boutique beer) but felt my wit would be lost on the blonde bar-maid! I merely joined my son in a Pure Blonde, fitting I thought, as the bar-maid was straight out of the bottle! Oh yes, you could still get a pie, or fish and chips, but it had long stopped being that sort of a pub and now offered Asian delicacies, duck spring rolls, rabbit croquettes and some rather ‘on song’ sushi, probably from Burma, as well as tapas dishes from Spain, and Greek dolmades. The wharfies (Longshoremen), who would once have drunk here, would be puking all over their wool-bales if they saw it all now!


So, so long, Geelong, I for one, will sing your praises although how long it will be before others do too, will just depend on how prepared they are to get off the Princes Highway, and take just a little bit of time to see the sights, before they head for the Great Ocean Road and its gift of nature, the Twelve Apostles. Believe me, it is well worth it!



Winfred Peppinck is the Tales of the Traveling Editor for Wandering Educators


All photos courtesy and copyright Winfred Peppinck