My Memory of Strathfield as a child 1892-1904 – Elizabeth Ward
“Strathfield was a lovely suburb in those days. I had a happy childhood there. There was plenty of vacant ground and not many buildings being built. Strathfield in those days seemed to be an old suburb. Our home, cottage style of six large rooms, must have been one of the oldest. The front verandah posts ware iron with iron lace along the top. The back verandah was paved with sandstone blocks. Four rooms had been added which spoiled the house. Every street had lovely big homes. A good many had a third storey, which was a square tower, very fashionable at that time. Every house had acres of garden and orchard and most kept five servants. At least two men for outside, to tend the garden and orchard. Most kept two or more horses. Everyone had a four wheel carriage or sulky. We had a sulky with a hood, which we folded back, putting it up only when it rained or in hot weather. There was plenty of domestic help in those days. My mother paid her help 6/- per week and treated her like one of the family. I knew of some people who paid their maids 5/- and dressed them in starched white aprons and white caps, with tails hanging down their backs. Dresses were all very long; my mother used to hold hers up with one hand to avoid sweeping the ground when she walked in the street, and used the other hand to hold her umbrella.
My people were in business in Strathfield; they bought the dairy called “Seven Oaks Farm”, which was a property of eight acres, from Mrs. Henderson of Burwood. It faced four streets, Homebush Road, Albyn Road, Victoria Street and Redmyre Road. My father was Frank Harkness, a Marine Engineer on one of the P&O Boats. His first visit to Sydney convinced him he would like to bring his wife and two children from England to live here; so cut we came from London. I was a babe in arms at the time. My mother was hardly 22 years old when they bought the dairy, and my father had never been in business before. I think they did very well, because after 12 years they were able to take the family of three children back to England and Scotland for a trip. My father also bought two farms in the rich dairy country on the North Coast. Milk at Strathfield when we ran the dairy was 2d a pint. It was still warm when poured into the customer’s jugs twice daily. Only the best cows were kept and they were hand fed and rugged. I well remember the lovely painted carts; I used to think they were works of art, scroll work and lines decorating them and shining with varnish. My father employed three men to milk the cows and deliver the milk twice daily. I can see the man now sitting under the big fig tree in the yard, oiling and polishing the harness. “Seven Oaks farm” dairy had a big run – Strathfield, Homebush and part of Burwood. they must have been satisfied as two of the men were there the whole time we were in business.
Victoria Street was not a traffic road. I used to gather buttercups and wild violets that grew in the grass and a dam had been built wall down Victoria Street towards Homebush Road. I can’t remember it ever being dry. Some said there was a spring there. A small creek ran from the dam through our paddock, went under Albyn Road and came out and ran down through Judge Edmond’s property. I think the dam was built to water flocks of sheep and cattle coming along from Flemington Saleyards; they were then driven along Homebush Road to Enfield where there were slaughter yards.
Our closest neighbours were Thompsons. I remember their two storey brick home being built. During my visit of recent years, I noticed the home had been demolished; it was the last house on Redmyre Road. At the back of Thompson’s house was dense bush right up to Rookwood and Flemington and beyond; there was not one house, only dirt bush tracks for cattle. The next house on Redmyre Road was Leonard Keep’s fine big red brick house. There were three children in the family. Mrs. Keep died only two years ago at Point Piper – she must have been a great age, somewhere near the 100 mark. I saw a big change in Strathfield after an absence of 30 years; big homes were no longer run as family homes, having been sold to churches, schools, boarding houses, convalescent hospitals etc. Sad to see the group cut up and the lovely kept gardens gone. Opposite the Council Chambers was quite a gully that ran down towards Strathfield Station; the area must have been about 30 or 40 acres. It was the rubbish dump, and after many years it was filled in. The only house in that area was one near Redmyre Road, with very small windows and white washed walls – an eye-sore to lovely Strathfield. The people had a number of draught horses and drays; they supplied sand and soil for gardens, carted away rubbish, and were probably care-takers of the council dump. There were no houses on one side of Redmyre Road, from the Council Chambers down to near the shops.
Our Dr Mills two storey house at the end of The Boulevarde was demolished to wide the road near the new entrance to Strathfield Station. That was a great improvement with the road going under the railway to get to the other side. The old station was quite a climb for old people, walking up the hill to buy their railway tickets, and then walking down those steps to the platform. There was a row of small shops on the left hand side going up to the station; on the other side of the station – North Strathfield side – was the cab stand with easily about 50 vehicles – tour wheel buggies and hansom cabs. Nearly everyone that lived a distance from the station took a cab home. As a small child, how I loved to ride home in one …, the cabs must be the most comfortable of all vehicles to ride in. I remember the cab man would touch a lever and two little glass doors would open. I would step on to a white sheep skin mat on the cab floor, I used to say throwing myself in the seat was like falling into a feather bed. The driver would open a shutter above our heads, speak to my mother, and
away we would go; the only sound was the horses’ hoofs on the hard road. He used to drive us to the end of Redmyre Road to our home, the cost 1/-. On the other side of the railway there was the vineyard next to Strathfield Station… it ran right down to the rail tracks. When the grapes were ripe, our maid would take me and my two brothers on Saturday afternoon to the vineyard. We would go into the grounds and sit in the summer house, and out would come a big dish of grapes … eat as many as one could for only a few pence. These people also delivered grapes to your home several times a week.
A familiar figure on his rounds was the lamp lighter; twice daily in the evening to pull the gas mantle down and around again in the morning to put the light off. He carried a long thin rod on his shoulder with a hook on the end. I often wonder where these wonderful cast iron steel lamps posts have gone … four thick glass windows on top, they would be worth a packet to-day to decorate our gardens. Carters often went around calling out their wares … clothes props ‘that people were wanting, also the “Rabbit 0”…he carried the rabbits strung together on long poles in his cart – and would skin the rabbits as they were sold. Our favourite street visitor was the organ grinder; the same old music, but the attraction was the dear little monkey, dressed in red skirt and white blouse with keen little eyes that almost tried to speak.
Perhaps the best known citizen about Strahfield was Sir George Reid. I was quite close to his carriage twice when he was being driven to the station…a four wheel carriage, the driver in the front seat and his lordship sprawled along the back seat. He seemed to take up all the seat….he was a short very fat man, dressed in top silk hat, coat with tails and he wore pince-nez (I called it an eye glass). Everyone in those days went by train … there were no motor cars. Sir George lived in the last house at the top end of Albert Road and when he was appointed High Commissioner in London, he had an auction sale of his furniture and effects. My mother went to the sale and took me. I was never in such a house so grand. I remember going up the winding stairs, my feet seemed to sink into the carpet; I asked my mother to buy some carpet like that. I will never forget the ball room in Sir George’s home; it was the length of the house with glass doors opening onto the terrace and gardens, a lovely setting for entertaining. The only furniture in the ballroom was hundreds of very nice style french chairs, all around the wall. I remember I spent most of my time during the sale in the ball room… I was amazed at it all. I believe the Roman Catholic Church now owns the property and it is a boys school. There were some very nice big homes next to Sir George’s home in Albert Road.
I went to the Congregation Church Sunday School. Miss Todman was my teacher. I well remember the lovely Christmas parties she gave us children of the Sunday School at her lovely home – held on the tennis court and amongst the gardens … very good presents for everyone. The Todmans had their gardeners cottages built on the lane at the back end of their lovely well kept garden which ran down to Homebush Road, and had an iron spiked fence set on sandstone blocks. When I went back after a number of years, I was sad to see their stately home had been demolished, and the well kept garden and the fence had gone; they call it progress and shortage of land to build small cottages. I was pleased to see some of the modest old cottages still holding out. Quite a few were there before we came to Strathfield; they had large round bay windows and paint has kept them still looking good. One could always rent a house at Strathfield in my day … a friend of my mothers rented a very nice place for 30/- per week, lots were a lot less.
My first school was Homebush, my mother took my brother and I on the first day. The second day we dawdled along and stopped at the Council Chambers to have a swing and play on the thick chain fence which linked each post. We played so long it was too late to go to school, so a decided to stay at the Council Chambers. We had our lunch there. A neighbour that knew us told my mother and needless to say, we got a good hiding … that would be about 1895 or 1896. We never played truant again. Homebush School was a collection of wood class rooms, facing the side street where there were a few small shops. Years later the first two storey brick school was built facing the Station. My mother would have liked to send me to one of the private schools within walking distance of our home, but “Oh no” we were trades people and, I am sure, would not have been accepted; to mix with just ordinary kids like me would never do for the “Jones”. There was plenty of snobbery in the good old days. I did not notice it as a child as I had plenty of play mates … my favourites were the daughters of the local constable, Mr Dinnerville. He lived in a stone cottage on the corner of Homebush Road and Woodward Avenue. He had a large garden and I noticed in recent years that there is another house built on the once well kept garden. The girls were Mabel, Bessie and Nell. I had several girl friends quite close to home, one being Jessie Pearson on the corner of Albyn Road and Homebush Road. There is either a new house there now, or the old house has had a face-lift. Others were Alice Eldridge and Effie Silvester, both of whom lived on Homebush Road. Effie had a pony and so did I. We would ride over to Enfield where she used to visit the wife of the manager of their slaughter yards. The Silvesters had a chain of butchers shops in the city. I know most of the people I have mentioned have died. Just before we left Strathfield, the Council took down the double fence on the footpath. I think they were erected in the first place to protect the trees, but the trees were about 20’ high when the fences were removed. Not all the streets has these fences; there was one lot from the Council Chambers up to the bend on Redmyre Road and others in Vernon Street, Homebush Street, and down Homebush Road and in Elwyn Street that fronted Judge Edmonds two houses. I think the ratepayers thought the fences were too dangerous in the case of attack by some fool.
The post office was erected on the Boulevarde years after we left. It was built on part of a nicely kept garden of an old stone cottage. The main grocer was Mr Bell and there were two chemists. Mr. Orr and Mr Bambridge. Among well known homes, was the Bruntons house on The Boulevarde …. a big white brick house with big round bay windows now owned by the Jehovah Witnesses. Judge Sly’s big family home was just across the road from Bruton’s (Bruntons were big flour mill people). The Hoskins home next to the Convent, I am told now is the property of the convent. On the far near end of the Boulevarde was Sir Dr Sydney Jones large home, which is now a boys college, and the Thompson house next door is something the same. I was sad to see Keeps’ home at the tope of Redmyre Road, looking so old and cramped on such a small piece of ground; that “fine big brick home used to stand on about 8 acres of garden and orchard …..They kept a lot of servants. Keeps’ home was sold to some Bible society.
I well remember sitting on our fence in Albyn Road watching the Light Horse Regiment passing by; they had come from Liverpool Camp making their way to Sydney to join a boat for South Africa and the Boer War … such fine young men, their horses coats shining like silk. It was a wonderful sight arid still very much in my mind, It is hard to think it must be 75 years ago. I am now 82 and still the oldest lady driving my car in this district and never a traffic offence. There were no bitumen roads in Strathfield when I lived there the closest being a small private road off Burwood Road called “The Appian Way”. I used to put my pony in the sulky and take one of my little mates and drive over there just for the joy of riding on a piece of smooth road. I used to go round and round dozens of times.., poor pony, how cruel kids can be.
Another private road was Miss Walker’s property, on the outskirts of Strathfield. Miss Walker’s name was a a great charity worker. When she died she left everything to charity. The house she lived in is a nurses home and hospital now and the Repatriation Hospital Concord is built on part of her estate.
Strathfield Park on Homebush Road was a Golf Course in my time. As kids we used to go through the golf course end climb over the fences. The golfers had stiles to get through the fences and that is what used to attract us. It may have been some part of private property, I don’t know… I can’t remember seeing a club house. “Meriden” girls school was a private home when I lived there, A wealthy tobacco family (I forget their name) owned the house. One of the really good builders that lived in Strathfield was Mr. Gardiner; he built some of the best cottages of that time, the largest of the cottages being in the Avenue (now Churchill Avenue). His wife helped him draw the plans.
I think the first motor car was owned by Mr. Kidd who lived in a two stony house near the end of Albyn Road; he was a cattle and stations owner. We could hear the car coming from a long way off and we would run down to Homebush Road hoping to see it pass. Most businessmen going into the city by train, walked to the station. The usual dress was tails (morning suits they called them) and a hard hat and nearly all, young and old, carried a walking stick.
On the map you sent me I was surprised to see how Strathfield had grown; all the new streets were tracks through dense bush when I lived there. I don’t remember ever seeing any wild animals, only a possum that got into our kitchen cupboard once, and such a do to get it out … it had such sharp claws. There were no choice wild flowers growing about the vacant ground or bush, only the usual scrub flowers you find anywhere.”
About this article
This was first published in the Strathfield District Historical Society Newsletter Vol.2 No.7 April 1980.
This article comes to us by courtesy of both the Strathfield Central Library and Mrs. Helen L’Orange, a former alderman of the Strathfield Council.
Mrs L’Orange, a former Alderman of Strathfield Council, paid a visit in 1970 to her hometown – Mullumbimby – to learn something about early Strathfield from a Mrs Elizabeth Ward who had spent most of her childhood in this district. Fortunately for us Mrs Ward responded gladly and wrote Mrs L’Orange at length, recalling many interesting and fascinating things about early residents of Strathfield and the style of living at the close of the last century.
Mrs Ward died in 1984.