My Grandmother's House | Great Australian Story

My Grandmother's House

My Grandmother's House



More than Bricks and Mortar


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In 1927 my grandparents, Frank and Edith Matthews, sold everything worth selling and moved from Brown Hill, near Kalgoorlie to the inner Perth suburb of Mt Lawley. Brown Hill, like many mining towns in WA. does not exist today. In its place there is an enormous hole called "The Super Pit" I think they chose 29 Huff St, primarily for the three horse stables in the backyard Grandpa owned and trained trotting horses and for many years they were the most important thing in his life. It has always been a family joke that his horses were better cared for than the family because the stables at Brown Hill, attracted more interest when auctioned, than the house.

More Than Bricks and Mortar

As a small boy, what impressed me most about '29' was its size; everything about it seemed huge. There were three bedrooms, all at least four metres square, and a smaller maid's room. The lounge, at twelve metres square, was more like a dance hall than a normal room, and during the war years, when a friend of the family was home on leave it was frequently used as such. Then there was the kitchen, a bathroom, a vestibule and a long dark passage, sixty six feet long, the same length as a cricket pitch and there was also a verandah/sleep-out.

During the latter years of the war, Mum and Aunty Mavis used one bedroom as a toy factory, where they made stuffed, felt toys which they sold to a city retailer and a couple of local stores. The backyard seemed nearly as big as a football field, especially when, as a teenager, it was my tum to do the mowing. How grateful I was that half the yard had been fenced off and made into a fowl run which didn't require mowing. Grandpa died in 1961, Grandma in 1970 and that wonderful old house that had been such an important part of my life was sold for $16,000 in 1972, having been in the family for forty five years.

I lived there with my father, mother and sister Valerie, in 1941, when I was five. We lived there again for a short period in 1943, after spending about eighteen months in the country, just a few miles south of Serpentine; 'hiding' from the Japanese. When we returned, a partition had been built down the centre of the huge lounge room dividing it into two long rooms; we lived on one side while Aunty Mavis, uncle Bob and their three children occupied the other half. My family moved to Kalgoorlie in early 1944 and it was not until about October 1950 that I returned to Perth to attend High School and '29' again became my home.

My most vivid memories are of the years I lived in the maid's room, while attending Forrest Junior Technical High School in Lord Street East Perth. I don't know when she arrived but for many years an elderly spinster, we all called Aunty Daisy, rented the 'toy factory' bedroom. She had been a friend of Grandma's since they were girls. Aunty Daisy was a small rotund little lady with short grey curly hair and an even shorter temper. I have no idea how much she paid in rent, but for an extra two shillings and six pence she joined us for dinner each Sunday. I suspect it was the only nutritious meal she had all week.

The piano in the lounge belonged to her and she played it frequently, particularly on a Sunday night. Some times I would try to sing along with her until she would snap. 'Ron! You are singing it all wrong.' Then I would answer. 'Well, that's the way Guy Mitchell sings it,' and storm off to the peace and tranquility of my bedroom.

The kitchen-dining room featured a dark, narrow walk-in pantry where Grandma kept her home made biscuits. There was a special tin for me, or which-ever grand child was living there at the time, in which she stored biscuits that did not meet her high standard. 'Seconds,' I suppose, but to me they were anything but second class, especially the strawberry jam and coconut slice, which was a particular favourite of my cousin Frank and to this day many in the Matthews family still call it "Frankie's Cake."

Then there was the bathroom, it too had a large walk-in cupboard where, to Grandma's disgust, Grandpa stored his brandy. It was always 'Seppelts Solero,' Three Star Hospital Brandy and he drank some every night, obviously for it's medicinal value, it was after all, Hospital Brandy, the label clearly said so. This same cupboard had been used during the war, to store Uncle Bert's 'black market grog'; wine and spirits which he sold to American servicemen, on leave. Grandpa kept his cut throat razor there. I thought it had the sharpest, cleanest cutting blade in the world and was perfect for cutting balsa wood, so I often borrowed it, being very careful to wipe it spotlessly clean before replacing it in the exact original place.

Next day he would curse and swear at the razor because it didn't seem to hold an edge like it should. He would then spend half an hour carefully stropping it. If he had discovered the reason for the razor loosing its fine edge, I think I would still carry the scars on my backside today. Sunday night was always 'bath night' when I would light the chip water heater then sit on the floor and feed paper and wood chips into the fire box to warm enough water for my weekly bath. It was a slow boring task, made even slower by me falling asleep while reading some of the heating fuel, namely The 'Reader's Digest,' and allowing the fire to go out.

The most impressive room was the lounge. An oval shaped dining room table and eight chairs were in the centre, a piano in one comer and an open fire place in another. In the comer opposite the piano, there were double glass doors which opened on to the "L" shaped verandah/sleep-out. There was also a trophy cabinet, book shelves, a three piece lounge suite, and a small oval table with a brown, bakelite, mantle radio on it. (Grandma always listened to 'When a Girl Marries,' 'The Burtons of Banner Street,' 'The Lawsons' and anything that involved Jack Davey.)

It was a beautiful room and in those pre T.V. days I had to have a very good reason before I was permitted to enter. One excuse which I used frequently and was always accepted was to look at Grandpa's trophies. I would read the inscriptions over and over again. They were a lasting tribute to his success as an owner and trainer of trotters. The largest and most prestigious of all had been won by a mare called "Dorrie Direct." It must have been nearly two feet high with handles on the side that stood out like wings. On the top was a solid silver horse, standing on the small circular lid. He must have felt so proud when it was presented to him. I believe my cousin Frank has it now, which is not unreasonable considering that he is the oldest son, of the oldest son and third generation to carry the name Francis Clement Matthews. Grandpa was a founder and Life Member of Western Australian Trotting Club.

At the end of the long, dark passage was the vestibule, a strange sort of room, quite large, which had no real purpose other than to link the passage, bath room, the back door and the maid's room. At different times at least five of her grand children called the maid's room 'home'. It was the smallest room in the house but large enough for a teenage boy in High School to be comfortable. It was also sufficiently far enough away from everyone else that the smell of thinners, acetone, dope, ether, Tarzan's grip, methanol, castor oil and turpentine etc. from my aero modeling activities, did not create panic among the more responsible residents.

The backdoor was in the centre of the vestibule and opened onto the verandah which stretched the full width of the house. At the far end there was the laundry, complete with an open, wood fired, boiling copper and two cement washing troughs which sat on a raised platform. I cannot recall ever seeing a washing machine but there was a hand operated clothes wringer bolted to the partition in the centre of the troughs. A short, curved path lead from the verandah to the toilet, a small stand alone brick building with a curved corrugated iron roof and cement floor. Instead of toilet paper there were small bundles of old newspaper, neatly cut into six inch squares, and threaded on to a piece of twine or hung onto a large nail, put there for that purpose.

Sometimes Grandma would be given a case of apples with each piece of fruit individually wrapped in green tissue paper. She must have been a conservationist at heart, because each sheet was saved, carefully flattened, then hung on the nail. After using news paper for so long the tissue paper felt as soft as silk. The high mounted cistern used at least four gallons, about eighteen litres, of water every time it was flushed because it took ages to refill, and reduced the flow to every other tap in the house.

The Hutt St Punters Club
About 1954, when cousin Frank was the resident grand child, he, Dad, another cousin Brian, and myself converted the harness store into a photographic dark room. It was never really dark enough to develop films by day but we did quite a few at night.

It was certainly a big step up from using the bath-room, where on one occasion someone turned on the light and ruined the film we were developing at the time. We called our group 'The Foggy Photo Camera Club.' Membership was restricted to those who had helped build the dark room plus our cousin Bernice, who firmly rejected our requests that she pose for us nude. Who can tell, it may have been the start of two new glamorous careers, for Bernice as a model, and for me as a photographer. One more lost opportunity?

I was seventeen and it was in the second half of 1953 when we began our gambling club. It was my father's idea, he was a born gambler, and we called it "The Hutt St Punters Club". There were only four members, restricted to those with the surname MATTHEWS, with two T's, the correct Cornish spelling: it was rather an exclusive club. The others were my two cousins Frank and Brian. Nearly every Saturday night for about a year we met at Frank's place to play penny-poker. Frank was "the grandchild in residence" at the time, occupying the small room at the back of our Grandmother's huge old house in Mt Lawley, an inner Perth suburb. This was the same room that I had happily occupied two years earlier, when I was a high-school student of very mediocre academic ability.

Yes, I know I said we played penny-poker, but it would be just as correct to say jelly-bean poker because jelly-beans were as acceptable as coins of the realm, having a value of two per penny. When we decided to add some variation to the night's activity by including the Perth trots, where we took turns at being the book maker, we rescinded their currency status and ceased trading in jelly-beans limiting all bets to a maximum of one shilling. At two beans per penny, no one wanted to go home with a pocket full of, much handled, rather grubby, sometimes licked, jelly-beans.

One Saturday night I was delayed and arrived later than the others, so after paying my respects to Grandma and her friends playing euchre in the lounge room, I made my way to Frank's bedroom. It surprised me to see that the light was out, the radio silent and the room apparently empty, because I had expected them to be set up and ready for the first race, which was scheduled to start in about five minutes, so I reached inside the door for the light switch. Beside the switch there was what we called a "skeleton wardrobe." It was a light, wooden frame, about the size of a normal wardrobe but instead of wood panelling on the outside, there was a patterned linen sheet which slid on a curtain spring.

As I was about to place my hand on the switch something grabbed me firmly by the wrist. It gave me such a fright that I wrenched my arm away violently, turned, ran across the vestibule then raced up the long dark passage convinced that I was in great danger of being eaten alive by an unseen monster. On reaching the door at the end of the passage I became aware of distant laughter and paused for a second before slowly retracing my steps toward Frank's bedroom, which seemed to be the source of the laughter. I pushed the door open, reached in and very cautiously turned on the light, where I saw Frank and Brian rolling on the floor, clutching their sides in a fit of uncontrolled laughter.

And there, sprawled against the wall, moaning and groaning, amidst the wreckage of the wardrobe, sat my father. He really was a sad and pathetic sight as he squatted with his head in his hands, blood from the gash in his forehead oozed between his parted fingers while a lump, already the size of an egg, grew larger by the second. They had been waiting in the dark for me to arrive and it was Dad, not King Kong or Godzilla, who grabbed me by the wrist. I had wrenched my arm away with such force that I pulled him through the side of the wardrobe and onto the edge of the partly opened door. In hindsight I think he probably had concussion and should have gone to see a doctor but he was never one to make a fuss, besides it was his tum to be the bookmaker and everyone knows that bookmakers always win.

Having had such a fantastic time the previous Easter, in 1957 I made plans to go to the Safety Bay Regatta with two old school friends. Unfortunately for me, Dad, Grandpa and Frank had made other plans and without bothering to ask me what I was doing, they had organized a compressor and all the equipment necessary to paint the roof. Dad and Grandpa were to stay on the ground mixing paint and watching the grass grow and the compressor compress, while Frank and I went aloft to clean and spray the corrugated iron roof. By mid morning on the second day we were going great guns and well on target to finish by late that afternoon. I was even having ideas of getting to the regatta late that night. Silly me!

Frank was using the spray gun when he noticed that the paint wasn't going on as it should. It seemed as though there was too little pressure even though we could still hear the compressor running. We called out to those below but didn't get any answer so we climbed down to investigate. As we approached the machine we smelled burning rubber. It didn't take long to find out why. Several feet of the air hose had become entangled around the pulley and had worn through in several places. Dad and Grandpa were inside enjoying their morning tea. To add insult to injury they blamed us for the problem. It took most of the day to get it repaired and functioning properly again so any ideas I had of sailing, dancing and beach parties were quickly dashed.

Grandma's Jam & Games
The most noteworthy feature of the back yard was the fig tree. It was enormous, covering almost half the yard. Every summer Grandma made jam. Not just a few jars but dozens and dozens and every vintage was better than the previous one. She gave it to her five children, to her numerous grandchildren, to her neighbours, her many friends in Kalgoorlie, Albany, Bunbury and Narrogin. She gave it to her friends at croquet, to Grandpa's bowling mates and to anyone who wanted some.

Many years later when I was serving in the Army, and living interstate, whenever I came home on leave I always took several jars with me when I left. Grandma was really quite famous throughout W.A. for her fig jam. The smell of it cooking on the old wood stove, floated across the neighborhood like a magic carpet with an almost hypnotic effect on all who inhaled the wonderful aroma. I could imagine people four blocks away licking their lips. If I close my eyes and sit quietly for a minute or two, I can taste it now. Then one fateful day Uncle Morry cut it down. I was devastated when I heard the news, shattered beyond hope, my world had been destroyed. As if to get revenge, the stump produced a crop of new shoots that came up around the base. In a few years there were six trees where there used to be only one. Justice had returned to the world and jam production began again.

Grandma's other great passion was playing cards. She loved any kind of game but preferred bridge, 500 and euchre and for several years, Dad and I participated in the Wednesday night ritual. In the winter we always played on a folding card table in the kitchen, which was warmed by the ancient Metter's wood stove. There was always an old blanket neatly spread across the card table so that the cards would slide smoothly. Grandma would not dream of playing without a blanket on the surface to protect the playing cards.

In a drawer in Grandpa's trophy cabinet there were dozens of packs of new playing cards, some she had won in competition, others she had been given. We could have used a new pack every month for ten years but Grandma was never one to waste anything that was still useful, so instead, we used her favourite old ones, which were regularly wiped clean with a damp cloth, lightly sprinkled with Johnson's Baby Powder then carefully put away for another day. I can't recall Grandpa ever joining us, but there were usually five or six players, one of which was Aunty Daisy, who was not a good player and almost always lost, while Dad and I almost always won. We kept our card money in a large 'Sunshine Full Cream Powdered Milk' tin, in the walk-in pantry and about every second month we emptied the copper contents into a calico bag to take home, count and bank.

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During my life I have lived in at least thirty different places. In flats, houses, boarding houses, houses on railway wheels, hessian covered shacks, tents, army barracks and for the last six years, in a Retirement Village, but Grandma's house at 29 Hutt Street Mt. Lawley will always have a very special place in my heart and I suspect in many other hearts as well.

Yes, it was more than just bricks and mortar. It was a living, breathing thing that said to all. 'Come in! Make your self at home, how about a nice cup of tea?'

Whenever I visit Perth, a quick look at the old house is always high on my lists of things I must do.