Christening his togs in “the Freshy”

04/09/2012

One of the delights that the book directs my way is the contact I get with people who’ve read it and offer me stories, anecdotes and interesting titbits of Hamilton North or Styx Creek in the olden days.

Got an email from Daryl H, a born-and-bred Hamilton Norther, who’d read the book and passed on some lovely details that add flesh to the bones of my understanding of the suburb’s recent past. Daryl was friendly with the children of the Wilkinson family who, back in the Fifties, lived on the site of the gasworks. The house has now gone but, in its glory days, says Daryl:

It was a magnificent Federation-style solid brick house and they had the benefit of their own full-time gardener. On the drain side of the property was a magnificent flower garden with a curved edge, trees to block out any sight of the Shell Co. and with a bowling green quality lawn. To the rear of the back yard was the best vegetable garden anyone had, maintained by the gardener, and the drive had a row of large camphor laurels to screen the gas works. At this time the gas works was expanding capacity and Mr Wilkinson had a lot to do with the design and construction of the new house.

I’ve been seeing these beautiful yellow, white and lilac flowers a lot lately and I had thought that they were natives.

They have a deep, musky scent that’s gorgeous at dusk. Seeing the row that bloomed neared the old admin building, and bearing in mind what Daryl had said, I wonder if they’re the last vestige of the once-immaculate garden.

Apart from having grown up on Boreas Road, Daryl was also a student of the (in)famous Charlie Goffet, teacher of French at Newcastle Boys’ High School and orator of renown. In one story, related in the Newcastle Herald in December 1971, Charlie recalled the christening of his “togs” in the creek:

Old-timers like myself will remember that long before Major Corlette’s storm-water channels were built during the Depression, there was a crystal-clear freshwater creek that flowed through what is now called District Park [Smith Park] and widened to form a delightful swimming-pool at the spot where Chatham Road meets the bridge near Newcastle Gas Company’s land at Georgetown.

There were no houses in the vicinity, and the thick ti tree scrub with lots of birds’ nests made it an ideally secluded place for schoolboys to spend the day. Further along, the creek emptied over a weir into the filthy, evil-smelling Styx Creek, which in turn emptied into the tidal Throsby Creek at lslington.

So I could think of no better spot than ‘Freshy’ to christen my new togs. Boys from the Georgetown ‘mob’ were already swimming naked, and it was with much pride that I dived in from my side of the creek.

But no sooner had I surfaced than there was a loud cry of ‘Police!’ and everyone rushed from the water. I noted with despair that I was the only one who had left his clothes on the side of the creek where the policeman was standing.

So that was it! My coat and pants were not only my Sunday best, they were the only ones I owned. And in those days, the police did not hand out the gentle, almost apologetic reprimands that they seem to offer now, with the result that I was led all the way home to make sure that I had given the correct name and address, and my dear mother was informed that the official summons would be delivered in person at the house. As it duly was.

There’s more, of course, but that’s the “local interest”.

I think the phrase that struck me most was Charlie’s use of the term “the Freshy” to describe the stretch of creek/drain/canal that now looks anything but. We’ve done awful things to the waterway; even back then Charlie describes it as the “evil-smelling” Styx. My sense is that we’ve continued to abuse it, but to abuse it differently. We don’t actively poison it as we did when we treated like a sump for effluent and the waste of industry. The nature of our ill-treatment has changed, it’s more casual and personal. It’s now the discarded drink bottle rather than the gasworks slag.

I wonder how much Charlie would recognise of the creek now. Were there pelicans, cormorants, teal and dotterel in the water? Would the gasworks, when there was a “bowling green quality lawn” have had the peregrines, kestrels, kites, harriers, blue-tongue lizards and possums that it has now?

Seems like we change, the creek doesn’t.