Sunday, 14 February 2010

Pluddy kids and 19th Century Life

The early settlers worked hard to clear the land and build fences and homes. The Australian bush was not easy to clear, but cleared it was. It was a life which demanded courage and determination. It was where Mary Atkins grew up. Her move to Gladstone could only have been an improvement in her eyes. And what of Gladstone in the 1880’s where she would make her home with her Greek sailor?

Gladstone is in the north of South Australia, about 209 kilometres from Adelaide. Even today it is dominated by wheat and sheep and still boasts the largest grain silos in South Australia.

The first Europeans into the area took up the 'Booyoolie (sometimes spelt 'Booyoolee') Run' in 1851. The nice thing is that some of the original buildings dating from this period are still standing. It wasn't until 1871 that the town was formally surveyed and the name Gladstone (an honour to the British Prime Minister William Gladstone) was given to the new settlement. This resulted in the strange situation where there were two tiny settlements - Booyoolie and Gladstone until the 1940s when they finally agreed to accept Gladstone as the term to apply to both of them.

It was the arrival of the railway in 1877 which brought rapid development to the small, mid-north town. It was built to ship wheat from the town's grain silos to Port Pirie. The line would also run to Port Germein and no doubt when Charlie jumped ship he very quickly jumped onto a train and found himself in Gladstone. Or did he go via Wirrabarra which is where he met Mary?

Charlie Ross is barely remembered in Gladstone, except by his relatives perhaps, unlike one of Australia’s favourite sons, the poet C.J.Dennis who lived in the town as a child when his father ran the local hotel.

But the records still show that Charles Ross, fish-seller, rented a shop in Port Street, across the road from the railway station. One can only presume that he took the train to Port Pirie once or twice a week to buy fish. Perhaps he went more often because of the difficulties of keeping fish fresh in a world without refrigeration. The fish would have been packed in ice and hessian both for the journey back to Gladstone and until it was sold. I wonder if they had an ice chest, as we had when I was a small girl in the early 1950’s. I can still remember the man delivering the huge block of ice, carrying it in his steel pincers and placing it into the tin-lined cabinet.

Transporting, keeping and selling fish in an Australian summer must have been a challenge given the distance he had to travel. It’s about 40 kilometres from Gladstone to Port Pirie which isn’t much in today’s terms by either rail or car, but one imagines the journey by rail in the 1880’s would have taken a couple of hours at least, either way. With no air conditioned carriages, no eskies, freezer bricks or refrigeration.

But clearly Charlie managed to do it successfully because from what I can see he worked as a fish-seller until his death. Any mistakes with fish freshness over nearly 20 years would have seen him out of business very quickly in such a small community. The population of the town was only a few hundred at the time.

‘Fastidious,’ said my aunt, about her grandfather. ‘He was absolutely fastidious with everything.’ He would have had to be as a seller of fish, living hours from the coast, in 19th century Australia.

But he had to have ice and I am sure he did. Frenchman, Eugene Dominique Nicolle (1824-1909) is the man who developed refrigeration in Australia during the 1860s and 1870s. Sometime during the spring of 1859, whilst still in charge of the Wilkinson sawmill at Darling Harbour and working for P.N. Russell & Co., Nicolle decided to become involved in the construction of an ice-making machine based on a process using the compression of ether which had been invented by James Harrison of Geelong. Harrison had visited England in 1856-7 to secure patents and produce working models. His system was eventually used by a number of British firms during the late fifties and sixties, with one of his English manufactured machines being brought to Sydney around 1859 by P.N. Russell and Co.

At the end of 1860 the Sydney Ice Company was formed by P.N. Russell & Co. and James Harrison. The following advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald, 13 October 1860, announced it to the public:

Sydney Ice Company. - The want of a regular supply of Ice having been so long felt by the inhabitants of Sydney and its vicinity, the SYDNEY ICE COMPANY, now established, have the pleasure in announcing that they have in course of completion one of Harrison's ice-making machines, similar to those constructed by P.N. Russell and Co., and so well known from the success that has attended them in Victoria and South Australia, and that they will be in a position to commence the manufacture of ice upon an extensive scale, for the ensuing year.

So ice-making existed in Australia and more importantly in South Australia nearly 20 years before Charlie Ross, fish-seller, would need it. I have no idea if he just sold fresh fish, or whether, as so many Greeks who came after him, he set up a fish and chip shop. Fish and chips became cheap food for the working classes in England in the mid 19th century and if Charlie Ross had lived there, in between voyages, as he may well have done, he would perhaps, naturally have seen it as a good business. Even more so if he had come from a fishing family on Ithaca which is also highly likely. There must have been something which inclined him to the trade given the unlikely scenario of setting himself up as a fish-monger in a small,dusty country town miles away from the coast.

Although, according to the records Australia’s first Greek fish and chip shop was opened in Melbourne in 1879 by Athanasias Comino, from Kythera. He had arrived in Sydney in 1877 and was working as a labourer. Strolling down Oxford Street he came to a fish and chip shop run by a Welshman. As Comino’s order was being prepared, he realised that cooking fish and chips was easy enough even for an inexperienced cook. In 1879 he opened a shop a few doors down; handling fish was second nature to island-born Greeks and that, no doubt, is why Charlie Ross came to a similar conclusion and profession.

Just before Charlie and Mary set up home the Gladstone Gaol was built at the northern end of the town which would have boosted the town’s population a little and have been a boon for anyone in small business. By 1888 when we know Charlie was living in Gladstone, the gaol would have been an integral part of the town. It was where my grandfather would work as a young man.

The gaol was built between 1879-81 at a cost of £21,640. The slate was quarried at Mintaro and transported by bullock drays. It was originally used for 'inebriates and debtors'. It was never a large gaol and from the time of its opening until the 1920s it never housed more than 20 prisoners. From the beginning it was always a gaol for both men and women. During World War II it was used as an internment camp for Italians and Germans. After 1943 it remained unused until 1953 when it became a corrective training complex for 18-25-year-old offenders. It was reasonably secure. There were only 20 escapes in the gaol's 100 year history. It was eventually closed down in 1975 and opened to visitors in 1978. It is now used as backpacker accommodation.

Life would not have been so different for Mary but we can imagine it was for Charlie. Blue skies, sunshine and dusty streets may have reminded him of Greece but the language, the dress, the culture and the buildings would have been very different. Did he mind? I have no way of knowing. His children appeared to love him so he must have been a loving father.

“Pluddy kids,” he would say, says my aunt, when they did something wrong. “Pluddy kids,” he supposedly said when my grandfather cut up his shoes as a small boy because his brother had new ones and he wanted new ones as well. Given the cost of shoes and the financial restraints under which the growing family would have lived, this seems a gentle, tolerant response.

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