Sylvania – a suburb in the Sutherland Shire, South of Sydney – in 1954 was, to a child with any perception, an idyllic place to grow up. Betty and Joe, my parents, had bought a huge half-acre property for £100 around the start of 1950.
Before proceeding with the building of the house – said building to be done mainly by my father – they built a garage. It would eventually house a car, but for beginnings was to house them, and the newly born me.
I was, from the time of my birth, fairly good – at leadt as good as a baby can be. I spent most of my days asleep, making appearances when visitors arrived by climbing up on my cot and perring at guests through the curtain that divided the garage in half.
Mum was a Methodist, though denying any belief, and dad was, by hus own reckoning, a lapsed Catholic. This could have caused consternation as to which religion I was to be raised in, especially with the Catholic side of the family still being fairly devout.
But dad’s parents were pretty well out of the picture by this stage either having died, or been consigned to a sanatorium (so I was told), so there was only mum’s family left to be appeased.
To fit in with the local community, the majority of who were Congregational, I was christened into the Congregational church at Sylvania Heights. Religion was never forced down my throat, so attendance at church was somewhat sporadic for our family.
The Sylvania milk run was owned and operated by Eadie and Burt Samways, one of the areas more affluent families, who resided directly across the road from our slowly evolving home.
The Samways lived in a 2-storey abode, with stables for the horses that drew the milk wagons at the rear, and a large semi-circular drive that centred on their front door.
The front gardens were full of Gardenia’s, and one of my most eagerly recalled recollections of growing up in Sylvania was the perfume of Gardenia’s and Jasmine filling the air in the spring, and summer heat.
The dirt road threw dust up into the air as the occasional car sped along it, and it was the duty of my beloved and devoted dog Trixie to ensure my safe crossing of it, to visit the Samways, who were my Godparents.
Sylvania was home to 2 churches. There was the obligatory Catholic – though if anyone living here was a member of it, they never admitted to it – and the Sylvanua Heights Congregational Church, of which the Samways were highly regarded members. It is to their honoured memory that they were not pious biddies, just honest, hard working people who believed you were judged by example, not by belief.
Winters in this idyllic suburb were crisp and cold. The frost underfoot leoft playoful footprints as of ghosts – created by walking backwards in ones own footprints, so that they seemed to disappear into mowhere – and the open fireplace in the lounge room was warm and welcoming, inviting one to cook toast or heat marshmallows in its glow.
It was an invitation to family love and warmth that was to only last a short while. The wireless (valve radio) was the centre of our household, until television took its rapacious hold in the early 60s. It sprouted serials in the morning to get mum’s day started, and a deranged sparrow – Sammy, by name – and a Jiminy-styled grasshopper – called Gerald – saw me off to school in the mornings.
Summers were hot, and I roamed the streets shoeless and shirtless, being tanned the colour of dark brown leather. Trixie roamed the streets with me, and to see either one of us was to see both, as we were, from the very geginning, inseparable.
Saturday was baking day, and I, along with all the other young rogues in the street, went from house to house, tasting each cooks soecialties. Banana pikelets, pumpkin scones, iced cup cakes, Cornflake and Anzac biscuits, lamingtons, jam tarts, vanilla slices, neenish tarts and butterfly cakes were all sampled along the way. On this day, mum would bake pies for the coming week, sometimes steak pue if meat was affordable, but always apple, or apple and rhubarb to go with the Sunday roast. Mum’s father loved coconut tarts, so if a visit to nana and pop was on the cards, a batch of these could be smelt baking in the oven.
Of dad’s family, very little was known. The family roots would eventually be traced back to the 1500s, through Yorkshire and Lancashire (mum’s family through Cornwall), with my Great Grandfather Frederick William Pickhills, my Great Grand Uncle George Rickinson Swan, and my Great Grand Aunt Clara all arriving here from the 1860s.
Life in “Chiswick”, in Sydney’s northern suburb of Chatswood, was strict, and dad, though opposed to war, took advantage of the call-up to escape the family squabbles and bitching. He fought in Borneo and New Guinea, though in the mechanic’s corp, not as a soldier.He earned himself the two service medals, and managed to depart from the army with an Honourable Dischsrge. He left the world of war behind him, attended TAFE (then known as a trchnical college, or atech, for short) to become a carpenter, then proceeded to spend most of the remainder of his life as a grease monkey.
Mum’s family were later traced, with no thanks to her, as she had no intetest in her families roots. William and Mary Barron lived in the inner-city suburb of Leichhardt. They were a kindly, grandparenty couple, who doted on their grandchildren. Pop’s mother – Emily Rule – was still alive when I was a kid, and my recollections of her are of standing by her bed in a nursing home, and receiving handfuls of tiny shells, pennies and half-pennies from this old, wrinkled woman. The shells were used to add weight to the milk jug covers she crocheted, and were stitched around the edges of the completed items. Mum had one sister – Gwen, and two brothers – Les, and Gordon.
Where my parents met, and the general course of their romance that eventually led to marriage is a story that was never related to me. The only photographs of them show a happy, smiling couple either in the backyard of mum’s home, or on the steps of the church where they were wed. If they were ever in love, which it is supposed they were, it was never particularly obvious to me as I grew up.
Affection was not easily given by either parent, and the words “I love you!” cannot be recollected at all. However, it was a reasonably happy childhood, spent in a happy place. That problems existed was vaguely unsettling to me, for as little as mum and dad realised it, they had given life to a sensitive, intelligent child. Being aware of the workd around me, and being aware of my capabilities, and the potential life held for me was no easy matter. Neither parent encouraged the artistic side of my nature, that was evident from a very young age. In fact, dad seemed in fear of it! This fear and chaining of his own nature wss to have far-reaching effects on my life as I developed.
My grandparents regularly went to what was referred to as “the weekender”, owned by their son Gordon, at Mortisett, on Lake Macquarie. It was in this quiet, remote retreat that I found the most happiness, and a side to my nature that was to have a blossoming later in my life. The old weatherboard house had no running water, no electricity or gas, no sewerage. For a child growing up with such modern conveniences always to hand, this was a world of wonder. Water was collected in a huge, corrugated iron rainwater tank, with a layer of kerosene floating on its surface to prevent an explosion of mosquito’s. Lighting came from methylated spirit hurricane lamps, the refrigerator ran on kerosene, and cooking was done on a huge cast-iron fuel stove, or on a Primus. The stove never went out, and if you wished to bathe, water was boiled in a huge copper vat in the backyard, and carted inside to fill the bath. Bathing was in order of age, from oldest to youngest. The toilet was outdoors, at the end of a fairly long path. You had to take a lantern with you at night, and keep an eye out for red-back spiders. Simpler nightly ablutions were attended to by using a chamber-pot, kept under the bed.
Dad and pop would go out fishing in the early hours of the morning, and often returned with catches of flathead, bream or leatherjacket, lobsters, mud crabs or prawns. Nights were spent around the lino-clad kitchen table, playing endless games of dominies or cards, and swatting mosquitoes. These were Elysian days, the memories of them always returning to me when I was in need of a happy childhood memory.
My brother, Kevin, was born in 1958. His birth was to facilitate an eventual chain of tragic events whose repetcussions were to forever alter, and rip apart our family. You can read his story here https://timalderman.com/2012/04/23/kevin-pickhills-the-unspoken-name/.
Tim Alderman. First published in 2001 on Too Write (http://www.toowrite.com), and revised in 2017, and again in 2020
8 thoughts on “Young and Innocent: Childhood Through the Eyes of a Child!”
Dear Mr Alderman,
I am also seeking members of the Pickhills family as the State Library of NSW has a wonderful collection of greeting cards exchanged between Frank and Dorothy Campbell, nee Pickhills of Ashfield, who would have been your Aunt. If you would like to make contact please fel free to email or call,
Regards, Margot Riley (Curator)
Hi Margot. Thank you so much for the contact…your research is admirable. I am the last surviving Pickhills -name changed in 1986 due to family dramas – and yes, Dorothy Campbell née Pickhills and Frank are my aunt and uncle. Dorothy died in 2012. Funnily enough, I am also the family historian, with a detailed genealogy of the family, and collecting anything connected to the family, so this is a wonderful find. I will email you. Thank you for the information. It is appreciated. The family stories on my blog has produced some amazing results. Regards
My mum was not a Presbyterian at all get your facts right and do proper research before publishing bullshit about people’s private lives
Changed your name in 1986 due to family drama what a load of crap
You were told that you would not get money from my family so went of sulking
Get a life Robert you have published this crap so many times over and over but yet the so called facts change in each of your stories
You can’t even get it right as to where your brothers ashes are buried
And for gods sake learn to use spell check if you can’t actually spell for yourself
The photo of nan and pop with 3 of their “great grandchildren “ guess what your wrong again
It’s their grand children NOT great grand children
As I said get it right
My, aren’t we bitter. Yes, there are probably the odd fact that isn’t correct, but these are the recollections of a 12yo child, and some facts are dim…like religion, which was never talked about. Instead of being so nasty about it, why not try just politely correcting me. I have no problems with changing things that are wrong. You only have one side of the story, Teri…one! You spent a lot more time with mum than I did, so you would have gleaned facts about her life that I never did. She left my life at 11, and by the time we reconnected…which was my doing…too much water had gone under the bridge to reestablished any meaningful relationship. Even in the years that went by between that, and my disconnecting the relationship, we had very little to say to each other. Our lives had gone in totally different directions, and we had nothing in common. For the record, mum never discussed her will with me…not ever…at any stage. With you as her newly established family I NEVER expected to get anything from her, and it would have been unrealistic to think I would. Why would I expect money from her when I was no longer part of that family. I never went off “sulking” because nothing was ever discussed. The reason for changing my name had absolutely nothing to do with that…why would I change my name over something like that! Mum had nothing to do with the Phillips family in any way, shape or form. If she told you that, it was something she imagined. I changed my name after dad’s family became spiteful towards my step-family after his death, and lied about Kevin’s death at the Coroners Inquest into his death. It was my way of totally disassociating myself from his family, and ensuring they could never contact me. This article was written many years ago. You are right about the grandchildren…a polite correction was all that was needed. Mum never forgave me for a number of things, and the severing of that relationship was done because it just wasn’t going anywhere. And I’ll be honest enough to say I didn’t like Ray. I suspect the feeling was mutual. It’s a shame in many respects that we never had the opportunity to get to know one another better. And please don’t take this out on Donna, Jeff and Steve. They had nothing to do with any of this. And try to listen to other sides of the story. I lived it, and a few facts might be wrong, but the story is accurate. The whole problem with all our family…both sides…was that nobody ever talked about anything. For whatever reason, I always knew that if there was any contact between you and I, it was going to be confrontational. I’ll go back through it when I have the opportunity and correct whatever errors I can…and spelling errors. I believe you’ve had quite a good life Teri, and I’m sincerely pleased for you. It’s probably of no interest to you, but so have I.
I’m so not bitter I don’t have anything to be bitter about I am only protecting my mother
The fact that she had to live with her past everyday of her life was torture enough but for her to read this stuff and not even being completely accurate was going to the next level. It was horrible to see how this affected her. Knowing that anyone can read about her private life including pictures.
Seriously if you need to get all this off your chest put it in a diary or somewhere not post it on multiple sites, it’s just painting you as the poor victim
I have not had anything to do with mums side of the family for many years since I was about 21 I’m nearly 50 so I don’t know what you mean about blaming the cousins, Steve contacted me over a year ago and that was all I have had with them
By putting all you stories out there for anyone to read is disrespectful we all have a story to tell, my good life as you put it has been through some really dark places but you don’t see me putting all this out there to just try to make myself feel better
My apology for the bitter comment, but that was how the comments came across. A “Hi, I’d like to make some corrections” would have made me less defensive. I get that you are protecting mum, and that!’s your story. I respect that. Hpwever, I have no regrets nor guilt about anything I’ve written. They were stories to be told. I’m not the first…and certainly not the last…to write stories of a dysfunctional family life. The intention is not to be a victim, despite it coming across that way, but to show others they are not in this situation in their own, and if you just stick it out…there is an end. My father gave mum a shit of a life in many respects, and I’ve never said otherwise. I don’t blame her for leaving…I never did. The repercussions of that leaving are something she didn’t live with on her own. Kevin’s death will haunt me until the day I die. That was a hellish nightmare of a year no 7 and 12 year olds should ever have to go through. And no, I don’t feel sorry for myself. All that shit just made me mentally tougher. It’s all laid in the past now…mum going, Nancy…no one except me will ever know how evil she really was…Kevin’s death, the isolation from family I loved (my fathers way of handling it was to disconnect from mums family and pretend nothing had happened), the uncertainty of life with him after that, his remarriage (to a family I did like, and am still in contact with), then his suicide (and the unbelievable and unforgivable vitriol from his family towards my step family) , and the freedom to finally (safely) come out are things in the past now. Writing about them is the reason they are in the past. That might not be how you handle your dark times…but it’s how I handle mine, and I will never apologise for that. In some respects I admit to regretting reconnecting with mum after dad’s death…curiosity is a strange animal…as it really drove home just how far apart our lives had moved over the intervening years. But it happened, and there’s no taking it back. Her inability to accept me as a gay man…something that had always been obvious, even as a kid…was a wedge I don’t think we would ever have moved on from. Yes, there has been some dark times over the last 30 years, but its been more than balanced out by all the positive things. The person I am now is a by-product of everything that’s happened in the past. At this stage, I have no regrets…or bitterness…about any of it. It is what it is. Believe me when I say I wish you, and your family, nothing but the best.