Memories from Penshurst’s Past

By Jack Chesswas 1997 - Part 1


Jack Chesswas


1. Starting Out in Penshurst

The first common school in Penshurst was the two stone rooms of my present home which is now (1997) 137 years old. The first teacher was a Mr. Barnes. My dad, the late Mr. James George Chesswas, was born in New Zealand in 1866 and came to Australia with his parents. He was 6 years old. Also came was his sister, Mary Burgess, and dad’s uncle John. They first went to Queanbeyan, NSW, before coming to Penshurst. Dad, father and Uncle John had the first tannery in Penshurst, close to where Mrs. Evelyn Edlich (“Tat”) now lives in Kennedy Street.

Dad began his education at the age of 6, in the old school, subsequently our home, at 83 Bell Street, Penshurst. My mother started in the “Barrow Brigade” during World War I, when she had a cart with two big wheels which she and different people pushed along. One of her helpers, dressed as a baker selling cakes, the other as a Chinaman selling vegetables. One day they tried to sell something to Mrs. May Faibairn. No go! So on their way out of the home they “pinched” a pumpkin from her garden.

 On another occasion, the school children were asked to come up to the National Bank to look for a snake in the hedge. Ivy creepers were then grown on the dividing fence between our place and the bank. Suddenly they saw a snake in the hedge. It was the one they were looking for.

My Dad eventually became employed as a grocer for Ah Wong, a general storekeeper in Bell St., Penshurst. One day Ah Wong said to Dad, “George, I want to go back to China to die - you buy me out?” Dad and the late J.G. Kruger bought him out on 18/1/1895. They were in partnership for 10 years, until Dad purchased Kruger’s share.

2. My Early School Days

I started school at the age of 5. All we had for school was a slate, and a slate pencil. A Miss Darvel was our much loved teacher. “Doey” (Wally Keilar) and Seymour Hildebrandt started school at the same time I did. We used to have a saying: “Pussycat Many”. One night, many years later, when my wife Jeannie and I were alone at home, there was a phone call, and the person at the other end of the line said, “That you Jack? Pussycat many.” It was Doey! He was high up in the telephone company and rang me to check the lines.

I can also remember in our room the wooden part, was divided into Babies, 1st and 2nd and 3rd and 4th grades. In the fireplace there was a blue kettle with a fold down handle. We used to sing

“Polly put the kettle on, Polly take the kettle off,
Polly take the kettle off, and we’ll make a cup of tea.”

Also, when I was in Grade 4, I said “I chased the bug around the rug, I’ll catch his blood, I will.” One boy said, “Please Miss, Jack Chesswas swore.” Out came a cup with brush and a cake of soap. The teacher was going to wash my mouth out. I said, “Please Miss, I did not swear (not much, I didn’t, saying it quickly). 


“What did you say Jack?” I told her that the other boy should have his mouth washed out too.

Another memory is that of having a cane ruler, with which I hit Olive Eales around the legs. The teacher then took the ruler from me and belted me with it. Gee, did that hurt! Also, in our grade we had Primer as our school book. We had a copy book in the 1st and 2nd grades, in which we had to write over the words. In the 3rd and 4th grades we had to copy the lettering. Yes, we were taught the three R’s, reading, writing, and arithmetic. You did learn alright, and were kept behind if you hadn’t, and made to write a word 100 times to learn it.

I loved arithmetic but I did mind history. I also liked Geography and used to draw maps. I was a champion as for poetry and used to recite the verses I knew: The curlew tolled the knoll of passing day.

When Christmas came my Dad used to bring a large tin of boiled lollies to the school for “a scramble”. Gee, we had fun! Once, on Show Day, we kids had a “Treacle bun” competition. Buns covered in treacle hung from a railing. Our hands were kept behind our backs while we had to eat our bun. We had treacle all over our faces. 

Talking of Show Day, when Mr. Jenkins was headmaster, I went to him and asked him who had judged the map drawings. “Why”, he asked? I told him that they gave 1st prize to a map of Australia, which did not have Tasmania on it.

My Dad owned the block where Fred Schramm’s home is now, and there was a big mulberry tree, which I and all the other kids used to climb for mulberries. We also used to have ‘Arbor Day’, when we kids planted trees along the Hamilton road. My late mother also offered 10/- ($1) to any schoolboy or girl who could make a garden of flowers in the Park, in order to keep it going. I myself was the only one who did win the 10/- for watering the trees, which were only shrubs at that time, and the flowers.

3. Schoolboy Pranks

For a while school was held at the Mechanics Hall, while repairs were being done at the school. During World War 2 there used to be an Aeroplane Spotting Station, where Miss Elsie Uebergang’s home is now. Lonies had a bakery there. I was the one who had spotted most planes of all the ‘spotters’. One Sunday afternoon I spotted 15 in one go, and could identify all of them. My Dad provided the binoculars he had.

A funny incident was when Andy Pye was the Minister of the “Presy” Church. He was also the scout master. On one occasion asked the three scouts to form fours. As for spelling I was worst. Mick Walker had 24 out of 24 wrong. I used to sit with Mick Walker and got 23 wrong. He and I would get ‘cuts’ two to three times a day. We used to do drawings all over our books.

Mick was the son of “Stonkey” Walker, the undertaker. Rough as bags he was. Anyhow, Mick used to bring quinces to school. I asked, “Where did you get them from, Mick?” “Dad had them hidden in a coffin, and I pinched them. Those quinces were beaut!

When we were playing cricket, where the present pre-school is, Mick was ‘dynamite’ when he threw the ball. He would hit the blooming wicket. They played footy there too. One day I brought a rubber cricket ball to school, and the ‘thing’ bounced and hit me on the right eye. Waterson was going to give me ‘the cuts’; he reckoned I had been fighting. Today, the younger grades do not play like we used to! “Last ups in”. The last boy to get to the corner was the hare, and we chased him! We also used to play ‘trains’; the boy in front was the engine, and we grabbed the boy in front of us; we were ‘trucks’. Playing with marbles was also popular. Talking of marbles, ‘Tube’ Groves was a champion. One day when some of us kids were playing in front of our home, on the footpath, ‘Tube’ happened to come past, and joined in. He beat all of us, cleared us all out. He was ‘dynamite’. Also tops, by cripes Geoff McDonald was the champion. We also played cigarette cards, flicked them - the nearest to the wall had won! The girls used to play houses, putting stones in squares as rooms. Also, ‘hopscotch’ was popular with the girls, as was skipping. We had a lot of fun, when we played hares and hounds around the clock and took shortcuts through the Chesswas property, where we used to pinch fruit from the trees. That was where Max Ewing lives now.

The three first lots of trees were planted by school pupils when Sid Waterson was headmaster. I held the tape. The headmaster reckoned that I had a straight eye. Most of the people reckoned that the headmaster was mad, and that the trees would not grow. “I shall show them”, said Sid. He was right.

Jack Ryan’s grandfather, Tom Hamilton used to collect cauliflowers and cabbage leaves for his cows. He lived on the corner of Cobb and French Streets, behind the school. My nickname was “Rook” because my dad had a general store, and ‘Stitchey’ Archibald ‘christened’ me that.

One day Nellie Melba was passing through Penshurst, and all us kids were lined up, waiting for her car to arrive from Hamilton. My Dad, who was a councillor and acting Mayor of Penshurst, had to ‘do the honours’. One child greeted Nellie with a bouquet of flowers. When she got out of town, she ‘pitched’ the flowers out of the car. It was a big day in Melbourne, when her funeral cortege, started from St. Paul’s Cathedral. The crowds were lining both sides of Flinders Street.

As kids, and attending Sunday School one afternoon in ‘Presy’ School, old Davey Greig, the superintendent, said: “Boys and girls, the good Lord does not like people who drink alcohol. He wants all boys and girls to sign the Pledge.” I was 12 and we all signed. After Sunday school old Davey went to the Prince of Wales Hotel and bought himself a bottle of wine. At the age of 12, I also started playing the mouth organ, and still do, but it was not until my old school mate Jack Ryan, at the age of 79 encouraged me to entertain others.

On another occasion, I think it was Pearl Mills our teacher, who lifted her desk lid, and out shot a mouse. She got a ‘helluva’ fright. A boy was guilty of having put the mouse there.

4. Discipline at School

Another incident took place when my brothers Alec and Rob, and Ira Gunn nearly hung my cousin Russell Keilar. His mother used to dress him up like a sissy. That made the boys decide to hang him. He must have escaped because he’s still alive.

I vividly remember the times when we collected eggs for the hospitals. One day Charley Lucas said,” This is what you do with an egg”, and he placed one in his jaw, and another boy hit his jaw and broke the egg - it was rotten! One April Fool’s Day someone had put tacks on the best seats, and when we tried to sit down, we soon jumped up. Our teacher was called “Teddy Bear”. One day someone pinned a fox’s tail on him. ‘By cripes, he went crook! We also had a Dr. Cole, the Health Inspector calling on us and examined us in the Headmaster’s room. Ada Maiden, when called up to be seen by the doctor, started howling and refused to go. She was christened ‘Bubby’ Maiden. When the school inspector called, he put us through the paces asking us about spelling, sums, etc. He asked us, “If cake mixture was put in a tin - why did it rise up?” No one could answer, and the inspector went crook. “Look” he said, “it can’t go out the sides, or through the bottom, it must rise up. You are a lot of ‘thickheads’.

One day I was asked to spell ‘yacht’. “Easy” I said, “Yot”. One day, when in 4th grade, I told Waterson that we had a bush of green roses at home. They all thought that I was ‘funny’, until after dinner I brought a green rose back to school. A different story? When school master Stephens was the headmaster, he had 40 sitting for the Merit Certificate. Yes, in grade 6 you had to sit for Merit Certificate and in grade 8 for ‘Merit’. There were 208 students attending school, when I started there. When finally the day came for me to be called for my Merit Certificate, I had the measles, and Elsie Underwood brought it home to me.

“Dake” Jack Keilar was working as a carpenter with his dad Peter, doing a repair job at the school, and decided to play a joke on the school kids. It was 8 am, and Jack rang the bell, and the school kids came rushing to school, only to find that they were too early.


'Digger Evans' International 'Charabanc'

 We also used to go to Lake Linlithgow and Minhamite in ‘Digger’ Evans’ International ‘Charabanc’ (i.e. a van with two rows of seats) - it was great fun!

I also belonged to the Boy Scouts, which was the greatest thing to help me through life, because it taught me to do good turns, without gain or reward. My brother Rob played the Kettle Drum to march the pupils into school. We were lined up outside the school in the mornings, so that the teachers could check to see if our books and shoes were clean, our hair tidy, and if we had a hanky. I did not have a ‘hanky, so one boy tore his in half and gave one half to me. On Monday mornings we were lined up in front of the school, and we had to salute the Union Jack and recite the “Honour to King and Country”.

‘Hawk’ Lewis, who used to live next door to the school, had a cockatoo, which swore ‘like a trooper’. When the teacher yelled “Attention”, the cockatoo would shout “Stand at ease you buggers”. Another memory is that of the three Fry boys starting school, i.e. Peter, Horrie, and Charles. One day they were standing in front of our stone building.

Incidentally, Charles used to stutter and he picked on all the boys and belted them up. One day he ‘picked’ on ‘Stitchy’ Archibald and he ‘belted hell out of’ Charles. The French boys were not too bad with their fists. We called them the ‘Black Boards’, which in England would be the ‘Chalk Boards’, since our version is considered ‘racist’.

Another memory is that of Piggy Elford jumping out of the front window of the stone school building followed by other boys. They caught him down in the park, and he ‘had a go in’ with the teacher. On another occasion, we were kept in after school for about half an hour - Nell Wishart would not tell Waterson what she had mumbled, as she had told the teacher ‘to go to hell’! I myself was not too bad with religious instructions, ‘Gussy’ Briggs 1st, me 2nd, Molly 3rd.

On one occasion one of the boys had a dead snake to which he had tied a piece of string, and when the teacher came through the front gate, the boy would pull the snake along and frighten the “hell out of the teacher”. I also have fond memories of a girl, Gladys Brown, who was friendly to me when at school. They used to live near the Dunkeld railway line. Coming home from Melbourne with Joe Ewing and Clarrie O’Meara, the driver stopped at Geelong, where Gladys Brown was waiting. She wanted me to stop there for a weekend, but I told her that I had to keep going. Next day I had to go to Hamilton hospital, where I was operated on for appendicitis. The staff told me that I swore like a trooper, coming out of the ether - I cannot tell you what words I swore - No way!

I also remember Lizzy Walker, who used to have fits and turns and blackout frequently. We had to put a pocket knife between her teeth to stop her from biting her tongue. Emerson Brown lived next door to us. His wife used to sing songs with us. Her favourites were “rounds”. Emerson used to let us out of school early so that he could have a game of golf. We also had school concerts, and we once put on a play called “The War of the Roses”. I was Sir White and had to ask: “Where is the dragon? “Here I am” said Joe Walker, “I am the dragon”. On another occasion some lads, dressed up with black faces as ‘niggers’. They were singing on the stage, and people threw lollies to them. All but ‘Thumb’ Hudgson stopped and picked up the lollies. “Thumb” kept singing!

5. My High School Years

When I attended High School in Hamilton, I had to board there, and my Dad used to drive me to Hamilton. I was lucky to get home on weekends. Later, buses started to take the students to the high schools there. Much later I remember saying to one mother:” Your children are lucky to be driven to Hamilton and back. I had to be driven to Hamilton to board. You parents should have to pay a small amount for the privilege”. “No way”, the mother said! “I cannot afford it”. I then replied:” You parents want everything given to you by the government. You are not prepared to give anything back!” When you read and think about what school kids are given today, you cannot help but remembering what we used to have. In those days the Bert Olle family had to walk along the road. Today kids are being driven to school, but now of course it is not safe to walk along the roads, for fear of being kidnapped.

Other boys who also went to High School in Hamilton with me were Leonard Walker, Keith Riley, Les Greed, and Ned Walker. I was also befriended by a girl, Marion Roscoe. Years later, when one of her brothers was already a lawyer, I asked him:” Where is Marion?” “Did you not know’ she married and giving birth to her first baby killed her.” Still at high school, I was one day asked to calculate a compound interest sum, and the teacher said: “Jack, you have the right answer, but it is not the way we work it out”, to which I replied:” So long as the answer is right, why worry?” On one occasion I played ‘Bye, bye black bird’ on the mouth organ at a concert in the assembly hall. I loved arithmetic, and still do, but when I left school, I always wanted to be an undertaker. Instead, I eventually ended up as a Newsagent, although I did help Jock Greed with funerals, when his agent ‘Chas’ Dean was in hospital. I never quite knew when ‘Jock’ was going to ring me.

6. Penshurst Traders

Dad eventually built a modern store beside the old building. At one time he employed 14 staff, including grocery and drapery managers. He had a big timber yard, and at one time and was the local agent for the T Model Ford. My mother was the daughter of Alex and Jeannie Black.

The shop was known as Chesswas & Sons and was destroyed by fire in June 1930. The Penshurst team was playing Hamilton football team when the alarm was sounded, and the game stopped so that the players could attend the fire. The match had to finish to the light of cars. Dad lost everything in the fire. Mother owned some properties which she sold in order to be able to keep the newsagency. Mother’s properties were where Max Ewing’s house, ‘Murnong’, the old convent and the Temperance Hall, where Cameron’s home was built, and where Peter Fry, Harry Bones and Clem Mibus’ homes were built.

Our family had a bungalow about 12x16 ft and we shifted it to where it still is, and extended it to start a newsagency, stationery, chinaware etc. This happened during the depression years. At that time I worked in Melbourne 1929-31, and was retrenched from the Gippsland & Northern Co-Op, in Melbourne and had to come home and help out in the business. It was hard going until we got back on our feet. We had to live on two pounds a week for several months. During the depression years in the 1930’s, I also used to assist the shire engineer, the late W.J. Schooling, measuring stone and gravel heaps, and with surveying.

I helped numerous organisations in a voluntary capacity. I used to do posters for dances and balls, and ticket writing but, despite being ‘born with a brush in my hand’, I did not go on to study when I grew up. Nevertheless it is good to see the ‘monuments’ which I helped raising money for, and buildings for the community.

7. Entertainment

When I was a bit older, I and the other lads were taught old time dancing by Mrs. Jack Twomey. My eldest sister, Lex, played the piano. We learned all the dances. Mrs. Twomey was really good! One day, years later, when my wife Jeannie and I were dancing the Pride of Erin, a man said: “You are doing the Pride of Erin wrong!” “Look”, I said, “you go and jump in the lake”. “You blokes just do dances to suit yourselves.” My Jeannie and myself were congratulated for doing the Pride of Erin in Melbourne, Warrnambool, Hamilton, and Penshurst. Two nuns, who were teaching at St. Joseph’s School, praised us. They said that it was a pleasure to see us both dancing the Pride of Erin properly! Of course, it was my favourite dance.

On another occasion, we went over some of us in my Dad’s utility to play football at Dunkeld. I was a goal umpire. Having played for a while, Emerson Brown, our teacher called the Penshurst footballers off the ground, Dunkeld had had a ‘ring in’ from Ballarat. George Cook, who had a T Model Ford bus, used to take us to footy matches. We had to walk up the hills as the Ford could not go up there with us all on board.

8. The War Years

When Dad died in 1944, I became the Secretary of the Seaside Excursion events. I also became the Registrar of Births and Deaths, after my Dad’s death, the Bolte Government eventually made this the responsibility of hospitals and funeral directors. During World War 2, I was assistant Air Raid Warden, for which services I eventually received a Certificate in appreciation of patriotic response. But after 50 years of services, I did not know that I could have marched with the Returned ‘Diggers’ on ANZAC Day. I used to help the Penshurst Branch of the R.S.L. selling poppies and badges and making signs for them, and was eventually made an Honorary Member. During the war years, I also helped the late Lee Kirkwood to raise money for the Comforts Funds, and the Red Cross. Lee conducted the community singing and Christmas carol singing in the Methodist Churches in Dunkeld and Penshurst, while I was the lantern operator, together with the late Mrs. Adeline Ryan, our pianist at the time. I was also stage manager, and Lee Kirkwood compered the Methodist Musical Competitions many years ago.

9. Going into Business

After my father’s death, I took over Dad’s business in partnership with my mother for 16 years. We eventually also bought out the Newsagency section of the grocery shop, which was owned by the late John J Collins, licensed grocer.

My mother died in her 92nd year. The Newsagency business was then the oldest Newsagency in Victoria and had been in the Chesswas family for 83 years when I subsequently sold it in July 1978.

I also had the pleasure of being the Manager of the Western District ‘Talkies’ for 23 years. Although I was not the actual projectionist, I still got a lot of pleasure there. I was also Master of Ceremonies at various balls and dances, where I used to play the drums at supper time, together with the late Mrs. Adeline Ryan as pianist. I also compered concerts and community singing. During the depression years I had also worked as night telephonist at the local Post Office, two weeks on, two weeks off, for 18/9 a week, and later for 1 pound a week.

Later, I also worked for 6 months in the late Alf Baulch’s grocery, when he leased T Madigan’s store, and was paid 4 pounds 10 a week, until he went into liquidation. I loved that job, and the grocery trade. Once Penshurst had five grocers, i.e. Tom Eales, John J Collins, Chesswas & Sons, T Madigan, , and CB Cook. There were four drapers, i.e. Tom Eales, Chesswas’, Jimmy Briggs, and Madigans. There were two bakers, L. Leslie, and H. Lonie, two butchers Ross Clark, and Dan Buckley, one undertaker, first John Colliss, and later Tom Walker, two lolly and fruit shops; Mrs McClintock had one of them, Mrs. Cameron Barber the other. I cannot remember the very earliest ones, but certainly in my time Chris Baulch, and Dick Downes. Martha McClintock also owned the fruit shop years ago. We also had two plumbers, McNeice & Hatherall, and S. Cottrill, two blacksmiths - Edlich’s, and Hustlers. Where my shop is there was an old building housing Molesworth the Solicitor. At one time Penshurst had seven hotels, but do not ask me their names, although I do remember the Prince of Wales, which was destroyed by fire seven years ago. And of course we still have the Penshurst Hotel.


10. ‘Mods and Con’s’ Coming to Penshurst

One of my early memories was when my aunt Mary Chesswas had the pleasure of cutting the ribbon to switch on the electricity in Penshurst. The late Walter 
Burger told me an electricity company was going to start in Penshurst, but it fell through. The first swimming pool originated after a public meeting was called. Dad moved a motion to have a concrete swimming pool built, near the Donkey Engine Pump Shed, at the side of the park. He was seconded by the late John Waller, but the motion was lost, and a bigger swimming pool was built. Too big it was.

After Dad’s death my mother and other family members were sitting on the front lawn, when the late Norman Fry came walking home together with another man, saying when passing our place: “We should have listened to George Chesswas about the swimming pool. He was right. What have we got now? A big dam”. But we had a lot of fun in the old baths. In later years the new Olympic pool was built, partly including the old, and concreted. I myself was, for a short time, a member of the Swimming Pool Committee.

Part 2 of Jack's Memories

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