Legends from our own lunchtimes

Thursday, October 02, 2008



Until the early 1960’s my grandfather and his brothers ran a white metal foundry which once made specialised bearings for large steam engines of the type used in factories for milling cane or powering ships at sea.

Life had been kind to his father while there were steam powered engines and ships at sea, but by the 60’s new technologies had pretty much overtaken all that, and the foundry was limited to casting odd job lots, and street numbers for the Brisbane City Council to issue to ratepayers.

These were the days long before China had been invented as a supplier of all things cheap and practical, so among other things they used to melt down bits of war surplus aeroplane and cast the numbers in sand moulds with a suitably curved oval background, complete with screw holes for mounting on any handy gatepost.

When they were finished they looked exactly like the one in the photo from last week.

Except that before they looked like the picture, the black bit had to magically appear.

Since a metal foundry is set up for melting metal and making moulds of sand, and is really not set up for any kind of fine art work such as painting a black background on street number plaques, that task fell on my grandmother who used to enlist the help of her two eldest grandchildren. At school holidays and sometimes on weekends I would sit with my cousin Judith and we’d paint black backgrounds on those plaques with artist brushes and enamel paint. It was our first paying job, and while I can’t remember how much we received, it seemed like something in the order of a penny per four or five million numbers painted.

We’d have a table set up in the fernery of the original “Wilmaur” which was a bit like one of those conservatory type rooms the do it yourself makeover tv shows produce today, except with a concrete floor, full of hanging fish fern and maidenhair and diagonal lattice walls, but in those days it was just a nifty way of connecting to the outdoor toilet without going outside.

It wasn't really a sweathouse, but recollecting and analysing my part in the enterprise fifty years later, one could be forgiven for drawing remarkable comparisons to any number of pictures of third world enterprises today. I suppose that's more to do with the technology than the conditions, but certainly there are similarities. My grandmother was a stern taskmaster who used to provide us with very weak milky tea or even weaker orange cordial to sustain us but never ever smiled, not even when we finished painting a plaque without going over the lines.

Perhaps she did occasionally, when we let her win at dominoes, but whenever I try to remember all my mind can conjure is a sort of "I'm going to be sick now" grimace that came close to a smile but not quite.

She was a stern taskmaster, and with the benefit of rewriting history I could surmise that quality time with grandma was all about the money rather than the relationship!

Grandad on the other hand, was a different sort of stern. He was made of the unbending stern stuff that family heads were supposed to be of, in that post Victorian era, but as is so often the case he had a centre as soft as a Caramello. He never went anywhere without wearing a tie and starched collars on his shirts, his long boots laced up to his shins and were old fashioned even for those times and he wore long underwear no matter what the temperature.

Every time we visited, he'd stand erect at the door as we left, like a preacher after a service, and as we passed he'd press a penny into our hand, sometimes threepence. On a good day we could double our earnings just by leaving!

It's all got me thinking about what sort of an impression I'm leaving on my own grandchild. Perhaps I should at least tuck my shirt in, or put something on my feet, and give him a sixpence (taking inflation into account) as he's leaving.

What will the world make of my board shorts fifty years from now?


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

This is a really interesting blog. I love your tales. Have to speak up for your grandchildren though. Inflation will bring that 1d or 3d closer to $10!

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