Issy Wyner (1916-2008)
Issy Wyner was born at Paddington, Sydney, in 1916 and grew up in the Rozelle-Balmain area. This interview was recorded specifically for his recollections of life in working class Sydney during the 1930s Depression, as part of research and preparation for the museum’s 2007 exhibition Scarred and Strengthened.
Interview with Issy Wyner part 1
B York: This is an interview with Mr Issy Wyner at his home in Balmain taking place today, Sunday 6th May 2007. I want to thank you very much for cooperating.
I Wyner: That’s okay.
B York: Old Parliament House will value this addition to its Oral History Collection very much. I’d like to begin by, maybe asking you about your background a bit. Can you tell us about your parents and your family origins?
I Wyner: Yes. Do you want me to start now?
B York: Yes, sure Issy.
I Wyner: I can’t give you a great deal about my parents I just haven’t learnt much about them. I do know this though, my parents came from two little states that were annexed by Russia, Estonia and Latvia. Father came from Estonia and my mother from Latvia. Their parents emigrated from those states to England very early on and so both the families had their children educated in England. It was from there that the whole thing started, all that Estonia business was all forgotten. I’m not too sure just where they met up but they spent both their lives learning English and all the rest of it in England and at a later stage they both migrated to South Africa. I think was where they met, the two different families. I don’t know a great deal about it from there on except that, as a boy, a school boy, my mother often asked me to write a letter to her parents. I used to sit down in the kitchen and pen a little letter which she posted to Cape Town.
B York: Gee yes.
I Wyner: Saying a few things about her parents — to her parents about what life was like here in Australia and that sort of thing.
B York: Do you know when they came to Australia?
I Wyner: I think it was about 1913, they settled here and — I was born in 1916. They lived in Marrickville and I was born in the Paddington Hospital.
B York: What did your parents do for a living here?
I Wyner: Well my mother had years, apparently in England, had learned quite a lot about dress-making all that type. She’d learnt some sort of an occupation that way, so she was quite capable with that sort of work. My father was what I usually describe as an artisan cabinetmaker. He did a lot of custom built sort of work but he did the whole exercise. He would design a piece of furniture, select the timbers. There was a wide range of tools so that he could do everything that was required with timber to put together a piece of furniture without using screws or nails. Then he would prepare his own polish, French polishing all the timber, then he had a completed piece of furniture which would be taken over by people like David Jones or someone like that. But, I’m not too sure just how much of it he did there because by the time I began to realize what things were about he was thrown out of work by the Depression.
B York: I see, yes.
I Wyner: So he had very little to do after that for quite a few years.
B York: Did you have brothers and sisters?
I Wyner: Yes, I had three brothers and one sister. The three brothers have died. The last of the brothers died last year and the only one remaining is my sister. Two of the brothers put in the whole of the period of the Second World War in the Middle East and New Guinea later. But the younger brother, young Victor, the one who died recently, he was seventy-nine. I don’t know what you’d call him, he was a travelling salesman, that type of thing.
B York: Yes.
I Wyner: But they’ve gone now. They lived in different places. One brother finished up moving up to Coffs Harbour before he died. The other one lived at Campbelltown where he was an alderman on the council for a while.
B York: Have you lived in the same part of Sydney pretty much all the time?
I Wyner: Yes, all the time. All around Balmain mostly, apart for a year or two when I was away from home, but Balmain’s been my stamping ground you might say, Balmain-Rozelle, of course. Actually, my parents first moved from Marrickville to Rozelle, which was only a part of Balmain you might say. Yes, we lived in Evans Street in Rozelle until they moved here to Balmain, actually into Waterview Street and it was from there my father disappeared. I’ve always cursed him ever since then. He left mum to worry about the five kids and he just disappeared. Two of us, as I say, went to the war. I was a more of a ‘knock about bloke’ I must have done a dozen different jobs, of all kinds, a variety of work over the Depression period until I finished up at Cockatoo Island as a painter and docker and I just went on from there.
B York: When did your family move here, did you say, did they move from Marrickville, how old would you have been?
I Wyner: How old would I have been — that’s right, mum took me to the Phoenix Kindergarten when I was about four years old so 1920, so they must have moved here during the war I suppose, in the First World War.
B York: When did your father leave?
I Wyner: Somewhere about in the late 1930s. I’m not too sure of the time but I suppose somewhere about 1937-38.
B York: Did you ever find out what he did and what became of him?
I Wyner: I never heard another word about him, never knew where he’d gone, he just vanished. Mum never knew nothing about him. Actually that was one of the things that, I suppose, part of my development, that after he’d gone we were on the dole and by that time the government had changed the dole idea to, what’s it called, relief work. So that men had to work for their dole that was what it was about. They were paid the basic wage and I went to the — with mum we went to see the manager of the dole up here, he looked after all that sort of thing, explained our position and he decided to classify me — I must have been about nineteen or something — well 1938 what would I have been then — twenty?
B York: ’38 — that’s 22 isn’t it, you would have been 22.
I Wyner: Twenty-two, yes, well about then anyway, he classified me as the father of the family and put me on relief work. The relief work was a strange sort of thing. They had a series of them. If you were a single man you was given one week in seven at the basic wage, that had to last you for several weeks. If you were a married man, they gave you two weeks in five, they worked it on from there. If you were married with children, they had a series. I just forget what they were all about now. But anyway, I had this relief work and for some time I worked as a labourer in building a road up at Bankstown, road works up there. I forget, it was somewhere, River Road or something they called it. So I used to bring home the pay packet and give to mum.
B York: Yes.
I Wyner: And she looked after us from that. Shortly after that I started to work at Cockatoo Island and so I got a much better wage. It was only casual work but by the time I started work at Cockatoo it was almost the war had started and Cockatoo Island became, what they called, a protected industry and so I didn’t have to join the army or anything like that. I just carried on from there. I just left my two brothers to fight the war [laughing] I did the other work here.
B York: Can I ask a bit about your education, like, when you were a young fella, did you go to the primary school and go through the …
I Wyner: Oh no, it was all public, but my school education was a rather sad business. I developed to the stage where I went to, what was known as the Drummoyne Intermediate Boys High School and from there I graduated to Fort Street, which was regarded as one of the top schools, you know, a favourite jumping off place for university. It seemed like I was set for course there but by the time I got to Fort Street the Depression had struck pretty badly. The old man couldn’t afford to pay for all the things that were required in attending Fort Street. Couldn’t afford the, you know, the blazer they wore and having a tennis racket and a cricket bat and all the fancy things that went with it. Couldn’t even afford the books. You had to buy the books and the teachers would say, they would tell us where to buy this book and that book. I just couldn’t afford it, but then there was a story about a place where you could get them second hand. Well second hand books weren’t much, they’d already been scribbled on and knocked about quite a lot. They weren’t much good. That was one side of it. The other part of it was, because I wasn’t able to dress like the rest of the students there, copped a ‘fair amount of flack’ from the other kids. So there was always a bit of fur flying and blood-letting and all sorts of kicking and bashing. Anyway I only lasted, I think for about eighteen months, I think at Fort Street and I had to leave. We just couldn’t afford any more, and from there on, when I was about sixteen or something, fifteen, I just knocking about the streets until I got all kinds of odd jobs.
B York: Did you like school?
I Wyner: Oh yes, I didn’t mind the education. I liked learning French, we had to learn French and different subjects like that.
B York: Were there other subjects that you liked?
I Wyner: Oh yes, used to study Geography and History, that type of thing. I never got — I mean I just lost interest in it all after that, once I had to get out of the place I couldn’t carry on any further and so I never got to university. I stayed with the university of hard knocks after that.
B York: Yes [laughs] good one. Were you ambitious at all? Did you want to be something when you grew up? Did you have plans?
I Wyner: No, no nothing like that, it just wasn’t a part of my make-up, it was just a matter of knocking about and finding jobs. I spent a bit of time shovelling wheat down at the wheat silos here at White Bay. Then I had another job sorting fish. The trawl was brought in with Carbonetti’s, it was a terrible sort of job that. I don’t know if you know anything about sorting fish. The trawlers brought them in, it was all loaded with lice, and you had to sort — get the fish out of the ice and your hands become totally numb with the cold. So you wouldn’t feel it when you’re sorting the fish but after your hands warmed up a bit, then you’d feel where the fish pricks got you in your fingers. It was just agony in your fingers, and all that sort of thing. Then for a little while I — what other job — I was in the public service for a little while. I forget what that was about now but it was sort of clerical work, anyway, but that didn’t last for long. I think I was in trouble with that too because I put my age up to get the job and they discovered it later on and I got a letter, or a note, or something from the bloke who was in charge, Charles Bellamour I think his name was, he told me I was finished up for not disclosing my true age or something like that.
B York: How old did you have to be, do you remember?
I Wyner: Well at least eighteen, I think I was under eighteen at the time.
B York: So the jobs we’re talking about, they were during the Depression?
I Wyner: Yes, oh yes, it was all Depression work.
B York: Where they typical sort of jobs, like being casual jobs, is that what people would go for in those days if they were looking for work?
I Wyner: I think somewhere along the line in Balmain there was a place up here in the main road where you’d go there for — they’d test you, to see what you were capable of. They would run you through a whole series of questions and answers. I forget what they used to call that now, some strange name. They decided that I was cut out to be a clerk. As a result of that, I think, that was where I finished up getting this job with the public service. But the clerical work I did was mainly to put me into the dole dump where men had to report every week to show they were out of work and you had to stamp their card. They had a little card, you put the stamp on that to show that they’d reported, so that if, they were out of work. That was the sort of work they gave me for a while anyway, it wasn’t actually clerical work I suppose, a stamp these cards for unemployed men.
B York: Can I go back a little bit. I was wondering what where your parents attitudes to you going to school, like to your formal education?
I Wyner: Oh they were always keen on me getting, you know, pushing ahead with education as much as possible, both my father and mother were interested in that, but it was just one of those sad says when they both decided that there was nothing else they could do about it. Being on the dole they just couldn’t afford what was required.
B York: So and both your parents were on the dole were they?
I Wyner: Yes, well I mean, my father was the one, he collected the dole and originally, I don’t know whether you are aware, but the dole in the first instance, I’m not sure if it was run under the Lang government or State government, you had to go down to Quay Street, it’s a little street next to Central railway. My father used to — I went with him a few times and so I knew. He had these sugar bags, hessian sugar bags, he’d take a couple of those with him, and you’d line up in these queues. There must have been hundreds of unemployed men and you’d line up. You’d file past these windows in this building and in each window a bloke behind would pass out a leg of ham, a couple of loaves of bread, a packet of tea, different things like that. You’d put them in this sugar bag, you know. I was able to help my father carry those from there. The government also gave the recipient these little tickets that you could use on the tram, so you didn’t have to pay your fare. You’d tear off one of these tickets and give it to the conductor. So, with him, we’d carry these sugar bags, get on the tram and come back to Balmain. It was from that sort of dole that we developed from one stage to another, as the government changed the way of doing it, from handing out tucker to giving you vouchers so you could go to the grocer and the butcher and collected whatever you needed, and then from there it developed into the relief work.
B York: And you went right through all that period didn’t you.
I Wyner: Yes.
B York: What would you say, in general, like if you were to make a general comment about that decade of the Depression, you know, there’s been books recently saying, it wasn’t quite as bad as people say. And then there are the memoirs of people who show a pretty grim picture of what life was like. Can you sum it up at all, before we go into more detail? How would you generalize it?
I Wyner: It’s a bit difficult I suppose. The Depression, well I suppose for young’uns like me, I suppose the Depression, didn’t really mean a great deal. We were still there, we were still getting out three meals a day, of one kind or another. I remember mum used to send us with these big billy cans up to the Methodist Mission and get them filled with soup. The Methodist Mission in Beattie Street used to ladle out the soup and we’d take that home and that would be a meal, that sort of thing. What else, I don’t know what else to say about it. As a Depression for young’uns, as I say, it didn’t affect us as much as it did the parents, I suppose. They were the ones who did the worrying about it all. So there wasn’t a great deal in that until it got to the stage where I became involved with a number of young fellas about my age and we were sort of knocking about, until we had the experience of going down — we used to go down to the Baths, the Elkington Park Baths. They are now called the Dawn Fraser Pool. They are named after my old friend Dawn Fraser, haven’t seen her for a while, incidentally. We were all down there one day outside the Baths and we couldn’t get in. You had to put your coin, tuppence or threepence, into the Baths manager who would collect them at the turnstile and let you into the Baths. But this day, of course, we weren’t in because we didn’t have our money. We all put on a screaming match, yelling at him to let us in and all that, and of course, he told us, ‘It’s no good talking to me, go and see your local Alderman. They know all about it’. This is where we had this experience. He gave us the idea where we came up to the Town Hall to see if we could see somebody at the Town Hall. We barged into the Town Clerk’s office. It must have been about, six or seven or us, young fellas, you know, kicking up a row. We say to the Town Clerk ‘Why can’t we go into the Baths? We’ve got no money. We’re all out of work. What’s wrong? Why won’t you let us into the Baths?’ He gave us the story then, same as the Baths’ manager, ‘Don’t come to me, go and see your alderman.’
So that was our next stage. I remember talking to one of the alderman, his name was Jack Trainer. He was a returned soldier from the First World War. He became an alderman on the Leichhardt Council. He was a bloke who used to get up to the Domain on a Sunday. He’d spruce there about the Depression and all that sort of thing. He always started off his speeches by saying ‘I was a six bob a day murderer, in the First World War’, this was the way he’d start talking. Anyway, I told him all about this ‘Why can’t they let us into the pool, just to have a swim. A couple of times a week we’d go down’. He said, ‘Alright, leave it with me’ that’s all I heard about it. The other blokes were the same. They’d all got onto an alderman somewhere. Anyway, about a month or so after this bit of a demonstration with the Town Clerk and the alderman, the local rag came out. It was a paper called The Link. I don’t know what the link meant in those days. I remember it had three or four links of a chain as a symbol on the top of its letterhead. Anyway, it used to publish the decisions of the council from week to week. This week, about a month later, it announced that the Leichhardt Council had decided that during the Depression it would allow the children of unemployed people to go into the baths free twice or three times a week. We all sent up a bit of a cheer then. We felt that we’d had our first great achievement, a demonstration we actually achieved something.
B York: Yes.
I Wyner: So, I mean that was the sort of experience that kept us in mind, that it was a Depression period.
B York: Was there any noticeable difference to you in the standard of living of your family, like before the Depression, and during the Depression?
I Wyner: I’m not sure that I know about that. It was my mother more than my father that seemed to manage to always have a bit of tucker on the table. It was no worry to us.
B York: Yes.
I Wyner: No there was always fish, or there was meat or there was fowl, or something like that, there was always a meal of some kind. As I say for young’uns, aged eleven, twelve whatever, thirteen, fourteen even, it didn’t seem to be any different, there was always a meal on the table.
B York: Yes, and when you were younger you wouldn’t have been that aware. It’s difficult to make a comparison I suppose, isn’t it?
I Wyner: Yes, we lived in a house in Evans Street where there was only electric light in one room and when I was doing homework, or anything like that, it was always by candle light. So, I mean, that still continued right up to when I finished school.
B York: Did you grow any of your own food at all?
I Wyner: Yes, I remember in Evans Street mum used to grow a few tomatoes and chokos, chokos seemed to be a popular thing among houses, there was always a vine over the back fence, that sort of thing. I suppose that always helped a bit.
B York: Yes. And where were you living during the ‘30s?
I Wyner: I suppose mostly in Waterview Street, down this way, part of Balmain. My memory is not too good on a lot of those things, about where we lived and moved, but I don’t think we moved that much anyway.
B York: Did the parents own the house, or where they renting?
I Wyner: Oh no it was all rent, no we only paid rent. I’m not even sure where my father found rent at times, what he did for it. I couldn’t even say. But it might have been the reason we moved from Evans Street in Rozelle to Waterview Street was that we couldn’t afford the rent there anymore. We moved to a place in Waterview Street. I’m not sure just where he would have got the money, even to pay the rent. The rent wasn’t a great deal. I know it was only a few shillings. I can’t explain that.
B York: I guess it would have been, what your five siblings and your mum and dad …
I Wyner: Yes.
B York: … living all together in the …
I Wyner: Yes.
B York: … where there any other people who lived, like did they rent out a room or anything?
I Wyner: No, nothing like that, no. No, we were just a family and we stayed that way until the other two brothers, as I say, they went west, way out in the bush. One of them worked out somewhere out West Wyalong way, I don’t know if it was a wheat farm or a cattle farm, a cattle station, I’m not too sure. The other brother, I’m not too sure.
B York: When you had those casual jobs how would you get to work?
I Wyner: Mostly by walking.
B York: Yes.
I Wyner: I remember in those days I used to walk into the city, into the Queen Victoria Building for the library. There was no library here in those days. I used to go into town to the library and borrow books. Always walk in, over the bridge and back again. No, it was mostly walking, couldn’t afford even trams. No I can’t recall much about that.
B York: I’m getting the impression that you were a bit of a book type person.
I Wyner: Oh yes I used to like reading. I’d take out books on different things, travel ones and novels and things. I read quite a lot of different sorts of novels, writers and that. As I say, I became involved with a group here in Balmain who were known then as the Unemployed Workers’ Movement. I used to take part in demonstrations. The leader of them was a bloke named Jack Sylvester. He used to get up on the stumps spruiking. I remember going with him and a few others to a big meeting they had in Glebe, outside the Glebe Town Hall, where he got up on the stump there to start talking. I think it was something like, demand double dole or something like that. So many there, it was a big crowd, it filled the whole of the streets around the Glebe Town Hall. So much so that the tram couldn’t run, it was on the tram lines. The trams were held up and the next thing we knew was that the — about three car loads of coppers come racing over the hill from the Glebe Station and they waded into the crowd, bashed and kicked everybody, women and all. I remember I got a big size ten boot in my backside, among other things, just smashed up the whole meeting. So that was another reminder of what the Depression was about for us.
B York: And all that would have had the effect of making you more political would it …
I Wyner: Oh yes …
B York: … more interested in politics?
I Wyner: … I suppose it all helped to make me more radical in my thinking. So with all that group I learned to read about — read books by some of the old writers from overseas, H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw, Anatole France, they were all, I suppose, in a way radical minded, anyway, socialist attitudes. So that I suppose, that’s where my education started pretty young.
B York: Where your parents political at all, or interested in that sort of thing?
I Wyner: My father was, mum wasn’t so much. Well, I mean, she just had that — a radical attitude but didn’t participate, but my father mentioned one time that he had — that’s right he claimed that he was a — he attended the first meeting that decided to form the Communist Party in 1920 would it have been, or something like that …
B York: Yes, that’s right.
I Wyner: … I’m not sure of dates, around about that time, anyhow just after the war. He gave me a book, a little book, it was supposed to be the minutes of the first meeting of the Communists International, wherever he got that from I don’t know. I read that but I’m afraid that was a bit too much of a mystery for me. I didn’t quite fathom it at the time he gave it to me. But other than that he never spoke much about it. He led his own life really. He wasn’t a great educator so I didn’t learn much from him but I learnt more from the group that I was with, Jack Sylvester and I remember particularly a bloke called Albert Robbie who was an old Scotch ships engineer, unemployed, who lived with Jack Sylvester and he told me quite a lot. I suppose I learnt more from him than anybody, about the old Scottish socialists, and activists, that type of thing. Yes, so I think he used to talk about Ramsay MacDonald and people like that. He was a participant, active when he was over there in Scotland and London in the early days. He lived until he was nearly ninety and he died in a little place up here.
B York: In Balmain was he?
I Wyner: In Balmain, yes.
B York: I forgot to ask your parent’s names too, we’ve talked about your parents, what were their names?
I Wyner: Father’s name was Samuel Wyner and mum’s name was Rachel, Samuel and Rachel, yes.
B York: Did they keep in touch with their homelands at all?
I Wyner: Only to the extent that I mentioned to you, mum used to get me to write letters to her parents, when they lived in Cape Town. I suppose she must have written letters to them as well, but other than that I don’t know. I just lost all contact, or any knowledge of them to tell you the truth, of their parents. So I don’t know what they were about after that. I’m not even sure — I know that my father had a number of brothers. I’ve got a big photo inside there with a photo of him and the others, but where they lived I don’t know, never heard anything about them.
Except, no I better correct that, I did get to know one of my father’s brothers who lived in San Francisco. It must have been three or four years ago, I can’t recall now, but anyway he did a trip to Sydney and I met him.
B York: Oh great.
I Wyner: I had a bit of a chat with him and then he was gone again. Yes, that was quite a pleasant experience at the time. I’m trying to think of his name. I can’t recall his name that’s how bad my memory is now.
B York: Oh you’re doing pretty well.
I Wyner: It was a nice experience though.
B York: Yes, a lovely experience. Can I ask what would be a typical family evening during the Depression. Like you’re at home, you get home from work, what would be a typical family scene?
I Wyner: It’s hard to recall now. As I say I used to read a lot. I suppose we used to play games. It was always around the table we’d play — I remember something, mum used to like to play cards with her, play some game, Euchre maybe or something like that. I remember some years she got in with a group of other women and they used to play cards. They’d meet at each other’s house and they’d have a cup of tea and a biscuit and play cards amongst themselves. But at home I suppose she taught us one or two card games and then we’d play ludo or something like that, those sort of things. Amongst ourselves I suppose, we also used to play Draughts and maybe trying your hand at chess, those sort of things. I can’t recall too much, to tell you the truth. I know in the day time we’d always find something to do, like, we’d play cricket …
Interview with Issy Wyner part 2
I Wyner … playing cricket in those days was easy because you played out in the street, there were no motorcars. The only time you had to get off the road was when a horse and cart would come through, or the ice cream man, or the coke man or someone like that. But other than that, I remember we got into trouble with my father one time because we decided to build a wheel barrow that we could run down the hills, but we used some of his fine tools for making it. So he took the strap to us on that day and chased us out in the street.
B York: Where were the tools from?
I Wyner My father had a whole heap of tools at home, chisels and saws, and band saws all kinds of things, thing you never see these days. He used for fine tuning all kinds of work, for his work as a cabinetmaker.
B York: What about the radio? Did you have a radio at home, was that important at all?
I Wyner I can’t recall, no. What my father did, was that he built a gramophone, he made it for the home. Where he got the machine from I don’t know. He bought some records for us so we used to sit and play them, quite a lot. It’s a funny thing, suddenly in my mind about — he had some Irish tunes, Irish music, why he did I don’t know. As a Jew you’d think he’d be looking for something different. I can’t recall the names of them now, but that was a nice one, very often we’d sit there just playing the gramophone, one record after another. You had to wind it up, wind up the machine for it to play for a while.
B York: Did anybody play an instrument in the family, was there any …
I Wyner We never learnt much about — it’s a funny thing you ask that, that is one thing that sticks in my mind. My father thought that I could be a musician. In order to do that he decided to make his own violin for me. He must have got about three parts way in making the damn thing for some reason or other he never finished it. So I never got that, but I remember him, he wanted — he was very keen on making this violin. I was going to play it, but it never got to that. So the best that I ever did was to learn how to play the mouth organ. So then the other — two of the other brothers also learnt that so we used to puff a bit on that, but other than that, there was nothing musical about us I suppose.
B York: What about the weekends at that time, in the Depression, what would you do for weekends?
I Wyner I don’t know, go swimming, oh well early on, I mean before the Depression, dad used to take us on picnics. He took us — some of the great picnic grounds at the beaches, places like — even as far as Bondi, Clovelly and Clontarf. I think we even did a trip one time on the ferry to Manly. They were great experiences in those times. The whole family off away, lugging these baskets full of tucker and stuff, all that sort of thing. I mean that was part of the weekend, anyway, other than that I don’t know.
B York: What about sporting events, I don’t mean playing, but spectator, would you go and watch any?
I Wyner No, never did really. I can’t recall anything in that way in sport. I never got to the — I remember later on there was an old Scottish miner named Bill Telfer who tried to teach some of us how to play soccer, used to kick a ball around, that was about all.
B York: And what about entertainment, say on the weekend, like going to the theatre or …
I Wyner There was always the movies, yes, the Saturday afternoon matinee, that’s right. We used to go — there are three or four picture houses around Balmain, the Amusu Theatre and the Rowntree one here, and different places, we used to be able to go there and pay our threepence in, or whatever it was, yes that would put in an afternoon at the movies. They were mostly silent movies until the days of Al Jolson started up the talkies. So, yes, that was Saturday afternoons mostly.
B York: Did you have any experience of, like among your friends or neighbours, of evictions happening?
I Wyner Oh yes, the evictions. I was involved in that with the Unemployed Workers’ Movement. I didn’t go to the Bankstown one, that was the bad, really bad there. The evictions fights in Bankstown they led to some really bad, serious issues where an old friend of mine, an Aboriginal boy named Nobby Eatock, or wait a minute, he must have been about twenty-one, twenty-two I suppose by then. He was jailed for two years. They framed him on it. It was a framed-up charge, they were able to prove a lot of it but Nobby had to do the time anyway.
With me, there was one eviction here in McDonald Street where — I don’t how old I would have been, eighteen or nineteen I suppose, I can’t remember, that is where I’m lost with dates and times.
B York: But roughly …
I Wyner I know there was a group of us decided to sit in that house with the family when we heard that the police were coming to kick them out. We stayed there all night and the police never turned up so it was — nothing happened. We left, we all left, went our own way and you wouldn’t want to know the next night we never turned up, the police turned up and threw them out, tossed all their furniture into the street. It was a really bad show. The other one was — I went with another group to Glebe where there was a threat of eviction. We stayed there over night and then there was nothing happened. So, I mean, that was my experience. I didn’t actually experience anything more than just being there, being prepared but nothing more came of it.
B York: How many of you would have gone to be in the house?
I Wyner I don’t know, eight or ten blokes. Something like that anyway.
B York: What was the idea? Was the play that you would help to stop them being evicted?
I Wyner It was just a matter that we would stay in the house and if the police tried to break down the door, we’d hold against them, we were prepared for whatever. One bloke carried a piece of timber that he’d loaded with lead, drilled a hole through it and filled it with lead. He used it as a — but he never had to use it, but we were prepared to, oh I don’t know, just sort of resist as much as possible, and take whatever came with it. As young blokes, young men, I mean, you didn’t have so much thought about danger and injury or anything like that, you just prepared to do whatever was required.
B York: Did you see many other, see other evictions, or know of people who were?
I Wyner No, I never saw any more in Balmain, never heard, never came across any of it really. No I can’t recall really.
B York: Was there, like, a neighbourly atmosphere in Balmain, where people would help each other a fair bit?
I Wyner Oh yes there was a lot of that, there was a lot of that. Like people next door, when we lived in Evans Street, they were always, you know, it was always a matter of swapping over. If mum had grown a whole heap of tomatoes she’d give them to different people, or chokos or whatever she’d prepared. There wasn’t much else you could do. I know when the Depression really struck — there was a lot of friendliness in those days. We mixed with the kids. There was an aboriginal family that we knew and we grew up with the kids to some extent, went to school with them, that sort of thing. As I say, we played cricket in the street with a dozen different kids from all around. We’d play all sorts of things, or running up and down the hills in wheel barrows that sort of thing.
Oh no it was a very friendly sort of — I think in all of my experience there is only one occasion that — where there were a couple of kids or a bit older than me maybe, used to gig us about being Jews. I was a regular Jew boy and that sort of thing. I remember I was walking up the main street here when somebody yelled out like that. I was going to go over the road to have a go at him and the bloke I was with grabbed me and said ‘No, leave him alone’ he wouldn’t let me go over there, you know. I said, ‘No, let me, I feel like going over and having a go at this bloke’, ‘no, no come on, don’t start any ‘blues’’ so we just walked on. But that was the only occasion, apart from that I never heard another word about my religion or anything like that. I mean, afterwards I gave religion away anyhow. I was finished with it. I had enough of it. Didn’t like it and didn’t care for it. I’d studied to be a — what are they called, Bar Mitzvah I studied all that in Hebrew and stuff, it just, I gave it away. I just didn’t below. It didn’t fit in with being Australia somehow or other. I just felt it was something that didn’t have to be. While I did that to make my parents happy, once that was over I was finished with it.
B York: So they wanted you to do the Bar Mitzvah?
I Wyner Oh yes, mum and dad, they both did, yes, they both wanted me to be something, I don’t know. Maybe they thought I was going to finish up being a Rabbi, I don’t know. It just wasn’t part of me.
B York: And was there, like, a philosophical type objection to it too? Would you have said you didn’t believe in a God?
I Wyner Yes, it developed, I mean I suppose being mixed up with all this group of people and they were giving me the other side of the story about religion and I read quite a bit about it, I suppose, and the Darwin Theory and all that came into it. So I was more content with that approach to life, you know, rather than this religious one. I couldn’t fit in with saying prayers every night, and all that sort of stuff. There didn’t seem to be something there that had any answer for what people were confronting. As I grew up and saw life, as it was, and of course, in recent times the whole Israel setup is one that just angers me. Anyway that’s another story.
B York: With religion though, all the years later, today, do you still have the same attitude to religion?
I Wyner Oh yes, it’s just not — it’s got no answers, no answers at all as far as I’m concerned anyway.
B York: Now this is a question that I ask everybody about the Depression, it’s a strange one, I guess, but did you know anybody who did well out of the Depression?
I Wyner No, not really, no I can’t recall anyone. I mean the whole of the social sphere that I was in, no not during the Depression anyway. I mean other people developed in different ways afterwards, after the Depression faded. They all grew into big jobs, or some of them became important people, one way or another, I suppose, but out of the actual Depression itself I can’t think of anybody who made anything from the Depression, no.
B York: And from your experience at the time, when did it feel to you that the Depression ended?
I Wyner I’m not too sure, right up to 1939 there was still Depression effects, people finding bits of jobs but there was still, sort of living a Depression life. I imagine, as far as I was concerned anyway, there was still a Depression right up to the beginning of the war. It was alright for me, as I say, I started work at Cockatoo Island in 1939, towards the end of 1939, so I suppose from then on I could say that was the end of the Depression. But before that I was just a knock about, just getting odd jobs anywhere. I couldn’t find regular work. Most of the blokes that I kicked about with were in the same position too. I can’t think of anybody who was getting regular, permanent hire that sort of thing.
B York: How do you think the Depression influenced you as a person, like, how did it effect you in your development?
I Wyner I’m not sure whether to say it was the Depression itself, or the Depression was just one part of my education, together with what I — the type of people I was mixing with and the activities I was involved with. All that sort of thing, I suppose, the whole lot of that you could put together to say, was the way my education developed. It’s not just the Depression on its own, except that I was aware of what the Depression meant for a lot of other people, from my reading, from some of the people I knew, their experiences, how they found it difficult to get by, to pay their way, for the sort of things they liked to have and couldn’t have. I suppose that was all a part of my education, that’s what a Depression was all about. It meant so much to so many families, so much in the way of poorness and poverty.
B York: How was your health during that period? Did you have any health problems?
I Wyner No problems at all, no all my health problems only came after I turned eighty [laughing].
B York: And what about the rest of your family, were they all okay health-wise?
I Wyner Oh yes, we were all quite healthy in that way, all of these things came later in life with a lot of them. Two of my brothers Jack and George both developed cancer in one way or another and that really killed them. Victor was the same, he had another type of cancer I suppose. But it all came later in life. We all lived pretty good lives in that way I suppose. I suppose to that extent, I suppose our family, my parents managed to look after us, I suppose you could say, despite the Depression. They could manage to ensure that we had a healthy life.
B York: And when did your mother die?
I Wyner She died when she was only about sixty, sixty seven, something like that. Hers was mainly the heart, heart problems.
B York: So that was after the Second World War?
I Wyner Oh yes, yes, no God I can’t — dates again have got me, no. I can’t remember when she died now but it was since, it was after the First World War, after the Second World War I should say.
B York: It must have been very difficult for her when your father left?
I Wyner Oh yes, that was a — yes that really put a real drag weight on mum, she was the one that did all the worrying then. Quite candidly I didn’t realize to what extent she must have worried about it all, maybe I haven’t even learnt since my wife died, just how much is involved when a woman has to, you know, really worry about all those sort of things. I learn now living on my own, when I can do my own washing and cooking and shopping and all that, how did mum manage all that. I just sort of glided along with it and didn’t come to realize to what extent, what was involved for a woman to have to worry about those sort of things.
B York: Did the boys help around the house, like, did you have tasks and chores that you had to do?
I Wyner Oh yes, mummy always used to say, you can do this or you can do that, go and dig the garden up, and water the garden, look after the vegies I’ve go there or whatever. Don’t forget you’ve got to do the washing up and all that sort of thing. We used to have it all divided up, you do the washing up tonight, you do the wiping up tonight. Yes there was all that sort of thing. I can’t recall what — as I say she gave us this job of going up to the Methodist Mission to get the billies of soup and all that sort of thing. After the old man left, I suppose in one way or another we all tucked in to look after her anyway. Even when the two brothers went bush they always sent money home to mum, that sort of thing, I mean my sister and the young brother, well they were still going to school. So they wouldn’t be able to do much about it. It was a matter that we had to support — well I had to do most of the supporting at home when the other two went bush. I suppose we managed one way or another. I always took my pay packet — you’d collect your pay packed at whatever place they give you, I’d just take it home to mum, ‘Here’ and she worked something out with that money. I can’t recall what else she had to do, whether there was anything else she did to try and get a few bob. I can’t recall now, no, it doesn’t come to me.
B York: How long did you live at home, like, when did you leave home?
I Wyner I was at home until I got married I think, and that was in the middle of the war. By then, when I say, left home, well the other two had gone up — Marie and Victor, the two younger ones had grown up. Marie had also got married and so she took mum with her, she looked after mum. Looked after her very well too, and Victor was always, made his contribution one way or another. I’m not too sure. I think that’s the way it developed. She lived with my sister right up till the time she died. Yes, I can’t recall any more about it than that. I’d have to ask my sister she’s got a better memory than me. Well she should have she’s only eighty.
B York: Only eighty, yes [laughs]. When I asked previously about sporting activities, I had in mind also things like — that I understand was popular back then, like at the Stadiums, you know, the boxing and the wrestling.
I Wyner Yes, Leichhardt Stadium, yes.
B York: Did you go to those at all?
I Wyner I might have gone to one or two fights. It never, I don’t know, it never got to me, I never thought much about that sort of thing. I suppose, maybe I stand out as something strange but sport, to me, has always been something that was an individual thing to look after your own health in the best way you could. This competitive sport is something that I can’t take to, I don’t know why. What it’s developed into these day, it’s just a big business thing, just burning out people, after you get all the millions out of them. There is something about it that just doesn’t fit with me at all. It’s always been that way. I couldn’t take to sport as something where you join in with a bunch of blokes and get in and start bashing and kicking and whatever else is involved.
B York: What about vaudeville and the stage. I’m thinking ….
I Wyner Oh that’s, yes, I remember, I did see Stiffy and Mo once at the Tivoli I think, once or twice. Yes, I’ve been to those, use to enjoy that sort of thing the vaudeville, yes, to the extent that I could get to it, which wasn’t very often.
B York: And they were a bit risqué I believe, Stiffy and Mo they were a bit bawdy [laughs]
I Wyner Supposed to be, yes, but I mean, I suppose a lot of it was over my head. I enjoyed more the acrobats and all those sort of things, watching them do their tricks on stage.
B York: That’s interesting …
I Wyner Jugglers.
B York: … oh yes, so what would happen on a vaudeville night, what would you have?
I Wyner I don’t know. I’m trying to think who I’d go with, I wouldn’t go on my own. Whether the old man took me once or twice, it might have been. I don’t recall even mum going to those sort of things, no.
B York: So they’d have, like, singers and comedians …
I Wyner Yes.
B York: … and you’re saying jugglers and acrobats?
I Wyner Yes, all those sort, I can just recollect that sort of attitude, or atmosphere, but to tell you any more about it. I don’t know whether I can. Entertainment was something — I suppose it was scarce in its own way. Apart from the Saturday matinees and the pictures I don’t know whether there was much I took much interest in. I suppose I’d was starting to get too serious with other things, too early on maybe. People were giving me things to read about capitalism and communism and all that sort of stuff. A lot of it was over my head but there was something about it that seemed to gel in the whole atmosphere of society. I don’t know. The way I kicked around this experience of the swimming pool business, those sort of things, being to some extent involved in the demonstrations and anti-evictions. So I suppose I was more serious minded.
B York: Yes.
I Wyner And wasn’t so worried about entertainment and sport, those sort of things. So maybe I was developing too quickly too early, I don’t know.
B York: Yes. Did the Unemployed Workers’ Movement have a social kind of group?
I Wyner Oh yes, they used to have their Sunday night lectures at little halls up the street here, the main street. They’d have people invited out to give a lecture on different aspects of society and politics and industry and that sort of thing. One of the important things, I suppose, that was something else I’m interested in I suppose. The Unemployed Workers’ Movement, particularly through this chap, Bill Telford the Scotsman. He was a great bloke in his own way. I have a lot of admiration for him. He was a key figure in unemployed people who had nowhere to live, single men. There was a hotel down here, down the main street called the volunteer hotel, became vacant, the publican gave it away and handed in the license. Bill Telford raised the idea, what’s wrong with us taking over as the Unemployed Workers’ Movement, let’s take over that hotel and let’s develop it as a place where people could live. He organised the whole darn thing. The hotel people weren’t interested anymore, they couldn’t get anybody else to take it over, so Bill and a group move into it, took it over and developed it. They made it into a place where single rooms could be had for single men. All they had to do was bring their dole coupons with them. They developed it, they painted it, they furnished it. I remember going with Bill Telford around different places collecting chairs and tables and bits and pieces of furniture, took it all in and filled up this volunteer hotel with it. I suppose there must have been about twenty, maybe thirty men, were housed there. That’s all they had, was their dole. I remember the cook. The cook was a big German bloke. He was an unemployed worker, from somewhere, I don’t know. He was given the job of looking after them. He cooked for the whole of that group, it was a wonderful development that. Anyway, that’s what became of that. I became involved in all of this, running around hitter and thither collecting things to take down to them. Collecting food from the markets sometimes where they used to throw out a lot of stuff and we’d pick it all up and take it in to Harry. Harry that was his name, Harry the chef. Yes, that was quite a thing with the Unemployed Workers’ Movement that sort of thing. Organising these lectures on Sunday nights, organising demonstrations, like that big meeting at the Glebe Town Hall, so — oh yes they were active in a whole series of ways.
B York: Where was that hotel that you mentioned?
I Wyner The Volunteer Hotel in Darling Street, Balmain, yes.
B York: Oh Darling Street.
I Wyner It’s still there, I don’t know what it is these days. There might be somebody living in it, I’m not sure, but incidentally, a funny thing, on the opposite side of the street was the first Post Office ever established in Balmain. It was in a place called Queens Place, now that’s gone, of course, and the people who owned — who took over from it converted it into a restaurant. Of all things they pinched the name Volunteer and stuck that on the restaurant, they called it the Volunteer Restaurant. It was going for quite a few years. As soon as that shut down, now I think it’s become some sort of a private residence. Anyway that’s the story …
B York: Yes, very interesting.
I Wyner … of the Volunteer Hotel. It was very interesting development that.
B York: I wonder if the current owners are aware of that part of the history of the place?
I Wyner I don’t know. I’ve never got around to it. All the years I was involved as an alderman, I was involved in problems with that, when the owner wanted to do things and we had to tell him it’s a historical building now and you’ve got to do this, that and the other with it. Other than that, no.
B York: You mentioned previously some local aboriginal people and you mentioned the German chef. I’m wondering where there other nationalities …
I Wyner Oh yes …
B York: … in that period here?
I Wyner … apart from Scotsmen and Irishmen.
B York: Yes, Scots.
I Wyner I mean one of the blokes that I got friendly with was a wild Irishman. His name was, wait a minute, O’Carroll a good Irish name, Shaun O’Carroll.
B York: That’s pretty Irish.
I Wyner And he’s a mad bloomin’ — he was a mad Irishman. He really believed in throwing bombs and all sorts of things. But he was a barber. He was a pretty popular barber there. There was Shaun and as I say there were the Scotsmen, like the one who taught me quite a lot. I mentioned his name, did I?
B York: Yes, I’ve forgotten the name, sorry.
I Wyner Robbie, Albert Robbie that’s right, everybody called him Robbie, I don’t know why, but that was his surname, and Bill Telford the Scotsman. There was the Karleen family, Danny and Johnny and them. Who was the Frenchman? There was a French bloke I knew. I’ve forgotten his name now. I got into trouble over French. I thought I was doing well learning French at school. I tried myself out talking to him one day and made a complete idiot of myself. I couldn’t pronounce a word of anything. But there were other nationalities involved, I can’t recall at the moment.
B York: Were there southern Europeans at all, like, Italians, Greeks, Maltese?
I Wyner Oh Italians, yes. Italians, although I got more friendly with Italians later on in life. They were quite a bit thing in my life later on, when I worked at Cockatoo there was a big group of Italians who also became members of the union and worked there scrubbing and painting ships and all the other things that were involved. I got to know quite a big group of Italians and Ruby, the wife and I, later on we used to go to the big club that was established in Leichhardt, the Apia Club. We used to go there every Sunday night for a dance, and have a meal and that sort of thing. Got quite friendly with a lot of …
B York: Would have been a few Maltese too at the dockyard, wouldn’t there?
I Wyner At Cockatoo there was a number of Maltese blokes involved, yes, they’re a good people too. I liked all of them, they were really good. As a matter of fact the only trip I ever did overseas was to Italy and that was as an alderman. I spent the time over there, about a month, yes.
B York: In that 1930s period would there have been a Chinese presence too, like, Chinese grocers, or market gardeners?
I Wyner No, I can’t recall anybody, no.
B York: No Chinese.
I Wyner All the fruit shops. The fruit shops were Italian, I think. There were one or two cafes. I think it was Chinese people, a group, had the café up the road there somewhere. I’m not too sure. But no, I can’t recall if there was anything of that nature there. There is quite a big change here now.
B York: Yes.
I Wyner Yes, quite a lot of — well I suppose you’d call them Chinese, but they’re not all Chinese I suppose, they’re all from other Asian countries as well. They’re all nice people. There’s one who lives opposite me. They are all nice, friendly people.
B York: Yes, Issy I’ve worked you pretty hard today, with all these questions I think. Thank you very much.
I Wyner I’m quite lost actually, I’m not too sure, you’re digging up things or recalling things to me that have sort of been pushed aside.
B York: Yes.
I Wyner And now you’ve sort of, you’ve re-enlivened …
B York: How do you feel about that? Have you enjoyed?
I Wyner I’ll have to go and look for some more history now and try and dig up some more of it.
B York: I hope you’ve enjoyed doing the recording?
I Wyner Oh I don’t mind, I don’t mind that sort of thing. I suppose that’s all that’s left of me now. There’s not much I can do in the way of activity. There’s very little. I try to get to meetings now occasionally when there’s things on but that’s all that’s left for me, just to sit and talk.
B York: [laughs] Is there any final thing that you’d like to say about this period of the Great Depression that you’d like to talk about. Anything I haven’t asked you or that hasn’t come out in the interview that’s important?
I Wyner No, there may have been but I can’t recall I suppose. I know I did have experiences of one kind or another but they just don’t come to me now, unfortunately. Whether they would be of help to other people I don’t know. To be able to tell them about it. But, no I don’t think so. I’ll have to leave it to you as to whether I’ve given you anything that’s worth a ‘tuppenny damn or not’ I don’t know.
B York: Oh it’s been great, no we’re very lucky to have you to do this recording and thank you again.
I Wyner Oh that’s good then if you can find …
Interview with Issy Wyner part 3
I Wyner: … find something useful in it.
B York: Yes, for sure.
I Wyner: That’s the only reason I talk as to hoping that somebody might learn.
B York: Well it’s history that people need to not forget I think, that period especially.
I Wyner: Oh yes, there’s not too much of that about these days now I suppose.
B York: Alright.
I Wyner: In that case I’ll thank you for your time and information and I’ll stop the recording.
This history has multiple parts.1 2 3
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