Marjorie (‘Marj’) Johnson, born in 1921, worked occasionally in the provisional Parliament House and also worked at the Kurrajong Hotel. She grew up in the Causeway.
Interview with Marjorie Johnson part 1
B York: This is an interview with Marjorie Johnson who is being interviewed by me, Barry York for the Oral History Program of the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. Mrs Johnson worked occasionally in the building and also worked at the Kurrajong Hotel.
M Johnson: Yes, worked there for a long while.
B York: And would have memories of politicians there, I’m sure.
M Johnson: Well I only ever met John Curtin there.
B York: Well we’ll talk about that in a minute Marjorie.
M Johnson: Okay, if I get ahead stop me.
B York: I just want to thank you on behalf of the Director of the Museum on being a part of this project, thank you so much. Do you understand that the Commonwealth owns copyright in the interview material but disclosure is covered by that form that you filled out the rights agreement? Is that okay?
M Johnson: That’s fine.
B York: Can we have permission to make a transcript or a summary one day should we decide to make one, is that okay?
M Johnson: Yes, that is fine.
B York: Thanks again. The interview is taking place today the 27th November 2014, here at the museum. Can we begin with a bit of your family background, when and where were you born and how did you end up in Canberra?
M Johnson: Well, I was born in Orange and my dad was out of work at the time because there wasn’t very much work around. They heard that there was something going on in Canberra and my dad said, let’s go, so in a horse and dray, my nana and my aunty. So there were three horse and drays, with all us kids, and it took us, I think, about three weeks to get from Orange to Canberra and that was 1922, that was 1922. We first camped on the Scott’s Crossing river and that was when the big floods, I think that would be about 19 … well must have been around that area. I do forget dates.
We were flooded out of there and so they put us in the Molonglo, in the old German internment camp. They were pretty rough old buildings. Mum says, I can’t remember, but I can remember the earth floor. Mum used to hose the earth floor so we wouldn’t get too much mud on us. Then we stayed there for as long as we could and then they built the Causeway houses. We moved to the Causeway. I’m not really sure of the years, I would have been about four I suppose. Dad thought it was a mansion and it was really a square box with two bedrooms, a lounge room and a kitchen, all just one door out into the other. So by that time mum had had another child so the three little kids were in one room and mum and dad in the other. There is where she had most of the family. I had one — it ended up with six of us but my last sister wasn’t born for fourteen years later, so. She was still born there though. So we stayed there all that time and had a good life. Didn’t have much money, it was during the depression. We didn’t have very much money but dad never was out of work because he was doing the gardens, helping them design the gardens, especially in front of this Parliament House, the front.
I can remember quite clearly him coming home with my grandfather and uncle and on a calendar, Christine was going to bring it and I sent it to her. I’ve got one of my dad and my grandfather and my uncle with their big horses digging up the front to make the garden. Dad used to come home and he’d say to mum, ‘We’re never going to do anything with that. It’s real shit soil’ [laughs]. He said ‘It’s terrible, we’re never going to get a garden out of it’. To get a load of dirt you had to go out on a dray. You didn’t have anywhere to go, there were no quarries, but anyway they ended up making beautiful gardens, tulips were renowned for being so beautiful.
B York: Now that’s out the front here at Parliament House?
M Johnson: Out the front of this one, yes.
B York: Right, can I just go back a bit and ask a couple of questions.
M Johnson: Yes.
B York: When you were at Scott’s Crossing, what was the accommodation?
M Johnson: A tent, we were in tents, yes.
B York: And was that like a community of tents, where there a whole lot?
M Johnson: No, there was only the three families then. We all had tents because that was what we were putting up along the road, putting very quick, not very modern tents. They were very old tents because they used to fall down if the wind blew, so it was very primitive.
B York: And you got flooded out while there.
M Johnson: We got flooded out.
B York: Do you remember that or were you too young then?
M Johnson: Well, I do remember the difficulty of mum saying ‘I don’t know where we’re going to live or what we’re going to do’ because everything we had just about went in the floods. We didn’t have — there was nobody to help us because there wasn’t very many people around. My mum must have been a real pioneer because she handled most of that. Dad was, he was a softy, and he’d say, ‘We’ll leave it to mum, she can fix it, she’ll fix it, mum will fix it’ and that’s when they said would we like to go to these house at Molonglo between Canberra and Queanbeyan. Right on the river, what river is that the Queanbeyan River?
B York: Yes, that’s right.
M Johnson: Would be, probably.
B York: If it’s closer to Queanbeyan.
M Johnson: Yes, we lived there for quite a while because we thought that was pretty good, we had a roof over our head at least. Then they were building the Causeway houses and dad would come home and he’d say ‘Oh my God it’s going to be good when they’re built. We’re going to have a beautiful house and your mum won’t have to worry any more. We’ve got a lovely house’. Then all through the depression dad was never out of work. I think he got ten pounds a fortnight, or ten pounds yes, a fortnight.
B York: Would it be pounds or shillings?
M Johnson: Pounds.
B York: Pounds, okay.
M Johnson: Pounds and shillings and pence, yes. Anyway what happened then.
B York: Sorry to keep interrupting but I wanted …
M Johnson: Yes, you keep interrupting.
B York: … I’m very interested in what the accommodation was like at Molonglo in the old German prisoner of war. Can you describe what your home was like?
M Johnson: A row of houses and — it was just one big room. They must have been, like a dormitory. There was a little sink and a stove in one end. I can remember all this really good because all I wanted for Christmas was a bangle. This little girl she had a gold bangle and I tried to pinch it off her and she wouldn’t let me have it. Anyway, mum and dad bought me a bangle. It was a plastic pink one. We had a big open fire and I threw it in the fire and I got into trouble for that. But it was very, very primitive accommodation. It was, well to them it was really fantastic.
B York: So you had your own kind of house …
M Johnson: Yes.
B York: … but there were other houses too, how many do you reckon? How many neighbours would there have been?
M Johnson: Well, when we first wen there. This is mum’s talk because I got interested after a while. She said there was aunty Queen and nana and us, that’s three, and by the time we left, mum said there would have been about twenty families there. So they kept coming because the work was here and it was like a goldmine to a lot of people because during the depression, that was before the depression.
B York: Well they were building this building, this was the biggest building site in Australia in the 1920s so lots of work here in the mid-‘20s.
M Johnson: Dad was the boss of the — he was called a ganger, that must be a term they had.
B York: Like a foreman.
M Johnson: A foreman, yes. He used to worry about the soil because he reckoned it was bad soil. He used to come home cursing. I remember that he’d say to mum ‘We’re never going to get anywhere with it’. We had pick and shovels you know but anyway they made really good gardens.
B York: You mentioned before your nana.
M Johnson: Yes.
B York: Was your mother’s mother living with you?
M Johnson: No, it was my dad’s family.
B York: Okay. So they’d come down from Orange had they?
M Johnson: I think they lived in Forbes and Orange most of their lives.
B York: Can you tell me about your parents, like what were their names and what did they …
M Johnson: Mum’s name was Lillian and dad’s name was Jack, John but Jack, and he went to the First World War and he got pretty knocked about. He was in a trench for about ten months with no food, hardly just what they could pop up and a few, not much drink. He said they all nearly died a lot of them did. It was very, very sad dad said, but anyway he came home, not wounded but well enough to have a family.
B York: Where did he serve, do you know?
M Johnson: Pardon?
B York: Did he mention where he served?
M Johnson: He should have been in Gallipoli but they went round, his boat went round to the right place, Gallipoli was a mistake, it was a real bad mistake, but dad’s boat was around where everybody should have been so dad missed out on the slaughter.
B York: Yes, thank heavens.
M Johnson: He came home — he used to have — every now and then and I can remember them so clearly, fits of some kind and they’d say it was the gas that he caught up with during the war. But mum was a beautiful lady. Wherever she went they called her Lady because she comes from, all her sisters said mum married below her station so quite — they lived at Lake Cargelligo. They had big properties at Lake Cargelligo. Her sisters had all married very well off and poor dad and mum used to say, can’t tell aunty Vie I’m having another baby, she’ll die, because she worries about all the babies I’ve got, but anyway.
B York: What was your mother’s maiden name?
M Johnson: It was Phillips and they came from Lake Cargelligo. There are still Phillips in Lake Cargelligo. Mum was the baby of eleven children and only one of them died in their eighties. They all lived into their nineties. Two of mum’s, a brother and a sister lived to ninety-nine and so mum lived to ninety-six and so I’ve got pretty good genes.
B York: And you were born in 1921 is that right?
M Johnson: Yes, I just turned ninety-three a couple of days ago in November.
B York: Congratulations, you look wonderful. And with your father’s background, can you tell me about his background?
M Johnson: Well dad’s background, they were beautiful, beautiful people. My nana, she was deaf but she was the most beautiful person in the world. She would always have people popping in for cups of tea. We used to love going to see nana because she used to give us big cuddles. She used to give me — they lived at the Causeway too. She used to give me a shilling every Saturday because I’d do her shopping for her. Go to the Kingston shops and go to the butchers there and buy her meat and vegetables and that for what she was going to have for Sunday dinner. They all had a big Sunday dinner. She used to always have that and sometimes she’d invite one of us around. She’d have it in turns, she invited.
B York: Was there a sense of community at the Causeway?
M Johnson: Very, very much. It was — everybody was in the same position. We were very lucky. We never went to school without our shoes. We always had shoes. We had to take them off when we got home from school but we’d go to school with ice on the ground that would never thaw, right through the winter and icicles hanging off the trees which we used to pick and suck. See with built in you never see that now but the icicles were hanging off the trees and the puddles were there. We’d avoid the puddles especially the kids that didn’t have shoes. We had to walk from the Causeway to Telopea Park which, we never had a bus to pick us up like they do now.
B York: Again how many families would there have been in the Causeway at that time?
M Johnson: About I think — my nana was one-hundred-and-five, no we were one-hundred-and-six, aunty Queen was one-hundred-and-thirteen, and I think nana was about one-hundred-and-twenty. She was in the front row.
B York: Right, so that’s the number of houses?
M Johnson: Yes.
B York: There were over a hundred?
M Johnson: They were all numbered, yes, ours was one-hundred-and-eight. I moved somewhere soon afterwards, where I was staying was one-hundred-and-eight.
B York: I’m wondering, did the people in the Causeway tend to have the same employer? Was there a particular place of work where the men would work?
M Johnson: They had a dole thing, no it wasn’t the dole, it was different to the dole. They used to have to queue up. The people who weren’t working, or couldn’t get work, they would queue and there would be a line to get some kind of money or some kind of hand-out anyway.
B York: Did they call it susso?
M Johnson: Pardon?
B York: Was that Susso, Sustenance, they gave them …
M Johnson: Yes I think they did.
B York: … I think they gave them food.
M Johnson: Yes food more than money, yes. Mum was always that proud lady that she’d never say she was in trouble, she could always handle, she thought she could always handle it. Even as a kid I used to admire her because, I’d say, that was good mum, that was good. Because I was the oldest of the girls I used to be a helper. Mum used to say, ‘That’s Marj, she’s my right hand’. I used to get a kick out of being her right hand, I thought that was pretty important.
B York: You would have been here, you would have been what five or six years old when the Parliament House opened – did you go to the opening?
M Johnson: I was here and I remember leaning on the fence, that’s about the most I can remember, leaning on the fence being bored to death. I was leaning, they had a fence around to keep people out and I was leaning on the fence. I just remember thinking, oh how long is this going to be. It was really important to a lot of people but at that stage not to me.
B York: Yes, I guess you’re parents and the whole family would have been there were they?
M Johnson: Dad was so proud of his gardens. He was walking around telling people, this was that, and that was that, these are tulips, mostly tulips and they were beautiful when they were out. They made a really good job of it. We lived out at the Cotter for a long while doing something, dad had a job out there and we were in our tents. Then they were better tents, they were provided and they were much better tents.
B York: So was that after the Causeway?
M Johnson: No, during the Causeway. We just went out. We still had the house at the Causeway then. I don’t know what dad was doing out there but I know it was the Cotter. You don’t take these things in your head enough.
B York: Oh no, you’ve got a great memory and this is all fascinating.
M Johnson: Yes I have, I can remember everything that happened back then and I can’t remember what happened yesterday or five minutes from now and I’ll say, what day is it. It can’t be Tuesday. I get a bit mixed up but normally pretty good.
B York: And you went to Telopea Park School is that right?
M Johnson: Yes, from start to finish.
B York: Can you tell me about that, what subjects you did and …
M Johnson: Well because of mum having babies I was — I was away from school a lot. I never got to school very much which I’ve been sorry for in my later years, but I’ve always held my own. It was — the boys got really badly caned. We had a German of all things Headmaster. His name was Mr Bilshe[?] I’ll never forget him and he was cruel. He was really, really cruel. My uncle was always had his hands under here. He’d show me and you could see the blood on his hands. I’d say ‘Did you get the cane?’ and he’d say ‘Yes’ and it would draw blood. The boys had a - reeling beyond their metal, I tell you, and then one stage of Telopea Park they sort of changed the rules and the girls would do something really bad but the boys had to be punished. So you would have to pick a boy to get punished, for them to be punished for what you’d done. They thought that would make you feel worse than if you were being punished yourself. You’d have to pick a boy so you were very careful doing that because the boys would get at you afterwards.
B York: Overall was it — do you have good memories of your school years?
M Johnson: Yes I have very good memories of my school years. We played a lot of hopscotch and we played a lot of skipping which you never see now. You never see kids playing hopscotch, but everybody was sort of in the same boat. There was one little girl got run over. There was one bus that used to come and take some of the kids somewhere. It must have been further away than the Causeway. I think it was, they were starting to build houses at Red Hill where the important people stayed. Red Hill was always renowned for the posh area and this little girl run out in front of the bus. We were all standing and saw the bus run right over her. It was really, really horrible. It was a good school.
B York: Did you have favourite subjects and favourite teachers?
M Johnson: Well, I think, looking at the school now and listening to the grandkids now, it was different. We had reading, writing and arithmetic, virtually. Apart from that I can’t — a bit of history, they were always very interested in history but I can’t remember any other subjects. We had to write essays and I never had time to write a very good one but when I really sat down to do something, my dad used to say, ‘If you’re going to do something, do it well’. I’d sit down to write an essay and the teacher said, ‘I can’t believe you can write such a nice’ she said to me one day in front of the class ‘I can’t believe you can write such a nice episode and you can’t add one and two together’. So, they used to tell you how you were going, but I never was a really good scholar because I never had the school, which I regret a lot later in life, but I held my own pretty well I tell you. A lot of pretend.
B York: When you were at school did you have ambition, like did you want to be something in particular when you grew up and left school?
M Johnson: No, I can’t remember. I remember when — I was always a worry with mum and dad. I used to run home from school to make sure mum was alright because she used to — she didn’t have very good pregnancies and I never really knew that it was the pregnancy that was making her sick, I just knew she was sick. I’d run home from school to make sure she was okay and she never really was. I was never allowed to tell anybody she was sick. She was that kind of lady. She never liked being sick and she always was. She was having baby after baby. She lost two and that was — we knew there was a lot of fuss. They were all born at home.
B York: Did a midwife come?
M Johnson: No, Dr Finlay he was our family doctor. He was the only doctor around and he tended everybody. He used to come to the house. I can remember dad saying, ‘We’ve got to boil that big’ the stove, the wooden stove. Used to have to boil this big container of water so they could sterilize this and sterilize that. He was very thorough. Then you’d hear mum. We’d be all out in the backyard and we’d hear mum screaming, having the babies. I was always wanting to barge in and see what he was doing, and I was saying, ‘What do you do to my mother?’. He said ‘I went up the paddock and I brought her a lovely baby’ and then he’d show me the baby and I’d think, ahhh, you’d melt but that was the kind of life we lived, always on the edge.
B York: A lot — how many children were there altogether Marjorie?
M Johnson: There were six survivors but she had eight children.
B York: What would be a typical family scene at night, when you’ve all come home from school?
M Johnson: Love, love, love, lots of — my dad would say, ‘We’ve got no money but we’ve got a lot of love’. We had — my aunty Queen, she lived across the road and she had a pianola, you didn’t have to play, it played for you. We’d have parties and sing songs, no grog, just have a real good party without grog. Always sing songs. My dad was quite a good singer, none of us took after him. He used to sing really sad, Face on the bar room floor have you ever heard that?
B York: No.
M Johnson: Do you remember how any of it goes? Do you remember any of the words? Do you want to do a rendition, or a part of it, just give us an idea.
B York: Something like, [sings] Face on the bar room floor, a face I always adore … I can’t remember but it goes back to - The face on the bar room floor. He used to sing Old Shep, now you’ve heard of Old Shep?
B York: Yes, I’ve heard the name of it.
M Johnson: Old Shep was a dog. My sister whose three years younger than me, no Topsy was six years younger than me and she used to always sing it. She was dad’s little girl. She used to sing it because she was the baby girl. Then when my other sister came along, fourteen years later, I was fourteen and Joyce came and as Joyce grew up dad had her singing Old Shep. When we went to Bateman’s Bay we went to a Ball and my sister and Joyce, we were together and I said, ‘Why don’t you sing Old Shep Topsy?’, and Joyce said, ‘That’s my song’. Topsy said ‘It’s my song. Dad used to say I was his baby and it’s my song’. They had a real crying argument and Bill stuck up for Topsy and Joyce got very upset about that.
B York: Now, at home when were …
M Johnson: That was the home thing.
B York: … in the Causeway, what would you do on weekends. Did you have hobbies and recreation?
M Johnson: When mum’s father died. He left mum enough money and they bought a car and we used to go out to the Cotter fishing, dad loved fishing. Most weekends we, we’d go out to the Cotter, but when we were home every night we’d hurry up and get our dishes done and get out on the road and play rounders. All the families all the kids would come out and we’d play rounders and we’d sing around the lamp post, you know the big lamp post, sing around the lamp post. Make a big circle and go round and round, but we were all good friends.
B York: Were the streets made or were they like …
M Johnson: They were made but there was no gutters, they were dirt, but they were streets yes. I think they eventually did seal them. I still remember them being all dirt.
B York: Did you have pets at all, like a dog or a cat?
M Johnson: Oh yes, we had a little Pomeranian. Dad used to train greyhounds, this is later on, greyhound, used to train the greyhounds. Two policeman owned them and the police were always coming to our place, and everybody would say, ‘What were the police at your place for’ because they were all interested in the police coming to your place. Dad trained the dogs. We had chooks. You had to have chooks. And to get milk you had to go around to the dairy and buy the milk in a billy can.
B York: Where was the dairy?
M Johnson: It was the back of — it was called, gosh, Ogilvie’s, I think, dairy, anyway it was the back. They used to milk the cows. Sometimes you had to wait until they milked the cows because everybody was there with their billy cans to get their milk.
B York: Was that in Kingston, the dairy?
M Johnson: No, more down on the Molonglo River.
B York: Okay.
M Johnson: More down on the river side. I think that’s why it was called the Causeway because it was a causeway over the river, a big cement, and they called it the causeway so that’s probably how Causeway got its name. Then dad got a job then, after he’d finished doing the work in the gardens and whatever at the Powerhouse and that was just down from Kingston. The Powerhouse I think that’s still there isn’t it.
B York: Yes, the building is, yes, that was another big employer back then.
M Johnson: That got a lot of people around the Causeway jobs.
B York: What did your father do there?
M Johnson: I think he was doing the gardens there, yes because he — for some reason or other none of his family had education, they were out in the — my dad’s father was never — when he died nobody knew how old he was. He never existed they didn’t bother to do it in those days. The said that he — the doctor said that he looked like one hundred but [laughs].
B York: Who knows, yes, did you grow vegetables as well?
M Johnson: Dad was a very good gardener. We always had our own vegetables. I can’t ever remember buying — dad, while we were young, buying vegetables. No matter where we were dad — we had all the side of our house. We had our backyard, the house and then there was all the side of the house, maybe five metres, right down from the fence, right through from the backyard to the front yard that was the vegetable garden. He used to grow beautiful vegetables, everybody did, they had to. We used to have the vegetable cart come around, fruit and vegetable cart used to come around, the grocery cart used to come around, car used to come around. You’d buy all your groceries. Everybody, I suppose but I know we did, mum used to have a bill with him, like if she overstepped her mark on how much she could buy, she was allowed to book it up. I can always say, ‘We’ve got to stop doing that, we’ve got to eat more of that because I’ve got to pay Mr Hawke. I still owe him so much money and I’ve got to pay that plus get what I need’, but she was a very good manager, and very educated mum was. She counted her pennies. Dad would say, ‘How do you spell’ and she could spell anything. Dad used to have to rely on her for spelling. You remember nana [to a third person].
B York: Tell me now please about the job you obtained when you left school at the Kurrajong, have I got it right that you left school and went to work?
M Johnson: No, I went to work first at JB Youngs. They had a — I worked in the fancy department where they sold ribbons and elastic and stuff and you had to measure it out. This old girl looked. She was an old tart. I used to have to measure it out and it had to be exactly, because at the end of the reel of ribbon or elastic, if it wasn’t just right she knew that I was doing the wrong thing. I was to work six and a half days there and I got ten and thruppence a week. I used give mum the ten shillings and live on the rest. Live on thruppence.
[Third person] How old were you nan then?
M Johnson: I was — I left school when I was fifteen, so I suppose — the first little job I had was at the clinic and I used to just go up on one every morning …
[End of part 1]
Interview with Marjorie Johnson part 2
M Johnson: early before the mothers used to bring their kids and just clean it out. I couldn’t believe, I couldn’t believe that she had a shower every day because we had our bath. We had to light the copper and fill the bath, hot with water, we were all — my brother and then me, all in the bath together, with our legs open. Dad would pull one at a time out and wipe them and run us in, go on in to your mum and get dressed. We’d run from the bathroom, up through the kitchen, into mum to get dressed. Dad used to do that but you had to light the copper.
B York: Did you have a radio at home?
M Johnson: A what?
B York: A radio.
M Johnson: No, I used to sneak in next door they had a radio to listen to something I used to like, I can’t remember. No, we didn’t have a radio. The first radio we got I can remember, this is after the car, we got the car and then mum had enough to buy a few little other things. Dad used to listen to the test cricket in England, static, static, static and I’d say, ‘Can you hear it?’ and he would say ‘Yes, four down’. He used to give you the score — very, always interested in sport, anything Australia played in he was very — I am too, very.
B York: At that time was there much sporting activity in Canberra? What did we have here?
M Johnson: The ashes I can remember that very well. I can remember boys going — our green grocer Mr Hall, his son was picked to play for Australia, somewhere. I don’t know whether it was overseas or not. I don’t know what year that was. I should remember the years. I suppose if I really concentrated I could.
B York: Not to worry, but what about sporting clubs in Canberra. Did we have our own AFL type Aussie Rules?
M Johnson: Eventually, yes eventually, my first husband he played AFL. It was mostly AFL because all the public servants moving in came from Melbourne. I still think it’s a Melbourne place, or it was then. They all played AFL anyway. My husband played AFL. He also played cricket and they had Eastlake and Ainslie and clubs and they used to play around, yes. Looking back on it, it came to be very quickly but I suppose it was over the years that it would have happened.
B York: Did you have much to do with Civic, with the centre of Canberra, or were you mainly in the Causeway area?
M Johnson: Mainly in the Causeway and dad would say, ‘You know that new suburb going on out there’. He used to always be able to give you detail on something that was being built. When we went to school, we had to walk to school and then — we always had to walk past this doctors place, I remember. Because I felt I knew him as well as I did, because he was always at our place, sometimes used to call in and say hello. He’d say ‘Hello Marj, going to school, good girl, thank you, bye bye’. No time to talk. I’d think that was nice, I’ll do it again. I think I was doing it too often because I’d say to the kids, ‘I’m going to see the doctor, he’s my friend’. I thought that was a big deal.
B York: So tell me what happened after you left school. You mentioned the clinic before.
M Johnson: I went to the clinic where — I just worked, and this sister that was at the clinic over the kids, she was an old maid and I used to think, even then, how does she know anything about babies if she’s an old maid but that was just what I thought. Apparently she was very efficient but mum never took us to the clinic. She always felt she knew what she was doing, what was best for us. That was where I worked. Then I went to JB Young and I worked there for ten and thruppence. My aunty that worked at the Kurrajong, she was leaving to get married and she asked me if I’d like, what do you think about going there because she said, ‘I’ve worked there for years’. I don’t know how many years. So I had to have an interview. This manageress, she was quite nice and she said ‘Have you ever done anything like this?’ and I said ‘No’. She said ‘Are you a good worker?’ and I said ‘Well, I don’t know but I’ve always done a lot of work at home’. She said ‘Oh well we’ll see how you go. We’ll give you a trial’, anyway, she was very happy with me. She called me and said ‘Your mum must have really taught you how to work because you’re so active and you’re so alive and you’re so hard working’. So I worked there for a lot of years that’s how I.
B York: Marjorie I’d like to ask more about the Kurrajong but please have a — do you want to have a sip of water?
M Johnson: I’m used to talking, I’m a real talker.
B York: You’re great, you’re terrific, you’re really wonderful person to interview.
M Johnson: I’m coming over alright am I?
B York: Yes, we’ll send you the CD of this. You’ll like it I’m sure. So with the Kurrajong — no I wanted to ask about [JB] Youngs was that in Civic, JB Young, were they in Civic?
M Johnson: They did move — they had branches. When Civic was first built JB Youngs moved over there as well, just a branch. But my brother, my eldest brother worked at Kingston with me and he worked in another department, the men’s store. He used to have a pretty strict boss too. Sometimes we’d meet up and he’d say, ‘I’m in trouble’ and he was very naive. Mum was having this baby this time and he said ‘My mum’s really sick, she’s got to get the doctor. They think she’s got the flu’ and the guy said ‘oh she’s got the flu’. He came back at lunchtime and he said ‘They’ve brought her another baby’ and Ronny was old enough to work, we were never told anything. Mum would always say, if we’d asked her something, ‘That’s bedroom talk, you don’t talk about that’.
B York: Bedroom talk.
M Johnson: She never tell you anything where we were at. Even with having the babies. I’d say ‘Mum you always get fat when you’re having a baby’ and she’d say ‘Oh I know because that’s what you’ve got to do to have a baby, but she never said how it got there or where it come from’. We were always up at the cabbage patch looking to see if there was going to be any more babies.
B York: So how old were you when you got the job at Kurrajong?
M Johnson: I would have been possibly about sixteen and I worked — the first little while working in the house, helping the house maids. I didn’t have a section of my own because I was too young. They just let me help the girls and learn to work and then they have their day off and I’d do their section. Then the next girl would have a day and I’d do her section. I never had a section of my own for a long, long time. I went from there into the dining room. The dining room was very big, it was all public service. They all had their rooms and be down for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We all had our stations. You had twenty-one on each station and they’d come in altogether and they’d all be hungry and you’d — I think the dinner, you had a three course meal. You had a selection of about four things. Everybody ordered something different. You never wrote it down. You had to remember. You’d run out in the kitchen and say, two roast lambs, and four pork. You had the memory then to do it and race back and dish it out and then you’d go to the next table, get all their orders. I don’t know how we did it. It wasn’t an a la carte thing it was just remembering what they were all going to have.
B York: Were they mainly politicians at that time?
M Johnson: Mostly public servants. Well I don’t remember many politicians at all, they were mostly — I don’t think so, more young girls and young men. They worked in different departments. John Curtin is the only one that I recognised as a politician actually. I know, in later years, I know that there were a lot of politicians there. I was told that there were a lot of politicians.
B York: How long were you there for?
M Johnson: Well I was there until I was about nineteen and I went from there, then to Hotel Civic. It had just a fairly new building then. I worked in the dining room. I worked — a lot of politicians stayed there too, mostly it was the police force — the police station was just across the road from The Civic then. We had a lot of policemen coming in. I can always remember they were, always discussing something or other. I’d say ‘Oh there must have been a murder or something’, but that was Hotel Civic, that was another job.
Then I went from there into the bar because I thought that was a real promotion, going into the bar. You had to be eighteen to work in the bar. I loved that. But I think Hotel Kurrajong was my most impressive job because that’s is where I learnt things because I was only so young. I used to get these young public servants to tell me things because I thought there are things I should know that I never learnt at school. They used to tell me where they worked and what they worked on, about their jobs and where they came from, and if they were AFL people. I got really to love the AFL. We never had television or anything. When we had the radio we used to always listen to the radio and the footy.
B York: You mentioned John Curtin, now did you meet him at the Kurrajong?
M Johnson: Yes.
B York: Could you tell me about that please?
M Johnson: He was — I think, somebody said, and I didn’t know what it even meant that he was having an affair with the manager. He wasn’t married I don’t think was he?
B York: I thought he was.
M Johnson: Anyway, he used to come. He always sat with her and I used to only do that table every week because I was relieving. I used to do and then when I’d serve him all that day, breakfast, lunch and dinner for a whole day. Then he used to look and wave to me across the room. One day he sat down and had a talk to me and it was really interesting talk. He told me all about Parliament House and you have to come over and see it. You have to come over and see us in session, because the public were allowed in. Are they still allowed in?
B York: Yes.
M Johnson: Come and just sit and listen to what goes on, he said, ‘Everybody should be interested in it because it’s’ — this is just when the war was brewing would have been wouldn’t it then, yes. He was saying ‘It looks like we’re going to go to war’ that’s right. He used to tell me and I used to look forward to him sitting down and talking to me because he was such a lovely guy.
When he flew over after he died — the plane flew over, and I cried, I was looking up at the sky and I cried because I used to love him. He was so gorgeous and I thought, he’s so important and he’s taking time off, sitting down and talking to me.
B York: Was he like that with all the workers there or — was he like that with other staff?
M Johnson: I never saw him do it much. I always felt I was special with him. I used say — they’d say ‘You’re going to talk to Mr Curtin, make a name for yourself’ the girls used to tease me about it, but yes I really liked him. The manager Ms, she was a Ms Stewart I think, they used to sit together and talk away. A lovely guy.
B York: That’s an interesting rumour about him with the manager.
M Johnson: Yes, it mightn’t. I don’t know but I was young and I just thought they were good friends and they’d say, ‘Oh no, they’re there’. This girl she knew everything. She taught me all I ever knew actually. I didn’t know anything. I used to think — I suppose I could tell you because you’re a man of the world but I never got my periods until I was fifteen and she’d say to me ‘You’re not pregnant are you?’. I’d say ‘No I haven’t had my periods’ and she’d say ‘You’re not pregnant’. She be always teasing me. So in the end I thought the best way was to say I had them, I said ‘I had em’ and I hadn’t had em. When I went home I said to mum ‘When do I get my periods?’ she said ‘You tell me when’. I told her and she handed me my little bundle of gear that I had to have. Then I thought thank God that’s over, that’s over now, I’ve had my damn periods, and when it happened again I thought, oh my God it’s happening again, it’s making up for lost time. This is what I thought.
B York: I suppose back then, did parents, did your mother teach you about that kind of thing?
M Johnson: No, never, no she never — I was so innocent, honest to God. It’s wrong for them not to that because you can make such a fool of yourself, saying silly things and not knowing the truth but they never told you in those days.
B York: Were you in the union when you were working, did you join a union?
M Johnson: No, the first union I was in was at Hotel Civic. I thought what’s this they want you to join. I was very curious and it had to be explained to me what it was.
B York: Was your father a union member?
M Johnson: No, I don’t think so.
B York: Were your parents interested in politics at all?
M Johnson: Not really, no I don’t think they were. Dad didn’t — dad died when he was seventy-one but he was always very sick. He’d just work and come home, work and come home, no he never got involved with very much at all.
B York: Was religion part of the family at all?
M Johnson: Salvation Army for us kids, Captain of the army used to come around pick us all up and then he had one of those dicky seats, you know, with the dicky seat, that would be up and there would be about ten kids in that area standing up. The front packed with kids and go to the meeting. He used to come around and see mum and talk to mum about religion. Mum agreed. We all had to be very good. I believe if you did anything wrong God would punish you because you were naughty. I think the kids were different in those days. They felt they had to be good or if for some reason the police would get them or, that’s what you were always threatened with. I can remember dad saying, Ronny’s got to go to that bad boys home, he’s been doing — that was the sort of threat that we got. Never got beltings because I think we were scared stiff of what they were going to do to us.
B York: What was Canberra like back then? If you were standing at the front of Old Parliament House, looking towards Mount Ainslie, or from the other side, what would it look like?
M Johnson: Nothing, nothing, just — honestly we used to walk from the Causeway to Red Hill direct and that’s a big deal. I think looking now. I can’t believe, now doing it — as I said to Christine coming through, I should remember all this. I remember the theatre. I remember Manuka Theatre, yes. I saw that and I thought, oh my God. We used to go every Saturday to that. Mum used to give us sixpence to get in and with a penny to spend, so it must have only cost five pennies or whatever, five pence [laughs].
B York: But when you say you would have seen nothing. I mean there would have been something, what would it be?
M Johnson: Trees, that’s what I do remember, mostly just a lot of trees, wherever. I’d say to dad, ‘There’s always going to be plenty of wood for the fire’. Dad used to go out and chop the wood down. But I never — from the Causeway, nothing, the railway station happened and that was a Sydney to Canberra railway station, that’s just across the road from the Causeway. We never got to Sydney.
I was double jointed when I was a kid. I used to go to this dancing teacher and she’d say, I used to do a lot of acrobats. I could stand on my head and bend my back. I used to frighten mum sometimes with the way I sat with my head between my legs to talk to her. Anyway, she wanted to send me to Sydney to the Tivoli, when I went home and asked could I go dad said ‘To Sydney, no way, no you’re not going to Sydney’ that’s what we thought about Sydney. I never got there anyway.
B York: You mentioned earlier that John Curtin said to you, you must come and see parliament, visit parliament. Did you ever to that or when would be the first time you did that?
M Johnson: Well the first time I came to Parliament House was when I came here to work. When I went from Hotel Kurrajong. I had a lot to do with food at Hotel Kurrajong because I was in the — I had to help out because I was relieving everywhere, which gave me a lot of knowledge of a lot of things. Sometimes I’d had to help out in the kitchen, sometimes I had to help out in the pantry and sometimes I relieved in the office, just somebody would be there in the afternoon, Miss somebody, I just can’t put a face. But anyway, she’d go off and have a sleep or something, a bit of time off in the afternoon, say between lunch and dinner I’d have to go into the office. I used to have to get dressed up, I wasn’t allowed to be shabby, you’re not allowed to be shabby. Mum would never — we were never shabby because she wouldn’t allow that. She used to say, you’ve got to always dress to the occasion. You’re judged by the way you look and you’re judged by the company you keep, this is my mother. So with the Kurrajong I had a bit of knowledge about a lot of things, working in all the places.
B York: And so with the job here at Parliament House, how did that come about?
M Johnson: I think that was from the — first from the Hotel Kurrajong we’d relieve. Used to have a lot of functions at the Hotel Kurrajong, big functions. I assume they were Parliament House, from the offices or something. I used to — cause she seemed to have a lot of faith in me, more than I felt I could handle but I knew I had to handle it because you don’t say no. Sometimes it would have me really worried and I’d think, am I going to do this, but you’d have to. I’d have to be the hostess sometimes and welcome people in and that wasn’t my scene then because I didn’t think I was capable. Mum always made us feel — she never gave us confidence. She used to say ‘Hold back, don’t be too push, don’t be too push’ but anyway I ended up being this hostess bit and I got through it alright. Then through that somehow I came here to work on functions. How did I. This Tassy Webb she was really, she worked here all the time and I got to know her. I think she worked at the Kurrajong, anyway, I’ve never given this much thought, but she helped me here and I had to work. Once the Queen came that was ….
B York: Was that 1954 that visit, 1954?
M Johnson: Yes, I think it was about then. Yes, I think so because — I don’t know but anyway. I think it might have been the old, who would have been around at the opening of parliament?
[Third person] How old were you?
M Johnson: Then I was — it was before I was married and so I’d be about nineteen.
B York: Okay, alright, so it was — yes, who would it be, it would be the King.
M Johnson: When did this place open?
B York: 1927.
M Johnson: Well, I’d be too young then. That might have been when I was married.
B York: Because you met your husband at the Kurrajong, is that right? Was he working there?
M Johnson: No, he was a public servant. He lived at the Causeway, no not at the Causeway at Westlake and that was a similar set up to the Causeway. It was another little settlement thing and that’s where he lived. He used to get to these functions somehow. I don’t know how he was entitled to that — and that’s when — it must have been, would it be the old Queen, or our Queen now?
B York: No, our Queen came here in ’54. Yes I’m not sure who it would be but anyway it was an important person.
M Johnson: Whenever I did it I know that Tassy worked, the Queen the Duke on that side and I worked from the Queen down the other side of the main table. So I served — I was touching her. I’m sure — that must have been after I was married. So I’m getting a bit muddled up.
B York: So you were working in the dining room here, is that where you were based?
M Johnson: Yes, I worked on two functions here and then during the war I worked — my husband was away at the war and I think I worked in the pantry. I helped in the kitchen. I worked somewhere out there anyway. It wasn’t in the kitchen. I used to serve teas and stuff, so it must have been the pantry. I didn’t work there very long because I would have preferred to be out in the dining room amongst people, not hidden way.
B York: So roughly how long were you there, was it a few months?
M Johnson: Oh no, a couple of years I think.
B York: Oh yes, and the other time you were working here, how long were you here the first time?
M Johnson: The first time I was here was during the functions that I used to do and then — see it’s all a bit of a haze but I know I did functions. I know the Queen was there and I worked the other end. Then working out in the kitchen. I would have been — only about six months I think, well not very long because I didn’t like being hidden away. I was always a front girl, I thought I was anyway.
B York: Did you get to meet any of the politicians while you were working here?
M Johnson: Yes, a few but I can’t remember who?
B York: Did you meet Chifley?
M Johnson: I can remember serving tea, it was afternoon tea and there were about four politicians but I can’t remember. They were really nice and they thanked me very much.
B York: Did you meet Ben Chifley at all?
M Johnson: No never met Ben Chifley. No the only ones I had contact with were Menzies and he always liked his martini just right. Then I thought well he’s always saying that little girl out there made my martini and I was the one he wanted to make them. He asked so one night I got cheeky enough to go out into the main lounge and talk to him. I just said ‘You don’t know me, but I know you. I’m the one that makes your martinis’. He caught me by the hand and made me sit down and he said ‘How did you learn to make martinis like that?’. I said ‘I was just learning and I was really happy that you requested me to make a martini, and I always threw in a couple of olives’. He said ‘Yes, that was beautiful. I really enjoyed that’ that was the conversation he could have with you, beautiful.
Then Harold Holt I met him just before — they worked at Hotel Canberra then I was working in a main house bar where only the house people could come, people living in the house. They were waiting to go into Parliament House, into the Lodge. It was being renovated between Prime Ministers. I can’t even think who the one before him was but they had to wait until it was fixed up to go in so. What was his wife’s name, Zara?
B York: Yes, Zara Holt.
M Johnson: Yes, and she used to come down in the afternoon and ask me to join her for afternoon tea and I said, ‘I’m sorry but I can’t’. I met Mr Thorpe he was our manager there, and one day he heard me say, ‘No I’ve got to …’ and he said ‘No, if you want to have afternoon tea with Mrs Holt you go and have it. I’ll get someone to watch the bar. There is nobody around anyway at this time’. So I used to sit down and have afternoon tea with her and then Harold Holt would come in and sit with us. He was — there was no way in the world — there was a lot of rumours that he never drowned. He wouldn’t have done anything wrong. They say, there are some rumours about him weren’t there.
They wanted me to go to the Lodge with them and she said ‘Make sure you’ve got a good job. Would you do it?’. She was lovely. She was very down to earth. She wore pinafore dresses and never really got dressed up real big. I used to think, she ought to dress up more. I thought she was wrong but I said ‘I had too good a job here’. I couldn’t leave because my boss was very good. That’s Mrs Holt and Harold. I used to call him Harold.
B York: Did you.
M Johnson: I’d call her Zara, no I called her Mrs Hold and she said, ‘I’m calling you Marj, so why don’t you call me Zara’. I said ‘That’s nice’ so I did. I was pretty blatant about it because I could call her Zara. When he’d join us I’d say ‘Mr’ she said ‘No, Harold, that’s Harold’ so got pretty friendly.
B York: Did you have anything to do with Gorton? Did you meet John Gorton at all?
M Johnson: He stayed at Hotel Canberra but I never — only serving him, ‘Thank you Marj’ but no conversation no, no not very much at all to do with him.
B York: How long did you stay in the hospitality area?
M Johnson: Well that was my big love. I loved it. I think I stayed at the Hotel Canberra for about four or five years.
B York: When did you retire Marj?
M Johnson: I retired because my marriage was going wrong and I was about to leave. It was sort of an arranged thing and just before I left him I would have been there for about four or five years and just before I left I — what was I was going to tell you, before I left, I don’t know what it was now.
B York: About when and why you retired?
M Johnson: Well I retired then because we were going to get a divorce and then I met my husband, my second husband at the Hotel Canberra but — we fell in love there and then, but went away because, he said ‘I’m not breaking any marriages up’. So he went away but I knew where he was because he used to ring me and write. I thought well, I’d get married. I didn’t go straight away. I just left the marriage and stayed around. I stayed at Hotel Canberra for a while and …
[End of part 2]
Interview with Marjorie Johnson part 3
M Johnson: … then I left and then I went up to where he was, that was in — what year did we say — ’64 was it?
[Third person] Yes ’64 uncle was eleven wasn’t he? Was Robert eleven?
M Johnson: Yes, 64, yes.
B York: And the first marriage was in 1941?
M Johnson: Yes and we had the three children. I think I stayed in that marriage until — twenty-four years. I was always — my husband was a really good man but he was a public service born and bred. Always wanting to do things, look at you saying that, he always wanted to go further. He made a lot of friends at this stage and then he’d go higher, guard this lot. He was a real seeker for higher positions. When we were married it was a done thing. He went into the Army and we were going together and everybody were saying, you’ve got to get married because you might never see them again and you’ll get compensated. It was the done thing to just get married. It seemed to be so important to everybody but anyway we had a good life. He was a good man but there was never a lot of love, but that’s sad. But anyway, we had a good life. He was a very good citizen.
B York: I know I’ve asked you a lot, can I ask one more thing and that’s about the war. How was Canberra affected with World War Two, was it affected?
M Johnson: Well my brother went to war and that was heartbreaking, and then when my husband — went with my husband then, he went, and I thought oh my goodness. My eldest child — he used to come, he was at Kapooka in Wagga, that’s where they trained. That must have been about when I fell pregnant because he went straight after that overseas. He didn’t see my son until he was about two-and-a-half. So a few years but I think there was a lot of — a lot of depression. I know that we were on tickets. We could buy this, buy that, we were restricted on buying a lot of stuff.
B York: Rations.
M Johnson: We got very little — after Colin was born we didn’t get very much money to live on, through the Army, very, very little. We really had to be careful. You couldn’t go — of course you never went to work after you were married, not for a long time. I ended up going to work later, but in the earlier days you never got married and you stayed home, you were a housewife then.
B York: Were you happy being a housewife, or did you want to work?
M Johnson: I was happy then. I still reckon that having the three kids was the best part of my life because I had three really good kids. They grew up without any trouble. Nobody had trouble then with their kids, they all grew up good.
B York: But what I was asking about the war, like, I’ve heard that in Canberra there was air-raid practice and that kind …
M Johnson: Oh there was because they were always saying that if anybody came, if we ever got invaded Canberra would be where they did it, because that’s where they’d get all the big boys, you know that knew what they were talking about. It was always a scare. Even my great grandson works at the new Parliament House as a security officer, yes, talk about that being a target lately. So they were always scared that Canberra would be — they had, on Red Hill or they had big lights that used to go round and round. I can remember the big lights. I don’t know which hill. It could have been Black Mountain. I don’t know what hill but the lights would go right around Canberra.
B York: Do you remember air raid sirens for air raid practice?
M Johnson: Not really, because we never saw very many airplanes then. Airplanes weren’t really a big deal. No I don’t remember anything like that. The only thing I really remember about the war was the lack of money. Nobody had any money. You had to really be careful how you spent. So it was pretty restricted money.
B York: Where did you go after the Causeway? What was the next place you lived?
M Johnson: The next place we lived in was Reid, almost opposite St John’s Church, those big double story houses, they were duplex. But the woman who was living in that wanted to go to the Causeway because she had a relative there, a close relative, and so they were exchanged houses. That was upstairs and down stairs. That was when I first started to work at Hotel Kurrajong and I was getting the best pay and so I went to the furniture shop, to Cusack’s furniture shop and bought all mum’s furniture, because we didn’t have any nice furniture. I got the carpets upstairs in my name and I was to pay it off every week and I got behind one — he called me up and I said ‘I’m going to make up for it’ and he said ‘You keep paying. You won’t have to make up, just keep paying’. I don’t know how much I paid, about ten bob a week or something. Then one day he called me in and said ‘We’ll call it square, because’ he said ‘you did a very big thing furnishing you’re mother’s house’. He said ‘We’ll call it square’ and so I didn’t have to take my ten bob any more.
B York: So you were at the Causeway up until you were about sixteen, is that right, seventeen?
M Johnson: We went to Reid when I was working at …
B York: Kurrajong.
M Johnson: … Kurrajong, and so that was round about sixteen, seventeen.
[Third person] That was the family, the whole family went to Reid?
M Johnson: Yes, the whole family, yes. We went to Reid. It was a really nice house. Our next door neighbour was right, you know a duplex.
B York: Yes.
M Johnson: Yes we had fun there.
B York: Now Marj, you’ve done really well today. Thank you so much for this, but I’m just wondering before I turn off. Is there anything else that you’d like to tell me, to put on the record about Canberra, about your family, about the politicians, whatever, your working life?
M Johnson: Something I remember, A. Oh goodness.
B York: You know anything else you want to say, as we’re finishing up.
M Johnson: I lived a pretty simple life. Even like I was so naive in so many things that it was really embarrassing a lot of times. I met this girl, probably this is one of the best things that have ever happened to me. This girl that really took me in and she explained so many things to me, things that I’d never heard anything. How a baby was born because we thought babies lived under the cabbage patch and she told me, told me what happened, sex all about that. I was wide eyed I tell you because I thought babies — for ever I thought babies came from under a cabbage patch. Anyway she took me in and she was my friend for a lot of years but she was always put me on the straight and narrow.
B York: What was her name Marj?
M Johnson: Her name was Kate and I’ve never been able to fathom out, or whether I ever knew her second name. I just can never fathom her out. But her name was Kate and I always just knew her as Kate. I don’t know whether I ever knew her second name. It was just something I remember that really sticks out in my mind. The things she told me. She said ‘Your mother should have explained this to you’ but it was her that told me.
B York: Anyway, thank you so much for today. It’s been a real education I think for all of us. We’ll do a CD and I’ll send you a few copies for the family. Thanks again Marj, let’s have a cup of tea now.
M Johnson: I was told I wasn’t allowed to tell any lies. I don’t think I did [laughs].
B York: No I can tell you’re an honest person.
This history has multiple parts.1 2 3
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