Meryl Hunter worked as a telephonist in the provisional Parliament House from 1946 to1948. She also talks about her father’s work from 1927 to the 1950s as an attendant and House Keeper, her childhood involvement in the building, and early Canberra from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Interview with Meryl Hunter Part 1
B York: This is an interview with Meryl Hunter who worked as a telephonist in Canberra, including at the provisional Parliament House in the late 1940s—1946 to 48. Her father, Frank Bishop, worked at Parliament House from 1927 to around 1960 when he retired. Mrs Hunter will be speaking with me, Barry York, for the Oral History Program conducted by the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.
On behalf of the Director, Meryl, I really want to thank you very much for being part of this.
M Hunter: You’re welcome.
B York: Do you understand that the Commonwealth owns copyright in the interview and access is determined by you in that rights agreement that you’ve completed and signed?
M Hunter: Yes.
B York: Can we have permission to do a summary or maybe a transcript of the interview one day?
M Hunter: Yes.
B York: The interview is taking place today, 9th February 2011, at the Museum of Parliament House. Can we begin at the beginning with some family background? Who were your parents and how did they end up in Canberra?
M Hunter: My parents were Frank Bishop who married a lady called Jean Cross who was brought up in Traralgon, in Gippsland. That’s where they met, because Dad at that time was a returned serviceman from the First World War. He was running his own motor business dealing in Buick cars, I think it was, and I’m pretty sure my grandfather, when he knew that Dad was interested in his only daughter, was keen to have Dad in a secure job rather than selling motor cars because my grandfather at that point was still driving horse and sulky; he couldn’t see the future in motor cars.
So Dad somehow applied for the job at Parliament House, because this was just prior to the opening of parliament. He and Mum had a very short honeymoon in the Grampians, en route to Parliament House, for the opening.
B York: You were born in Canberra, weren’t you?
M Hunter: Mum and Dad, first of all when they came to Canberra, were allotted a house in Ainslie which wasn’t finished, so they had to stay at the Hotel Wellington, and I have a photograph of Mum standing on one of the front porches at the Hotel Wellington, which is no longer there.
Then they moved into No. 6 Toms Crescent, Ainslie, which is now heritage listed, as a lot of those houses are. They were flooded a couple of times because at that point Mt Ainslie didn’t have the big stormwater drain around the foot of it and when it rained heavily all the rain just ran off and flooded the new suburbs. So I’ve got photographs of them ploughing through water and the streets covered in water.
Dad had a wonderful garden. He was so excited to have a plot that he could call his own and there’s photographs in the family albums of him holding up huge watermelons and pumpkins and things. He was so proud of being able to grow this stuff, but it was virgin soil, of course; it hadn’t been tilled ever before.
Then for some reason or other he decided that he would build his own house. I think my grandfather, my maternal grandfather, might have had something to do with that, too, but I don’t know. So he bought a block of land in Blandfordia and dealt with a firm that eventually collapsed, so in actual fact he lost 150 pounds, which was a considerable sum at that time, in his first attempt to buy a block of land. But he persevered and finally did get a block of land in Flinders Way and built his own house.
I was born while they lived in Ainslie. I spent three months of my life in Ainslie, which I don’t remember, obviously. I was born at the old Canberra Hospital, part of which is still there in the ANU grounds.
My early memories begin at Flinders Way, in Uralla, and that is now a heritage listed house, too, because it was designed by Oliphant.
Dad rode his bike always to work, no matter where he lived. His bike he built out of bits and pieces he found at the tip; that’s what you did in those days. He always had a car but he never drove a car to work, not in the early days anyway.
When I was old enough, probably four, he would dink me on his bike to Parliament House on Sunday afternoons when he was on duty as an attendant. I was all dressed in my best, sparkly little shoes and cream skirt and told to be quiet. I followed him around.
There were very few tourists in those days but the ones who came were very keen to see Parliament House because it had really just been opened and it was one of the few things to look at in Canberra in those days. The only other thing was the Institute of Anatomy. That was it. The War Memorial wasn’t there; there was nothing much else. St John’s was about the only other thing.
So I’d follow Dad around and we’d end up on the roof. I don’t know whether visitors are still taken up on the roof. I can remember my shoes sticking to the tarmac, funny stuff, that was on the roof, which always leaked, I believe. Dad would proudly stand there and point out that ‘down there’ in the future will be a lake. I picked all this up as we went around.
When I got bored I used to come down to the courtyard and feed the goldfish because there were beautiful goldfish ponds.
Then when I got really bored I’d sit on the top step in the King’s Hall, because it was all very shiny polished timber, which it still is, and I’d go bump-bump-bump on my bottom down to the bottom step, and then I’d walk up and I’d do it again. I wasn’t making a noise; I was just amusing myself.
In those days there was a big entrance mat right in the front hall which featured the coat of arms and I think it was rubber, I seem to remember it was rubber. I used to just trace around the emu and the crown with my finger, and I thought that was just wonderful. Then I’d go up the steps again and I’d look at a painting that hung in a piece of wall that’s still there, obviously, but I don’t think the painting is there—an early painting of Canberra, with just St John’s Church. Now I don’t know where that painting is. I haven’t seen it for years.
Then if I got terribly, terribly bored Dad would say, ‘You can go down to the bottom corridors and look at all the things that were in glass cases.’ There was a model of a ship and I never ever knew what the ship was called but it was this wonderful, wonderful model in a glass case and you could see all the portholes and all the rigging and the derricks and everything. It obviously had some meaning but where is it? I don’t know.
B York: Fascinating – you’ve got a great memory for that kind of detail.
M Hunter: It impressed itself on me because I loved the place. It was not a scary place. My connection with Parliament House began when I was four and carried until fairly recently really for one reason or another.
Dad in his job moved from the Senate, where he was originally as an attendant, over to the House of Reps and then we entered the Second World War and there was a need for somebody they called a ‘transport officer’ so Dad was then transport officer, which meant he then had to drive his car to work because he was the one who picked up members of parliament off early morning trains and organised aeroplane flights. There weren’t that many aeroplane flights, I might tell you; it was mostly train travel. He organised all the travel for all the members of parliament.
He ended up with a gas producer on the car because petrol was rationed, of course, and he didn’t get a dispensation. He had a dreadful looking box trailer he used to tow behind it to put the luggage in. He was up at all hours of the morning and he’d come home late at night because during the war time the House sat almost constantly and far into the night. Often he’d take members home to their hotel or wherever they were going because if the Commonwealth cars had knocked off that was it: he was there.
In those days, it was a small group of people in the Senate and the House of Reps, and the staff were small, so everybody knew everybody. It was a very friendly atmosphere to work in. Never on first name terms, of course, with members of parliament, but they were all hail fellow well met and you’d see them walking the corridors, crossing the King’s Hall. They were everywhere, and it was just a vey friendly place to be.
During the war time, I’d left school in 1946, I was a good pupil, I was at Telopea Park and then Canberra High School, which was a selective high school, and allegedly you had to be pretty smart to go there, but I think I let them down because they didn’t teach me what I wanted to know. I had all sorts of pre-university subjects which I excelled at but when it came to Maths and Science I just failed horribly. I thought, I don’t want to be doing this; I want to be an architect or an artist, and they’re not letting me do it, so I just left school. I just walked out.
When I went home and told Dad, he said, I hope you’ve got a job. This was within an hour of me leaving school, and I burst into tears, I thought, how could you possibly have a job within an hour of leaving school? But a girlfriend who lived in the same street, her father worked in the post office, he was the postmaster here at Parliament House at one point, and he said, I’ve got just the job for you, they’re looking for telephonists at the moment and you’re trained on the job. Telephony was something I’d never really thought about or heard about. The only jobs available for girls in 1946 were, you could work at J B Young’s or in a chemist shop, or you joined the public service. I had no skills. I could speak French and Japanese but I had no other skills.
So I signed on at the GPO over here, which is now the Archives, and I was trained to be a telephonist. It was very rigorous. It was hard work. It was incredibly intense work because at that point in Canberra’s history the GPO was the centre of communications. You couldn’t just ring Melbourne from your phone on your desk; you had to go through the telephone exchange. Parliament was sitting all the time. There were only two lines to Melbourne, or three lines to Melbourne and two lines to Sydney, I think it was, so there were frayed tempers and angry people because of the delays and the wait for connections.
So it was a fairly fraught sort of a job but it was an interesting job because you were part of a GPO family or PMG family. Parliament House, switchboard, which I’d never seen, even though I knew every inch of Parliament House, I had never seen the switchboard. I didn’t know what was behind that baize-covered door, and it was not something I was allowed to look at, but while I was at the GPO they needed another telephonist over here during the sessions because there was always a permanent telephonist here who was a good friend of mine, and so I was thought capable of coming over and taking on the switchboard work here, which was fascinating.
We had a gorgeous little room downstairs, virtually on the Senate side, opened out on to the courtyard, so in the summer time we could have the door wide open. It was a small switchboard with room for two operators. All the members of parliament knew us. Leslie Haylen, who was a Labor member at the time, used to ring up and say, ‘It’s Mrs Haylen’s little boy here,’ and we knew exactly who it was.
Some of the members, at the end of a session, would bring us boxes of chocolates and just pop in and say hello. Quite often, later on, you’d bump into Bob Menzies in the corridor, but he never popped his head into the switch room. He probably knew what it was but he didn’t.
So that was another facet of my connection with Parliament House, and a very interesting connection. I hardly ever saw Dad while I was at work here. I could always hear him if I was out in the corridors because he had a very deep and not a loud voice, just a penetrating voice, and his voice used to echo through the corridors. I always knew where he was but I never saw him.
B York: Can I just go back slightly? I should point out that when you left school you were 16, so that’s 1946.
M Hunter: 1946.
B York: You mentioned French and Japanese that you spoke. How did that come about?
M Hunter: Japanese, I think the theory was at the time that we could be taken over by the Japanese. That wasn’t actually expressed, but we had a wonderful Japanese teacher. I think we were one of two schools in Australia that taught Japanese. We had a wonderful teacher called Russell Vicks whose daughter I’d gone to school with, right from day one, so he was a friend, apart from being a teacher. He was very good as a teacher and I excelled. I loved languages anyway. I just excelled at Japanese and French. But I’d go home after a Japanese lesson and we had a big floor model radio in those days and I’d try and get short wave and listen to Tokyo Rose and Dad used to be furious to think that I was—she was not speaking Japanese. Occasionally she’d lapse into Japanese. She was a broadcaster that was trying to influence the Western troops.
Japanese, I just loved, I excelled at it, and a fellow pupil, Bob Parker, whom I still see from time to time because we get connected on historical stuff, he ended up being so successful he was posted to Japan and I don’t know whether he was a translator or whether he had some other office in the embassy there but he speaks fluent Japanese. Another former pupil of Russell Vicks’ who had left school a couple of years before me was at the signing of the Peace Treaty as a translator, so Russell Vicks was an excellent teacher of Japanese and we had a French lady who taught us French, Miss Bouquet. She only died in Canberra fairly recently.
The schooling in those days, and you’re far too young to remember, was very rigid because the schools had certain standards that they wanted to maintain, of course, and Canberra High School, being a selective high school, was aiming at getting as many people to university as possible. They obviously thought that I was university material and I had no intention of going to university. We didn’t have a university in Canberra and Mum and Dad could certainly not have afforded to send me to a university in Sydney or Melbourne, so all the subjects I learned were great but of very little practical use. I had to teach myself everything else on the way through.
B York: When you were at school, did you have any ambitions, was there something you wanted to be?
M Hunter: An artist or an architect. That was it. I was always interested, I’m an artist now but architecture I’d always been interested. I was always interested in the way houses were set up and the way they were designed. I don’t know where that came from. I’ve got no idea where that came from. But art and architecture – well, art in those days, Barry, it was the dummies that did art, believe me. There was art taught at Canberra High but it was for the kids in the B classes, put it that way, and I was in the A stream, so I had to knuckle down to two lots of Maths and Physics and Chemistry and English. I loved the English and French and Japanese, of course, but the Maths, no, sorry, I’m not a mathematician, and I would have needed that for architecture anyway.
The only way for most people to go to university in those days was to win a scholarship. A doctor who ended up being our doctor and I’d gone to school with him, John Saunders, he actually repeated fifth form so that he could get a scholarship to go away and study medicine.
B York: I’d like to ask about your father. You mentioned that on Sundays he would do the tours here. What did he do the rest of the week?
M Hunter: He was here every day.
B York: He was an attendant?
M Hunter: Yes, he was here every day.
B York: But on Sundays he would do a tour?
M Hunter: I don’t know whether that was rostered or whether it was every Sunday. I can’t remember the details of that. I used to wonder what Mum did, but Mum played tennis. We had tennis courts across the street from where we were in Flinders Way, so I think Dad probably thought this is giving her a bit of a break and I wasn’t a difficult child to control so here I was.
I remember on day I was sitting on the top steps of King’s Hall, Dad had gone off somewhere, and some tourists came in. I was a fairly gregarious person and I said to these people, would you like me to show you around? When I think of it now, I absolutely cringe, to think of this four or five year old asking people would they like—and they said yes, so I started showing them the King’s Hall and then Dad appeared, and they gave me three pence. Well, three pence was untold wealth. I’ve never forgotten it. And I was scolded severely afterwards. Yes. You don’t do that.
B York: Which part of the building was your father in?
M Hunter: To start with there were two little boxes. I think they’re still there. As you come in the front door and go up the steps to King’s Hall there’s a box on the left hand, there’s a box downstairs, a sort of office, where the entrance office now is. There was one on the opposite side, too, because there was a Reps one and a Senate one. Upstairs there was also the same sort of thing and I think the toilets are near there.
When he became transport officer he was moved downstairs and I couldn’t even find it now because the building’s been so dramatically altered. Right at the end of a bottom corridor near an entrance that came in over on the Reps side, so that his car was always parked right out there, he would have quick access to his car. Not far from the Prime Minister’s entrance, actually. I think that’s all been taken over by the Ho Chi Minh Trail and whatever else has happened over there.
Originally Parliament House, you could actually look into the courtyards from outside. The courtyard, you could peer through and look at it and it was rather gorgeous. I loved it because of the goldfish and the trees and the grass. In those days, there was no shade in Canberra, and it’s probably hard for you to understand but all the trees that were planted were about the size of a man, about as tall as you. So the trees and I grew together, and I always wanted shade because I was not good in the heat. This was a shady place; I loved it because it was a shady place.
Duntroon was a shady place, too. It was lovely.
B York: You must explain Ho Chi Minh Trail.
M Hunter: I was taken on a tour – the reason I was taken on a tour was that some of the early historians here, before it was called the Museum of Democracy, were wondering how they could utilise Parliament House, and Sarah Jane Brazil who was the historian at the time knew me via the history trail and she wanted to find out where the housekeeper’s flat was. I said, I can show you, I think, provided things haven’t been too altered. So we found the flat and of course it’s been built in. It’s sort of internal now instead of having external windows. She said, I’ll show you the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and I didn’t know what she was talking about.
B York: When was this, Meryl?
M Hunter: This would have been probably ten years ago. I don’t think Sarah Jane’s here any more, in the House. I don’t know where she is, if she’s in Canberra or not. It was a sort of tickytacky extension that was put on because the House of Reps had expanded, or both chambers had expanded, and there was just no room for all these members of parliament. This was a very condensed building that was made to look like Parliament House and it was all fairly temporary. I would hope it’s been taken down but I don’t know, because a lot of it was fibro and you could hear the floor shake virtually as you walked on it. It was all very, very temporary. They nicknamed it ‘the Ho Chi Minh Trail’. You’ll have to research that one.
B York: Yes, I was fascinated when you used that term. I’d like to go back a bit. You were born in 1930 in Canberra, I know one doesn’t develop memories until about four years of age.
M Hunter: According to my mother, I started remembering things from the age of three.
B York: I’m just wondering about Canberra during the Depression.
M Hunter: I was aware of it but it was not underlined. I’ve got my mother’s original housekeeping book from when they first started married life. She kept a page each week of what she spent. Everything was itemised, even a box of matches. Dad did the same thing: electricity, you didn’t have to pay for water in those days, you had to pay for wood because wood was the only way you kept warm, or cooked.
When a request would come home from school for me to have a costume made for a play, Mum would say, no, I can’t afford it. I used to be so offended because somehow or other some of the other parents managed to be able to afford these things, and Mum said she couldn’t afford it.
Well, it was before World War II and the aftermath of the Depression. People were lucky to have jobs. I think a lot of public servants in those days took cuts in their wages just so they had their jobs. The fellow who built our house in Flinders Way and did such a good job, it was the last job he ever did. He went totally out backwards after that. There were no houses being built in Canberra at all. It might have been one of the last private houses built. So the Depression hit quite badly. A lot of people came to Canberra for work because where there’s parliament there’s always something happening, but there really wasn’t a lot of work around.
One of our quite famous citizens, who’s long gone, and had a cycle shop, was selling things door to door during the Depression. It was a very sad time. But as a child I was pretty protected from that.
Mum and Dad grew everything. Dad grew all our own vegetables. We had chooks, of course, as most people did. You didn’t waste anything. The cost of living was fairly minimal because - the worst expense for Dad would have been his mortgage, and I think that was an overpowering worry for him, to have this mortgage hanging over his head. He said to me at one stage, when I was probably old enough to understand, ‘It’s like climbing a mountain and you never get to the top.’
So money was scarce, and some people did it really tough. We didn’t really because Dad always had a job. He was in a very secure job. My grandfather might have seen this coming, for all we know.
B York: Did the grandfather remain in Victoria?
M Hunter: Yes. He was a leader in his own community and a very wise man. For all I know, and I never discussed it with him, I was too young to discuss this sort of stuff with him, he might have seen that this was happening and selling cars was not going to be a very profitable occupation. So it was a wise choice for Dad to join the public service.
Mind you, he was a farmer, basically, and being a public servant irritated him to death. He was a very good public servant. He was a very loyal and hard-working public servant, and he was awarded an honour by the Queen and all the rest of it, but he always wanted to be farming. He came from a farming family, but security was a big thing. You didn’t take risks in those days, particularly if you had a child, and another child came along, too, so my sister was there as well. You didn’t take risks.
B York: So there were the two girls?
M Hunter: My sister was born a lot later than me. It was like another family because I was in high school when she was born. She had the misfortune – she has a great antipathy to this House because she had to live here. When Dad applied for the job as housekeeper, I think the odd hours he was keeping started to get him down and being the housekeeper was a promotion so he applied to be the housekeeper.
Before that, we’d known the previous housekeeper who’d lived on the spot, too - Pettifer his name was. Dad knew him very well, knew the circumstances of where he lived, so when Dad came to be housekeeper, which was in 1952, the end of 52, my sister was only very young, I think she’d just started school. They had to leave the house in Flinders Way, which my husband and I rented because we were building our own house. They came to live in Parliament House. My grandmother was living with us at the time because my grandfather had died, so she had to come, too, and the flat was a very enclosed sort of flat. It wasn’t a light and airy piece of accommodation.
Mum was totally frustrated. Mum hated every minute of it. She had a sort of formal living room, which faced out on to the Senate gardens, quite big windows there. There were two bedrooms. There was one for Mum and Dad. My sister had to share with my grandmother. There was a sort of kitchen-cum-family room that faced on to an entrance that came in on the side of the Senate there. That’s all been covered over by buildings many times. This means that her kitchen window was as big as one of these. She could see everybody coming and going. They’d wave, she’d wave. But she had nowhere to hang her washing; she had nowhere to do her washing. She had no garden, and my mother loved her garden.
So Dad started gardening over in the Senate gardens. The gardener at the time, Charlie Mayne, I think it was, said to Dad, you can have that section, and so Dad grew vegetables. He’d potter over there in the morning and look at his vegetables and hose them. Mum would go over and pick roses and so on.
There was also a bowling green over on the Reps side, which is probably still there, and Dad was a very keen bowler, so he was happy. He had his garden, he had his bowls, and Mum had nothing. She used to have to come home to Flinders Way to do the washing there and then bring it back here and hang it in an air well.
So life for her was not much fun. Life for my sister was even worse, and I can sympathise now because she had no back yard. She knew every inch of this place; in fact, she used to go round with Dad because Dad had all the keys, locking up after the members had gone home or left or whatever. She knew every room, and if Dad was caught talking to somebody she’d carry on and just do the locking up.
Interview with Meryl Hunter Part 2
Alan Fraser was the brother of Jim Fraser, who became a local member, a lovely man, and he felt sorry for my sister, and he used to bring his dogs in on a Saturday morning so she could play with the dogs in the courtyard.
She doesn’t have good memories of this place because she couldn’t invite friends to play. Where would you play? She had the run of the House but you couldn’t have other kids marching through Parliament House, even though the security was very slack, so she used to ride her bike from here to Telopea Park because she was at Telopea Park as a primary school and then as a high school, it became a high school. During the Queen’s visit, she rode her bike back to Parliament House and went up to the door to get in and they wouldn’t let her in. She said, ‘But I live here.’ They wouldn’t believe her because there was a whole bunch of new security guards. She went and sat out under one of the gum trees out there and bawled her eyes out. Mum spotted her from the kitchen window and that was the only way she got back in to Parliament House. So she doesn’t have good memories of this place, whereas I do. My memories are wonderful.
B York: What’s your sister’s name?
M Hunter: Carol – called Bunty. Bunty Wright. I dragged her in at one point to be interviewed.
B York: Yes, we have a recording with her.
M Hunter: She was so resistant. Then she actually wrote a piece in one of the books that I’ve written, but no, she blames Parliament House for a lot of her attitudes to life, I think. She certainly didn’t have the sort of childhood I did. I had the whole street as my playground and a back yard and a front garden and she didn’t have any of those things. So that was sad for her, but when Mum prevailed at some point during their stay here and said to Dad, I’ve got to have a house somewhere, this is ridiculous, so they bought a house at Mossy Point on the South Coast and he would have every third weekend off. I don’t know what happened on those weekends, whether somebody took over or what the story was, but he and Mum and would go to the coast and so she made that her home, because in the meantime Uralla had been sold, very sadly. I bawled for days because it was a very special place for me.
And now the house at the coast has been sold for $1.2 million, so there you go.
B York: It must have been unusual to have a house at the coast back then?
M Hunter: I think probably Dad didn’t take too much encouraging, for the simple reason that he wanted to be a farmer, he didn’t want to be confined, and he loved fishing. He was always a keen trout fisherman. So I think Dad had stars in his eyes. He could see weekends of fishing and that’s what he did when he went there, except that he extended the little house to start with and built a garage and Mum gardened, and the freesias which she planted, which came from Uralla, which originally came from my grandmother’s house in Gippsland, she planted them at Mossy Point and now they’ve self-sown all over Mossy Point. So there’s a memorial to Mum everywhere.
Dad was quite happy to go down. There was no traffic in those days. The road was a shocker. The house was two rooms and an enclosed veranda, a little fibro place that sat on the edge of the cliff with a fantastic view of the sea but it got every breeze that blew. Mum absolutely loved it, and yet she wasn’t a coast person really. She had to have a house and a clothesline.
B York: How long was your father housekeeper here?
M Hunter: That’s where I really need to go back to my research.
B York: Was it up to the time he retired?
M Hunter: Up to when he retired, yes. He only retired because of course walking round Parliament House, I don’t know how many miles you would notch up but he walked around Parliament House three or four times a day and in between times he’d be around, and one of his hips started to give out. He had one of the first hip operations in Canberra and that’s when he decided that it was time to retire. He was retiring age, and so he did.
I don’t think anybody lived – I think Gordon Pike was the next housekeeper and I think he lived in the flat for a short time but after that I think the building was going on, the place was being extended, and a housekeeper didn’t have to live in.
It seemed to be very important in the early days to have a live-in housekeeper.
B York: Do you recall what your father’s duties were?
M Hunter: His duties were to supervise all the cleaners; that was one thing. He was very particular about the King’s Hall in particular. They had great trouble keeping the floor in good condition there, because some of those parquet boards would lift from time to time, but he had a good team of cleaners. He was popular. Dad was very popular. He was very well liked. He didn’t suffer fools but what he said he meant.
That was one of his more important jobs, so that meant he had to inspect everything the whole time. He was the security of the place, I suppose. It boils down to that in the end, that he was the security, because there were no guards anywhere. There was a man sitting in a little box at the Senate side, the Senate door, the side door, and he used to just nod at people as they went through. I suppose if anyone had come in with a revolver he might have done more than nod but it didn’t happen, it just didn’t happen in those days, until the Queen was here.
If there was something like that, it was the Queen, not the Queen Mother, because I don’t think there was that sort of security when the Queen Mother came.
When the Queen Mother came, Mum and Dad were living in the flat and we’d had dinner with them that night. Dad said, Well, you can come up and stand just near the stairs and watch the Queen Mother come in. She was so gracious, she was absolutely gorgeous. She smiled to all of us. But of course when the Queen came, security was a little tighter. We were allowed to see the dining room set up with the ice sculptures and everything but that was it. So we stood on top of the roof, actually. I had a nine month old child at that point and we nursed Michael, turn and turn about, standing up there in the drizzling rain watching the Queen arrive.
B York: Did your father ever talk about the opening ceremony?
M Hunter: No, he didn’t. I think he was probably over-awed. It was a new job. It was probably one of the first things he did, stand there at attention – well, standing at attention was easy, he was a soldier, but no, he never talked about that. He used to talk to Mum and I was listening, of course, about what went on here, but it was not really anything to do with the members or the senators.
He was very friendly with some of the members. Larry Anthony particularly. Larry Anthony used to send him down a box of pineapples every year at Christmas time, and there was another member, I can’t remember who, used to give him a box of wine. Nobody drank wine in those days - what do we do with this?
He got on well with everybody. He could transfer from cleaners to members of parliament without any problem, and I think he was very well respected. They also played table tennis. I don’t know whether you know about the table tennis.
B York: I’ve heard about that, yes, but please elaborate.
M Hunter: I used to try and play table tennis down there, too, but I was hopeless. Actually, I think that’s where the Canberra Table Tennis Club played most of their games, because there wasn’t any space anywhere else. It was under, if you can imagine, the House of Reps chambers. I don’t know whether you can still get down there and I can’t even remember how you get down there. All these air-conditioning ducts ran along under the floor, or steam heating, or whatever it was, I think it was steam heating in those days, and this pokey sort of funny area with a table set up and the balls, if they missed the table, used to ricochet off down these gloomy little passages that were full of filing cabinets. It was like a dungeon.
They played some fantastic table tennis down there. Dad ended up being a life member of the Table Tennis Association and an Australian umpire at bowls because he was sports keen. He and my sister used to play bowls. That was one thing she could do here when she was a kid, and tennis on the lawn court.
The table tennis, I think the Parliamentary Association had quite a group of fellows who were keen table tennis players and Dad was certainly keen because he was just an all-round sportsman. But what a dreadful place to play table tennis.
B York: Did he ever speak about Prime Ministers, experiences with Prime Ministers?
M Hunter: He had great affection for Chifley. I must say I did, too, because I’d often, if I was riding my bike to work here, he’d be walking from the Kurrajong and he’d raise his hat. He didn’t have to. He was puffing away on his pipe and raising his hat. I could have been anybody. He didn’t know me.
I didn’t know Mr Curtin. Dad didn’t talk about Curtin very much. I think he felt sorry for Curtin, for some reason. Menzies, of course Dad always was a Labor voter, but he thought Menzies was a fantastic man and actually I think he tried to emulate Menzies in a way because Dad and Menzies were about the same stature. Yes, I think he respected Bob Menzies.
Menzies would say g’day to you if you were crossing the King’s Hall. No problem about that at all. When my mother was having my sister, and she was in hospital for three months, I used to ride my bike home from school and then ride over here to have dinner with Dad because it was war time, the House was sitting, and I could have dinner with him in the non-members dining room. We knew the chef, Bill Littlefield, and he’d wave from the kitchen. The kitchen was a hive of industry and I used to think that was wonderful, to have dinner at Parliament House, but it was down in the non-members dining room, which I think now is really where the café is. I think that was the non-members dining room area. You could see the kitchen from there, but you can’t now, can you? I don’t think so.
B York: Did your father have any anecdotes about Chifley or Menzies, personal encounters?
M Hunter: Not that he told me. Those were the days when you didn’t tell this sort of stuff to your kids. He might have said something to Mum. Arthur Calwell was a man who rather frightened me, but when Dad was transport officer and he’d have to go and meet the early morning train from Melbourne, which came in at six o’clock or something, and I woke up one morning and I could hear this terrible cough going on in the kitchen and this very gruff voice. Who’s that? Mum came into the bedroom and said, Don’t get up just yet because we’ve got Arthur Calwell in the kitchen, he’s very ill. I thought, What’s Arthur Calwell doing in our kitchen? But Dad felt so sorry for him because he’d been on this all-night train from Melbourne and trains in those days were not very warm, and he had a terrible bout of influenza, so he took him home to Mum to sit him in front of the kitchen stove, which she had revving along, and give him hot cups of tea and then took him off to where – I don’t know where he lived, in one of the hotels somewhere. That was my first memory of Arthur Calwell up close, but I didn’t see him; I only heard him that time.
Quite often when I was here waiting for Dad, for some reason, Dad would say, You can go into the House if you like, and I’d go into the Reps and sit on the – I think there are still chairs there, near the entrance doors, there are chairs where some of the attendants used to sit sometimes, spare guests would sit, and I’d sit there and listen to the debates. I thought this was the best entertainment out. I started to be reasonably politically aware, I think, from that time.
I was pretty disgusted when they’d lie down and put newspapers over their faces and have a sleep, because that’s what they did, some of the members, in the House. Well, there were long sittings, I suppose, midnight, one o’clock in the morning.
B York: Is this the late 40s we’re talking about?
M Hunter: Yes, during the war time, during the war. The pressure was on, so maybe they had every excuse to lie on the couches and put the newspapers over their faces.
I loved to sit on those benches because – I don’t know whether you’ve ever sat on, you probably have – as you sit they go ‘puff’. P arliament House, this Parliament House, has lots of memories, lots of smells, lots of sounds. The clocks – and they’ve changed them; you’ve got one here but it’s quiet – every minute it would go ‘bnk, bnk, bnk’. They didn’t chime, but every minute the clock would make a sound. Everywhere there were clocks. The bells, of course, you knew what the bells were for. And the voices in the King’s Hall used to echo. You knew when Mr Menzies was there because his voice echoed. They were crossing backwards and forwards the whole time. The general public could reach out and touch them any time they wanted to, which was something that was great but it’s been lost now, I think, hasn’t it.
B York: Oh yes, very much, sure. You mentioned earlier that the trees weren’t grown and you loved the shade of being here. Can you describe a bit more about what Canberra looked like, especially what we now call the Parliamentary triangle area?
M Hunter: The Parliamentary triangle was three buildings, really. It was East Block, West Block and Parliament House. There was nothing else. There were paddocks. There were often sheep up the back here, on the hill. Nothing was groomed, apart from round Parliament House itself. You’d look out the front there and it was just paddocks, all the way to Mt Ainslie. You’d see the river with the willow trees along it and the whole of Canberra was like that. It was dusty and in the summer time scorchingly hot. I mean, scorchingly hot, because we had no shade anywhere. The only shady spots were Acton, because that was an old settlement, Duntroon – that was about it, I think – because they were early settlements and they had advanced or old trees.
We had friend who lived at Duntroon because the RMC wasn’t there at that time, and I used to love going there because it was shady and it was just beautiful. There was a maze that you could wander round in and get lost. The maze I think is back again now.
I was only thinking of this recently because I was doing some writing at home. In Flinders Way, and I’ve got early photographs of Flinders Way, when Manuka was being constructed, there was this funny little ribbon of road and absolutely nothing all around. The only trees were the ones on Red Hill, and Red Hill didn’t have many trees anyway. When they planted trees, as I say, the trees would have been planted by Weston, the design was certainly laid out by Weston, and implemented, and when I was a kid, a little kid going to school, there was no shade from those trees, so that makes me think they were only as tall as a man. They’d have to be.
We had beautiful trees up Flinders Way, and some of them are still there, I think, and it used to be quite a tourist attraction in the end because they were blossoming prunus interspersed with hawthorns. The two lots of blossoms seemed to come out together and tourists would drive up there and go along Mugga Way, of course, which was the street and still is. Yes, Flinders Way was quite grand.
Across the road from our house was paddocks, just paddocks. There were poplar trees planted along what we grandly called ‘the creek’ which was really a stormwater drain. The poplar trees are still there. You could see right to the hills beyond Queanbeyan, and Charlie Russell’s sheep wandering around. Often Mum would be out with a tea towel shooing Charlie Russell’s sheep off the front lawn.
So that’s how it was. To ride my bike to Parliament House, I hardly used a road because there were tracks across the paddocks. The tracks were only the width of a bicycle tyre because everybody used those to ride their bikes.
It was a very sparse place. It was two settlements. There was the south side, which was where I lived, Griffith, Forrest, a bit of Red Hill, and then there was the north side, which was Ainslie and Braddon and Reid, and that was it.
And then it started to expand.
B York: What were the common ways of getting around?
M Hunter: Bus or pushbike. Not many people owned cars. Dad always had a car because he was a car person. He was a mechanic and he’d always had a car. Mind you, when he first came to Canberra he had an Indian motor bike with a side car, and Rupert Loof who was the Clerk of the House bought his Indian motor bike so he and his wife started off with an Indian motor bike. Dad then bought a little baby Austin car and it had the number plate 324 and that 324 went right through all of the Bishop cars until Mum gave up driving, and then she gave it to the guy who lived behind her. She gave it to him. She didn’t want to sell it.
If people had cars they were old bangers. The little Austin we had was a baby Austin, which I think you still them in some of these car heritage things, with a canvas hood and flappy windows and a dicky seat at the back, and very low horsepower. Friends of our in the street had a 1927 Chev. That was the vintage of cars if people had cars. And of course there weren’t any Australian cars. They were either British or American in those days.
To drive a car to work – no, gosh, no. You rode a bike. Dad had his bike clips. You didn’t get dressed up in lycra, not in those days; you wore what you were wearing to work. Dad had his good trousers on and his waistcoat and his collar and tie, and bike clips around his trousers, and off he’d go. No backpacks or anything like that. I think he had his lunch in a brown paper bag.
Everybody rode bikes and the buses were fairly infrequent. A bus ride would take you a long, long time because it had to cover a lot of open space with no fares. There were two routes: number 1 route and number 2 route. Number 1 route would start at Kingston where the depot was and go up through Kingston, then Manuka and then up through Forrest. You could hear the buses. There were so few houses and so few trees, you could actually hear the buses climbing Arthur Circle hill, and then they’d wander all through Melbourne Avenue and round through Acton and finally get you to Civic after about 45 minutes. Well, that was fine. Nobody was in a tearing hurry. The 2 route probably went further. I can’t remember the 2 route that well.
One of the buses that I used to catch – and of course I don’t know whether you’ve heard this story but I got into terrible trouble, I had a police record at one point, because when I was working at the GPO as a telephonist we had to do all night shifts. There was no discrimination. Boys really should have done them but no, girls did them; boys were needed elsewhere.
So I used to ride my bike to work in the afternoon and we’d start at six o’clock, I think it was, I can’t quite remember the time, and before I was on all night shifts, you’d have a late night shift which you’d start at four and end at half past ten or ten o’clock. I’d ridden my bike to work; somebody was coming to relieve me at half past ten to go home, they’d gone to a dance at the Albert Hall and they were late getting to the GPO so I missed the last bus home, I had no bike light, did I, so I just hopped on my bike and started riding home. Down near the Hotel Wellington this car cruised up behind me and said, ‘pull over, girlie’. It was two policemen. Where have you been? I said, I’m coming home from work, and they just roared laughing. Who goes to work at this hour of the night?
They would not believe what I’d been doing, why I couldn’t catch a bus. They followed me all the way home to Flinders Way. Dad was absolutely livid. He stormed and raved and carried on. I got a fine for riding a push bike without a light. There was not another car, not another person, the street lights were off, nothing was happening.
So Dad was so incensed about this that – I had to go to court, which was not a pleasant experience, it was over in the old Jolimont Building at Civic, and the only people who were in court were drunks and people who hadn’t paid their radio licences, because you had to have radio licences. And there I am with Fred Keane, whom I knew, because I went to school with his son, as the magistrate, and I’m standing there shaking and shuddering. I just had to plead guilty, didn’t I, because I’d done it. It cost me two weeks’ wages.
Dad was so furious that he went to Dr Evatt because Doc Evatt was the Attorney General at the time. He knew Dr Evatt well and I knew his daughter, Rosie, and Ronnie. He put the case in front of him. He said, ‘This is ridiculous’, and so he set about having it quashed. I got my fine refunded and a letter of apology, but it took a couple of years. So I had a police record for two years.
That came to light fairly recently, about five years ago. Somebody over at the Archives had discovered this and so they dragged me in to tell them the story again.
Sadly, they didn’t understand. Some of the young historians couldn’t understand that you would ride your bike to work, for a start, and that the buses stopped running at half past ten. That was when the pictures came out so the buses stopped.
B York: They still stop fairly early at night anyway.
M Hunter: I haven’t caught a bus probably since that time.
B York: Were there any Aboriginal people around Canberra?
M Hunter: We only had one that I can remember and he was well respected by everybody because he worked with Parks and Gardens and he did the mowing. You’d find him on a funny little tractor mowing some of the circles, like the little garden in the middle of Arthur’s Circle there that has nothing in it, just I think a Parks and Gardens depot and a few trees. He would mow that sort of thing.
He’d always wave and we’d wave back. He was just a nice sort of a fellow. I didn’t see any other Aboriginals at all. In fact, we didn’t see any other races, apart from Italians and a few Greeks.
There was a good group of Italians who are still here. Their descendants are still here. Mr Forner used to bring our wood. They were unskilled Italians but they worked jolly hard at whatever they did. Some of them made excellent football players. I know Dad, who umpired at Aussie Rules, used to come across them that way. The Pinis, the Corsinis, but they tended to stick together. They were accepted, there was no problem about that, but they tended to stick together because they were thinking alike and they grew wine grapes and made their own wine.
The Greeks ran the cafés, of course, the fruit shops and the cafés. We went to school with their kids. It was fine. We had an American boy at high school and everybody adored him because he was different. We just didn’t see other cultures at all.
There was no division. These people seemed to fit in. A Chinaman used to come round selling ginger in those beautiful Chinese jars, but I don’t think he was a local.
B York: Was he like a hawker?
M Hunter: Yes, yes.
B York: He’d come door to door?
M Hunter: Yes. I still had some of the ginger jars until recently. Yes, it was very segmented but there were no divisions.
B York: Where would people do their shopping back then?
M Hunter: Shopping – well, we had Manuka, Kingston and Civic. Civic was not really a very good shopping centre. I felt sorry for my godparents who lived in Donaldson Street and they shopped at Civic, of course, because it was just a walk, you either walked or rode a bike or caught a bus, they walked down to the shops at Civic.
Mum hardly ever went to Civic because Kingston was the major shopping centre. Kingston was a wonderful shopping centre. We had J B Youngs, whom you’ve probably heard about. In J B Youngs you could buy everything, from half a dozen nails to a bag of wheat. It was everything, J B Youngs.
I was saying to somebody recently, I was with some of my grandchildren over in Braidwood talking about old shopping, and I said, Well, J B Youngs in Canberra supplied chairs for their customers. They were tall bentwood chairs that Mum used to sit on and hand her order over, and a man in a little white coat would run backwards and forwards filling brown paper bags with everything she wanted. Yes, it was all very polite, but she knew all these people, there was no division there either. That’s how things were done. That was Kingston.
Manuka was our shopping centre because we lived in Flinders Way and Mum walked to the shops. She never used the car. The car sat in the garage for most of the week. You’d walk down to the shops with your good shoes on and your gloves and your basket over your arm.
J B Youngs would deliver if you had a big grocery order, and they’d bring it right into your kitchen table and sit it there, whether you were there or not, because nobody locked doors. You had to shop for meat but it was often me who shopped for meat because Mum would say, Look, I’ve written a note, here’s the money, go down and tell whats-his-name this is what I want and hand him the note. So I’d speed down on my bike and speed back.
Manuka was a fantastic shopping centre. We had hairdressers, clothes shops, food, bootmaker, photographer, it was a shopping centre, whereas now it’s an eating centre; it’s not a shopping centre any more.
B York: What about the social life back then?
M Hunter: Social life was a bit segmented. There were those people who liked music and they formed their own – they put on musical plays and that sort of thing in the Albert Hall. Other than that, there was sport. Dad was always a great bowler and a tennis player; in fact, he and some of his neighbours built the Ainslie tennis courts and so he was a keen tennis player. Tennis was a very social group of people because it involved men and women and kids as well because kids would be playing on the swings.
There was cards. Everybody seemed to play cards and you didn’t play cards except in other people’s houses. They were friends and you’d get together and have a card evening, which was fairly traditional. Not so much dinners in other people’s houses but you’d go for tea. We had friends on the north side, because of course that’s where Mum and Dad lived for three years, and they’d ask you over for tea. Well, tea – you’d arrive at about five o’clock in the afternoon and you’d have what they were having for tea, which was usually cold roast and salad and things like that. Then you’d sit outside on the lawn if it was summer time and watch the thunderstorms or sit around the fire and play cards in winter time.
So it was very homely, all social activity revolved around the home. Nobody went out to dinner. There was nowhere to go to dinner. I know the Hotel Canberra was the pinnacle, that was the top, and when I turned 21 Mum said, Would you like a party? and I said no, that would be embarrassing, can we please go to the Hotel Canberra for dinner? Now that was right at the top of the tree, and so that’s where we went for dinner on my 21st birthday.
There were no restaurants. There were not coffee shops. There was the Highgate café at Kingston which you could go and sit at a table and have an ice cream in a dish, or you could have a cup of tea and a plate of sandwiches, but nothing open at night to eat at, not for a long time.
Actually, when I worked at the American Embassy, because I had a fairly chequered working career and I ended up at the American Embassy as a secretary, one of the guards there, who retired, he was a Marine, decided what Canberra and Queanbeyan needed was a hamburger shop so he opened a hamburger joint in Queanbeyan, the first hamburgers in the area.
B York: When would that have been, roughly?
M Hunter: That would have been 1950-51. Eddie Soran. He married a Queanbeyan girl so he’s probably still got relatives here. So that was the first hamburger shop and that was pretty exciting. I might tell you that when I was a young thing tearing around Singer sports cars sometimes my boyfriend of the time, if he had a car, we’d go to Goulburn to have a Chinese meal because that was the only Chinese restaurant round about.
B York: If you wanted to go dancing or to see a movie?
Interview with Meryl Hunter Part 3
Dancing was very important. Dancing was hugely important. Dad was a Mason and of course the Masonic balls were very important affairs. The Church of England also had a ball. There was a Scottish ball. There were balls for all occasions and they were balls. The men wore patent leather shoes and black tie. The women had long frocks and long gloves. The balls were always at the Albert Hall, always with live music. We had some fantastic dance orchestras.
When I was earning money and had a little bit to spare I decided I would learn ballroom dancing properly and we had two schools of ballroom dancing that competed with each other. One was Mal Strachan and the other was Jimmy O’Halloran. Jimmy O’Halloran taught out of the Masonic Lodge, which I think is still where it was but it doesn’t look like it used to look. I used to go along on a Tuesday night, riding my bike, of course, and dance, learn all the fashionable ballroom dancing steps and then dance with particular partners in displays. So dancing as a sport and as a social occasion was very important.
The Saturday night dances at the Albert Hall during the war and after the war were a continuation. You didn’t dress up as much for that; you didn’t put on a long frock if you didn’t want to, but you could. The boys were on one side of the hall and the girls were on the other, if you didn’t go with a partner, and then jive and all that sort of stuff came in and that was frowned upon for a while, but it was great. The Cootamundra jazz band used to come over and play. We had some good orchestras.
It was all good, clean fun. This sounds a bit old-fashioned, but there was no grog, absolutely no grog. People didn’t really drink at home that much. It was expensive. Nobody had spare money. Our friends in Ainslie, who hosted a wedding for one of their daughters, they had a keg in the laundry. That was the drink. If you didn’t drink beer you drank water or tea. The keg in the laundry was almost traditional, and I hated it. I hated the smell of it, I’ve never been a beer drinker, ever. I just hated the smell of it and the whole atmosphere of this.
People didn’t really drink very much. The Italians grew their own, of course, and made their own wine. When I was at the American Embassy one of the Americans discovered that the Italians were making their own wine and so found that they could go and chat to them and have a glass of vino while they were chatting, which was nice.
Drinking has taken off – don’t ask me when. We all drink now.
B York: What about cinemas in Canberra?
M Hunter: The cinemas were terribly important – so important that my parents had permanent bookings on a Saturday night, which meant you had the same seats every Saturday night. Either Mum and Dad – we only had two seats – or Dad and I or Mum and I. You got dressed up for that because it was some place to be seen. You went early enough that you could settle down and watch the shorts or what was happening first.
During the war, of course, they had community singing at the movies. They’d have the music up on the screen with a little bouncing ball going across so you knew how to follow the music. Everybody joined in. It was all wartime songs like The White Cliffs of Dover.
There was half-time. There were two full features. You had half time and at half time those who didn’t go outside and have a fag, because everybody smoked in those days, would get up and walk around and talk to their friends. There were people wandering around all over the theatre talking to their friends. Everybody knew everybody. If you had a new boyfriend or a boy had a new girlfriend, the first thing they did was take them to the pictures. We had the Capitol Theatre at Manuka and the Civic Theatre. The Capitol Theatre, I cried for days because that was skulduggery there. That disappeared, literally, overnight. Some sort of a deal was done there and I was livid because that was the linchpin of Manuka. It was a grand old building and it could have been, as they do now, kept and done something with the inside. They could have had an arcade of shops or something in there, but no. As I say, there was skulduggery there and I’m not talking with any authority. The theatre that replaced it quite disappoints me.
B York: Where was the one in Civic?
M Hunter: The Civic one was – how can I describe it? I can’t even tell you the name of the street. I think it’s where the cinema centre ended up being, but it wasn’t underground like the cinema centre; it was up above, and actually one of Canberra’s leading architects, Malcolm Moir, designed it and it was art nouveau. It had curved outside façade and it’s well documented.
Malcolm Moir also was one of the board members of the Capitol Cinema, too, so he had a vested interest.
The theatres were very important because, of course, people only had radio and during the war you got your visual news from the cinema, the newsreels, so everybody was desperate to get there to see the newsreels. You can see the old newsreels, I think, now at Screensound, the kangaroo leaping over the – They were not as graphic as the shots we see on TV today of warfare, thank heavens, not nearly as graphic.
B York: Were there major events from interstate – boxing, wrestling, circuses?
M Hunter: Circus used to come but I didn’t like circuses. Dad and Mum took me to a circus and I think it was Wirth’s that came, but I was appalled that animals were made to do these stupid tricks and I never went to another circus. So circuses didn’t excite me at all.
We had the Canberra Show which was a very small affair in those days. It was held at Hall, just in the Hall showgrounds there, and it was lovely because it was cool and shady, the trees had grown and you could wander around. I don’t think there was any charge to go in. It was just a very country sort of show. Then it all got rather large and moved.
Swimming was pretty big. I was in the swimming club. Manuka pool was the only pool we had so there was a race every year to be the first in the pool when the pool opened. Some of the boys used to scale up over the roof to get in before the doors were opened. Manuka pool was a great social meeting place, too.
It was mostly outdoor stuff that people got involved in, I think. If they weren’t gardening in their own garden, which had to be kept going all the time, they were playing sport of some sort. Federal Golf Club was in hillbilly country. It was in the back blocks of Red Hill, where it is now, but you had to take a cut lunch and a stick to beat off the snakes. Royal Canberra was beautiful but it was swallowed up by the lake. It was at Acton there, near where the hospital was, which should never had gone either. On the flats below the hospital, football and hockey were played, so it was a big sports area on the river flats there.
Horse racing wasn’t that important and there was a racecourse at Acton, too. Races didn’t happen like they do now. It was probably more picnic races than anything.
It was a country town for most of my growing up time. It really only started to grow up in the late 1950s. It started to change in the late 1950s and there was a time, I can’t remember how old I might have been, when Dad used to say, We’ll go for a Sunday drive and see what’s new. There was never anything new. If there was a new house being built, people would rush to see it. I can remember a house being built in Mugga Way and everybody ogled this house because somebody was building a new house. It wasn’t a grand house; it was just a new house.
Canberra progressed very slowly for a long, long time. It was a very cohesive town. Parliament House was its centre and I suppose Canberra came to life when the House was sitting because the members, of course, couldn’t dash off home for the weekend in those days. They were here and obviously if they were here they had staff and all the rest of it. So Canberra came to life a bit.
Aeroplanes weren’t the best way of getting around in those days and the people who came from WA were isolated from their families for a long time.
B York: Your job as a telephonist – is it possible to describe a typical day, what the routine was?
M Hunter: Here – well, you’d come in at whatever time you were told to come in – they were shifts as well. Sometimes there would be two of us on the board; sometimes if the House was in recess or things were a bit slack there’d only be one, and you’d be here from I think it was nine in the morning till five or so. You didn’t go away for lunch either; you had to stay there, but we’d have the door open out into the veranda and one of the telephone technicians would come over and have a yarn. We’d sit there and have sandwiches, and if the board summoned you, well, you went and answered it. It was as simple as that.
B York: Would it summon you with a light?
M Hunter: Yes, it would summon you with a light and a buzz. Those were the days of telephonists wearing headphones, hot headphones and a mouthpiece strapped here, so it was all quite hot. I’m not a hot person; I don’t like heat, and this thing sitting on your chest seemed to generate heat somehow.
It was cord and plug. You had the vertical board in front of you with the lights and you had to know exactly where everybody had to be connected. You had to memorise this, otherwise it just delayed everything. You had little levers on the board to ring. You had a dial and you listened through your headphones and you spoke through your mouthpiece.
It was quite frantic here sometimes because all the telephone calls had to come through the switchboard, apart from internal. I think there were some external lines but only for important people who could ring locally, but if they were ringing anywhere else in Australia everything came through the switchboard, and of course they were dealing with their home electorates and somebody coming from Perth would wait half a day to get a phone call. They’d be ringing you every couple of hours saying, Is my call coming yet? You’d have to write all the booked calls on a docket and you had those on a spike and you worked through those. It was all very manual.
B York: Do you remember how many connections there were?
M Hunter: I can’t, and the switchboard is not there any more. The room’s there but actually I got very cross about this because I knew the lass who was in charge of archives when archives was first set up and she asked me to write a story about the switch room there. I said, Please would you please get a switchboard, just a small switchboard, and set it up somewhere here to illustrate to people that this is how it was. This was the centre of communications. All of the international calls, everything, came through that switchboard, to the whole of Canberra. It was the only way to speak to Canberra and there’s not a skerrick of anything there. There was only what I wrote, which was sitting in a glass case somewhere.
Funnily enough, when I was with the grandchildren in Braidwood recently, believe it or not, they’ve got the original Braidwood switchboard and I said, Is it for sale? and they said, Sorry, no. I said, We need that because that’s how it was.
I don’t think today’s generation, or generations before my kids, can even understand what a switchboard was about. It was frantic over there.
B York: It was pretty much the same routine all day?
M Hunter: It didn’t slacken off. You were swapped around sometimes from board to board because if you were on – there were 12 positions over there and only two here, and if you were on the busy positions, which was Sydney and Melbourne and Brisbane, which had to go through somewhere else, you were at your wits end after a couple of hours. Lights going at you the whole time, people screaming at you the whole time, the whole thing was a nightmare, and they would relieve you and send you up to another position which was less frantic.
You’ve got to remember in those days even ringing Hall was a long distance call. Ringing Yass was a long distance call. Murrumbateman was a long distance call. Tharwa was a long distance call. They were all long distance calls. We had party lines, too, out in the country, where you had to ring a code. It would be 23U and you’d have to know the code for U so the right person would pick up the phone on the 23 line.
It was a family. It was a very connected family because the technicians were downstairs, we could hear all the clicking and banging and whirring because the mechanism was just through a wall from where we were. The techs would come up and talk to us and we knew them, we knew all the people in the GPO because we’d potter down there if we had time off. We’d go down to Wilkie’s pie cart and you’d meet everybody anywhere.
Wilkie used to go round all the offices and he’d pull up at the post office around near the switch room at morning tea time, I suppose, eleven o’clock, and everybody would come out and get a cream bun or a meat pie, because there was no canteen, there was no – you could make yourself a toasted sandwich, I seem to remember, in our little rest room which was just a hole in the wall. You couldn’t make a cup of coffee or anything. It was basic, and if you were on an all-night shift, which started at ten o’clock at night and ended at half past six the next morning, you had to stay awake all night but we used to sometimes – there’d be two of us on – push three chairs together, they were high stools, and stretch out on those still with our headphones and our mouthpiece on and try and get a sleep.
B York: Was this here or the GPO?
M Hunter: This one wasn’t open all night – oh, it was open until the House rose.
B York: You’re talking about the GPO?
M Hunter: The GPO, yes. This wasn’t nearly as hectic.
B York: The GPO had the 12 switchboards, is that right?
M Hunter: It had 12 positions. We had a supervisor, a woman called Miss Post, who was one of the old school, who would not countenance bad language and bad manners. She taught – I went there as a 16 year old, she taught us very well, to respect the people you were listening to, be polite at all times, and yet we had people who swore like troopers and I don’t know how they ever got away with it.
We had a supervisor and monitors who would go around and check on various positions, make sure everything was running smoothly. So it was pretty basic but there is not a skerrick of any of that over there, and I find that very disappointing.
B York: All we’ve got here is the room, and I think the door still says ‘Telephonists Room’.
M Hunter: It’s probably got the baize on it still?
B York: Let’s go down, if you’ve got time. We can have a look after we finish.
M Hunter: I can see exactly where the switchboard – I can memorise exactly where it was. It was pretty modern. It was going to be set up for four people but it never happened. It had two sides to it but we only used one side.
B York: Why did you leave the telephonist job?
M Hunter: At that point I was still employed by the PMG and I’d been sent to Crookwell to do some relief work over there, that was pretty grim because I was billeted with very frugal people who didn’t heat their house and it snowed, so that was not nice. I came back here straight into a week of all night shifts. I ended up with influenza, the proper genuine dinky-di influenza, and I was absolutely flattened. Our doctor, one of Canberra’s favourite doctors at the time, Dr Holt, came to the house, as they did in those days, and said to me, You are on no account to go back to shift work. I thought, Well, what am I going to do now? I could still speak Japanese and French and could manage a switchboard, but I needed straight hours.
So Dad, God bless him, said, Do you think you could teach yourself to type? because he used to have a typewriter in his funny little office down at the Reps end. I used to play around with it. I was confined to bed for two weeks because that influenza was so severe, so Mum set up her pastry board on my knees in bed; Dad brought home the old typewriter which was an old Remington or something, which clattered and banged, and a friend lent me a typing manual for fingering, and I taught myself to type in two weeks.
This friend said, If you can get up to 30 words a minute you can probably get a job as a typist because we need typists. This was at the Immigration Department, which was booming. So believe it or not, I got up to 30 words a minute and signed off at the GPO and went to work at Immigration. I was there for not that long. I was a bit like Dad; I did not like the public service and I chafed at the bit because of the nonsense that went on.
So I’d gone to Melbourne with my mother, flown to Melbourne, and I was flying back alone for some reason, and there was an American sitting next to me and he introduced himself, ‘Where do you work?’ and I told him. He said, ‘The American Embassy is looking for a secretary, you should apply’. I said, ‘Oh no, I’m not a secretary’. He said, ‘Yes, you could do that’. So I applied, there were 12 of us lined up, and I got the job. So I was a secretary at the American Embassy then, for quite a long time. I was typing all the post reports and all the other stuff, so the 30 words a minute came in very handy.
B York: With the job as a telephonist here, were you bound by confidentiality? Did they talk to you about that at all?
M Hunter: No, not at all. I didn’t even have to sign anything when I joined the PMG but when I was with the Americans, when I signed on to work with the Americans, I had to pledge myself to all sorts of things: that I had no criminal record and I didn’t belong to a political party and all this sort of stuff. Oh yes, I had to be very circumspect. But we could have listened in to any conversation we wanted to, but we never did. Why would you? It wouldn’t mean anything to us.
B York: Did you have anything to do with politicians – personal contact through that job?
M Hunter: Not really. Perhaps Jim Fraser, that was about all. As I say, they all treated us as part of the family and spoke to us, but we didn’t stand up and have long conversations.
B York: Did you meet any of the Prime Ministers while here?
M Hunter: I met Bob Menzies, yes. In the building. Dad introduced me to him. I think they were having a chat somewhere and I wandered along. He made some weird comment and I can’t think what it was. Some weird comment, and I was a bit taken aback. I can’t remember what it was.
B York: Was it a comment about you being young or -?
M Hunter: Something about Dad and me. I didn’t know what to say. I probably just stood there with my mouth open. I was a bit stunned. It wasn’t rude.
I knew Heather, his daughter, and there was some big reunion here when they were wondering what they were going to do with this building and I was yarning with Heather and Anthony, and reminiscing about how things used to be, because Heather had to act as the Queen at one point when they were rehearsing for the Queen’s visit and she just about killed herself laughing. There she was being the Queen!
You know, they were doing all the timing and measuring the steps and all this sort of stuff. I can remember seeing Heather laughing fit to kill.
Irenie Carrodus, Irenie Evert I knew because I think we played together here at some stage because sometimes if the members or senators had children they’d bring them into the House to let them wander around, and if I was here we’d all get together and chase each other up the corridors. You had the run of the place. It was a big playground, but more than a playground. It was a place that you were respectful of but you knew where you were. You always knew where you were.
I remember long after I had really no connection with Parliament House, I had to come and see Michelle Grattan for some reason. It was when the press were still up – that was another Ho Chi Minh area up there, I tell you – and I could not believe that they worked in such terrible conditions. That was shocking. I know, I was studying politics at the time. That’s why I had to come and see Michelle. That was a real rabbit warren. It’s a wonder the place didn’t burn down.
B York: We’ve interviewed quite a few journalists and they all say the same thing.
M Hunter: I bet! It was totally unsafe. Dad always used to get very upset about the roof of this building because, as I say, it had this sticky sort of malthoid, I think they called it, on the roof. It’s a flat roof with funny gutters – what do they call those gutters? Hidden gutters, and in heavy rain the King’s Hall would get water coming down. So that was always a big problem with the roof. I don’t know how they fixed it.
B York: It is fixed.
M Hunter: Have they fixed it?
B York: Oh, yes.
M Hunter: Visitors always went up on the roof. I’ve got a photograph at home of my uncle from Melbourne and his new wife and my grandparents. They had seats up there, up on the roof. Here they are sitting – Dad was in his driving coat, the white coat; my grandfather was in his driving coat, and they’re sitting up there on these chairs on top of Parliament House.
B York: How does it feel coming back into the building?
M Hunter: A bit teary, sometimes – for the simple reason that I remember it from way back and in the various intervals that I’ve been here, but the last time I saw my grandmother was here, too, because she died. She had to come and live in the flat here and it was not really a very happy time for her, either; she was very restricted in what she could do and she just had a heart attack and the last time I saw her alive was here.
Parliament House is like a home to me. It just feels a very comfortable place to be. I would hate to see it demolished or changed in any way. I’m so pleased that it’s now installed as the Museum of Democracy because it’s got a future now, but it was a bit shaky there at a time and I was really concerned. A lot of my friends were, too, because a lot of the friends I have had fathers who were here for some reason or another. They either worked here or – one of my good friends is Val Evatt and of course her father was Clerk of the House or Clerk of Joint Houses or Joint House Chief, something like that, I can’t remember.
It’s a very important building and it’s been called various things: ‘the wedding cake’ and various other things but it belongs in this spot and it belongs to the people of Australia. It has to be used.
B York: Thank you very much for today, Meryl. I will send you a CD copy of this and it’s been very worthwhile, so thank you for that.
This history has multiple parts.1 2 3
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