From Aunts Up the Cross (1965)

Robin Dalton was born Robin Eakin, moving to London after World War II and becoming a leading literary agent, then a film producer. In her memoir of Kings Cross in the 1920s and 30s she describes growing up in what Clive James calls ‘gentility in reduced circumstances’ with her doctor father:

On mornings when I was not at school I frequently accompanied my father on his rounds, sometimes visiting the patient and sometimes waiting in the car outside. If he left me in a doubtful slum area, he always admonished me, ‘Now, if anyone speaks to you, just make a noise like a five-year-old girl’ or whatever age was appropriate at the time. When he emerged he would sometimes tell me about the case. I remember some of our family intimates only through their ailments which, if they were startling enough, my father could not resist recounting. Thus, one plump and coyly coquettish lady was embedded in my consciousness since a tick had ‘crawled up her’. My father felt her charms were forever damned because as, he put it, ‘when I got to the poor brute, it had died’.

Actually, for me, all Sydney was an extension of the security of the house. My days never had an even tenor, but always an assured one, and certain events brought their certain flavour.

Was there ever a threat to this security, I now wonder? Financial threat may have been there but never to be taken seriously. In the 1930s so-called ‘society’ women thought little of popping into the pawn shops with their jewellery. This particularly appealed to my mother, whose fiscal week was ruled by Saturday’s betting results. Many a Thursday morning on Tony McGill’s settling day she would borrow Juliet’s sapphire and diamond ring (now on my finger) or one of her diamond, ruby and emerald butterflies, ostensibly to wear to a party, but in reality to appease Tony that night. After a few days, Juliet would become both curious and querulous and, dependent on the race results, my mother would either fling back her jewellery or plead another party.

Redfern Interior, David Moore (Art Gallery of NSW)

Redfern Interior, David Moore, 1949 (Art Gallery of NSW)

In our urban life, my consciousness of the depression was an awareness of a wicked man called Jack Lang, bent, it seemed, on ruining all our lives. I do remember a sense of apprehension, almost fearful, attached to this man. But my only experience of actual financial concern was the occasion on which my parents made a pact to give up smoking – in order to pay for my school fees.

The pact lasted a week. My mother gave in first. This did not appear to affect my education and the school fees were never mentioned again.

Darker moments have been pushed away, into another dimension. Every now and then, a sound, a smell, a chink of light or darkness breaks the happy carapace of memory. Sitting downstairs in a two-up, two-down Surry Hills tenement I watched my father disappear up the narrow stairs with his worn, brown leather ‘doctor’s’ bag, while from upstairs came screams – neither cries nor shouts, but piercing, wrenching, beseeching screams. When he came down again, the screams would have stopped. Someone else came with him – an elderly man or woman, talking in low voices. I knew that the screams came from a woman upstairs who had cancer. I knew that my father had, out of his leather bag, stopped the screams. I do not remember how I knew this, how my father had seen fit to introduce me to reality but all my life I have remembered – screams, cancer, horror, fear. It did not have the remote and curious connection of Uncle Ken’s pneumonia and the bread and sugar. This death (for surely the woman was dying) belonged to the real world, more affecting – not one’s uncle from my fairy tale (albeit sometimes a Grimm’s fairy tale) world – but a creature in extremis.

–Robin Dalton, Australian, b. 1921

From Reminiscences of Thirty Years’ Residence in New South Wales and Victoria (1863)

The Irish-born judge and politician Roger Therry reflects on how Sydney has grown since he arrived in 1829:

Besides the two large theatres constantly open, there are phil­harmonic societies, a public library, a philosophical society, and a mechanics’ institute, where scientific and literary lectures, as at similar institutions in England, are periodically given. In the new University a double first-class man (Dr. Wooley) of Oxford University; a senior wrangler of his year at Cambridge (Mr. Pell); together with an accomplished scholar of the Edinburgh University (Dr. Smith), occupy the professorial chairs in the respective depart­ments of Classics, Mathematics, and Natural Philosophy.

St. Phillip's Church, Sydney, ca. 1852-1853 / possibly Rev. Alberto Dias Soares (State Library of NSW)

St. Philip’s Church, Sydney, ca. 1852-1853 / possibly Rev. Alberto Dias Soares (State Library of NSW)

Two morning principal papers, “The Sydney Herald” and “Empire“, both conducted with superior talent, and several weekly papers, supply the usual political and literary news. Churches – some of superior architectural design – of the various religious denominations are well attended on Sunday. A Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council, in Sydney and Melbourne, sit for many months in the year, occupying (especially in Melbourne) spacious halls as brilliant and almost as commodious as the Houses of the English Parliament. Courts of justice are established, where the forms of Westminster are as closely observed as the circumstances of the Colony will admit; and there is as well regulated a police as in London. A few years ago, a large body of trained policemen were brought from Birmingham and Manchester to Sydney. There are besides in Sydney three well-established clubs, five or six banks in full business, insurance offices, and some superior hotels. These then are the principal ingredients from which persons may judge of the social advantages which New South Wales presents as inducements to emigrants who may be disposed to settle there.

In the arts which polish life, and the accomplishments which adorn it, the towns and cities of these distant colonies for a considerable time must of course rank secondary to those of the parent country. Of that class which constitute the high aristocratic circle of society in England there is as yet no representative circle in these colonies; but the class that comes next to it, and that consists of the gentry of England, and from it downwards through the several subordinate grades of life, society is creditably repres­ented in New South Wales, and is quite on a par with corresponding classes in England.

William Nicholas, [Lady and child], c.1847 Sydney, New South Wales, Australia (National Gallery of Australia)

William Nicholas, [Lady and child], c.1847
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
(National Gallery of Australia)

The society of Sydney of late years has received a valuable accession to its improvement by the arrival of young ladies whom the recently acquired wealth of their parents supplied with the means of providing for their daughters a first-rate English education. The well-known seminaries of London, Paris, and Brighton have sent forth pupils qualified to adorn the best circles of society in any country. And it is not a bold assertion to predict that soon the city of Sydney, and other cities of Australia, through the means of similar educational institutions to those in England, now established in the Colony, will have as much cause to be proud of the models of female accomplishments they can exhibit as any of the old and long-settled chief cities of Europe.

–Roger Therry, Irish, 1800-1874