in the archives

Every Tuesday, the Marrickville Council archives, upstairs in the Petersham Town Hall, are open to the public. I arrived just after eleven. A ballroom dancing class was in progress in the Hall itself. Graceful Chinese couples spinning and twirling. It was just as Vanessa had described:

Ballroom dancers seen through doorways. Makes the heart hot air balloon.

I was seized with a sudden craving to join them on the dancefloor. Perhaps I could convince Vanessa to be my dancing pardner next Tuesday morn. Then I could show off some of the scorchin’ moves I learned in highschool…

council chambers
(An image of the old Council Chambers, now the archives room. Re-photographed from the book The Story of Petersham, edited by Allen M. Shepherd, Published by the Council of the Municipality of Petersham, December 1948.)

The archives are housed in the old Council Chambers. It’s tiny in there, a set of overstuffed armchairs arrayed around a half-donut table. Banks of neatly-labelled filing cabinets divide the room into two browsing areas: the old curved table for solid objects like letters, maps, and photos; and a new “modern” area for computers and microfilm. There’s no doubt that Chrys, the historian, has found her true calling. Joy radiates from her face as she explores some tiny corner of Marrickville’s History. As Chrys speaks, it’s hard to keep up with the crackling electricity of memories flooding in from her brain. I recognise aspects of my grandmother in the (much younger) Chrys – both take affectionate possession of a set of stories that belong to many many people. Both gather in these tales one by one, and keep them alive by constant retelling.

Chrys began with a story about parks in the Marrickville area. Apparently, some of the parks were originally brick pits – areas of land rich in clay. Speculators bought up plots and dug huge holes to extract the clay. Once the deposit ran out, they’d move on. It was pointless to try and sell the gaping holes, so they’d simply abandon them. The holes would fill up with rising groundwater and local garbage, becoming treacherous artificial lakes tempting local children to take a dip. Chrys said sometimes kids would dive in, and their limbs or heads would snag in old wagon wheels or construction waste invisible under the surface. Plenty of drownings. Some of the watery graves were as deep as eighty feet. Eventually, the council stepped in, reclaiming the swamps as public land, and filling them in again. These became parks.

Chrys herself has a personal connection to one of these reclaimed brick pits. The largest of them all, owned by the “Standsure” company, was transformed into Henson Park, now a big oval near Illawarra Road. For over thirty years, her father was the groundskeeper of Henson Park. The gates of Henson Park are named after him.

Of course, Petersham’s parks did not begin this way. Petersham was a much more genteel borough from the beginning. Being high on a hill, it was the “country” retreat for businessmen from the city, who could look down on Botany Bay from their stately homes. No heavy industry was based here. Chrys had a map showing the old council boundaries in 1887. The Municipality of Petersham stretched all the way from Dulwich Hill in the west, encompassed Lewisham, took in Stanmore (then known as Kingston), and terminated at Johnston’s Creek, at the edge of Camperdown. It was a long horizontal stretch bounded by Parramatta Road to the north, and New Canterbury Road to the south. That’s right: in 1887, a huge chunk of what is now “South Petersham” was actually part of Marrickville – including my place on Chester Street.

Perhaps this accounts for the tangible change in atmosphere I feel when I walk through the railway underpass to the northern side. It’s like emerging into a quiet country town filled with polite and civilized citizens. The south, by contrast, is a bustling thriving urban melting-pot. Sure, this is a fictional mythology I have been deliberately cultivating. But now I have some dangerously half-baked historical authority to bolt onto it. What use is history if not for bolstering one’s narrow world view?

Chrys showed me some old advertising posters for the subdivision and sale of the land which is now the Bowling Club. There was also a bill of sale for “The Town of Norwood” – the land south of Petersham train station. The invitation to purchase a part of Norwood is topped by a panoramic pastoral scene with cows grazing peacefully and looking down on the bay in the distance. Notwithstanding the ugliness of the name “Norwood,” the bill of sale is worth quoting – if only to expose, by comparison, the linguistic poverty of today’s real-estate profession:

The position of NORWOOD for a Township, is one of the
To be found in the COLONY. It occupies that picturesque and
Splendid Site,
Immediately over the
Any portion of the Town being within FI VE MINUTES WALK
of the Station. The TRAINS to and from Sydney will not oc-
cupy more than TEN MINUTES, thus affording a
To the Metropolis, the distance being only
NORWOOD is also accessibly either by the
By which it is about Twenty Minutes drive to Sydney or
passing by Enmore. From the great elevation of the town, it
commands views of EXCEEDING BEAUTY: towards the
north-east there is a most
NEWTOWN, and all the adjacent country, several GENTLE
MEN’S SEATS diversifying the scene. Also a most picturesque
Towards the south-west there is altogether a different character
of landscape and equally as pleasing in the immediate foreground,
is the Railway Station.

The auctioneers could dwell much longer on the pleasing duty
of illustrating the splendid site selected for Norwood, but they
think enough has been said to awaken the desire of intending
purchasers to see themselves the beauties of nature displayed to
such advantage.

Unlike Chrys, I have no particular feeling for history. Facts and figures, names, places and dates swim in and out of my brain, muddling up with each other and leaving only vague traces and broad sensations. I let her stories wash over me, thankful that she, at least, is an embodied local encyclopedia. No supercomputer fed with all the accumulated data in the archives could transmit such pleasure in the regurgitation, in the transformation of this data into a connected web of stories. Chrys has years of projects ahead of her. The brickworks seems to be her current preoccupation. Some years back, she wrote to Sydney Water, to try and get them to open up the old reservoir under the Water Tower to historical exploration. They didn’t even deign to answer her letter, but I suspect that she hasn’t given up on that one.

And then there’s the flood of contemporary events, which she and her assistant Glenn attempt to harness, clipping articles, local posters and flyers, and even house auction ads, in new and ever expanding files. And believe it or not, they have already started a file on me! As we were sitting there, looking through old maps, Glenn leant across and showed me the photo he’d just clipped out of the Inner-Western Courier, showing me standing pretentiously, rolled up map in hand, in my new Petersham t-shirt, in front of the old Fancy Box Piano Roll Warehouse on Stanmore Road.

A few other archival tid-bits:

  • The pavement street signage I have been photographing around the ‘sham are made from brick embedded flush into the cement. Often new concrete has been poured, leaving a small island within which the old sign remains.
  • Petersham was amalgamated into a much larger Marrickville Council in 1949. The amalgamation was strongly opposed by the locals, who produced a brochure entitled “SOME REASONS WHY…” The whole thing is eerily similar to the current Frank Sartor schemes to rezone boundaries and, if “necessary” take over local council’s planning development powers. There’s a lot of talk in the brochure about the very undemocratic lack of consultation. Here’s just one of the reasons the ‘sham was opposed to the merger:

    Local Government is […] that form of Government which is nearest to the people, because it comes right into your homes and effects every day matters. Its Aldermen and Councillors are public spirited citizens who carry on the local affairs of the area to the best of their ability in a spirit of local interest. Under any of the schemes proposed, this personal touch will be lost.

    The brochure urged citizens to get involved and “Write to your State Parliamentary Representative TO-DAY”:

    REMEMBER, apathy of the people is the greatest enemy that true democracy can have. Time is short.

  • I asked Chrys about the Indigenous history of the ‘sham. There’s always plenty of hoo-har in the media about the Italian and Portuguese influence, but not much is heard of a contemporary Aboriginal presence here. I’ve been wondering about this for a little while. Chrys and Glenn worked with the Aboriginal community through the Marrickville Aboriginal Consultative Committee to produce the Marrickville Aboriginal History Project. It explores Indigenous culture through oral history, photographs, maps and a timeline from Dreamtime to contemporary time. There is also the Cadigal Wangal website, another collaborative project of Council and the Aboriginal community. Chrys suggested I contact Lester Bostock, who is a respected Elder in the Marrickville Community, to find out more…

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