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 My days in Woomera - 1948-1858

by Joe Murray


1948 -1958 - a young kid's memoriesÖÖÖ. Joe Murray, 22 Carcoola Street  

Woomera as a kid was magic, the greatest upbringing you could ever get. Parents were working /partying and you had to deal with life yourself, that was the way it was for many children. Nearly left to your own devices in a real macho world.  

Parents mostly worked at more than one job, their regular daily work and some other part-time employment chasing the great big pound. As a result of this frenzy a lot of alcohol was consumed at the various messís and in sporting clubs such as football and around the BBQ plate.  

My father was RAAF and took his posting to Woomera around 1948 from Townsville (Bill Murray, deceased 2002/Canberra).  In the early days we were not there until accommodation became available. We were staged with both sets of grandparents, first at Casino then at Menindee,  I think we turned up around 1950, disgorged from the innards of a Guinea Airways Bristol Freighter. We were met by a man of the cloth and he loaded us into the waiting black government car. Our first great adventure, the flight from Parafield behind us. My mother (Lola, deceased Canberra 2000), myself and my two sisters  (Kaye and Carole). The reception driver then turned the vehicle toward the village and, the story goes, drove cross country to a house. There were at this time no made roads, the next great adventure had began.  

At this house site there were no fences, gardens, trees, roads, garages or foot paths and the Riley  Nuisances (wooden houses) on the other side of the street hadnít even been started. What an adventure land for a young boy then only 4-5 years old. Supplies were obtained at the Government store near the single menís quarters and without a car it was a long walk or struggle from and to Carcoola St . It was a struggle with young children and strollers and prams topped up with supplies.  

What a great outdoor playground was the building of Woomera - watching the men dig holes, build houses, form roads, trowel kerb and guttering and in particular the planting of trees, drilling the holes, watering, adding the young trees, backfilling and rewatering. A young boy could always manage a ride on some piece of machinery, a water truck, tractor, road roller - maybe steam, a gravel truck , grader.  

I learnt to drive from bored operators of Thorneycroft water trucks, wooden cabbed monsters left over from WWII without power steering. The process was to stand in front of the steering wheel with your back to the wind screen so that you could then stand on whatever foot control was needed as directed by the driver. They taught this boy to drive that way before any formal schooling age was reached.  

Whatever eventually happened,  I was enrolled at school and this seemed to be OK until the dreaded Catholic school was opened and my sisters enrolment was demanded by the nuns and priest. I escaped for another year,  but during Xmas my parents were paid a visit and cajoled into sending number 1 son to Catholic education. What an utter debacle, the Catholic education system was in effect more than a year behind the government schools of South Australia . Well they belted the devil out of me for that year, their angelic treatment of children is only just starting to be talked about now, but unless you were involved, no one would know. Its fair to say that I was no longer wanted for a second year and therefore sent back to the public school this time one year behind, it really made me a right idiot.  

But I managed thanks to some great people, some of whom I can still remember. For one, Mrs. Mack, a real gem, but not another - a corporal punishment exponent with  a two foot long plated plastic cord attached to her whistle which was applied liberally to calf muscles of anyone who looked sideways especially during sport.  

Mr. Robinson, my personal saviour, who when he first turned up to teach told the whole class not to take out our English books as he was going to read to us some poetry. So Fairies at The Bottom Of Our Garden was shelved and we were introduced to Banjo Patterson and The Man From Snowy River and all the other characters, Lawson and C.J. Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke. Much harder but worthy of praise in my case was Miss Marion Markes. Who put in a tremendous effort even after an horrific motor accident in which she was involved.  

In the early days gangs of men were employed doing everything, they mostly lived in tents at Woomera West and were transported to work sites where a large tent would be set up for smoko and lunch breaks.  As young children always hanging about to watch what was going on, and it would then become our job to rattle the can and yell out SMOKO at the top of your voice. You were a real hit with the workers. The work these men did was nothing short of amazing. By hand they dug all the footings for the buildings such as the flats, and the great sewage mains were hand dug, concrete mixing was by teams of men.  

All the gravel used in Woomera was gathered from the Dongar by hand by teams of men working with a truck, a few sledge hammers and muscle power - crack the stone, lift into truck tray, when loaded take to government crusher. This was known as Cherry Picking. As children we did the same thing when it became time to put in the school oval . Our sports program was for a very long time cherry picking, picking up gibbers and piling them into heaps that would be then collected by department of works staff and taken away to be crushed into aggregate of different sizes for roads and concrete. By the next sports period a new crop of gibbers would have surfaced and it would be on again, eventually we won and had an oval to play sport on. Later it was grassed.  

Xmas time or stand-down meant good pocket money could be made tendering private gardens that  men in single accommodation had set up. I always had a job at Woomera West looking after (mainly watering) exotics, that is for Woomera at that era, fruits and flowers. A great bonus was that usually the fruit was ready for eating around that time. It was on the bike and out to the camp, do what was needed and back home. I was paid around 12 pounds for this contract.  

I remember very clearly at school one day when a plume of smoke discoloured the sky. A very large portion of the tent accommodation had caught fire, I think that maybe two men perished.  

The school playground was the eyes to the world. We would watch as vapour trails criss crossed the sky, parallel, diagonal or vertical and occasionally witness an intercept as a missile was launched and hit its target. This appeared to children to be happening directly above our heads but it was in fact 30-40 miles (48-64 km) away down range. Another great favourite was signalling to aircraft as they did circuits and bumps. We must have driven pilots and crew to distraction with our hand held mirrors but occasionally we would receive back, a flash of lights or a waggle of wings.  

One very sad day we watched an aircraft in difficulty as it laboured across the sky trailing smoke and finally exploding into the ground near the ponds, killing the pilot. The next couple of days we could see lines of men walking the flight path searching for missing pieces of aircraft. Another great school pastime was to run into a wirlywind with a newspaper and let it go, then retire to watch your paper be borne aloft for thousands of feet before being disgorged and floating back to earth.  

The absolute biggest event ever at school was the arrival of Len Beadell. You would be aimlessly walking out of school and there was the tell tale sign. The unmistakable black and white square pattern painted short wheelbase Land rover assigned to our own personal hero Lenny Beadell.  

The smiling face may be looking thru the wind screen or maybe the vehicle was unattended, just wait and he would show up. Maybe you had asked him to draw you a picture many months before, it would be there finished in your autograph book or whatever. Maybe you had asked for some animal from his down range exploration trips and if he thought you capable of looking after it, then it would be on board in an old shoe box with your name drawn on it.  

Absolute excitement for all concerned, then you would be transported to your homes aboard the landy. Maybe twenty plus children stacked in and on this landrover, couldnít happen today.  

Len was my own personal hero, although you could never comprehend what he was doing, but there was some understanding filtering to kids at our level. I was very lucky to travel and work all tracks established by Len in his range working life when I was employed by National Mapping from 1964-1969 as a field hand. We actually worked on WRE radio frequencies relayed from Woomera and Giles. We still had only Tragear radios valve sets with changeable crystal frequencies and side arms were issued. Except for the tracks and marks established by Lenny nothing had really changed. It wasnít hard to see the dedication of the man. There are many untold stories of Len which I will leave to the experts. Len Beadell, I Personally Thank You.  

I have also spent years on lone road maintenance graders grading roads in the Pilbara and Kimberley , perfectly happy because my mate Len did it. To a young boy, there was always the chance to make a bob or two, always were the rabbits and trapping was on the go at all times. Up at 4 am and walk out to your traps. Empty them out and reset, then kill and gut, skin and there was still time to sell door to door after your permanent orders were filled, then off to school with a handful of money for lollies or whatever.  

When the new ASCO store was built, I was bagging potatoes or stacking lolly water in refrigerators which was very dangerous as a hot bottle of drink touching the very cold refrigerator could and sometimes did explode. I also worked in the soft drink factory for the service men contractors, making, bottling and stacking cool drinks, and cleaning returned empties, many of which I collected from around the village in Billy carts. Also from the pictures at Woomera West where it would be a bit of a scramble after the show to pick up as much as possible, in hessian bags. 

My favourite jobs ever were the milk runs, contracted out to servicemen. They would run with bulk milk, two-gallon cans and pint ladles from house to house delivering bulk milk into billies and jugs on the front verandas, coinage inside to pay for the milk. It didnít take long for enterprising workers to realize that if someone could move the milk van along  you would finish earlier. So I came to be an unofficial government car driver at the age of around ten. I was still around when bottled milk was introduced. To my recollection some people thought it nowhere as good as the bulk, but that changed with time.  

I clearly remember the first fish available for purchase for the starving Catholic people on Fridays and that was smoked cod transported in bulk wooden containers then sold in one pound bits. Our Australian diet was very orderly and mainly meat, sausages, mince, chops, steak and roasts. Compulsory three veg. Baked beans and tinned spaghetti, sardines. Cheeses and puddings for sweets. A real treat was to soak/toast bread and dripping in the frypan. Fresh salad and fruit. Xmas dinner might be a roast chook if you could find one. No frozen foods available. Except ice cream.  

We were served up our compulsory half pint of milk at school on a daily basis, and experimented upon with various government teams inoculating and injecting our bodies. With security gates at both ends of town,  Gotyu!!  

My mother worked most of our time in Woomera, first as a kitchen hand at the now famous JRC and later at the Laundry, quite somewhat more refined. Dad played for the RAAF football team and then coached for a couple of years and we kids tagged along. Very little sports were on the go for kids, who were mostly seen but not encouraged. Myself and others started organising cricket on McCullam oval and it was good until intervention of the elders. We also managed a football comp of sorts on the Pimple oval which was eventually organised by adults.  

Our real sporting organisational skills came to the fore front with the Saturday morning bike races on our self built circuit, down behind Spud Murphy's house. There were water jumps, dry jumps, bridges, S bends, straits and pits, and it was about a half-mile circuit. Some events staged were of 100 laps but mostly of 8-10 laps. We had our road bike races and our special off-road bikes, self made  somewhat like a Penny Farthing , large wheel at the front, maybe 26-28Ē and smaller 18Ē-20Ē rear, with big handle bars and big egos to match copying the motorcycles. I can't remember any adult ever being involved here and it ran well. Everyone was accountable to everyone and if anything needed sorting there were always the Murphy brothers. It started to become a popular pastime on Saturday mornings to see cars with parents and younger siblings looking on. Our bikes were part of us and it was not uncommon to pack some supplies and a few of you would ride out onto the range. We were never stopped from going anywhere. I still hear the wind whistling thru the steel power lines toward Koolymilka.  

As my mother worked, children were a problem and I know that I wasnít the best kid in the world , so I can only presume that the parents decided that I needed some adult supervision, so a house maid was hired. From where I donít know and have never been able to ascertain. I could have caused this problem (maybe). An aboriginal lady took over our immediate supervision. To me, this lady was a joy and she taught me much about the land. I think she may have come from out Maralinga way, although there is nothing that I can find written that would substantiate that. To me it would seem that she transgressed the white man's way and she was sacked and another aboriginal lady was hired. She also was a major part in my development, although you donít realise at the time, only on serious reflection. I thank these two women whoís names may have been Elsie and Laura, someone somewhere may know. 

The first swimming pool in town was a rock bar in the creek bed into which water was released from the pipeline. A small wall was constructed on top of the rock outcrop and people cooled off here. Really serious swimming for kids (boys) was out at the sewerage run off near the Ponds and tin built boating was carried out here as well. After the building of the Town pool this is where we lived in the water. Once again, there were not many organised events for kids except school sports and Royal Life Saving certification, however a very completive childrenís/ juniors water polo comp did eventually take root. We were still very British you know. 

Billy carts were a major pastime and at one stage I had a fleet of about six which were for hire to other kids, or you could order a cart load of bush fire wood for a nominal price.  However, the adults organised some of the best billy cart races down one of the steeper slopes.  These attracted world wide news coverage and were a great lot of fun.  It was serious and some amazing machines were produced.  I think stores and transport, RAAF built one for me from left over rocket packing cases which they called Malkara, after the missile.  It was pretty good but not good enough and the winner was the Beatties entry - a paper m‚chť speedster. Other down hill racing was carried out on the break-away slopes on corrugated lengths of tin with the nose turned up.  We were lucky that not many serious injuries occurred.  

Most kids were able to identify all the aircraft that we could see flying and that was from the war birds of the second World War to modern and secret jet aircraft. One flying demo that I remember witnessing was the departure of the British Yorks for the homeland after their stint. A few of us were playing at the swings which must have been on their flight path. An increasing sound drew our attention and we watched in awe as the flight lowered their nose and line astern flew over the village at zero height. We witnessed it, but as to flying under the power lines near the old hospital, I donít know, I think maybe just a few feet above, but really memorable. The annual air displays were something that no other people in Australia would ever see, and on two occasions the live fire display by a Mustang - both rockets and cannon at a discarded aircraft shell on the end of the runway, was unbelievable to young minds. The only helicopter in the land was also a big crowd puller, especially when called into service to help accident victims, landing on the donga opposite the hospital (old), but also at Xmas time with Santa usually near the school, just after the lolly drops.  

As Woomera started to get bigger and projects like the building of  flats, new hospital, coffee lounge, new picture theatre, extensions to the school there became more work available to kids. I worked all my spare time with an electrical contractor mainly threading steel conduit for light and power and helping to run cable. Some times I would even wag a little school to make a bob or two. Other interesting money earners were shovelling sand onto trucks and trailers around the area that was to become the golf club. This was for the domestic garden that took a little establishing, due mainly to strong winds blowing away what already had been done. Winds not only blew away the gardens but also the lawns, and fences , and sheds. One amazing garden that I was privy to see often was that of Mr. Forbes who lived opposite. He had managed to cross breed Stuart pea with ? producing strange colour variants and also multi coloured petals. The Arboretum and the work produced from there was a national credit to all concerned and a lasting epitaph as to what should be accomplished throughout arid areas of Australia .  

A regular adventure that we all faced was a trip to Port Augusta before the sealed road came into being. Corrugations so big that a bottle could be stood up in them and not show its neck at the top. The many rail crossings were that eroded that they stood clear of the surrounding ground and had to be negotiated one rail at a time on a very acute angle. It did pay to stop and look, then possibly place some stone or sand to allow your vehicle to safely negotiate the crossing. Normal family travel time to the Port was at least 4-5 hrs. Warappa hill was an impossibility if damp, no one owned 4x4,s so it was a matter of sitting and waiting for it to dry.  

Commonwealth truck drivers accomplished heroic feats a lot of the time, but Warappa was a knockout. The functioning of Woomera became much easier when this piece of the highway became the first sealed.  

The Circus came to Woomera by train in the early days and played Pimba. Circus riff raff could never be tolerated in the village area, so the whole town made the five mile journey out to the Big Top. One year there was a tremendous thunder storm dumping inches of rain. The commonwealth buses toured the village picking up all who were going and we set off in a controlled downhill slide from the Pimba security gate house. When we arrived at the bottom of the slope forward travel

ceased, all the males got out and pushed those buses to Pimba loaded with women and children. It was a wild and frustrating journey but everyone made it, the show was delayed in starting, and it was played on a dry ring that had to be watered to keep down the dust. All males became overnight heroes to all Woomera children that night. The trip home may have been nearly as traumatic but all us kids were asleep, we just donít know.  

A day at school could sometimes be interrupted by such things a Camel Caravan, 30-strong, approaching the Ponds from over the horizon loaded with goods going out to a remote location. The thing to do was put up your hand and ask the teacher to allow you to go to the toilet, then bolt, donít worry about what if. Fascinating was watching, but never bold enough to really approach close up, never really understanding the handlers. Strange men with stranger behaviour but never threatening, always smiling in a gentile way, devout and precise. They were indeed like an apparition moving slowly and magically over the landscape until disappearing into a mirageís of heat and dust, and clouds of flies.  

Very different were the cattle drives which also came across the horizon to the Ponds, but there was always warning from the great dust cloud that spiralled above them. However, when they were able to be seen, that was the signal to escape from school and race across the gibbers for a better view. We must have made it hard for the Drovers to control the herd of maybe a few thousand head or more. These men, a lot of them Aboriginal, had succeeded in holding together the mob thru all sorts of difficulty, only to be attacked by a dozen or so Woomera kids. Although we didnít realise it, we must have been in great danger. The skills of the stockmen were very obvious, and the true enjoyment of their work, readable in heir faces.  

A thing that hit Woomera people very hard was the Sundown Station  murders where a family was murdered while travelling down toward Mt Ebba. The people were not able to be located for a couple of days and search aircraft were dispatched from Woomera finally locating the car hidden off the road with its gruesome  telltale cargo. This was one of the first really unbelievable events ever in outback Australia .  

The Duke of Wherever visited Woomera and, beside other things, planted a tree at the school. I was lucky enough to plant right beside him. I am very happy to say that my tree grew beautifully into a grand shade tree that I have witnessed on trips back during the 70's and 80's while driving coach tours around Australia. I will argue with anyone that the surviving tree is mine. Also, The Queen's visit to Whyalla, to which all the school was transported by commonwealth buses - another memorable event, entrenching royalty into our lives. 

Other memorable outings to which we were transported as a school were the live rocket firings at Koolymilka. You may get there and sit around in the sun for a few hours, then be marshalled back onto the buses and back to school only to repeat the same tomorrow. But, eventually the countdown would proceed with the launch of a small weather probe rocket. Then came the big one, I think possibly a Skylark or similar type. The really big ones were watched from your own backyard usually from the car shed roof. When the first satellites were in orbit , Woomera West picture theatre was easily interrupted by sightings and pointing. We had a dog called Sputnik who to us kids could jump as high as the Moon. 

Exploring was a great pastime, one great place was the rubbish dump where there could be found something intriguing, cast off from a government department with which you could fantasize away a few hours, or scavenge for bits to repair something. Another place of interest was the Ponds area, where many Aboriginal scrapings and rock artifacts could be found, along with old buildings to explore and water to swim and play in. Still another was the Donga which held many secrets needing  to be discovered, particularly after rain when rock holes would be full of live squirming things. Then the pig farm with the largest pigs I have ever seen - had to be a little wary here. And the rock crusher and aggregate yard, watching trucks come with cherries and trucks depart with aggregate for some job. And when they were building the Lake Hart launchers it wasnít to hard to have a trip out and back with a contractor, even if you yabbered ninety to the dozen. It was usually hot and noisy.  

Many rock outcrops had hidden caves from small to large and contained rock art from probably hundreds of years ago. Although we never knew who the artist may have been, we did our drawings on some rock surface close by complementing what was already there. To us kids, it was just another surface to draw on. It wouldnít be that way today.  

Another pastime was the building of kites of the brown paper variety and flying these as high as we could find the string for. I think that maybe there was that much string out that the kites were weighted down considerably. Some of the men in single quarters built very large gliders and used to fly them from the clay pans. They were a great attraction to kids, and to help track and retrieve could keep one enthralled for hours . Some of these magnificent aircraft were last seen as a dot in the sky before disappearing forever. Occasionally we observed attacks upon them by Wedge Tailed Eagles. A successful flight and retrieval meant as much elation as the return to ground of a Jindivick.  

The Scramble track of the motorcycle club was of great interest to us young boys. The motorcycle club putting on some special bike events with a little prize money, this was keenly contested, and kept us out of trouble for many hours.  

There is much to Woomera that I can reflect on, that helped to develop myself and many similar kids. Everyone on the range knew Joe, but never my true name. I wasnít the best little catholic altar boy that was ever reared. I was a bit of a handful at times. I grew up fiercely independent and a thinker outside the square. I survived, in all a ten year posting to Woomera leaving around Xmas 1958. There has been many occasions during my working life that I considered applying for range work, however something in the back of my mind said that it could never be as good as it was as a child, even down to the Saturday morning Red Shield Hut short back and sides haircuts. I have had a very interesting life in which Woomera played a big part by moulding myself and my beliefs and setting me up for my lifeís experiences  

Thank You Woomera and all the people I shared it with pre 1958-59. I donít mind contact.