A Young Woman’s Life in Early Wynnum

Mena O’Neill (nee Mackrell) writes….

I arrived in Australia in December 1924 and spent my first Christmas here in Glenora Street Wynnum.  In 1929 my father bought a Ford truck (we didn’t say ‘utility’ then).  So, I went to Wynnum Police Station for a licence to drive it.  Sergeant Proud told me that women didn’t drive trucks in Australia.  I was amazed, as I had driven cars in Canada in 1922.  Anyway, we drove around the block, and he was very relieved to get back!

I attended the Horticultural Show, like most people in the district. I still have prize cards for cooking and artwork that I won there.    I also went to the Drill Hall dances where they held heats for dancing competitions.  Mrs Bernie Stoff used to play in the band.  The Dance Hall Committee used to pay the local bus owner, Mr Garrity, a lump sum to give us a free bus to dances at Wynnum West and Capalaba.

Our Shop

My father owned a shop in Wynnum and horses and drays used to bring produce from Brisbane’s Roma Street markets.  We were not allowed to take our truck into the markets until after lunch because it would have frightened the horses.  Later we had carriers.  Manufacturers used to send travellers to our shop for orders once a month.  These came from Simpson’s Flour, Morrow’s Biscuits, Harpers, Nestles and MacRobertson’s Chocolates, Hoffnungs, W.D. & H.O.Wills Tobacco.


Bon Ami

No groceries were allowed to be sold after 5.30pm.  These had to be partitioned off at one side of the shop. We had a list of exempt goods that we were able to sell after 5.30 and these included fruit and vegetables, cakes and biscuits, ice cream cones, walking sticks, tobacco and lollies.

            We only had ice boxes for refrigeration and bought butter in 56 lb blocks, which we had to cut into 1 lb blocks with a wire frame, then wrap.  Sugar came to us in 70 lb bags and had to be weighed out.  There were very few prepacks of anything.  We had a traveller from Marchants selling us paper bags.  Kerosene, metho, and honey all had to be measured and put into bottles.

            We used to buy a lot of fruit locally: custard apples from Lords in Preston Road, bananas from Salways at Hemmant, carrots and beets from Ricketts on Wondal Road, strawberries and paw-paws from Hardies, jam from Hargreaves.

Barilla soap

            Electricity came to houses in the early 1920s.  We had one electric light in the shop and one in our adjoining house.  Elsewhere we had lamps.  Everyone had tanks, some had showers in outside laundrys, with chip heaters to warm the water by burning paper or chips of wood.   We had no detergents, just Barilla soap and other brands such as Sandsoap and Monkey Brand to clean wooden kitchen tables, Bon Ami for glass.  Some people had no sinks but washed up in tin bowls on kitchen tables or in a kerosene tin cut in half.  Clothes were boiled in a 10-gallon copper in the yard.  We had long wire clothes lines propped in the middle with a wooden forked pole.

Monkey soap

            The streets were mostly dirt roads with horse water troughs here and there.  Cows, too, roamed the streets, and then there were bakers, milk, ice and fish carts.  Mr Legge, Poulton, and Powell had smallgoods rounds.  We didn’t have bottled milk either – you supplied your billycan, which we filled for you. Most people kept fowls so we didn’t sell many eggs from our shop, but we did sell lots of corn, bran and pollard and wheat.  Also pannikin seed for budgies.

            Women wore white cotton or calico underwear, camisoles, petticoats and drawers and corsetry, lisle or silk stockings with lace up boots, later shoes, black satin shoes for evening wear.  The petticoats had a depth of crochet or lace on the hems.  Black georgette or sober colours for older ladies.  We also wore big black hats of georgette on a wire base.  We always wore new clothes to go to the Exhibition.   Later we graduated to Fuji silk, it was pale cream.  Hessian sugar bags were made into aprons and decorated with print cotton.  We used to plait dennisons crepe paper into strips and sew it on buckram shapes for hats.

Fort Lytton

Fort Lytton army camp early 1900s (photo courtesy Rob Poulton)

            Lytton was a military fort.  One part was called Reformatory Hill, where deserters were quartered.  Sentries were posted but still some got out, looking for money or tobacco.  Later before WWII, Lytton was a training camp.  My father’s shop supplied the Officers’ Mess with extras.  I used to deliver them in our truck, but only at certain times because they used to have firing practice there.  Once, General Chauvel visited there to review the troops, and we had to supply the flowers and tablecloths for the mess.  During the war, petrol was rationed by the issue of a set number of purchase tickets per month.  Also, some food was rationed, and we had tickets for tea and other items.  Cigarettes were under the counter for regular customers.

The Great Depression

            During the early 1930s there was a Depression.  If you were out of work, you received a ticket for 8/- worth food, tea, sugar, butter, and jam.  In our shop, we had to itemise the items supplied.  Some men had to work with pick and shovels on the roads to earn something.  Food tickets were our unemployment relief then.  There was very little money about to buy anything.  Trade was so bad that my sister and I got jobs in Brisbane serving in fruit shops and then in Anne Hathaways Café in George Street.  It closed down.  I then opened a cake shop but had to mix everything by hand and serve as well.  We had no Mix Masters then, but I did have an electric stove.  The City Council had to put power lines in the street specially, because no one else had an electric stove, and there were only power lines for lights.  

Eventually, I closed the shop and got married.

Editor’s Note:

This letter is an edited version of a transcription of Mena’s reminiscences given to me many years ago by Manly Historian, Merv Beitz.

(Extract from ‘Moreton Bay Letters’ Peter Ludlow 2003)