Pauline Thompson
Story One

Pauline Thompson, 2006

My mother and I moved from Sydney and shifted into this house in April 1938 and I’ve been here ever since. Before they changed the landscape and reclaimed the land along the Elwood Foreshore we were so much closer to the sea. It was marvellous to grow up close to the beach. There was always so much to do and see.

I used to love to go floundering after dusk before it got fully dark. We used to make our own spears by cutting a five-foot piece of tree and scraping the end into a point with a penknife. Then we’d cut another stick and tie a torch to it. This would be used to put under the water so you could see the flounder that used to sit in the shallow water, moving ever so slightly, shivering the sand. But you’d have to be careful it wasn’t a stingray you were about to spear because they were often in the same part of the beach.

We used to always wear rubber shoes and just push the sand with our feet in a kind of shuffle. We never lifted our feet because you’d cause a disturbance in the water, so you just sushed your feet along, so that the only thing that moved was the sand. When the flounder felt the movement in the sand they would flutter a little and then bang, down you’d go with the spear. There used to be about half a dozen of us that would go out of an evening, everyone in our neighbourhood. We’d all get together, the boys across the road, some from up the street, their girl friends. We’d put on our shorts and away we’d go. We’d always be in again by 8.30 and the fish would go into the ice chest for the next night’s dinner.

There used be stingrays on the beach in the daytime too and you often got stung because they would sit just under the sand. You’d run into the water and you’d stand on one and whip up would go his tail and bingo you’d get it in the thigh. Many times that happened and the pain was excruciating. It was like a blue bottle sting, a bee sting and you’d tear home madly and get the Rickett’s Blue and dab it on. It was the best thing you could do to ease the pain. They were about two and a half feet around with a two-foot tail and so if you were lucky enough to stand on the tail they’d flutter around and make an awful pest of themselves but at least it couldn’t hit you.

My grandfather was a keen fisherman too. He often used to come around to our house at six am in the morning and say, “Come on girl, it’s time to get up, I need you to get me some worms”. And off we’d go to where he would lower me down into the canal to collect his bait. For years I’d beg him to teach me how to fish. “I’ve got a day off school can I go today?” I’d say. “No, no, no” he always replied, but in the end, one day I tormented the very devil out of him and he agreed to take me.

The first thing he said was “You must do everything you are told”. I knew some of the fisherman, so they moved along to give me some space on the pier. There were about twenty retired gentlemen all in a line with their rods out. My grandfather then said “remember what I told you, throw it straight out as far as you can go”. So I got the rod baited exactly as I had been shown and then swung the thing outward. The first time I hooked it onto myself. My grandfather was already getting very cross with me so I threw the line as hard as I could go. But instead of going straight out, it flew straight across all the other fishermen lines. Well, there was such a ‘to do and a half’ and I was immediately dismissed from the pier in no uncertain terms with the notice “Do not try to come back”. And I never did. I was 16 years old and I never tried again.

Collecting cockles was much easier though because there used to be eight sea grass islands just off the sea wall between the mouth of the canal and where the Port Ormond Pier used to stand. They were covered in winter but in summer the islands would be completely exposed and they were great to lie on and sunbake. All the around the edge of the islands was a fringe of grass where the cockles grew so you could just lift it up and collect a bundle and take them home to cook for breakfast.

The islands were approximately eight by ten feet across and the grass grew out of the sand to about eight inches high. What they actually were I don’t know but you never saw them anywhere else around here. They are gone now because they reclaimed all that land, instead we have the children’s play equipment and picnic area.

I don’t know how many people knew about the cockles but the sea grass islands were considered to be a good fishing spot by the Italian family that ran the fish and chip shop in Acland St. Every day the young men used to bring their grandmother down to the water to fish. She always wore a great big black flowing dress from her neck to her feet and a huge hat. She couldn’t walk so they would carry her out of the car, down the ramp and put her on the sand between the sea grass islands and pier. There she’d sit for hours catching mullet with her hands. She was so fast; she’d just grab them and shove them into her gunny bag . Once they were inside the fish would just swim around because the sack was floating in the water. At around noon the young men would then take her home for lunch and then bring her down for another session in the afternoon. They did that for several months every year. You used to catch lovely sized mullets there so fresh and tasty.

Another wonderful thing that would happen in Elwood was the Blessing of the Sea. At the end of Meredith Street there was a little old pergola. It was typical of the 1800s with a slate roof, pointed at the top and about five feet across. That was where the Jewish community had their celebration that lasted two or three days every year. People used to come on foot, either down Meredith St or the canal, from all over the area, even as far as Caulfield. The rabbi would come and read from the Torah and the men surrounding him would read from their (books) in answer. The women always stood off to the side, got together and talked families. Over a day there would be up to three thousand people. They would start at dawn and go through to dusk. Then they’d walk back from where they came. They would never bring a car. The children would walk too. The Blessing of the Sea always took place at that little rotunda and anyone was welcome to go. It was something very lovely to see.