Cairns and Tropical Gardening with Rob Pyne

Growing up in Australia

Growing up in Australia

Champion of the Underdog » about » Growing up in Australia

Life on Main Street Edmonton (Queensland)

Growing up in Australia in the 1970’s must surely have been one of the best times in history to grow up. My memories of this time are all about nature, family and community.

My father Tom Pyne had worked as a wood machinist for Queensland Rail, a car salesman for Advanx Toyota and as a builders labourer to fill in the gaps. In 1978 he decided to try his hand at private enterprise. Consequently, our family embarked on the adventure with him.

There were two petrol stations in Edmonton owned by George Lee: one at the south end (which he ran) and one at the north end leased to his brother Dennis. The brothers came to Australia from China many years previously. However, by the end of the 1970s Dennis decided that he wanted to move to Sydney.

Tom was great mates with George. When he found out from George that Dennis wanted to move, he decided this was an excellent opportunity. Consequently, he signed a three-year lease to run his business, which was registered as ‘Tin Sang & Co’. The shop was on the main street, the Bruce Highway. All the businesses on the highway received the benefit of passing traffic.

Growing up in Australia’s North

George Lee – An FNQ Bio

George Wing Kwong Lee (12/08/1922 to 21/08/2007)

George Wing Kwong Lee was a well-known Edmonton trader. His Father, Thomas Lee, moved from China to Australia in the early 1920’s, returning home to China every 4 years. As a result, it was no coincidence that all of his children in China, were born 4 years apart.

Thomas laster set up a store in Edmonton. He then sent for his eldest son George to come to Australia to join him. George lee came to Australia by ship from Hong Kong in the mid 1930’s. The young teenager travelled alone, to join his father and help run their grocery shop in Edmonton. 

In the 1940’s, Thomas, (who by then had 8 children and a second wife) returned to China, passing away in the lat 1940’s. After Thomas left Australia, George moved to Thursday Island where he owned a cafe and shop with his cousin Vincent Lee Moon.

While in TI, George me the love of his life, Marcella Berolah, who was born on Thursday Island and whose mother was born on Darnley Island and her father was from Timor.

George and Marcella eventually moved to Edmonton in 1956 and George bought the shop tht his father previously owned in Edmonton, Lee’s Service Station on the Bruce Highway. It became well known and patronised. Many locals worked there over the years, including Marion Pyne.

George also bought a second business in Edmonton for his younger brother- Dennis. Dennis then also moved to Australia to manage Edmonton’s second service station. 

George and Marcella had six children, Rasma, Christina, Allan, Kevin, Susan and Jasmine. 

Marcella and George Lee Edmonton
Marcella and George Lee

The Shop

Our business, Tin Sang & Co., included two petrol bowsers out the front and a small general store inside. There was a house out the back where we lived. Living in the heart of a small country town in Far North Queensland would have been dull for many, but I was excited to move into a house just behind the shops on the main street.

While it seems very small-time now, the increased activity and the movement of people in and out of the shop was a new and energising experience for me. However, the greatest thrill was finding what we called the “Lolly Cabinet” which stood in the corner of the shop. It held everything from freckles (small round pieces of chocolate covered in hundreds and thousands) to the one hundred-gram Cadbury chocolate bar. This was enough to make my 12-year old eyes pop out and my tummy rumble. I decided my future was in the service industry, the self-service industry!

Growing up in Australia shop
Growing up in Australia shop

The Neighbourhood

It may be just me, or perhaps we all have a certain clarity about what happened when we were 12, yet have trouble remembering what happened last week. As an illustration, I remember the shops along the highway like it was yesterday. How they looked, how they smelt and the people who ran them. They were (from north to south):

  • Neil Gill’s Butcher Shop
  • Edmonton Post Office
  • Tom’s Tin Sang & Co
  • TAB (off track betting agency)
  • Keith Auld’s Chemist Shop
  • Terry O’Farrell’s Newsagency
  • Jeff Donaghy Butcher Shop
  • Chellimi’s Bakery; and
  • Gus and Tina Slavik’s Fish and Chip Shop

That was my immediate ‘hood’. Then came The Grafton Hotel, The Hambledon Hotel and the two local general stores, Piccones and Cavallaros. Further south was the Police Station and George Lee’s petrol station.

Piccones was owned by the town’s most successful business-person, Lou Piccone. It was similar to the supermarket of today. However, Cavallaro’s was a more ramshackle old store, run by two Italian brothers, Dino and Alfie. It had a wide array of goods, with the smell of freshly ground coffee in the air. Shopping there was a real adventure.

The Grafton Hotel
The Grafton Hotel

Growing up in Australia and Floods

One summer’s night in 1977 we experienced rainfall the like of which I had never known. The rain was hitting our roof heavily when I went to bed and it just kept coming down throughout the night. By the morning the drain behind our house had burst its banks and a foot of water was flowing through our yard.

Thankfully the house was on cement stumps a foot and a half high. However, none of the shops were. My parents quickly opened their shop and moved as much of the stock as they could to higher shelves. I remember mum saying, “Tom, the pumpkins are floating out the door” and reflecting on the surreal nature of the comment, as dad sloshed towards the door to reclaim his floating pumpkins.

For us children it was an exciting adventure. I found my kayak and paddled up and down the drain at the front of all the shops. This drain had turned into a much bigger pool, lying to the west of the submerged Bruce Highway.

Growing up in Australia and Making Trouble

Anyone close to me during my pre-pubescent years probably knew I was a pyromaniac. Thankfully not an arsonist, but I was definitely a pyromaniac. Considering this, living behind a petrol station was probably not the safest place to grow up.

A 44-gallon drum (with a hand pump) full of petrol was located at the back of the shop. Looking at it one day I reflected on how magical it was that fire would follow any pattern you drew, as long as you drew it in petrol. I took the nozzle out of the hand pump and drew a large figure 8 on the ground. Then I took a match and lit it up, watching as the flames followed the pattern I had drawn, just like a string of pre-arranged dominos falling in place.

Unfortunately, the flames did not stop at the end of what I had drawn. They followed the drips and drops all the way back up to the nozzle of the hand pump, which still in my hand, became engulfed in flames.

Saved from Disaster

I heard mum screaming and two of the store owners, Neil Gill and Joe Chellemi, arrived on the scene. With no thought to his own wellbeing, Chellemi grabbed a rag and held it firmly over the end of the nozzle.

His logic was simple: a fire needs oxygen, so if I cut off the oxygen the fire will stop. I could not fault his logic. Nevertheless his walking up to a full drum of petrol with flames coming out the pump was one of the bravest things I had seen.

Making Mischief

Behind the police station in Cattle Street was a fenced lot where the police stored motor vehicles that had been confiscated for one reason or another. I jumped the fence a few times to play in the cars. On one occasion I realised many of the car batteries had nice clear marbles inside. I found as many as I could to make me ‘king of the kids’ the next day at school.

One day on such an escapade, I was in the back of an old car when I found a bag under a driver’s seat. When I pulled it out it was full of 10 and 20 cent pieces. Myself and my young mates felt like we had won the lotto. We scampered away from the police station and down to the shops to feast on chips and lollies purchased with our ill-gotten gains.

Growing up in Australia and Rugby League

Politics was not my number one passion growing up in Australia – that place was reserved for rugby league. At this time, Edmonton had its own Junior Rugby League teams, and some of the local 11 and 12 year olds would tumble into the back of dad’s Toyota carrier van every Saturday and head into town to play the local rivals, Cairns Wests.

A group of 12-year olds tumbling into a van without seat belts (or even seats) was something we thought nothing of back then. No parents expressed any concerns when dad called to take one of their precious children in the back of the van to the footy. One of the great things about growing up in Australia back then was mixing with other children, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children who became close friends.

Rob The Stinker

One Saturday I was out exploring with friends, not far from the Hambledon Mill. There were great pools of stinking mess known as the mill ponds. These ponds consisted of liquid waste from the mill. As a result, they had a consistency of quick sand and stunk to high heaven.

I saw an island in the pond and I decided to jump onto it. The problem was that it was not an island at all, but a clump of grass growing on a crusty surface. As a result, I went straight through the surface and was fully submerged. Thankfully I did resurface and with help of outstretched hands from my young comrades I made it back onto solid ground.

Realising it was Saturday, we returned home, making it just in time to head into Cairns to play rugby league. The way I smelt on the way to the football was indescribable, but it was worth it.

I had never played better in my life. I scored four tries that day, two without even having a hand laid on me. It did not occur to me at the time that the reluctance of defenders may have been due to the fact I smelled like a septic tank. It was not just my teammates who were reluctant to come near me!

Growing Up in Australia
Growing Up in Australia (Rob in middle row 2nd from left).

Far North Queensland 40kg Team

The highlight of 1978 for me was the 40 kg rugby league tournament for Far North Queensland. Our coach was an ambitious Gordonvale school teacher by the name of Warren Pitt. It was a joy to play with the other boys, many of whom were a year older than me and who I had looked up to over previous years.

I played in the same competition the following year and was named ‘Player of The Carnival’. I was very proud of this and continued playing rugby league throughout my childhood.

My slow decline in the sport continued to the age of 22. I spent that year as a B grade player for Ivanhoe’s Rugby League Club (a season I was unable to complete due to a bad back). While I had managed an A Grade game or two for Southern Suburbs and played a representative game for Cairns, that is cold comfort when your childhood dream is to play for the mighty St George Rugby League Club. As a child I was captivated by the St George teams that won Premierships in 1977 and 1979.

Growing up in Australia
Growing up in Australia

Growing up in Australia before Bentley Park

It feels a little strange these days when I am in Bentley Park and visit the massive Bentley Park College. It seems only yesterday that the area was little more than two short dirt roads, Robert Road and McLaughlin Road. I knew the area well, as there were two local families with rugby league loving sons living there, the Stones and the McLeods. The McLaughlin Road I remember was no more than a few hundred metres long and two well-known residents were Ron MacLeod and Dr. McLaughlin.

Dr. McLaughlin lived in a large property opposite where Bentley Park School is now. He lovingly referred to it as ‘Mango Park’. The property was appropriately named, with mature mango trees growing at regular intervals along the long driveway into the property. Doctors had no forced retirement age, and Dr McLaughlin spent many of his years in semi-retirement. He even wrote the occasional script at the bar of the Hambledon Hotel.

The Enraged Cane Cutter

Dr. McLaughlin told a good yarn. I remember him telling me and my good friend Allan (Dick) Whittington one such yarn while we were painting rooms in his house at Mango Park.

Dr. McLaughlin had given advice to a non-English speaking cane cutter, who complained of getting insects in his ear. His suggested treatment involved shining a light into the ear. The insect then makes its way towards the light, thus vacating the ear-drum.

The good doctor was unaware his patient did not have a torch, preferring to use candles for additional light. So when a small beetle found its way into his ear, he had his wife hold a candle over his ear to attract the beetle. Holding the base of the candle near the ear, the man’s wife did what may have seemed helpful. She turned the candle on its side to let in more light. Instantly hot molten wax flowed from the candle and filled her husband’s ear.

Dr McLaughlin roared with laughter as he described the enraged cane cutter chasing his wife down the road, swearing in a foreign tongue, cane-knife in one hand, holding his ear with the other. Listening I felt horror at the thought of a woman being chased like this. However, I was assured no damage was done.

Dr. McLaughlin certainly was a local character, as was another local known as ‘Chairman Tom’. This was how my father was referred to following his election to head up our local council.

A Career Change for Tom

My father’s work as a service station owner and jolly grocer had been enjoyable for him and the whole family. However it was his work as a Councillor on Mulgrave Shire Council that was most satisfying to him. He had a great relationship with the mayor and other Councillors, but it was engaging with the community he enjoyed the most.

Dad was far too generous to be a big success in private enterprise. I can still recall how he would give away fruit and vegetables to customers and extend credit to people. However, he was a man with an optimistic attitude who would always land on his feet.

During the 70’s he served as a local Councillor for the Edmonton area which was in a municipality then known as the Mulgrave Shire. His passion for Council saw him make a transition from private sector survival to a highly successful career in public service. Regional Council’s at this time were headed by a Chairman rather than a Mayor. In 1979 my father replaced the retiring top man Ken Alley, and soon became known as Chairman Tom.

Dad’s transition to public service was a good career move, as his outgoing nature and ability to communicate made him perfect for local politics. However, the years spent running ‘the shop’ were without question our favourite time as a family.

Rob and Chairman Tom Pyne (1982)
Rob and Chairman Tom Pyne (1982)

Great Times Growing up in Australia

What I remember most about those days in Edmonton was a powerful sense of community. My memories were of driving with dad every Saturday in winter and picking up young friends like Marcel McLeod, Robert Stone, Nicky Bromley and other local kids and taking them in to play rugby league.

Those years were as innocent as they were fun. How sad it is that to do this today you need insurance cover, a blue card and even a coaching licence. We were blessed to live in such carefree times.

Growing up in Australia Summary

Our lease on the shop expired in 1980. We moved back to our home at 88 Mt Peter Road. This move coincided with dad’s increasing commitments to Council and my transition to high school. The closest high school back then was Gordonvale State High.

What I remember most about growing up in Australia in the 70’s was the carefree feeling. Not being under pressure from the clock. Not needing to urgently complete tasks or feeling pressure to perform.

At this time there was an egalitarian ethos throughout the nation. Class was a notion that never crossed my mind, unless it related to England, usually received through BBC TV shows, re-broadcast by the ABC.

However, one group was often excluded from the seemingly boundless opportunities in the region, our First People. I came to develop a passion for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, their culture and their fight for justice. I was inspired by many of their leaders, who were indignant about the oppression of their people, and championed the fight for human rights.

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Struggle & Resistance in the Far North