Maisie Austin OAM has been awarded The Order of Australia Medal, the Australian Sports Medal and inducted into the Northern Territory Sports Hall of Fame. I am honoured she has agreed to be my guest posters this week and shares her memories of Darwin and the uniqueness of what makes this place she calls home so very special.
Darwin is my home. It is unique, full of different nationalities, traditions, and cultures, where you can wear the same clothes all year round, with perhaps a cardigan or tracksuit pants on two or three days during the Dry Season.
The changes to Darwin have been many since my childhood days, from sharing a Sidney Williams hut with our extended family to now living in a 3-level house with sea views.
I lived at Parap Camp (now known as Stuart Park) since 1949 when my family returned to Darwin after having been evacuated to Cairns just before Darwin was bombed on 19 February 1942.
The huts were the leftovers of the Army camps from the War. There was not much other accommodation, so families shared huts.
At one stage there were 11 adults and 5 children in our hut in Mary Street – one shower, and a flaming fury lavatory in the back yard!
We were later allocated a full hut in Luxton Street – next door to Christodoulou’s shop in Westralia Street. Most houses weren’t locked during the day as there was always somebody around and everyone was as poor as their neighbour, so there was no thieving – just borrowing – sugar, milk, bread, etc.
I attended St Joseph’s Catholic School, which later became St Mary’s School, and was taught by Our Lady of the Sacred Heart nuns. The classrooms were made mainly of corrugated iron with big fibro louvers – no fans, which is extremely different to today’s air-conditioned rooms. I think our classrooms were much healthier, even though there were two, sometimes three to a desk.
It was all natural ventilation. Apart from our normal school subjects which included Religion, saying prayers 2-3 times a day and going to church on every Frist Friday, Feast Days and every other religious event, we were expected to tend to the garden, clean the classrooms and polish our desks at the end of the week. Every child was involved no matter what nationality.
That was the beauty of growing up in Darwin.
It seemed (to me anyway) that everyone was equal. It didn’t matter what nationality one was, Catholic or non-Catholic. We all mixed together, shared desks, seats at lunch time, school games, and even danced together at school socials. Of course, there were families much better off than mine. We’d eye off their pretty dresses at church on Sundays, but not in a jealous way. We all seemed to know our place in the community.
Our big annual event was Sports Day, and the team captains selected their teams. Some captains chose some of their friends, but the smart ones chose the good athletes because there was a lovely silver cup to be won. There was also a silver cup for the winner of the March Past. The great thing about Sports Day was that every child was included, whatever their sporting prowess – right down to the infant class. It was a family day, with parents, relatives, and friends attending and cheering for their own. We watched our beautiful St Mary’s Cathedral being built and were in awe when it was completed. We sang in the choir at the various Catholic events – and in Latin!
The development of Darwin saw families moved from the huts to concrete rendered Housing Commission or elevated homes in the new suburbs from Stuart Park to Alawa. We had the luxury of hot water for our shower by pulling a cord on a heater, and a press-button toilet cistern, separate bedrooms, and louvres; plus bitumen roads with curbing, and an electric boiler and stove (a far cry from the wood-burning ones)!
St Mary’s School only went to Intermediate (equivalent to Year 10). If you wanted to further your education, you went to the Darwin High School for Leaving and Matriculation. I left school after successfully receiving my Intermediate Certificate and went to work for the Department of Works.
Sport was an integral part of Darwin’s lifestyle. Many of my family and relatives met their partners, married and produced great past and present sports men and women. Sport provided social activities – dances, parties, balls. These were held at the Town Hall, Catholic Palais, Chung Wah Hall, the Green Room at the Hotel Darwin, and in my mum’s day at the “Soldiers Hall”, which later became the RSL.
Darwin’s small population compared to other Australian states and territories has produced many of today’s AFL stars, Commonwealth, World and Olympic athletes.
A few of our nightclubs were the “Hot and Cold” at the Hotel Darwin, Dix on the Stuart Highway, and the Penthouse on East Point Road. And if you wanted to see a movie, you went to the Star Picture Theatre, the Drive-in at Nightcliff, or the Parap Theatre.
Darwin has progressed and developed more so since it was bombed in 1942 and when it was devastated by Cyclone Tracy. The style of houses changed from tropical to “southern”; old blocks of flats became strata units, and multi-storey buildings and shopping centres changed the skyline.
What still remains are the bonds of friendship people formed over the years, our unique and casual lifestyle (sometimes sophisticated – “Territory Rig” or “Territory Formal”), and the acceptance, participation, and enjoyment of the many nationalities and cultures. One just has to visit the markets at Mindil Beach, Parap, Rapid Creek, Nightcliff and beyond to appreciate this.
Where else can you can witness the very best lightning displays, or be covered in perspiration as soon as you finish your shower in the Wet Season. Where you can speak face-to-face to your politicians, Lord Mayor, and aldermen and call them by their first name. Where you can phone family or friends and say you’re coming around for a drink or a BBQ without waiting for an invitation. Where you can enjoy great food and drinks while watching the sunset or listening to the waves breaking on the beaches.
Where else can you enjoy races with boats made from beer cans or frogs in a ring, a (barefeet) crab tying competition, or letting off fireworks in your yard, in parks or along the foreshore on one night of the year?