Memories of Penrith

People often ask me what I write about when I’m not writing science fiction. Recently I was asked by a friend to enter an essay competition run by my local council who wanted people to write about the last fifty years of local history from the time my home town of Penrith became a city. As things turned out my essay won first prize and for those who may be interested I present it to you below.

A long time ago in a small township far removed from that of today a little three year old boy was just beginning to recognise his own existence and some very early lifetime memories were starting to form. His world back then consisted of his home which he shared with his parents, the Ampol service station owned by his father on the adjoining property and his grandparents’ modest house which was located a short distance away.

In the 1950’s the town was basically just High Street. No one had yet thought to open up Henry Street and Union Road as main arteries and so the traffic flow on High Street was quite busy even for back then. The shops were very much up market and while many of today’s items were not present you could pretty much get anything you wanted from that era. At night families took to the streets with the children dressed in their pyjamas or dressing gowns.

With the coming of television in 1956 these family groups could be seen every night with their faces pressed up against the shop fronts to catch a glimpse of the grainy black and white pictures of the evening news bulletins on the old valve television sets. Not many people in those days could actually afford to buy one.

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Television eventually took over as the main form of entertainment particularly with the advent of colour in 1975 but back in the 1950’s radio and the movies still reigned supreme. Penrith had two movie theatres; the Nepean in High Street which was the more elite of the two and the Avon in Station Street which tended to show the lower budget films. As the show was about to start people rose to their feet to hear the then national anthem which was ‘God Save the Queen’. After that a newsreel and a small cartoon followed before the first of the two films, known as the B-film, began. Intermission of about twenty minutes came next where people could buy refreshments and gather in the small lounge and court yard before the main film got underway. Saturday afternoon was always the family day where the matinees and ‘cliff-hanger’ serials were shown.

At home radio was still the main form of entertainment and news. Gradually as television evolved so did radio in that it became more music focused. Most families had a radio (which had to be licensed) and some had a telephone. These were the old black units with the round silver dial. Gramophones and later record players were popular and most people had a supply of the old 78rpm or 45rpm records with which to play their favourite songs. Needless to say the electrical shops in High Street did a good trade in all these items.

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Public education consisted of the infants’ school in Henry Street which fed into Penrith Primary School and the adjoining Penrith High School situated at the top end of High Street. There was also a Catholic school associated with the Catholic Church which was also located in High Street. Nepean High School came on line at Emu Plains in 1963.
One day in 1955 the teachers marched all of us in the kindergarten class down Henry Street to the theatre to watch a documentary of a very special event. Apparently a few years earlier a gentleman named Sir Edmond Hillary and his team had for the first time in history climbed to the top of the world’s highest mountain, Mount Everest. Even being that young and not understanding what was really going on I will never forget those images of the men on the mountain.

The decade of the 1950’s saw the construction of Warragamba Dam with the dam officially opening in 1960. This was a massive project for the Penrith area and for the state of NSW as a whole. Before the dam was completed water was pumped directly out of the Nepean River at the pumping station next to the Victoria Bridge into homes. Back then the water was completely safe to drink without any treatment and indeed as children we regularly swam in the river and drank the water as we swam. The best swimming spots were down at the weir on the Penrith side or at a little sandy beach on the western bank which was affectionately known as ‘Little Manly’.

Aside from family days such as Christmas and birthdays which were always made special by our families there were two other very special days in the yearly calendar. One of these was the 24th May and was known as ‘cracker night’ or more formally as ‘Empire Day’. On this day we got half a day off school and gleefully waved the Union Jack in a show of patriotism to the British Empire of which all of Australia back then was actually a part. Our citizenship in those days was ‘British’ and the term ‘Australian’ in regard to citizenship had not yet come in. For weeks before we had been building our bonfires in the open paddocks which surrounded the town and we had been diligently getting together our collection of rather spectacular fireworks; none of which would be anywhere near legal today. It was probably the highlight of our year.

The other memorable day was when the rich Sydney private schools held their rowing regatta on the Nepean River. For us locals who lived close to the river it was known as ‘Boat Race Day’ and the huge influx of visitors, all displaying their brilliant school colours, was a sight to behold as were the great races themselves. We children cleaned up financially as we charged the visitors a parking fee to park on our property or footpath. The following day was also a bonanza as we collected discarded bottles and cans for the refunds.

The Penrith Show was also very big in those days as pretty much the whole community took part in some way. In addition to the ring events this included produce, live stock, artistic works and sale goods. The so called ‘side-show-alley’ was also a major attraction but most of the ‘entertainment’ back then would be considered politically incorrect or sexist by today’s standards.

Sport has always played an important part in Penrith’s history but through the 1950’s 60’s and 70’s the focus was actually on the sport and having a good time rather than on making the big dollars as it is today.

Penrith’s football team grew in prominence and its Leagues Club which was located on the site of the present K-mart shopping complex was a major meeting place offering many services. In addition to the gambling facilities the club offered a number of excellent restaurants and other sporting facilities such as squash and snooker. It seems ‘quaint’ by today’s standards but clubs back then were actually segregated into the members’ area (for men) and the mixed area where associate members (women) could mix with the members.
Other clubs were also a feature of the area including a number of golf clubs, the Bowling Club the RSL Club and there were small tennis courts seemingly all over the place. Eventually the large tennis complex of the Captain Cook courts was built at the western end of the city.

Over the years Penrith has become a cultural and educational centre of excellence. In 1962 Penrith Technical College (now TAFE College) opened its doors for the first time in Henry Street. Since then countless thousands of students have received their trade and other qualifications due to the excellent tuition that the college has always provided. The Henry Street site is now part of the dual campus Nepean TAFE with the other campus located at Kingswood.

In 1977 the Q Theatre Company moved from Circular Quay to the old Railway Institute building in Penrith and in 1983 they moved into new premises which were twice the size of the original building. More recently the Q Theatre has become part of the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre which opened at the lower end of High Street in 1990.

Penrith has gone through a number of changes over the years since it was proclaimed a city. Some of these changes crept up on the old town quietly like road closures and the formation of the many one way streets. Others included the quiet demise of many historic buildings like the old sandstone courthouse or the old police station. I think the biggest single change for the town was the construction in 1971 of the Penrith Plaza. This was the death knell for the High Street that had always been Penrith and eventually led to the ill conceived Penrith Mall. Thankfully that is now relegated to history and traffic once again flows through the centre of town, although in a much reduced capacity.
Progress mainly is a good thing I guess. Today we have mobile phones, computers, great medical and dental facilities, cars that actually start first time every time, much greater disposable incomes and of course movies that can be taken home on a small disk and watched in the comfort of our own homes.

I still like to look back though to that ‘other Penrith’ through the time warp of fifty years. Back then we didn’t need to email someone because most of the time we were visiting or having meals with our family or friends anyway. Milk was delivered in bottles with foil tops and nobody had ever thought to steal the milk money which was left out overnight. Why would they bother as houses and cars were routinely left unlocked anyway? Up until 1955 the trains ran on steam, were dirty and noisy but you felt safe in them. There were no child care centres back then but who needed them when one parent, usually Mum, was always home when the kids got back from school. It was unheard of for a child to have his or her personal radio for company but then we actually mixed freely with our peers and learned to get on with each other. People got their driver’s licence usually on the first attempt and you went for the test when you felt you were ready not after completing a huge mandatory number of hours. As I said before my father owned a service station and it was standard practice back then that the attendant would not only pump the petrol into your car but they would also check your oil and water, clean your windscreen and actually have a friendly chat with you.

Perhaps the thing that stands out for me the most from ‘Old Penrith’ is that all the adults had authority over and disciplined all the juveniles. If you got into trouble at school you would get into more trouble at home from your father. If you got into trouble in a shop the shop keeper would have a go at you and you just hoped that he wouldn’t tell your parents.

Anyway for me (at age nearly 60) Penrith has been a great ride and I’m still enjoying it.


Gary J McCleary. May 2009

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