When Box Hill Was A Village

9. Old Tom Black

There were quite a number of people in Box Hill who had flash cars. Most people who had cars had Austin Sevens or Austin Eights or Morris Majors or Vauxhalls but there were some people who drove round in big cars like Hudsons and Nashs, the Overland or the one I liked best, the Chevrolet.

Most people did not have a car at all. Petrol rationing made it difficult to get sufficient petrol. Many people could not afford a gas producer for the back of their cars. So they walked or travelled by public transport. If you ever had need to shift anything, whether it be rubbish or some heavy piece of furniture, and you did not have a car then you called Old Tom Black.

Tom did not have the telephone on but you could always wave to him in the street and tell him what you wanted carted and he would do it for you, just as soon as he could fit it in.

Tom Black was a good mate of Monty Stone, the blacksmith, Monty had his smithy forge in Station Street next to the Masonic Temple. Old Tom was a good mate of mine when I was six or seven years of age. As long as I can remember Tom had been coming every second day to the back of our bakehouse and pastrycook shop to collect the ashes from our ovens. Our two huge bakery ovens were wood fired and the pit for the ashes would fill up quickly. It was Tom’s job to come and shovel the ashes out and take them away. He would come in the back door of the bakehouse and call out to my mother: “I ‘ave me cart to take tha hashes with”, he would say. Tom always had the ability to end almost every sentence with the word “with”. And he also had the ability to drop the letter “H” off the words that should have had it and add it to those words that did not have it.

Tom Black was unique. He always called my mother “Missus” and walked in like a man from another era.

About once a week Tom Black would make a double trip worth five shillings to bring a load of sawdust from Payne’s Box Factory on the corner of Bank Street and Linsley Street just at the back of Daniel Harvey’s the agricultural implement foundry. That sawdust every evening, as the last job for the bakehouse boys, used to be swept up and thrown into the ovens and then the concrete floor covered with fresh smelling pine sawdust ready for the next day’s work. When Tom would bring the sawdust my mother would ask if he would take a load of ashes then and there. “Righto Missus. I’ve got me cart to take tha hashes with.” Andhe would load the ashes into the back of his high two wheeled horse drawn cart.

The cart stood higher than a man’s head at the highest point and the wheels were twice as high as I. Tom’s cart was drawn by a big boned old Clydesdale horse that had been with Tom for more than 20 years. They had seen through the Depression years and now the War years and were absolutely inseparable. The horse always looked bony and some of the men in the bakehouse used to tell Old Tom Black that if he did not feed his horse better they would get the Society onto him, which meant the Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Dumb Animals. I can remember them telling Old Tom not to worry, because if he died in his little hut one night, then the Society would come out and shoot his horse; but if the horse died, then the Society would come out and shoot Old Tom.

Tom’s other companion in life was an equally old dog. The horse he called Rusty and I forget the name of his dog. He was thin, bony, a wimp of a dog. He used to cower if you turned and looked at him. If you spoke harshly he would lay his head down on the ground with one ear on the ground and two pleading eyes looking up pitifully. The old horse and the thin dog were Tom Black’s constant companions. When they rode slowly along the roads of Box Hill the dog trotted underneath the cart alongside the hessian bag in which Tom carried his lunch which used to hang from the axle. A water bag always hung on the front high point of his cart and a shovel was held on the other side.

Old Tom Black was not the cleanest person in Box Hill. He always wore the same clothes for as long as I can remember. He had a battered hat that he wore in sunshine or rain. The black band around it was grease stained and the edges of the hat were worn and right near the two dents in the peak of the hat there were two holes, one on either side, where he had held that hat taking it on and off his head for many a long year. He always wore a black shirt but underneath the black shirt was a great flannel singlet whose sleeves hung lower than the shirt sleeves and whose top always showed beneath the shirt collar. I doubt if the old flannel singlet ever came off Tom’s back.

Around his neck he had a red ‘kerchief as he called it. That likewise never came off and I guess he wore it to bed. I asked him once if he ever used his ‘kerchief to blow his nose and he told me that handkerchiefs were for pansies but a real man would blow his nose like this: and holding one finger over one nostril he gave a snort and cleared his nose completely.

Tom always wore a black waistcoat that didn’t have buttons but he did have a watch in one pocket. Usually the legs of his trousers were tied with bowyangs above the ankles and they were held up by an old pair of braces with the two bottom pieces of the braces going to one enormous button on either side. Around those buttons were the grey loops of his Long John underpants and I doubt if they ever came off him either.

It was said that Tom always shaved every New Years Day and I guess that was about right. In his other waistcoat pocket he used to carry a plug of black, sticky, smelling chewing tobacco. He would bite off a piece, wrestling with it until a sufficient piece came off the plug. For Old Tom Black had no teeth. His toothless grin was always a delight for children who would call out to him on their way to school “G’day Tom” and Tom would wave and give a toothless grin back.

My mother was never pleased if I told her if I had ridden up Station Street with Tom Black in his horse and cart, but I loved Tom. He was an absolute character and had opinions about everything, mostly very unenlightened opinions.

Even in those days when there were horses about pulling the baker’s cart, the city council rubbish truck, the night cart and a few other such vehicles, Tom could never let his old Rusty go past a pile of fresh manure on the roadside. The horse would stop almost automatically and Tom would get down, take out his shovel and shovel up that manure. Every now and then he would bag it and sell a bag for one and sixpence to some keen gardener.

Tom was always available to take rubbish away. He would load up the rubbish in the back of his cart and slowly he, Rusty and the bony dog would head down White Horse Road, around Vial’s Criterion Bakery, and down Nelson Road where he used to tip it into the creek just alongside the sign which said:

 

“No Rubbish Dumping
By order of the Council
A. Bruce Currey,
Town Clerk.”

 

I always thought Old Tom Black was very brave for the way he defied the Council with his rubbish dumping.

But the skill I most admired about Old Tom Black was his wonderful capacity, without teeth, to spit. Tom could spit better than any person I have ever seen in my life. With his toothless grin and his ever present wad of chewing tobacco, Tom loved to display his ability to spit with good distance and accuracy. I would sit on the high wooden seat of his cart as we passed some cat sitting on the top of a fence post. Tom would say “Keep watching that cat, Mick” and then drawing up a juicy mouthful would spit with accuracy and speed, hitting the cat and frightening it off the post. He used to boast: “I’ze got a spit that could hit anything with.”

No matter how hard I tried I would never be able to spit as accurately and as powerfully as Old Tom Black.

Suddenly, Old Tom Black was gone. We had not seen the horse and cart and dog for quite a few days when people told us that Old Tom was dead. We wondered if they took his body to the cemetery in the back of his cart. I think Old Tom would have liked that. Down the bakehouse the men said that it probably was not Tom that died at all, but the horse and that the Society came out and put Tom down.

The trouble with Councils is that they like to write histories with the names of all the Mayors, Town Clerks and Councillors in them. But the people that really give a city its character are the people like Old Tom Black, but the Councils never include the likes of Old Tom Black in their official histories.

But I do not forget. Where else could a young boy find a man, his hat and waistcoat, with his trouser legs tied, with his unshaven face and his toothless grin, with an old Clydesdale horse and a bony dog who had “a spit that could hit anything with”?

I often thought about Old Tom Black as I walked home up Devon Street, opposite the cow paddock, to No.55 Birdwood Street, Box Hill, a great city which only a village, where the adults were kind and the children grew up responsibly.

GORDON MOYES