When I was a boy growing up in Box Hill my old home town in Melbourne, we were blessed with a magnificent Town Hall.
What a magnificent structure this hall still is. When Box Hill became a borough in 1927 it decided it needed a new town hall befitting its position as a city with a great future. The Council compulsorily obtained eight houses and a hospital on the highest point in town, demolished them and created an enormous area of lawn flanked by dark green cypress trees and gardens which always had neat rows of pansies and cinerarias and other flowers. All round the garden were public seats made out of white concrete with the ends of the seats being in the shape of a winged lion or a winged ox.
While the Town Hall was designed in 1928 the onset of the Depression meant that the Town Hall could not be built until work was so needed in our community that the building of the Town Hall became a chance for Box Hill to provide employment for so many people making bricks in our local brickyard and working on the immense structure. It was eventually opened in 1935. The huge Town Hall was covered in white “snowcrete” concrete and inside was plenty of marble and dark timber and panelling that befitted the significance of our area. Large photographs of Box Hill in England hung on the walls and out the front was a great portico into which cars and vans and horses and carriages could draw beneath the portico supported by eight great columns with corinthian tops.
The hall itself was the biggest place I had ever seen when I was a child. It had a large wide stage and a huge supper room underneath, with offices for all the municipal workers, the Town Clerk and Mayor, the electricity company and its showrooms, and places were mothers could bring their children for the municipal doctor to give them vaccinations.
The Town Hall was opened with a magnificent ball. The stage was decorated as an old world garden where charming debutantes were framed on swings and by pools. Over the years the Annual Deb. Ball became a feature of the community and every year the stage decorations were a challenge to surpass that of the previous year.
That Town Hall was the focus of activities in every year of my growing life. It was there that our church had its Sunday School Anniversaries and concerts, where our gymnasium had its display and where our school conducted its concerts and speech nights.
I heard some great speakers there over the years at school speech nights. I can remember Mr. Robert Gordon Menzies slowly and majestically walking across the platform as if he owned it, in his double breasted suit and bushy eyebrows and brilliant witticisms. It was the closest I had ever come to majesty.
I remember Sir William Slim addressing us with military precision and bearing and bristling moustache. He presented me with a prize when I was older and my life had settled down from its turbulent days.
That Town Hall holds many memories. One of them concerns the library which was built at the back of the Box Hill Town Hall in 1952.
Box Hill had a private library for many years, the Box Hill Hygienic Book Club. It displayed on the front window of the shop in gold letters that “all books possessed lacquered covers and were fumigated before reissue”. It cost a shilling to borrow books from the Hygienic Book Club.
But then our Council built the first free library in Victoria. From the moment of its opening it was an instant success. The library, a long low building at the back of the Town Hall facing the railway line in Bank Street consisted of 8,000 volumes. Over 4,000 volumes were borrowed in the first week the library was opened. The librarian proudly announced that more than one third of all Box Hill residents, adults and children, had become members and had signed their membership card. In the days when radio was still the primary entertainment in the home and before television was released in Australia, families sat together listening to Bob Dyer or Jack Davy and reading of a night. Our city library was the source of all good books.
We were encouraged to read by our school principals. For many years it was my privilege to have Mr. W.M. (Bill) Woodfull as my school principal at Box Hill High School. Bill Woodfull was the Australian Test Cricketing captain, the hero of the body line series against England, and the opening bat upon whom Australia depended in every test. He instilled in all of us the need to read good books. For six years I had an English master W.A. Halliday who constantly challenged us to read the best of Australian and other English literature. But long before then Miss Perry and Aunty Mabel had given me books for birthdays, Christmas and every other opportunity. Even before I was a teenager I possessed scores of books which I read and re read. I still own all of these books.
I enjoyed also reading poetry and for a while tried my hand at writing rhyming verse. On one occasion for some thoroughly irrelevant misdemeanour Mr. W.A. Halliday set me 500 lines in a totally unjustified punishment for a misdemeanour now long since forgotten.
Long that night I laboured over writing the 500 lines in a format I had never before used, nor indeed since. But I wrote 250 rhyming couplets describing my opinion of members of the school staff taken one at a time, and wrote them on a roll of toilet paper.
The following morning in English class I did not, as was customary, stand by his desk at the beginning of class with the lines. Half way through the class he suddenly remembered and swinging around said “Moyes, bring out those lines you had to do”. This was the moment for which every young actor and poet waits. I walked to the front of the class, stepped up onto the platform, and with an exaggerated gesture rolled my arm down holding the end of the toilet roll as it snaked across the room revealing to all 500 lines of rhyming couplets. It was a scroll worthy of our library.
Mr. Halliday was not amused. He sat down at his desk, stared for a long time at the book in front of him, took out his handkerchief, blew his nose and wiped his eyes and with very quiet and quaking voice, told me to roll up the paper and to wait outside the Principal’s office.
I took the lot and waited for Mr. Woodfull’s attention. He glanced at what was in my hand, asked me who had sent me, and then invited me into his office where he made me stand in front of his desk while he continued writing some report. After a long period of time which he had allowed was sufficient for the enormity of my actions to sink in, Bill Woodfull sat back in his chair and looked me in the eyes. He was a leader of men and was equal to every situation. He knew that I was struggling to be a young Christian at that time. Struggling with a difficult extrovert personality. I think he had already intuitively understood what the crime was and had already decided the penalty. There was to be no punishment except shame.
At long last he spoke and his words burnt into my memory. “Mr. Halliday received news this morning on arriving at school that his mother had died in England. But he told me he thought it was more important to teach you boys than to go home. And that was your response!”
Mr. Woodfull waited for the impact of that comment to sink in. Then looking at me a second time he said, “Do you think the Man of Nazareth would have been proud of what you did this morning?”
That question mark stabbed me like a stiletto. Suddenly the shame of it became an enormously heavy burden and I burst into tears. None of us knew of Mr. Halliday’s dedication to us boys even in his sorrow.
I apologized to Mr. Halliday that morning and several times since. Indeed while we were talking together only just recently, I was amazed at the pride he holds in the man who was once a boy who wrote his 500 lines of rhyming couplets on toilet paper. For over 25 years, until, his death, he watched me every week on television and regularly wrote to encourage me, or to correct some bad grammar. I always referred to him as “Mr Halliday” even though he told me to call him Adrian, but I could no more call him by his Christian name, than I could call Mr Woodful “Bill”, or Mr Menzies, “Bob”!
I loved Bill Woodfull and I loved W.A. Halliday. They told us to read great prose and encouraged us every night after school to go to the library and to borrow the books of the greatest speakers, of Hazlitt, of Gibbon, of Churchill and Menzies.
In my earliest teenage years I had read the speeches of these great men.
I remember bringing home the six volumes of Gibbons’ “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”. That night I read 164 pages of Volume 1 until I came to a section where the tops and sides of all the pages had not been cut properly in the binding. As I slit them open I realized I must have been the first borrower from the Box Hill Library of these learned books. Turning to the back page where the date stamps revealed the dates of previous borrowers I discovered that the books had been borrowed by 31 Box Hill citizens before me and yet not one of them had read past Page 164.
We loved our library, but that did not mean to say we read all of the books that we borrowed from it.
I often looked with eager anticipation while men were building the Box Hill Library as I walked home up Devon Street, opposite the cow paddock, to No.55 Birdwood Street, Box Hill, a great city which was then only a village where the adults were kind and where the children grew up responsibly.