The first Tuesday in November is observed throughout Australia as Melbourne Cup Day. This is the nation’s annual religious festival. In Melbourne, while most of the cars and buses seem to be going through the suburbs towards the Flemington race course, there is also an enormous exodus of cars and buses and furniture vans leaving the suburbs and heading for the beaches, the countryside and the Dandenong Ranges. All of the buses and cars and furniture vans are filled with crowds of excited children going on Sunday School picnics. Some of the greatest races that are run on Melbourne Cup Day occur not at the Flemington racecourse, but upon the ovals of the land where Sunday School Picnic races flourish with great abandon.
In those days when I was a boy growing up in Box Hill, the Sunday School Picnic was probably the greatest social event of the year. In the years that followed the declaration of peace ending World War Two the Sunday School Picnic, became for other reasons, just as important in my growing life.
I remember three picnics in particular. The first picnic I remember made a profound impression upon my life. Early in the morning Miss Jean Perry picked me up from my mother’s home. At the age of four years I started out on what was going to be a highlight of my year’s activity. A large safety pin held a label with my name on it to my jumper and around my neck was a string attached to a large enamel mug, also named.
At the Sunday School buildings in Court Street alongside the Church of Christ four huge furniture vans were already pulled up in line. In those days, every furniture van had removable seats which bolted in rows inside the van and perhaps a hundred children would crowd into each van. There was also a significant number of orchardists trucks. We had many orchardists in the membership of the church in those days and for Sunday School Picnics there were forms in the back of the open trucks and all the older boys clamoured for the privilege of being able to travel in the open trucks. Because of petrol rationing there were not that many private cars that were able to go, so many adults as well squeezed into the vehicles.
Off we went with much shouting and cheering. All the way along the roads we sang scripture choruses, well known hymns and some raucous well known popular songs. We came at last to the public oval at Mooralbark. Fires were set up. Large, portable copper urns were soon boiling with water for tea. Trays and trays of sandwiches, cakes, buns and apples were brought out. The fruit was always plentiful and delicious, mostly picked freshly from the trees the day before and provided by our own orchardists. Hundreds of children lined up in long queues to have mugs full of red, raspberry vinegar. The trays of buns and cakes were always provided by my parents from Moyes Cake Shop, 591 Station Street, Box Hill, as the stenciled name on the sides of the wooden trays proclaimed.
All morning there were plenty of races and activities for the children. The small children were involved in games like Drop the Hanky and Wink and games that involved running in circles and finding hidden lollies. When the races came there were activities for everyone according to age group. I remember running in a relay race, a three legged race, an egg and spoon race, a sack race, and with a partner in a wheelbarrow race. After lunch when large numbers of sandwiches were consumed by everybody, a friendly game of cricket was held in the centre of the oval. The ladies sat and knitted and talked. I noticed, however, that even in the sanctified atmosphere of the Sunday School Picnic the men seemed to disappear at round 2.40 p.m. in the afternoon to cluster around the only battery operated radio. A large aerial had to be rigged up in a gum tree as the men listened to the running of the 1943 Melbourne Cup. Every picnic thereafter took the same pattern.
The second picnic that comes to my mind was the one in which I was first asked to be a helper. I guess I was about eleven at the time when my teacher asked if I could come at six in the morning to help many of the teachers and other adults to prepare the sandwiches. What fun it was. There were adults slicing by hand dozens of loaves of fresh bread brought in by the baker earlier that morning from our own bakery. Since midnight a number of large pots had been boiling on the kitchen stoves containing solid pieces of corned beef cooking away merrily. Now long rows of ladies buttered the bread and at the head of one of the tables our minister, Mr. W.A. Wigney, sharpened his huge carving knife on a steel. Then he began to cut thin slices of corned beef. Mr. Wigney always insisted on slicing the beef because he said he could cut slices thinner than anyone else and so make the meat go further.
My task as a helper was to keep running back and forwards from the kitchens to the assembly lines of people buttering and making sandwiches, to provide them with extra butter or sauce or pepper and salt or cups of tea for refreshment.
I remembered running into the kitchen and catching my foot upon a piece of the old lino in the church kitchen. It was a drab brown colour, cracked all over. In those days when everything was hard to come by and shortages of all building materials and even floor coverings were common, the church kitchen lino was well past its age of wear. Everybody had waited until the war was over when the ladies could raise some money to replace the kitchen lino. My heel caught on a piece of broken lino. I knocked the piece up and broke it off. Somewhat embarrassed I picked it up and put it in my pocket. I gained some fresh supplies of bread or butter and returned them to the tables. There I had an idea. Quietly taking one of the sharp knives I trimmed up the piece of lino until it fitted exactly between two pieces of buttered bread, added some salt and pepper and sauce to it, and neatly cut it diagonally in half. I placed the lino sandwich in on top of the piles of sandwiches ready for the luncheon that day. I often wondered who struggled to eat a rather tough piece of meat in the middle of their corned beef sandwich.
The third Sunday School Picnic that stands out in memory was certainly not the last but it was the most memorable. I was 13 years of age. I had been up since early morning helping the adults make the sandwiches and collect the trays of cakes and buns and to bring in the freshly baked loaves of bread from the Moyes Bakery. Forty or fifty adults were working in the church hall and kitchens to make adequate lunches and teas for more than 400 people who would be at the picnic that day. When the time came for us to head off to our oval up in the mountains, I climbed with the other 13 year old boys into the back of Jack Ferris’ orchard truck. The orchardists’ trucks always smelled sweet of fresh fruit. Jack always had a bagful of apples for us to eat as we drove along. The back of his truck was crowded with 13 year old boys who shouted out to the furniture vans full of girls and adults as we passed them on the way up into the hills. When none of the adults were looking we would sling the core of an apple at some unsuspecting pedestrian watching in the street.
I remember this particular picnic for two tremendous events. The first was the senior boys and teachers one mile race the last event on the programme. It was always regarded as the championship for the older boys and young men. For many years it had been won by Jack Henley, a superbly fit athlete much older than the rest of us. But when I was 13 my body started to change into a tall thin lad. I discovered to my own amazement that I could run fast. I had already beaten all of the students of my age at my high school and had established new records in the sprint races. I ran in a number of inter school competitions and won some medals. Now I was training for quarter and half miles. When the mile race came I lined up with all the other runners. I was the youngest in the field but probably the fastest. The race began seriously and very soon it was obvious that those who were in training were in one bunch leading the rest who would quickly drop out as the pace and distance took its toll. The reason I remember that race so vividly is that in the last lap I was neck and neck with Jack Henley, the champion, and as we turned into the last straight youth and speed triumphed over age and experience and I won. It was the first significant win in a middle distance race in my life. Later I was to take out a number of championships over the same distance and by the time I was 16 was the fastest in the State over the half mile.
Buoyed with success over that victory the activities during the afternoon opened up a new feature in my growing life.
Rain had come heavily just after the races had finished. Everybody crammed into the four or five furniture vans where impromptu concerts were held. They were great times with everybody singing and different people taking turns to recite poetry, sing solos or present comedy sketches. For some reason or other, buoyed with success and probably prompted by the growth in my pituitary gland in the base of the brain I started to show off in front of a group of girls. Obnoxious, persistent, noisy, I was showing off in front of the girls constantly, especially for the attention of one of them. I was so pleased it was raining. I had a captive audience. Shortly after that the picnic was abandoned and the vans headed for home.
All of my friends my own age climbed into the back of the orchardist’s truck and huddled under the tarpaulins. They called out for me to join them but for some reason I decided that this was the moment when I cut away from my mates in the orchardist’s truck and declared that I was going to go home in the furniture van in the middle of the girls.
With cheek and confidence I promptly sat in the middle of the 13 year old girls and declared that I was going to sit there for the rest of the journey home. Being with the girls was certainly more comfortable than being in the back of a truck under the tarpaulin. They had a rug which was spread out across our knees. At some time during the long trip home after darkness had fallen, underneath the rug, my hand moved to touch the hand of the blonde 13 year old girl sitting beside me. It was for her attention that I had been striving all afternoon. Something in our chemistry seemed to work because when I touched her hand she responded by holding mine. There on the way home in the truck it was love, real love.
Some people cannot believe that when you are 13 you can be in love. But it was. And it has lasted. For that blonde 13 year old girl became my steady girlfriend and eventually we became engaged and eight years after that Sunday School Picnic were married. Today, after a marriage of 46 years, we look upon our own four children and ten grandchildren and think back with a great deal of joy to all of the Sunday School Picnics we have enjoyed together.
The rest of Australia might have Melbourne Cup Day, but when we were growing up in Box Hill there was nothing more exciting than the Sunday School Picnics. Little did I realize what happiness I was beginning to discover after that picnic as we came home at night. But I ran all the way up Devon Street, opposite the cow paddock, to No, 55 Birdwood Street, Box Hill, a great city which was once a village where the adults were kind and the children grew up responsibly.