When Box Hill Was A Village
When I was a boy growing up in my old home town of Box Hill in those days just after the end of World War II, I had to find a way of practising my speech exercises. Growing up with a very bad speech impediment meant that for a number of years I had to go to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Carlton to take speech lessons. I had to overcome the difficulties of not being able to say words with labials and dentals in them. My speech therapist told my mother that one of the best things that could help me was to learn to sing.
So singing became an alternative to doing many of the dreaded exercises.
It all started in the Fourth Grade. I was probably nine years of age at the time and we had a vivacious new teacher come to our school. Young teachers were rare in our school as many of the younger women had been involved in responsibilities with the war and most of our teachers were old, single and had come out of retirement for the war years to take the place of the men teachers who had been called up.
In the Fourth Grade we had the loving attention of big old Miss Higgins with the red hair and big arms and big everything else. But Miss Presley was young, just out of training and very vivacious. As our music teacher she went from class to class and I really looked forward to her time in our class. She was beautiful with long blond hair and very erect carriage. She stood straight, her shoulders drawn back and her beautifully curved mouth would say the words so expressively.
On one occasion we were singing some of the school songs, the songs they sang in those days:
"Land of our birth,
we pledge to thee,
our love and toil in years to be,
when we are grown and take our place,
as men and women with our race."
"We don't forget while in this bright December,
we sit in schoolrooms that you know so well,
and hear the sounds that you so well remember,
the clock, the hurrying feet, the assembly bell.
"Others are sitting in the seats you sat in,
there's nothing else seems altered here, and yet,
through all of it, the same old maths and Latin,
you know we will not forget.
"And you, our brothers, who for all our praying,
to this dear school of ours came back no more,
we lie, our country's debt of honour paying,
and not in vain ‑ upon the foreign shore.
"Till that great day when at the throne of heaven,
the books are opened and the judgment set;
your lives for honour and your country given,
the school will not forget."
Apparently, I was singing these songs with a great deal of enthusiasm and with some attention to the tune because Miss Presley invited me to stay behind afterwards for some private tuition. She told me I had a good soprano voice, that I should learn to project it well, and that I could, if I learned sufficient musical skills, apply for a scholarship to either the cathedral school or to the Australian Boys Choir.
I was excited with the prospect and stayed willingly after school while she coached me in a number of songs. Miss Presley was absolutely beautiful. She used to wear a black suit with wide lapels and a white lace blouse which sat out over the black collar setting off her face and fair hair. The front of the blouse and the black suit seemed to be open a long way down her very ample figure. I can remember fixing my eyes straight ahead at the point where the two sides of the lapels met in the centre and with my eyes fixed and with straight face, I would sing
"Believe me if all those endearing young charms
which I gaze on so fondly today,
were to change by tomorrow, and flee in my arms,
like fairy gifts fainting away,
thou would still be adored, as this moment thou art,
let thy loveliness fade as it will
and around the dear ruin the wish of my heart,
would entwine itself verdantly still."
It was very difficult standing just in front of Miss Presley singing about her endearing young charms.
At one stage she even taught me to sing a duet and we performed it together at a school concert. It was the well known Somerset folk song "Oh, no John" and I would sing the words
"Oh, madam, in your face is beauty,
on your lips red roses grow,
will you take me for your lover,
madam, answer yes or no."
and Miss Presley would reply with a trill "Oh, no John, no John, No John, No".
Her training eventually led to something. I was invited to audition for the cathedral school choir with a scholarship which would cover my education through the rest of secondary school and also to audition for the Australian Boys Choir. I won both auditions and had to make a choice. The Australian Boys Choir dangled a fresh bait in front of me. They were going on a tour overseas to Tasmania and that settled the matter.
From the age of 10 years until I was 14, I sang first soprano with the Australian Boys Choir rising eventually to be a soprano soloist. Every week I travelled by pushbike, train and then tram across the eastern suburbs of Melbourne to attend the evening practices at Glen Iris.
Our choirmaster was Mr. Vincent J. Kelly who was the Director of Music in Schools in Victoria and bore after his name the initials D.M.S.V. Later he was to be my music master at Box Hill High School for six years. I would belong to a small group of young boy sopranos who every week broadcast over the ABC for the schools music programme singing all of the songs students had to learn in primary and secondary school. Then of course there were the concerts and tours by the Australian Boys Choir led by Vincent J. Kelly. He was a short, rotund musician, a bachelor, whose family was the choir.
I remember the first tour of Tasmania in 1951. As the old motor vessel "Taroona" steamed across Bass Strait the ship's rise and fall on the swell caused many of us to feel sick. I was standing out at the railing looking out over the sea not sure whether I was sick or not, when another boy on the deck above me and about ten yards towards the prow of the vessel vomited extensively over the rail and,caught by the wind, it carried to me where I was immersed in his spirit.
It was in Tasmania that I came to stay with the remarkable Dame Enid Lyons who became a second Mum. Tours later would take me throughout Queensland and South Australia, in fact right across the nation. In concerts, in town halls, in mechanics institutes and the biggest public buildings in the nation we sang. After a few years I was always on the programme singing solos. How many times did "Beautiful Isle of Somewhere" and "Bless This House" bring great applause from the audience who loved the lyrical voice of a young boy soprano.
One highlight came at a time when I was chosen to sing before a capacity crowd in the South Melbourne Town Hall in a concert which featured Gladys Moncreiff and Peter Dawson. Their autographs stand beside their pictures in my scrap book and whenever I hear Peter Dawson I think of the night a group of us joined with him in singing "The Floral Dance".
In every concert, my mother faithfully would sit half way back intently lookingat only me mouthing the words of every song almost as if she was there to help if I should ever forget.
In the same year I sang with the Australian Amateur Hour broadcast across the nation and compered by Terry Dear. He was so encouraging to a young boy soprano. That started a habit of concerts featuring the music of Gilbert and Sullivan. Over the years I would sing the parts of Pitti Sing in "The Mikado", Buttercup in "H.M.S. Pinafore", Giuseppe in "The Gondoliers" and so on.
One concert I remember broke my heart. We were singing in the Hobart Town Hall. I had now been in the choir for a number of years and I was 14 years of age. It was my privilege to sing one of the solos near to the end of the night when it happened. About two choral items before the end, we were singing Mozart's "Gloria" or Haydn's "The Heavens are Telling" or something of that ilk. I suddenly noticed our warm genial Vincent Kelly looking at me with a frown and with a finger pointing in a signal that we understood to mean "stop singing". I could not understand. I had sung the songs hundreds of times and I knew the words. Suddenly the happiness, the smile which always captivated the audience was gone. I mouthed the words making no sound and to everybody else in the Hobart Town Hall it would have appeared that I was still singing.
At the end of the bracket I walked from the platform with the other boys and Mr. Kelly came up and throwing his arm around my shoulder he said "You were breaking up on your top notes. I think your voice is beginning to change." That word was like a death sentence. The thing that I had been fearing more than anything else had suddenly occurred in the throat. The voice was breaking. It was an end of an era. That night another boy went out and sang a solo in my place. The show went on but my career as a boy soprano came to an end.
I still continued an interest in music only now singing parts for changed voices in other choirs and in Gilbert and Sullivan productions. For a while I even conducted the Box Hill High School Choir. I can always remember the fierce competition of a Ballarat eisteddfod. I was sure our choir would win first place in the schools choral competition only to hear the report of the adjudicator: "The Box Hill Boys Choir sang with truer fidelity than any other choir except for one discordant feature that continued throughout the performance. It was a changed voice in the midst of boy soprano voices that had sunshine in them. Could I be right in suggesting it was the conductor who was singing in the unchanged voice?" We had lost first place. It was the conductor!
As I look back over those early teenage years, my membership in the Australian Boys Choir, and the friendship with that incredible musician Vincent J. Kelly, created hours of happiness and joy that took me through teenage years at a time when many of my companions were getting off the rails and getting into trouble. He was an ideal companion for boys. I cherish a photo of us together. I attended a 40th Anniversary dinner with my old student pals in the Box Hill Town Hall. I had been living in Sydney and was busy catching up with all the gossip, when to my dismay, they started to talk and tell tales about Mr Kelly. Apparently, he had been convicted of sexual abuse of boys. The story was messy, and my mind was in a whirl. Yes, there had been occasions when … but surely not! All I could say, was that Mr Kelly had been a wonderful blessing in my life.
I used to enjoy singing even when I was little, walking home along the railway line, up Devon Street, opposite the cow paddock, to No.55 Birdwood Street, Box Hill, a great city which was only a village where the adults were kind and the children grew up responsibly.