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When Box Hill Was A Village



One of the saddest days I ever recall in my old home town of Box Hill where I grew up when I was a boy in those days after World War II, was the day we learnt of the death of King George VI in 1952. When the notice went up on the Palace gates that

                                     "The King is dead.

                                     Long live The Queen."  


the echoes resounded around the Empire. The Melbourne "Herald", "Sun News Pictorial", "Argus" and "Age" all were printed with huge black borders around the front pages with pictures of the late King and of the new Queen.  


In Box Hill flags were flown at half-mast. Every shop window had its special decoration declaring loyalty to the crown. Trading was suspended. Our cake shop windows were decorated by Miss Perry who had bought many rolls of black and purple crepe paper. The base of the windows were all covered in black crepe paper and the cake stands were made to form into a mountain which was covered with purple crepe paper and at the peak of the mountain was a photograph frame bearing a picture of King George VI. From the edges of the photo frame black and purple streamers hung in loops across the shop window to the further most point. There was nothing else in the window except his photograph surrounded by the black and purple crepe.  


His death meant that all of the preparations for the tour by Princess Elizabeth, the first royal tour to Australia by the Princess, were abandoned. I had been practicing singing in a boy’s choir in preparation for the visit of the young Princess and her husband, who had been called home from their present tour of Kenya to take upon herself the weighty responsibilities of the monarchy.  


In short succession there was the royal funeral, the coronation and then the 1954 Royal Tour of Australia. At the time of the coronation our shop windows were again decorated with a photograph of the new Queen wearing her coronation crown and a mountain of red, white and blue crepe paper with red, white and blue streamers to every corner. The streets were all decorated with Union Jacks and red, white and blue banners. Box Hill even had its own special arch of loyalty. The Town Hall had electric lights making a sign of "E II R".  


With the coming of the new Queen and her handsome young Greek naval lieutenant Prince Philip, a tremendous burst of loyalty appeared in the main streets. Garlands, decorations, banners and Union Jacks hung of every vantage point, along the shop verandahs, at the band rotunda in the middle of Whitehorse Road, around the Town Hall, beside our white horse statue and in every shop window. Every telegraph pole sprouted little flags. The Victorian Premier, Mr. Jack Cain, and the Governor, Sir Dallas Brooks, were everywhere.  


The Mayor and Councilors had decreed that as Box Hill was going to become a premier city of the Commonwealth the Queen should make a special visit to Box Hill. They tried with all their best endeavours to arrange the Queen's itinerary but unfortunately Australia was full of little villages like Box Hill who wanted the Royal presence and, of course, she was unable to come.  


That did not mean to say we could not have our royal ball , the royal garden party, the royal pageant, the royal concert and all the other special functions. They went ahead just as if the Queen had been there. The Mayoress was happy to stand in for Her Majesty.  


However, Box Hill had an advantage.  


We were on the main train route to the Dandenongs and in the midst of her busy schedule the Queen and Prince Philip were to have a weekend of relaxation at the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works chalet in the Dandenongs. To get there the royal train had to go through Box Hill. It was eventually agreed that the royal train would slow down, and the Queen and the Prince would stand on the reviewing platform at the back of the last carriage. The train would slowly move through Box Hill and they would wave to the people. Everyone was pleased as so many had stood ten deep in the city streets to greet her but could not see because of the crowd, many of whom blocked the view of others in a forest of periscopes.  


This was the signal for a new outburst of patriotic fervour.  


Another Royal Ball was quickly organised and the sports ground became the centre of "Box Hill's Cavalcade of the Southern Cross" in nineteen acts.  


Everybody was there and almost everybody was in the cast. Patriotic songs were sung by the crowd of over 7,000 assembled around the sports ground and in the grandstand. Musicians from all of our music clubs combined in a mass musical presentation. British and Australian songs were sung by all. All of the Box Hill Boys High school students were given instant curly brown beards and with axes over our shoulders we marched through the sports ground as timber cutters heading for the Dandenongs, pioneers of our first workmen. We sang the words

                         "By Box Hill town,

                         where the road winds down,

                         from the hills where the timber men labour, 

                        old boys from the past,

                         built our school to last,

                         each loyal and true to his neighbour.

                         They built her there, 

                        to stand four square,

                        to the blasts of time that alarm us,

                        and happy and glad,

                        we raise the chorus,

                        'Ad Altiora Certamus'."  


There were bagpipes and highland dancing and some Greek dancing accompanied by a piano accordion. To demonstrate other great British contributions to Australian society all the little girls in the Brownie packs of Box Hill were dressed in brown sacking with pointed ears and pom‑pom tails. At an appropriate time, all the Brownies, representing rabbits, ran all over the sports ground.  


The highlight of the night came when the famous Australian film actor, Chips Rafferty strode to the platform in the middle of the sports ground and recited "The Man From Snowy River". Chips also played Captain Arthur Phillip landing at Sydney Cove, John Batman founding Melbourne, and Peter Lalor at Eureka. We were a patriotic and a truly Australian town. Chips Rafferty was also very busy!  


The scripts for the "Cavalcade of the Southern Cross" were written by our Box Hill Librarian. They were the result of meticulous historical research and, if I remember correctly, unbelievably dull.  


The day of the royal train's arrival in Box Hill drew near. Everybody in the community was going to be present in Bank Street. The municipal council had the grass along the railway line and the edge of Bank Street mowed and clipped. The barbed wire fence along the railway line was straightened up for Her Majesty. Every bottle and tin can were carefully picked up and all of the gardens in Bank Street were pruned and trimmed.  People whose front gardens had shrubs, but no flowers made coloured paper flowers and wired them into the shrubs. Box Hill was taking its reputation as a garden city very seriously. At the back of the Town Hall huge piping scaffolding was erected and temporary seating was organised as a great grandstand for lucky selected citizens.  


The grandstand of pipes and boards was built in front of and over the roof of the Library at the back of the Town Hall. At the centre of the platform were the Councillors and their ladies, all dressed in their finest. Many of the men wore their decorations and war medals. All the men from the R.S.L. were dressed as if it were Anzac Day. There were representatives from the Country Women’s Association, the W.C.T.U., the Council of Churches, and other groups.  


The men wore hats as did every lady on the platform. Everyone had practiced bows and curtsies ‑ just in case! Councillor Hogan was there, and Reg Sparkes who had worked so hard to get our Box Hill Hospital, Dr. W.A. Kemp, our family doctor, Kenneth G. McIntyre, our solicitor, Les McCredden the builder who lived near us ‑ and Marshall G. Tweedie the dentist and President of the Horticultural Society and the Progress Association.  


All of our friends who had businesses in Station Street were there on the platform. Mr. and Mrs. Skilbeck from the delicatessen, Mr. and Mrs. Zigouras  who owned the Greek Cafe, Jack Walters from the butchery, Mr. and Mrs. Reid from Patterson's Shoe Shop, Edna Barnett from the Corsetry Salon, and Cincotta's and Flatazzo's the Italian fruit shops and, of course, my mum from the bakery and cake shop. She had sent me down to Edna Barnett's to buy a packet of 15 denier nylon stockings especially for the occasion, and had purchased a rabbit skin fur coat. I dreaded going into Edna Barnett's Corsetry Salon. It was a place few men dared to enter. A young teenager saw things there unfit for male eyes. Headless models posed with white or pink brassieres, or legless torsos were wrapped, strapped and flapped in corsets with suspenders hanging on the ends of inch‑wide elastic.  


"15 denier stockings, black seams, here's the money ‑ Mum said they cost  1 pound 5 shillings,  thanks ‑ goodbye." ‑ all in one breath as I grabbed the cellophane pack and rushed from the shop without even waiting for a paper bag or the cash register receipt!  


Up on the platform were a few "new Australians" who had just been naturalized. They were clutching their naturalization certificates, free Bibles, and small gum tree in a tin can. Many of the older residents thought these five minute citizens had no right to be on the platform while they had to stand in Bank Street.  


All of the children sat along the edge of the railway line on the grass and the police paraded backwards and forwards keeping everyone in line. All afternoon we sat there. The grandstands were full of dignitaries. The Mayor in his robes and Town Clerk were surrounded by ladies who had their hair permed and wore new dresses for the occasion.  


Some of the kids sitting on the grass edge of the railway line kept jumping up when a policeman had walked by and running out to the railway tracks and stared in the direction of Melbourne to see who would be the first to see the royal train. The train was due at 5.24 p.m. The police kept pushing us back into line. I made a dash to the railway line with several newly minted ha'pennies with the new Queen's head upon them.   


With a little bit of chewing gum I stuck these onto the rails. My mother never allowed me to purchase chewing gum but any Saturday afternoon in the Rialto Theatre one could always get some supplies of fresh chewing gum free simply by feeling underneath the edges of the seats. With some of the precious gum I stuck down the ha'pennies on the rails and quickly retreated to the edge of the grass. I had stuck down ha'pennies for years and was a good hand at it.  


The train was more than an hour late and darkness was falling. Several times the crowd sang "God Save The Queen" with great gusto. Eventually the train came looking resplendent with every aspect of the engine and the carriages polished and gleaming. Across the front of the engine were the crossed flags of Great Britain and Australia and red, white and blue bunting. The train moved through fairly quickly even though it did slow down and sure enough, on the last carriage at the back on the special little platform stood the Queen and Prince Philip. Cast iron scroll work with her initials marked the royal balcony.  


Unfortunately, no one had told the Queen that all of the dignitaries and special people would be on the right hand side of the track. She was facing the left hand side of the track and waving to the few people who had not been invited to sit in the stands. There were some boys on push‑bikes and other people standing around on the other side of the railway tracks dressed in their old clothes and who, without invitations, had been herded on the wrong side of the racks. They had the best view of the Queen and she waved to them. But on the other side were the ladies with their perms and new dresses and the Mayor and Town Clerk in their robes, the Councillors, and all the official dignitaries and businesspeople. They had a good wave from Prince Philip.  


Then the train was gone. The royal tour and visit to Box Hill was over. It had happened so quickly everybody sat down in their seats and people began to comment about how beautiful the Queen looked and how Prince Philip had smiled and waved directly at them. While other people were reminiscing, I jumped up and raced across to the railway tracks. There were my ha'pennies, still stuck to the railway line but now that the royal train had run over them, they had all been squashed flat to almost double their size. I looked at each one carefully. They were not going to remain with me as a treasure chest of sacred mementos of the royal visit. Instead I checked the edges to see if any were sharp and determined that just a little bit of rubbing on a piece of concrete would round them out perfectly. Then with a little bit of luck I should be able to pass of each ha'penny as one penny and make a 100% profit.  


That was the last time I ever stuck pennies to the railway line. I was now growing up and the value of a penny was dropping. Mr. Menzies still had not put value back into the pound. Besides that, I had been standing and sitting next to a blonde girl for the past three hours waiting for the Queen to pass by, and she was much more interesting than the Queen or the Queen's Head pennies. Like Mr. Menzies "I did but see her passing by, and yet I'll love her, till I die".  


That was what I thought the day the Queen came to Box Hill as I walked home after the royal tour clutching my brand new pennies and the hope of that lovely blonde girl, up Devon Street, opposite the cow paddock, to No.55 Birdwood Street, Box Hill, a great city which then only a village where the adults were kind and where the children grew up responsibly.    

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