Growing Up In Wittenoom

By Mary, 71. Bunbury, WA

Editor’s note: Below are portions from a longer piece written by Mary, whose drawings and stories detail her family’s life in Australia after they emigrated in 1950 to start anew in a free country with job prospects.

In 1950, Irene (my mother) was pregnant with me (her second child), and Joe (my brother) was three years old when they came [to Australia] on a ship called the Skaugum with lots of other Polish, Italian and Greek people all carrying only a suitcase.

I was born on 12 November 1950. In those days, we did not have much money and lived on eating rabbits. Zygmunt (my father) was sent to work in Perth welding toilet seats and buckets for the “Thunderbox” dunnys used in the outback. He got really cheesed off with this job as it was not what he was promised. So with limited English — which he had to learn quickly — he appealed to the government office and they listened and so he was offered a job working as a boiler maker/welder in Wittenoom Gorge, as he had qualifications from Poland. We left Northam and flew on a DC-3 from Ashburton to Wittenoom Gorge to start a new life in the asbestos mining town from 1950 to 1957. 

I remember a lot of occasions growing up with my brother Jozeph (Joe). He was very energetic and got into a bit of mischief. As kids, Joe started a bush fire that nearly burnt the town. Joe found some money floating in the wind on the ground around the spinifex and decided to pile the paper notes up and light them with matches and the fire took off. That caused a huge panic. 

We also went “walk-about” and got lost and the whole town was looking for us. We were having a great time not thinking and oblivious to any dangers. I was only about three and a half years old and remember just following the leader (Joe) wherever we went. We climbed trees, carved our initials in the soft white bark and underneath it was blood red with pieces of broken glass from beer bottles that were smashed. We climbed the town water supply tank. I ended up losing my footing on the wooden planks across the top of the tank and fell into the swirling whirl pool of the towns water supply and would have drowned if Jozeph had not pulled me out. Super lucky on that occasion.

We were taught how to swim in the dark cool waters of Dales Gorge with dad. We played in the town’s asbestos tailings, which came off the trucks and resembled grey fluffy cotton wool. We would put it on our heads and make a beard like Santa Claus.

We caught frogs when it was bath time. They used to hide in all the moist areas of the bathroom. We knew how to find, catch, and throw them into the bath. We played with the sticky, slimy, slippery frogs and they tickled us — so much fun and we never stopped laughing.

I loved drawing on the concrete verandah with coloured stones I found in the gorge where we learnt to swim. Later, mum would hose all the scribbling off with the water until next time. We had great times on Fire Cracker Night. Once a year, we were allowed to have a big bonfire. We always made a straw-filled scarecrow from Dads old shirt and pants and he would get burnt on top of a huge pile of wood, chairs, boxes and old dry fallen tree trunks. The heat was tremendous and we all ran around with sparklers and the adults would light the rockets that zoomed off into the sky with a huge bang and light the sky with red, white and blue. Joe loved the four penny bombs. He would light them and put them in people’s letter boxes and would blow the boxes up. It has been banned now — too many fatalities. 

We would go in dad’s truck to the huge open asbestos pit. Down, down and round and around until we got to the bottom where the crusher would load the truck with a huge bang, bang of tones as rock crashed into the back of the truck. Then, we drove back up. It was fun going with dad to where he worked and seeing all the dust and being scared looking out of the window at the huge drop-off . It made the hair on our backs stand up. 

I feel it’s important that our family and growing up stories be documented ’cause if I lose my memory or do not document it then it is lost and never known.

We would go to Lucky Bay for holidays and stay at an old wooden shack. Dad had a crayfisherman mate named Michael. Us kids played, sliding down huge, huge sand dunes. We imitated our parents and smoked the cane from the crayfish pots and pretended they were cigarettes. We would light them and they tasted terrible. It was a really naughty thing to do.

Then, Michael would take us in the old four-wheel drive to the beach across the dunes to the bay and he would be drinking a big brown bottle of beer in one hand, cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth while still talking. With his other hand, he would grab a stick of gelignite explosive from a crate that we sat on in the back and would say, “Come on! Let’s go fishing!” We were not sure of what was going on, but he’d say, “Waaaait! Waaait…” Then, he put the red stick to his cigarette and it would start to burn like a sparkler and he would do this huge over-arm throw and this sparking red stick would land in the water. Then there was this huge almighty ‘BOOOM’ and a plume of water went high into the sky and the water boiled white with foam and bubbles. Michael would sip his beer, stagger slightly, blink his eyes and say, “Waaaait, waaait!” Then, after a few minutes, when the foam and white water bubbles subsided all these fish popped up out of the water, belly up, Michael would say, “Now, kids — you go in the water and pick the fish.” We would go and full our togs with fish and come out with armfuls of stunned fish all yelling and screaming as to who got the biggest or the most. We’d run up the beach, drop them and go back for more.

That was the best most memorable fishing day I had as a child. I could not stop yelling and shouting with excitement and our parents were laughing so hard on the edge of the water just watching us have so much fun. What a day! That night we feasted on fish cooked on the outdoor fire and us kids slept in the trailer under the stars.

I also have fond memories of prawning on a boat in Weipa in the ’60s.

In 1957, we were driving down to Bunbury. We had the truck loaded up with Bouquet the dog, Jacob the white cocky, and our pet rabbit. We had to keep stopping every few miles so I could do number “twos”. Dad found out later that Joe had given me a large dose of laxative chocolates. Joe really was a bit of a scallywag.

We also had some great memories of mum and dad getting naturalised and having a big party in the backyard. Plus, the great hamburger van ‘Pat’s’ that served spearmint milk shakes and great burgers without beetroot late at night down the road from us with a huge fire pit in the winter burning to keep everyone who stopped there warm. It was a great treat when the steam train would go under the bridge and spray you with smoke and hot soot if you happened to be standing on top. It was a bit scary at first but once you braved it the next time was fun. I always learnt to close my eyes not to get soot dust. Haha. 

The horse-drawn bread cart used to deliver bread and it was a treasure to experience, as was the milkman, the dunny man and the dust man. 

Postscript: Mary’s father Zygmunt died at the age of 70 of mesothelioma (lung cancer) from asbestos exposure from the Wittenoom mines. Rest in peace.

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1 year ago

What a lovely fresh recording of an Australia long long gone

Thank you

1 year ago

Hi Mary, I absolutely loved your story ‘Growing up in Wittenoom,’ likewise the delightful line drawings. Did you do those as well? That part of Australia is an area I know little about, although we did learn about it in school. Did you or any of your family suffer the ill effects of exposure to asbestos? Hope you write some more soon.

Lorette Hughes now Elwood
Lorette Hughes now Elwood
10 months ago

The first few paragraphs was my story too
We went in 57 until late 62
Last August I have been diagnosed with the dredded cancer 😪
Thankyou for your story