The Way We Were - It's a Smaller World
P & O Liner TSS Mooltan
The Way We Were. It's a smaller world nowadays
How small the world has become. It has shrunk into proportions so Lilliputian that there is hardly a spot on its surface which cannot be visited by a few days at most in air travel. Contacting people by telephone at any point and any time of day is virtually taken for granted. Annoyance follows if one is ‘out of range’ of an amplifying tower, and just about any sort of information is to be gathered within seconds over the Internet. How different it was when I arrived in this beautiful country, Australia, in 1951.
More Code was the way telegrams were sent in those days
In the 1950s in Australia few people had a telephone
My first job was that of a telegram delivery boy. Virtually nobody in Australia had a telephone. By virtually I mean the common householder did not have a telephone. Only hotels, doctors, police and ambulance stations and, of course, the illegal starting-price bookmakers, had them. Everyone else had to rely of the Post Master General’s Telegraph Office to fill the need for urgent communication. I was just one of the half-dozen ‘telegram boys’ (and there were actually two young women as well) whose job it was to take out anything from one to a couple of dozen telegrams in a belt-held leather satchel to the various addressees living in a four or five mile radius from the post office in which I worked.
Yellow Telegram Forms, Typewriters and Telegram Boys
Communication to that post office from a central point – the big General Post Office, or GPO, in the city’s centre came by way of Morse code and a sounding device into the ears of the very skilled post office telegraphists. So good were these men at their job they could hold the full content of a telegraphed message in the their heads before they even put ‘pen to paper,’ or more accurately, fingers to the old manual typewriters they all used to take these messages down.
There lay 'adventure' in a bigger, more mysterious world
Yes, it was a far bigger world in those days. Well, not in actuality, but psychologically – because of distance and time. The age of the big jumbo jet, even the smaller Boeing 707, had not yet arrived. People travelled abroad mostly by ship. I know it took my family and me six weeks to travel from England to Sydney, Australia. The beauty being that a sea trip to the other side of the world was regarded as the adventure of a lifetime. Our vessel, a P & O liner of some 20,000 tons, traveled via the Suez Canal. There was the Bay of Biscay, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Red Sea. We stopped at Port Said, Aden, Colombo, before crossing the Indian Ocean to Fremantle. Then it was on to Adelaide where we stayed a full three days, and Melbourne where we stayed four days before rounding Bradley’s Head in Sydney Harbour and seeing one of the most beautiful cities in the world laid out before us. That was something you don’t get with air travel.
Then along came the jet liner and all that changed
Aeroplane travel started becoming cheaper - and the world shrunk
The age of the big aero plane changed all that and I was part of the action. From 1960 until 1971 I worked as a Communications and air-ground radio operator with the Australian Department of Civil Aviation. When I started, Australia’s national carrier, Qantas, was phasing out its long range Super Constellations and buying Boeing 707s. Comets 4s were also around, just coming in phasing out Britain’s, Britannia turbo props. Suddenly, or it seemed to be suddenly, the ‘ten pound poms’ from Great Britain were coming not by sea any more but by aircraft.
A lot of outback Australia looks like this.
I heard an amusing story about a migrant-filled aircraft having to divert to a desert airport called Forest, when Perth Airport was unserviceable. Apparently the aircraft landed at the isolated, barren, flat-as-a-pancake desert station in darkness. When daylight came and the migrants looked at the windows and saw this utter desolation there was almost a mutiny as the demanded to be taken home! If this was Australia they weren’t having any of it!
Telephone boxes on street corners was our link to the outside world
Yes, it was all so different. There were Quonset hut settlements for many of the migrants who were flooding into this fair land down under. Places like Dundas, Warwick Farm and Hern Bay (later to be renamed Riverwood) were filled with army-like camps overflowing with people from, by now, all lands: England, Germany, Italy, and Greece. They came from Malta and then from Egypt and Lebanon. The flood from Vietnam, India and China lay in the future.
Full size phone booth. In Australa many only had the top half
Imagine residential streets free of cars...That's how it was in the 1950s
Transport around the city of Sydney was gradually becoming more congested as people became wealthier. The quite commonly used bicycle and the motor-cycle gave way to the privately owned car. But even in the 1960s some police stations were still using those big Indian model motorcycles with a side car attached. And even at this stage the phone was not yet in many homes. The public telephone booth down the road had to suffice. And it had to suffice for a long, long time.
Communications began to change in the 1970s when Russia launched Sputnik One. I recall how we used to be able to tune into its ‘beep-beep-beep’ signals as it circled the Earth. Most of us stood out and watched it pass by overhead as it came around every few hours. It wasn’t long, of course, before the race for the Moon began and every few weeks or so either Russia or the USA would send spacecraft aloft. Then,
“Just one small step for a man – one giant leap for Mankind.”
Take a look at the size of the first mobile phone
Fixed orbit satellites ushered in a new era in telecommunications
Then an idea which the science-fiction writer, Arthur C Clarke, was put into place: fixed orbit communications satellites; satellites which moved at the same rate as the earth spins. After that it was just a matter of time. By now many homes had landline phones. However, the mobile or portable phone was still a thing of the future. Businessmen raced around the suburbs in the cars speaking into CB radios. Long distance truck drivers turned this into an art state, using a language of their own to warn of impending roadside inspections or traffic policemen ahead. “Wombat 3 this is Green Dog, Bears atop Razor Back, come back.”
Take a look at the progression in mobile phones
It could be argued you need to be smart to operate one...
But inevitable happened, the first mobile phones, most so cumbersome one needed a belt holster to carry them, came into existence. These were large, analog phones with power provided by a heavy battery. There were few phone towers around and they were not at first popular – except, of course, with businessmen and essential services such as police, ambulance and fire brigade. But once the switch from analog to digital came in the miniaturization of the mobile phone grew, and grew, and grew! Today, as we know, most people have one, many have two or three. Moreover, they’re more than just telephones. They are ‘smart phones.’ The world will never be the same again.
First GPS readout I ever saw
In 1977, whilst returning from a year on remote Macquarie Island on the MV Nella Dan, I witnessed the operation of one of the first GPS’s; every four hours a satellite would wing overhead and our ship could pick up its latitude and longitude from that satellite: every four hours! Now, on privately owned GPS’s we can have our locations pin-pointed down to a few yards at any time of day in just about any location in the world!
I might add that this GPS was about as big as a small desk!
Let us step back over sixty years once more and look at employment and work in those days.
The lure to adventure has gradually given way to sightseeing
Work was so easy to get in Australia in the 1950s
I arrived from England in 1951. I was fourteen, just a few weeks shy of turning fifteen. In England I’d attended a trade school where I had been studying the basics for a career in Engineering. I was not a particularly bright student. However, the subjects studied; along with the usual Math, English, and History were Chemistry, Physics, Geometry, Metal Work and the like. The math included Trigonometry, Calculus et cetera. When I went for my first job at fifteen years of age at the local post office, the postmaster looked at me and asked me one question:
“Can you ride a push-bike, son.”
The forty-hour week; weekends off; the beach...
On an affirmative answer I got the job. It was that easy. In fact getting work in Australia at that time – right across the board, it seemed – was that easy. There was work available for everyone. Plenty of work, skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled was available. Virtually no qualifications were needed except in the professions. Moreover, hours were short; the forty hour week prevailed.
Why wouldn't you wish to live in the best city in the best country in the world...
Yes, in the 1950s Australia was a land of opportunity. No wonder so many wanted to come here. They still do, though those opportunities no longer abound. I have a brother-in-law (long retired) who came out as a carpenter. He took on an apprentice, borrowed some money from a bank, and built and sold his first house. The next year he built and sold three homes.
Over the years he forged ahead to the point where he ran his own building business, a business which was producing hundreds of quality residential homes per year. He became a millionaire – before his business, after his retirement and taken over by his family, went into liquidation due probably to over borrowing. Whether this was bad management or bank greed I would not like to speculate. The point is, one could come to Australia with just few pounds (this was before the metric system with its dollars and cents came in) and work oneself up to become a millionaire. The opportunities were there.
The Gladesville Bridge, Sydney, with part of the city and harbour in the background
But back to the size of the world. I recently flew from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur and return; bit over eight hours each way. Go back to the 1950s and such a journey would have probably meant taking a ship from Sydney, via Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth to Singapore, then a jolty surface-road or rail trip to KL. I doubt a man would have arrived there within two weeks of leaving Sydney. Now it’s an eight or nine hours trip as one watch a movie on the back on one’s airliner chair.
Yes, the world is geographically as big as it has ever been. But it no longer has that something it had when I was young. Those maps with huge patches coloured in black with the words ‘Unexplored Territory’ written on them. The days when the words ‘Darkest Africa’ meant someplace as yet unreached by civilization. Where places like Katmandu and Saigon (Now Ho Chi Min City) were places of imagination and wonderment- what were they like! Where Timbuktu was almost a fairytale place; a place you could never actually get to see. All that has gone. Such wonderment and speculation are unlikely to return until we humans start to travel outside of the Earth to places at present beyond our ken, way, way beyond our own Solar Planetary System. Then, perhaps, once again, everything will be big enough to inspire the awe of yesteryear.
A river close by my home
More on the writer
- Tom Ware Public Speaking The Prince of Storytellers
Tom Ware Public Speaking! Tips, events and videos to help you become a gifted speaker. Visit now!
More by this Author
The River Class Frigate, HMAS Barcoo, was a familiar site at many a coastal port around Australia in the 1950s as she went about her oceanographic surveying.
This is a tongue-in-cheek look at the difference of travelling overseas by ship and by air; a comparison of yesteryear - the 1950s - with today.
Did you ever stop to ask about life's most important questions?