Australian Biography

Ray Whitrod - full interview transcript

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I wonder if we could begin by you describing to me the house in which you were born, or in which you spent your early life.

That's, yes ... I'd like to do that. It was the first house in a row of attached houses and a little lane off Gouger in the west end of the city, near the terrace and the Parklands. I think there were six on one side of the street and six on the other, and we were the first of the row on the western side. It had three rooms: the front room, a sort of middle room with a fanlight in it and a kitchen arrangement on the back, and my parents slept in the front room and I had the middle room and we had the kitchen where we cooked meals and stayed on cold nights because there was a wood stove there. There was a ... I don't recall there being a bathroom at all. We used to have to bath in a tub but there was an outside copper which was under a wood fire and then down the end of the little backyard was an outdoor toilet privy. Not many years before my birth they changed over to a sewerage system. Before that there'd been a night cart coming around but luckily for me we had a ... a cistern and you pulled a chain and you didn't have to worry about the smell of the night cart.

And the street itself, what was that like? What kind of people lived in that street?

A friendly crowd. I ... I was quite young and my earliest recollections I think around about three - three years of age, perhaps two to three ... and we had a number of migrants in the street: English migrants, perhaps an Irish one or two. They seemed to come. But there were ... Our next door neighbours were English from London, the Boushalls, man and wife with three children. The girls were slightly older than me; the boy was perhaps six months younger than me: Freddy, and Freddy and I got on together. I was an only child at that stage because my elder brother had died during the war and Fred and I were mates, and we would play out in the little front verandah and we could watch things going on in the little narrow alley in which we lived.

What kind of things did go on there?

Well, for a small child ... I guess I would be bored now, but as a small child, a lot of interesting things went by. One of the, for me, one of the more interesting things was the weekly visit from the corporation dray. The council was a corporation in those days, and once a week, the dray with a big, old horse in front would come down our street and there would be in front of him two men with big brooms and they would sweep up the gutters into ... and the rubbish from the gutters into little heaps and also other horse manure from other callers in the street, and they'd put them into little heaps, then the horse ... the old horse coming along would plod along. His driver would walk along side the horse and the horse would stop at each little heap and the driver would shovel the contents into the big dray and then the horse would start plodding again up the street. They did that week after week. The driver took a lot of pride in the horse from memory and a lot of brass giblets hanging down and, and they jingled as they went along, and I was very much attracted to those horses. Then of course the milkman came twice a day. In the mornings I missed him because he came early, but there was an afternoon delivery. The baker called with a horse cart and once a week the rabbito man came. He sold rabbits and he'd come down the street singing out, 'Rabbito', and his cart would be a little cart festooned with rabbits hanging on, on the side, and if you brought a rabbit with three pence he would chop off the head and skin it. It'd be cleaned beforehand, and then we would have perhaps have rabbit stew that night, [with] perhaps a bit more over for the next day.

Was the street lit? Was the street lit?

Yes, there was one light. One. It was a gas lamp outside our house. We were the first in the street but the backyard of the house facing Gouger Street, reached down into our street, so you walked along side a fence 'til you came to our house, and there was one light there and about dusk the lamplighter would come along on his bicycle with a big stick, with some sort of igniter on the end, and he would switch this pole up and light the gas pole, and that would throw light into our front room because we had no electricity and, in fact, we had no kerosene lamps either. We only had candles. And, oh we had one lamp. That's right. We had one lamp and that would be the light by which my mother and father would get undressed and go to bed and I would have a candle to go bed at night, and ... and I would sleep in a fairly sparse sort of middle room. It had a bed and a corner wardrobe, just a corner curtained off and that's where ... where my shirts and things were hung up and that was the sole furniture in the room, because we were very poor at that time.

Were you exceptionally poor or was everyone around you poor?

Oh yes. Everybody around us were poor. Oh there were one or two slightly better off people, which I'll mention in a moment, but my father was a confectioner by trade and I was born during the war and people didn't spend much money on confectionary during the war so that he was on half-time, which meant that he got half wages which I think amounted to thirty shillings a week, from which he had to pay rent and keep food, so my mother would also take in washing or go out and clean houses, and that sort of supplemented our income. But we were very poor. We had a reasonable meal at weekends. We had ... We always had roast lamb at weekends. That was a very common. It must have been cheap I think, and my mother would also bake an apple sponge with a hot oven. But the rest of the week we were on fairly short rations: a little bit of mince and perhaps some sausages, but I remember very much leaving ... always leaving the table feeling hungry.

That was the First World War that you just described that made your father short of work.


And during that war too your elder brother died ...


... As an infant. Did you ... Were there any other children?

No, there was only us two and I ... Oh later on, sorry, eight years later my young brother appeared on the scene, young Frank, but for the first eight years I was the only child and got spoilt a bit I think.

Was your nose a bit out of joint when your brother was born?

Oh, I don't think so, Robin. I ... I ... The only thing I can remember was that ... It must have been ... when he was born in 1923 and my father I think was ... that's right, back working a bit more and I used to wait for him outside Tandy's where he was then working and we would go to the Salvation Army house in Pirie Street where you could get a cheap meal and we had meals there. So that Frank's arrival really gave me some nice food for a week or so while my mother was having ... having the baby, and so there's never been any sort of rivalry between us. He's been eight years younger than me and so that when I was a teenager he was still in primary school and so that we've been good friends but distant friends because of the big gap. But you did ask me earlier about the street whether we were all poor. Bill Boushall, the man next door to me, the Englishman, got a job as a ... a linesman with the Tramway's Trust and he had a regular wage and so he was a slightly higher status and across the road was George Hardy, who was a cleaner down at the railway workshops, about half a mile away in the park, and he also was slightly up in the social class to us.

What did your parents hope for for you? What was their expectation of what would ... what would become of you and what sort of education you would have and so on?

Well, I don't think my mother ever directly expressed any sort of wish to me. I know she was disappointed I didn't do my homework as much as I should of, because my father had only had three or four years schooling and she had only had two years schooling so their conception of what was required to be an educated person was very limited. But nevertheless she went out of her way to see that I was enrolled at a very early age at a free kindergarten in the next street. And I went to that free kindergarten until I was six and then I should have gone to the state primary school but my mother had other ideas that I could perhaps get a better education at a private school so I went to the Little Sisters', [a] little convent school in the next street, for a couple of years and made friends with some Catholic children there and ... and got on quite well there. And then later on she, at great expense, tried to get me to become a violinist and for seven years I practised the violin and went to classes and reached a fairly high degree but I really hated it. I hated practising the violin because if you ... if you practise the violin you really need a piano to start off with so that you're sure of the tone of your notes otherwise you're travelling with your fingering on the ... on the ... on the violin is a bit uncertain. And so I was ... I got on all right, but it, but I never got sold on the idea and as soon as I was old enough to rebel I said to my mother, 'I'm not going down to the teacher any more'.

With a house with only candles where did you do your homework?

Well, we ... we ... we sat around the, around the kitchen fire and ... and there was that one lamp I remembered we ... we used in the kitchen and when my father and mother were sort of washing up and so on I would try and do some homework, but I wasn't very interested in homework, and in fact I don't think I did any at primary school and very little at high school, which was stupid of me but that's the way it was.

Did your parents supervise your homework at all?

Not at all. They, they were not capable of doing that. My father could read and write but not much more. My mother could read and write and ... and she'd taught herself a great deal of reading because of her experience on the Birdsville Track, but there was never any books in our house. There were no dictionaries in our house. There was no ... George Hardy across the road, he would occasionally bring home some women's magazines from his job as being cleaner on the railways, and ... and Mrs. Hardy would sometimes lend them to my mother or would have them there and I ... and I would try get a hold of them and read them but ... but there was nothing, nothing readable in our house.

So did you read as a child, I mean, how did you ...

I tried to, Robin. I was a very keen reader. When we'd moved from Murrays Lane to a certain number of other address, because we really couldn't pay the rent, we finished up in Halifax Street, the other end of the city, and I, aged about ten or twelve, got a little part-time job on Saturday nights selling newspapers on the corner of the a Havelock Hotel. And the ... the newsagent, who employed me, had a lending library and I would pass the lending library to and from with my papers and I managed to smuggle out some of his books, and I read all the Shane Grey's, and Edward S. Ellis's, and the cowboy stories of those times, and really enjoyed reading them.

And would you say that you were an unusually interested reader, or were you just average?

I don't know. I don't know what other people do in reading. I was a ... I think I read more than my younger brother. I think I read more than my two sons and perhaps I was an above average reader of papers and comics, particularly.

Now you say that you were sent to a convent school. Was your family Catholic?

No, no. We ... we ... I don't know that we were any religion at all really. My mother took me to that free kindergarten, which was run by the Baptist Church, and I've sort of grown up in the Baptist tradition but I don't think my ... and by later on, my mother she was quite elderly, she went to Norwood Baptist Church, but they were not serious religious people at all. I ... I remember that my mother telling me about this use of Sundays as being the ... the Sabbath on which you rested. She told me that when she was at Birdsville as a small child, her mother had adopted a ritual for Sundays. There was no school in Birdsville at the time and there were five or six children in my grandmother's household, but on Sunday mornings they all had a bath in a tub - and water would be scarce at Birdsville - and got dressed up in fresh clothes and then the little family of five or six children and my grandmother, would walk out on the Birdsville Track for perhaps a mile or so and just have a little sort of family picnic and then come home, and in that way my grandmother managed to sort of break the time up into weeks. Sunday was a marker. The rest of the time was all the same, because they didn't go to school and so they ... they went and milked the goats and brought them home and sold the milk and so forth, so every day was that, except Sundays, when my grandmother insisted that was a day of rest. It really wasn't because goats still had to be milked and taken out on the common and brought back, but my mother was ... was sort of in that tradition that on Sundays you did something special.

And in your house what was that?

Well, she encouraged me to go to Sunday school and I went to Sunday school at that little kindergarten and I guess I must be one of the longest surviving members of that kindergarten, and when my younger brother was born, she also encouraged him to go and we went to Sunday school until we were old enough to think seriously for ourselves.

And when you could think seriously for yourself about religion, did you take it seriously or were you one of the defectors?

Oh, well [laughs] I've had a sort of love-hate relationship. I've been a church member I think all my life, in the Baptist tradition, but I've had lots of doubts about the things we were taught, particularly in Sunday school, about the miracles and various other parts of the Bible and it always seemed to me that anybody who was intelligent and thoughtful would have serious doubts about the accuracy of the Bible stories and I always sort of had this, you know, fifty-fifty: maybe yes or maybe no, and, just more recently of course, it's become a bit ... a bit more difficult to believe in the heaven and so forth.

Because of ...

Oh, my wife's illness she's had for three years.

And it makes it difficult for you to think someone ...

Well, yes, Robin. Sir Mark Oliphant who I ... whom I've got a great deal of admiration for, a former Governor of this state and an atomic scientist, had a similar problem with his wife and for three years he looked after her, when she had dementia, and he said he couldn't see any reason why, if there was a creator of this world, that he would impose that sort of punishment. There was no point to it and I agree with him very much.

It's very hard to see someone that you've loved for a long time go through that loss of personality, isn't it?

Yes, in a way it's harder to bear the sort of breaking down of the identity of the person you've loved for so long. A sudden death and you can go into a grieving mode, but for the last three years, it's just been a sort of ... long sort of grieving.

When you were a child what did you think of what you were taught in Sunday school?

Oh I accepted I think. We sang. We all sang. It was great fun to be in Sunday school. Met some lads, who ... each had got up to little pranks, you know, like shanghais and birds in the Parklands and then later on there were girls in your class and ... and there were picnics and the Sunday school outings and ... and little, little competitions which I was fairly good at. It was good social area to be in, and most of the children of my time, most of them I think, were in various Sunday schools around the city. [INTERRUPTION]

What kind of a woman was your mother?

Yes. I got a photograph of her somewhere when she was about twenty-one and she was then about, oh, I should think about five foot three, five foot four, darkish hair, slightly olive complexion, I think, but a neat figure and active and pleasant to look at and easy to talk to. And she was very much a ... what's the word I want to use? Very much attached to the family. Family were her first priority so that we ... my brother and I were rather spoilt children, I think, looking back, but my mother was very good in ... in sort of making sure that whatever resources the family had, the children got first go at them.

What do you mean by 'rather spoilt'?

[Laughs] Well, I suppose it's a comparison, isn't it? I was thinking of Freddy Boushall, the ... the little boy next door to me who was my sort of mate at the time. His father, Bill Boushall, was a fairly stern man and would insist on strict discipline in the family, although I never saw any or heard any signs of smacking or any bruises on their face but he kept the children in line, whereas my father never, never smacked me and my mother never smacked me and if I'd been very, very naughty they would lock me into my room and tell me to stay there and that was fairly bitter punishment because there was nothing to do. There was only a bed in the room and ... and I was a very active little boy and I would like to get out, but, well, for instance I know the Boushalls thought that my mother spoilt me by paying sixpence a week to send me to the convent school. And then each morning, before that, she would walk me around to the kindergarten and then pick me up late in the afternoon and walk back, and I think the Boushalls thought that was a bit excessive, and their children went to Sturt Street School which was a fairly rough school but ... but me, I went to a private school.

Looking back, do you think that it did have a spoiling effect, or what do you think of that kind of way of rasing a child?

Yes. Well, well ... I enjoyed it and flourished on it, but I needed a bit of discipline and I really didn't get that. I think I should have been perhaps more controlled. I ... I should have done my homework and I should have come home early from school, and come home early from outings and so forth, and I wished my children would have done that, but I ... I tended to follow in the same steps as my mother and our children had a fairly loose rein on them.

And what do you think have been the consequences for you of the loose rein, as an adult? What were the practical outcomes of that kind of upbringing?

I'm not sure whether I inherited the tendencies but certainly I grew to be fairly confident about going out in the street on my own, visiting strange places, staying out late at night, talking to strange people, wandering down to the Parklands, patting the horses, and I suppose I acquired a certain degree of independence and a preparedness to do my own thing. If I'd been sort of kept more controlled I would have perhaps needed to go back to get consent from somebody before I did the things I did. I suppose in a way, Robin, now you've mentioned it, it coloured my relationship with my ministers. I tended to have the same relationship with my Police Minister in Queensland, for instance, and in Canberra, that I only wanted a loose rein and, and I was able to use my own initiatives and be responsible for my own consequences and they accepted that sort of relationship. Perhaps if I'd been a more confined youngster I would have been more restricted in what I thought and what I did. I haven't thought about that before but obviously I should have. I'm a sociologist by ... by study and I should have seen this in my own character but, like most academics, we don't think about ourselves as subjects.

So you were raised really to be a self-directing ...

Did I raise?

You were actually raised to be a self-directing person?

Well, I don't know whether my mother realised that or not, but that was the outcome of it. I always felt able to make my own judgements and trust my own judgements and accept the consequences. I think that perhaps helped me during the war as a navigator. We did some fairly tough trips in the Arctic and I was full of confidence about them, outwardly at least. I wasn't that sure myself, but other members of the crew always thought I ... I was right, I was spot on, I was a sound navigator, but I think it was because I had developed this idea of doing your own thing with a certain degree of success.

As a child did you ever do anything wrong? Did you ever stray over the line? Did you do anything immoral, illegal or plain naughty?

Oh yes, oh yes. I think ... I think every sort of normal child does that. I think I told you I'd ... I'd borrowed these library books and I later on felt I should return them and I did that to the stationer, and he was surprised at this and I'd also ... because I was a fairly hungry lad, I'd stolen some sardines from the Adelaide Co-op, I went and repaid for those things.

How much later did you take them back?

Oh I must have been eighteen or nineteen years of age, so it would have been ten years ... ten years [laughs] later. But I felt I should do that. I had a fairly guilty conscience about these things then. I'd just joined the police force and it seemed to me that, you know, how could I go around charging people with stealing things if I'd been doing the things that they were.

And so it was just a little bit of childish shoplifting?

Well it was childish. I guess, it wasn't systematic at all. But interestingly Robin, you're making me rethink some of my early, early adventures. When I became a young constable in the CIB in Adelaide one of the jobs I was frequently sent upon was to go down to the departmental stores where the security officer had detected a ... a shoplifter and I would go down and question them, arrest them and charge them and so forth, but I always adopted the ... the idea that if you got caught by a security officer it was likely that this was not your first ... first time, so I always adopted the practice of going to the home of the offender before he was put in the cells and searching the ... searching the home, and I think above average the number of people, there were other goods at home that they couldn't explain why they had possession of, and I would charge them with unlawful possession as well. So because of what I thought was a systematic robbery, but these days of course they don't do that and I suspect a number of villains really get off lightly because nobody bothers to check their home, and of course shoplifters these days often steal to order, because of an order they've received. I do remember one little, not little, a middle aged lady, nice housewife, living at Parkside that had been in John Martin's. She'd been stealing towels and I'd gone down there and it was a bit embarrassing. She was a bit like my mother and so forth, but she said she was sorry and she had intended to pay for them later on. So ... so I went to her home and in her home, small home at Parkside, there were a number of cupboards in one of the rooms. We went to these cupboards. There were stacks and stacks of linen sheets and towels, quite a whole series, and I went through these and ... and she said some were hers and we got the receipts out and they were hers and so I carefully put them back where they were because she was obviously a very tidy lady. We charged her with some of the property which she couldn't explain. I think she got a fine or something but then about a week later I got a ... a letter through the office channels from her. She'd written to the Commissioner of Police saying that she'd been very sorry that she'd ... she'd been doing these things but she did really want to compliment my activities in being so kind and thoughtful in restoring her sheets and linen back to their original place. [L-aughs]

Now going back to your early years and after you finished primary school, where did you go to high school?

Well, Adelaide High School was just around the corner from where I was in Halifax Street, and I went to Adelaide High School. At that time there were two systems of secondary school, high school. One was a technical high school on North Terrace and there was the Adelaide High School, which was the old established one. And I went to Adelaide High School because my aunt had gone there and ... one of my younger ... my mother's younger sister had gone there and she was working at E.S. Wigg and Company at that time. They are still here, a stationer's, and she had helped me get textbooks so I had gone to Adelaide High School and I went there for, oh I guess for five years. I tried to get jobs after my intermediate and then after my leaving, but it was the Depression time: 1927, '28, '29, and jobs were difficult to get. I had wanted to get into the teachers' college but the year I matriculated I was ... I was sixteen when I matriculated so I would have been seventeen when I wanted into teachers' college. They had closed it down, there were no intakes for a couple of years and so there I was. I had a commercial matriculation and no jobs and so ...

What do you mean by commercial matriculation?

Oh well they are the two forms of ... two courses then at the South Australian secondary schools. You could do a general course in chemistry and science and all those sorts of things and there was a commercial course, which taught you accountancy and shorthand, typing, and commercial geography and I ... and my aunty, the kind one, suggested that maybe I could go into a clerical job at E.S. Wigg and Son's later on, but there was no jobs there for me.

Ray, did anybody ever recognise your academic potential which you proved later on in your life? When you were at school, were you seen as academically gifted in any way?

Well, at primary school, at Norwood Primary School, I was top of the class but I really didn't score very highly. I think I got 610 marks out of 700 for the qualifying certificate, and at high school I was more interested in playing sport than doing homework, so I was always towards the bottom of the class although each year I passed, with a bare pass but I never failed. I just got by with a bare pass.

And you continued not to do homework all through high school?

Oh that's right. I ... I had a fairly active ... I played football, Australian Rules football for the school and soccer for the school and that, and so I then joined the scouts and they ... they had soccer again, so I played soccer for them and then the little church, the Baptist church across the road, they had gym on Tuesday nights, so I went to gym and so forth, and on Friday nights I went to ..., so there was no time for homework.

So you moved to a house opposite a Baptist church?

Yeah, we moved. We ... we did that. We did a series of moves from Murrays Lane. We did about four or five moves that one year, mainly because we couldn't afford the rent. We never got evicted but we never ... We had to move and we finished up at rather a nice house down the bottom end of Halifax Street, that's the other end of the city and there was a Baptist mission right opposite and I went there when I was about aged ten or something - yes, nine or ten - and they had a very attractive youth leader, a man of about twenty-five, Gooden. He was from the YMCA. A good cricketer, a good tennis player and he ... he got ... There was a number of little lads about my age from poor families, and he got us organised into a cricket team and then took us swimming, taught us how to swim and ... and attend the gymnasium class that he organised and play basketball, and then he also tried to teach me chess, so he was a big influence in my life.

How did you get involved with the scouts?

Well, when I was in seventh grade at Norwood School, Jim Monaghan, who was my desk mate, we were [?] in [?] too, said that he'd joined the scouts and why didn't I and I didn't see any real reason, but he told me about going camping and cooking and swimming and so forth, so I still maintained my attempts at Norwood School which had been the most ... my previous school, so he'd walked home from where his home was at Norwood to the city, to Halifax Street, to persuade my mother to let me join the scouts which I did and I joined the ... the YMCA troop when I was eleven and stayed with it for the rest of my life.

[end of tape]

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