An afternoon with Grandma

On the afternoon of the 21st May, 2011, I had a good old chinwag with a truly remarkable woman – Eileen Cunningham, my grandmother.

Grandma Cunningham has seen a hell of a lot in her ninety years – wars, depressions, love and loss. She danced at Prescott’s Hall and went hiking with her girlfriends when it was considered un-ladylike to do so. She’s gone from a childhood where blocks of ice were delivered from door to door by horse and cart, to an era of refrigerators and microwaves, digital television and the internet.

I’ve been privileged to hear these stories and more throughout my lifetime. And now that I’m an aspiring historian, I thought it about time I made the effort to record them for posterity. So, on the afternoon of the 21st May, I sat with my Grandma for several hours as we discussed her life. What emerged was a very personal story – her story, one which she alone could tell.                              

I’m now in the process of transforming Grandma’s story into a book – however, I don’t think she’d mind if I shared a few of her tales with the world! In that vein, here are just a few of the many tales which form a part of her story.

Grandma Cunningham today



“Nanna came out from England, when she was a girl. And she married Patrick McGlinchey – we used to call him ‘The Wild Irishman’. He came out from Ireland. I don’t remember him – he was killed at one of his work jobs.

He used to drive a team of horses – you know, they used to have a cart, and they’d have a shaft right down the middle, and there were horses – a team of horses, they used to call it. And it was like a slat top cart, and they used to cart timber and everything on it. And they had a team of horses – they had a shaft down the middle, and on each side of the shaft was a horse. Could be eight horses pulling – it all depended on their load.

[Dad] worked for Crystal Ice – drove a horse and cart [delivering ice from door to door]… Half of them didn’t have ice chests – they’d just buy a block of ice and put it in the ice box.”

An ice delivery cart



“When my mother died, [my Nanna] came and lived with us, and she sort of reared us. ‘Coz I was only about four or five – I was the youngest. And Dad never married – he worked hard, you know, to keep us. And Nan used to cook and look after us. My Aunty, a dressmaker, she used to make our clothes – Aunty Alice – she lived in Balmain. She used to take in sewing.

You used to get the dole, and they’d… you’d get a ticket to buy clothes and shoes, and they were big heavy shoes. You could always tell dole shoes – they were just plain, with a strap in the front, a buckle… big heavy black shoes, they were. Took all your time to lift your feet off the ground, they were that heavy. Made to last you.

Everybody got clothes from the dole, ‘cause nobody had any money. You used to get tickets to go to the grocers, you had so much to spend at the grocers. They’d give you a chit – when you’d go to collect your dole they’d give you this thing, and you’d take it to the grocers to buy food. Everything was done, they used to call it, by ‘chits’ – little cards you used to show them.

But little kids don’t remember much – it was more the grown ups that felt it. You didn’t realise, because everybody was the same. We never wanted for anything, you know. We always had food to eat.”

Eileen at age seven



“On our way to school, we used to see that every morning. It just sort of grew from nothing, up, up like that …  and when it met it the middle we reckoned it’d fall down! And then it met in the middle, and they put the road across.”

The Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction



“I don’t think we even had a radio! And television’s weren’t there then, of course. We used to call them wirelesses – only the rich people had a wireless.

I used to get sixpence a week pocket money. And it used to be sixpence to go to the pictures Saturday afternoon. Because if I went to the pictures, all my pocket money would be gone – that’d be my pocket money for the week … cowboy movies, mostly cowboys, you know, things like that. Up at the Hoyts, up in Balmain.

But we never went out much. We used to go for picnics down at Clifton Gardens – you’d go down to the Quay and get the ferry to Clifton Gardens. Everybody went to Clifton Gardens for a picnic. [My sister] used to work for the sugarworks, and once a year they had a picnic where everybody would go to the sugarworks picnic … We’d have a swim, take our cozzies with us.”

Hiking was very popular during the 1930s



“I done a lot [of dancing] – when I was in my teens, when I was about fifteen or sixteen. It was local – Laurie and Lyll lived in Balmain, our teachers. We used to go up to Prescotts Hall in Darling Street, every Saturday afternoon, to learn to dance. They taught us all.

And they used to take us to different, other dance clubs. We used to go to Petersham Town Hall, and places like that, to compete against them.

We used to do old time – the old Barn Dance, the Gypsy Tap. It’d be one, two, three, kick, back, two, three, kick. Slide to the side, and a few forwards, and then you’d waltz the rest of it, the finish of it.                      

Everyone who got married would have their reception in Prescotts. And any clubs, anyone having dances used to use Prescotts Hall.”

   The Prescotts Hall dancing crew