Hartwell, Victoria: Sid Harta Publishers, 2001. viii, 80 pp. ISBN 0-9578709-8-1.
Nancye Perry needs no introduction to Victorian members of the Book Collectors. Society of Australia, since she and her husband Warren have been for many years regular attenders at Melbourne meetings. Our colleague.s lively interest in collecting, with a special emphasis on shipwrecks, is well known to us, but she is rarely at a loss for an apt example, comment or question, whatever the topic being discussed. We have generally been aware of her earlier professional career as an entomologist, and I at least have recognised in her and Warren fellow refugees from New South Wales. It is this shared background that makes her account of her early life on Sydney’s North Shore between the two World Wars one I have read with considerable curiosity.
In her preface the author says she is offering .a selection of experiences capturing something of the quality of a childhood and girlhood. (p. vi). She is right to insist (p. 1) that reminiscences of the kind she has set down do much to take us beyond the skeletal data one amasses in constructing family trees. Lacking, as most of us do, the wealth of detail needed to make complete sense of the careers and choices of her own ancestors in Britain and colonial Australia, she has quite rightly decided to leave a more comprehensive record of herself for future generations. However, what she provides goes beyond an individual case and illuminates aspects of life in the first half of the twentieth century that social historians need to note.
Palmer Kent, Nancye’s father, was a senior official of the Bank of Australasia. After starting work in his native Tasmania he pursued his career before and after Federation in various parts of the country, finally retiring from the head office in Melbourne in April 1932 as Chief Inspector. He belonged, therefore, to the quite numerous group of public servants and employees of private firms who moved from town to town and from state to state. In those circumstances, and even when salaries were quite generous, house ownership was often less frequent than it has been in post-1945 Australia. Thus the twenty years Nancye Kent Perry chronicles up to her matriculation, along with her younger sister, at the University of Sydney at the beginning of 1939 involved life in rented houses as well as the purchase of a family home from the Nocks in Stanhope Road, Killara, in 1924. Even during the family’s stay in Melbourne from 1930 to 1932 a house was rented in Brighton. A more settled life was often possible only if one renounced (as my own father, an employee of the Shell Company, did) the opportunities for promotion given by interstate transfers.
Younger readers at the beginning of the twenty-first century certainly need to be reminded that material life was often simpler and more spartan, even for those who were comfortably off, in the 1920s and 1930s. There is plenty to document this in relation to all aspects of Nancye’s day-to-day existence, including some, like contact with nature and with animals, that were to be important in her subsequent career. Throughout her schooling — at the preparatory institution Willesden in Killara, then at Firbank in Melbourne and finally at Abbotsleigh — and in her various enthusiasms and encounters — with cricket and Sir Douglas Mawson interalia — one senses the keen curiosity and the forthrightness that are still among her characteristics. Various family and other photographs dotted through the text help to recreate the atmosphere of the period.1
Having been brought up and lived till the age of 22 in Tryon Road, Lindfield, on the other side of the gully from Stanhope Road — but half a generation later —, I had experiences that overlapped with hers, for example a stay at Dalcross Hospital and acquaintance with Bert Oldfield, whose sports store supplied my father’s Lindfield Cricket Club. (We lived, of course, opposite the oval!) Our next-door neighbour till 1954 was Ruth Hirst, the successor of Nancye’s Miss Everett as Headmistress of Abbotsleigh. Miss Hirst is one of the notable absentees from Women of Ku-ring-gai: A tribute, edited by Helen Malcher and published by Ku-ring-gai Historical Society Inc. in 1999, a volume that is neatly complemented by Child of the ‘Twenties.
The Kents’ first rented house in Sydney was in Fidden’s Wharf Road, Killara. After that they moved to Chatswood to another rented house, “Wokalup”, for a couple of years before the purchase in Stanhope Road. Chatswood is certainly not Killara, and Nancye’s mother was clearly sensitive to what unkind acquaintances saw as a comedown. However, I am not sure that it is accurate to call Chatswood an “unpretentious suburb” (p. 11). To declare my interest I should admit that my paternal and maternal grandparents bought houses there shortly after the Kents moved to Killara. From long familiarity I am more inclined to say that, like many of the older respectable Southern and Eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Chatswood had a wide mix of house styles and hence of inhabitants. I go there much less since my aunt’s death in 1995, but to the eyes of 2001 there are many desirable residences, not least in the Beauchamp Park area Nancye knew as a small child. The Sydney directories for 1922 and 1923 show Palmer Kent as living in a house on the east side of Blakesley Street, which runs between Victoria Avenue and Nicholson Street. The house is called “Bertville”, but, given the approximations one finds in directories, this was probably an older name. Recent high-rise developments around Chatswood Station and Victoria Avenue have removed much of the suburb I used to know. The progress seems to me dubious, but I can take some small satisfaction from the fact that my elderly maternal grandmother held out against Grace Brothers’ blandishments for some time in the late 1950s. A garden I knew as a child is buried now under a department store.
Although it is irrelevant to Nancye Kent Perry’s pre-1939 memories, it is worth remembering that her North Shore was prime book-collecting territory. In Killara itself there were Sir William Dixson, primus inter pares, and Keast Burke, then, edging towards Chatswood, Leslie Cowlishaw in Lindfield and Sir John Ferguson in Roseville. The seeds of bibliophilia are sown by the sort of good literary education Nancye evidently had at home and at school. The flowering comes in adulthood and we need more reminiscences about that from today’s collectors.
1 One correction is needed in the chapter on the Kent family’s trip abroad in 1938. The reference to “the French President Delaider” should read “the French Prime Minister Daladier”.