Age seems to make us all remember with affection the familiar places of our youth. I have happy memories of more than one town on the West-Australian goldfields, but perhaps my favourite was Wiluna. Wiluna is more than 720 kilometres from Perth.
I went to Wiluna with my husband and first child in July 1941. Coming from the little mining town of Agnew, I was surprised and delighted to see such a vital and thriving place so far inland.
There were all types of businesses and houses there, as well as four hotels. The hotels were the Lake-Way, the Commercial, the Club and the Weeloona. They were all doing a brisk trade. The Weeloona was renowned for having the longest bar in the world. It also had a beer garden where a band entertained patrons on hot evenings.
I remember one incident in the Weeloona that gave entertainment to its patrons. One afternoon the hotel’s cook stood in the saloon bar watching her meek-looking husband have a quiet drink with a bald friend in the front bar. She told him once or twice to come home, but he went on drinking and ignored her. Finally, she grabbed a heavy pint-pot from a table and hurled it through the bar door towards her husband. He ducked. His friend was standing behind him, but luckily the pot only caught him a glancing blow on the side of the head. I have never seen a saloon or bar clear so quickly.
Many miners in Wiluna wore ladies bloomers under their working trousers. Those that wore them usually worked in or around the arsenic plant. The following is from an article in the Sydney Sunday Guardian of June 1931:
”Store-keepers are doing a roaring trade in silk bloomers up in Wiluna, where the new gold mine recently began production. They are not selling them to the usual customers either. The ore treated at Wiluna is very heavily impregnated with arsenic, and this obnoxious mineral is poured out of smoke-stacks at the rate of 17 tons a day.
The serious aspect of this poisonous discharge is that water left out nearby becomes contaminated with it, and it is extremely bad for drinking, while livestock have suffered considerably. Possibly the worst feature is that arsenic dust finds its way through clothing of men employed at this mine, and affects the thigh joints causing acute discomfort. The problem was serious until a brilliant mind conceived the solution of bloomers with elastic at the waist and the knee. They form adequate protection and the men are now wearing exclusive models and finding relief in their silken luxury. They have a leaning to bright colours and the effects are said to be striking. There’s a tragic side to the matter though. The good housewives of Wiluna, now find it necessary to jealously guard their washing for fear of ‘snow-droppers’.”
The miners’ bloomers, along with other clothing suffered damage during the town’s mice plague. The plague began with the torrential rains in the summer of 1942. The skies were fairly clear in the mornings, but by late afternoon heavy black clouds rolled in from the north-east.
We sat on our back steps every evening to watch the brilliant display of sheet-lightning in the sky. Vivid flash after flash kept the sky constantly lit. Then the low rumble of thunder would become louder and louder until the lightning began to zigzag. Finally, the thunder would become deafening, and the rain hitting the corrugated-iron roof blotted out all other sounds.
The rain continued daily for three or four weeks, causing wash-aways to the railway line and roads and the aerodrome became flooded. For two weeks the train carrying perishables for the town could not get through. When it arrived, the townspeople cheered, but most of the vegetables, butter, bacon, and so on, had gone bad. The townspeople had to wait for the next train for their fresh produce.
A near-by sheep station kept the town provided with meat. This became the main part of our diet as the shops ran out of other foodstuffs. I, for one, grew heartily sick of eating meat three times a day.
This onslaught of the elements made us think of the bombing that was then taking place in our northern ports from Darwin to Broome. We had all been advised to dig slit trenches as the Wiluna gold mine was a likely target for Japanese bombers. This was because it was also producing arsenic for aircraft production.
As is usual in our dry country, an abnormal amount of rain often brings a plague of some kind in its wake. On this occasion it was mice. I had never before seen mice in such quantities and I hope never to see such again. I first became aware of them one evening at a picnic we were having with some friends on the shores of Lake Way near Wiluna. The rains had filled the lake to such a high level that motorboats were zipping around on its surface. A Catalina, which is an amphibious aircraft, was even able to land on it. The lake looked to us like a big inland sea.
We swam, ate, drank, and listened to records on our portable gramophone by the lake. There were several groups of people nearby, and the scene was almost like a metropolitan beach. As darkness approached most people went home, but we stayed on, watching the colours of the sunset fade from the water.
It was quite dark and no one had bothered to change a record, so everything was quiet. It was then that I heard a gentle rustle among the low bushes and grass nearby. There was no wind at all, and a friend said suddenly, – ‘Hear that noise? It’s mice’. They were attracted by scraps of food from the picnic, and when we shone a torch around we could see the little red pinpoints of light from their eyes before they scuttled away. I was told that the bush was full of them.
A few days later, I had just put our new baby and the toddler down to sleep after lunch. I poured another cup of tea and was treating myself to a little more of “Gone With the Wind”. Sitting quietly among the lunchtime mess in the kitchen, I was completely engrossed in the book. Suddenly I had the feeling of being watched. I looked up to see mice everywhere. There must have been a dozen or more of them coming in through the two doors that led into the kitchen. They were heading stealthily towards a crust of bread that my toddler had thrown on the floor near her high-chair.
That was the beginning of what was almost a nightmare. Stories spread through the town of mice. One was that they were biting babies’ faces, possibly being attracted by the smell of milk or food. I was terrified that this would happen to our helpless new baby. I always tied mosquito net tightly around the pram and cot, but often during the night I would wake up and check that there were no mice near the children. One night my husband came home from work late and burst out laughing when he switched on the bedroom light, as one of the little beasts jumped out of my bed.
The mice did not stop at eating only food. Holes even appeared in tablecloths, tea-towels, children’s clothing. People returned from summer holidays to find kapok everywhere, overflowing from holes in their mattresses and lounge suites where mice had nested. The mice even went so far as to make holes in white-washed hessian walls.
One day a limp little grey body floated to the surface of the trough of clothes I was washing. I could not bring myself to get rid of it and had to seek help. However, this was a trivial incident compared with a horrifying experience I had one night. I was sleepily groping about the house to get my little girl a drink of water when my bare feet touched something soft and furry. As I sprang away, my feet landed on another, and another, and still more little soft bodies. I finally reached the light switch and turned it on to see the floor covered with a sea of dead mice that our cat had killed and left.
The mice plague vied with the war news as the main topic of conversation in the town. The ordinary mouse-trap was not equal to the task of dealing with mice in plague proportions, so much time and ingenuity were spent in devising alternative methods. Our invention brought us a record catch of seventy mice in one night. We put a tub of water in a little garden area near the back door. Then we put a crust of bread in the neck of a beer bottle and balanced it over the water. As each mouse ran out on to the bottle to reach the crust, it slipped on the glass and fell into the water where it drowned.
After a few weeks, the numbers of mice diminished and they disappeared altogether, almost as suddenly as they had arrived. We were very thankful to be rid of our unwelcome visitors.
The next ten years in Wiluna were very full, at least for our growing family. But during the last three or four years, we realised we were living in a slowly dying town. Fewer men were needed on the big Wiluna goldmine. The smaller mines – the Moonlight, the Happy Jack, and the Bulletin-had already closed down. The town began to shrink quite literally as gaps appeared in streets when houses were dismantled and carted away. Eventually, whole streets disappeared. The buildings were transported to other towns, particularly Wonthella, a suburb of Geraldton, and Kalgoorlie. Some of the houses were rebuilt and used as beach cottages.
Finally, the mine closed down. A 160-page sale catalogue was sent out to mining companies and other firms all over Australia. The mine had always been known as ‘the big mine’, and it was expected that the huge amount of machinery, equipment, and buildings would take at least a week to dispose of at the closing-down sale. It began on Monday 11 August 1952. The well-equipped clubhouse as well as the mine boarding house, run for many years by Curly O’Connor, were to go under the auctioneer’s hammer. The boarding house was very large, covering 465 square metres, while the mineworkers’ club covered 325 square metres. Three full-sized billiard tables and one small piano were part of the club’s equipment to be sold.
The manager of the mine, Mr H. H. Carroll, asked the local branch of a women’s organisation if its members would cater for morning tea, lunch, and afternoon tea during the week of the sale. The survey office was to be used as a kitchen and dining-room, with suitable equipment from the mine boarding house. The object was to keep the sale going all day, without lengthy breaks for the buyers to travel the 5 kilometres back into town for refreshments. The women’s organisation was not able to undertake the catering and, for reasons that I am still a little vague about, I volunteered to do the job with two friends. We made our plans and cooked a huge quantity of biscuits. We decided that I would stay home and do all of the cooking so that I could look after my young baby at the same time. The other two women served morning and afternoon tea and I would help them during the lunch hour. We planned the menu to include pasties, hot dogs, sandwiches, salads, and a variety of home-made cakes. We asked our local butcher to prepare a large quantity of minced beef for the pasties.
On the opening day of the sale, buyers arrived from all parts of Australia by planes, cars, and the weekly train. The accommodation was taxed to the limit. Our catering proceeded smoothly enough until half-way through the week when the butcher ran out of beef. I bought a couple of legs of mutton from him, knowing that this was far short of our needs for the rest of the sale. The shortage of meat had been caused by the unexpected numbers of buyers staying in the town’s hotels and boarding houses.
On the same afternoon the two George McHughs, ‘Old’ and ‘Young’, who had a Iittle mine at Cole’s Find, called in to see us. They had shot three grey kangaroos on the way in, and said, ‘These should be good eating’. My husband remarked that the meat shortage was no longer a problem. After a little hesitation, I was forced to admit that I had little choice but to combine kangaroo meat with mutton, and hope that it would equal beef. The pasties were a great success and we could have sold many more than I was able to make each day. However, the ingredients were kept a dark secret.
Not long after the sale, it came time for us to leave the town, as hundreds of others had already done. We loaded our belongings onto the train, said our sad farewell to the few remaining residents of Wiluna, and moved on to yet another mining town.