Saturday, May 10, 2014

Rookwood, Redfern, Bondi and a black stump

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Last week I attended a funeral at Rookwood Cemetery.

For those not familiar with Sydney, Rookwood is a suburb about 17km out of Sydney city and is the location of the largest cemetery in the Southern hemisphere. Established in 1868, it now has over one million people buried there and covers an area of 300 hectares.

Back when I was a youngster Rookwood was overgrown and unkempt . . .

. . . but these days it looks well maintained and has undergone a makeover, including repairs, planting and landscaping, and restoration.  There are even walks and scultural exhibitions.

A digression:

The cemetery was originally known simply as the Necropolis, meaning "City of the Dead", and its official name remains Rookwood Necropolis. When the cemetery first opened in 1867 in the village of Haslem’s Creek, it was simply known as Haslem’s Creek Cemetery. Over time the area became known for its cemetery, leading local residents to lobby for a name change for the village. They were successful in 1879 and the village name was changed to Rookwood. One explanation holds that the name comes from an 1834 novel, Rookwood, but the more commonly accepted version is that it is a variation of the name Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, England, at that time one of the largest cemeteries in the world. By 1898 the necropolis was well known by the new name Rookwood Cemetery, leading the burghers of Rookwood village to again seek a name change to disassociate from the city of the dead. In 1913, a new name was suggested to honour the previous mayor Mr Lidbury and the current mayor Mr Larcombe. Syllables from the name of each alderman (Lidbury and Larcombe) were combined to form the name Lidcombe on 1 January 1914, the name by which the area remains known.

But I stray from the topic.

My attendance at the funeral reminded me of a common expression in my younger days: “as crook as Rookwood”.

“Crook” in this context is a common australian slang expression meaning “unwell”. When someone says "Gees I feel crook", or "I'm really crook in the guts, nust have been that seafood was off", or simply "I'm crook", you know they are quite unwell, nothing more needs to be said.  "Crook" conveys not only being unwell but that the person is feeling quite ill, that it is not a trifling item and that they are not "bunging it on".

To "feel as crook as Rookwood" therefore means to feel so extremely ill as to be close to the grave.

From there it has also been extended to mean unwell in non-health contexts, including in areas of finance, society and politics, for instance:

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That remembrance had me thinking of some other Oz slang expressions involving place names. Oz slang is declining as young people become more global and text speak replaces English. Nonetheless, even if only for historical interest, here FYI r 2 othr sygs with plc nms frm my ygr days.

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The Black Stump

Expressions “beyond the black stump” and “this side of the black stump” refer to the boundary between the bush, the remote and uncivilised on the one hand, and the city and suburbs, the civilised and the settled areas on the other. 

The expression is therefore equivalent to another slang one involving a place name: "out the back of Bourke". Bourke is a town 800 km northwest of Sydney. Bourke is considered by those in eastern NSW to represent the edge of the settled agricultural districts and the gateway to the outback.

There are competing claims as to the origin of the reference to the black stump and as to whether it referred to an actual black stump.

Rolf Boldrewood’s 1888 novel Robbery Under Arms refers to the Black Stump as an actual place "within a reasonable distance of Bathurst . . . . it had been a tremendous old Ironbark tree- nobody knew how old, but it had had its top blown off in a thunderstorm, and the carriers had lighted so many fires against the roots of it that it had been killed at last, and the sides were as black as a steamer's funnel."

There is a school of thought that the expression referred not to a specific place but to general place markers, used by teamsters operating horse and bullock drays to transport wool and other products. A Bullletin magazine entry in 1900 refers to “A rigmarole of details concerning the turns and hollows, the big tree, the dog-leg fence, and the black stump”.

Amongst the specific place claimants for the origin of the reference, the strongest appears to be the town of Merriwagga, located about 650 km west of Sydney, and nearby Gunbar. In 1886 teamster James Blain stopped to camp at Gunbar station. Whilst away from the campsite to load the drays, James’ wife Barbara stayed behind to cook the evening meal. When they returned they found Mrs Blain burned to death, probably as a result of her dress having caught alight from the campfire. She was buried at Gunbar cemetery and, at the inquest which followed, James said that when he found his wife she “looked like a black stump.” A true romantic.  A nearby watering place became known as Black Stump Tank.

Memorial for Mrs Bain at Meriwagga

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Get off at Redfern:

Let’s move from out the back of Bourke to the inner city, 

Redfern is an inner city suburb 3 km south of Sydney’s CBD, previously characterised by poverty and slum areas but today undergoing redevelopment and revitalisation.

For 2 years I got off the train at Redfern to go to the University of Sydney (commonly called SinnyUny) and caught the train there again in the evening, whilst doing an Arts degree.

Redfern Street, Redfern (corner of Regent Street), circa 1909

Tram entering Redfern Street, c 1940's. Note hearse on the right.

Redfern has lent its name to an expression in more common use in the past which has faded into obscurity with medical developments and changes in society and its attitudes.

The expression “get off at Redfern” was based on the fact that Redfern was the last train stop before Sydney’s main rail station, Central.

Not to beat around the bush, to get off at Redfern meant to practice coitus interruptus as a form of birth control, to withdraw immediately before ejaculation.

Apparently prior to the 1960’s, when The Pill was developed (leading to predictions of the end of civilisation as we knew it), getting off at Redfern was a common form of birth control, despite its unreliability.

I have read that “getting off at Richmond” is the Melbourne equivalent and there are also overseas equivalents: “get off at Paisley” is the last stop before Glasgow, get off at Haymarket is the last stop before Edinburgh . . .

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Shoot through like a Bondi tram:

Everyone knows that Bondi has a famous beach.

Bondi 1944

Less well known is its trams.  Although it no longer has a tram service, shooting through or otherwise, that was not always the case.

In 1884 a tram track was extended from Bondi Junction but not to the beach. The trams were powered by steam. Likewise 1887 extensions stopped short of the beach but that milestone was reached in 1894 with one tram in the morning and one in the afternoon. There were additional trams on weekends when thousands headed for the beach on the trams. People fished and children paddled but going into the water in daylight hours was forbidden by law.

In 1902 the line was electrified and it lasted to 1960.

Cowper St Bondi Jn looking south c 1910. The horse drawn waggon is carrying building supplies.

The electrification of the line also saw the introduction of peak hour express trams from Paddington to Bondi, giving rise to the expression to “shoot through like a Bondi tram”, meaning to leave hastily.

According to a 2011 Sydney Morning Herald item on Bondi:

It was the famous Bondi trams that first opened up the suburb to Sydneysiders in the late 19th century. 
Richard Taylor, curator of the exhibition "Bondi: A Biography" at the Museum of Sydney, said the trams would pass through the city's poor and densely populated suburbs. 
"And so they allowed access to a very large number of people and it's partly where the legend of Bondi arises," he said. 
"It also allowed access to people who were in the poorer suburbs, so Bondi became a very easy place to access for the city's less well-off. 
"So that's where the legendary democratic nature of Bondi emerged." 
But in those early days, swimming was actually banned from 8am to 8pm due to public laws that considered "bathing in the sea and having people semi-undressed" indecent, Mr Taylor said.

Today there are regrets that the tram lines were removed and there are calls to restore the tram system. That may see the restoration of the expression as well.

Until then we will have to rely on an alternative colloquial expression to denote rapid departure: off faster than a bride’s nightie.

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