History | One woman's century of city memories

LONG MEMORY: Cecelia Ryan, 100, pictured with the last relic of our windjammer era, the barque Adolphe, wrecked on Stockton breakwater in 1904. Photo: Mike Scanlon

LONG MEMORY: Cecelia Ryan, 100, pictured with the last relic of our windjammer era, the barque Adolphe, wrecked on Stockton breakwater in 1904. Photo: Mike Scanlon

FORMER Novocastrian Max Ryan has a theory why his late grandfather liked peeling spuds.

“I remember he had a way of peeling potatoes all his own, a distinctive style as if it were a real trade,” Max says.

“Later, I realised it must have been something he learned at sea.” 

Max, a former colleague from years past, approached Weekender on the eve of his mother, Cecelia Ryan, of Warabrook, turning 100 years of age a few weeks ago.

“I think there could be a story here, Mike. She’s an amazing woman with lots of memories and is very lucid,” he says.

“My grandfather, her dad Walter Hillier, was ‘shanghaied’ from a Darby Street, Newcastle pub around the end of the sailing ship days in harbour, maybe around 1900, by a gent called ‘Black Roger’, or something similar,” Max says.

“Ship captains in those days were often desperate to get enough crew so their coal ships could leave port, that they forcibly abducted anyone on the street they could get in a hurry.

“Walter awoke at sea with no way back.

“He then settled down to work his way home by ship to Newcastle, which he did after perhaps a couple of years.

“He was a cook on a ship, but later went back to sea voluntarily”.

Max said it was such a dramatic family event (and also not an isolated incident) that his own son, Kishore, once in the Melbourne band Otouto, recorded a song called W.Hillier about the abduction. 

“Walter’s mum lived on the corner of Laman and Darby streets (in Cooks Hill) in what was an old pub,” Max says.

“Walter was what we called ‘a dark horse’. Never said much, although my mum would have loved him to talk more about his experiences.

“Ask my mum about some of her memories. She grew up in a vastly different time.” 

And indeed it was, although Mrs Ryan couldn’t add much more about her father, Walter Alfred Hiller and his life at sea probably in the dying days of the windjammer era.

“As Max said, my father was ‘shanghaied’ aboard a ship by a notorious waterfront character called ‘Black Jack’,” Mrs Ryan says. 

My father was ‘shanghaied’ aboard a ship by a notorious waterfront character called ‘Black Jack’

Cecelia Ryan

“He then worked his passage in the ship’s galley as a cook across the world.

“And although they were hard, even brutal times, he didn’t seem to mind, and tried to make the best of it.

“He later even signed up with another ship, but maybe that was just to get home.

“Walter was away a few years. My father got off in London where he stayed for a while, selling ice cream in summer and hot pies in winter to survive.

“He then came back to Australia where he met my mother and that’s how I came to be. I was born in February 1918. In those days, babies were born at home, ” she says.

 “One of my earliest memories – and I must have been only three years of age – is being taken to look at the Bogey Hole by my mum when a man ran past and threw himself over the cliff.

“My father never talked about his sudden disappearance, or his voyages. Maybe it was all just about surviving.

“We later thought Walter might have come from a Jewish family and although we believe he was born in Sydney, we suspect his family may have originally fled persecution in Russia.

“A lot of such families first fled to England, then Australia,” she says.

“And Darby Street, Newcastle, a century ago must have been a dangerous place at times.

“There were lots of hotels within a few blocks there in the olden days. There’s only one left now, is that right?”

(Of 55 inner-city pubs listed in a 1901 Newcastle business directory, 11 of these were in and around Darby Street, Cooks Hill, then a very busy mining suburb.)

From a person who’s lived through the silent picture era, then the ‘hungry 1930s’, the Second World War, man landing on the moon back in 1969 and the passing of Newcastle Steelworks, one of her most enduring memories is as a young girl in the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s.

“A huge number of men were unemployed and tramped the road everywhere seeking some sort of work, anything,” Mrs Ryan says.

“It was terrible.

“Many also illegally hitched rides on the railways to get around.  ‘Jump the rattler’ was the expression to get off.

“We lived about half a mile from Broadmeadow railway station and the jobless used to hop off onto the tracks near the back of our place to stop being caught by rail police at the station further along.

“They’d often ask for food. Mum made them sandwiches. She was very generous.

“Mum found out later we must have been regarded as a ‘soft touch’ because these tramps had left a secret sign on our property indicating our house would help them,” she says.

Mrs Ryan said her father Walter  “went hawking”, selling manchester to survive the grim times.

At the same time, unemployed Chinese with local market gardens went door-to-door selling vegetables, or clothes, in baskets slung over their shoulders.

“We were poor,” she says.

“One time, when I was very young, I remember going with him in a horse and sulky (a light, two-wheeled wagon) to Ash Island to sell sheets and towels.

“There were no cars in those days.

“He continued in retail, but in shops and died too young, aged only in his early 60s, of pernicious anaemia.”

Before her marriage to her late husband, Gordon, Mrs Ryan worked behind the counter at Farmers’ Department Store in Sydney and then at Scott’s (later David Jones) famous Hunter Street store.

Later she and Gordon ran the Hexham post office store, initially selling lunches for 6d (six pence or five cents) before the mighty 1955 Hunter flood washed them out.

The couple then bought a Sandgate newsagency, then one at Broadmeadow, and she was involved with volunteer work before retiring.

“If you ask me the secret of my long life and looking so good, it would have to be hard work and keeping mentally active,” she jokes.

“I’m lucky. I’ve also travelled. I’ve been on the Great Wall of China and stood on the Empire State Building in New York.

“I’ve lived life. I’ve got memories.”

But, for a person who has lived through the various phases of transport –steam tram, electric tram and even finally, the end of the heavy rail line into Newcastle – she is disappointed with the 21st century progress she sees.

“I’ve been around Newcastle recently and I cried,” she says.

“I didn’t recognise it.”