Village Life

 Changing times – Village life

While this website contains a wealth of detail about Cheltenham and Beecroft, what this article hopes to achieve is to provide a number of extracts from various contemporary written items that provide glimpses of the essence of how the suburbs were perceived at that particular time in history.

On villages in Sydney more generally, Paul Ashton has written:

“Unlike cities and towns, which are urban, suburbs have their origins in villages or more often in the village ideal. Suburban villages – such as Beecroft, Lane Cove, Manly, Randwick and Hunters Hill – evolved into select municipalities. These were part of a tradition which created ‘subtopias’ in Britain along the lines suggested by British town planning pioneer and guru Ebenezer Howard. Using standardised materials and architectural styles, these built up rural or semi-rural places created a village atmosphere that blurred the boundaries between country and town. They were rustic and generally exclusive.

Residents of these suburbs, most of whom had escaped the city while maintaining investments and economic interests there, sought to control their moral, social and physical surroundings. …Suburban villages sought and secured the mantle of respectability and constructed new perceptions of the relationship between the city core and the periphery or frontier. While dynamic, this image essentially cast the city as a sink for the lowest of humanity, as a place of fever, vice, crime, delinquency, deficiency and radicalism. …All this, and more, was to be kept out of the untainted suburb.” [1]

Before the First World War

In 1902 a newspaper said: “A distinctive feature of modern Beecroft is that its dwellings and villa residences are of a superior type, some of them costing thousands of pounds sterling to construct, and all, with a few exceptions, occupying comparatively large areas. This latter fact, and the hilly nature of the country, together with the circumstance that the native trees have been preserved, have combined towards the retention of an appearance of rusticity that has its own special charm; and added to this its elevation, which is 427 feet above sea level at the station rising to 600 feet at Red Hill renders it extremely healthful and enables its denizens to enjoy an extensive panoramic view embracing the city, which on a clear day is clearly visible” [2].

In 1910 a protest about native trees was lodged with Hornsby Shire Council: “From Chas A Dobbie, C McKern and other residents intimating that, understanding it is to be the council’s intention to cut away part of the footpath on the northern side of Hannah Street between Beecroft road and Herring’s corner, and possibly to interfere with the native tree growing thereon, they desire to state that they placed a high value upon the beauty of the trees and of the footpath in its present formation, and that they had, therefore, a very strong objection to the footpath being cut away in any part. The president said that he had stopped the work on that letter” [3].

When the fire station was built residents complained that it was weatherboard rather than brick like other buildings in the village [4].

In 1919, an appreciation of Cheltenham was published:

‘Now mind what you say or do’ said my companion ‘Chelty’s a shy creature, timid as a gazelle and as beautiful, but quite heartless.’ We were not talking about a human being, but of a place, a slumber known as Cheltenham, Cheltenham the chaste. My companion has a house there, and he dwells there so it appears, but he says that he does not ‘live’ there at all. All he does there is ‘sleep’. Living is too active a state of being. It the understood thing in Cheltenham, so it seems, and the ‘unwritten law’ of the place to be quite passive; things might ‘happen’ but no self respecting resident will ‘do’ anything whatever. Tradesmen from other restless, low class suburbs, such as Eastwood or Epping may deliver good there, but no shop is permitted to desecrate Cheltenham. The postman is of course tolerated as a necessary evil and the telephone, like the grasshopper, is a burden, otherwise the calm repose which marks the cast of Vere-de-Vere must ever prevail. Primitive perhaps, idyllic indeed, but frightfully tedious all the same. How all of this originated, or who first started the idea of being idyllic, nobody seems to know, but it has become a habit of the place. Dwelling houses are sometimes permitted to be built there, but only for fully accredited intending occupants, who must be owners as well as occupants, not just common rent paying tenants. Cheltenham is adorned, prettily adorned, with a bowling green, and once a week or so a few alleged players, gaudily attired, stroll passively and meditatively about, like ‘superb’ actors on the theatrical stage, just for the sake of scenic effect. No one there ever gets excited; in fact, excitement is tabooed. Dogs have been known to bark at night, occasionally, and there was once, years ago, a crowing cock. Even water from the taps flows placidly and languorously, and garden sprinklers sprinkle quite coyly. Whiskey and other spirits are said to become quite mild and mellow and lose their inherent viciousness when imbibed in the calm atmosphere of Cheltenham, where apparently it is always afternoon and the languid are at rest” [5]. 

From the end of the First World War until the 1950s

Complaints were lodged in 1919 about the removal of gum trees by State government workers. The local Councillor (and resident of Hannah Street) Mr Frank Chapman said that: “The fact was that the gang came from Balmain and considered that they were ‘right out in the wilds’ when they came to Beecroft and saw indigenous trees growing on the footpaths. They could not conceive that the residents desired to preserve the sylvan appearance of the village and thought that they were doing a real service by cutting down the trees” [6].

A Letter to the Editor, Sydney Morning Herald, of 1933 shows a quiet, charmed life in Beecroft:

“For some months I have been awaiting the appearance of the offspring of a pair of superb warblers nesting in a Dorothy Perkins climber outside my window. Yesterday a fledgling …. Flew into my room. It was soon perched on my finger having a drink from a glass of water. I recognised it as a pallid cuckoo and knowing the habit this family has for laying its eggs in another’s nest to hatch, I watched its flight as it was freed by me from the window. It flew straight to the nest in the rose vine! So that was the reason the little blue wren had been about so early in search of grubs! The cuckoo is a hungry foster-child” [7]. 

During the Second World War one Cheltenham resident, on the warpath following the destruction of some of the Chorley palm trees wrote: ‘The average resident of Cheltenham does not seek for publicity. All he wishes to do is live a quiet life within his garden and his trees, do the right thing by his neighbour, keep the enemy out, and have his soldier son safely back with him’ [8].

When looking for a home, once her husband returned from World War 2 Mary Dougan, the great Beecroft plantswoman, said: “we were going for a drive somewhere and we came across this lovely little place called Beecroft and I said this is where I would like to live. And we did live there too” [9].

In the 1950s vandals painted “Sleepy Hollow” on the railway station one night [10].

The 1960s to 2000.

In 1964, the Nobel laureate Patrick White said of Thea Astley, who was working at Cheltenham Girls and lived in North Epping, that he was “lamenting the fact that she lived in a remote suburb and was forced to miss so much” [11].

In 1969 George N Baur (at the time a resident of Mary Street and a forester) wrote to the Civic Trust: “For a number of reasons I have never joined the Civic Trust. A most unfortunate brush with some decidedly unneighbourly members of a local organisation [12], shortly after my arrival in the district, has deterred me from becoming involved in other organisations which appear to show an untoward interest in other people’s affairs.

In addition I have been by no means sold on some of the policies which the Trust has espoused. I think I would sooner see the Expressway take up part of the Devlin’s Creek Reserve rather than see it destroy homes & gardens into which residents have poured much love & labour. I know that I favour the provision of some home-units, villa units or the equivalent, built to a suitable standard in keeping with the surroundings, so that older residents, no longer able to maintain a large home & garden, can nonetheless remain in the district, among their friends, in suitable, comfortable, attractive accommodation” [13].

In 1972 one newspaper ran a series of articles comparing and contrasting different Sydney suburbs. Beecroft was one of the featured stories.

“Beecroft nestles prettily and graciously between Cheltenham and Pennant Hills. Even the name sounds green – the sort of pleasant English green, reminiscent of broad, shady avenues, trim hedges and gardens brimful of rose bushes and hydrangeas.

If Beecroftians have one fault, then perhaps it is a certain smugness, in knowing that although they have as much money as the ritzier North Shoreites, they prefer to opt out of the social rat race and settle simply and proudly for a life of concentrating on bettering their own area.

Beecroft is a suburb of university lecturers (and university students), teachers, head shrinkers, accountants and most other members of the professional workforce. Junior Beecroftians, tend, on the whole, to enrol at local State schools, not because their parents can’t afford to send them elsewhere, but because as a matter of pride and adhering to principle, Beecroft parents make their district schools superior enough to be socially acceptable.

Mrs D. is a typical Beecroft housewife. She lives in a project split level, surrounded by gum trees. There are no fences in her street. Mrs D. is immaculately groomed most of the time and well groomed the rest of it. Although it is fashionable in Beecroft to grub in one’s garden in jeans during the weekend. When Beecroftians are not grubbing in their gardens, they’re sharing gin and squash or a cold beer on the neighbour’s terrace.

Mrs H. lives just around the corner from Mrs D. Hers is a very old, sprawling brick bungalow. Many of her wealthy friends would love to exchange their project homes with her. There’s masses of room, high ceilings inside, and the garden is a tangle of old, flowering shrubs, proud cedars and marvellous clumps of snowdrops.

Mrs H.’s children are older. Two attend university and enter protest marches. Mrs H. wishes they wouldn’t. She’s constantly on edge waiting for them to be arrested. However, she realises that protesting is a sign of the times, and her children aren’t going to be protesters forever – she hopes.”

Mr H. is a bit of a rebel. He hates grubbing in the H.’s lovely garden. A gardener comes in once a week to trim and tidy up. His neighbours don’t quite overlook Mr H.’s idiosyncrasy” [14].

[1]      P Ashton, “Suburban Sydney,” Dictionary of Sydney, page 5 of 11 accessed 20 December 2012. 

[2]      Australian Town and Country Journal, 5 May 1909 p20.

[3]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 5 February 1910 p 11.

[4]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 14 August 1915

[5]      An abridged version of an article in Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 22 February 1919 p 8.

[6]      Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers Advocate, 30 November 1919, p. 8

[7]      Letter to the editor of L A Redgrave, Sydney Morning Herald 23 January 1933, p5.

[8]      Letter to the editor of David B Bertram, Sydney Morning Herald 2 July 1941, p. 7

[9]      interview with Mary Dougan accessed on the oral history page of the Australian Garden History Society: (accessed 13 September 2021).

[10]    A Tierney A Beecroft Childhood, memories of the 1940s (privately printed, Castle Hill, 2012) p 23.

[11]    K Lamb Inventing her own weather (University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 2015) p161.

[12]    The P&C Association of the Public School resolved to ask the Education Department to resume his ‘small timber cottage’ in Mary Street for demolition to provide a playground for the school pupils. They had not previously discussed this with him and he never subsequently missed a meeting of the P&C. His daughters, Louise and Angela, went on to excel at the school. 

[13]    Letter, George N Baur to The Secretary, Beecroft Cheltenham Civic Trust, 10 May 1969.

[14]    The Sun, 16 February 1972.