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Remembering old Montague

14 Dec 2017

Remembering old Montague Image

By Sean Car

Having celebrated her 90th birthday on November 29, ‘Southbank Local News’ sat down with the remarkable Elva Keily last month to reflect on her experience as a former resident of old Montague.

Born in Melbourne in 1927 and raised in Buckhurst St, Elva’s memory of growing up in what she knows as “Old Montague” is almost photographic.

Back then Montague was home to around 1000 low-cost, small, timber, two and three-bedroom houses and a close-knit, self-contained and family-centric community.

While physical memories of those days still remain through a handful of old homes and landmarks such as the Golden Fleece Hotel, today it is largely home to a tapestry of business and industry.

As the area begins a new era of major urban renewal as part of the redevelopment of Fishermans Bend, it will not be long before a new community begins to write its own story.

As for Elva, her story begins during the Great Depression when many considered Montague to be somewhat of a slum. However, complete with its own school, church, police station, kindergarten, hotels, bank, post office and even a football team, Elva remembers the area for its close-knit and resilient community.

“There was a very strong community,” she said. “Montague had a very rough sort of name but there was more good than bad.”

“I grew up during the depression and I was too young really to realise what was happening around me because my father had a job and a lot of my friend’s parents didn’t.”

“The kids, particularly boys, would come to school in the middle of winter kicking a football with no shoes on. I thought they were tough until I realised later on that they probably didn’t have any shoes.”

Born to mother Helen and father Samuel, a factory worker at the British Australian Tobacco Company in A’Beckett St, Elva grew up as the youngest of six siblings.

Like many of her neighbours, she and her siblings grew up in a very modest two-bedroom timber cottage. So modest, in fact, her brother would sleep on the front veranda with only a canvas blind to protect him from the elements.

“My house was at 33 Buckhurst St. My parents owned our house it was very small but we had six children and a mum and dad. All the kids these days have to have their own bedroom and that’s okay – that’s the way it is!” Elva said.

“In fact, the house next door to us had more than six children and it was a smaller house. We used to joke about what they might do. One might go to sleep and the other would stand in the corner on a rotation!”

Once part of the ancient river flats, the area of Montague originally consisted of low-lying wetlands and swamps and was originally home to the Yalukit-willam indigenous peoples – one of the five clans of the Boon Wurrung.

Part of the area formerly known as Emerald Hill (now South Melbourne), settlement first began in Montague following the discovery of gold in the 1860s as the area gradually transformed from swamp to residential community.

The area derived its name from the Montague Railway Station, which was established in 1883. Elva can still remember when a train ticket cost just one and six pence – the equivalent of 15 cents in today’s currency!

Home to many labourers, fishermen, boilermakers, mariners and shipwrights and their families, Elva said by the 1920s and 30s many of the houses were condemned due to regular flooding and deterioration.

“The famous Montague Bridge always used to flood there. It would back up and it was the same down Gladstone St and as far up as Buckhurst St,” she said.

“Those old houses used to get hot as hell in summer. There were some terrible places in some streets, some very run down timber homes and very few people owned their own property.”

Attending Lady Northcote Kindergarten on Buckhurst St and Dorcas St State School in South Melbourne from 1932 to 1941, Elva fondly recalls childhood memories of playing in the streets of Montague.

As a child she would go the lolly factory on the corner of Buckhurst and George streets, buy ice cream from Zacko the ice cream vendor and his two wheeler horse drawn cart, attend dances at the hall in Montague St and Christmas parties at the Golden Fleece Hotel, where children would line up for sweets and a present.

Back then, she said her and her brother Raymond would ride their scooter around the neighbourhood, play on building sites and take berries from their holiday home in Belgrave to sell to the Meaden St jam factory.

“We used to take our blackberries and sell them to make jam and get money,” she said. “My brother and I used to get 10 pence a dozen and that was a lot of money. You could get a lot with that in those days!”

Back then, she said there weren’t nearly the number of mechanics that there are today, and the tallest buildings on her side of Montague St were two storeys.

As the first sign of the area’s changing face, the high-rise Gravity Tower on the corner of Gladstone and Montague streets was completed this year. Elva said she couldn’t believe her eyes when she first saw it.

While she hopes there won’t be more like Gravity Tower to come, she said more residential apartments and the new primary school on Ferrars St were great for the area.

And while many see the new park on Ferrars St as vital infrastructure for the future community, Elva thinks it’s all a bit of a fuss!

“The park is a bit of a joke. I think that’s hilarious!” she laughed. “My brother and I used to just play on the railway line there and the rats were as big as cats almost!”

“My brother used to shoot them with his air rifle but that didn’t do much good because he didn’t have anything stronger than that. They were giant! Although they might have looked bigger as I was only eight or nine.”

Elva lived in Montague until the age of 20 when she married her late husband James, who worked as a shipping clerk. After World War II, she would work as a seamstress in the commercial rag trade and has sewed all of her life.

She and James lived in Middle Park and Albert Park until James passed away in 1979. Today, she resides in Port Melbourne with her eldest daughter. She has proudly lived in Port Phillip her whole life.

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