Phillip Island & District Historical Society

Oral histories 2015: Growing up on Phillip Island: Childhood Memories with Cherry McFee, 90 years old

Last updated on 27-Apr-22

This talk was one of a series of 17 broadcast on South Gippsland community radio station 3MFM during 2014 and 2015, with the assistance of a Local History Grant from the Public Records Office of Victoria.


The joy of growing up in beautiful surroundings, growing up in a country environment with the sea on three sides of our farm. The long, hot summer holidays when I spent hours swimming and exploring the beaches with my brothers and sisters. The summer nights when we hunted the large black beetles which flew about at night.


I remember the kerosene lamps my mother lit at dusk, and the moths and insects attracted to the light on the windows. I remember the lovely feeling of being tucked up in bed at night, listening to the wind sighing in the big gum trees at the bottom of the garden, the gentle lap of the tide on the stony beach, the plaintiff cry of the curlew and the call of the black swans. I recall when the garden was bathed in moonlight with the moon shining on the water like a long silver road.


The fun and fights of growing up in a family of five children. The companionship of playing cricket with my father and brothers. Our early school days which never seemed to end with a five mile journey to the Rhyll school in the spring cart and our faithful pony Nancy. Upon reaching school Nancy was unharnessed and left to roam at will, feeding on the roadside. At 3 o’clock each afternoon Nancy would be seen wending her way back to school as she knew her day’s work was not done until she had brought us home again.


I remember wonderful parents. My mother was always there with our evening meal ready for us. When we were very young, after a hard day’s work on the farm, my father always found time to read us a bedtime story.


The horse riding which we all adored. We learnt to ride early as my father put us on a pony at the age of four years. The thrill of helping dad, who was the drover on the island, round up the cattle and take them to Cowes. The fun and excitement of getting the cattle down the pier and onto the ferry “Killara”. Upon reaching Stony Point, my father, brother Malcolm and Jack Cleeland would drove the cattle to the Dandenong market, returning next day.


Christmas Day each year spent at my grandparents’ home at Rhyll, where all the McFee families gathered. I can picture the large dining room with the enormous table, my grandfather carving the traditional Christmas turkeys and my grandmother serving vegetables from huge dishes.


I recall the kitchen set apart from the house with a covered walk-way where my grandmother prepared and cooked such delicious meals. The scrubbed table and bench tops, the huge stove, the smoke house where the bacon was once cured, the wattle and daub apple house where the fruit and vegetables from the garden were stored.


I remember the thrill of Excursion Day to the Zoo, which Mr Sambell ran once a year. As departure time of the ferry was 7 a.m. from Rhyll, this meant early rising and leaving home with the horse and buggy before daylight. The joy of the trip to Stony Point in the ferry “Alvina” and the excitement of the journey to Melbourne in the train. My father always arranged to meet an old friend, Mr Pritchard, who lived not far from the Zoo. Mr Pritchard always gave us two shillings each to spend. How cross I would be when arriving home tired to find my sister, Kathie, who was more frugal than I, had more money than when she left home and I had spent my last penny.


I recall the picnics to the ocean beaches with my cousins. My father would harness the old white horse, Prince, in the dray and we set off to one of the ocean beaches. The sandwiches and delicious apple cakes my mother made for these occasions, the billy tea, the fun of rolling down the sand-dunes, swimming and playing cricket on the sand.


The farm animals which we all loved, the small foals, the calves, the pet lambs, the pups and kittens, the magpie with the broken wing and our faithful dog Booze. If a stranger came Booze would always push his way in so that he was between the stranger and the children. How devastated we were when Booze went missing for more than a week. One morning he arrived home with a rabbit trap on his leg, he was severely dehydrated and the wound was fly-blown. My mother nursed him back to health, dressing the wound each morning. Booze would wait until sundown when the flies had gone then he would tear off the bandage and lick the wound. This was the pattern until he recovered. Many a tear was shed when Booze left this world at a great age. We had a number of dogs following Booze but none were as faithful.


I remember the thrill of our first car which was a second hand Dodge, with mica windows and a running board on both sides, with a tool box attached. The fun of my father learning to drive. The condition of the brakes would certainly not have passed a roadworthy test today! When my father wanted petrol he usually drove two complete circles around the bowser at the garage before the old car came to a halt, much to the amusement of the attendant.


Our next car was an Oldsmobile, which gave us great joy. How thrilled we were to find the windows wound up and down and one did not have to shout to be heard above the engine.


Then came the Second World War years with the young local boys, including my eldest brother, joining the forces. My father, together with the older men, joined the V.D.C, short for Voluntary Defence Corp. They were issued with ill fitting uniforms and a rifle. Their task was to man the beaches along the south coast of Phillip Island. The men were on a roster system leaving at dusk and returning home at dawn.


At one stage there was a rumour that a Japanese submarine had been sighted near Wilson’s Promontory. This was quickly hushed up by the authorities. On one particular night the men on duty saw what looked like a number of black heads bobbing in the water quite close to shore. They immediately thought it was the Japanese from the submarine. They were all ready to shoot when they realised they were crayfish pots set by a local fisherman earlier in the day.


During the war my father was still driving the old Dodge car. With petrol rationing he ran the car on kerosene and had some magic formula to mix with the kerosene. One morning when he was ready to come home from the night watch the car would not start. The men were teasing him for driving such an old bomb. My father said to them “You just watch”. He got out of the car and dropped a handful of mothballs into the tank, he got back into the car and away he went!


Looking back on my childhood I realised although we lacked some of the luxuries of life, we were richly endowed by being a close knit family with the love of wonderful parents