Arthur and Jessie Howard | Environment Victoria

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Arthur and Jessie Howard: Our Flood

In December 1946, Arthur Howard built a canoe, one of many during his years at the Rudder Grange Boathouse in Alphington. Nearly sixty years later, in March 2005, a man contacted Arthur and said, “I have a canoe which my father bought from Rudder Grange a long time ago. Could you repair it?” Arthur said yes and now the canoe sits in his garage, just 50 metres from where it was built. 

Arthur and his wife Jessie Howard have lived by the river at Alphington for more than fifty years. They have dozens of photos that record, especially, the popularity of canoeing in the 1940s and 1950s. Twelve years ago Jessie began writing down her stories of what is truly a by-gone era. Arthur walks along the Yarra River near his home once or twice a week. As he does the memories and stories come back. He points out a large concrete box, standing incongruously in the shady greenery about ten metres from the river bank. “That might have been the coolstore for Wilshire’s, which was a jazz venue down here in the 1920s and 1930s. There was also a café called the River Brynk Café.”

Passing underneath the Chandler Highway Bridge, Arthur points to the graffiti near the top of the high brick wall. “That’s how high the water got in the 1934 flood.”

In between the memories he identifies birds on the water or calling in the trees: tawny frogmouths, waterhens, bellbirds, wattle birds, Indian doves, ducks, rainbow lorikeets, kookaburras. His walk takes him to the remains of the Alphington Swimming Pool, which has been excavated and re-discovered over the past few years by the South Alphington and Fairfield Civic Association (SAFCA).

“I played here when I was a boy and last swam here in the 1940s. There were diving boards and a toddlers’ pool and change sheds. This pool and others like it along the Yarra were closed by the health authorities in the 1960s.”

Some of Arthur’s memories are re-told in a SAFCA booklet about the riverside pool. He talks about mud fights, peeping into the girls change rooms and being caught swimming nude during school hours.: “A Mrs Renn lived in a large house overlooking the pool. I learnt that she used to watch us with binoculars and then phone the headmaster and give a detailed description of who was there. I thought: You old battleaxe!’

Returning to his home Arthur passes young children playing by the river. “That’s what we used to do! As a youngster I loved being by running water. I’ve spent all my life on the river. It’s my tramping ground.”

Sitting at his dining table he says that while the water quality of the Yarra has improved there is more and more rubbish in the Yarra nowadays. “The rubbish is quite spectacular.” “That’s not the word I’d use,” Jessie replies, setting down a plate of apricot tarts. Jessie’s stories recount times of great fun, of romance, of tragedy and of a constant connection with the water flowing by their front door. Here she recounts the 1952 flood, when Arthur and Jessie were living in the Rudder Grange Boathouse.

OUR FLOOD. 1952

"I call it our flood because we were very much involved."

The river was rising and markers were put out to see how fast it was coming up. You hope that you don’t have to move but it was rising at two feet an hour. Sixty centimetres an hour. It didn’t look like slowing down. A decision had to be made - Pull up the floor covering and take the furniture upstairs. We decided to get rid of the lounge suite that we bought for seven pounds. That’s $14 in today’s money.

It is a very strange feeling to be looking at the bare floorboards and seeing the water gradually creeping through the cracks, and then eventually covering the floor. It didn’t stop rising until we had about four feet in the house. One hundred and twenty centimetres. My marker was the doorhandle.

By then the lounge suite was swirling around and around. We opened the door and set it free to float down the river. We were not so environmentally conscious in those days.

Everything had to be moved out of the workshop: tools, timber and work in progress, which was paddles, butcher’s blocks, and canopies. Some big boats had to be floated out and tethered to trees.

All the small things were loaded into canoes and floated up with the rising water. Alphington Street was packed with canoes, pieces of furniture and spectators.

The canoe club boys stayed there night and day, to move things up higher and to protect the gear from light fingered onlookers. We stayed in the house.

At the end of the day Arthur paddled a canoe in to the stairway and came up to eat and sleep. I had rhubarb and ginger jam cut up and in the preserving pan when the water came in, so here I was making jam in the middle of all the excitement.

Our young daughter Esther thought it was very exciting. Arthur’s mum and her neighbour came down to have a look. They were standing out on the roadway and Esther called out from the window. ‘You can’t come in Grandma, the river’s in our lounge room.’

The boys from the canoe club were very familiar with our lounge suite: ‘Look there goes Arthur and Jess’s chairs.’

With that, they quickly got ropes and towed it back to us, which would have been a hard job against the current. Here it was sitting on our lawn. I could see by my doorknob that the river was going back where it belonged. When the water is out of your house it leaves a covering of fine mud on the walls and floor. The best way to get rid of it is to hose it out as the water is receding, then it’s a matter of drying out. The lounge suite served us well, we ended up burning it in the fireplace to hasten the drying of the walls and floor.

Story by Vin Maskell, 2005

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