Domestic Life

creating, maintaining, living in and working around houses and institutions

For much of Dungog’s history, domestic life meant women working at home with perhaps the assistance of servants, also usually women. Associated with this was the building-in of servants’ quarters in some homes or as separate accommodation in others. Kitchen gardens, house pumps, chicken runs and perhaps the keeping of a cow in a nearby paddock were all features of domestic arrangements. Men on the other hand generally worked outside the home, either in separate locations or out in surrounding paddocks. Exceptions to this, until relatively recent times, were doctors who, as general practitioners, would set up a surgery or clinic as part of their own home to which patients would attend.

Just as accommodation types varied, so too did domestic arrangements. For those without a family, domestic arrangements ranged from simple slab huts to barracks to bush camps. Temporary camps were also used when large numbers of workers entered the district, as when the railway line was being built from around 1910 to 1913 through Paterson and Dungog and on to Taree. For those in family circumstances, domestic arrangements could also consist of simple slab huts with minimum furnishings or range up to the relatively elaborate furnishings of homes supplemented by servants of the late Victorian and Edwardian era.

For those on farms, or even within town on larger lots, vegetables and chickens, or perhaps a milk cow, were essential elements of domestic arrangements which provided a steady flow of food despite low cash incomes, as well as extra money through the selling or bartering of eggs and perhaps butter. In addition to vegetables, the preferred cereal was always wheat, but maize was the more reliable crop and for those who could not afford it when the wheat crop was poor, maize in the form of hominy [a kind of porridge made from cracked corn] was used.[1] One old timer remembers farmers reduced to ‘homony’ in hard times such as when floods washed pumpkins down off the farms.[2]

Despite slow travelling times and the relative rarity of trips into town, isolation for those on properties was lessened by the gradual establishment of regular deliveries of bread, groceries and meat. Indian hawkers travelled around isolated properties with cloth for the always homemade clothes, often taking eggs and chickens, and sometimes butter instead of money.[3] The town stores would supply other goods, and with motor vehicles, delivery services became more common. It also became common for the carrier of the milk cans to take a variety of essentials on their runs.

However, such arrangements could be less than satisfactory, as Basset D’Arcy Dickson, school teacher at Summer Hill near Vacy describes in 1936:

There are no shopping facilities. With the exception of the grocer who calls once a week no trades people come this way. We have to depend on milk lorries to bring bread, meat, papers, etc., these they leave on the road nearly half a mile from the school.[4]

An important aspect of domestic arrangements was the washing and presentation of clothes, a feature highlighted at the Dungog Agricultural Show when among the show prizes was one for the best ‘ironed white shirt’ – presumably a man’s shirt.[5] Another feature of domestic arrangements was the focus on the kitchen as the main gathering place and the reservation of a front parlour for special, often rare, occasions. The origin of the kitchen as the centre of domestic arrangements lies partly in the practice of many older homes to have detached kitchens. With most work being done in this separate area it was natural for family members to gather there. By the turn of the century, kitchens in new houses were built-in and those of older ones incorporated into the main house.

The contents of a typical home at any one period are difficult to ascertain. Homes varied from slab huts with dirt floors to brick-built mansions with elaborate wooden fittings, and the contents of such homes would have been equally varied. From the sale of the household goods of a middling farm property on the Allyn River in 1874, a glimpse of internal domestic arrangements can be obtained. The household contents of this farm with 20 dairy cows and 20 fat pigs were:

Large Dining Table, 3 Parlour Tables, Bedsteads, Toilet Tables, Washhand Stands, Chests of Drawers, Cheffonier [a kind of sideboard], splendid Eight-day Clock, Pictures, Glass and Crockery Ware, Cooking Utensils, &c, and other articles too numerous to particularize in an advertisement.[6]

A more vivid picture is provided by a memoir of family life in an average home within the Williams Valley in the years just before the First World War. This recounts a typical large family in which the older children moved out early to make way for the younger ones. The domestic routine consisted of doing chores – milking, wood chopping, collecting chips – walking long distances, going to the Convent School because it was closer, being barefoot to save shoes even in winter frost, finishing school at 13 or 14, a dining room for visitors only, selling of all butter and eggs, with eggs a treat only if sick, a separate kitchen, camp oven, kerosene tins for water, three kids on a horse, all sharing a bed (crying if sleeping alone), corn porridge with brown sugar and cream for breakfast, bread and dripping with salt and pepper, punishments – spanking, locked in room, no tea, no play – sewing on Sundays (if Methodist), washing up in a tin dish, cups on separate hooks and plates on rims in a Welsh Dresser, scrubbing floors with a brick, euchre at night (disapproved by Methodist mum), a cup of tea before bed at 8pm, Saturday night bath night (tub on floor, sharing the water with a fight to be first), Saturday shopping, shops open till midnight (8pm other days), games such as rounders, hopscotch, marbles, the dog, sewing dolls clothes, having the dressmaker stay a week to make a special dress, staying the night at neighbours’ if caught in the rain, and patterned wallpaper on walls covered over each year (once a snake was caught between the layers).[7]

For one girl, growing up on a property at Salisbury in the 1940s, chicken was a treat at Christmas only, with most meat provided by a home-killed cow that was fresh at first and salted for many months thereafter. Rabbits trapped by herself, or parrots shot by her brothers for soup, supplemented this low protein diet. The skins of her rabbits would be taken by her father to Paterson and provided pocket money. Once a fortnight a horse and cart was sent up the valley by a Dungog-based store that would sell groceries. Bread and soap, however, were made by her and once a week the horse was hitched to a sled and the clothes taken down to the river for washing.[8]

For the moderately wealthy and the wealthy, servants were a general aspects of domestic arrangements before the First World War. This meant in grander homes, rooms specifically built for such people; rooms that often did not allow direct access to the main part of the house and rooms that were even left unrendered so as to show the essential inferiority of that room (person).[9] Often servants were girls from city institutions sent to rural locations in order to get them away from the ‘temptations’ of urban vice.[10]

The separation of the male and female sphere in domestic arrangement had one consequence in that it made it difficult for women to attend to the shopping, as men usually controlled access to the means of transportation. A solution, until the rise of the two car family, was late night shopping, usually on a Friday or Saturday night. Late night shopping was in fact seen as ‘evil’ by some and made necessary only by the inability of many women to leave home during the daytime.[11] The early closing movement was not only a trade union movement, but partly a moral one, based on the idea that women should not be out late mixing with all sorts; whatever the reasoning, late-night shopping remained in Dungog town until at least the 1950s.

Home based work for those not on farms was a rarity in domestic arrangements, the notable exception being doctors. Before the development of separate medical clinics, GPs would usually see patients in a ‘surgery’ located in part of their home. Dungog town has at least two examples of houses purpose-built with the requirements of doctors in mind.

Technical developments had a great impact on domestic arrangements with the renovations at Rocky Hill undertaken by Ernest Guy Hooke demonstrating what such developments meant in the early years of the 20th century. A windmill to lift the underground tank water, the air gas plant (based on acetylene), and sewerage made it ‘one of the most up-to-date residences’.[12] These developments were soon to be superseded by the coming of electricity and other changes that had a great impact on the domestic sphere.

Water tanks and easier access to water cut down on the amount of time it took to wash sheets and do various chores, just as it made possible personal washing more than once a week if desired. The gradual adoption of the telephone changed the nature of domestic arrangements for the elderly and the sick. Those who could afford it had hired live-in nurses as carers for their elderly and sick, and these were now replaced by the ability to phone for assistance that could arrive quickly by car when needed.

Of even greater domestic impact was the rise of such household machines as the refrigerator and the washing machine. Electricity or bottled gas replaced the wood fired stove, and also reduced the need for chopping wood. All these were billed as labour saving devices and mirrored the decline in servants as the growth in industrial jobs opened up preferred employment for those who had previously had little option but to become domestic servants.

After these technical developments the next great change in domestic arrangements was the fall in the average number of children in a family and the growth in the number of working women. These changes began to take place in the late 1960s and most rapidly throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Heritage Survivals

  • Remains of house gardens, vegetable patches

  • Site of railway camps

  • Servants rooms

  • Doctors surgeries

  • Household items

  • Underground tanks

  • Remains of air gas plants

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1.  Maitland Mercury, 16/10/1847, p.2.
  2.  Dungog Chronicle, 9/3/1926.
  3. E. M. Bird in Allynbrook Public School, 1869 – 1969, p.7.
  4. Ingle, Summer Hill, Paterson Valley, p.36.
  5. Strachen, et al, ‘Susanne and Elizabeth’, p.128.
  6.  Maitland Mercury, 11/6/1874, p.1.
  7. Michaelides, Growing up in Dungog, pp.3-14.
  8. Rita Bosworth, interviewed 13/3/2012.
  9. Williams, Ah, Dungog, p.16 & p.71.
  11. Caroline Chisholm, Sunbeam, 23/2/1861, cited in Turner, Catholics in Australia, p.196.
  12.  Dungog Chronicle, 8/1/1915.