Helensburgh Mushroom Co Pty Ltd.
An interview with Tom Anderson, former resident of Helensburgh and son to Mr Bill [William Franklin] Anderson and Jean Anderson [nee Griffiths] founders of the Helensburgh Mushroom Co Pty Ltd.
1. A bit about Myself and growing up.
I was born in Sydney in 1946 and probably moved to Helensburgh with my parents around 1947/48 when Dad left the Navy. My first memories of Helensburgh are living in what we called “The Shack” in Harper Lane alongside the Cook family. It may have been No 9 but I am not certain of this. We moved not long after to 20 Robertson Street to be alongside my mother’s parents who lived at 18 Robertson Street. This was to be our family home from around 1949 until I left Helensburgh in 1968 to come to Canberra.
I went to Helensburgh Public School from 1951 to 1957 finishing in 6th Class as Dux of the School. My School photo shows 44 students and our Teacher, Mr Catts, who was then the Acting Headmaster as the then Headmaster, Mr Sutirs has died in a car crash between Sutherland and Helensburgh. Mr Catts pushed several of us in that Class and four of us went on to Selective Schools in Sydney. I went to Sydney Technical High School at Bexley along with Greg East, Margaret Rae went onto St George Girls High School at Kogarah and Ted Duffy went to Port Hacking High at Miranda. This was almost unheard of in those days as almost everyone went to an Intermediate High School for 3 years and graduated with an Intermediate Certificate and then left at 15 to join the workforce.
There was a time between leaving school and joining the Commonwealth Public Service which I will come to later. I came to Canberra with the Taxation Office in 1968 and I transferred to the Australian Customs Service in 1970 and stayed with it until my retirement in 2008. I had a fortunate life with Customs living and working in Auckland, London, Brussels, Washington and Beijing for a total of almost 10 years between 1983 and 2008. I was also fortunate to work as a Departmental Liaison Officer for four Ministers in the Howard Government who had responsibility for Customs including the current Deputy Prime Minister Warren Truss and the ever popular Senator Amanda Vanstone.
I married in 1974 and we have two adult children now in their 30’s and Margaret and I continue to live in the house that we built in Canberra in 1974.
2. What was Life Like Growing up in Helensburgh during the 1950’s and 60’s.
Helensburgh was a great place to grow up in. Everyone was friendly and you didn’t need to lock your home. We were used to calling in at our friends houses and knocking and just walking in. That was the way life was.
Living initially was pretty basic. We had tank water at first but the water supply came around 1951 from Woronora Dam. We still had the night cart for the outside toilets all the time that I lived at home, the ice man came as we had an ice chest – still suffering the rationing after the war and you had to put your name on a list for a refrigerator and when your name came up then whatever type of refrigerator it was, was yours. We washed in an outside laundry with a proper copper set in brick within the laundry and concrete tubs and had ducks and chooks in the back yard.
“Chippy” was the Postman and he delivered the mail by horseback. Our green grocer came with a truck while the bread came by horse and cart from the Co-operative Store. There was no Supermarket, just the Co-op and 2 or 3 general grocery stores. Macs on the corner of Parkes and Walker Streets and one in Walker Street which was the one we mainly used. We would give a list to the storekeeper and he would deliver it later that day.
Stan Callahan was the barber and there was a baker and newsagent around where the RSL Hall was in those days.
Most of us rode or walked everywhere as few people had cars in the 1950’s. As children we would play in the bush across the road from Robertson Street. It is still that way today. We would regularly go to the old rifle range and pick bullets out and occasionally go to the large mine dam over the hill. My playmates were mainly Peter Lindwall from No 24 and Bob Butt from further along Robertson Street.
3. My Family Heritage in Helensburgh
My mother’s parents, Thomas and Agnes Griffiths, migrated to Australia in 1912 and 1913, initially living at Thirroul where Mum was born and then moved to Helensburgh around 1920 to live at 18 Robertson Street. They lived in the same house until both passed away in the 1950’s. My mother’s sister, Gwen, married Bill Rae, a miner, and they lived in High Street. Sadly they had no children.
My Grandfather worked at the Metropolitan Colliery Mine as a Winding Engine Driver – that’s the person who operates the large revolving reel with steel cables like a lift which raised and lowered the workers, the coal skips and the horses from the mine. The old workings of the mine were about 1200 feet below the surface and here there were stables for the pit horses who were kept there for 11 months before being let out at Christmas. These old lower workings of the mine were closed down when the new coal seam was mined around the 1950’s.
4. Growing Mushrooms
Dad had joined the Navy in 1936 for 12 years and served through World War II. He married Mum in Sydney in 1941 and we think that Mum’s Brother in Law “Taffy” Davies [he married Mum’s other sister Charlotte or Lottie as she was known] introduced Dad to Mum as they were both Chief Petty Officers in the Navy stationed in Sydney. When Dad left the Navy he moved to Helensburgh and started working at Metropolitan Colliery around 1948. It wasn’t too much longer after this that he must have obtained the lease from the Lands Department for the use of the Railway Tunnel and started to develop growing mushrooms there. I can remember walking from our house in Robertson Street down to the Tunnel and being with him while he worked there and then usually he would carry me on his shoulders back up the hill to home. I was only 2 or 3 at the time.
I have some photos with some of Mum and Dad’s good friends the Simpsons dated October 1950 with picked mushrooms so it must have been close to the first ever crop grown there. There is also one of me with Alec Simpson and my mother and father.
I know that it wasn’t long before Dad was working there full time and Mum would help out with picking the mushrooms. Dad built the shed to cover where the work was done, then a railway with about an 18 inch gauge with a trolley about 8 yards long on which to stack the trays which had the compost in up to the tunnel and back out when the crop was finished. He concreted the large area under the shed so that it was a good working area, built the steam room or pasteurising room out of besser blocks with a system of pipes to generate a hot house atmosphere, a boiler room to heat the water to create steam to go into the pasteurising room. These were the main things which needed to be built to make the place operational. After this he bought a cool room not unlike the ones that green grocers use in which we kept the picked mushrooms before they were either sent by railway to Sydney’s Markets or later picked up by PMU who canned them.
We seemed to go regularly to Army Disposal Auctions and we bought old ammunition boxes and used the wood to make trays for the mushroom compost to be placed in. These trays were then all handmade so that they could be stacked in a certain way. He also designed and built a machine to turn the compost as it was being prepared for the next “crop” and one to enable the compost to be recycled and spawned while in the pasteurising room.
To put a crop together we would assemble the necessary ingredients which included at least a truck load each of chicken, horse and cow manure plus certain chemicals to get the ph right and hay or straw as we put it to let the compost breathe.
All of the manure was loaded onto the truck by hand. We travelled far and wide to get this. Horse manure initially came from the South Bulli Colliery which still had working horses there and then later on a deal with racehorse trainers at Warwick Farm and Rosehill where we would provide the hay for the stables and then we had the right to collect all of the manure. Chicken manure came from the various chicken farms established around Liverpool and the cow manure came from the same area.
Around 1953 we had our first car – an old 1928 car which was good until it broke a tailshaft near Liverpool and Dad sold it. We then bought a new Holden Ute in 1954 or 1955 and this made life much easier. It was followed up by a 1948 Chevrolet Van with no synchromesh on the gears – a great way to learn to drive.
All of our work with trucks was through hiring them and the driver. Dad would always book the truck well in advance and it was also advantageous as the same driver would take away the used compost at no cost as he would sell it to gardeners as it is great for the garden.
Around 1957 the Helensburgh Mushroom Co Pty Ltd was formed on advice from Dad’s accountant. The one mistake was to include our house at 20 Robertson Street as an asset of the company. This was the Registered Office of the Company. Things went from strength to strength and Mum and Dad always wanted a property and wanted to expand the business so they bought about 10 acres of land at Hoxton Park west of Liverpool and gained a loan of $10,000 to build some self contained, insulated sheds there as well as a large covered area in which to do all the work of composting.
All went well until the credit squeeze of 1960/61 and hot weather through the summer which reduced the crops from Hoxton Park. The business never really recovered from this but it continued to grow mushrooms until around 1970 when the Company was wound up over outstanding monies to the Taxation Office among others.
I think then that the tunnel just went into decline as no-one wanted it but I have no real knowledge of this.
Mum and Dad had lost their house with the winding up of the Company and moved to Kirrawee where Dad gained employment and luckily they had enough to buy a house there. Sadly Mum died in 1973 – we put it down to the stress of losing the house and business. Dad eventually remarried and moved to Bogangar near Tweed Heads and passed away on his 70th birthday in 1986.
5. The Crop and Preparation Cycle
I can’t remember if it was a 3 or 4 week cycle but I suspect that it was 3 weeks. In that time we would do the following:
- Make 3 trips to collect manure
- Assemble a new crop
- Turn the previously assembled crop 3 times manually – this would take 4 to 5 hours for each one
- Empty one crop from the tunnel
- Make a trip to Castle Hill in Sydney to collect the spawn needed to spawn the new crop
- Fill trays with the new crop and place them in the pasteurising room
- The previous crop in the pasteurising room would be spawned. This involved emptying the trays and repacking with the compost and spawn and then restacking them in the room
- Take this crop after another week up to the tunnel and stack the trays
- Fill the soil trolley with soil and take it to the new crop and top dress the trays
- Water the 4 crops in the tunnel every second day
- Regularly use insecticide in the tunnel to keep the pests and insects down
So it was a lot to do in 21 days.
6. Picking and Packing
Dad employed women on a casual basis to pick the mushrooms. The numbers on any given day would vary and there would always be more needed when a new crop had its first flush. That is the first lot of mushrooms that came through after about 10 days in the tunnel. The only name that I can remember here is a Mrs Moore who lived nearby on The Ridge.
For the markets we used cherry cases to pack the mushrooms in and here we would pick the mushrooms with the underneath skin unbroken while when we sold to the cannery we would let them flatten out and we didn’t need to be as careful. These were packed in larger wooden boxes something like oranges.
The mushrooms for the markets would be sent by train from Helensburgh to George Yanniotis who had a stand at the markets in Sydney. From memory we used to get about 7 shillings and 6 pence per pound at the market and about 3 shillings and 6 pence from PMU for the cannery.
We would hold the mushrooms in the cool room until it was time for them to be picked up by PMU or to send off to the markets. Eventually we came to deliver the Friday mushrooms into the market by getting up around 3 am and heading off to load the van, drive to Sydney and then come home and for Dad start work or for me head off to High School in my last year. Still it was worth it for what we gained from selling at the markets.
7. What did I do in the business?
Like any agricultural business it was a 7 day a week proposition. I was involved early on helping out on weekends by going with Dad and sometimes Mum and Dad to the Tunnel – we would water and pick mushrooms on a Sunday so that we could send them off by train on a Sunday night to the markets fresh for Monday. There was always a trip back to the tunnel on Sunday night to take the mushrooms to the station in the evening so that they were in good condition. Early on before we had the ute we would walk down and take the mushrooms around by wheel barrow one or more trips to get them there. It did become much easier once we had the ute!! This went on for years.
I would travel with Dad during the school holidays on his trips to collect spawn from Arthur Robotham in Castle Hill. I was also allowed early on to go and “help” with the collection of the manure. At times, when Dad was short of a person to water the compost while it was being turned I would be asked to come and be that waterer.
Once a year we would get one or two railway trucks of straw and we would have to unload them and stack the straw under the shed. This was always in January and it was hot and hard work. Tossing bales of straw down and up as we stacked a motor truck [I think that it was Bennett’s trucks that we hired] to drive the straw around to the shed to unload and then stack it under cover. It was always something that I looked forward to.
One of my other regular tasks was to help with the watering of the mushrooms – sometimes at night and regularly over the weekend. Dad and I would usually go down after dinner and he would water and I would do the same as with the two of us it cut the time in half for him. I did this for years with him from when I was quite young until I left home.
I was taught to drive at 15 and would drive around to the Station and back with the ute or the van to help with getting the mushrooms on the train. Though it wasn’t until I had my license that I drove any further. I alternated with Dad in taking the mushrooms to market on a Friday in my last year of high school and then when I was about 19 I came back to try to help out in getting the business out of its problems. I stayed with him for the next 18 months doing all the manual work as we tried to salvage the business. In the end he told me that he didn’t think he would get out of it and to look for something else.
8. Other Mushroom Growers in Helensburgh
There was one other mushroom company in Helensburgh. Marsh Lawson owned the Lilyvale Mushroom Company and operated out of premises in Parkes Street almost at the old Princes Highway. This was a bigger operation than Dad’s with the at least two railway tunnels being used. I can’t really remember which tunnels he used but I think that Lilyvale Tunnel was one and Cawley Tunnel was the other.
Both Dad and Marsh were initial members of the Australian Mushroom Growers Association. Were they competitive? Yes you could say so. Each one took pride in their business and wanted it to succeed and of course for your product to excel. Certainly Dad was very proud of his product as we would almost always get the highest price at the markets for his mushrooms so I suppose that said we were growing good mushrooms.
They didn’t co-operate too much. I think that they exchanged ideas from time to time but in reality each has his own business and they didn’t really need each other.
It wasn’t long before Dad was classed as an “expert” in mushroom growing and he was asked for advice by several growers who wanted to start up in an abandoned tunnel. I can recall trips to Picton and Mittagong where he was asked for his advice.
9. What are my Fondest memories of Helensburgh and the Mushroom business?
We were a close knit bunch in Helensburgh growing up. Memories are always good but it was a happy time for me and my friends. We started playing soccer at age about 8 for the Helensburgh Thistle Football Club I think it was called. We would go away by bus on a Saturday morning with the Under 10’s, 12’s and 14’s and all play the same teams. It was a great experience.
In those early days the Club’s First grade team played in the Illawarra competition and excelled. A wonderful goalkeeper named Davy Hunt I think and the best penalty taker I have ever seen in a young fellow about 18 named Bill Burns. Noel Burns elder brother. Sadly within about 6 years all of these wonderful players had retired and the Club slumped so much that we, at 16 and 17, were playing first grade.
Time spent in the bush too was great whether on our bikes or just wandering and playing there and exploring far and wide. Only ending the day when we would hear the call of one of our parents that it was time to come home.
Added to that I joined the Surf Club at Stanwell Park when I was 12 and spent several great summers on the beach and representing the Club in the boat race and helping with belt races.
My fondest memories of the mushroom business was just the business of it all and getting to travel quite far in those days to do things for and with Dad. I was also very impressed by his architectural and design skills for making machinery and also making things work. I find it quite remarkable really as he had left school at 12. The one other thing he always had was a thirst for knowledge.
His was a small business and he employed a few locals and that was good. He also spent within the town where he could and he supported the local Soccer club to which he was a very enthusiastic supporter including some funding.
The tragedy of all of this was that today it was such a small amount of money that meant the difference between surviving in business and being out of business.
I’d like to thank Tom Anderson for sharing his personal (and families) stories and photos of their time in Helensburgh.
Photos, Article © Tom Anderson 2014 – all rights reserved,
Article © Ian Piggott 2014 – all rights reserved,