Monika and Voldemar Steinbergs, Cottage 67 on the Farm, 1962
A writer nurtures stories, develops and grows them to be the best they can be. It’s a little like the nurture of a parent or grandparent, laced in love and care, or a gardener raising a plant from seed. Each story is different, just as each child or seedling is different, unique with its own set of qualities and characteristics.
Writing an honest account of what life on Melbourne's first sewerage farm (the Farm) might have been like requires immersion into that lifetime. Speaking to people within the Farm community is one of the best ways of gaining a real understanding of that lifetime. Each person I speak with recalls stories relevant and original to them and as a writer, each story provides the most fantastic insight into Farm life. There are never any favourites stories or people.
But sometimes, there’s a click and I can feel the story to almost touch it. The connection might be to the story or with the person sharing their recollections. Either way or both together, every tiny fibre of their recall seeps into my bones, and it happens more times than not. Spending time with Gertrude recently, talking about the Migrant Camp on the Farm, was two hours of soothing seep.
Uncovering a story is like loosening the snib on the lid of Pandora’s box, swathed in layers of crumbling cobwebs and disintegrating dust. You never know what you’re going to hear when the lid pops open. It can be as uplifting as it can be heartbreaking, and everything in between.
There are the charmers and the playful stories, the easy-going ones that smile regardless of what’s bubbling underneath and it’s not until chipping away at that sometimes gleam of gloss surface and pinching through the delicate fissures that you begin to understand that the smile comes in hues of emotion.
The scallywags and jokers tell stories in streams of quips and weaving through the ‘you know, clocks fall into sheep dip to lose their ticks’ and ‘have you heard that sleeping bulls are bulldozers’ can sideline a deeper story. Centring and refocusing to decipher the banter and capture the snaking story can add insights to the fun and jovial.
Some only reveal what they’re comfortable to reveal, and that’s okay. Others tell the story as a stage manager directing a play or a tale that’s become a legend. Extracting its essence can be like trying to catch a Growling Grass Frog tadpole coated in thick slime, living among reeds swarmed in mosquitoes.
There are those with ideas and interpretations that sit outside of the box, sometimes the black sheep of the mob. Exploring those can be akin to mining for gold within an infertile reef, but oh the joy in striking that gold. And of course, there are the prickly, smothered in the finest of glass spines that have the ability to sprout as poisonous thorns if not handled carefully.
The honest that tell it how it is are the easiest to work with. No guess work required, only a thick hide. They’re in stark contrast to those wanting to cover up, where you can sense a teetering of not saying too much and watch eyes of distrust darting, lips quivering. Compassion and understanding for why that is, is be best here.
Ultimately, all are individual and contribute to a bigger story. There are never any favourites. However, speaking to Gertrude was without doubt, one of my favourites in a collection where there are no favourites. Gertrude Ropa. Even introducing her warms me.
Gertrude at 94, looks more than 15 years younger than her birth age. Whether it’s good genes or good living, I’m not sure. She has one of those permanent smiles, that gentle grandmotherly grin that’s seen a lot of life.
Gertrude motions me to sit beside her on the two-seater settee as soon as her son, Roland, finishes introducing us and leaves, before I could say anything, or drop my leather bag loaded in notebooks and pens and a most kitsch bag adorned in European landmarks carrying my heavy-duty microphone and laptop, on the floor. Meeting with people and talking to them about the Farm takes me back to lugging loads of baby things everywhere.
‘Gertrude, your accent, where are you from?’ I say as I ease beside her. Her soft words sing in that typical German way yet are fringed in a velvet lush, probably due to the combination of dialect and living in Australia for many years. It was more than familiar to me, charming me into a comfortability that over the next two hours, made me constantly look at my notes and questions to remember why I was there.
‘Bavaria, in Germany.’ Her eyebrows tilt up.
‘It’s like my father’s,’ I say. ‘And my family's in Austria.’
Gertrude smiles more broadly; eyes of knowing lock in.
Gertrude is the wife of now deceased, Wally. Many linked to the Farm, whether as a resident, visitor, acquaintance or vagrant passing through looking for work would know the name Wally Ropa.
Wally, whose real name was Wladyslaw, was a teacher in Poland and an officer during World War II. He was captured by the German army early into the war in 1939 and remained a prisoner until 1945 in a camp near Gertrude’s village in Bavaria. It was in the camp that Wally learned how to speak English.
Gertrude and Wally met and soon after the war ended, had Marianne and Roland. Gertrude and Wally fled Bavaria with their children to arrive in Melbourne on Christmas day in 1949.
‘We had to stay on the boat because no one was working to get us off. We had lunch on the boat and the children couldn’t eat it. It was a single lettuce leaf, a slice of tomato and a piece of meat.’ Her words are considered.
The next day, the family was ushered onto a train to the Migrant Camp at Bonegilla, along the Victorian-New South Wales border.
‘It was such a long trip, like we were going to nowhere. Villages at home were only a few kilometres apart but travelling to Bonegilla, we saw much nothing. And I was so homesick for my family. I left them all behind.’
‘Why did you leave?’
‘It was impossible to live in Germany or Poland after the war.’ Gertrude’s always-smile fades as though a cloud passes over. ‘We couldn’t live there because the two countries were enemies.’
From their first night in the Migrant Camp at Bonegilla, the family was separated: Gertrude and the children stayed in one part of the camp while Wally was allocated a bed in another section with the men. The camp began two years earlier when the first intake of people from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania arrived, many fleeing their country and looking for a fresh start. In exchange for free passage and help on arrival, migrants would work for the government for two years. They were processed and allocated jobs from the camp.
Employees of the government visited the Bonegilla Camp regularly and in January 1950, within weeks of Gertrude and Wally’s arrival, Wally accepted a labouring position the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works offered him to fix fences on the Farm. That meant Wally moved into the Migrant Camp on the Farm to live with other migrant men.
‘It was hard for my husband,’ says Gertrude. ‘Wally didn’t know how to use a hammer very well. He stayed on the Board of Works Farm while we stayed in Bonegilla, until we had a house in Werribee.’
The Migrant Camp on the Farm was set up in the old barracks used by the air force during World War II on the air field at the top of Farm Road. The barracks included a kitchen and dining room where meals were prepared and served to Farm workers. When Wally moved in, ‘Bill’ was managing the kitchen. It’s believed Wally Steinbergs helped Bill cook in the kitchen while Wally’s (Steinbergs) wife, Monika, and son, Ventis, remained in the Migrant Camp at Bonegilla also. Wally and Monika went on to live in a few homes on the Farm with their four children and were one of the last families to leave the township by 1971.
Over the next few months in 1950, the number of men moving into the Migrant Camp on the Farm increased and Bill decided to retire.
‘They asked, who wants to help in the canteen,’ says Gertrude. ‘Of course, my husband straight away, put the finger up. And the boss, Mr Speckman, he likes Wally because he spoke English and most people couldn’t talk English.’ Gertrude’s love for Wally sings in the tone of her voice.
The Farm management however, changed the job somewhat and Mr Speckman asked Wally to manage every aspect of the kitchen as a business. That meant Wally had to resign from his labouring position on the Farm and Wally Steinbergs leaving his role as helper in the kitchen to return to other Farm work. By now, it was 1951.
‘Did Wally teach English to the other migrants too, if he spoke English so well?’ I ask.
‘No. A woman came from Werribee at night to teach the men English.’ Gertrude pauses. ‘I don’t remember her name, she came once a week. But Wally … he would help the men with their English. He would buy soaps and cigarettes, washing powder, some razors and special drinks like lemonade for the men, and they paid Wally for those things.’
For the next four years, Wally managed the kitchen with 3am starts. He’d ride his bicycle the almost two kilometres from his home the family had moved into in Werribee, to the Migrant Camp on the Farm each day. He’d make breakfast, lunch and dinner, for which the men living at the camp would pay for.
‘He would make the breakfast what old Bill made, I think bacon and eggs. And he had to make sandwiches on a big bench. Three sandwiches for each person, in the beginning for about 20 people. One sandwich with cheese and two with sausage. He had a little bag, he put one spoon of tea in that bag and a spoon of sugar. And that was wrapped and when the people came to get their breakfast, they take the lunch already made and the tea with them to work.’
The number of men living in the camp increased over time and Wally would feed around 80 men each day.
‘It was a lot of work, we didn’t have a helper, nothing. Only my husband did that.’
Wally would place food orders and clean the kitchen and dining room while the men worked, and once Marianne and Roland went to school, Gertrude would walk to the camp to help Wally in the kitchen and prepare dinner.
‘I didn’t do the cooking, Wally did that. He’d make soup for tea. He’d fry the meat and make a sauce with it, and sometimes spaghetti. He’d make pudding and on top of the pudding was fruit from the tin. I peeled lots of potatoes and pumpkin. We had to slice the bread and put it on the table with the butter. Sometimes, we had some bosses coming from Melbourne, they went visiting the Farm, like vets, and they would come and have lunch and I have to serve them.’
Three or four times a week, Marianne and Roland would ride their bikes to the kitchen after school.
‘They used to have milk churns and we’d have a cold glass of milk and milk arrowroot biscuits,’ Roland recalled when I’d met him, before introducing me to his mother. ‘It was a treat my sister and I enjoyed. We’d sit there while our parents were working. Sometimes we’d ride to the village to swim in the pool.’
Once Gertrude finished helping Wally prepare for dinner, she and the children went home.
‘The boss had a son who made university and he picked him up on the station. I would get a ride sometimes, he took me home.’
‘What time would Wally come home after he’d finish for the day?’
‘When he was in the camp, he done the kitchen, cleaned all the plates. He had a big trough and put all the plates and cleaned them and washed them all, filled up all the bottles for sauce, cleaned the table and the floors and he come back home at seven o’clock.’ The kitchen ran seven days a week.
‘When the people left slowly, there were less and less, and my husband said I can’t do it anymore, I must do the same work for a hundred people for what I do for 20 people and 10 people.’
Wally finished managing the kitchen when it became unviable as a business. He returned to the Farm as an employee, taking on the role of security. He worked in that capacity from the mid-1950s until he retired at 65 years of age in the early 1980s.
We finish talking about the Farm and I pack my books and equipment back into their bags. ‘Thanks very much for all your stories,’ I say to Gertrude. ‘I think we’re finished.’
‘Do you need to go back to work?’ she asks. ‘I have some photos, but they’re not from the Board of Works. They’re of Wally.’
‘Okay,’ I say, sensing Gertrude wasn’t ready for me to leave yet. Gertrude shuffles over to a cupboard and pulls out a photo album. She almost trips on the way back and I instinctively put my hands out to catch her.
‘It’s okay,’ she says. ‘These slippers, they catch.’ She plonks back beside me and leans into me to show photos of Wally in the album: Wally running in athletics carnivals, skiing too, in the prison camp with thousands of men, looking fit and healthy to my surprise.
Gertrude’s stories about the kitchen in the Migrant Camp provide such insight into an area with so little information. Finding any photos or people to talk to about living in the Migrant Camp has proved difficult to date.
Certainly, spending time with Gertrude was a delight and is something I would repeat any day. It wasn’t a-twirl-around-the-kitchen one, two, three, four salsa, hip to a maraca type of chit-chat, or a choppy waters foaming at their tips in curls of white kind of ponder over the 1890s.
No, it was more a laze in silken grass under a grandmummy of a maple tree splaying an umbrella of lush green from a wise trunk in Stadtpark in Vienna, licking bitter chocolate and apricot gelato dripping down the side of a cone, with humidity kissing the nape of my neck type of natter.
No favourites though. Ever. Even a cactus thrives and allures in its succulence and flesh and magnificence of pinks, reds and blues flowers.
These reflections come from a PhD research that investigated abject communities relative to sewerage ghost towns. It focused on the Metropolitan Sewerage Farm community that grew soon after the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works was founded in 1891 to treat Melbourne’s sewage at Werribee. As Melbourne grew, so did the work force required to manage the treatment of the sewage, and a community of workers and their families lived on site. The population peaked to over 500 in the 1950s. All but one family left the main township in 1973; the last family moved off site in the 1980s. The plant continues to treat Melbourne’s sewage and is now known as Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant. The plant is about the size of Phillip Island in Victoria or the island of Mykonos in Greece.
For more information on the project, please visit https://www.facebook.com/MetropolitanSewerageFarm/
The Farm is a colloquial term for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) and now Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant, currently treating nearly 60 percent of Melbourne’s sewage.
The Board of Works is another term used for the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (MMBW) Sewerage Farm at Werribee.