Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The horse and cart days

Down Memory Lane with PAUL OATES in Queensland, Australia

When I was a small child, most of our family’s daily requirements except meat, were delivered by a horse and cart. (Ice, Bread, Groceries, Milk, etc)

We didn’t have refrigerators in those days and used ice chests. Ice chests were galvanized zinc lined wooden boxes with a flap on the top opening into a self draining box. The bottom of the chest held a small, enameled metal cool area not unlike a very small bar fridge. This was how everyone kept their butter, milk and meat to ensure they didn’t go off in the heat.

The Ice man came early in the morning twice a week, to deliver ice to our house. His cart always had a slow drip of water trailing out the back. He knew we only had a smaller, ‘half block’ ice chest although some people had a larger ice chest that took a whole block. The Ice man would grab hold of a large block of ice with his two ice hooks and slide it out from under the hessian bags that kept the ice blocks insulated. He would then pull the block onto the back of the cart. A large block of ice was about two feet long (2/3’s of a meter in length) and a foot (a third of a meter) square. The Ice man would then break the large block into two halves by expertly striking the block in the middle with his ice pick and turn the block over and strike it again in the middle. The block would split neatly into two halves but often leave some small ice chips that would fall onto the road. Small boys used to follow the ice cart around and grab the ice chips and suck them like highly prized lollies.

The Ice man would grab hold of the half block and lift it onto his shoulder using his ice hooks. He wore a leather cape made up of a shoulder guard and a hood covering his head to protect him from the ice he carried. With his yell of “Ice Oh!” people would open their front doors and have the top flap of the ice chest open ready. The Ice man would deposit the block or half block into the top of the top of whatever was left of the last bock. Sometimes in the cooler weather, the last block hadn’t completely melted and the top flap of the ice chest wouldn’t close for a while until the ice had melted down and drained away.

The Ice man’s leather head and shoulder guard was very similar to one that the sanitary carter used when he picked up and carried on his shoulder the sanitary bins from the outside toilet. He would then replace the ‘full’ bins with empty ones from the ‘Honey Wagon’. The sanitary bins were two foot high and about 18 inches in diameter and when full, were very heavy. It took a strong man to be a sanitary carter in every sense of the word and in those days, the sanitary carter was reputedly one of the most highly paid workers. Everyone knew why. You always checked the outside ‘loo’ for any undesirables like snakes and spiders before use.

Milk was also delivered early in the morning, in bulk and direct from the dairy at the end of the street. The dairy farmer, who had milked his cows before dawn, would make his deliveries via his horse and cart. The Milkman’s cart had a large metal barrel on the back of it and the Milkman would ladle out the fresh milk from a hole in the top of the barrel into a large Billycan and carry the milk to each house. Each family had a servery built into the side of the house about a foot (1/3 of a meter), square where the milk Billycan would be left at night. When we sometimes were locked out of the house if the wind had blown the door closed, my job was to crawl through the servery and open the front door from the inside. The milkman would then pour the milk delivery into the family’s quart pot (2 pints or about 1 and ½ liters) Billycan and close the outside door to keep the milk out of the sun. Some larger families might have half a gallon (4 pints) delivered in the same way.

Later in the day, the baker would also use the servery to deposit the family’s bread delivery. Baker’s carts were often painted in a very artistic manner with colourful scrolls and the name of the bakery painted on the side. The back of the cart was open and the loaves were held on shelves. Our bread was usually a high topped loaf although some preferred a square loaf. Wrapped, sliced bread was not available then. Grandfather would slice the loaf in a peculiar way using an old bread knife. He would hold the loaf with his left arm around it and with his right hand slowly saw towards him a slice off the top of the loaf. I understand this was a traditional English way of slicing bread and Grandfather’s parents came from Cornwall and Devon. Breadboards were apparently a more recent invention. As a child, I can remember waiting impatiently for the next slice of bread to be available but nothing would hurry Grandfather. Butter, fresh out of the ice chest, was usually ‘as hard as goat’s knees’ and you had to wait a while for it to become spreadable. My favourite lunch was bread and treacle.

The horses pulling all these delivery the carts would remember where the next delivery was to be made and automatically halt outside that house. Each horse would have a nose bag with grain and chaff in it and would slowly ‘munch’ its way along the road and occasionally deposit a pile (on a winter’s morning), of steaming horse dung. The road outside our house often had lumps of horse manure in the middle of it and people would collect this and put on their roses. This had a good effect on the roses but always sprouted unwanted oats seedlings that the horse had eaten but not digested.

Talking to my Aunt recently, she related a story about when my Grandfather (her brother) was working at McIlwraith's Grocery Store in Parramatta. He borrowed the pony the family used to pull the farm sulky and took it on the rounds to collect and deliver grocery orders. My Aunt said that it turned out to be a bit of a nuisance for when the family decided to go on a sulky ride somewhere, the darned pony would continually stop and wait every time it arrived outside each house that Grandfather used to visit with a grocery order.

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