Growing up in Camberwell, we were the poorest family in a rich suburb

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When I was a child we lived in Camberwell, a stone’s throw from Canterbury Road in a street whose name seemed as pretentious as the neighbours in nearby Mont Albert Road. I never met them but sensed their grandeur from the size of their houses. Huge double-storey mansions with wide sweeping gardens, flat manicured lawns and hedges bordered with hydrangeas, windflowers along with iceberg roses.

I was seven when my mother stuck her head around the lounge room door and asked one of us four kids sitting in front of the television to run down the street for milk. No one wanted to budge midway through a Wile E. Coyote cartoon.

“Must I ask again?” my mother said. I hated to see her unhappy, so I stretched my legs and arms for the sprint down the side of the house, around the corner and across Canterbury Road. It was six o’clock in winter and car lights cast bright flashes across my eyes. I hesitated at the zebra crossing near on the corner of our street. It looked as though the cars had stopped for me, but a few steps into the centre, my world went black.

When I woke up, I was lying in sawdust on the floor of the butcher’s shop next door to Mr Brockhoff’s grocery. The whine of an ambulance in the distance, and my mother leaning over me. I saw a wash of relief in her eyes, but my body felt as if it was not part of me.

I wriggled my fingers and toes in response to a disembodied request overhead but for the rest I stayed still, passive as a possum playing dead until they carried me onto a stretcher and out to the ambulance. From there, we drove to the Box Hill Hospital emergency department where they admitted me overnight as a precaution in case my skull was cracked, or I suffered concussion.

Elisabeth aged about eight on the grass outside her family’s Camberwell home.

The car accident kept me from school for a week before my mother decided I was well enough to return, and I walked once more with my siblings to school.

We kids walked up Wentworth Avenue, and past the feijoa bush outside the white house on the corner of Mont Albert Road. It reminded me of houses in Hollywood with its wide front steps and swimming pool out back, partly concealed through a high fence. When the feijoas were ripe we picked them and peeled off their thin green membranes. The fruit tasted weird, a combination of banana and passionfruit, exotic.

We cut our walk along Mont Albert Road short by slipping into the magpie park that abutted Camberwell Grammar then up the hill to the red-brick building that was Our Lady of Good Counsel primary school.

These were the days when Catholics and Protestants still battled over sectarian strife from Ireland and England. On one side of the street near the state school on Burke Road the Protestant kids chanted, “Catholic dogs sitting on logs, eating maggots out of frogs,” while we yelled back, “State, state, rattle snakes.”

By the age of seven I recognised my family as the poorest on the street. My father rented our house. And although it was once a gentleman’s cottage, it had fallen into neglect and disrepair. With nine kids, there was barely room enough to store the few possessions we owned and have space for beds, let alone keep the place tidy.

Despite this, my mother and older sister plugged for cleanliness and every couple of years my oldest brother insisted we younger ones help to clean walls or hold paint brushes to refresh the kitchen and lounge room. He issued instructions while we took to mops and buckets and watched the walls lose their yellow grime from my father’s cigarettes.

The Schooneveldt family photographed in 1961. Elisabeth is seated second from the right, next to her mother.

For a few weeks then, against the smell of fresh paint, I imagined we were like the other people who lived in Camberwell, the well-heeled and genteel folks, whose accents were more BBC than on television. They walked with heads held high and shoes that clicked loud against the asphalt because they could afford to have thin metal strips tacked to their shoes to slow the process of wear, while my shoes had holes.

Every winter when the rains came, I tore scraps of cardboard from the back of my father’s notepads and lined the insides of my shoes. The only embarrassment at Holy Communion on Sundays when we knelt against the altar railings and the priest bent over to place a host on my tongue. I tried to keep the soles of my shoes from showing to the congregation, those holes on my soles, a sign of shame at being the poorest family in the richest suburb.

In my 14th year we moved to a brand-new house on the Farm Road estate in Cheltenham, a double cream brick veneer with white venetian blinds. My mother could not have been happier.

The Camberwell I once knew has changed. You can drink alcohol in restaurants here now after aeons as an alcohol-free zone. A mark of its conservative gentility, not that I cared much when I was a child. And today when dense housing is considered essential, some of the old mansions have given way to multistorey apartments. My once-favourite haunts, Coles Variety stores and the Camberwell market, which housed a pet shop complete with birds in cages and chooks you could buy alive not just from the poulterers, are radically altered or gone.

Camberwell stays in my mind as a land of contrasts. It helped to form me into the person I am today. A person who knows the difference between surface wealth and surface poverty and the importance of what lies beneath.

Elisabeth Hanscombe is a freelance writer.

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