I’d never thought of my father, Len Smith, as an imaginative person. He’d always seemed very practical and applied to the task at hand, so to speak. However, I began the eulogy at his funeral with a short anecdote describing an innovative tactic he had used to make some money, as a boy, in the early 1920s. It was the sort of story you can use at a funeral. Nevertheless I was a bit surprised at how much laughter it generated.
He’d told me about how they used to snare seagulls. He and his mate, Ray Jones, would fashion a string of snares out of fishing net twine and lay them out on the dry sandbar. They’d cover them a bit with sand here and there and then spread dried, broken and torn bread about the place. They would then ‘draw back a’ways’ and wait.
The gulls would swoop down together and land. Then as they ran all about pecking at the bread they’d snare their feet and get captured, three or four at a time, by trying to pull away. They literally caught each other up by tightening all the snares with the jerking and tugging as they struggled to fly off. It was an ingenious trap. And their fate was in his hands.
He often told us about how there wasn’t money for things when they were kids and how you had to make your own fun and all. But this was the other side of the coin. This was about making a few bob. The boys clipped one wing on each of the gulls and then they hawked them around to people; sold them to eat the bugs out of their gardens and off their vegetable plants. It was a shilling for the black-legged ones and one and threepence for the red-legged ones, ‘because the red-legged gulls looked better on the lawn’.
Maybe the recollection generated a surprising amount of laughter because of the way I told it. Or maybe because it was the first formal opportunity to release emotion for all these people, who had been arriving, greeting and filing in through the last half hour or so. But it worked like a charm, I settled a bit and launched into the rest of the eulogy; it was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to do in my life, I guess.
There was a good-sized contingent of local Koori fishermen from Wreck Bay present. When I was talking with them after the service, at the graveside, one of the younger Adlers, Paul, whom I’d never met before commented on the seagull story saying how he enjoyed it. I’d started at the beginning of my father’s life and it was nice to have one of the local Wreck Bay crowd comment on it. And then he gave me one of his recollections of Dad and his grandfather, old Charlie Adler, from the last part of their lives.
He recalled how Dad had arrived out at their place one time with his ‘new discovery’ and he was so excited it made them laugh, as he told old Charlie about how you could see right through the water with these new Polaroid sunglasses. He’d brought a pair for himself and another for Charlie. Dad and Charlie often sat up on the sand-hills watching to see the travelling mullet coming along. When they saw a patch they would yell and wave and indicate to the boys at the water when to shoot the net around them. And now here they were sitting together, the two of them wearing their Polaroids and as pleased as punch with themselves and their newfound sight.
I had heard some version of this story before, perhaps from Dad himself, or more likely, Mum. But it seemed more real hearing it from the younger Adler bloke. Perhaps because he’d been there and it was like an echo or seeing through a reflection. Anyway, it had a real lively feel about it, there by the grave.
I was born and raised on the foreshores of Botany Bay at the end of an era, the end of a place called Fisherman’s Village. Four generations of my family had been fishing professionally in Botany Bay since the early nineteenth century. The Fisherman’s Village community was situated around the area known as Booralee in the very north-west corner of Botany Bay. It grew into a community of about two hundred people. My great-great grandfather, Charles Smith, joined it in about 1840. However, vague records show how some families, like the Puckeridges, had been there for decades at that time. A group of families – Smiths, Duncans, Thompsons, Jones’s, Byrnes, Bagnalls and more – established a working community and developed a fishing family lifestyle that evolved and continued for over 150 years. Gradually the cart tracks became Booralee and Luland Street and Fishing Town, as it was also known, centred around these streets, growing to encompass an area of about fifty acres.
At the bottom of Booralee Street was a large expanse of shallows in the very north-west corner of Botany Bay where the original mouth of the Cooks River flowed into it. This area provided good mooring for the boats and the fishermen could work from here and sail or row their Carvel and Clinker-built, open twenty-foot ‘yachts’ to anywhere in the bay. They were net fishermen. They worked by ‘shooting’ hundreds of metres of rope and net out from the beaches and sand bars in large semi-circles and then slowly hauling them in. Sometimes they trawled the shallow floors of the bay for crabs and prawns. Occasionally they set nets in a straight line across a large, tidal shallow and waited for the fish to ‘mesh’.
The fishing village community developed a working lifestyle and culture that, while integrated with the emerging South Sydney area, maintained certain internal patterns that were determined by the weather, the seasons and the travelling schools of fish that would come into Botany Bay to feed and spawn. The bay provided the community with a focus for both work and recreation. They used sailing to survive but also for leisure. Working practices and strategies for recreation evolved and changed in relation to the greater Sydney community. My father, for example, became a very accomplished sailor and raced ‘eighteen footers’ on Sydney Harbour. He eventually skippered an Australian boat in the world championships in New Zealand in 1950.
However, during the late 1950s, the area known as Fisherman’s Village was absorbed into a greater industrial zoning in Botany. This generated the situation wherein I was raised and the Fisherman’s Village was compromised until the time my father and uncle retired as the last two full-time professionals from Fisherman’s Village, in the late 1970s. For myself, Botany Bay was always a place to leave, not to stay. When the last professional net fishermen retired they moved south to Jervis Bay and I headed off in the alternative culture drift that drew many people to the north coast of NSW in the mid-1970s.
Botany Bay was the official site of first British contact with Australia. It has been marked as a place of Captain Cook’s arrival in all official, symbolic and historical contexts but I had a very real sense of the place as a site of deterioration. It remains, symbolically, the site of the ‘first landing’. But the decision to establish the colony in the harbour to the north was like placing a metaphorical time bomb in Botany Bay. As I grew up the industrialization swallowed the houses, paddocks and sand dunes, slicked the foreshores and then poisoned the water. By the time we left they were measuring the mercury content in the fish. Breakwaters built for the protection of shipping caused erosions and ruined spawning grounds for the large travelling schools of fish. Dredging for airport runways reshaped the shorelines and then came the reclamation of most of the north shoreline for the port.
This inversion and the contradiction that I took for granted has always stayed with me. I watched the fishermen moving against a changing background. A backdrop of industry was replacing their foreshore scenery. It gave me an appreciation of the irony of life whilst providing an underlying sense of loss that I later came to see reflected in many aspects of recent, Western culture. And the irony of the loss of the native Kameygal people to small-pox, displacement and their nation, compared to the relative comfort of the displacements of my generation, is haunting.
This essay is part of a longer work that was first published in Halfway House: The Poetics of Australian Space Eds. Barbara Holloway, Jennifer Rutherford. (UWA Publishing, 2010). For more information about the Botany Bay fishing village, go here.