In 1936 most commuters (we just called them people then) came to know the city well for they came in by day for work and shopping, and by night for entertainment. They knew where to have a bet if they wanted to and for many that would have been at Derby’s big shop at 118-122 Murray Street which was possibly next to the lane where the sports shop is now. They knew the familiar landmarks where you met your friends at such meeting places as the steps of the GPO, the Town Hall, the Palace Hotel, or the Economic Stores on the corner of William and Hay Streets. They also knew the city “characters” who I saw so many times. Some came by our shop from time to time. My dear Mum was moved to help one or two with something from the kitchen, as she did for others down on their luck.
The best known of them was “Percy Buttons”. He seemed to be a bit simple and had a sorrowful face and eyes showing the strain of the cheerless life he must have led. People always had time to stop and watch Perry do a few somersaults and cartwheels before he passed the hat around. He played the mouth organ but he was no Larry Adler. You may well have seen him anywhere around the town. See a crowd and there he was. In some ways he would remind you of vaudeville stars like Roy (Mo) Rene with trousers too big for him and a coat he used to take off ever so carefully and then fold it neatly to put on the ground. A sudden stop and he passed his hat.
“Matches” was mostly seen in Barrack Street, sometimes opposite our shop and often around the corners of Barack and Murray Streets. I can see him in my mind’s eye now just like it was yesterday. Tallish, thin-faced, and wearing a greyish brown topcoat most times. He offered his matches with a movement of his hand and a muttered “match” sounding more like “ma”, but I do not remember ever seeing him sell a box. It makes you wonder.
“Feathers” was a tall woman who swept round the city rather than walked. She wore long Victorian dresses with a colourful hat and a boa, which was a long snake-shaped wrap of silk and feathers worn around the neck. The feathers could be seen a mile away and these gave her the only name that we knew her by. She was heavily made up and while she appeared old, who knows? Telegraph messengers on a city walk tended to keep clear of her. We knew that she was not predictable and the woman was liable to rush up to anyone who she picked out of the blue. Feathers disliked the cheeky small boys who used to follow her about and she would turn around and raise her hand at them or swing her handbag and score a direct hit.
The GPO used to be the stage for the most interesting character of them all, “The Count”. A real role player he would regularly appear on the front steps well-dressed in a light coloured suit with a matching waistcoat, gloves and dressy shoes. A dashing hat from Austria or Germany or Switzerland added the final touch. He would fit a cigarette to a long holder, light up, and take a puff or two with exaggerated gestures, and then stride quickly into the telegraph counter and send off a few telegrams. Any slowness in attention to his wants merited a hard knock or two on the counter where the staff were probably used to him. He would sweep his arm about as he took a few puffs or pulled his watch and chain out of his waistcoat pocket, and lean on the counter or walk quickly about for he was all gestures. He would carry on a sort of a conversation with nobody in particular in a louder than normal voice without disturbing other people too much. He came from a family resident in South Australia and they apparently brought him to Western Australia. They kept him in funds sufficient to keep him comfortable in the lifestyle he led here. His name is known but it is not important now as all this was fifty years or more ago. He was the most flamboyant “character” of those days.
By contrast “Giblets” was a smaller man who wore crumpled grey trousers and a grey coat and cap. I never met anyone who knew his name or what he did when he meandered around the city block. He spoke to no one and eyed everybody warily but that was it. He seemed to find what he was looking for to keep him surviving year after year. Giblets, Percy Buttons (not his real name) and Matches were three men who would have had accommodation problems that were hard to solve in those difficult days. We have never got to grips with the problems of the needy men in our community. Certainly, welfare payments now improve their position but it is more than money we must look at. Suitable accommodation is still the great need for many of them. If we spent the same amount per head on them as on some other groups in the land it would help.
Xmas in Perth always saw the shops well decorated and the store windows decked-out with special displays. Father Christmas and his reindeer trotted across the sky somewhere in most of the big stores like Bon Marche, Aherns, Boans, Economic Stores, Bairds, Foy and Gibsons, Harris, Scarfe and Sandovers. The start of the Christmas sell usually began in November, and demand built up gradually till it hit full pressure in the middle of December. It was a happy time for everybody as their troubles were put aside for a week or so while they shopped for presents when it was much easier to find what you wanted than it is today. Now the shops have plenty of stock but fail to have the items you really want.
New Year’s Eve in Perth was a pretty big occasion. The city block would be crowded with everybody making for the Perth Town Hall to wait for the clock to start chiming midnight. People arrived by tram, bus, and train, with others coming in by car and cycle. Fun was the order of the evening and though there was always someone who could not celebrate the New Year without a bottle or two, the police had no problems. The clock struck twelve and whistles and cheers joined the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”, as 1937 arrived.
(1937) The Regent Theatre which was part of the Queen’s Buildings in central William Street had been remodelled by MGM and renamed the Metro and the new Piccadilly Theatre had been opened in central Hay Street. Business people were moving and shop fronts were being modernised. There were few changes in the Barrack Street area that I knew so well and even today most of the original shops between Murray and Wellington are still there. Brown’s Milk Bar was still going in 1989, 55 years after I first bought a milkshake there for 4d (4c), with a scoop of ice cream.
Perth’s trams were the real people movers of those days. Services ran to most suburbs. With the help of friends this is how I see the route numbers: No. 1 to the Town Hall and Colin Street, No. 2 to Thomas Street, No. 4 to Rokeby Road, No. 5 to Heytesbury Road, No. 6 to Subiaco, No. 7 to Nedlands, No. 8 to Carbarn Hay Street East, No. 9 to Mint Street, and Nos 10/11 on to Victoria Park and East Victoria Park. North of the city, No. 18 went to Inglewood, No. 19 to Mt Lawley, No. 20 to Forrest Street, No. 21 to Angove Street, and No. 22 to North Perth. Maylands was serviced by No. 33 which ran to 8th Avenue and No. 34 which ran to Ferguson Street. South of the city, No. 26 went to Onslow Road, No. 27 went to the Zoo, No. 28 to Como, and No. 29 to Mends Street jetty, travelling along Canning Highway after going across the Causeway. The No. 24 service along Mounts Bay Road was well used for it ended its trip at the popular Crawley Baths.
North-west of the city one tram, No. 13, ran along Newcastle Street and onto the McCourt Street terminus which was at the street running up to St. John of God’s Hospital. No. 14 went to Oxford Street. The trams that turned right out of Newcastle Street into Oxford Street were No. 15 for Mt Hawthorn, and the No. 16 for Osborne Park which finished its run at the terminus, Osborne Park Hotel.
Trams running down Beaufort St through Barrack St to the jetties, 1939. Source: @LostPerth
The double bogie trams had reversible seating for 68 people with plenty or straps provided for people standing in the aisles at busy times. The small trams were better known as “Leaping Lenas” for they swayed and bumped along when they were in full flight. Trams ran in the centre of the streets where there were dual sets or tramlines. Out in the suburbs there were some single-line tracks close to the local terminus which sometimes required your tram being put on hold for a few minutes at a switching point, awaiting an oncoming tram on the same line. Passengers getting on and off trams at regular stops were protected from danger by a regulation that made it an offence for a motor vehicle or any other conveyance to pass a stationary tram.
Hay, Murray and Barrack Streets were the focal points of all the systems. The Murray/Barrack corner was a switching point for trams returning on the No. 8 destination run which ran back to the Hay Street East carbarn. The tracks there required constant maintenance and often I was awakened by the noise of the repair team. I would put my head out the window to see what was going on and to check the Town Hall clock for the right time. It was usually about 2-3am. I remember well the glare of the purple light of the welding equipment, which was not to be watched. Once awakened by the workers it was hard to get back to sleep as I then had to cope with the Town Hall clock striking all the quarter hours and then sounding off like Big Ben every hour till I dropped off. Trams were gradually replaced by trolleybuses after the first trolleys came into service in 1933 and the last tram was taken out of service in 1958.