Jack Robinson

At 93, Jack Robinson loves to reminisce about his "wonderful boyhood" in Wentworth Falls in the 1920s.

"I had the best life that anyone could have," he says as he looks around the thickly treed grounds of Whispering Pines Chalet where he worked for a time during the Great Depression as a young butler.

"The trees were only fence-high then – more like shrubs than trees – and we could see the whole of Kings Tableland." He remembers his father being able to wave to the gardener across the valley at Yester Grange, so light was the tree cover in those days.

Jack's father, Alfred Robinson, managed the farm that supplied milk, meat, fruit and vegetables to Tolls Hotel just up the road overlooking the Jamison Valley.

It was a busy little farm with four cows milked each day. They churned their own butter, killed their own pigs, ran 3000 fowls and hatched all their own chickens with kerosene-heaters for warmth. The orchard comprised more than seventy trees.

Jack remembers being told that his father had trained as a horticulturist in England, starting when he was twelve and a half years old.

photo of Tolls Hotel - Wentworth Falls

Tolls Hotel     photo: courtesy Blue Mountains Historical Society

Tolls Hotel was double-storied and had been built in brick in the 1890s. Its founder, Joseph Toll, died suddenly in 1909 and his hotel passed through several hands until the Depression forced its closure. The empty hotel was destroyed by fire in 1932 when Jack was fourteen years old. He remembers the night.

"Well, we'd gone to bed and my father thought he heard something and got up. He saw the flames and got us all out of bed." Naturally, they hurried up the hill to watch. "There was no-one there, no-one around the place, but I can remember the curtains and the doors being open and the breeze coming up from the valley; it just went right through the place. The fire was so intense."

Jack guesses it took two hours for the fire brigade to arrive from Katoomba. "I've got an idea they were all horse-drawn in those days. The place had well and truly gone by the time the fire brigade arrived. I can remember people saying, Oh, that must have been an inside job."

Jack lived with his parents and two brothers in the gardener's cottage off a little lane that's now called Wilson Street.

"I used to do a lot of rabbit trapping in those days as a kid," he recalls. "I used to take my rabbit traps over to Kings Tableland and set them of an afternoon. Next morning I'd go over and see if I'd caught anything. Very often I did, but the foxes used to get to the rabbits and take the head off and take the heart out."

One day he set a trap just up the road from Whispering Pines and next morning he thought he'd caught a dog in it. He called his father who identified it as a fox. "He got an axe and hit it on the head," says Jack. "Mr Ivatt [ the owner of Whispering Pines, then called Glanmire ] skinned it and pegged it out on the floor of a toolshed and my mother had it made into a stole. It had a beautiful tail; it was only a youngish fox."

It seems the weather was a little different in those days: "We'd get a lot of fog in the wintertime and big falls of snow because it used to break the branches on the trees here and we'd have to clean up after it. Anything up to eight inches to a foot. In those days there weren't many winters that we didn't get snow."

He cannot remember a drought, but saw plenty of bushfires. "We used to sit out here on the top balcony and watch the trees on the tableland catch fire and fall over into the valley. Of a night, you could see 'em going down. I can remember these front pines catching fire one time."

We show Jack an eroded old horseshoe, one of several found on a property next door to Whispering Pines, and his face lights up. "That might have been Spooky's!" he says.

"Tom Dillinger had a very strong grey horse called Spooky that used to pull a rubber wheeled sulky. Tom would often say to my mother and one or two of us, 'Come up to Katoomba for a run in the sulky.'

"We were going up one time and Spooky was getting along pretty well, then a train came along and the engine driver pulled the whistle. Spooky took off and was really stepping it out." Tom soon got Spooky under control. "I think Tom could nearly pick up the horse and sulky and take it himself. He was such a strong man," says Jack. "And a lovely man."

With Tolls Hotel in ashes, Jack's parents eventually moved to Bathurst to look after the parents of the Anglican Bishop there. Jack stayed in Wentworth Falls and took his first job at the height of the Depression. He worked at a little tea room at the end of Falls Road making gem scones for the tourists and serving at the tables. Later he put on long grey pants, a white shirt and a black waistcoat to become a young butler to the Ivatt family that owned Whispering Pines at the time. They also had interests in coal mines which cushioned them from the worst of the financial crisis.

Jack next got a job at the local general store, now the Mitre 10 Hardware store beside the highway. He would ride around the village on a bicycle collecting orders, which he would later deliver with a horse and cart.

Today we take for granted the distant roar of jets flying high overhead, but in Jack's boyhood days flying was in primitive machines much closer to the ground. "They were all the old type - just two seats, front and back. There were a couple of crashes down in the valley here, but most of them happened up near the golf links. The pilots would be looking for somewhere to land, and very often used to miss the golf links and go into the bush up there. I can't remember anyone being killed."

Entertainment was different then, too. "There was a lot of English people here in those days. All our friends were English," says Jack. "They used to play cards of a night and used to move furniture around and dance to the old gramophones. They visited each other a lot.

"The only radios in those days were crystal sets. A friend of mine made one for me. You used to have to put a great big arial up. I can remember my father buying the first radio that we ever had.

"We used to have movies in the School of Arts, but they'd only last a month and then they'd fold up, you know. Couldn't make a profit, no."

Jack remembers seeing the silent version of the epic war movie All Quiet on the Western Front, made in 1930, and shown at the Wentworth Falls School of Arts. "And they had someone there with a drum and someone with cymbals, and when the shells would come over they'd hit the drum and then when the bombs were going through the air they were hitting the cymbals."

Jack would later see warfare himself. He joined the army in 1939 and was machine-gunned in New Guinea in 1943. He recovered from serious injuries that kept him in hospital for fourteen months and went on to work in grocery stores. He now lives on the Central Coast and has made a number of nostalgic visits to Whispering Pines.