In August 1949, when I was six years old, my family moved into 5 Bevington Road, Glenunga, in the city of Adelaide, Australia. The house belonged to my grandmother, Mary Peek, a widow since her husband, David, died in December 1947.
Within a day or two of my arrival, a little girl called Christine Duncombe paid a visit. She lived next door at 7 Bevington Rd and she was the same age as me, so it was inevitable that we would become friends. The Duncombes had acquired the house from Lance and Sylvia Hill, and a shed in their backyard was already being talked about locally as the birthplace of the ubiquitous Hills Hoist.
Australia in the mid-1940s was still enduring the austerity of the war years and food rationing meant that many suburban backyards had their own fruit trees. My grandmother had many apricot trees for preserves and jam that she could share around, while the Hill family next door had planted citrus trees. Everyone had the standard clotheslines, i.e. a string or two of wire between the side fences and a couple of Depression props. All of the Bevington Road houses had big backyards and my grandmother had to walk down a little avenue between the fruit trees to reach the hens’ enclosure and clotheslines at the bottom of the garden. Unexpected showers and wind gusts invariably ended with sheets dragging in puddles of mud.
One day, so the story goes, Sylvia Hill mentioned to her husband, Lance, that a citrus tree was snagging her washing, so he built her a prototype rotary clothesline made entirely from iron piping. The neighbours got to hear about it and one of them was the lady who lived at 3 Bevington Road. She was a widow and I remember her name as Mrs Gillespie but I’ll stand corrected if my memory is faulty on that point. She was, so she later told my mother and we had no reason to disbelieve her, the first person to buy a Hill’s rotating clothesline. It would have cost her about ten pounds. Other neighbours or friends were quick to follow and also ordered one.
By December 1945, Lance Hill was advertising his rotary clothesline in the South Australian Advertiser as the ideal Christmas present and the orders flooded in. By February 1946, the business had outgrown the backyard factory and it moved a few hundred yards away to a leased allotment on Glen Osmond Rd, just opposite the entrance to Bevington Road. When my family arrived at Bevington Road a few years later, we found ourselves in the unique position of living between the world’s first two Hill’s rotary clotheslines.
I can remember coming home from school one day to find my mother and several of her sisters peering over the fence into the backyard at number three, while Mum proudly pointed out the clothesline. By 1949 it was already becoming an object of historical interest. At number five, however, we still had the old clotheslines and props. My vivid memory of that time is that we were very poor. My parents couldn’t afford to buy clothes for us, let along hang them up to dry on a rotating line. In the end an aunty took pity on me and gave me a couple of secondhand dresses to add to the single dress I owned.
Christine and I played together in the backyard at number seven. I had no interest in the the shed which had once been a factory of sorts. Next to the shed, however, was a rusty iron contraption that had presumably been left behind by the Hill family and I could never work out its original purpose. I remember it as having a platform stacked with scrap metal and left-over iron piping, and a skeletal scaffolding that may once have been covered with canvas or a tarpaulin. It was the perfect monkey bars for Christine and me and we climbed and swung all over it from time to time.
Not long after we had moved into Bevington Road an accident occurred that shocked us all. I had forgotten some of the details but I tracked them down through an early edition of the Adelaide News, dated 10 November 1949:
Police and National Safety Council officials will inspect as soon as possible the scene of last night’s crash in Glen Osmond road, Fullarton, where a truck driver was killed instantly.
Victim was Leonard George Dawe, 36, of Hart avenue, Unley. He was crushed to death when his stationary truck was overturned by a tram travelling down Glen Osmond road toward Adelaide.
It was revealed today that if Dawe’s truck, which was side on to the approaching tram, had been another foot forward, it would have been cleared by the tram.
Dawe had pulled up outside the gate of Hill’s Hoists Ltd., where he worked, while the managing director (Mr. H. Ling) was getting the keys. [Ling was Lance Hill’s brother-in-law and business partner.]
Police are seeking an explanation why a heavy truck – it was a three-tonner, laden with galvanised tubing – should have been overturned when hit so close to the rear of the tray.
There were local men who worked at the factory and losing a workmate was tough. The accident possibly also encouraged its business directors to eventually move away from the location, with its entrance gate near the corner of a dangerous bend in such a busy road. Besides, the site was too small. The factory was eventually relocated to the Adelaide suburb of Edwardstown.
In 1994 I was back in Glenunga, working as a photo-journalist and tracking down a story for the magazine Australasian Post. I knew that the house at 7 Bevington Road had been demolished and replaced with townhouses, but 3 Bevington Road looked more-or-less the same. Did the original Hill’s rotating clothesline still exist? There was only one way to find out and I knocked on the door. The current owner of the house was a lovely elderly man who showed me around the backyard. Unfortunately the old Hill’s clothesline had worn out and been taken down to the local tip, he said, and a new hoist had taken its place.
I didn’t blame him. The original clotheslines had their limitations. They could not be raised and lowered, for example. I gather there was a short delay before the hoist function was added and the full-blown Hills Hoist was born. Still, I did feel a twinge of regret. There was no trace left of those early inventions except for a few fading memories, wandering around in the backyards of my mind.