Compiled for OzSportsHistory by Brian Membrey


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 School 824: Memories : Lunchtime

… and the Curse of the Free Milk!

South Preston did not have a school canteen or "tuck shop" during my time and I think for a decade or more either side, the main outlet for those that either didn't bring lunch from home or just wanted a sugar fix from a threepenny bag of mixed lollies was the "school shop" immediately opposite, the bordered-over shop façade still retained but not operating for many, many years.

During my years, it was run by a rather short and rotund couple, Mr and Mrs George Peck and sometimes helped by  their daughter Carol who in the same Grade as us, but maybe remembered as a bit older given an aura of minor authority behind the counter.

(The shop opened around 1916 as a stationers, but within three or four years was a confectionery/milk bar. The Pecks moved in around 1952 and were still operating as late as 1975; George at least had run similar businesses in the southern suburbs since the late 1930s).   

There was a small sandwich-cum milk bar opposite the door and a lolly stand on the left - probably no more than 7 by 5 metres and added to the front of an original timber cottage   Given its Sphinx-like status to those of us at South Preston, it was always a mystery to me that cousins who attended Bell and West Preston respectively never had any idea what I was going on about when I spoke of the "school shop"   Cretins, one and all!

The alternative in my early days was a fish and chip shop on the western side of Plenty Road midway between Seymour and Yann Streets where the lunch-time ritual of several dozen kids all yelling for "six 'o cakes" (potato) at a penny a time terrorised the middle-aged Greek  proprietor

Of course, if there was a penny left over after devouring the scalding-hot mixture of starch and fat, there was a grocers next door where one could  cleanse or clog the palate with either "fizzy" (fruit saline) or hundreds-and-thousands - either way in a wax-paper flute and filled from a bulk tin.

Circa 1955, a new fish and chip opened on the eastern side about six doors south of Bell Street, again by a Greek family; a double-fronted milk/sandwich bar opened about the same time immediately to the south (surviving today), I think by the same family that had the original fishmongers on the western side.

For the majority that brought Mum's cut lunch from home, it was almost invariably sandwiches - perhaps in some cases a bread roll - wrapped in wax paper with a piece of fruit and maybe a slice of home-made cake parcelled up in a brown paper bag   It wasn't exactly eBay, but there was something of a lunchtime swap market as kids sought out their favourites in exchange for those that weren’t!

During the last couple of years of my time, plastic bags became available and they kept everything fresher than the paper variety   I'm not sure whether they were expensive or just hard to get hold of, but certainly our family led the way in recycling in the Preston area at least

Dad, my brother and I always religiously took the plastic bags back home, Mum would rinse them out and every Saturday morning there would be a dozen or more pegged out on the Hills Rotary Hoist and flapping in the breeze   There was also a kitchen drawer devoted almost entirely to bags, both plastic and paper, just below the shelf where the Vegemite jars that doubled as glasses were kept   

Perhaps all this sounds like an old man's recollection of the halcyon days of childhood - but to even things out, there was also the Curse Of The Free Milk

At some point and certainly with the best of intentions given there were many families struggling to provide adequate nutrition for their children combined with a glut of low-price milk, the Education Department decided that it would provide daily free milk to all Victorian State School children

The scheme had been proposed early in 1951, but had been held up through a shortage of storage cases and insufficient pasteurising plants - it was eventually introduced in September with a half-pint bottle distributed to all state school children up to the age of nine between then and December  The scheme was expanded over the summer to extend the age to 13 (some 160,000 Victorian State School children to suffer accordingly), but with the volume to be reduced to a third of a pint as soon as bottles could be produced, the original half-pint considered too much for younger children

Others may extol the virtues of the scheme, but I'll tell it as I remember it!  YUK!

It was delivered by a local dairy around 6 30 a m  and left outside in the sun to curdle until around 10 30 when each class was marched out to face their punishment. The milk came in bottles with a foil lid, and it certainly was not unknown for birds, especially marauding magpies, to peck through the some of the foil top for a free morning feed!

I can't remember much of grades one to three - perhaps the scheme didn't operate or I was more resilient, but from grade four on, the warm milk made me so queasy, Mum's cut lunch either disappeared into the bin or down the throat of someone whose appetite was bigger that their own brown-paper lunch bag

It took about three months before Mum twigged that her lunch was no longer on my menu.   I got “twigged” one day when she innocently asked how I enjoyed the sandwiches and with a closer cross-examination worthy of the Perry Mason series of later years demanded know what the fillings were.    

Throwing myself on the mercy of the court and/or kitchen table. I ultimately 'fessed to the milk making me feel sick and she got me taken off the free program

Heaven forbid, if there is ever a time when my ultimate survival from thirst depends on a choice of steaming camel urine or milk, then I hope there are plenty of camels around!

(I should add that I'm not alone here - around 2010, a group of six or eight of regularly organised a monthly Sunday roast at the Preston Football Club Social Club.

One Sunday, someone declared he was going to have a couple of extra beers during the afternoon and decided to test the urban myth that drinking milk put a lining on the stomach which restricted the absorption of alcohol   He emerged from the 'fridge with the milk carton and usual white moustache before three of us told him to perform such obscene acts in private - it subsequently emerged that the other two had the same turn-off as I had - being forced to drink semi-curdled free milk some 50 years earlier)!

And an old friend Wendy Frye Collier agrees - her recollection is pretending to need the toilet whilst sneaking across to the school shop to buy flavouring to alleviate the taste of the milk!  

Smart move, didn't think of that at the time … I wonder if Mr and Mrs Peck had beer flavouring?)

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