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Compiled for Darebin Heritage by Brian Membrey


School 824: Memories : Lunchtime

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 Peck and sometimes helpe their daughter Carol who in the same Grade as us, but maybe remembered as a bit older given she helped out in the shop.  

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 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. I thought it was operated by the Kambouris family, perhaps because one of their daughters "Chrissie" - later confirmed as Chysantheum - enrolled at South Preston, but a correspondent, Wendy Frye Collier (just Frye when we attended) suggests that the Kambouris family were in High Street next to the Yee family's fruit shop  and the Plenty Road version was run by a family called Ristovich - either way this seemed to become the favourite of the fish-and-chip brigade.  

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 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.

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!

The milk came in bottles with a foil lid .

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.  

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 lunch was no longer on my menu.   

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 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 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 (wonder if they have beer flavouring?)