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Just for Fun

“Oh! Haven’t you ever played Beetles?” asks Kath Kirkcaldy. “Then you haven’t lived!”[1] There were no shops full of toys, and mind-boggling games enticing children to buy them at the turn of the last century, but ‘Beetles’ was such a good game that along with Bingo, it is still being played today.

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Clare Niere plays beetles.

Kath Kirkcaldy remembers its rules very clearly from her day. “It’s a fast game,” Kath Kirkcaldy explains, “with a die and usually four players. You can have six players in a ring, but four is easier,” she says. “Each player has a piece of paper and a pencil, and you have to throw a six before you can start. That gives you the body as a starting point. Once you’d thrown a six, you could go ahead and put two feelers, eyes, six legs, and a tail on the Beetle. Each of the body parts had a designated number. The head can be 5, the eyes 4, the legs 3, and the feelers two. As you have to throw 3 for each leg, you obviously have to throw six 3’s, to put them all on, but not necessarily in that order,” she explains. “You can put a tail on as soon as you throw the correct number for the tail, but you can’t put the eyes on, until you have the head. And of course the first one that has it, yells out ‘Beetle!’ They get five points for that. You keep playing, and the one who gets the most points at the end of the day, wins the prize.” This, she says, would be some little thing in her day. “Just something little because it was a fundraising event for us and you didn’t spend too much on the prizes, otherwise you wouldn’t make a profit. It was fun, though,” she says.

The skill of it, she recalls, was not only in throwing the dice, which was in a little cup. “There is a certain way you can throw the die, and bring it back, that would bring up a six, you know.” “But not only that,” she adds, “there is the speed with which your partner or the person on the other side of you hands it to you. If they throw and then hang onto the die, it means you can’t throw, so you have to get it off them as quickly as you can. There is a skill is in getting it from that person, and giving it to the next one. It caused a lot of hilarity particularly if you threw it and it went on the floor, and you had to get it, she remembers with a smile. [2]

Anyone, child or adult could play Beetles, but there were definite boys and girls’ games in the schoolyard. At the turn of the century boys livened up recess time with ‘Cherry Bobs, ‘Tipchase’, and ‘Yonnies’. Girls played rounders and basketball, or skipped to rhymes. Both girls and boys teased, taunted, and shocked one another and the community with current, ribald chants, or happily entertained each other with counting and guessing games and rhymes.

Cherry Bobs and marbles were popular with the boys because gambling was part of the games. Leo Gamble writes: “Boys saved their pips from the cherries and painted them with ink. They then played gambling games where the cherry bobs were won and lost in different ways. The enterprising lads were the ‘bookies’ who would stand astride a small hole in the ground near the school wall. Other boys would stand some paces back and throw their cherry bobs at the hole. The owner of the hole gave odds for a successful throw, which went into the hole. ‘Two and your old girl back’ was a popular call. More often than not a miss would be pocketed by the ‘bookie’. Others had small spinning wheels called Toodlem Bucks, which they had marked out varying odds to be paid if the pointer ended in that segment. After each spin, made by pulling the string wound on a cotton reel attached to the wheel, the ‘bookie’ would pocket the bets on unsuccessful segments of his wheel. Endless arguments over cherry bobs and marble losses dominated the playground. [3]

‘Tipchase’ was a hazardous game, played with no rules apart from those of survival, in schoolyards at the turn of the century. It consisted of a stick sharpened at both ends, which was flicked into the air, to land at random among the children playing the game.

“Oh that was dangerous, that Tipchase”, says Alf Baguley. “You used to have a piece of wood, sharpened to a point at each end. It had to be hit on the end, to make it flick through the air,” he recalls. “It was very dangerous. The only rule was not to be hit. You just had to get out of the road,” he says with some disbelief even now, at the memory. “If it hit you, it would tear you to pieces, this long pointed stick, pointed at both ends.” [4]

‘Yonnies’ were not much better than Tipchase, as Norm Stephens and Joe Souter recall. But they were great for after school fun. Yonnies were stones, which the boys usually got from the gravel on the road. “When they made the road, we got a lot of gravel from it for the wood yard. They would get dray loads and spread them all around the yard. There were plenty of stones to throw at my cousin. He’d be down the bottom of the yard, and I’d be at the top, and we’d be throwing stones at each other when we had an argument,” says Norm [5 ]

“Yonnie fights! Stones!” says, Joe Souter, who recalls that the acquisition of the stones or yonnies was an adventure in itself. He got his from Old Dandenong Road, which was roughly sealed, and had metal on it, he remembers. “There were, not gravel pits, but there was a sort of a red sandstone, and when we were going to school. There’d be two blokes, one with a big crow bar, and the other bloke would have a sledgehammer, and they’d drill down to start this crowbar off and they’d belt it down into this rock and tip water on it, and when they’d get down to about 3 feet, they’d lower a stick of gelignite on the end of a fuse, tell us kids to get out of the road, and they’d fire it and blow a couple of boulders out. And then they’d smash it up with sledgehammers and load it onto a dray, all by hand, and spread it in the wheel tracks. They didn‘t spread it where the horse walked. It was spread pretty thinly, I can tell you until they sealed it. And the stones were big. They’d hurt when they hit you,” he says. [6]

And who was the target of his and his mates’ yonnies? It did not seem to matter, because it was not meant as a grudge, nor was there intent to do harm, just to be naughty, he recalls. “ Well, on the creek there was an old galvanized shed. And there was a bloke lived in it. He was a widower. His name was Bill Mills. He was a world champion whip cracker. And he’d performed in front of King George V, I think, during the First World War. I know it was in front of Royalty, in England, and that would have been because he was of the age when he would have been at the First World War. Anyway. I never saw him crack the whip, but he’s always had these whips, and we’d get these stones, and if there were nobody up and down the road, we’d pelt his roof.” He says with some glee. The thrill of course was that they would see him rush out with his whip cracking, and have to run away before they copped it. [7]

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Roderick William Mills known as Saltbush Bill. Courtesy Sylvia Roberts.

Joe and his mates were also known to climb up into the recesses of the Dingley Church, and pelt the cars and people below with his dad’s veggies. “We’d climb up all these stairs and when you got up the top, there was a big slate slab, we’d push it aside and get all our tomatoes and rock melons and push the slate over. All the old cars came up here. We used to pelt these cars with rock melons and they couldn’t see us up from up there. [8]

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Tower of Christ Church, Dingley.

“We played rounders,” says Kath Kirkcaldy. “Basketball in the winter, and skipping in the summer.’ She recalls that she was never very good at skipping, and so her role was to just turn the rope.[9] Among others, girls chanted the following rhyme for skipping, while the rope was swung to and fro, until the last ‘over the wall’ was heard.

“Over the garden wall
I let the baby fall,
My mother came out and gave me a clout,
And sent me over the wall.” [10 ]

Those who were good at skipping could show off, while “hotting” up the pace of skipping to the chant of:

“Salt, mustard,
Cayenne Pepper”
(Vinegar, pepper)-

which saw the rope turn faster and faster until the skipper or the rope turners gave up.[11]

There were guessing clapping and counting games, chants for luck, rhymes for teasing and taunting the living daylights out of others, and finally rude rhymes recited purely for their shock value. The following chants, taken from a book of called “Cinderella Dressed in Yella”[12], were probably heard in and out of the schoolyard around the area during the period from 1900- 1920, on all sorts of occasions.

Children would entertain themselves with guessing games such as:

“Here comes an old woman from Botany Bay,
What have you got to give me today?” [13]

in which the ‘old woman’ holds out her closed fists, the other players try to guess what she is holding.

Clapping games were a favourite, and this rhyme could be heard throughout Victorian schoolyards from 1910.

“ My mother said I never should
Play with the gypsies in the wood.

If I did, she would say:

Naughty girl to disobey.’
The wood was dark,
The grass was green,
By came Sally with a tambourine
I went to sea, no ship to get across,
I paid five shillings for a blind white horse. [14]

Both Protestants and Catholics used taunts such as these in the following rhymes, according to the side they were on.

Catholics, Catholics ring the bell
While the Proddies go to hell.


Publics Publics, ring the bell,
While the Catholics go to hell
Catholics stink! [15]

And just for good measure, here is one for reprisal:

Proddie dogs will always yell,
When they feel the fires of hell! [16]

Children have always chanted rhymes for amusement only, such as this one, which sends up advertising claims for pills in the 1920s:

Hark the Herald Angels sing,
Beecham’s pills are just the thing,
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
Two for man and one for child. [17]

or simply for rude enticement, such as in:

Aunty Mary, Aunty Mary
I’ve lost the legs of my drawers.
Aunty Mary, Aunty Mary,
Will you give me yours? [18]

There were others of this ilk, but we won’t print them here.

The schoolyard at Dingley Primary School had swings and seesaws, as well as a maypole, says Kath Kirkcaldy. The maypole consisted of a big metal post in the centre, and the ropes hanging from it had a ring on the end. The children hung from these rings, and swung around the pole, she remembers. “They used to do dances and they’d weave round the older, original maypoles of course, but this was just to whiz round on.”[19]

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Children dancing around a maypole, 1900.

Kath can also remember playing another little game called ‘Statues’. This required participants to stand on the edge of the seats on the side of the shelter shed, from where they were pulled off by a designated person. As they landed, each one formed a ‘statue’, and stood stock-still, while the others tried to guess what the statue could possibly be. The stance of the statue triggered an association, sometimes by accident and sometimes by design. “You would think, ‘I’m a post’ or ‘I’m a scarecrow’, you know,” she recalls, “and then the others had to guess what you were.” The one who could guess the most was the winner, and though there was no prize, there was the glory of it, she says. [20]

Outside of the schoolyard, the creeks around the area, which had overflowed in the winter, dried up to puddles for easy fishing, eeling and tadpole gathering in the summer. Both Joe Souter and Frank Baguley, say the kids used to love to go fishing and eeling.

There were little fish in the drain crosses Old Dandenong Road, and goes down into the Mordialloc Creek, says Joe. They just looked like small Schnapper. They had silvery scales and they were also the same type of fish as up in the Dandenong Creek. So they must have gone upstream from the Bay. They were not Schnapper, but they looked like Schnapper, he reiterates. They were too small to eat. They used to eat minnows from Brownfield’s Creek in Centre Dandenong Road, he remembers. “It’s all concrete now, because the Dandenong Valley used to flood, and the Centre Dandenong Drainage Authority concreted all these drains. The Mordialloc Creek and Brownfield’s’ Creek; they’ve all got concrete bases, which was to get rid of all the water. They used to have fish in there. We used to get out of school as quick as we could and fish all the way home,” he recalls. [21]

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Michael Stooke, Brian Schofield and David Webster Fishing at Mordialloc Creek 1962.
From Leader Collection.

“The fish were little, like sardines”, Frank Baguley remembers. “You could hardly catch the fish when it was flowing, but once it stopped flowing, and there were only pools here and there, then you could catch them. We used to go Eeling down there, too in those days when it dried up,” he says. “You would not believe the eels that were in those pools. Yes, that was very exciting,” he goes on. “We went in, and the mud came up just over the top of our boots. It was just mud. Hardly any water in it, and as soon as you put your foot in you’d see the eels would be coming out of it. You’d drag them out of the mud. Three of us went down one day to get a few eels, and we were just flicking a few out, having a good time, but before we finished there were over twenty people there, picking them up.” [22]

Springs in those days were crystal clear and wells were a wonderful spot for cool, deep dipping. Joe Souter recalls this pleasant pastime with regret, as his favourite spring is now gone. Covered over, lost to this generation, he says, and what a shame. “The main thing that I’m annoyed about is that Dingley has lost that well, because it’s of such historical importance,” he maintain s. It was at Clarke Road, he remembers, and there were plenty of kids going to it. “I’ve been to the bottom of it. I swam in it. It’s not very wide, but we’d stand at the top of the well and jump. We’d put our legs and arms together and go right to the bottom. There were cans and everything in it, and we cleaned it out a couple of times. It was beautiful water. They fenced it all off, but because it was all overgrown with blackberries, and fern and all that, nobody took any notice, least of all the Springvale Council. But you see the horse lorries would go down there and there was just enough room for them to turn around. They’d pull them along to the well, and they’d have a tank on their lorry, and they’d bale it out, and then they’d take it home and put it into their tank at home.” [23]

Alf Liddell rues the fact that his beautiful spring has also gone. “We had a spring on our land, a well and a spring that never ceased to flow. It ran up just over the bricks, and it was like crystal. Cheltenham had beautiful water. They came from miles around for the water. There was one near the funeral parlour at Charman Road. There was one out the back of Glebe Avenue. They just filled it in. Should have left it for the children to see, you know,” he says. [24]

Girls gathered flowers and observed the wild life, and observed the cycle of life as a hobby. “We used to pick a lovely big bunch of wildflowers,” says Kath Kirkcaldy, who is even now a keen gardener. “We came home one day and I think we had as many as 27 different kinds, and they were there and they were free and you could just pick them and they’d come up again next year, and you’d just have to be careful not to pull them up by the roots. There was no restriction,” she says. “There were rabbits and there were hares and there were foxes that ate your chooks, and there were bandicoots. Birds, of course. We did see the odd wallaby down the back of the paddock. They were very, very scarce. There were tadpoles of course, and yabbies. We’d catch them, bring them home and watch them grow. Then they’d be frogs and the next minute, they’d be gone!” she remembers. [25]

Boys adapted ready-mades or built their own toys. Norm Stephens was probably ahead of his time with the following story of re-cycled material to use as toys. “Gosh, I was going to school I used to go over to a chap called Norm Hacker’s son, who used to work for Inchley- an electrician. I used to get those reels they used for the wire, the empty ones, and we used to bowl them up and down the road after school. That’s how many cars would be coming past then when I was going to State School. So imagine doing that now!” he says. [26]

Joe Souter built a billy cart. “Oh I put pedals and things in it,” he says. Never got the pedals to work properly, but we took turns to push one another around. We were always mechanically inclined. None of us were ever taught. It was just natural. Just came out of the blue,” he admits. And of course, that early play continued in his life, to the present time where now he is building beautiful replicas of old cars. To the last detail. [27]

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Peter Heath and Joseph Danckert in billy cart at Parkdale, 1966. From Leader Collection.

Whether organized or improvised, games taught kids to interact with one another and their environment. Games reflected their interests, prejudices, social mores, and values and taught them the consequences of their actions. In the case of those we interviewed, they faced the consequences, and learned from them.

Ken Smith sums it all up aptly by declaring “ I did so many naughty things as a boy, that when I became a teacher no kid could ever put one over me!” [28]

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Lemons at Half-time, 1900.


Piri White


2001 Federation Community Projects logo

This article is written as part of the Kingston Narratives Project, funded by the Commonwealth Government’s Federation Community Projects Program.
  1. White, Piri, Kath Kirkcaldy Interview, November 2000
  2. Ibid.
  3. Leo Gamble: With the Sisters and the Brothers
  4. White, Piri, Frank Baguley Interview, November 2000.
  5. White, Piri, Norm Stephens Interview September 2000.
  6. White, Piri, Joe Souter Interview 1&2, November2000.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid.
  9. White, Piri, Kath Kirkcaldy Interview, November 2000.
  10. Turner, I., & Factor, J., Cinderella Dressed in Yella, 1978 p. 24.
  11. Ibid., p. 25.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid., p. 53.
  14. Ibid., p. 37.
  15. Ibid., p. 82.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid., p. 115.
  18. Ibid., p. 110.
  19. White, Piri, Kath Kirkcaldy Interview, November 2000.
  20. Ibid.
  21. White, Piri, Joe Souter Interview 1&2, November 2000.
  22. White, Piri, Frank Baguley Interview, November 2000.
  23. White, Piri, Alf Liddell Interview, October 2000.
  24. White, Piri, Kath Kirkcaldy Interview, November 2000.
  25. White, Piri, Norm Stephens Interview September 2000.
  26. White, Piri, Joe Souter Interview 1&2, November 2000.
  27. White, Piri, Ken Smith Interview, September 2000.

Article Cat. Kingston Narratives Project
Article Ref. 126

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