MEET THE LOCALS

Meet the locals: Historian Chrys Meader is inner west Citizen of the Year

Citizen of the Year Chrys Meader at Henson Park in Marrickville; she grew up across the road. Picture: Simon Bennett
Citizen of the Year Chrys Meader at Henson Park in Marrickville; she grew up across the road. Picture: Simon Bennett

"The Charlie Meader gates at Henson Park, home to the Newtown Jets, are named after my father; he was the caretaker there from 1964 until he retired in 1994.

I have lived in the inner west all my life, as my father did, and his father before him, and his father before him - 170 years, that's how long my family has been in the inner west. We started in Newtown, where my great-great-grandfather had what they called an oyster salon on King Street, which we would call a fish and chip shop today.

My grandfather had a carrying business in Marrickville - he carted bricks from Daley's brick pit (which is now Henson Park) - and when the Spanish flu hit, he moved his family to an area that hardly had any influenza, down near Cooks River, where he bought a house in Riverside Crescent where my father was born.

Chrys Meader outside Henson Park's Charlie Meader gates, named in honour of her father. Picture: Simon Bennett

Chrys Meader outside Henson Park's Charlie Meader gates, named in honour of her father. Picture: Simon Bennett

My mother's family came from Orange when she was in her early teens and they lived across the road. They got married when my mother was 18, at St Clement's Church in Marrickville - my father was baptised and married there, and his five children were baptised there, too.

We lived with my grandmother on Riverside Crescent - I knew every blade of grass. I was 12 when we moved into the caretaker's house in Centennial Street, across the road from Henson Park. I had never been to a footy game in my life and we found a whole League family in Centennial Street, I just loved it. We had free access to all the games. My father briefed us all of the rules, and there were some really good-looking footballers ...

Henson Park, home of the Newtown Jets, was the site of Daley's Brick Pit. Picture: SImon Bennett

Henson Park, home of the Newtown Jets, was the site of Daley's Brick Pit. Picture: SImon Bennett

My working life was at Marrickville Library. Initially I worked there part-time while I qualified as a librarian at University of NSW, and then I did a history degree. I started off as a library assistant, then branch librarian, children's librarian, local studies librarian, and then I was Marrickville historian from 2001 to 2011, when I left.

When I went there I was known as Charlie's daughter but later in life, Charlie was known as Chrys's dad and I don't think he cared for that very much!

The Council was like another family back in those days. It was very good to us when my mother passed away suddenly, when my youngest brother was only 4, and also when my brother became a quadriplegic at the age of 18 in a road accident, because he had started work there as an apprentice gardener.

The landmark gandstand at Henson Park, built on a reclaimed brick pit. Picture: Simon Bennett

The landmark gandstand at Henson Park, built on a reclaimed brick pit. Picture: Simon Bennett

Marrickville was, and is, like a big village. People in hard times will always stick together and I think today, COVID has showed that.

As to where my passion for history comes from, for a cheap day out, my father would take us to the cemetery, St Stephen's at Newtown and St Peters at St Peters; he also walked us along Cook's river - he was very conscious that we had an indigenous history along the river. When he was growing up, there were a lot of Aboriginal families living in the street, and they would tell him stories. It was like the oral tradition, and he was a wonderful storyteller - there were ghost stories too about Marrickville; and my grandmother was an even better storyteller than him.

My great love of history also comes from the woman who was the chief librarian when I started, Frances Charteris (there is a room named after her in the new Marrickville library), who started the Marrickville District Historical Society to which I was forced to go to take the minutes! Many the day she would say, "come on, we're going to walk around Marrickville", and she'd show me things and tell me things.

What I liked about Marrickville and the inner west is it has always been culturally diverse and that was one of the great things growing up.

Nine boys died at Daley's brick pit, before it became Henson Park. I do some sunset tours down there, and it is very, very eerie.

In many ways Marrickville today is more gentrified. My grandmother would never tell anyone we lived at Marrickville. When I was a kid and we'd be on the bus, and she'd yak to anybody, and they'd say "where do you live" and she'd say 'Earlwood' and I'd say, 'but nana we don't live at Earlwood' and she'd say, no, don't tell anyone we live at Marrickville.

There was a lot of industry, right up until the 1970s. It was also supposedly a hot bed of crime, even though I don't think we were any worse than anywhere else.

I've done a history of Henson Park until 1938; that was when the last closing ceremony of the Empire Games [before it became the Commonwealth Games] was held there, as well as the Games' cycling time trials - there was a very steep cycle track around the park, which they got rid of in 1968. I've got the scar on my foot from when I fell off my scooter going around that track.

Right now I am working on a history of the Vicars Woollen Mills, where Marrickville Metro Shopping Centre is today, with John Vicars who is the great-grandson of the founder and was the manager when my mother worked in the office there. When she died he sent a lovely letter to my father.

I'd like to extend my brick pits research to all the pits across Leichhardt, Ashfield and Marrickville. Across the inner west, from 1880 to 1940, 80 children, probably more, drowned in brick pits. I don't want to be tragic or sad, but it happened, and I just want to say that none of the kids could swim and it was a big impetus for council to ultimately start learn-to-swim programs, and also to resume the brick pits in the 1920s, by which time most had ceased operation and been left to fill up with water.

Nine boys died at Daley's brick pit, before it became Henson Park.

I do some sunset tours down there, and it is very, very eerie. When I first moved there, I used to tell my father I could hear kids splashing and he would say, no you are imagining it, but he always said he had an oppressive feeling about Henson Park.

I also do tours of Enmore Theatre, and St Stephen's Cemetery, and I still get asked to go to schools to talk about history - that was a big part of my job as Marrickville historian. I like people, and I just think the more people that know about history, the better it is.

I was so stunned to be named Inner West Citizen of the Year; there were so many excellent nominees I didn't think I had any chance. I suppose they gave it to me because mine is a body of work that extends over a long period of time; it is not a one-off project.

It is the quirky little stories that I really like, that really bring history alive. That is all history is - stories; stories of a family, stories of a place. It is just as exciting as being an archaeologist, but instead of digging through the ground you're digging through records."

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