Monday, 17 February 2014

A Tale from Balmain

As I have made clear, my interview technique when I was 12 was not great (there is strong argument that it has not improved much since). But my grandfather, Leslie Keith Ashton O'Toole, did tell me some stories before I blew it. The following is my favourite.

The O'Tooles were all great swimmers. Les's dad, John O'Toole, was a founding member of Balmain Swimming Club and his mum, Mary Marcella ni Hall, a founding member of the Balmain Ladies' Swimming Club. Younger brother Will was a regular member of the swim team and the whole family could often be found at Balmain Baths (now Dawn Fraser Baths) or at one of Sydney's numerous beaches. They were not, however, to swim in the Harbour as Marcella was concerned about sharks.

Balmain Baths, from Town and Country Magazine, 4 Jan 1902, p.23. Image from Trove
When Les was about fourteen (which would have put this around 1915) he and his friends would dare each other to do mad things – jumping off moving trams, climbing things (I think buildings, but I am not quite sure) and swimming in the Harbour. The Harbour swim was Les's favourite dare because 1) it was easy and 2) he wasn't allowed to. The routine was this: “I dare you to swim from X to the ferry wharf”. Les would strip off and enter the water. His friends would then collect his clothes and secrete them near the wharf. They knew he had succeeded because he would meet them later clothed but damp. As he completed each dare, the swims got longer.

The O'Tooles were living in 21 Hampton Street at the time, just up the steps from the Balmain Baths and with a view out towards Cockatoo Island. When Les said “swim in the Harbour” he meant that side of the Harbour, not round near Circular Quay or Darling Harbour. The ferry wharf where the clothes were left was Balmain West Ferry Wharf off Elliott Street. Swims had been from the Baths round to the ferry wharf and from other spots on the Birchgrove side.

Les O'Toole, taken around 1914. Photo in private collection
Les never worked out how his mother found out. I wonder if she saw him at some point, either near the Baths or near the wharf. Nevertheless, Marcella found out. But it is a mark of the woman that she did not say anything to her son about it.

Impressed by his swimming prowess, Les's friends set him a big challenge – to swim from the point near Callan Park under the Iron Cove Bridge to the ferry wharf. No problem. Les and his friends walked round to the point, Les stripped down and began his swim. His friends bundled up his clothes and headed for the wharf. Unbeknownst to all, the friends were being followed.

Les completed the swim without any trouble. He told me he had seen sharks from time to time during his Harbour swims, but I don't know if he saw any that day. Let's just say that sharks became the least of his worries. He easily reached the wharf and waited till the coast was clear. Then he made his way to the place where his clothes were usually stashed.


He looked about for them.

Still nothing.

He started to search frantically, all the while trying to stay out of sight. This was after all 1915 in built-up Balmain and he was stark naked.

Still nothing.

So began a furtive and seemingly endless trip home, through back streets and pan man's alleys. Most toilets were pan toilets outside. The pans needed regular emptying and the pan men needed access, so Sydney had an extensive network of alleys. If you go to areas like Balmain, Newtown and Redfern you can still see them. Little lanes about 3 feet wide running behind yards or between buildings. So there was Les, ducking under cover, scooting down alleys and making a break for it when necessary if the coast was clear. It's about 500m from the wharf to Hampton Street as the crow flies, but a 14 year old boy, clothed or naked, isn't able travel as the crow flies. Les couldn't say how long it took, except to say that he felt like he would never get there.

The starting point of Les's swim is marked with the red star in the bottom left. Iron Cove Bridge is marked with "A40". The Ferry Wharf is the red star at the top. 21 Hampton Street is circled. This does not convey the route taken to get from the wharf to home. I don't think my grandfather was paying enough attention to have later mapped it at any rate. Image from Google Earth. Marking added with Microsoft Paint.
Finally he reached 21 Hampton Street, sneaking into the yard. He crept into the house and into his room which he shared with his younger brothers.

There, neatly laid out on his bed were his clothes.

Realising the gig was up, Les quietly dressed and went out to the kitchen to eat his tea. All Marcella said was “How was your afternoon?”

When he told his friends the next day they laughed like drains.

But Les never swam in the Harbour again.

Told to Megan Hitchens ni Ellem sometime in March 1980


  1. Such self control on Marcella's part and what a case of learning by the consequences. I like it!

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  3. My grandfather was still rather in awe of his mother's actions 65 years later, although by that time he could laugh about it.