In the 1930′s most small country towns such as my home town Irymple, in North Western Victoria, didn’t have sewerage. In fact very few people had septic tanks, which meant that sanitary arrangements were usually left in the hands of one of our favourite characters – the dunny man.
The dunny man came regularly once each week, hail, rain or shine, in a motor truck loaded with dunny cans each about 2 ft high (high being the operative word), and 1ft 6 inches wide. There must have been something like forty cans on each load, because us kids jokingly referred to the dunny truck as being the most powerful vehicle in the world, “It has forty cylinders and flies”, we would always say.
Mildura and its satellite towns, Irymple, Red Cliffs and Merbein were planned so that a laneway ran along the back of each row of houses, and every dunny or lavatory, as they were more properly called, backed on to the lane. The dunnies were constructed with a trapdoor at the back and it was the job of the dunny man to drive up the lane, open the trap door, and replace the full can with an empty one.
During the years that we lived in Irymple, our family lived in many different houses, most of which boasted of the above kind of dunny, however, the last place we occupied before moving to Bacchus Marsh in 1941 backed on to the railway line. This meant that the dunny man was forced to make certain changes to his work practices.
Without back lane access, our hero was forced to literally “carry the can” from the roadway, through the front gate, up the path beside the house, and into the back yard to the back of the dunny.
This house was particularly hazardous for the dunny man, who invariably carried the can on his head or shoulder, in that it had a clothes-line that crossed the yard between the house and the dunny. An extra hazard was created by the fact that the cans were collected in the dark and early hours of the morning, firstly to miss the heat of the day and thus avoid the worst of the smell, and secondly to reduce the risk of catching someone by surprise as they went about doing their daily business.
Being aware of these risks, and not wanting to cause either injury or embarrassment to anyone, Mum gave meticulous instructions to both my brother Lindsay and myself. “I’m trusting you to make sure that the clothes prop is in the up position before you go to bed”, she would say to us on the night before the dunny man was due to arrive.
Trouble was that Mum’s trust was often misplaced, and on many occasions, the early morning silence of our small town was punctured by loud and lurid curses as a can caught on the partly lowered clothes-line and splashed its contents on its carrier.
Such noises not only woke Lindsay and me from our sleep, but also alerted us to the fact that we were in as much of the proverbial with Mum