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Ruth Park: Chronicling Poverty in 1940s Surry Hills

By Alec Smart

Author Ruth Park, who endured a poverty-stricken childhood that prevented her accepting a high school scholarship, spent her first years of marriage in a Surry Hills’ slum before attaining writing success.

Ruth Park, Award-Winning Writer

Ruth Park, a prolific and multi-award-winning writer, was perhaps best known for her 1946 debut novel The Harp in the South, 1980 children’s time-travel novel Playing Beattie Bow, and children’s radio and book series Muddle Headed Wombat (1943-1982). She also won the 1977 Miles Franklin Award, Australia's most prestigious literature prize, for her novel Swords and Crowns and Rings.

In 2006 The Bulletin included Ruth Park in their list of the 100 most influential Australians – although she was born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1917 to a Scottish father and Swedish mother and lived there for 25 years prior to emigrating to Sydney in Jan 1942.

This acclaim acknowledged the terrific trove of literature Park produced throughout her life, from nine adult novels, 23 children’s books (plus 15 books of the popular Muddle Headed Wombat series), six non-fiction books, over 5,000 radio scripts plus numerous magazine and newspaper articles, and three autobiographies, the first a collaboration with her husband, D’Arcy Niland (also an acclaimed author).

Starting in Journalism

Prior to coming to Australia, Park was due to emigrate to the USA to take up a journalist job on a Californian newspaper, the San Francisco Examiner – the editors were impressed by her internationally-published freelance writing - but the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour on 7 Dec 1941, three days before she was due to set sail.

This effectively scuppered her plans, because the USA then introduced new restrictions on immigrants that prohibited her taking up the job offer.

Bored with her unchallenging job at the Auckland Star, from which she had been transferred from children's section editor to the newsroom as a reporter when WWII broke out, Park decided to relocate to Sydney where she had more promising opportunities.

Having been corresponding with an Australian pen-pal for years, D’Arcy Niland, an aspiring writer of the same age, whom she met once on a holiday in Sydney, Park relocated to Australia. She accepted Niland’s marriage proposal, albeit reluctantly at first, because she feared being swallowed ''like a tide of mud'' in a marriage that may prevent her aspirations and curtail her writing ambitions. In fact the union proved the opposite. They were wed within three weeks of Park’s arrival in Australia in Jan 1942.


After their nuptials, Niland - rejected for military service because of his heart condition (which limited his physicality and eventually killed him) - was conscripted to labour on the sheep shearing circuit for the war effort.

For the next year Niland and Park travelled through rural NSW, he working as a shearer, she a cook. This experience later inspired the characters in Niland’s internationally-renowned debut novel, The Shiralee (published 1955), which told the tale of a wandering swagman and his daughter. (In 1957 The Shiralee was made into a film starring Peter Finch, and in 1987 a TV mini-series starring Bryan Brown.)

In 1943 the couple returned to Sydney and moved into tiny rooms above a shop in Devonshire St, Surry Hills, along with Niland’s brother Beresford and Park’s sister Jocelyn, who, somewhat amusingly, married each other.

Writing for Children - Radio & Books

In 1942, Park was contracted by the ABC to write a radio series for Children's Session, to which she wrote the series The Wide-Awake Bunyip that aired from January 1943 until July 1951, when the lead actor, artist Albert Collins, died.

Thereafter, Park created a new set of characters for The Muddle Headed Wombat, which featured a mouse, a neurotic tabby cat and a bicycle-riding wombat who spoke with nonsensical malapropisms and spoonerisms (muddling the meanings of words and swapping the first letters of other words around).

The new series was immensely popular and continued through 3,129 episodes until Oct 1969, when ABC Radio’s Children’s Session was cut back from six days a week to Sundays only (and ceased altogether in 1972).

From 1962 - 1982 Park also wrote a series of children's books about the Muddle Headed Wombat, keeping the character alive in a literary sense.

Niland also wrote for the Children’s Session, and they both collaborated on a kids’ Xmas play, The Disappointed Dumpling. (Niland also won prizes for his writing, which included radio and television plays, hundreds of short stories and six novels.)

Ruth Park's Writes Novels

Park's career as a novelist was launched in 1946 when she won the inaugural Sydney Morning Herald literary competition for her then-unpublished first novel, The Harp in the South, a gritty, humane observation of gutsy characters enduring crushing poverty.

As part of Park’s literary prize, Angus & Robertson published her distinguished debut novel in 1948, which was thereafter translated into 37 languages and has never been out of print.

Park’s story centred on an Irish immigrant family in poverty-stricken Surry Hills, with characters and situations she observed while living with husband Niland in the rooms they rented in Devonshire St - part of the same slum terraces she fictionalised. (Now demolished, Park & Niland’s terrace was probably in the vicinity of Eddie Ward Park, Surry Hills).

The novel’s protagonists, the fictional Darcy family, lived at 12 ½ Plymouth St, since identified as possibly 31 Tudor St, Surry Hills. Although the number 12 and a half may seem far-fetched, there is a house nearby today: 74 ½ Buckingham St, Surry Hills (coincidentally next door to the Communist Party of Australia’s national headquarters).

Church in Ruth Park book

The red-brick church that appears in the novel as St Brandan's Church, is St Peter's Catholic Church in Devonshire Street, which is still standing.

Delie Stock’s character is loosely based on Kate Leigh, a notorious underworld criminal who rose to prominence as a brothel madam and illegal trader of alcohol and cocaine, who ran gambling syndicates from her terrace house home at 212 Devonshire Street – now a cafe.

Leigh (March 1881 – February 1964) was also very active in Sydney’s notorious razor gang wars of the 1920s, feuding with fellow underworld madam Tilly Devine and her criminal enterprises.

Getting to Grips With Poverty

Park’s novel, which detailed food scarcity, economic hardship, domestic violence, adolescent sex, abortion, prostitution and murder, caused a scandal among sections of the book-reading public incapable of believing such slums existed in Australia.

Yet before living in Surry Hills, Park understood poverty first hand. During her childhood in Depression-era New Zealand, Park’s father was a low-paid labourer building roads and bridges and cutting wood in a sawmill in the northernmost rural region of the North Island.

At one stage the family were bankrupted, forcing them to lodge awhile with the families of her mother’s sisters. Eventually her father found steady work again as a government labourer in Auckland, and the family moved into state-controlled housing.

The Harp in the South’s success also inadvertently changed 1940s Sydney, empowering campaigners to demand better living conditions, and ultimately led to the demolition of the very Victorian terraces Park and Niland previously dwelled in. Impoverished tenants were thereafter accommodated in high-rise housing commission flats, which Park herself later criticised as ineffectual and not a solution to poverty.

After their Surry Hills’ slum experience, Park and Niland relocated to Collaroy on Sydney’s upper Northern Beaches, in a vain attempt to source sea breezes and beachfront living to sustain their creative imaginations.

However, Collaroy was then, as now, not well serviced by public transport, so Niland was often forced to stay in the city overnight after days of freelance writing for assorted newspapers and ABC Radio, leaving Park alone with their newborn baby and lodgers the couple took on to help pay the rent.

In her autobiography, Park described one occasion when an unwanted visitor crept along her Collaroy balcony, entered her house and pissed in the bath before exiting into the night. Meanwhile, Park stood behind a door clutching a “frying pan in my trembling hand, resolved to emulate my bold cousin Helga who had fractured a man’s skull with a similar weapon”.

On another occasion, during an icy Autumn night in 1945, they were beset by an icy storm that raged for days, eventually bringing seawater into their home while they were lying in bed.

An appalling crash shook the house, followed by explosions, fizzes and spitting sparks as the electric power died. But before darkness covered us D’Arcy saw one of the most fearsome sights of his life – the light shining through the window into the depths of a huge green wave. The next moment the room was dark, the window blew in, and in poured a cascade of seawater. The waves broke on the roof, two, three, four, then with a hideous sucking sound withdrew.

Although the £2000 winning prize money from The Harp in the South enabled the young couple to upgrade their living standards, things didn’t improve greatly.

However, they went on to have five children together (the first born in June 1943), before Niland’s premature death in 1967, aged just 49.

Park also wrote a 1949 sequel to The Harp in the South, titled Poor Man's Orange and in 1985 a prequel, Missus.

In 1973 Park moved to Norfolk Island, returning in 1985 to live in Mosman, where she resided and continued writing until she passed away in Dec 2010.

In 1987 she was made a member of the Order of Australia.

Ruth Park website

Poor housing in Sydney


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