AFTER THE ROYAL MINT
Between 1926 and 1997 almost 20 different government departments and law courts came and went from the Mint buildings. Most stayed for only a few years. however some, such as the Housing Commission, remained for more than a decade. The Mint buildings provided temporary accommodation for these departments and, as more people were moved in, rooms were subdivided into smaller and smaller spaces and makeshift buildings were literally tacked on to the existing structures.
As part of the recording of the history of the site. the changes to the buildings and the names of the many departments that were housed at the Mint were recorded, but was there anything else of importance? At the beginning of the HHT’s head office project. former employees of these departments began to visit The Mint to see the changes to the buildings and to reminisce about their time there. These visitors recalled many details of the buildings. their use and adaptation and. most importantly. the working life of the place. This prompted the HHT to commence an oral history program to record the recent. more tangible history of the site. The result is a rich social history of the buildings and of the lives of those who worked here - a history of the working life of the city during the 20th century.
This article was written by former SLM curator Robert Griffin and originally published in the Winter 2006 issue of Insites.
It wasn’t really like an office - there were lots of small rooms but it wasn’t really like an office at all ... It was a very interesting old building, I remember doors open onto the balcony and you were always near a window. I remember sitting near the curved window in the room downstairs, with a beautiful view of Macquarie Street...
Mrs Doris Rodgers, Family Endowment Department staff member, The Mint, 1926-30
One of the first oral histories we recorded was with Mrs Beryl Rutter Robinson whose mother was a cook for the Deputy Mint Master, John Campbell. at the time of the Mint’s closure in 1926. Mrs Robinson was a small child at the time and remembers ‘the smokey smell of the rooms’ of the Deputy Mint Master’s residence in the Macquarie Street building, and ‘being put to sleep in the afternoon on the small back balcony overlooking the courtyard’, which was at that time enclosed.
Others recall the Mint before it was officially closed in December 1926. Mrs Jean Gillam (nee Menzies) began work as a shorthand typist for the Government Insurance Office in September 1926, shortly after it had moved into the Mint buildings. Mrs Gillam remembers having to pass ‘a policeman stationed at the gate into Macquarie Street because some coins (pennies) were still being made’. The partially deserted buildings still contained machinery and ‘at lunchtime we used to play ping pong’ in the southern workshop wing. between the machinery.
In 1927, during the Duke and Duchess of York’s visit to open Federal Parliament, the Rolls Royce cars used by the royal party were housed at the Mint. ‘We 17-year-olds were delighted to be allowed to sit in the seats where royalty had sat: She also remembers ‘watching from the balcony of the Mint building as the royal couple were being driven down Macquarie Street’.
Mrs Doris Rodgers joined the Family Endowment Department in 1928 as a temporary office assistant. Her first job was handwriting envelopes in the former workshop wing of the Mint. She soon became a shorthand typist. working in the ‘barn-like’ space of the Coining Room. By this time the machinery had been removed, however she remembers the timber and glass partitions, part of the original Mint fit-out from 1855. The Mint had ‘rough buildings, with overgrown gardens around them’ and in the front garden ‘a beautiful frangipani. The caretaker did not let anyone pick the flowers’.
Mrs Rodgers remembers the Mint as ‘a tumbledown, decrepit sort of place, but it was a lovely place to work. Queen’s Square was all so open, not like it is today. A lovely area with beautiful buildings all around. We would go to Rowe Street at lunchtime - there was a pie shop there. It was very different from what it is today. And to Kyle’s Pie Shop in Pitt Street. And David Jones had a Business Girls Luncheon once a month with a speaker. And we would go to the Art Gallery, and there were football matches in the Domain. We were all young and had a wonderful time’.
Mrs Rodgers and Mrs Gillam both remember the Mint buildings being progressively occupied by office space. By the late 1940s, when Mary and Ben Vigona were working for the Housing Commission at the Mint, so many departments had been moved into the buildings that ‘they put as many offices in as they could, so it was all timber and fibro. They really messed it up ... like a rabbit warren’.
The Housing Commission grew rapidly during this period and came to occupy most of the Mint buildings. Clive Smith, who worked for the Commission from 1946 to 1953, recalled that when he started there were about 300 staff. When he left there were close to 1,000. ‘The place grew like topsy.’ The demand for public housing meant that there were often long queues outside the buildings all day, with people waiting to lodge housing requests or to be interviewed over grievances such as non-payment of rent.
Those who worked for the Housing Commission at this time remember ‘every department was the same, we were all crowded into a small area’. However, many also remember the Commission’s active staff association. There was an annual ball held at the Town Hall and sports teams played against other government departments in the Domain at lunchtime - ‘We had a terrific Housing Commission football team’. There was also a staff magazine, 'Mint sauce', with gossip columns and photographs of social outings and events.
As the Vigonas recalled, ‘We had a great social club and had a ball every year. It was a great social life; we used to have cabarets and everything. The place was full of romances. A lot of people got married, settling down after the war’.
Each of these recordings reveals a different aspect of the recent history of the Mint and as former employees continue to come forward to contribute to the oral history program it is an ongoing one. The result is a rich account of working life at the Mint during the 20th century, providing insight into the social history of the city.
As one participant in an oral history program commented, ‘The history is just plain black and white print, isn’t it?
The voice’ll put the colour in it’...