In its early years members of the Glebe Society led a number of magnificently successful campaigns that had implications not just for Glebe but for the entire City. Some of them gained national and even international recognition.
One of the most outstanding campaigns was the one against Radial Expressways in the Inner City led by Albert Mispel. I have recorded an interview with Albert, and the audio will be made available in due course. In the meantime, an edited transcript is below.
Q: What was the proposal for expressways through Glebe?
A: One of our approaches was looking at the whole expressway system for Sydney. There were ten proposed expressways, all radiating from the centre of Sydney. Really right from the beginning, rather than the NIMBY approach, we were looking at whether these were viable things to build. The one that was of immediate danger was the North Western, but the Western expressway was actually wider and would have taken out a lot more of the Church land (Glebe Estate) and Annandale. Some of the NW expressway was going to go under Glebe, which lessens the impact, but it happened to be the first, so the battle concentrated on the NW, but the arguments really were related to the whole idea of expressways.
Q: What gave you an understanding of the impacts?
A: I had no experience at all. We bought a little house in Cardigan St near Lyndhurst, and one day got a letter from an estate agent saying we will look after the transaction of your dealings with the Department of Main Roads for selling your house. I rang up the agent and found we had become affected, but it took an estate agent to tell us, rather than the DMR or other government agency. So we were a tad angry about that and it motivated me to find out why the path of the NW expressway had changed.
Q: What was your understanding of why the expressways were proposed?
A: A couple of forces: big retailers used to be a powerful force. As a kid we would hop on the train and go shopping in town. We were starting to have Grace Bros’ stores located further afield – they had bought a place in the City that had been taken over during the War. ( Note: The Grace Building in York St had been commandeered by General McArthur. Grace Bros received generous compensation after the War ended, which they used to open suburban stores. ) Not from the beginning, but as we looked into the plan, we saw that what was also happening was that all the bays and inlets around the Inner City from Blackwattle Bay over to White Bay and Mort Bay in Balmain were being made into container shipping wharves, and the Dept of Main Roads, working closely with the Maritime Services Board, was making access for all these trucks to the north, south and west, and the roads went to, or near, all these bays and inlets. There were problems in Balmain, as they used to bring trucks up the very narrow streets that were there. A woman was killed one day when a truck crushed her car. They were not suitable places for container shipping and they needed big roads Secondly, going back pre-War, they wanted to clear the slums of Sydney. All these Inner City places were clearly slums, and society would be better off if they were cleared out. That and the retailers and the whole radial nature appealed to the planners. A lot of the planning was Buck Rogers thinking from the 1930s.
Q: What was your impression of Glebe when you moved there? Was it ripe for redevelopment?
A: I came back from seven years in New Guinea living in rather isolated places, and loved being back in the City and got a job teaching in Glebe. Because for seven years I’d lived on premises I’d worked in it seemed ludicrous to me that I should have to set myself up to travel to work, so I rented a place nearby. I found other advantages after I did that. One was I could walk in and out of the City. After being in the bush so long it was lovely to walk in the crowded City. I loved old houses, I loved the housing stock. I also got on very well with the people working here, the salt of the earth people. They were incredibly friendly. It was a joy to walk along the streets and chat to people. I didn’t realise that wasn’t normal until a period in our life when we moved to Drummoyne, where you don’t do that sort of thing.
So I was glad to come back to the inner city. Yes, it was the people of the suburb, the houses themselves, all of those things that made me resolve to stay in the inner city.
Q: What stage had the Department of Main Roads plans reached when you bought your house in Cardigan Street?
A: The DMR, right next to Grace Bros going down the hill, there was a huge block of land, and that was land that had been taken for the Western Expressway. It was vacant for many, many years. That was the only evidence in Glebe of something that was going to happen. There was nothing in Glebe that I know of that was obvious, except for the fact you could almost trace the route of the expressway by the dilapidated state of the houses, because nobody was going to fix up a house that was going to be demolished. Our house when we bought it was not affected. It was made affected when the Wentworth Park Dogs said they planned to build a grandstand, which wasn’t built until years later, and that the NW Expressway would make it difficult for them to build this high grandstand, so the road was shifted across, away from the track which meant it went through our house. It also went through Lyndhurst, which at the time no one really treated as an historic house. There was actually a debate about whether there was enough of it left to regard it as an historic house.
Q: How concerned were people in your immediate area about these plans? Were they seriously affected?
A: They were seriously affected. They were very concerned. They were incredibly worried. I’d say there were two old people who died from worry about the whole thing. But at the same time they thought they were powerless to do anything about it. What happened later on as the expressway got closer and closer and they were starting to demolish in the area, the DMR would do what we called ‘missing teeth’ demolition. They would get a house in the middle of a row of terraces and demolish it. That really made the people on either side really nervous. So they only had to buy one house at a time and demolish one house at a time. So it was a campaign of terror, if you like. The other thing that happened is that people who were approached by the DMR were offered very low prices for what they could get for the houses. Glebe was very cheap at that time anyhow, but the sort of money they were offered when they owned their own house, and most people did, was not enough for them to settle anywhere else. They’d probably be paying rent for the rest of their life. Some of us intervened, and we got a local solicitor and we used to take people to him, and they did much better when they were offered money by the DMR. In fact to the point of 100% better than they were first approached. I think what was happening was, these houses were cheap acquisitions, but at this point there was interest happening from people moving into Glebe in the late 60s early 70s, so the DMR realised it would cost them too much to acquire the properties.
Q: When did the squatting start?
A: The squatting started after the DMR had acquired quite a few houses, and what they would do when they acquired them was smash the toilets, and sometimes they would do some damage to the roof as well, so they would become uninhabitable, which was a tactic to make the rats move in and the rest of the area want to get out. Now squatters moved in and they repaired toilets and they fixed the houses up and they squatted. Now the actual stopping of the NW expressway wasn’t until 1977. It was paused back in 1972 so these houses belonged to the DMR for five years, so there was no move one way or the other to do anything about them. The squatters were not necessarily terribly active in the anti-Expressway movement. It didn’t follow.
Q: But you did establish quite close links with some of them didn’t you?
A: Oh yes. We tried to establish close links with everybody. Alan (Rees) and John (Fisher) worked very hard at grassroots level to talk to everybody involved and get them onside. And I think they called themselves another group, the Glebe Anti-Expressway Committee.
They worked from a local activism point of view. They were the people who were arrested at Fig Street later on. These young people would defy the rules, climb on the rooves and defy the police. The Glebe Society (and we have jumped ahead to Fig Street) sat in front of the bulldozers but they didn’t go round getting arrested. It was a respectable arm of the protest. It was quite humorous to see. We wore ties to protests, suits and ties. There’s a lot to be said for what Alan and John did in attempting to stop the expressway. I might say that while we are talking about the local grass roots activation group the level that I got most involved with, which included (Nick) Origlass in Leichhardt Council as mayor, we called ourselves the Anti Urban Radial Expressway Committee, and we had to do that because the charges against us from organisations like the NRMA’s Open Road and so forth who dared to say we had blood on our hands because of people who will die if we don’t build these expressways, we wanted to say we weren’t against roadbuilding expressways, we wanted to say we weren’t even necessarily against urban expressways. We were promoting a more ring road approach. We were against expressways that went right into the City, and that was the thrust of our intellectual argument, if you like.
So the arguments that came up were not so much about poor people who would be thrown out of their houses, but how this model is a bad model, it’s pre-war thinking, it’s assuming we don’t want people living near the City, that we want industry and container wharving to dominate and everyone will still catch the tram or train into town to do their shopping on Saturdays. So that model was not there anymore, and we had to rethink. In Toronto they had a campaign against the expressway called the Spidina, and I actually saw where it would have gone. They were using much the same sort of argument. We were putting arguments about how it was an outmoded model that they were working on. We argued the housing stock here had value, and had value into the future as well, which I think has been proven. We had arguments that it’s been shown even forty years ago, that building another expressway to cope with the inadequacies of the previous expressway does not solve that problem, as was shown in Los Angeles.
Q: So in your mind the expressways were very closely tied to the slum clearance issue and the state of the Inner City?
Oh absolutely. The changes of the view of the City: the planners wanted a completely different sort of City, except for the retailers sitting in the middle of it. I’m sure they had visions of Metropolis-type elevated roads and personal helicopters as well. It just had that flavour about it at the time.
Q: Were you aware of these arguments when you first came to Glebe?
No, not at all. When I moved to Glebe I had an attitude toward living. I used to come on leave from New Guinea and I’d go and embrace the City. I’d find the most crowded street to walk down. It was bliss to me. Probably the only book I’d read on the subject was Jane Jacobs on the American cities. Because I’d lived in the bush for seven years, and I saw people embracing suburbia, and wanting to go to Lindfield or Hornsby Heights and these places; they’re rejecting the City, they’re really wanting to live in the country, and I saw that as wrong, as boring. I’d lived enough in the bush, I want to be in the centre of everything, and people like Jane Jacobs made me think, ‘Hey, there is something out there!. But there were also things, like in the late fifties a movement to Greenwich Village, for example, a type of lifestyle that came out of people living in those sorts of areas. And I think I read too much of City in poetry and sitting in cafés reading philosophy-type novels in the bush to think ‘Oh, that’s the sort of life I want.’
Q: Would it be fair to say that was a common attitude among Glebe Society members at that stage?
I think I might say ‘No’. I think among some. It wasn’t completely common. I think some of them wanted to make a little enclave. What was attractive to some members was the beauty of the houses, the big houses in particular.
Q: So those people weren’t thinking about the whole of the inner City?
No, dare I say that. They would profess to be interested, but I don’t think they all were. For example, when I was made Vice President I got a phone call (this was in the early days of the Glebe Society) saying, ‘You’re in the Glebe Society: can you do something about these paper boys?’ It used to be, of a morning, these kids used to get out at six in the morning and blow their whistles up and down the street to sell papers. He said, ‘They’re driving me mad. They’re waking me up in the morning’. So I said, ‘Well, most people in Glebe work in factories and get up very early to go to work’, and the reply was, ‘Not in the part of Glebe that we live in’. Oh, my God. But that wasn’t typical of people in the Society, but it was the sort of attitude that got up my nose.
Q: You were interested in the Inner City and the expressways. What attracted you to the Glebe Society?
Me joining the Glebe Society had nothing to do with the expressways. My interest in joining the Society was about a group that cares about old housing and the inner City. The expressway affecting me personally, ‘How dare you go through my house!’ happened later, probably a couple of years later. When it happened, and I got angry with the Wentworth Park Trust, who don’t even own the Park, wanting to put up a huge grandstand they hardly needed, so they could shift the expressway across, it angered me enough to do a lot of reading. There were books out: one called Superhighway, Superhoax, had come out about the problems with building expressways into the city, so I had to educate myself about those arguments. I did not come prepared with those arguments, and I put those arguments forward in a newsletter that I used to send out called Moving and Living. The people who got that magazine were all the NSW State members of Parliament, and all the Federal members. Out of my own money, you know. Printing was cheap and I used to run this little newsletter off, and while I tried to be light about the whole thing to make it a little bit readable, it was saying, ‘Here are the arguments, as I see them, against this sort of activity’. I think Tom Uren was the only one who ever read it, but that was all I needed.
This is the thing, you fire a shotgun, but you only need to hit the right person. So I gathered my arguments, and I used to have a little punch card from work with my bullet points on it, and I’d talk to anybody. I even spoke to the Young Liberals once, at Ashfield, which was an experience.
Q: When did you feel you were getting support for your campaign?
Nick Origlass and Izzie Wyner were very good. We used to have meetings at the Town Hall, right up in the tower where the aeroplanes would go right over. We had support from the Glebe Society, but there was not much call on the Society at that point, all we could do was march against something, but this was like a wider issue. Nick used to wear the robes everywhere, so he used his position as Mayor to get the word out to a lot of people. As far as people like Tom Uren were concerned, it was all Nick Origlass’s idea. In fact, Tom Uren made a comment recently when we had the forty year celebration of the Glebe Society, which was a lovely afternoon. When I drove him home he asked: ‘What’s the Glebe Society doing claiming that it stopped the expressway? I stopped the expressway’, at which I shook my head. So it was through Origlass that he heard these things. I just spoke to anybody around the place, gave my little presentation: Humanities Society, various branches of the Labor Party.
Then Nick got us more active: Nick had us marching through Glebe, and we had the march where we painted the road (Ed: Saturday, 12 February, 1972). This was to show people where the expressway was going to go through, and of course the Glebe Society was involved in that as well. Where the Glebe Society did come in very handy was publishing in the Bulletin, what’s happening about expressways, what’s the latest thinking about expressways, so it became a good way of distributing information throughout Glebe. And of course the Glebe Society Bulletin then went on to libraries and disseminated information to all the people.
Q: What about the monographs the Glebe Society produced?
David Potter wrote a monograph. It wasn’t really to do with the arguments I was presenting. David was a town planner, and I actually got very embarrassed because I had to go to a Parliamentary committee. I was called at the last minute to speak on it, and I found I couldn’t speak on it because I would have had to spend a week studying what he had to say. It was probably very good stuff, but I wanted to talk about my things and they wanted to talk to the monograph, so I was dismissed. A bit of a pity, that one.
Q: The Glebe Society must have developed these policies.
Oh, yes, they did take them on. I also had to take on the problem that everything was going underground, so we don’t need to do any more about it. But of course what helped to get the Glebe Society involved is that Lyndhurst was affected. Now, 1834 John Verge building, National Trust in the beginning said it’s not there. What they meant was it had been a substantial estate, and of course that had been sold off, so only the house was still there, and a couple of outbuildings had been removed, but the house was substantially still there. So the Glebe Society was very interested in being involved in that.
Q: And there was a Save Lyndhurst Committee?
Yes, Ian Evans was the main person. Ian is a descendant of John Verge, and that was his interest. And Ian did a marvellous job of getting information out there. These things were on the edges, if you like, but the Glebe Society was the rock in the middle you could always come to. There were paid up members, there was an organ in the Bulletin, and probably all the different parties couldn’t have come together without the Society as a focus. Save Lyndhurst was a tiny committee. I think there were three of us in it. But Ian worked very hard, I remember we has a few TV programs. We had an ABC program and Ian was ill, so I had to go and look after Jack Mundey and Bernard Smith in a panel discussion at the ABC over in Chatswood. (Also) we had a Glebe Society function at Lyndhurst, and we actually tidied up the ground floor enough to have us all dress up in nineteenth century clothing and have a ball. You had to be careful where you stood. But out of that you were able to get the features, to see it was a substantial house, and a very attractive house as well. So that was helpful, and it was a fun event (Ed. 15 April, 1972)
Q: So there was a lot of publicity that came out of the effort to save Lyndhurst?
Oh, yes. We could get press pretty readily, and Ian, whose job was in PR, knew how to get press.
Q: The other group of particular interest is Jack Mundey and the Builders’ Labourers. How did they become involved?
No, I can’t remember. Normally with Jack Mundey (I was involved with a few things that he did) he would not put a Green Ban on something until the local community agreed to it. There must have been a meeting at which this was proposed because the BLF never put a Green Ban on anything without the marked approval of the local community. (Ed. Green Bans made at request of Glebe Society, Bulletin 10, 1973).
Q; How important do you think the Green Ban was?
Absolutely essential. Fig Street was stopped. I got a phone call one morning at Fig St, and, Jack Mundey wasn’t in charge then, it was Joe Owens, but I got this phone call that the bulldozers were at Fig St, and that was from someone in the BLF, and they went down there with Joe Owens in charge. I went down there just as the TV cameras were arriving, and the Builders Labourers were there encouraging the drivers to get out of their bulldozers because there was a Green Ban, and that built up to a demonstration a few days later, and the Glebe Society was very involved (Ed. 30 September, 1974). … The papers were all full, page after page of photos showing this group of radicals stopping Sydney from progressing, so we got lots of publicity. Neville Wran was still in opposition, but he came out in support of us. Yes I would say Fig St really was the point that stopped the expressways. But what I’m pleased about is it didn’t just stop one expressway. It stopped a whole idea of radial expressways.
Q: Three year later, when the expressways were officially abandoned in 1977 the Sydney Morning Herald contacted you for an interview.
Yes, they wanted me to go down to Fig St. It had been raining and there were puddles, and they wanted me to jump over a puddle, so I did that and they took photos for about three quarters of an hour. But that night a ship ran into a bridge in Hobart in Tasmania, so that was the news the next morning!