By MICK ROBERTS ©
ALTHOUGH it is difficult to imagine today, Thirroul was once a thriving industrial centre with brickworks, railway yards and textile factories employing many hundreds of local men and women.
A major employer of women was Hardies Rubber Factory, located on the site of the Thirroul Village Shopping Plaza, where sandshoes and waterproof coats were manufactured.
Seventy-two-year-old, Elaine Broadhead, who lived most of her life overlooking the site of the long gone factory, was one of the company’s first employees and spent 16 years as a machinist. She talked to me about the old factory in 2003.
“When I first started there at 15 it was a 45 hour week, nine hour day and I got 15 shillings a week,” she recalled.
“Money was hard to come by in those days just after the war,” Elaine said.
Twelve past employees of Hardies gathered for a reunion on the former site of the factory in 2003 to talk to Looking Back about the long forgotten factory.
The rubber factory was opened in the former Arcadia Picture Theatre in July 1946 and employed hundreds of the region’s women until it closed in 1968.
The Arcadia Theatre was opened in 1923 on 100 feet frontage to Lawrence Hargrave Drive by the Yardley Brothers who previously showed films in the Thirroul School of Arts.
The Arcadia was said to have cost an amazing £15,000 to build with seating for 1800 people. It was the third largest picture theatre ever built in the Illawarra.
The Kings Theatre (presently known as Anita’s Theatre) was built to the north of the Arcadia in 1925 and eventually sounded the death knell for Thirroul’s first purpose built cinema.
Wollongong Theatres, who owned both the Arcadia and the Kings, decided one cinema was sufficient for Thirroul in 1926 and transformed the Arcadia into a dance hall.
The quaintly named Arcadia Palais de Danze was born after the elaborate interior of the Arcadia Theatre was gutted and made available for balls, parties, and “wedding breakfasts” on October 23 1926. The building became a skating rink in 1943 until Hardies Rubber Company leased the building for making sandshoes and waterproof clothing in July 1946.
Wollongong Theatres eventually sold the property to Hardies in 1949 imposing a covenant not to show films or conduct dancing on the premises.
Hardies had only opened a couple of months when Elaine Broadhead’s application for a job was accepted.
“It was terrific for us girls,” she said.
“The men had plenty of work in the mines, steelworks and brick yards, but there wasn’t much for the women except in the clothing industry in Wollongong.
“Hardies provided a much needed second income for struggling families in the area,” she said.
Mrs Broadhead said the women formed a strong bond and often met socially after work.
“We were like one big family,” she said.
“The management was not too bad as well and treated us fairly.”
She recalled long time manager, Robert Munroe who she described as tough but fair.
“Although he was tough, he was a real pussy-cat underneath.
“But being a boss he had to show authority over the girls or they would walk all over him.”
The women were in the majority and had control over much of the goings-on in the factory Mrs Broadhead recalled – except for when it came to cricket.
“We had a wireless tuned perfectly to lovely music to listen to while we worked, until the cricket season started.
“The few men that worked there got there own way then, and were allowed to tune into the cricket,” she said.
Conditions were hot in the old theatre Mrs Broadhead remembered.
“We had one electric fan to share around between us and to keep cool management provided us with a bucket of water to splash on our faces,” she said.
Mrs Broadhead also remembered the infamous 1968 bushfires and when management evacuated the factory.
“They seen the flames coming over the escarpment and said to the ladies to get home to your families.
“Every one panicked and took off,” she said.
Edith Robinson who worked at Hardies in the 1960s said many of the women employees at the factory still lived in the district.
“I organised a reunion in 1991 and 1993 and we still meet and keep in contact. Although quite a few have moved out of the area we stay in contact through letters,” she said.
“We told one of our workmates in Esperance (Western Australia) about this story and will be sending her a copy of the paper.”
The end came for the factory in 1968 after United States based company Firestone purchased the business.
The company began retrenching staff, finally sacking the remaining 96 women when the plant finally closed on October 31 1968.
“It was a sad day,” former employee Joan Seaward said.
“It was like losing family.
“I loved the comradery that existed in the workplace and I reckon if it was still operating I would still be there,” she said.
The building was destroyed on Sunday July 1 1973 when a mysterious fire completely gutted the building.
Only memories remain of Thirroul’s Hardie Rubber Factory today; not even a decent photograph exists of such an important part of the district’s industrial history.
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2014