Neville Lee and the fight for Ashburton's kindergartens
When I first started writing this local history blog, a major resource was a document I found called ‘Ashburton through the Ages’, by Neville Lee.
Meticulously researched and published in 2014, the document charts the history of the Ashburton area since the time of the Wurundjeri to the early 2000s.
As historians always know far more than they write down, I was keen to meet Mr Lee. After making some enquiries, the Camberwell Historical Society put me in touch with him and he invited me to afternoon tea at his lovely retirement village in Camberwell. He’s 95 years old now and apologetically hard of hearing. But he still moves around unaided and easily kept up his end of our conversation.
By the end of the visit, I realised that I’ve been writing this blog nearly a year now and Neville Lee has forgotten a lot more than I know. I also realised something very significant: he’s not just an important documenter of our suburb’s history.
What he never put into his history of the area was just how important HE was to it.
Without Neville Lee, we may not have had the area’s kindergartens. We also may not have had the wonderful support services our elderly rely on.
I decided it was high time that his significance to the Ashburton community is recorded for prosperity.
Neville Charles Lee grew up at 7-9 Valley Parade in South Camberwell in the 1930s. The house is gone now but at the time, it was already one of the oldest houses in South Camberwell.
Neville is the middle child of Douglas William Charles Lee and Muriel Amy Brain. In his autobiography, ‘Life in Camberwell’, Neville described his father as something of an eccentric. Although a successful businessman, Douglas was also a speculative investor. After his father’s death, Douglas’ sons discovered piles of worthless share certificates among their father’s belongings. One particular noteworthy failed investment was into a machine built by a Glen Iris man called Mr Welshford, who lived in Ferndale Road.
In one of those weird quirks of the world, Mr Welshford had invented a way to put crimps into ladies’ bobby pins. These crimps were highly desirable at the time but not economically feasible to produce. Today, no bobby pin is made without them.
But unfortunately for Mr Welshford, he failed to patent his machine. So neither he nor Douglas ever saw a penny from it.
Camberwell Young Liberals
Neville attended South Camberwell State School, Malvern Grammar, and Melbourne Grammar. Too young to enlist in the military to fight in World War II during his childhood the War was winding down when he first attended Dookie Agricultural College. After deciding a life of agriculture was not for him, he transferred back to Melbourne and finished a degree at the University of Melbourne.
Always interested in politics, Neville joined the committee of the Camberwell Young Liberals. In 1947, he was encouraged to accept the presidency.
At the time, Neville was not to know that the connections he made in the Victorian and federal Liberal Party (this being the original Liberal Party under Robert Menzies not ... whatever it is today) through his involvement with the Camberwell Young Liberals would later become vital to the development of Ashburton in the 1950s and 60s.
After University, Neville worked in his father’s business, Commercial Copying Company, eventually taking it over. Responsible for the replication of countless government documents during and after WWII, the business thrived. Finding himself financially secure, Neville’s thoughts turned to marriage.
Moving to Ashburton
Even today, Neville Lee is the kind of man who still calls his late wife Helena ‘my beloved’. They met through mutual friends and married on 17 February 1950.
Neville and Helena, now pregnant with their first child Janette, set about finding a block of land to build a home to live in. This was no easy feat back then because post-War building supplies were very difficult to come by. Neville’s attention turned to the swathe of available land on the Solway hill side of Ashburton South.
This section of Ashburton had been sub-divided into housing estates by 1926 but with a virtual ban on domestic house building during the War, all the Solway hill area was still mostly open paddocks. Neville selected the lot that would become 20 Baird Street.
Number 20 was one of the few blocks in Ashburton South with a road and pathway, sewerage, gas, water, electricity, and even telephone already available. Bob Rennie, the original owner of the block and a former RAAF pilot, had been recently allocated a Housing Commission house on the other side of Munro Avenue (for free). Since he no longer required the land, he and Neville made a deal.
Having never built a house before, it was a steep learning curve for Neville. ‘There was a depressingly long waiting list for most things,’ he wrote in his autobiography. ‘As a relatively immature 23 year old with no contacts, I had little pressure that I could bring to bear.’
Building was slow going. The Lee’s second daughter, Gillian was 4 months old when the family finally moved in during March 1953.
The couple settled into life in the newly built house. Although easily making friends in the area, the lack of development in the broader Ashburton area and the over-crowding in the schools (see posts on Ashburton Primary School, St Michaels and Solway for more on this) meant the growing Lee children lacked suitable education opportunities.
The fight for a kindergarten
In February 1956, Neville learned that the kindergarten Janette attended, Estrella, had closed its waiting list. This meant the couple’s second daughter, Gillian would be unable to attend. At the time, it was barely a kindergarten at all; more a play group in a Church Hall. With even this option gone for Gillian, an exasperated Neville wrote to the kindergarten’s committee to complain about the dearth of suitable early learning opportunities for Ashburton children.
In his letter, he encouraged the Estrella Committee to pressure Camberwell Council to tackle the problem. He heard nothing further until Marie Mossheim, a member of the committee called him. She was also the editor of the women’s section of the local newspaper, Progress Press, she told him. Marie said she would publish his letter in the next issue to help publicise the problem.
I wrote a lot about the civil neglect of Ashburton by Camberwell Council in my post about green spaces. I had originally thought that things had begun to improve in Ashburton by the mid-1930s but Neville told me that the neglect was still bad well into the 1960s. True to form, Camberwell Council took no immediate action on Neville’s letter. Fortunately for us, it started wheels turning in certain people’s heads on Council.
Glen Iris Pre School Centre
In the meantime, the Lees still needed a kindergarten for Gillian. Neville tried Glen Iris Pre-School Centre. It operated out of a Church Hall in Alison Avenue (now the Bao Lin Chan Monastery on High Street) but it did at least have a qualified kindergarten teacher. They told him they were also full. However, perhaps if he was willing to sit on the kinder’s committee as Secretary, a space could be found for Gillian. Neville agreed.
The Committee set about establishing a more permanent building for the kindergarten. The church owned land at 2 Seaton Street (now a residential property) and the committee began the task of raising funds to build a permanent kinder.
Standing for City of Camberwell Council
Without knowing it, Neville’s letter in Progress Press had ruffled some feathers at Council. One day on the train to the city, an acquaintance called Arthur Pearcey sat down next to him. Arthur was also the South Ward representative on the City of Camberwell Council.
‘I was interested in your letter in Progress Press the other day,’ he told Neville. ‘Do you plan to take any follow up action?’
‘Well, I’m now the secretary of the Glen Iris Pre-School Centre,’ Neville replied. ‘But otherwise there is nothing that I had thought of... what could I do?’
‘Have you considered standing for Council?’ Arthur asked him.
‘Not really,’ Neville replied.
‘I plan to resign in August and I would be willing to give you my support and introduce you around if you would be prepared to stand for election.’ Arthur told him.
Neville told Arthur he would think about it. When he got home and told Helena, she thought he was nuts. But he discussed it with his neighbour Gerry Richards. Gerry thought it was a great idea.
What Arthur and Gerry realised was that nothing was going to change for Ashburton if they did not have representation on Council from a resident who was from the same social network as the other councillors. The Ashburton Progress Association had been plugging away for years at the Council but they lacked the political connections needed to affect real change in ultra-conservative 1950s Melbourne. In addition, the long rule of the ultra-conservative Country Party meant there had been no initiatives of a progressive nature in Victoria for years. Only the election of Sir Henry Bolte on 7 June 1955 had swept in a renewed enthusiasm for change among Victorians.
This was a time when all federal and state parliament seats around Camberwell were blue ribbon conservative and Victorian MPs were a stronghold of the federal ministry. Neville's University association with the Young Liberals meant he was on a first name basis with members of the State Government. He also had Federal Government connections too.
Yet despite this elite pedigree, Neville lived among the middle and working class of Ashburton. He saw the developmental challenges the community faced first hand, especially with the influx of new residents in the housing commission area. He knew many of the returned servicemen himself and recognised the unaddressed trauma they suffered that affected their ability to work and raise their families. He was already on record as trying to help provide educational facilities for their children: a subject that still contained considerable stigma for the area’s working class (see my post on Ashwood High School for more).
The more Neville thought about it, the more he grew excited about the prospect of affecting real change in the community. He told Arthur Pearcey he would do it but he’d need a lot of advice and assistance. He was only 29 after all.
Helena was appalled. She’d just had the couple’s fourth child and they now had four children under six. But she became, in Neville’s words, ‘a tower of support’ as she always was throughout the couple’s long marriage.
Arthur was true to his word. The first problem they faced was that Council election voting was not compulsory. So their challenge was not just getting voter support but actually getting people to vote in the first place. The East Malvern and the Ashburton Progress Associations recognised the opportunity Neville presented and embraced him. Arthur introduced Neville to members of the Burwood West Progress Association, Hartwell Sports Ground Committee, and the Burwood Reserve Committee. They all agreed to support his nomination. Even the anti-sport-on-Sunday-and-dry-area campaigner W Gordon Sprigg agreed to back him.
The other problem was Glen Iris. A competitor emerged from the suburb in the form of a Glen Iris-based returned serviceman called Thor Schache. Schache had the support of the Returned Service League (RSL) in the area, then a highly influential and revered group. There was little Neville could do about being too young to serve in WWII.
In the end, Neville won 4,700 votes across all booths except Glen Iris, where Schache trounced him.
In September 1956, Mayor Albert Fordham welcomed Ashburton resident Neville Lee, the youngest councillor to sit on the City of Camberwell Council in history.
Life on Camberwell Council was busy and hectic, especially for a father running his own business. Neville discovered a Council deeply in debt, with a huge gap between expenditure and real income. He discovered it was no wonder there was so little investment in Ashburton. The City required a rate rise of 40 per cent (!!) merely to maintain the existing services. The Councillors voted 7-5 to raise the rates this high.
An immediate backlash occurred. The Ratepayers Association vowed to oust those councillors who had voted for the rate increase. But the councillors stood their ground and with the increased revenue, laid the foundation to affect real progress and financial stability in Camberwell.
Council funding for the Glen Iris and Ashburton kindergartens
Neville had not forgotten his original reason for standing for Council: improving pre-school education in Glen Iris and Ashburton. During 1957, he suggested the Council provide a £5,000 interest free loan to communities prepared to finance the construction of kindergartens.
He faced a lukewarm reaction from Council to the idea. It was shunted to the Estimates Committee – a polite way of side-lining a contentious matter – and added to a list of demands so long that very few ever survived.
Towards the end of an extended sitting of Council still going after 1 am, somehow Neville managed to slip the £5,000 loan plan through. Councillor Reg Cooper described it as ‘the slickest move I have seen in my 13 years on Council’.
Over time, the loan plan became embedded into Council policy and as a result, the local communities were able to build some 15 to 20 kindergartens in Camberwell, including Estrella, Rowan Street, Alfred Road, and Summerhill Park.
Other Council successes
During Neville’s time on Camberwell Council, he proposed several ideas that are still in place today and have been adopted by other Councils across Australia. These included:
the signs naming each suburb;
the pet registration system; and
on-the-spot parking fines by parking inspectors, instead of police officers.
Despite his outspoken and controversial reputation, and a sustained campaign from the Ratepayers Association to oust him for voting to increase the rates, these successes meant South Ward residents readily re-elected Neville to another term in 1959. In 1961, he was appointed Mayor. If he was busy before, being Mayor was even more demanding.
As Mayor, Neville oversaw the construction of roads and drainage around Bath Road, Baker Parade, and from Dent Street to Gardiner’s Creek.
‘During winter the streets became quagmires, quite impassable for cars or delivery vehicles,’ he wrote. ‘Within three years a comprehensive drainage network had been laid, the roads and footpaths constructed.’
But he considered his most significant bequest to the community to be the establishment of the Ashburton Senior Citizens Welfare Committee, now known as Ashburton Support Services.
The Ashburton Support Services for the elderly
In his autobiography, Neville explained how he became involved.
‘The minister of the Ashburton Baptist Church, the Rev Peter Stockman, told me of a small group of elderly persons meeting at the Ashburton RSL Hall (then on the corner of Warner Avenue and High Street) and of their hopeless, but valiant attempts to raise funds to build their own facilities,’ he wrote. Still only in his thirties, Neville credited the formidable advocacy of a Mrs Boyd for opening his eyes to the welfare needs of the elderly.
He set about attracting the support of some friends and called a public meeting. The group formed the Ashburton Senior Citizens Welfare Committee but quickly realised they needed to establish a reliable and substantial source of income to be financial sustainable. The Committee nominated Dorothy Rickards, who happened to be absent that day, to establish an Opportunity Shop. The project commenced in August 1962 in the empty former post officer on railway land in Welfare Parade. It was a success immediately, consistently generating £10,000 profit a year.
Today, the Ashburton Support Services includes Samarinda Lodge and several independent living cottages. The Opportunity Shop still provides the major source of funds.
Retirement from the Council
By 1964, Neville began to realise that his family and business required more of his attention. His children were now 13, 11, 9 and 8 and their expenses were growing. He abruptly resigned.
‘I always believed that the Council should represent a cross section of the catch if one was to throw a net over any group of shoppers at Camberwell Junction. I didn’t always see eye-to-eye with my fellow councillors but as time went on, I developed a better understanding of them. They viewed matters based on their experiences as young married persons in the 1920s and 1930s when they were establishing themselves and their families. This was a period of Depression, and when Progress Associations and voluntary work were more the norm than after WWII.’
Neville was certainly not idle after his retirement from Council. During the next decades he was an active member of Melbourne South Rotary Club; a Scout leader for Camberwell South District; a committee member for the South Melbourne Football Club; the President of the Glen Iris Cricket Club; a Freemason, among other civic appointments.
On Australia Day 2001, Neville Lee received a Medal in the Order of Australia for his contributions to the local community, scouting and Rotary International.
Towards the end of our conversation, Neville told me that he had mentioned my impending visit to his daughter-in-law. ‘A woman called Sarah Craze wants to meet with me,’ he told her. ‘And she’s read ‘Ashburton through the Ages’.’
His daughter-in-law replied, ‘somebody’s actually read that?’
I laughed and told him that I’d written an entire book, dedicated it to my partner and he’d only read the first chapter. That’s being a historian for you.
In a follow-up email, I told Neville that we needed to find a way to commemorate him for his work in the local community. ‘Surely at least a commemorative football or cricket match is in order?’ I said.
He replied, ‘In the late 1990s I had several potentially terminal illnesses. It seemed that time was up for me and a committee of local residents thought that it would be appropriate for my extensive community service to be registered and my name to be remembered and attached to a local facility.
I said I would be hugely proud to have the small vacant corner of Dent Street and the Creek (which I had been campaigning to have developed as park land) named as the Neville Lee Reserve.'
'The request was put to council, but such a request had never been made to the recently created Boroondara Council. They sought advice from the State Government and received the answer that it was government policy to only use Aboriginal names and, in any event, never during a lifetime. So council put the request on hold whilst I was still alive - and nearly 30 years later there it still remains!’
I think if John Gardiner can have a train station, creek, street, church and a whole walking trail named after him for forcing the Wurundjeri of their land and shooting at them, then Neville Lee deserves his own patch of memorial park land in recognition of everything he has done for our community.
I’ll put it on my list of things to do.
NB: Neville Lee's autobiography is available from Camberwell Library