Why “Chuck a Yonnie”?

Why call this blog Chuck a Yonnie? * #

If anyone asks me where I grew up, my usual response is “Mount Waverley”, or sometimes “Glen Waverley”, but the truth is it was neither. This not due to any pretentiousness; it’s just that the inquirer usually is aware of these more prosperous suburbs in Melbourne’s south east, allowing me to avoid the interrogation that inevitably follows if I reply that I grew up in “Syndal”.

Syndal sits silently between Mount Waverley and Glen Waverley. I don’t know why it doesn’t enjoy the same level of fame as its near neighbours, but I suspect national shame may be at the root of it. You see, Syndal apparently derived its name from a long gone farm that was once owned by Redmond Barry, the judge who sentenced Ned Kelly to death. If this is the reason for its obscurity, then I guess that associates me with the demise of an Australian icon! So, I think I will continue to tell people that I grew up in either Mount Waverley or, sometimes, Glen Waverley!

The Australia of my boyhood was a very different place to that of today. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Syndal was on the outer edge of suburban Melbourne. Today you must drive a further 20 kms to reach the outer fringes of the city. On weekends I would ask Mum and Dad if I could “go bush” and I’d set off to explore among the orchards, creeks and paddocks. Back then there was mere a sprinkling of houses; a seeding that would rapidly spread and ultimately overwhelm the farms and bushland. I recall as a little boy running to the window as Mum and Dad rushed outside. I stood there wide eyed as they ran about the front garden yelling and waving their arms to chase away two cows that had wandered in and were feasting on Mum’s treasured garden plants!

The railway bridge that passed over Blackburn Road was a forbidden, yet favourite, place to play. In those days there was a single line with one bridge. (In the mid 1960s a second bridge was built for a second line.) High above the road, the bridge provided a splendid vantage point. We were not allowed to play there of course, but the temptation was simply too great to resist. Trains were infrequent and hearing one coming in the distance would prompt a frenzy of determined activity; here was an opportunity to make rock powder! Let me say right now that the possibility of a train derailment never crossed our minds. There was no malicious intent. It was just that making rock powder was important, as everyone knows, not that any of us were aware of any practical use for it. However, any boy who could produce a small bag of it was the envy of us all!

With the sound of the approaching train in our ears we would quickly place yonnies in rows along the steel tracks, (we always referred to stones as “yonnies”). Once strategically placed on the track, we hurriedly scuttled under the bridge and crouched down. With the rails barely a metre above our heads we would put our fingers in our ears and squeeze our eyes tightly shut as the train roared overhead. Above us, under the tremendous weight of the speeding train, the yonnies exploded with an ear-splitting bang. Hundreds of fragments would pelt into the ground surrounding us, but being directly under the rails we were shielded, just. It was thrilling; we never considered the dangers. Once the train had passed we would emerge to find very little trace of the yonnies we had placed upon the tracks. Even so, if we carefully examined the foot of the track where we had placed them, usually a pinch or two of powder could be carefully gathered, especially if we had been generous with the number of yonnies we’d placed on the track. Many trains roaring overhead was required to collect a praiseworthy quantity of the precious rock powder.

I do not remember how many times I did this, either with other boys or by myself, but it was many. We reasoned, after some discussion, that our parents likely would not approve of our method of making rock powder, so we made a pact that we would never mention our adrenaline pumping technique to them. In fact, until writing this over 40 years later, I have never spoken of it to anyone!

The Syndal railway bridge over Blackburn Road today. In the early 1960s there was a single bridge and the top left hand side, on the opposite side to the station, is where we would put yonnies on the track. You could see a long way from the top of the bridge. In those days there was no guard rail.

I do not recall ever feeling in danger at the railway bridge, except on one occasion. It was common knowledge amongst us children, (and therefore an indisputable fact), that there was an old man who would travel up and down the rail line looking for children playing on the tracks. Any whom he found he would stuff into a sack that he carried over his shoulder. They would never be seen again, or so the story went. No one knew of any children who had actually disappeared in this way. Even so, the story was often told. One day we were on the bridge, engrossed in gathering up yonnies for more rock powder, when we were startled by the sound of footsteps crunching on the stones between the tracks. We turned towards the sound and were horrified to see an old man walking towards. Less than 15 metres away, he was dressed in a grubby, well-worn jacket and a grubby flannel shirt. His dirty trousers were secured with a piece of old rope around his waist, rather than the usual men’s braces of the day, and one toe was protruding through a hole in the front of one of his shoes. Unshaven with a well brown face from dirt or sun, (I could not tell), but it was weathered more than any men I knew at the time. He did not speak, but what struck horror into our hearts was that over his shoulder hung a large hessian sack. His eyes seemed to fix upon us from under his battered hat. I don’t recall who shrieked, “Run!”, but we all dropped our yonnies and fled. No way was he going to stuff us into that sack! I ran until I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest. None of us looked back until we were far from the bridge and the old man with his hessian sack. What this poor man must have thought of us fleeing from him like that I do not know, but we did not see him again. As for us, we never again went onto the rail bridge without first posting a look out to watch for the old man with his hessian sack!

When we weren’t making rock powder we would stand on the top of the bridge, high over the road, and “chuck a yonnie” or two. Looking at the picture above, it would seem reckless at best, and malicious at worst, to throw stones from a bridge with a four lane road running beneath it, but this was not so. It is hard to imagine now, but back then, on the way to school, we could walk for 15 minutes along a much narrower Blackburn Road, (and I do mean ON the road), and only have to move off for the passing of perhaps 5 or 6 cars. It never entered our minds to chuck yonnies at cars or anyone (people or animals); we just did it for fun, competing with each other for the best throw. It was exhilarating to be so high up and see how far you could chuck a yonnie.

Since then Australian language, as well as life, has changed significantly. Globalisation and the digital age have introduced new words into our every day speech. School grounds now ring with obnoxious words like ‘wazzup’, weird handshake rituals and air kisses which drip with as much sincerity as Ms Paris Hilton’s finding God while in jail – all of these imports from a cancerous US popular culture that has infiltrated and eaten away at Australian culture. (I have nothing against American culture to be clear. What I lament is the homogenisation of cultures; the loss of diversity.) In the early 1960s, in the playground of Syndal Primary School, the air was thick with Australian colloquialisms, most of which are now all but lost from memory. Even Syndal Primary School itself has become a victim of “progress” and has vanished, (although it was politician Geoff Kennett and not US pop culture who was responsible for that). Today I meet few people who know what it means to “chuck a yonnie”. O.H. & S. laws would prohibit it in any case.

There were many reasons why we would “chuck a yonnie”. Doing so was always associated with challenge. It was connected to curiosity, to exploration, to experimentation. It was an adventure. In this sense I decided to call my first blog “Chuck a Yonnie”. Perhaps readers might would something there that was challenging, or something worth exploring, investigating. As educators we should do this; continually exploring and challenging our pedagogy. Moreover, as 21st century educators it is our obligation to interrogate our epistemology, particularly with private interests increasingly penetrating education policy. As professional educators we must all climb atop a bridge that we believe is important for the successful education of the young people we work with every day. As educators, we are in a key position, a powerful position, to “chuck a yonnie” for those who learn from us and with us. Teaching is so much more than just a job. Every day we look directly into the eyes of those who will one day be running the world. For them even more than for ourselves, let’s chuck our yonnies with generous caring hearts…

Alan Thwaites

* I investigated the origin of the word “yonnie” believing that is was likely of Irish or cockney origin. However, the Australian Oxford Dictionary, while uncertain, suggests that it may be from a Victorian Aboriginal Language. This bears further investigation!

# The meaning of “yonnie”, as used in this blog, is not associated in any way with the Sanskrit word “yoni”, which has a wider meaning in both profane and spiritual contexts. (This alternative interpretation was pointed out to me by a dear Indian friend who was initially shocked by my choice blog of names!)

22 thoughts on “Why “Chuck a Yonnie”?

  1. G’day Alan;

    Enjoyed your article about “yonnies”. I too was a product of 1950’s and 1960’s Syndal.
    (I grew up in Edith Street when Muirs Orchard occupied today’s Wesley College site).
    Our neighbourhood gang enjoyed the same railway delights you mention and also we used to
    put pennies on the line – they came out as flattened ellipses after the train had gone through.

    I’ve put together a Powerpoint of some Syndal memories that I can send to you if you are interested.

    Best wishes

    Richard Whitaker


  2. Hi Richard,
    Thanks for your comments. You grew up not far from me. My parents built a house in 1956 in Montgomery Avenue, opposite Syndal South Primary (which did not make an appearance until late 1964). My mother still lives there. I went to Syndal Primary, which met its end during the days of the Kennett Government. I remember collecting tadpoles from the “swamp” on Blackburn Road just down from Price Avenue. I had a morning paper round in 1965 and knew the “milky” who would let me pat his horse, which was a highlight of the day. Different times that is for sure! I would appreciate seeing the PowerPoint.

    Kind Regards,

    Alan Thwaites


  3. Just read your article on “Yonnies” – I’m a Pommie, living in rural England and I came across the word thanks to Colin Hay (Men At Work) on their eponymous album in a song called Down By The Sea. I always wondered what a yonnie was until I heard an interview with him in the mid ’80’s, in which he explained that a yonnie was a flat skimming stone. I have referred to skimmers as yonnies ever since, as do my children, now in their late teens and twenties. The word is alive and well and slowly being introduced to the English vocabulary in Cheshire – keep on chucking them!


  4. Hi,
    I lived in Belmore Rd North Balwyn and we chucked yonnies too. The word escaped me for many years but for no reason whatsoever I remembered that was what we called stones. They weren’t for skimming just chucking and that was what we did instead of playing computer games. I won a competition with a Canadian arm wrestler once as a result of my muscular right arm which I put down to all the yonnies I chucked and all the lawns I mowed ! I reckon I could throw a cricket ball further than anyone when I was 14. Maybe that’s why we Aussies do so well at cricket.
    Garry Gregory
    Consultant Maxillofacial Surgeon
    Humberside, UK


    • Yes, that is I remember Garry. Yonnies were simply “chucked”! As for “skimming” flat stones (or “skipping” as we called it) … well we did that too if we could find a big enough puddle, but I don’t recall using “yonnies” in that context. Small stones of any shape were referred to as yonnies. If the stone was approaching the size of your fist then it was considered a rock, not a yonnie! Maybe there is somethign in your comment about Aussies and cricket. That advantage is going to be lost though with the next “yonnie-deficient” generation of Aussie cricketers! Thanks for your comment.


  5. What a great read – thanks for the memories! I went to Syndal Primary in the late 1960s. We lived in Fiander Ave near a creek that was out of bounds to us and I would watch in awe as my big brother would break the rules to go and collect taddies there with his mates. My memories of Syndal Primary centre mainly around the row of pine trees where we would make cubbies or collect sticky sap for no other purpose than carrying it around on the end of a stick.
    Life sure was cruisy back then!


  6. Sure was “cruisy” Triecia. I went to Syndal Primary starting in 1959. I can remember walking down the middle of Blackburn Road only having to move off for the occasional car. Yes tadpoles were a big part of growing up too. Every time it rained the puddles were full of them. I also remember the girls making cubbies with the pine needles under that row of pine trees in the school yard. They would break off the end of a pine branch to use as a broom to sweep the “rooms” tidy. No x-Boxes then! Thanks for your comment. 🙂


  7. Syndal primary 1959 – grade 5 and my mother was the teacher! over 40 students in the class. Our dog used to come into the school and scratch on the door if Mum kept the class late.
    I don’t remeber yonnies but certainly pennies on the track. I well remember the school pine trees as my father gave me a new footy for my birthday and the first time I took it to school it got kicked into the pine trees and had a big cut in the leather when we got it down.
    Have memories of a great school bonfire and cracker night when a skyrocket ended up in the hot dog pot.

    Scout bottle drives along High Street road were another feature, along with raids on the remaining orchards.

    Pitty to see the old school gone.


  8. You would have been one of the big kids Andy – I was in Prep in 1959! Love the skyrocket in the hot dogs pot story! 🙂 Received a clip over the ear once from an orchardist who caught me tugging at an apple on one of his trees. In many ways it was a good place and time to grow up.


  9. Hi Alan
    Really enjoyed your article and all the other posts. I was at Syndal Primary 1973 to 1978 and never knew any of the Syndal history and was sad to here it has gone. Have you ever come across any old photos?


  10. Hi Brad,
    I don’t have any pictures of the school itself. I was 2 years old when my parents built a home in Montgomery Avenue opposite Syndal South Primary, which was just a cow paddock when we moved in. That was 1955. During my primary school years we were surrounded by orchards and I can remember Mum getting upset as a cow had wandered into her front yard and was happily munching away on her flower garden! I was probably only 5 or 6 yo but the sight of my Mum running around yelling and waving her arms at this cow is a vivid mental image. She still lives there today. We lived with mud and cars being bogged was a common occurrence.

    During my secondary school years it became the suburbia you would remember.


  11. Hi Alan,
    I grew up in Syndal in Larch Cres and went toSPS too. I have great memories of the area. We used to have a Bon fire along the creek at the side of the Flatman & Williams timber yard, dozens of people contributed wood from out of their yards.

    At the time there were a few we’ll know people in the area.
    John Blackmans (of radio fame ) mum and dad lived around the corner, Robert Lehman a blind musician lived down near the station and I went to school with Alan Rowes sons ( he used to have an act with a puppet Koala called Kimba ) if I remember rightly and John Schultz the footscray footballer – their family owned the local supermarket Schultze of Syndal. My dad was a fireman at station 28 up on the hill.

    my older brothers and sisters went to St Christopher’s but my younger brother and I went to the state school. It was a bit sad when they pulled it down.


    • Hi Bronnie, I too remember the Bon fires. Guy Fawkes night meant the whole street would spend a week or two piling up wood and any other burnable bits and pieces. My Dad would have a box if fireworks of all sorts that we would set off. Many other Dad’s doing the same. The was a street spirit that doesn’t exist anymore. I didn’t realise Syndal bred so many celebrities! Thanks for your post!


  12. Alan,
    I attended Syndal Primary in 1967 – grade 5a taught by Mr Wormley???

    It was the year Geelong lost the grand final to Richmond by 9 points. On the following Monday Mr. Wormley lectured us kids on how Geelong was robbed. He told us that we all now had to barrack for Geelong as some way to redress the loss of balance in the universe. I went home and told my Dad (a Haffey/Richmond fan) that Mr Wormley had told me that I now barracked for Geelong. I remember Dad excepted this with a wry smile. I don’t know if he ever collared Mr. Wormley to warn him off, but form that day to this one, I have supported Geelong.

    I expect that other schools claim bigger impacts on geo-politics but for me that one year at Syndal had a huge impact on my sporting perspectives.

    We lived in Kiers Ave and the orchards around Larch Cres felt like the edge of the world. Here be dragons! Running late for school? No worries. Just jump the back fence and scarper through Flatman and Williams timber yard. It wouldn’t give you much of an edge time wise but it was a good excuse to ogle at all the building supplies as you tried not to get run over by the Tradies in their big Bedford trucks.

    We traded Kiers Ave in to return to Shepparton a year later. Swapping one set of orchards for others around Benalla Road, Shepparton East. I remember that time in the big city (even Syndal was the big smoke by comparison to Shepp East) fondly. Not just for giving me my AFL raison d’etre, but also for what I thought of as my country lad coming of age – the bustle, traffic lights!, railway station, houses sitting cheek by jowl, ball-bearing billy carts hurtling down (what seemed like miles and miles of) smooth footpaths, a huge supply of kids to play with, movies on the weekend, an indoor swimming pool, and many delights my cousins and I could only imagine back in Shepp East.

    After a little under 2 years at Syndal I was a changed boy with a world view none of my Shepp mates had. I spent the next 6 years at Shepp High champing at the bit to get back to the big smoke. I lobbed at Monash Uni and have lived in SE Melbourne ever since.

    Thanks for the opportunity to reminisce. I must go for a trek past Flatmans one more time tomorrow.



    • I was in Year 5 in 1964, a little before you. My teacher was Mr Woodberry. He was a stern man and I did get the strap a few times from him, but we thought he was awesome. He had a friend who worked in the Melbourne Museum and every week he would bring two animal or bird exhibits in glass cases to class. I cannot imagine being allowed to do that these days! Whatever was in the glass cases became the centre of many of our lessons for that week. We wrote a composition about them, long before the idea of “creative writing” was coined. We drew them in Art, learned about them in Nature Studies and Mr Woodberry would tell us about any folklore stories he knew about them. We loved it!

      I remember Flatman and Williams. It was a good place to grow up!


  13. What a great blog! I grew up in Glen Waverley (sorry! but near the edge of Syndal) and we used to walk home from Syndal station to where I lived in Rob Roy Street. That was when I was at school further in. When we were at Glen Waverly State School our class had to shift for a term to a demountable in Syndal Primary because our school got too big.I remember the pine trees. That was in 1956 or 7! In Blackburn Road there was a sweetie shop on the right as you walked home towards Glen Waverley, with three concrete steps up to the door, and a bell. I’d walk the 1.5 miles home so I could spend my fourpence bus fair on sweets. I’d get hard ones that would last all the way home if I rationed them properly – orange squash gums, (two a penny) aniseed balls, (four a penny) coloured chewies (4 a penny). On the way down the hill in Blackburn Hill (awesome!) we’d cut left through the gold course, collect balls from the shady creek and taddies too, and chuck yonnies down the creek.There was a blind pianist who lived off Blackburn road called Allan Nuske -a really nice man – I used to sometimes walk with him and he counted his steps, so he couldn;t change their length, I was little and aged 8 and I nearly ruptured myself keeping up with him. When I got to his corner I’d have to run right back to the sweetie shop which was officially out of bounds, to get my stash. Right beside the bridge lived the Kibbles, from the UK, whose dad was a builder and they had geese who would attack you if you tried to visit. I was friends with Meredith (Mellie) Kibble but I was too scared to play at her house. (We also had neighbours from the UK living near us in Glen Waverley, called the Twiddles, and others called the Battles – who had innumerable kids). My earliest memory of Syndal shops was having my first icy pole ever – a raspberry one. I sat in the gutter beside our Ford Prefect car and sucked it down to nothing. The I stood up and chundered it straight back into the gutter. I was very surprised. I think it was the first time I’d ever had anything artificial. We lived off fruit straight from the orchards, baby carrots chucked over the fence of the market gardens, and milk from the farmers brought by the early morning milkie ((I sometimes did the rounds with him and got sixpence)and bread delivered to our old tin box at the bottom of the hill in Waverley Road. I grew up in the country, really, and the city came to us. It was a blast.


    • Hi Kate, Much of what you say resonates with me. Aniseed balls at 4 for a penny was top of my lolly list if I had that kind of money! Do you remember the incinerator at the west end of the school grounds near the the boys and girls toilets? The cleaners would light the incinerator after lunch and by the end of the day they would have racked the ashes out onto the ground in front of it to cool overnight. If no teachers were nearby we would poke through the ashes and sometimes find money that kids had thrown away – change that the tuckshop ladies had put in their lunch bags that ended up in the bin. If we found any it was usually halfpennies, threepences, the occasional sixpence. If you were really lucky you would find a bob! It was rumoured that someone had found two shillings, but the kids who said it was a known liar so I have my doubts! I can remember going to the fish and chip shop in Blackburn Road near the High Street Road intersection and buying 3d worth of chips wrapped in newspaper. We would tear a hole in the top of the newspaper and walk home munching on chips. That was my idea of heaven!

      I knew Allan Nuske. He was a bit of a local celebrity I think and the first blind person I had ever met. It left an impression. You are right about growing up in the country. I like telling people now that I grew up on the edge of Melbourne among orchards. People are shocked when you say it was Syndal (well I say Mt Waverley only because almost no one has ever heard of Syndal! Thanks for sharing your memories Kate!


  14. What great stories! I went to Syndal State in 1961 and 62. My year 5 teacher was Mr Huon and Year 6 Mr Robinson, who had a dastardly reputation for strictness but that was ill founded!
    The yarns about the bridge over Blackburn Road, the coins collected at the incinerators, bonfires and orchards all resonate with me. I barracked for Footscray, so having John Schultz as the local grocer was a real buzz! I left Melbourne in 1964 but the memories of Syndal are still very dear to me and I too say that I lived between Mount Waverley and Glen Waverley. I need to just say that I lived in Syndal!
    I took my own kids back there a number of years ago to sadly find that the school was no more.


    • Thanks for your comment Grant. You must have been a couple of years ahead of me. I was in Year 6 in 1965 at the brand new Syndal South PS. I was moved there when it opened at the end of term 2 in 1964 (remember we only had three school terms back then!) That was when I was in Year 5 with Mr Slattery, who came with us.


  15. gooday alan
    left a message on other site. not real shore how these things work ,but will keep on trying
    best regards allan sack


    • Hi Allan,
      Now you are a blast from the past. Yes I remember. Just around the corner from us in the house on the corner of Moreshead and Dorgan.

      It certainly was an adventure living in the area in those days. Pretty good for kids with plenty of bush around and a safer time to roam than it is for children today.

      Great to hear from you Allan. I will email you some other info.


      I moved your comment from the other site, which I will be closing down very soon, to here below.

      Submitted on 2015/05/07 at 10:07 pm by Allan Sack
      Hi al what a bottler to find some dudes I rember from good old 4714. I remember you thwaites I lived round the corner in morshead ave .I also remember brian kerr I was in his bros philips grade and been round to his ”dump” (a 50s word) many times .We also threw connies and brinnies chriss skases sister was in our grade .I still dream of miss Tinkler her tight pink pointy top she wore looked great!
      Have they ever though of a reunion it might be fun.would love to catch up with some old friends I got my self lost in the swamp across the road from the shops in blackburn rd before price ave on the way home from school once. a short cut over the creak through alan ryans house to somers crt was often used .suppose a lot of the staff have now fallen off the perch they were a great lot In later years I discovered Alex Enterkin in his younger days saved my father and uncle from drowning at Inverlock in 1939 when he was a student teacher cheers Allan


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