VERONA “Ronnie” Ayerst grew up in Wickham, in a house with a yard full of sun-bleached shark jaws.
Killing sharks was a family business, and her father Jim was no slouch at the job.
Jim had boatsheds at Wickham, like his father Joseph before him, who had been a providore on Newcastle Harbour.
Ronnie remembers her father’s “fetish” against shoelaces, which he held responsible for drownings when people fell overboard and couldn’t get their shoes off.
Born in 1936 and now living in Wallsend, Ronnie also has a lot of memories of sharks and the non-stop war her father and uncle waged against them. The government used to pay a bounty for every shark killed in the harbour, she said, and there were plenty of the predators in the waters of Throsby Creek.
If anybody spotted a shark, the Ayersts would sound their loud alarm and all the children who used to swim in the creek at the Wickham foreshore would scramble to safety.
Her uncle Arthur had a houseboat opposite Church Street, and Ronnie remembers the story of a boy bleeding to death there once, after a shark tore his leg off through some logs in the water.
Ronnie told me that story last year, and last night I think I found a reference to the incident in The Newcastle Morning Herald of January 1, 1940.
The article said the incident had happened three years earlier, in 1937, when a boy who was swimming near some floating pine logs on the Wickham foreshore was attacked without warning, lost a leg and bled to death.
Up to 1940 three boys – and many dogs – had been killed by sharks in the Wickham area.
One, in 1917, had been diving with some friends. He was about to dive one last time for the day, but then he and his mates spotted the grey form of the shark below. He tried to arrest his dive, but fell in. His body was never found.
Several years after that another group of boys was swimming “where the oil wharf was later built”. All but one got out of the water, leaving the last boy lazily floating. Suddenly he yelled “A shark has got me” and his mates managed to retrieve him. He died shortly after the attack.
The same article noted that at least one shark had been seen in Throsby Creek as far inland as the bridge at Union Street, Tighes Hill.
Not surprisingly, Ronnie didn’t follow her father into the shark fishing game.
She did follow him, however, into music. Jim was an accomplished jazz practitioner, playing trumpet and cornet in his spare time. He once opened a show for Bobby Limb at City Hall.
Ronnie sang ever since she was a little girl.
When she got older she trained as a seamstress, but took singing gigs whenever she could.
She used to play at the Seabreeze at Nelson Bay at weekends and the Westminster and The Esplanade in Newcastle.
By chance she fell under the eye of the famous Claude Moore who liked her so much he invited her to join the Claude Moore Trio in 1955, with himself and Iris Hayes.
Claude Moore, many Novocastrians will recall, played piano at The Alcron restaurant for many years.
One night, walking from gig at the Westminster to The Esplanade, Ronnie was followed by a visiting Canadian sailor. She married, moved to Vancouver and then to Las Vegas where she lived for 41 years and ran Dick’s Liquor Downtown, a pub on First Street, behind the Golden Gate.
After her divorce in 1970 she worked as a cocktail waitress at the Thunderbird Hotel, coming home to Australia in 2000 to look after her sick mother.
Ronnie has fond memories of her time working with Claude Moore and Iris Hayes.
Moore had suffered polio in his youth and was “a tough master”, she said.
During a visit home from the USA, years ago, Ronnie went to the Alcron and saw Moore playing piano. He’d lost his memory and couldn’t recognise her, but she got him started on an old song they used to perform together called We Want.
He played it perfectly, and was moved to tears by the closeness of memories he couldn’t quite grasp.
Ronnie Ayerst and Iris Hayes performing in Newcastle.
Arthur Ayerst’s houseboat at Wickham, circa 1950.