George Cassar’s new book tells the story of growing up in the 1950s and 60s and some of the suburb’s more colourful characters.
Every time he comes back to Sydney, George Cassar goes to Clisdell Street Surry Hills and stands outside what was his family’s home.
“I just stand outside and look at the house and I can still hear us kids,” he says.
“I can hear us playing in the street, I hear still hear my parents. I come back aroud three or four times a year and that is the first place I go.
“The saddest day of my life was when we packed up and my Mum moved out in 1992.”
Cassar is unapologetically nostalgic for Surry Hills and has poured it all into his book, ‘Our Surry Hills Our Home,’ which is set for release in June.
He says its not his story so much but that of his neighbours and all the colourful people he met growing up in Surry Hills.
There was rock star and actor the late Jon English, who used to live in Riley Street.
Another figure from 60s and 70s rock, Jeff St John, was a schoolmate at Cleveland Street Boys High School, while he also knew – in her old age – the notorious underworld figure Kate Leigh, who was depicted in the Underbelly TV series.
Leigh ran a sly grog shop and allegedly sold cocaine from her home in Devonshire Street, for where she also conducted her gangland war with infamous rival Tilly Devine.
“I’d stop and talk to this old lady Kate Leigh and she’d give me a lolly,” says Cassar.
“And she always said to me ‘George don’t take any crap or bullshit from anybody.’
“I had no idea how tough she had been and what a legend she was.”
Most photographs of Kate Leigh are police mugshots, but Cassar came to know her great granddaughter who later gave him some rare family photographs.
Although Cassar is self effacing about his own story, it epitomises the lives of European migrants to Australia in the 1950s.
Born in Malta in 1950, he emigrated to Australia in 1952 with his family, which quickly grew to comprise nine children.
“We were all living in a three bedroom terrace in Surry Hills,” says Cassar.
“There were five boys in one room, so we were two to a bunk.”
The early death of Cassar’s father meant he left school at 14 to find a job and make a contribution to the family finances.
“It was very difficult to keep surviving back then, and to be honest everyone back then considered Surry Hills to be a slum,” he says.
“There was no phone, and we were the last family I knew to get a TV, and that was in 1969 more than a decade after television started.”
Despite the tough upbringing, Cassar says he still passionate about Surry Hills and it was this passion which inspired him to write the book.
Although he now lives in Queensland and has lived away from Surry Hills for more than three decades, he says “it’s the only place I’ll ever call home.”
“Everyone sees the history in black and white, but Surry Hills will always be in colour for me,” he says.
“People always ask me ‘what’s so good about Surry Hills.’
“Well I say you are ten minutes walk from the CBD, and then you have places like Bondi, Clovelly and Coogee right at your front door, but as far as I’m concerned its better than all those places.”
‘Our Surry Hills Our Home’ by George Cassar is published by Austin Macauley publishers. It is also available on Kindle.