Former Goanna frontman Shane Howard on growing up at Dennington Fonterra factory

Factory man: Shane Howard at the site of where his old house was as a child, one of the Nestle's cottages in Dennington. Photo: Anthony Brady
Factory man: Shane Howard at the site of where his old house was as a child, one of the Nestle's cottages in Dennington. Photo: Anthony Brady

"That's all that's left of where we used to live," Shane Howard said, touching the aged 'FP 32' fire pole at the front of the Fonterra factory in Dennington.

Before the high fences capped with barbed wire and steel security gates enveloped the site, an open-plan village stood where factory employees and their families would live, work and play.

Mr Howard's parents, Teresa and Leo Howard, raised their seven children in one of the factory cottages. Shane lived there from when he was four until he left home for university at 18.

The heritage-listed cottages were knocked down in 1987.

The company had a sense of responsibility to its employees and lots of families in Dennington and the surrounding area were able to raise families from the security of employment.

Shane Howard

Built in 1909 closely following English lines in the manner of estates like Port Sunlight and of architects like Parker and Unwin, they featured half dormer and lateral gables in imitation half timbering projecting from a dominant longitudinal roof.

"Nestles got away with knocking them down, it was a tragedy really. They said they needed to build a warehouse there, but they never built it," he said.

"They should have kept them, they were unique, the architectural style was called Port Sunlight and it came out of England as a new industrial model, which was about creating a holistic environment for workers.

"They had veggie gardens down the back by the river, a billiard room, club rooms and Christmas parties for all the workers and their children.

"It was a village life in a different time and a different relationship evolved between employer and employee.

"The company had a sense of responsibility to its employees and lots of families in Dennington and the surrounding area were able to raise families from the security of employment."

Generations of work at the factory 

Mr Howard's grandfather Danny Howard first arrived in Dennington to work at the factory from the Ballarat goldfields.

His father Leo was born in Dennington and started work at the factory when he was 15-years-old during the Great Depression and worked there for 48 years.

"My grandfather came here to work on the foundations, and then he stayed on and worked at the factory. Dad started here at 15 in the middle of the Depression in 1931," he said.

"He said there was a line-up of men right out onto the road looking for work. It was probably because his dad worked here that he got the job, and he worked here for his entire working life."

"It was village life" 

The Howard family lived in the cottage at the end on the left, closest to the river.

The kids attended St John's Primary School, which was a short bus ride or walk from the factory village, and secondary school in Warrnambool.

"The siren would go and Dad would go to work at 8am," he said.

"We'd go to school and there'd be Protestant/Catholic rivalry and kids shouting insults at one another not really knowing what it meant, but then you'd all come home and play with each other.

"They weren't real boundaries for us.There were about 96 kids when I was there and two classrooms.

"Dad walked to work and was home for lunch everyday, it was an incredibly good childhood growing up by the river."

People helped one another out, my childhood is 1960s Australia here.

Shane Howard

His memories are of a tight-knit community that looked out for one another.

"It's really interesting looking back - this was a village. It was a village life and it was very contained," Shane said.

"Warrnambool was a long way away in those days, not everyone had cars, and it was very egalitarian.

"The village was here because of the factory and everyone earned about the same amount of money, the bakery prospered, the pub prospered, the sporting clubs thrived, everything prospered because of the factory.

"People helped one another out, my childhood is 1960s Australia here."

History lost

The concrete pathways that once led from the cottage doorways to the road are still visible at the site today.

Mr Howard created a painting of the old sandstone cottages from memory a few years ago. There were four siblings to a bedroom, he recalled.

Childhood memories: Shane Howard's painting of the Nestle cottages where he and his family lived. Their house was the end one in the foreground.

Childhood memories: Shane Howard's painting of the Nestle cottages where he and his family lived. Their house was the end one in the foreground.

"The shape of the roof is wrong but it's pretty much the spirit of what it was like at the time, our house was the end one in the foreground," he said.

"The boys' bedroom was the upstairs bedroom and we looked straight down the river to Levy's and the dunes over there.

"That was kind of like the outer reaches of where you get to in a day and back. It's probably why I've got such an attachment to the dunes, that was like the wild country over there.

"Dad told stories about how in the old days people used to go and have picnics at Levys and how when the whales would beach there the men would go over from the town and they would harvest the oil for their lamps."

Mr Howard's father Leo Howard was the superintendent of coffee production, and the kids would work there in the summer holidays to earn some pocket money.

"For my older brother and I there was no corner of the factory that we couldn't get into. The old nightwatchmen used to chase us out," he said with a laugh.

Where 'Factory Man' was born

It was in this setting that Howard wrote Factory Man, which would later appear on Goanna's best-selling album Spirit of Place.

"I remember one time there was an incident and my dad nearly lost his job here," he said.

"I would have been a teenager, and I remembered thinking, 'Wow, you can just be made redundant like that' from some corporate decision a long way away.

"I guess I swore I'd never find myself in that situation.

"It's probably been my motivation to be my own boss, and not be at the mercy of someone else.

"The more you give it seems the more they take away. That's the two-edged sword."

He hopes that the land surrounding the site will be protected from development when the factory is inevitably vacated.

"I hope they protect the area and don't just develop the whole place," he said.