NELSON Street, Wallsend, like High Street, Maitland, was a dicey choice from the start for a business and retail centre.
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Both have been flood-prone for as long as anybody can remember, with periodic inundations ruining shops and homes and putting lives at risk.

In both cases, at different times, people have seriously contemplated entirely relocating the town centres from at-risk areas, but that’s such an expensive and troublesome process that nobody really supported the idea.

They spent a fortune at Maitland, after serious loss of life in the 1955 floods, to tame the Hunter River. They’d have to spend a fair bit to make Wallsend safe too, but nobody is queuing up to provide the funds.

This week Newcastle City Council approved yet another study to examine the problem, prompting many people to wonder what could possibly be discovered by another 10-month study that isn’t already known.

Let’s hope it isn’t going to take a fatal catastrophe to get some serious flood mitigation work happening.

By coincidence this week I spoke to Mrs Nance McKinnon, a former Wallsend resident who used to work in her grandmother’s shop in Nelson Street, back in the 1920s and 1930s.

Nance’s nanna, Sarah Bains, had a mixed business next door to the Wallsend branch of the Co-op Store, and as a little girl Nance lived upstairs, sometimes working behind the counter of the little cafe and fruit shop, selling lollies to other children.

The shop wasn’t far from Jones’s picture show, where she and her friends used to go on Saturday afternoons.

“Sometimes I had to serve in the shop and the kids were buying lollies to take to the movies,” she said.

“I used to have to tell them to hurry up and make their choices, because I wanted to go to the pictures too.”

The shop had no electricity then and when Nance’s nanna made ice-cream she could only make what she could sell in a day, because it couldn’t be stored.

“When one of the ice-cream factories installed a special metal counter in our shop, with big tubs to keep the ice-cream in, all the boys would bring their girlfriends in and treat them to a glassful,” she said.

In those days, Nance said, there were two picture shows in Nelson Street, which was a seriously busy shopping centre.

“The other one was Daddy Phelan’s,” she recalled.

“Daddy Phelan had a big beard and a hat and his picture show’s roof was held up by logs of wood. A lady played piano and Nanna had a stall in there selling lollies and ice-cream. You had to get your seats early so you didn’t get stuck sitting behind the poles.”

When she turned 18 Nance started training as a nurse at Wallsend District Hospital, becoming qualified in 1942, while World War II was in full swing.

She remembers standing on the balcony of the men’s ward the night Newcastle was shelled by a Japanese submarine.

“I saw the lights all the way from Wallsend and thought to myself that BHP would be in a lot of trouble next morning for ruining the blackout. When people realised that Newcastle had been attacked there was a bit of panic. We were told our hospital would be moving to Muswellbrook, but of course that never happened.”

As for floods in Nelson Street, Nance saw her share.

“They came up quickly, flooded the shops and then went down again,” she said. “You just had to sit and wait it out before you could go anywhere.

“But they were always more of a nuisance than something to be really afraid of.”

That was a long time ago, though, before so much more of the floodplain was built on and concreted over.

These days Wallsend people would be silly not to be afraid of the danger floods can bring to Nelson Street.

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