Leaving England in his mid twenties, my father migrated to Australia to see what life was like on this side of the world. He liked what he saw and wrote glowing letters home to the girl he planned to send for. However, before this happened war was declared and he returned to England to join the armed forces. After service for almost two years in France he returned home and they were married there instead.
When the war ended in 1918 he returned with his young bride to assume the life they had planned in Australia. They arrived with few possessions in a tin trunk, very little money but with stout hearts and a will to make a home for the family they hoped to raise in their new country.
Although this is their story, there is much else I would like to touch upon for it's all relevant. The people are real people and the happenings sadly factual.
Those who remember will know that from 1929 to 1942 our country suffered the worst years of our history. I would like to tell a little of what those years meant to the average family and mine in particular.
I was about five years old when the Depression began to be felt in Australia. DEPRESSION, an ugly word with far reaching ugly consequences for all countries facing economic disaster.
Shortly after their arrival, my parents, with the help of an overdraft, but unfortunately no previous farming experience, bought a small stocked poultry farm, on the site until recently occupied by Wagon Wheels Nursery, now the site of your Aged Care Facility (SummitCare Baulkham Hills).
It was not long before Dad was visited by a plausible poultry dealer who convinced him they should exchange their white hens for black ones. Taking the advice in good faith the exchange was made but it soon became apparent that the new hens were sick and most of them died. It was hard times for dealers as well as 'would be' farmers.
Another small loan was arranged, the hens replaced and with egg prices rising the money lender was slowly being repaid. The new hens did well for several months but suddenly developed an eye disease which blinded them and soon the poultry farm was finished.
A second mortgage was raised on the seven acre farmlet, a small herd of cows, a bull and a horse and cart were bought. Almost single-handed my father felled trees, built barns, ploughed paddocks and sowed crops to feed his stock. Working on the farm by day and delivering milk at night, they managed to survive for the next two years. There was little comfort in the old farmhouse but they were happy and the birth of their third child completed the family they were determined to have.
The good times were not to last though, as my father developed a skin disease from the milk and was not allowed to milk the cows, which meant they had to employ someone to do that. I can just remember the young man; he was tall and bony and I remember how they used to laugh about the time they had tried to get him to have a bath. When the ordeal was over he said "If I'da knowed it was so good I woulda had one before!". This humorous little incident was often recalled in later years.
Hi name was Dick and he had to be paid, fed and housed, and this inroad to any profit meant the occasional sale of a cow. The choosing was difficult as they had all become pets and it was hard to see one go.
Times were hard for customers too. Stories of hardship were shared daily and lasting friendships made. For as long as he could my father sold his milk cheaply and gave it freely to those who just could not afford to pay. Eventually the income was not enough to feed the stock and repay the bank, and it was a sad day when we watched the remaining eleven cows, the big friendly bull and the machinery being loaded onto the trucks. We all cried as they disappeared around the bend on the old Seven Hills Road.
But there was no time for crying, we still had a home, a few fowls and old Whitey the horse, and with a loan to get started, my father became the 'Fruit and Veg Man'. Before daylight he would be off to the markets and then spend the rest of the day trying to sell his goods. Speck apples and potatoes were eagerly sought by most of his customers.
I remember sitting in the back of the cart, jammed between a sack of potatoes and the scales, my legs dangling as I trailed my stick in the dusty dirt roads. Fortunately I did not go one day when a motor car ran into the back of the cart. Somewhere amongst my souvenirs I have a newspaper cutting which tells how "The cart was hit from behind and Bob landed 'mid shower of fruit’". It was meant to be funny and perhaps the humour was there, but it meant lost trade and hours of work for my father fixing the cart.
Every day he was greeted by yet another husband who had lost his job, asking him to call every second week. Soon it was not worth the trip to the markets and the final blow came when old Whitey died of pneumonia. In a state of utter despair I believe Dad pushed the cart into the creek and there it stayed.
Not long after this, the money lenders foreclosed and we had to walk off our property. A sympathetic neighbour gave us shelter on their verandah. We had our beds, two wardrobes, our kitchen furniture and two old black leather armchairs. I don't know why but mother called them "The Easy Chairs".
Sadly, our hosts did not care for dogs and our two little Aussie terriers were put to sleep and buried on the creek bank. It haunts me to this day.
Reluctantly my Dad joined the Dole queue, often walking to Parramatta to save the sevenpence fare each way on the bus. Our meagre provisions he carried home in a sack on his back.
Change of Government brought a state of relief. Men were given work thereby earning their dole and my tired Dad took his place on the road gangs with his pick and shovel, and so was built the Pennant Hills Road.
By careful saving and self denial, they managed to buy a block of land nearby and, with the help of friends and neighbours, a dwelling was built. The kitchen had an earth floor, but Mother sprinkled it with tea leaves before sweeping and in time it looked like a polished wood floor. Her windows always shone and she was heard to say “The windows of your house are the mirrors of your soul.”. The sleeping area had a wooden floor, a tin partition separated the beds; I remember it well, it was dark green with large frog shapes imprinted into the tin. A second hand fuel stove was bought, and a couple of our kerosene lamps were hung from the rafters and we moved into our new home. We called in “The Humpy”. We lived there for about four years; I made a few friends at high school, afraid I would be asked to visit and too ashamed to ask anyone to my house.
The next few years were lean ones but we had our own vegetables and neighbours shared crops. Gathering blackberries became a favourite ‘outing’, purple lips and fingers no deterrent to having a fun day.
Somehow mother saved a little each pay day so that there would be something extra for Christmas and, as if by magic, there would be a cake, iced and pretty and a pudding with ‘surprises’ and somehow too, always a parcel for each of us, holding some small treasure we had hoped for.
Christmas though, was a sad time for Mother, so far from the Cornish village where she was born and all thoughts of being able to visit her mother and crippled sister long forsaken. The Depression had prevented my father from keeping his promise to take her home after seven years.
One day, a small miracle happened when a friend suggested my father could be entitled to a War Service Home. A letter was written and rewritten many times before it satisfied my mother and finally with all details of our cramped living conditions revealed it was posted. Imagine our joy when we were told we were to have a new home built on our block of land and that the rent would be seven shillings and sixpence a week. Not only this but that we were offered the rental of a house that was becoming vacant in the same road. It was a nice solid old brick house and our happiness knew no bounds when we moved in. The kitchen had a big fuel stove with a built in hot water tank and it was wonderful to get up in the mornings and have a nice hot wash. I could not wait to invite my friends to visit.
My older brother had commenced work as a clerk in a woolbroker’s office in Sydney and some of his wage was gladly handed in to help pay the rent. He was only seventeen and this was to be his only place of work. He retired in 1985.
My father found a position as storeman at James Hardie and I too, after having won a part scholarship to business college began work. I was sixteen and able to have my first bicycle, brand new, paid off at two shillings and sixpence a week.
At long last we had a wireless set, a big one that had pride of place in the lounge room and I never ceased to wonder at my gentle mother’s passion for listening to the wrestling broadcasts.
About one year after we moved into our own home and it seemed we could never want for anything more. Our garden and orchard were flourishing, we had acquired a cow and run of chickens. We were all healthy and happy and between us bought mum a new electric stove and copper, a nice lounge and a hall carpet, even a ‘Welcome’ mat at the front door. Life was indeed good and then, so suddenly and unexpectedly our life’s greatest sadness came when Mother died during a tonsil operation. She was only fifty-seven years old. Two years later Dad suffered a heart attack and died at age sixty-six. Nothing then or now has ever brought me to terms with their untimely death after such a long hard struggle to survive.
Looking back I remember a sweet, gentle mother who never complained, who yearned quietly for the loveliness of the English village where she was born. I cry inside for the bleakness of her life as she bravely stood by her husband and raised her family in those hard days. But, I laugh too when I recall her humour and the fun she managed to bring to the most mundane events. The memory of her beautiful contralto voice as she sang all her favourite songs haunts me and all the stories she told us of ‘home’ are with me as if it was yesterday.
I grieve too for our wonderful father who could fix anything, who had worked so hard since he was eleven years old, who, once a year on Anzac Day left for the city to march with his old mates, coming home a little unsteady singing “Mademoiselle from Armentiers”. That was only once a year so nobody minded.
This is a true story of some of my parents struggles and determination to survive against overwhelming odds. The pattern of work and endeavour has been repeated throughout my life and that of my two brothers and our children.
It is now over sixty five years since our parents died, but I remember them constantly with humility and pride in their courage and the dignity they managed to maintain in our lives despite so much adversity.
And now, as my thoughts dwell on my mother, remembering her never-ending homesickness for Cornwall, I like to think of a poem written by Rupert Brooke was written for her, it closes saying…
“If I should die, think only this of me,
That there is some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.”
By: Her daughter
Mary Leonora Smith