Auntie Bert, a "sterling character"


BBA
These three young women are our grandmother Alfreda on the left, with her two younger sisters, Beatrice in the middle and Berta on the right.
Alfreda’s set jaw and determined look reflect her independence and demand for an education. I fancy I can see both the rebel and the farmer in Beatrice’s broad face. But look at the gentle, faraway, passive prettiness of Berta. What experiences are already clouding her young face?

About ten percent of the whole of Australia’a population, the country’s young, fit men, set off to war in 1914. More than half of them were killed, gassed, wounded or taken prisoner. There was no such diagnosis as “post traumatic stress”, but we can extrapolate from the modern experience of returning soldiers.
What happened to the equivalent ten percent of young women, who, in different circumstances, would have been marrying them and having their babies?
Our Auntie Bert became one of the many “maiden aunts” of that very specific generation. The family lore is that she “had opportunities” to marry but “chose to stay in the bosom of her family”. We do not know what the reality of her young life was. Had she been a boy, she would have been one of the 417,000 men who enlisted. One would presume that virtually all the young men she might have had a romantic interest in… brothers of her friends, boys from church, at work, on the train, in her neighbourhood… nearly all would have been absent for four years from when she was 18 until she was 22.

Berta Holm was born in 1896. Her childhood and early adult life was spent in St Kilda. 
The family story is that Berta and Beatrice unlike their older sister, Alfreda, 
did not hunger for an education.
Alice and Marge said this in quite a disapproving tone, which made us wonder about the accuracy of the statement, that
Auntie Bert left school at Grade 4, declaring that she would prefer to help her mother at home. In Grade 4 she would have been nine or ten! 
At the time Victoria was a progressive state and proud to be the first Australian state to create a system of free, secular and compulsory education. This legislation introduced in 1872, required all children aged 6-15 years to attend school unless they had a reasonable excuse. Schools were built, and a system of inspectors employed to enforce compulsory education. Fines for non-attendance were five shillings and increased for further offences. Did Auntie Bert leave school at the tender age of nine or ten? We think it more likely that she attended a State school, maybe unwillingly and, after trying a private school
for young ladies, left at the age fifteen. Their disapproval of the lack of enthusiasm for education, compared to their own mother’s, probably colours the story about their aunt. The view of Auntie Bert we were brought up with, was that she was good with her hands, but, to soften and elevate this statement in true Holm fashion, it was followed by, she was a superb craftswoman and much in demand: not academic but exceptional.

Some time after she left school Berta went to work in Flinders Lane.
flinders lane
At that time Flinders Lane was the centre of the ‘rag trade’ where many Jewish firms had their businesses. Amongst them was Slutskins, for whom both Berta and Beatrice worked doing ‘white work’. Whitework embroidery is the general term for hand embroidery worked with white threads on white fabrics. It is one of the most elegant and timeless styles of embroidery and was used on underwear, night gowns, table linen, handkerchiefs, baby bonnets, christening gowns and many other small items. 
whitework
After some experience in this area Berta became forewoman, in charge of a group of other women.

We only have Alice and Marge’s childhood recollections from which to piece together Berta’s life.
In early 1925, when she was twenty-nine, perhaps moving away from her parents’ home for the first time, she left her job, probably that responsible position as forewoman. She went, for an unspecified time, to the country, to help her married sister with a toddler and a baby, and to help serve in her brother in law’s hardware shop.

Alfreda had given birth to Alice, our mother, in 1923. She had had a terrible time, alone, during her first delivery, resulting in the death of the baby. We don't know anything about Marge’s birth or the subsequent few years, except that they were quite near to family help. But when Alice was fifteen months old, Alf and Alfreda moved to Bacchus Marsh. Alfreda was “weak from the birth”. The descriptions of her crying, while scrubbing the floor and having to spend whole days in bed, apparently requiring the help of her unmarried sister, makes us think of post natal depression.
Alf too had what we would today call “mental health issues”. He was a gentle, quite scholarly person, and the business venture in Bacchus Marsh, on the eve of the Great Depression, took a toll on his health. It is no wonder Marge and Alice remember Auntie Bert as a tower of strength and support.

In 1928, the old dry house they had been living in caught fire. At the top of the burning staircase were the little girls in their nighties, Alf sedated, because he was in the midst of a “nervous breakdown”, Alfreda, reportedly trying to find her stockings, and Bert, who carried Alice down the stairs. Marge was carried down by her father, finally awake.
The destitute family were taken in by “the Pierces”. Nell Pierce was a lifelong friend of Auntie Bert. Did they meet there at Bacchus Marsh? We don't know.
The family stayed on for at least a year in Bacchus Marsh, but Berta moved back to Melbourne, once again moving in with her parents, probably her only option.

Now in her early thirties and unmarried Berta must have turned her attention to a job. As far as we know this is when she decided to start her own business as a dressmaker. At first she worked from her bedroom, building her business and reputation.



The business was eventually profitable enough to allow her to move to premises in Riversdale Road, Middle Camberwell and then to Burke Road in Camberwell, just over the junction.
I can remember the junction premises quite vividly. It was one big room on the first floor. Big windows looked out onto Burke Road, letting in light and sunshine that fell on the big work tables. Several dressmakers dummies stood in the corner where the fitting room was screened by curtains. It seemed a very busy place.
dressmakers dummy
plus size
The big tables, that dominated the space were covered in the paraphernalia of dressmaking. There were several sewing machines, many reels of sewing cotton, several pairs of big dressmakers shears, other dressmaking scissors and many tins of pins. Rolls of fabric and garments in various stages of construction took up the rest of the table space. Another woman was sewing at the table, presumably an employee, so business must have been good. We were probably there for a fitting, as Auntie Bert made ‘good clothes’, for Mum. These beautifully tailored clothes were worn to Church and were for special occasions, including weddings:
wedding clothes

She also made us beautiful clothes including these woollen dresses:
Sue mushroomy pink dress
Margaret mustard dress

Auntie Bert had an account at Ball & Welch, a prominent department store in Finders Street, Melbourne. She needed an account for her business and a reliable source of good quality fabric for her clients. Its four floors occupied one third of the total block and stretched between Flinders Street and Flinders Lane.
Ball and Welsh
Its many departments included gloves, umbrellas and handkerchiefs, fabrics, furniture, china, millinery, furs and corsets. At one time twenty-six assistants were devoted to the sale of lace alone.
Members of the family were generously given access to Auntie Bert’s account, making it possible to buy items on account and pay later. This was very useful at times, as there was no such thing as Credit Cards. At the end of the month, Auntie Bert sent out letters to all those who had used the account, and we reimbursed her by cheque. This was probably quite a task, not only the arithmetic, but also the sending out of all the individual letters.
I can remember enjoying trips to Ball&Welch. The lifts were staffed by attendants in uniform who recited the list of items available at each level as the lift rose between floors. Parcels were wrapped up in brown paper and string, on huge wooden counters. The expert shop assistants were reserved, formal and a little forbidding to a young child. The exchange of payment was quite a process. The shop assistants' job was to serve the customers, not handle the money. When payment was made, it was placed, with the hand written docket, in a metal canister that went shooting on wires across the departments and then upstairs to the Accounts Department. The docket was checked, change inserted, a receipt written and the canister whizzed back from whence it had come. Transaction complete.

The cash-ball system worked reasonably well, but the rails were intrusive and the interior layout of some stores did not allow certain counters or departments to be connected by inclined tracks. The ingenious Lamson then hit upon the concept of the “aerial railway” and set about tinkering with a gondola-like design, which became known as the wire-line or cable-carrier.
By the late 1880s, sales staff could secure cash inside a small wooden jar or canister, suspended by wheels from a taut wire that ran overhead from the sales desk to the cashier’s station, which was typically a cage-like booth situated in the center of the store. By tugging firmly on a spring-loaded cord or lever known as the “propulsion,” the canister would be catapulted along the wire, reaching its destination in mere seconds.
The cashier could then “return fire” with change and a receipt. Cashiers who worked in booths on levels above the sales floor could simply release the canister and let gravity return it to the appropriate counter.


Label B&Welch
Ball and Welch closed its doors in 1970, the end of an era .

Berta’s sister, Beatrice had taken up dairy farming in the early 1950s, near Cockatoo, in the Dandenong Ranges. The bulk of the work was done by her husband, and three sons. In 1955, the wife of Rob, the middle son, died, leaving a baby daughter, Julie, to be raised by her grandmother.
Into the breach stepped Berta. She moved into a small bedroom in the farm house, and became a second mother to Julie. We remember her room. It had been part of the farmhouse verandah, and the whole room was about twice the size of the single bed. It was neat, sparse and dark.
Our memory of Auntie Bert at the farm is solely inside the farm house. Unlike Auntie Beat, who mucked out the pigs, wearing layers of old jumpers and a woollen beanie, Auntie Bert was always nicely dressed. We remember her in well-cut woollen skirts, stockings and heeled court shoes, with classy jumpers and cardigans. We picture the two of them in the kitchen, both wearing aprons, turning out scones and cakes on the wood stove. Auntie Bert became a permanent and valuable member of the family, looking after the “boys” and Julie.
While her main home and focus was life at the farm, Auntie Bert continued, as she had her whole life, to be the family helper and nurse. She had looked after both her own parents in their final years, and she came to live with us to help out with her elder sister: our Nana, Alfreda, who had dementia. We remember her as a quiet unobtrusive presence in our home. A few years later she came again and helped with Alf, our grandfather, in his final weeks.
So Alice saw first hand, the skill and care of Berta’s nursing:



Apart from staying temporarily with other members of the family, usually to help out during family crises, Berta lived there at the farm, until her death in 1976, aged 80.
Alice reflected on Berta’s death and the simple generous life she lived:



From left to right, Nana, Auntie Bert and Alice:
Bert, Alice and Freda

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Stella Park

Guelda and Polly Pyke were Jono’s father’s first cousins; and were always very much part of Jono's and his sister Anne's life.
Polly was the eldest and an eccentric character with a dry quick wit. Her sister Guelda, also eccentric, was an artist and part of the vibrant Melbourne art scene in the late 40’s and 50’s.
Guelda b:w
Guelda in her studio
Guelda Still Life
A still life by Guelda

At this time Melbourne was awash with new modernist ideas in the arts and architecture. Guelda was taught by George Bell, one of the early modernist painters. In these classes she mixed with other influential young painters of the day, some of whom remained lifelong friends. It was likely that through this group Guelda met Alistair Knox, an emerging young architect, who the sisters commissioned to design their house at Templestowe.

Polly and Guelda with two other friends, also sisters, bought a working apple and peach orchard in Templestowe. Stella Park, as it was called, was named after the orchardists’s wife.They were not alone in moving to the outer suburbs, as the area was becoming a favourite with many young artists. John and Sunday Reid had already established their retreat at Heide, where they nurtured a circle of artists, writers and intellectuals. Heidi had become a place for the discussion, creation and promotion of modern art and literature. Alistair Knox was also working in the area, known especially for his mud brick houses.

The RMIT Design Archives have in Knox’s words a description of the project at Stella Park.
Knox reminisces:
One day in 1948 I was approached by an executive of the Art Gallery of Victoria on behalf of four ladies who proposed to build three houses on a twenty-acre peach and apple orchard in Templestowe - a joint house for Polly and Guelda Pyke, and separate ones for Val and Yvonne Cohen. They were all unmarried at this stage, although Val was anticipating marriage in the near future and her mother proposed to live with Val's sister Yvonne in the second house. As the Pykes' was a joint building, the two women decided to occupy separate sections of the building, especially as Guelda required a private area for her work as a practising artist. They had independent means, and this gave me my first opportunity to produce three sizeable houses amid the pink and white plum blossoms that covered the northern slope and looked over the river towards Eltham. It was an idyllic scene, particularly as these would be almost the first houses that could be seen from that direction. This was before any orchards had been subdivided, and the unbroken pattern of fruit trees separated by lines of ancient pines had remained unaltered since the land was first settled by a largely German community a hundred years earlier.
I had opted for timber construction on concrete slabs because there was a slight improvement in the supply position and because I thought earth-building would prove too great a strain on my elegant artistic lady clients, no matter how they thought about it before it all began.
https://alistairknox.org/buildings/64

Stella Park House
polly in house
Polly in her lounge room (Photo by Fred)
Fred's guelda photo
Guelda in her kitchen (Photo by Fred)

Stella Park was very much part of Jono’s childhood. Below he has recorded his memories of that special place.


children and Guelda
Left to right: Jono, Polly, Guelda, Anne, in the garden soon after the house was built.
orchard
Anne, Jono and friends in the orchard.

Anna and Thomas and I were also lucky to have experienced visits to Polly and Guelda at Templestowe. We too loved sitting on the floor at Guelda’s end eating hot chutney, Guelda bread and other assorted goodies, exploring the house and garden and walking to the Yarra.
kids
Anna, Thomas and friends
Polly etc shed
Left to right: Pasquale, local vegetable grower, Polly, Jono, Thomas and friend

Stella Park was an ambitious enterprise for four very adventurous women. Polly and Guelda both loved their part of it. They lived there until in their eighties they could no longer look after the property. We were lucky to have have known it.

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Drouin Christmas, 1975



The Christmas of 1975 was a huge and exciting enterprise. Jono and I were living in a beautiful house just outside Drouin. It was the old farmhouse on a big dairy farm for which we paid the princely sum of $10 a month rent. It was the perfect venue for an Australian Christmas for Jono’s visiting Danish relatives.
Guelda, Jono's cousin had made contact with the Danish relatives before World War 2, and the families had maintained contact ever since. Eva and Harry lived in Copenhagen, and Jono and I, Anne and Janey had all stayed with them the previous year. Now it was our turn to host.
In retrospect, it was very ambitious. We had Christmas lunch to prepare for Jono's and my immediate families, Guelda and her sister Polly, the Danes and a couple of teaching friends: seventeen in all. We also had several of the party as house guests overnight, before the culmination of Boxing Day’s lunch of leftovers, and the Drouin Picnic Races. Everybody chipped in as usual and it was a great success. The whole two day event was beautifully photographed and filmed by Fred, as always. These images have recently been sent to us, as Fred goes through his archives.

Guelda, Jono’s cousin must have been in her sixties in this photograph. Always eccentric and her own person, she did not disappoint at this party. She sunbaked topless, wore wonderfully bright, way-out clothes and was the life of the party. Guelda already knew Eva and Harry quite well from her many trips to Denmark so they were very pleased to see each other.
Guelda
Guelda back

This was a lovely room with big windows opening to a verandah and a large shady Golden Elm. Jono and I painted this room to brighten it up, when we took the house. You can see on the mantlepiece some of the pots we still have, and on the chair our secondhand black and white television.
Lounge room

Harry and Eva married late in life and lived in an apartment in central Copenhagen. They were a couple of contrasts. Eva was an imposing, vibrant, woman with a booming deep voice and Harry was a quiet and gentle man with a weakness for Blue Castello cheese. He introduced it to us in Denmark and we have been buying it ever since.
Harry and eva
Harry, Jono, Sue
Harry

Forty-three years ago and it was a Christmas lunch we would recognise today: similar food and many of the same bowls, cutlery and crockery. Seated around the table are the extended family from both sides, the Danes and teaching friends from overseas.
Christmas party


Two sisters on the verandah at Drouin on Christmas Eve. Margaret’s dog Saki is by her side and Sue is nursing Beetle or Ben.
Sue green dress

Boxing Day began wth breakfast for house guests and a picnic of leftovers at the Drouin Boxing Day Races. It was a typical hot summer day. Dry grass and eucalypts formed the background to the dusty country track, and the crowd, variously attired in summer race-wear, cheered on the horse races. The largest field in any of the races was only five horses.No fortunes were won or lost and we retired to the cool green garden for a quiet afternoon.



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Poowong Footage

We introduced, in the previous blog entry, the recently unearthed visual chronicles from my first husband, Fred. Leafing through old photograph albums, squinting myopically at black and white or sepia still images, reading old letters…. these are the experiences of exploring the past for most of our generation. Suddenly, thanks to Fred’s generous gifts, there is the daily life of a much, much younger Margaret: walking, laughing, smoking a cigarette, absently patting a long past dog.

In 1976, close to my 25th birthday, Fred and I visited our father and his wife Bev and Bev’s two young sons, Grant and Scott, at their fairly newly acquired property, the old Poowong homestead. Fred, the chronicler of our lives, with his trusty movie camera, recorded the visit on film. Until Fred sent it to me recently, I had not remembered the visit.

The significance of this particular flickering footage of Poowong rests not only on the fact that it is forty years old, not even on the fact that 1976 was during a short window in which we had a fairly normal grown up daughter-father relationship. Its power is much more recent.



Our father died three and a half years after this film was taken in early 1980. He was not even sixty. There was a family history of heart disease, and although, there were occasional bursts of a sunny warm personality, the Jim we had known for most of our lives had been tightly coiled and tense.

As Sue and I watched this footage: our fifty-five year old father walking the paddocks: strong, handsome and happy, clearly happy, I found myself bringing up the possibility of sending this footage to that other family. They had had him for such a short time. We looked at each other in amazement. The process of exploring and exposing our own pasts in this blog, at first staying with emotionally safe pathways, then probing gently the uneven terrain of long disused dark tracks, has led us both to this place. Together we marvelled that our long held animosity and rancour, seemed to have just … dried up.

After getting Fred’s permission, and after a little internet sleuthing, I found a family contact. I sent a tentative paragraph, using Facebook Messenger, together with a link to the film. There was an immediate response.

Bev, still living in that Poowong house, was very appreciative. She said it brought back “lots of great memories”. And apparently lots of us old ladies are good internet sleuths. Bev had been following this blog all along, and she has subsequently sent us some family history booklets and photos.

The family contact I had found was Robyn, wife of Grant, one of those little boys in the film, and Grant has a very special interest in this story. By chance, I had sent the footage to the very person who had found Jim, after he had died. In Grant’s own words:

One of the reasons for our move to Poowong was the poor health of my stepfather. He had suffered a serious heart attack and had been pensioned out of the teaching service, and a less stressful lifestyle was recommended. Sadly for Jim, he would only enjoy the more sedate lifestyle for two years, as he passed away early in 1980.

… Every summer without fail, my family would join with my mother’s sister’s family in a month-long Christmas vacation at our big old
(holiday) house. The summer of 1980 was no different except that, at the end of January, Jim and I returned to Poowong to attend to some work around the farm, leaving my mum and younger brother still vacationing at Inverloch.

It was one of those long daylight saving summer days and, towards the evening, Jim set off to search our boundary fence for his tobacco pouch that he had lost during the day. He had been gone for a long time and it was almost dark, so I decided to go for a walk to find him. My dog Butch led me out to the side paddock, and immediately ran to a steep incline covered in long grass, by our fence line. The world today is permeated with death, and even children as young as eleven are far too familiar with its many faces. But for me at eleven years old, death was foreign and the stuff of nightmares. To me at eleven and to me now at 44, it will always be the same - the face of a 58-year-old man drained of blood, sheer white, pale blue eyes staring up into a twilight sky. Jim died of a massive heart attack leaving me alone on the farm, waiting for mum’s ritual telephone call that night.

The details of the chaos of that night and the weeks ahead can be imagined. The trauma inflicted on our family was immeasurable, as anyone who has suffered an unexpected loss would know.

A few months after this, Grant had a life changing experience on the very spot where he had found Jim’s body.

He goes on to write,
In the more than 30 years since that experience, I have had much time to reflect on what it means to me. It has given me great comfort at times and has given me an unwavering belief in the hereafter.

Inspired by this, Grant went on to investigate and research the Paranormal,
travelling throughout Gippsland, interviewing people and compiling evidence on some of Gippsland’s greatest mysteries. His book, “Great Gippsland Mysteries” was published in 2014.

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Fred's films

My first boyfriend, later husband, Fred, has been out of our lives for a long time. Sue and I have written about the amazing foursome friendship we had between 1967 and 1970, in a post entitled “Sue, Margaret, Rikki and Fred” published in this blog on November 11, 2015.
Because he was a photographer/filmmaker, Fred recorded our lives: not the special-occasion-everyone-smile-for-the-camera sort of record, but the everyday. Some of the photographs we have included in various posts have been Fred’s.
And while Sue and I have been talking, writing, blogging about our lives in these posts, so Fred, hunched over a flickering screen, sorting through dusty boxes, has been working through his own story.
So throughout this winter, we have been blessed with little visual gems from our past, some still images like the ones in this post, and others scraps of super 8 film, sometimes just for our own private viewing, and others that will be put together into something more substantial, as Fred works through his archive.
Here then, is just a taste of this rich collection. Over the next while we will put together some more detailed stories of these years.

M and F 1967
Margaret first met Fred, when he was in second year photography at RMIT and was running the Photography Club at Burwood High School, where Margaret was in Year 10. After Margaret played a part in one of the club’s movies and Fred went to the Year 10 Form Party, Margaret and Fred started ‘going out’. Fred then became an important part of our all of our lives for many years.

Fred photographer
Fred, camera in hand was quite a usual pose in those days, as he recorded the minutia of our daily lives in Super 8 movie film.

Sue brushes
Fred also took many black and white stills with his Pentax SLR.This one is of me in first year of my Art course. I am wearing an old dust coat of Dads to paint in. Teachers in those days, particularly Science teachers, had grey dust coats to wear over their clothes as protection from both chemicals and chalk dust.

Margaret 1967
At the Botanical Gardens. Margaret about sixteen years old.

Alice by heater
Our mother, Alice, in the lounge room at Moore Street, in about 1967. She was forty-four years old and had recently gone back to work for the first time since she was married in 1945.
When he sent these shots Fred commented, “I like it when you see your parents as young and attractive, virile. These two show a very frugal environment, with the only decoration someone’s school pencil case. If I was photographing her today, I’d automatically retouch that stocking top (and I can if you’d like) but it’s part of the reality of the time.”

M and S 1967
By 1968, Fred was working as a professional photographer. The Studio he shared with two other ex students from the RMIT course, was all set up with special lighting and backdrops. This shot of two sisters was taken there.











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