A few years ago I published a letter from Ivy Rowbottom, a lady in her 80’s, who wanted to share with me the history of the old cottage at Broadwater North of Port Fairy in Victoria.
I had entered a competition with that image and the picture had been reprinted in the newspaper, and upon seeing it Ivy realised it was the house she had spent her early childhood in.
Here is her story.
Ivy Fitzsimmons – Memoirs, 1993
My mother, Mary Louisa Spooner, died at Port Fairy on 11 March 1985. She was in her 99th year. She had been married and lived in Broadwater, Victoria, for a number of years.
Named Ivy at birth, I was my mother’s fifth child. I grew up in my parent’s home, a little four-roomed weatherboard house.
These memoirs are for anyone interested to know how women managed in those days, on very little money, in primitive conditions. Hard work was second nature.
My father was a shearers’ cook and rabbit trapper. I remember him being away from home a lot. At eighty-two years of age he died before my mother. There was only a school and a post office in Broadwater. Shopping would have to be done in Macarthur or Orford, travelling by horse and buggy.
Mother would take the dogs and hunt rabbits for the kitchen table, and for the dogs. We baked, stewed and curried rabbit for our meals. When father returned home at weekends from shearing he would bring left-over cakes, meat and any other edibles. His arrival was met with excitement for the treats he might bring.
Mother made her own bread. I still remember the smell of hot bread coming out of the oven which was delicious eaten warm with home made jam.
I remember my mother doing the washing. She would get two logs of wood, build a fire in the centre and put the white sheets in a four gallon kerosene tine to boil. There was no such thing as soap powder then. My mother used to make her own soap and cut it up to put with the washing. The coloured clothes and work clothes would be washed in the galvanised tubs with wooden or glass washboards – water had to be carried from the lake in kerosene tins. There was a rain water tank but that was for drinking water. Ironing was achieved using old flat irons that were heated on a wood stove. When they were hot enough they would be rubbed over bees wax to clean before ironing.
Mother always wore an apron. I never saw her without one. She would make them out of sugar bags, after we had used the sugar. That was Broadwater.
When I started school we moved from Broadwater to Orford, into a bigger, nicer house which was close to the school and general store. Life for my mother improved. She had a copper to boil up the clothes and plenty of water for our bathing. We had two tanks and a bath.
In Broadwater we had a bath in one of the tubs and only once a week, but before going to bed each night we had to wash our feet. At the new house in Orford there was plenty of room for a garden and mother so loved her garden, vegetables and flowers.
A man from India, Sunda Singh would visit every few months with drapery and clothes, odds and ends. He had a big wagon drawn by two horses. We would look forward to one very big day in Orford – the Orford Sports Day. I still remember my father getting dressed up and going early. He would say, “I must be there for the clay shoot.” We lived only across the river from the sports ground. There were lots of side shows and a boxing troupe, as well as ring events. At night would be the dance and kids, and all would attend.
When we left the Orford house we went to another, belonging to some of our family. From there we would walk three miles across paddocks to school. We would come home hungry. All we could have would be bread with dripping. We would be quite happy with that until the evening meal. Our groceries would be delivered from the general store in Orford. The butcher would come from Macarthur in his horse drawn cart. Sometimes we would kill our own sheep. I remember meat being hung inside a white pillow slip outside, under a big tree. At other times, near Christmas, we would kill a pig. Mum would cure it and I remember it hanging from the ceiling in pudding cloths.
By about now my mother had eight children. She would sew our clothes on a Singer treadle sewing machine. When I would return home from school I would change into a dress mother had made me, out of Hessian sugar bags. I remember it had a square neck, two pockets which were trimmed with pretty coloured floral material.
Our doctor would make visits every few weeks, on his way to Macarthur. I suffers a lot with headaches as a child. Sometimes I would come home from school and need to go straight to bed. Mum was a headache sufferer too, but she would never complain. She would have to be very ill before she would lie down to rest. She would sit by the stove sometimes and tell us when, when she left school and went to work, she received only two shillings and 6 pence or three shillings a week. That would be about 25 or 30 cents a week today. She would cook and clean from morning till night, six days a week for that.
From that house we moved into another, on the other side of Orford. Still nearly three miles to walk to school. We would sometimes get a ride with a motorist or trucks, living as we did, near the Hamilton Port Fairy Road. Winter was hard. We would suffer chilblains on our heels, hurting even more when we put on our shoes to walk to school. At this house we had an orchard with lots of plums, yellow egg plums, green gage, damsens, plenty of apples, grapes, cherry plums. So we had plenty of home made jam. We also had a nice flower garden.
Mother often went out picking blackberries. Picking buckets of them, she had regular customers who would buy them from her every year and she would go from door to door selling them. I remember they were always nine pence a pound, about 10 cents today. It was hard picking them in those big, prickly bushes. Mother would take the fruit into Port Fairy, taking some of us kids along to help her. We would usually sell it all, then go back home to cook our meals.
My mother then had another baby daughter, Irene Mary, her last. Our family now was nine – five boys and four girls. We all had to help out with house work. When I look back now we didn’t do nearly as much as we should have.
With so many hungry mouths to feed, bread was a problem. Mother made a lot of her own bread and scones. If there was no bread for breakfast mum would have to get up early and make it. She would also make fried scones and we would have them with golden syrup. We liked them.
Mother couldn’t always afford to buy wallpaper so she would buy some for her bedroom and lounge or sitting room, as it was called in those days, and she would paper our bedrooms with newspaper. Yet people say they were the good old days!
People today would not be able to live through it. No TV or radio, no dishwashers, no washing machines or dryers. No electric or gas stoves, irons, toasters, heaters – not even a sink in our earlier days. I remember having to wash the dishes in a big tin dish with us fighting over who was to wash or who would dry.
Everything would have to be done in an old black wood stove or open fire. Mother would clean the stove when the fire went out and was still warm. If she didn’t have any black lead, she would use crumpled newspaper and dripping. We would have an open fire at night in the sitting room. Mother would sew at night under a kerosene lamp and darn socks for all of us.
I left school when I turned fourteen. I went to work in Port Fairy doing housework. That was all I could do. I worked at four different places. I met and married a Scotsman who came to Port Fairy. I was not yet seventeen when I married. Between us as has ‘nothing’ but we were happy. Thomas Francis Fitzsimmons was my husband’s name. We had four children. First a boy, William Francis. Then three girls – Jenny, Betty and Margarie. My husband was a very good cornet and trumpet player. That helped us to survive. Thomas suffered a lot of sickness in his life – osteomyelitis, sciatica and spent six months in Greswell Sanatorium in Melbourne. After several operations he died of cancer at age fifty nine.
I live alone now and have done so for twenty-seven years. I will celebrate turning eighty years next birthday. My children are all married and have their own families but they are very good to me. I have fourteen grandchildren and seventeen great grandchildren. I own my house and still drive a small car. My mother never drove a car. She would drive a horse and buggy or rider her bicycle. She was ninety-eight years old when she died. Hard work didn’t do her any harm.
The last house mum and dad lived in was in Orford near Wares Creek. Lived in Port Fairy at that time, with my family. My mother had more fruit trees and a good vegetable and flower garden. They had cows but not much land, so they had to be put out to feed on the side of the road. They would wander for miles and mum, or someone, would have to go and find them and bring them home to be milked and shut in for the night, milked again in the morning, before letting them out again. Mum would separate the milk and get the cream from a couple of days and make it into butter. Mother would send it to a shop in Port Fairy that would buy it from her. She would go out after mushrooms too, and sell them to shops or hotels. She also grew a lot of strawberries and entered them in the local shows. Her strawberries were prized and she was so proud of the first prizes she would win.
Mother took one of her son’s second daughter when his wife was hospitalised with their third baby. Mum looked after her well and always said when she got her she was so small and thin. That little girl never did go home, staying with mum until her death. The girl’s name was Sandra Spooner. She lives next door to me and a couple of years ago married Reg Cameron. Reg is a wonderful man and great worker. They are very helpful to me.
Visiting mother and father at Orford when they were alive would always meaning coming home with milk, cream, vegetables, butter, flowers and, of course, bottles of jam. Mum seemed to get so much please out of giving and we had nothing to give in return – only love. I often sit and think of them and wish they were still around. I shed a few tears and think what I should have said and done for them. If only now I could put my arms around them and say I love you mum, I love you dad. You only have one life, one mother and one father.
Father smoked a pipe. I remember being of school age and coming for breakfast. Father would be sitting by the fire smoking his pipe. When I would come into the kitchen he would start singing, “Just like the Ivy on the old garden wall”. I have never forgotten that.
Father was a wonderful old man and he didn’t ever – once – lay a hand on any of we kids. Mum was the one that had to give us the strap, or a hiding with a stick if we did anything wrong. Mum had to suffer the pain of losing four of her children before she died – one daughter and three sons. Another son has died since. Now there is only one son and three girls alive now although I think we are all on the way out.
I write things as they come to my mind.
Another thing my mother would do was, when one of our cows calved she would teach it to suck from its mother’s udder. Mum would get a half bucket of warm milk, push the calf’s mouth into that and put her finger in the calf’s mouth. The calf would suck on her finger and in that way would get the milk and when it learned, she would put it to the cow’s teat and it would be alright.
Often if the farmers around the district, in the winter when the sheep were lambing, the sheep would have a frail lamb that wouldn’t survive the cold. They would give it to my mother and she would bring it inside, wrap it in an old blanket by the fireside and feed it from a bottle with a teat, like a baby, and then it would grow and be her pet lamb. Some would die but she reared a few lambs from the bottle. They could drink down a big bottle of milk in no time with their little tails wagging vigorously. Not only did my mother rear ten children, but calves and lambs too.
Another thing my mother would do was go out into the paddocks and pick mushrooms to sell. The local hotels would buy a lot around early May, the time of the famous Warrnambool three day horse races. How she ever found the time I don’t know. She would walk for miles hunting mushrooms – not like today when people sit down for a couple of hours of watching television soaps or go and have a coffee with special friends. They don’t know what hard work is, with their modern conveniences. My mother would never eat poultry. I think this was because she raised them from chicks and would have to kill and dress them. I only ever saw her kill a chook once. When she cut its head off on a block of wood, it ran away, headless, with blood oozing from its neck. Father would do most of the poultry killings – geese, ducks or chooks. We would have to help with the plucking of them. Mother would keep the feathers and make feather pillows. We had feather mattresses too, but I don’t remember where all the feathers came from for them because poultry was something we would have only at Christmas, New and Easter – if we were lucky.
Mother also reared turkeys, as well as geese and fowls, lambs, ducks, calves and kids. Often she would put a scarf on her head and get on her bicycle and ride the store/post office to get the mail about once a week, struggling against wind or rain. My mother, Sandra and two brothers, Sand and Laurie, retired and came to Port Fairy to live. They lived next door to me. That was around 1970. My mother still had to have her chooks. She kept about twelve hens and, of course, her garden. When she had her back yard dug up she came in and had half of my yard dug up too.
When mother became ill and couldn’t keep going she wasn’t very happy. Working was her life. I don’t think she ever got any further than Melbourne. She had a sister living in Melbourne, together with me and my family but we didn’t see very much of her in those days until we came back to Port Fairy to live. My mother had, eventually, to go to hospital. She was a very quiet and good patient. We would go and see her every day until she died – she died very peacefully and was buried in Port Fairy Cemetery.
I often sit and think of days long gone. Now all I have left to say is, “Mum, if there were medals for mothers, mum you would be Number One.”
written by Ivy Fitzsimmonds, edited by Sandra Birch.. Photographs courtesy of Ivy Fitzsimmonds