LILLIAN GLADYS CANT
Proverbs‘ Valiant Woman
“Who shall find a valiant woman?
Far and from the uttermost coasts is the price of her.”
(Proverbs 31:10 – Douay)
The first born child of William Cant and Anne Wessler was Lillian Gladys. Her birth and death certificates give her name as Lillian Gladys, but she called herself Gladys and came to be called Gladys. She was born 9 December 1889 at Lithgow Street, Goulburn,’ her parents having been married but two days earlier.
Her first four or five years were spent in Goulburn, Stella being born in Mundy Street, Goulburn in 1893, but there must have been a move to Morundah near Narrandera, for that i s where Anne Cant died in October 1895, leaving a husband of twenty eight with three children of six, three and two years of age. It is easy to understand why William Cant remarried the following June: a wife to his bed and a mother to his children, he being on the move from place to place with his railway work.
William Cant met Sarah Grieves in Jerilderie, but their wedding took place in Goulburn. The children may well have been at Goulburn, perhaps with William’s parents. The next we know of the family is that they are in Cootamundra where William junior was born in 1897. There seems to have been a more permanent move back to Jerilderie for some years: Clarence was born there in 1901 and Mildred (Molly) in 1904. Sarah Grieves was not one for continuous pregnancy. It was at Jerilderie that Francis made his first Communion in 1905 and was confirmed in 1906. At this time Gladys was almost seventeen and close to leaving home.
Gladys seems never to have got over the early death of her mother: she spoke of her with affection and sadness, though she could have remembered little of her, being only six when her mother died. Her memories were no doubt heightened by her lack of fondness for her step-mother. It was only a few years before her own death that she told us her mother had been adopted. My mother and I were simply stunned, because this news had been untold for so long – like the existence of her youngest step-sister, Molly. At the same time Gladys gave me a photo of her mother, a fine looking woman, if a little severe, with drawn-back hair and penetrating eyes. For me, the mystery of her background is strengthened by the distinctly aboriginal cast of the face. I still recall Doug’s reaction to seeing the photograph (as if for the first time) the day of Galdys’s funeral: “Ah,” he said, “a touch of the tar-brush there!”
In some ways Gladys became mother to the family, more so in later days when so many people looked to her for support and attention. Perhaps she was compensating for the difficult times she had with her step-mother. What those difficult times consisted in is not clear, but she left a strong impression that she did not get on well with Sarah Grieves, who, she thought, treated her with less justice than a step-daughter deserved. The story of the late music examination fee symbolises all that was ill in those far-off days of Gladys’s youth.
Nevertheless Gladys must have had a sound education: she was a beautiful writer and had a head full of all those sorts of things that primary education used to insist on. Besides,she was obviously well enough qualified to become a tutor to several private families. It seems that she taught the children of several families for some months when application was made for her to become the teacher of a subsidised school in South Yalgogrin. The relevant Act stated that “In very thinly populated localities where a private teacher is engaged by two or more families in combination, such teacher, if approved by the Minister, may be paid subsidy at a rate not exceeding Five Pounds per pupil per annum on the average monthly attendance….” etc., etc.
In a letter of 4 August 1908 signed by P. Board, Under Secretary of the Department of Public Instruction, addressed to Mr. V. Norris, c/- E. Pope, Esquire, South Yalgogrin Narrandera, we read:
Sir, Referring to the application dated 20th ultimo endorsed by you and Mrs. B. Goodwin, from Miss Gladys Cant, for the position of Teacher of the Subsidised School at South Yalgogrin, I am directed to inform you that the Minister of Public Instruction has approved of Miss Cant being recognised by this Department as Teacher of the above school.
Payment of subsidy to Miss Cant will take effect from the date of her entry on duty, provided that she then taught the children of the two families. Copies of the regulations . . . are forwarded . . .
From an extant account, she received for the period of 23 June to 31 July 1908, for teaching an average of ten pupils per day, the splendid sum of Five Pounds, four shillings. She was to teach there for eighteen months, till December 1909.
Her elegant Composition Book is inscribed with several places and dates: “Rosemead, Easter 1908”, and “Melrose Valley via Condobolin [written back to front] “15 April 1909”. Her composition book probably served as a lesson notes to be copied onto the blackboard or dictated. The writing of the eighteen year old girl is firm, mature, impressive – so indicative of her character – and of a style that did not change even till the last time she signed her name.
“Salt”, she writes, “is a mineral. There are three kinds of salt . . ” “Water is a liquid because it takes the shape of the vessel that holds it . . .” Clouds: “It is pleasant to watch the clouds and observe their different shapes and colours”. Flax, sugar, air, are all written up for the children to learn. There are poems and proverbs too: “A bad workman quarrels with his tools”, and “To labour is to pray”. These simple lessons were taken to heart – she was a woman who practised what she preached. There are CXIV pages of notes and poems, the last one being dated 17 December 1909. She was married 16 February 1910, and the next few pages of the book are used to write recipes for soap, yeast, ginger cordial, hop beer, linoleum cream and furniture polish. This is the “valiant woman” of the “Book of Proverbs”.
In 1908 the family was living at Yass Junction and remained there till 1914 when they moved to Granville. Gladys had left home to make her own life and marriage, but in some ways she never left because she always kept contact through letters and visits and retelling of stories: the Cant family was our family in a very real way. Everybody returned. Doug even bicycled from Darlinghurst to Granville to visit the famiily at Granville.
Many of the postcards are still in existence: Stella left behind a whole album full which I found at her daughter Jacqueline’s Glenview Street house. They are an invaluable insight into these few years of Gladys’s life. There were nineteen written by Gladys between 23 July 1908 and 18 March 1920, fifteen to Stella, the others to Will, “Mater” and her father. They reveal something of the woman behind them, but also indicate how much she hid: talk about the weather and things she did, but most of all requests for letters in return – she was quite bossy in her requests, yearning, it seems, for family contact.
The first four postcards from Gladys to Stella are addressed “c/- E. Pope Esquire”: Gladys was living with the Pope family at South Yalgogrin. “It is raining”, she writes, 23 July 1908, “but the grass is only fair”. She did not get “either” of Stella’s postcards till the previous Monday, and “don’t forget to answer by return of post. Love to all at home”. The postcard features a pretty ribbon arrangement of the name Kitty – Kathleen was Stella’s first name.
“Dear Mater” is the recipient of the second card, 20 October 1908. It is “just a line or two in haste hoping to find you all well as this leaves me at present”. No time to write, shall do so, all is well, enjoy your holidays. “I remain Yours in haste, Gladys”, and a coloured view of the Ocean Beach, Manly. Keeping in touch, dutifully! Mater is a very formal address to her step-mother (and a word that I would not have expected Gladys to use, it being so “English”) but it may have been a family usage: her aunt, Mary Hunter, her father’s sister, uses it in her correspondence.
Stella’s card arrives and is welcome, 3 November 1908, but “I notice you don’t forget to keep me waiting long enough for an answer. Mind I want an answer in a week”. Seven weeks to Xmas, lovely weather, would like to be back at Yass. The postcard shows the facade of Sydney University, and a note is added: “. . . this is the best I have so you will have to do with it”. A touch curt.
There is a lengthy card on 15 December 1908. She will not be home on Saturday, “tell the Mater” in that expression so uncharacteristic of Gladys, but then it keeps a suitable distance from Sarah Cant. She is to close the school on Wednesday, go to Kildary till Saturday and return home on Monday. The weather is very hot. “I shot an iguana on Sunday and wounded a crow” – it is hard to imagine her with a rifle in her hands, let alone killing anything. This is the third or fourth postcard she has sent and “got no answer, but wait till I come home, you will pay the penalty. And p.s.: W.F. wrote to me last Sunday. Is D.R. still at Yass”.
In the new year she moved to West Wyalong, c/- Mrs. J. King, Stony Flat. It is not so close to the South Yalgogrin Subsidised School. She arrives safely and “met two or three I knew, they were very glad to see me back”. There is news of Mr. & Mrs. Goodwin whom she had stayed with in Kildary, of Mrs. Hartigan and Lillie O’Connell. She saw Mother Philomena who “wishes to be remembered to you”, and “says you ought to go back to school”. Mother Philomena must have taught the Cant girls in Goulburn and kept that typical interest in them that Sisters do. An urgent message: “Write very soon please”.
The twenty year old girl is lonely and as anxious for news as she is full of it: Fred and Mona, her aunt Mary’s children, have the fever badly, she writes 23 February 1909. She has had a letter from Aunt Mary (Mrs John Hunter, her father’s younger sister). She has not had one from Stella and “though you say you sent one I can safely say that I did not receive it. I was vexed to think you did not have the good manners to answer my p. card, but if you sent one, it must have gone astray. I suppose I will forgive you this time”. She won’t be home for Easter. There has been lovely rain.
This postcard could not have had another word written on it; it is packed with news and concludes: “Son Hall sent me his photo, so did Jack”. Son Hall was a cousin: Aunt Sarah Cant married James Hall. Love is in the air: Jack was undoubtedly the man she was to marry twelve months later, John James Whittaker; and at this time Stella was probably seeing Charles Murray, for her son Jack Cant was to be born the next December.
The next couple of letters become a little more agitated in tone. She writes, 27 March 1909: “Are you going to the Yass show? Have you any exhibits. I did not like the p.card you sent. Why did the boys not have the good manners to answer theirs. I am going to a coffee supper on 5th April, if I am alive and well . . . Excuse scribble as I am very tired and in a hurry”. And in the p.s.: “What was the dance like. I hope you did not go to it. I am not going down at Easter, it is too far. Write soon and tell the boys to do so, too, please”.
The wider family is obviously important to her: Maud and Ciss, who were Uncle Martin’s daughters; Aunt Mary’s Fred and Mona, this one, that one.
In June 1909 Gladys is writing c/- Mrs. J. Whittaker, Melrose Valley via Condobolin. This lady is soon to become her mother-in-law. She is enjoying “the best of health”, she writes 22 June. “This is one of the Condobolin photos. What do you think of it? The winter so far has been beautifully mild. Has the excitement about the Federal City died out in Yass? I am glad the Mater has taken a holiday. Which of the Cants do you have visiting you? I have no news to tell you as you are not interested in anyone or anything about here”. A little brusque – what has happened? Even her new-found love – for by this stage she must be getting serious about John James – does not ease the trouble. She concludes: “Give my love to all”, adds “yourself included” and finished coolly “Yrs. respect. Gladys”.
Her card of 28 September seems a mixture of excitement at her own situation and chagrin at Stella’s taciturnity. Stella’s card was very welcome and very pretty and “you will think I am a very long time answering it. I have not had much time”. Mrs Whittaker had been away in Parkes for eleven weeks with a bad leg. Gladys was in town at show time, and had been to the Vermont Hill Hospital picnic. There was a ball that night, “but I did not stay for it. Dancing is not in my line these days”. Has Stella been to any amusements lately: “When you write to me you tell me nothing I ask you. Why don’t you answer any question I ask you? One would think I did not know anyone about there. This is all the news this time, so don’t forget to write soon and let me know all. I remain Yours truly Gladys”.
By the end of October Gladys is probably pregnant with her daughter to be born in July 1910, so the cards over the previous month or two may reflect something of the tensions in her life at that stage
Gladys sent cards to young Will also, and several have survived. An unaddressed card dated 8 November 1909 reads: “Dear Will, [now aged twelve and a half] Just a few lines in the hope of finding you in the best of health. How are you getting on at school? I will send you a real nice p.card next time. This is the only blank one I have. Write soon. Love from Gladys. Tell Molly and Clarrie to write to me”. Clarrie and Molly were every bit of eight and five years old! Gladys had written twelve months previously, December 1908, “How is your arm?” she asks. “I should not send you a p.c. you did not answer the last one I sent you. Are you having a concert at Christmas. If so are you in it?” The December date is conjecture based on evidence from the following letters of Mary Hunter to Stella. None of them are dated, but the reference to Mona and Fred’s illness also referred to in a dated letter of Gladys, gives us the clue; and other evidence suggests the dates December 1908 to February 1909.
Aunt Mary seems a lovely lady – all care and a touch of fluster; not quite refined but very good natured. It is said that when she did not have enough washing to make a good impression, she would add sheets and pillows cases from the cupboard to make up a line full. When she refers to William and Sarah Cant in her letters to Stella she calls them “Pater” and “Mater” – not an Australianism, so it was probably picked up from her English father, Francis. There are five postcards to Stella in this period and they are very homely: ‘Miss Stella Cant, c/- Mr. William Cant, Ganger, Yass Junction. Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year with best love from all to all. M. Hunter” for Christmas 1908.
And within a few weeks, probably after Christmas: a Happy New Year and we will be pleased to see Gladys at any time. Did not know anything about William breaking his arm”. Before the end of January she writes: “I hope all the people got home alright and enjoyed themselves at Cooma and Sydney. I suppose Gladys will soon be leaving again for school.”
By mid-February two of her children, Mona and Fred, have the fever, she “a hundred and two yesterday and Fred was 107 on Monday. Give our best love to your Mater and Pater and all the family. I had one letter from Gladys since she went back.” In early March Mona and Fred are improving, “The Dr. said they are going as the general run of fever cases. Mona and Fred has [sic] had their hair cut off. We are very sorry to see [it] coming off . . . How is Willie’s arm getting on?” Her husband, Jack, visits Sarah and William Cant in Yass at this time. Mary writes: “Tell your mother I cannot thank her enough for her kindness to Jack. Well the children are just as well as can be expected. It is such a lingering illness. They only take boiling water and milk and talk about been [sic] thin. They are something terrible. If you are writing to Uncle Martin tell him about them but don’t say I told you.” Very curious!
The last we hear of Will’s arm is in a letter from Stella dated Yass Junction, 21 — 1909, obviously January or February. “Mrs J.Hunter, Reynold Street, North Goulburn, NSW s.a.g. Dear Aunty Mary, I sent you a P.C. last Tuesday and have not yet received an answer, but I think it must have gone astray because I only addressed it to Goulburn. The doctor said he cannot do Willie’s arm any good now. Write soon and let me know how Mona and Fred [are]. Love from Stella. (s.a.g was a pious Catholic custom – Saint Anthony guide – just in case the Post-Master General failed in his duty.)
The last of Mary Hunter’s letters that we have could have been written at any time: “Dear Brother and Sister”, she writes to William and Sarah Cant, “Uncle Abraham’s Sarah has been down here for a holiday and is going home on the mail train Wednesday morning. I thought you would like to see her, she would like to see you both . . .” Abraham Cant, who married Catherine Martineau, had thirteen children; the lived originally at Dingo Creek and later moved to Carcoar.
We next hear from Gladys in Sydney: there are two postcards dated 4 January 1910, one to Stella and one to her father. Things have moved quickly. There is no indication in the letters of any excitement or special news; she is simply in Sydney, on holiday, seeing the sights, with Mrs Whittaker (a lady of fifty) – and, if we read between the lines, a friend. The friend must be her soon-to-be husband, the handsome John James Whittaker.
She says to Stella: “I am having a bit of a holiday. Will be home next week. Might bring a friend with me.” And to her father she writes, c/- Mrs C.W.Brown, “Kerribree”, Hereford St Glebe Point: “You will be surprised to hear of me being in Sydney. I came down with Mrs Whittaker. She is going home early next week, so I will go home then. Will you be willing for me to bring a friend home with me . . . They will only stay a few days”. Convenient and ambiguous “they”!
“They” had come down from Condobolin on Sunday morning. They went to St. Andrew’s on Sunday night – the Anglican Cathedral where John James’s father had been christened in December 1848. On the Monday night they went “down to the Quay and out to Callan Park”. The Callan Park visit was not out of mere sight-seeing curiosity: they visited Mr John Whittaker there, for that is where he died in July of that year.
They went to “the moving pictures” and were to go to Manly that day, “not coming home till the last boat”. On Saturday they were to go up to the Hawkesbury Bridge. “So you can see”, she concludes, “we are having a good time”. It was probably the best holiday Gladys ever had. The friendship with John James included more than sight-seeing: Gladys at this stage was more than two months pregnant (unless Honor was born prematurely). No doubt it was at this time that John James bought her the exquisite engagement ring: three sapphires and two diamonds set into a plain arched band of gold incised with several simple scrolls. It is utterly simple. I wear the ring now, and it will be passed down eventually.
Gladys and John James Whittaker were married 16th February 1910 at St. Augustine’s Church, Yass, her family’s homeplace: he was thirty one and a handsome man, she was twenty and winsome. The wedding must have been a family affair because William Cant had given his consent, Stella was a witness if not a bridesmaid, and the wedding photo is a work of art. A hand painted photograph cut out and pasted between sheets of glass, with a painted background to give a three dimensional effect – all in an oval frame. The wedding dress was elegant, high-necked and embroidered, and John looked splendid in a dark suit and patterned waistcoat: it was no slap-dash affair.
All of that makes it very hard to understand Gladys’s next letter to Stella. Dated 26th April 1910, it begins: “You know my address . . . I have not been too well lately. Jack is having fairly good health”. She goes on to say: “I wrote to Mrs. Lang and sent a letter for you in with hers. If I write your letter to Yass Post Office, would you be able to get them. Let me know as I want to send the photos to you if I can. If you can’t get them from Yass let me know and I will send them c/- Mrs. Lang. Jack is going to write soon”. She concludes: “Hope this has more luck than the others”.
There was no address, to or from, on the card. The most intriguing thing is that the writing is back to front: hold it up to a mirror and the writing is perfectly legible. It was an art Gladys had cultivated: there is a small example of it in the Composition Book. But why all this secrecy? Gladys’s marriage was not a complete surprise to the family; there was a month’s warning; the events surrounding the wedding seem normal enough. Did the early pregnancy worry them? It may have been an embarrassment before the straight-laced Sarah Cant, though William Cant and Anne Wessler’s marriage was just in the nick of time: two days between their marriage and Gladys’s birth. Maybe Stella was out of favour over the birth of Jack Cant out of wedlock; but yet she was a witness to Gladys’s wedding. Whatever the cause, the back to front writing is fascinating – and very skilful.
And the cause may well have been both those matters: Jacqueline was to tell me 11 November 1986, after this story had been originally written, printed and distributed, that her mother, Stella, was indeed out of favour: she had to seek refuge in the later stages of her pregnancy or perhaps after Jack Cant’s birth, 16 December, 1909, at the Salvation Army Home at Marrickville. Sarah Cant must have been mortified at the untoward pregnancies of her two step-daughters. One can only imagine the to-do, especially if her husband himself had married a part-Aboriginal girl and took her to the altar a mere two days before she gave birth to their child! But then it is all too easy to paint Sarah in a poor light, for she cannot speak for herself; and it is to her eternal credit that she was prepared to rear the children in the faith of their father.
Gladys’s postcard of 21 June 1910 is the last one for six years, and things seem to have returned to normal. Stella is again at Yass Junction, “Jack and I are in good health at the moment” (though she is a month away from her confinement). The weather is beautiful; Yass is very cold – though the winter has not been a cold one; any news of the Cants in Cooma? Condobolin show will be held in August this year. “Jack is going to write every day, but he keeps putting it off” – and Gladys is getting to know the man she married!
Gladys and Jack’s two children were born fairly close together: Honor Delores Frances was born at Condobolin 16 July 1910, and Douglas John 8 March 1912. Life must have been hard for Gladys, but she was tough and certainly not afraid of hard work. I suspect that she had to work to make ends meet: John James had no trade or profession, having worked with teams of horses at an early age and being involved with timber getting. In one of her letters she refers to him “ploughing his crop” (26 April 1910) and on Honor’s birth certificate he is described as a carrier. I know from Doug that at some time the family was living in a tent in the bush and their was trouble with biting camels and mischievous horses. Doug says he was born in Cowra “at the foot of Billygoat Hill”, (which I discovered to be where the hospital is!). But whatever the sequence of events, the family were back in Condobolin in 1916.
Her letter of llth November 1916 is written from Orange Lane, Condobolin. Its glancing reference to World War One is touching, and the letter also shows her devotion to Stella:
I am writing once more to let you know I got the parcel safely yesterday evening. What a long time it took to come. I will try to have your skirt done and sent back by Tuesday. I was surprised when I saw the length of the tear. I imagined it to be something like the others but I will fix it up for you. Send along anything you want done. I will gladly do it for you. I must thank you for the nighty [sic] and the camisole. They are very nice and won’t take me very long to work them. I must try to have them done before Xmas if possible. The fur is very nice now and so are the photos. They are very like you. Mrs Mc says the one of the bust is just what you looked like the day you were
dancing around with “Bimbi”. [This is probably a nickname for John Sivyer whom Stella was to marry in 1919 – he was born in Bimbi.] I have a terribly bad headache today. I can scarcely see to write. Did you get two letters this week? I sent a short one on Tuesday and a long one on Thursday. I have to scrub the kitchen and back verandah now, then go to the train with this. I have to go to my lesson at 2.30 today. I went yesterday but they were entertaining someone at afternoon tea. Twenty boys are going away today. I will be able to see them off, won’t I. No more. Love from Gladys.
What lesson was it? Whose place was she scrubbing? Did she know any of those boys, who were going off to the War? Where are Jack and the children? And how anxious she is to do that sewing for Stella. Gladys’s needle work was beautiful and she tried to pass on her skills.
Another undated letter to Stella from Condobolin refers to the dust storms every day. She asks after Jack – either Jack Sivyer whom Stella was to marry in 1919, or young Jack Cant. Gladys feels the heat – “it was frightfully hot . . I thought I would peg out [now, that is a Gladys phrase!] “. She keeps working for her sister: “. . . . I sent you your coat today,” she writes in another card. “I could not do it any better because there was not enough material. I think that had Mrs. Smith [the former Mrs. Whittaker, who married William Smith in 1919] not joined the pieces I could not possibly have got it at all”. It is addressed, as is the last card, “My darling sister”.
The last card we have from Gladys to Stella is dated 18 March 1920 and was sent from Condobolin. It tells us a number of interesting things. “My darling sister,” it begins,
Just a few lines to let you know that I am still alive and doing well. I get very good health now. I only hope it lasts. I have no intention of going under the operation just yet. When I tell you I have my boarders back you will know how I am. They were very pleased to be able to return. They did not care about McInnes. Jack is on Wright Heaton’s lorry this week. Mr. Byron is very ill. They are going to take him to Sydney. I suppose you have quite settled down in your new home. I guess Jack had everything in apple pie order and was pleased to get you home. Did you go out to Granville when you were in Sydney? We have had some awful dust storms. How do you feel after your holiday? I suppose you miss being at Katoomba. Fancy Jack (“The Greek”) being down here. Peter is trying to sell out. Well dear I must close. Long letter next time. Love to you and Jack from Gladys.
She ran a boarding house called Myra cottage – in Denison Street, I think – in Condobolin for some years, and it was to become a bone of contention: John James was inclined to jealousy. Stella was now married to Jack Sivyer, reputedly a fastidious man who was bound to have everything “in apple pie order”. The holiday at Katoomba is beautifully captured in a photo of Stella and some friends below a waterfall. The reference to “Jack ‘The Greek’ ” is intriguing, but obscure, and uncharacteristic of Gladys.
The Cant family had moved to Sydney by 1914 to provide opportunities for the younger children. The next Easter Gladys’s favourite brother, Frank, died; but there are no extant letters with any reference to the death. I wonder whether she travelled to Sydney for the funeral.
The last card in this fascinating pack is as unexpected as it is vague: unsigned, even the addressee’s name is incomplete – “Mrs. J. J. Whitta–” – and a scrap of verse which speaks for itself:
Though far away Dearest I’ll never forget
The love I have borne since the moment we meet
Though smiling I mingle
In throngs of the gay
And I silently pray that a blessing may rest
Everything points to John James, and my sister says the writing is his.
On that happy note we leave Condobolin. It was 1926. Gladys had been running a boarding house for eight or nine years. The children were growing up. Gladys was thirty seven, Jack forty six, and he looks every bit of it from a photograph taken about that time of a group of boarders on the front steps of Myra Cottage: he is there with Gladys and Honor. The youthful good looks have faded; the prospects of employment for the children were unpromising; Jack was jealous of Gladys with the boarders, and he was probably not all that close to the family, the romance of 1909 having long since passed. Gladys was the centre that held the family together and she decided it was time to move to Sydney.
The decision having being made and everything packed, Jack could not make up his mind. Gladys and the children went; Jack and most, but not all, of the goods followed. How much of what was valued and treasured has been lost in the many moves that the family has made. in more recent years it was to be expensive cut glass and a bedroom suites hand made and French polished by Malcolm George and friends, Japanese dolls and a Japanese ceremonial sword, among many other valuables.
The Sydney sojourn begins at 28 Gosbell Street, Paddington: J. Whittaker is listed at that address in the 1927 Sands Directory. Honor goes to Business College and Douglas to the Christian Brothers’ School next to Sacred Heart Church, Darlinghurst, and their story is told in its place. Gladys must have taken on many jobs, mainly cleaning, but I am unaware of the nature of them during the 1930s. Soon after Jack arrived he became involved in a garage business in Boundary Street, Paddington, between Campbell and Coombe Streets. It was not a success by all accounts, and was eventually to be burnt out. He was to take up work with a vacuum cleaner in time and saw out his working days in the homes of various folk around Paddington, setting off in the mornings with his cleaner strapped to his back. But this is Gladys’s chapter.
In 1933 or thereabouts the family moved to 43 Boundary Street and it is here that we take up the thread of Gladys’s life, after her children have married, in the 1940s. Gladys was a good business woman and invested in properties. She owned the Boundary Street house and she had properties at Manly Vale and in the Blue Mountains. She made no money, to speak of, from them. She was a hard working woman for whom hard work was second nature. When I became aware of her in the 1940s as a youngster I was awed by the amount of work she did.
She began working at Bathurst House in Castlereagh Street, next to the Fire Station, in 1929, according to a reference dated 15 June 1933, from Ernest Steele, the long-time caretaker and friend. He says that “Mrs. Whittaker has employed by me at the [Bathurst House] address for the last four years”. She is “straightforward, honest and a very good worker . . . who holds the respect of myself and every tenant in the building”.
Gladys must have been applying for some new job, maybe at the A.N.Z., for there are several references written in the month of June 1933 from, besides Ernest Steele, F.W. Marlin of the Condobolin Steam Saw and Planing Mills (he gives her address as 43 Boundary Street), Thos. B.Watson, Universal Providers, Condobolin, from B.J. Dunphy the Shire Clerk of the Lachlan Shire Council, and from Hon. H. C. Moulder M.L.C. They all attest to her good character, “very honest and trustworthy, a fine citizen of Condobolin whom we could ill afford to lose (and her family were like her goodself), a woman of splendid character, a good Mother bringing up her two children in the manner that reflects the greatest credit on her, respected citizen of the town, capable, energetic, highly recommended”. They certainly reflected the woman we came to love as our grandmother.
She was up at four or five o’clock in the morning and would go to the city, often enough on foot, and work at cleaning during the day. She would clean and polish the A.N.Z. Bank in Bathurst Street, between Castlereagh and Pitt Streets (since moved to the north-western corner of Castlereagh and Bathurst Streets) and be finished before the bank opened.
Then it was to Bathurst House, where she cleaned a number of showrooms in that building. She worked for such names as Pankhurst who sold buttons, for Paynes who sold glassware and crockery – she found her niece Yvonne her first job there – and McGillvrays who sold Rondon shoes, and whose son Allan became the well known cricket commentator. Those floors and corridors were spotless and she did them by hand: she could never manage the electric polisher which got away on her, so she went up and down with a padded broom weighted with lead. The employers treated her with respect and affection and a touch of reverence.
On a number of days a week when she had finished at Bathurst House it was off to the Pickwick Club in Pitt Street near Hunter Street where she was employed to make hors d’oeuvres – savouries we used to call them. None of your Jatz crackers and French Onion dip: this woman started from scratch. Fancy shapes of bread cut out by hand, deep fried and drained, special toppings made – cream cheese (at home it was made several days before a big function and hung up in muslin to drip, out in the lean-to which was the laundry), gherkins, anchovies, coloured pickled onions, sliced and curried boiled egg, and the inevitable paprika. She worked for hours on these concoctions. And there must have been cleaning involved because she sometimes arrived home at midnight, having to face another rising at four. On a bad night she would also be faced at that late hour with Jack, “dying” yet again, who had to be taken to Dr Waddy in Darlinghurst Road or to St. Vincent’s Hospital. Jack was always dying.
Her hours seemed long, and while there is always danger of romanticising those we admire, she certainly did rise at that early hour, and on many nights, though not all, she arrived home very late. This went on during the ‘Forties and ‘Fifties and into the early ‘Sixties. Even when the family moved to Elanora Heights in 1957 she walked the three miles from home to Narrabeen to catch the six o’clock bus into the city to continue her cleaning jobs.
She retired from the A.N.Z. Bank early in 1960. A letter from the manager, 16 March 1960, says “we will all miss your cheerful good morning as we come to the day’s toil. I would like you to know how I personally appreciate the way you looked after and kept the premises and especially the way you always had my room spick and span and ready for me. The Chief Manager also desires me to convey to you the Bank’s appreciation for your long and faithful service”. She received £141/10/11 for Long Service Leave and pay in lieu of holiday leave: the 11 pence mattered in those days.
A hiatus hernia and prolapsed uterus put her in Royal North Shore Hospital and an end to her working days. She was over seventy when she finally retired: it would have been a brave employer, a foolhardy union or a stubborn government who told her that women retired at sixty.
In 1964 she had an operation on her eye to repair a detached retina. It was unsuccessful. She sent a Ten Pound donation to the Convalescent Hospital at Concord, and the Matron replied: “We were as disappointed as you were that the operation was not a success. You certainly did your part, you were such a good patient”.
The woman was meticulous in her duties and we were taught in the same way. Corners were for cleaning in, starch was for being made by hand and having a beeswax candle to stir it – that gave a shine to the finish and I can still see the candle that was always used, tapering down to a slim end where it had been melted away. Sponge cakes were made with perfectly creamed butter and sugar – how we hated that, and no Mix-Masters allowed. I once tramped Taylor Square and Kings Cross for pimento only to be sent back a third time because she had meant paprika all the time. You didn’t dare complain that it was her mistake – she didn’t make mistakes! I carried trays of savouries – now you know how they were made, every one with attention to detail and with threats – up Liverpool Street to the Marist Brothers’ High School on Darlinghurst Hill, with her imprecations ringing in my ears: “You drop one and I’ll skin you alive”. I was eleven and much as I loved her, I believed her. I once hid in the toilet from her and was so afraid she would bash the door in that I meekly gave myself up. This same fearsome woman also bought me a picture of the Sacred Heart, an oil lamp and a supply of mineral oil to burn before it, much to my father’s amazement and the accompaniment of smoking wicks. She may have seen something in me at that time that I did not realise.
She was the valiant Woman of Proverbs: she sought out linens and worked them, she made waistcoats and doll’s bedspreads; she brought food from afar and cooked it magnificently; she rose in the night and attended the household – her husband, or on one occasion rushing me to St. Vincent’s when I’d cut my finger badly while preparing supper for the Misses McNulty. She laid her hand to the spindle and the distaff, and sometimes to our bottoms; all her household was well clothed in good garments; her husband was known in the gates when he sat with the elders of the land, and she did not quite approve.
Strength and honour were her clothing, she opened her mouth with wisdom and on her tongue was the law of kindness. Her employers and those who knew her as a friend had tremendous respect for her, because she was an honest woman for whom the job was a sacred task. Socially speaking we were ordinary middle class in those days, but Gladys could hold up her head in any company. On one occasion she held a party at Boundary Street for the Pankhursts who were wealthy enough to have an apartment at Gowry Gate in Macleay Street, Potts Point. It was a pre-Christmas function and Gladys prepared everythig for it, with our help, of course, though we children were not permitted at the table. I remember bringing in the champagne in an old aluminium bucket – they had the grace to laugh and I got away with it, even after the guests had departed..
Her brothers and sisters and nieces seemed to look to her, for support: she seemed to be the centre of the family. She could wring out sheets for Jacqueline if her wrists were too weak to manage, she would encourage Clarry to have a twenty-first birthday for his daughter; she would make cups of tea for Jack Cant when he arrived somewhat the worse for drink. Her own daughter felt she took second place to these people when their needs seemed greater. That was Gladys – if other needed it, she gave, and we gave too, not because she did not care for us, but because that was simply the right thing to do. Of course this left a number of people feeling neglected or overlooked, but in the long run we were better people for it.
We missed out on nothing. When I went to Bowral and Mittagong with the Marist Brothers, the family, having been to early Mass at Sacred Heart, would arrive six or seven times a year by train or bus, laden with food and cakes and gifts, and spend the day with this youngster who wanted to be a Brother. Gladys was always there with the support of her love and prayer and cooking.
She was a holy woman, not in any showy way but with a quiet, humble, almost puritanical, piety. She was a devoted Catholic and brought up her children to be the same, while her husband could not be said to be a religious man. Sunday Mass was a happy obligation which she would neglect at the peril of her soul, yet she never went to Holy Communion – some Jansenistic streak in her which would not allow her to approach the Blessed Sacrament until very late in her life. She was always devoted to the novena to our Lady on Saturday nights: we all went, whether we liked it or not, though sometimes our father would put his foot down and say we weren”t to go – but he would soften and we would rush out, probably just for relief from the tension in the house.
In the early ‘fifties, Gladys and Honor bought two pieces of land at Elanora Heights. We had been living in 41 and 43 Boundary Street, Gladys having moved into 43 when our family moved back into 41 in 1946: there was news that a freeway would go through the property so we sold and moved to Elanora Heights. The Kings, the Golds and the Restuccias stayed, even till quite recently; the houses are still there, the freeway yet to come.
The new house at 33 Coolena Road was one I never liked: single storey, stained weather-board, and open spaces inside. I felt ill-at-ease in it. I was there only during occasional holidays, but the family was there from 1957 to 1967. Gladys, again, held the family together: our father never moved, and died three years later in Darlinghurst; Jack Whittaker pottered around, gave up his pipe and tried all manner of things to ward off the intruding breezes till he died in 1964; Paul moved away to sea; Adele went to Adelaide to study midwifery in January 1965, Honor was ever faithful and in the background: who knows how important her support was to Gladys’s centrality.
In 1967, after managing for a few years on their own, Gladys and Honor called it quits at Elanora and bought a unit in Neutral Bay: Unit 8, Gladstone Court, 10 Lindsay Street. it was one of the nicer kind of units put up in an age of much rubbish.
At Easter in 1972 Gladys, Honor and I took a nostalgic trip to Condobolin. We stayed in a motel, walked the town, visited Aunty Mag, the pisé house (occupied by Bill Oppy, son of Jack Whittaker’s sister Doll) and the cemetery, as well as spending time with Ted and Doll Oppy. It was wonderful time for us.
In 1974 Gladys began to deteriorate. She had been a strong woman and a powerful personality, and did not give way to the flesh. The flesh itself began to give way: she had always suffered from headaches; she had a hernia operation in 1963; in 1964 she lost the sight of one eye because of a detached retina.
In 1974 she broke her hip and that was the beginning of the end: some time later in the Mater Misericordiae Hospital at Crow’s Nest, the onset of senility; into a Nursing Home at Cremorne; then a few years in the Loreto Nursing Home at Strathfield. Honor visited her regularly and seemed to communicate with her; I could get no response. On Adele’s one visit from Perth, after an hour of conversational chatter she said “I”ve got four children. I’ve been a busy girl, haven’t I!” and Gladys responded “You certainly have”. That is the last thing I know she said.
They were fitting words for Gladys. She was not afraid of hard work – she enjoyed being busy and approved of others being busy: the notion of four children to be reared and educated and cultivated would have appealed to her. And she was always wonderful in support. It is no wonder that Adele’s statement elicited the approving words of this woman: “You certainly have”.
Gladys was a peacemaker and did much to heal the rifts in family relationships: she could keep in touch with Uncle Bill when his marriage may not have been popular; she could support and encourage Stella’s children, the outsider Jack and the fondly-regarded Jacqueline; she could push Clarry into doing something for Von; she made contact again with Molly after a rift of many years; and she wished at the last to be buried with her beloved Frank. Von and Jacqueline still glow when they talk of “Aunty Glad” – nobody else in the family elicits such a response.
So the valiant woman went peacefully after lunch one day, 20 July 1979, “in my ninetieth year” she would have said. She was buried from the Sacred Heart Church, Darlinghurst, where she had faithfully worshipped for so many years, her lamp finally gone out in the night. She had opened her mouth to wisdom; the law of clemency was on her tongue. She had looked well to the paths of her house and had not eaten her bread idle. Her children rose up and called her blessed and in his own way her husband probably priased her. Many women have gathered together riches, but she surpassed them all: may she have the fruit of her hands, and may her works praise her in the gates.