Tapestry series no. 74

Date contributed: 12 December 2000

Contributed by Ruth Archdall Kearney

Victoria’s Western Districts in the Australia of the mid 19th century was where golden wealth could be found. Drawn into this vortex were opportunists from the whole world: some transported earlier to serve their time, some adventurers, some free settlers disenchanted by the hard conditions, and some like my Grandfather, fired by the opportunity of spreading the gospel among this ‘heathen’ potpourri. A charming, loveable Irish Protestant, he had been accepted by the fundamentalist Melbourne Diocese, and married into the establishment, but was inspired to be where the action was. His first children, Archdall and Alice, had arrived in East Gippsland. These were followed by ten more children, whose birthplaces were in the golden western district – Daylesford, Ballarat, Castlemaine, Bendigo. My mother, Nona, was the ninth child in the family.

My Grandmother was not overwhelmed by primitive conditions or family responsibilities – but she was appalled by the cultural disadvantage of the women of the district. She responded by setting up a reading room at the Mechanics Institute to encourage these women to become informed and empowered. She was healthy and vigorous. She meant to use her time and energy as a partner in her husband’s mission. She trained her daughter, Hilda, by ensuring her education, to stand in her place in the care and education of the younger children.

My mother was named in this impersonal manner. Grandfather shouted to his brother as he left for overseas,

“The ninth has arrived, what will I call her?”

“The name must be Nona,” was the shouted reply.

Was she just a number? Nona always felt overlooked in the family. She didn’t go to school, she didn’t have friends outside the family. She often didn’t have shoes, and was clothed in ‘hand-me-downs’. She was called ‘agony’ within the family. I have often told this cautionary tale to teachers and parents. At mealtime in that family, Father was the head of the table and Mother was the foot; the children sat six on each side. Father passed his carvings of the lamb on each plate down to Mother who added vegetables and gravy, then the plate moved round to the child closest to Father. You had a long wait when you were hungry for the plate to rest in front of you, and no one began to eat before all had been served and Father had said grace to thank God for food. Everyone picked up their knives and forks, all but Nona. There was no plate in front of her, and no one noticed. I wonder who comforted her, and gave her something special to make up. With no school to go to, there was a ‘sunny’ side; the freedom and independence of country life in western Victoria built in self reliance and resilience.

The unmarried daughters, Ruth (21), Nona (19) and Doris (18), were called by their Father. He told them he would be unable to keep them any longer. He inferred that they had failed to take the expected path for girls. He made them an offer. “I will buy a dwelling in Castlemaine and you can manage a school for children of the graziers and wealthy traders. It will be called St. Catherine’s.”

As Doris was seen as the one most likely to marry, she was allowed to drop out. For ten years, Ruth and Nona conducted the school. They had no formal education – the only resource was themselves. Nona became a financially independent professional woman in 1910. However, a letter in the mail would mean a change of direction. It was a proposal of marriage from an eminently suitable source, and a second cousin. Sister Ruth broke down: “I always thought he loved me.”

No one knows what Nona thought. Did she consider giving up her independence? Was she pressured to take this new direction? She must have been secure enough to take on this wider role and find the satisfaction of success. She became the wife of a visionary rector of a mission church in Sydney. Her first years were given to supporting her husband’s expanding programs with the same enthusiasm that had made St Catherine’s a winner. Now she had two children and her husband’s elderly mother to care for as well.

There is a marked contrast between Nona in her wedding gown, and Nona with the Parish mothers four years later; some of the buoyancy had disappeared. Relocation took her to a middle class community. New opportunities opened for her talents with young people and parents. She was well informed and had advanced views on education and a firm belief in her own mission. She found expression in innovative development of a kindergarten and theatre group within the church. A world tour followed, a sea voyage in those days, just colonials going home.

Another upheaval to Bowral, an unusually class structured community, very like an English village of aristocracy and tenants. Refugees, mothers and young children came to Bowral following the fall of Singapore. Nona worked with those groups, taking four into her own home, and finding accommodation for others. She gave them comfort in their anguish, thinking of husbands in Changi jail. She enjoyed the stimulation from their experiences of the Asian life. The children of Bowral did not have access to children’s books. Nona worked with a group ‘Friends of the Children’s Library’ to set up and manage the children’s centre in the Glebe. Church young groups met every Sunday night in the Rectory where they enjoyed Nona’s sing songs, hot scones and drinks.

In widowhood she continued her involvement with children. Two mornings a week she invited local children to spend the morning with her – her only resource, herself and her piano. She modelled her life on Pilgrim’s Progress. She died with Pilgrim’s belief that “All the trumpets were sounding on the other side.”