As part of 10 Stories from Bankstown, Bankstown City Council’s Community Harmony project, Sylwia interviews Elizabeth Collins*, a local resident. Of Irish ancestry, Elizabeth was born in north west Tasmania in 1921.
Tell me about your early family life.
My mother was 43 when I was born and I was her tenth child. She then had another child at 46. I had three brothers and seven sisters. My mother was soon left widowed with 11 children. There was no child endowment, no widow’s pension.
She brought us all up and educated us, she was a wonderful woman. She taught music, she had been a school teacher and she was a very good musician. She used to take the overflow of pupils from the convent. There was always some child in the house learning to play the piano. If it wasn’t one of her own, it was one of her pupils.
So how was it growing up in such a big family?
It was great, absolutely great. I was very devoted to my sisters. With seven sisters and three brothers we were never short of boyfriends, my brothers’ friends would come around all the time. We always washed our hair on Saturday afternoon and they would say, “Would you like to come to the pictures with me?” in a quite platonic way. When I say “boyfriends”, I don’t mean serious relationships … we had tons of friends.
My brothers played cricket. That’s how I used to get my pocket money, I used to get the grass stains off their cream flannels. When they’d have a big date, I used to manicure my brothers’ fingernails for them, for the princely sum of sixpence, which is now five cents.
I lost (two of) my (three) brothers in the war, one was killed, he was going up through Sicily and into the foot of Italy and he was injured with a trench mortar and flown to England and died in hospital. My other brother was a prisoner of war of the Japanese and died of tuberculosis when he came out of prison camp. My third brother was a political writer for the Sydney Morning Herald and he was also the Secretary of the Australian Journalists’ Association.
What other memories do you have of your childhood?
I had plaits until I was 18 and a cousin of mine went to the same school. I always remember learning spelling … we used to sing “Immediately” and then I’d flick my plait and the cousin sitting at the back of me had dipped it in the ink. Well, I’d go home with ink all over my blouse and get into terrible trouble from my mother.
Being in such a large family, even though it was very good, it must have been very hard for your mother having so many kids, losing her husband …
She was always a great lady, my mother, her father had been a surveyor, and her brother was a chemist. I think her father and brother helped her a bit. It wasn’t easy but we were all very happy because we had each other. We had a very loving mother.
I know a lot of people got married quite young back then. Were you young when you got married?
I was 24 when I got married, unfortunately I married a soldier who couldn’t face up to civilian life. I divorced him when I was 35 and I had three children. The reasons I divorced him were for habitual drunkenness with cruelty, but I brought my kids up … I didn’t apply for any alimony and I wouldn’t have got any anyway.
Because I divorced my husband, the Veteran Affairs Department didn’t want to help. I got no pension from Veteran Affairs. I didn’t get married again and he didn’t get married again. After about three years (of separation), he died of cirrhosis of the liver.
So how old were your children then?
They were quite young. My son was about 11, and my girls were nine and three.
So where did you live most of your life?
I was married in Melbourne, and then I lived in Canberra. My children were born in Canberra. When my husband died and I was divorced, I was working at the Australian National University and I decided to get my children out of Canberra because I thought it had an artificial atmosphere. I thought they had to know the real world so I came to Sydney. I tried to get a job at the Atomic Energy Commission at Coogee, but they didn’t employ women at the time. So, one Saturday morning I saw this ad in the paper for a purchasing officer at the University of New South Wales. So, I went in and I got the job and I was there for nearly six years.
When my children were growing up, I needed more money and I went to work at Macquarie University. I worked there for 22 years in the purchasing office. I was also the University’s representative for the Health and Research Employees’ Association. I was the mediator. That’s the Irish in me, trying to keep peace. So, I worked for three different universities over 37 years.
Have you travelled around much?
In 1994 I went to the United States. In 1981 I went on the Oriana, on the third last line voyage to England, and we went to America and down to Acapulco, then through the canal and up around the Bermuda Triangle, and up to Southampton. I also went to Scotland and Ireland on the same trip.
On the way home to Australia, I stopped off at Dubai in the Arab Emirates because it was a duty free port. We used to have ice-cream with just liqueurs on it, Creme de Menthe, or Tia Maria, and the ice-cream was just like hail stones out of the gutter, it was like grey ice. I said to a friend, “What’s this we’re eating?”, and he said “It’s called ice-cream in Dubai”. He said “It wouldn’t get by the health authorities in Australia, that’s why we douse it up with Creme de Menthe, and Tia Maria. Put on another dollop of Tia Maria and you won’t notice the colour”.
The big thing in Dubai then was taking cartons of wine into the desert for parties. We went out into the desert one night and had a party. It was great fun. Everybody came and we had Jatz crackers. When I flew out to Dubai I took great big wads of cheese with me from Scotland so we had the Scottish cheese and Jatz crackers and Coolabah wine, would you believe? I thought the wine cask was a wonderful invention. They used to dig a hole in the sand until it got cold and shoved the wine down in it. It was fun because there were so many people there. There were Germans, French and English. It was a very multicultural community.