I was a young adult when Charlotte, the youngest daughter of my great-grandmother Honora was elderly but full of life. She loved to tell stories. She knew that a young granddaughter would want to know what life was like when her grandmother was young. Charlotte was a lively conversationalist who loved life. I thought she was amazing.
I remember in particular her stories of bush dances where, in the 1890s, you would wear your most beautiful long frock, gather around local musicians in the local hall or barn, and dance the night away. I imagined the barn dance, the music, the clapping, the shared home-made suppers, the laughter.
My grandmother told me that after the last dance and the goodbyes she would walk home along the bush track carrying a lantern and protected by one of the young men who had been her dancing partner. Should they want to have a cuddle she would just put down her lantern in a safe place under her long skirt.
Somewhere in central Victoria, quite likely Yanadoit, Charlotte met John Healy. They married in 1900 and settled down in Avenel. John worked for the railways and was employed at Avenel Station as a shunter, so I was told.
Charlotte and John’s family grew rapidly, the first four children were born in Avenel. The next child, Joseph, was born in Brunswick. Joe, the new baby, had an elder sister Mary Winifred aged 6, and three brothers, Daniel John aged 5, George aged 3, and William Thomas just over 1 year old. Two more girls were born later, Lana and Monica.
John and Charlotte shared a sadness which they seem to have kept to themselves. It is about a lost child born before all the rest. I will write that story separately.
Soon after little Joe was born John was promoted to station master, in Whitfield where a narrow gauge rail line brought freight and passengers to Wangaratta. Charlotte told stories of ‘doing it tough’ in Whitfield, managing the growing family from a small house, boiling the water for washing clothes and kids in a kerosene tin in the backyard and saving calico flour bags to line the boys’ trousers. Charlotte was in her eighties when Joe took her back to see the Whitfield house which he knew was the stationmaster’s house. Charlotte protested, ‘This cannot be it. John would never have expected me to live in such a small house’. During these years Whitfield won the Victorian Station Garden prize.
Seven children and their parents lived in this small house. Joe grew up able to quote large pieces of Banjo Patterson, Henry Lawson and C.J. Denis. He quoted Shakespeare frequently and Browning too. The Mechanics Institute Movement for the education of the working classes began in Scotland in 1821 and spread like wildfire once the many benefits of ‘education for working men’ became clear. A Mechanics Institute was opened in Whitfield in 1902, though the population then was only 97 persons. It is probable that the Healy family thrived on the books that could be found there.
The end of the Great War was celebrated in Whitfield with a noisy procession down the main street. Joe joined the other kids pouring out of school for the celebration, banging and hitting anything that could make a noise. He was nine. His main secondary education was at South Melbourne Technical College and not so connected with Shakespeare et al.
Eventually John was promoted to Station Master Moonee Ponds. Charlotte took to city life with relish. When John retired there was enough money to buy a small house in Danks Street Albert Park, very close to the sea. Most mornings she would go for an early morning swim, I believe, and for her 80th birthday visited George who was now living in Brisbane. She learned to swim in the surf. She would go with her nieces to a matinee when there was a good show on in Melbourne. She must have known that her sister’s boy Stan was knighted by the King of England but I did not hear her talk about Sir. Stanley Savige. Her father-in-law Dan Healy was so angry with the British that in his later life he refused to speak the language, he went straight back to Irish. It is probable that Charlotte’s father George Walmsley never told his thirteenth child about his time as a convict in Van Diemen’s land.
This woman, my dear grandmother, lived a loving, creative, adventurous, dignified life to the full.