Elsie Whitby reflects on her life.
Elsie Whitby reflects on her life. contributed

From secretary to shearer’s cook, a Bay woman remembers

ELSIE May Whitby was born on a cold spring day in September 1935 on the dining room table at home where my parents lived in Five Dock Sydney.

I had two brothers and  one sister; my brother Allan also being born on the dining room table.

I was only 2lb 1oz born so I was wrapped in cotton wool and pushed in a doll's pram as there were no incubators in those days.

I attended the school at the top of Bayview Rd where I lived in Five Dock for my primary years, then I attended Croydon Home Science High School and Leichardt Home Science High School where I got my Intermediate Certificate, which is equivalent to year nine now.

I commenced work at AWA soldering valves in the back of wirelesses but only stayed a week as I hated the work, then I joined up with Bullen's Circus in Hyde Park in Sydney to become an office clerk.

However I only saw the inside of the office to collect my wages each fortnight because they had me riding elephants, camels, horses, pulling the "big top" up and down, training monkeys and dogs and mending costumes.

I stayed with them for about 18 months and thoroughly enjoyed every minute even though the life was hard.

I got off at Brisbane and worked for a time at Penny's store in Queens St then I nursed for a while at Brisbane Hospital till they wheeled me out on the trolley.

I could not stand the operating theatre, so I quit, then I went back to Sydney and stayed at a girls hostel behind the Sydney Town Hall and started work as a nurse at Royal Ryde Homes but found the job very distressing as I took the patient's troubles on myself, so I gave up the thought of becoming a nurse as I wasn't apparently cut out for it.

I then started work at Paramount Pictures in the office as a clerk and studied shorthand and typing at the local Tech, and found the work very satisfying so decided to become a secretary as my career.

I met and married my first husband here and after we were married we went to Armidale to live as all his relatives came from there and I worked at the Tattersalls Hotel at night booking in patrons and through the day I worked at a solicitor's office which I loved to do.

I had two sons and one daughter in Armidale but my marriage fell apart and I came to Newcastle to live as I was under a specialist there.

I suffered a nervous breakdown as I felt a failure as a wife and mother, but with the help of my doctor I came to my old self again and got a job with a Real Estate Agent as a girl Friday.

I worked with them for many years but the business collapsed, but I stayed with them to the end, then I got a job back in a solicitor's office which I loved.

My boss was "one of nature's gentlemen" but he got kidney failure and died after I had been there for 11 years. I was heartbroken and the day of his funeral his wife took an overdose as she could not imagine living without him. It was a sad time for everyone.

I then met and married John Whitby, who was a local Karuah man and whom I had known as a friend for years.

After being a secretary for so long, it was a big change to become a shearer's cook, cooking for 33 shearers with 16 hour days non stop, not only during shearing time but crutching time as well.

During shearing time it was also my job to collect the lambs that got stranded from their mothers and raise them.

I had two lambs that became my pets named Charlie and Mary.

They are still alive today on my brother-in-law's property, getting old like me, but still as feisty as ever.

I used to feed them five times a day with a wine bottle full of powdered milk with a teat on it.

I remember having to go to the blood bank and I had to take them with me to Newcastle from Merriwa because there was no one else to feed them. When I got to Newcastle I leant over the front seat with a wine bottle full of milk in each hand feeding "my babies".

I became a centre of attraction in the hub of Newcastle and my lambs the centre of attention.

I did this until the suicide death of my husband in 1994 who suffered badly from PTSD.

When John got in "one of his moods" he would go up to the wood heap and chop wood.

When he died the wood heap was higher than the roof of the house.

I was lost when he died and came back home to Karuah to look after my parents until they died.

It was a dreadful time for me but one has to go on and I had to find where I fitted in somewhere.

I rang my brother Allan who lives in Hervey Bay and he came down and bought me back to his place.

When I got to Hervey Bay I found myself at peace with the sea, which I have a great passion for, my brother who I am very close to, and after a week I found myself a caravan and moved in there.

Then I had to find something to take my mind off my self-pity I was suffering from at the time.

First I went to the doctors and he found something wrong with me, so I was sent to Brisbane where they found I suffered from "Q" fever.

Because of this insidious disease I lost half my right kidney.

When I got back to Hervey Bay after about two weeks I had to find another doctor, because the doctor I was seeing was going blind, and he had retired.

I went to Dr Shaun Rudd who is a Friend of Legacy thereby starts my tale with Legacy.

He was telling me about Torchbearers for Legacy, and at that time they were looking for a secretary/treasurer so I went to their meeting, met and liked the ladies, so I became their secretary/treasurer, plus I also joined War Widows and became their secretary as well.

I had at last found out what God wanted me here for, to look after "my girls" and serve where I could.

When Torchbearers folded up, I closed the books one day and started at Legacy House the next as treasurer/dogsbody doing all sorts of jobs I didn't think I'd be able to do.

I am now bus convenor at War Widows, I am Liaison Officer for Legacy at the Laurel Club, I run a group called "The Jolly Dollies" and am a Legatee who visits with some of the widows and has a chat from time to time.

I do hospital visits at Hervey Bay and St Stephen's each Friday and am still "trying" to use the computer.

At last I am where God wants me to be.

At the end of next year I hope to retire and maybe sit in my rocking chair on my veranda and think how lucky I am to have met so many beautiful people who I now call friends.

No one can take those memories away that I hold so very dear.

Snapshot of a life

  • Born In Sydney
  • Worked for Bullen's Circus riding elephants, camels and horses, pulling the "big top" up and down and training monkeys
  • Lived in Armidale in NSW where she worked at Tattersalls Hotel at night and worked at a solicitor's office during the day.
  • Worked as a shearer's cook, cooking for 33 shearers with 16 hour days non-stop
  • Found peace after moving to Hervey Bay
  • Now a bus convenor for War Widows and Liaison officer for Legacy at the Laurel Club
  • Regularly visits patients in the hospital.

If you or anyone you know needs help, phone Lifeline on 131  114, headspace on 1800 650 890, beyondblue on 1300 224 636 or the suicide call back service on 1300 659 467.


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