Saturday, 19 March 2016

To my mother - a hundred years on.

19th March 1916 to 4th September 2005
Mum was born Eileen Hilda Mary in Bournemouth in 1916.  Her mother Ethel was the youngest daughter of a Nottingham upholsterer, William Piggott and after her marriage to Sidney Wilson in 1914 they moved to Bournemouth where Sidney had been working as a clerk at the Bournemouth Military Hospital since his discharge from the Army Medical Corps in 1915.  Mum was the eldest of five children born to Ethel and Sydney. The others were Geoff, Doreen and the twins Jack and Sheila.  Sadly, Sheila was very under-nourished and survived only a few weeks.  

The family moved from Dorset back to Nottingham in 1920.
For the first five years of my mother’s life, the family appears to have been quite comfortable.  Mum often talked about having a nanny in those early years.  All this ended in 1921 when Sidney received a gratuity of a little over a hundred pounds from the War Office for combat-related stress (around $5,000 in today’s money). A few days after receiving the money he boarded a steamship for South Africa and was never seen again. We still don’t know what happened to him after that. It seems Sidney Wilson was a bit of a rogue and I have since learned that Mum had one half-brother or half-sister that she never knew about, possibly more.
It was tough for a mother and four infants, the youngest only a few months old and for a period Ethel resorted to placing herself and children in the hands of the Board of Guardians and lived in the Nottingham Workhouse – I can only imagine what that must have been like.
Later as things improved, Mum and her brother Geoff received scholarships to The Bluecoat School, an independent school which provided a number of places for children on a charity basis.  The Bluecoat School still thrives today.
Mum must have loved those days, because even in the last few years of her life, she would recall with great clarity, names of Spanish and Latin teachers and stories about herself and Geoff at that school.
She worked as a telephonist and receptionist at a firm of motor parts suppliers in the early 1930s, which is the work she was doing when she met my father, a young motor mechanic, Arthur Williamson.  The story goes that young Arthur would come to the counter for spare parts and invite her to come for a spin on his motor-bike.  As Mum told the story, he would pull up out the front and pat the pillion seat of his motorbike, indicating with a toss of his head that she should join him. She obviously did, and they were married in 1938 when she was 22 and he 25.  Through my lifetime, dad was always known as John Williamson, and when, many years later I asked my mother why this was so, she said in her matter of fact way, “I didn’t like the name Arthur.” 
Jean was born three years after their marriage in 1941, followed at four year intervals by myself and then Phillip.  My dear sister, Jean suffered from bronchial complaints as a child and spent a lot of her early years in and out of hospital, where she contracted polio and Mum spent several years nursing her through these difficult times.

The family migrated to Australia a few years later – partly to make a new start by getting away from post war Britain; partly for Jean’s health and partly, I guess as an adventure.
Thus it was that on an icy morning in January 1955, my parents began an adventure which determined the direction of the lives of all our family and of those generations which followed.  
We were “Ten Pound Poms” on our way to Australia on the P&O Liner, “Strathaird,” and I was a wide-eyed nine-year-old with few memories of being further from home than the Barton bus depot at the end of the road in Beeston, the town in Nottinghamshire where I was born.
And it was an adventure, after the long sea cruise, which by all accounts was wonderful; we spent the first few weeks not far from where I am writing this at the Yungaba Migrant Hostel at Kangaroo Point in Brisbane. This former heritage listed building is now a gated luxury apartment complex – I hope that at least some of the old building’s original charm has not been lost. 
Dad got a job as a motor mechanic working at Brunton’s Garage over a thousand miles away in Mossman, and he flew off north to set up home.
We followed by train a week or so later.  I may have been only nine at the time but still vividly recall that trip north in the middle of the wettest of wet seasons, in a pre-war red rattler pulled by a steam loco - no sleeper car and no air-conditioning - a seven-day nightmare.  I can only guess what a trial it must have been for Mum with three young kids.  The old rail bridge across the Burdekin was under water and passengers were ferried across the flooded river in a tiny flat bottom tinnie, water lapping over the sides – welcome to North Queensland!
What a contrast.  From a relatively sophisticated life in post-war England, which for all its difficulties and challenges provided a lifestyle so starkly different from that which she would adapt to in rural tropical far northern Queensland.  I have heard it said on many occasions that for the first year of our time in Mossman, Mum kept a suitcase full of clothes by the front door, ready to walk out if only she could get hold of a return ticket, and I think it was only after we moved to the "big city lights" of Cairns in early 1956 that a level of normality returned.
And so we grew up, the three of us, and the family in Cairns; where we did our schooling, and started work, and became adults.

After twenty-five years of marriage, Mum and Dad separated in 1964 and Mum moved south with a new man in her life, first to the Gold Coast and later to Wynnum in the coastal Brisbane suburbs. In 1967, she and Bernie were married at Tweed Heads Court House.
Time moved on – Mum and Dad remained friends - he never stopped loving her until the day he died.  Indeed, Dad was staying with Mum and Bernie during the time he was receiving treatment in Brisbane shortly before he passed away in 1988.
Mum and Bernie were together for forty years. Sure, they had their ups and downs during this time, it would be insincere of me to suggest otherwise, but there was a level of affection and love for each other that was still going strongly in 2005 when Mum passed away after a long period of failing health - a love which continued for Bernie until his own death eight years later in 2013.
Mum was 89 years and six months old when she died and as is so often the case with old age, it is the last months or years that we remember rather than the whole life.  But that would not do justice to the nearly 90 years that she spent on this earth, and the impression this strong, beautiful-hearted woman had on the two men in her life; her three children; her seven grandchildren and her thirteen (soon to be fourteen) great-grandchildren. 
Throughout my whole life, I will always, always remember, the one indelible gift from my mother – her smile, and that will live on in our hearts and our memories.
So happy 100th birthday Mum – and God Bless!

Few of us appreciate a mother's loving care
-till the bitter moment when we find
she isn't there-to listen to our woes and
wants. To cheer and to advise. Too late we
see just what she was-too late we realise.
That's a mother's great vocation. That's her
destiny: to give all that she has to give-
and serve unselfishly..To make a home a
place that's something more than an address-
a centre of affection and of peace and happiness.
Patience Strong


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  3. I wandered here from Ships Nostalgia. You write a fine blog, Mike. My compliments.
    You mention the Strathaird - a bit vague now, but I might have had a few nips of Cape Smoke in her crew's quarters at Cape Town in 1957.

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