My grandmother, Winifred Coombe, was born in the heart of London in about 1878. Her father was born in America and well educated in Boston, passing many of his cultural tastes onto his daughter. While I know nothing of her mother, I believe Winnie had only one surviving brother whom even my own mother did not meet. We know he came to Western Australia around the time of my mother’s birth in 1921 and again about 30 years ago.
Winnie’s first husband, Sydney Farrell, was a dealer in durable goods and evidently a man of steady life and foresight. Three children were born in Scotland: Leslie, Ernest, and Elsie, but Leslie died of what was called “croup”, but was more likely diphtheria, before they arrived.
Allotted some land near what became Yarding on the railway line towards Southern Cross and Kalgoorlie (about 450 miles from Perth), Syd and Winnie Farrell emigrated from London to the “colonies” and landed at Fremantle at the end of 1908. In less than four months, Syd contracted typhoid and died, leaving a pretty, blue-eyed golden haired widow and two fatherless children. Ernest was aged about six and Elsie three years younger. Happily, the lady who conducted the lodging house in which the family had stayed befriended Winnie.
It is quite probable here she met my grandfather — James (Jim) Beaton, down from the Murchison area. His family was involved in stations and mining; Jim had decided to go into sheep and wheat farming and when it proved the allotted properties of these two, Jim and Winnie, were next door to each other, they welded their lives and properties together.
Before she married Syd, Winnie found employment in a London hat factory, curling ostrich feathers for the fashionable hats of society ladies. This was as much of a “job” as her parents would allow. It was one of her later pleasures to show her daughters (including my mother) how to do this exquisite task with some of the ostrich feathers she brought from the home country.
Winnie came to Australia with a piano, and the finest in cutlery, crockery and linens. Now, this tiny person, fresh out from the British Isles and good society, had to help in heavy farm work: to garden and grow vegetables; to learn to make bread; to cut up a side of mutton; to set eggs; to live in tents, and then in a hessian (or bag) house until they became settled farmers. Not everything went well for them. Bankruptcy after 1925; the depression of 1929, and then for a time Winnie and her younger children lived in a house built for them by her eldest son, Ernest, on a farm near Southern Cross, while Jim went on the road.
In 1931, they took up 240 acres of land 12 miles from Nannup in the South West of Western Australia. The highly profitable Kauri Timber Company had already taken most of the good trees from this heavy country. Now, it had to be cleared for mixed farming and Winnie found herself dumped down in the middle of the forest — where the only shelter was abandoned mill workers’ huts. One hut had a good big stove and some beds. With a few other furnishings of her own, Winnie set up house for her family. A Government payment of two pounds a week (for six people or more) was a living allowance and a stock station gelding called “Digger” had to perform all the duties of a farm horse.
There were no wheels for a cart; Jim and Stuart (his son aged 16) worked to clear the land with hand tools and to build a house for the family. They were given some undressed timber for flooring and roofing joists and corrugated roofing iron and nails, and with these supplies and their own efforts of taking timber from the bush, they built a house for the family. Winnie schooled her children at home, with some very infrequent correspondence lessons. By the late 1930s, Winnie had a beautiful garden full of English flowers in front of the small house Jim and Stuart had built.
Down the slope were rows of vegetables, passion fruit, herbs and a few fruit trees. Winnie sewed sheets; tea towels; mattress covers and towels and made dresses for herself and three daughters at home. From Nannup, my mother’s older sister Marion was married in 1935; her oldest sister Connie was already married. In all this time, Winnie never complained nor did she hark back to her earlier, easier days in London society.
With the outbreak of World War II, all their farming efforts ended when her only son, Stuart, joined the services. Winnie found herself living rough after the war, caring for a grandchild Elizabeth, (whose father, Ken, was killed in service), with Jim often away, until a colonial type house was built in Welshpool on Stuart’s 10-acre block. This was her last home where she lived until she suffered a short illness and then passed to her rest. Winnie was just a few weeks short of her 75th birthday when she died on May 26, 1953, still with a lovely garden. Jim died ten years later, in 1963. Every time I see portulaca in full bloom, they remind me of my grandmother, Nana Beaton.
It is a strange feeling indeed, that a few strokes of the keyboard make our family death notices in tribute to Winnie appear online in a digitized newspaper, after her death on May 26, 1953. When we see displayed notices for the sale of the family property at Nannup on December 7, 1946 as part of a Soldier’s Settlement or Stuart’s engagement to May Hawkins announced on 22 April 1950, I wonder what Winnie, would have thought of this digital age.
Regardless of what happened in her own life, Winnie’s personal integrity and sense of dignity were uncompromised. Her commitment to her family and marriage has rippled through many lives — sometimes sternly and sometimes as soft as the touch of an ostrich feather.