Marjorie Bligh is the ninety-five-year-old Martha Stewart you didn’t know you were missing. Does your goldfish have constipation? Feed it Epsom salts. Have you run out of blush? Cut a beet in half and slap it on your cheeks. Are there possums in your ceiling? Housewife Superstar! will tell you how to get them out. Famous for never wasting a thing, Marjorie crochets her bedspreads from plastic bags and used panty hose, and protects the plants in her garden with bras. In 1958, upon entering the food and craft contests at her town show, she won in seventy-eight categories; the next year she won in seventy-two but was denied the trophy by jealous rivals. Danielle Wood’s Housewife Superstar is an illuminating look at a treasure.
One: Marjorie Pearsall
MARJORIE Pearsall was born on April 14 of 1917, the same year that John F. Kennedy, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Vera Lynn and Ella Fitzgerald came into the world. In that year cinema screens were filled with Theda Bara’s Cleopatra eyes and Charlie Chaplin’s moustached face, and gramophones were spinning out popular wartime songs like ‘Over There’ and ‘You’re in the Army Now’. In the skies over Europe the Red Baron shot down twenty-one Allied planes in the month of Marjorie’s birth. Though the conflict raging in Europe was far from her birthplace in rural Tasmania, two hundred miles from the southern coast of mainland Australia, Marjorie was not exempt from its impact. She was christened Marjorie Alfreda Willis Pearsall, her middle names a tribute to her uncles Alfred and William, who were away fighting on the battlefields of France. Of the two, only Alfred would return.
The township of Ross, where Marjorie was born, is a cluster of sandstone Georgian buildings on the edge of the Macquarie River, in the midst of the unprepossessing sheep country of the Tasmanian midlands. Today Highway 1 skirts the boundary of the historic township, and a short detour is required if you want to stop to hunt for antiques or admire the convict stonemasonry of Ross’s famous bridge. But when Marjorie was born both the highway and the railway still bisected the town, and Ross was yet to become comfortably picturesque; in 1917 the town’s past as a centre for the containment and deployment of convict labourers must not have seemed so distant. During Marjorie’s childhood the town may have possessed a quiet beauty, but it’s not hard to imagine the wide and sparsely populated streets as drab, particularly in the depths of a frosty winter.
Marjorie’s parents lived on Waterloo Street, which still marks the eastern border of the neatly gridded town. Her father, Oscar William Pearsall, was the ploughman at the nearby property ‘Bloomfield’, where he had met her mother, Emma Beatrice Martin, when she was employed in the homestead as a domestic. Both Oscar and Emma had firmly colonial roots: among Oscar’s forebears were settlers who arrived in the colony in 1804 with Lieutenant Governor David Collins’ founding party, while Emma’s grandfather Henry Nailer was a convict transported to Van Diemen’s Land in 1844 for larceny.
Emma and Oscar tied the knot in St John’s Church of England, Ross, in August 1910; and their employers, the Bennetts, bought for them the house on Waterloo Street, on the understanding that the Pearsalls would in time repay the debt. Made from locally quarried sandstone, the building had four rooms: two bedrooms, a ‘front room’ and a large kitchen. It was a neat house, with an iron-laced veranda and tidy picket fence fronting the street. Out the back was a four-acre allotment, bordered in turn by farmland plains and scrub. The young couple didn’t have the luxury of a home to themselves: out of necessity, Emma’s brothers Alfred and Harry shared the small dwelling. In 1912 the household increased by one with the birth of Oscar and Emma’s first child, Doreen Elizabeth. Marjorie arrived five years later, followed in 1919 by Beatrice Ruby.
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The first major event to shape Marjorie’s childhood was the death of her father, in 1920. He died of tuberculosis in a Hobart hospital, leaving Emma to provide for her three girls—aged eight, three and one—on a small government allowance. She was also responsible for her brother Harry, who had a mild disability that was said to be the result of ‘being dropped as a baby’.
My mother was a gentle, loving, kind woman with good principles and believed in discipline. She encouraged me to write, collect, be thrifty, to sew, knit, crochet, cook, and to work in the home and garden, and to honour God. I do miss her greatly, as a mother is the best friend anyone can have. I cannot remember my father, I was too young, but Mother loved this little verse – “My house is small, no mansion for a millionaire, but there is room for love, and there is room for friends, that’s all I care”.
A million lovely memories are what she left to me,
A bumper book of pictures which I flick through and see,
Her smiling face throughout the years, the twinkle in her eye,
The fun that we always had as years were passing by,
Every Sunday was a special day with church and Sunday School,
Inviting some one into tea, but, always The Golden Rule,
The dining-room all warm and cosy, and garden gay and bright –
The hours beneath the fruit trees, the shadow and sunlight,
Oh! It was fun, how proud I am that I had such a mother,
Who cared about her family and also her dear brother.
As children, we were not allowed to express our feelings to Mother or our teacher, we were not allowed to answer back even if we were in the right, and if we dropped a log of wood on our foot, we couldn’t say “damn”, it was swearing. We had to be “seen and not heard”, and were not to speak when grown-ups were speaking. How times have changed! We were not allowed to answer the door when there was a knock and sex was never mentioned, but today they say it is essential and we all know the results. When we were asked to do a job, we did it immediately. Now it is “Wait a minute”. Discipline isn’t practised these days. Children tell their parents what they want to eat, wear, where they want to go, and are allowed to sit up late at night. They answer the telephone when you ring the parents, which wastes time and money for the caller. Both parents in many cases have to work to cater for their children’s expensive tastes, as they must have everything – from crazy looking bicycles to transistor radios. We received a present twice a year, but children today demand them anytime, and they frown if someone doesn’t give them an expensive gift. Nothing given in these times is appreciated as children receive too much, too often. I’ve rarely been given expensive gifts, and anyhow I would rather earn my own, then there is no repercussion when there is an argument. Today there are several cars to the one home, in many homes the diet consists of take-aways, pies, pasties, Coke and from a tin, and sport seems to have replaced the learning of the three R’s.
Emma, strict and loving, firm and fragile, was now the dominant figure in Marjorie’s life. She kept her girls primly dressed and socially isolated, restricting them from playing with other children after school and on weekends. Emma was frugal, inclined to illness and resistant to change. She regarded her new electricity supply (connected in 1927, according to Marjorie) with suspicion, and during the only holiday she took in her life—all the way to Hobart, eighty-five miles away—she became miserably homesick. Marjorie’s recollections paint her as elaborately superstitious, always on the lookout for omens of ill fortune:
New shoes weren’t allowed on the table; the lid off the teapot brought visitors; spilling sugar was joy, salt was sorrow, unless you threw some over your left shoulder; if a picture fell off a wall, a relative was going to die, and it was bad luck to hang a picture over a doorway. Hanging a calendar before New Year’s Day brought bad luck all year; walking under a ladder was bad luck; also passing someone on the stairs. Knives crossed, you were going to have an argument. The 13th, Friday and the colour green were also bad luck according to Mum. If she put a garment on inside out … she wouldn’t turn it the right way out, it would stop there until she undressed at night; and if she was going out, and got a few yards away from the front gate, then realised she had forgotten something she wouldn’t turn back to get it—bad luck if you did. Don’t put up an umbrella or bring wattle in the house or it brings bad luck; so [does] transplanting parsley … You must put a cross on your shoe with spittle on your finger if you saw a white horse. Eating in the lavatory was feeding the devil, and if your left ear was burning someone was saying something bad about you, the right ear was something good. An itchy hand meant you were going to receive money and if you turned your money over when there was a new moon it would double the amount.
Emma claimed that a banging back gate was the harbinger of her husband’s death. She said she heard the gate slam three times on the morning of the day he died in Hobart, but when she went outside to investigate no one was there.
Chest Cold (old remedy)
Moisten a square of brown paper in warm vinegar, sprinkle very thickly with black pepper, lay it on the chest, and bandage with flannel. Let it remain on several hours, as it will not raise a blister like mustard does.
My mother stopped our coughing at night, by roasting an onion before an open fire (leave skin on), turning it often. Then, with two forks, the centre was pulled out, topped with homemade butter and served.
Equal parts honey, lemon juice and Eau de Cologne.
Following Oscar’s death the large garden at the rear of the Waterloo Street house became the key to the family’s survival. It contained a vegetable patch and orchard, as well as accommodation for various animals. The produce from the garden was not only enough for the household’s needs: there was a surplus that could be sold. Marjorie and her sisters worked hard. Their chores included picking and delivering buckets of fruit, and delivering butter as well as the rabbits, hares, kangaroos and wallabies that their Uncle Alf snared in the nearby bush. Wash day—an epic of bucket-carrying, boiling and scrubbing—was an all-day event.
The kitchen of the Waterloo Street home was the centre of activity. Here, a pine-topped table served for dining, ironing, mixing cakes, cutting out frocks, washing up; and for Emma’s assorted industries, including making jams, pickles, sauces, candles, bread, butter. The white flagstones of the kitchen floor were cleaned with pipeclay, and the pine dresser, kitchen table and toilet seat scrubbed with sandsoap. The silver, pots and pans were cleaned with ashes, and knives were cleaned by pushing their blades into the earth in the garden. Emma, Doreen and Marjorie spent evenings industriously: sewing clothes by hand, knitting stockings and embroidering.
Olden day method was to stop it bleeding with some white pepper put in cut.
Croup (old recipe)
One dessertspoonful methylated spirit, two dessertspoonfuls of vinegar, three dessertspoonfuls water. Saturate a strip of flannel in this and wrap around the throat, covering with a dry strip. Gives instant relief; or, Wrap the child in a blanket, hold to a closed window, then throw the window up suddenly, and the spasm will be relieved; or, take the child, well wrapped up, for a car ride. Hold its head to a half open window and allow the night air to rush past its face (Dr R. M. Webster’s cure), or, Put feet in a bag of cut-up onions, tie around the ankles and leave on feet all night in bed.
Mix 3 tablespoons treacle with 2 teaspoons sulphur and take 1 teaspoon after each meal.
Sore (that won’t heal)
Get some young blue gum leaves, dip them in boiling water. When leaves are limp, put as hot as possible on the sore, wrap it up and when the leaves are dry, put another lot on. It heals in no time.
Put banana skin on them, white side down, and leave for several days, or until they go away; or,
Warts disappear in 3 months if you rub them with castor oil before going to bed, or daub them with kerosene every day, or with a slice of garlic, or with 1 tablespoon of bicarbonate of soda dissolved in 2 tablespoons of water. Another hint is to melt a small piece of washing soda in vinegar and daub warts several times a day. I had them as a child and my mother told me to lick them on awakening and one morning they weren’t there.
Light sulphur and let patient inhale the fumes. The fungus will shrink and die. Taken from a very old reliable book.
Marjorie writes that ‘there were no luxuries in our house’, yet this is not exactly true. In Emma’s household, the girls had all the basics as well as the means for the occasional treat. There were gifts for birthdays and at Christmas, although rarely at other times, and sweets were allowed on Fridays. Not all chores were unpaid—if the girls did a good day’s weeding or sowing, they were rewarded with sixpence to spend on cheesecakes or Chelsea buns at the bakery.
Sunday school and services at St John’s punctuated the family’s week, and the Sunday school anniversary and annual picnic marked out their year. Emma and her girls also attended anniversaries and special services at the local Methodist church, so ‘church, church and more church’ constituted the Pearsalls’ limited social life. Marjorie and her sisters each received a new dress (sewn by the local dressmaker) on the Sunday school anniversary, whereupon the old dress was let down and worn to school.
School in Marjorie’s time was writing on slates, chanting times tables and reciting the alphabet, backwards as well as forwards. For the girls there was also knitting, crocheting and learning to use a treadle sewing machine. Marjorie was eager to please, and she would take apples, pears and other fruits to school for her adored teacher, Miss Johnson. Little Marjorie was heartbroken when Miss Johnson rebuffed her bounty, telling her not to bring any more fruit—the cupboard was full.
KEROSENE SOAP No. 1
7 lbs. salt-free fat, 7 quarts water, 1 lb. caustic soda, ½ lb. resin, 2 small packets Lux, 2 small packets of washing powder, 2 tablespoons borax, ½ cup kerosene.
Put all ingredients into a kerosene tin, except kerosene, and bring to the boil, taking care it does not boil over. Stir until thick (about 1 hour). Add kerosene about 10 minutes before taking off fire. It will boil up quickly when kerosene is added, so be careful and stir well.
While Marjorie’s family sometimes struggled to make ends meet, others in the district suffered acute poverty. Marjorie recalls children walking quite a distance to school without shoes or boots, and another child who didn’t have bloomers to wear under her school dress. Door-to-door beggars were part of the social fabric and, although the Pearsalls received their own charity from the landed gentry (after Oscar’s death, food and clothing parcels came from the Bennetts of Bloomfield), Emma felt it was her station to give to the less fortunate. When one beggar came to the door asking for food, Emma told him she had nothing but the meat cooking in her pot. He said that would do, and she protested that she had nothing to wrap it in. That didn’t matter, he said, so she hooked the meat out with a carving fork and brought it to the door. He opened his flannel shirt and tucked the scalding-hot meat inside it against his skin, and went on his way.
A local man, Micky Clark, became something of a regular charity case at the Pearsall household. He had been living with his sister Sarah but, after she died, he began calling in to Emma’s for afternoon tea, then for tea. After a time he became bolder still, and would ask for soap and a towel on his arrival. Marjorie writes: ‘we found out that he had no money for food, wood or soap, because, besides drinking, he gave it to a priest to get Sarah out of Purgatory. At one stage he told Mum [that Sarah’s] legs were out, another time her arms, and so it went on.’
On one occasion Micky arrived to find Marjorie sitting on the front step knitting. She said that her mother wasn’t home, but he pushed past her into the house. In a rush of spite, Marjorie stood up and trod on a piece of rag that was jutting out of a hole in Micky’s boot—he had rags wound around his feet in place of socks—making him fall over. For that, she later got a thrashing and was sent to bed.
As well as beggars there were hawkers—although the distinction was not always clear. One of the more colourful characters was Mrs ‘One-eye’ Brown, who had ‘one eye and a hole where the other one should have been’. She came with a cart piled high with wares, and a mangy horse and several dogs. As well as selling her goods, which included handmade willow clothes pegs, she would beg meat for her dogs, gather firewood in backyards and request old clothing. If given a hat, she would put it on top of the one she was wearing. According to Marjorie, Mrs Brown was bad-tempered when crossed, and once threw a bucket of water over the butcher when he refused her free meat. She also gave Marjorie and her younger sister, Beatrice, a pair of hearty smacks across the face when she caught them peeping at her through a shop window. Mrs Brown would approach houses loudly singing ‘My Blue Heaven’, and Emma would gather her daughters inside and lock the door when she heard her coming. Mrs Brown ‘knocked at the door; no answer, so she banged hard and sang out, “I know you’re in there, Mother Pearsall, so now I’ll let your kangaroo rat out!” and she did just that, and my goodness, it was hard to catch again.’
It was rumoured that Mrs ‘One-eye’ Brown was in fact a wealthy woman from Hobart who dressed as a tramp to go out profiteering. Whether or not this unlikely story was true, she remained a character in the midlands for some time, and turned up peddling her wares at Marjorie’s own door after Marjorie was married.
MOCK TURKEY SPREAD
3 tomatoes, 2 tablespoons butter, 4 tablespoons grated cheese, 4 tablespoons fine white breadcrumbs, ½ small onion (finely grated), 1 egg, pepper and salt to season, pinch herbs.
Peel tomatoes and cut roughly. Melt butter, add tomatoes, seasoning and onion. When tender, mash smoothly and add beaten egg. Stir until thick. Remove from heat and add cheese and crumbs. Put in small airtight jars.
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The young Marjorie Pearsall was a brown-haired, blue-eyed girl of average height, average weight, average looks. While strong, she was not athletic, having—as she put it—‘no wind for running’. She was no saint, but when she was naughty it was usually only in a common or garden-variety way: carelessly leaving a precious doll out in the rain, getting out a treasured balloon against orders and bursting it, or taking advantage of a lenient aunt who came to take care of her and her sisters while their mother was sick.
Cut 1 lb. tripe in small pieces, roll in flour and fry in hot fat. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon fat, and make a brown gravy with it. Put in a saucepan, add 1 sliced onion, 1 large tomato, pepper and salt. Simmer 20 minutes. Serve hot on toast with mashed potato.
Among Marjorie’s signature traits to emerge in childhood were her industriousness and determination. When still at school she made extra money for the household by running errands for her teachers and by cleaning the schoolrooms during holidays. As soon as she could knit and sew she was selling her skills. At one point she was paid to knit red, white and blue sweaters for the local football team—and hand-knitting eighteen identical sweaters is no mean feat. She had ‘stickability’, being able to finish long and sometimes tedious projects that others would give up on. She also learned to be a perfectionist, undoing projects and beginning again if they had any flaws. Out of necessity, Marjorie was a very capable child. When Emma was unwell and admitted to hospital in nearby Campbell Town, her unmarried sister Ruby would usually take time off from her job in Launceston and travel to Ross to look after her nieces. But once, when Ruby could not cover for Emma’s absence, Marjorie and Beatrice looked after themselves. As there was no money they survived by eating pumpkin (roasted, baked in bread, cooked in soup) at every meal, for days.
Rub 1 tablespoon butter into 1½ cups of sifted S.R. flour and mix to a light dough with ½ cup milk to which has been added 2 tablespoons boiling water. Put dough in basin (not greased) and pour over the following mixture: ½ cup sugar, 1 tablespoon golden syrup or honey, 2 dessertspoons butter, ½ cup boiling water. Do not put a lid on the basin, only put lid on the saucepan when steaming. Delicious and cheap.
SISTER BEATRICE’S BISCUIT CAKE
½ lb. icing sugar, 2 level dessertspoons cocoa, 1 teaspoon
vanilla essence, 5 ozs. melted solid white shortening (not hot),
2 tablespoons milk, coffee biscuits, softened by exposure.
Line a square tin with greaseproof paper. Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. Stir in melted copha [white shortening] and milk. Fill tin with alternative layers of mixture and biscuits and allow to set. Ice with chocolate icing.
P.S. – 1 teaspoon coffee essence added to melted shortening makes a delightful change.
SISTER DOREEN’S HONEY CAKES
Will keep a long time, wonderfully moist until the last.
6 ozs. butter and 6 ozs. sugar, 1 tablespoon honey, 3 eggs, 8 ozs. flour, 1 teaspoon baking powder, pinch salt.
Cream butter and sugar, add honey, then eggs, one at a time with a tablespoon of flour with each addition. Sift the remaining flour with rising and salt and fold in last. Bake in patty tins a dessertspoon of the mixture for 15–20 minutes in hot oven. When cold, ice with honey icing.
An interest in ailments and their cure began in Marjorie’s childhood. While she didn’t relish her illnesses, she enjoyed the rare opportunity to escape daily chores and bask in her mother’s loving attention. She recalls her minor childhood afflictions and treatments with clarity, remembering how Emma would ward off colds by putting an unpeeled onion in front of the fire, turning it until it was cooked, then pulling out the centre, dotting it with butter and giving it to the girls to eat. She also insisted that they drink olive oil to prevent illness. Still, Marjorie suffered from bronchitis during several winters of her childhood, and developed a taste for the medicines she was given: Scott’s Emulsion and Hearn’s Bronchitis Cure. Because of Marjorie’s constant coughing, her bed was moved from the shared bedroom to the front room, where she slept all night with a fire burning and a candle lit. The attending doctor advised Emma to put Marjorie into flannel and not remove it until the bronchitis was cured, so Emma bought baby flannel and fashioned singlets with crocheting around the neck and sleeves—to this, Marjorie attributes her return to good health.
Marjorie’s tendency to walk on the sides of her feet also became a cause for medical attention. A doctor recommended that she wear boots to strengthen her ankles, but fashion-conscious Marjorie kicked up a fuss and threw a pair of new boots down the passageway in disgust. Emma solved the sartorial problem by adapting heavy knitted stockings that could be worn over the tops of the boots, like gaiters. She also massaged Marjorie’s feet with warmed olive oil and encouraged Marjorie to walk around the house with marbles under her toes, and these measures, Marjorie writes, solved the problem.
Marjorie was the daughter of the household who took most to heart her mother’s ‘waste not, want not’ credo. This emphasis on thrift, combined with an intrinsic sentimentality, meant that Marjorie kept—and continues to keep—just about everything she ever acquired. It’s not, perhaps, so surprising that in her nineties she still has little trinkets like the letter M brooch that her mother bought for her from a door-to-door hawker. It is remarkable, though, that as a child she thought to keep the slip of paper her mother wrapped the gift in and wrote on, and that she has kept it all her life.
* * *
Marjorie’s childhood and young womanhood permitted few glimpses of frivolity, but when they did come it was usually courtesy of her aunts—her mother’s sister Ruby, and her Uncle Alf’s wife, Amy. When Ruby came to stay she would bring glittering evening frocks, bags, jewellery and shoes, and model them for her nieces while waltzing, solo, to gramophone records. She must have cut quite a dashing figure with her waist-length curly hair, singing along with her records in her strong soprano voice. Aunt Amy, whom Alf had brought over from England after the war, came to regional Tasmania with a range of accomplishments. As well as being a skilled dressmaker she could compose music, play the organ, play tennis and recite poetry. Music lessons and other entertainments were out of the question for Marjorie, who was usually occupied with chores, so beautiful clothes, music and dancing all became markers of an adult life to which she aspired. Her chief recollection of being confirmed in the Church of England was of ‘feeling like a queen’ in her new white dress, veil and stockings. Her first experience of silk stockings and garters came at age fourteen, when she wore them to church and ‘strutted about like a peacock, showing them off’.
As she grew, Marjorie was prevented from having any extended contact with boys, and was kept remarkably ignorant about matters of sex and reproduction. She reports that she learned about pregnancy from a lad called Ernest, the visiting grandson of a neighbour.
Once when Ernest came alone, I asked him where his mother was and he replied ‘She’s going to have a baby.’ I asked him what he meant, and he told me. I told him not to be so filthy, and he replied it was a fact, but I still could not digest it, or even want to believe it. It was ridiculous. No way could a baby get in, or out, of your body, I told myself. I was confused, but never asked mother if it was true. After I was told that, I watched married women very closely and yes, they became fat and slim again … All Mum told me when I first menstruated was that it would occur every month, what to use and when, and I had to put my feet up when I came home from school until I went to bed. I wasn’t to wash my head or have a bath, and not to tell Beatrice.
It seems extraordinary that a girl surrounded by pets and livestock of all kinds could remain so sheltered from the facts—hard to credit that she would not, prior to Ernest’s revelation, have witnessed animals mating, gestating or giving birth. There was, though, a good deal of primness surrounding the household’s animal population. Marjorie and her sisters were not to call a ram a ram: it was a ‘father sheep’. A bull was a ‘gentleman cow’ and a bitch was a ‘mother dog’. The words ‘drake’ and ‘rooster’, however, were not considered inappropriate. Marjorie writes that she and her sisters didn’t know why their cows were taken to visit a local farmer’s bull, and that, when questioned, Emma ‘always made up some story’. Again, it seems strange that Marjorie didn’t observe the cows, on their return, growing larger or giving birth.
MRS BEETON’S MARMALADE
4 large Seville oranges, 3 lemons, 7 pints water, 7 lb. sugar.
Cut up oranges and lemons. Squeeze juice and put in separate basin. Save pips. Slice fruit, peel thinly (on a china plate to preserve natural oil) and place in basin. Cover fruit peel with 7 pints of water and allow to stand for 24 hours. Cover pips with water. Bring rind and water (in which it has been soaking) to the boil, and simmer gently for about an hour. Pour back into basin and leave for 12 hours. Put fruit juice, water off pips, and rind and water into a saucepan, add sugar, and stir until sugar is dissolved. Boil rapidly until it will set (about 30 minutes). Makes about 10 jars.
This obfuscation of sexuality could not prevent the girls from eventually making their own discoveries. One morning in 1930, when Marjorie was thirteen, her mother went to rouse eighteen-year-old Doreen, only to find that the bed was empty and had not been slept in. Emma Pearsall was distraught, almost hysterical; she soon learned that Doreen had left with Charles Cook, aged fifty-one, whom many locals had thought was courting Emma herself. Cook had been paying Emma to do his washing and ironing, and would stay a while to chat when he came to collect it. Often she would walk halfway home with him. Apparently, writes Marjorie, ‘after Mum left him at night and came back home, he would double back and see Doreen.’ The household, Marjorie says, ‘never recovered from [the] shock’ of Doreen’s eloping.
Some years later, Marjorie was weeding in the front garden when a car pulled up outside the house. From it emerged Doreen and her two sons, George and Lovell, aged about three and one, immaculately dressed in black velvet breeches with silk shirts, white socks and black patent leather shoes. Doreen had brought gifts for the family, including a china tea set for her mother and patent leather bags for Marjorie and Beatrice (Marjorie still has hers). ‘I don’t think I would be exaggerating,’ Marjorie writes, ‘if I said that that afternoon was the happiest time in my life. We loved and missed our sister very much.’ Doreen divorced Cook and remarried, this time staying in contact with her mother and sisters.
Though Emma could not shelter her younger daughters from the Doreen affair, she did for a long time manage to keep them ignorant of another family scandal playing out before their eyes. Throughout her childhood, Marjorie writes, she believed she had no maternal grandfather. She had no idea that this grandfather was actually living in Bridge Street, about half a mile away from the cottage in Waterloo Street, with his second family. Marjorie’s grandfather William Walter Martin married her grandmother Eliza in 1887. Between 1888 and 1899 the couple had six children, of whom Marjorie’s mother was the eldest. Eliza had a younger sister, rather unimaginatively named Elizabeth, and in about 1907 William Martin brought her to live with his family in Ross. The following year Elizabeth gave birth to his son Geoffrey. This explosive event broke up the first family: Eliza went to work at the property Bloomfield, where Emma was by this time already working, and the children still needing care were entrusted to various relatives. William and his second wife, Elizabeth, had a further six children, the youngest born in 1920. Marjorie must have gone to school with her step-aunts and step-uncles, not knowing how closely they were related.
* * *
When I imagine Marjorie as Miss Pearsall, I like to think of her on her fourteenth birthday—April 14, 1931—the day she was expected to finish school. Unlike most of her classmates, who were champing at the bit to leave their schooldays behind, Marjorie loved the order and calm of the classroom, even though she did not do especially well in her exams.
I even had to sit for my final exam twice, but failed the second time too. I was always alright until the day of the examination, then my mind would go blank and my eyes would only see the minister at the table … All I could do was watch that clock, once the papers were handed out, instead of concentrating on the questions. I became so tense I felt half unconscious. Each time I did exams, Mum said that if I passed she would buy me a watch, so I did try as I really wanted that watch. Strangely enough though, next day, the same questions I answered with ease if I sat alone with them on the veranda … All I ever scored for my exams were 47 marks, but 50 was required to pass.
Marjorie begged to be allowed to stay at school until the Christmas break. She gained eight months’ more education, but when the summer came her future looked much the same. She was a young woman with little money and an average education. ‘Options? Well, we just didn’t really have very many options in those days,’ she told me. ‘I dreamed of being an actress, flitting about in pretty clothes I’d make myself. For a while there, I thought about being a nurse. I thought it would be nice to look after people, but seeing my mother in hospital turned me off that idea.’
Once she left school Marjorie didn’t go looking for work—it regularly came looking for her. First, a local family whose cook was on long service leave asked Emma’s permission to employ Marjorie for the period of her absence. Marjorie was delighted with the opportunity, not only because she would be able to try out her skills in a new setting, but also because it was a chance to broaden her horizons, meet new people and observe the lifestyle of a more prosperous family.
Word of Marjorie’s abilities must have spread, and soon the mistress of the Campbell Town property Rosedale applied to Emma for Marjorie’s services. Young Marjorie was impressed by the colonial homestead, by its rosewood and mahogany furnishings, and in her recollections she notes the solid cedar shutters on the windows, originally installed to repel ‘aborigines or bushrangers [outlaws]’. This time the job involved cooking, cleaning, and minding a young girl whom Marjorie regarded as spoilt and uncontrollable. At first, vacuuming and dusting the beautiful and barely used upstairs rooms was a pleasure to Marjorie, but she eventually tired of cleaning already clean rooms, so she developed a habit of putting on the vacuum cleaner and sitting down to knit for half an hour. Perhaps the mistress of Rosedale twigged to this ruse, or perhaps she and Marjorie were simply not well matched. In any case, prior to leaving for a holiday in Melbourne, the lady of the house sacked Marjorie—apparently because Marjorie didn’t sound her aitches properly and the lady didn’t want her daughter to grow up speaking in such a common fashion. Marjorie, terrified of facing her mother with the news that she’d been fired, took a friend home with her to soften the blow.
Butter: To make it go further, put into a small saucepan, 2 heaped teaspoons of full cream powdered milk. Add 1 teaspoon powdered gelatine and ½ teaspoon of salt. Mix in gradually ½ cup milk, and stir over fire until hot, but not boiling. Cool a little and cut into this ½ lb. of butter. Stir and blend with a wooden spoon and put into a basin. Twice as much butter and more nourishing.
If you haven’t any scales, an easy way to cut a ½ lb. of butter if required, is to cut through the pound diagonally and you will be sure of an accurate measure. Another easy way for measuring ½ cup butter (or ¼ lb.) without scales is to fill a cup half full of water and drop butter in until the cup is full or reaches the top. Drain butter before using.
“Wonder butter” for use at kitchen teas, balls, etc., in sandwiches can be made by putting 1 lb. cut up, soft butter in a bowl and add a teaspoon of salt and gradually add 1 cup hot water and 1 cup cold water alternately until all used. Beat well with beater when all is absorbed. Goes twice as far.
If uncovered butter has absorbed other food flavours in the refrigerator, cut it into small pieces, cover with fresh milk and leave for an hour. Strain off milk and the butter should be sweet again.
Buy a butter curler and fill up your butter dishes with curls. Takes only a few minutes, but will save up to ¼ lb. of butter a week, as it is easier to spread and saves putting it on bread in big blobs when children are around.
Home-made Furniture Polish: An old, but trustworthy polish for furniture easily made at home is as follows: mix together 1 gill of turpentine, 1 gill of linseed oil, ½ gill of methylated spirits, and ½ gill of vinegar. Shake well before use. Use sparingly with a soft cloth. A gill is 7 tablespoons.
Parcels: Before tying parcels to be sent by mail, wet the string. This not only makes the knot easier to tie, but as the string dries, it shrinks and makes the parcel more firm.
The next woman to come to Emma’s door to employ Marjorie was Mrs Crosby Lyne of Riccarton, a property located just east of Campbell Town, and her offer set Marjorie’s adult life on its course. Marjorie didn’t agree with some of the practices of the household, such as scraping soured cream out of sponge cakes and refilling them with jam for the workmen to eat, or being instructed to call the children of the house ‘Miss’ and ‘Master’.
That will be the day, I said to myself, when I’ll call a three year old ‘Miss’, and I never gave any of them those titles in all the time I was there. The first few months I often found a sixpence or a shilling under place mats, vases, etc., put there to test my honesty, but they soon tired of that.
After a time Marjorie found Mrs Lyne to be a kind and compatible employer. Marjorie’s wages were one pound a week, and with this princely sum she first bought a wireless radio for her mother, then a pair of plush doormats for her mother’s hall. After that, it was a winter coat for herself, with a large grey fur collar that made her feel incredibly glamorous. It was Mrs Lyne who first encouraged Marjorie to enter some of her homemade goods in the Campbell Town Show, sparking an interest that would become a near obsession for the young cook. Her first entry was a pound of butter, for which she won first prize: the blue ticket, and two shillings and sixpence. Most likely, it was the recognition rather than the financial reward that spurred Marjorie to enter in more categories at more shows as the years went on.
Broad Beans – Put a bunch of parsley in with broad beans when cooking them, and they will not turn black and the flavour will also be improved.
It was at Riccarton that Marjorie met her future husband Cliff Blackwell, the lad in charge of caring for the property’s horses. From photographs, and reading between the lines of Marjorie’s somewhat jaundiced descriptions, Cliff was a towheaded country boy, somewhat rough around the edges. He was one of ten children born to a gruff father and a long-suffering mother, and he seems to have been content enough with his lot in life. Cliff’s and Marjorie’s aspirations were perhaps never in accord, and nor did their romance get off to an auspicious start.
One night he asked me if I would like to go to a dance at [the nearby town of] Conara the next Saturday night and I accepted. He took me on the back of his motorbike. He couldn’t dance, and I only a little, so we sat there like dopes until a lad named George (Bluey) Ashman asked me to get up in a waltz. I did, and he patiently taught me a few more steps, then kept coming back and back, and as he was handsome, I didn’t mind. In spite of all this, when I returned to my seat after the last dance, Cliff was gone, so Bluey said he’d take me home on the handlebars of his bicycle. I didn’t fancy trying to sit on handlebars for nine miles but I had no choice, so gathering up my frock, I clambered on, and away we went in the cold frosty night. When we were about halfway home we came upon a man whose vehicle had broken down on the side of the road. We stopped to see who it was and behold it was Cliff, so Bluey just pedalled on. It’s not printable what Cliff said to us, but we laughed all the way home.
Cliff ‘soon got over it’ and, once the relationship became more serious, he and Marjorie became co-owners of an Australian terrier pup that they named Shandy Gaf. The young couple idolised the dog, Marjorie ferrying him around in a basket on the front of her bicycle.
By the time Marjorie was twenty she had settled on Cliff as a husband, and all her energy was going into preparing to become the mistress of her own home. This was a task she approached with excitement, and with her characteristic tenacity and drive. The betrothed couple bought a home on the main street of Campbell Town, which they renovated by candlelight. They would cycle to the house after tea at Riccarton, work until midnight, then return to sleep. Marjorie spent her spare minutes planning and listing, and poring over catalogues from Myer in Melbourne, and went without new clothes and holidays so that she could buy goods for her future home. She waited eagerly for the courier, who would come in his truck with parcels from Melbourne, the contents of which cluttered her small room at Riccarton.
While she bought all the household items, such as linen, cutlery and crockery, Cliff—on his higher salary of one pound and ten shillings—bought or made their furniture. The weatherboard home in Campbell Town had a staircase with a corner at the landing, so parts of walls had to be dismantled for furniture to be hauled into the upstairs bedrooms.
Possums in the Ceiling
Put some flowers of sulphur in a foil dish in the ceiling and set it alight, and you won’t be troubled again.
It’s not difficult to imagine Marjorie concentrating more passionately on the business of nest making than on the business of scrutinising her future partner.
I was eager to get married, as I was sick of being told what to do. Cliff was my only boyfriend, as we weren’t allowed boys, so to me he was a blessing in disguise whatever his faults. I was house-happy and wanted to be a housewife, as I was brimming over with ideas and bursting to put them into practice.
Marjorie’s naivety, and that of her sister Beatrice, would soon have serious consequences. In the winter of 1937 twenty-year-old Marjorie was scrubbing the floor at Riccarton when a phone call came for her, telling her that her mother was seriously ill. Emma was coughing up blood—like her husband before her, she may have had tuberculosis. She was hospitalised in Campbell Town and died a week later, leaving Marjorie and Beatrice orphaned and devastated. Uncles and aunts rallied to comfort the girls, to help with the funeral arrangements and make decisions about what to do with the family home and its contents. Aunt Ruby at this time had a paramour, George, whom she had agreed to marry—Marjorie writes—on the understanding that there was to be ‘no sex life’. (Having seen one of her sisters in labour, Ruby was terrified of giving birth.) George was present the day after Emma’s funeral when Marjorie and Beatrice decided to unlock their mother’s sideboard. There they discovered calico bags full of valuables, including silver, and stacks of one-pound notes. George volunteered to take the money and valuables to a safe place to count up their value and, trustingly, the girls allowed him to do so. They also let him take their money in a suitcase to Launceston—where, he said, he would open bank accounts for them.
Marjorie later wrote to George asking for her money, but it was never seen again. Ruby became the victim of a similar scam, so she never entered into her chaste marriage contract. After Emma’s death the house on Waterloo Street had tenants for a time, but it was later abandoned, then condemned. To Marjorie’s great sadness, it was eventually demolished.
Push steel wool, not paper, into their hole (not the soap-impregnated kind). They cannot chew steel wool.
* * *
On April 14, 1938, Marjorie Pearsall turned twenty-one. In the absence of parents to do the honours, Aunt Amy stepped in to organise a birthday party at the Ross Sunday School, and Marjorie and Cliff cycled from Riccarton to join the guests at the celebration. A photograph taken that day shows Marjorie on the cusp of womanhood. Her curled hair is held back from her face with a ribbon, tied girlishly in a bow. The dress she wears is one she made herself from blue crepe, with a wide frilly collar and a U-shaped inset of blue lace at the neckline. Pinned to the collar is a bouquet of imitation flowers, and in her arms is the birthday cake made for her by Aunt Amy. She looks both innocent and sturdy. Her jaw, forearms, hands, hips all look strong, perfectly adapted for the hard work she has ahead of her. I wonder how clearly she apprehended, in that moment, that she was standing on the brink of her adult life. For in just a few months’ time she would be leaving her childhood, her job, her town and her maiden name behind her.
Brush each bird over with warmed butter after plucking them. (Do not clean birds in any other way; their insides are left intact). Tie a thin slice of fat bacon over each breast. Put in a fry pan (electric) on a wire grid and cook slowly for 5 or 6 hours. Take off wire grid after 3 to 4 hours, and cook in the fat that has dripped off them. Baste often. Serve on buttered toast.
MUTTON BIRDS TUFFED RABBIT
Soak mutton bird overnight in boiling water in which has been dissolved a piece of washing soda the size of an almond. Next day, boil for 20 minutes and when cold, take out all bones, keeping the bird in shape. Stuff with bread, sage and onion seasoning. Do not sew the bird up, but insert it inside the rabbit. Sew up rabbit and bake. Serve hot or cold.
TO TAN SKINS WITH WATTLE BARK: Soak skins in water till quite soft, then remove all fat and flesh. Half fill a kerosene tin with finely chopped wattle bark, fill the tin with hot water, and let stand for two days. Reduce liquid to the colour of weak tea and put in a tub, or other vessel, to well cover the skins. Turn skins every day and when liquid gets too weak add more tan, and continue this treatment for about three weeks, when the skin should be tanned. It is most important not to have the tan too strong, or it will harden the skins.
SISTER BEATRICE’S LEMONADE
3 lb. sugar, 1 oz. tartaric acid, 1 teaspoon of lemon, 2 pints water, juice and rind of 6 to 8 lemons, saltspoon Epsom salts.
Peel rind thinly. Squeeze lemons. Place all ingredients in a saucepan. Bring to boil and boil 3 minutes. Strain and bottle. Serve with iced water and fresh lemon slices.
(from a foreword to Marjorie Blackwell at Home)
Visitors to Campbell Town passing that remarkably artistic home of yours cannot fail to wonder what goes on inside, and your book now supplies the answer. Enterprise such as yours is all too rare these days; you have brought credit to our town.
Reginald Taylor, Warden, Municipality of Campbell Town
CAMPBELL TOWN – by me
CAMPBELL Town, Campbell Town, the town of memories sweet,
AND green clad vales, and timbered hills, which every eye may greet,
MAY every one that lives here, enjoy the place like me;
PLAINS filled with sheep and tall gum trees so beautiful to see.
BEAUTIFUL rivers to sit by, with picnic grounds galore,
ELEGANT churches, historic buildings, could you wish for anything more?
LUXURIOUS cafes, recreation grounds and clubs for young and old.
LONELINESS is never heard of, or that’s what I’ve been told.
THE Area School and all the shops and even the lovely Hall,
OR the popular swimming pool, and Gatty Memorial tall,
WILL take a lot of beating, I’m telling you my dear,
NO place is any nicer, Is it because my home is here?
DANIELLE WOOD was born in Tasmania in 1972. Her first novel, The Alphabet of Light and Dark, won the 2002 Australian/Vogel Literary Award and was short-listed for the 2004 Commonwealth Writer’s Prize in the Best First Book category.