‘Austerity Rules’ was a heading on a Letter to the Editor, (30 September 2021) written by Willa Mauldon. She was reminded of a jingle from her 1930s Depression era childhood, ‘Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without’, after reading a very thought- provoking article in the Canberra Times on food waste.

I too was reminded of more austere times after reading the article, and others published in these straightened times. Some memories were from my own childhood in the late 40s and early 50s, when some rationing was still in place after the Second World War, and others were prompted by studying the life and times of people associated with the old Tuggeranong Schoolhouse, which I run as a museum.

Now nestled in suburbia in Chisholm, for most of its 141- year existence, this modest sized schoolroom with attached school master’s residence, was a remote ‘beacon on a hill’ for the small community. For the first sixty years of its existence, it resonated with the sound of children at play, as well as an eerie silence, aided by the liberal use of the cane, when they were hard at work learning their lessons.

There are many stories associated with this historic site but a few that come to mind, prompted by our present times, relate to several young girls. A donation of sixty photos of schoolmaster William Duffy and his family, from the Depression era, includes some taken of the schoolchildren.

One child was Mavis Edlington, born in 1921, who walked nearly three kilometres to the school from Tuggeranong Homestead, where her father worked as a tenant farmer. Most students had a similar background. Luckily Mavis’ story was recorded in ‘Voices of Old Ainslie’, compiled by Louise Lyon, in 1995. It was a story of hardship, particularly after her mother died in 1928 leaving six children, including two- year- old twins. But what resonates with most visitors to the museum, is the thought of little Mavis, putting on her only pair of shoes, having walked to school in bare feet, to save her precious shoes from getting wet!

Mavis’s time at the school, like many of the students, particularly those from this era, was short. Her experience in cooking for her family, especially where she had learnt to be particularly frugal; cleaning; washing; farm- yard chores and child minding, prepared her for the work force, at the age of thirteen. She was hired by the Oldfield family of Athllon as a live-in maid to do the cooking and cleaning for two shillings a week, and later, when she did the washing as well, she got an extra two shillings.

This would have been fine, except that the Oldfield children had been her classmates. Mavis says, ‘I remember feeling a little bit envious and a little bit downtrodden. Nancy being the only girl, (there were five boys in the family), got everything. She was always dressed nicely, and I had very plain older clothes…’ Doing the washing was particularly onerous, even when Nancy, the only girl in the family, helped her.

While not attending the school herself, all Mrs Oldfield’s children did. What she had in common with Mavis was that she too had been in service at the age of thirteen. From a large family herself, she too had been helping run her family home from an early age, but unlike Mavis, she worked as a parlour maid at Tuggeranong Homestead. Working for the wealthiest family in the district, the Cunninghams, Mattie worked from 7 am until 7 pm for fifteen shillings a week. Her story was recorded in the Canberra Times in 1987 as she celebrated her centenary. She fondly remembered learning to set the table for lavish dinners and waiting on the family in the eighteen- room mansion. Despite being ‘never very well’, Mattie lived to be 102!

Another former student who attended the school, who also went into service at the age of thirteen, was the mother of well- known Canberran, Sylvia Curley. Sylvia who also became a centenarian, tells her mothers story in her book ‘A Long Journey’, published in 1998.

Her mother, Annie Elizabeth, nee Tong, remembered her time at Tuggeranong School fondly where she was taught general basic schoolwork by Michael Kennedy, and domestic skills by his wife Mary Kennedy. All cooking was done using the open fireplace in the dining room/kitchen of the four- room cottage. Other rooms were two bedrooms and a ‘front room’/best room opening off the front veranda. Having no children of her own, Annie Elizabeth remembered ‘Mrs Kennedy was a real ‘foster mother’ to these (school) children’. Born in 1869, Annie Elizabeth was firstly, a house maid at the Glebe Rectory at age thirteen, then three years later, she was one of the personal maids working for Mrs George Campbell of Duntroon. Sylvia wrote, ’My mother and her friends and family enjoyed the duties they had to carry out for the Campbell family’.

These young girls who worked for the wealthy families gained an insight into a better life than the one they would have had, had they stayed with their own families as unpaid labour. Certainly, their primary school years prepared them to be able to run a home frugally, and well.

In the kitchen at Tuggeranong Schoolhouse, which was added in 1899, I survey the many items which would have been familiar to these people; the huge iron kettles and fountains on the Metters ‘Canberra’ wood- burning stove; the metal meat grinders; teapots; bottling jars and other old time kitchen paraphernalia – the tools of the trade for women of the past. The pile of old recipe books is significant, as the books had useful hints on how to prepare nutritious, tasty and frugal meals. One even has instructions on, firstly, how to kill a fowl, a basic skill, and then how to pluck it and prepare it for cooking in lots of different and tasty ways.

The cookery books produced by Mrs Rutledge of Gidleigh near Bungendore, ‘The Goulburn Cookery Book’, are a treasure trove of hundreds of her friends tried and true recipes, as well as other handy hints in running a home efficiently. Nothing was wasted and the book, updated and reprinted thirty- five times, covers every meat dish; baking bread, cakes and biscuits; making soups and everything in between!

Browsing through these books I realise that many of the recipes were used time and time again and they are very well thumbed. Many of the recipes and handy hints would have been learnt by generations of women, and many are even familiar to me. My mother was about the same age as Mavis, and she also came from a similar rural background. Having five children in seven years just after the Second World War, ensured that she was adept at wasting nothing and making sure everything stretched to feed so many people.

While we children never liked kidneys, brains, tripe and other recognisable internal organs of a variety of animals, (I can still taste and remember the texture of this offal, beloved by my poor old Mum), at least we were spared the confronting meal of somethings’ head, sat in the middle of the dining room table! Earlier generations were not so squeamish, and Mrs Rutledge has a variety of recipes for cooking a sheep’s head, and seemingly every other body part, as well as all types of local wildlife, except wombat and koala!

In a quiet moment, in the tiny kitchen at the Tuggeranong Schoolhouse, the thought occurred to me that while seven of my family around a dining table was challenging, in 1908 there were nine of the McGee family who had to be fed, here, every day! The children ranged in age from 15- year- old Kathleen down to two- year- old Patrick. Kathleen, of course, would have been a help, as would seven- year-old Mary, and the boys, who included five-year-old James, who grew to be an internationally renowned Second World War scientist who helped in the development of television, would also have had a multitude of chores, including adding rabbits to the meat safe and the cooking pot!

Visitors have marvelled at the straightened living conditions of the remarkable McGee family who lived and worked on site for thirty years, without electricity, with only tank water and with only the old ‘long drop’ toilet down the back of the property. With no rubbish removal I am hopeful that one day, the old toilet can be excavated, as that is where all the household rubbish went.

Like Mavis Edlington, both Kathleen and Mary would have been well schooled in all aspects of housework and childminding and while Kathleen replicated her own mother in marrying the Tharwa school teacher, Fred Cleaver, and embarking, with him, on different school postings around NSW, Mary stayed closer to home. She worked as a maid at Tuggeranong Homestead, not for the Cunningham family like Mattie, but for Charles Bean, who, with his team supporting him, was writing some of the volumes on the Australian involvement in the First World War, on site. Amongst his team, assisting clerically, was George Lowery. In 1923, aged twenty- two, Mary married George, and embarked on a life as a wife and mother, and of never- ending home duties, like generations before her.

Mavis, aged sixteen in 1937, still labouring for the Oldfields, met Don O’Reilly, who has another fascinating Canberran story to tell, also in the ‘Voices of Old Ainslie’, and, having lived through hardship, and Don’s war service in New Guinea in the Second World War, they married in 1945. My parents also married that year and life for everyone was hard. All of us from that time have a great appreciation for the much easier time we live in now, and some of us are also very mindful of waste, both in food, clothing, and we are more inclined to ‘repurpose’ all manner of things.

Regular columnist for the Canberra Times, Ian Warden wrote about ‘melancholy’ induced by our time in pandemic induced ‘lockdown’, (28 August 2021). He had found a four- hundred- year- old remedy which recommended bathing with a sheep’s head. What a waste!

I would suggest that a better remedy for ‘melancholic’ Ian could be one of the following. Although many of the hard- working women from the past would have been far too busy to feel ‘melancholic’, hidden amongst the many goods and chattels in the kitchen at the Schoolhouse are three tried and true remedies for when times were tough. Both Mattie and Sylvia’s Mum, Annie Elizabeth, and Mary Anne McGee, nee Morrison, the remarkable woman who worked from 1899 until 1927 in the kitchen, would have had access to tiny green glass bottles of laudanum, and indeed Mrs Rutledge has published a remedy using this opiate, albeit for diarrhoea, in her early Goulburn Cookery Book. Sadly, my little green bottles are empty, but my Mum, Mavis, and Kathleen and Mary would have known of ‘Bex’ powders, considered extremely efficacious, especially when accompanied by a ‘cup of tea and, a good lie down’!

If that doesn’t work, I have a three quarters full bottle of vintage ‘Gripe’ water, used for colicky babies, which has a proportion of alcohol in it. Come to think of it, I’m sure there was maybe more in it before the pandemic struck!

History With a Difference