Australian Biography

Barbara Holborow - full interview transcript

Tape of 11

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Barbara, you've devoted your life to the welfare of children. What kind of a child were you? If you had to describe yourself, in a professional way, you know, what kind of a child were you?

I was a very happy child, but I was a lonely child, because I was an only child. Pretty naive. Like at 14 I was still spitting on lucky stones, throwing them over my left shoulder and saying, "Please God, send me a baby brother or sister". When you think that my mother was 45 when she gave birth to me, it was highly unlikely. I was - my piano was my best friend. I used to - I was never told, ever, to practise. I used to spend hours at the piano, yeah. But I had a very happy childhood.

What was your mother like? What kind of a person was she?

Oh, she was unbelievably gentle, kind, very fearful that something would happen to me. Because she had lost two sons, and in fact she didn't know she was pregnant with me. She thought it was change of life. And so when I came I was the most precious little object in her life. And I remained that all her life. And she worried over me, she fussed over me, but she was nothing like me, nothing at all. I think she often thought, you know, I must have come from under the doormat, because I was outgoing, I was talkative. Not like her.

What was your father like?

Stubborn. I adored him. We used to go - I was the son that didn't survive and I was going to the football with my dad when I was seven, every Saturday afternoon. And by the age of nine I knew every footballer who played in Sydney. I knew their position. I knew what the numbers on their back meant. Yeah. And I could really talk football with my dad.

Did he have the same protective attitude to you?

Yes. But, but more sensible I think. Mum fussed too much. And I never - as a result I never fuss. And also as a result of Mum I really cry. I cry at, I cry when I hear Waltzing Matilda, I cry when kids sing, you know, it just all wells up. But Mum really needed to carry a tea towel around with her. She could cry very easily. And those sorts of things stayed with me and I made a mental note very early in life I won't do that when I grow up. Yeah. And that's why I'm not as stubborn as my father was. He was incredibly stubborn. And sometimes he'd know he was wrong, and he'd still stick it out, he wouldn't change.

You don't have that quality?

No, no, no. I don't.

Were you ever a naughty child?

No. Didn't get a chance. I really didn't. Be naughty - I was watched 24 hours a day. No, I didn't get a chance to be naughty.

Did you feel confined by their attention?

Yes. Yeah.

What did you do about that?

I escaped into my piano. And into bits of a dream world myself. I used to have flights of fancy in my mind. And I used to pretend a lot. Played a lot of games, talking, talking to imaginary people. I used to have a favourite spot in the plum tree here. Because I've lived in this house for 70 years. And I used to climb into that plum tree and pretend.

What did you do for real friends apart from your imaginary ones?

Right. My first real friend was Wilma, and my birthday was on the 29th of June, and I started the next Monday at school, when I was five. And Wilma's birthday was on the 7th of July. And she started the next Monday. So that when she arrived I was already an old girl. I remember Mrs Bolton [Boland] saying to me, "Come on Barbara, you will look after Wilma". And Wilma and I remained very good friends right through to only very recently when Wilma passed away. But her father was the local Methodist minister. And parents were much stricter in those days, particularly if your father was a Methodist minister, and she had certain chores she had to do. So she wasn't here as often and I wasn't there as often as we would have liked.

Where did you go to school?

Just down the street, down the street. And I used to come home for lunch every day. And have lunch with Mum and sometimes Dad. And then back to school. And my mother was always here of course when I got home from school. And when I talk to people now about the importance of being at home for your kids - and that's why I believe a lot of kids get into trouble, because they come home to a house, not a home. And the first thing I ever said was, as I walked through the first door, "Mum" - I used to call for her. And I don't know what would have happened if she hadn't said, "I'm out here" or "Yes", because she was always here.

Your relationship with your father, how would you describe that relationship? You've said that you - he treated you a little bit like the boys he'd lost, but what, what was the nature of the connection between you and your father?

We respected each other. He was very proud of me, even if I - I did achieve musically, and he was very proud, very proud, but never said anything. And I remember when I used to get honours in my class, in my musical exams, and he'd give me two shillings. My God, that was so much money, two shillings. And that was a big thing for my father to do, because he and Mum had gone through the Depression and they were pretty mean days. And he always looked after his money. Never - never bought anything on time payment or a lay-by. If you couldn't pay for it, don't get it. I wished I could say the same.

Did you talk to your parents about your problems, you know, the little problems of childhood?

No, no. No. It wasn't that relationship. The relationship that you had was Mum and Dad and a child. I didn't know that you could have that relationship really with your parent. I mean kids now expect it. But I didn't know you could do that. No. I talked to my dog a lot, Socks.

The children at school, apart from your best friend, did you get on well with them?

No. No, I didn't.

Why not?

I always felt a little bit different. Just a little different. I think, looking back, I think I was very perceptive as a child, and I used to - I'd see things in the children that I really didn't like that much. Because there were no raised voices in this home. There was a lot of music. And there were no raised voices. There was never any arguments or fighting of any - well there was no need to. We lived in total harmony. And when I'd see some trait in a kid, like this, I really didn't like it and I'd be mortally wounded if they said - and crushed - if I, they said anything unkind to me. And you know, I was a skinny, straggly kid with skinny plaits and - yeah, no, I didn't get on with a lot of kids.

Did you like school itself?

Loved it.

What was it about school that you liked?

Wilma. Wilma and I, we used to - oh golly Moses - she did so much for my education that girl. Every Friday we would have a, a times table test. And Wilma and I got first and second every Friday. We'd be within half a mark of each other. And what a challenge it was. And we pushed ourselves. I mean after school, we'd go and do things like maybe in third class we were up to our ten times, or nine times, whatever table, but we pushed ourselves that we were up to our fifteen times table. We'd do that after school with each other.

So you did well at school, academically?

I did well until high school, when I got my diabetes.

Tell me about that.

That was just awful for Mum and Dad. Dad's father had died with - ah, brother - had died with diabetes, and I think it was his favourite brother. And so I was very - I had chicken-pox. And I was very, very ill with chicken-pox. So ill that they had to soak my pyjamas off me, da, da, da, da. And I - then after that had 99 blind boils. And they all had to be lanced. And I was in bed for months and months. And I just couldn't get well. And I was drinking copious amounts of fluid whatever, you know, that I could lay my hands on, water or orange juice, anything. And thinner and thinner. And so it was 1943, the war was on, and they sent me to Bowral with my Nanna to see if a holiday was what I needed. And of course we stayed on a dairy farm there. And they were trying to fatten me up with Milo - it's a wonder I didn't die - and of course all the things that were just so bad for a diabetic. And when I got off the train at Strathfield with my Nanna, Mum met us and Mum looked at me and burst into tears. And I thought - I felt guilty, I felt so guilty that I couldn't look well for her. Because I - it was a bit of a role I had to play in life. Because I was their only child, and it was a big responsibility being an only child. So she took me from that station to the doctor's. And it was a Friday night, the doctor looked at me, we'd never been to this doctor, ever, and we - he put me immediately from his surgery, we walked across Liverpool Road into Western Suburbs Hospital where I stayed, and of course it was diabetes. And, no I'm sorry, I'm wrong. He said, "She's to go to hospital tonight, immediately". And Mum said, "Well I'll have to go home and get pyjamas, etcetera". We came home and Dad was sitting at the table. And it was the first time - I only ever saw my father cry twice - and it was the first time he put his head down and sobbed. But of course, I reminded him I think of his brother. And I think he thought that I would die also. So I went to hospital with the biggest guilt trip you could imagine. I'd made both the people, who I loved most in all the world, cry. And I'd let them down. But I responded almost immediately to insulin, and I was 13 and that's been it ever since.

Why had it taken the doctors so long to work out what was wrong with you?

Oh, it was the war. Our doctor and all - there was only - had gone to the war, our own doctor, the family doctor. And the only doctor that they had was servicing an enormous area, was old Dr Walker. And he came to the house a couple of times and he just yawned the whole way through the examination. But I think when he saw me standing up he realised, you know, I was a pretty sick girl. And had been for about 8 months before they detected it.

Now they worked out how to treat you and you were put on a program and got better. But what was happening to you psychologically? How did you feel about all of this?

Different. And at 13 you don't want to be different. And I'd always been a bit different. Because of the piano and all of that. And now, when I'd go to any function, any social function, to a birthday party, to fellowship at church, whatever, I had to go along with two Sao biscuits and all of that. It was just awful, just awful. I didn't care very much - I didn't have a death wish but I just wasn't too sure that life was worth that much.

Were you depressed?

I suppose I was. But that wasn't a word I'd have used in those days.

How did you look? Did you put on weight?

I did after that, yeah. I would have wanted to. I was five stone four. And I was tall. And I was like a skeleton. I looked terrible. And, and the sugar, of course when you've got sugar you're very emotionally, you cry, all your hormones play up. I was very teary.

Well at that age they were going to play up anyway, weren't they?

Yes. And this didn't help.

So what happened? I mean how did you get over the impact of it?

My Nanna, the indomitable Nanna, whom everybody was frightened of. I wasn't frightened of her, I just didn't like her. Because of my perception I could see how she manipulated people. And I used to be able to say how she would act to something, and how the person she was dealing with would act. I'd see my poor mother, you know, apologising because for some reason when really she should have said to her, "Tough, make it yourself". But she didn't, she ran after her. I was in the bedroom crying and she came in and she said, "What are you crying about?" And I said, "Because I'm a diabetic and I don't want to be". And she said, "Well you are, and you can sit down there and cry for the rest of your life, or get up and live your life". And walked out and left me with that little pearl of wisdom. And I thought about it, and I thought, well I don't want to cry for the rest of my life. So I got my act together and went on from then. And I - from that day, I have to say, this awful woman - I have never allowed my diabetes to get between me and where I'm going. Ever. And if people say to me, when I'm out, and I say, "I have to have my fix now", and I have my injection of insulin, which I have at the dinner table. I make no excuses, I don't go into lavatories to shoot up, I do it at the table, and they say, "Oh, dear, how often?" I get so angry. I don't want their sympathy. So angry. I'm a diabetic, I shoot up. Simple as that. And I've been one now for, for 57 years.

Has it had any other physical consequences for you?

Mmm, yes.

What are they?

Well I have very little sight in my left eye as a result. And I think I know that my eyesight's fading. It's, it's - there are no haemorrhages as such, but it's, it's fading a bit, mmm. Other than that, no, no. If you think it's normal to walk round with a packet of jelly beans in your, in your pocket, that's the only precaution I take.

As you moved forward into adolescence, with your fix, and your resolution that you were going to live life, how did your social life develop then?

I was lucky. I used to attend a church, local church, and we had the best group of friends. There was about 16 of us, 18. And I really stepped into that, into that group of people. And I loved them and they loved me. And you know, when I celebrated my 70th year, most of them came, with - it was really wonderful. We'd go on picnics together. We'd take up almost a carriage on a train. Of course nobody had motor cars in those days to drive. And we'd walk miles. We'd go hiking with all our picnic gear and we belonged to the choir and we'd sing in the train. They were good days.

Did you have any other groups that you were involved with?

Oh, well I was a Brownie. And then I flew up to Girl Guides, I was in the Guides. But that petered out. Because then my diabetes did get in the road with Mum. Mum let it get in the road. Mum felt that to go away with the Guides was a no-no. And so it was easier for me to leave the - for me personally to leave the Guides than to be having to listen to this, that I was an invalid. Which I knew I wasn't. And that was why I left school when I did. Because...

Which was when?

I left school the moment I turned 15. Because Mum thought I was an invalid and study was too much. And I was a year ahead of myself in school, and that sort of probably could have added to the early onset of my diabetes, because I was studying a lot and...

How did you feel about leaving school? You left school at, at - after the Intermediate Certificate?

No, I didn't get the Intermediate.

You didn't even get to the Intermediate?



Middle of the year.


Off I went to business college, and did the shorthand, typing, bookkeeping. I was never very good at bookkeeping. I was good at typing. Ruined my touch for the piano, absolutely ruined it. So after that, it was buying records. My, my appreciation exceeded my ability to play. I could feel the difference. And from there I went...

Can I ask you to put yourself back, and there you were, a kid who'd done well at primary school, missed a lot of school through your diabetes, and then in a sense was withdrawn. Did you have any sense that you were being sort of pulled out of something that maybe you could have been good at if you'd got back into it? What was your state of mind at the time?

I was so used to being a good kid and doing as was asked of me, I did it without question. I told you, I was never naughty. And Mum thought this was the best, and so, so be it. When I look back now, I wished I'd had a bit of the fire that I've got in me now, to have fought for it.

But it ,of course, was a fairly standard route for girls at that time, wasn't it? That you did that?

Yeah, except that wasn't what was planned for me. Wasn't what I had planned for me. I was either going to be a nurse or a solicitor, I was going to be one or the other. And by what happened to me I was going to be neither. And I think really I thought that maybe this is what happened when you were a diabetic, that you didn't ever have your dreams fulfilled. But I'd learned to live with that.

But you had had the dream of being a solicitor, even when back when you were a kid?

Oh yeah.

Where did that come from?

Well I never knew it, but my great great grandfather was a magistrate. Now I did not know that at that time. And when I look back now he and I are, I believe, so alike.

How did you find out about him?

My cousin who decided to do - there'd been rumours about it - and I never took much notice, neither did I take much notice of the family tree, until this cousin started to do a lot of research, and there it was. And he was a much loved magistrate in the Dubbo, Wollombi, Wellington area. Used to go round on horseback. And in fact last year, in November of last year, I sat on the very bench that he sat on in 1853. Incredible.

Not as a magistrate, as somebody just feeling it out?

As his great great granddaughter. And the women who keep the museum where it is were just so thrilled, because he's still loved in that area. And, and the bed and breakfast where we stayed was his old home - Mulla Villa. And on the doors they've got his name - David Henry Dunlop - and on the other bedroom his wife, Eliza. And they still have articles that were there when they were there.

But as a little kid, how did you know about the law? How did you know what a solicitor...

Dad was on the jury. And he'd come home and tell us about the case and I thought, "Oh yeah. That would be so exciting". And I was good at debating. So I got a taste for it.

What did your father do for a living?

He was a painter decorator.

How were you affected by the Depression?

Well, I was born in 1930, and so I don't remember any of it until I was about - just before I was four and of course it was waning then. But I know the way they acted was as a direct result - with money and with the deeds. You never gave the deeds to the bank. They never trusted the banks again. The deeds of the house were always kept in the kitchen drawer.

But he had plenty of work?

Oh God, yes. Yes. And he, he built this house. Yes. And the one there too. We - well I don't ever - we were never poor, but I think they - well not in my time - but they certainly had to manage their pennies. But they'd both come down from Cobar. They weren't city people at all. In fact, until my father and mother went into a retirement home, the key was left in the front door every night in case a friend needed a bed. And you know, I'm talking late 1960s here, when people were starting to put bars on their windows. That wasn't for Mum and Dad.

I was going to ask you, what would you say were the values that dominated in the house? How would you describe the kind of values that were put through to you as a child?

It was open house. The door was hardly ever closed. And when it was, it was never locked. Never. Windows weren't barred or locked, never. And the moment anybody came the kettle was on. Always. And Mum was always - she was noted for her scones. And she could whip up scones with the blink of an eye, and there was - it was warmth and friendliness always.

Were there any - apart from obviously the huge blight of your diabetes - were there any other blights on your childhood?

No, I don't think so. No, I don't think there were any other blights. That was a hell of a big enough one thank you very much. Yeah.

Before we leave your childhood, just looking at it now, with the benefit of hindsight, do you see anything that was happening there, when you were a child, that were seeds of things that came out later?

Oh, everything. My, my childhood moulded me for what I am now. I mean there was so much love poured on me that I've had enough love to hand out to other kids forever. That's where it comes from. I mean it was just too much for one kid to handle. I mean I don't know how I didn't grow up the most neurotic person - maybe I am neurotic, but I think I'm pretty sane for what I now know happened. And really you'd be saying to a parent, "Look I think you better back off a little. And not put a cardigan on her every time she goes out the door". And it was all this coddling. I really was coddled. That's the word. And I now feel so uncoddled, and I make sure I'm uncoddled. And I only cry when I hear Waltzing Matilda. Yeah, I don't need a tea towel to cry. And I, and I saw at a very early age Dad's stubbornness was wrong, I knew that before I was about six. I think it was not the way to go. You ought to be able to say sorry. I can think of someone else who should say sorry too, but at that time it was my, it was my Dad. And so that's moulded me now for what I am. And when I've been doing the research in my books, in the last book in particular, I know that your life is moulded in the first three years, and then up to the fifth, and if you don't get it right by then, it takes 27 years to undo the harm. So I didn't have 27 years of violence to undo. Or a life that was just full of hate and distrust. I had 27 years of too much love to overcome. And I've been able to share that around. There are very, very few kids that I've ever come across that I can't put my arms around. Very, very few. There were some real tobies that would come before me in court, and I'd think this is sad because I can't see a nice thing about you. But always, didn't matter how, how, how bad they were, I could always - there was something about them.

When you were an adolescent and you had this nice circle of friends, where did boys fit in? When did they enter your life?

Oh, pretty late. Pretty late. I think I was about late 16. We, we - no one was sort of pairing off really. There were some. I mean I used to - there was one boy I used to like to be with, Ron. But that was it. And only - out of the whole crowd, three of the couples ended up marrying, but I don't ever remember them being that particularly close to each other. And I had a couple of, couple of boyfriends and then of course John Holborow, who I'd known since I was eight, and wasn't in this group at all. He was on the fringe of it, but he wasn't one of our group. And the Fort Street Ball was on, and the girl he was taking was away, and the boy who was taking me was away. And we were both 18 and it was on the fourth of May, and we went together. And neither he nor I ever went out with anybody else after that. And then of course we ended up marrying.

What was it about him that drew you to him?

Oh everything, absolutely everything. He'd been raised in a family with two uncles and an aunt that had never married. And a cousin, lovely woman, whose husband after three months of marriage, was killed at the fall of Singapore. That was the household he was brought up in. He was like no other boy I'd ever met. He was so polite. He stood when a girl entered or left the room. He was just so attentive. I loved him from the word go.

And what do you think he saw in you?

I was different. He, he said - he just thought I was great to be with. Because I was just about everything that had never happened in his family I think. They were very, very old world. Beautiful people, but nobody had worked. And he lived in this 13 bedroomed mansion that was, needed a lot of repair done because the money had run out from the family. And - see I used to - I suppose I was still pretending - when I used to go there I could just imagine what it was like in the old days with the carriage - it had a circular drive - and how the carriages would have drawn up in front of this. And I just loved it, I loved his relations, I loved him, I loved the atmosphere of his home. And I loved the way they accepted me.

[end of tape]

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