Australian Biography

Barbara Holborow - full interview transcript

Tape of 11

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After you got your business qualifications, what kind of work did you do?

I worked in a solicitor's office. And he was a solicitor, a young solicitor who came back from the war, passed his exams and they put you through very quickly after the war, because they'd started their studies, gone to the war, came back. And he opened up his practice, I remember at 54 Hunter Street, Sydney. And I was his first secretary and he was my first boss. And I stayed with him until I married. And I loved the work. It was just what I wanted to do. I couldn't be a solicitor but it was like being a solicitor, and I took pride in, very much, in my work.

Was that the only job you'd ever had?

Yes. Yes.

Had you ever had jobs while you were at school, or part-time?

No, no.

I'd heard about a bookie's runner.

Oh, that was long after that.

Oh, was it?

Yes, no, that was long after that. Yes.

So when you got married, what was that like? Were you a happy couple?

Yep. Yes, we were. Except I guess - we moved into a lovely, lovely home, that was owned by John's Mum, it was a terrace. And John had had nothing to do with his mother really from when he was about three. And she left him with the family to raise. And I got him back with his mother because to be separated from your mother was so foreign to me. I couldn't understand that. And so I encouraged him to visit with his mother and we bridged what was a bit of a gap. And anyway, she - I was not her favourite person, marrying her son who was a prince, I quote. And when we came back from our honeymoon, and we, we had the most wonderful wedding. Everything I asked for was provided and no expense was spared. We went to Hayman Island in a flying boat. It was when it used to leave Rose Bay. And we came back from there. I mean, this is 1953, and it was pretty adventurous. You flew all day. We came back and she'd moved in downstairs. A so I think really the writing was on the wall then. And I found after about six weeks of married life that I was pregnant. This wasn't planned. We'd thought we'd go overseas, but anyway there I was pregnant. And we were both very excited. And she just made our life hell. But we were trapped. We'd invested everything in upstairs. And of course the inevitable, I was not that far from Mum and Dad, who, I was still their only child. And who didn't move away from me that much. And Mum would ring every day, etcetera. And then I just wasn't well. I really wasn't well. And it was a horrific eight months.

Are there particular problems for a diabetic having a baby?

Mmm, yeah. And none of these were being addressed. None of them. And I had lots of complaints and kidney - anyway...

Was your mother-in-law sympathetic?

Oh, no. No. No. And anyway I'm - the night that - I knew I was having a son. If anyone had told me anything different I wouldn't have believed them. And his name was Kim Anthony. And the night that Kim was born - he only lived a little while - and I remember seeing - the first thing I said was - and I suppose this says it all, I said "Poor Mum and Dad". Not poor John, not poor me, poor Mum and Dad. I just felt I'd once again let them down. So anyway I saw this woman wrapping something in newspaper, and I thought it was my son. Oh, sorry.

And was it?


That's what they did?

Mmm. And anyway I struggled to get out of the bed I was in to grab him. So I wasn't strong enough to, I was weak. Anyway, then they put me into a ward with all these unmarried mothers, because they felt that if I didn't see the baby I'd get over his death. And that wasn't so. And I was crying one night and this sister came and she said "What are you crying for?" And I said "I'll give you three guesses". And she said "Because he died. Well at least you know where he is. None of these girls will ever know where their babies are". Because they were all going to be adopted. So I've remembered that always, and when I mourned, as I did, for the first 41 years of Kim's life, on the 11th of May every year, I thought I wondered how Bourkey was feeling. She was a girl from Bourke who was in the next bed to me. And she'd had a boy. And I thought, I wondered if Bourkey's fretting too, like I am. Anyway, so I came home from hospital, in fact I rang John and said "If you don't take me home I'm walking home. I've got to get out of here". And I got home and my mother of course - and I really needed her - she moved in with us for the five days, and then she would go home at the weekend. And John's mother, who was a renowned pianist, played Chopin's 'Funeral March' for the whole day. And they found me that night, just before John came home from work, I was clawing the wallpaper off the nursery wall. I was in an awful state. So my mother, who'd never ever interfered, nor my father, my mother said to her, "You must stop. She'll lose her mind if you don't". So John suggested to his mum that maybe she could move away. Which she did. And she went off and taught music at some private school. And so then we sort of picked up our lives up again. Now, you know, we were two pretty naive kids of 24. I mean we'd be equivalent to about a 15 year old today. That was the first year of our married life. I didn't get over Kim's death. I was never counselled. There was no grieving or anything like that. And then I was pregnant with Louise, and went - immediately I went to a diabetic specialist. And - where I should have gone for Kim of course. And I spent five months in hospital, St Lukes Hospital, for Louise to be born. And that was when I lost the sight in - well I lost it in both eyes actually, but it came back 100 percent in this eye, but not my left. And then she was born. And that's it.

The strain of the pregnancy had the effect of the loss of sight. How did you feel when you realised your eyesight had gone?

Look, I know this sounds absurd, but when these things would happen, I used to think that's part of being a diabetic. But Fred Hollows years later was able through laser treatment to give me 40 percent sight back with laser.

Were you worried when the sight went? Were you thinking about how will I look after my baby...?

No, I knew I would. I knew. I, no - she was, she was going to be - they wanted to terminate and I said, "No. No way".

So she was born and she was healthy.

God, she was ugly, but she was healthy. [laughs] She was so ugly. They said to me that - she was a Caesar baby of course, and this is what should have happened in those, with Kim, it's those last three weeks of the nine months when all the damage is done. And so they take diabetic babies at eight months. And that's what they did of course. Everybody said to me, "Oh, she'll be beautiful because there's no stress, strain of childbirth". Oh, cripes, here she was, this wizened up little black-haired thing. [laughs] And of course, she grew into the most beautiful fair-haired girl. And now a woman.

And so when you took her home, and your mother-in-law was no longer in the house, did things settle down then to your being a little family?

Yes, except we had a live in nurse, because I was still very, very weak. And I wasn't - because of my eyesight, I wasn't allowed to lift Louise. She had to be placed into my arms. I couldn't lift anything heavier than a knife and fork.

Did this affect your ability to bond with her?


How did you feel about her?

Oh, terrified. I was terrified. I didn't think I could be so lucky as to have my own baby.

What were you terrified of?

Oh, that I'd go in and she'd be, she'd be, you know, she'd be a cot death or I really - you know, and when we got past that stage, it was only then that I could say I really enjoyed her. Because I wasn't frightened any more.

You'd had this terrible experience at the first birth of actually seeing the baby being wrapped up in newspaper and taken away. When Louise was actually born, can you remember that moment?

Well I was out to it, and I didn't see her until she was three days old. She went straight into a humicrib, and they took me from the general part of St Lukes down into the maternity section. And this was - [laughs] I can laugh now, but they were so proud of her, because this was the first baby that had been born in the general part. They were always born in the maternity section, so it was their baby. And I'd been there for five months. I knew every nurse, all their boyfriends. I, you get to know them, they were all lovely girls. And so the matron held my hand and the deputy matron pushed the wheelchair to go down to see our baby. Now I'd chosen the name Louise with John, we'd chosen that name, and we couldn't think of a second name. And it turned out that the matron was Louise Elizabeth and the deputy matron was Elizabeth Louise, so there absolutely no doubt then as to what her second name could be. So they both pushed me down for the grand viewing of this baby in the humicrib, and when I looked, I wanted to cry. She was so ugly. But they said, were all saying, "Isn't she just beautiful. Look at our Louise Elizabeth", and I'm saying, "Oh yes, she is". And I didn't want to let them down because I was so disappointed. But when they pushed me back up and took me back into my bed and I got into my bed and there were three other women in the room. And they're all saying to me, "What is she like?" And I burst into tears, and said "Nothing like I expected". But anyway, that soon changed.

And how did things progress? What did your husband, John, do for a living?

Oh, he, he was with Dalgety's. And he was in the insurance department, but for livestock. And he would travel all over to farms and to properties, and I used to go with him often, to make sure that everybody was happy with the insurance for their livestock, their farmhouses or whatever. And come the Royal Easter Show, he was so old world with his wonderful manner and bearing, that all the old darlings would want to take him to the Australia for lunch, or bring your wife for dinner at night. And the Easter Show for us would go for a fortnight. That was, that really was a big event in our life. Yeah.

With his work taking him away, and with you not being well, and the - during your pregnancies and so on - how had he coped? Had he been able to be supportive of you or was he preoccupied as a young man with other things?

He was totally supportive. He visited me every night, or day, in hospital. He did not, in that five months, miss one visiting. He was totally supportive.

So how did things settle down after that?

It - I guess it was a little bit unnatural having a person living in with us, who of course ate with us, and we were never really on our own. And, unkindly I say this, I mean the demands that were put on us by family were just unrealistic. Luncheon on Sundays always with his family. Thursday night dinner with my family.

How long did the nurse stay with you?

Oh, until John and I separated.

And what led to the separation?

We never had a fight, we never had an argument, we never had a fight. We just knew that we were both going in separate directions. I was intellectually going crazy. I was reading a book a day - with the nurse there was very little for me to do. And I one thing I wasn't going to do, and that was to fuss over Louise and coddle her, like I had been. And I had - used to go for long walks with her, talking with her, etcetera. But I just wasn't being intellectually stimulated. And I said, I thought I might like to go back to work. Well that then was just not heard of. And there was no need. And John said he would like to travel and I, I just, I just couldn't see us doing that. And so we - I joined a choir, the Royal Philharmonic. And yeah. And it was good. And musically I was being a bit stymied. And so we were both developing in separate directions.

In those days, the most common, really the only, what was seen as grounds for divorce, were other people. Did that enter the picture? Did you find somebody else that you did relate better to?


Did he?

No. No. We had this terrible divorce. It was called 'restitution of conjugal rights'. And I'd moved away. There was no need for a divorce for a long time, because neither of us - and I never did remarry. He did three times, but I didn't. Anyway, there was a need for him to get a divorce. But we couldn't get a divorce, because we had no grounds, because we'd never had an argument. So we had to go through this rubbish of restitution of conjugal rights, where he wrote to me and asked me to return, and gave me 14 days or 28 or something. And gave me 10 shillings, which was my fare to enable me to return. So when I was served with these divorce papers, he and I went out to the Australia and drank the 10 shillings that he'd given me to go home. I mean it was absolute farce. And then I wrote a letter saying, no I'm not returning. And then that could be treated as desertion and then he could get his divorce. Except I nearly, I nearly stymied it, because the judge said to him when he read my letter, "Is your - do you think" - that's right - "Do you think that maybe your wife didn't return because intellectually she's superior to you?" [laughs] That wasn't quite what we wanted. Anyway. We got the divorce.

How old was Louise when you left?

Eighteen months.

Where did you move to, Barbara?

Certainly not home. No way. Because my mother hadn't stopped crying from when we had very gently told her that we just wanted to separate, which was what we did originally want just to do. And my father said that if it came to a divorce he would be asked to leave the Masons. And I, I think the only time I've ever rebuked my father, and I said, "Well Dad, why do you go? If that's what the Masons are going to do over your daughter's divorce. It's got nothing to do with you. Why are you a Mason?" Anyway, so I went to stay with some deaf mute friends, who had moved in downstairs when John's mother moved out. And I spoke on my hands, signed, as well as any deaf person because of my association, and, in fact, I'm godmother to both of their children. So, and they had bought a home and they'd moved away. So Louise and I moved in with them. And so I didn't have to listen to anyone say "You're making a mistake".

And you let the nurse go?


So you felt able to look after Louise after all?

Yes. See, Louise was 18 months. And I couldn't lift her. But she was manageable without that then. And I stayed there for six months. And then eventually I had to come home of course, because Mum had taken to bed with what I call the vapours. And Dad came down and said "Please will you come home, because it's almost - your mother is fretting". And I said I would come home on the condition that John and I, our marriage was not mentioned. That there was just was not to be the topic of conversation. So I moved home, and Dad was reading the local paper and there was a solicitor asking for a secretary, for two afternoons a week. And Dad said "Do you think you'd like to do that?" And I said "Yeah". So I got that job and I worked there for 13 years. And that was where I studied law from there.

Tell me about that job.

Well, the two afternoons a week grew to five days a week and two people - we ended up with a magnificent practice with a staff of eight girls. I became a managing law clerk, which is identical now to what they call a paralegal. You do all the work of a solicitor. And I was at a hearing in Penrith. I had done all the work for this case, no solicitor would have done more. I briefed counsel. And it came morning tea time and the judge invited the lawyers to morning tea, and I started to get up to go and my barrister said, "Oh you're not invited, you're not a lawyer". And that was it. So - and I went off and I studied for my - it was the last year of the Leaving Certificate as we knew it, before the Higher School came in - and I sat for that and got that and then studied law.

How did you study for the Leaving Certificate? Where did you do it?

I went every night to Burwood evening school and studied at home.

During this time that you had this job, how did you manage with Louise?

Mum did. Louise went to pre-school. She used to go off each morning in a little hire car that took her and two other little girls. And in a way I guess, when I look back now, Louise and I have talked about this and she's told me her memories, I let her down during that time. I had always assumed - because I wanted to - that she was really happy there, with all the other kids etcetera. But she said she wasn't happy there. They - she said she didn't have that many happy memories of that pre-school, nor of the hire car driver, she said, who was always very strict with them. And she was only three and then four.

And what about your - how would you characterise your relationship with her at the time, because you were living here with your parents, and they were like parents to her too. So where did you fit into that?

Big sister. That's what it was. And it's so wrong. You know, anyone can have a sister. But they only have one mum. And it was very wrong. But I capitulated. I mean I would put Louise to bed, and like all children she'd want to get out, and Dad would take her out. And so I capitulated.

So you handed over authority to them?

Mmm, yeah.

As you always had.

Mmm. Yeah. My role was never to upset them. And I'd given them the biggest upset. I was the first divorce in the family. Not on religious grounds. Just the first divorce. I'm sure half my relations would have been happier divorced, but they all stuck it out.

Looking back now, and looking at your divorce in the context of the rest of your life, and with that hindsight, if you had to say honestly why you think it happened, why, why do you think it was really that that divorce occurred?

Oh, there were many reasons. John and I had no mature supports. We had no one to turn to and say "Wow, we're out of our depth with these emotions". You know, we've lost a baby, I must have been bordering on a breakdown for so long, and just hanging in there and holding it together, that - it just wouldn't happen now. [INTTERUPTION]

But you had all this family, all these mature people around you. They weren't any help. In fact it sounds as if they were almost part of the problem.

Oh they were.

Could you talk about how that was?

Oh yes, you see, as I was brought up coddled, even in our married life John's Uncle Billy, who loved him as much as my mother loved me, would come down every afternoon, take John's shirts to go to the laundry, and his handkerchiefs, go into John's wardrobe, and make sure that his shoes were shining, make sure that his suits were brushed, and if there was a cloud in the sky, would meet him at the railway station with an umbrella. And we were never allowed to grow up. We never were. But I guess, you know, a sign of our love for each other is that it's - we still love each other.

How did you express this unresolved grief? Were you angry with him a lot? How did it come out...?

Oh no, we never fought. I never blamed him. It wasn't his fault. It was part of me being a diabetic. I took that on.

You were a failure?

Mmm. Mmm.

So, although you didn't blame him, you felt that the only way that you could go forward was to leave him. Was that why - how it really came about - that it was a sort of sense that everything associated with your problems was wrapped up in that relationship and you had to get out of it?

I, I think that it was my childhood back again. We were just being coddled. You couldn't breathe, you couldn't move. If - we didn't have air-conditioning in our home and it was - Louise was born in November. And I remember it was February and it was exceedingly hot. And they were there every day to come and take us to their home, where it was cool. And it was - it was all kindness, but every time I looked up we had his relations or my relations, through love and kindness, there. It was suffocating. He was at work all day. And John was a very, very placid person. Never saw him lose his temper. Never. And he used to say, "Just be patient". I was almost screaming with impatience. Leave me alone. And I was escaping.

And he didn't want to escape with you?

No! He didn't want to escape. John just wanted a quiet life. And I questioned things. And I started to push boundaries and yeah. Look to - this will explain it - on the day I was married, I said to my father, "Dad, do you mind if I smoke?" I'm 23, about to be married, moving into my own home with my husband. "Dad, do you mind if I smoke?" My dad said "No, you'll be married and you're leaving home. Don't let your mother see you smoke. It'll break her heart". "Fine", I said. "Mum, do you mind if I smoke?" Mum said, "Oh, well I won't like it darling, but don't let your father see you smoke". I mean that's it. That was my life. Pleasing them. Now I look back and I laugh, and I think don't let your mother, don't let your - please. Yeah.

[end of tape]

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