Australian Biography

Dame Roma Mitchell - full interview transcript

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Dame Roma, I wonder if you could tell us what was the most striking thing you remember -- your earliest memory of your childhood?

I have vague recollections of the time we lived at Renmark in the riverlands, and I would have been two, I suppose, yes, and I think the reason I remember it is because there has to be some cut-off point, doesn't there, even with childish memories and my father went off to the war when I was two-and-a-bit and I do remember, either my second birthday or Christmas time, because I can remember somebody having given me a mechanical toy and my father and some other male friend playing with it on the floor, excluding me, so that's really my earliest exact memory and I think it's right — because my mother was doubtful that I could have remembered it when I said some years later but I described the entrance which was a fairly large entrance hall. So I think that's the earliest accurate memory I have.

Watching them play with that toy, do you remember the feeling? Was that the beginning ...

Yes, I was thinking, I'm not going to be left out anymore. I think I thought I was excluded and that's why I remembered it, obviously. It's those things that children do remember.

Did you subsequently have a pattern in your life of feeling, well, I'm not going to be excluded from things that matter to me?

I have no recollection that I ever felt that I wouldn't be excluded but of course I was a younger sister with a sister three-and-a-bit years older than I was and I think a younger member of a family is always fighting for recognition in some way.

Were you a competitive child. Did you feel competitive with your sister?

I don't think I felt competitive with my sister, but I think I was competitive. I think I was competitive at school, I had feelings of competition as far as school things were concerned, mainly I suppose on the academic side because I really wasn't ever going to shine at sport and I had enough sense to realise I wasn't ever going to shine at sport. I think I probably realised where my talents lay reasonably early, but yes, I think I was competitive.

Did you do very well at school right from the beginning? Did you start shining from a young age?

Yes I did. I didn't start school until I was, I suppose, nearly six-and-a half because that was the age at which children started school then. I can remember being bored for the last couple of years at home because there were no kindergartens in those days, and my sister was at school. And so I harassed my poor mother to teach me to read, and to teach me to do various things like that and in consequence I was put into what was then Grade One when I first went to school and after about a month or so I was moved up a grade so I suppose I was a nuisance in that respect there too by knowing everything. And so it meant that I was always a bit younger than the other children I was at school with. I don't think that helped my lack of prowess in sport either because in those earlier days we played sport by classes and of course the other children were always bigger and stronger than I was and so I don't know whether ... I don't think I would have been a good sport anyway.

It could have affected it though.

I think it may have, yes. Mmm, because I was always a very slim child and didn't really grow tall until I was 14, I suppose. I was smallish and then grew really quite tall. So it probably did have some effect. But on the other hand, I always enjoyed studying dance and did that with quite a lot of pleasure. Ah, so it really, I don't think it affected me emotionally at all.

Yes, physical activity that doesn't involve sport and competition has always been part of your life hasn't it, in that you like dancing, you like swimming and so on ... ?

Yes, well, actually the sports I like are the non-competitive ones. I like swimming, I liked dancing, I liked riding, horse riding; no competitive sports at all. I like walking. I've always been a good walker. I think one of the benefits I may have received is that I haven't suffered from any of the ills that competitive sport sometimes brings. I have just opened a new premises for the Physiotherapists' Association in South Australia and I pointed out that only once [had] I had occasion to visit a physiotherapist and that was when I walked into an iron wheelbarrow and pulled a cartilage in my leg, and it is rare for anybody to reach my age and to have had only one visit to a physiotherapist. I really think that sports are responsible for a lot of later ills of that sort that I've been spared.

Now, going back to your family, your father. Apart from the fact that he played with your toys, what sort of a person was your father, could you describe him to me? And could you tell me a little bit about your relationship with him. I know you were very young when he died, but did you feel in competition with your sister, and how you felt about your father?

Yes, well, I was the youngest of three children. The first child — all girls — the first child had died as an infant before my sister was born. I think my father cherished my sister very much. Ah, well for obvious reasons both my parents were very concerned, having lost their first child. I don't have enough recollection of him to know that I did feel competitive, the only other real recollection I have of my own is that I can remember clambering for attention when he came in, when he was about to embark for overseas. I remember him in uniform. He was a very tall man and I can remember I tried to attract his attention and make him pick me up, because my sister always got a lot of attention from him, for I think obvious reasons.

Otherwise I know him only really through my mother who was very devoted to him. He was a lawyer himself but he'd been really induced into studying law because his father was a lawyer and had become a judge and I don't think he was very enthusiastic about the law. He loved country life and so he insisted on practicing in the country and on living a little bit out of the town where he could have some land of his own. My mother felt that, had he come back from overseas, he probably would have abandoned law and gone on to the land. She was, as I say, very devoted to him. I think from family friends, when I was young, he was a very outgoing person, made friends easily, was pleasant to look at and had a good sense of humour. My mother always said I was like him but I don't know.

Did she mean in looks or personality?

I think she meant more in personality. When we were young I think my sister was more like him but then when we got older we got more alike too so it's very hard to tell, isn't it.

How was he killed?

He was killed on the 5th of April, 1918, at the beginning of that Villers Bretonneux battle in the trenches and it was rather — I find it rather touching this ANZAC Day (1993) when I planted a tree in the gardens of Government House to commemorate the battle of Villers Bretonneux; it was rather strange that I was able to do that. One pleasant thing that must have happened to him was that he went away as a private from South Australia and he was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge, to get his commission and he did. So he must have had a very pleasant time there. I always feel that's encouraging to think that he had those couple of months or two or three months, whatever they were, in the atmosphere of Cambridge, which he clearly did enjoy very much.

So it was a year after he went away that he was killed?

Ah no, 17, it was, I suppose it was about 15 months, say 16 months, mmm.

And how did the family hear about it?

Oh, I think it was very hard in those days because it used to come by a telegram, delivered to the door, missing, believed killed in action, and then a long, what must have been an interminable, wait for a confirmation. I don't know how long it was. It seems to me it must have been weeks, but I don't know how long. It must have been weeks I suppose.

With your very good memory for your childhood, do you remember that telegram and do you remember what happened?

I do remember that, but I'm not sure whether I remember it because it's been reinforced by something that somebody wrote. My sister at that stage was at school and we lived in North Adelaide, and I used to be permitted to walk up to meet her on her return from school, not crossing the road, on the same side of the road as she was coming back. I would have been four at that stage and when the confirmation came I went up to meet Ruth as usual and when we came back Mother said, "Ruth, you know I've got something to tell you", and Ruth just burst into tears and said, Roma told me. And my mother said to me afterwards, "Why did you tell Ruth?" and I said, "I wanted to save you". So you know, it obviously did affect me. I have got some recollections even of the earlier time, you know, I can picture the telegram arriving and picture what happened.

It was extraordinarily responsible for a little four-year-old to feel that way ...

It was, wasn't it, yes. Yes, it rather surprised me when I heard about it later because I had forgotten it but I can still picture it. I can still picture the scene. You never know how much is your own actual memory and how much has been reinforced, do you, with these childish things.

What affect did that then have on the family life?

Oh, it had a big effect. Ah, well, first of all there was very little money because my father had been young and hadn't been able to build up anything. My mother was a very strong woman but nevertheless she — it was a terrible blow to her. One from which she never really fully recovered. She never contemplated marrying again, although various people used to suggest it. My sister and I as we got older were little horrors, we'd say, oh, we'd leave home (when I think of it, you know) but I, she, never did. I think it had a very big effect on my sister who was three years older than I; 'course, it had some effect on me but I think a bigger effect on my sister than on me.

And the financial impact in those days ...

... Was very strong, yes. Very strong.

What did your mother then live on?

Well, there was a pension and a little bit of money, but very little bit of money, and also you had to keep up appearances in those days, you know, you had to be able to do the things that other children were doing and, yes, it was a big struggle for her.

So, but she managed to maintain a place in that class, in the professional class?

She did. Yes, she did do so. She had two sisters who also lived in Adelaide and one of them was married to a barrister here, Frank Villeneuve Smith, who became very noted as a Queen's Counsel. Now, although there was no — obviously, there shouldn't have been any support from them, but they were very socially minded and my mother used to go to the races with them, and we'd all sometimes go to the theatre, usually with them. Although we'd go to the theatre on our own, but of course as we got older we used to go up in what we called 'the gods' in those days, up in the gallery. I don't think the theatre's ever been as good as it was then. In the old Theatre Royal; you wouldn't have known the old Theatre Royal in Adelaide, I suppose. It was a lovely old theatre, a little like the Theatre Royal in Hobart, which still exists and I'm talking more of our later school days and student days — people'd buy a ticket which would be comparatively reasonable and then we'd go up dirty old stairs and sit on the stairs until the doors were opened and we'd rush in and we'd sit way high up and just on the rough formed benches. So there was a lot of theatre in those days but even earlier through the relatives I, for instance, saw Pavlova when I was about, I don't know, 13 I suppose and so it wasn't really a poverty-stricken childhood; we did the things that we wanted to do but they had to be very carefully done.

Your mother must have been a very good manager to do all that on a ...

She was. She was an excellent manager. Yes. Ah, very careful. I think though that it was one reason why she was very anxious for us to be able to make our own way financially without having to rely on somebody else to do so for us.

Did you learn a lot from that yourself?

Oh, I think I inherited a lot from my mother, yes. I was very close to her and I think I did inherit a lot of her will to survive and to maintain standards. Yes, I think I did.

From the things that she taught you when you were young, what are the principles ... as a lawyer you're always talking about principles ...

Yes ...

... what were the principles that you think she inculcated that impressed you?

Ah, I think courage and strict honesty ... and this isn't a principle but the desire to learn. She was a great reader herself and she was always very encouraging in that respect.

So, there was nothing at all culturally impoverished about your childhood?

No, no, there wasn't. No, we were very fortunate in that respect.

Where did you go to school?

I went to St Aloysius' College which is a convent school in the city. And I started at that school aged six-and-a-bit and I was there until I was 17. That was my entire school life.

What were the academic standards of that school like?

Very good. That was, my mother chose it for its academic standards. Once again, my sister had started at another school which was then a convent school, but which was then regarded as the leading school I suppose from the point of view of instilling the ladylike qualities, but my mother thought the Mercy nuns who ran Saint Aloysius College were better educationists. So she really carefully selected that school.

Did she transfer your sister there too?

Yes, she did. Well we moved house. We moved from North Adelaide to Kingswood, which is a southern suburb, so it probably wouldn't have been convenient for my sister to stay at North Adelaide but I think she loved that school too. I think she always harked back to it a little bit because it was a small school in those days but my sister moved first and then I followed a year later when I started school.

Was your mother very religious?

Yes, she was. And in those days, of course, the religions were divided. It's a joy to me today, especially in my present position, to see how ecumenical people are because my father, my mother's family, was divided — her father's side of the family were Anglicans, her mother's Catholics and she was brought up as a Catholic. My father's people were Anglicans and what we used to call 'lay church' in those days and it was, as far as they were concerned, it was a cause of division. They really didn't like the Catholic religion at all in those days. My grandparents, I mean. Ah, so there were problems there, but she was deeply religious herself. And that was that.

Did you ever experience, as a child going to a convent, any of the anti-Catholic feeling that was held by the dominant Protestant majority?

No, I don't think I did really because we had cousins, both on my mother's side of the family — well, mainly on my mother's side of the family, because on my father's side of the family they were not living in Adelaide then, but we had cousin who were not Catholics and we had plenty of friends who were not, so we mixed quite freely but there was a bias, obviously.

Was religious education strongly emphasised in the convent you went to?

Oh yes. In those days, yes.

What did it mean to you?

Ah, well I've remained a practicing Catholic so it meant quite a lot to me.

So, religion is still a force that you actually turn to with prayer and all the other things that people who are religious practitioners use to help guide your life?

Well, it's certainly a part of my life. Yes. I should think that is accurate. Yes. But where I think it's so much better now than it was is that I go to a lot of religious services, as you may imagine. Sometimes two or three on the one Sunday but I can join in quite happily. I would have obviously been permitted to go in my position as Governor but now I can go along and join in quite happily the different services and so I think that's really a very big improvement. Ecumenism is quite strong in South Australia. The South Australian heads of churches meet regularly and work very well together.

[end of tape]

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