Australian Biography

Shirley Strickland de la Hunty - full interview transcript

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You were born on a farm in the wheat belt of Western Australia. What's you earliest memory from that farm?

I think the earliest memory would be growing up in a very isolated place with my family in a very tiny little wooden house with my four brothers and the bush which surrounded us pretty much in those days. Because they were pioneers - my mother and father were pioneers - and my father had to chop a lot of it down with an axe unfortunately.

And he cleared the land in order to farm it. What kind of farmer was it? What kind of a farm was it?

It was and still is, well it started being wheat. His first crop was hand-strewn wheat. I guess it was hand-tilled as well.

By him?

By him. Yes. And then when they could afford [it] - it might have been in the 1930s - they got sheep. And it's been wheat and sheep pretty much ever since.

And what was the house like?

It was a very small two-bedroom cottage, built of green timber, so the timber shrank, so there were spaces between, which meant that when my mother first went there - actually it was built after she went there - it was terribly cold in the winter and the milk would freeze on the kitchen table, and extraordinarily hot in the summer. But things improved as the years went by and we added a little bit to it, but unfortunately it's gone. It was a lovely little house, but very, very cold and I don't know how my mother managed.

What, how old was she when she went there?

She would have been in her thirties. She went there in 1920-21. Just before - I think she was 29 when she went there.

Where'd she come from?

She was born in America actually of [an] English father, English engineering father, and a Norwegian mother. And being an engineer he was transferred around the world, and then she spent a lot of time in Norway, and came out here during World War 1 to mind her ... Actually they came to New South Wales at the turn of the century, again for engineering and mining. She then went back to Norway and England and came out in World War 1 to help her sister whose husband was at the war, to help them mind their children.

And how did she meet your father?

In Guildford, she met him as one of the friends of the families in Guildford.

And did she know what it was going to be like on the farm?

No, she didn't. I don't think anyone could. But of course standards were different then than they are now. She was just so excited about marriage and going on the farm and starting a new life. Of course no one then knew how difficult the north-eastern wheat belt was. But she went, she had some money that was sent to her by her father for a dowry, and while she was identifying herself to the bank manager, he said, 'Why, what are you going to do with this money?' And she said, 'I'm marrying a farmer, it's for my dowry'. And he said, 'May God have mercy on your soul'. She often recounted that story in later years when life got very, very tough.

She felt he was prophetic?

I think he was, but they weren't to know in those days the sort of things that could happen to people in that situation. Of course my father believed you just had to be a big strong man with lots of energy and the will to succeed, and you would succeed. But he hadn't counted for varying rainfall, floods, droughts, depression, poison, all the things that can happen, and it finally broke his health.

What was his background?

Well he came from Victoria during the gold rush with his father, and eventually with his whole family. They lived in Kalgoorlie for a while. They came across in the 1890s, and then finally turned to farming, but he also of course was well known as being a very good athlete and he actually did boxing I'm told too. But in Kalgoorlie in those wild and woolly days you did everything, so he was a cyclist, he was a boxer, he was a champion sprinter, won the famous Stawell Gift and then finally turned to farming.

Now how old were the brothers and sisters in the family? Where did you all come?

My eldest brother was five when I was born. And I ...

Was he born on the farm?

I think all the mothers would come down to the city for the birth. Come down to Guildford for the birth, so, but they were on the farm when he was born. My mother took him home in a four wheeled dray, rolled up in newspaper, because it was February, very, very hot. So things changed a lot. But five years later I was born, and then I have two younger brothers and I'm the only girl in that family. I had, I actually had four brothers, but one died at the age of four.

What year were you born?

Oh, 1925.

So that wasn't very long before the Depression really began to affect ...

No.

How did that affect life on the farm?

It was disastrous really. Unfortunately, well fortunately for me I was not aware of much of it, because my mother and my father were the ones with all the worry and the hard work. But, I always knew there was enough to eat, we could always grow food. We were never hungry. I had three thousand acres to roam in. We lived on initially kangaroos, and then rabbits, the odd emu, and it wasn't until quite late that we actually got sheep and were eating mutton as well. But I didn't know too much about that. It was just a wonderful upbringing for a healthy child. I mean I didn't have any of the - we learned lessons by correspondence which my mother also controlled. I went to a little primary school that they managed to acquire from another wheat belt area for three years, and then of course I virtually left home at twelve to go to Northam High School.

In that time that you were growing up in this idyllic childhood what was it, do you think, about it that made it in your memory so terrific? [INTERRUPTION]

It sounds like a very tough childhood and yet you talk about it as if it were a really good one. What was it about it that made you love it so much?

I think the elements of a family, a close family, and a very free life, and the close to nature type of the life. As I said before I think it was very tough on my parents. How they did the things they did, I don't know, but for me it was just fun. I had no school much to worry about, I could go out with the sheep, I was in charge of the lambs. I could go chasing kangaroos with my brothers. It was a really rich sort of an environment for a child to grow up in in my opinion, and very hard for me to try and reflect those important elements when I had to bring up my own city children. And when people comment about the primary school children who have to do homework and things like that, I think, why do they have to do that? We really have to have another look at how we bring young children up, I think.

What do you feel, that homework deprives them of the freedom that you had?

Absolutely.

And yet you had all those chores to do?

Well chores are fine. I mean I used to have to do the - get the eggs and all, that was all part of being a team. I could carry a bag of oats on my back when I was ten years old. I couldn't believe it now. And I couldn't do it now. But that was that team work, and the fact that I wasn't sitting for, as young children now do, something like five hours in school, then coming home, and then sitting for another couple of hours doing homework. That didn't happen to me, and I do not believe it affected my education, both informal and formal. [INTERRUPTION]

Life there was physically good for your development, but what about mentally? Do you think that this freedom to roam is also good for a child's mental development?

I suspect it is probably more important than the physical. I grew up with no inhibitions about what I should or shouldn't do. Nobody told me what I couldn't do. I could - I was allowed to do anything my brothers did. So when I left the farm, virtually to go to my secondary education, and then finally down to [the] University of Western Australia, I didn't realise women weren't supposed to do certain things. I mean I was one of the team and I think mentally and physically it was a great way to grow up.

And you were the only girl there with the three boys. Was that true of the district as well? Were there many girls?

It was very much of a male district. Most of - I was the only girl at school at one particular stage, at my little primary school.

How many boys?

Oh there would have been between 6 and 20. And then we had one or two girls later. But I can remember riding my horse to school because we had horses by then, and I decided to ride in my brother's pants, and I can remember being ribbed by all the boys about that, why - and I couldn't see any reason why anyone would want to ride in a skirt. It was one of my earliest memories of women's lib I suppose.

Now it was interesting that in your family you were given that freedom to be like the boys, because as the only girl, it's surprising your mother didn't recruit her - you - for all the female tasks?

What were the female tasks? We did everything. I mean I did also learn how to cook, but we were farm workers. I'd - as I said, I could drive all the vehicles except the big tractors by the time I was nine or ten. I never ever had a test for a driving licence. All the children in that area when they turned 17 automatically got a driving licence. So it was just so free. And I suspect my mother also was determined that the girls weren't going to - the girl was going to be treated the same as the boys. This is one of the reasons that I'm educated, was because my mother - the bank managers in those days would advance - when we were heavily under the banks for loans - they controlled everything we did, absolutely everything - they told my mother they would not advance money for my education to go away from the farm. They said, 'We'll do it for the boys, but keep the girl on the farm'. My mother must have been an independent minded lady. What she did was feed pigs on the side, make butter and sell it locally. Made enough money on the side so that I was able to go to Northam High School. I think that is a most important thing that that woman did for me. And that's one of the reasons why I have such enormous respect for informal and formal education.'

Now your father had been an athlete himself, and you were the one in the family who went on to make a name in athletics. Did he teach you anything? And did he teach the boys too?

Well he was really too old to be a teacher. And you must remember that when I was on the farm there was no school sports at all - no school sports, no interschool sports. And that was something that came later when I went down to Northam High School. So that he didn't really teach us, except to - when we could get him to talk about his history, and he was enormously interested in our sport. And my brothers, of course, were very good sports people, all three of them. My eldest brother who left school quite early to come home and run the farm at age 16 when my father's health failed, he just - he brought us up virtually, he ran the whole farm on his own as a teenager. But he was a champion at Guildford Grammar School.

My second brother was a state champion athlete as well, and my third brother was also a state champion athlete. But each of those boys had either farm responsibilities, or their engineering career which took them around the world. And I was the one that sort of stayed here in the post-war period - opportunistically when 1948 Games popped up I was looking for things to do. I already had my education. I was already an honours graduate in science, in nuclear physics, so I didn't have any of those things around. It was very fortunate for me that the Games came up at just that time. I got into it very easily, and then I - it was just such an exciting way to go.

Now back there on the farm, what do you think it was that made you so good at physical things?

I think we - I just grew up in a physical world, a very physical environment. I think I grew up with the right hemisphere brain probably far better developed than the left hemisphere brain. I was spontaneous, we were never short of food. I used to eat as much as the working men would eat. My mother could never satisfy me. But I was so active. We all were. We all grew up very big and strong. And I'm sure it was the physical environment and the abundance of food. We couldn't even sell it at times. And we were impoverished in other ways in which we couldn't buy new clothes. And clothes went round and round the family, with other cousins and things. Books were - once every two weeks I would read a comic strip that was my whole library. And that came in the old Broadcaster. One little strip. And I'd read it very, very slowly to make it last. And I still read slowly.

You didn't have books in the house at all?

No books at all. Mother might have had some old books in - in the cupboard, but there were nothing like libraries or stories, that was all being told to us, well through what other means we could get. There was no librarian type thing, no supply of books. We were very, very poor, I have to tell you. Rich in many things, but very poor.

What did you wear?

I used to wear second-hand things, pants. My mother of course was a marvellous dressmaker. She made everything for us. She also was the first woman spinner. She was a spinster, but don't get the wrong impression. She is known throughout Western Australia for her spinning expertise, which she developed during World War I to supply wool for the women to knit for the Australian forces. And so she was a marvellous spinner and she would spin our clothes, all our underclothes, my dresses or our pants. She would make shoes out of lambskin and they were just beautiful little shoes, out of lambskin. She was just a creative woman. And such a hardworking woman.

How did she get time to do all of this if she was also working on the farm?

I don't know, she used to make all our own bacon, all our butter, all our bread. If - before we had any freezing storage for meat - if we killed a sheep, she'd have to cook it all in one day, so that it would keep. She had to wash by hand, with very little rainwater. That was very scarce, used to wash all the sheets and clothes by hand. How she did it I don't know.

Now as time went by on this pioneering farm, did things get better materially for the family, or did they get worse?

They ebbed and flowed as I explained. We had floods. We had not so much fire, but we had poison which would kill the stock. We had the enormous Depression, which was just about the end for them.

What poison killed the stock?

Well. The poison in the bush, if you allowed stock to get into the bush. And of course most of the farm was bush. You would - and if you didn't know what poison was - you would lose a lot of stock. During droughts my mother had the - my mother and my brother at that stage - had the dreadful job of watching the cattle and the horses die. So that, those were ... [INTERRUPTION]

So did things get better or worse for your parents on the farm?

They got better at times and then worse because of all of those factors that can take place. And of course one of the bad things that happened was that my mother lost her youngest child. And that was really quite tragic. He apparently had an accident and - that they didn't know about - and he died in extreme heat. So that there were ups and downs all the time. But then, as - and my father's health failed. But then my mother brought my father down to Perth because she also had the other three children down here, and my brother then took on the farm. As I said he was very young. And then things started to steady down. But you can't even say that even now [with] farming everything goes smoothly. Those factors still, except for the things like poison which is to do with uncleared bush, and depression; we're still having those sorts of things happen now. But he has married, and they have stabilised the farm to some extent. They, like many farmers, are looking for different things than wheat and sheep because both of those can let you down. But they're still there and my nephew is now running the farm with his father, and they're bringing up children, and I think the farm environment to bring children up in is an excellent one. I think that's one of the reasons farmers persist with a very, very difficult lifestyle. I mean it's a gamble, isn't it? It's a real gamble, farmers have to be prepared to take enormous risks. It's partly it's because the lifestyle, as distinct from city lifestyle, is such an excellent way to bring up children. They now of course have better roads, power, water's laid on. They can get very quickly to the major cities where it used to take us two hours to get to the town to buy food or whatever you wanted. Things are so much better now, but still the element of risk is still there. And that's taken place, I suppose, steadily over the last 30 years.

What sort of things did you get into trouble for on the farm?

I can't remember getting into trouble very much at all.

Were you so good?

Well no, I suppose I was not. But there was - you know discipline didn't seem to be a problem. It didn't seem to be a factor where we were team workers, but I did get into trouble once for lying, and I'll never forget that. We had been down at the dam. And you know what dams are like for kids. They attract children when they've got water in them. But also they're pretty dangerous, because in those sorts of fresh water dams the water is not clear, so you could lose a child in a dam, and you wouldn't have any idea where they are. So I was - we were down at the dam chasing dragonflies. And my brother threw his hat at one and it went in the water, so I went in to pull the hat out. And then of course, we - I was wet, so I had to take all my clothes off, lie on the hot rocks and dry off, and when I went home for some reason my mother asked me whether we'd been in the dam, and I said, 'No'. And I was in terrible trouble because I don't know whether the brothers told on me or not, but I had told a lie, and I remember my mother saying to me, 'Your father is so upset because you told him a lie'. I never forgot it. But also I used to get in trouble with the boys, for I used to dob on the boys. And they'd go and pinch Mum's green peas out of the garden. And I'd go and tell her. They didn't like that.

No, no, you can't dob on them, no. So, with this whole period of your childhood what was happening about your education?

Every two weeks my mother would receive correspondence lessons, and I had to get them back in two weeks. That meant very little work I have to tell you, and it got difficult for Mum sometimes to even get us to sit down. Particularly at busy times, when we were shearing and it was all hands on deck. And I was the one that used to tread the wool down into the corners of the bales. Or, you know, functions like that. It was very difficult for us to sit down. We became such good workers on the farm that sometimes my mother had to put her foot down, and make us sit down and do a little bit of work, and get these jolly correspondence classes back on the next mail which would be a fortnight later.

Now you've talked a lot about your mother on the farm. What about your father? What role did he play in your life?

I don't remember as much about my father's early time, because I was younger, but his - after - when I think about it he was quite an old man when he went on the farm. He must have been 44 or 45 years old.

How old was he when you were born?

Well, five years later, 51 I suppose it was. My mother didn't realise how old he was. But nevertheless I think that his health then failed, mentally rather than physically. I think he was very arthritic, but I think it just depressed him so much that with all the work and everything he tried to do, we were failing, and so he more or less took a back seat, particularly when my brother took over the farm, but the old man got very bitter. And I can just remember him really lying around and not doing very much, until I went away to school. I got to know my dad better when we - he came down to Perth and they actually lived on this property here. But he was by then quite an old man, and I think really he had lost a lot of self-esteem and confidence through that. So Mother really was the one who stepped in there, 14 years younger than Dad, but she also stepped in with enormous mental and physical strength. And carried us through with our education and our formative periods, and through the wartime when we couldn't find any accommodation in Perth, and she - how she handled all of these many problems, I just don't know.

Was it her decision that your brother would take your father's place on the farm?

No, it was my brother's decision. But there was no option, no other option. There was either, let the farm go - and it was worth nothing. It at least was a roof over our heads, at least we could eat there. There was no other decision that they could possibly [make], but it would have been quite impossible for my brother to carry on with the farm, if my father was there. Because he was totally destructive with the decision-making process. So it was either my brother taking over the farm, or us finding - I don't know. There wasn't any social security in those days - her taking her brood somewhere else. Goodness knows where.

Your father's loss of heart, was that recognised as some kind of a breakdown in him, or was it just ...?

It wasn't at the time. I think we just knew that Dad couldn't handle it any more. But he wasn't just taking a back seat he was really, poor man, very bitter, and I think it's a common thing now. I think if you checked with other people of that era and that history, you'd find it's a common thing. Very, very embittering for a man to totally fail in that situation. And I can understand a lot better now than I could at that time. The stress and the trauma that he was going through, but I also understand the enormous sacrifice my brother made to really keep us going.

With the death of your young brother - was he the youngest in the family?

Yes he was.

How old was he when he died?

He died at four. Four years old.

What did he die of?

Well it was a very busy time - it was - mother had just sent us all back to school. I'd just gone back to Northam. It was February which is a terrible month, and she was so busy trying to handle the heat and my father, and she then discovered this child was ill. He was saying, 'It's hard in there where I've bumped my head'. And in thinking about it afterwards, she thinks he must have fallen in the toolshed where he loved to play with the tools, and bumped his head, and may have become unconscious. But by the time they got him to hospital - it was record, searing heat - and he - the doctors couldn't quite tell what to do with him. And it was so hot they couldn't cool him. And he finally died, but they think it was probably some type of meningitis, probably injury caused. That's the best the doctor up there could do, because we were lucky to even have a doctor up there. We - for quite a few years there was no doctor there - my mother was nurse and doctor for a lot of the time in the early days. If anyone got hurt they'd come and she'd patch them up.

How did you hear about your brother's death?

I was at school, and matron came to tell me about my brother's death. I found that very difficult (cries) - sorry - but ...

You still feel it now, emotionally?

I do.

Do you think - was that the first experience of someone close to you dying?

Oh yes.

How old were you?

I was 13.

Was it a very emotional stage of your life to have something like that happen within the family?

Well, to your family, yes, because you know you don't ever expect anything like that's going to happen. But, the matron was busy - she didn't quite know how to handle it. What she did was put me in a room and leave me on my own. It was the worst possible thing.

It was, yes. Do you think that was fairly standard at the time though? People found it difficult to give you the opportunity to express emotion when you should, so it always then just stays with you.

Well I think everyone did their best. Certainly my mother didn't want me home again at that stage, she had too much to handle, but I think they all did their best.

Was that a sort of turning point too, do you think, for your mother and father - over how they were going to proceed from that point on?

Oh I don't think so, I think it was already - destiny was already moving along, and my brother was there in charge.

And so for you, at the time you finished school, you finished primary school, and your mother had organised for you to go off to high school ...

To Northam, yes.

... which required a big effort on her part, did you have a terrific sense of responsibility in doing well, with her sacrifices?

Ah.

To see to it that you ...

Well I suppose so. I didn't realise then how much she had done for me, and just what - how I was going to appreciate it in later life. I hated being away from home. I hated it until I was 17 years old. I hated leaving school at 12 years old - leaving home at 12 years old - that's virtually what I did. Because after that I would go home for holidays, and that's all. And, you know, you virtually left home.

When you were at home, home was everything, wasn't it? I mean, what contact did you have with anybody else in the district?

Very little to start with. I didn't know anybody in the district, but I did know one or two of my cousins who would come up to the farm for holidays - went and stayed with us during holiday time. Until we went to that little primary school with those few children, I didn't know anybody else really, except my own brothers, and we would go to the little township, I suppose, every two weeks. During the war we couldn't even - we would only go once a month - there wasn't the fuel.

What was the township called?

Bethara. And we would - and if we ever had any - as I grew older - if we ever went to one of the beautiful country dances that used to be around in those days, we would go on a communal vehicle. We would all go to the road, get ourselves to the roadway, and then pick up the car seats, put the car seats on the back of the truck, and then we'd all go to the - because no-one had the fuel to go more than once a month for - so we used to come by that way.

But it sounds like tremendous fun?

Well they were fantastic fun. But I was only a little person. But I learned to dance, to ballroom dance at a very early age.

[end of tape]

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