Australian Biography

Margaret Fulton - full interview transcript

Tape of 10

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So perhaps we could begin, Margaret, by your telling me when and where you were born.

Well, I was born in Nairn near Inverness, in the north of Scotland, a lovely part of Scotland, in ... in October, 1924,10 October, 1924, and I've since learnt I was born in the Year of the Rat, which actually tells me what my future is going to be: I'm always going to be surrounded by food.

And that came true for you later on. But you were born there. Did your parents live in Nairn?

No, my father was really in Glasgow. He was a tailor and he didn't think that Glasgow was a nice place for children to be born. He ... they needed fresh air to be born and things like that, and also he used to go up to the north of Scotland, to do the lovely clothes that they wore, the hunting and fishing. He was a master tailor, and really a master at his craft. So he had a lot of his people who ... his clients, who used to go up to the north for the fishing season. So it was sort of a dual ... dual way thing. We went up, and people in the north of Scotland used to give their homes. They used to sort of move out of the main part of their homes and then the visitors would move into the homes, and then they would do for the people who came up, so we spent a lot of time in the north of Scotland. And then me and some of my brothers and sisters, my siblings, were born in the north of Scotland, rather in ... in industrial Glasgow.

And how was it that your family came to Australia?

My father had known a tailor who had come to Australia. He'd come to Glen Innes, which is a very sort of ... it's a very pretty town in the New England district and he had done quite well in tailoring, but he'd also done a lot better with sheep because it was a lovely country for sheep. And he told Dad how marvellous it was, and it was the land of opportunity and the land of, you know, sunshine and he ... Dad was a sort of a ... I suppose an adventurer. And he thought it sounded lovely. My mother didn't think it sounded quite as good. She used to say that, 'Alex, you know, the children will be better off here. We've got friends, we've got our contacts here to go to a strange country with six children, you know, what will the future be? I know they say the future, it's the land of opportunity, but we've got our contacts here', but however, Dad won the day and yes, we came to Australia when I was about three.

So his business was doing quite well in Scotland. It wasn't that he was coming out here to resolve economic difficulties.

I don't know how well his business was doing. My father was a master craftsman, but he wasn't a terribly good business man, you know. He ... he had a lovely ... he was a lovely, wonderful, amusing and ... just a perfect dad for anybody. I don't know if his business was doing all that well. I don't think it had very much to do with it. I think he wanted to come to this land of opportunity and he came.

Where did you come in the family?

I was the ... I'm the youngest. I'm the baby. Or I was the baby of the family. And it was lovely being the youngest of six children. We had three boys and three girls and they all adored me, and they all loved me, and they all pampered me and they all thought I was the sweetest baby and the loveliest little thing. So I ... I grew up being loved, which is a very nice ... it's a very nice thing to do.

You grew up being loved. Were you spoiled at all? Indulged?

No, I wasn't really. I wasn't indulged in the way we think of being indulged and spoiled, you know, as you would with say a single child. No, I don't think ... they were all too busy to spoil me. And my mother was too busy to spoil me. It wasn't a spoiling. It wasn't a time when children of my ... of say of you know, a family, that really got spoilt, because things were to ... things were always on the go. Things were always happening. Yes, you didn't get time to get spoiled. The only way I was spoiled, that ... that I wasn't pestered. I wasn't pestered to do things. They weren't always looking to see what I might be doing and tell me to stop it, you know. I just went ahead and did it and I think that's the only spoiling I got.

When you came to Australia, what's your earliest memory?

Oh, I know they say you don't have really solid memories, but I do remember very much moving into this funny wee house, opposite the Presbyterian church and mother walked in. We all walked in, and where's the kitchen and the kitchen was ... it looked like a shed to me with a fuel stove. And my mother saying, 'Where do you wash? Where's ... there's no sink', and it didn't ... it had nothing in it. 'Where's the bathroom?' and we went to a tin shed, and oh, it had a tin tub in it, and a thing that you put chips of wood in it and you lit this up and this heated the water. But it was out in the cold, and, 'Where's the...,' you know. The toilet was a thing in a wee shed in the back garden. The laundry was ... was just a bit of tin - corrugated iron - over a sort of a thing, and then mother was shown a thing, rub a dub-dub. You know, it was a sort of a corrugated little wooden thing that you rubbed the clothes up and down to wash. I ... I think I'll never forget the feeling of the family, and looking at my mother's face. It just, you know, I sort of learnt to look at my mother's face for reaction and I could see she was in a state of shock.

How old were you?

Oh, three but you always remember something that's as dramatic as ... a strong emotion, as I sort of saw in my mother.

And do you think that's your earliest memory of your whole life?

I think it is. No. And I don't know whether this is memory, but apparently I was very cute on the boat coming out, because I used to sit up and say to the waiters - because I'd never been waited on at the table, the waiters would come by - and I'd would say, 'Fish, please', and they thought that was very ... but that ... I think that's because it's been ... it was repeated. I think that memory of my mother in that Australian house ... because in Glasgow we had a very comfortable place, a very simple place in Glasgow, but it had comforts and we ... we had a person that came in to do the washing and, you know, it was - well, I suppose - more civilised than this little, very rough little cottage.

So after that really shocking and demanding early start for your mother, how did she settle in?

Oh, mother very quickly found a place with proper bedrooms and proper ... proper kitchen and a lovely home and we were immediately ... we were very, very happy. But mother wouldn't offend. It was the Scottish community, who were rather rigid ... They had found this place for mother, whereas Mother wouldn't offend them by saying, 'I'm not staying here'. I mean today I would have said, 'Look, I'm not staying here', and walk out but mother wouldn't offend the people who had found this little house, by saying, 'This is ... this isn't what I'm used to'. But she very quietly went ... just as she did really in coming to grips with so many things in Australia. She went about making sure that her family were in a proper place and we found a place nearby, a lovely home, and we were so happy, and it was just absolutely lovely and everything began to fall into place, because we had a proper place to live.

What about your father?

Father took to the life in Glen Innes, like he took to it immediately. But you see, it was quite a rich Scottish community and people with quite a bit of money had set up in ... set up properties, beautiful properties, in the outlying districts, and they had put money into ... There was a gentleman's club and it was just like being back in London, or Glasgow, because people with money have always made sure they were looked after the proper way. So Dad could go to this club and play his cards and play his, you know, whatever they do in these gentlemen's clubs that women are not allowed into. But it certainly ... Father loved it and he was always such a convivial person and people are drawn towards people who are bright and cheery. And father found his ... Father found a lovely life in this town. But it was very different for women, because there was nothing for a woman like my mother to do. You know, she could join the Country Women's Association, but they didn't really want, you know ... they weren't all that interested. Or she could join the Women's Guild for the church, or ... she ended up joining the Women's Christian Temperance Association. I don't know why. Except that in ... back in Scotland, you know, there had never been places for women to ... to go and meet in Scotland and they started lovely ... the Macintosh tea rooms and that would be a nice place, because you could have a cup of tea. So ... and also quite ... quite forward thinking women were doing that. So ... but for a woman like my mother, who ,you know, used to have lovely, beautiful bronze, gorgeous dresses and gloves and go to the opera and things like that, the Women's Temperance, we used to tease ... tease her. My father used to, used to tease her, because he liked his wee drop, and Mother would just sort of ... but she made a good ... good fist of ... she made a marvellous fist of coming to grips with this very alien community.

What was the household like? How did she go about running that?

We had a lovely ... we had a lovely home life really. Mother was a very good cook. She found it extremely unusual in Sydney [corrects herself]... in Glen Innes, to find that meat was so cheap. Vegetables were quite expensive. Things like that. But she ... because she had always been a very good ... a good cook, not so much herself initially, but we'd always eaten well. And we'd always, you know, when we were up in the north of Scotland for example, mother would say to father, 'I think I've upset Mrs. Forbes'. That would be the house we were in. 'Why, Bella?' would say father and she said, 'I said, 'Look, just a wee bit of mince would be nice, instead of venison and salmon and grouse'', and father said, 'Oh, no wonder you upset her. They'd have to pay for the mince', because they'd ... of course, they were used to poaching, so we were actually used to the very, very best food and so mother set about doing it in ... in Australia. I was the youngest. My eldest brother, he went off to teachers' college. He would have been a doctor if we'd stayed in Glasgow. My next sister, Jean Hatfield, Janet Guthrie Hatfield, she would have been a ... she was going to school for gifted children. Instead, they put her to work in Mackenzie's, which was a local store, measuring elastic and counting out buttons. And my ... the next sister, she worked ... went to work with my dad in the tailor's shop, because she was good with her hands. The two ... my two next brothers went off to school. We all got very, very busy doing things and it was a lovely happy, happy home, except for Mother, who knew how life could have been back in Scotland. I think it ... I think it was hardest on my mother. But then I think it was hard on a lot of women who came to Australia.

Did she complain?

I never, never ... my mother never complained. But I think that's what helped me to sort of assess situations for myself because her face would often tell a story. But ... that her lips didn't tell, you know. And when I would be sort of going through cabin trunks as ... as a wee girl, and seeing these beautiful paisley shawls, and these long white leather gloves, that came right up, and 'Mum, when did you wear this?' and she'd tell me when she wore it. I learnt a lot from being with my mother in that way. And also I thought, you know, it's so different wearing a beautiful thing like this, and mother pottering around trying to do things, you know. It ... it ... it brought it home to me that life was different.

In a small Australian country town like that, how did your father get enough of the fine tailoring that he had to offer?

Well, what was interesting, because there were wealthy graziers around, and people, he was making their lovely tweeds and their lovely ... their lovely suits. I went back to Glen Innes a few years ago for ... I was presenting some ... the cup, the Glen Innes cup, and there was ... when I say a young man, he was younger than I, but he ... he was very proud that he was still wearing the dinner jacket that my father had made when he graduated and he came to Sydney. So father was making a lot of lovely clothes and then his reputation did come down to Sydney. And people ... judges used to come up to get robes done by dad, up in the country, because he made the best ... he made the best lovely robes and the academic robes, and things like that. And he dressed ... he used to tailor and he would dressed the best dressed hack rider ... and you know ... of the Royal Easter Show. Things like that. So even though he was up at Glen Innes, his name spread and people recognised his ... his work. And it is interesting that clothes that he made for a young stud, as it were, coming down to, you know, do his university degree, he wore with pride, you know, forty years later, because there was something about the style of dad's clothes that just were timeless. So he managed ... he managed in his fashion very nicely.

So did he become quite well off?

No because one of the things that really did happen, people ... ready mades began to come in. And the ... the farmers, the ... the sheep and the people, were losing ... the wool prices fell. A lot of things happened. He didn't move with the times as it were, when people could buy ... could buy ready made suits and things like that. We ... we were always able to go to school and have ... have food and things like that and do whatever was needed to be done. But no, he didn't become well off.

As a tiny tot, I expect in that household, you were speaking with a Scottish accent?

No, I spoke ... apparently I spoke ... I break into Scots, as you've probably detected, every now and then. I ... I had a lovely pure accent that had no accent at all. I was quite ... I don't know what really happened. They say in Inverness the purest English is spoken. And I ... I can't say as a wee thing of three that I really was influenced by Inverness. But I did speak this ... the way they have in Dublin, of having no accent at all. I now have more of an Australian accent. But when I was young, I had this pure English accent. In fact, one of the turning points in my life was when a rather aristocratic, for Australia, family had ... I had overheard ... they used to invite me to play with their children on a property out of Glen Innes and I overheard them saying, 'Oh, we like Margaret Fulton coming. She's the only child in the village that speaks so beautifully and she's a good influence on our children', and I thought, oh what a terrible - I'm a village child, am I? And I then didn't want to play with these children. I wanted to go in and be with the cook, who was making lovely raised pies and that was the first time that I had seen very intricate cooking being done because this family had brought a cook out from England, and he used to make all of the proper food, you know, that they had in England. And I discovered this wonderful world. And her husband used to do the gardens for this home so he was growing beautiful, beautiful vegetables. And the combination of the lovely cooking and the beautiful vegetables ... The other thing I had to do was for this family, I used to ... they used to say, 'Oh, Margaret can play the piano', so I'd go in and play the piano because they were wanting their daughters to play the piano nicely. In fact, I was some funny transplant of a little girl lady, that could do things that these ... these rich people wanted. And I don't know where I got it from. But it ... it did actually take me into realising that cooking was exciting and was lovely and something very nice.

How were you getting on at school when you started at school? Were you readily accepted into the Glen Innes community?

No, all my school life I was called 'Scotch' because I was a Scotch, a Scot. And ... but ... and my mother was horrified at me being called 'Scotch', and people ... my friends would come in, 'Where's Scotch?' and mother thought it was awful. But there I was, I was Scotch. And I was always very different to the children, because I wore a little ... my father being a tailor my little overcoats used to be like the little princesses: Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth, and I sort of wore shoes that weren't ... I ... I always thought it would be lovely to have some black patent shoes, or pink ... you know, sometimes they had pink shoes. But I had perfect little velour hats and this little coat that the princesses wore but they were tweeds and they used to say, 'Oh, you wear boys' clothes'. No, I was always quite ... I ... I suppose I was always quite different because ... because I was a Scot, and I was made to feel it too.

And you did feel it?

Yes, but then I thought, well, I'm something of your lot, and I've got a lot ... I'm you know ... I was so confident about my home life, I knew that you read books, you didn't go out and do things ... do the things that other people did. You played the piano and you sang and you ... so although I went through this, it never worried me that I was different. I was different! But I'd also seen in this small country town how the Chinese community ... We had quite a strong Chinese community. We had Lebanese, who were doing the Paragon Cafe, you know, which every country town has. But I ... I knew there were a lot of differences but I knew that there were more people who were calling you 'Scotch' and 'wog' and things like that, and they could do it but it didn't seem to worry us, because I think we just all had very secure home lives. I don't know if that's ... yes, I was never offended at being different because I thought, well ...

What was the attitude of your family to these other groups in that community? I mean to the Chinese and the Greeks and the Lebanese?

I remember when my mother died, the feeling in the township. Now, the ... the ... there were Aboriginals who came to the church and you'd never seen Aboriginals in a church at that time. The ... the Irish Catholic priest - we were Presbyterian - he came up our front steps, 'I'm coming up, I'm coming up. I have to, you know, give my blessing'."Then there was some women I wasn't quite sure about, but apparently they were the town whores and they came to the church, because 'Mrs. Fulton was the only person who was, you know, nice to us'. And so all of these other people, the Lebanese, you know, my father used to go and play cards with them. And then the Chinese also came. It sort of hit me that this was the first time I had seen everyone in the community coming out. And it ... it always reminded me of what an absolutely marvellous mother I had, that she rode across all barriers, which ... which ... and she was herself in spite of whatever was happening. And everyone related to her. It's lovely to have memories of your mother like that.

The biggest division that people talk about, that were ... was in country towns at that time, was a sectarian one. The Catholic and the Protestants were often divided in those country towns and yet, the Catholic priest came to her funeral. Was there not that same division in Glen Innes?

Oh, yes. In Glen Innes, my father being the local tailor, he ... he always was a bit naughty. He was ... the Presbyterian minister came in, and was saying that the seat was wearing out of his pants ... a little bit was rubbing. And he said, 'Yes, you know, Mr. Macdonald, I had Monseigneur Tobin the other day, but he was complaining about his knees wearing out', and you know, Dad would always have an answer for everything and a sense of fun. The only time I ever thought my mother might have been a bigot was when I took a fancy to a Catholic boy and I ... and mother said, 'What! You're not seeing that Sammy White, are you? He'll not be coming to this house', and she didn't like the fact that I ... I'd even spoke to a Catholic boy. And we used to sing out, 'Pommy whackers', or 'Something whackers, jump like crackers', and they used to sing out things to us. The sectarian thing was very strong. Everything was actually very strong in the country town. Socially, you were this or you were that. I mean a school teacher wasn't very good. A bank clerk was good. But then you see the bank clerk knew your bank balance, so he had to be good. But yes, there was a lot of ... a lot of undercurrent of feeling.

And snobbery?

And snobbery. But that's why, I think, I always thought my mother was so marvellous, that she was able to override this. She would have ... back in Scotland, she wouldn't have been doing the same things that she was doing here. And I became aware that life for Mother was very different, but she, again, didn't complain.

You said that she was a good cook. What food did you eat in your house?

We ate ... the thing is that it was the kind of food that other people were eating, as far as meals were concerned except it was done better. It was ... if it was a piece of steak, it would be seared in a pan and it would be just nice. And if it was vegetables, they were never ... they were always tasted good. Everything she ate ... she cooked, tasted so good. The food was the same, except when it came to ... the thing that Australian women are so good at, and ,other didn't put so much ... she put the importance on cooking, not baking, whereas a lot of Australian women became so good a baking. I used to envy my girlfriends, you know, who would go home and their mum would have made some jam tarts or gingerbread cake or a chocolate cake and things like that. Things seemed to be baked for the kids coming home from school whereas my mother didn't do that. She thought I should have an apple when I came in from school. And we knew that there would be a Dundee cake sitting there and I adored Dundee cake. But I would no more have gone and cut myself a slice of Dundee cake, at that time of day, or ... or I wouldn't have broken off a piece of shortbread. If I did, I would try not to be caught, or anything like that because that for when people came and it was afternoon tea. I ... children ... I was encouraged to eat fruit after school. But I used to long for a jam tart or something like that.

You said you played the piano. Did you play the piano well?

Oh, yes. You see, being brought up in a family that ... for your entertainment, you sat around and sang and played the piano, yes, I ... I was considered a local talent. I always won the local eisteddfods. And I think ... although I was a very shy child, I think I loved performing. I loved sort of being in front of people and playing there and I could get lost. I've always been able to get lost in things and I could get lost in music. And yes, I used to ... my mother thought it would be lovely if I took over Jessie Scott - she was the local music - if I took over her practice when she got married and those were the plans for me. And all seemed to be going swimmingly along, you know. I was practising, ultimately, eight hours a day and I was just about to sit for my - what we called Cap and Gown - and I was playing hockey and the school hockey mistress, who didn't like me at all, she said you know, 'Attack, Margaret Fulton'. I was always a small child but, 'Attack, Margaret Fulton', and I look up at the eyes of the school bully, and she ... she told me what's going to happen next. And she goes whack on to my thumb, on my hockey stick. Then the school mistress says ... the sports mistress says, ;Attack, Margaret Fulton, attack'. Whack again. I ended up with a pulverised thumb. And this was just a few months before I sat for my final exam. It was heartbreaking for my mother, who ... to put ... to keep a child at music lessons at such a bad time. Just ... you know, the pressure ... She'd got through the Depression and to see this career just go up in smoke. I always say, you know, my brilliant career was banged on the thumb. But one thing, the world lost a very second rate piano teacher or pianist, and got a good cook. So all's well that end's well, I suppose.

So at the time even, you were more upset for your mother than for yourself? Saw it as her ambition more than yours?

Yes, and also I was good enough at ... with music to know that I ... what talent was and what ... what real ... what real music was. I think that's the lovely thing about being reasonably talented, you can recognise that you ... you're not ... you're not ... you're not what dreams are made of.

You weren't first rank?

I sure wasn't. But I could have, you know, in a country town, I could have been a good music teacher, and I could have inspired people. But I think it would have driven me crazy, because I also haven't got very much tolerance for people thumping away at pianos. When my grandchildren thought they would like to be musicians ... you know, take music, I thought the sound was so dreadful. So I bought them a lovely ... I thought that they ... you can't play on that piano so I bought them a beautiful piano. And then I realised they were just as bad on a beautiful piano. So the piano's sitting out there, and sometimes if they want to play for me, and I say, 'Look, I've just got to, I've got something on cooking. I've got to go'. I can't bear to listen to, you know ...

How did you do at school?

Not too bad. I sort of got there. I had a gift, and that was if I was ... If I had to write an essay of say 100 word or 200 words, I could do it exactly. I could get to ... on ninety-nine, if it was going to be a hundred, I could finish on a hundred. And I realised later that this is an ability or it was something. So my ... my compositions were often read out, you know, as 'This is how it should be' ... whatever a composition's got to have. The beginning, the end, the ... all of the things. I could do it without ... without even thinking about it. Years later, I wrote an encyclopaedia of food and cookery that had, you know, 450 pages, and I was always so thrilled. I find it one of my great achievements, that I actually had about that much column space left to finish. But to be able to write thousands and millions of words, and get it to that. And that was from A to Z so I had to start on abalone and I had to end on ... no, I started on, yes abalone, and ended on zabaglione, or something. But to get it all fitted in, I suppose it's just like an architect can see what a building's going to, you know, do. But ... but my school career wasn't brilliant. I think that mother showed great ... Mother and father, both, showed great faith in keeping on. But like a lot of Glasgow people, mother used to say, 'Margaret, in Glasgow you put it between here and here and nobody can take it away from you'. She said, 'The Scots and the Jews know that', and that's why education is important to a Scot, and to the Jews. The Jews know that also: that you've got to get it between here and here. [POINTING TO TWO SIDES OF HER FORHEAD]

[end of tape]

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