Christmas is a time for reflection and family memories of times gone by.
My maternal grandparents James and Nora Larcombe raised a large family on a sheep farm at Reedy Marsh, seven miles from the small town of Deloraine in northern Tasmania. The pair married in the tiny Anglican church at nearby Exton just before WWI. For some reason Archdeacon Beresford officiated, which must have impressed them.
Norah May Upston was a cook, twenty years her husband’s junior. During his batchelor years James had accumulated extensive sheep runs at The Marsh, but life was hard and there was a family joke that he would show the kids a line of rabbit dirts and tell them, ‘Your dinner’s on the other end!’
Often that dinner would be a family favourite called Reedy Marsh Pie. I don’t know where it originated….perhaps with ‘poaching’ ancestors back in England? I famously won hundreds of dollars worth of electrical appliances with the recipe in a Sydney radio competition. It has also appeared in a book of recipes by residents of Mosman, on Sydney’s North Shore. The suburb is a bit ‘posh’ and the other recipes were for delicate sorbets and the like. I wonder whether my ex Mosman neighbours ever put the pie on their dinner party menus? I’d like to think so. I live in the Blue Mountains now, where I suspect rabbit (farmed, alas) is quite popular, especially in winter.
REEDY MARSH PIE – Follow a trail of rabbit dirts or buy a fresh bunny. Divide the rabbit into six pieces. Coat with seasoned flour and brown in a little butter. Place in a 3 pint casserole or pie dish and cover with chicken stock to which one tablespoon of vinegar and one tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce has been added. Add a layer of bacon cut into 5cm (2 inch) lengths. Add a layer of sauteed, sliced onion, a thick layer of sliced tomato seasoned with salt and pepper, and then a layer of overlapping, thinly sliced potatoes. Top with a mixture of fresh breadcrumbs and dried, mixed herbs. Dot with butter and bake in a moderate oven for about two hours, or until the rabbit is tender. Serve with green peas.
Fortunately the family was almost self-sufficient. Along with sheep they kept cows, poultry and bees, and grew their own vegetables and fruit . Norah harvested honey for mead, made her own butter and baked vast quantities of bread in a Dutch oven. Unfortunately she was often sick as she was a severe asthmatic, and in those days there was no effective treatment. Years later my mother said she wondered how my grandmother coped, especially as the washing had to be done in the nearby creek. The photo below is dreadfully out of focus, but the only one we have of Nora with some of her little ones. It would have been taken by a travelling photographer around 1920.
Of course there were good times as well. There was always a pony for the kids to ride, wild flowers to pick, and ‘tiddlers’ to catch as they dawdled their way to a one room, bush school. On summer evenings Irish farm labourer Ted Sullivan would play the accordion on the front veranda To the children, Ted was a much loved figure. He would unfailingly bring them back a pocketful of sweets from Deloraine, and give them bits of ‘backy’ to smoke. Neighbours often came over to play cards by lamplight and there was entertainment from a wind-up gramophone. Between Ted’s accordion and a pile of old 78 records my mother Myra grew up with a great love of Scottish and Irish songs.
CHRISTMAS AT THE MARSH
After the Great Depression set in there was even less money to spare. As Christmas loomed one year, pragmatic James decreed there were to be no presents. Now Nora was too busy and harassed for much sentiment herself , but this was Christmas and she was not about to let her brood down! A few days later she drove the horse and buggy into Deloraine to collect the weekly supplies. Before returning home she bought a wicker basket and a collection of inexpensive gifts; spinning tops and tin whistles for the boys, miniature china dolls, and bead necklaces for the girls. She filled the basket with the toys and knick-knacks, and topped it off with oranges and boiled sweets.
When she got home she told my grandfather she had won the ‘hamper’ in a raffle. James may have doubted her , but to his credit he said not a word. The kids hung up their stockings up as usual on Christmas Eve and Nora lovingly filled each one. Next day she forgot how weary she was and shared in their excitement as she set about roasting the goose and boiling the plum pudding.
The postcard photograph below is another illustration of my grandmother’s deep, though rarely demonstrated affection for her little ones. This also dates from from 1920s. From left the children are Myra, Reg, Eric and Grace. They are dressed in their ‘best’, although none are wearing shoes! If you look really closely you can see that each child had been given a flower to hold. To me this is the most touching detail of all. The postcard was sent to a close friend and neighbour, Rene McMahon. It was only by sheer luck that it was passed on after Rene’s death. Six more children would arrive in the years that followed; Ray, Ken, Leah, Lillian, William and Esau. Each pregnancy took its toll on Nora’s health and each addition to the family increased her workload. By the age of 12 my mother was helping out by baking the bread but in later years she regretted not doing more, as I guess we all do.
One rainy night in 1937 Nora harnessed up the horse and took the younger children to a community bonfire. Sadly, she caught a chill which developed into pneumonia. She died aged 44, when her youngest, Esau, was just five years old. My mother had been working in Melbourne, but returned home to care for her younger siblings.
NOTHING STAYS THE SAME
My grandfather died ten years after Nora, in 1947, several years before I was born. My only knowledge of my grandparents came through my mother’s stories. Much has changed at Reedy Marsh. The old homestead burned down years ago and the home farm has been obliterated by sterile forestry plantations. However, the memory of Nora and James lives on in their descendants, and in Larcombe’s Road. The couple lie together in the Deloraine cemetery. Let’s close the gate and let their spirits rest in peace at The Marsh, an almost sacred place in our family folklore.
This little article was originally written for Nora’s great grand-daughter, Bonnie, a London based singer-songwriter. Bonnie’s mother Nora was the eldest child of my uncle Ray, who named his daughter in memory of his late mother. In a similar tribute, Ray’s first born son was christened James.
My mother went on to create magical Christmasses for myself and my siblings. Like Nora she died far too young, but she enjoyed some special festive seasons with her beloved grandchildren.
I hope this post will bring back memories of Christmases past for others. Do share them by leaving a message below.