ALICE BY NAME, RED QUEEN BY NATURE!

THE MATRIARCH

My paternal grandmother, Alice Maud Singleton, was  born  at Sassafras, in northern Tasmania  on June 20  1884. She was a Victorian through and through.  Just add pride, vanity and  her  strict Methodist faith  and there we have  dear old Grandma.

Alice by name, Red Queen by imperious nature,

Snapping ‘Off with their heads!’ to all who dared oppose her.

Her gimlet eye and her hat pins  held everything together,

She wore a  black  straw crown,

Set off with an  ostrich feather.

 

Off with their heads!

The earliest photo I have of Alice was taken when she was about five years old.

 

Alice   (left) With brother George and sister Lila.

She was the perfect child, or so she told us. The only thing she ever did wrong was to steal a pear from her father’s orchard. Amazing! In the photo  below with her parents and siblings she is standing second from left in the back row. I think she would have been about 18 at the time.  By now the family had moved to a farm at South Road, Ulverstone.

 

The Singleton Family of Ulverstone, Tasmania

The Singleton Family circa 1900.

Alice was widowed in  1922, with five sons to raise on a small farm at North Motton, not far from Ulverstone.   To her credit she also provided a home for her  two motherless nieces. How they all fitted into the little farmhouse is beyond me.  Some years ago I met one of her  North Motton neighbours, who said;  ‘ When I was a little girl we always thought your grandmother was a bit above us. She would drive past in her jinker all dressed up.’    I was amazed that Grandma  had  managed to create this impression when she probably had less money than  anyone in the district.

Another huge loss for Grandma  came  in 1925. Her  favourite  son Maurice drowned while out  inspecting palings with his older brother, Don.  His  horse shied  while  being watered at the local  Leven river . It  plunged in, with  19 year old Maurice  still in the saddle. In the fast flowing water there was no hope. His brother shouted for him stay astride, but Maurice panicked and leapt into the river.  He was a non-swimmer, as was Don, who  had to ride home with the terrible news. Ironically, the horse managed to scramble out unharmed.  Don’s young  cousin Edna was at home when he appeared, leading the riderless horse.  As an elderly woman nearing 100  she  told me that she instinctively knew what had happened. She  said she ran and hid, because she couldn’t bear to see her Aunt Allie’s  shock and grief.

There was wide coverage in the local paper. 

 

Maurice Allen

Maurice   had been a trainee Methodist minister. Subsequently  the little farm was sold and Grandma moved into town (Ulverstone) . One of her aunts lived in Sydney and a few years later  she went to live there, with her youngest boy, Laurie.   She became housekeeper to a doctor.  Grandma simply  adored Sydney.  You would think she was the only  Tasmanian to have  set eyes on the place, and I suppose she  was one of few back then.  The only thorn in her side was the doctor’s cook, who failed to treat her in the manner she felt was  her due. One day Cook snapped, ‘Pass the bread’ , to which Grandma responded; ‘Excuse me, are you speaking to the dog?’   I must have heard this story a thousand times. The expression, ‘Are you speaking to the dog?’  was a catch-phrase in our family for decades.

When the  second World War broke out my uncle Laurie joined up and Grandma  returned home .  Sadly, Laurie died after being taken prisoner by the Japanese.  Several years later my brother would be named Laurence in his memory.

Laurence Allen

Laurie, aged 19

POW postcard from Private Laurie Allen

Sadly, conditions were far from reasonable and there  was great cause to worry.

My  father was serving in New Guinea, and back in Tasmania Grandma  moved in with my  Mother and her  first baby.   It was a disaster. Food was strictly rationed, but Grandma invited a stream  of  friends and relatives around, instructing  Mum to buy expensive  ham and other delicacies. In desperation Mum said she had to get a job. She  fled to her home town of Deloraine and  worked harvesting flax, used  to make military parachutes. Grandma found  her own flat, at  44 Victoria Street. It was part of a large house owned by the Taylor family, who lived next door.

There were two men on the ‘top rung’ of my  grandmother’s life;  God (definitely male in her eyes) and long term  conservative Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies  (virtually a God). On the next level  down stood her  doctor of choice, i.e.  the one most willing to indulge her, and the Methodist minister. Oh yes, and her  surviving sons.  Unfortunately her daughters- in- law were all seriously flawed , especially in religious matters.  One was  Catholic (OMG!!)  and one  Anglican.  Then there was my mother’s  rather racketty  family; also Anglicans, but only token ones.

Alice Allen (nee Singleton)

Alice with her sons and their wives. circa 1950

One day Mum and the  church going Anglican  aunt took me and my two older siblings to be Christened in a job lot, which must have annoyed Grandma no end.  She was able to mitigate  the damage a few years later by registering the three of us at the Methodist Sunday School. The only problem was that Grandma said our names were Laurie, Paulie and Robbie, so Robyn and I briefly joined the  boys class.

The only special gesture Grandma ever made regarding me was to have my portrait enlarged and framed. How this came about I have no idea. My older sister was a curly blonde angel, but there on the wall was funny little me. Even as a child I felt a bit awkward about this. I’m currently stored in our uncompleted new house.

 

Pauline Conolly, aged three.

Grandma’s gift; me aged three.

Grandma insisted that she read a chapter of the bible every night, but I’m  sure that wasn’t true. If she did, it would not have been with any true understanding. It sounds harsh I know, but she wasn’t  really very christian like in her heart.   However, she was sure  she had earned top points with God ,  ‘I have my place booked in heaven,’ she would tell us.  When Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts were on the way to the moon, Grandma was outraged;  ‘They have no business going there. Anyway, God won’t let them….. and it will serve them right.’    To be fair, she changed her tune when they landed safely.

All her life, my grandmother continued to  exude that  air of gentility her neighbor at North Motton  spoke of.  And yet she lived in quite primitive conditions. Her flat consisted of  a sitting room, a bedroom across a common hallway, a bathroom shared with three other flats and a dank, communal  kitchen down the back.  But  she  raised the flat  to another level  with her treasures. There was her luxurious fur bedspread….lapin’ she said, never realizing that meant rabbit. She was very proud of her  bow fronted cabinet displaying a collection of   bone china and crystal (I still have her gorgeous crystal salad bowl).  Grandma  always  had vases of fresh flowers,  and  often  wore a spray of boronia   or lily-of-the-valley in her lapel. in winter  a cheerful fire welcomed the many old friends and family members who came to call. My father kept  her supplied with wood.

She wore a  watch of  chunky gold links, and a beautiful gold bar brooch with  a miniature bell. Her favourite handbag was a square, leopard print model from which she would produce her  miniature bottle of Evening in Paris perfume, and a  giant Crown mint for us if we were lucky.  I’m sure she bought those mints for what she perceived as their royal connection. As I was writing this story my niece posted a photo of handbag.  My great-niece had just taken it to school for history day!

Evening in Paris perfume.

Oh the sophistication..

Crown mints.

The only sweets Alice ever bought.

1950s handbag

I coveted this handbag when I was a child.

I do like GOOD things,’  She would tell my long suffering mother. ‘As if  I don’t!   Mum, would mutter, though with unfailing  good humor.

Give the loss of her son  Maurice, it was understandable that Grandma worried constantly about the water hazards on our farm. My parents  were remarkably sanguine about us  swimming in the dams,  but Grandma was sure we would drown….or fall down our sixty foot well. When a poor pig actually did end up in the well we were constantly warned,  ‘Don’t tell Grandma!’  Despite her fears for our safety she was  not demonstrative in the slightest. I don’t  remember her ever nursing or hugging us…..or baby sitting. We received a peck on the cheek at Christmas when she  presented us with a bucket and spade and a packet of  unshelled, mixed nuts.  I hasten to add that we accepted these gifts with delight, being unspoiled little country bumpkins.

She had  an endearing  habit of dropping her aitches; ‘I’ve got a very bad ‘eart’ , but adding them where they did not belong; ‘Such an intelligent man, he  works in a hoffice.’     

Clothes were one of her  passions.  Of course,  only the manager  of the store was  important enough to serve Mrs Allen. She would inspect all the seams (inside and out), make sure the cut was right,  and  check the weight of the fabric. There would also  be a  new hat for every major occasion, especially funerals…..which she thoroughly enjoyed. Mind you, she would immediately  deconstruct the trimmings, replacing  them with her own artificial flowers or feathers. They were infinitely more tasteful  with the Alice touch, she thought.

Her joy in shopping diminished with the advent of decimal currency in 1967. ‘How much is that in real money?’ She would ask in frustration. She often just handed her purse to the assistant and let them take out the  (hopefully) correct amount.   I remember feeling really sad about this. For the first time I saw my strong, proud  grandmother  as vulnerable.

Grandma was always busy. She  made  and decorated wedding cakes, entered her fruit cakes in the agricultural shows, gardened, and made floral posies for the Country Women’s Association, the Red Cross  and the  Methodist Ladies Guild  The only way we  earned her approval was by saving the foil from our Easter eggs to wrap the stems of the posies. On a tiny portable stove in her flat she produced all manner of jams, jellies  and chutneys.

I was always mortified when she  sent me off to buy bananas (part of her staple diet). ‘Tell them you want the best, because they’re for Mrs Allen’.  Oh good grief! I never did of course, then I freaked out in case they didn’t pass muster.  I did rather admire the ‘pipe’  loaves  she bought from Rays Bakery, a few doors  down her street.

Rays Bakery Ulverstone

Grandma’s baker.

During the mid sixties, when even Ulverstone began to ‘swing’ gently, Grandma appointed herself the moral guardian of the young girls who had moved into the front flat. She kept a stern eye on them, especially when they dared have male visitors.   At 10pm she would walk along the passage , rap on their door and call out, ‘It’s time you  young ladies  were in bed.’ Thankfully the idea that they may already be in bed with their boyfriends was simple too shocking to enter her mind. My sister and I had gone to school with the girls and in our eyes they were rather glamorous. They wore false eyelashes and streaked their hair with something called Magic Silver White. We lived in fear that they might associate us with their nemesis, Mrs Allen.

Within a year or two my sister and I were wearing miniskirts,  stiletto  heels  and black eyeliner.  My blonde sister even took to using that  Magic Silver White. Grandma  was disgusted. She said Dad was too soft on us, and that we looked like ‘little huzzies.’ In retrospect, she was right.

I only remember her going to the beach with us once, She was so mortified at Dad walking up Beach Road bare chested that she preferred to go with her  sister and her  middle aged, unmarried niece. I think they just parked by the picnic tables and ate their  lunch in the car.

Grandma claimed to have a weak heart,  and from the age of sixty  she often  declared she  was on the point of dying . She would be brought up to  our farm to be cosseted my mother, who was already flat out with child rearing and all the duties of a farmer’s wife.   Oh good grief, what a demanding patient she was.  Breakfast was served to her in bed on a beautifully prepared tray. The milk for her tea (in a bone china cup)  had to be pre-heated, lest she call out, ‘It’s not ‘ot enough, Myra.’  There would generally be a medical crisis during her stay;  ‘Call the boys Myra…I think I’m going !’   When she felt strong enough to get up, she would make an inspection tour of the garden; ‘That fuchsia is crying out for water, Myra.’  ‘ You ought to dead head that daisy.’  ‘That peony is lovely. I think I gave you that.’ 

In reality, Alice Maud  was as healthy as a horse.  She  lived to be 88, and simply wore out.  Admitted to hospital for a rest (well really to give my mother a rest) ,  she woke one morning, had a cup of tea, and quietly passed away.   No drama at all. I’m sure she was very annoyed.  I was living overseas at the time, which lessened the impact on me   However, things didn’t seem quite the same when I returned home.  Grandma  had been such a huge presence in our lives;  even my mother admitted that she missed her when she died.

Grandma as I best remember her, ready to terrorize the local shopkeepers.

Alice Maude died on April 14. Co-incidently, my darling mother died on the very same day about ten years later. In my fancy I imagine it to be a symbol of their long  relationship. My mother was born on All Saints Day. I suspect this why she was able to put up with her  difficult mother-in-law….that and a wonderful sense of humour.

If only Mum and my aunts could have known what was eventually  discovered about their mother-in-law’s family.  They were convicts! Grandma would  simply have refused to believe it was true, but yes….an infamous lot,  those SHADBOLTS, like characters from the novel Lorna Doone!

FOOTNOTE – It was Grandma who inspired my love of travel.  The huge  sea chest she took to Sydney sat in our laundry during my childhood; a thing of wonder.   And behind our bathroom door hung a sponge bag she  left behind after one of her many visits. It was printed with luggage labels from all over the world. I would lie in the bath dreaming of those exotic places; Rome,  Madrid, Paris, New York……  RIP Alice, you were such a character.

DO YOU REMEMBER YOUR GRANDMOTHER? MAYBE YOU HAD TWO!

 

 

 

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