When Box Hill Was a Village

12. An Incredible Temporary Mum

It was not long after my father had died in Box Hill, where I grew up as a boy. My mother was struggling with her four children, with a business precariously close to bankruptcy, with caring for a newborn baby who came into our family just before my father's death, and with her mother‑in‑law who lived with us who was totally demented.

 

Things were not going well with Mum and she needed a complete break. The doctor ordered her away for a holiday which left questions concerning caring for Nana, my younger brother and sisters, and myself.

 

Mum went off on a two week Pioneer bus tour of South Australia. The other kids were all farmed out to various relatives and I was allowed to go to Tasmania with members of a boys choir with whom I had been singing.

 

At primary school my music teacher, Miss Presley, told me that I had a beautiful soprano voice and encouraged me to join with a choir. I attended auditions for the Australian Boys Choir. To my absolute delight I won a position with the 50 voice Boys Choir. Over the next few years the choir was to be the main focus of my life and activities. I sang in concerts all over Melbourne, sang on ABC radio in special programmes teaching children music in

schools each week, and during major school holidays went on concert tours throughout other States of Australia.

 

Our conductor was Vincent J. Kelly, a magnificent musician who had a tremendous love for boys. Vince Kelly was not only my choir master during those years, but when I went to high school, he was the musical director at the Box Hill Boys High School. For a period of ten years I had weekly, almost daily contact with this wonderful man who developed my love for music. We sang all of the great classical choral pieces and to this day I cannot hear a recording of famous choirs singing without joining. Our concerts were always well attended and over a period of years we sang in almost every well known town hall or concert hall in Australia.

 

In 1950, when my mother needed to have her holiday, she took the opportunity of going at a time when I would be on tour throughout Tasmania with the Australian Boys Choir. How excited we were as we got ready for the trip. We had actually been due to go in 1949 but there was a serious polio scare which caused the cancellation for all large public events and at the last moment our tour was cancelled. We set sail from Port Melbourne on the steamship "Taroona" to cross Bass Strait. Leaning over the rail waving goodbye to the family, I was involved in the first casualty of the trip as my choir hat blew off into the receding wake of the ship. I watched it slowly sinking beneath the surface for Port Phillip Bay.

 

As soon as we arrived in Tasmania we were billeted out to various families who took the 50 boys under their wings for the next three weeks. From their homes we would travel to all the main towns of Tasmania to sing in the various concerts. We got to know a special family for three weeks.

 

I was billeted to go to a lovely family who had children my own age but the mother in the family became ill and a temporary mother stepped in to take care of me in her place. What an incredible temporary mother. For three weeks I lived in her home. I found out that I was staying with Australia's greatest mother. She lived in Devonport, Tasmania. When she was only 11 years of age she fell in love with her school teacher who was at that time 29 years of age.

 

Strangely this friendship continued and developed and by the time she was 15 and still at school he was a member of parliament and the Minister for Education in Tasmania. In some ways it should have been a terrible scandal. But their love blossomed and at 18 years of age she married him. They deeply loved each other throughout the rest of their lives. They had a mutual love for children and together they had a family of twelve children.

 

At the birth of her sixth child her husband became Premier of Tasmania and she was heavily involved in politics. While she was pregnant with her seventh child she stood for parliament herself. She had no domestic help of any kind and cared for her six other children and her husband as well as coping with the battle for election. Their tenth child was born as he became a member of the Federal Parliament in Canberra.

 

In 1932 Joseph Lyons was elected Prime Minister of Australia and his wife Enid, at 35 years of age, with ten children, was the wife of the Prime Minister. She was, in her own right, fulfilling an incredible round of speeches and travelling, championing women's rights, the rights of children, and helping Australia get out of the Depression.

 

At 37 years of age she was Dame Enid Lyons, the mother of twelve.

 

After seven years in office as Prime Minister Joe Lyons died.

 

His wife took up the battle and four years later Dame Enid Lyons won her own seat in Federal Parliament. She won and re‑won that seat over the years. She became the first woman Cabinet Minister in Australia's history. In spite of the pressures of bringing up her family and some periods of ill health she carried out her duties of office, wrote columns regularly in the Melbourne "Sun" and in the "Women's Day", wrote her own biography, was one of the Commissioners of the ABC and traveled extensively throughout Australia and overseas. This was my "temporary Mum".

 

She was patron of the tour and when she heard that there was one boy left over without a home for the three weeks she immediately swept up the little stray. I remember her warm hug as she hugged me to her bosom and I carried my case to her car to drive to her home in Devonport. I remember she was wearing a coat with a huge fur collar and when she swept me in a warm hug to her very ample bosom my nose was tickled by the fur around her collar.

 

The first night in her home was a strange experience. All of her children had left home at that time. She took me through the empty house room by room, pointing out memorabilia of her late husband. I remember a large glass bookcase and of her opening the glass doors and taking out various silver mugs and dishes given to them by the King and Queen and various Heads of State. Only now as I look back on it do I realise that she was only 52 years of age when I stayed with her. Yet in the busy round of her parliamentary life she still had time to take on one more child. One day she drove me down to a park in front of a Catholic Church, and to a sunken marble tablet. As she pointed to the last resting place of her beloved Joseph she talked of him most affectionately and twenty years after his death she still shed a tear. From her I gained the impression that he was one of Australia's greatest men. As we drove home she talked to me of him and his achievements. She showed me leather boxes of important letters and photographs of the man who led Australia through the Depression years.

 

She said at one time "I am so well known by the size of my family, that my badge of office should be a safety pin".

 

Dame Enid Lyons was a woman of love and devotion and common sense, sensitive to her calling as a mother and determined to stay a woman serving others both as the wife of Australia's 14th Prime Minister and then in her own right as a parliamentarian and cabinet minister. I had the impression on that first night away from home of a place of warmth and of love. To visit that old home today is to immediately sense that warmth and love.  My mind flooded with memories as I revisited the old home, now a National Trust house. It was while she was still there in 1980, she received the unique honour, never again given, of being made a Dame of the Order of Australia, the highest honour Australia could bestow.

 

My own poor mother was taking a rest and a holiday from us. The Australian Boys Choir's tour of Tasmania was to be a magnificent success. I was to have plenty of fun and earned a rather awesome reputation when, in a fight with big Jimmy Payne over who should clean up the room after a choral performance, I broke his arm. That reputation for breaking big Jimmy Payne's arm stayed with me for years.

 

But of all the highlights of those three weeks in Tasmania nothing affected me as much as finding my temporary Mum in Dame Enid Lyons.

 

I often thought of her with warmth and affection as later I would walk up Devon Street, opposite the cow paddock, to No.55 Birdwood Street, Box Hill, a great city which was still a village, where the adults were kind and where the children grew up responsibly.