An extraordinary life

IT was an auspicious day on 6 August 1926 in Kent, England, when Edna Frances Clarke joined the fold. By age three, it was clear she had weak ankles so her aunt suggested enrolling her in dance classes. Edna’s life-long love of singing, dancing and acting resulted. Although dancing strengthened her legs, she was never able to play active sport. Keen to assist children, when schools closed during World War II, 14-year-old Edna, who had been dux of her school, started a school for neighbourhood children in her parents’ attic.

A year later, 17-year-old Bill Jones first saw her in the local park; he later wrote that he knew that this was the girl he would marry.


Daughter Vivien:

“Dad adored her from that moment until his untimely death at 56 years.”

Their first child, Martin, was born in a London Hospital in June 1944 when the first of thousands of doodlebugs (bombs with wings) landed on London. The new young mothers were handed their babies each evening and the nursing staff went home!

Edna Clarke
Edna Clarke

In 1958, Bill, Edna, Martin, Vivien and Trevor emigrated to Australia. Seeking immediate community involvement, they joined an entertainment group called the Modernaires and travelled around Victoria presenting musical shows at aged care facilities and hospitals.

I spoke with the effervescent Edna in February this year at a Peridot dress rehearsal where she was accompanied by enthusiastic residents of her senior citizens’ village. Meeting Edna was a true ‘experience’ – 90 years of age, slim and spry body, topped by bright red hair to match her bubbly personality.

In the 1960s, Edna enrolled at Swinburne Technical College – a lifetime of producing, directing, set design, stage management, adjudication, dramaturgy and a children’s theatre workshop were the result. Edna said that students were not only taught acting but about makeup, sound and lighting. “You’ve got to know how to put the lights in the right place to get the effect you want. We had to learn everything – not just being on stage.”

Around the same time, she studied at Ingmar Bergman’s Melbourne’s School of Film. Edna and Bill produced environmental documentaries and Vivien recalls:

“They also filmed a TV series – the video equipment was so heavy they were often up to their knees in mud and being chased by trains on bridges when they had been told trains didn’t run on Sundays!”

Although Edna trained at Kenwood Theatre where many actors went on to TV shows such as Cop Shop and Number 96, she wouldn’t give up full-time employment to pursue that possibility, instead continuing in community theatre in plays and musicals and she was involved in establishing and running of Melbourne’s first ‘accredited’ hospitality training programs and ran a licensed motel/restaurant in the ‘seventies.

Edna in directing mode
Edna in directing mode

Following the death of her beloved Bill in 1980, Edna worked in youth theatre and also coordinated an after-school program where she taught boys to knit and girls to be more assertive! Back to her thespian pursuits: at the 1983 Waverley Festival of Theatre, Edna won Best Production, Best Set Design and Best Actress award!

Although her ambition to enter the 1986 Moomba Festival was thwarted by local groups, at an after-show cast party the woman running the Moomba Festival, having just seen her work, suggested Edna join the festival! “You will only have to do two plays that we’ll come and see, and we’ll invite you into it.”

The outcome was that she and future husband Gordon Bartlett started their own theatre company – Peridot (named for her August birthstone). With no time for auditions, she asked friends to join the cast of Moving. They had no flats or props and thankfully the (now defunct) Box Hill City Theatre Company loaned them a set.

Edna’s Moomba entry, The Dresser (its first non-professional production) resulted in Best Production, Best Director and Best Set Design – bear in mind that Edna was now nearly 60.

Edna filming with Gordon in the 1980s
Edna filming with Gordon in the 1980s

Over the years Edna worked with schools, casting and directing school musicals at Primary and Secondary level and, having had no previous background in films or theatre, Gordon assisted Edna in producing educational videos for schools and the Victorian indigenous pre-school community.

Playwrights were still seeking Edna’s assistance earlier this year – until Vivien told her that she must tell people her age – no one could guess – because she thought she could still do anything.

“As kids we laughed because Mum couldn’t run”, recalls Vivien. “However, x-rays revealed, when she was in her 70s and had resorted to directing plays on her knees, that she had been born with deformed ankles. The specialist surgeons couldn’t believe that she had walked at all. Her ankle bones were fused to relieve some pain but she refused to use a stick!”

Vivien says that Edna was also a superb seamstress and made fine tapestries and cross-stitch work – her unfinished work will be completed by family members. Vivien: “Mum had a finger in every pie but everything she did she did extremely well. Right to the last Mum just wanted to help people and make them good at what they do.”

Edna was fortunate to have husbands very willing to, as Vivien put it, ‘follow her dream’. When she and Gordon moved to a retirement village in their eighties, they soon had other villagers embroiled in play readings – what every retirement village needs is an Edna!

Following a life of constant pain, Edna passed away from cancer on 15 September, shortly after celebrating her 90th birthday. She is survived by her husband, Gordon, aged 95; two of three children, five of seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Peridot’s next production, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, is a fast-paced whodunit. Venue: Unicorn Theatre, Mt Waverley Secondary College, Lechte Road, Mt Waverley (2–18 February 2017).

A visit to the past and Burwood High

Donald Weston and I sit in his living room, talking about his school days 50 years ago. Donald, a former student at Burwood High kept a diary, and as he explains I felt myself going back in time…to a time when Burwood High School was located at the Nissan Huts…

1956: Donald Weston recalls school days at the Nissan huts in the Ashburton Railway yards, which were originally built to accommodate migrant railway workers. The huts did not provide appropriate shelter from the extreme Melbourne weather and summers inside the huts were steaming, he says, as the roofing was structured with corrugated iron sheets.

The Burwood High School students were soon relieved of this. On a historic Monday they were relocated at their “incomplete” new residence, where at last they had their new home.

Burwood High School
Burwood High School before bitumen was put down

But the “new home” had to be cleaned for occupancy. Donald points out that students burned rubbish at the school to destroy rats. The school grounds were so muddy that two bulldozers were stuck in the mud, while the rugged terrain with long grass led a student, Dawn Giltinan, to be bitten by a snake. Assemblies were held in the freezing “breezeway”.

Donald recalls how the headmaster insisted on the students wearing double-breasted suits and “caused no end of strife. He insisted that boys wear their caps and raise them when passing him. He pounces on us if he sees us coming to school not wearing them.” In the extracts he further elaborates:

“In October (1959) we held a protest meeting against him on the hill. The newspapers were tipped off and there was a great scene. He likes to have long assemblies, lecturing us about our behaviour. Often children faint”.

The boys hated wearing caps. “They rolled up the caps and put them in the back pockets”. Laughing he remembers how Mr Lloyd, the headmaster stirred up those who weren’t wearing them. Also the girls’ dresses had to be the “right” length, where the hem of the skirt had to touch the ground when you knelt down.

“Even in hot weather we have to wear our jumpers in the class. If a teacher lets us take them off we have to put them back on before the next teacher arrives.”

The boys looked forward to the lunch breaks when they played a variety of games: cricket was played with no pitch, but just a bat; hand tennis, as the words imply was played by striking the ball with the hand; a German boy had taught the boys a card game called Skat, and though forbidden, was secretly played anyway. And marbles – most of the boys were seen carrying bags full of beautifully designed marbles. They played “alley football” with marbles and about three marbles got broken every day. “I have no idea what the girls did though,” Donald laughs.

1956 saw the Olympic Games held in Melbourne and some students went to one of the Games sessions from school. The enthusiasm of the kids was displayed when the form 1A boys wore an “Olympic running track” in the grassy school yard.

In his diary Donald has many entries. He concludes:

“Lloyd strolled and announced that we could leave school (for ever) after 4 pm! Swiped the library “silence” sign and made my last trip to school, to clear out [my] locker. Did not wear my uniform.”

First matriculation exam in the exhibition buildings.
Had the physics exam…very hard! Stopped at Hartwell for jumbo cherry milkshake (2/-) on the way home. Rang Ms Appleby twice about Calculus questions on the old exam papers. Calculus and applied maths 1 exams. Fastened my school tie to Bob’s brother’s car radio aerial.
Last exam! Pure maths 2.
The last school social.

Bibliography: Barnard P., Memories of Burwood High School 1955-87.

The day it snowed in Burwood

There doesn’t appear to be much sign of suburban snow this season, but fifty years ago, almost to the day, Burwood was covered with it. A once-in-a-lifetime event and many residents of Burwood still recall the day and the special circumstances it brought.

Mrs Rosalind Arvidson (nee Whelan) remembers her trip to Ashburton Primary School that morning, and still talks about it. She had to walk to school every day, but on the day the snow fell, Rosalind was in for a treat. Her mother backed the little black Morris out of the garage, and gave her a lift to school. Rosalind remembers looking back as they drove down Fakenham Road and seeing the tyre tracks in the otherwise undisturbed snow. They were the very first to drive down that street that day, and Rosalind was saved from the chilly walk to school.
She was not the only one. Mrs Susan Webster fondly recalls her own story from the day:

“It was a weekday and it was very cold when we got up. We got out of bed and Dad said, ‘Look out the back window.’ There was snow out there! As we got ready for school it was absolutely freezing. My older brother and I walked down Orford Road and turned into Dunscombe Avenue, where Mr. & Mrs. Hayes lived on the corner. Mr. Hayes had a truck, which we used to call the ‘lolly truck’, because he used it to deliver lollies to milk bars and schools. They were very popular with the children in the neighbourhood.

As we were walking down Dunscombe Avenue in the snow, Mr. Hayes was backing his lollyy truck out of his garage. He saw us coming and said to us, ‘You’d better get in the back of the truck,’ because it was so cold.

The truck was a normal covered truck with two doors at the back. Mr. Hayes opened up the back doors and we got in the back of the lolly truck. It was such a great treat.

Inside the truck there were shelves around the three sides, and of course the doors at the back. On all the shelves were boxes of lollies. Lifesavers, snakes, mint leaves, jelly babies, freckles, buddies, and all the lollies you can think of! I don’t think we ate any, we just stood there I think, but maybe if we had been mischievous we would have started eating them.

There were no seats inside, we just stood up. We held onto the shelves as we went along to school — it wasn’t far. That was the highlight of my childhood. We’d never had snow falling before, and now we were going to school in the buy truck! A child’s dream.”

On arrival at school, the day didn’t return to normal. Instead of beginning classes, the children were allowed to play in the snow after assembly. Mrs. Annette Moloney (née Colee) can remember building snowmen in the playground. She also remembers the little bottles of school milk freezing before recess.

The snow was not limited to Burwood. At that time in 1951 snow fell on most of southern Australia. A white blanket of snow stretched from Adelaide to Melbourne and on to Traralgon. Tasmania was completely white with snow. Tasmania was covered with snow again on 9th August when Queenstown awoke to a white wonderland.

So anyone celebrating their 5Oth birthday around this time may well have been born on a snow-blessed day. Mr. Jack Riley remembers ringing his wife Jean in the old Burwood Hospital in Warrigal Road where she was recovering from the birth of their first child, to tell her to look out the window at the snow.

Not everyone was overjoyed with the snow that day. Mrs. Doreen McLeod lived in Box Hill at the time and she remembers the day well because it was her younger daughter’s birthday. Her daughter, Glenys had been looking forward to her birthday for weeks. At her school, Blackburn South Primary, when it was anyone’s birthday the whole class would sing “Happy Birthday” to them. Glenys just couldn’t wait.

The morning of her birthday was when Burwood was covered in snow. Glenys went off to school very excited and eager to get there. However, when she got to school, they all went outside and played in the snow, and forgot to sing “Happy Birthday” at all! It was a disaster for Glenys, and she was bitterly disappointed. She didn’t enjoy the snow as much as everyone else that day, even though it was her birthday.

Many thanks to Mrs Susan Webster for her assistance in researching this article.

100 years of Travellers Aid

THE more than 25 years’ association I’ve had with Travellers Aid (TA) started through need when I first noticed the Spencer Street subway location. After leaving school on crutches, I needed to sit or lie down for a few hours to recover. I well remember one of the ladies there on my first visit – Mrs Lark. At the time, I was coming down from the country to Melbourne on a semi-regular basis to study network marketing and used the TA facilities as necessary.

When you are a person with a disability, you have to promote and sell yourself as a person of interest so that you can engage others and get them to look at or see you as a person rather than a situation needing support.

TA has had people entering its doors for 100 years. Started by women from the YWCA and other female-led organisations, they supported those in crisis, down on their luck, or affected by war through loss of family members or notably bread winners. In its early days TA mainly supported women. An example was when billeted accommodation had to be found for a young girl or family; TA would source options.

Travellers Aid buggy in Melbourne
Travellers Aid buggy with passengers in Melbourne

People in wheelchairs arrived seeking assistance at the Collins and Swanston Street venues because the Herald Sun and its sub-agencies’ employees were out on the street as early as 6:30am. These workers were scattered around the city centre – I know because I was one of them. TA gave accessible facilities with caring attendants.

TA obtained Department of Human Services’ funding to provide disabled toilet facilities. A family member who went for a TA canteen job was asked if she minded assisting others to go to the toilet – this was in the job description. The interviewer, Mrs Shelley, said: “I hope you don’t think this is strange, but this is what we need”. TA remains flexible in meeting the otherwise unmet needs of the community. If it were not for those then on the TA Board, we would not have such support centres.

We have had programs assisting people to get back on their feet after a personal crisis or to return home or get to a safe environment. Although funding has been cut in some areas, for every person entering TA these same principles are followed. This year we celebrate our 100th anniversary.

Apart from its two Melbourne centres and one in Seymour, TA runs a Travel Training Program and has an active Medical Companion Program in Melbourne to assist regional and metropolitan patients to get to appointments smoothly. There is a buggy service available at Southern Cross and Seymour stations to meet people and escort them as required and if details are provided, they will be met upon their return. TA also has mobility scooters and wheelchairs (both electric and manual) for hire.