The Story of Elsie and Harry Mercer by Elaine Costello

Posted by Marg P on

The New House

As time went on the original house at Ubobo ‘got’ white ants and had to be demolished, so it was decided to have a high one. Of course the hardwood in the house was still good. So Dad pulled it down about our ears. We managed (I can remember bathing in the tub in the bush house to go to a dance). Dad, again, built the house. I think he got a man in occasionally – for instance when you are up on the roof you need someone to hand the sheets of iron up. He felled the trees and cut the stumps for a high house and then dug with a crowbar and shovel, all the holes by hand before he could start building.

Being in the country there was no piped water, so all the water had to be caught on the roof when it rained and stored in tanks. The tank had to be as high as all of your taps inside, so the stumps under the tank stand would be about 9 foot at least. How did they get the tank up there? – there were no mechanical means. Some sort of leverage I suppose, I think Dad would have an extra man there and they perhaps used the motor for a winch? Dad bought an old army truck later to haul timber and cut firewood for the railway – he must have had this then and used it. It would be been a strong motor. By the time we built the second house; we had all the furniture we needed. In those days, one expected it to last a lifetime. We didn’t jump on the settee (sofa) and we didn’t even lean on Mum’s best bed in the bedroom with its heavy white quilt.

The house was lovely, we had a big dining room and lounge again and verandah on every side, this time with all three bedrooms opening out onto the side verandah. Dad and Mum slept on one and for a while I slept on the other. I felt a bit nervous but it was lovely, looking out at the big trees etched against the sky and the night birds in them occasionally calling, while I felt cosy in bed.

Dad, in this house, had installed electric light, which ran off a small motor. This was just for lights and had to run while the lights were on. After awhile you hardly heard the motor. The local garage man and Dad did it together. I’m not sure if you could do that now, but at that time you could. He also did all the plumbing to get the water into the kitchen and bathroom, and the guttering to get the water inside – well to catch it. One amazing thing I think now was that he drew the plans of the house, which had to be submitted to officials to get permission to build. Dad later built three big houses – one in Maryborough, for himself, another for me (Bunny) and one for sale as well as some smaller ones for workers in the outback.

Both Harry and Elsie would have had a lot less years of education (formal), than we have today – but people of that era were very smart. At the time all that I am about to say was normal, but now, looking back, and thinking what I could do, I think, “How did Elsie know how to do that?”

We gradually acquired some furniture; as I said we dealt with manufacturing drapers – our sheets and even kid’s knickers were bought this way for me and so at ‘cost’ price, kid’s singlets too, in fact most made up clothes. We bought all Dad’s work clothes from the same manufacturers and fancy work (traced linen) and cottons, so Mum and we girls could have a piece to do at night. We bought stone fruit straight from the growers in Stanthorpe – same situation. Oh and she had an arrangement with F.W. Nissen, a Brisbane Jeweller, who would send pretty things ‘ on sale or return’.

I think the amazing thing is how did a little English War Bride, bring about this situation of trust. Consider that she would have had to write appropriate letters in the first place and put her case sufficiently well for them to accept her as CREDIT customer without meeting her. I think she was extraordinary – girls are starting their own business today, and succeeding, and this is more or less the same. I don’t think we ever had any money in our hands – well I know we didn’t, but we could live nicely. We never took wages ….. Living nicely was important then too.

I remember Semco put out children’s dresses. They were sketched out flat on the material, and you had to make it up and embroider the front for a trim – full sized dresses. The fancy trim would be as a transfer as embroidery. Mum made me one of these and I was so proud. It was the finest handkerchief linen and that really was top grade. No, I think I had two, lemon and apple green.

We must remember here that I am talking about a small isolated area in country Queensland.

The second house would have been 1944-1945. I don’t think there were so many rules then. Harry in his life did many, many big things, but he was very natty (handy with his hands) with delicate things too. He always polish the lounge room floor, and as I said, made the lounge room curtains. I can remember one time when we needed something between the shop area, and the Lounge (right behind it). Dad decided to make a bead curtain for the doorway. (Yes, it sounds a bit crummy now, but we had no money, and at that time, it was OK.)

On one of the boxes that came to the shop, the packing included lots and lots of off-cuts from paper pads – very neat and very even. At the same time Mum had lots of beads in her sewing box – people did craft like jug covers etc., so Dad took these sheets of paper and patiently night after night, rolled them around a knitting needle sealed them, and painted with glossy brown varnish. By alternating these at different intervals with the beads, he made a very professional bead curtain which worked well for years and years. As a carpenter he could make nice beading.

Right then too we had a ‘bush nurse’ (being a long way from hospital and doctor). She was trying one day to teach Mum tatting. That’s a bit like crochet – you make a long piece and sew it around an edge of a doily. Mum couldn’t pick it up-although I’ve seen her crochet and be hardly looking. Dad did though and did a long piece which is on a doily. He was supposed to help Mum learn later.

Apparently tatting is easy to master if you understand “knots” and Dad could see this. I think these things were a challenge to him. There wasn’t much he couldn’t do- he’d sit and think it out and then do it. Mum said to him when he built the second house, “Harry, I want a bay window in my bedroom” he said I can’t do that – but he did.

When I was little Betty and I used to play cubbies. We had a big space around the house with fallen trees, so we’d drag big limbs over to make the house walls – you just laid four limbs on the ground in the shape of a square, of course you had to be careful about the last one being shorter because there had to be a door. Then we had boxes from the shop goods for the table and chairs, and we played ‘ladies’ and ‘tea party’, we had married names and families. There was a big yell if you stepped over the tree limbs that you couldn’t walk over the walls.

The most marvellous things were found in the boxes of goods for the shop – always paper off-cuts for writing on – sometimes coloured, and wonderful silver foil on the side of the ‘tea-chests’ so you could have big pieces. Alfoil wasn’t known yet and the silver was precious. There was also wonderful shredded cellophane for ‘nests’ for easter eggs. We had all the old curtains to dress up with and re-enacted the plays on the wireless.

There wasn’t much to play with at school – a vigoro set for the girls and a couple of cricket bat and balls for the boys. Breaking up day was great – the Mums brought a basket picnic – (I loved the sandwiches because Mum always made us go home for a ‘hot meal’). We had lots of watermelon and then when we got our book prize, we got 2 bananas (these were very special-our area was too cold to grow them) – and a little white paper bag full of boiled lollies – counted out carefully, probably 15 or so.

And the holidays…. there was always something to do. Mum thought little girls should clean the silver and polish all the brass door knobs and wash all the verandahs – there were lots. Also with the shop we bagged up all the groceries which came in bulk then – sugar, rice, sultanas, cocoanut etc. And we bottled kerosene, shellite and methylated spirits with a hand pump. We didn’t really mind this – it became a sort of a game. Oh and we bagged potatoes and onions too. A bad one smelt awful.

There were some things Elsie and Harry did that make me really like them now. (Sometimes your parents are really ‘firm’ as they were, (parents in those days), but now I’ve been remembering the big lovely verandah at the shop and ‘seeing’ us at the Sunday dinner. Elsie taught Sunday School – so she’d put the big Sunday roast in the oven – stoke up the wood fire, and go off the the local hall. If someone ‘ turned up’, who you knew would not be having a Sunday roast and a pudding, they were asked to stay. It was nice for Dad too, they would hang over the truck motor while they waited – such a change for him – he lived in an all female household.

Betty died in 1936 as she developed a hernia and it was decided to operate to give her a normal life (she was 12). As a result of this she developed tetanus and died after the operation. There was a big court case and the sadness of losing her continued to the end of my parent’s life.

My adored big sister, Joan, had gone to boarding school at St. Faith’s Church of England School for girls in the 1930’s. This was at Yeppoon. This only left me at home, and then at 12 ½ my turn came to go to boarding school.

Joan as a late teenager, was offered two good jobs in Gladstone and then Rockhampton. This is where she met her husband Norm. When I came home from school after two years, I was lonely. There was a lot happening though – sports days, dances, rodeos and of course the Second World War was on and it was very serious. So people’s minds were occupied about the things happening as from 1939 to 1945 it looked very dangerous – and as we saw boys we had known all our lives go away to be soldiers and pilots, to defend Australia.

One comment

  1. A lovely, interesting read. Thank you for taking the time to write your precious memories here for people to wonder at times gone by.

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