Evelyn Ruth Petersen - a brief biography
Written by her grandaughter Sharon Walker
On the 6th July, 1893 Eliza Peterson, with the help of the local midwife Mrs. Maclean, brought Evelyn Ruth Peterson into the world at their home at Horseshoe Bend, Merrendee Station, Mudgee River (Mudgee River is a locality on the Meroo Creek/River.) Evelyn’s maternal grandparents, John and Pamela Burrows (Lena spelt and pronounced the name as Burris rather than Burrows) immigrated from England and took up residence in the Gulgong/Mudgee area where Evelyn’s mother Eliza was born in 1860.
Eliza married Peter Laurence Peterson who immigrated to Australia from Stockholm, Sweden and their children were: Anne Matilda, William (Bill), Lilly May, Augustus (Gus), Dora, Peter, Evelyn (affectionately known as Lena by her family), Stanley and Ernest (Ernie). Lena’s father died in March 1901 and her mother married William Osborne in 1901; Lizzie was born the following year.
As a young child Evelyn, known as Lena by her family, would help on the farm by collecting tobacco leaves and hanging them on tall racks to dry or setting rabbit traps and snares along with the numerous other farm chores.
Life wasn’t all work, in the late afternoon the younger kids often went down to the trees along the Meroo River where they would compete with each other by ‘calling up the koala’s.’ They would mimic the koala’s by producing a deep grunting, bellowing sound and see who would have their call answered. At that time, in the late 1800’s early 1900, koala’s were in abundance along the Meroo. Lena was devastated when the koala population in the area was hunted out for their fur. The Burrendong Dam was completed around 1967; it flooded the area where Evelyn was born and lived when young. Burrendong is aboriginal for koala.
If they got a week-end off, they would spent it at ‘dance parties’ that were held on neighbouring properties. People would ride in from miles around on their horses or in sulkies, they would dance or sing the night away. The band consisted of whoever could play an instrument, sometimes this was only a fiddle or harmonica.
In 1903, and only 10yrs old, Lena was awarded a Bronze Royal Humane Society Medal for saving her 4yr old brother Ernie, from drowning in the Meroo River. She attempted to rescue her 7yr old brother, Stanley to no avail. Lena was unable to swim at the time. I can’t imagine how a child of that age copes with the loss of her little brother and the thoughts and images of that day replaying in her mind.
Lena first attended school at Merrendee when she was 11yrs old under the instruction of Mr Cassidy. She also attended The Junction School (Mudgee River School) until she was 13.5yrs. She liked her new teacher Mr Holmsly Gibson Spencer and was to become his assistant, helping out with preparing for lessons (e.g. placing little blackboards and chalks out for each student, getting sporting equipment ready), administering first aid to younger children and other simple tasks to assist her favourite teacher.
Lena learnt her lessons well and at 100yrs she was still able to recite many poems including: ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’ and ‘The Man From Ironbark.’ by A.B. “Banjo” Paterson.
Lena began her working life at 14 with Mr Davidson a local solicitor, her duties included looking after his 101yr old mother. After several other jobs Lena told a friend she was going to work at Merrendee Station which was near home and where her mother Eliza worked as the cook… her friend suggested she wouldn’t last six months…. “I can last six years if I want to,” said Lena…. And she did! Lena liked the Webb’s, except they made her work and hard work it was too, from 6am till 10pm at night with one Sunday off per month. After the six yrs she left and married a nice local boy, Alfred Stephens on 28th July 1913. Lena and Alfred lived happily in the Mudgee and Dunedoo Districts and their children were Evelyn Ruth (Ruth) and May. Her loving Alfred died of TB in January, 1917. During his illness Lena supported their family by cutting and removing wattle bark from trees, the bark was used at the tanneries and she would also set about four dozen rabbit traps a night and sell the rabbits.
When Lena met Frank Petersen he did a ‘con’ job on her, wearing her down by constantly telling her how she needed a man to look after her and her children. On the 27th February, 1918 Lena finally gave in and married Frank Petersen at All Saints Cathedral in Mudgee. (Note she was a Peterson and became a Petersen). This marriage produced the following children: Freda, Annie, Francis, Albert (Jimmy/Joey), Ernest (Beau), Violet (Lottie), Frank (Skeet), Marie, Bernice and Earl. At the time of Lena’s death those 12 children produced 21 grandchildren, 39 great grandchildren and at least 4 great great grandchildren… it is easy to understand how she affectionately became known as “Nanna.”
Lena and Frank moved to Newcastle living at Wickham, Islington, Mayfield, Beresfield, Shortland, Cardiff South and Cardiff where most of her children with Frank were born. Frank was often away for months, working in the mines at Liddell (Upper Hunter) and Oak Flats (Illawarra) he also worked as a Mine Deputy at Cardiff. Frank earned a very good wage for those times but spent much of his pay on alcohol and very little on his family, so Lena worked as a cook, cleaner, dressmaker including mending clothes and market gardener. She was a very hard worker and worked long hours for her children and family.
Times were hard for Nanna and the kids but she managed to scrape enough money together to put a deposit on the bush property on Munibung Hill in 1943. Lena’s dream was to have her own market garden. Whilst still living at Cardiff South the family would walk to the property and worked hard clearing the bush with hand tools such as axes, picks, mattocks and crow bars. The timber and saplings were kept and used to build ‘the house and sheds.’ The larger tree stumps were too hard to remove so Lena would dig a hole under the stump and then set it alight… she continued to stoke the fire until the stump burnt out. When the paddock was cleared they planted it out with vegetables…and the market garden dream had come to fruition…. but not for long….. as vandals ripped all the plants out when the Petersen’s went back home to Cardiff South. There was just one thing to do…. build a ‘house’ and live on the property. Lena built the first home pretty much by herself from whatever she had at hand. Resources were scarce due to the shortages from the Great Depression and WW2 and Lena had very little funds so the home was built from whatever they could scrounge. The ‘architecture’ for her first home resembled that of the huts that were built on the gold fields in the 1800’s. The first home was a very rustic hut made from saplings, rough sawn wood, old corrugated iron, hessian bags covering the window space and internal walls made from hessian covered in layers of newspaper, part of the floor was dirt but the bedrooms had floorboards. Lena made her fireplaces and chimneys from rocks on the property.
There were numerous small dams scattered around the property. Nanna dug the dams by hand, they would fill up and so she would dig the next dam down the hill a little so if the top dam over flowed it would fill the next dam down. If the dam dried out she would dig it out and make it bigger. Nanna would ware out her shovels. She had dams and swales to capture the water in lots of locations on the property. A nice little creek ran from the top of Munibung Hill down through the property, it was a tributary of Winding Creek.
Nanna built the ‘road’, really a cart track, from her house down to Macquarie Road. Nanna laid sandstone rocks on the parts of the road that would get boggy. That was a lot of road to build and maintain. Skeet (her son Frank) built the bridge over the gully near Nanna’s house from larger logs and covered them in dirt for a smoother crossing. She had acres of garden with fruits, berries and vegetables growing amongst the countless flowers and flowering bushes. She had numerous fruit tree varieties in the orchard as well as scattered throughout the garden. She had row after row of various vegetables growing down the hill from what is now Lucilla Ridge and Fitzwilliam Circuit and my favourite, she had a huge strawberry patch and I’d help her pick strawberries. One for me one for the pot… two for me one for the pot. Nanna had lots of berries as well as the strawberries she grew: raspberries, boysenberries, youngberries, blackberries and even Cape Goose Berry bushes, she grew many varieties of passionfruit including banana passionfruit and she had an old gnarly grape vine that hung above your head around one side of her second house. The purple grapes were a burst of juicy sweetness in your mouth ….as long as you picked them when ripe otherwise your face would screw up at their sourness as if to punish you for not waiting longer. It was a cornucopia of edible delights but the thing is you had to beat the other grandkids to them. You would often grab fruit when it was almost ripe other wise someone else would get it. At different times there were seven of her kids and their kids living in an assortment of unique and quirky dwellings on the property. There was always mischief to be had and someone to get up to mischief with.
Although life was tough ‘Nanna’ had a beaut sense of humour and always helped her kids or grandkids out financially or otherwise.
In her early 90’s Nanna came to live with her daughter, Marie. Marie lived on Nanna’s original property. In 1963 the property had been subdivided between Nanna’s kids who wanted to live there …. Marie, Skeet and Beau paid for the subdivision so they could build their homes on their land. Others also lived on the property but chose not to buy in.
Family Recollections of Nanna
- Cracker Night…. When living at Cardiff South the little kids would build a bonfire in a nearby paddock, the only fireworks they had were ‘tom thumbs’ and ‘bungers.’ Nanna use to cut up old stockings, wind them into very tight balls and then soak them in kero. A ball would be lit and the kids would play hot potato with it…. throwing it to one another. None of the kids were ever burnt and no fire was ever started…. Times were clearly different back then!!!! Seeing Nanna with her apron over her dress, boots on working somewhere in her huge garden with Jacko, the kookaburra, sitting somewhere nearby waiting to pounce on an unearthed worm. Jacko would often sit on the opposite side of the shovel to where Nanna’s foot went.
- Nanna and Simmy, her dog, wandering the bush collecting kindling and wood for the fire.
- In her strawberry patch picking strawberries and putting them into one of the numerous old saucepans that were scattered through the patch.
- Going to Nanna’s and coming home with fruits, vegetables and a bunch of flowers wrapped in newspaper.
- Marie remembers Nanna walking into Newcastle (from Cardiff) on the days when she couldn’t afford the bus fare.
- When they lived at Cardiff South, Marie was about 5 or 6yrs old and the local church was holding a picnic day at Kotara Park (near the railway station). The kids wanted to go and Nanna agreed. If you had money you could have caught the train but Nanna didn’t have much and so they walked THERE AND BACK!!! It was such a long way to walk on their little legs… but it was worth it for a PICNIC!
- Nanna gave birth to her twelfth and final baby at home, she was in labour for four very long and exhausting days with a breech birth. All her children, except Bernice, were born at home with the assistance of a local midwife.
- No matter how old she got she was still funny and cheeky with the doctors. When 91yrs (in 1984) and living at Marie’s, Dr Braye came to the house to see Nanna, Marie ushered him into Nanna’s bedroom to see her, she was in her late 90’s at the time …. Her tummy was very puffy… Dr Braye joked, “I think you must be pregnant. I wonder who the father is?” Nanna quipped, “Dr Firkin is the only gentleman who has visited my room.” Dr Braye laughed, “I’ll tell him you said that!” Nanna laughed too, “You do and I’ll tell him it was you!” “OH NO DON’T DO THAT,” laughed the doc.
- Marie remembers Nanna pulling the kids first teeth or hers with a pair of plyers. Oh those were the days!
- Nanna didn’t waste much, she could find a use for most things…Recycle, Reuse…. when plastic bags came out Nanna and Aunty Ruth use to wash them, hang them on the line to dry and re-use them. When bread came in plastic bags, once used and cleaned, Nanna would cut the bag into long thin strips, when she had enough she made curtains from them, macramé style or would crochet them into bags or hats. Aunty Grace was a whizz at turning used plastic bags into all kinds of crocheted items. Nanna also used her empty blue plastic Mylanta bottles (Antacid- Heartburn and Indigestion) to make borders for many of her garden beds.
- Nanna wouldn’t let others help her build her second houses either, by this time she well into her 60’s and was without electricity. Although this home was similar in structural design and building methods to her first home it was much larger. … five bedrooms. Once again she built the chimney’s from rocks from the property. The frames were built from saplings with hessian pulled taught between the internal saplings to create the walls. These walls were then covered in layers of newspaper with the final layer being the Woman’s Weekly or wall paper if she had any. The external walls were from what ever she could find… on this her second home it was tin. She used very few window… just some small recycled ones (with glass) in a few rooms. She would add a room on as required. The roof was made from corrugated iron… she didn’t want to put nail holes in the iron incase the roof would leak so she weighed the iron down with large rocks. Her roof NEVER leaked and it didn’t blow away. If the wind moved the rocks a little and the corrugated iron started to bang Nanna would get up on the roof and adjust the rocks until she was satisfied. This continued until she was in her late eighties….AMAZING!!!
- Nanna didn’t have electricity, her lighting was from kero lamps, her refrigeration was a ‘Silent Knight’ kero fridge and a meat safe. I remember the shelves in her house lined with a kind of plastic vinyl ‘liner’ with the scalloped edge hanging down over the edge of the shelf. She had a copper for washing, a treadle sewing machine and cooked in a wood fired stove/oven; a kettle always heating on the hob and depending on the day heavy irons would be heating ready to iron the clothes. Her external doors had a piece of leather that latched over a nail… not very secure but all that was required. The internal doors if they had ones would be a curtain. She had cupboards filled with bottles of nails, nuts, bolts, seeds or other bits and pieces. Nanna had a jar filled with boiled lollies or liquorice all sorts on her kitchen table…. us kids loved those lollies.
- Nanna’s toilet was up the back … up a couple of steps, along the garden path. It was covered in vines, spider webs and was altogether spooky… once again it was framed with saplings and covered in iron with a piece of corrugated iron for the roof…. a hessian bag was cut and folded to form a kind of pocket…. one edge nailed to a cross sapling/noggin to hold the toilet paper and another large piece of hessian hung across the door for privacy. Of course the toilet was a can, it was dark and scary AND SMELLY. Nanna called the toilet Charlie… poor Nanna got the job of emptying/burying Charlie. I remember when I was young they found a snake all snuggled in the hessian toilet paper holder…. I NEVER went to Nanna’s toilet after I was told that!!!
- Nanna’s cow was called Murphy you could hear Murphy’s bell ringing and you would know where she was. Nanna milked Murphy twice a day…. I remember Nanna or Aunty Ruth skimming the cream off the top…. The cream would be collected and thickened or turned into butter…..YUM!!!
- Nanna would work in the garden for most of the day… only coming in for lunch and during the hottest part of the day…. When there was a moonlight night she would often be out there then too!
- Nanna would ‘cool burn’ the bush each year. The local fire brigade would wait until Nanna had more or less achieved what she wanted to do with the burn then they would come up and put it out. Spud Outram, the fire captain, would jokingly threaten to put her in jail if she continued to light fires. Nanna said. “Good!!! I’ll get free bed and board.” Her burn offs worked because they never lost any houses or buildings in all the years they lived in the bush. We had no running water and fought any fires with a wet hessian bag or a small tree branch. Nanna stopped her cool burns through the bush and grassed paddocks when she went to live with Marie.
On a very hot day in October 1991, the westerly winds were blowing a hot, dry wind… it was a day that you knew something disastrous could happen…. the threat of fire filled the atmosphere. A fire started near Sugarloaf, the westerly winds blew the smoke, ash and cinders eastward… under the thick layer of smoke the air became super heated and tinder dry. The fire continually jumped forward, leap frogging the brigades before they could extinguish it. The atmosphere turned red …. the trees created what was called a ‘eucalyptus bloom’ and in the late afternoon the trees around Marie’s house spontaneously combusted with a whooosh… the fire came to the edge of the foundations of three sides of Marie’s house. Nanna’s old house exploded and a fire ball burst into the air, her home burnt to the ground, just the chimney left standing.
Jamie, who’s family bought Skeet’s property, lived across from Nanna’s came down to Marie’s…. scooped Nanna into his strong arms and took her away to safety whilst Marie tried to fight the demon with her piddly garden hose. Our horse was rescued by Linda, Marie’s daughter, and another fella as his yard and corral was burning ferociously. The several large sheds next door were alight…. How could this be in suburbia?
Luckily the fire brigade turned up just when things were getting reeeaaally scary. The brigade stayed for five hours just working at Marie’s. The house was saved… Marie had help…. Nanna was safe, the horse was safe, unfortunately several houses were also burnt and lost further up the road. We can not thank all those who helped enough. We have thought the world of and are very grateful for the Cardiff Fire Brigade and James Wright ever since, It was a day or so later that we discovered Constable Sinclair, who was driving to see how the William’s were fairing, had called the fire brigade back to Macquarie Hills which by then was well alight, it was.
- Every year we would go to The Newcastle Show… it was such a highlight of our lives… Nanna and Aunty Ruth would come with us. Nanna would give us kids some money to spend at the Show… after exploring the exhibitions and pavilions, buying our chosen show bags and having a couple of rides we all would meet at the Oak Milk Stand to watch the ring events… after the fireworks at night dad would drive us home tired and happy with a day filled of FUN!!!. We would treasure those show bags and treasure our memories of The Show..
Nanna was a pillar of strength for the family, she held it together through any crisis with her strength and wisdom. No matter what you thought or did Nanna would love you unconditionally and we all have our own recollections of how this beautiful lady supported us and showed she cared. Nanna was very selfless, always giving and moved through life without complaining about the hardship or adversity she faced. Nanna was fantastic at making what little money she did have stretched a long way. She outlived all her brothers and sisters but sadly seven of her own children passed before she did…. How does a mother cope with such loss?
In the mid to late 60’s the initial subdivision, which later became Macquarie Hills, started. The old cart track or gravel road (Lawson Rd which became Hawkins Rd and then back to Lawson Rd) was widened and sealed with bitumen, kerb and guttering and footpaths were added, along with storm water drains. New homes were being constructed, Marie and her brother Beau also built their modern homes, we no longer lived in our unique and quirky ‘temporary dwellings’. Gone too were the old corrugated iron water tanks we now had unlimited town water with flushing toilets…..LUXURY!!! We had a proper shower or bath in a big tub. We had a modern electric stove, collecting kindling and chopping wood to cook a meal no more. The old Silent Knight kerosene fridge was gone we now had an electric fridge …. we could have ice-cream….YUM!!! We had electric lights and television and more bedrooms. We had street lights! Such luxury we never knew!
The old mine shaft near the start of Lawson Rd along with the open cut coal mine, that had filled with water, were filled in, the poppet head and other signs of coal mining disappeared even the small lumps of coal that were strewn everywhere were gone. As the bush was bulldozed into piles the huge variety of plants also disappeared… no more picking Christmas Bells, gone were the ‘Puppy Dog’ flowers and all the little bush orchids. Gone were the grass trees, we used their long spikes for sword fights; being whacked by such long swords even though it stung and left long lasting red marks it didn’t really matter you were having FUN! Gone were the trees we built our cubbies in, on or under and the bushes we hid behind when playing hide n seek. Sadly the beautiful little birds disappeared too, we no longer saw blue wrens or finches flitting in our yard or the bush. The ear piercing shrill of cicadas in the summer was much quieter. Possums, sugar gliders, bandicoots lots of small mammals and reptiles lost their habitat. There was lots of change…. Change for what seemed to be the better and change for the worse. With all the changes Nanna just rolled along with it…. She was happy NOT to have running water or electricity…. She liked the old ways, washing her clothes in the ‘copper tub,’ using kero lamps, she had none of the labour saving devises. She stayed in the home she built and the garden she loved was 91yrs. She moved into Marie’s home in 1984 and lived there for ten years.
Nanna celebrated her 100th Birthday whilst living at Marie’s, the house was filled with her descendants and friends they spilled out onto the yard… it was probably overwhelming but she was a queen that day…ourQueen…. and our love for her was evident. In her 101st year, sadly Marie could no longer provide the care she needed and so after a stint in hospital she moved to Westcott Nursing Home at Stockton. Whilst there she had a stroke and was in a coma, the loving staff cared for her until her passing. Until the stroke Nanna had a fantastic memory, a great sense of humour and was incredibly witty and funny. In 1995 at the grand old age of 102 yr Nanna passed. This beautiful old pioneer lady was loved by so many, she is sadly missed but thought of often with very fond, treasured memories. Almost ten years after Nanna’s passing what was her property was subdivided and developed into what is there today…. It was named Wentworth Grove. As the hill changed and all the places we grew up with disappeared new homes were built for new families to create their memories. I am sure these new families would never have the adventure and fun that we did on this our spiritual home. Our memories of ‘Nanna’s Place’ live on in our hearts and minds and are brought out to be discussed, argued about and laughed at whenever the family get together. It may now be called ‘Wentworth Grove’….. but it will always be ‘Nanna’s Place’ to us.
This work by Lake Macquarie City Library is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License