Despite what came before and what happened afterwards, the picture I have of her is of her singing, as she moved about the sunny flat doing her housework. When she forgot the words she would make up nonsense syllables to the tune. Like most women of her generation she was a fastidious housewife. Everything was in its right place, and kept clean and tidy. Her era was one when women mended sheets, darned socks, and were visited by tradesmen – the baker, the iceman with his tongs, knife sharpener, rabbit-oh, bottle-oh, and the milkman who filled the bottles from his urn. Edna herself, a gaunt, lined woman now 50, was carefully dressed, lightly made up, as she had been brought up to care for herself. In the small Housing Commission flat she had been given on the outskirts of Sydney after a long period of homelessness the furniture was new, bought on the installment plan and paid for from her tiny pension. Outside was a patch of garden, and Edna spent many hours growing flowers, which she loved and loved to arrange in her flat. In her youth she had worked as a florist. Edna lived with her second son, now a shy schoolboy whom she had brought up alone after her husband had left. Following complaints from other residents the Housing Commission later built a parking lot outside Edna’s flat, and so she lost her garden. She was a woman seemingly fated to lose the things she loved.
She was born 11 January 1912 in Newtown, in the inner city region of Sydney, the daughter of Vincent Gammell, an electrical engineer who worked for Sydney Council, and his wife Elsie May Douzans, daughter of a French father and an Irish mother. She had a sister, Sylvia, one year older. Things were not happy in the Gammell household. An authoritarian husband clashed often with a fiery and independent wife.
Matters came to a head early in 1923, when Vincent started courting another woman, Ethel Durrant. Elsie May was humiliated. Eventually she left the home, and her two 12 year old daughters, vowing only to return when Vincent could offer her a decent home. Vincent’s response was to sue for his conjugal rights, alleging he had been deserted, and when this ploy failed, as he had perhaps hoped it would, he demanded a divorce and custody of his two girls. Elsie May would have found a contested suit undignified, and had no intention of counter-suing for adultery. Vincent’s suit was granted, and less than a month after the decree nisi became absolute Vincent married Ethel. The remarriage spelt division between the two sisters. Sylvia took her mother’s part. All her life Elsie May and Sylvia would be close, often living together or as neighbours. Edna took her father’s part. She idolised Vincent, and did so all her life. He could do no wrong. Perhaps for this reason she never mentioned her sister or her mother again, to anyone. As for Vincent, once he remarried he placed Edna in a boarding school, and seldom saw her until Ethel had her bought home to help with the housework and the care of her two young children. Sylvia was in the care of her mother. The divorce and remarriage effectively isolated Edna from mother, sister, father and friends, and who knows how many bitter and angry scenes between her parents she was a witness to.
At boarding school Edna had been encouraged to develop her musical skills. She showed promise as a pianist. Back in the family home her step-mother disallowed any tuition: Edna was needed for the housework. But she had her father near, and took what comfort she could in the proximity. It couldn’t have been comfortable in that household, where Ethel was perhaps jealous of Edna’s devotion to her father. When Edna was 25 her father Vincent and his wife Ethel and their two young children went on a holiday to Queensland, leaving Edna to care for the house. That year (it was 1937) there was a heat wave. Although temperatures were not excessive, seven people died of sunstroke. One of them was the 50 year old Vincent, who was staying in Goondiwindi. The unexpected death devastated everybody, but most of all Edna. Vincent was all she had left of her family. Now he was gone, and Edna was alone, again.
In 1935 Edna had been staying at her grandfather James Gammell’s house at Belmore. The welcome in her father’s house was not very warm and she preferred to live elsewhere. There she met a neighbour, Reginald Knowles, son of a master mariner from Auckland New Zealand who had been born in Winchester Hampshire in the UK. The Knowleses were third generation jewellers in Winchester who had found hard times, and Francis, Reg’s father, had had to fend for himself. He joined the navy. After settling in New Zealand and raising a family Francis took his family to Sydney. Reg was a gifted student who ended up as an articled clerk in a solicitor’s office. Reg and Edna had a child together, Anthony, born at the end of 1935. Rather belatedly they decided to get married, and did so 24 September 1937, eight months after the death of Edna’s father Vincent. It was probably a need for company and emotional support that motivated Edna to marry, but whatever she wanted, Reg could not provide.
Two years later the couple were separated, Reg unaware of Edna’s address. On 14 June 1940 Reg enlisted in the Australian Army. He was discharged in 1945, having seen active service in the Middle East and New Guinea. Perhaps the war experience was a devastating one. For some reason he found it difficult to take up a sedate occupation as a solicitor’s clerk again, even one highly esteemed by his employer. Reg and Edna resumed their disjointed family life. Reg took a mortgage on a house in Coward Street Mascot, Edna furnished it with her savings. By the time they moved in in 1948 they had had a second child, a son they named Phillip. In the new house the two boys, ten years apart in age, witnessed many a bitter quarrel between two people who were in no way suited to one another. Reg left his job and became a professional gambler. Bills were left unpaid. Finally the mortgage was foreclosed, and the couple with their young family had to move elsewhere. It was 1954. Television was a novelty. So was the jet plane. Dispossession of a home for poor people was all too familiar a fate.
One evening in the home at Mascot the family was having their evening meal. A quarrel arose between Reg and Edna. The couple became so furious they shouted at the top of their voices. Edna picked up the serving dish which held spaghetti and hurled it at Reg. He slapped her, hard, and she left the room crying. Reg went to the local pub for a beer. Left behind in the dining room was a small five year old boy, terrified out of his wits, who never forgot that scene.
In 1954 another family of Edna’s split up. It must have been familiar. Reg went to his sister Ruby at Maroubra, the elder boy Tony had a job as an industrial chemist with Eveready and found a room in a boarding house, and Edna and her younger son were left to fend for themselves.
Meanwhile Edna’s sister Sylvia had created a career for herself as an instructor of dance. She had her mother Elsie May’s support. In the early 40s she met a promoter of mixed English and Swiss Italian descent called Joshua Battaini and after organising several successful events together at Bondi Beach locations the couple decided to marry. After the marriage they dropped the final ‘i’ from their name and became known as Battain. In 1947 they had a child, another Joshua, and the following year they moved to Mackay to manage a hotel, the Prince of Wales. Elsie May went with them. The Battains stayed in Queensland, where Sylvia died in 1997, aged 87.
By 1954 Edna was in a desperate state. She had no money, no profession, and a small child, a child she was determined to bring up a good Catholic, as she was. But private schools were expensive. Unfortunately no other Gammell relative was willing to help. Her grandfather James, ex-publican and investor, had had a soft spot for Edna, but he had died in 1940. The only one of his children prosperous enough to help was John, a successful Woollahra solicitor, but Edna’s situation and behaviour was too irregular, and he declined to be involved. So Edna hired herself out as a housekeeper, working mainly on rural properties. She lived at places like Pocketaroo in northern NSW, or Cooma. At this time she also became ill, and was diagnosed with a peptic ulcer which eventually required an operation. While she was incapacitated she placed her son Phillip in orphanages and boarding schools, a traumatic experience for the child. At this stage also she began to drink to excess. Eventually she diagnosed herself as an alcoholic. Nowdays I think she would have been diagnosed as suffering from chronic depression.
During a stay in Sydney she had been drinking at a public bar, and had made the acquaintance of a man who seemed friendly. Edna told her story, the young son, no place to stay, no money to pay the hotel bill at the Salvation Army hotel where she was staying. The man offered to help, and they left together to go back to the hotel, but it soon became obvious he had understood he was buying some sex. Edna told him about the young child waiting in the room, which made no difference to him. When she still refused, he swore and walked away. So much for the kindness of strangers.
Life changed for the better when the NSW Housing Commission found a small apartment for Edna and her son at Waitara on Sydney’s North Shore line in 1960. About the same time she was granted a small pension. It had been a seven year wait, during which Edna had somehow managed to put her son in pre-school, and primary school at North Sydney Marist Brothers, though schooling had been interrupted by stays at boarding schools and orphanages. Her two boys were a solace and comfort to Edna, and she was proud of her eldest, Tony, as he started to make his way in the world. One of the first things she did after moving into the new flat was to collect Tony’s few belongings left behind at his boarding house at Kirribilli, and send him some money by post to an address in Melbourne: Tony was travelling around Australia, and was always short of money.
Edna had been given an old floor model radio, and loved listening to broadcasts. She was a fan of Jack Davy, a popular quiz show host of the day. When he released a record she was quick to buy a copy. She was fond of Fats Waller, and always turned up his songs when they played and sang along. She had a nervous, timid boy to look after, and managed to instill principles of right behaviour, and dress and feed him adequately, no matter what she went without herself.
Edna was close to her three Gammell aunts, Mary, her favourite, Kate and Alice, her father’s sisters. She had been christened Edna May Antoinette. Her mother’s first cousin Celestin Douzans was married to Lillian Paul, and Lillian’s youngest sister was Antoinette Paul. It’s possible Edna was named in honour of her. The three Gammell sisters abbreviated the name, and all three called her ‘Toinette. Nobody called her Edna.
Mary and Kate shared a flat at Edgecliff in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, Kate a widow of a Cooma developer called Jack Sellar, a New Yorker who could trace his ancestry back to the 17th century trading aristocracy of that city who had migrated from Holland. Mary was single, a woman rumoured to have lost a fiance in the First World War who was a superb cook and a very cheerful woman whom everybody liked. Visiting the third sister Alice was more difficult. She lived in Cremorne with her husband Esmond Hain, and as husband and wife were at war, visits had to be surreptitious. Edna was also popular with her neighbours and with the women for whom she worked as a housekeeper. It was the 1960s, everybody was positive. Everything seemed to be going all right.
Edna missed her eldest son. Over her seven difficult years since her family disbanded she had kept in touch with him, worried about him, was proud of his achievements. She scraped and saved to sent him money. But these were the years when she sometimes drank to excess. On one or more of these occasions she had evidently visited Tony, by now married and settled in a career. He retaliated by moving, and not letting Edna know his new address. Her attempts to find Tony ended in rebuffs. Finally Tony sent her a letter in which he told her never to contact him again, that she had embarrassed him, that she was a worthless person. It was an angry letter, but Tony had obviously been disturbed by the family breakup. He had never made contact, nor attempted to, with his mother, father or younger brother, nor would for the rest of his life. He just eliminated them, tried not to think of them. Edna was felled by the blow Tony’s letter of rejection represented. Memories of her father’s death, mother’s abandonment, step-mother’s indifference must all have arisen in her mind. More than once she reread the letter, and cried, harsh bitter sobs that shook her entire body. Despite her wish to create a good life for her younger son, Edna relapsed into alcoholism. This time it was compounded by addiction to anti-depressants. Every so often, once every two months or so, the young boy would find his mother insensible, drunk or behaving erratically, and he dreaded those times.
After he finished schooling Phillip moved out of the Waitara flat, into accommodation he shared with his friends. Unlike his elder brother Tony he stayed in close contact with Edna, calling on the telephone, and visiting often. One day, when Edna failed to answer the phone on several occasions, he knew something was wrong. He boarded a train, bringing his girlfriend along for support. There was no answer when he knocked on the door. He found an unlocked window. Inside he found Edna’s body. She had been dead for two days. The police and ambulance came. The police officer, who could see how shocked he was, considerately drew him to one side so he would not see the ambulance attendants carry the body from the flat.
Later, still dazed and in shock, one of his work colleagues organised the funeral for him. Edna died 23 July 1973, aged 61. It was more than two years before Phillip could bear to go and visit Edna’s memorial at Northern Suburbs Crematorium. A week after the funeral he went to the Waitara flat, but the cheap furniture, pathetic attempt at a cheerful decor, the smell of cars parked outside the living room window all repelled him. After making a half hearted attempt to sift through Edna’s pitifully few personal belongings, he left, leaving the door unlocked, after asking St Vincent de Paul’s charity to come and take all that was in the flat and sell or otherwise dispose of it. It seemed a harsh death for a gentle person.
Highly intelligent and very sensitive, Edna had spent her life reacting to hardship, poverty, indifference and cruelty. She never once had an opportunity to show what she could do. Her death was caused by a blood clot lodging in her heart: she had been suffering from a painful blocked artery in her foot and her doctor cheerfully told her she needed to have an operation to avoid gangrene and the loss of the foot, but that the operation might release a blood clot with fatal consequences. Not much consideration was shown her for she was only a pensioner. Her autopsy revealed the occlusion, and that her body had been weakened by alcoholism and malnutrition. It didn’t reveal her heart had been broken, finally, by her elder son’s rejection.
Elsie May Douzans was so proud of her two girls. Bitter as she was over her husband Vincent’s behaviour, what would she have thought of her youngest daughter’s fate? What a different life Edna would have led had her family stayed together, and had she grown up to be a concert pianist. I’ve always admired Edna more than anybody I knew. She had more setbacks than many people have and kept going as long as she could. She may have been a humble person with troubles that many others have, but she showed an exceptional amount of courage and persistence. She was an everyday hero whom nobody noticed. No matter how degraded she became at times, she never once lost her fineness.
©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay.