A young girl’s determination to make good.
One of the joys of this column has been receiving suggestions from readers, and so it was with Ada Piggott, whose inspirational story illustrates the stark, sometimes comical differences between daily life 100 years ago and today.
It came to me from Gary Tatterson, a friend of Ada’s family, who had recently compiled her wonderful story.
I have drawn extensively from Gary’s work, and from meetings with Ada.
Ada was born in 1924 in a modest two bedroom timber cottage about 40 metres from the Morwell River at Yallourn East Camp, a temporary settlement for workers on the Yallourn Mine and Power Station.
She was the sixth of seven children of Thomas and Ellen (nee Drane) Toner.
Household water was drawn direct from the river by bucket, which also yielded eels that could be plucked by hand from the water.
The kids learned the quiet patience needed to do this; they also trapped rabbits, which were abundant.
The kids knew how to kill and skin both these animals which were a regular part of family meals. (Imagine how you’d go these days catching a rabbit in the backyard and serving it up for tea!)
The kids loved being outdoors running around in bare feet playing endless games of cricket, footy, and games they invented, and it’s easy to imagine that the family lived in poverty, but this is not what Ada recalls.
Their life was humble, but not austere. Basic needs of food and safe shelter were always met, there was plenty of love and laughter in the family and she remembers her childhood with great fondness.
As the family grew, space in the little cottage became tight. When visitors came to stay the kids would often sleep four to a bed, two at each end, on the floor or even outdoors, and eventually the porch was built-in to create a third bedroom.
School was three miles away at Morwell Bridge, and the kids usually walked as a group, unless dad’s work horses were available.
Dad worked on shift at the Yallourn Briquette Factory, and he also carted furniture for people moving into Yallourn as the town grew.
He always wore a tie to work and was well known as Tom Toner the “carrier”.
When Ada was about 13 the SEC acquired the family settlement for expansion of the mine; so the family moved to another cottage on the other side of the river.
Like the first one, it had a dirt floor, outside toilet, no power or water, but it was slightly bigger and had a water tank; so no more hauling water from the river!
Occasionally Dad would pull a dead possum out of the tank, but the family still drank the water.
That same year Ada’s 18-year-old brother (Syd) was killed by a falling tree when clearing scrub.
A harsh reminder that pioneering work was very dangerous.
One day, when Ada was about 14½, her mum sat her down and said it was time for her to leave home and find her own way in the world. Her parents could only afford to school her twin brother Barney.
Ada said they chose well, as Barney went on to become a Professor of Nuclear Science and Atomic Energy and an aeronautical engineer.
There was no tearful scene when Ada left home.
Such partings were not unusual in those times, and clearly her mum felt sure Ada would be okay.
She gave her daughter thruppence with words Ada never forgot; “don’t spend it until you get another one”, and Ada went on her way.
With a few clothes in a wheat bag and no idea of what lay ahead, Ada commenced the nine mile walk along the bush track to Morwell with a steely determination to make good and no resentment.
By the time she arrived the day was getting on and Ada needed somewhere to sleep.
Underneath some pine trees at the Melbourne end of what is now Commercial Road, Ada observed a healthy layer of pine needles.
Ada knew first-hand they would be warm to sleep on, and now just needed some bedding.
She walked across the road to Brereton’s Hay & Grain Store and asked the proprietor if she could borrow an oat bag.
“What for?” he asked.
“To sleep in on those pine needles,” she replied, pointing across the road.
The concerned proprietor responded kindly, stating Ada could sleep on the Grain Store floor for one night only.
Next day he referred Ada to the Coffee Palace, a Guest House in Station Street (now the site of Morwell Medical Centre on Princes Drive), run then by the Broadbent family.
Clearly Ada made a good first impression, as Mrs Broadbent said she would trial her as a cleaner and helper and gave her a room for a penny a night.
So, within a day of leaving home, Ada had found somewhere to live, and a job, proving that her mother’s faith in her had been well-founded.
When she was handed her first week’s pay of five shillings, Ada was wide eyed with astonishment as she had never seen so much money. To her it felt like winning the lottery!
Ada has fond memories of the Broadbents, who were very kind to her in those early days.
She proved a reliable, fast learning worker and stayed at the Guest House until she was 18, when she met and married Irishman Reg Piggott.
Reg had turned up at the Guest House fresh off the boat from Ireland.
He had taken up a sponsorship to come to Australia, hoping for a better life in the wide brown land.
He had studied for the priesthood in Ireland, but told Ada he had been asked to leave the order because he; “talked too much and was incapable of keeping the vow of silence”.
Once in Morwell, Reg got a job as a bus driver, but he remained a devout Catholic.
Ada shared Reg’s Irish Catholic background, and perhaps this was part of what drew them together.
Grandparents on both sides of the Ada’s family were Irish immigrants in the 1880s, grandpa Toner having been responsible for shipping the current church bell on Morwell’s Sacred Heart Church from Ireland.
After their marriage in 1943, as was customary, Ada gave up work, and the couple moved into a spare room at a house in Yallourn.
In June 1944, their son Gordon arrived at Yallourn Hospital.
It was not an easy birth, requiring a caesarean delivery, and medical staff suggested she stay for a few days.
But Ada felt sure she could handle everything, and headed straight home on the bus with Gordon.
Within a week she was re-admitted, having developed pneumonia and pleurisy, both life threatening diseases in those days.
But her stay nearly ended abruptly when hospital staff said Gordon could not stay with her.
In her own words, Ada responded;
“Then pack my bag too, we will not be separated. That child is the first thing I have cherished that was not a hand-me-down!”
The hospital relented and after almost three months, a healthy mother and baby finally went home.
Ada didn’t go to hospital again until she injured her back delivering Meals on Wheels at age 90!
In 1945, Ada and Reg moved into their first home, a tiny two room shed on land on the Ridge in Morwell.
It had no power, and water was supplied by hose from her dad’s adjoining block.
I cannot help but compare these humble lodgings with modern day expectations of what a first home should be, typically a McMansion with sumptuous fittings, a theatre room, and outside a huge shed full of boy’s toys.
Ada was proud of her new home; she set about turning it into a cosy haven for her young family.
By this time, Ada was back at work, scrubbing floors and taking in
washing and ironing, usually business shirts for some of the businessmen in town. Always she would have Gordon with her.
She had a pushbike for getting to jobs, sometimes all the way out to Yinnar, and she became a familiar sight riding round the district with little Gordon perched on the back.
In 1947, when Gordon was about four, the SEC again intervened in Ada’s life, wanting to acquire her land for workman’s quarters for Morwell Briquette and Power Station.
Ada wasted no time cursing her luck, but went straight out and found another block in Maryvale Road, near the intersection with Hourigan Road, which she purchased with cash for 50 pounds, a tidy sum. Ada had heeded her mum’s words and was a diligent saver.
Then Mr Muller, an old German friend from the Morwell River days, came to her aid and offered to move the little shed from the Ridge to the new block with his tractor and dray.
The young family settled well into their new home, but it was still a shed.
In 1952, Dad came along and said he was going to buy Ada a house in Hoyle Street, Morwell at an auction.
As it turned out dad was the only bidder at auction and bought the house for a good price.
Handing the keys to Ada, Dad said “can you make the payments”?
Dad had little money having had land compulsory acquired twice and a farm lost in the big flood of 1919.
But he loved Ada and although complicit in his daughter leaving home at 14 with thruppence, he kept a loving eye on her from a distance.
How proud he must have felt as she found lodgings, ongoing work, become a wife, then a mother, all the while building a reputation as a respected, capable community member, and doing it all with determination and seriously hard work.
Ada loved her Mum, but the bond with dad was stronger.
He had often stayed in Hoyle Street when working on the East Side of Morwell and he and Ada remained close until Tom died in 1958, aged 75.
Ada loved her Hoyle Street home. They had a large orchard out the back, chooks, and kept Labradors which dad used for hunting.
From around 1949, once Gordon was at school, Ada worked six days a week in Morwell’s first milk bar, in Fairfield Street (now the Hot Spot).
After eight years, she moved to Morwell’s first supermarket, Moran & Cato in Commercial Road, where she became procurement manager and informal assistant manager to Mr Hocking.
In 1969, she was offered the job as manager of the newly-created Morwell Co-op (cnr Ann Street and Hazelwood Road), where she remained till aged 60, whereupon she was compulsorily retired.
Ada had built a career in the retail trade, and loved all aspects of it, especially dealing face to face customers, but she also excelled in management, keeping an eagle eye on the books, making sure the business was always in the black.
What an asset she must have been. Such were Ada’s retail talents, work sent her overseas most years on study tours and to meet suppliers; her son Gordon went as chaperon.
Leaving work at 60 was tough for Ada; she was an active, highly functioning person who thrived on being busy, so she threw herself headlong into volunteer work.
She joined the National Council of Women, the Red Cross, Probus, and was delivering Meals on Wheels into her 90s.
All the way through, she stayed close with her parents and family, often walking out on weekends to have a meal with them. Ada was also an accomplished dancer and was a regular at many of the district dance halls over the years.
Her husband Reg died in 1968/69.
Son Gordon became one of Morwell’s best known barbers. An outgoing and friendly character until he died at 75 in 2020.
She had a special bond with her older sister Pat, who had moved to Adelaide when married.
They shared a love of cricket, so every year Ada visited Pat on the overnight train and they attended the Adelaide Test Match together, where they had the same seats for almost 40 years, until Pat died.
As she approaches her 98th birthday, Ada still lives in the house she purchased in the early 50s. It is as neat and well presented as Ada herself.
Ada very gratefully
acknowledges Alan and Jenny McFarlane and also Betsy Besselink for their support and a raft of helpers from Latrobe City who help her to live independently.
Ada has a keen interest in world affairs, and I ask her what she thinks about today’s world, with all the strikes, marches and social upheaval. She just rolls her eyes, shakes her head and says “tell them to roll up their sleeves and get on with it”.
I ask her what has been the guiding principle over her long life.
She looks at me as if I have asked her a strange question, shrugs her shoulders slightly and replies;
“I just did what had to be done”.