Monday, October 19, 2015

"My Grandmother, Elizabeth" by Enid Dennis

Elizabeth Saunders

"Elizabeth Wells was no great public figure.  But she was an upright, gentle woman who loved this country .........." Enid Dennis writes an affectionate tribute to her Grandmother.

“My Grandmother, Elizabeth”
By Enid M.Dennis

A Centenary Tribute in ”This Australia” 1987/1988

 (I have added photos to illustrate the story).

On an English summer day, 18 August 1887, a young girl set sail alone from the Port of London to make a voyage to developing, Utopian Australia.  Matrimony was to be the goal upon arrival.

On this day Elizabeth Saunders was twenty six years of age, a gentle very mature girl.  She was the eldest of a family of six girls and one son, people accustomed to farm life.  The mother was a fine homemaker; the father, a shepherd to a wealthy land owner near the village of Simpson in Buckinghamshire.

Elizabeth had considerable rapport with her father and, in childhood, had often accompanied him to the market towns of Bow Brickhill, Fenny Stratford and Banbury. One day as they walked the lanes together the father swept an arm in a wide arc towards the green fields and exclaimed “See there Lizzie, all that was once Saunders owned; it was lost in bad times”.  This was a life time regret.  The little girl remembered it also and in later years recollections kept coming to the fore.

Elizabeth went to the Anglican Church School until she was twelve and became proficient in reading, writing, arithmetic and lace making.  The vicar was also schoolmaster; his pupils were expected to set an example of good manners and truthfulness.  Elizabeth loved to sing.  She loved to attend the village Church.  Many Saunders nameplates were attached to the walls of the quaint little Simpson Church, also at Polsgrove nearby.  Some bore names dating back to 1600 when the Tudor English language was written in strange lettering.

Interior of St Thomas the Apostle Church in Simpson where the Saunders family attended.

In her thirteenth year it was arranged that Elizabeth should live on week days with the family of a nearby farm.  Mr. and Mrs. Garrett had three almost grown sons and a daughter had recently died.  Elizabeth was good company for Mrs. Garrett.  Here she learned the art of cooking and keeping house, of milking and the management of a large dairy.  Butter, cream and cheese was churned every day.  There was poultry and game to dress, pickles and jams to set, bacon to be cured, hop beer and parsnip wine to brew and seal in black bottles, the corks securely tied down with strong twine.  Elizabeth shared the many tasks.  She observed and remembered and enjoyed her work.

Gradually, over four years, a different love came into her life.  The rosy glow of young friendship and fun with Jim Garrett, the youngest son, grew into a full mature adoration.  Secretly they promised marriage, one with the other, when Elizabeth reached her eighteenth year.  But youthful ardour is difficult to conceal.  Mrs. Garrett had plans of her own for all three of her fine boys. Her design for Jim did not include the quiet little girl from the village.  Elizabeth was sent home to her family.  Broken hearted she begged her parents to permit her to work elsewhere.

"Caldecotte" the Garrett farm where Elizabeth Saunders worked 1875 - 1880
From this experience and its acquired capabilities she went into service in several magnificent old mansions over the next eight years, each resulting in advancement of ability and status.  She secured a choice position as cook to Lord and Lady Duncombe of Great Brickhill Manor, once again near home. The names of Duncombe and Saunders appear entwined in marriage and business ventures through the centuries.  A coincidence?  It was not but that is another story.

Yet another promotion took her to Oxendon in Northamptonshire, the adjoining county and a meeting with Harry Edward Wells.  Harry was enamoured with this slip of a girl from the “Big House”, who came also to the village Church.  His introduction was a gift of red roses.  Harry was twenty none and had spent all his adult life in the service of the British Railways. He also enjoyed his work but he dreamt too, idealistically, of faraway places.  Letters came to his home from cousins in Melbourne, Australia.

"Oxendon Hall" or the "Big House" where Elizabeth Saunders worked in Great Oxendon.

St Helen's Church in Great Oxendon where Elizabeth met Harry Wells
One day Harry broached the subject of marriage, laced also with an exciting adventure.  He had accepted his distant cousin’s proposal to enter their Melbourne millinery factory as a third partner.  It meant a sever year term overseas and could only bring success financially.  Elizabeth accepted, at first with some trepidation, then to a marriage in Australia when her enthusiastic suitor settled into new employment and accommodation.  One Saunders girl had married and had gone to South Africa; now another was to leave for the antipodes.

Elizabeth followed six months after the departure of her man, travelling in the new steamship “Liguria”, incredibly small by present day standards, and house in its very bowels so it seemed.  The voyage took two months through Suez and the jollity of calm shipboard life walked hand in hand with violent storms and days spent in the agony of seasickness. 

I have a compilation of letters written by Elizabeth to her sister Alice. The following are two extracts:
(Quote) 24 September 1887.  We first saw the land of Australia at Cape Leeuwin like rocks dimly seen in the far distance of the port side.
25 September 1887.  I could have enjoyed another week or two on board for I have this week felt well.  I had more than four weeks of seasickness like many more.  We had just got the better of it.  After an enjoyable concert in the first class saloon we went on deck.  The moon was shining brightly, the air very cold.  I walked down the deck several times then went to bed looking forward to a letter from Harry in the morning” (Unquote).

Adelaide was the first port of call following the long Indian Ocean span. Here a letter was delivered to her by the Purser and Elizabeth read it with incredulity.  The prosperous millinery firm it seemed was little more than a myth and the  business faced insolvency.  In desperation Harry had sought and found employment elsewhere within a field which he knew so well.  The Tasmanian Railways were being developed through the Emu Bay Company to the north and west from Launceston along the Bass Strait coastline.

“It could be hard, dear Lizzie” Harry wrote “Nothing of it will be like the comforts we knew back home, but I will never fail you.  Sometime, when things get easier for us again, we will return.  I promise that if it is your wish.  I am a signalman at a place called Formby (now Devonport).  It’s very small but beautiful.  I have rooms with a pleasant landlady who will help you I know.  We will live very close to the Mersey River and I cross it every day by rowboat to reach the Railway yards.  I am sorry that you must wait three weeks in Melbourne, for there is an epidemic of small pox in North Tasmania.  My cousin, Mary, will meet you at the Port of Williamstown and you must stay with her until I send for you”.

Elizabeth Saunders sailed to Australia on SS "Liguria" 1887

The young love which had bought these two people together across the world and now somewhat in adversity culminated in their marriage at St.John’s Anglican Church, Launceston, on 8th November 1887.  That afternoon Harry took his bride proudly back to Formby.  Theirs was a true affection which grew stronger with the years. It weathered many hardships in strange places.  Challenge is the essence of good workmanship in whatever field it is found; it was wide open for the young Wells couple.
St.John's, Launceston where Harry Wells married Elizabeth Saunders 8 November 1887.
Elizabeth cooked and kept house as nearly as she had been accustomed to doing but with the rude implements at hand, an open hob-fire, camp oven, kerosene cans, oil lamps and candles.  Later, as two little girls joined the family she sewed and mended with all the joy of motherhood, using a Wertheim hand machine which had accompanied her on the voyage.  In their nineth year of marriage a son was born.  There had already been three moves, to Leith, Campbell Town and St.Marys, each a promotion.  Harry was now Station Master at this North-East mountain township of St.Marys, with a railway house provided.  The Station-house was somewhat isolated from the rest of the homes.  Quite often swagmen and women also, of gypsy lifestyle, would free ride on the country goods trains, only to be discovered at this terminius.  Harry frequently sent these rejects of humanity to the Station-house for a meal before hustling them on their way.  The two little girls would watch in wide-eyed wonderment from the safety of the kitchen doorway.

The Wells family in 1898 - Beatrice, Winifred and Gladstone.

St Marys Railway Station, Tasmania in 2005.
There was no longer talk of the seven year promise.  Both husband and wife were far too aware of the precious security of employment.  They were a happy unit, an Australian family.

As noisy rejoicing and fireworks heralded the Boer War’s relief of Mafeking in May 1900, the Wells family were busy moving again, this time to the Bass Strait seaside town of Ulverstone; another home, another school and friends, another Church in which to worship.  Every year, at Christmas, there were special treats, something extra to care for and treasure all the coming year.  Every Christmas season also, gifts of money were sent to the ageing Grandparents at Simpson and Oxendon to share their bounty and to show that God had seen fit to prosper the family well. Over the years many hundreds of letters were exchanged. 

The Wells family at Station House, Ulverstone, Tasmania in 1904.
Station House, 62 Victoria Street, Ulverstone in 2012.

In 1905 Harry Wells was appointed Station Master at Zeehan, the third largest town in the island and at the height of the great mining boom of the West Coast.  The area was rich in silver, lead and tin; the town of 10,000 inhabitants was entirely involved in some way with the prosperity of the mines or supporting those who did.  With vast deposits of gold and copper also at Queenstown there was continuous movement of rolling stock, passengers and freighters to and from the many mines in the mountains.  Zeehan Station-house stood on a rise overlooking Peasoup Creek with a wide vista of the town and valley.  It is still there today, in good condition, weathering the lashings of rain forest storms.  The busy mother taught her now grown daughters to cook and sew as she had done.  They had lessons in piano, violin and painting.  The boy was progressing well at school.

Harry Wells with Gladstone at Station Master's house in Zeehan, Tasmania 1906.

Station Master's house at Zeehan, Tasmania in 2005.

A final move came in 1912 with promotion to the top, Station Master at Hobart.  This included a lovely attic style house in an old world garden; promise of a lengthy stay, superannuation, and maybe, on retirement, a holiday overseas to meet once again the loved ones who, for almost forty years, had been linked only by sea mail.
Harry Wells Station Master at Hobart, retired 1924, died 1935.
Hobart Railway Station - now ABC Building.  Taken in 2005.

With their family married, Elizabeth and Harry turned to extensive reading, lectures at the nearby University and their beloved gardening.  Harry’s retirement came in 1924 at sixty five years.  He and Elizabeth had purchased two new travel bags, suitable clothing, and every weekend they visited the great ships in the port, in a search for good value travel-wise. At last a choice was made; it would be the next trip around.  Then Elizabeth, wise in the ways of home economy, began to doubt.  It would mean returning to a rented house and possible illness in old age.  Was this right when a small freehold home could be purchased immediately, owning their very own portion of Australia? Also the loved parents in England had all died.  Once again security and its privileges won and the holiday voyage was cancelled.

On the outskirts of the city at Glenorchy, with fine views of the magnificent mountains and Derwent River, the couple bought a neat bungalow home with sufficient depth of land to start the market garden they both lived to love and enjoy.

"Oxendon" the home Harry and Elizabeth retired to at 8 Grove Road, Glenorchy, Tasmania.  Taken 1926.
8 Grove Road, Glenorchy, Tasmania in 2005.

Harry and Elizabeth Wells at home.

“See there, Chum” Harry exclaimed one morning from the rear verandah and just as his father-in-law had done so very long ago, “That’s OUR field, but it’s all to your credit.  Without your careful thinking and work it could never have been”.

Harry & Elizabeth loved their garden in retirement.

It proved to be a clear and prudent choice.  By the late 1920’s and early 1930’s vast changes were springing into life.  There was continuous talk of frightening price rises, rumours of economic failures and unemployment, a depressant gloom unknown before in our good, green land.  It was even more so in Britain, Europe and America.

Strictly honest and generous Harry Wells lived to reach his seventy sixth year.  Elizabeth, still shy, still clinging all her life to the sombre black gowns and white high-laced collars of the past, went to live with her younger daughter also in Hobart until her own gentle death in 1950 at the age of eighty eight years.  Before Glaucoma claimed her eyesight, she returned to a fascinating interest of her girlhood.  She sent to England a request for a set of wooden bobbins, patterns and cottons and made herself a hard straw-stuffed pillow.  On this she wove many many yards (metres) of fine handkerchief lace, gifts now held by her descendants with pride.

Elizabeth Wells doing her pillow lace work late 1940s.
Elizabeth Wells was not one of the many Australians who will go down in history as a memorable public figure, a Caroline Chisholm, Mary Reibey, Daisy Bates or Lady Cilento.  She was a very private, upright, gently woman who stayed to play her fine Christian part in our Australian heritage and who loved this great land and became one of us.

I suggest you take a look at Wells Family Archives, Saunders Family Archives, and Macdougall Archives.  If you have a corrections or comments please email the author Joy Olney at

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