Dredging my memory for the earliest recollections...
Mother's maiden name Mary Isabella Magee, eldest daughter of George and Rose Magee.
Rose, daughter of another Rose, who married twice. Second husband's name James Arthur, who was in love with her when she was a young girl. When she refused his offer of marriage, he joined the Foreign Legion for many years. On his return to England she was a widow with several children. He was a kind and loving stepfather to them. He had no children of his own. The Magees, who were Catholics, originally came from Scotland - I think Glasgow. George Magee, my grandfather, was a bricklayer in Gateshead, a mining town in the North of England. After his marriage and the birth of two children, he emigrated to Philadelphia where conditions were much better. He was doing well and returned to England only because his wife was ill and was unable to follow him. On her recovery the whole family was to return to America, but by that time she was pregnant, so they stayed. It became financially impossible to leave after that, as the family increased to ten children, including twins and one other infant who died. Six children reached adulthood. Their names were Isabella, Henrietta, Frederick, Henry, Frances and Lily. My grandmother died at the age of thirty-six with peupural fever, after giving birth to a still born child.
My father, Henry Ridsdale Coward, son of George and Anne. Mother's maiden name Ridsdale. The Ridsdales were a very old family who claimed to be able to trace their name back to William the Conqueror. They kept an antique shop. Anne and one of her sisters, Catherine, emigrated to South Australia where both were married, Catherine to a man by the name of Reid. Their descendants still live in Adelaide. My grandmother married George Coward, a photographer, several years older than she, and the father of an adult family. Having been brought up in a strict genteel family, she could not adjust to his drinking and uncouth ways. She was very unhappy, but bore him four children in a few years. The eldest, Laurie, died. The others were Catherine, Henry and Ernest. With the help of her sister, she planned to return to England without her husband's knowledge. This she achieved when the youngest was only six weeks old. Her reception by her mother was cold, though her father was a very gentle man, from all accounts dominated by his wife. The daughter, Catherine, was adopted - though not legally - by a childless aunt and her husband. The two sons were sent to boarding school, while my grandmother went to work. She was disgraced in the eyes of her mother. Later, the two boys were apprenticed to engineering, my father was to go to India later to join the firm of consulting engineers his uncle had started there. While my father was still in the drawing-office, his uncle died, so he joined the merchant navy where he served for several years. Later he joined the British navy in submarines as Chief E.R.A.
During the First World War he volunteered for the assault on Zeebrugge (1), and with the Captain and one other man, took a submarine into the battle. The Captain received the V.C.
As a child, my father was a very intelligent boy, who did well at school. He excelled at maths and taught himself at the age of eight, to play chess by watching the bigger boys play. The knight's move had him puzzled for quite a time, but he finally mastered it, and before long he was chess champion of the school. He later became champion of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, and later in Australia, at Geelong.
As a youth he played soccer. He was the goalkeeper. He also at 17, joined the Northumberland Fusiliers.
My mother, who was orphaned at 17, became a schoolteacher. Though very tiny - just over five feet in height and weighing only 6 st. 7lbs., she had a forceful personality and never had trouble disciplining her pupils, popular with her many friends. She never lacked escorts and had several offers of marriage. When she and my father met they were still both studying, and they saw each other only once a week for a very long time. She was my father's only girl friend. He was very shy, very serious, but had great sense of fun. During the whole of their married life, he gently teased my mother. I suppose she was what one might call " a good sport", who could laugh just as easily at jokes against herself as at those played on others. Those were the days of the practical joke. I have heard many of them over the years, and some now would not raise even a smile. But those were unsophisticated days when people made their own fun.
The courtship lasted several years, my father being away at sea during much of this time. There was considerable opposition to the marriage from my father's family, my mother being a Catholic. But her charm and sunny disposition finally won them over. They were married in front of the Altar on Easter Sunday - both of these being almost unheard of in those days. My mother continued teaching for a few more years, as my grandmother came to live with them and took over the running of the house. This suited my mother very well, as she was completely untrained in housekeeping, my grandmother on the other hand being an expert at that and cooking. Even when I was born I became Gran's baby, my mother only feeding me and taking me for walks. During these years they lived mostly in the south of England wherever my father's ship was based. Some of these places were Queensborough, the Isle of Sheppey, Weymouth, and Dovercourt.
These, I think, were the happiest years of their lives.
After the war, the British Government agreed to lend the Australian Navy some submarines. They were to be sent under their own power to Garden Island, Sydney. My father, who had always had a desire to see the country of his birth, agreed to come to Australia for two years. He was chief engineer of one of these tiny craft on its lonely voyage across the oceans. When he had been in Sydney for a few months he sent for my mother and two daughters. When we arrived we settled at Chatswood in a lovely old house opposite the playing fields. Some of my earliest impressions were acquired whilst living there. Every time I smell roses, geraniums, or peppercorn trees, or see a blue butterfly, I think of that house, always bathed in sunshine. Those were very happy days. A few months later my father was persuaded to buy a house in a new estate in Flemington. Why he
decided to buy when here for a limited time, I do not know. Perhaps he was told that he would have no trouble selling at a profit...
Anyway, we moved there. Though I was too young to realise it, it must have been an ordeal for my mother. There was no sewerage, or made roads. It was a long way to the city. The neighbours were friendly but had little in common with my mother. They were mostly poor and the children were rough. For the first time I saw children with bare feet. I tried it once, but the hot dusty roads were too much for my tender skin.
After we had been there for about a year, my father was transferred to Osborne House, near Geelong. He and his crew went down in their submarine and my mother, sister and I travelled by ship. Prior to this, my mother sold all the furniture, some of which had been brought from England and was very beautiful old Victorian and Georgian. It brought very little as in those days it was not popular. I remember there was one piece at least they brought around to Victoria. My mother had designed it and had it specially made, probably by Grace Bros. It must have been one of the first night-and-days ever. It was a settee with wooden arms, the back when unbolted dropped down on legs, and the seat was hinged and dropped down on the arms to make a double bed for guests. That remained with us until my mother died.
In Geelong my father and mother became friendly with some people who were charming, witty and gay. Looking back on it, I guess you would call them confidence people, or opportunists. They had a beautiful old home and property which went down to the river. The house was built around a courtyard. On the property they had a small woolen mill. The father was a company promoter and sold my father many worthless shares. The sons ran the woolen mill. They were inefficient and inexperienced and my father fixed and got a lot of the machinery running for them. During this period the sons had some grand scheme for making money. I don't know what it was, but they wanted my father to come in with them at a salary of œ100.00 per week, which in those days was a fortune. However it meant leaving the British navy which was difficult, and making a permanent home in Australia. My mother was against the idea, but my father was very keen. He said it was like a fairytale, a dream come true... he eventually persuaded my mother to agree, then he had to buy his way out of the navy. At last it was done, but whatever theidea was, it fell through. The Bowlers, that was their name, then gave my father a position in their woollen mill at a small wage. After a time, my father became friendly with someone else, who persuaded him to start building concrete houses. He bought three blocks of land in various parts of Geelong and started his first house. Everything was concrete. Not only the walls, but the floors, architraves, fireplaces, door surrounds, everything. Instead of wooden moulding, he had special iron moulds made, which, he said would last for ever, and could be used again and again. I don't know what happened, but I should think everything cost more than he had estimated, people were not interested in buying such a revolutionary house, and the country was in a depressed state. We finished up living in the house for several years. Incidentally he lost everything he had put into the Sydney house. During this time his original friends Les & Jim Bowler, had sold their woolen mill and branched out into the sideshow business. They made a variety of slot machines and rotary rides, etc. They made a lot of money and went around the world. Eventually they owned and bred racehorses.
Looking back I can only think that my father was just not the type to go into business. For a start he could not sell, nor could he use people. He was a scholar whose greatest pleasure was solving mathematical problems, or chess problems, or trying to devise a foolproof betting system. He spent years at this, much to my mother's disgust and impatience. He meant well, he was only trying to solve financial worries, which were acute, but he was misguided. During this time, my sister, who was a picture of radiant health, and who was a real personality child, afraid of no-one, full of mischief, and everybody's favourite, became ill. She was take ... [misprint evident] from hospital to hospital, doctor to doctor, all to no avail. Nobody could diagnose the disease, which left her wasted and paralysed. In desperation, my parents went to Chinese herbalists, and other unregistered healers. For ten years this went on, my sister being on the point of death many times. Her temperature soared during her many attacks of pneumonia (before the days of antibiotics) to 107 degrees. Never in all those weary years did I see her sorry for herself. She was always cheerful and patient. Being more dependant than a baby, she took all of my mother's time, particularly when she was in hospital, and my mother, for weeks at a time, was away from home, so that she could visit her whenever possible.
My father and I got on as best we could with the help of neighbors. Sometimes I slept at home, at others kindly people would take me in. I was a very quiet shy retiring little girl, who did not bother anyone. I had learned to speak and walk quietly within the house, never banging doors or making any kind of noise. When my sister was at home this was essential. The atmosphere was like a hospital ward. When she was not desperately ill I used to read to her and play games like draughts, ludo, etc. with her.
Apart from that I used to play on my swing or see-saw or scooter. I had very little opportunity of playing with the neighboring children. I was very lonely and felt unwanted. I escaped the everyday world through books. I also spent a lot of time drawing. In those days I could not make up my mind whether to become a trapeze artist in a circus, an artist, or an author. I was quite out or touch with the normal world. I was a bright intelligent girl with an enquiring mind, and I did well at examinations. They were a challenge and presented a problem I could get my teeth into. As I grew older my teachers had talks with my parents and it was suggested I go to boarding school. I went when I was fourteen. I had been so much on my own for so many years that although I loved being there, there were times when I just had to get away from people, and this was difficult. I don't know why, but I became tagged with the reputation of being a genius. My moodiness was generally accepted as being normal for anyone with my brains.
There were a few teachers, however, who delighted in humiliating me for things I could not help, and I developed an armour to hide my emotions. Only a few of my closest friends knew how vulnerable I really was. Most people, including my mother, thought I was very cold and unfeeling.
|The testimonial above is by Constance Isabel White, mother of Russell, Diana & Gregory. It was most likely written in the early 1970's, within a year or two of her death. It was typed on a manual Olivetti typewriter with an italic font. Spelling and grammatical errors were absent from the original.|
(1) Zeebruge Belgium, Attack on. Jan 23 1915. Martin Gilbert, First World War,
p126. ( no mention of submarines)
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