Frank Rudd is the author of Half a Lifetime, a memoir describing his early life in Outback Queensland, now in its second edition. Travels with Edna is his second book and continues the story of his eventful life. He lives on an acreage property on the western edge of Brisbane with his wife Edna, from where they enjoy contact with their ten children and step-children and seventeen grand-children, many of whom share their passion for travel.
Edna and I acquired our first taste of travel on wartime steam trains. Although coated in gritty coal dust, crowded with service personnel, and often late, we thought them grand. Messages to assist the war effort were posted inside their rackety timber carriages, and one notice we both remember was a reminder about shortages of manpower and coal. Prominent on railway stations as well as in the trains themselves, it asked ‘IS YOUR JOURNEY REALLY NECESSARY?’
It was many years before the two of us came to compare our first journeys, as our homes were on opposite sides of the globe. In fact, decades were to pass before we even became aware of each other. Nevertheless, when we eventually met, it emerged that the first long journeys for each of us had been to and from boarding schools on wartime trains. The best of them when travelling home for end of year holidays, bursting with excitement.
Edna’s journeys took her from Dolgallau to Oswestry in Wales, and skirted Bala Lake. She said a tradition for those girls leaving school was to tear the brims from their Panama school hats and skim them into the lake from open carriage windows.
A very different ritual took place on my homeward journeys from Toowoomba to Aramac in Queensland. Early the third morning, while our engine took on water at Alpha, girls from all the schools decorated its brass fittings with crepe paper rosettes. These added to the impact, later in the day, when we thundered into towns further inland where our parents were waiting. To add to our jubilation, the driver tooted his whistle as we flew paper streamers from the carriage windows.
Edna’s story really begins in the late 1920s when Edmund and Mary Davies emigrated from their beloved North Wales to Canada in search of employment. Through hard work and frugal living in the New World, they planned to save and return one day to Wales to buy their own farm. All went well until the Great Depression shattered their dreams. By 1931, they had been forced to leave the land and were in an upstairs flat in Isabella Street, Toronto. Like millions of others across North America that year, they got by on whatever jobs they could find.
An amiable midwife rented the flat downstairs, so they took scant notice when cries from a newborn baby drifted up one August night. A few days later, the midwife appeared at their door with a baby girl in her arms, offering them money to care for the infant for a few hours. Unaware their neighbour feared an imminent police raid on her flat, they agreed.
As expected, detectives arrived soon after to search the downstairs cellar for an illegal still. Prohibition was in force in the nearby United States, making the unlicensed production of gin a tempting sideline for a cash-strapped midwife. A newborn baby without a mother could have led to further complications.
The following morning Mary was told the baby’s mother was a university student from a good family. It later transpired the girl was unmarried. Then, as the days went by, Mary and Edmund came to realise they had literally been left holding the baby. Being in their mid-thirties and childless, they fell in love with the bonny tot, and like a story from a fairy tale, formally adopted her within a month.
Their act of neighbourly kindness led to the rescue of a baby from an almost certain orphanage childhood, for her natural mother was never heard from again. The cuddly new addition to the family was promptly christened with the fashionable names of Edna Mary.
Within eighteen months the small family were back in North Wales, not as farmers, but as lessees of the Sun Hotel in Llanrhaeadr ym Mochnant, a village of ivy covered houses on the Rhyader River. Edna’s adoptive mother was a staunch Pentecostal, so hers was a temperance hotel. She relied on good food and clean rooms rather than alcohol to attract guests. Edna’s adoptive father, as a result of recurring health problems, was reduced to taking casual jobs whenever well enough. He doted on his only child and carried her on his back to the village school when there were deep snowfalls. It was here, at the age of five, that Edna began studying English – for Welsh had been her language since her first words.
As time went on her purposeful mother became dismayed by her daughter’s broad Welsh accent and small village ways. Her solution was to arrange for elocution lessons in addition to the usual school subjects, before packing her off to Doctor William’s boarding school for young ladies in Dolgellau. Among this well regarded school’s outstanding past pupils was the wife of Lloyd George, the ‘Welsh Wizard’ who was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during World War One.
At about the same time as Edna’s first rail journey to school through the snow covered mountains of North Wales, I was on a train rattling across the sweltering Mitchell grass plains of Western Queensland. Mine was a three-day journey to a primary boarding school in Toowoomba. Until then, my mother had taught me from correspondence lessons on our outback sheep station.
Edna thrived on boarding school in spite of stringent food rationing and overcrowding from evacuees from the London Blitz. Nevertheless, she found it hard to subdue her rebellious nature to adapt to school discipline. As soon as the war ended, the family moved to the seaside town of Aberystwyth, where the Catholic convent was regarded as the best high school for girls. Mary Davies held strong protestant beliefs, but she wanted her daughter to have the best schooling, so suppressed her dislike of the Pope long enough to sign the enrolment papers. Although Edna missed her school friends from Dolgellau, she pushed ahead under the influence of two talented nuns who encouraged her already strong interest in English and Art.
When settled into this new school, Edna’s parents felt obliged to tell her she had been adopted. Her response was to spend all of the next day at the Welsh Youth Centre. Here she shut herself away from family and friends to try to comprehend what had happened. Fortunately, her happy nature came to the fore during the several weeks it took to adapt to her altered status.
Her new home was another private hotel, with twelve bedrooms rented to overseas students by her energetic mother. In the topsyturvy, post-war years, the well-regarded Faculty of Agriculture at Aberystwyth University attracted scholars from around the Commonwealth. Among these students was fresh-faced Bryan Short from New Zealand, who applied to Mrs Davies for two years’ accommodation.
Already a graduate of Christchurch University, Bryan had arrived to write a thesis for a Doctorate in Animal Genetics. But before long he found his research work was no match for the charms of his landlady’s daughter. He and Edna became smitten with each other when she was still seventeen, and married the following year.
The newlyweds set sail for Sydney on the Mooltan two years later. By then they had a brand new daughter called Bethan, and Bryan had gained his PhD and an assured job with the CSIRO in Sydney. With the experience of his outward passage behind him, Bryan felt he was a practised sea traveller. Edna, by contrast, revelled in the novelty of her journey after years of restraints imposed by her austere post-war lifestyle in the UK. She marvelled at exotic Colombo and at the luminous phosphorescence around the ship on black tropical nights. She said Bryan’s excitement when he first sighted the Southern Cross in the evening sky heightened her own anticipation of things to come.
But Fremantle, on first contact, left conflicting impressions. The emptiness of her new country struck Edna like a hammer blow. Upon stepping on to the street outside the dock, she saw only a solitary male in riding boots leaning against a post. He was squinting into the glare from under a wide hat. What sort of place have I come to? She wondered.
Her mood changed soon after when she and Bryan chanced upon a corner store stocked with delights still unavailable in Wales. To celebrate their arrival, the two of them found a nearby seat and consumed a packet of orange cream biscuits on the spot.
Edna’s first impressions of Sydney were also mixed. A weeklong heat wave heavy with bushfire smoke lessened her excitement in setting up house in the semi-rural community of Castle Hill. But settle in they did; so much so, that six more beautiful children arrived over the next twelve years. There was just one more girl, Shan, and five boys — Glyn, Alwyn, Trefor, Gareth and Griffith. All were given Welsh names, continuing an idea begun with Bethan back in Aberystwyth.
Their young mother fortunately loved children, so these were happy times, even though tempered by the usual tribulations and near exhaustion of raising a large family. Bryan helped at home whenever he could, while building his career with the CSIRO Division of Animal Physiology. In 1965, enticed by a larger salary, he accepted a position in Uruguay as a sheep and wool adviser with the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN.
Because he was required to start immediately, Edna was left to hurriedly sell the family’s car and surplus belongings. She then set out for South America with seven children, the youngest a mere two years old. Owing to the then limited range of aircraft, and her unusual destination, her trip extended over several days. She recalls overnight stops in Auckland, Papeete and Mexico City, plus long refuelling stops in Bogotá and Santiago.
To crown their welcome to Montevideo, Bryan took them to an impressive house he had rented near the city centre. Within days, the family were settled in well enough for the older children to resume their schooling at the surprisingly large British School. The new arrivals were frequently surprised by the extent of British influence in this predominantly Spanish country. The British had intervened in 1828, for instance, to enable Uruguay to separate from its warring neighbours, Brazil and Argentina, and to become an independent republic. They then proceeded to build the new country’s railways and some large factories.
With two maids to help in the house, Edna found she had time to teach herself Spanish. With her ‘ear’ for languages, she learned as quickly as her children. She also had time to interest herself in how her fast-growing youngsters spent their days. In this regard, she promptly put a stop to Glyn and Alwyn having lunch each day with Uruguayan friends in a café serving wine near their school.
For the four years of their stay, Bryan was stationed 170 kilometres up country at a sheep and wool research station. The family looked forward to his sporadic breaks in Montevideo, when he and Edna could at times accept invitations to embassy parties with other expatriates. In the process, they became particularly friendly with the British Consul and his convivial Welsh wife.
Edna fondly remembers a weeklong trip with Bryan to Paraguay, including an exploration of the jungle-shrouded Iguaçu Falls before the days of mass tourism.
Bryan was by now a highly accomplished sheep and wool expert. In 1969, the success of his work in Uruguay led to an offer from the World Bank of an assignment in Seville at a higher salary. The family therefore moved to Franco’s Spain in an era when it was virtually cut off from the rest of Europe, and almost a cultural island. One report of the time described Spain as still a country of church bells, castanets, landed dukes and charging bulls.
Four years later found most of the children in boarding schools in England, and their parents well adapted to the easy-going lifestyle of Andalusia. Then suddenly, to the shock of his incredulous family, Bryan was struck down by cancer at just forty-nine. Succumbing quickly to an aggressive strain of the disease, he died in Seville and was buried there in the walled British Cemetery.
His stunned family moved to Wales to be near Edna’s mother.
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