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THE PEA PICKER'S DAUGHTER

As one of nine children growing up during the Depression in Australia, Ivy Williams learned early about scratching out a living. For thirteen years she travelled around New South Wales with her family, experiencing an itinerant lifestyle that was hard but mainly happy as they worked at any job available, from picking peas to trapping rabbits. 

Then suddenly, with the death of her mother followed by the imprisonment of her father, Ivy’s world fell apart. The family was broken up and Ivy was incarcerated for years in the infamous Parramatta Girls’ Home, becoming one of the 500,000 ‘forgotten Australians’ who were institutionalised, neglected, abused and forgotten during the 20th century. The spiritual strength inherited from her mother helped Ivy to cope but once she became free she found herself imprisoned in another way, locked into a frequently violent marriage during which she again needed all her strength to survive.  

Ivy’s story is both a tribute to her indomitable spirit and an inspiring example of how inner strength and determination are vital factors in overcoming adversity and transforming hardship into happiness.

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ISBN: 978-1-921574-41-2  
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 273
Genre: Non Fiction

Cover: Clive Dalkins
 


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Author: Ivy Getchell
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2009
Language: English

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AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY  

One of nine children of a spiritual mother and a heavy-drinking father, Ivy Getchell was born in 1932 in Lithgow in the central west of New South Wales, Australia. She spent her first thirteen years with her family as they scratched a living as itinerant workers during the Depression. Although they went where the work took them, family life to some extent became centred on Native Dog Creek in the Oberon area of New South Wales to which they returned frequently. 

After the death of Ivy’s mother in 1945 the family was split up and Ivy was placed in the now notorious Parramatta Girls’ Home until, at the age of eighteen, she was sent to Queensland to work. 

Ivy now lives in the Hunter Region of New South Wales with her husband, Frank. The Pea Picker’s Daughter, her first book, is the story of her life and how she drew on her inner strength to overcome adversity and find happiness.

prologue – july 2004 

 

The room where they left me was bare – just a table and a couple of chairs. The file they had given me looked enormous, especially as I’d had no idea that such a file existed. But there it was, with my former name, Ivy Williams, to prove it.

I sat down at the table and traced the name with my finger. My mother had rarely called me Ivy. To her I was Iaway, so called because I was always up and away somewhere.

How could there be such a huge file on me, when I had known nothing about it? I would never have known it existed if I hadn’t seen a newspaper advertisement placed by the Care Leavers Australia Network, known as CLAN, offering help and support to former state wards who had been institutionalised. I had hardly dared ring the number and found it difficult to speak when someone answered, but eventually I had found the words to begin the conversation that led me to this room.

“You know you can get your file, don’t you?” one of the CLAN staff had said to me some time after I joined the organisation.

“I don’t think there’d be a file on me,” I replied.

“There’s one on every state ward,” she told me.

And so I had contacted the Department of Community Services, applied to see my file, filled out a Freedom of Information form and waited to receive permission to read whatever information they had about me. That information was now in front of me.

For a few minutes I sat staring at it while I listened to the sounds coming through the closed door as the staff went about their business in the Cessnock office of the Department of Community Services.

Finally I opened the file. 

From its size I had expected the many official forms that were indeed there, but I was totally unprepared for what else I found. Inside were letters written many years ago by my father and each of my seven siblings, all addressed to me care of the Parramatta Girls’ Home, Fleet Street, North Parramatta, New South Wales. None of those letters had ever been given to me.

There were also letters I had written to them, hoping desperately to make some contact with the family I had lost. None of those letters had ever been mailed.

The shock of seeing the letters was replaced by distress as the reality of my discovery hit home. My eyes filled with tears, an emotional lump came into my throat and my heart beat rapidly as I stared at my father’s handwriting.

 

Ivy, my little mate, for Christ’s sake answer my letters. Let us know where you are. I will come and bring you home. We miss you and love you. We have a nice house now up at old Kelly’s place near Mount Bathurst. You will remember it. Ivy, I have a job. I can help you. Please let me know where you are.

 

The precious words had been written more than half a century ago but they took me back to a time I remembered as if it were yesterday, to the few years of childhood before I became a forgotten Australian.

 

Chapter 1

 

My mother, Elsie, was like no other: attractive, short and slender, with an olive complexion and the sharp features of an American Indian. She had high cheekbones, ears set back flat against her head and eyes that were blue and set deep like the eyes of a doll. Her black, shoulder-length hair was worn combed back and held in place with bobby-pins. She never plaited her hair because her husband wouldn’t stand for nonsense like that. He didn’t want other men looking at his wife. 

Elsie had small hands, and always wore a bangle on her right arm above the elbow. Other than an old rag handbag, the bangle and her wedding ring were all she owned. She bought her clothes or made them herself. Sometimes her skirts grew ragged at the hems, but she would never accept charity.

Although small, Elsie was brave, as well as kind and intelligent. She loved and respected every bird, animal and reptile.

“Each thing has a spirit and has been placed there to teach us,” she used to say in her broad Australian accent, her blue eyes reflecting her longing to revisit her cousins on the Blackfoot reservations of North America’s Great Lakes. Despite such yearning for distant times and places, she had a keen sense of humour.

Born in Melbourne around the turn of the century, Elsie had inherited her knowledge of the Indians from stories passed down from her American Indian great-grandmother who belonged to the Blackfoot people. Elsie’s mother had married an Englishman who was a language master at a London university before transferring to Melbourne University. However, he and his wife died during the Influenza Epidemic of 1919. The family had lost touch with Elsie’s brother after he joined the Merchant Navy, and her sister had died in England. Left without support, Elsie entered the Perthville novitiate of the Carmelite nuns. 

Before she could become a nun, however, a group of musicians visited the convent to sing and play the squeezebox for the nuns who were yet to take their final vows. Elsie caught the eye of one of the group, Reginald Williams, a strong, handsome man with a tall, slender body, hazel eyes, black hair and more than a little Irish blood in his veins. Romance immediately blossomed and Reggie returned at night to steal Elsie away, through a window and into his arms. He always said he was not a man to let the grass grow under his feet. The devil didn’t scare him and neither did anyone else.

Elsie was twenty five and Reggie was twenty eight when they married in the mid-1920s. Reggie, a third generation Australian, had been born near Oberon so they settled in that area where, like many of Lithgow’s men, Reggie worked in the coal mines. They were happy together although one bone of contention between them was Elsie’s Indian ancestry, which Reggie wanted to remain a secret. 

“Things are best left alone, as we may not like what we find out,” he insisted.

Elsie put up little argument. After Jesus, whom she called Wakan Tanka, Reggie was first in her life. He was her straight arrow, who tolerated no nonsense. She lived for him with a passion that included the children who soon began to arrive.

By the time their first two sons, Phillip and Keith, were born, they had moved to the Rockley area because there was no longer any work in Lithgow. The Great Depression was well under way. Many of Lithgow’s businesses had closed and its coal miners were laid off until markets could be found. 

Reggie had to look for work elsewhere. He was often away shearing on remote stations, but he sent money to Rockley Police Station for his family. However, when he came home and saw their third child, Mary, who had been born in his absence, he accused Elsie of having an affair with the former Rockley Police Officer, Charles O’Neill. It became an issue with Reggie for years. During one argument he even threw stones at Mary and told Elsie to take her to Sydney.

“That’s where her father, bloody Charles O’Neill, is!” he shouted.

We never knew if there was any substance to Dad’s suspicions. Mum certainly never spoke to us about it and O’Neill, who had been transferred to Sydney where his wife and children were living, always denied that Mary was his.

Mum and Dad must have been reconciled because, soon after they decided to pack up and return to Lithgow, I was conceived.

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