Monday, February 3, 2014

A Century of Reminiscences

My grandmother, Helen Mary Ferguson (nee Kobaroff), was born on 5th May, 1911, in Toowong Queensland. She was the second to be born to Adam Gosh Nicolavich Kobaroff and Helen Mitcheson Kobaroff (nee Bloomfield). She lived through the two world wars, the depression, the Melbourne and Sydney Olympics, Vietnam and the start of a new millennium. 

Towards the end of her life she had a conversation with my cousin where she talked about various events and memories from her long life. My cousin was smart enough to write things down as she spoke. She didn't cover her life in depth but what she did say shed light on many parts of her long life. I've attempted to organize them into subject areas and provide some context. 

Some background information on the family is useful to help make the content of her reminisces easier to understand.  Nan had 9 siblings (and a half-sister whom I introduce later):

Victor Nicholas1908Splinter
Emma Victoria1912Emsaney
John Adam1914Count
Joseph Alexander1916Froggy
Adam James1917Titchy
Robert Edward1919
Thelma Grace1920Old Duck
Ada Florence1924Nick
Dorothy Jean (Terry)1924Snotter

Nan had the nickname of "pelter" or "stones" as boys used to throw stones at them and Nan would throw them back at them.

Early Years

Sometime between May 1911 and November 1912, the family of four moved to New South Wales where they initially settled in Lidcombe before moving to west Cabramatta in 1916. 

"I was only 5 when I came from Lidcombe. We were on Lidcombe station, I can see it as plainly as anything, a soldier patted me on the head and said what a good girl carrying that case. We lived in a big tin shed. Dadda built the other place out of galvanized iron. We had to stay home sometimes so our clothes could get washed out."

Life out in the sticks

Helen, and her older brother Victor, were joined by a sister Emma Victoria on 12 November, 1912. Along with her younger brothers, she became a constant playmate. Nan recalls:

"Em and I would go into the bush and pretend we had a palace and a ship would take us to foreign countries. We'd have names for all the bush tracks: "bush all green"; "clear a big patch"; "mush out all the rooms". The boys would make a brick fire and would have some jam tins. They would come home and pinch a potato and some flour and make dampers. We'd pretend it was a palace. Em and I would wave from our imaginary boat, going overseas. We'd make peg dolls. We used to eat wattle blossom gum on the trees. We were only 10 years old, we didn't have the twins to play with."

"It was innocent fun, nothing horrible in a world of imagination. Never a fear in the world."

"Over the hill the Reads had cows. They used to give us cows milk to bring home."

Below are two aerial pictures of the house: one taken in 1943 and the other in 2012. As you can see even in 1943, there was plenty of bush in which nan and her sibling could play and also that there was no one else around. Apparently most of the land around them was theirs. Compare this to the typical Sydney suburban scene below it.

"Dadda owned several blocks of land but had to sell some of them for $30 for a wheelchair when he broke his leg."

As I described in "Coming to Australia" finding work during the years of World War 1 was hard for a "foreigner".

"Dad cut baker's wood and sell it at Canley Vale. We'd go down, Vick and I, we'd have to cut the wood. Sometimes it was 7pm when we got home. We'd eat bread and golden syrup."

"By the time Thelma was born [1920] the times were getting better. There were frocks on the line. Mum had to wash other people's clothes to get money to live."


Nan had a half-sister, Gladys, who was born in 1899. There is no record of who the father was and she and her mother were to disappear back to the mother land for a couple of years to avoid the stigma. Coincidentally, her grandmother, Emma Lucy Bloomfield, was unmarried when she had twins Helen and Florence (who died only a few months after birth).

Aunty Glad (or Gladdy as nan called her) was a lovely woman: gently spoken and just plain nice. It's no wonder nan got on so well with her. (Just to be complete, Gladys' nickname was "Glad Arse".)

"When I was 7 years old, Gladdy worked as a cleaner at the Richardson Hotel in Castlereagh Street Sydney. She had this lovely job. She'd come up and get me and we'd go stop for a week. I can remember the big dining room where she'd polish the plants (aspidistras). I'd go to bed and she'd bring me milk and biscuits. I only liked milk that was scalded so would throw it out the window. Gladdy loved me. She was 13 years older and had a different father. She said that mumma got all dressed up to see a family - a chemist. Maybe the father was there somewhere."

Lessons in Empathy

One of my grandmother's earliest memories is a painful one that occurred at school and it was to shape her life. Despite having a mother whose name goes back to medieval England but due to her surname of Kobaroff she encountered a lot of racial prejudice. She clearly recalls being 5 or 6 and asking another girl in class whether she'd be friends only to be rejected because of her ancestry. She says from that point onwards she always had empathy for others.  

"You have had to live in that time to understand how hard we lived with Dad being a foreigner. He learned English from dictionaries. He was an intelligent man. It taught me to understand people and not have a bad thought for anyone."


"Dadda used to say he was married twice in Russia. He said his mother was Swedish and that I had a sister who was the image of me. Dad's father was Russian [a soldier in the Russian army stationed in Varnya Bulgaria]. Dad told us they had wealth, a house, and vineyards.

When my father came from Brisbane from Russia [after jumping ship in Melbourne in 1902] all his papers and money were stolen: everything he had was taken."

"Mumma came from wealthy people in England. It is a long way for me to go back. I can only tell you parts of it. We didn't know much about our family."

Before her death I was able to fill in quite a bit about this side of her family.


She talked about some of her school life:

"We went to school at St Johns Park. Vick used to make us wag school - he'd threaten us so we did it. Mumma would come along and we'd run behind the sulky and mumma didn't know why the sulky slowed down: we'd be hanging on the back of it. Mumma was told 'Nell, Emma, and Vick didn't go to school.' She said 'Oh no, they go to school'. Mumma told Dadda, he reprimanded us and gave Vick a hiding."

"I was a good scholar at school. Every time Mumma had a baby I had to stop school. I was good with figures. I was 12 when I finally left school. My teacher patted my head and he said it was such a shame as I was such a good student. I got on okay after school: I was able to get jobs. I have no regrets."

The Depression

"During the depression Dadda was out of work and Mumma had to go to the minister (Stimson) to get food. In the worst of times, we would only get a pot of soup with soup bones. Dadda cooked - I hated him for making me cook but then I was glad because I got my best jobs as a cook. Mum made date pudding, I couldn't eat it as there were duck eggs in the puddings. The thought of them made me sick.

"Vick and I were only young we would have to get the wood. After dad cut the wood we'd load up the baker's cart and we would to to the bakery. Dad made a baking oven and baked our own bread. Jonesy reported dad for cooking his own bread.

"Dad was strict with me but kind to Emmy. He made me wash the floors. I looked after Bob, mum and dadda.

"I had one dress, no shoes. The clothes I liked were streamlined: no frills. I paid a lovely little suit off, put it on the counter and left it behind. It was stolen. I saved up again and got a dress." Shown in this picture:

Food Glorious Food

Nan was a wizard in the kitchen. Her menus were varied and delicious: trifles, roast dinners, home made chips, you name it. Her scones were legendary. 

"I used to cook on a fuel stove. Dadda taught me to cook. I'd curse because everyone else could play, but I enjoyed cooking. I worked hard at the golf club. Dadda was a first class cook on the ships. He was working on a ship in Brisbane. He was going to go on the ship but it was cancelled. It ended up sinking but he wasn't on the ship. We had a big soup ladle he owned from the ship with his name on it."



Sift flour. Use fingers and let air circulate. Add a tablespoon of margarine or butter. Add 2 eggs. Knife and whisk lightly and mix. Knead in flour.

Creamed Rice

Boil rice and wash. Add milk. Cook slow until all the milk is absorbed, adding slowly. Add a bit of sugar and cream as well.

Stewed Apple

Stew apple, mash, add sugar with small amount of water. Put on lid and cook slowly. Put 2 cloves in pot.

Braised Chops

Lamb in three quarter chops. Boils chops on a plate with the juice. Draw fat and put onions, carrots, celery, parsnip,potato, chicken or beef stock, some salt, thyme, basil, curry and thicken with a bit of gravox.

Baked Custard / Bread and Butter Custard

Put a half-litre of milk in a pyrex dish. Beat eggs and add to mile. Add a teaspoon of vanilla essence, a tablespoon of sugar, a "good bit" of coconut and a lump of butter on top. Stand in a baking dish of water. Cook in over and wait until the top is nice and brown. For bread and butter custard, add bread a jam to same mixture before cooking.


The period from 1916 through to the outbreak of World War 2 was a constant struggle for the family. Any job that could earn the family money was undertaken, no matter how old the worker was.

"Dad cut baker's wood and sell it at Canley Vale [a nearby suburb a few km away]. We'd go down, Vick and I, we'd have to cut the wood. Sometimes it was 7pm when we got home. We'd eat bread and golden syrup."

"The first job I had was when I was 14 at Ford Sherrington's in Bourke Street Sydney, it was a belt place. One day I had thrupence (three pence) in my purse which somebody stole. I was given a penny to get the tram. Next I went to work at the oatmeal place in Warwick Farm where I did housework. My favourite job was when I worked in a grocery store and Anthony Horden's."

"I worked at the Orange Grove Golf Club where I cooked on a great big fuel stove. They wanted me to be head caterer. I did over 35 steaks, onions, and did dishes of apple pie. I couldn't stay because I was so ill. I had to have a hysterectomy after mum died. It was a bad experience.

"Then I went to Meals on Wheels in Fairfield, but after some years there I had other responsibilities in the afternoon, so I was going to give my notice. Meals on Wheels said no, we will organize a taxi to get you there. And they did, so I stayed."

In addition to the above, nan also had the following jobs:

  • Worked in a grocer ship in Cambridge Street Canley Heights where she did the books
  • Kodak - photograph printing with sister-in-law Daphne (nee Cranch)
  • Cook at Lansvale Hospital

The House on Boyd Street

"Ferg and I lived in Canley Vale. We had rubberoid ceilings in this place. We had an old fuel, chip heater. In a storm, the roof came down. We had to start to rebuild the house, then they fixed the old fuel heater. We could have a had a war service house but we had to come up here to look after mum and dad.

"While Pop was away [during world war 2], mum got cancer. Terry, Nicky had their boyfriends and would be away. Mum would cry out for help. A community nurse would come to catheterize mum as she had problems with her bladder. The nurse used to come everyday. One day she couldn't make it. Gladdy couldn't come to do it, so Em and I did and drained 3 pints of fluid. Then it came easy to me so everyday I would put the catheter in. Many years later I learned to inject Pop. I practiced on an orange, and I got it in as easy as anything.

"I used to sit in Dadda's room until 5 in the morning and then I sent everyone to work. I'd shine the brass, we'd go over in the bush, and cut out fancy newspaper and make runners for the cupboards when they were cleaned.

"One day Jack came up, dad fell out of bed, struggling to pick him up he said he didn't realize how tough I had it."

Nan's mother died of cancer in 1945:

"My mother died in 1945 when Ferg was away in the war. It was only Glady and I here at the time. We didn't know what to do with Mumma. We tried another doctor but he wouldn't give her morphine despite the pain she was in. When she went to a nursing home in Petersham she was not properly tended to. She was only there a week. We were in no position to look after her at home. We fought for her to get into Parramatta Hospital. Dadda was bedridden at this stage. Dr Kinsella at St Vincent's came out to see Dadda and put him in Hornsby Hospital to put a pin in his hip. He was then able to walk. I ran from home to Parramatta Hospital to see Mumma. After 5 minutes she said 'I have been waiting for you', then she died.

"When we were married with Max and Barry, Dadda slept in the front room, he had dropsy and had to get rid of fluid. I'd sit in the wheelchair all night. I had to get breakfast for them all, as well clean and polish. There was no washing machine. Things eventually started to get better. Ferg and I, we'd pay off a sheet of fibro bit by bit, made all the cupboards, then fence, and then a gate.

"Mumma left the house to Bobby and me. I was looking after Bobby. Mumma wanted to gave us the house so I could look after Bobby." 

Nan's father died in 1951.

"The solicitor who buried Dad said he left the house to me and Bobby. He said the best thing is that since Bobby had no next of kin and so the trustees would take all Bobby's money, was for Bobby to sign the house to me."

Bobby suffered from a rheumatic heart condition that took his life in 1956.

Courtship and Married Life

My cousin asked "Where did you meet pop?"  (Pop was Geoffrey Ferguson aka Ferg):

"I was introduced by Auggie [husband of sister Thelma] in a crowd at Fairfield. I had to
meet Ferg on the train. I was working and had bought a nice dress. I met him on the train. He started to drink and didn't look very smart. I had made the effort to get dressed nicely. I was in the train but he wasn't in the mood for talking. It ended up so I didn't bother to see him again. I went to another dance, he kept asking Auggie where I was. From then on we started going together. Pop had a beautiful bunch of flowers which he gave to me and apologized to me for having drunk too much previously. Then we never left each other.

"My mother loved Ferg and he loved her. Ferg said the only love he was show was from her. We married and the rest is history. I never regretted anything from that day until the day pop died.

"Pop had a number of jobs during his life, including:

  • First job at the time of his marriage was on the trams with Auggie
  • Water Board
  • Baker's Cart after World War 2
  • Moorebank Army Camp: He came home with huge vehicles, trailers, army trucks. He was a champion driver. He pedaled a bike from here to Moorebank for 12 years until he got the car.
  • Worked underground at the Snowy River in Cooma

"He bought a car [a Holden FX or FJ]: he loved Holdens [the Australian arm of General Motors]. It was stolen. He then got a Station Wagon [an EK?] which lasted many years until he sold it in the late 1970's. He then bought a sedan [an EH?] which he then for years. He understood Holdens from top to bottom. [I recall him changing engines and doing nearly all maintenance himself - his garage had a number of grease guns.] He never had an accident [until the mid 1990's]. It was so old he couldn't get any parts. He then bought a hatchback."

"Pop was away for 2.5 years during World War 2 serving in the Pacific. He had compassionate leave when I had to have a big operation. We lived in Premier Street. The twins used to work in town and come home to Cabramatta with Mumma. 

"At Premier Street, Max was 5 and Ferg adopted him. He was wonderful. 

"Barry used to run in the  poppies and hide (where the train lines were). Mr Cole Dury used to look for him. We'd worry that he'd be on the train line. The lady over the road used to idolize him. Ferg would get the milk from the milkman. This morning Ferg went out and Barry would have some of his boiled egg. I said "Where's Barry?". We couldn't find him and everyone was crying looking for him in the dam. Returning home, there he was in the lounge room. He had this fascination with starched shirts, he liked to pull the pockets away from the shirts. He always did it. Everyone was crying when we found him, they thought he had drowned. 

"Next morning he went missing. Recently, Ferg had been teaching him to swim. Ferg ran to the river, saw Barry going down to the water "for a 'wim". He would have drowned if we didn't see him with his little snowy head bobbing up and down in the bush."

Pop died in 2003 after a long decline. Nan was there when he drew his last breath. She stayed on for another few years but her health, and her legs in particular, led to her having to go into a nursing home where she died in 2010.


  1. Thank you Neale Ferguson. I have loved reading this post, My Grandmother was Grace Payer sister to (Auggie & Thel) loved them dearly. Regards Kellee Daniel (Boss family)