Grandma Cooks

Gwendolyn Nelson Watson
by Nicole Cody

My great Aunt Gwen was born in the last decade of the century before last. She was one of eight daughters, whose birth followed the one son of the family. Their father was a doctor, and they were one of the wealthiest families in Brisbane. Certain members of my family still pride themselves on the family link to Lord Admiral Nelson, from whom the family name is derived. I live not far from the house where they all grew up, and have strong memories of visiting it as a child. It is a grand old Queenslander, with wide verandahs, high ceilings, ornate timberwork and ironwork, and a magnificent garden, complete with carriage house and circular driveway. Inside the house was a marvel. The kitchen was detached from the house, as were the maids quarters. The house had eleven bedrooms, and a huge ballroom with a sprung floor. As a child I very much appreciated the bounciness of that floor, and would often sneak in to test it while my mother was entertained in another room. 

The house was a treasure trove of antiques and curiosities from all over the world. Gwen did not marry. Her father disapproved of the man who courted her at eighteen. This same man then went to Britain to join the flying corps with the outbreak of world war one, and never returned, presumed killed in action. Gwen shunned interest in her from any of Australia's other suitors deemed eligible and appropriate by her parents. Most of Gwen's sisters likewise did not marry for lack of 'appropriate' suitors. In that era you were considered left on the shelf by 22! After the war Gwen took her first trip overseas and caught the travel bug. She briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher, but this was considered below her station. I never realised how women were so much at the mercy of the male head of the household back then. Gwen and her sisters were totally dependent upon their father financially, but of course the moral and societal codes of the day made this dependency far more reaching than that. Father had the final say in almost everything! 

Gwen's brother and two of her youngest sisters had married by the start of the Great Depression and no longer lived at home. These family members had all received lump sums from the family upon their marriage. Both parents had passed away. Much of the family's wealth which was to provide interest and annuities for the remaining daughters was lost in the stockmarket crash. For an interest and also as an income stream she and a few of her sisters opened a high class frock shop in the middle of town, opening stock being many of the dresses they had purchased overseas and not worn back at home. They had such few dresses that various sisters were dispatched to run up and down the alleyways between the other shops to take stock suitable for whatever client was in their rooms. These frocks would then be displayed as if belonging to the sisters, and if a purchase was made (at a greatly inflated price) the true owner of the dress would be paid in full, and the sisters would collect any other monies charged on top. The business proved to be a huge success, and showed incredible business savvy for a bunch of girls who had only ever been educated at tennis, embroidery, French and various other Classics by a governess. 

Gwen proved quite shrewd with money, and soon reinvested profits back in the share market. The family wealth gradually was put back onto a firm foundation, and the girls were able to travel once more. Gwen often travelled on her own, which was considered very unconventional in her day. She travelled to exotic ports that were far from fashionable, such as Turkey, Egypt, China and Vietnam, and brought back many antiques, artworks and curios. She would tell me tales of Turkish bazaars where she would haggle to buy carpets, and of buying gold and artifacts from Egyptian tombs. They entertained often at their Brisbane home, and the girls received a measure of independence and social recognition as enterprising and respected individuals that was virtually unheard of for women at that time.

I met Gwen when I was about 8, and she was in her late eighties. I knew her until her death at 96 years of age. She was a remarkable woman, who left a huge mark on my life. Every day she would dress and do her hair and makeup, no matter how ill she was. She also recited a positive affirmation, "Every day in every way I am getting better and better". She took a keen interest in the world, both business affairs and politics. She would laugh at the idea that it was a man's world, and tell me how by being clever and using my mind, there was nothing that I could not do. "Never say never," she often told me. I never heard her complain. She was always bright and positive, and had a way of making you feel special and uplifted. She was gracious and charming, and never had a bad word to say about anyone other than bankers, and of course even that was not personal. She advised me to always buy shares in banks because the banks had been robbing people blind since their inception, and would continue to do so long after you or I were gone. Gwen used budgets and balanced her books in an era when women allowed men, either family or accountants, to control their financial affairs for them. She always encouraged me to do the same, believing that every woman needed some element of financial control in their life, whatever life that might be.

Gwen was a strong woman, from a family of strong women. She kept a journal of her life, in intricate detail, from when she was fourteen. Sadly, upon her death, the executors of her estate failed to recognise the value of these papers and out they went to the trash, along with boxes of old photographs and other memorabilia. I consider this one of the greatest tragedies to beset the family, as her detailed diaries held the keys to a long gone way of life, and to so many family mysteries and convolutions which we have been unable to unravel since. Her words are irreplaceable, unlike the antiques and other objects of a life once lived. Gwen's influences are still reaching out and shaping the generations that proceed her, long after she has left us.