Sheila Hungerford

Tapestry series no. 52

Contributed by Penny Dowling

My mother was brought up by very elderly parents and in many ways was very conservative but in other ways was a pioneer in women’s interests in Queensland’s South West during the 50s and 60s.

Sheila Hungerford (née Wilson) never attended school. She was born at Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. Her mother had spent 13 years attending boarding schools and decided this would not happen to her daughter so Sheila was tutored privately at home near Crookwell, NSW. As a result I think my mother grew up in a unique atmosphere, and that shaped her future. She became a remarkable character.

My parents were married in NSW in the late 30s and moved to Queensland where my father was overseer of a large cattle station. Living conditions were fairly spartan. Having lived such a protected life I wonder how my mother coped and then had so much to give to her fellow countrywomen.

They soon purchased their own property, thousands of acres of undeveloped scrub with plenty of dingoes. Communication was difficult. Phone lines were easily broken by fallen trees and roads of black soil became impassable with a shower of rain. Yet my mother had a passion to communicate with all people in her area, especially women, by church gatherings or large Christmas parties with Santa. And there were no local schools; children received lessons through primary correspondence. Home entertaining was often the only outing for people. As my parents enjoyed company, we had lots of large and small ‘occasions’ in the great garden that my mother established.

My mother helped form the QCWA (Queensland Country Women’s Association) in the area, and was totally involved for 30 years, holding many executive positions at Branch and Divisional level. She was outstanding as Divisional Handicraft Officer. As roads and phones improved she travelled further and further afield. She developed a keen interest in anything that could be made by hand. She had a talent for involving people in her creative ideas. Women who had never dreamed they could make anything would discover that they could make a paper flower or spin wool that they grew. This gave them great satisfaction and an interest other than the solely rural pursuit of their husbands. This pleasure was the greatest spur for my mother. The list of crafts that my mother could teach was endless and a lot of the raw material she bought herself and generously shared with women all over the South-West. Anyone who ever met my mother remembers her, for her charm, generosity and her graciousness. She brought a lot of happiness to lonely women in isolated areas, and often showed them how to be resourceful and cope with the harshness that must have been prevalent at that time in Queensland.

My father was also public spirited and was very involved in Local Government and later a State Member of Government. My mother supported him with her graciousness, always the perfect hostess.

However cooking was not one of her keenest activities, although she could produce a banquet if needed, but there were many times when dinner was ‘put on’ as she rushed through the kitchen one her way to the garden; her three daughters soon learnt to cook to appease a hungry father.

People also remember my mother for her wonderful complexion; she always wore a hat, even if she was outside for a moment. She would tell us that water had never touched her face. I know she always took a gentle bath and only ever used ‘Pond’s Lanolin Cold Cream’ on her face. My mother had a very caring nature and would often tell us that ‘don’t care’ was hung and that ‘can’t’ was not in the dictionary!

She found it impossible to say ‘no’ to requests. Friends, even people she did not know, often asked her to ice wedding cakes, which was another of her superb talents. She never charged for her work, no matter how time consuming the task may be. I remember it was often a nerve-racking experience travelling to Brisbane nursing a fully decorated three-tier cake. She would take a repair kit to mend the inevitable damage that would occur in transit. Once in order to meet a wedding date, when there was no cake or ingredients to be found, in desperation she iced an empty box.

Salespeople had a field day with my mother. Once an encyclopedia man called in; he talked my mother into signing for the whole set. I remember my father was not pleased, and when the salesman returned the next day to complete the transaction my father waylaid him and said ‘I am sorry to tell you but my wife is illiterate’. The salesman left quickly.

As far as I know my mother was never taught these many handicrafts, she simply had a great determination and memory. She could walk past a shop window in Queen Street and then go home and make the dress and hat that the model was wearing.

There are many stories of her exploits. Once she was knitting a Fair Isle jumper for my father in the car (she never sat with idle hands) the black soil road was wet, and the car rolled right over, a ball of or two of wool went out of the window, over the roof and back in the other window! Another time she was teaching metal enamel work at CWA building in St George. Knowing little of the science of the blowtorch (her husband’s), long flame spurts of kerosene would shoot across the old wooden verandah. Apparently it gave everyone a scare, except my mother.

It was a wonderful life – very busy and creative – but in the late 60s and early 70s it all ended. Firstly her eldest daughter was killed in a car accident, then her husband died of motor neurone disease. On each occasion her many friends returned the love and kindness she had given them, by sending hundreds of flowers and letters. Every wreath she received individually and made notes on the colour and type of arrangements; she replied to all by hand. This was a wonderful example.

My mother was devastated by these cruel blows and threw herself totally in serving the CWA. She became very interested in gaining some really superior creative skills, and attended one of the first Macgregor summer schools in Toowoomba. She was killed in a car accident on the way home. She was only 58.

All this was 24 years ago. There are still many people whose lives she touched; they will retell numerous tales about her acts of kindness. Many still hold proudly in their possession something that she gave them or made especially for them.