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We need new ways to tell stories of the past

We need new ways to tell local stories

I have just finished watching online a critical discussion on the practice of history held at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC.

In these times of fake news, misleading information, and conspiracy theories. Whom do you trust? What is the truth? Social media is all-encompassing.

This photograph is of a voluntary aid at the Waley Convalescent Home for Soldiers at Mowbray Park in 1920 sitting at her desk perhaps writing a letter to a loved one in her time off. This is a wonderful story of service and sacrifice and how these women did wonderful service during and after the First World War. (NAA)
This photograph is of a voluntary aid at the Waley Convalescent Home for Soldiers at Mowbray Park in 1920 sitting at her desk perhaps writing a letter to a loved one in her time off. This is a wonderful story of service and sacrifice and how these women did wonderful service during and after the First World War. (NAA)

This discussion on the practice of history is a dose of hope when political interest groups seek to rewrite the past on their terms.

Maybe this discussion was not a complete cure, but it certainly seems like a ray of sunshine into the swamp of the abyss.

So what did I see?

I watched a panel of learned historians and museum directors discussing launching the Reframing History report by the American Association for State and Local History (AASLH). 

The promotional email I received boasted:  

This new initiative provides the field with a set of evidence-backed recommendations to communicate history more convincingly and to build a wider understanding of what inclusive history looks like and why it is important for all of us.

The discussion lived up to the hype.

I highly recommend this lively and challenging discussion to anyone involved in the practice of history. I do not think it matters whether you are from the academy, practise public history, or just like popular history. This discussion should interest you if you are concerned about the long term health of history as a discipline.

Panel Discussion Details

  • John Dichtl, president and CEO of AASLH, started the conversation by providing an overview of the project. 
  • That was followed by a discussion by Anthea Hartig, Elizabeth MacMillan, Director of the National Museum of American History. 

Panellists included:

  • Martha S. Jones, author and professor of history at Johns Hopkins University
  • Clint Smith, staff writer at The Atlantic and author of How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with Slavery Across America
  •  Jorge Zamanillo, director of HistoryMiami and incoming founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino

The panellists expand on the Reframing History Report and Toolkit by talking about their personal experiences of communicating about history and sharing their recommendations for how history organizations can create environments for positive and productive conversations.

You can view the discussion on the AASLH YouTube channel. AASLH YouTube channel.

 Watch on YouTube

Further reading

Be a historical detective.

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An amazing woman, Sheila Murdoch

Community worker, musician and mother.

Sheila Murdoch was a rural woman who served her community and church and raised a family of five children. Her story, like a lot of other rural women, has remained in the shadows of history. She did not seek kudos and received little public acknowledgement of her role in the community.

Sheila with her granddaughter Nicole (N Comerford, 2021)

Her story came to my attention through a picture of a medicine bottle from her granddaughter Nicole Comerford. Sheila had obtained a bottle of liquid paraffin from Camden pharmacist Colin Clark.

Liquid Paraffin medicine that Sheila Murdoch purchased from Camden pharmacist Colin Clark in Argyle Street. The bottle dates from the mid-20th century. This is the bottle that led to this story about Sheila. (N Comerford, 2021)

What is liquid paraffin?

According to The British Medical Journal, liquid paraffin was recommended as a treatment for constipation as a laxative, particularly with children. A Google search of the bottle’s image indicates it is probably around the middle of the 20th century.

The real story is not the bottle but an amazing woman who owned it.

Sheila

Nicole tells us that Sheila lived on a dairy farm on Fallons Road Orangeville.  

‘Grandma was born Sheila Rose Walsh and was one of seven children. Her parents were dairy farmers in Upper Kangaroo River (Kangaroo Valley).’

Musical family

The Walshes were ‘a musical family’, according to Nicole.

Sheila had an interview with Kayla Osborne from the Camden Advertiser in 2018 (6 July 2018). She  said, ‘I learnt to play the piano when I was about eight or nine years old, firstly from my mother, and then an old school teacher started teaching me during the 1930s when teachers were quite scarce.’   

‘I am also self-taught, but my family has always been a musical one when I was growing up.

Sheila told Kayla Osborne that she was fond of music from an early age and recalled, ‘my father and mother always used to sing together, with my father playing the fiddle by ear.’

‘Most of my brothers and sisters also played an instrument or sang.’ Sheila was part of a well-known local band in the Shoalhaven area called ‘Walsh’s Orchestra’.

Sheila Murdoch played the piano from an early age. She regularly played at Carrington Aged-Care Complex with the Melody Makers. I was told by one member of the group that she could play any tune in any key. Now that is quite an achievement. (Camden Advertiser, 2018)

Nicole writes, ‘Grandma played the piano, and they played all over the Shoalhaven District over many years, including during WW2. She met my grandfather, Leslie Murdoch, after joining their orchestra  when he was stationed at Nowra during the war. Grandad was a mechanic for the RAAF at Nowra.’ 

Les was from the Newcastle area, born at Adamstown in 1922, and in 1941 enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. On discharge in 1946 he had the rank of corporal.

Les played the saxophone [Weir, p. 33]

The South Coast country press reported the regular ‘gigs’ played by the Walsh Orchestra in the Shoalhaven area between the mid-1930s and the Second World War.   In 1936 they performed at the St Michael’s Convent School Hall in Nowra (Nowra Leader, Friday 26 June 1936) and the Roman Catholic Ball at the Kangaroo Valley School of Arts in 1938. The ball drew loyal church supporters from Burrawang, Gerringong, Nowra and Berry for the jubilee celebrations for the Kangaroo Valley Roman Catholic Church.

Reports of the dance said that the stage was ‘tastefully decorated with streamers and clusters of balloons’ surrounded by a vase of chrysanthemums and maidenhair ferns’. The orchestra was under the baton of Jack Butler. (Shoalhaven News, 1 June 1938). The band played at the annual ball and euchre party of the Kangaroo Valley RSS&AILA in 1939 (Shoalhaven News, 13 September 1939) and the Gerringong Football Club’s dance and euchre party at Gerringong in 1944. (Kiama Independent, and Shoalhaven Advertiser, 17 June 1944).

Sheila and Leslie married in March 1945 at Berry [Nicole] and moved to Orangeville in 1946 (Camden Advertiser, 6 July 2018) after  he was discharged from the RAAF.

Sheila with her great-grandchildren at the farm (N Comerford, 2020)

Thornhill, Orangeville

Nicole writes, ‘They had little money when they moved there, really the only money they had saved from playing for dances and what Grandma had in war bonds. They grew peas until they had enough money to start dairying, and over the years, they purchased all of the farm from other family members; it was named “Thornhill”. The farm has been in the family since the 1850s and was a dairy farm.

‘The farm was an active dairy farm until the 1970s. They sold half of the farm, and it’s now about 92 acres. The half they sold is now Murdoch Road, Orangeville. Grandad (Les) lived on the farm until he died in 2001, and Grandma (Sheila) lived there on her own (with lots of support from her family) until at age 101. My parents, Jim and Judith Murdoch, still live on the farm, and my Dad runs about 15 beef cattle.

In her history of Orangeville, Nell Weir writes that the Thornhill grant was allocated to Thomas Fallon in 1856, with the farm having frontage to Clay Waterholes Creek. Thomas married Eliza Waller of Mulgoa in 1840, and they had ten children. Thomas died in 1879 and is buried in The Oaks Catholic Cemetery. According to Weir, Les Murdoch is a descendant of Thomas and Eliza’s son Thomas. [Weir, pp.32-33]

Sheila in the centre of the image with the rest of her family. All generations. (N Comerford, 2021)

Family

Nicole writes, ‘Sheila and Les had six children with the first being a stillborn daughter who we think are buried at the Catholic Cemetery in Camden. There are no records for this birth; I am pretty sure Grandma had this baby at what is now Neidra Hill’s house at Narellan.’

The house in question is the Edwardian architectural gem called Ben Linden. The house was built in 1919 by George Blackmore. Neidra Hill writes in her history of the house that EJ (Elizabeth) Stuckey, a trained midwife, purchased the house in 1944 conducted a maternity hospital until 1948. The hospital was then run by her daughter, JT (Jean) Stuckey, until 1959. The building was converted to a private hospital run by ME (Mavis) Halkett until it closed in 1971. (Hill, 2008, pp.27-37)

Community

Nicole recalls that ‘my grandparents were very active in the community’.  

‘Sheila and Leslie played at dances and weddings all over the community for many years and were very well known. Grandma and Grandad played in The Oaks, Orangeville, Camden and down to Bargo. I think they played at Bargo on New Year’s Eve several times. They also played at Camden High School socials.’

‘When I shared news of Grandma’s death on the “You know you’re from Camden if…” Facebook page, lots of people commented that they remember them playing at their weddings.’

‘Grandma also played the organ, firstly at St Pauls Catholic Church in Camden and then at St Aloysius Catholic Church at The Oaks when the parish boundaries changed. Grandma was still playing on her 101st birthday at The Oaks.

Sheila played the piano for The Oaks Debutante Balls until she retired in 1998. The ball committee have written that Sheila played piano for practice and presentation sessions for 23 years and they remember her ‘sitting at the piano for so many hours in freezing cold conditions’. (The Committee, p14)

She said, ‘It was lovely to see the young “hopefuls’ turn up – the boys mostly in “Nikes” or “Ugg” Boots – to learn dancing. We always found the young people very polite and happy when they got into the swing of the dances.’ (The Committee, p.14)

Myra Cowell recalls on Facebook that she ‘remembers them well playing at the Cobbitty dances’

Nicole said, ‘Grandma was a member of The Oaks Catholic Woman’s League and held various roles over the years, including president.

The Catholic Women’s League in NSW can trace its origins back to 1913, when the Catholic Women’s Association was founded in Sydney. The league aims to promote ‘the spiritual, cultural, intellectual and social development of women and promotes the role of laywomen in the mission of the Catholic Church’.

Camden Bowling Club

Nicole recalls, ‘Both my grandparents were involved in the Camden Bowling Club, and Grandma was a foundation member of the Camden Women’s Bowling Club. She also played the piano at many events there over the years.’ 

Frank Farrugia writes in the history of the Camden Bowling Club that Les was president from 1967 to 1969 after joining the club in 1961. He served on the committee for over 15 years and worked for the club for over 25 years. To acknowledge his service, he was made a life member. The new No 3 Green at the club was dedicated to Les, and at its opening in 1986, John Fahey said that Les gave ‘himself to his church, his family, to sporting bodies and local government’. (Farrugia, p. 146) Les was a councillor for A Riding on Wollondilly Shire Council for four terms from 1974 to 1987. (History of WSC) Frank McKay praised ‘Les’s loyalty, objectivity and dedication’. (Farrugia, p.146)

Les Murdoch (N Comerford)

Melody Makers

‘For over 50, maybe even 60 years, Grandma volunteered at Carrington Aged-Care complex every Friday morning and in later years was part of a group called the “Melody Makers” who played there. She continued to play the piano there while she was resident and even did so in the week before she died. We always used to laugh the way she would talk about playing for “the oldies” when most of them would have been younger than her!’ writes Nicole. 

The Melody Makers at Carrington Aged-Care in 2018 on Sheila’s 100th Birthday with Laurie on Sax, George on violin, and Kevin on guitar (Camden Advertiser, 2018)

On Sheila’s 100th birthday in 2018, Kayla Osborne wrote in the Camden Advertiser (6 July 2018) that Sheila and the Melody Makers played weekly at Carrington Aged-Care. Sheila said she started volunteering at Carrington Aged-Care and the aged care facility to give back to her community. She said, ‘I started with the Pink Ladies, who were some of Carrington’s very first volunteers.’

‘I love playing the piano at Carrington Aged-Care Complex now, and I consider playing for the residents there just pure enjoyment. I particularly enjoy the company – nobody objects no matter how bad we play.’

Carrington Volunteer Coordinator Belinda said, ‘I was privileged enough to see them play a few times. Sheila was absolutely phenomenal with her piano skills, Laurie accompanied on sax, Richard (also now passed) played the keyboard and the singer and guitarist, Kevin. (Email, 30 August 2021)

The Melody Makers here with Laurie on sax, Kevin on guitar and George on violin. Laurie had a fine career as military bandsman. (c.2017, Carrington Care)

A Carrington source tells me that the Melody Makers was made up of Laurie Martin on saxophone and clarinet, George Sayers on violin, Kevin Harris on guitar, Dick Eldred on clarinet, pianist Sheila and in the early days in late 1990s John Foster on trombone. Most of these talented folk sadly are no longer with us.

Melody Maker guitarist and vocalist Kevin Harris said, ‘I joined the group in the late 1990s. Sheila was “God’s gift to music”. She played at Carrington for 60 years.’

‘The group played at Carrington Aged-Care every Friday around each of the different facilities – Grasmere Terrace, Nursing home, Paling Court and so on. We had over 2000 regular songs. We would never practice. [The group] played for two hours from 10-12, then everyone would go to lunch ,’ he said.

Kevin recalled, ‘My favourite memory was just playing for over 20 years. I have wonderful memories. Playing each week made friendships. Just a love of music and we shared that love with other people. [The members of Melody Makers] were great troopers and there was so much love between all of us and our families.’

‘[Melody Makers] did jobs outside [of Carrington]. Macarthur War Widows and Legacy War Widows at Legacy House in Campbelltown. We played for the Over 50s at the Catholic Club, and Christmas Parties and Mothers’ Day in and around Campbelltown and Appin,’ he said.

Kevin said, ‘ Most of the group had a musical background. Laurie military bands, George came from a family of entertainers, Jack played in World War Two and I played around the Campbelltown area from the 1960s including a 19-piece swing band based at Wayne’s Music Shop.’

Carrington Aged-Care

Nicole writes that ‘Leslie died in 2001 and is buried in the Catholic Cemetery at The Oaks. In September 2019, Sheila moved to Mary McKillop Hostel at Carrington Aged-Care Complex off the farm because of the increased level of care needed for her health.

Sheila became part of the Carrington family after she moved into aged-care.

Sheila Murdoch loved children and joined in activities at Carrington, Her she is participating with the ‘littlies’ in Carrington’s Intergenerational Playgroup March 2020 (Carrington Care, 2020)

Nicole said, ‘Grandma [Sheila] passed away at Mary McKillop on 29th May 2020.’

The surviving five children are Patricia, James (my Dad), Frances, Mary and Peter.’

References

Farrugia, F 2014, History of Camden Bowling Club, 75 Years, Camden Bowling Club, Camden.

Hill, N 2008, Ben Linden 1919-2008, A house with a story to tell, Typescript Camden Museum Archives, n.p.

The Oaks Debutante Ball Book Committee 2001, We Had a Ball, Twenty-five Debutante Balls in The Oaks 1973-1999, The Committee, The Oaks.

Weir, NR 1998, From Timberland to Smiling Fields, A History of Orangeville and Werombi, The Oaks Historical Society, The Oaks.

Wollondilly Shire Council 1988, A History of Local Government in the Wollondilly Shire 1895 to1988, Wollondilly Shire Council, Picton.