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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.

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Old Photographs

Old photographs provide an entry to a world that was apparently more authentic than the present.  As Harriet Richards from the University of Melbourne writes:

In response to today’s COVID-19 crisis, we are turning to old movies, letter writing and vintage fashion trends more than ever. Nostalgia is a defence mechanism against upheaval.

 

Roy Dowle glassplate negative print (Roy Dowle Collection The Oaks Historical Society)
A glass plate negative from the Roy Dowle Collection at The Oaks Historical Society. (TOHS)

 

The viewer of an old photograph is a time traveller into another world and is given a snapshot of a moment frozen in time. The observer has a glimpse of a world before the present.   For the viewer, it as a form of nostalgia, where they create a romanticized version of the past accompanied by feelings that the present is not quite as good as an earlier period.

The History Skills website argues that photographs are excellent sources.

Photographs provide a rare glimpse of a particular second in time, which will never again be repeated. This is especially true for events that occurred before the development of television or digital technologies.

Peter Mylrea wrote an article about Camden photographers in 2005 for the Camden History Journal. He lists some of the districts photographers from the 1860s, and they have included: W Macarthur; JB Mummery; HP Reeves; HT Lock; W Norton; J Donnellan; C Kerry; W Jackson; W Thwaites; CA Sibert; OV Coleman; AE Cash; R Cash; HE Perkins; R Dowle; J Driscoll.

More recent photographers have included: J Burge; R Herbert; J Kooyman; P Mylrea; J Wrigley; B Atkins and others.

The work of these Camden photographers can be viewed on the photographic database Camden Images Past and Present.

The photographic work of Roy Dowle is a collection of glass plates found their way to The Oaks Historical Society and have recently been digitized by the society.

 

Digitizing The Roy Dowle Photographic Collection

Trish Hill and Allen Seymour

Roy William Dowle was born in 1893, the first child to Charles and Madeline Dowle (nee Dominish) and his siblings were Frank (1896), Edgar (1898) and Leonard (1904).  Charles Dowle purchased their “Collingwood” property in Quarry Road, at The Oaks around the time of Roy’s birth. It is presumed that Roy lived there until his marriage to Emily J Smith in 1915.

Portrait Roy Dowle 1920s Camden TOHS
Portrait of Roy and Emily Dowle in the 1920s. Roy was a keen photographer in the Camden district, and his collection of glass plate negatives is now with The Oaks Historical Society at the Wollondilly Heritage Centre. (TOHS)

 

Roy & Emily’s home was in Camden at the top of Barsden Street. Roy was a photographer and the Camden News of March 26th, 1914 records that he received an award for photography in the amateur section at the Camden show.

In 1937 he supplied photographs of Camden to the Council for use by the railways in their passenger carriages. Roy worked for Whitemans, and in 1943 he was called on to make a presentation to Charles Whiteman when the latter retired. The Dowle’s also had a holiday home at Erowal Bay – St George’s Basin.

Roy died in 1955, but fortunately, a large number of his glass and film negatives survived. These were donated to the Wollondilly Heritage Centre in 2016 by Roy’s grand-daughter. An index book came with the collection, but unfortunately, a lot of the negatives were not in their original boxes, making identification of the people difficult. The photographs range in age from around 1910 to the 1940s.

The Wollondilly Heritage Centre was successful in obtaining a New South Wales Community Heritage grant in 2019 to digitize the collection which consists of 1100 glass plate negatives and a further 120 plastic film negatives.

There was considerable work in preparing the negatives for digitizing, as they all had to be cleaned and numbered. This was done by volunteers from the centre over several weeks, and they were then transported in batches to Digital Masters at Balgowlah for digitizing. Most were still in excellent condition, and the quality of the scanned images is superb.

Roy photographed a lot of people, with weddings, babies and young children being popular subjects. He also photographed local buildings and houses, views, animals, local events such as parades or sporting events.

Buildings photographed include St Johns church (inside also), Camden Hospital (even inside shots), Camden Inn, Plough & Harrow Hotel, Narellan Hotel, Oakdale wine shop, Maloney’s store, Narellan school, Mt Hunter school, Camden railway station, Camden Milk Depot, Mater Dei and others.

The unveiling of the Mt Hunter war memorial (pictured) was also covered by Roy, along with Mt Hunter School and some beautiful interior shots which show honour boards with photos of local soldiers.

Mount Hunter Unveiling of War memorial 1920s R Dowle TOHS
The opening of the Mount Hunter Soldier’s War Memorial, opposite the public school took place on Saturday, 24 September 1921, at 2.30pm. The official unveiling ceremony was carried out by Brigadier-General GM Macarthur Onslow. The memorial listed 40 names of local servicemen. Afternoon tea was provided by ‘the ladies’ at 1/- with all money going to the memorial fund. (Camden News, 15 September 1921, 22 September 1921. Image Roy Dowle Collection)

 

Some really fascinating photos are of children in fancy dress, and two that stand out, are of the same girl dressed firstly as a wedding cake, and then as a lampshade!!   A number of the houses have been identified as still being in Camden, and other more easily identified homes include “Edithville” in Mitchell street, the former Methodist parsonage in Menangle Road and Harrington Park house.

Among the groups photographed are St John’s Choir, returned servicemen, cricket teams, football teams, Masonic dinner, the Royal Forrester’s, staff and children from Macquarie House, visiting school teachers and Sunday school groups. One photograph of a group of three male cyclists picnicking may be one of the first selfies, as we believe the centre one is Roy himself, holding a string which runs to the camera. Soldiers were another popular subject, and there are also some women dressed as soldiers. Roy also copied photos. This was done by photographing it, and a lot of the soldier photos have been copied this way.

Some of the views are of Wollongong, Bulli, Burragorang, Douglas Park, Theresa Park, Chellaston Street and some great shots taken from St Johns steeple. There are also numerous flood scenes around Camden. Animals didn’t escape Roy’s camera, and there are shots of cattle, horses, poultry, dogs. Even a camel. Some other remarkable photos are of a shop window display featuring Persil washing powder. Some of these have been dated to 1910.

 

Mount Hunter Davy Nolans bullock team at Mt Hunter 1920s TOHS
The bullock team of Davy Nolan at Mount Hunter with a load of produce. (Roy Dowle Collection)

 

A lot of the film negatives show his holidays, with some taken at their holiday home, while others are taken whilst on a trip to the north, and scenes have been identified as Cessnock, Dungog, Taree, Kew & Paterson. There are some photos of Warragamba Dam in the very early stages before any concrete was poured, and a magnificent shot of the winding drums of the overhead cableway.

Several Roy’s photos have already appeared on the Back Page and in numerous publications on local history because his subjects were local and numerous copies of them have survived in private collections.

The scanned photos can be viewed either on a computer or in albums at the Wollondilly Heritage Centre & Museum, open on Saturdays, Sundays & public holidays.

Check out old photographs from the Roy Dowle Collection at the Wollondilly Heritage Centre Website Click here.