International Women’s Day

Marie Louise Cervetto

Marie Louise Cervetto
Marie Louise Cervetto

I remember so well my Aunt Marie Louise…

Aunt, as we called her, was our surrogate grandmother. Half sister to our grandmother Eugenie Priora who died when my mother was 17, died before my mother even thought of marriage or children. Marie Louise who had never married, took the place of mother and comforter to her sister’s daughters, Irene – my mother – and Silvia, mother’s younger sister.

Born in 1870 Marie Louise grew up at the Cervetto Enfield Hotel (previously known as the ‘Woodcutter’s Arms’ which was built in 1847). It was bought by her father Luigi Cervetto in 1868 a short while after he and Sarah Prost married. Sarah Prost was a widow with a little girl who was about 10 years old when Marie Louise was born.

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Marie Louise was educated at Rosebank Convent on Parramatta Road at Five Dock. She grew up an active and independent girl for her time. Not content to sit at home, she owned and ran a business in Petersham, a corner shop near the school. The trade was in sweets and sandwiches and fruit, among other things, and she was trading very successfully when her father died, leaving his only child the responsibility of the hotel. She was not able to be the Licensee at that time being a woman, but she could have sold it or employed a manager.

However, Marie Louise wound up the business of the corner shop, approached her bank for a loan which was granted to her, and she built 18 shops from the corner of Byer Street, along the eastern side of Liverpool Road, across the frontage of the hotel and down to the brick cottage ‘Clareville’ in Punchbowl Road. The hotel was incorporated in the shop buildings, and accessible from some of them. She then sold the shops, keeping five, paid off the loan and thus ensured herself of an income from the five, while she continued to live in the brick cottage.

The hotel was backed by its own paddocks. There was a large shed facing Byer Street, along the eastern side of Liverpool Road, which Marie Louise also kept, and so had lane access to the back entrance to the house. Like her father Luigi, she made the paddocks available for the fairs and fundraising efforts for the local hospital and similar events.

So Marie Louise was a good and successful businesswoman. At one time she was dismayed by the lax security of her local bank nearby which handled her business. As was the custom at that time, the cash at the bank was laid out in order on the counter ready for customers’ business transactions. Marie Louise pointed out to the manager the risks involved as money could easily be stolen. But she got little response or interest.

To prove her concern, one day she painted the underside of her basket with glue. She went in to do some legitimate banking, placing her basket on the counter. When her business was completed, she picked up her basket and left the bank. As she surmised there were banknotes sticking to the bottom of the basket. She immediately returned to the bank and showed the manager the validity of her concern. The bank procedures were then changed.

Marie Louise never married. She lived at the cottage near the hotel, the second ‘Clareville’ (with the different spelling). Old ‘Clairville’ was the home on the Punchbowl Road where her mother had grown up. It was built of timber in 1830 and had deteriorated with the passage of time and the action of termites, and was eventually destroyed by fire about the turn of the century (1900).

Her sister, Eugenie married Ernesto Priora in 1889. Their three children were born in 1891 a daughter, 1893 a daughter and 1896, a boy. Eugenie died in 1909 and years later, in 1914, Ernesto married again. Sylvia went to live with her Aunt Marie Louise and some time later Irene also went there to live, where Marie Louise cared for them from then on. Their brother continued to live with his father and stepmother. In 1920 Marie Louise arranged the details of the marriage of Irene when she wished to marry William McEgan.

The ‘Clareville’ which became very familiar from the days of Marie Louise’s sojourn there, is the one we remember from our childhood. Marie Louise was ‘Aunt’ to us as children, as she took the place of our grandmother who had died at the age of 49. At ‘Clareville’ Aunt was always there to welcome us and to quietly go about the business of practical, gentle, comfortable living, usually with a quiet smile on her face. I remember when I was staying with her when I was about 10, I had a small growth on my first finger which the doctor had taken off during the day I was there. Aunt was being very comforting and consoling during the afternoon and decided that I would be well distracted by her taking me to a film at the local cinema in the evening. Of course, with all this tender loving care I was feeling Oh! so much better and well looked after.

One of Aunt’s sayings that became very familiar when she either didn’t know the answer to a question, or didn’t want to reveal too much, was “Oh! It’s a wigwam for a goose’s bridle.” That answer always satisfied us.

Years later Aunt and I were walking in the garden when she was recovering from an illness. There was a grassy slope from the house walls down the path level. Aunt lost her footing and fell lightly onto the slope and sat there laughing. She was a big woman and it was turning out to be difficult for her to get to her feet. I left her for a short time to run into the house to get a walking stick. When I returned two or three minutes later, she was alternately laughing heartily at her predicament and concerned at the trouble she was causing. With the help of the stick and my strength with various angles we were quickly back to normal. She was the type of person whose good humour turned a serious predicament into a light hearted one.

During that illness, pneumonia, her doctor was unable to help her any further and warned us about an unhappy outcome as she was unable to take any nourishment. My father’s sister, a war nurse, came to visit her, and immediately gave her champagne. Small sips at first increased to larger drinks and she was past the danger point. She recovered fairly quickly then, with due care, much to the joy of all our family.

In 1945 when Aunt was elderly and ill again, I stayed at ‘Clareville’ to help out. Always I remember the front rooms of the house as being serene and quiet, the sheen of the old polished furniture reflecting the late summer sunshine, beaming into the lounge room and bedrooms, perfectly orderly and peaceful. Beyond the dining room doorway was the breakfast room with the kitchen opening off, and through a doorway was the pantry, redolent with the scent of beeswax, appetising stored food and goodies. Of course, with no refrigerators then, the ice chest kept the perishables fresh. (The iceman came several times a week with large blocks of ice.) These rooms were where everyday living was enjoyed and active. The back door was always open, wide and welcoming, giving access to the back garden, where Aunt through the years could be found taking out the chooks food, and then the grain to feed cocky and the galah in their aviary beside the back lawn. We could always nip the sunflower and pumpkin seeds out before cocky got them, with Aunt laughing and enjoying our company as we were enjoying hers. ‘Cocky’ was a pink Major Mitchell whose loud screech of “Aunt, Aunt” would carry all over the district.

When we went indoors there would be cordial for us from the old pressed glass oranges and lemons bottle on the sideboard waiting for us with the home made biscuits to feed our hungry little bodies. (That cordial bottle lives with me still, and acts as the carafe on my bedside table for my sips of water during the night.)

Marie Louise didn’t survive the last illness in 1945 when she died at the age of 75 years. Aunt still figures in our memories and conversations. Besides being an astute businesswoman, Aunt was a warm loving person well suited to take the place of our grandmother. Those years in her loving care are cherished by all of us, and they will live in our memories forever.

Story contributed by Shirley Tully.

A story from the Tapestry collection at the Jessie Street National Women's Library.