International Women’s Day

Mildred Esther Hastings (nee Pontifex)

Mildred Esther Hastings (nee Pontifex)
Mildred Esther Hastings (nee Pontifex)

Millie’s Story: Surviving the great Depression

Mildred Esther Hastings (nee Pontifex) 13/10/1903 – 08/02/1998

With mounting anger Millie watched the crowd at the auction walking carelessly over her garden, crushing her lovingly grown flowers. She dare not get up, in case the auctioneers saw that the reason she was sitting with her dress spread out was to conceal her precious sewing machine. The auctioneers had arrived earlier, rung a bell, planted a flag in the lawn and were intent on auctioning off as many of her possessions as were required to pay for her arrears in rent.

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But even Millie’s normally placid and loving nature had its limits and they were exceeded when a spectator at the auction began to pick herself a posy of flowers. “Isn’t it enough,” exploded Millie, “that I have to bear the humiliation of having my furniture sold without you stealing my flowers as well?”

When Millie had married she could never have imagined such a scene. Her husband, a rich widower with two children, had his own business, his own house and two cars and her future prosperity seemed assured. For the first three years of marriage , Millie continued in her traditional female role of wife involved in the female duties of having and caring for children, with no knowledge or interest in how her husband did his duty of breadwinner. It was not until her father called her into his office and asked her: “Do you know that Warren’s business is being sold today?” that she discovered that the great depression was to change her world forever. Not only did Warren lose his business but his house, his cars, his money and his possessions.

The story of Millie’s transformation from a naïve and protected wife to the rock on which the very survival of her family depended is not only a tribute to her resilience, her determination and her courage but also the story of many of the ‘ordinary housewives’ who held society together during the great depression. It deserves to be as much a part of Australian history and folklore as the stories on men’s courage in war.

There was certainly nothing in Millie’s upbringing to prepare her. Her mother died when Millie was six, so she was brought up by an unloving housekeeper and a rarely seen father. In keeping with the attitude of the time that education was wasted on females, Millie was taken from school at the end of primary school. But it was not only formal education that Millie missed out on. The housekeeper thought that swimming or dancing or music were all frivolities to be discouraged. Millie’s desire to learn dressmaking was also firmly rebuffed and as soon as she was old enough, she was sent to work as a shop salesgirl, so that she could start contributing to the family’s finances.

Perhaps this early introduction to earning money had consequences that were to prove a boon to Millie. A destitute Warren found that there was little demand for a chemical analyst specialising in gold refining and there was little else he could turn his hand to. While Warren searched for work, Millie took on the job of sustaining the family.

Selling items of value was the first contributor to family finances. Millie’s engagement ring went early, even her beloved tennis racquet and the older children can remember Millie wandering around the house, desperately seeking something to sell. When all the saleable items had gone, other means had to be found to keep the family. A vegetable garden was an obvious step and what could not be grown, could often be obtained by bartering. Millie had a lemon tree, so two lemons could be exchanged for one orange. Food was short though and Millie later spoke of her worry for the health of her children, whose main meal in the bad weeks consisted only of bread and gravy.

As things became more desperate, Warren came up with a scheme to work an abandoned gold mine near Pambula on the NSW south coast. The idea was that the original workers would have taken the easy-to-get gold but that there would still be small amounts left in the mullock heap. Warren and Millie and the children under school age moved into a shanty – earth floor, corrugated iron roof and hessian walls – and here they lived while Warren extracted gold.

After a year of working and with Christmas approaching, Warren set off to Sydney with his stockpile of accumulated gold. With what eager expectations Millie must have waited for his return! At last the separation from the older children, the hardship of bush living, the loneliness would be worthwhile. I suppose one look at Warren’s face must have dashed all of Millie’s hopes. But even she could not have been prepared for what was to come. The return for the year’s work had fetched barely enough to pay off their debt at the local store.

Yet another blow fell. Win, their eldest girl, who had been left with her grandmother so she could attend high school, was desperately ill and not expected to live. Warren immediately left in an attempt to see her before she died. Fortunately the local postmistress was aware of what had happened and that Millie was living with her four children in a shack in the bush, fetching water from the creek in kerosene tins, chopping wood for her homemade stove and with no income. In a generous sisterly gesture, she offered Millie and the children a room in her house, rent free. It was while living here that Millie overheard this kind woman saying: “You know she would really be quite good looking, if she had any teeth.”

Despite expectations Win survived her illness and Warren did find a temporary job, so Millie moved back to Sydney. Millie’s father must also have been taken aback by her appearance, for he offered to buy her a set of false teeth. She was too proud to accept his offer but some time later he told her he had a dentist friend who would make her a set of teeth very, ver cheaply, because he would make the set from ‘samples’. For this reason the teeth might be uneven in colour. So my mother had her set of teeth made from ‘samples’, and despite the fact that the teeth were perfectly even in colour, Millie never considered that her father might have invented the story of the samples so that she would feel better about accepting her new teeth.

There followed several years on intermittent work for Warren at various gold mines in Queensland. The times between employment were very hard and demanded the utmost in resourcefulness from Millie. Her story of the cakes illustrates this vividly. Warren was unemployed, the rent was due, there was no food in the house and children to feed. Millie looked at the few coins she had left. Certainly not enough for food for the rest of the week. What could she do? She decided on a bold plan. Instead of food, she risked all on cake ingredients and spent the afternoon baking. When the children came home from school, they and Millie went out to sell from door to door – a difficult task when everyone was desperately poor. Whether because of the excellence of the cooking or the charm of the sellers, the children came back with enough money to buy food for the rest of the week and some over. A moment of satisfaction and joy for Millie! Her baking was able to keep the family until Warren once more found work.

By 1936 the great depression was starting to ease an Warren was able to obtain a position as an assayer in the gold mines at Tennant creek in the Northern Territory. Tennant Creek then was a small, primitive outback town, with no school and over a week’s journey by train and bus from Sydney. Millie had little choice but to remain on the east coast with the children but she did decide to move to Harboard, a Sydney beachside suburb, to be near her father and siblings and where the children would be able to attend school and grow up in a healthy environment.

Millie was now bringing up the children on her own, except for brief visits from Warren every two years. She was undoubtedly very pleased to see him but not so pleased with the arrival of yet another baby, nine months later. Millie had always been particularly naïve, even by the standards of the time. She has told how on her wedding night, she had lovingly kissed Warren and wished him goodnight. Warren undoubtedly startled, gently said: “Millie, I think there is something we should talk about.” Apparently his explanation, while adequate from Warren’s point of view, did not extend to contraception. So after five children in eight years, Millie decided to do something about it. She visited the local doctor and asked how she should avoid becoming pregnant but he absolutely refused to give her any information.
Millie told me what happened next. “I stood up and said: ‘If you won’t tell me how to prevent it, then I am sure that I can find a way to get rid of it!’ So the doctor stared at me, then without a word wrote something on a piece of paper and slid it across his desk. So that’s how I avoided having any more babies after you.”

Millie was now free of the desperate poverty of the depression years but money was still very short. Gradually proper cupboards replaced the wooden crates with curtains nailed to the front and dripping sandwiches disappeared from the menu,- (dripping was made by collecting any fat that melted from the cooking of meat).

One economy measure was to make all the children’s clothes. A family photo shows the five youngest children aged five to thirteen, with the boys in smart trousers, blazers, shirts and ties, the girls in dresses with everything (except the boys’ ties) made by Millie. Everything included all the underclothes. The material was all recycled, of course. Girls’ dresses became boys’ blazers and the unworn sections of shirts were converted to underpants.

Although times were difficult, Millie made sure that she and her children had fun. My favourite memory of this time was the family blackberry picking trips. Armed with saucepans and billy cans, the family would venture into the jungle of blackberries in a nearby vacant lot. At first more went into the mouth than into the pot but after a few hours we would emerge, red, scratched, satiated and with enough blackberries to serve as dessert for weeks.

Millie was also determined that all her children should have the experiences that she missed out on. Somehow despite the desperate poverty, she managed to obtain a piano and pay for piano lessons for each of the children when they reached the age of ten. We were all enrolled in the Scouts or Guides and Millie insisted that all of us play sport. Although I doubt that Millie would have called herself a feminist, she did have strong views on fairness. Both boys and girls shared equally in household chores and no discrimination was shown in education, with both sexes learning practical skills such as how to darn a sock and sew on a button, in addition to being encouraged to achieve academically.
Millie also led by example, becoming a leading member of the school’s Mothers’ Club and the church Social Club. Belonging to the Methodist Church, the Social Club was forbidden sensual activities such as dancing, so Millie devised games and fun that transformed the church socials from dreary meetings to laugh filled adventures. A typical game was a “cake” made of flour with a candle on the top. Members had to pluck the candle out with their teeth with their hands behind their back. The more flour that ended in the mouth, the more laughter resulted.

Most important to her was Thursday tennis day and as a schoolboy I remember her saying to me that, “You can get sick any day but Thursday, that is my tennis day.” I am still not sure that she was joking. Fifty years later she was still attending tennis club parties with those friends from her early days.
In 1942 Japanese submarines were ranging along the coast, sinking freighters, shelling the coastal suburbs and causing mayhem in Sydney Harbour. Many people fled the coast and moved inland, so the drop in rents along the coast enabled the ever resourceful Millie to rent a house in Manly, with a magnificent view over Manly beach and out to sea and there she was to live for the next ten years. Towards the end of the war, Warren was finally able to find work in Sydney and once more live with his family.

In 1952, Millie’s father died and at the insistence of one of her daughters and despite Warren’s objections, Millie bought some land and had a small two-bedroom house built. There followed twelve happy years until in 1964, Warren, still working at the age of seventy-two, suffered a heart attack and died. Warren had left no will and because of his employment history, had very little in the way of superannuation or other retirement benefits. Millie was faced with no income, mortgage payments still due on the house and financial hardship.

Once again Millie’s determination and positive attitude prevailed. Millie set up a home dressmaking and alteration service, which provided the required income. To improve and update her dressmaking skills, at the age of sixty-one she enrolled in the Dressmaking Course at the TAFE School of Fashion. A big surprise to her but not to her family, she not only completed the course but topped it.

When Millie finally finished paying off her mortgage and started receiving the age pension, she was able to give up paid work. Like many people for whom life has been a struggle, she was not content for her retirement to be a time of rest. She became actively involved in a host of volunteer work. There was only one volunteer job that she found hard to accept. By then in her early eighties, she felt that she was not doing enough to help others, so approached the local council to ask if there was some way she could help. They asked her if she could help prepare and serve morning tea at a club for elderly people. Millie returned home disgusted. “I’m going to do that! They were all a lot younger than me!”
Millie passed away in 1998 at age ninety-four, mourned by her seven children – her two step-children were always an integral part of the family – their spouses, her twenty-four grandchildren and an ever increasing number of great-grandchildren.

Millie Hastings did not live a life that changed the world. She was an ordinary woman forced into extraordinary circumstances, who displayed strength and resourcefulness to protect and nurture her family. Her story doubtless has many replicas, stories of the housewives of the thirties that should always be remembered.

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