International Women’s Day

Winifred Lily McKevett (nee O’Neill)

Winifred Lily McKevett (nee O’Neill)
Winifred Lily McKevett (nee O’Neill)

Winnie was the daughter of Charles and Clara O’Neill who lived in the Murwillumbah district of NSW on the Tweed River. The family was very poor and Winnie described catching eels in the creek to get something to eat. The five children, Gussie, Winnie, Beryl, Hugh and Mavis, had to walk two miles to the local school.

Winnie was a bright student and won a bursary to continue her education at Lismore High School and she and Gussie stayed in a hostel in Lismore. Their consumptive mother was fatally injured in a car accident when Winnie was fourteen and the family was split up and farmed out to relatives.

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Winnie continued her education at Sydney University on a teaching scholarship and stayed at St Margaret’s hostel in Stanmore. She travelled home for holidays by ship. At lectures she met Bob McKevett and attracted his attention by receiving a higher mark than he did in an assignment. Their romance blossomed while they enjoyed undergraduate events such as dances and picnics. This culminated in marriage when she was nineteen and he twenty. The consequence of the marriage and the birth of two daughters within three years was that Winnie dropped out of her course which she never completed and Bob went to work as a schoolteacher, completing his degree by attending evening lectures. Another consequence was a rift with Winnie’s father who upbraided her for marrying a Roman Catholic and was disappointed that she, the brightest of the family, had sacrificed her opportunity for a university degree and a good career.

The newlyweds lived in shared accommodation until he was appointed to a school in Maitland where they experienced one of Maitland’s floods. These were years of great economic depression and Win had to wait for Bob to come home with his pay before she could buy food for dinner. Teachers’ pay was cut overnight by the Government but at least Bob had employment.
A promotion for Bob to a Deputy Headmaster’s position at Tenterfield District Rural School resulted in a move and a higher salary. There, a third daughter completed the family. Their next move was to Ward’s River where Bob was teacher-in-charge of the two teacher school. Ward’s River is on the Pacific Highway and was a stop on the North Coast Railway north of Newcastle. One benefit to the family was a school residence adjacent to the playground. During the war troop trains passed along the line with schoolchildren cheering and waving to them. They noticed the trains carrying US troops were divided on skin colour.

At the tail end of the Depression a constant stream of swagmen, walking north to seek seasonal work, called at the house and Win supplied boiling water for their billies and sometimes food. Bob and Win worked tirelessly for the Red Cross war effort with fundraising involving a house party at the school residence, sports days and gymkhanas where Win won the Married Ladies’ Race and danced to accordion music at the local hall where the programme included such dances as the waltz, foxtrot, mazurka, gypsy tap, Lambeth Walk, Canadian Thee Step and the progressive barn dance, a huge favourite. During the war, coupons were required to purchase rationed items such as petrol, butter, tea, sugar and clothing. Win, as Headmaster’s wife, was expected to teach needlework and this became her career path as she taught both part and full time for many years. At Ward’s River, in the pre-Women’s Liberation days, Win was not paid but Bob received an extra allowance for his wife’s services.
The family moved on to Cudal, Peak Hill, Cobar, Port Macquarie and Yagoona as Bob became Headmaster at bigger schools. They were in Peak Hill when WW2 ended. Cobar living was a challenge for Win because of the isolation and harsh climate. The town water supply ran red, the colour of the soil. The golf “greens” were sand, the fairways had no grass and crows stole the balls. Bob and Win were hospitable, entertaining staff and also migrants, displaced persons working out their two year government contracts and learning English from Bob at night classes. At Port Macquarie Win found the humid weather trying and the holiday resort atmosphere and house rentals expensive.
After Bob’s retirement from Yagoona they went on an overseas trip to Europe and the USA. Their voyage was prolonged (around the Cape of Good Hope) because of the Suez Crisis and the closure of the canal.

The purchase of a Dee Why unit was popular with their grandchildren because of the nearby beach. Christmas Day found Win presiding over the lunch for the family (16 of them) in a small unit!
After Bob’s death in 1981 Win stayed in Dee Why but eventually moved to a Salvation Army retirement home and was well cared for until her death in 1995.

In retrospect, Win’s life was in some ways unfulfilled because her intellectual gifts were not used to their full extent. However she was a prolific letter writer, her crossword-solving ability was legendary, several of her students gained good passes at Leaving Certificate level, she was a gracious hostess to hundreds of friends and relatives and her three daughters achieved stable marriages resulting inn seven healthy, intelligent grandchildren. Her life must be judged a successful one on many fronts.

Story contributed by Ruth Towart.

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