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Grandparents Spencer

by Mark Hollett - 2008

Grandma Willsea had been born Jessie Spencer on 13 Feb 1904 to Arthur and Margaret Spencer (nee Armstrong) at Leederville Western Australia. While she was very young her family relocated to Meekatharra in the northern inland goldfields of Western Australia. Jessie had one brother Arthur, and three sisters Lucy, Gertrude and Doris. Doris the youngest was born premature and was not expected to live. She was so tiny that she could not be handled so they kept her on a pillow and carried her about. Doris did survive and lived a long life, she never married but chose to stay at home and in later years cared for her parents as they grew old. Her mother Margaret Spencer lived to 102 so Doris was quite an old woman herself by the time her parents had passed on.

When my grandmother Jessie was approaching 100 herself I asked her if her mother had been a robust kind on a woman. I was surprised when she replied OH NO she was very frail for many years. Apparently when they were in Meekatharra the children had to push and pull her everywhere. In those days the doctor passed through Meekatharra once in a while so they had him come and access her condition. The doctor told the family that he would have to operate on his next visit. They were to scrub down the kitchen and prepare the kitchen table for the operation. How’s that eh, and nana told me this in a matter of fact kind of way.

Anyhow the story goes that when the doctor returned he performed the operation. Nana said ‘I don’t know what he did but there was a blood stain on the ceiling of the kitchen from that day on'. After the operation their mother was more unwell than before. All these years later we suspect the doctor had left a germ behind after the operation. No one is sure what the operation was for now.

After hearing this I went on to say to Nana-How is it she lived so long and seemed so well late in life? Nana went on to tell me that when the family relocated back to Perth they took her to see many doctors with no joy. In the end they were prepared to try just about anything. They had heard about a man who was one of the first naturopaths in Perth and somewhat looked down upon by the medical profession. Great grandmother went to see him and he made her concoctions to drink and as a middle aged lady she became well and lived a healthy life from that time on.

I now think it’s amazing that I met this woman who was born in the 1860’s. I attended her 100th birthday when I was about 6. She was still living in the family home. It was a wonderful Victorian stone house and out the back beyond the backyard was where great grandad Spencer had run his salvage business. The other memory I have of great grandmother Spencer was of a visit when she was in her bed and Dad was asking if she was comfortable. She replied that she often felt cold in her bed. Dad offered to get her an electric blanket. Her reaction was close to panic. It was like dad had offered her an electric chair. The world around her had changed and she was too old to bother with it.

When my nana was very old I asked about her early diet. I though perhaps the food they ate and lifestyle was the reason they lived so long. I was again surprised when she told me they ate salted beef for just about every meal as it was available and it could be stored in that climate. Jessie’s memories of living in Meekatharra were of a very hard existence. The family struggled while in the Murchison. Strangely I found a photo of them on the internet recently with the caption “Mr & Mrs Arthur Spencer with the first motor vehicle in Meekatharra“. Confused I asked nana about this and all she said was ”don’t let anyone tell you we drove that car from Meekatharra to Cue-we pushed it most of the way” I also asked mum how it could be that they had the first car if they were struggling. Mum thinks they probably took the car up there with them.

Jessie was happy when the family returned to Perth. She was a young lady and Perth must have seemed an exciting place after Meekatharra. I think she said she met my grandfather at a dance as was common in those days. They were a great team and worked hard to get established with a home and start a family. In later years they travelled the world on ocean liners and had many caravan holidays in Australia. By the time they were too old for travel they had seen just about everything.

Jessie was a kind and generous person with a charismatic personality. These qualities attracted people to her all her life. Even as a very old woman people who met her would take a liking to her. She’d had a basic education due to her early years spent in the bush but she had an intelligence that went well beyond anything that could be taught in a classroom.

Jessie’s 100th birthday in 2004 was a great affair with about 100 guests at her son Neville's home in Spearwood. Neville who loves guns had organized riflemen dressed in swan river colony military uniforms to give a traditional rifle salute and then fire a real cannon of about the same vintage as nana. Special permission had to be given for the firing of the cannon. It was such a hit that I think they fired it 3 times during the afternoon. Nana was well and had a great day.

Last year on the 17 March 2007 Jessie peacefully slipped away. She was the last of her generation in our family.