‘1915. A year of plenty work, much experience gained in many directions. Health fairly well, but a little run down at time of writing. A horrible war is raging in which my dear brothers, Arthur and Jack, have taken up their guns, also Frank McKay left Australia 23 December 1915.’
So begins the 1916 diary of 25 year old Margaret Higgins of Bridge Street, Glebe. Margaret lives in a terrace named ‘Oban’ with her parents, younger sisters, and brother Frank. Much like any girl of today, she has a circle of friends with whom she visits Coogee Beach, goes to the movies, and occasionally fights – though girls no longer have such picturesque names as May, Ivy, Rose and Millie. Throughout the year, Margaret recounts many experiences, both familiar and unfamiliar, from preparing for her girlfriends’ weddings to witnessing a disturbing crash between a tram and a horse and cart.
The Glebe Point Road that Margaret knows is a wide brown expanse, dotted with sulkies, trams, and the occasional motor vehicle. ‘Women are now a recognised force in many classes of business, and they have come to stay’ said Grace Bros’ The Model Trader magazine in 1908, when Margaret herself was a teenage shopgirl there. This may be the case, but by 1916 when she is working in a brush factory on Parramatta Road, Margaret faces all the usual sexism, including an office pest who insists on being fresh and unpinning her hair. However, she takes pride in her job: ‘Mr Walker down worrying over the new system. My versatility was commented upon’. It was at the factory that she met Fred Wilkins, the man who had recently become her fiance.
Margaret’s favourite thing of all is to visit the movies, and she is an enthusiastic scholar of the new medium. Theda Bara’s vampish Carmen is ‘unique’. Charlie Chaplin’s The Pawn Broker is ‘v. good’ and D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece Birth of a Nation is ‘something wonderful’. Mary Pickford is her favourite actress, but there are also plenty of handsome males to swoon over – ‘To Crystal Palace [Theatre] with Fred & Mum. Good programme … D[ouglas] Fairbanks and Bill Hart. Nuff said!’. There’s also Lottie Lyell, Australia’s beloved ‘gladsome centaur’, in A Maori Maid’s Love, and of course, Louise Lovely, one of Australia’s first Hollywood stars. As Margaret notes when she visits a pantomime, ‘Dissatisfied with Pommy artists, when we have our own as good’. Fred’s brother Sydney takes her to her ‘first taste of Grand Opera – La Boheme, v. good’. If truth be told, Margaret herself would love to be an actress. Fred is equally taken with the new medium, and scores a small role in the Australian film The Murder of Captain Fryatt. Unfortunately, fame and fortune do not follow.
Margaret often speaks of feeling run down, suffering bronchitis, flu and blinding headaches, spending a whole pound on a throat spray to restore her lost voice and ultimately taking a rest holiday in the country. Here, she learns to row her own boat, as well as fending off the advances of a ‘Pommy’ sergeant. ‘Men are funny animals’, she says. Some things never change! The tension of a world war hangs over Margaret’s year like a dull mist, but the horror does not reach home until she receives terrible news from the front lines. She records it in a single sentence, pushed into the page with stark red ink: ‘Poor Frank McKay never answered his roll call today’. No doubt Margaret has the loss of this dear friend in the back of her mind when she attends a special meeting at the brush factory to discuss the upcoming referendum: Conscription, Yes or No? ‘A very hard battle between Love and Duty which will win?’ Her mind is still not made up on the eve of the vote: ‘Referendum Day. A great struggle Yes or No’. In the end, she does not record whether she was one of the 1,087,557 who voted YES or the 1,160,003 who voted NO.
Soon after, Margaret is swept up in the whirl of the season. ‘7am Mass, Comm[union]. Ray and Joey over. Busy on jam making. Clean up then bath. Feeling fresh. Rose to Lincoln’s this weekend’. As Christmas approaches, she records ‘Too busy to enter up’. Thus ends her diary of 1916.
The following year, Fred and Margaret were married, and the sort of life she recorded in her diary ended. In 1919 her first son Fred Jr was born, and Theresa, Sydney and Tony soon followed. In later life she worked as a nurse, which included a stint at the building we now know as Lyndhurst. She saw all three sons go to war, and was one of the very lucky mothers to see all three return. She died in 1971 at the age of 79 and was, as her son Fred still maintains, a remarkable woman.
Today, I step out into a very different Glebe Point Road to the one that was known by Margaret Higgins. Yet in other ways, our lives are very similar. Margaret’s love of films and the theatre lives on in myself, her great-granddaughter. As I attend my weekly tango classes at Glebe Town Hall I cannot help but think of the benefit concert she held there on the 26th of August, 1907, as a charity fundraiser for the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children. In my mind’s eye, I will always see Margaret Higgins, who looked so much like myself, soaring above the audience on a flower-bedecked swing, singing the centrepiece song – ‘You’re The Girl I’m Looking For’.