rita smythe


Rita Smythe had been born in January 1902 at Jerilderie on Billabong Creek, western NSW, the seventh child of Annie and Ted Smythe. She attended Jerilderie and Ryde schools where she won a bursary to Fort Street High School. With financial help from their older sons, her parents built a small cottage at Ramsgate which they called "Koppin Yarrat" (KY). Rita didn't fully recover from Chorea at the age of thirteen which left her with a weak heart, a "rheumatic heart", with damaged valves. Sometimes the heart valves heal, but large scars may form that partially shut off the flow of blood between the heart chambers. The condition is called stenosis.


smythe 1917Ted and Annie

Rita's four older brothers all went to WWI about this time. Always cheerful and optimistic she missed a lot of school when she became ill, went back for a while but left permanently to be company for her mother when her oldest brother was killed in action in France in 1917. As they expressed it, he had "crossed over" and they believed they would all be reunited in the afterlife. He had left to Rita a precious brass tin which Princess Mary had given to the soldiers containing cigarettes and chocolates. Her other brothers came home safely, two with war brides. Her father died in 1919, hit by an ambulance after he got off a tram on the wrong side. Rita went to business college and became a stenographer, before, at the age of twenty-three, meeting Harold Kinny at a party of Shetland Islanders.

koppin yarrat 1916

Harold, the eldest son of Sarah and William Kinny, a very practical family, made her a beautiful inlaid jewel box (what jewels?), and was making a "glory box" or "hope chest" from a log of Siberian Oak for her trousseau. The timber was left in Sydney Harbour to mature. He bought Rita a simple diamond engagement ring which she proudly showed to her family. Girls normally collected and made things to put in her future home - towels, linen, tablecloths and other items for the house. Rita excelled at d'oileys for her trousseau and her mother crocheted the edges. Harold had plans to make a bedroom suite in the near future, and after the wedding to build their house. While courting they did not see much of each other except in company at weekends. He bought a motor bike and sidecar which had belonged to a friend who worked for the Water Board and had used the sidecar for his plumbing tools. Harold fitted it out for a passenger and took Rita for a few trips in it.

Bankstown was "the coming suburb", eleven miles west of Sydney, thirty-five minutes by train. It was in general an area of market gardens, house cows, chooks (poultry) and horses. Harold's friend's father owned a market garden at Bankstown which he was now subdividing. The block for sale was eight times the average size, 480 feet by 100 feet [145x30m] for £100 and although it had been cleared of most of the big trees some stumps were still in the ground. Harold bought this block, put up a large shed in which to live temporarily while he and his father and brothers built a house. It was nearly a mile from the station which was the end of the line, but an extension to Regents Park was under construction. Harold decided he would have town water as well as gas and electricity. Very modern! And so grand compared with their parents' homes built years earlier for large families. Like many other areas, Bankstown was not sewered and the few houses all had outdoor lavatories with pan service and tanks for water.

The arrival of the railway resulted in increased population and an increased workforce at the Chullora Railway Workshop. The railway was powered by the dirty and noisy coal-fired Bunnerong Power Station. Harold, who had trained as an electrician, got a job at the railway workshops. He often went to work with a workmate who had a horse and sulky.

kinny wedding 1927

On 15th October 1927 Rita and Harold had a quiet wedding at the Presbyterian Church, Kogarah. As her own sisters were too far away, Harold's sister Rosa was Rita's bridesmaid. Only Rita's mother, Harold's parents and a few close friends were invited to the simple reception at KY. For their honeymoon the newlyweds travelled to Dorrigo on his motor bike and sidecar, fording creeks, crossing the bigger rivers by punts, camping out at night. Rita was an early riser, Harold was not, he was always energetic and did not get tired or feel the cold as she did. They visited Fernmount on the Bellinger River where his grandparents had lived as pioneers and his father was born - the first son in a large family of eleven girls and two boys.

Harold had drawn a house plan with large rooms, a hall running straight down the middle, the front door directly opposite the back. With some difficulty Rita persuaded him to have the hall turn at right angles to the front door, so that there would not be a strong draught. Each of the front bedrooms had a door opening on to the veranda which ran right along the north and partly along the east and west sides.

With the help of his father and brothers, Harold built the house, borrowing £400 from the bank, to be repaid at £1 a week with rates £2 a year. It was half timber, half fibro with internal plaster and "arctic glass" in the front door.

Each room was painted a different pastel colour. There was little furniture in the house. In the kitchen there was a large table, a gas stove, a tap but no sink, a "dresser" made by Harold's father, varnished and "combed" to make a pattern while the top coat was still wet. It was used for china and cutlery in the top which had decorative glass doors and food in the bottom. There was a fly screen at the back door, also sticky fly paper hung in the kitchen to trap insects.

Like most women of the time, Rita would stay at home and attend to the housekeeping, at first in the shed. Cooking was not her forte, she concentrated on plain meals as her mother had done. Her sisters were similar plain cooks. On rare occasions when Rita plucked up courage to make a cake, it was tested with a straw from the broom.

Although there was no billabong, only a creek diverted into a drain along the boundary, Rita called the house "Billabong" and got a name plate made and hung it on the house. It reminded her of Jerilderie her birthplace on Billabong Creek, and the "Billabong" books by Mary Grant Bruce which she had been reading since childhood and still enjoyed. In the most recent book Norah, the main character, had married Wally, her brother's best friend.

Billabong Bankstown

Two butter boxes were for paper bags and string and scrap paper for lighting the copper in the washhouse on wash day and the chip heater in the bathroom on bath night. Butter had originally come to hotels, caterers and to the grocers in a wooden box holding 60 pounds and the grocer had to measure the required amount, usually a pound or half-pound. By this time most butter was made in a factory where it was measured and wrapped for the home. The obsolete boxes were strong and very handy after careful cleaning. Bread was kept in a bread box with a cutting board and bread knife. As bread was not wrapped, it became stale quickly, especially after being cut.

In the dining room was a fire place with a mantelpiece on which stood an eight-day clock, a wedding present from Harold's work (a gold clock under a glass dome, with a mechanism which continually turned back and forth and which was wound with a gold key every eight days). There were also a cedar table from Bellingen, standing on one leg with three feet, a sideboard for which Rita had embroidered a long d'oiley, a wind-up gramophone, with a couple of records, including "The Road to the Isles", about Scotland, "The Runaway Train" and intermezzo from "Cavalleria Rusticana". There was also a New Home treadle sewing machine, which Rita used mainly for mending and very plain sewing, rather than dressmaking. It could not reverse and all threads had to be pulled through to the back and tied by hand to prevent unravelling.

The main bedroom contained the bedroom suite that Harold had made, consisting of a double bed, a wardrobe, dressing table with a large swing mirror and a pedestal for the chamber pot and the "glory box" which served as a seat. At night the pot was kept under the bed to save having to go down the yard to the lavatory. In summer there was a white linen bedspread with a deeply crocheted edging done by Granny Smythe and an eiderdown in winter. The eiderdown was a luxury, made of a fine material and filled with the tiny down feathers of the eider duck. It was light and very warm. Lucky couple!

There were two peach trees in the yard, a beautiful slip-stone near the house and a cling stone near the chook yard. Rita and Harold threw peach seeds from the veranda and planted the seeds where they landed. Rita's had fallen on good soil, and had always grown lovely fruit, plentiful in February before the coming of fruit fly.

During the early years of her marriage Rita had had several miscarriages. Her heart condition was getting worse, she got breathless after any exertion, but never complained and remained optimistic that she would soon become a mother and would be able to cope.

Harold became a Jehovah's Witness. Rita also joined soon after to please Harold, and as time passed she became more fervent as her health became worse. One of the beliefs was that aluminium saucepans were harmful, so Rita refused to use them, preferring enamel. They went from door to door "witnessing", trying to convert people and selling books and magazines, attended meetings and conventions, met friends. Harold observed that occasionally Rita went out with Jehovah's Witness' books, forgot the time without a watch and did not come home in time to get his dinner at the hour he was used to eating. Before any meal there was "grace", thanking God for the food. Everything so orderly and regular. But... The Depression put an end to all this. Without children it was easier for Rita and Harold to travel around looking for work.

On the principle of last on, first off, Harold Kinny lost his job when the stock market collapsed and the Depression began. All their fond aspirations were threatened. He and Rita went to the country for a couple of years and he did general repairs, electrical and woodwork for his cousin and odd jobs in the district. Being very practical he could turn his hand to many things. They got into arrears with house repayments, but could do nothing about it. As nobody had money to buy, the bank could not sell the house.

After two years Harold decided to go back to Sydney and they were able to walk back into the house at Bankstown, which had mostly been empty and take up the repayments to the bank as if they had never been away.

For a while Harold worked at Kogarah repairing generators, starters and magnetos for a friend who owned a service station. Finally he was able to get back to the Chullora Railway Workshops.

During the Depression a swimming pool was built at Bankstown to employ local men, now a great mecca for the district and a road along scenic Georges River, Henry Lawson Drive.

kinny 1932Rita and the Glasgow children at Billabong

When Vi, Rita's sister went to hospital to have her fifth baby, Granny Smythe minded the two younger children, with the older ones coming to stay at Billabong. The youngsters had a good time all day but found it hard to be quiet when Harold came home. They were rather boisterous and he liked things to be quiet. Two years later Rita's sister and her husband Bill invited Rita to go with them on a hasty trip to Victoria. Now thirty-one, Rita suspected she might be pregnant again. This time the pregnancy continued and when she carried the baby to term they jokingly blamed it on the holiday trip over bumpy roads with an impatient driver.

kinny 1932Rita and the Glasgow children in the garden at Billabong

This baby would be the first Kinny grandchild. Grandma was a tiny woman, cheerful and gentle except when crossed in household matters. Grandpa was tolerant and placid. Granny Smythe, a widow with married children and sixteen grandchildren crocheted a beautiful dress in heavy cream silk for the long-awaited baby. Rita made simple baby clothes which she embroidered with skill. Her family was worried about her health as she was not very robust. So she was booked into Nurse Armstrong's in Ramsgate, a converted suburban cottage used as a private hospital.

She tired easily and had a difficult pregnancy. Dorrie (Dorothy) her sister-in-law was a great help during the trying time. Harold's older sister, Rosa, who had been her bridesmaid, was ill with consumption, and had ordered a little gold cup engraved "to baby with love from Auntie Rosa." The expected happy arrival coincided with her last days.

In February 1933 Rita went to Nurse Armstrong's for the stressful birth. After the confinement she went next door to stay with Dorrie and Perce for a few weeks to recuperate. One day she went to the bathroom and collapsed. Dorrie ran next door for Nurse Armstrong who helped get her to bed. Harold had been expected to come and pay the hospital bill and was late. Rita was worried and got upset. Her milk was temporarily affected. Dorrie did not hesitate to tell her brother-in-law how angry she was at his lack of consideration. But Rita did recover sufficiently to tackle her full mothering and household duties and return to Bankstown, utterly delighted with her healthy baby.

After she became a Jehovah's Witness my mother believed that the events in her life were all part of God's plan for her and that he had directed these events. As a child I knew that she had lost a number of babies before me and of the felicitous fact that I had postponed my arrival until the worst of the Great Depression was over.

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