Ella Ebery, who died on May 16, aged 103, was a shearer's wife and cook who realised late in life - too late, she always said - that she could be more than a wife and a cook. She was 58 when she got her first paid job, as a welfare worker. At 63, she began editing North Central News, the newspaper of St Arnaud, in the Wimmera.
She edited it for the next 34 years, writing and fighting for her town, harrying any politician, like Victorian premier Jeff Kennett, whom she thought didn't respect the bush.
In 2000, she won the prestigious Country Press Shakespeare Family Award for excellence in editorial writing. While she was editor she spent two terms as St Arnaud's first female mayor, was a busy landscape painter, and started a local theatre company, directing two plays.
From the archives: Retirement? No way, says 97-year-old Ella
In 2013, aged 97, she was made redundant and respectfully asked to hand the editor's job to a younger person. She was outraged. She felt she had years left to give. That was Ella.
I first spoke to her in 1997, when I was a journalist at The Age and writing a story on a rural revolt against Kennett's Liberal government. "Jeff has lost us, and he will lose the next election," she declared. I was quietly sceptical - my city smarts told me Kennett would be in power for a decade or more - and I didn't quote her in the piece. In 1999, to the astonishment of nearly everyone, the Kennett government was tossed out on the votes of the bush.
Ella was warm, droll, quick-minded, sharp to the point of pugnacity, shy but not short of ego, and never lost for an opinion. One of her editorials so enraged a local MP that he reportedly said that if she had been a man, he would have come to town and hit her. In a book on Australian newspapers, academic Rod Kirkpatrick described her as an editor with an independent mind "and the ability, despite her 86 years, to thunder as though the North Central News was The Times and St Arnaud was London."
Above all, Ella wanted to be known as a writer. Her unpublished memoir contains unforgettable scenes of country life, and of a world we have lost.
Ella Robinson was born in 1915 at Slaty Creek, just north of St Arnaud, three days after the last Anzac soldier had been evacuated from Gallipoli. Her parents, Thomas and Eliza, owned a "dirt poor" sheep and wheat farm, and a small timber house without power or running water. But they were determined that Ella and her brother George would have the schooling they never had. They bought her boxes of books, she read The Count of Monte Cristo at the age of nine, and her love of writing was born.
One shadow marred Ella's happy childhood: a foreboding that death was always near, as indeed it was. Two children on the neighbour's farm died before they were eight. In 1929, four Slaty Creek mothers died of pneumonia; one was Ella's. Within two weeks Ella's grandmother died of the same illness. Ella considered these deaths, along with the later loss of her first child, Anne, at the age of 15 months, as the cause of the depression and anxiety that dogged her for the rest of her life.
At 17, lacking a high school diploma because she failed mathematics, and jobs for women being scarce, she met Jack Ebery, a shearer. After they married and he was pulled out of the army to help produce wool for the war effort against the Japanese, Ella travelled with his shearers' crew around outback NSW. She cooked them roasts, stews and steam puddings, hung an apron outside the "doorless dunny" to let the men know she was in it, and braved their unspoken hostility at having a woman in their midst.
After the war the couple moved into St Arnaud and had children. Gradually, society and the lives of women began to change. There were taps and electricity in their house, then the miracle of the washing machine. For the first time, Ella had time. Still vulnerable to loneliness and depression, kicking against the confines of a housewife's life, "lacking in confidence but driven by need," she began to write.
New Idea published her short, witty pieces on washing and baking days and other tales of being a country woman. She started writing for the town paper. A protest she joined to save a park designed by Edna Walling led her to run successfully for the shire council. By the age of 72, having lost her husband Jack seven years earlier, she was both mayor and editor of the North Central News. She addressed possible conflicts of interest by reporting only on routine council matters; any heated debates were covered by the newspaper's cadet reporter.
Ella had inherited a newspaper with a proud past but a rather sleepy present. Before she became editor, she wrote, the paper had once intended to report that two school pupils presented the hospital board president with a "transistorised clock for the ladies" in the labour ward. Unfortunately, the letter 'l' in clock was mistakenly left out in the typesetting. "The hospital matron called the editor to say she had 200 women outside the building clamouring to get in."
As editor, Ella quickly grasped that she had power to make a difference. Her paper was the voice of successful campaigns to save a nearby hospital and to open a nursing home in town. When the then health minister, Rob Knowles, opened the nursing home he said with a grin: "You would not have had this facility but for the persistence of Ella Ebery."
Not all her campaigns worked out, though. After the Tampa crisis of 2001, Ella wrote a piece for The Age urging the government to send refugees to country towns: we'll look after them, and we need young people, she wrote. The article prompted conservative columnist Michael Barnard, a friend of Ella's, to send her a cartoon showing her selling the North Central News on a St Arnaud street dressed in a burqa.
In old age, Ella was featured in Good Weekend and on the ABC's Australian Story. She relished her late celebrity as an unusual feminist icon, a standard bearer for rage against the dying of the light. At 101, she was reportedly Victoria's oldest registered driver, having enlisted local police and the Herald Sun in a one-woman campaign to keep her licence.
In her last years, Ella tried to pack all this life into a memoir, but had lost the mental powers to shape it into a coherent narrative. Once again, she ran out of time. Nevertheless, the manuscript needs to be preserved, for its vivid account of the life of a country girl and woman in the first half of the last century.
It's the Saturday night dance, she writes, in the Slaty Creek hall in a forgotten time. Fiddles, tin whistles and an accordion come out for "old and young, ladies who didn't get a partner dancing together, granddads teaching granddaughters, men's sweaty hands on ladies backs, and everyone out on the floor."
Two kerosene lamps swing, dust rises, and the floor springs, while pregnant mothers sit gossiping or hand out coffee and lamingtons, their children asleep under seats. Outside, young men too shy to enter the hall have lit a fire and are drinking on the sly, a hazard to any desperate lady with a full bladder. "No female in her right mind ever enters the dark snake- and spider-infested dunny, but lifts her skirt in its fairly secluded vicinity, with a friend to keep watch."
Writing in her 90s, Ella became again the wide-eyed girl who took in this scene, perhaps hoping that she could one day paint it in words, and make others feel what she felt.
The same girl went home in a buggy, with "Dad pointing out the glittering stars and the man in the moon presiding over the vast canopy of the night sky. The sound of the buggy's wheels, the clip clop of the horse's hooves on the gravel road, and the distant call of the mopoke in the darkness of the creek were all that broke the great stillness of the night."
James Button is a former Age journalist and was a friend of Ella Ebery. Ella lost her son, John, in 2018 but is survived by her daughter, Robyn, and grandchildren Chris, Sarah, Kate and Claire. An afternoon tea to celebrate Ella's life will be held at St Arnaud Town Hall on June 20, 2pm.
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