Catherine Brown was my great grandmother, who lived all her 95 years in Ballarat, the daughter of a gold miner, and married a gold miner.
Kate was the surviving twin daughter of John Buckingham, born in 1827 in North Marston, England, and Mary Corkhill, born 1823 in Douglas, Isle of Man. They married in London in 1856, then came to Ballarat, I assume, hoping to strike it rich on the goldfields. Kate was born on November 12, 1860.
Kate married David Alexander Brown, a miner, in 1886, in Ballarat. Sadly, wealth was not to be for their family, with David dying of ‘miner’s lung’ at the age of 52, in 1906, leaving Kate with three sons, Ralph,aged 15, Jack 12, Mark 10, and a two year old daughter, Nellie, my grandmother.
There was no financial support for widows and their families, so the boys went out to work, and Kate worked where she could, in other people’s houses, all over Ballarat, cleaning, cooking, and washing clothes. Because she had children, she could not be a live-in servant to some of the wealthier families. She had not been trained to be ‘in service’, so had to accept the poorly paid jobs, washing, ironing and scrubbing, hard manual housework. My grandmother remembered being carried home by her mother, in the dark, after Kate finished work.
By the early 1900’s, the mining industry was almost finished, and unemployment was common. Neighbours helped each other out, sharing produce from vegetable gardens, eggs and chickens. Their fear was having to accept charity rather than being poor.
Better times came, Kate’s sons’ wages improved, and Jack and Mark married. Kate became a grandmother, always ‘Gran’, and she was finally eligible for the Old Age Pension, and she was able to enjoy life as an elderly citizen, attending concerts, meetings, fairs and excursions, enjoying herself immensely. She attended the annual Sunday School Picnics for both the Black Hill Mission, and Neil Street Church.
My mother was born when Kate was about 70, Mum remembers her as a lovely kind grandmother, who would always bring Mum and her little brother a small gift or treat from ‘the street’, when she walked down and back to buy her groceries. A long walk back up Peel Street hill, if the bus went past the driver knew her, and stopped for her even when there wasn’t a designated bus stop. If no bus came, she happily walked all the way to her cottage in Sherrard Street.
During the War, and the fear of being bombed, the citizens of Ballarat had to blackout. No chink of light was allowed, car headlights were almost covered so only a small slit of light showed, and all streetlights were turned off. Black out wardens patrolled their various areas ensuring the rules were being obeyed. Mr Grey, the Black Hill warden, had his work cut out with Gran, as she fully expected to be able to visit her friends despite the rules. She took a small torch with her, until Mr Grey explained that she was breaking the law, so she reverted to using a kerosene lamp, with the wick turned down low, arguing that no pilot of a bomber could ever see her tiny light from so far up in the sky. Mr Grey continued to explain to her that she really should stay at home at night, which she did, for a time. Then she carried the stump of a candle and some matches, hidden in her stocking, her reasoning being that she’d only light the candle if she lost her way, and if that meddlesome Mr Grey was around, she’d blow it out.
Although she was over 80, Kate still performed ‘war work’. She helped the Red Cross sort waste materials. She worked one day a week at a canteen in Lydiard Street, in what is now Ludbrook House, almost opposite the Ballarat Station.. The Canteen provided a drop-in centre for service men and women on their way to and from postings. Kate washed dishes, served cups of tea and set tables, providing a sympathetic ear to customers, she didn’t like the fact that young men had to leave their homes to go to war.
My mother asked Kate once what she thought were the greatest inventions during her lifetime. She answered promptly, electricity and aeroplanes. During the war, air crews trained at the Ballarat Airfield, so many planes flew over Ballarat. Kate would stop to watch them, muttering quietly to herself, ‘ Well, fancy that! Look at that now, how could anyone be so clever?’
Well known in Black Hill, ‘Granny Brown’ what was popularly called a ‘character’ . She was not unique, my mother remembers other old widows who lived their simple, uncomplicated lives in similar cottages. Diseases of the lungs caused by the dust killed strong men before their time, leaving many women to manage as best they could. No living wage was provided for injured or sick miners, and no pension was provided for widows. Hardships unknown to us were endured by these goldfield widows, they were determined, brave, and resourceful in the face of a harsh future.
My grandmother asked Kate, on her ninetieth birthday. If she would like to live her life over, even through the bad times. Her reply was, ‘I’d have it all again without changing one day, it’s been wonderful, all of it.’
Towards the end of her life, Kate, with some reluctance, went to live in the Queen Elizabeth Home. Apparently she enjoyed spending time with others of a similar age, and was treated very kindly by the nurses. She would be the last to bed, staying awake to hear the other ‘poor old souls’ say their prayers.
Kate fell one morning, as she was getting out of bed, she hit her head on the floor, fracturing her skull. She died peacefully, a few days later, on January 31,1956, with her family around her.
Catherine,Kate, Granny Brown, is buried in the Ballarat New Cemetery with her husband, David Alexander Brown, Presbyterian B, Section 5, Grave 17.