Sue Wilks – part 1

A contralto amongst the cricketers


Recently, following the death of the matriarch Mrs Ian Johnson, wife of the test cricketer, the Johnson house in Page Street, Middle Park was sold. In a mad scramble to get everything out, books, photos, trophies and trinkets were hastily thrown into boxes by her sons and grandchildren. Many of these boxes ended up in my garage (daughter-in-law) and were not looked at, or perhaps even forgotten.

Thanks to the COVID19 lock down I decided to tidy my garage and put the Johnson memorabilia into plastic boxes to preserve it. This was no ordinary memorabilia. My father-in-law, Ian, had been an Australian Test Cricketer and his father (William James 1888- 1941) before him, a Test Selector. The bottom of a ‘downstairs’ cupboard at the Johnson house which had been in the family for two generations was the source, and it seemed as though the contents had been untouched for 70 years.

A diary

Amongst the trophies and souvenirs was a diary, a large, Australian Commercial Diary for 1911 published in Melbourne by Sands and McDougall Ltd. It had two days on a page. The first 24 pages had miscellaneous information like postal money and telegraphic information, customs tariffs, and directions for making a will. However, no commercial use had been made of it.  Following the early pages there were hundreds of newspaper clippings, photos (some people are named in pencil), menus, and postcards. But who had done this?

Due to dates and content of photos and newspaper clippings I gathered it was Ian Johnson’s mother, Edith (nee Geddes 1882-1949) who had later used this diary as an album. I didn’t know her name until I saw a birth notice of Wilma in January 1917 to William and Edith Johnson. This then made sense of a photo of a Geddes wedding (undated) in Moonee Ponds pasted inside the front cover with first bridesmaid Edith Geddes. Just below the birth notice was the death notice of little 9 month old Wilma in 1916. I had never heard of this daughter who preceded Ian (1917) and his younger brother Colin who both lived in Page Street until they died.

As would many a proud wife and mother, Edith kept numerous newspaper articles, postcards, menus and photos about William’s 1930 tour of England (and Europe) as Selector with the Test team.  Then there was a gap before the same had been done for Ian’s 1948 Test tour of England as Captain.

I imagine Mrs W. J. Johnson used the diary because it was largely empty and the few diary entries were of no interest to her. I surmise the un-used diary could have belonged to Mr Johnson, as he was described in a death notice as a prominent businessman.

Someone else had used the diary

As I turned over the pages, I could see, under a newspaper photo of “King George V and Queen Mary with Johnson, Woodfull, Kelly and Richardson”, what looked like a young person’s diary entry. Just a few words were visible – e.g. “helped” “afternoon” and “sight”. The news clipping was stuck down over the Sunday 15 January, 1911 entry.

The next handwritten entry showed it to be the dairy of a young girl making entries that were all similar and described events typical of a young person’s life. (I only discovered her name and age – she was 14 – later in the diary). Below is a typical entry. (I have not changed any of the entries – I quote it by adding punctuation or fixing spelling.)

Saturday 6 May 1911. Got up at about 8 o’clock had breakfast had my practice went into shop had dinner and cleared away the table washed up and wiped went out and skipped then went to the Milkman’s with Alice also to Flemington bridge station for a parcel came back again and put it in then went out skipping came in to my tea set a a few things on table and had my tea after I done my lessons read for a while and went to bed.

Entries for Monday May 8, Tuesday May 9 and Wednesday May 10 1911 all begin with “Got up, had practice”. I assumed this was piano practice, but May 10 revealed that was not so when she wrote:

“Mr Don came for tea after tea set phonograph going … then sung for Mr Don. He thought I was Soprano, done my lesson read and went to bed.”

So she was not practicing piano but was practicing her singing.

The May 11 was her birthday and, unlike what she may have received as a young girl in 2020, she “got two postcards, 3 books serviette ring bottle of scent”.

I assume she was somehow connected with the Johnsons because her entries contained references to Kensington and North Melbourne. A newspaper clipping noting William Johnson’s death referred to his being a prominent businessman in North Melbourne and Kensington. She mentioned “the shop” on May 6 and the Johnson’s business was a grocer’s shop. The fact that most entries included setting the table, washing and wiping up, point to her having light household duties. But I can find no other evidence of a connection.

There are no more entries until June 18, 1911 when, in very untidy writing (looks like she is struggling to use nib pen and ink) the young girl talks about meeting friends (Hilda, Alvie, Annie, Marion, Alex, Colin) a baby and auntie. On July 15 she writes about going to town and then on tram to Prahran with Mrs Stubbs where they walked around Big store (was the Maples?) and then had lunch.

A big surprise!!

Then suddenly, an entry for 24 October, in a mature hand: “Sang for Melba. Turn to back page”. This entry shocked me but it reminded me of an entry of May 5 in the same hand that originally had made no sense “Miss Cullen thought I was soprano” and then on 16 November, “Sang for Fritz Hart at Conservatorium”. What was going on? The back page held the answer. (See below ***).

17 November  1911. Young hand talks about a Mrs Ross and Miss Stubbs. Whilst on a station she described an interesting historical event: “watched a lady on a stretcher getting carried in[to] Guard Van. Train steamed out of station”.

November 24, 2011. (Young hand.) I wonder who Auntie and Uncle are?

“Mrs Cook, Auntie and Uncle and I went to hear Melb. (Melba) Grand Opera Romeo and Julliet. In first act she had a lovely dress of spangles. She acted and sung beautifully in second balcony scene. Had ice cream and lemon juice in interval. She was beautiful in 2 last acts when on tomb in a trance she lay very still. After each act she came out and bowed. She had a white dress on ? last act which looked very pretty. She was done up beautifully on the stage, rather stout for Julliet but still nothing to be noticed. A lovely opera all together. Romeo was lovely also.”

(This is accurate re Melba at Her Majesty’s Theatre Melbourne on this date. Source

Saturday 23 December, 1911 (young hand). Talks about making preparation for going to Colac and leaving by train for Colac (quarter to 6 train). Arrived in Colac at 10.

“Had a ride home in a cab with a whole lot of luggage.” “Had supper at about 12, sat around talking and went to bed at about 1 o’clock.”

In the next entries – Saturday 22 and Sunday 24 December 1911 – something strange has happened in the diary. It seems that 19 year old Eileen (Identified by the writing on the back page which is a mature version of the young hand) has written in her old diary after 6 years.

Sunday 24, December 1911 (young hand). Stayed home and helped Mrs Johnson. (This is the first time a relationship with a Mrs Johnson is mentioned.)

As well, Sunday 24 December is crossed out and replaced by the mature hand to December 23 1917.

“Went to Evelyn Scotney’s to sing. Met Mr White and Mrs Scotney. They said I had  … [see] back page.”

On the opposite page to these December entries is something I missed first time through. Eileen Kerwin is written clearly with Eileen scribbled a couple of other times.

Christmas Day December 25, 1911.

Young hand describes walking to Tulloh meeting Jack and Rene and catching a train that took 2 hours to “get down there”. Talks about shelling peas, having dinner, and “Ella Morgan on the table giving us a bit of amusement”. At 12 o’clock they sang Auld Lang Syne.

December 26, 1911 (young hand) talks of helping with girls. After a tiring walk the girls went back to “Elliminite” [sic].

29 December, 1911. Went to Colac for Regatta. After that she had tea on the lawn at Sittlingtons

“very nice and then went to concert @ night enjoyed ourselves we got home at 10 o’clock”.

There is a lot of scribble on the opposite page to this last entry with ”Parkinson” and “fearfully” and other illegible words written variously.

All (nearly) is revealed!

*** At the top of the last page of the diary is written “Eileen Kerwin 1917 Age 19 yrs”.

Here the following is written:

“Sang for Melba very nervous said I had sort of contralto voice. It was the farewell and we were introduced afterwards by the pupils of the Conservatorium Mr Hughes (PM?) and Italian Consul were both present including other noted people. Melba was presented with a black satin cushion as a parting gift.

Sang for Fritz Hart he was very nice and told me I had a noble voice and it was a voice in a thousand.

Annie was with me. He wished me every success and was pleased to have heard me.

I have verified the facts about Melba and Fritz Hart being at the Conservatorium at this time through a website that listed a dateline of all Melba’s activities.

Later on same page Eileen writes:

“Sang for Evelyn Scotney and Howard White both exceedingly nice and told me I possessed the voice people were wanting – liquid tone (twig that). She had heard so many sing that she thought all Australians must sing or compose ??? she liked best because I did not screech. They both wished me best of success and wanted to hear me on their return (May 1919).

Have also sang for Pauline and Mr Prudelt /Pruidley(?) at different times.

Evelyn Scotney was a Melbourne soprano and Howard White was an operatic basso and cellist. They had returned from Boston in 1916.  (Ballarat Courier, 22 July 1916)

Once I discovered the writer was Eileen Kerwin a contralto I found reference to her singing. For example on the ABC (3AR).

1.14pm Eileen Kerwin (contralto)

Songs: My Dear Soul (Sanderson) and The Lonely Caravan (Woodford-Finden).

(p.22 The Wireless Weekly: the hundred percent Australian Radio Journal. Vol. 10. No 21 (16 Sept 1927).


Dr Sue Wilks

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