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roaring nineties

Lois Griffiths

Lois Griffiths shares her memories of the Second World War, the devastation it caused, and life thereafter. At just shy of 95, her memories of her early life in South Perth are as fresh as ever.

Roaring Nineties is a series of stories from our elders collected throughout 2018. This collection of stories features the memories of yesteryear; accounts of war, racism, technological triumph, assimilation, and social change. These storytellers have lived long lives, and plan to live many more. Experience makes us wise and we should take time to listen.

Lois Griffiths shares her memories of the Second World War, the devastation it caused, and life thereafter. At just shy of 95, her memories of her early life in South Perth are as fresh as ever.

Copyright © 2018 Lois Griffiths.

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

This story was collected in May 2018 and originally published on January 24, 2019.

View Story Transcript

My name is Lois or, Loyce, Sophia Griffiths—Lois it rhymes with Joyce. Because you see, my father was an Englishman and that’s how it was pronounced there. I had it before Lois Lane. I was born on the 27 of March 1924 in Western Australia, Victoria Park in Field Street at 9.30pm at home. Brought into the world by my grandmother who was a qualified midwife.

I am 94. I will be 95 in March 2019. And I’m having a dirty big party.

We asked Lois to share some memories from her early years growing up in Perth.

My family came out from England prior to World War I. They thought it was going to be a better life. We moved to South Perth. It was a lovely place to live. We lived—our house, you’d open up the front gate and there was the Swan River. Because that was before the highway was built there. It was called—it was unnamed, there was no road there—but it was called Melville Terrace in those days. I used to have to go past the Zoo every day to school, to go up to Forrest Street School.

Do you know where the Old Mill is, in South Perth? I used to play in that. It was right down the street from where I lived. I used to swim in the narrows with my brother, unbeknownst to my mother. I only played boys sports you see. I had five brothers older than me and my sister was much older. She was very prissy. So, I used to play sport with the boys. And I used to be up a tree—or wherever they were, so was I. I was most certainly a tom-boy. My mother wanted me to be pretty like my sister. Instead of that, I was sunburned and brown as everything, as you can imagine. She could sing like a bird with a soprano voice and I had a contralto.

I used to swim all day and I only came in because my mother—never shouted, a lady didn’t do that—she blew a whistle, three blasts.

And I had to come in. Otherwise, no one worried what I did all day or any day. Because you see, I had older parents. My mother was 42 when she had me and my dad was 52, so I must have been a hell of a shock to them actually. The only one that was close to me was my brother who was three years older, and of course, he was killed in the war. So, those things happened. But then it was like I had four or five fathers [in the form of brothers].

My claim to fame at school—I was a very good student as I had to be anyway, anything else would’ve been frowned on in my family—but I was the tallest girl in the school. I was five-foot-two and I never grew after that. I’m five foot one now, I’ve lost an inch. Well I am going down, I am an old lady you know!

Lois moved to Sydney with her family as a teenager. Here, she began the journey of becoming a strong and independent woman in a man’s world.

I’ve always been me—said what I like and do what I like. And I try everything and have a go at anything. And then in 1938 my parents decided they had had enough of Western Australia and they moved to Sydney. I felt I didn’t want to be a burden on my family, so I went out and got myself a job. I was a person in the showrooms. I used to show the people—they made Hush-a-Bye dolls—and I used to be their lady that showed things to all the proposed clients. I didn’t like the bloke who was running it. He tried to make a pass at me, so I told him where to go and left.

When I grew up, in my family girls always had to wait on boys. I had to clean my brothers’ shoes and press their pants with brown paper so they wouldn’t get shiny. I got fed up with that, so I thought, ‘well, I’ll start charging them’, and it doesn’t sound much, but I used to charge them thruppence a pair to clean the shoes. So much so, that I was able to go to the Perth Royal Show with enough money to buy every sample bag they had in the show. So they started then, cleaning their own shoes. I made up my mind that if I ever had sons, they would learn to wash, iron, sew on a button, cook their own food, and do all of the necessary things to make them the same as anybody else and my daughter-in-laws love it.

I got married quite young. I wasn’t 18 when I was married—girls in those days were far more mature than the girls of today would be, I mean they’re at school at 18 half the time. But, I was married and I’m 19 years older than my first child.

Then I became pregnant and then of course that’s the end of me working there. Yes, well in the war time that changed—but ordinarily you see, no school teacher was allowed to be married when I was going to school, unless she was the bread winner. There was no married women in the public services, it was quite restricted actually.

I think that women [should work] and I believe [partners] should share the home chores. I don’t see why one bloke should sit there and read the paper while the other comes home and has worked just as long as him, on half the pay, and have to wait hand and foot on a bloke. It didn’t happen in my house.

A portrait of Lois Griffiths

Today people would call me a feminist, but [at the time] I just thought I was being me. Sometimes it still happens—some of these blokes think that they are little King Kongs in their own house, but no. I had the kindest gentleman for a husband.

During World War Two, Lois worked in a munitions factory. She was an air raid warden during the 1942 Attack on Sydney Harbour.

I was fifteen. Oh yes we came over to Sydney in 1938. My youngest brother, he was in the navy, and my eldest brother was in Kokoda. The other one was in the Middle East—and the other one wasn’t allowed to go to the war because he was in charge of Cyclops, who used to make toys.

Well, I started to work in the munitions factory. I had no option, that’s where I had to go. I was an inspector of batteries and they used to call me ‘hawk-eye’ because if it wasn’t right up, I’d send it back. I said, “If you had brothers fighting in the war, you’d want to know that the battery that your sister had passed was in full condition and not have any faults in it.” That was my attitude.

I was an air raid warden at the age of sixteen. And to be an air raid warden you had to have home-nursing ability and of course had to learn all about gasses and carry a gas mask. When all the alerts sounded you had to go out and take up your position in the streets which you were allocated to. Well they did—the Japanese did shell Bondi. And we were down in our place where we had to go in the shelter. We heard the plane go over, but we were quite safe, yeah. It was downstairs in this huge block of units that had walls that had been—they’d be about two feet thick—and we were looking over Sydney Harbour. That’s where I was living with my parents. Every time the alarm went, we had to go down there. But I wasn’t down in the shelter, I was out doing my stuff as an air raid warden. We always took it as the real thing. Always. Because after the submarine up at Sydney Harbour—it had gone under and had gotten in to Sydney Harbour by coming behind a ferry. They came up in the wake of the ferry and there was a ship, called the HMAS Kuttabul, at Garden Island, and they sunk that with a lot of sailors that used to be in transit there.

That’s why Darwin was bombed and they never lead on until afterwards. My brother’s ship was in Darwin when it was bombed and quite a lot of people were killed. You go down to Port Headland you can see in the low tide, even now sometimes you can see the wreck of some ships that had gone down.

Lois’ husband, Les Griffiths, was in the Navy. His time away fighting for Australia was to impact Lois and Les for the rest of their lives.

Well my husband came back from the war and it was the children that kept him on his feet, because he loved them so dearly. And me. He said he didn’t need friends because he had me and the children, that’s all he’d ever wanted. He’d had a shocking childhood himself. They wanted to make him a TPI, which is to be Totally and Permanently Incapacitated—and I wouldn’t have it. Because when we came back they’d said he had three years to live. He was in the Evacuation of Crete in Greece with HMAS Perth. Then he was out of the war—he was out two weeks. He was on the GPO [General Post Office] steps in Sydney and some stupid old woman gave him a white feather for cowardice. So, he went ‘round to the enlistment thing and joined the AIF [Australian Imperial Force] and within six months he was back over where he was before. He was in the Battle of El Alamein and he was in New Guinea. But he came back and they called me and said to, “put your affairs in order.” I had two little children at this stage. I was 22 and he was 26.

They said, “In our opinion, your husband only has three years to live.” I never told him this. Because you don’t do that. And I just turned ‘round to these three old fossil doctors sitting in a row, and I just said, “Since when can you play God?”

So, they said, “Well it’s in your hands.” So my hands must have been pretty good because he was 88 when he died.

He had been blown up in El Alamein. But also, he had this syndrome of anxiety [Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder] that the soldiers are getting now. But they didn’t know how to treat it. And you know, what they used to put was electrodes on their head. They sent him down to the Mental Asylum in Goulburn—which they used to bring all servicemen that had that condition—put these electrodes on and give them an electric shock. Poor thing. My husband had that done. And when he came back, he was like death taking a holiday. I said, “Was it very bad?” and he said, “Well Loi, I was lucky. I had you and the children to think about. And I kept on thinking about you and the children.” He said, “Those that had nobody, went troppo.” It was a shocking thing and they haven’t improved much with the way they treat these blokes. When you are trained to kill, it’s a very hard thing to have a normal life. Yes, he had injuries. He has spinal injuries, yes, he had a lot of them. He was in shocking pain, poor love. And I was his carer for many, many years.

I had six of the best kids, that anybody could have. They never ever caused their father any anxiety whatsoever. And they would do all sorts of things. And my husband had decided—he had lived out in the bush actually, out in Southern Cross, and he got his engineering degree when he was in his fifties. He’d gone to tech and got it. And often times he was going to pull out because he was working as well. My number two son, he is a wiz at maths. He sat down and he said, “Nup! Only kids drop out. Not dads. Get on with it and I’ll show you.” And they used to all stand in a line and play imaginary violins to him—harps and flowers. So, he had to get on and do it. Which he did.

As for me? Well I could do what I liked, as long as I was home for the kids from school, Les never minded what I did. I used to be the president of the CWA when we were in the country and I used to teach handicapped kids to craft when I lived in Sydney. I was the president of the RSL [Returned Services League] women’s auxiliary for 37 years in Sydney. So, I kept busy. I’ve always been busy.

In 2015 when Lois was 91, she had heart surgery to implement a transcatheter aortic valve, or TAVI. Her mind-set: it simply had to be done.

I was about ninety. I was one of the first. They call it a TAVI [Trans-catheter Aortic Valve Implementation]. They go in through your groin and up—I had to have a valve replaced. I’ve got a pig’s valve doing its job there now and I was one of the first that had had it at a private hospital. They did it on the Friday, I was walking around the hospital on the Saturday and they discharged to go home on the Sunday. And it hasn’t stopped me from doing whatever it is I want to do. They used me then to go down and talk to all sorts of people. They had—I didn’t know—all these imminent surgeons. I had a team of six, and I used to call them my boys. And then they had 150 GPs at a seminar down in the Gold Coast. So, they asked if I’d go down and show them what could happen. They treated me extremely well and there I had to sit up on the stage as—Queen of the May, as you might say—for them to look at this person who has done this thing. I didn’t realise until I saw the picture behind me of all these doctors behind me, they had all the credentials in the world they were very, very qualified people in their own field. Anyway, they gave a microphone—see I’d been used to public speaking all over the place. So they said, “Any advice you’ve got for these GPs?” I said, “Yes. One is, when people are as old as me come to your surgery, just don’t put everything down to old age. And don’t be patronising. They’ve been on this world longer than what you have. And even by experience, they probably know a lot more than you’ll know for many more years.” And they gave me a standing ovation actually. The next time I went to see my boys they came out and said, “There’s an old bloke out here, he’s worried about having this TAVI done because he is 74. He kept on saying to me, “I’m 74!” and I said, “What’s that got to do with it? I couldn’t give a tinker’s tot and I’m ninety-odd. That’s of no consequence.” So they said, “Speak to him and quieten him down.” So I said, “Oh, I have no problems. Karl Poon—who is the specialist and head of the team—he’s a very, very qualified bloke and you’ll have no problems.” I said, “Just get on.”

I’m having a big party next year which I hope as many can come at 95. My group of TAVI doctors reckon they’re coming too.

I’ve had the bestest life that anybody could have. It’s been all full of things and value, and I have a nice house, I have a nice garden, and I have enough money—thanks to my husband—that if I want to go and buy a dress here or a dress there, I can do it. And if my family want me specially, then I would be over there for the wedding like I was over for my granddaughter in Perth. And so it goes on.

The only thing, and everybody knows, you can’t live a lifetime with someone and not miss them. I do find sometimes, that the nights are a bit long. And you see, bed’s not a happy place for me because of the arthritis so I sit up and make cards and do whatever I’ve got to do—find a word in a book or something, or read a book. There’s no good winging or whining about it. And to think that if arthritis is the only thing that I’ve got wrong at 94, then I’m doing pretty good. This is what I hope for all my children too. Yes, I really do. As long as they keep safe. And have a go—don’t say, “Oh I wish I’d done that.” Do it and if it falls flat on your face, it doesn’t matter. There’s always something else.

So that’s me.

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