Betty Vandeleur

Betty Vandeleur (nee Barnard) was born at Yeppoon, Queensland on 28 September 1931. She trained as a nurse at the Mater Hospital in Brisbane and then nursed at Katherine Hospital where she met husband Paul. Together they established Camfield, a large cattle property in the Northern Territory. This is the story of her life as a nurse and cattle property owner.

“In 1948 when I was 17 I came down here to Brisbane to the Mater and started my four years nursing training. I always wanted to be a nurse. I liked people and I liked caring for things and so that’s always what I wanted to be. I was able to get into the Mater which wasn’t easy to get into in those days. You had to pay a bond of ₤100 which was big money but if you didn’t have ₤100 they just took it out of your very low wages. We only got 10 shillings a week after that was taken out. It was a lot of fun there and when I started, I think there were 14 of us started on the first day. The last 18 months of my training I spent doing theatre work because I was good at theatre work.

“Living in the nurses’ quarters was good fun. One of the benefits of doing theatre work was you had your own room because you were “on call” 24 hours every second week. At other times you lived along verandas, just like dormitories. In your last year, you got a sort of a room but it was on those verandas too. So you didn’t have a lot of privacy. You had screens to pull. We had such a lot of fun. A lot of things we did we shouldn’t have been doing and we had to be home every night by 10 o’clock. If you had to go to a ball or some special party you were allowed one late night a week to 11.00 pm, but then again you could get a special ball pass to 2.00 am. You had to present this little piece of cardboard with the time. You had to come through the main doors of the public hospital to get back into the nurses home and if you didn’t have a pass, you hoped that the nun supervisor was very busy and she wasn’t able to answer that door.

“Sister Mary Virginia was the Matron of the public hospital. I did a lot of work in the Mater Private too. I didn’t really like the Private that much because you didn’t learn a lot about what you should have been doing, because you were pandying to patients. I can remember in one section we had these cups and saucers and plates sets, nice little fancy things. You had to make sure that Mr So and So or Mrs So and So didn’t get the same cup and saucer in the afternoon that she had for her morning tea.

“Then I was sent to what they call Ward 70 which was the ward for sick nuns. There were some very nice nuns there, but I got allocated to Sister Mary Beatrice who had bad arthritis from very young. She was very pampered and nobody liked having to look after Sister Mary Beatrice. Anyway, I ended up there with her in her room and she got to like me, which was devastating in the end, because it took all day looking after Sister Mary Beatrice. When it came to change of term, I thought I’d be moved on. Terms in those days were long, three months, or eight weeks, so that if you were tied up in one area and you didn’t find you were learning a lot, you needed to move on. But the lists went up, and I was still rostered to Ward 70 to look after Sister Mary Beatrice, Beattie, as we used to call her. She put her demands down and she wanted that to happen. So I thought, I can’t spend another two months here so I’ll go to the Matron and say that I want to move on. To do that in those days, took a lot of courage. Eventually I went down to Sister Marcell and she listened to me quietly and said “Oh well, we’ll just see what we can do nurse.” So I was able to be moved. Well Beattie was very annoyed with me and wouldn’t speak to me. On my last day I went along and I said “I’ve come to say goodbye to you, Sister Mary Beatrice,” and she wouldn’t speak. So then I got cheeky. I said “Well I can tell you this, I’m glad I’m going.” I’ve forgotten what else I said but I was really cross. I said I was glad and I wasn’t coming back to see her anymore. Then I moved on. I think probably soon after that I went to the theatres and I stayed there. I liked the theatre work because I’m a technician type. It suited me.

“I finished at the end of 1952. I left to do my obstets in Sydney at the Royal Hospital for Women at Paddington in 1953 which I enjoyed. I thought I was so wealthy because I went from earning about ₤2 a week as a fourth year at the Mater and in Sydney I got ₤13 a week. I thought I was a millionairess. After I did my obstets, I went to the maternity section at Griffith in New South Wales for two years.

“We went from there to Katherine in April 1956. Going there was an adventure. Originally we were going up to Malaysia and we went through all the security stuff and we were accepted but then all of a sudden there was a big outbreak of communism so bad and stopped us going so we decided to go to the Northern Territory instead. We joined the Northern Territory nursing service. Three of us went up and two were sent to Alice Springs. We were on the same night flight from Melbourne. The two got off at Alice Springs and I flew on to Katherine. We landed at Katherine and somebody on the plane said to me “The hospital’s just over the road from the airport” but they were talking about an airstrip just over from the Katherine hospital but it couldn’t take this bigger plane. So when they opened the doors and I came out on the steps, all I could see was bush. I saw a few people hanging on the outskirts of the airport. The chief wards man, Jack Roney, met all the planes and welcomed all the girls. He was a very friendly sort of a guy, but it was just bush and I thought – where’s this hospital. He told me that the hospital was eight miles into town and this was Tindal airstrip that had been built to take bombers during World War II.

“Tindal Airstrip was kept in repair to take bigger planes. The big Tindal Air Base is today on that site. We drove into Katherine and I met the hospital staff. There were five sisters and a working matron, so just six of us plus Jack Roney and one doctor. Katherine Hospital was all very different from the big hospitals I’d worked in. You had to really learn to do all sorts of things there like suturing if the doctor was away. It was only a little wooden place with the outpatients and the doctor’s room and a bit of a surgery and then a maternity section with a delivery room. These rooms were in the centre and the veranda was all round with the patients. A little extension off that had a bit of a pharmacy for the hospital plus the kitchen where the meals were all prepared. The babies used to go out into the kitchen at night; we only had two or three babies at a time. The nurses lived on the other side in a very similar building.

“This was where I met Paul. He came in to town and I don’t know what we went to. It might have been a ball. I was at the hospital for two years then we returned to Brisbane to be married on 19th April 1958 at St Peters-Paul’s Church, Bulimba.

“I had missed the wet season for 1956 when I arrived in Katherine but in 1957 they had a big wet season. It was the big flood of that time. At the time when the Katherine River flooded in 1957, we lived at the hospital in the quarters. There was a doctor’s house there as well which was on stilts whereas the hospital building was only two feet off the ground. It mightn’t even have been that. And we had to move the patients, about eight or ten of them, due to the rising river to the doctor’s high house. We were cut off a bit from the town because when the river broke, it broke behind the hospital and then it came around and cut off our access road to the town.

“After we were married we lived in a house behind the butcher shop because there was nowhere to live out at the property. I did the books at the butcher shop. I lived there for about two years until our first daughter Ann was born on 20th April 1960. She was born at the Katherine Hospital and I went out to Camfield station when she was about three months old. The house was built but it didn’t have everything completed properly at that time.

“My first impressions of Camfield were not bad ones. It was open undulating country. You could look out and see for miles around. I went out there with a 7.4 cubic foot kerosene refrigerator. That was the only refrigeration, but when you’re young, you’re more resilient, you’re not worrying about all those things. Ann was there as a young baby and probably because I was a nurse, I was a bit more confident about her. She was healthy and she was on a bottle and I made the bottles up with Sunshine milk, we used to make it up the day before in a jug and put it in the fridge. My main thing was to keep that fridge going and that went on for some time like that. I had a roof over my head, the house had brick walls so it was more secure than most houses around the country in those days.

“There wasn’t a lot of buildings around. Down the bottom end, where the men were was just a big shed that the Vandeleurs had built and there was another little tin shed where they had a big stove and they did the cooking. It was pretty rugged. I was forever trying to remodel this tin shed and do little things around how I thought things should look. And when I think about it and think of things that I tried to do, it was absolutely ridiculous. I was trying to do like interior decorating and I just had tin walls, tin windows that pushed out. I was trying to improve things and when you haven’t anything to work with, it’s not very easy. My house wasn’t too bad because it had been built like a proper house but it hadn’t been completed so it had wooden floors that hadn’t been polished at that stage. I had a proper combustion stove, an Everhot. We had a hot water system, it looked very smart beside it and built in cupboards. That was all there, so I lived fairly well in that house but I had to look after it and look after the others and keep an eye on that no one was sick. I brought with me a very organised medical kit. When I was at the hospital, I used to pinch little things and I had a big huge box that I put all this stuff in so that I had some equipment to work with and I was known for this so that people used to say – if you get sick, go over to Betty Vandeleur at Camfield, she’s got the best medical kit around. We had access to the Flying Doctor because we had the transceiver business. We had to call in if you needed some advice out there and you’re not going to bring them out for nothing and they didn’t want to come unless very necessary. So I tried to keep people well and not be sending them off.

“You used to have to help people recover from booze-ups. A lot of those people you employed were alcoholics. They really only worked to get a few pounds in their pockets and they were thinking where am I going to get drink. We didn’t allow drink on the place, you couldn’t afford to allow it because they don’t want to drink sensibly. Most of those people, they want to drink it all together and make nuisances of themselves. So when they had enough money, away they’d go to Katherine or to Top Springs which was a little store that was built around the drover camps about 60 miles from us. They’d go there and they could drink themselves silly and then when they didn’t have any more money left they’d come back. Some didn’t, they just moved on. Then you’d have to help them recover, because they’d, you know, there’d be no booze then. I used to give them a bit of drink to get them out of the DTs and then they’d get back on track, particularly cooks. Some cooks are very good but they’re hopeless alcoholics and you know they’d even drink the essence of lemon, they drink the essence of vanilla and they’d make up a concoction of something to do with Holbrooks sauce and I don’t know, boot polish and then they’d even make things out pumpkins.

“You’d have to give the stores out, cause in those days; we didn’t have a garden to start with. We didn’t have fresh vegetables at all. Everything was in tins and you had dried fruit and mixed fruit and mixed veggies, dehydrated. Veggies used to come in tins and they used to make soups and stuff like that and then you had your peas and beans in a tin. I had that at the hospital in Katherine. They only had those tinned vegetables in those days when I went up there. They didn’t fly in fresh fruit. Anyway, we survived on them. But they’d snitch the dried fruits, instead of making them into puddings, dampers or cakes. They were then making up a concoction. This would be cooks so they could get on the grog cause they couldn’t get away to town. Then you’d find this fermented concoction. So booze was a big problem because someone would go to Top Springs or they’d see someone going through, they’d get someone to bring them back and of course they’d bring back grog. Then they’d want to drink a whole bottle of rum or two bottles of rum and they’d go off their head. Paul would have to go away periodically and it would be always someone would get boozed while he was away. You’d find everybody drunk as monkeys. I must say that nobody ever came up and threatened me out of all those people. I had some sort of a rapport with them.

“When we built the homestead, that was all fly-wired and eventually all the other buildings. We put fly wire on because that was a “must”. The flies were a bother and when the children were small, they used to use a mosquito net thing over their hats made with elastic to go round under their chin. I didn’t really wear one because they couldn’t get in the house and the other buildings as we built them. They could get in all the tin sheds but we put covers over things. One of the big breakthroughs was the dung beetle was introduced. They flew out on Connellans Airways. We had an air service eventually that came every week and we were able to get fresh green vegetables and everything and then we grew our own garden as well. But the dung beetle came in a box. There were several of them in this little box. I suppose it was 12 inches long by, I don’t know. But anyway, they went out and they introduced these dung beetles to the cow dung out in the paddocks. They increased dramatically and they ate the larvae of the flies and this cut down the fly population. The bush flies then reduced dramatically. Some people would get a sting on the eye and it blows up. I didn’t seem to have that problem. I didn’t have that problem with the children that much but little aboriginal children, lots of them, because they’re probably not as careful. They would get bad eyes but when that dung beetle multiplied, that was magic stuff and you know you even noticed with the horses. They hated the flies. We used to have to buy and make fly veils to put on the horses’ heads particularly during the wet season. We’d have to treat those horses because they’d gallop into the fences to try to get away from the flies then they’d get badly cut. So then that would attract the flies more and we’d have them up and we’d sort of have a parade of the horses for treatment. That was mainly during the wet season.

“I had two children after Ann – Patricia was born 12 May 1962, her birthday is the day after Paul, her father’s birthday. And Paul John was born on 12 March 1970. The girls went away to boarding school eventually. Ann was in Grade 5 and Patricia was in Grade 3. She was only a little girl when she went but I didn’t want to split the two of them up, because there was only the two of them. Paul John was eight to 10 years younger and he was nearly one when the girls went away.

“I was teaching Ann at the time and she’d had nothing to do with maths. She needed to know something about Maths, whereas she’d gone through the correspondence system with arithmetic, whereas Patricia had started school and Maths had already been introduced. She was learning Maths and not arithmetic. Ann had only learned arithmetic, but she needed to know a bit about Maths. I did a crash course of Grade 5 Maths in the Christmas time of her Grade 5 year, before she was to go into boarding school in Grade 6. We did all these Maths to try and give her a bit of a go. Of course, when you go down there to school, nobody really cares where you came from, when you sit in an ordinary stream of children. They went to Mercedes College in Adelaide.

“Before they went, we had the Katherine School of the Air. They’re just celebrating their 40th anniversary in Katherine, at the end of this month. They had a little bit of School of the Air, but we only went for half an hour a day, because it was very basic in our time. We mainly dealt with Adelaide Correspondence School and that’s where we had to do our correspondence through. I always thought I’d send my children to Queensland boarding schools. But because the Federal government subsidised the South Australian government, for correspondence, we couldn’t go through Queensland. I came here and applied and they wouldn’t even accept you even if you paid. So we went through Adelaide, and of course later, it was a better flight service when they went to boarding school in Adelaide. So it worked out in the end.

“They only came home on holidays, because it was too far. We had to go into town and pick them up and bring them out and that’s a long way. So they only came home three times a year. Of course now they have four terms. I think Patricia was the youngest boarder. Anyway, I think they had a reasonable amount of fun and they seemed to be all right. They didn’t say that they disliked boarding school – well they had no alternative. I think Patricia used to find it a bit hard when she was small. Paul was born in 1970 and we left that property in 1977. He only had a couple of years of School of the Air.

“We used to talk to the other homesteads on the transceiver. We didn’t go into town very much because it was too far and the roads weren’t very good. I didn’t go to town one time for about 14 months. It was such an ordeal going in there, when I had everything sorted out to suit myself out there looking after the people. Eventually we got our own store and created things as we sold some cattle and made some money and developed the place. But I didn’t want to be going in there. We had good neighbours. Our closest neighbour that we had anything to do with was at Montejinni – Fay and Brian Crowson had five children. Their children were a bit younger. We used to have movies. I got a projector and some of the people from Montejinni used to come over to our place when we had certain movies. Then we put in a billiard room and some of the guys, workers used to come from Montejinni and play pool or billiards. No there wasn’t any great amount of socialising with your neighbours. Wave Hill was a big property beside us further on, but they were very big and so they socialised within their own circle. To me going there was just going further out into the bush. So we just socialised around ourselves too. We were very good friends with the Crowsons at Montejinni but we didn’t visit each other all the time because of distance.

“The main meeting time was at the Katherine Show and they used to have the Brahman Dinner put on by the Brahman organisation. That was a great night and we used to have great fun, also great fun at the ball too. We were probably in town for about a week. We all stayed at the same motels and so that was the one time of the year that we really got together.

“Our children just played around. I don’t think I worried too much about that. I taught a lot of the school. I did have two governesses over a period. I wasn’t ready to entertain them any more. So they seemed to manage. We always had a cat or one cat or two cats and a dog. They used to play amongst themselves then Norm the mechanic bought them each a little table and chairs, but then of course I confiscated that table and chairs and that’s what they did their school work on.

“We received news from Radio Australia, cause local stations, couldn’t beam in. Once we got a plane service, which was not too long after we’d been there in the isolated time. I know we used to get a Connellans plane once a week. That brought the mail in and the mail out and then we were able to get green vegetables and different bread and stuff as well as making home-made bread. Then we put up a big freezer and you could store more stuff than the 7.4 cubic kerosene refrigerator which I had for a long time. Then we got another bigger refrigerator called a Buzzacott. Then we could get papers on that plane too if I had ordered them and we used to get the local paper. I never got any Courier-Mails or anything like that because by the time they got to Katherine they were old. We used to get the local, well the Darwin paper first, but then eventually Katherine, somebody introduced a paper into Katherine and so that came out. So that’s how we got that, on those plane services.

“Also the mail flew in and out. We had to put our own airstrip in and that was passed and then that’s how the Flying Doctor could come in on regular visits, if you wished them, to see the people. You had like an “outpatients” time and you’d made sure to tell people “If you’ve got any problems, the doctor’s coming next week. Make sure you’re going to come down to the medical plane.” So you’d take them down and have a bit of an organised session and the doctor would see them, like they do at an outpatients department.

“There were kangaroos but they were a pest. We didn’t encourage them. They were around but we didn’t have them hopping around up where we are. I always had chooks and odd ducks that I hatched under chooks, or chooks I hatched under ducks. We had quite a few python snakes around and they used to eat my ducks or create problems. Of course there’s a fair bit of bird life, corellas and turkeys, wild turkeys, but not up there running around where we were.

“Sunsets were really beautiful but I didn’t have time to be looking at sunsets. We used to have lovely nights, just to sit out on the lawn we had at the homestead. It was fenced off too and the back lawn was where we always had the movies. The projector screen was like a roller blind, used to go up. We used to sit out on that back lawn, particularly in the hot weather a lot and eat out there, beautiful. That was your “quiet time”. But it was never quiet until 9 o’clock. You knew you had to get to 9.00 or half past nine because you knew nobody was going to come and ask you something. Because when we used to do the paperwork, it used to be always very late.

“The major changes up till when we sold it was the development – the homestead. Paul had sort of built before I went there and it was a pumice stone brick building which was big time for those days. Then I’m talking about the tin shed down the back that I was always trying to make look pretty. But then we developed and we built all mainly brick buildings. We got 24 hour power in the end, had proper street lights because the power was on in that compound. The power went then down to the main cattle yards so that’s how there was lights all in the yard and everything and you could actually load and draft stock at night which was a big thing. So there was a lot of development went on and then we built the overseers home so that you could get a married couple and we built proper kitchen block, dining room and billiard room and a proper flat for cooks and then staff quarters. Stock camps didn’t live up at the main compound when they were doing stock work, they lived in the stock camp. Cause they’d be away a fair percentage of the time and then as time went on, when the stock work was to be done, we got a contractor, so he employed his own men. So he didn’t occupy those rooms. He lived with his men in a certain area and then when his work stopped, he got rid of those men. But there was always about 15 people around the station, mechanics and people repairing fences, and bore runners and all that. Then of course the men were putting new bores down and new fencing. So there was never much spare time. You worked seven days a week and even in the wet season you see there was all the mechanical work that you had to bring up to scratch, or painting.

“It was dry country. You didn’t have a lot of rain. Katherine’s a wet area but out where we were at Camfield, that’s a dry area, because it’s short grass country, Mitchell and Flinders. One year we only got seven or eight inches of rain. I know it’s always fairly dry and very hot in the summer, very hot, you know you’d touch the chrome, even inside the house. Eventually I got air-conditioning too. The men down the other end had overhead fans, because had the 24 hour power. So you had to put some load on the generator. I didn’t run the air-conditioning that much during the daytime because, you’re in and out and it’s silly. But in the early stages, you know, you’d sit at 10 o’clock at night and touch the chrome of the table tops and it was still really really hot, because it retained heat. It’s all very well to say, well you modernise, you build in brick but of course it retains the heat. So then you put in air-conditioning. Brick retains heat while tin cools down, so much for a tin shed building in the end!

“I enjoyed my time at Camfield. Everything was slow going I suppose. Cattle market improvement helped make life better. When we went there, there was no cattle market. You were bringing cattle into Queensland and going broke because they knew you couldn’t take them back. It was tragic. But then the meat works opened up in Katherine and that was the big plus. You had a market for your cattle. So you could have some money and then development banks would loan you some money so we could develop. I didn’t want to retain the identity of living under a tin shed and making no progress. So because things were able to be done, you can cope with all that sort of life and it’s probably harsh, interesting and fun. And I have to say though we were very busy.”

(Betty Vandeleur was interviewed in June 2006).