Ailsa Breen’s long life began in challenging circumstances in working class Wales in the 1920s. At the time of her passing, almost 96 years later, she was a much loved matriarch of a large and happy family in Sydney.
It was a life which spanned the major events of the 20th century. The Great Depression, World War 2 and its aftermath.
At her funeral, her family were spaced 1.5 metres apart in the chapel due to regulations for the Covid-19 pandemic. 80 years previously, Ailsa was in the gun pits working with the ‘ak-ak’ anti-aircraft battery fighting the Battle of Britain.
Ailsa was born in Wales on March 24, 1924, in the town of Llangollen. Her early years are still a little cloudy, and were to her too.
She never knew her father, and while her mother had other children – including Molly and Bill who she came to know later in life – she didn’t live with them.
At a very early age she found herself in a hospital home, ostensibly because she had rickets, and ultimately spent ten years there.
Typically, she wasn’t one to complain. In her 90s she did an interview with her grand daughter Queenie for a university assignment, and it contains some great quotes which characterize her attitude:
“I had a very very happy childhood there,” she said.
“They looked after us, were kind to us. I had plenty of playmates and of course they also cured the rickets for me which was a marvelous thing.”
But instead of rejoining her family after those ten years, she was taken to another home which wasn’t so good.
“It was a place with bars on the windows, extreme strictness, food that wasn’t very good and all told the memory wasn’t good,” Ailsa told Queenie.
“The girl that I was with was named Ivy, and I said to Ivy ‘we’re either gonna obey everything they say or we’re really going to play up and get them to send us away.’”
So they decided to play up, and it wasn’t long before they left, or were kicked out.
From there, Ailsa went to a convent home at Rottingdean, near Brighton in the south of England, and she was happy there.
The nuns, she told Queenie, were the “kindest, loveliest people” and she had a particular affection for a sister Doris. She looked on her “like a relative” she said, and she had to crank the organ for her when she played at the church on Sundays, desperate to do a good job because she liked her so much.
From there, at the age of 16, Ailsa went to work in a nursing home but the war had started by then.
Here’s what she told her grand daughter:
“One morning I thought I don’t know what to do with my life and so I went for a little walk and saw this placard…it said ‘We need you.’”
It was a recruitment poster for the armed services, so Ailsa signed up – lying about her age and telling them she was 18.
At the recruitment station they talked to her about what arm of the services she should join. Her legs, apparently, were too short to be a lorry driver and she couldn’t swim so that ruled out the Navy.
Eventually, they suggested the heavy ‘ak ak’ anti aircraft guns and she was sent to the village of Warrington to an ‘ak ak’ battery.
Her career there was not without its controversies. She was promoted from private to lance corporal but was busted back to private for insubordination when she called out the ridiculous behaviour of a superior officer.
It was a typical response from someone who had little respect for fools, even if they were supposed to be in charge.
It was during her Army service that she actually made contact with her family again, more by luck than by anything else.
She remembered the word “Llangollen” hanging on a chart over her bed while she was in the first nursing home, so she assumed – correctly – the she was from there.
She thought she’d have a stab in the dark and try and find them, so she wrote a letter.
Here’s what she told Queenie:
“I just took a chance and I’d no idea why, I thought I’ll pick a number, and somebody walked by and said something and then she said; “I told you, its number ten!” I put number ten down and I put George Street. And why I put George Street I don’t know, I put Llangollen, North Wales, wrote out the story, said, “Please if you know anything about my mother, could you pass this to her? And have I got a mother?” and that’s how it started.
And when the letter got there, she sent it to my eldest brother. Then she went and told my mother that I had been found. And they were all excited about this. And my eldest brother in particular was excited about it, because he’s the eldest in the family and I was her eighth child. So anyway, he wrote to me straight away, can you get to come and see us? We’re all looking forward to seeing you. So I went and I asked can I have leave and they said yes. And I went off and he told me where to go, how would you expect anybody to get there when they’ve got no sense of direction to go down the corridor? But anyway, I did what I thought he said, but I got off at the wrong station; so then I had to get the bus.
Well I got the bus, and I said to the driver, “This is where I’m going, would you be able to put me off?” and he said “Yes, yes that’s alright.” so I was in uniform, and I of course I sat down, and Molly, who on the way got on the bus to come and meet me, got on the bus, must have known it was me in uniform, never said a word to me! When we got to where the driver said, “This is there you get off, its straight up there.” I said ok, and she got off too! Never said anything to me! And so, I walked down and got to the house, and it was you know a council house and everybody was in the living room which wasn’t very big anyway, and so I got in and where was no grabbing, no “Oh how are you!” anything like that, they all looked at me!
My mother was sitting down, I didn’t know at the time that she was quite sick, but she was sitting down, didn’t make a great deal of fuss, there was quite a few people in there, I didn’t know who was who, it was staggering really. But anyway, you know me. When anybody spoke I said, “Well, who are you? Are you my brother? Or what are you?”
It was also in the army that she met Joan, who became her best friend for many years and really was a part of the family with her husband Vin Lydiate, her husband Jack’s best friend.
The story about how she met Jack is best saved till last, but suffice to say that they met during the war and married soon after, beginning a successful partnership of over 60 years.
Initially, they lived in a flat in Baker Street, London, but were restless for change. Just after the war, England was not a very optimistic place for a young working class couple with ambition, and Jack was keen to emigrate to either Canada or to Australia.
They chose Australia, and because of the need to find an initial sponsor they moved to Adelaide and began a happy life there.
They made their own bricks to make their own house, started up their own business, worked hard to get ahead and started their family.
So many of Jack’s family came out to join them and they were at the centre of a vibrant social life with extended family and friends in the suburb of Elizabeth – home to many newly arrived families from the UK.
Jack originally got a job in his profession as a tool maker at the Holden car plant, but had bigger plans and they wanted to be their own boss.
Their businesses flourished, and they were able to move into a house in the sought after suburb of Tusmore during the teenage years of their three daughters Wilson, Sally and Alison.
It was a long way from an orphanage in Wales, not knowing who your parents were.
These were great years in Adelaide, full of fun with friends and overseas travel to the UK many times – where they still had family and friends – to the US and to Asia.
Ailsa had a great sense of humour, enjoyed a laugh and no problem in laughing at herself. She was formidably hardworking and had a fiercely independent outlook.
She might not have called herself a feminist but there were many aspects to her approach to life which resonated with the true principles of feminism.
Jack and Ailsa tried very hard to retire to Goolwa and enjoy a quiet life of golf and various hobbies, but like the family oriented people they were they followed their daughters to Sydney, enjoying several decades close to them and to their grandchildren.
To conclude, it is appropriate to go back to Ailsa’s own words – recorded by her grand daughter – describing how she met Jack and came to go out with him.
“There was a girl called Joyce Rickle and, she was very pretty, small girl Nice girl, but she met Jack and sometimes she used to want to write to Jack and say, “I can’t make it this week!” because she was going out with somebody else and she used to say, “I don’t know what to say! “And she used to say to me ; “Tell me what to say!” so I almost wrote her letters from her writing them down. And I said, “Who is Jack?” and she said, “Oh you’ll see him.” she said, “He’ll be at the dance on Sunday” or whatever day it was. And on this day I saw him and I thought oh hmmm he’s all right…But then I saw how he danced! And he danced — very good dancer!
I had a friend, a close friend, who had a friend of Jack’s as her boyfriend and so they were having something one day and they said to Jack; “Do you want to come? Its just a little get together with a little party” and he said, “Yeah all right!” and he asked Joyce and she couldn’t go and so my friends said, “Ask Ailsa, she’ll come.” So I said, “What is it?” and they said, “Just a little sort of get together thing.” I said all right and I went, and that’s sort of how the two of us got together. And I thought but they had already broken up, I hadn’t sort of snatched anybody. I wasn’t able to! But anyway then we started going out and yeah I thought he was a good dancer and I enjoyed his company and that’s how we sort of got going.”
And get going they did….