The Golden Years – Win Osbourne

Long lives well lived, a wealth of wisdom accumulated over the years…There is much we can learn from our elders and so many stories waiting to be heard. Mirror journalist Wendy Williamson meets Win Osborne.

 “So much for my name being ‘Win,’ I never win anything!” laughs Win Osborne, who was born Winifred Cook nearly 90 years ago.

Win’s parents and three brothers came out from Scotland in 1921. She was born 12 months later.

“My uncles were wheelwrights in Leongatha. They came to Australia in the 1800s and wrote recommending Australia as a good place to bring up children. My father used to take milk to Glasgow from Stirling, first in a cart and then in the first motorised vehicle.”

If they had hoped to have an easier life in Australia, Win’s parents were at first sorely disappointed. They farmed out of Leongatha for a couple of years, rearing heifers which had never been handled, and then shifted to Woorarra.

“They had it very hard there and had quite made up their minds to go back to Scotland, but another Scottish family talked them into staying and helped them settle,” says Win, who recognises her life could have turned out quite differently if her parents had given up on their new country. It would have been a great loss for Toora, too, for the Cook name, and later Win’s married name of Osborne, have featured strongly in the annals of local history, as can be seen if you glance through Jane Vale and Neil Everitt’s popular history of Toora (1888-1988), ‘With Mud on their Boots.’

The Cooks bought land on Silcock’s Hill, above Toora township, and called the property ‘Grand View.’ A wind farm now stands on some of that land, but for many years Silcock’s Hill was farmed by members of the Cook family. Win’s father was a progressive farmer. In a period when all farmers planted oats for their winter hay, he and his neighbour Fred Clarke cut the first grass hay in the district, probably in Gippsland. He also designed a horse-drawn hay sweep during the 1920s before commercial models came on the market. His obituary recalled him as a great judge of the once-popular Ayrshire breed of cattle, a fine old time and Scottish dancer, a great sportsman, and a master of the art of building a hay stack!

Win’s eldest brother, William, studied law through correspondence and was offered a job with a law firm in Melbourne, but he chose to stay and help his father on the land. He married Esther Orchard in 1937 and moved onto his own farm on Silcock’s Hill. It was a difficult site, but he made a great success of it. He combined farming with an outstanding record of public service, including 33 years as a Councillor with the Shire of South Gippsland. He was awarded the MBE in 1980, and the pavilion at Toora Recreation Reserve is named in honour of this great sportsman, family man and remarkable citizen.

Everyone worked hard on the farm where Win grew up. There were 76 cows to be milked, 40 calves to be fed and lots of pigs. Win can remember her father buying an old tractor and clearing the property so they could grow potatoes. At some stage the family bought a second farm in Creamery Valley Road (where Win’s nephew now lives), which required hours of backbreaking work clearing tussocks, blackberries, ragwort and other weeds.

“We had two Italian prisoners of war during the war and they were good workers,” says Win.

Her brothers were all keen on sport and played football and cricket locally. Win played sport with her brothers. By two and a half she was riding a horse. A few years later she was riding to school down muddy old Silcock’s Hill Road to a Toora which was vastly different from the town of today.

“It’s unbelievable how much it has changed. I can remember when there were three butcher shops, three grocers, a shoe shop, a few dress shops and many more shops. On Pig and Lady Day you couldn’t get a car park anywhere in town!”

‘Pig and Lady Day’ was so called because it was the day, once a fortnight on a Monday, when the farmer brought his baconers to the saleyards in town. He was generally accompanied by his ‘lady,’ happy to have a day’s shopping. With the introduction of bulk milk pick-ups and the ceasing of on-farm separation of milk, farmers discontinued the raising of pigs and the pig sale declined until it finally finished in the 1960s.

Win finished school at Toora with a Merit Certificate when she was just 13 and a half. Recognising her academic potential, the local solicitor suggested she attend Presbyterian Ladies College with his daughter, but her family could not afford the expense, so she stayed in Toora and helped on the farm.

MARRIAGE AND CHILDREN

At a welcome home in Toora Hall for local boys who had returned from the war Win met George Osborne, over from the Otways to visit his aunts who lived locally.  He had been in the 2/3 Australian Infantry Battalion and was one of the famous Rats of Tobruk. He was a prisoner of war for four and a half years, with his family believing him dead. Such was his bravery, Win heard years later that if her husband’s lieutenant had lived he would have recommended George for a medal. She and George married in 1946 in the Presbyterian Church (now Uniting) which Win’s mother had finally, after much hard work, seen established in Toora in 1939.

“We lived in town for a few months, but George always wanted a farm so we bought a small farm at Agnes. We had no electricity, no phone, just 26 cows on 40 acres of good land. Life was very hard.”

George had hopes of expanding his farm and turning it into a Jersey stud called ‘Strathmore Stud’ after the boat in which he had returned from the war. Sadly, he did not live to see his dream realised, but passed away in 1954 when his three children – Graham, Rosina and Noela (Stone as she is now) were still very young. Win moved into town and let the farm, devoting her energies to bringing up the children on her own. She clearly did a magnificent job.

A SPORTING LIFE

Graham developed into a superb athlete. He presumably got over the disappointment of having two sisters. On the birth of Noela he is credited with remarking “I don’t want another sister, I want ten brothers, to have a cricket team!” While he was still at Foster High he was presented with an athletics trophy by John Landy. Nicknamed ‘Ozzie’ and ‘Gra,’ Graham played football for Toora for some time and was then wooed to the VFL by Melbourne Football Club. Reluctant to leave Toora, the bank officer only agreed to play for the VFL when he was transferred to the city by his employer. A newspaper clipping which his mother keeps to this day bears witness to how lucky he is to have survived his teens – and prosper. When he was about 17 he and three mates were swept two miles out to sea in a boating mishap. They spent two hours in freezing waters and were only saved by the crew of a fishing boat who happened to spot them and hauled them to safety.

Graham boarded in Melbourne at first, bringing all his dirty clothes home every weekend for his Mum to wash! There is some compensation, however. Win says her son is described in a book about football great Norm Smith as “the best country recruit they’d ever seen”.

Not surprisingly given the Cook genes, Win excelled at whatever sport she tried. She played tennis for many years, frequently partnered by Noela. In the 1960s she was part of a team which won the South Gippsland Tennis grand final three times in a row. Later Win took up bowls instead, and excelled at that, too. She gardened at the bowls club and was president for a couple of years and she did the flowers for the table and for the Uniting Church. She also found the time to be treasurer for the Toora RSL Women’s Auxiliary and for the Uniting Church Guild and help raise funds for Mirridong at Yarram, which a friend’s son attended.

Win moved into Banksia Lodge two and a half years ago when the house and garden became too much for even this keen gardener to look after. For several years before that she had cared for her parents and her older brother. Now the grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of a further eight appreciates being looked after herself.

“The staff are very good to us here,” she says. She joins in the various activities when she can – cards are a favourite when there is someone to play with. Win can be relied on to do the scoring and keep track of the game. She also enjoys reading, knitting and following sport, especially tennis. Her Scottish ancestry encourages her to keep pushing for a win for Andy Murray.

“My eldest brother took me to Scotland – it must have been 30 years ago – and we met what were left of our relatives. It rained nearly all the time, and I could appreciate why my family came out here so many years ago!”