11/12/1888 – 19/8/1973
My father was the second to last of 13 children; born to the 2nd wife (Mary Stokes) of William McGilchrist, whose first wife (Marion Kettle) had 3 children making a total of 16. Of these children only 7 survived infancy and one, Jack, died when he was 29 as the result of drinking from a soda water bottle containing an acid that was used to clean the bar in a hotel.
My father’s upbringing was without much affection from his parents, who were too busy with pregnancies, caring for small and often ailing children and organising and attending funerals. What a debilitating and sorrowful existence. His parents were also fairly rigidly Presbyterian, in the reserved, undemonstrative and God-fearing Scottish mould of those days. My father was so terrified of God-the-omniscient-one that his life and death were blighted by his conviction that everything he did, said or even secretly thought would be severely punished in the next life.
Against this background it is amazing that he became such a very sensitive, intelligent, able and lovable man. He was also very loving in his reticent undemonstrative way In spite of extreme shyness, even timidity, he became a first rate head teacher in South Australian primary schools; his last school (in Highgate an Adelaide suburb) was designated a demonstration school by the SA Education department, and was used to impress overseas visitors.
When he was on yard duty at school the children would compete to hold his hands, asking someone “to mind my hand” if they should have to go to the toilet or absent themselves for any other reason.
Once he unwisely told his two daughters that tears came into his eyes when he looked at a pansy, it was so beautiful and velvety. From then on, whenever the work “pansy was uttered there was a chorus of boo-hoos from the rest of the family.
He was definitely a small-child’s parent. When his daughters became young adults he was stricken by his shyness and was unable to find words for conversation. He and I walked together to the tram stop where we caught the same tram every weekday morning – in silence, as I, too inherited his shyness. But his deep, unspoken love for his family was never in question.
His interests and hobbies were many and varied and some of them quite unusual. He taught himself to knit and sew in order to teach his students these arts. His first knitted item was a face-cloth, which he created by casting on one stitch and increasing it by two stitches, one at each end of the rows until he had made a triangle half the size of the finished article. Then he decreased correspondingly to make a mirror image of the first triangle so that he had a square face-washer.
The sewing eventually became incredibly fine petit-point embroidery for which he created his own designs, producing upholstery for our piano stool and a number of very elegant evening bags which my mother lined and equipped with brass clasps and chain handles.
He was a good pianist and could skilfully sight-read music, enjoyed baking cakes and cooking a roast, and could write Latin and read Greek, attended classes at the South Australian School of arts and Crafts and was an enthusiastic gardener, who taught his children the botanical names of plants so that they became an unselfconscious part of our ordinary vocabulary and linger today (when an ageing memory doesn’t obliterate them!)
But his main and obsessive interest was in collecting genealogical data for two family trees – the McGilchrist and the Robertson families, which were connected in the 1800’s when William Robertson married Marion McGilchrist, the daughter of the Rev. James McGilchrist. He spent many years compiling these two histories, absorbed in investigations which held little interest for his wife and even less for his two daughters, since he found no convicts, eccentrics or rebels in our past, nothing but worthy and conventional citizens. Many of these he invited for afternoon tea where they sat stiffly on our lounge, holding their cups of tea and nibbling my mother’s sandwiches and cakes. (Was a little resentment included in the recipes …?) I have unremarkably forgotten all the conversations, but I presume they consisted of who married who, how many children and grandchildren they had, who had died and other such geekish details which certainly didn’t fascinate the haughty teenager I was then.
However, all this research resulted in two enormous and immaculately handwritten (printed) charts, mapping the McGilchrist and Robertson trees and a book called “William Robertson, Victorian Pioneer, 1837 – 1890”. In spite of the fact that a list of connected names and dates still doesn’t enthral me, I cannot help being impressed by the magnitude of the task, the skill involved, the neatness of my father’s printing and his perseverance in the face of his family’s lack of interest, even some hurt feelings on my mothers part at what she felt was neglect of her as he withdrew into his own world. The book “William Robertson”, however, is not a mere list of names, but is full of detail and a real person’s life and times.
On a rainy night in 1973 my father was absentmindedly (he was always a dreamer) walking across a road in Elsternwick, a suburb of Melbourne, when we was knocked over by a car. He was taken by ambulance to hospital, where my mother, my sister and I duly gathered at his bedside. He was found to have a fractured femur and an impacted pelvis, but in spite of his pain and shock, his eyes lit up when he saw us and he said, with unusual expression of emotion, “My Family, my jewels". For six weeks he lay in traction with his leg raised to assist in the healing. Old bones (he was 84) do knit, but on the verge of discharge from hospital, he suffered a “sub-dural haematoma” (a blood clot on the brain, causing a fatal stroke), probably as a result of striking his head on something as he fell. He died on 19th August 1973. The music he had stipulated for his funeral was “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” (J.S. Bach), which certainly and appropriately caused the tears to flow.
Erica McGilchrist, March 2009
Erica may have been disappointed that her father's research into the family tree failed to locate any "convicts, eccentrics or rebels" but in my opinion they were there all the time. Certainly William Robertson was acquainted with many convicts, Stevenson himself would today be deemed to be eccentric and Erica herself, - a rebel if ever there was one.
Erica & Marion abt 1930