Fay’s life of many layers
By Daisy Baker
September 18, 2019
Whether you are calling someone in the same suburb or interstate, today it is as simple as picking up a phone, dialling the number and waiting for someone to answer.
In years gone by however, this process relied on telephone operators manually connecting calls by inserting a pair of phone plugs into the appropriate jacks.
This is a process Bridport’s Fay Ralph remembers well, after spending much of her working life as a switchboard operator.
Her career started with a position on the Adelaide Telephone Exchange when she was 16, where she just made the height requirements.
“I was a little bit taller then and I just scraped in – you had to be able to get up to 9,000 numbers,” she says.
“Getting to know the aboriginal names for towns was a bit of a tongue twister.”
She was one of around 300 young women working in the Adelaide Telephone Exchange, rostered over morning, afternoon and night shifts.
She eventually transferred back to Launceston, where she worked until she was married.
“In those days, when you’re in Government service, once you get married, you’re kicked out.
“But it wasn’t too long before I was back there permanent again.”
Fay went on to work on the switchboards for Myer and D and W Murray.
“You get to know a lot of people and businesses personally because you’re the in between person.
“If Myer here wanted to talk to head office in Melbourne, I would connect them.
“I really enjoyed being a switchboard operator.”
She moved to Bridport around 35 years ago with her late husband George.
The couple visited the seaside town on their honeymoon and returned for many summer holidays before retiring.
At 88, Fay is far from slowing down, spending her days painting, researching her family history and gardening.
She was born in 1931 and was one of 11 children to Archibald and Edna Johnstone.
Her childhood was largely spent in Launceston, but she often visited Scottsdale and stayed with her extended family.
Her mother was a Sellers, the sister of well-known sportsman Keith ‘Nugget’ Sellers.
She says her identity was always tied to Nugget.
“I was never introduced as Fay Ralph or Fay, I was always introduced as Nugget’s niece,” she laughs.
The Sellers arrived in Scottsdale in the 1890s and set up a blacksmith’s shop.
“My grandfather was a wheelwright and made his own tools and as I remember, he shod a lot of racehorses,” she recalls.
“I remember staying there as a child. There was a big shed out the back which was the washroom.
“My grandmother had help from a dear old lady called Mrs Brown.
“Sellers’ corner was the hub of Scottsdale, the gossip corner and where all the bartering was done. A bag of potatoes for some jobs done, that kind of thing.”
Fay says in her adult life, she and George would often take Nugget on roadtrips around the state as he didn’t have a car.
“It was marvellous, not matter where you went, he knew the place, he knew people who played sport in the area.”
Like her uncle, Fay was very involved in sport.
It was after damaging her Achilles tendon while playing golf that she first turned her hand to porcelain painting.
That was during the 70s and she is still an avid painter to this day.
Displayed in cabinets around her light-filled Bridport home are collections of her artwork – porcelain painting, watercolour and acrylics.
After teaching porcelain painting in Bridport for several years, Fay saw an ad in the paper that local artist John Gibb was starting watercolour lessons.
Fay says she and the painting group decided to ‘close up shop’ and venture to a new medium.
Over the years, she has had her work exhibited in numerous interstate exhibitions and attended lots of workshops to garner skills from different painters.
Today, Fay is an active member of Brushstrokes painting group and enjoys attending their monthly painting days.
“I don’t have enough hours in the day,” she laughs, pointing to several porcelain saucers waiting to be fired in her kiln.
“You paint them about three times. Some of mine have been in the kiln half a dozen times or more – you do different stages and the gold goes on last.
“I’ve got one here with some Bridport sand, another with red Scottsdale soil these are all different techniques you do a workshops.”
It was not until later in life that Fay discovered her aboriginal heritage.
“My sister started looking into the history of our family and started talking about aboriginal heritage during the 50s and I didn’t believe her but now I have that much history and genealogy – the past of our family is no longer hidden,” she says.
Fay’s grandmother was Dolly Dalrymple Mountgarrett Briggs, the granddaughter of aboriginal leader Mannalargenna.
“We went to a Briggs’ genealogy meeting at Latrobe in 1988 after seeing a notice in the paper,” she explains.
“It had all these names down the line from Mannalargenna and the Sellers came up.
“That’s when I started getting interested.”
She went with Nugget, her sister Janet and their mum.
“It opened up a new door and George and I made a whole lot of new friends,” she says happily.
“And I’m learning new things all the time, reading books and learning about the culture.”
Looking out over the bay from the dining room of her Bridport home, she says, “I think for my 88 years, I can be very grateful”.