Nell Charlwood, who died on March 22 aged 97, was a pioneer of primary school libraries, a Melbourne State College lecturer, foundation member of Young Australians Best Book Awards, Canadian farm-girl, innovative teacher, mother of four, grandmother of five, enthusiastic traveller and generous giver of hospitality to a worldwide network of friends. She was a vital support to her husband, author Don Charlwood, whom she met in Edmonton, Alberta, in 1941.
Nell lived in Australia for 72 years – as a Canadian citizen. As far as we know, Nell was the last of Melbourne’s group of Canadian war brides, who married Australian servicemen – mostly RAAF trainees – during or after World War II.
Nell and Don met when Nell’s Australian mother phoned the Air Force base to invite “a couple of Aussies home for supper”, after seeing the AUSTRALIA flash on servicemen’s uniforms. Their romance was tested by Don’s posting to Bomber Command in England, where he completed a tour of 30 operations as a navigator – his crew the first for more than eight months to survive a tour from their base.
Unexpectedly, Don returned to Canada and took the opportunity to propose to Nell. They married in Victoria, British Columbia, and in 1945 journeyed to Australia by ship before the Pacific war ended, settling in Melbourne, Don’s home city.
Melbourne was also the original home of Nell’s mother. By amazing coincidence Nell and Don discovered that their grandfathers knew one another in the late 1800s.
Nell’s mother, Deborah (Dora) Ellis, grew up in St Kilda. Her Jewish family was active in Australia’s art, literary and legal circles. When nursing in Perth, Dora met Neil East, a Canadian working a family mine on Western Australia’s Murchison goldfields. They pioneered an Alberta wheat farm after marrying in 1912.
Nell was born Nellie May East on June 30, 1919, in the town of Vermilion. Growing up on a farm snowbound in winter, she rode a horse to school. Nell’s 80-year driving career began with a seven-horse team, her father’s prerequisite for driving a car.
Nell completed teacher training, then taught in Alberta from 1938-44. To quote her memoirs: “I decided in my third year of teaching to apply for a school nearer the city. With a good report from my inspector, I was able to get a school 28 miles south of Edmonton. There was no town or even a village, just a school among farms. When I heard the number of pupils in the school, I was not sure I had done the right thing.”
There were 45 pupils, in all grades from one to nine inclusive, as well as six beginners, three of whom could speak no English! Nell was the only teacher.
Nell and Don’s three daughters, Jan, Sue and Doreen, were born between 1948 and 1956, their son James in 1962. In the early 1950s Nell and Don laboured for Nell’s father, building their home on an acre of lemon orchard in rural Templestowe.
Nell capably assisted Don as he wrote his first book, No Moon Tonight, about his wartime experiences. Nell typed, corrected and retyped the manuscript many times and shared Don’s pride in its 1956 publication and excellent reviews in the UK and Australia.
In 1957 the family travelled to England, continental Europe and then Canada, where Nell’s much-loved brother, Dr Ellis East, was dying of leukaemia.
Even into her 90s, Nell typed Don’s manuscripts and was his first critic.
Nell returned to teaching, in a school library, in 1959. After a break when James was born, she returned to her profession: two-year-old James travelled daily by taxi from kindergarten to his mother’s library.
The brand-new library was state-of-the-art for its time. Nell established it as a much-admired and visited centre of excellence, renowned for its displays and success with reluctant readers.
In 1969, the Education Department granted Nell a year on full pay to complete a teacher-librarianship course. She was then asked to set up and run a purpose-built school library, to be visited by trainee teacher-librarians, before being appointed as lecturer in school librarianship at Melbourne State College.
Nell’s imagination enjoyed full rein working with children’s books: she once entered a full lecture hall dressed as Paddington Bear, carrying a suitcase, wearing a fur coat, with a “Please look after this bear” sign around her neck. She was very involved with Dromkeen, the Children’s Literature Centre, and on the committee that established YABBA, the Young Australians Best Book Award.
After time at the Correspondence School, including visits to families in remote parts of Victoria, Nell’s final appointment was as a primary school principal.
Her retirement was full of travel (with several trips to Canada), grandchildren, volunteer work, office work for James’s stonemasonry business, committees and, always, assisting Don with his writing. Even into her 90s, Nell typed Don’s manuscripts and was his first critic.
To keep Don’s books in print, Nell and Don set up their own publishing business, Burgewood Books, managing distribution themselves – work continued by Doreen. This included many “bookselling” trips along their beloved Great Ocean Road and Shipwreck Coast.
In later years, Nell worked steadily on her memoirs, to the delight of her children and grandchildren. She wrote of life in the isolation of the Canadian prairies – preparing and storing food for long winters, near-disaster when lost on a frozen river in a horse-drawn sleigh, summer wheat-threshing, and being little sister to a brother who had no playmates, so teased her mercilessly.
Don predeceased Nell by nearly five years. Nell said: “Don and I have had a very happy and interesting life together and I have never regretted coming to live in Australia.” A resident of Templestowe then Warrandyte for more than 60 years, Nell lived with her eldest daughter, Jan, in Hastings, from 2013, then moved into The Bays aged care facility nearby.
With the development of vascular dementia, Nell stepped back from outer cares and busyness, increasingly enjoying the moment – playfully at first, then more and more quietly. In grandson Richard’s words: “My grandmother was for years free of superfluity; it evaporated and her essence remained.”
Music and children particularly brought her joy. Her greatest joy was celebrating Canada Day and Thanksgiving – an initiative of The Bays. Until recently she sang O Canada with gusto, then had the thrill of dancing energetically with son or grandson. Her last dance (only with a daughter!) was less than three weeks before her passing.
Jan devotedly visited Nell at The Bays almost every day to do their Transcendental Meditation together – Don introduced this to the family years before. Nell continued to love seeing family and friends, old and new, her face lighting up in a warm smile.
She became a serene and graceful presence at The Bays and passed away surrounded by staff and family. We were fortunate to have our prairie girl with us for so long.
* Written by Nell Charlwood’s children.