Ella ‘Flo’ Wallis, 1898 – 1994

By Shannon Harvey, with Marie Darke

Ella Florence Wallis was my Great Nana, and my Nana Marie’s mum. She was born in Buckinghamshire in 1898 and died in Sydney, Australia in 1994. Ella lived through the two World Wars, immigrated to Australia twice, chased me around the garden and taught me nursery rhymes.

Pussycat, pussycat, where have you been?
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.
Pussycat, pussycat, what did you there?
I frightened a little mouse under her chair.

Flo, as her family called her, was the youngest of four children. Her mum died before her first birthday and she always remembered her unhappy childhood. She left school at 14 to work at the BTH engineering works in Rugby, where she stayed until she migrated to Australia in 1925. She was 26 when she got engaged to my Great Grandpa, just before he sailed for Australia, and agreed to meet him there 12 months later. Marie writes to me, “She was told she was a very foolish lady to let him go, but she obviously knew better. How wrong everybody was!”

My great grandparents married in Sydney in 1925, where they ran a hotel. Ten years later, Ella was pregnant with her second child Marie, and feeling homesick for her family in England. Another 75 years later, I have feelings of homesickness that run back in the other direction, from London to Sydney. But I’m connected by thousands of threads of communication, through facebook, twitter, skype and aeroplanes. Six months pregnant, my Great Nana, Great Grandpa and nine-year-old Great Uncle Owen had to take the boat, sailing all the way back to England for a ‘short’ holiday. They arrived at Tilbury Docks on 1st August 1935.

They always intended to return to Australia, but once war broke out in 1939, passenger ships were prevented from sailing. When my Great-Grandpa had a heart attack, Flo worked in her brother’s engineering plant as the ‘welfare lady’. Marie, my Nana, was 13 when her family finally returned to Australia in 1948, a country she was seeing for the first time.

When Marie tells me about Ella, she tells me most of all how much she loved us. Us: her two children, her ten grandchildren, her 29 great grandchildren. She never knew the 12 more great grandchildren born after she died. I was the 19th great grandchild, but the first great grandchild through Ella’s daughter. Nana remembers:

I still vividly remember when you were born. Great Nana was at the doctors and I had to go and pick her up. We had just got word from your dad that they had a little girl. There was so much excitement, I think everybody in the doctor’s surgery was told that Nana had another great grandchild.

Ella ‘Flo’ Wallis died on a Friday evening, when I was 12 and she was 96. When I asked Marie to tell me about Ella, what she told me was not about the things she did (the sort of things that go in history books), but about how she loved. Most likely, that’s because that’s always the most important thing we remember about someone once they’ve gone.

I think, though, it’s probably also because Ella was a woman. Women are especially likely to be remembered for the way they care for others, as mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers. What this means, though, is that herstories are often too ‘ordinary’ to be history. But for me, Ella’s herstory weaves a context for my stories: my funny Great Nana who first made me think about going to London to visit the Queen.