“On a shelf in my study is my mother’s compendium.”
In 2006, Nancy Cherry Sarre sat down to read some of the letters her mother had left behind. What she discovered was so captivating it drew her into a long process, discovering and recording the history of generations of an Albury family.
“On a shelf in my study is my mother’s compendium, which was given to her for her twenty-first birthday. It is soft and warm to the touch; it is made of smooth, light tan leather and is completely unpretentious. It has a metal clasp marked “English Made” and is inscribed with her initials and the date “22 – 11 – 14” (22 November 1914) — her twenty-first birthday. The interior of the compendium is lined with a black, leather-like material on the right side, with compartments for letters, writing paper, envelopes, stamps and a holder for two pens and on the left there is a sheet of blotting paper.” (Sunshine from the North, p. vii)
Nancy spent years seeking out letters written by her parents and grandparents, which were held in different collections by various branches of the family, and then transcribing and compiling them to create a rich and engrossing story. The result is a book that gives us not only a family history, but also an intimate insight into the lives of those who came before us.
It is called Sunshine From the North.
“I can still smell the flowers that were in her coffin.”
“My Dear Lizzie,
‘Behold thy house is left unto thee desolate’ … Edie was taken bad after seven o’clock.”
Sunshine from the North is constructed in three parts. First there is the story of Nancy’s mother, Cherry, beginning with the harrowing story of her birth, and covering her early life of hardship, poverty and uncomplaining endurance during the time of the First World War.
Readers will be struck by the strength of the people involved and the way they supported each other through difficult years. We are moved by the letters of Cherry’s sister Eve, a young girl contending with household chores, the need for shoes, loneliness and fatigue, and disturbing memories.
She looked peaceful but there was a terrible look on her face when she was dead and I can still smell the scent of the flowers that were in her coffin when I go into her room. It relieves me to tell you this Auntie because I can’t tell anyone else here and I do so long for you to come, dear.
“I do not think she is half good enough for you.”
The second section of the book covers the early life of Nancy’s father Horace, beginning with the audacious pursuit of his father, George, by the young and lively Emily Hunter.
Emily has advice for young men on the use of moustache cups and the taking of holidays, and she makes her intentions plain.
“My dear Mr Stelling
You will be rather surprised to get a letter from me, but I hope you will not think it very dreadful. … Do you still think of going to Warnambool when you have your holidays? I think your Mamma would be glad if you did not, and excuse me for saying so, but I should be very glad too. From what I have heard of Miss Dawkins I do not think she is half good enough for you.”
Emily won her George. They became Horace’s parents and Nancy’s grandparents.
Horace’s life was not as difficult as Cherry’s, but it was far from privileged. He was born and raised in central Albury, where his father built several houses. Many of the houses and places mentioned in the book remain today.
“I’m chilled by the thought that you might not want to be bothered with letters from me.”
The third part of the book is told through a series of letters written between August and December 1926, when Cherry was living in Sydney and Horace was attempting to win her affections by correspondence.
“Dear Miss Cole,
It appears to me that perhaps the greatest pleasures in life are derived from contact with someone whose ideals and outlook on life correspond with one’s own and I will say right now that the pleasure I derived from your company is something I will not forget, my only regret being that you had to return so soon.
That’s why I’m writing this – it’s the next best thing to seeing you. I’m very chilled by the thought that you might not want to be bothered with letters from me. I would be very happy if you could set my mind at rest on that point, but mind – please be quite frank with me, the same as I’m trying to be with you. That’s only fair, isn’t it?
Your humble admirer,
Horace W. Stelling.”
Even from a young age, Horace was a thoughtful and philosophical man, with a keen eye for nature and a poetic turn of phrase. He was also touchingly smitten. His letters are delightfully counterpointed by the practical and cautious Cherry.
You see I am dispensing with formalities. May I and will you? I wanted to ask that when I was there.
I will be pleased to hear from you whenever you have time and inclination to write, and I will answer but I hope you won’t be disappointed in my letters. You don’t know me very well you know, and I feel that really, I’m not in the least bit interesting.”
A Lasting Legacy
Since they came to light, Horace’s letters have been quoted in David Lawrence’s 2012 publication, Albury Botanic Gardens. They were also used in the Delightfully Deco Albury exhibition held in the Albury LibraryMuseum in 2011.
Together the letters Nancy collected provide us with a first-hand account of country and urban Australia in the late nineteenth century, and of Albury life in the 1920s. They are soon to be acquired by the Albury LibraryMuseum for its local history collection.
Sunshine in the North is a rich and entertaining read and a compelling story. It is available for purchase at the Albury LibraryMuseum or by contacting Joanna Baker (firstname.lastname@example.org).