Obituary: Flora Steel Relph

Flora Steel Relph 1911-2020 (109 years old)

Flora Steel Relph, who has died aged 109, was born in the same bedroom as her mother, Ruby Henderson (nee Steel) and older sister Alice, in a Presbyterian manse in Queanbeyan on March 18, 1911. She died in Springwood's Buckland Nursing Home during the COVID-19 lockdown on Mother's Day, May 10, 2020.

Flora Relph's great grandfather was James Barnet, the colonial architect of NSW that followed Francis Greenaway. He was responsible for the GPO at Martin Place.

Her paternal great grandmother was Sarah Hawkins, one of eight children who with their mother and father, Elizabeth and Thomas Hawkins, were the first free settlers who traveled over the Blue Mountains in 1823 to settle at " Blackdown" in Bathurst. Many family members are in the pioneer section of Kelso Cemetery. The first night of their crossing the Mountains was at an inn near a spring in the woods, thus the name Springwood. There is a cairn on Macquarie Road about the place where the inn was. Springwood would continue to hold significance for the family in years to come.

Relph was a preacher's kid (PK) and one of four children (Alice, Flora, Amy and James). The family moved to Moruya where she started school at six. That was where she first learned to crochet and sew buttons on, and later knit sox for the soldiers in WW1. Some of her jobs were to milk the cow, make the butter and check the rabbit traps and sweep the verandah where they all slept in summer. They would go foraging for the passionfruit that fell into the grass along the fence.

They moved to Coffs Harbour/Coramba on the NSW North Coast where Jim was born. Later, the family moved to Albion Park. Because the family was poor the four children had no shoes. The other kids laughed at them, so her father, Reverend E.S Henderson, drew around their feet on paper and took it to Sydney when he went next for his ministry work, and brought home a pair of sandals for each kid.

She went to a domestic home science school in Wollongong and would pick mushrooms in the paddocks and take it to the grocer for pocket money. She played hockey, was good at Maths because at home they played card games and cribbage, all counting games. She had to do her homework by the light of a kerosene lamp, on the kitchen table. By the time she left school the family had moved to Liverpool. It was a very poor time in Australia with many folk out of work and living under bridges and down by the river, which is where she learned to swim. Liverpool was also where she learned to drive the car. It was a 1929 Chev, called "Betty". Her father taught her to drive: one lesson, crank the car to start, a long clutch, put it in gear and steer. That was the lesson. The police tester said: see that paddock over there, drive around all those trees and stumps. She came out unscathed and got her licence.

She started working in a shop but was not satisfied, so went to business college and learned Pittman shorthand and typing. She was able to gain work as a stenographer in the Presbyterian Church offices in Sydney. On the same floor was Rev. John Flynn, 'Flynn of the Inland' and the Flying Doctor Service, who would love to tell of his travels in the outback. She also met his wife who was an AIM nurse. Perhaps that's where her nursing profession began.

Her boss was also a keen cricketing enthusiast and because he loved to go to the SCG to watch Don Bradman play, he thought it unfair that his workers missed out, so she used to go too. She would sit on the Hill and became enthralled with the game of cricket. Her 21st birthday was the day before the Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened in 1932.

The next phase of her life began when she became a trained nurse at Wollongong Hospital. It was there she met John Douce, a patient with appendicitis. He was working in essential services during the WWII in Alcan Wollongong. They later met up in a Sydney street quite by chance and began their romance. They were married on December 2, 1944, by her father at St Stephens in Sydney's Macquarie Street, in a simple ceremony, with a wedding breakfast afternoon tea at Central Railway and a weekend honeymoon by train to the Central Coast.

Unfortunately things were very difficult and went wrong, ending in their divorce. They only had one child, Jean. Life was difficult bringing up a little girl post WWII, living with her parents in West Ryde. Later the family moved to Springwood, settling in a house in Burns Road. They survived bushfires, while Flora continued her nursing work. Her father died and she moved back to West Ryde, working most Christmases.They returned to Springwood where daughter Jean learned to drive and they all reconnected with the Springwood Presbyterian Church. They made one more to Ryde before returning permanently to the Mountains.

Years later she was made an elder and a long time member of the PWA. She was an inaugural member of the Dandelion club that met to clean up the church grounds every Monday and always made a batch of scones for their morning tea. She was also involved with the orchid society and the Lower Blue Mountains Garden Club and was made a life member. After the death of her mother and her daughter's mother-in-law, she married Chris Relph (her daughter's father-in-law). It was a surprise to all when they announced their engagement. They were married at Macquarie Presbyterian Church, where her daughter Jean, son-in-law Ron, and the grandchildren, Gordon and Fiona, attended.

They celebrated the wedding with family friend Rev Gordon Fullerton officiating. They were very involved grandparents. Her second husband passed away after a battle with Alzheimers. She was so run down from caring for him, she had a bout of shingles for over a year. She continued to be good at maths her whole life long, even having exact amounts for her groceries at Springwood's IGA having tallied it up in the aisles along the way. She lived with Jean and son-in-law Ron until illness and injuries led to her move to Bucklands.

Her daughter Jean said she received great and loving care from all the staff and her mum had also made a decision to make the best of the situation. She continued to watch cricket on the tele. Her "pin up boy" was Steve Waugh who sent her a lovely email and signed mini cricket bat for her 100th birthday.

Over the last few years Jean said her mum asked her: Why has God left me here so long? She said he had more work for her to do, so you better get on with it. She would ask: Do you think God has lost my address? Because of the coronavirus lockdown Bucklands did not permit any visitors, so there was limited contact except over the phone each evening. Jean said the family thanked God for her long life where she touched so many people's lives and in doing this it has brought her joy and happiness.

  • by Jean Bell (daughter)