Hills Voluntary Aid Detachment - Eileen Bell and Edithe Pigott -Part 2


Interviewees: Edithe Pigott OAM, born 1939
          and Eileen Bell, born 1933

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for Baulkham Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 22 Jan, 2008

Transcription: Glenys Murray, Feb 2008

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee


What can either of you tell me about the FESPIC Games in 1977?

Well the FESPIC Games were held in Australia in 1977. The word FESPIC means Far Eastern and South Pacific games for the disabled. They’re held every four years and they’re held in a South Pacific country. So seventy seven was Australia’s turn there’s a lot of preparation. So in 1976 I was approached by the Holroyd Council. Red Cross had been involved in some disabled games for Holroyd in earlier years. I was approached by them to see if I’d be interested in joining the organising committee for these games and if I could perhaps see a role that the VA’s could play in the games. I used to go to all these meetings. For a whole twelve months we went to meetings. Suddenly it became very apparent that not only was there a role that the VA’s were going to play. It was probably, with the exception of the actual activities of the games themselves, the major role for the games. Which meant that we had to set up the village which they chose the Masonic School here in Baulkham Hills as the village. We had to look after the accommodation, the catering the health needs. Every single thing that revolved around keeping people in the village, the only drawback was that the Masonic School hadn’t been used for years and years and years that’s quite some years. It was derelict and in a state of disrepair. We had to then turn around and make this habitable for the games the following year. Now we were very fortunate that we had our people who worked tremendously hard.

When you think of it we didn’t only have to look after food and all those sorts of things. We had to actually get all the furniture. We had to get curtains for the windows we had to get the Council to repair the buildings. Some of the floors if you walked on them you fell through them they were rotten. We had to clean out all the old furniture. They had the biggest auction of old furniture that you could imagine. I had to organise the bedding from the army they provided the beds, the mattresses, the pillows. We had to get all of the linen. We had to turn little children’s toilets into usable toilets for disabled people. Which meant with the help of some very big corporations we were able to build toilet blocks on either side of all the dormitory buildings. We had to work out how many people were going to be in each dormitory, what their needs were. What their special needs were because we had paraplegics, quadriplegics, blind, amputee competitors.

FESPIC Games competitors in the former Masonic School Dining Room 1977

There were four hundred and twelve of these competitors from twenty one countries. Plus their medical teams, plus their management teams and they all had to be accommodated. The only people that weren’t accommodated were the top officials who were accommodated in Parramatta. It presented itself that it was much bigger than what Holroyd Council could manage. Even though Baulkham Hills had lent this facility here, so we had to get Baulkham Hills Shire Council involved and we had to get Parramatta Council involved.

So Dr. John Grant who was the head of the spinal unit of Royal North Shore Hospital he was the chairman of the games and the organising committee went from there. So with a lot of support and a lot of encouragement and a lot of begging, borrowing and stealing of everything we managed to get the games village ready. We had seventy seven organisations that helped us. That included all the Red Cross Branches in the metropolitan area. It included all the service clubs in this area it included the scouts, the senior scouts and the girl guides. The VA’s were just absolutely wonderful because they were each given the responsibility of looking after the dormitories where people were going to be accommodated. It was their responsibility to be in charge of that dormitory and make sure that those people were well cared for. The Red Cross Branches helped in the kitchen with the preparation of food. I had to get chefs in because no one told me that when you have twenty one different Asian countries you’ve also got to have about twenty seven different varieties of rice, never mind about any other dishes that they eat.

FESPIC Games volunteers relax in the former Masonic School Dining Room 1977

So the army were kind enough to loan me two chefs and then we went to the Foundation for the Disabled and they had their own chef. They closed that down and brought their people. We had to reinstate a kitchen that hadn’t been used since you couldn’t believe. It had a boiler that hadn’t worked for I don’t know how many years. So they had to get that. We had to set up a place to repair wheel chairs we had to set up a pharmacy we had to set up a beauty shop we had to set up a post office. We had to do all of these things and then on top of that we were told our other responsibility would be to provide huge big barbeques for two of the nights to accommodate everybody. Thousands of people as well as the people that had helped us were invited to the barbeque. Then I had to put on a formal luncheon for the special guests one day. Anyway we did it. We had one thousand and nineteen volunteers and we did tens of thousands of voluntary hours. What we did my deputy who was Jean Kirken(?) at the time. We rostered all our VA’s and we had three shift rosters and that way they didn’t get tired but I had to sleep at the village for three weeks. So my husband joined as a volunteer he came over and even my children came over. They had to come there to see me if they wanted to. It was good but it was also interesting because it made me realise that people who have disabilities are just as ambitious, just as capable and able to achieve things as able bodied people.

Mayor Bernie Mullane with FESPIC Games competitors including those who slept at Cropley House 1977

It was from then on that my respect for disabled people and particularly disabled athletes was founded. I have respected them ever since. The things they used to do, there was one little fellow called… Eileen, what was his name, the little Indian fellow that was a double amputee?


Eileen: I can’t remember his name but I remember who you mean.

Edithe: He was a taxi driver who had been involved in a rail crossing accident where his cab was hit by a train and he lost both his legs. He didn’t have artificial legs he had little pads on the end of his knees so he was only about four foot. He used to always want his photograph taken with me. I had to always hold my hand out so he could stand underneath it. He wanted to show people that he could do it. The one thing about him, it’s rather hilly over there at the Masonic Schools and it must have been really heavy weather for him to get up some of those hills. But he said he had an advantage because to get down he used to roll himself in a ball and roll down the hill. To see the way they coped. We had a contingent from Burma there were about fifteen of them that came from Burma. They were all double amputees. I used to have to do the rounds every night. They were in a place called Cropley House upstairs at Cropley House. No they were downstairs and the single amputees were upstairs. Of a night time when I’d go to do my rounds to make sure everything was alright before we locked up for the night. I can always remember the picture that I will carry always. These people in their little beds with two little feet at the end of each bed, double amputees you know they’re just wonderful, wonderful stories.

Mayor Bernie Mullane and Fred Caterson unveil plaque at Cropley House during FESPIC Games 1977

Eileen, what memories do you have of the games?

Just working very, very hard my greatest regret was that I never had the time to go to one of the venues to see how they performed. There was such a lot to do. I mean not just one thing. This would come up and that would come up and you’d run and go and fix that and then go and fix that. I think my greatest memory was when we started up, you know getting the beds into shape and all the hospital beds I think my back was bent over ever after that. Thank goodness I lived just down the road from where the Baulkham Heights is so my family also saw less of me than they normally did. Finishing your shift and coming home and then sitting down and getting your feet up was the greatest thing. But it was a tremendous experience. We’d had lessons about assisting blind people and there was a very young boy that I do remember. Why I forgot this day I don’t know. I’d been having my lunch with him his food was arranged in the way they do it. When it was finished I was taking him back to his dormitory and I took his arm. That’s something you don’t do you let them take your arm and of course I thought “oh golly I’d forgotten that”.

He just put his arm on my arm and off we toddled to his dormitory. There was so many things everybody was so enthusiastic and so involved. We met so many volunteers. People from Baulkham Hills and Castle Hill who’d come in and help and do everything. In fact it was years afterwards you’d see somebody in the street and you’d know their face. All they had to do was say FESPIC and you knew that they had been one of the volunteers.

FESPIC Games Indian team on last day outside former Masonic School Dining Rooms and Assembly Hall 1977

I believe that you had a story to tell about the Bull and Bush Hotel the athletes there?

Eileen: I never made those sort of parties.

Edithe: No I have a story. One night because we used to bed them all down. They had socialising at the place, you know, we had a special room for them and we had a bar that was open for a certain period of time but there were restrictions because they were sports people and they had to get up to participate. It wasn’t sort of just open house. One night I was just about to close everything up and the phone in the office rang. When I answered the phone it was Castle Hill police. They said “can we speak to the person in charge of the village please”? I said “well its Edithe Pigott speaking” and he said “I’m afraid you’ve got a problem”. I said “what sort of a problem do you know about that I don’t know about”. He said “well I’ve had a call from the Bull and Bush Hotel” and he said “I believe that some of you competitors have been up in the local hotel”. Because they were only supposed to go with escorts in buses. He said “the concern is that they are now on their way home’. I said “but they shouldn’t even be out”. He said “no but the real concern is that they’re people in wheel chairs and the people who are pushing them are blind!”

He said “do you think you could organise to collect them?" I said “oh I can’t believe this”. So I had to wake up the bus driver get him to go up and sure enough halfway along Seven Hills Road singing at the top of their heads, happy as anything. Were about nine of them in wheel chairs being pushed by their blind companions. They were saying “left, left mate, don’t go over the gutter, left do this”. That was just one of the little stories there were many. I could write a book about what happened.

Alan Cadman with competitors at FESPIC Games held at Balcombe Heights 1977

Were they inebriated?

Not quite, because they knew that if they were competing the next day they were only allowed to have a certain quantity. But I think that we could say that they had more than they were allowed and they slept very well that night. But we made sure that we woke them up very early the next morning. They competed there was wheel chair basketball there was archery there was all the sports that you would associate with the Olympic Disabled Games. All those sports were involved and some of it was quite rigorous. They had to train very, very hard. They were very competitive I have to say that, very competitive. They didn’t mind knocking each other over or out of their wheel chairs either.

Can either of you tell me a little bit about what the other Red Cross Detachments were doing? The ones say at Dural or Castle Hill or West Pennant Hills? Were they doing similar work to what you were doing?

No because they weren’t Detachments they were Branches. We were the only Detachment in the Baulkham Hills Shire. The others were Branches and the Branches raise money. That’s their role. They raise money and support Red Cross by either…..We supported Red Cross Calling but they support Red Cross Calling, they support appeals and they put on functions to raise money and that’s their primary purpose. Of course the social interaction that they get through being with each other and attending conferences and all those sort of things. The Voluntary Aid Detachment were very different. We were the trained uniformed personnel who go out and work in the field. Doing first aid and assisting in times of disaster. Now the role of a Branch has changed somewhat and Branches now do train for what they call emergency services. Which is disaster work and they do some of the similar roles that we did all those years ago. With registration of disaster victims and they also fill in paper work and do things like that. In the time we established in 1975 when we first did this we were the only one in this area. The next closest Detachment was Parramatta.

Linda McBurney, long time Red Cross Baulkham Hills member at Hills VAD meeting 1980s

Thanks for clearing that up, that’s great. So the Branches we mentioned are they still operating?

Well a lot of them have closed simply because the members of the Branches are so old. There is still a very vital and very, very good Branch going at Castle Hill. They raise a tremendous amount of money and they are one of the biggest fund raisers in NSW. They’re very up to date they do everything on computer they have adapted with change. They have younger office bearers. You have attended that Branch haven’t you Eileen?

Oh yes I’ve been to a couple of their meetings. There members are younger. When we talk about the Branch you’ve got to realise Branch members before used to be fairly old. Who weren’t VA’s and weren’t as young as the VA's. But Castle Hill Branch are younger. I mean those are members who in other words didn’t want to go out and put on a uniform and do first aid. They’re in their forties, fifties and sixties and they’re doing a fantastic job. I sit down every year end and send off a letter of congratulations to the president to say what a tremendous job they’ve done in the year. They do all sorts of things. Their social outings always fundraising. They go on bus rides which are a fund raiser they have dress shows, mannequin parades and things like that. Of course come Christmas time they sell all Red Cross products. Christmas cards, tea towels and what have you. They really raise a tremendous amount of money. They’re a good Branch, they’re a fantastic Branch.

Now Edithe, you are of course the Chairman of the Red Cross organisation…..?

I was I gave it up four years ago.

Four years ago? Now when did the actual Baulkham Hills Branch of the VAD close?

You mean the Hills District?

Yeah the Hills District?

This one it closed in 2005. So it hasn’t been closed for all that long.

Just as a general question, you started with seven people that came to that very first meeting?


Members of Hills Voluntary Aid Detachment with special award 1979

What did the membership come to at its peak?

At its peak we had ninety including members and associates but it more or less tapered down to about sixty for a long time. Then the last years it went from twenty five to about…..

Eileen: Thirty five was about and then as you say it started… Women went back to work and there were transfers and things like that. To get young people to come in and learn first aid and do first aid duties very, very difficult.

Edithe: And of course you see the other thing that we had to do. We all had to train up ourselves to be instructors. We had to do every course that came along. Not only do that you then had to do the training to be an instructor. So you could train your own people. I used to love first aid, I used to love teaching.

Eileen: So did I

Edithe: Eileen was good too. I used to like to demonstrate at first aid classes. But what was so funny most of the things in the first aid book I’ve had go wrong my self. It was always the thing in the class they’d say “oh she wouldn’t have had this one”. I can remember the one we came to one night and they said “oh we were doing venomous spider bites and they said “oh this is one that she won’t have had this one” and I said “want to bet, I’ve been bitten by a Red back” I had to go through all the thing and tell them. But these were the things that I think what we tried to do and why we were so successful with our teaching. Because I mean I’d been to many boring classes I can tell you over the years. We used to try to make it come alive for them. We used to demonstrate, we used to get them involved. If you can tell a few funny stories along the way. I mean I can’t help that, I can’t just be straight laced you know I’m not like that. If you can make it interesting you’ll bring them. Half the time we’d get people so interested that that want to come and join the VA’S. We’d teach the public and they’d say “well if you have this much fun we’re coming to join you”. That’s what we wanted and that’s how we recruited.

Eileen: Most of our members came from first aid courses.

Edithe: So it was good I mean it was just the way we acted. We were a good group.

Well that’s wonderful. I think I’ve got enough material now. I’m running out of questions. Is there anything you want to add as a final comment anyone?

Eileen: Oh yes I’d just like to remember that we won the shield a couple of times for Red Cross Calling, our door knock appeal. We were hard working especially in the Detachment. Yes a couple of times we won cups. First aid cups.

Edithe: Efficiency

Eileen: Oh yes we were good in our day.

Thank you both very much for the interview.