Hills Voluntary Aid Detachment - Eileen Bell and Edithe Pigott


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


Now the Red Cross has all of these Detachments and both of you were part of The Hills Detachment?

I’m no longer part of that but…

You were?

I was

Yes that’s right. Tell me how The Hills Detachment began, if you know?

It actually started because we thought there was a need in this area. I did a course many years ago. It would have been in the early seventies because I was a mother with young babies. I didn’t know a thing about first aid and I was terribly concerned that something might happen and I wouldn’t know what to do. A friend of mine had organised to do a Red Cross course in her home for mothers with children so she got in touch with me and said “would I come”? I said “oh yes I’ll come” thinking what am I letting myself in for. I wanted to know how to resuscitate you see. So I went along to the course and the instructor was a very nice person about my age. She had children that were about my children’s age and we just clicked. Her name was Roslyn Hoy and she lived in Winston Hills. She said “do you know Edithe you and I could work together”. I said “what do you mean”? She said “it would be a good idea if we started a group in the Hills area”. I said “I haven’t even got a first aid certificate and you’re talking about starting a group I don’t think so”. She said “yes, yes it’ll be easy. So she said “would you be interested”? I said “oh I don’t know, I’ll do my first aid certificate first”. So I joined a Detachment that was already in existence at Parramatta and I started my training there. After a couple of years and after having become the quartermaster looking after all the money and everything. I decided yes I think the Hills might be more attractive than what I was doing there. So together Roslyn and I went around and we tried to get interest going in the Hills area. We spoke to the Baulkham Hills Shire Council and the Shire President Bernie Mullane and various ones. They were very interested and said they’d support it.

So we went along and in 1973 we decided we would start the group. We were very excited they’d put us in the old community centre up at Castle Hill. The first night we went there we thought oh all of this organisation has done wonders. We’ve got dozens and dozens of people turning up and we couldn’t believe our luck. What we didn’t know on the floor underneath us was the Weight Watcher’s meeting and we in fact only had seven. From seven we built it up to well over ninety people at one stage associates and members. The year after we got it started Roslyn’s husband was a bank manager and he got a move to the country and I was left with the group. I either had to take on the leadership of it or it would’ve closed. So here I was, someone who just wanted to learn first aid, suddenly I was running the group. That‘s how it started and I went from there and went right through. We had a very, very good Detachment in this area. A very strong Detachment that did so many different things in fact I used to get into trouble from headquarters. They used say to me “you’re not allowed to do that, we don’t do that”. I used to say “well there’s no reason why we can’t”. They didn’t know we were already doing it. So we just kept doing those sorts of things. It became a very progressive group and we won cup, after cup, after cup, with all our striving to do much better.

Edithe Pigott accepting cup on behalf of Hills Voluntary Aid 1977

Was Bernie Mullane very useful in helping you at all?

Well he was indeed he was instrumental in talking the council into allowing us to have the first premises. Then as a result of our involvement in the FESPIC games in 1977 he said that we did such a tremendous job there. It was a huge task and he felt that we needed a permanent home in the area. He said he would do some research and get his people to find us a building that we could actually call our headquarters. So I knew all about the Balcombe Heights Estate because that was where I organised the FSPIC games. I was summonsed up there one day and they said they’d found the appropriate building for me. Well I had my eye on one building that I thought would have been lovely which was the clinic that was up there. It had been the old nursing clinic but they didn’t stop at the clinic they stopped at Building Twenty Five which was quite dilapidated at the time. We saw it had potential and with the help of Council and with the help of our members, particularly Eileen’s husband who put so much time into doing bathrooms and helping reorganise the whole place. It became a very comfortable headquarters for us for many, many years. We called it home.

What’s the history of the Balcombe Heights Estate?

Balcombe Heights building 25 when it was the home of Hills Voluntary Aid Detachment

Well the Balcombe Heights Estate was originally the Masonic School complex. That was where orphans or children who came from families that had difficulties used to stay. It was very sad in a way but they did look after the children well. But I can always remember when I went there for the first time when they told me we were going to use the Estate to house the competitors for the FESPIC games. Nobody had been there since they closed the Masonic School. I can remember going into the dormitory buildings and here were little sets of shelves and each little shelf had little shoes in it and little bags. It was just so sad to see that. I’ve since met people who actually went through that system and they were very grateful that that opportunity was there for them. Also during the war years part of the Masonic Complex was used for troops. There’s a story that connects that to Red Cross as well. One of the buildings which we used for the FESPIC games which was separated from the main complex had actually been used as a canteen for troops during the war. We still have at Red Cross the money tray that was used. Where they used to put the coins and the pound notes and ten shillings and the threepences and all of this. We still have that in our archives at Red Cross. So we used to have Red Cross people that would come there and help serve the troops, help entertain the troops. Make sure that they had all the comforts that the troops needed when they were on recreation. So there’s a history that connects us way back even in those days.

Opening ceremony of Hills VAD Cottage at Balcombe Heights 28 July 1979

Now when did you two first meet? Was it through the Red Cross that you met?

We met because I was actually the commandant for the Hills Detachment, when Eileen got brought along to me. Beverley brought her along and said “I’ve found a neighbour who I’m sure is going to be very good. She’s been in South African Red Cross” and along came Eileen and I could see the potential that Eileen had straight away. She was a person that did very exacting work and I could see quartermaster capabilities. So it wasn’t long before she was in charge of all of our stores. All of the money side of it and to this day I’ve never had anyone that did the job quite like Eileen. I used to say “I couldn’t lose five cents Eileen would find it for me”. She was so good, she was, she was superb and did a great job.

Tell me a bit about what the Hills Detachment of the Red Cross did? What were their duties as a rule?

What we used to do we used to meet every week we’d have a meeting. We always had probably once a month we had a training session. We had some very good local doctors. There were ambulance officers, there were nurses. We had one enthusiastic doctor who would be known to everyone in the Hills area and much loved.

Bernie Mullane at opening of Hills VAD cottage Balcombe Heights
28 July 1979 Edithe (centre) and Eileen (right front)

Doctor John Parle and he was with us for many, many years until unfortunately he had a major car accident and died many years after that. John Parle always used to come to me with these grand ideas about what we should do. He got this brilliant idea to have a mock plane disaster opposite the showground at Castle Hill in the bush. We got police, ambulance, bushfire brigade, fire brigade, what else Eileen? Just about everything involved and they even had a fake fuselage set up in the bush. We had scouts and guides acted as the casualties in it. We had all of our VA’s being tested and it was the biggest thing. The only thing was I had to watch John he always wanted to get the traffic stopped so that the police weren’t too happy about that. We did do very realistic training. We did all the make up, we did all the things that made it realistic so that people got the sense of what it was like. I can remember that exercise when it finished we had actually lost two of our victims. We never saw them again but the police said “well they must have gone home” because they were never reported missing. Another one we found one curled up asleep on a ledge. Do you remember that one Eileen? We looked down and not only was the victim curled up on the ledge asleep but so was a black snake behind them. Oh we had to gently get this person off the ledge without terrifying both the snake and them. We didn’t realise that we did it in the snake season so there were snakes all through the bush. So we could have had a real life disaster on our hands. Fortunately we didn’t.

Hills Voluntary Aid Detachment members at Castle Hill Show 1977

You might actually have had to put some first aid into action?

That often happened on disaster exercises though, that someone would do something wouldn’t they? We used to do those things but basically we used to do the Castle Hill Show every year we did the first aid for the Castle Hill Show. The Show Committee in conjunction with the Baulkham Hills Council gave us a first aid room which was well appointed and well set up at the showground. We had a lovely caravan that was donated to us by the Castle Hill Rotary Club so we used to park that outside. We had plenty of facilities, plenty of equipment and of course there’s always a drama at the Castle Hill Show. They used to say “don’t advertise it because people won’t come to the show if they think there’s going to be a drama”. One night some horses run amok in the crowd with the fireworks and that was an exercise in first aid. The lights were out because of the fireworks and we had to feel for the casualties in the dark. We used to learn in the olden days to feel for fractures with your eyes all blocked out so you couldn’t see. So that was good practice but fortunately that one wasn’t too bad. Then one night we had another one that was quite serious when a horse went berserk in the horse section. It reared up and put it’s hooves into a great big vat of that tar stuff they paint them with. It splashed up into a fellow’s eyes and his eyes were glued shut with it. Oh it was just awful anyway we got the ambulance and we got him treated and he was well cared for. We had that and we had funny things. I can remember going face down in the mud and I looked like…you couldn’t recognise me because it was raining and I came back to the first aid caravan expecting them to all feel sorry for me. My uniform was absolutely caked with brown mud and all they could say was “you’ve missed lunch, you’re late”. We had good times but we had a lot of practice and a lot of exercises. We did all those sorts of things. We did every community family fun day. I can remember standing on the stage with the Shire President Alan Cadman, Fred Caterson, all the dignitaries on the stage. Because I was organising the community family fun day I was up there too. The flagpole fell down and hit me on the back of the head and knocked me out on the middle of the stage while they were playing the National Anthem.

So they just left me and I sort of came to looking at a bleary audience. So they gently put me downstairs underneath where my people were doing first aid. They said “what happened to you”? I said “I got knocked out with the flagpole” and they said “well you know all about first aid look after yourself”. So you know we had some funny things. But also though I must say our people were highly trained. They did save a lot of lives in this area. The other thing they used to do when they were off duty they often stopped at serious motor accidents in the area and gave assistance did all those things. There was hardly anything that happened in The Hills an event that we weren’t represented at.

Hills Voluntary Aid Detachment vehicle in Orange Blossom Parade at Baulkham Hills 1978

Eileen, did you have any stories about the Orange Blossom Festival or the ANZAC Day parade?

The exercise that Edithe spoke about the plane that was down and the snakes, had I known then about the snakes you wouldn’t have caught me doing duty that day in the exercise. I’d only been in Red Cross a short while before we had this exercise and didn’t know about Australian snakes. Lots of things to say, we used to attend the floats, have a float in the Orange Blossom Parade. Walk behind the floats and that’s my first encounter with Humphrey Bear and the Green Dragon was at an Orange Blossom Parade. There were so many things to remember over the years.

Edithe: Do you remember what we learnt Eileen about Orange Blossom Parades when we used to decorate the floats with red and white crepe paper and it rained?

Yes don’t decorate with paper when it rains.

Edithe: It turns pink and so do you.

Eileen: Just adding a few things to what Edithe said for the luncheons that Council used to put on.

Edithe: That’s right

Eileen: Way, way back when it started where we used to do the food and then serve up the food and then serve the people the food. Then as the years went by when they got caterers and we were there to help and then we did the first aid. That was one of the things I can remember.

I believe that the medical equipment pool was an important part of it was it?

Eileen: Yes Edithe was the instigator, were you one of the instigators of the …..

Edithe: Well with the Director of Community Services at Baulkham Hills Council we decided there was a need to have medical loans available to the community. Unless they hired them through a company, which was very expensive, or got them from a chemist there wasn’t a great deal. So we got together and we had what we called The Hills Community Medical Equipment Pool. We got donations, we bought a lot of equipment and we trained people up to look after it. Because we had to send stuff to hospitals to have it sterilised, we had to do all these sorts of things. But we felt that was only a transient role for us. Once we got it established we passed it over to the community and it became a community organisation in its own right. But we were the ones that helped in the establishment of it.

Hills Community Medical Equipment at Building 18 Balcombe Heights, 2006

Eileen, I believe that you were involved in the opening of the council chambers, the Baulkham Hills Shire Council Chambers. What role did you play in that?

Council asked Edithe if our VA’s (voluntary aids) could be hostesses and show everybody round the building the new complex. I had a first aid room so I was doing first aid that day. That was the day that one of the councillor’s wives slipped on the stairs and broke her arm. So I had to take her to Hornsby, why she wanted to go to Hornsby Hospital when Westmead was just down the road. So we took her to the hospital. But yes the Shire President wanted the VA’s to act as hostesses which they did and did a very good job too.

It’s an amazing number of things that the Red Cross does?

Edithe: Well I think the thing was we always had this…. Bernie Mullane was a very good Shire President but Bernie Mullane was a clever Shire President in lots of ways. He used to always say “if you help me, I’ll help you”. So that there was always a deal, if we helped Council, Council would provide us with the wherewithal to do what we did. So it was a mutual thing and it helped us tremendously. My part of the deal was that I had to go on all the local Shire committees. The Australia Day Committee, The Bicentennial Committee, The Orange Blossom Committee, the opening of the Council Committee all of these things. Having me on the committee it meant that the VA’s had to come in and do the first aid at all of these functions. But they would make sure that we were well looked after and that we’d like donations each year. Considerable donations from the Council for our effort. So they helped to keep us afloat financially.

 Eric Marinese from State Emergency Services with Baulkham Hills Councillors and staff

Either of you, can you tell me about the bushfires that happened. That the Red Cross was involved with. Now who would like to speak about that one?

Edithe is a very good speaker so I’ll hand it to you.

Well we always used to work with the volunteer bushfire brigade. As members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment we were also members of the SES (State Emergency Services) that was part of the deal. We trained with them we were members of the SES. So whenever the SES got called out to bushfire they would bring us along as part of their first aid team. Whenever there was a fire we got taken along to the fires, we would stay on the perimeter and set up a first aid post. The usual thing for fire was smoke inhalation sore eyes all these sorts of things. We would also set up an area where they could rest. There would be other people there feeding them. Because I worked with the controller of the SES we used to go round in what they used to call Patrol Wagon Number One. We’d drive around together because he had to keep an eye on his people and I had to keep an eye on mine. At Maroota when the big fires were at Maroota. Seventy-nine and eighty they had huge fires at Maroota and we were out there for days at a time. We had to keep sending out shifts of people. They were getting low on the ground for personnel so when injured fireman would come in they’d have to be treated and then delivered back to their tankers. Well one time Eric Marinese(?) was the controller of SES at that time and I was in Rescue One with him. We were delivering an injured fellow back to his tanker and we were in an orchard. There was a fence so we couldn’t get the rescue vehicle through the fence to get into the tanker. So Eric said to me “you sit in the vehicle and I’ll climb through the fence with him and take him to his vehicle.

When we get to the tanker we’ll toot to let you know we’re there”. But he said “just watch this fire Edithe, it’s travelling and it looks like it could crown overhead”. He said “if it does don’t worry toot me and I’ll stay with the tanker and you get yourself out of there “. Well they were fine instructions but what happened was the fire actually travelled along the fence. I’m watching it travel along the fence. It went straight up the gum tree alongside of me. It was crowning right above me, branches were dropping down on the vehicle and I tooted the horn, he tooted back go. But my legs were too short and I couldn’t drive the rescue vehicle. I thought “oh no what do I do”? So we’d done all the training, we knew you had to put a wet bag, get down on the floor, do all these sorts of things. But I kept tooting the horn so Eric got the message that I was in trouble. So he managed to leave the vehicle and he came back and he could see what was happening. He got in and threw me to one side and off we got. After that my husband wouldn’t allow me to travel in the rescue vehicles anymore. He said “that was it Edithe, I don’t mind what you do. You can stay in the first aid post but you’re not going out in the rescue vehicles”. Because you know you don’t think of those sorts of things. You can just alter a car but not these vehicles you can’t. Not if you’re as dumb as I am when it comes to mechanical things.

That’s a great story.

Oh it was a great story but my heart was beating like one wouldn’t believe. But we made it.

Go To Part Two