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Celebrating Jessie Bailie: a life of sacrifice, hard work and love for family

As the daughter of a Scottish coal miner, Jessie wore bloomers made out of flour sacks, and life wasn’t always easy. As she turns 99, Jessie reflects on a life rich in love, but not without sacrifice.

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Monday 2 August

As the daughter of a Scottish coal miner, Jessie wore bloomers made out of flour sacks, and life wasn’t always easy. As she turns 99, Jessie reflects on a life rich in love, but not without sacrifice. Jessie is a humble woman who says her two sons are her greatest achievement and would go without to make sure they didn’t lack for anything.

Gracewood resident Jessie Bailie is a remarkable lady. She has just turned 99 and enjoys living in the Gracewood Centre at Kellyville, where her son Rod and his wife Heather live close by, just next door at the Gracewood BaptistCare Retirement Village.

Jessie first came to BaptistCare Aminya Retirement Village in 1986, where she lived in a two-bedroom unit until she moved to Aminya Centre and then to The Gracewood Centre a few years ago.

Born in Cowdenbeath in Scotland in 1922, Jessie’s father worked in the coal mines and her mother worked on the top of the coalmine pit, separating coal from stones. Jessie had one sister, Isabel, who has now passed away and who Jessie misses terribly.

Jessie’s family wanted to leave Cowdenbeath so they came to Australia on a ‘ten-pound pom’ fare, leaving Scotland on a ship named Esperance Bay.

When they arrived in Australia, they moved to Abermain near Cessnock. Jessie lived through the depression and was assigned to a family in Sydney, a caring couple with no children of their own.

When the children arrived at Central Station from Maitland, those families who volunteered to take in children as billets were there to meet them and would walk along the lines of the children and say, “I’ll take this one”. Jessie was selected along with another girl, and the couple provided for them well with food and clothing. The woman caring for her was named Mary and she bought Jessie her first watch, a red velvet bonnet, a dress and a pair of black patent leather shoes with a bow on the front of them. Such luxuries for a girl from a mining family! Jessie would often wear bloomers made from Brunton’s flour sacks when at home, so she treasured these new clothes.

Jessie studied dressmaking at Cessnock Technical College for three years and helped make the Mayoress’s ball gown and smocking on baby clothes for a baby shop at Burwood. During WWII, Jessie joined the war effort by sewing waistbands on trousers for the soldiers. When Jessie had her children of her own, she would make them trousers and overcoats by hand.

Jessie married Alec but after they separated, Jessie raised her sons Rod and Allan on her own, from when they were five and three years old, respectively. In that time, Jessie worked as a machinist making ties, springs for mattresses, became a supervisor at Nestle, and worked as a ward clerk in Balmain Hospital.

When asked about her employment, Jessie says she greatly enjoyed her supervisor role at Nestle, which she had for 20 years.

“Oh yes, I worked at Nestle in the factory there, making chocolates. And I was the supervisor there, operated machines for the quarter-pound blocks they used to have in those days. And unfortunately, there was a big fire in the warehouse, and a lot of the property was lost. . It was interesting working there.”

Jessie’s son Rod tells us how proud he is of his mum, and how growing up, times were tough but Jessie never let them go without.

“Mum and Dad separated when I was five, so she had to do all the work, in fact she worked two or three jobs at a time just to keep her head above water. We thank her for that. She did a fabulous job. Even though she’s at the age that she is, we couldn’t do it without her. There were many times when there were only one or two eggs in the fridge and she gave it to us, and then she would go without. That’s very tough living, and I don’t think many people do that these days. And of course, money was tight”, shared Rod.

Rod also shared that Jessie had some good friends at church who helped her through hard times, attending a church in Balmain and later in Baulkham Hills and Castle Hill.

Jessie has been part of the BaptistCare family since 1986, and her son Rod and his wife Heather also live at The Gracewood Village. Together they appear in a BaptistCare advertisement on a bus alongside BaptistCare team member, Kerry Stahlhut-Lentern.

For Jessie’s 99th birthday, BaptistCare organised the bus she and her family feature on, to visit as a special memory. We then sat down with Jessie to ask her a few questions.

Jessie, what are you looking forward to in celebrating your birthday today?
All the surprises I was going to get, I didn’t expect to get them.

What surprises have you had already?
This morning, seeing the boys, my sons.

Yesterday, we had a big cake, it was vanilla I think. They sang “Happy Birthday” to me, it was cut in pieces and we had afternoon tea.

[Jessie’s son Rod adds that they are very appreciative of BaptistCare staff, specifically Jennifer from The Gracewood who went to great lengths to make it special given they couldn’t attend Jessie’s birthday celebrations due to restrictions.]

If you could give any advice about how to live a long life, what would you say?
I don’t know what I’d say. It just seems to come around. You do the right thing.

Do you have a favourite childhood memory or a funny anecdote from your childhood?
Isabel and I had a pet cow called Daisy and she would follow us to church in Abermain and "moo" along to the congregation's hymn singing. She would bellow so loudly that we would be told to take the cow home so the service could continue without interruption!

What are you looking forward to for the next year?
Next year? How do you know what’s ahead of you? If I make it to 100 you’re very fortunate. I never thought I’d get to be the age I am now.

What’s your favourite part of your day at Gracewood?
Well, there’s so many nice parts and things to do. They always have good speakers, and some ladies are very good in their sewing and things like that. They like to get you interested in things like that.

What do you think is your greatest achievement?
Bringing up my two sons, I’m very proud of them.

If you think about a hard time in your life, what do you think got you through that?
Well, you knew you had to do it because in those days we had to keep earning wages and you kept your job as long as you could.

What advice would you give to your 20-year-old self?
Stick to the good job you’ve got and don’t change.

Editor’s note: Special thanks to Jessie, Rod and Heather Bailie for giving us their time for both interviews and photographs. Thanks also to Kerry Stahlhut-Lentern and staff at The Gracewood for their assistance.

Jessie Bailie with her son Rod and his wife, Heather.