NATURALLY I had known of Wendy Crellin, as most of us do who have anything to do with art and community in Wonthaggi – so I was most intrigued to learn of her history.
Wendy’s father, Allan Opie, was a fascinating man. His working life started at 14 as a brace boy following his father’s footsteps in the Wonthaggi Mine and has been variously described as a communist, radical, person of interest to ASIO, union man, activist, fighter (he fought under the name of Tiger Opie), influencer, community leader and loving husband and father.
It took a great deal of courage to take on this dangerous work in the most appalling conditions. He became passionate about ensuring the safety of his fellow miners. As a young man he was part of a stop work meeting over conditions on the very day that an explosion killed 13 men. The Rescue Station mobilised the would-be rescuers but to no avail.
At this time, shortly after the end of the Second World War, the northern suburbs of Melbourne were awash with European migrants escaping the deprivations that followed the war. These new Australians were a constant feature in the Opie household – popping in to get help with their reading and writing and applications for jobs. Wendy’s mum, Catherine, wrote books to help them learn English. She and Allan were also actively involved in the establishment of Strathmore High School which was much needed for these newly arrived families. Wendy laughs that she had to make an appointment to see her parents but remembers fondly a house filled with music, books, food and debates, chooks in the back garden and a bountiful vegie garden.
Both her mother and father mobilised the community for a much-needed space for the children to play. It was the first time in Australia that a community was granted the right to plan and manage public land, and Allan Opie later received an Order of Australia for his hard work. Montgomery Park in Essendon still exists as a much loved and used space.
It was some time before the family could afford a car. When they visited their family back in Wonthaggi it was always by train – a steam locomotive back then, billowing smoke from the coal mined from Wonthaggi filled their nostrils and tainted their clothes. The family walked up from the Wonthaggi Station to Dunn Street where Wendy would find her grandfather in the poorly lit lounge in front of an open fire and smoking his pipe.
Wendy remembers clearly when a car was finally purchased. It came in the form of a Humber Super Snipe – big enough to seat seven people. Heaven!
Money wasn’t easy to find but Wendy’s parents allowed each of the children to choose an extracurricular activity. For Wendy it was dancing. She studied under Czech-born ballet dancers Edouard and Madam Borovansky at a studio in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. She entered through a tiny entrance, and climbed the many stairs to the big, bright studio. Edouard was a small man, stern and severe. Madam was tall and elegant, constantly beating her very ornate walking staff to the rhythm of the music.
Although dedicated to her pursuit, Wendy found no fun or joy at the barre. The classes were very strict, right down to the clothes that the students had to wear. A hand knitted pink bolero completed by Wendy’s mum at 2am the night before class completed the outfit of pink tights, black leotard and black ballet shoes. As Wendy says, “Ballet is strict.” However when she was able to express herself in the character roles she rediscovered the joy of dance.
Wendy met her future husband, John Crellin, while still at high school. She fell in love with his intellect, his love of the arts, Shakespeare and of literature generally and his brilliance in both sport and debating. His love of ballet and music made it the perfect match. As John studied medicine, Wendy studied nursing. In those days there was little choice for women – nursing, teaching or secretarial work. She loved nursing and with her upbringing was soon elected the union rep for the nursing school. In those days, nurses weren’t kitted with masks or gloves and Wendy contracted golden staph tending a patient who had been shot in the back by prison guards as he attempted to escape from Pentridge Prison. There was no sick pay or workers compensation and Wendy had to resign.
Fortunately she had her background in dancing. She had already met Noel Aitkin of the National Theatre in her final years of high school. Wendy had danced Swan Lake, Aida and Giselle in their productions. It was a happy time rubbing shoulders with other artists. One time John Williamson drove her home from one of her performances. Wendy wanted to teach and to share her passion for dance with others. She worked as a physical education teacher in various schools, ranging from one where she taught in a paddock with a shelter shed to another with a huge gymnasium and a superb vaulting horse.
John and Wendy married as John entered his final year of medical school. Wendy continued to teach until she became pregnant and was forced to resign her teaching role. John worked at both the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital. He was lucky to be home one in every four nights so Wendy coped with three young children virtually by herself. It was time for a change. They had had enough of the city. When a position became available for a surgeon in Gippsland John jumped at the chance. For Wendy it was coming full circle.
Wendy’s mother wasn’t keen on the move as her memory of Wonthaggi was of the Depression and the tough war years. “At least you’ll be living on the right side of the railway line,” she said, referring to North Wonthaggi.
Wendy immediately immersed herself in the Wonthaggi community. That was in her DNA: if you live in a community you must put in to that community. “What you get back is so rewarding.” Her first advocacy was in lobbying the council to get a pedestrian crossing in Bilson Street as well as improving the streetscape. She joined the kindergarten and school committees. She was soon organising dancing on the netball court and putting on maypole dancing concerts. She started dance classes which grew so popular she had to engage another dancer to help. She would pick up her wonderful pianist, Jean Hassen, who was so tiny Wendy would arrive with a little step ladder so that Jean could climb into Wendy’s four-wheel drive. Jean couldn’t read music but she had such a good ear Wendy had only to hum a tune and Jean could play it.
Every month Wendy would invite parents to come along to see the progress of their children. At the end of each year they held a concert. No big performance, minimal costumes, no makeup – just the joy of dance.
When they could John and Wendy would head to Melbourne to enjoy their season tickets to the opera or ballet. On one occasion they saw Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev. Wendy’s eyes sparkle as she recalls the event. Over time with pressures of their work they ended up giving away their tickets as they simply couldn’t spare the time.
Wendy was elected to the Wonthaggi Borough Council in 1987, the only woman on the council at the time and just the third woman councillor since Wonthaggi began its life as a tent town in 1909 in 100 years. Wendy felt aggrieved that despite being half the population, women were poorly represented. So were the arts. It seemed to her that her male colleagues were singularly focussed on drains and potholes. She couldn’t understand why there was no appreciation of the arts when the very beginnings of Wonthaggi as a mining town was rich in co-operation – of music and drama and theatre, of a band and debates. At the time our rich history of buildings built by Wonthaggians with their own orange bricks were being lost to future generations. Many buildings were rescued and acknowledged as heritage listed under her stewardship – the Post Office, the Court House and the State Bank.
The Goods Shed had a particular focus for her. It was filled to the brim with newspapers. She enlisted a band of local teenagers to help clean and paint the old building. It probably wouldn’t be allowed these days – but Wendy feels it helped to ground them and expose them to art, which would not have happened in their home life.
Wendy thoroughly enjoyed local government. As a woman, she felt she had to prove she was as good as – if not better than – her male colleagues. If a ratepayer rang she would listen. If a deputation arrived she would meet with them. No-one was ever ignored.
And certainly not her beloved State Coal Mine where she joined the Advisory Group. And then – the Rescue Station. Now it really was full circle. The rescue station had been boarded up for 50 years. It was filled with bird droppings and regularly flooded, but Wendy saw the opportunity of it becoming a fantastic arts co-operative. She enlisted the likes of Dennis and Bev Leversha and applied for a Community Connections grant. They got together a group of 40 like-minded people and examined how other communities had converted their historical buildings for use for art. A new roof was put on, the bird droppings were swept away, revealing small crosses etched into the floor to stop the pit ponies from slipping and the walls and floors were gurneyed. Festivals and markets emerged, art groups were formed and exhibitions held, potters’ wheels and kilns installed and a sense of community created.
It has been successful in its mission over the past 17 years, with Wendy at its head. As if that wasn’t enough, Wendy also secured the Robert Smith collection for Bass Coast Shire. Key to the collection is Noel Counihan who came to see the work of the miners during the Second World War when coal was so important for the war effort.
“He didn’t just come here to draw them,” Wendy said, “he wanted to experience it for himself. He lived with the Webb family in Wonthaggi North, became quite a popular figure, and there was a great to-do about him wanting to go down into the mines with the men. The mine bosses wouldn’t allow it until the miners threatened to strike.”
He was ultimately allowed down into the mines and was able to so poignantly capture the effects of mine life to the men and their families and community. Second in size of collection only to the National Gallery, Robert gifted his wonderful collection to Wendy’s home town.
With John’s passing, Wendy could be forgiven if she spent her time doting on her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But important as they are, it is her sense of belonging and committing to this community that drives her to continue to be a very active and inspirational powerhouse. And all this from a miner’s daughter.