COUNTRY QUEEN: Gay Nicholls grew up at Wildash, then married and raised her children on an Allora farm. Today she and her husband Brian have retired to Warwick.
COUNTRY QUEEN: Gay Nicholls grew up at Wildash, then married and raised her children on an Allora farm. Today she and her husband Brian have retired to Warwick. Toni Somes

Queensland sweetheart is a country sweetheart girl at heart

BACK in 1962 she was a country girl, who won the coveted Miss Queensland crown. And in the years which followed she married her sweetheart, raised a family, endured the heartbreak of losing a precious child, and watched life change for rural women.

This week the engaging and articulate Gay Nicholls shares her story with the Bush Tele.

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"I grew up on a grazing property, Deereen, at Wildash.

We were 10 miles from town but back then it always seemed further.

I was one of eight children in the Aspinall family, there were four girls and four boys, and I was in the middle.

We used to ride our horses to Murray's Bridge State School. It was five miles to school and riding was the only way, we'd go through the paddocks.

Our older brothers took us to the dance and it was their responsibility to "approve" of any fellows we might be dancing with. They took their responsibility very seriously - after all, my dad was a policeman.

My sister and I had two big brothers to take us to school.

We'd hop up behind our brothers and we'd double on a flat, pad saddle made for two.

I was so tiny when I started school. I was just four years old.

Back then they rounded up the four-year-olds so they had certain numbers to keep the school open.

I was the littlest so my oldest brother had the responsibility of looking after me.

Those boys used to do cheeky things.

We'd meet up at a certain spot along the creek on the way to school with our neighbours and those boys would jump the horses over the logs.

 

I'd be hanging on desperately.

We did that for about three years. When my mother Gladys decided little girls riding to school in skirts wasn't really that good.

My mum had come from St Lucia to the bush.

She'd meet my father Mick at a dance when he was working in the police force in Brisbane. They'd married and he would come home then to take over the property from his parents.

Living in the bush was all new to her.

After lots of discussion it was decided my older sister and I would go into the convent in Warwick, and board during the week.

I was in grade three and she was in grade five and we thought it would be a great adventure, until we got there.

We used to board at the Abbey of the Roses and morning and night we'd march down the lanes in two-by-twos to St Mary's. It was very disciplined; the bigger ones looked after the younger ones.

I was very homesick, but my older sister was there and that made it easier.

But I loved being at home. I was always very much a country girl.

Then when I was 13 and my sister was a bit older we were sent to All Hallows in Brisbane to board.

It was so noisy, at first we couldn't sleep, but you got used to it.

We loved to come home though. When we came through Cunningham's Gap on Grimleys Bus Service you'd know you were nearly home.

But going the other way it always felt like there were mountains separating us from our family.

We'd come home at Easter, then in September, and then again at Christmas.

There was rigid discipline at school and I stuck by the rules.

I was a timid, shy person, who was very homesick.

My older sister was more forthright and she was like a mother to me and that really saved me. She was really there for me and that's been the same right through our lives.

I was nearly 17 when I left boarding school.

I had been so homesick that I came home when I finished, to work on our family farm.

When the boys were at home they helped my dad; as girls we had to help our mother first.

There was always plenty to do.

But when we were finished helping our mother I used to help my dad. I enjoyed helping outside.

I loved learning about wool classing from my dad and helping pick up the fleeces and sweeping up after the shearers.

I envied my brothers because they got to go out on the horses mustering.

We got to ride, we all rode horses, but it was a special privilege to be able to help outside.

That year I was home after I finished school was very special, because my brothers were often working away and I had the chance to do a lot at home.

But it wasn't long before my dad said I had better do something for myself so I started working at Marcia's Gowns, in Warwick.

Later I was transferred to their Brisbane store, but I still yearned for the country.

I had really valued being home.

So I came back and started at Goldsborough Mort, a stock and station agency in the Sutton Building in Grafton St, Warwick, where Tommy Leonard was my boss.

 

NEWLY CROWNED: Before she was our Queen of the Paddock, Gay Nicholls was Miss Queensland 1962.
NEWLY CROWNED: Before she was our Queen of the Paddock, Gay Nicholls was Miss Queensland 1962. Contributed

In those days everyone played tennis and the May Day weekend in Warwick was a really big show. Everybody who could play tennis came and every court in Warwick was used.

 

That was where I meet my husband Brian. After the tennis there was a big dance in St Mary's hall.

All the Allora fellows came up: they all played tennis and football, and Brian was one of them.

Our older brothers took us to the dance and it was their responsibility to "approve" of any fellows we might be dancing with. They took their responsibility very seriously - after all, my dad was a policeman.

Back then whoever asked you for the last dance, well that was impressionable, it meant they must be interested, and Brian asked me.

Things went slowly in those days and you didn't just go out with someone. You got to know them well first.

Besides my dad had always said "don't even think about getting married until you are 21; before that you are too young to be making lifelong decisions".

It's funny though, people started thinking you'd been left on the shelf if you weren't looking to get married by 21.

Anyway Brian and I spent some time together, but we did go out with other people.

Then Mayor Portley, who was a good friend of my fathers, became involved in including Warwick in the Miss Darling Downs competition, organised to raise money for the Spastic Centre.

So the lady from the Spastic Centre came around to see different young ladies about the competition, and I was one of them.

We'd talked about the Miss Australia competition at school, but I'd never considered entering myself.

And the first thing in my mind was I would have to go out in a swimsuit, which I didn't think I wanted to do.

I told the lady I didn't think my dad would like the idea, but she handed me all the information and said "why don't you let your dad speak for himself".

Well, my dad read the information and told me he thought it was the least I could do for the little children at the centre.

I remember thinking "oh no, you were meant to get me out of this!".

 

Anyway I went back and talked to the lady and found out the swimsuit segment wasn't included anymore and decided my dad was right - I could help these little children who were less fortunate.

So we got a committee together. Boyd Irwin from the Warwick Daily was very supportive and so was my mum and her friends, so we raised money.

Then in October 1962 I was named Miss Darling Downs. I certainly hadn't expected it.

From there I went onto compete in at Riverside in Brisbane and from 12 girls, including some highly paid models, I was named Miss Queensland.

I was a just a girl from the country. It was hard to believe.

We were judged on appearance, grooming, speech, deportment and international and local knowledge.

After I won they sent me off to June Daly Watkins modelling school to get "polished off" before I went to the Miss Australia judging, in Toorak, in Melbourne.

I didn't win the Miss Australia title that year, my room mate did.

But I did get to go overseas. The major prize for winning Miss Queensland was a four-month trip overseas, with a chaperone. So I travelled to places like Italy on a shipping liner and at each port there was a limousine waiting to take us to all the sights.

I had a week in Paris. It was a lovely trip and my boss was great. He kept my job for me back in Warwick.

Brian and I had been corresponding then. We were friends, but getting more serious.

He hadn't been that keen on me going overseas. I think he worried I wouldn't come back.

Then we got engaged. It was no big startling thing. I think you know when you are ready; it was five years since I meet him.

We married in 1964.

Back then you gave up your job when you got married. So I went to live on the Nicholls family farm at Allora.

We built a new house and started our family. I loved being in the bush. I had always been a country girl.

Our farm was called Barooga, on Dalrymple Creek, and we had five children: Greg, Mark, Anne-Maree, Christopher and Andrew.

It was a big acreage, mainly grain, and it was run as a family.

I looked after our children first, but I did help on the farm. I didn't drive the tractor, but I used to call myself the rouseabout - if something broke I'd go to town to get the replacement part.

It was a very necessary role and I was busy looking after our children and doing what I had to make sure the boys kept going outside.

We lived right on the bitumen road, just five miles from Allora, and our children were fortunate to have that lovely country childhood.

They were first off the bus in the afternoon and last on in the morning.

I think the loveliest thing about a country childhood is children grow up with nature.

There is a lot of freedom and space and where we lived was the perfect place to raise a family.

But there were some hard times for us too. In 1988 our youngest son Andrew was killed in an accident on our farm.

He was just 12 and our world fell apart after that.

It had a big effect on all of us, in different ways.

It taught me a lot. I will never say I understand what other parents, who have lost a child, go through. You can't know it's so different for everyone.

It has taught me to be more compassionate.

But you never get over it; you just work through it.

And even now, 25 years later, some days are still harder than others.

Losing Andrew took its toll on our children too, in many. And it stays with you as a family.

About 13 years ago Brian and I retired to Warwick. We have kept some of our farming country and we enjoy going out there when we can.

I think something about growing up in the country gets in your blood and makes you a country person forever.

I know our children still love the bush too, but they have to follow their dreams.

From a woman's perspective a lot has changed and droughts, floods and ordinary grain and cattle prices have made it hard for farming families.

Now many girls are working off the farm in paying jobs out of necessity and because they have careers.

I think it started 20 or 25 years ago and I think in the bush there was a need for change. I am a moderate person though, I do think country girls needed a little bit of liberating.

Germaine Greer, computers, changing attitudes, smaller farms these things have all contributed to women's changing role on the farm.

I think in many cases farming families need that second income so they aren't struggling.

We live in town now, but I still love getting back to the farm.

Brian and I took our caravan out there a little while ago and camped while the cows were calving.

For me, there is still something very serene and peaceful about being there.

So while I might live in the city now, in so many ways I will always be a country girl.



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