Mona May Holbeck… a life lived

While sorting through boxes of family memorabilia, I came across some things that reminded me of my paternal grandmother, Mona May Shipstone (nee Holbeck). There were photos, an assortment of Birthday, Christmas and Sympathy cards and even some old 78 rpm records! There were items with no real meaning for anyone anymore… except for me. They are a connection to the past, my past. So, dear reader, I’ll tell you what I know, and think I know about Mona and hope you gain a glimpse of this woman and the times in which she lived.

Mona was born on Sunday 30 October 1904 in Clarendon, a rural locality in the Somerset Region located approximately 40kms north west of Ipswich in South East Queensland. Mona was known as ‘Nannie’ to my sister and myself. And, I must admit, it feels strange referring to her by her first name.

Before we go any further, I want to provide some background on Mona’s family in order to help make sense of her life and who she became. Her father, James Louis Holbeck (1866-1946) married Annie Sixsmith (1868-1938) on 6 February 1889 in Gympie, Queensland. Annie was an Irish immigrant who left Castlecomer, County Kilkenny just three years prior. It was interesting that James’ mother (Mona’s grandmother), Jane Ruddy (1841-1916) was also an Irish immigrant who left her home in County Armargh some 25 years before. Anyway, James (Mona’s father) worked for the railways and my grandmother (the eighth of ten children) was born while he was working in the area. I understand the family were living in a railway house at Clarendon at the time. By at least 1910, the family was living in Newstead, a suburb of Brisbane. The Electoral Rolls for 1913 show that Annie and James were registered as living in Maud Street Newstead and their occupations were shopkeepers. Things had changed dramatically as James’ occupation was no longer ‘Lengthsman’ as noted in the 1903 Electoral Rolls.

At the time of Mona’s birth in 1904, it was at the dawn of the 20th century. Although King Edward VII was the reigning monarch, Australia had recently become a Federation, known as The Commonwealth of Australia. The First World War was still ten years away. The Wright brothers continued to work on powered flight after their successful flight the year before on 17 December 1903. 1904 also saw the arrival of the first Ford car in Australia. The automobile would soon become commonplace on the roads.

As Mona was growing up, she faced many sad and difficult times. Nothing has changed, I know. Most of us face our fair share of pain as we grow older. It is often these times that define us and shape us into who we become. It was no different for Mona. At the age of six, her sister Emily Agnes (known as Emma) aged 11 years and 10 months came home from school one afternoon and within a few days she had passed away. It was an event that affected the whole family for the rest of their lives. If you are interested in reading more about Emma, please see my post from 2016 A Life Not Lived … I think as a result, Mona and her remaining sister, Katherine Lilian (Aunty Kate) remained close all their lives. (Mona was devastated when Kate passed away in 1973.) Then, in 1914, when Mona was 10 years old, her mother Annie gave birth to her tenth child, Arthur Edward, who survived only three days. Another distressing event. Also in 1914, World War I broke out. One of her older brothers, Charles Alfred enlisted in 1915 and saw service in France. Thankfully, he returned home, married and raised a family.  So, from a young age, Mona knew about grief and loss.

2017-11-28 12.38.39.jpg
Mona May Holbeck circa 1920. From the author’s collection.


On the 26 April 1930, Mona married John William Shipstone (better known as Jack), right in the middle of the Great Depression. They had four sons between 1931 and 1942. My father, William John (better known as Bill) (1931-2011) was the eldest. Graham James followed in 1935, with Donald Henry (1938-2014) and Colin Lionel in 1942. My mother, Jean, always said that Nannie would have liked to have had a daughter but that was not to be. My mother and Nannie always got on well and in some sense was the daughter she never had.

John (Jack) William Shipstone and Mona May Holbeck on their wedding day 26 April 1930. Photo courtesy of Barbara Horsburgh


A similar wedding photo of the one above hung in the lounge room at my grandparents home in Newmarket the entire time they lived there (from 1930) and was still there until my Uncle Don’s passing in 2014. So, I grew up with this image. I always loved her dress with its handkerchief hem and the beautiful shoes… and that huge bouquet of flowers.

Before her marriage to my grandfather, Jack, Mona worked as a shorthand typist. There is a family story that Mona, during a lunch break, came across a speed typing competition being held on the street, so Mona competed and came second. Unfortunately, I have no evidence of that. However, I have included below a photo of Mona’s Certificate for Shorthand awarded from Stott & Hoare’s Business College in Brisbane in 1920.

Certificate of Shorthand awarded to Mona Holbeck on 9th December 1920. From the author’s collection.

When her children were older, Mona went back to work, in the office of the department store of T C Beirne, located in Duncan Street, Fortitude Valley. Her typing career did not end when she retired from T C Beirne either. Her youngest son, Col, completed his panel beating apprenticeship in the mid 1960s and later started his own business. So, in the early 1970s, there was my grandmother happily(?) typing (on a manual typewriter, of course) invoices and quotes for her son’s business. Just as an aside, when Nannie was no longer able to assist with the typing, I was recruited to help Col with this task. I must say he paid very well!

Mona was fortunate to have music lessons and according to The Telegraph, dated 25 October 1919, the music exam results for the London School of Music showed Mona achieved a mark of 66 in the Junior section. While I was researching, I noticed there was a Ruby Walker in the list of results. I remember my father telling me he had singing lessons with a Miss Ruby when he was a young lad. I wonder if this Miss Ruby was the same one. Evidently, Dad only attended for a few weeks then just went to town and spent the money each week – bad boy! He was in so much trouble when his mother found out!

Mona’s father, my great-grandfather, James Holbeck lost a leg in a shunting accident during his time as a railway employee. These life-changing events were not uncommon at the time. My father remembered his grandfather had a wooden leg as a result of the accident and, for a small boy, he found it quite intimidating. Evidently, Grandfather sat in a Captain’s chair by the wood stove in the kitchen of their home in Newstead. That same chair is now at my house and is very much the worse for wear. It has been repaired and repainted so many times over the years that it barely resembles the original item! My plan is to restore it as near to original as possible. Although, that may prove to be difficult, as it is a bit like the story of the man with the axe that had been in the family for generations. Except that the handle and the axe blade had been replaced several times, it was an original family heirloom!

This Captain’s chair belonged to my great-grandfather, James Louis Holbeck. In much need of repair! Photo from the author’s collection.

I don’t have many photos of Mona so the few I have are very precious. The ones below were taken in the backyard of Jack and Mona’s home in Newmarket in April 1972 with the four generations of the Shipstone family: My grandparents, Jack and Mona, my father, Bill, myself and my son, Brent aged five months. I remember that day very well. We all knew it was significant… having us altogether. You can see Nannie and Pa look very happy.


Mona had lived through three quarters of the 20th century! Just like many others, she lived through the two world wars as well the Korean and Vietnam wars. During the Second World War, a United States army base was established in Brisbane. However, there was a certain amount of animosity between the Australian and American servicemen even though they were allies. There was no love lost for a variety of reasons. One of the issues that disturbed Brisbane residents and the Australian servicemen was that while they were on strict rations, the US servicemen had access to a variety of food, beverages and other items forbidden to the locals. Tensions boiled over and during 26 and 27 November 1942 violence erupted in what became known as the Battle of Brisbane. The melee led to the death of one Australian serviceman and hundreds of Australian and US servicemen being injured. The news of this ‘battle’ was suppressed and many people still don’t know about it. My father told me about going to the US Army Camp with other boys and picking through the rubbish the ‘Yanks’ had thrown out. He often went home with ham and other delicacies not seen in Brisbane for many a day! So, it was there if you were prepared to go through the rubbish!

Mona saw aeroplanes and flight become common place as well as automobiles and the phasing out of horse drawn transport. She saw the transformation of Brisbane from a cholera-ridden town with little sewerage and infrastructure to a vibrant city with freeways and skyscrapers, and… sewerage. The 20th century was an amazing time for all those who lived through it.

We are all influenced by those around us, particularly as children. When I think of Mona, I recall her quietness, patience and dignity. In her own way Mona achieved much and hopefully I learned something from her. She experienced joy and pain. She was the best daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, aunt and friend she could be. I admired her because she was a working woman when many women were staying at home. She cared for her family in the face of adversity. She was proud of her sons’ achievements and was much loved. Still sadly missed…


13 thoughts on “Mona May Holbeck… a life lived

  1. Thanks for reading my post. I do appreciate it. Gympie is not too far from where I live in Ipswich as you would know. I think it would have been a very different place back in the day. I take pleasure in documenting my family history and heritage although I would like to do more. Perhaps 2018 will be more productive! It is great you know some of your own and your son’s family history. Our past certainly helps to shape who we are! Thanks again for visiting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have been to Gympie many times and the last time was in 2013. I wonder how it look like in the 18th century! It is nice to reminiscing the past, a part of your heritage. I know a little bit about my great grandparents as well as my son’s great great grandparents. It can come as intriguing to know some details in the past. I can see the resemblance of your relatives in the photos!

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  3. Yes, I know how fortunate I am to have such wonderful photos. Sadly, I also have many that are not labelled, so I have no idea who these people were. It is such a shame. I know how difficult it can be to visit all the blogs that are of interest. If you have time, to look in on mine occasionally, that would be nice. Enjoy your holidays!

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  4. You are lucky indeed. I’ve moved so many times as had my parents so memories are mostly stored in our minds and hearts. I’ve managed to hang onto a very few. If someone follows my blog and has actually bothered to read and comment, I will always visit them to see if we have some common ground. I don’t get to read all the blogs I follow now but try really hard to visit as often as possible. I’ll be back after the holidays. Seriously whelmed here. 🙂

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  5. Thanks for reading my post. I thought you would like the chair. As I said in the post, there is little that is actually original! Still, as you say, it could tell plenty of stories… if only it could talk. Thanks again for your interest!

    Liked by 1 person

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