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Tennant, Eleonora Elisa (1893–1963)

by Anne Deveson

Eleanora Tennant, n.d.

Eleanora Tennant, n.d.

from Australian Women's Weekly, 12 February 1964, p 5

In the north-east of Tasmania stretches a wild tract of land called Diddleum Plains. You approach it through country that is strangely sinister – burnt bracken, giant boulders, and gaunt black tree-stumps. No sign of a living creature except the wheeling crows.

Then suddenly the bush becomes lush, green and dense.

In the heart of this jungle lies an unexpected oasis of cultivated land; a neat white homestead, paddocks of grass and clover dotted with Black Angus cattle and Romney Marsh sheep, and waving spears of oats and wheat.

It’s a remarkable sight, and an even more remarkable story … a story of enterprise, courage, and a spark of eccentricity.

Eleven years ago, Eleanora Tennant was a 59-year-old gentlewoman who lived in London surrounded by luxury.

But she yearned to farm. The fact that she knew nothing at all about it was immaterial.

When the desire finally overwhelmed her, she borrowed £2000 (at interest), said goodbye to her family and friends, and came to Australia with the calm intention of starting life on the land.

She made such a success of it, buying run-down properties and working them up, that she decided this was too easy.

She set her sights on 700 acres of virgin land in Diddleum Plains.

Why? In her own words, ‘It gave me a kick. Australia’s a young country, and I felt I ought to give as well as take.’

Eleanora Tennant gave. She gave her life. In the end, the struggle proved too much for her, and she died of a heart attack only a short time ago.

But she achieved her aim. Her property is her memorial: a prosperous farm where there was once impenetrable bush.

I first met Eleanora Tennant four years ago.

Stories of her amazing fortitude had filtered down to Hobart, where we were living, so my husband and I drove up to Diddleum Plains to see for ourselves.

We bumped over a dirt track through pastoral country that seemed incongruous after the wilderness we had left behind.

Smoke was rising from the chimney of the weatherboard house; there were clothes on the line, turkeys and chickens in the yard, masses of daffodils, and nine or ten cats sunning themselves on the porch.

Eleanora Tennant strode out to meet us, a striking-looking woman with wild red hair, a very white skin, and handsome features.

Her face belonged to the Elizabeth Age; her clothes did not.

She wore muddy blue breeches and boots.

She pumped our hands with tremendous vigour, saying ‘Come in. Come in. Don’t mind my breeches, do you? Working woman y’know. Lord, all those fearsome cameras and things’. (We carried a tape recorder as well.)

Inside the house, we found ourselves in a room that might have been the drawing-room of an elegant English country house, daffodils on the old oak desk, lovely antiques, priceless pieces of red Venetian glass and Danish porcelain.

But in the middle of the floor stood a wooden crate.

‘Meet my baby’, she said, delving down and pulling out a woollen sock. Inside the sock nestled a baby possum, eyes still closed, no fur, slithery wrinkled skin.

‘Found him at the bottom of a tree’, she said. ‘Rearing him myself’.

And then with characteristic volatility, ‘Suppose you want to know all about me, eh? I’m quite made, of course’.

‘We all are … Oh, not the Tennants. They’re my husband’s family. Very landed. Very respectable, don’t you know! But my family, poof! Wild … mixed blood, y’see. Turkish, Irish, French, Italian, English blood running through my veins’.

She told us her story. She was born in 1893, in Sydney, where her father, Dr. Thomas Henry Fiaschi, was a well-known surgeon.

As a girl she was sent to Europe to school.

Her father gave her two pieces of advice. One was to keep an open mind. The other was not to marry too young.

She observed the first and ignored the second. She was just 17 when she married into one of England’s noted landed families, the Tennants.

‘But I kept my father quiet’, she said. ‘Told him I didn’t intend to live with any man for longer than a year, so what was he worrying about!’

That year lengthened into twenty, then thirty, forty. A long time, and all the while she was trying to fit herself into an environment in which she could not belong.

‘Too much of a renegade, y’see’, she told us. ‘Got stifled by all that conventional society life’.

She was also fiercely independent. She was born into the wrong age, of course. Now it would have been easier for her, but in those days, the period between the two wars, women in her position in England just didn’t work.

As jobs were barred, Eleanora Tennant took the next best course. First of all she went in for politics and, as a Conservative, fought two elections in the East End of London, the dockside area – tough for any candidate, tougher still for a woman.

She lost the elections, but took a room in the constituency and established a one-woman unofficial employment bureau there.

This was the depression and thousands were out of work. Eleanora Tennant would scour the company reports, and if any firm in the constituency had done reasonably well she would swoop in to the manager.

‘ “Good morning, Mr Smith”, I’d say … “Nice day, isn’t it? Fine lot of new buildings you have … but I noticed your yard didn’t look very clean. Wouldn’t you like a man to sweep it up?”’

Mr Smith would say he couldn’t afford extra staff. ‘Come now, Mr Smith’, Mrs Tennant would reply. ‘I noticed your company made a handsome profit last year. Surely you can manage a few pounds a week to stop your place being a public disgrace?’

‘It always worked’, said Mrs Tennant.

Another time, constituents complained of vermin in their Council cottages. They and she made repeated requests to have the properties fumigated, but without success.

One morning she went to the cottages, collected the bugs in a sheet of newspaper, and marched in to the Council.

‘Believe you own those cottages in Jones Street’, she said. ‘Then I have something of yours … property that came from there’. She undid the screw of paper and the bugs shot all over the Council Chamber floor.

The cottages were fumigated the following day.

She drove ambulances in Spain during the civil war. When London was blitzed, she was an air-raid warden.

In 1947, just after bread rationing had been introduced, she strode around London sticking up posters which proclaimed ‘M.P.s who voted for Bread Rationing are Criminals, Dictators, Contemptible, and Public Menaces’.

Not unnaturally, the M.P.s resented this, and she was hauled up to the house of Commons to answer to the august Committee of Privileges, headed by someone just as tigerish as she – the formidable Winston Churchill.

‘But I told them off’, she said. ‘I wasn’t giving in’.

Two weeks after her appearance at the House, bread rationing was quietly removed.

In between this activity, she found time to bear four children – three daughters and a son.

‘Brought them up to be good citizens, too’, she told us. ‘Kicked them out of the nest as soon as they were old enough. Sooner children learn to stand on their own feet the better.’

‘And it worked. They thank me now.’

Once the children were grown up, Eleanora Tennant found that her outbursts of activity were not enough.

‘I wanted to earn, you see. And more than anything else I wanted to farm.

But I couldn’t. My husband (Ernest W.D. Tennant) wouldn’t even let me keep a cow. That’s why I came to Australia, and now you know.’

And then with ruthless honesty, ‘Besides I was embarrassing my family by not conforming, don’t you know. I decided it would be better all round if I cleared out. Stay good friends that way … the only way.’

She bought her first property at Winkley in Northern Tasmania, 700 acres of run-down land, two horses called Punch and Judy, and Daisy, a cow.

‘the first time I milked Daisy, I said, “Now, Daisy, I’ve never done this before, so you must be good”. And Daisy turned around and gave me a great kick. I told her only one kiss a day, or I’d have no skin left on my face.’

‘And then I squeezed the teats, and hoped something would come. It took me an hour to milk her the first time. Now I can do it in a quarter the time.’

Next thing she did was to buy some pigs. ‘A terrible bloomer. I didn’t realise that in order to feed the pigs economically I’d need a dairy farm as well.’

Enterprise once again came to the fore. She decided to sell the weaner pigs as Christmas sucking pigs, put an advertisement in the paper, and was inundated with replies.

‘But dressing a pig is a terribly difficult business. I’d no idea. First of all you have to get his bristles off, and this means putting him in a bath of water that’s exactly the right temperature.

‘And then a pig is a very slippery business. He floats all over the place, and when you get him out of the bath and on to a table he slips off the table on to the floor.

‘Oh, I had all sorts of fun, dressing my pigs.’

Eventually she succeeded, and sold her pigs for much more than she would have received the ordinary way.

Eleanora Tennant was ignorant about farming and even more baffled by housework.

‘I’d had servants all my life. The first time I washed the sheets they appalled me.

‘Seemed so large. Thought I’d never get them on the line.

‘So I left them in the copper and a fortnight later they were covered in mould. Had to learn to hang them up then.’

The farm prospered and she sold it, for the first time making money of her own.

She had paid £2500 for it. She received £7000.

She bought another property near by, worked that up, and sold it for a profit. Then a third farm and a further profit, until she finally settled at Diddleum Plains.

‘And here I’m going to stay’, she told us when we visited her two years later.

We stayed the weekend and found many changes. The house had its own generator, sewerage, a tiled bathroom with hot and cold water (‘Fourth bathroom I’ve installed’, she said), and electrical gadgets galore.

We arrived late at night, and sat down to a splendid four-course dinner. Silver candelabra on the table, gleaming linen … hard to believe such civilised surroundings existed in the middle of Diddleum Plains.

But dinner wasn’t entirely conventional.

Baby, the possum we had seen when it was two weeks old, was now fully grown, and cavorted around the room, knocked over a glass of sherry, tippled the lot, and finally curled up in sleep in Eleanora Tennant’s lap.

Next morning we went for a walk outside. Eleanora Tennant wore a straw slouch hat and a pair of old white sandshoes.

‘Easier to walk in,’ she said. She surged ahead, leaving us panting disgracefully yards behind.

At one stage she shouted over her shoulder, ‘Sorry I’m a bit slow. The old ticker’s not been too good. Doctor says I should rest. Hah!’

We must have covered a mile when we came to a boundary fence. The bush had been partly cleared, exposing the stumps of giant  gum trees, some fully four or five feet across.

‘Cut them down myself’, she said calmly. ‘Quite a job.’

Before we left she showed us letters from her children. Her son and his wife had already been out to stay.

‘They all want me home,’ she said, ‘But I say no. Better to be independent; besides I’ve got a job to do.’

We kept in touch, and in her last letter she wrote:

‘The boundary fence is long ago finished. I am rearing pure bred Jersey calves with great success. They know that I love them and that is important with all little things.’

But her heart condition became so bad that even she had to give in.

She went to England for treatment and to be with her family for a while.

She intended returning to Tasmania, however.

A few days before I wrote this article, a letter came from one of her daughters saying she had died.

‘I am afraid she will be very much missed by all the people who knew her out there,’ she wrote.

‘She was a fascinating person, with so much courage and spirit and originality. She leaves a terrible gap in our lives.’

Eleanora Tennant will be missed. She was an individualist; honest about her own shortcomings, fearless in her beliefs, warm in her humanity.

She was also a pioneer in the true sense of the word … a woman who came to Australia to give and not to take.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Anne Deveson, 'Tennant, Eleonora Elisa (1893–1963)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/tennant-eleonora-elisa-16157/text28104, accessed 21 November 2017.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2017

Eleanora Tennant, n.d.

Eleanora Tennant, n.d.

from Australian Women's Weekly, 12 February 1964, p 5

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Fiaschi, Eleonora Elisa
Birth

19 December 1893
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Death

11 September 1963
Kettering, Northamptonshire, England

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation
Military Service
Key Events