Looking back on a rich life in Collie and Australind Gwen Palmer celebrates 100th birthday

At the age of 100, Australind's Gwen Palmer is taking the cancellation of her birthday party, forced by the current social distancing rules, in her stride.

Having lived through the depression years, the woman who sewed her wedding dress out of curtain fabric knows a thing or two about being resourceful.

While she's lived in Australind for forty years, Gwen spent her early life in Collie, and joined a prominent Collie family when she married Chris Palmer.

Born in Perth in 1920, Gwen had one brother Clive, and a sister Elaine. Her father was a manual arts teacher and her mother a teacher at MLC in Perth.

Sadly, her mother died when Gwen was a young girl and her father was transferred to Collie High School.

Like many girls of her era, she had to leave school at the age of 14 to help out at home.

Speaking to her daughter Cheryl this week from her home at Bethany Fields, Gwen remembered some hard times in her early days.

"During the depression a bus would drive through the streets with essential food, for example sugar or butter and we had to hand over coupons to get certain items," she said.

Cheryl said as Gwen's wedding approached she had to use coupons to buy material for her wedding dress, which was curtain material, as that was all she could afford. The talented seamstress made the dress herself.

As a young woman Gwen worked in Bonsers Manchester House in Throssell Street and took on an apprenticeship in dressmaking.

She worked as a dressmaker and was a West Australian finalist in the Australian Women's Weekly Gown of The Year competition and was flown to Melbourne for the event.

While teaching dressmaking at TAFE in Collie Gwen helped set up and teach Aboriginal women to sew their clothing for their families.

Gwen married Christopher Palmer on March 29, 1941.

She has fond memories of Collie and remembers there were lots of social gatherings, cabarets, balls and entertaining at home.

Gwen's son-in-law Barry says in the 50's, 60's and 70's the Palmers were an important family in Collie.

"They rubbed shoulders with the local and state elite and were extremely influential in the town," Barry said. "Chris and Gwen's best friends were the local member at the time (Tom Jones) and his wife, so they were involved with a lot of community projects."

Children Gay, Stephen and Cheryl came along, and Gwen remembers, "life was busy with cooking cleaning!"

As the years went by Gwen gained 10 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren and attributes her health to eating lots of vegetables, especially spinach.

She also says it's important to have a passion, and hers was art. Gwen began painting 60 years ago and has been awarded the Donnybrook Art Prize.

She has had many exhibitions, the last one being 18 months ago in Perth. She has had many students over the years and teaches painting to this day.

She designed and sewed her daughter Cheryl's wedding dress, and helped her niece set up a clothes shop in Collie called Toscas in the early 70's, which was a "go to" place for a long time in Collie.

The decision to move to Australind came when Cheryl' and Barry were expecting their first child. They had moved to Bunbury, and after a couple of years built in Australind.

"We moved in a month before our son was born," Barry said. "Gwen had wanted to come down this way because of the burgeoning art scene, so after Nathan was born she used it as an excuse to move."

She and Chris, who was reluctant to leave Collie, sold up and moved 600 metres across the top of the hill from Cheryl and Barry.

"Chris got to see his grandchildren all the time because they would walk over the hill to their house, and he admitted it was the best thing that ever happened to him," Barry said.

During her time in Australind, Gwen became involved in turning the Old Convent building into an Arts Gallery.

Gwen moved to a villa in Bethany Fields about 16 years ago when her husband, a former timber man, was becoming frail. Chris passed away 10 years ago and Gwen still lives on her own with the help of family. She gained her driver's licence around 1969 and finally had to hand it back in at the age of 99.

"Gwen was and still is of very strong character," Barry said.