Mother, Artist, Cook, Animal-lover, Furniture Polish Artisan
Born: Hampshire, UK, 1941
Died: Mundaring, aged 68
Gilly Stephenson brought English gentility to the outback and gave her name to a range of furniture polishes of her own formulation and making that is now sold throughout Australia and around the world. The polish was part of a life filled with travel and a love of adventure, animals and romantic gardens.
Gillian Mary Cecelia Stephenson was born in the Hampshire village of Monxton on February 22, 1941, the only daughter of four children to Royal Air Force Group Captain Richard Bowen and wife, Inez. Her mother trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, without practising her craft professionally. As the child of a career officer, Gilly’s youth was shaped by travel to several countries, including Singapore, Malaya, Kenya and Libya, which gave her a respect for other cultures.
Her education and religion, however, were guided by Sidmouth Catholic boarding school in Devon; after she left, her father’s last posting was as military attache in Caracas, Venezuela, which included travel to Colombia, Cuba and beyond. In Caracas, she earned pin money part-time in a kindergarten.
Understandably, her parents entertained frequently, which gave young Gilly an insight into household protocol that would so influence her later life.
On return to the UK, she did typing and secretarial work and was employed by the renowned auctioneer, Spink, which specialises in coins, banknotes and the like. Gilly, now an attractive young woman, met Old Etonian Chris Stephenson, whose family had a centuries-old history in India.
They married in 1963 and Gilly, knowing he had an Australian grandmother, suggested an overland trip Down Under. They set off in a VW Kombi, adventuring through Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, India and Thailand, long before these places had tourism industries.
Her husband, now a Lloyd’s marine broker in London, hated his job, though it had provided a Georgian farmhouse in Sible Hedingham in northern Essex, where Gilly had established a beautiful garden. In 1968, the couple and their three children migrated to WA where friends said cheap farmland was available, settling into 1200ha in Arthur River, between Williams and Kojonup.
Gilly took on the role of sheep farmer’s wife with gusto, mustering with her family on horseback and building an animal collection that at different times included kangaroos, lambs, goats, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, fish and several species of poultry. Once, a turkey destined for Christmas dinner became a pet because her husband couldn’t bear to kill it; the animal succumbed to old age seven years later.
As well, she built a new garden that was the envy of the district; to stop it from extending beyond manageability, her husband fenced it. The couple were well rewarded financially when the farm was sold after nine years in 1978, but hard times lay ahead.
They settled in Mundaring and spent the next two years on an educational program for their third child, William, who had learning difficulties, assisted by some 200 locals on a roster. It was emotionally rewarding but family investments foundered; her husband took to truck-driving and door-to-door selling.
Around this time, Gilly was busy making a furniture polish in her kitchen to restore antiques that had accompanied her migration from the UK. Friends were delighted with it and soon she was lead-footing around Perth in a Mini Moke, selling it to restorers.
Today Gilly Stephenson’s waxes and polishes are sold in Bunnings and furniture shops and online. Gilly always put family first, sponsoring her mother to come here when her father died, and building a cottage for her.
She was thrilled in 2007 when her garden in Mundaring was part of Australia’s Open Garden Scheme. Afterwards, it was featured in the Garden Gurus TV show; last year members of the Rose Society of WA visited her home.
However, her health had deteriorated with a double scoliosis of the spine that shrank her height by more than 12cm in the last few years, compounded by an unrelated illness, progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare degenerative disease of the brain that also afflicted the late actor Dudley Moore. She used a walking stick and had a fatal fall in her garden on May 1. She was 68.
Gilly Stephenson is survived by her husband, daughter Alice, son Charles, a Commander in the Royal Australian Navy, and son William, and grandchildren Melissa, James, Rebecca, Elisabeth, Tadhg, Culver, Phoebe and Charlotte, and great grand-daughter Lana, with another three due later this year.
Her husband and daughter continue the business.
Torrance Mendez (The West Australian)
By Christmas 2009 the family were blessed with five new members - Gilly's three new great-grandchildren, Lilly, Julian and Oscar, were born and much wanted twin grandsons, Hugh and Oliver, arrived on great grand-daughter, Lana's birthday, conceived a week after Gilly passed away. She is still watching over her family.