4 April 2022

Old-school Canberran reminisces about a capital life

| Sally Hopman
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Joan Faulkner

Joan Faulkner, 94, is one of Canberra’s almost-originals. Photo: Sally Hopman.

Evatt woman Joan Faulkner is one of a rare breed; an almost-original Canberran who can remember sights and sounds the rest of us can only read about. She’s also of the breed born tough and designed to last.

Although born in Victoria, a young Joan came to Canberra with her parents Ben and Rene (Irene) Buffinton in the 1940s.

Fast forward to this week in 2022, days after her 94th birthday and Joan will proudly tell you she still drives and lives independently. You also get the distinct impression she doesn’t suffer fools.

Her family came to Canberra from Melbourne through her father’s work as a plumber.

“I remember his boss lent him his car in the days when cars were really rare. But my father didn’t know that the crankshaft in those old things flipped back and dad broke his wrist so he couldn’t be a plumber anymore. Back then, plumbers had to get into trenches and places like that to do their work so he couldn’t do any more practical stuff.

“It was like as soon as a place had good sewerage, we were gone – off to somewhere else.”

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Joan reckons she was about 12 when she came to Canberra with her family, the eldest of three children. They lived opposite the Ainslie school her siblings attended while she went to the then Canberra High School, now the School of Arts.

“It was awful,” she said. “I was only about 12 but I’d already been to three different schools. It was really hard. I wasn’t very good at lots of subjects, especially history and geography, but I tried hard to catch up.”

Turns out she had some excellent help back in the day. “I had this wonderful teacher, Alex Aitken, he was just marvellous. He could control a class without ever appearing to do so,” she said.

Joan credits Mr Aitken with her later passion for maths – a passion that led her to secure honours in maths and physics – “but don’t put that in because it sounds like I’m a skite. I was pretty stupid when it came to things like French, but I could do maths all right.”

Was she one of our early feminists? “Certainly not,” she laughed. “I just like doing those subjects.”

Baby with hose

Even as a baby, the young Joan loved to help things grow in the garden. Photo: Supplied.

She had won a scholarship but in those days, studying tertiary-level physics in Canberra wasn’t an option. She would have to go to Sydney. “But I didn’t know anyone there, and my parents weren’t really well off enough to send me there, so I turned it in.”

Joan took her honours and landed herself a job with the CSIRO, starting with microbiology but later working on and off in other branches of the scientific organisation. This work was to spark a lifelong love of growing – be it produce to feed the family or flowers to decorate the home.

Her passion for gardening is as strong today, although she’ll tell you her garden’s “a mess”. But the people she gives produce to, including stunning orchids, African violets and succulents, would tend to disagree.

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She also tried her hand at nursing, going down to Melbourne to study.

“At the time, I was going through a difficult personal period,” she said, “so I was looking for something else to do.”

Nursing saw her through these troubled times before she eventually returned to CSIRO and a new challenge – meteorological physics.

“That suited me,” she said, “because I am aggravatingly persistent about things.”

Joan went on to have six children, living with her family in Ainslie before moving to Evatt. The family made Page 1 of The Canberra Times back in 1982 when her husband John, a contractor at the time, found some official-looking documents under a Queanbeyan bridge.

John told the newspaper some of the documents were partly shredded so he asked his children if they could piece them together. Some of the material included envelopes with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet on them. Joan agreed that three of her children, Carol, Bob and David could piece them together “but only after they’d done their homework”. Turns out, the documents were marked US Navy ‘Confidential’.

Turning 94 was no big deal for this no-nonsense woman. Although she admits to being chuffed with what can only be described as the perfect gift for a passionate gardener from her eldest son Peter – a $94 gift voucher from her favourite nursery.

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Original Canberran? My Grandmother was born here now 96. She lived in what is now the St John’s school house until the age of 2 as her father was the Caretaker and my kids are 8th generation Canberran.

old canberran5:51 pm 25 Mar 22

Your Granny is 11 years older than me but we were probably born at the same hospital which is now the School of Earth Sciences and part of the ANU in Acton. It is also possible we went to the same school. It would be interesting to know how many originals (Pre 1942) are still around. Originals meaning born in the first hospital.

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