Grandma Bertha Discovered!

My grandmother Bertha Elizabeth Wade was the last child of Frederick Wentworth Wade and Adela Campbell Scott Macloskey, born on 2 February 1874 in Invercargill NZ. When she was six months old she was taken to Melbourne by her mother to visit the large Macloskey family, and it was there that her mother died of phthisis (TB) on 30 August 1874, aged just 26 and already the mother of six children (one died as an infant). Two years later Bertha’s father married her mother’s niece Ada Gresham Macloskey in Melbourne. Ada was then 19 years old and two years later became a mother herself in addition to being a stepmother to five children aged 10, 8, 7, 6 and 2.  It is possible Bertha, the youngest, stayed with the Macloskeys in Melbourne for a few years but she must have returned home in time to attend junior school in Invercargill.

As a young man Bertha’s father, one of nine children born in Dublin to a schoolmaster, left home to go to sea. He went first to Australia and then NZ, and as far as is known never went back to Ireland. Initially an accountant, he became a barrister and solicitor in Invercargill and one of the city’s more important personages. Bertha’s elder siblings all seemed to have inherited his wanderlust and with the exception of one brother none returned to New Zealand from Australia. So it is perhaps not surprising that Bertha followed their example. She was almost certainly an intelligent and forthright young woman like her elder sisters, of whom one was said to have “worn jodhpurs and ridden camels!” (in the 1900s) and the other became a Matron.

For a long time I could not discover anything about Bertha. She died when I was seven and all I can remember is an old lady with a cloud of white hair. Sadly there are no photos. My grandfather never talked about his early life and my father knew almost nothing about his family history.

Bertha married journalist Alexander Johnston in Melbourne on 21 September 1908 when she was 34 and he was 42. Alex was born in Launceston Tasmania and travelled extensively in the late 1890s and early 1900s as shown by the exquisite little watercolour sketchbooks and some early oil paintings which have survived. Their marriage certificate showed them both living at the same address, Oxford Chambers in Bourke Street – no doubt a very respectable residential! – and they were married at The Manse, Victoria Parade Collingwood rather than in a church, by Andrew Fergus Ferguson an ‘Authorised Minister’ of the Independent Presbyterian Church. No engagement or marriage notices can be found in either NZ or Australian newspapers. There were a number of newspaper advertisements at that time for “… marriages celebrated by Clergymen, with due solemnity, in strictest privacy …” for a special fee, “guaranteed gold wedding ring and necessary witnesses provided”. Expediency seems not to have been a reason as it was four years before Bertha and Alex had a baby.


But what did Bertha do before her marriage? She was not in the NZ electoral rolls after 1896 (when she was 22). She may have lived with her elder sister in Melbourne for a time, but Annie Teresa (the jodhpurs-wearer) died in 1902 aged 35.  She may or may not have received an allowance from her father – one would assume not. 

Searching Melbourne electoral rolls was not initially helpful, there were several Bertha Wades. But then the Australian National Library started to digitise early newspapers. 

A “Miss Bertha Wade, Manageress” kept popping up, but was she my Grandma Bertha? She was the Manageress of Guest’s Face and Scalp massage salon in fashionable Bourke St. Melbourne, which became Guest’s Original Hygienic Toilet Salon in 1903 and then Guest’s Premier Toilet Salon by 1905 “following  renovations”.


Above: The earliest advertisement containing Bertha’s name – Punch (Melb.) 7 Nov 1901

The owner of  the Salon was Mr. H. Westall Guest.  ‘Punch’ published an interview with Mr Guest in 1900 in which Miss Bertha Wade was described as an expert manicurist, so she must have commenced working for Guest’s before then. Unfortunately there was no mention of whether she came from New Zealand.

Below: Various advertisements, all in ‘Punch’ apart from one in ‘Table Talk’, 1902-1907


 One advertisement gives a photo of Miss Bertha Wade, Manageress but is so dark as to be indecipherable. The Salon advertised extensively during 1902 to August 1907 in the Social section of the Melbourne newspaper Punch but then ceased abruptly, apparently when the business was sold. The patrons must have been disappointed.


After many frustrating years searching for Bertha I re-checked the Melbourne electoral roll and this time viewed an original photocopy, and discovered that the occupation of the only Bertha Wade with second name Elizabeth was given as ‘Manageress’. Not proof but it made it extremely likely that this was indeed my Grandma Bertha!

Her social position must have been a little ambiguous. Her father was a well known and respectable barrister in Invercargill – but that was not Melbourne. Her clients at the Salon included many of Melbourne’s high society, including Vice-Regal personages if    “By Special Appointment’ in the advertisements had any meaning. She probably did not receive an allowance from her father but may have received an inheritance when he died in 1912 (although his will cannot be found).

It was some time after 1912 when Bertha and Alex bought the house in Wharf Road Longueville (Sydney) which was to be their home for the rest of their lives. Curiously, it belonged to Bertha alone, as evidenced by her will. She left instructions that if Alex survived her he could continue to live in the house but “… must keep it in fair order and condition….”   until the house passed to their son Warwick.

first part B's will

Bertha and Alex’s first son Warwick Lyle Johnston (the author’s father) was born in 1912. They had another son Ian Wentworth Johnston in 1916 but he only survived one year. I was told many years later that as a result my father was brought up “wrapped in cotton wool” – a lovely gentle man, a wonderful father, but not a particularly adventurous or assertive one!


Above: The house at Longueville, with water frontage on Tambourine Bay. Warwick’s room on the left with blue blinds. An idyllic place to spend a childhood.

Some years after Bertha had died and when Alex was in his 70s with failing eyesight, he held an art exhibition in aid of a local kindergarten. Among the numerous paintings were a few marked Not For Sale, including one utterly intriguing portrait labelled  “A Miss Australia of the Nineties”. Could this have been Bertha? It now has pride of place on the author’s living room wall. The facial expression has mystified countless visitors – sulky? come-hither? Interpretations welcome! 

A Miss Aust, of the 90's

A Miss Aust, of the 90's

Bertha died aged 73 on 16 July 1947, probably at home. The author remembers being taken into a bedroom but did not understand why, and hardly recognised the old lady lying on a chaise longue in front of a window. There must have been a beautiful view of the garden and shady verandah outside. The paintings below of the Longueville garden were among those Not For Sale.

Longueville Veteran












Bird bath WharfRd

(c) 2017 Nancy Vada Gibb. Please do not copy any of the above, including paintings, without permission.