Betty Sara
Fri, June 14, 2013 at 19:00
Stephanie Hunt

When she hears that I am restarting MIPIK, Sister Anne Hensen says that I must meet with Betty Sara.  “She was famous in her day,” says Sister Anne.  “We all followed the story of Betty and her quadruplets for years in the Women’s Weekly.”  It sounds as if Betty has led a very interesting life, so I give her a call.

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Women's Weekly Cover Girl

Betty Sara accepts my invitation to be interviewed with a gentle sigh.  “All right,” she says.  “But all I’ve ever done is have babies, and everybody does that.  I’m not that interesting.”  And yet for decades this diminutive, 92 year-old woman, with her soft English accent, captured the attention of Australia and much of the western world precisely because she had babies.  Betty raised five Sara children, including the first surviving quadruplets in Australia, born in Bellingen in 1950.  To the women’s magazine world of her time, Betty and her babies were rock stars.

But I have promised Betty that this story will be about her and not her babies, so we must go back, before “the quads”, to her life in England at the outbreak of World War 2.  Then Betty Holmes, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) two years after war was declared.  “I was on a training aerodrome with the Wellington Bombers,” she recalls.  “I used to drive the crew bus, taking the crew out to the aircraft.”  When a strapping contingent of Australians arrived Betty spotted gunner Percy Sara on her bus and a friendship grew.

The couple had to wait a long time to marry.  Transferred to the Lancaster 460 squadron, Percy was shot down and languished in a POW camp for 3 years.  But it wasn’t long after his return to England in 1945 that he and Betty were wed.  Percy returned to Australia to await his new bride’s arrival.

A ship full of war brides ferried a shy, 24-year-old Betty to a new continent and a new family in 1946.  “A lot of the girls had a rather poor reception,” Betty recalls.  “But thank goodness Percy and the family made me very welcome.”   Percy had found a home and a job as an ambulance driver in Sydney and Betty settled in and very quickly started a family, giving birth to Geoffrey in November 1947.

By the time Percy took up a role as ambulance superintendent in the tiny town of Bellingen, Betty was expecting their second child – and with no history of multiple births in the family they prepared Geoffrey for the arrival of a new brother or sister.

A trip to a Newcastle specialist late in her pregnancy gave Betty and Percy their first hint that life was about to change. “He said, ‘Now don’t you worry but we are going to deliver four perfectly healthy babies’,” recalls Betty.  “Well you can imagine the shock!”  Actually I can’t imagine, but I quickly ask her how Percy reacted.  “I didn’t see him,” she says, reminding me that in those days having babies was purely women’s business.  “I think possibly he had a cigarette and a stiff whiskey.”

In August 1950, over a period of 80 hours in the tiny 40-bed hospital at Bellingen, she gave birth to Alison, Phillip, Judith and Mark.  There had only ever been four surviving quadruplets in the world at that time, and none in Australia.  The streets of Bellingen, population 1500, filled with reporters from across the globe.  The mayor even talked about putting up tents for the hordes of chain-smoking journalists queuing to use the public telephones.

Five weeks later Betty brought her babies home to the tiny bungalow attached to the ambulance station and the Sara family of three became seven. “Do we have to keep them all?” was young Geoffrey’s plaintive cry.

Betty could hardly be blamed for having similar feelings, but she certainly doesn’t admit them to me.  In fact, she seems to have taken the rapid expansion of her family and new-found fame in her stride.  “I was lucky living in Bellingen,” she explains.  “People there accepted me without a lot of fuss and bother and everyone was so helpful.”

The family’s fame became manageable with the signing of an exclusive, 16-year contract with the Women’s Weekly.  Betty and Percy travelled to Sydney and met with Frank Packer himself, owner of Consolidated Press.  Betty recalls being overawed.  “I was still shy and not used to meeting bigwigs, so I was quite wary of him.”  But the deal was done, with funds going toward a trust for the children.

The Women’s Weekly became such a part of the Sara’s life that Weekly photographer Ron Berg was known as “Uncle Ron”.  Every two to three months Ron and a reporter would show up to do a feature on a birthday, Christmas or summer holiday.  Betty takes me to the mantel to show me a picture of the family meeting the Queen.  We take her scrapbooks down from the top shelf of her bedroom cupboard and flip through page after page.  “The Sara Quads Try Bowling”; “Sara Quads in London”;  “Quads Brother has Measles” scream the headlines.

I suggest to Betty that it must have been difficult to be under the microscope like this.  She assures me that the relationship with the Weekly was a good one, but admits that she was glad when multiple births became more common and the family became less newsworthy.

In 1956 the family left Bellingen for Punchbowl, a suburb of Sydney, and Percy began running a taxi business with his brother.  By now the Weekly had dubbed Betty a Supermom, and the moniker seems appropriate.   Not only was Betty responsible for raising five children with less than 3 years between them amid the hurly burly of media attention, she also launched her own 25 year career working for London Baby Carriage, then a leading retailer of all things baby.

“I think they only wanted me in the beginning because they had equipped the kids with cots and things for publicity,” Betty says.  “But I must have proved quite satisfactory, because they kept me on.”  Betty became known as “the troubleshooter”, juggling phone calls, paperwork and working on the shop floor.

She enjoyed her work and says she was fortunate that London Baby Carriage allowed her flexible hours to fit in with school hours and school holidays. She also credits her elderly, and rather fierce nanny Miss Rowland.  “When she came to see me she wore gloves and a hat and the kids cowered.”  Betty laughs gently.  “But the children were disciplined, I can assure you.”

As the quads grew older the media attention faded.  Betty is proud that her children grew up to be individuals, unspoiled by their early fame.  The children left the nest, married and had children of their own. When Percy’s health started to fail he and Betty decided to move back to the Coffs Coast.

They only shared a couple of years together on the Coast.  “I remember I went into the bedroom to wake him, and he had gone very peacefully,” Betty says.  Percy died in 1983 and this woman who had managed such a large and boisterous family was on her own.  “Well, it’s just been one of those things you have to cope with.”  That’s all Betty has to say about 29 years living alone.

As the interview winds down I ask Betty whether her children were affected by being in the limelight for all those years.  She answers, “I don’t think so.  We did our best to make sure they were nothing out of the ordinary – just themselves.”  It strikes me that this in itself is extraordinary – to be a mother who loves her children enough to fight for their right to be themselves.  It turns out that being a good mother isn’t just interesting; it’s everything.

 

 

Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (http://themostinterestingpersoniknow.net/).
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