The annual trip to the Royal Easter Show in Sydney was a family event. Geoff showed his prize-winning Shorthorns and his Santa Gertrudis while Kath, Nancy and John competed in riding and jumping events. Over several years, Nancy and John were the show’s champion girl and boy riders. They would often sleep in the stables near their horses; their Sydney cousins marvelled at their freedom.
Nancy went to the school where she could take her pony, St Margaret’s, at Berwick in Victoria. Boarders all brought their horses, while the day-girls rode theirs to school each day. She spent summer holidays between the house in the bush at Palm Beach which Kath had designed and built while studying architecture, and Uig Lodge, on top of Point Piper, with her grandmother, Marcia Rutherford.
In 1958, after finishing school, she spent a year at Sydney University, then went to London, where she lived in Mayfair with her aunt, also Nancy Moss, at the Dorchester Hotel. In 1966, she returned to stay with her, but by early 1967, was eager to go home.
She wrote to Kath: “What I want to do is to go overland to South Africa now I know the ropes and get a ship from there. I feel I must do it because I have the opportunity and have become a bit gutless after having things so easy in England.”
In 1967, she and a friend drove a VW the length of East Africa, and she caught the ship home from Cape Town. Nancy met Frank Lawton in 1968 at a country show, and they married that November. The following August, their son, Jim, was born.
By December 1970, when their daughter Nancy Kathleen, known as Bun, was born, they had parted ways. Nancy returned to Riversdale with the children to live with Kath.
In 1974, she moved into Gundagai, and the following year she opened Lunacy Imports on the main street. The store brought new ideas, colours and a whiff of faraway places to Sheridan Street, and it became the town’s go-to gift shop. She put her camera skills to good use, and her photos grace countless district family and wedding albums. She became a marriage celebrant, in demand far and wide, while acknowledging she was “no good at marriage”.
Lawton settled into life in town but her farming instincts niggled, so she bought little pieces of ground around Gundagai that came up for sale: a triangle here, a patch there. In 1977, her son, Toby, was born. She bought a couple of derelict, pressed-tin wards from Gundagai Hospital, added an extra wing, and made a new home near the saleyards. The garden, like all her gardens, filled with colour and perfume.
She was a long-standing member of the Gundagai Hospital Board, and served three terms on Gundagai Shire Council, bringing her wealth of local knowledge and common sense to these roles.
She was most proud of having initiated the local Australia Day breakfast and took great pleasure in celebrating Gundagai’s Wiradjuri history, involving local families to commemorate Yarri, the Aboriginal hero who rescued 49 people from the flooded river in 1852.
In the early 2000s, she took responsibility for her fiercely independent mother, whose health was failing. When Kath became too weak to leave the house, she put up blinds in a big room looking over the river which cut out direct sun and heat but left the view open. She put poultry back into the run below and a young horse in the paddock outside the long windows – all fine details to fill her mother’s days with the sights and sounds of her farm she loved best.
Kath Moss died in 2003, and Nancy moved back to Riversdale, which she rebuilt into a successful mixed grazing and cropping enterprise. Over the past few years, like so many, she endured what seemed to be a never-ending drought.
In 2005, though she didn’t drink, she bought the Tumblong pub to save it from closure. “Now I am a publican,” she wrote, “and probably one of the worst barmaids possible to imagine – when a car pulls up outside the pub, I hiss to myself, ‘Don’t come in. Don’t come in’, and of course they do because there is nowhere else to go. Then there is the order – a nightmare. Different beers, different size glasses, and that monster, the mechanical money box whose buttons have to be pressed. In 30 years of having a shop, I found keeping money in a drawer was quite adequate.”
With renovations, upgrades, appetising meals and an ancient pianola from Uig Lodge, Nancy built the Tumblong pub’s reputation and clientele, turning it over to new owners as “a going concern with prospects”.
She was a lifetime correspondent of the Gundagai Independent, enlivening its pages with anecdotes, observations and issues of concern. In 2009, she shared the news that cousin Elizabeth Blackburn had won the Nobel Prize, the first Australian woman to do so, for her achievements in chemistry and genetics.
Nancy had three children: Jim, Bun (Nancy Kathleen) and Toby. Her husband, Frank, claimed custody of Jim, and her daughter Bun and son Toby died as children in separate freak accidents.
In 1986, after Toby’s death, Nancy realised how the tragedy had shocked and silenced the Gundagai community. She wrote to the paper and the editor placed her letter on the front page. It was Nancy’s invitation to Gundagai, not to be afraid or uncertain what to say to her, just to look in at the store and say g’day. And they did; for some it was just “g’day, Nancy” before they fled, but she had said very simply: “I’m one of you, we are in this together and we need each other”. They understood and agreed.
She started riding a difficult horse, Charlie Farley, 12 years after the loss of her son. “Farley was a difficult horse and my tears of grief mingled with those of pain, anger and frustration from the many times I fell off.
“I took him to a dressage school at Bowral, where there was a smart European instructor who spent most of his time with the small-breasted pretty young women (all the attributes I didn’t possess) and their docile horses,” she said.
“He asked me what plans I had for my horse – ‘show jumping’,” I said. ‘Zis horse vill kill you,’ he told me when the school ended. We persevered together, a mad horse who could jump like a cat and an elderly woman.”
Nancy Lawton died at her home, Riversdale, Tumblong, looking out over the Murrumbidgee, across paddocks, green at last after years of drought. She was 79.
She is survived by her son, Jim, his children Kitty, Gwyn, Jen, John and Tori, and her first great-grandchild, Peter James, born to Kitty on July 15.
Victoria Walker & Noni Rutherford
Nancy Lawton: November 30,1940 – July 18, 2020