Remembering dressmaker Elaine O’Neil

Bridesmaids Helena O’Neill, left, and Edna Gill, 9, with
19-year-old bride Elaine Gill.

AT the first anniversary of the passing of Elaine O’Neill (nee Gill), her sister the well known local artist Edna “Gillem” Reid wonders know how many people living in the Derwent Valley and surrounds may have memories of a beautiful dress she fashioned for them or a member of their family in years gone by.

Elaine came to New Norfolk from Sydney in 1951, with husband Reg and baby Madeleine, to live at North Crescent in the housing estate built for workers of Australian Newsprint Mills, now Norske Skog.

“Here she found things quite  different,” Mrs Reid recalled. “It was her first  cold winter – and her 21st birthday as well – when she found her first snow had fallen in the backyard, but the green wood they had to burn produced little warmth in the open fireplace.”

After her second child, Helen, was born, 24-year-old Elaine’s world was shattered at finding that terminal ovarian cancer was the reason she just didn’t feel right. “Given only six months to live, radiation was the only offer. These were early days and the treatment was radical, but she was saved to continue raising her children.

“It was in those years that  she became known as a capable seamstress. What an understatement! The ballgowns, confirmation dresses, outfits of all styles and oh-so-lovely wedding gowns were fashioned to the desires of her patrons because Elaine had the ability to draft her own patterns. She had also trained as a milliner, so matching head gear could be another unique addition.”

Throughout the years, the radiation treatment’s effects showed up in many forms but Elaine continued through adversity after adversity. When her father Arthur Gill, died in Sydney in 1957, her mum, Betsy, came to live with them and was a great help to the household. Elaine’s sister Edna (Gillem Reid) was also settling in New Norfolk with husband Garry.

For a time Elaine set up a shop in Hackett St, but being the only person on the premises didn’t  give her enough time for sewing. At one stage she became wardrobe mistress for the Theatre Royal Light Opera Company, where her husband Reg was involved in acting.

“During this time, they moved to North Hobart. Then the Sydney Theatre Group approached her to design and dress their productions, but she felt she could not disrupt her family and so declined,” Mrs Reid said. “Elaine had become a textbook case for doctors, specialists and surgeons who were involved with her stability over the years. She became used to their references to her case being unique.”

When her children married and eventually settled on the mainland, Reg was retiring and so they moved to Geelong in 1991 to be close to the grandchildren. Doctors in Geelong took over her mounting health issues and their care was so great, combined with Elaine’s determination, that she lived on until June 2, 2017, passing away at age 86.

At home until the last few days, in the company of her husband Reg and adoring family, Elaine had become the longest living ovarian cancer patient in Australia.

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