Architecture, Businesses, Family History, Social Life

Irene Kearins Small Businesswoman

It is said that a house is an extension of a person who lives there – a symbol if you like. So I turn to Mrs Kearins’ shop and residence on the corner of Dabee Road and Rodgers Street to discover her. After all, she lived and ran that store for over 60 years.

The building is a survivor, just as Irene was (92 years from 1916-2009 is a pretty good innings). Despite an extension or two it is still looking very much as it did when first built – 1921 according to Bruce Fleming. Timber construction, wrought iron roof, an awning roof extending over the verandah, held up by timber posts. Rylstone Council missed this little shop when it insisted in the 1950s that such awnings were a traffic hazard and should be removed (as they were along Angus Avenue). That bare oblong sign fronting the pitch roof probably had the names of previous owners, O’Brien, Mitchell and Goodman, but in 1999 Irene Alice Priscilla (Dot) Kearins chose to adorn the picture window with “I A P Kearins Confectionary Drinks etc 1947 1999”. That window by the way, was part of the extensions she and husband Mick completed in 1956.

In 2003 Irene and her shop featured in a Powerhouse Museum publication What’s in Store? A History of Retailing in Australia, where we learn about a woman who discovered that being a wife, mother (two school-age sons Terry and Lance) and home-maker, wasn’t going to give her the fulfilment she wanted. A mixed business with residence allowed her to be a stay-at-home mum and small business owner. She needed her husband’s permission of course and it was given, with the proviso she didn’t go into debt and didn’t ask him to help out in the shop. So she had her independence, as long as she fulfilled all her other roles. I don’t think much has changed for married women, has it?

It was an unpretentious building and business that suited an unassuming but aspirational couple. When they married in 1938 in the Sacred Heart Catholic Church at Murringo, near Burrowa, Vincent Michael was a labourer and son of a farmer, part of an extended Irish Catholic family that had settled in the area in the mid-1850s. Irene Bowers, born in Essendon Victoria, was the daughter of a retired labourer and was engaged in “domestic duties” (such a vague title) at Parramatta. At the time, she converted to Catholicism. In Kandos, Mick started his 28-year employment with the cement works, where almost immediately, though not for long, he took on the role of Union Rep for the AWU (Australian Workers Union).

After living through a depression and war, Irene like most of her generation, was frugal and cautious, with a core belief: save till you can afford it. Thus the extension to the shop didn’t happen till they had acquired materials piece by piece, storing them in the shed. They were simple store furnishings to Irene’s design: a long counter and timber box shelves lining the walls to hold stock. The travelling salesmen obviously thought her a good risk and extended credit to her to get established. Perhaps she didn’t tell Mick.

Many locals remember visiting Mrs Kearins’ shop as children, to buy lollies and ice blocks. However her business was more substantial than that. An early advertisement encourages readers to “make up your daily or weekend order from our groceries, vegetables and produce”, gives the phone number 112 and lists some available items:  biscuits, confectionary, home remedies, soft drinks, tobacco and cigarettes. Clearly Irene was offering a good range of items, especially for locals on the eastern side of town.

Irene would have felt quite comfortable using her own initials in that piece of advertising on the window. After all she had been a widow for eight years and it was the 1990s. But Irene was a woman of her time and saw nothing amiss, when Mick was alive, in signing her name Mrs V M Kearins, as she did in her letter to the Australian Women’s Weekly, 16 June 1954. It was in response to a pommie writer defending the English Grand National after it was called “a brutal so-called sport” by an Aussie writer. “Be more tolerant Mrs Martin,” writes Irene. “Maybe your English racing is better, who knows? – but surely everyone is entitled to his or her opinion.” It is a rebuke both mild and sharp.

As with a house, we can also understand people from the objects they value. Luckily Irene donated a number of these to the museum, where she volunteered for many years. One item was a pink tuille hat decorated with small pearls – a special occasion hat (Don’t bother looking “tuille” up – they’ll say it’s French armour or a tasset. In my memory it is a fine netting, popular in the fifties). Perhaps Irene wore that hat as mother of the groom. Or perhaps to the opening of the CWA rooms in 1959. She wasn’t, I discovered, a founding member of Kandos CWA (1945), though she was involved in it for many years.

There is also a painting of Kandos at the museum, painted by Irene. It is rich in colour, a view from Rocky Mountain, of Kandos and the Dabee hills. Did she paint plein air or from a photo? What other paintings did she do? In any case it is a bird’s-eye view, suggesting I think, a free spirit.

Featured photo is a painting by Irene Kearins of Kandos and the Dabee Hills, held in Kandos Museum (photo by Mike Oakey; courtesy of Kandos Museum)

Irene Kearins in her shop (courtesy of Kandos Museum)

27 thoughts on “Irene Kearins Small Businesswoman”

  1. Great article, but is the title meant to cover half of her painting? Would love to see the entire painting- or are you trying to send me to the museum? XXA


  2. Colleen what memories. We used to visit Mrs Kearin’s shops at play time (from the Convent school) and I remember she used to make ice blocks. They were about the size of three squares in an ice block tray and she used to wrap the bottom in a small piece of grease proof paper so we could hold the block. We paid 2d (two pence) for this ice block. Also the bags of mixed lollies!!!!
    One night this week there was an interview on ABC radio (about 2am) and it was about shop bells and especially those attached to shop doors and I was speaking to someone (can’t remember who now) who said that Mrs Kearins had a bell attached to her front door that was attached to a wire and when you opened the door the bell ran in the house and she would come to serve you.
    About Murringo. It is closer to Young than Boorowa (spelt incorrectly) and I have a set of hand blown wine glasses from the glass blower at Murringo purchased when we visited there on a trip to Iandra Castle back in the 1980s. Also Madge Shumack came from Murringo and was visiting her sister at the time we were there although we did not know until I spoke to her after we came home. I have a photo of Jim blowing glass at the glass blower’s workshop.
    Could go on forever!!!


  3. Growing up in Rylstone I had only heard about Mrs Kearins & her shop. However in the nineties we moved back to the area & I became involved in CWA. Through my association there I got to know Mrs Kearins & realised what a amazing woman she was. I will look forward to a visit to the museum to see her painting next time we are in Kandos.


  4. I grew up across the road from mrs Kierins on dabee Rd. as kids we would be in that shop everyday. All our tooth fairy money went on .50c worth of cobbers , which in turn created a vicious circle of sorts as then there would be another loose tooth and that would go on and on ….
    she still gave us Gardiner kids Easter eggs right up until my sister was 16-17 I think ..
    we have so many stories and so many fond memories of her and Mick. I think of her often xxxx


  5. gday

    lovely work everyone

    i have an audio recording of nanna’s shop bell in mp3 format if you require it

    best wishes

    darren kearins


  6. Colleen I love reading all your wonderful pieces. Never miss one. I have none of the memories that your readers share with you, but can share their joy in having you write so beautifully about their world and yours. Thanks for including me on your list. You are a great historian and you are a terrific writer!


  7. Thanks for the great article. To me, Irene was Aunty Dot – Mick was my grandmother’s brother. Her shop was certainly a wonderful place to visit, with lollies, ice creams in the freezer chest, and soft drink bottles on the shelf. And the bell did go into the house, so she could come from the house to serve whenever a customer came in!


  8. Hi
    My name is Ray and as a high school student in 1974, I taught the guitar to many young beginners in the Catholic Church hall on Tuesday afternoon. Denise, I know I taught your two boys…To my surprise one day, Irene Kearins arrived with her guitar! According to your dates, Mrs Kearins would have been 58. She was so determined to learn this instrument and she had such a soft voice as she sang along. I had known her as a younger child from visiting her shop when we lived in Angus Avenue and Dunn St as well as a student at St Dominics. I was privileged to also have this interaction with her through music. Thanks for this great article on Irene. Ray P


    1. Hi Ray, was your mother Carmen and your family sang together and lived near railway? I can still see you all singing. Your Mum had the voice of an Angel! I often wondered where you all went after Kandos? Tammy and I went to St Dominics and we loved Mrs Kearins shop, 4 black cats for a penny! Hope all your family are well. Love Pauline (Solod)Byfield


  9. I just love reading all of these stories! Since this story was first published i have learnt so much more about my Nan, and had taken me on a long family history journey. Thank you again Colleen, and to all of you who have left memories here. She would have loved to hear your stories.


  10. These wonderful stories have taught me so much more about my great grandmother. I’m proud to be a 4th generation, go nan!!!
    I’m sure she’d be cheering at these memories!
    I can definitely see a little more of her in myself now.


    1. Me too angel 🙂. It explains alot for our family with a strong woman. And she wore a bun in her hair daily! Sounds familiar 🫢


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