Edel Wignell’s room at Rathdowne Place says a lot about her personality. A tastefully decorated room full of light, with a well-ordered desk and a laptop reflects Edel’s own warmth and the centrality of creative work to her life. Edel has had a life full of adventure and achievement – it was hard to know where to start. I asked Edel during our meeting where we should start. “We should start at the start” she told me.
Edel was born in October 1936. She grew up on a farm, eight miles west of Echuca in Northern Victoria. Edel remembers sheep spread across the paddocks, an orchard and a dam near the house, where she swam every day from October to April with her sisters.
Edel attended Wharparilla West, a tiny rural school with 10–15 pupils in one classroom. Edel liked school and she took on the role of monitor, teaching the younger kids as she progressed through the grades: “I liked teaching the young ones,” she said. It was this love of teaching that would set the course of Edel’s first career.
After Edel graduated from Echuca High School, she decided she would go to Melbourne to study to be a teacher. She completed her degree at Toorak Teachers’ College, where she specialised in teaching infants from 5 to 8 years of age.
In 1957 she started her first job at Caufield North Primary School. After three years, she moved back to the country to Swan Hill Primary School. “Back in those days we had 40 to 50 kids in a class, so it wasn’t an easy job,” she said.
Edel taught in Swan Hill for three years before her urge to travel was realised and she took a ship to the United Kingdom, teaching at a school in inner London. She spent a year in London engaging in a wealth of culture. She would go to the opera and ballet, and on weekends she travelled to various places, such as the Isle of Wight. Edel’s love of travel drew the attention of fellow staff. “People just didn’t travel around” she said. But Edel went to Lillehammer for skiing at Easter and then spent four months travelling Europe with her two friends in the summer. “We bought a car and travelled throughout the UK and continental Europe. I felt strong and empowered and we went wherever we wanted, staying at youth hostels and camping parks along the way.”
After a year Edel returned home on a migrant ship heading for Australia. Upon her arrival, she got work teaching at primary schools, but after two years she felt it was time to move on. In 1966 she married her long-time sweetheart, a Buddhist named Geoff. They took a year off for their honeymoon and travelled to London. They bought a VW Kombi on arrival and spent nine months travelling Europe. On ANZAC day in 1966 they arrived in Gallipoli. “Nobody went there in those days,” she said. They went to find the graves of Geoff’s father’s mates who had fought there in the First World War. “We spent three days searching. It was a serene place”. She saw Turkish men attending the graves of soldiers. After three days they gave her flowers, realising that she was tending graves and honouring the dead. “A truly amazing experience,” she said.
The following year Geoff and Edel came back to Australia and decided that they would remain child free. Geoff didn’t want to be an old dad and Edel wanted to live a different life to many of those around her.“I was a strong part of a feminist movement all through the 70s and 80s. I worked as a teacher. I was paid less than males doing the same job. I was searching for equality”.
Edel focussed on her career and taught again, this time training teachers at Burwood Teachers’ College. She also wrote articles on teaching practice and theory and was often published in newspapers like The Age. She enjoyed writing and a colleague suggested that she might write books for children. This was a turning point in Edel’s life and she embarked on a new career in writing. “It was very much trial and error writing for different ages.” She persisted, writing an incredible 300 books and getting 100 published. “Books were not only for enjoyment but for education.” She continued to write educational publications as well as scripts, poetry and literature for children.
Edel retired from writing in 2014. She felt she had done enough and decided to bequeath all her future earnings and copyright to the Australian Society of Authors. To her surprise the Society created the ‘Edel Wignell Mentorship’ for new writers, in recognition of Edel’s persistence and achievement in children’s literature. In 2017 the ASA also awarded her the bi-annual ASA Medal. “I was stunned and still am,” she said.
Edel moved into Rathdowne Place in 2017. While Geoff died in 2008, Edel still keeps in touch with her large family, a proud aunt to 9 nieces and nephews and 15 great-nieces and nephews. On the wall of her bedroom a picture frame contains images from some of her book covers and they now stand as testament to her 35 years in literature.