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A courageous changemaker

Anni Philp’s story is one of childhood bliss, tragedy, challenges, adventure, compassion, activism and love. It’s a story which can’t be condensed into one issue, so look forward to part 2 in the January HT.

by Gay Liddington

We are the sum of our history, but it’s what we build from that history that shapes the person we become.

Anni Philp, Malenyite, activist, world traveller, and woman of many talents grew up in a stately home in midtown Ballarat. Until the age of 10, Anni enjoyed an idyllic childhood.

“An enormous garden filled with every type of cool climate fruit tree, berries, and vegetables surrounded our house. It was like an early permaculture garden with chickens scratching around, and every Monday morning, we’d stagger to school with an armload of fragrant flowers, much to the delight of our teachers.”

Anni’s parents grew up in the Great Depression and knew how to utilise what was available.

“Mum made most of our food, including ice-cream, preserves and cordial. She sewed our clothes and mended our shoes, skills passed on to me.

“My two younger sisters and I worked with dad in the veggie patch. We helped stack the wood he had chopped, pluck chickens destined for the pot and peel onions ready for the annual pickling.

“Our veggies won prizes at the school fetes. Beforehand, Mum would spend days making toffees, chocolate crackles and marshmallow cones. Her beloved P&C sold these to raise funds for the school that overlooked the beautiful Lake Wendouree, where we could sit and eat our lunch each day.”

Anni’s paternal ancestors, mining engineers, had migrated to Ballarat from the UK in the 1800s, leaving a legacy for future generations.

“We lived in a mining era house with a marble fireplace, archways decorated with Cleopatra heads and windows with bluestone sills. Tiled verandahs and a massive yard with a fountain, swings, slides, and whirlygigs which Dad had made adorned our house.

“My paternal grandmother was a huge influence. She taught us to knit, crochet, and embroider as we sat around the fire on a winter’s evening. On a Sunday afternoon she’d take us girls on the paddle steamer to the Ballarat Botanical Gardens to visit the amazing glasshouse, full of begonias of every colour imaginable and seasonal displays in long flowerbeds. We’d watch as squirrels scurried up the towering trees.

“After visiting the gardens, Nan would take us to an opulent building beside the lake for afternoon tea while a brass band played near the rotunda.”

Those happy childhood times, outings with Nan, playing sports, and summers spent with extended family in caravans at the beach went from idyllic to catastrophic overnight. Anni explains:

“My dad, my god, virtually died before my eyes from a brain aneurysm. They took him to the hospital, and I never saw him again. Mum, aged 32, struggled on her own with three young children and at 10, I had to grow up quickly.

“Sadly, my dad’s large group of friends stopped visiting and helping. Years later, I realised that my mum, being young and attractive, was seen as a possible threat to the other women and their marriages.

“Family helped, but there was only so much they could do. We had to downsize and move house. I still mourn that fabulous garden and the joyful childhood I spent there.”

Discussing Anni’s time at school, I asked if she’d had any notions about ‘what she would be when she grew up’?

“I struggled academically at high school but excelled at sport, art, and singing. I’d been working weekends and after school at a hairdressing salon. When it came time to leave school, I accepted the offer of a hairdressing apprenticeship.”

Finally, Anni’s world was shaping up positively, but fate slammed her with another life-changing blow.

“Two days before my final hairdressing exam, Mum had a fall. She had low blood pressure, fainted, and hit her head on a concrete step. She was taken to hospital. The prognosis was not good.

“On returning home after the exam, I received a phone call from the hospital to say my mum was about to die. They asked if she would like to donate her eyes and kidneys to waiting recipients. Fortunately, my mum and I had talked about such things and the donation was made. I was 17.”

Anni fought back the tears as she continued. “Mum’s wish was that us girls were never to be split up, so we stayed in the family home with the support of a live-in housekeeper.

“When I turned 18, I could legally look after my sisters, then 16 and 14. I went on to work in the salon at the local Myer store. Then, with the help of a benefactor, I purchased a salon in partnership with a young friend.

“As soon as my sisters were living independently, I left Ballarat and moved to Perth to establish a life without so much responsibility. I chose Perth because it was warmer and closer to Europe. I wanted to travel and escape from all the grown-upness forced upon me. I needed to let loose and have a teenage life.”

At 22, with the wind of change and courage at her back, Anni Philp launched into life.

January edition of HT: Dr Helen Caldicott, Bob Brown, and Gough Whitlam inspire Anni to make a difference. She becomes a founding member of the Whitsunday Greens and Order of Underwater Coral Heroes. Anni’s journey with breast cancer again demonstrates immense courage and her ongoing commitment to be a change-maker shines through.



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