By Matthew Biddle
On a hot summer’s day in the late 1930s an athletic young man by the
name of Edward Neesham played a practical joke on an unsuspecting young
lady named Margaret Miller at the Bicton Baths (now known as the
Little did he know that more than 70 years later the pair would still be together, with almost 120 children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The Neeshams have truly built one of the State’s greatest family dynasties.
That first meeting was slightly less than romantic.
“I was doing laps down at Melville pools, and this day I saw Peg, and I thought ‘That young lady needs a bit of help,’” Ted explained.
“So I got up behind her to give her a bit of a nudge, and into the water she went, but before she hit the water she turned around and looked at me, and the next thing I knew I had fallen for her. And I had a lucky run with her.”
Both Ted and Peg were born and bred locals – Ted was born in Palmyra in 1920 and Peg was born in neighbouring East Fremantle in 1922. But by age six Peg’s family had moved to Palmyra.
Her father, Henry Miller, was a baker and later built his own bakery, which is now known as the Miller Bakehouse Museum.
Peg was the youngest of a family of 14, while Ted was the youngest of nine.
“I was very fortunate, I was the youngest girl, and I did a lot of playing of the piano and I spent most of my time at school with the nuns,” Peg said.
“I was a bit spoilt, I spent a lot of time with my mum and she was wonderful, she did all the sewing for my children, and she taught me a lot.”
Growing up in the 1920s and ‘30s provided many unique ways of having fun, according to Ted.
“We delivered milk to various people, and if we ever ran short of milk we’d just get the customer a little bit extra – out of his tap,” he said.
“There was a terrific amount of variety in our lives; it was a marvellous life really.”
In 1939 Ted, who was brought up a Methodist, converted to Catholicism, a move he has never regretted.
“When dad first set eyes on mum – mum coming from a good Catholic family – he knew he wouldn’t stand a chance of getting married if he wasn’t a Catholic,” eldest daughter Margaret said.
Three years later on October 7, 1942, the pair was married by Fr McBride at St Gerard’s church (now Our Lady of Fatima).
The newly-weds lived with Peg’s parents for the first few years of their marriage, on the corner of Hammad and Baal Streets, just metres from their current home.
However, the outbreak of World War II resulted in Ted’s transfer to New Guinea in 1943, where he served in the Ambulance Corp for two years.
On Ted’s return the Neeshams began building their home on Baal Street, where they have lived ever since.
Both Ted and Peg were disciplined, hard workers, who gave up a lot for their children, according to their eldest daughter Margaret.
“Our parents gave us everything they could; the faith, a good education and we always had good clothing – mum made it all herself – so we didn’t really go without, and we all played sport and learnt music,” she said.
Between 1943 and 1965 the Neesham family grew steadily. First came Teddy, then Harry, David, Margaret, Mary, Peter, Anne, Gerard, Robert, John, Catherine, Irene and Teresa. Tragically, the two youngest boys, Robert and John, passed away at early ages.
The sudden loss of Robert occurred on a stormy winter’s night when, coming home from football training, he was hit by a car.
“They all loved their sport, our little fellow Robby, the day he was killed, he came home from school and he had his footy shorts and socks on,” Peg recounted.
“I said to him ‘Don’t go to training tonight love, it’s raining,’ and he said ‘Mum I have to go,’ and that rang in my ears for years.
“The boys thought he was great because he was just a natural and they’d always be out the back kicking the footy.”
Sadly, John passed away when he was only three months old, due to golden staph.
The Sport Connection
The Neesham surname is well-known throughout Fremantle as a family of brilliant sportspeople. Peg and Ted have always been keen swimmers, since the day they met at the Melville pools, and their love of the water has been passed on to their children.
All of their sons were talented at football, swimming and water polo, each with the ability to play at a high level.
David Neesham pursued water polo, becoming a four-time Olympian, before coaching the Australian men’s side for several years.
The water polo talent has been passed on through the genes, with several of the Neeshams’ grandchildren representing Australia in water polo over the years.
And the Olympic connection is continuing too. David’s son Tim Neesham is about to embark on his third Olympic Games at Beijing in August.
Possibly the most well-known Neesham is Gerard, the fifth son of Ted and Peg, who carved out a distinguished footballing career in the WAFL before coaching Fremantle in the AFL.
Gerard played 218 WAFL matches, won three premierships, and even had a short stint in the VFL for the Sydney Swans in 1982.
But it was his coaching career which most remember. In 1995, Gerard became the inaugural coach of the Fremantle Dockers AFL club, whom he led for four seasons.
Music has also been an interest in the Neesham family, passed on by Peg who is still a talented pianist.
“Mum’s very good, she’s gifted with her piano abilities,” daughter Anne said.
Each of the children learnt how to play a musical instrument at school under the guidance of the nuns, most following their mother in learning the piano while others learnt the violin.
Peg, who absolutely loves music, still plays the piano at home regularly, often for the grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
“I play for the little babies now and they love it,” she said. “I’ve always loved music and I love it still.”
The Neeshams have attended Our Lady of Fatima parish since childhood.
Ted and Peg continue to walk to church every morning, rain, hail or shine, to attend daily Mass.
Peg has played the organ and arranged the flowers regularly at the parish for more than 65 years, while Ted was an acolyte for more than two decades.
The youngest daughter Teresa said her parents are well known in the parish.
“Having been involved for so long and in many different ways they have many friendships and are very recognisable,” she said.
“It has always been a close community and in the early days the parish was the social and religious hub of their life.”
The Neeshams’ Catholic faith has been an important part of the family’s life for many years.
Living across the road from the Palmyra church in a well-sized home, the Neeshams were often hosts to visiting priests.
“We had priests who’d come up from the country and they’d often stay here overnight,” daughter Anne said.
“You couldn’t separate religion and family.”
Palmyra parish priest Fr Francis Ughanze said Ted and Peg have been a major part of the parish for many years.
“They are a part of the traditional pillars of the church at Palmyra,” he said.
“One does not need to be introduced to the history of the parish to realise that the Neeshams are the very foundation of the church here.”
The Neeshams brought their children up in a strongly Catholic atmosphere, taking them to church every Sunday, giving them a Catholic education and praying the family Rosary.
“Dad especially used to say that the family that prays together stays together, and so we said the Rosary every night as a family,” Anne said.
“Our lives were centred around Our Lady of Fatima (parish), and our grandparents and relations, it was really family-oriented.
“The Church has been an integral part of our lives.”
And it has continued to be an important part of the lives of the third and fourth generation of children.
Many of the Neeshams’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren live in the Palmyra area and although not all attend the same Mass, there are at least 50 relatives of Ted and Peg Neesham who are parishioners at Our Lady of Fatima.
Fr Ughanze said having so many members of one family in a parish is extremely rare.
“I remember remarking once that I could start a different Mass for them in the parish, because when the Neeshams assemble in the church, they form a whole large segment,” he said.
Family still plays an important role in the Neeshams’ life.
Every Friday their daughters visit, often bringing their own children, and the whole family enjoys lunch together.
“Every Friday my daughters come home, and they’re absolutely beautiful and they all get on very well as a family,” Ted said.
Four of the Neeshams’ children still attend Our Lady of Fatima parish and live in Palmyra, while the rest of the clan live in the Perth metropolitan region.
The extended family – children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – almost 120 descendants – gather together several times each year to celebrate birthdays, Christmas and Easter.
The Neeshams have managed to pass the Catholic faith on through the generations, a significant achievement according to Fr Ughanze.
“I see them as a very good example of how the Catholic faith has to be lived and how we should all try to hand down the right teachings to our children,” he said.
“It’s amazing to me … how their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren still come to Mass and still worship fervently. That is the sort of thing I would wish for every family.”
A Lasting Legacy
The Neeshams admit to having an excellent run with their health for many years, due in part to a highly active lifestyle.
“After dad retired, mum and dad used to swim every day … so they kept active that way for a long time,” eldest daughter Margaret said.
However, the last few years have been slightly tougher, particularly for Ted, who had a skin cancer removed earlier this year. Recently he was admitted to hospital where he has been for more than a week now.
But there’s no doubt their legacy will last for many years to come, and the Neesham name will continue to extend in the future.
Daughter Catherine said her parents had passed on many valuable qualities to all of their children.
“I think they’ve given us an inner strength, a family bond, our faith, and also being the size we are we’re never frightened of numbers, we often have bigger gatherings than most,” she said.
Margaret said her inspirational parents have taught her to love her family and to always enjoy each other’s company.
“They’ve been very loving and special parents, they’ve done a lot of hard work for us, and given us a great example of family life and religion,” she said.
Ted’s piece of advice to young families – use your money wisely.
“When I got my first job at D & J Fowlers in Fremantle, after the first week I was paid 12 and sixpence, and I took it home, put it on the table, and mum said to me, ‘You’ll put 12 shillings into the [bank], and the balance, that’s yours to spend’,” he said.
“We learnt the value of money – I used to take Peggy to the pictures, but she had to pay – it was only when I got a job that I decided to pay.”