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Sylvia Jessie Catherine Birdseye (1902–1962)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published:

Sylvia Jessie Catherine Birdseye (1902-1962), bus driver, was born on 26 January 1902 near Port Augusta, South Australia, daughter of Charles De Witt Merrill, station-hand, and his wife Elizabeth Ann, née Kirwan. The Merrills led an itinerant existence and often lived in hessian huts. Sylvia's friends, the Birdseye family of Port Augusta, went to Adelaide where Alfred Birdseye bought the horse-and-coach business of John Hill & Co. Ltd that ran the route from the capital to Mannum. He converted it to the State's first, motorized, country bus service. In 1921 Sylvia went to work for him and joined his daughter Gladys in driving the tray-top Buick and the Studebaker sedans; two years later they gained their commercial licences.

An attractive, slight woman, with wavy, auburn hair, on 23 October 1923 Sylvia married Alfred's son, Sydney Alick Birdseye (d.1954), at Flinders Street Presbyterian Church, Adelaide. He was responsible for repairing the firm's vehicles. The fleet included a red Reo charabanc (with canvas side-flaps), modified by a lengthened wheel base and extra seats; freight went on top, on the running-board and on the front mudguards. While taking a spell, Sylvia slept strapped to the luggage under a tarpaulin on the roof. She gave everything she had to her job: though jocular, she was tart to shearers suffering hangovers and to passengers late for the bus. For work, she wore overalls or jodhpurs, a cap and jacket: all were covered in dust and stained with grease. She learned to fit bearings and piston rings, to grind valves and to fix a gearbox. With Gladys, Sylvia changed a wheel in four minutes; on her own, she replaced an axle in twenty minutes. Her two children, born in 1926 and 1927, accompanied her on the buses.

The company extended its operations in 1928 to Port Augusta and Port Lincoln, across gravel roads with few bridges over the creeks; for townships like Cleve, Kimba and far-west Ceduna, it provided a lifeline. The firm bought a gleaming Straight-Eight Nash and Sylvia became a director. She bet heavily at the races, but helped many with food parcels during the Depression. In 1938 she waded through a swollen creek, fixed a block and tackle to the far bank, and winched her bus and sixteen other vehicles to safety. A flood in 1946 was the only hazard which prevented her from running to time—by eight days: with twenty-five passengers, the coach was bogged south of Whyalla; aeroplanes dropped rations and Mrs Birdseye forged an alternative route through scrub, spinifex and sand.

After Gladys retired in 1960, Sylvia continued to drive. Operating from premises in Hindmarsh Square that combined office, home and depot, she also began to use lorries. Her schedule included the 250-mile (402 km) northern newspaper run (five nights a week), an 845-mile (1360 km) return trip to Port Lincoln (each weekend), as well as vehicle maintenance. She was nicknamed 'Grandmother Queen of the Open Road' and 'The Little Atom'. While preparing to drive to Port Lincoln, Mrs Birdseye died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 9 August 1962 at Woodville and was buried in Centennial Park cemetery; her daughter and son survived her. She is commemorated by a cairn and drinking fountain near the Iron Knob turn-off on the Lincoln Highway. Her daughter Sylvia inherited Birdseye Bus Service and retained an interest in it until 1983; she, too, was as familiar with a spark plug as a lipstick.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Nicol, Bullock Tracks and Bitumen (Adel, 1978)
  • L. Spriggs (ed), Cleve on the Yadnarie Plains (Cleve, SA, 1979)
  • H. Radi, 200 Australian Women (Syd, 1988)
  • People (Sydney), 4 Dec 1968
  • News (Adelaide), 18 Aug 1959
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 10 Aug 1962, 23 Aug, 2 Sept 1965, 3 June 1973
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Sept 1966, supplement
  • E. Harry, 'Mrs Sylvia Birdseye' (radio talk on 5CL, 31 Oct 1971, transcript held in State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Birdseye, Sylvia Jessie Catherine (1902–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Merrill, Sylvia

26 January, 1902
Port Augusta, South Australia, Australia


9 August, 1962 (aged 60)
Woodville, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia