Oh … those French girls!

The French sisters - Elaine (King), Beryl (Hort), Isla (Donkin), Leona (Hull) and Dulcie (Anderson) - fabulous in their 80s.

By Kath Gannaway

The French girls were not born in Healesville, but their DNA is solidly entwined in the town’s heritage and social life.

Elaine, Beryl, Isla, Leona and Dulcie are now all part of a beautifully inclusive club – the French Octogenarians.

When the youngest, Dulcie, celebrated her 80th earlier this year, the girls got together and, as always there was plenty to reminisce over.

All were born in Deniliquin where their mum, Wilma French (Rachor) had the five girls in six years.

Wilma and their dad, Irvine French, moved in 1941 to Healesville where their grandparents Wilhelm and Dinah Rachor had operated a laundry since for almost 20 years.

They lived in Temora House, now beautifully restored, but according to Beryl (Hort) a basic family home in those days which her grandfather had renovated when he came to Healesville.

“There were just three rooms where the laundry was, and a spare room.

“We slept top to tail all in one room together,” Beryl recalls of special times with her sisters.

The laundry business started from humble beginnings and became established over eight decades as an icon of the town under the Rachor/Irvine/French/Hort families.

In 1924 the Maroondah Dam was being built and a flying fox took building materials from the corner of River Street and Wilson Street up to the dam.

The story goes that a workman chanced on Mrs Dinah Rachor doing her washing in her backyard and asked if she would wash his clothes. His workmates soon caught on to the idea and before long the wood copper and washing troves on the Rachors’ back verandah had to be upgraded to a washing machine.

A hydro-extractor (spinner) and an ironer followed to keep pace with the growing demand.

The business was classed as an essential service during the war. The front section of the laundry was built during the latter part of the war.

At that time all the machinery was run by steam from a big wood-fired boiler.

At around this time the name of the laundry was changed from “Rachors” to “The Continental Laundry”.

The French girls were in their teens when in 1948 the business branched out into dry cleaning and the name was changed to French’s Laundry.

Reminiscent of its beginnings, the laundry ran trucks to Eildon to cater for the laundry of the workers building the Eildon Weir as well as servicing the burgeoning guest house era of the ’50s, not only in Healesville but around Marysville, Warburton and the Dandenongs.

Beryl says it was a good life, growing up in Healesville.

They went to Healesville State School and then to Lilydale Elementary School, pitching in at the laundry after school.

“We all had to put our effort into it. When we came home from school we had to go to the laundry and we had to do other house work,’ Beryl explained, adding that labour was hard to come by because of the war.

“We had boxes to stand on to take the ironed table cloths off the machines.”

Beryl said the girls enjoyed the freedom of a small country town among other things traipsing around the bush on Jeffs Hill and Robyn Parade in wildflower season.

“We had sleds made out of corrugated iron, and when I think about some of the things we did, … but nothing drastic ever happened to us,” she said.

Church youth clubs, Friday night dances and enjoying the latest offerings of the local theatre group, were all part of their childhood and youth.

The girls have stayed close, despite living in different parts of the state, and the opportunity to get together for little Dulcie’s 80th, was a highlight of their shared octogenarian era.

“It’s a pretty good effort when you think about it, that we’ve all stayed so close, and can get together even now,” Beryl said.