From Denise Roberts to Sarah Mcleod

I was not always Sarah McLeod I Started as Denise Roberts, and before I changed my name I was a whole different person…

I was my father’s daughter Denise Roberts. My husband’s wife Denise Dowling and my children’s mother Mum, though that will never change. I had no time to be me or follow my dreams. This is my story of what changed…


I was born Denise Marjory Roberts, born July 23 1957 at 7 pm or so I was told, born on a cold winters night at the Royal Hobart Hospital, Tasmania, Australia.

Sarah McLeod was born Denise Roberts in July 1957 a cute happy healthy baby girl. The first child, a daughter, of Marjorie and David Roberts from Huonville in the Huon Valley. Denise was the first of a group of female cousins to be born that year.

Dad had just arrived for evening visiting hours. He arrived at the hospital just in time to see his brand new baby daughter. A prouder man could not be found that night as he spread the good news. She is bloody beautiful, and of course, he was right. I was perfect in every way healthy and thriving.

Poor Mum was so doped up with anesthetic. The staff not knowing how she was going to react due to taking fits most of her adolescent life. Luckily as it happened Mum’s fits had eased off after the birth. The staff monitored Mum for quite some time especially when she was handling her new baby. All went well and Mother and daughter were released from the hospital.

Denise was the “perfect happy baby”, her mother Marjorie’s pride and joy and as she grew into a happy little red headed toddler, her personality shone through. A determined little girl with an adventurous nature. This almost got her drowned as she followed her parents into the water at the local swimming hole. Dad came to the rescue, but it scared him so much that was the end of swimming that day. I have the vague memories of that event, standing in the back of the car, no seat belts back then, and wondering why we left in such a hurry

Sister Kathleen or Katie was the blond of the family, following in our father’s footsteps, only she had straight mousy blond hair like Mum. During the summer months while Katie was feeding or in her crib, Denise could be found under the Mulberry Tree, stuffing her face with rich ripe mulberries and we all know how bad they stain.

By Winter both girls had a severe case of Whooping Cough, a childhood disease that should have been covered by vaccination. This brought their Dad to tears as he stoked the fires all night to keep the steam vaporizer going. The girls pulled through, but the effect seemed to stunt Katie’s growth but it did not stunt her chirpy character, that’s when she was not sucking her fingers.

Sister Barbara was born next, a chubby little girl with tight red curls. Nothing really stood out about Barbie, I guess when you’re third in line you tend to be just another child.

Brother Lindsay arrived last, a very sickly boy from day one, he could not digest his food and had to have an enzyme additive, for his milk and food, which was  flown in from England. His pancreas was not working, so all his food had this powder added to break down his food so he could get some nutrient from it. Mum would lay on the bed with him and cry. This was made worse by the fact Dad would say “don’t you let my son die”.

Photographers were brought in to take all the family photos of the four children. Here was this long thin six-month-old baby lying there looking at the photographer with big inquisitive eyes. By his second birthday he seemed to come right, his digestive system started working fine and he was a thriving little red head boy.

Denise Roberts and her brother and sisters
The young Roberts Family at Huonville Katie, Lindsay, Denise & Barbara

Childhood for the Roberts family was spent on the farm, or roaming the bush. Holidays were spent by the beach, usually with the cousins or family friends. There were trips to Hobart to see even more cousins or Gran.

When young there was six months spent by the sea, not far from Gran’s shack. Denise and Katie went to school with the local children, in a funny old van with a seat down each side, going to the next town. The school had two classes, the Infant class and the scary Primary class with the headmaster and his big cane. Recess was warm chocolate milk from the big urn. The library truck would come once a week and that was amazing, to go back to Grans in the afternoon and have Greaty and Aunty Coo read to us. On Sunday the van took us to the church half way between the towns for Sunday School. There were all kinds of birthday parties and fun like we had never known while we were there.

Greaty was Gran’s Mum, born in India and Aunty Coo was her life time companion who came with her when the family had to escape India during the uprising and the English families had to leave India. Greaty was born and bred in India, but she was married to Gran’s Dad, he was head of the English Education Department back then. His first wife and children, all bar one were drowned in a ship wreck off Cape Horn. We had big family get together’s at my Aunt’s shack, Mum’s eldest sister Polly, a little further along the beach from Gran’s. These were often a hit.

Dad and Uncle Al were best mates, they understood each other, maybe it was the fisher men in them. Dad being a carpenter and all round handyman would often do jobs for my Uncle, the concrete stairs that go from the shack to the beach still bears his name, the concrete pavement a his Battery Point home and the many houses Dad restored for my Uncles business. Dad was part of a few groups, so we got to go on many Group events and there was always visitors at our place with their kids, and even though we were classed as poor, we never felt it. Dad’s cousins would come and there would be singing and live music and dancing, that was the way it was back then.

I remember my early childhood, as Denise Roberts as fun and happy times, but A Huge Event happened…

This was significant enough to cause massive changes in our Family’s lives…


My Dad was a proud man, well respected in the community.  He was a hard worker, he had to be, he had supported his family ever since he was fourteen when his Dad had Hydatids and had a lung removed and the other cleaned. He was devoted to Walter, even though he was not his biological father. My grandmother Minnie had died when I was just a baby, so Walter was a widower raising two kids on his own, while still working orchards and with a shorter leg from childhood polio.

I remember an instance when Walter was coming up to our property, he had a big black Crysler Royal car.  I was helping Dad as he was digging out a deep tree root from our driveway.  The hole was deep enough to hide us both, and as I heard the car I popped my head up out of the hole.  Walter told Dad if it had not been for me he would have run us both over.

Walter was organising for Dad’s brother Geoffrey to come and live with us as he was not well. Geoffrey is only six years older than me, back then he was still a boy.  Our house was very small, but we all managed to fit in.  My cousins had the orchard next door and they had slightly older children, so Geoff fitted in well.

Dad had called in, to see his father who lived just down the road, as he was passing on his way to work.  He was not well, barely able to chop wood for a fire. Dad instructed him to stay warm in front of the fire and not to go to work and he would see him in the afternoon. Of course, my Pa, who was always a hard worker, could not say no to his boss and helped him out that day.  By the time Dad had returned he was absolutely exhausted and looking very grey.

Dad rushed him down to the family Doctor, but it was too late, he died in the surgery.  All the doctor wanted was for Dad to get him out of there.  They called my Uncle to come and help, while Dad carried his father out to the car, not knowing what to do, he had to drive around until someone opened the morgue.  It really hurt Dad, then he had to deal with the rest of the family including his little brother.

Things only got worse, Dad had to dig his father’s grave over at our Church, then the Priest realised Dad’s Mother was not in the right spot, so he had to dig up her grave and place it with his Father after his service before they could cover the grave.  It had been buried about a few years before and Dad had to deal with the emotional stress of all of this.

He changed, he became angry, he would lash out at us, he even hit Mum. Then one day it all became too much, somehow he ended up on the Huonville football oval in his car going round and round and round.  Not even his best mate, who was in the Police force could stop him and even when he ran out of fuel, he just sat there behind the wheel.  They all knew what he had been through, but he still had to repair the football ground.

It was not until his elders at the Masonic Lodge finally got through to him, that he settled down, but we had to live through the nights where he would come home drunk and belt into Mum. I remember one such night and the four of us kids jumped on Dad’s back and he sat on the floor and cried.  He finally realized what he had been doing.  Dad’s Grandfather Roberts had built the Huonville Masonic Lodge and was the first President  and a lot of his distinguished family were part of this secret group.

Soon after Dad went fishing, he had built the concrete wells in his mates fishing boat and was offered a chance to go fishing with him. These trips would last for a week. The first time my Gran came and stayed, but the second time we were alone. I was in my early teens and when I came home after school I found my Mum all battered, her eyes so swollen she could not see. I sent my sister to get help.  Dads Uncle tried to rape her and when she refused he beat her until she managed to ran away. This man was a champion boxer in his day.  Dad’s mates took us in while Mum was rushed to hospital and the boat was notified by radio as to what had happened.

Dad stayed home after that, installing wood and oil heaters among other things.  He was a bit of a tinkerer and one afternoon in his workshop the engine he was working on exploded into flame and Dad was also alight.  His natural instinct was to run for the dam.  I seen him from the kitchen window, pushing poor Mum aside I grabbed a towel near the stove and ran after him.  Luckily he had tripped while jumping the fence and rolled in the grass putting himself out, but the smell…

Dad Mum and I jumped into the ute, I was just learning to drive, but Dad insisted he had to drive, but on the way to the Doctors he was getting faint so here we are, I am steering the car from the center seat, while Dad is still behind the wheel.  The Doctor is treating Dad, while I was outside, when I noticed smoke up on the hill coming from the workshop.  Even though the Doctor insisted Dad had to go to hospital, we rushed home while the surgery called the Fire-brigade.

The shed was well alight, my friend from next door had noticed the smoke and was there rolling big drums of fuel away from the shed, the heat was so intense Dad had to take shelter behind the house.  Soon half the Huon was up there, the road was blocked, the fire truck had gone to the wrong David Roberts and a second one had to be called, Dad’s mate the Police Man had arrived and eventually he talked Dad into going to hospital and drove him there.  My friend said it has started in the ceiling, where all the dry timber was racked, obviously from the engine fire earlier and once it took hold that was that.

It took weeks for Dad to recover, friends and family helped us out with food and transport. As soon as my Dad was well enough my Uncle took my parents real-estate hunting in town and he offered Dad plenty of work renovating his Business houses. He even stood personal guarantor for the bank. We had no idea all this was going on, I was at work by then and the kids were still in school.

We leave behind the country life we had always known and move to Lutana in the city  just north of Hobart to start a new life…

Personally I loved the City, I often spent time with Gran and Mum’s Family in Hobart…

It was almost the beginning of the school holidays when we get the message we were moving to Hobart. The kids have school to sort and my boss even offered me a place to stay so I did not have to leave work, but when Dad says jump you jump. He was moving and so were we so you just get on with it.  One small carpenters Bedford truck was all we had to move everything. Even though my Uncle had fleets of trucks Dad insisted we were fine. My friend from next door helped Dad and his laborer move all the larger furniture and goods, load after load while we helped Mum unpack and organised everything. Like a well oiled machine.  I guess it was his way to know where we were.

By the end of the School holidays I had a job in the Camera department at Kmart.  The kids and I both started on that Monday. I started at the new Kmart, when there was nothing but a shell of a building, the first Kmart in Tasmania. We started pricing anything that was set in front of us, soon I was  setting up sections on my own as well as staff training sessions.  It was all exciting for a sixteen old girl. Eventually I was introduced to the Camera manager and we had that section all sorted. I had permission to take home the product catalog and I learnt everything by the time the store opened.

The grand opening of Kmart was a huge event, we had staff  flown in from Melbourne  to help for that first week.  All my product knowledge was paying off, because I was closing sales one after the other, even though we had camera reps in the background to help, I did not need them.  This did not go unnoticed because months later I was invited to go to product releases by invitation of the Camera Companies.   One of these events was the first release of Polaroid’s SX70 new technology instant camera.  I had a thirst for new knowledge, which also caught the attention of other Camera Business owners.

Soon I was offered a job in one of Hobart’s elite Camera stores in the Cat and Fiddle arcade, along side one of my fellow school members.  I remember when I left school my Headmaster saying how proud he was that Roger had acquired a job in Hobart at Sheppard’s Photographics and how Denise Roberts had no chance since I had to leave school early.  Well here I was and you should have seen his face when he called in one day and seen me selling top cameras along site his school favorite. This is the same Headmaster that had come into Kmart to buy a telescope to look at the stars. I showed him what he needed, but he brought one for land use. When he brought it back because it would not do what he wanted, I reminded him of our conversation and for the first time in my life he apologized.

The Hobart Bridge Disaster…

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During this time I was going out with my childhood friend from the country. My father being very strict always always sent one of my siblings with us, on this day we all went to the sand dunes across the river, just before the Airport. A great day, then we headed home, back across the bridge and between the time we reached home, only minutes later, the bridge had gone down. Sunday Jan 5 1975 9:25 PM

My Mum had the news on the TV and was in a panic.  It turned out Dad was crossing the bridge on his way home from my cousins house site at about the same time, infact we both turned up at the house only seconds apart.  We could not believe the news so we all piled into the two cars and went down to the domain to see what was going on and sure enough two sections of the bridge were missing.  Poor Wayne had to head back to the country to let his parents know he was ok.

This brings a stunning reality back as I realize we all were only minutes away from that disaster. Watching the cars hanging over the edge of that bridge and from the domain that night the eary feeling as one side of the bridge had lights and the other did not. We forget these things, but deep down the gut wrenching feelings remain…

I get sent to the Eastlands Store to help out, but my old Manager who was there was not able to travel and the only way to get to Eastlands shopping Centre now that the bridge was down was either by the barge up the river or to travel by the fleet of ferries that were brought in and walk up to the store.  This was almost impossible for him, because he had twin babies in toe, so I became the Eastlands Store Manager.  All us Managers would get in early and we all had to leave 10 minutes early to catch the ferry home and collect our cars from the car yard before it closed.  Management was not happy, but they could not change the ferry times, because it timed in with the remote bus services.

Soon my boyfriend became my fiance, he was traveling long distances to see me and this had to tie in with our work.  It did not allow much time. A manager was found for the eastern shore store, so I was filling in at the northern store while that manager was on holidays, so I had even less time. Eventually Wayne asked me to marry him and to moved back to the country.

I was no longer Denise Roberts, I was Denise Dowling married life was a freedom I had not known…

No big wedding, no fancy reception, not even a wedding dress. I guess I was in such a hurry to get away from all the control Dad had on us that nothing else mattered…

The engagement had been a big deal, fancy rooms and all the bling. But we were saving to get started in our new life, so we opted for the simplest service possible, just our parents and a small gathering at home later. My Gran passed me some money when we left to at least have a honeymoon night.

Living on Wayne’s Parents property was no fun, I felt like an intruder, especially given it was next door to my old home.  This became even more stressful after the accident between Wayne and his sister, so we took the new van and left for the caravan park at Snug.  I had friends there, and soon made more friends with the young families there.  This was a community, the boys all went fishing, I really enjoyed the fishing, and during the week when the boys were working we walked the children to school and when we got back it was a group morning tea rotating between vans, then we would get our work done before collecting kids.

Life at the park was fun, as a group we would all go to the next town Pub for a game of eightball.  This was all before I had my baby, that is when it all changed. While I was in hospital a law was introduced that only adults could go into a pub, and that ment our local pub where we plaid eightball.

I am so proud of this new baby, I got to be one of the Mum’s now instead of just tagging along with the group, but when it came to having fun, like eightball, us Mums were not allowed anymore.  I could not go camping like I used to, I was not allowed to do anything anymore and my Mum made it clear that she was not going to be a baby sitting service.  After all the freedom I was feeling very trapped, especially as winter was coming, the baby was growing and there was no room for him to go, but under my feet.

We moved into a brad new Housing house, now that was exciting setting that up and another two children followed, but the Timber yard where Wayne was working was closing, even as leading hand eventually his job would ran out, so we went looking for work and housing.  We were about to move to the west coast to the mining towns when we were offered the family property.

Wayne’s Parents had felt just like us they went back to the country to look after Pop, but when he died they felt trapped and now they had an offer to move to the mainland and run a large orchard, an opportunity they could not turn down and we could keep the property as Pop had wished.

Moving the family back to the Huon Valley was a challenge after all this time in the city…

Moving back to the old orchard sounded better than moving to the mining towns…


The old Farm house had its problems, but it was child proof because my niece had been living here with her Mum and the grandparents,  the heating was open fire places and the bathroom had a chip heater to warm the bath.  The toilet was outside in an old toilet shed with an ivy vine climbing all over it.  The gardens within the yard were well maintained There were chooks and a cranky rooster and an old cocky that had belonged to Nan and Pop that talked quiet well.

The orchard was way past its used by date, and had not been worked for years. Up the hill was still virgin bush and a clearing for the raspberries while down the hill was very steep, but the view of the valley was vast.  South you could see the river heading to Franklin, West the river stretched up to Judbury and the hills beyond, and North you can see the Sleeping Beauty mountain range where the Mountain river flows down the valley to meet the Huon River.

Wayne was offered a Manager’s job Running an orchard just along the main road, his family had a good reputation in the apple industry, so with their backing and reputation he got the job, even though his background was in the timber industry.  It turned out to be a huge blessing, I could also work in the fruit season and the children could also come along.  I remember a couple of seasons where kids were playing in a bin while we were picking or pruning.  Not every year was I available, some times having babies came first.

The old house needed some work and a growing family ment expanding, so I drew the plans up for a big extension, being a carpenters daughter came in handy and once it was all passed I started digging, first the kitchen, then the back ready for the pantry, bathroom and laundry and most important a real toilet.  I had moved a mass of soil from behind the old house by hand, and even though we had a pair of crawler tractors by that time  for clearing the orchard we had to get an excavator brought in to dig the heavy clay soil as it was getting too high.

I had planned and planted well over two thousand stone fruit trees in the freshly cleared land by the time we had the framework and roof on.  The bathroom landry and toilet were first. I was working in the apple season, and growing strawberries in summer by the time the kitchen was done and by April I  had my last child, a huge 11 lb or 5 kg bonny boy, making six healthy happy kids. Braking my leg a couple months later only slowed me down, I was still able to get that crop of strawberries in that year.

The stone fruit orchard allowed us to finish the bedrooms and front lounge, a long time in the making, twenty years of marriage, running two orchards, raising six kids and one day I get a call.  I have been having an affair with your husband for the past four months.  Someone I had trusted completely and in a split second all that went out the door, I had noticed a change but I had never expected this.

I am heading back to the City As A Single Person with my kids in tow, to start a new life, finish my education and hopefully get a good job…

I had decided to leave Wayne, he had cheated on me and now I had doubts that this had been the first time, and that is not good for a marriage…

It took a few days to sort, but I got a place to rent and got my family sorted.  The younger ones were in school, but my youngest boy just could not handle the change he had always been in one school and he wanted to go back and I already knew even before I decided to go that I had to leave Bill behind. So he went back to live with his Dad and by then his girlfriend and on weekends he came to spend time with me.

That first day as a single Mum was not easy, I walked Hobart and even though there were people around and I got the things I needed to do done, it seamed like there was nobody. It was the most lonely feeling I had ever had, I walked down to the Jetty and for a moment I almost jumped in the water, it scared me so much I backed away dazed until I hit the curb on the other side of the road. My Uncle worked in that building, so I collected my senses enough to go talk to him.

I had organised to go to College that following year, along with my daughter and by then there were two grandchildren with teen Mums to think about as well.  Then one night I get an emergency call my eldest daughter was being rushed to hospital with head injuries.  I jumped in the van, with the young kids and managed to beet the ambulance to the hospital.  We almost lost her that week, but she pulled through. I had my grandson until she was well enough, with carers help, to look after him herself.

It was not easy, juggling school kids, College, a baby and taking him in every day to see his Mum, but I did it. I was able to cope with more than I had ever believed possible.  I topped many awards at College, then Small Business at TAFE and even with dyslexia I mastered it.

Then that day came when the twelve months had passed and I could get my divorce.  I got all the details and I cleared my head, I was a strong woman by then, I was free and that was the way I wanted it.  All my life I had been controlled, held back and I wanted to be myself, so an hour before my divorce appointment I went across the road and changed my name.  I became Sarah McLeod.  I handed the papers to the judge, no lawyers, no breaking up the property and the judge asked why?  I took just enough from my share of the orchard money and walked away leaving my share of the property so my kids would always have a home to go back to when they needed it. I said I will make my own fortune one day.

My kids said it did not effect them because they would still call me Mum no matter who I called myself.  Back then I was going to circle and Rita announced me as Sarah that night to the group and from that day I have been Sarah McLeod, not my fathers daughter, not my husbands wife, but myself. All my friends could not take it in at first, but they got used to the idea and some of my family just will not adjust, but my Mum can call me what ever she likes.

There you go, the first forty years of my life and now you know just How I came to be Sarah McLeod

“Sarah” is “princess” and “McLeod”, a Scottish family name from the Isle of Harris, a version of the MacLeod family who started from a Viking and a daughter of the High King of Ireland around seven centuries ago so I am told…

Sarah is a family name from many sections of the Family, but the one I associate with the most was a Great Aunt Sarah on my Mothers side, who was a great painter in her time and I class myself as an artist.

The McLeod comes from my Fathers family and was the first free settler I knew the background history of. His Castle had been burnt to the ground on the Island of Harris while he was away helping the English fight their wars and he could not afford to rebuild for the second time so he migrated to Tasmania, and became a mounted trooper for a time. Fascinating history that one day I might research further

Denise Roberts was a part of my life I never wish to repeat. The control and negative taunting still lingers. Sarah McLeod on the other hand is freedom, life, excitement and even though the body has slowed and aged, the mind is still as active as ever and looking forward to new adventures…

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