Giant to bring legend to life
Don Watson with a picture of Fay Howe who farewelled sailors from Albany lighthouse. Picture: Sharon Smith/ The West Australian

A little girl with famed wartime links to a WA lighthouse is set to be depicted in a form so big, her only living child can barely imagine it.

Fay Howe, when she was just 15 years old in 1914, is widely recognised as the last person on Australian soil to have had contact with soldiers bound for Gallipoli.

Living with her father at the Breaksea Island lighthouse, 12km south-east of Albany, her light signals and promises to telegraph messages from soldiers to their families left behind inspired author Dianne Wolfer's 2008 book Lighthouse Girl.

Her 6m image will now be the centrepiece of the $5.4 million street spectacle The Giants, as part of next year's Perth International Arts Festival.

Sitting yesterday in his humble suburban Perth home, the late Mrs Howe's son Don Watson struggled to contain his emotions as he considered his mother's journey from a rugged Great Southern island to featuring in the world's biggest marionette show.

He recalled his mother often shuffling back through the many postcards she had received from soldiers abroad, all of them addressed simply to "The little girl on Breaksea Island".

"It's all quite stirring and something that has me a bit awestruck," Mr Watson said.

"But the first thing that struck me was, 'How can I imagine my mother as a 6m puppet?' I don't even know how you can think about these things, but she played a pretty important part as far as that time was concerned. It makes me feel very proud of my mother and the things she had to achieve at an early age."

Mr Watson went on to explain how his mother's life, which had played out in WA, had been anything but charmed.

Born in 1899, the death of her mother and elder sister had left her as a virtual housewife for her father, the lighthouse keeper, before she had turned 15. She had to become proficient at shooting to supply mutton birds and rabbits for stews, became pregnant in her teens and lost two sons - one just hours old and the other at 18 months.

Mrs Howe later turned to dressmaking to supplement a humble income as a Fremantle Prison wardress and died, aged 68, in 1968 after a stroke.

Mr Watson said his father James, who died in 1946, had met his mother when he had been seconded to Breaksea Island as a second lighthouse keeper to work alongside the man who would become his father-in-law.

Throughout his home there are tributes to his mother in the form of sketches, framed photographs, prints, panoramas of ships in Albany's King George Sound at the time, maps and even early building plans for the lighthouse where she lived. But it was a 2008 trip back to Breaksea Island, his only visit, which has give him a sense of completion in life.

Mr Watson, who also had two sisters, said he and his wife Peg had already booked to go to Albany to be part of the commemoration for the centenary of the departure of the Anzacs, but The Giants exhibition had added an edge to treasure.

Also based on the story of Don Watson's mother Faye Howe is ED! liftout's serial story The Lighthouse Girl by Dianne Wolfer, every Tuesday in The West Australian until September 23. Teachers can order the teaching CD-ROM at nie.thewest.com.au or call 9482 3717

The West Australian

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