A former movie stuntwoman, magistrate and dog breeder is Bundaberg’s newest centenarian. Carinity Kepnock Grove aged care resident Gloria Benwell, who has survived cancer, recovered from a broken back and been widowed four times, turned 100 on October 1.
She was born Gloria Arihi Dawson in Dunedin, New Zealand in 1922 to John Dawson and Mill Burton. Her father, a mental health practitioner who fought in World War I, was tragically killed in a horse and jinker accident just after Gloria was born.
Gloria, her mother and older sister Norma moved to Victoria to live with relatives. Gloria’s mother Mill later married Jack Bennetts, who the girls loved very dearly. The family took on a boarding house on the outskirts of Melbourne.
“Gloria often talked about cold nights sleeping with her sister on the verandah in winter, so that the paying boarders could have their usual shared bedroom for nights on end. Both girls helped with cooking and cleaning and Gloria was also responsible for the daily milking of their cow,” Gloria’s niece, Shelley Sishton, said.
When not at school or doing household duties, Gloria and Norma enjoyed going to the cinema – and sharing an ice-cream because they could only afford one between them. Holidays were spent with cousins at a farm near the Dandenong Range, where Gloria learnt bareback horse-riding skills.
Growing up during the Great Depression, the Bennetts could not afford for their children to go to high school. Gloria left school at 14 and worked, initially as a florist, to bring in extra income for the family.
In her early-20s, Gloria met and married an American GI, Johnnie Soyken, and moved with him to California at the end of World War II. Sadly, Johnnie died in a car accident two years later.
Gloria put her horse-riding talents to use, working as a horsewoman and stunt double in Hollywood and gaining a reputation for her skills and willingness to give anything a go. Tragedy struck when she broke her back in a fall while performing a stunt as a stand-in for Barbara Stanwyck.
Gloria found herself in an iron lung in hospital, where doctors told her she would never walk again. She started treatments devised by Iridology pioneer, natural health practitioner and chiropractor, Dr Bernard Jensen, and learned to walk again at his California retreat.
“She became an advocate of his pioneering ways and adhered to his health, nutrition and wellbeing philosophies, which were completely unknown to most people until the 1970s. Gloria developed a lifelong interest to learn about many other so-called ‘unorthodox’ health practices too. She was definitely always ahead of her time,” Shelley said.
Moving back to Melbourne in the 1950s, Gloria met and married Jack Banks-Smith who owned wedding hire car and tour companies. Gloria turned her hand to new ventures such has breeding English Setter dogs and training racehorses.
Jack died unexpectedly, leaving Gloria a widow once again. She inherited her late husband’s company which she sold and, wanting a complete change, bought land in Terrigal on the Central Coast of New South Wales.
“Turning her land into a small holding with chooks, ducks and a few cows, she also began a market garden, growing fruit and veg and selling it from the side of the road. As the money came in, she built her own house and a house for her half-sister Joan and her young family,” Shelley said.
In the late-1960s, Gloria met her third husband, Ron Bibb, a Gosford businessman. They were married for three years before Ron suffered a heart attack and died. Gloria then established dog kennels and started a dog grooming service.
“Her reputation for knowing and handling all breeds of dogs, her way with animals and her talents as a dog groomer drew clients to Terrigal from as far away as Sydney – a long way with no highways to travel on back then,” Shelley said.
In the 1970s, Gloria met Ben Benwell. They were married for 30 years and had many happy travels around Asia and Europe before Ben died in 2005. Gloria was by that stage a Magistrate in Terrigal and served on the town council.
Gloria sold her kennels and bought land in Woodgate, near Bundaberg. There she built a house she called ‘Costa Plenty’ because the builders “charged an arm and a leg to get it finished”.
Shelley said her aunt is “a very smart, bright lady, always interested in new things.” She supported animal and children’s health charities and enjoyed golf, lawn bowls, a day at the horse races and travelling.
“I feel her happiest times came when she started her world travelling in later years, something she had dreamt of doing since she was a little girl. She and Ben went on many cruises around Australia and she was always interested to learn as much as she could about the history, wildlife and nature of the places they visited,” Shelley said.
Gloria loved nature, flowers and good wine, investing in a number of start-up vineyards around Australia. These days, she enjoys beauty therapy and on the odd occasion a glass of wine with a mini-platter.
She will become the first Kepnock Grove aged care resident in four years to be inducted into the Carinity 100 Club for centenarians.
Shelley believes “love and laughter” has helped her aunt to reach 100 years. “Another thing I know she would say, is to only look forward, not back at the past.”