Sylvia Birdseye

Sylvia Jessie Catherine Birdseye (1902-1962), busdriver, was born at Port Augusta, South Australia, on 26 January 1902, daughter of Elizabeth Ann (born Kirwan) and Charles De Witt Merrill, station hand. Sylvia was a teenage dancing partner of Sydney Birdseye, a son of Alfred Birdseye, who in 1919 moved his family to Adelaide where he opened a bus service between Adelaide and Mannum. Sydney studied automotive engineering at the (then) School of Mines, Adelaide.

In 1921 Sylvia also moved to Adelaide and was offered an office job by Mr Birdseye, but soon was driving on the Adelaide-Mannum service. She was unaware of a need to acquire a commercial driving license until 1923. In that year she married Sydney Birdseye. It was a happy marriage and a successful business partnership. Sylvia continued to drive while Syd looked after the office and maintenance. A daughter, Sylvia, was born in January 1926 and a son, Sydney, in November 1927.

In 1926 Syd and Sylvia started a service to Port Augusta, which was extended in 1933 to Port Lincoln and in 1938 to Streaky Bay and then to Ceduna. They bought a splendid Straight-Eight Nash and added other vehicles as the service extended. Sylvia continued to drive, though as the business expanded other drivers were employed. Old-timers talk of the 'super cargo' frequently seen on Birdseye buses: Sylvia, Sydney junior, and nursemaid.

The buses were motor cars modified by lengthening the wheel base and adding additional seating. Freight was carried on top and on the running board and front mudguards. Mrs Birdseye had a reputation for attending herself to any mechanical breakdown and of getting the mail through. In time of floods she tested the depth by attaching herself by rope to the bus and wading into the water. Only in the bad flood of February 1946 was she seriously delayed. She had been bogged south of Whyalla and cut off by rising water; eight days late and again blocked at Salt Creek, she hacked out a track through the bush to reach Port Lincoln. Her passengers were loud in her praise.

'Send it by Birdseye' became a household phrase on the Eyre Peninsula. The firm earned a reputation for delivering goods on time and intact on roads that were narrow, winding, unmarked, corrugated, potholed, subject to floods, sandstorms, bushfires, kangaroos, straying cattle and the monotony of long distances. Sylvia drove an average of 3000 km a week and was reputed to have made many a detour to drop off urgently needed medicine and on one occasion blood for an immediate transfusion. During the depression people she helped were unaware of the source from which they received regular supplies of food.

She carried on the bus service after her husband died on 11 November 1954. On 8 August 1962 she was preparing to drive to Port Lincoln when she suffered a stroke. She died the following day. Mrs Birdseye was tough, high-spirited, strong, energetic, fearless and at times abrasive. A pioneer in motor transport when roads were little more than tracks and bridges were few, her achievement is commemorated by a cairn on Eyre's Highway near the Iron Knob turnoff.

Sylvia Dyer