Former movie stuntwoman, magistrate, and dog breeder, Gloria Benwell, will become Bundaberg’s newest centenarian on the United Nations International Day of Older Persons, October 1.
Ms Benwell is an aged care resident at Carinity Kepnock Grove in Queensland. She has survived cancer, recovered from a broken back, and been widowed four times over her 100-year long life.
Hailing from Dunedin, New Zealand, young Ms Benwell moved with her mother and older sister, Norma, to Victoria to live with relatives. The family took on a boarding house on the outskirts of Melbourne, where she had very fond memories of her childhood.
Shelley Sishton, Ms Benwell’s niece, said, “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.”
Ms Benwell would frequent the cinemas and share ice cream with her sister when she wasn’t at school or doing household chores.
She learnt how to bareback horse ride during her trips to visit her cousins at a farm in the Dandenong Ranges.
As Ms Benwell grew up during the Great Depression, her family could not afford for her to go to high school, so she left school at the age of 14 and started working as a florist to make extra income for the family.
Ms Benwell moved to America to become a stuntwoman after meeting her first husband in her early-20s, American soldier Johnnie Soyken. She moved to California with him at the end of World War II, but, unfortunately, her husband died in a car accident two years later.
From then, Ms Benwell started to make waves in the Hollywood scene, putting her horse riding skills to good use. She worked as a horsewoman and stunt double for films, gaining quite a reputation for her skills and willingness to “give anything a go”.
She broke her back after falling while performing a stunt as a stand-in for actress Barbara Stanwyck, who was well known for starring in films such as Ball of Fire, Double Indemnity, and Baby Face.
Ms Benwell was told she would never be able to walk again, however, she proved her doctors wrong – undertaking a number of treatments with natural health practitioner, Dr Bernard Jensen.
“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,” explained Ms Sishton.
Ms Benwell ended up moving back to Melbourne in the 1950s and married a wedding hire car and tour company owner, Jack Banks-Smith. During this time, she became a keen breeder of English Setter dogs and trained racehorses.
Tragedy struck again when her husband died, leaving Ms Benwell a widow for the second time. She sold her husband’s company, wanting a complete change, and bought land in Terrigal, New South Wales.
Ms Sishton explained that her aunt decided to turn the land into a small holding for chickens, ducks and cows, and began a market garden of fruit and vegetables which she sold on the side of the road.
With the money she made from this venture, she built her own house, as well as a house for her half-sister Joan and her young family.
After settling herself in Terrigal, Ms Benwell met her third husband, Ron Bibb, a businessman. The couple was married for three years before Mr Bibb died of a heart attack.
Ms Benwell decided to expand her love of dogs further by establishing dog kennels and starting a dog grooming service.
It was in the 1970s that Ms Benwell met her husband of 30 years, Ben Benwell. Over their long marriage they travelled around Asia and Europe, before he died in 2005.
By that time, Ms Benwell was a well-known Magistrate in Terrigal and served on the local council. She sold her kennels and bought land near Bundaberg, where she built a house called ‘Costa Plenty’ – because the builders she hired charged her “an arm and a leg” to finish the house.
Ms Sishton admires her aunt who she describes as incredibly smart and bright, and always interested in trying new things.
Among her other interests, Ms Benwell also enjoyed supporting animal and children’s health charities, playing golf and lawn bowls, spending 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,” Ms Sishton explained.
“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.”
A lover of nature, flowers and good wine, Ms Benwell also invested in a number of start-up vineyards across Australia. She still to this day enjoys beauty therapy and the occasional glass of wine with a mini-platter.
Ms Benwell will be inducted into the Carinity 100 Club for Centenarians, the first resident from Kepnock Grove in four years to receive this honour.
Ms Sishton attributes her aunt’s long life to her “love and laughter”.
“Another thing I know she would say, is to only look forward, not back at the past,” added Ms Sishton.