Irene Gladys 'Sis' McDonald

b. 4 April 1903, d. 17 July 1987
Sis Phillips
FatherDonald Glenorchy McDonald1 b. 6 Mar 1878, d. 12 May 1953
MotherAlice Euphemia Steer1 b. 17 Aug 1880, d. 18 Sep 1957
ChartsCampbell, John, descendant chart
McDonald, Archibald, descendant chart
McDonald, Irene, pedigree chart
O'Loughlin, Michael, descendant chart
Phillips, James, descendant chart
Steer, Edward, descendant chart

Birth, Death, Marriage

Irene Gladys 'Sis' McDonald was born on 4 April 1903 in 91 Sutherland St, Brunswick, Victoria; younger of twins.1,2 
She married Thomas James Phillips, son of John Phillips and Ellen O'Loughlin, on 9 September 1922 in St Monica's, Essendon, Victoria.3 
She died on 17 July 1987 in Shepparton, Victoria, at age 84. 


Thomas James Phillips b. 2 May 1897, d. 8 Dec 1980


Irene was known as Sis throughout her life. Sis and her older identical twin sister Nene (Doris), spent their first decade in Swan Hill and their second in Nyah. Sis married Tom Phillips and the couple set up home in Shepparton where they raised a family of six. She supported Tom in their many business ventures, mostly pubs. They ran, and lived in, the Hotel Australia in Shepparton for 35 years. Despite having one lung removed in her mid-30s, Sis had fairly good health up to her death at age 84.
Twins Born in Brunswick
Back in her parents' family home in Lake Boga, Alice Steer was expecting again, this time with twins. For the birth, Alice went to a lying-in home in Brunswick. Perhaps this was the most prudent course of action for a young mum who was about to have twins. Certainly in the early 1900s, Melbourne would have offered better medical facilities than Lake Boga or Swan Hill, if needed.

A lying-in home was a private home or hospital where mothers could give birth with the help of a midwife. They were then encouraged to stay for a couple of weeks before returning home or moving on to their next destination.

In this case, the lying-in home was at 91 Sutherland St in Brunswick. It was run by Mrs Mary Morris, a qualified and certified midwife who welcomed unmarried mothers.4,5,6
Sis (Irene) & Nene (Doris) McDonald, 1903
Upon returning to the family home in Lake Boga, Alice's sisters helped with their new twin nieces. Beatrice recalls rocking them in an old rocking chair.7
What's in a name?
She was born Irene Gladys, but was known throughout her life as Sis, and her sister as Nene. Identical twins, Nene and Sis were called by their auntie, Lucy Bell, the 'twinnies'.8
It seems the twinnies weren't too fussed about birthdays. According to the official records, Nene was the elder of the twins, though in early 1996 she said she always thought that Sis was the elder. And in April 2012, Sis's daughter, Irene Barnes, posted a picture of Nene on Facebook with the note 'Aunty Nene celebrated her birthday on the 2nd but mama (Sis) celebrated on the 4th ... The twins!'1,8,9

Sis (Irene) & Nene (Doris) McDonald, 1903
Sis (Irene) & Nene (Doris) McDonald
Donald and Alice took the twins and set up home on Pental Island near Swan Hill. The couple were share dairy farming there, and Alice helped milk 70 cows by hand. She used to take the twins to the shed with her and put them in a big box; they could stand but not yet walk.7
Alice, Sis (Irene) & Nene (Doris) Steer/McDonald, Pental Island, Swan Hill
Late Marriage and Name Chaos
It wasn't until 1910 when their twins were seven that Donald McDonald and Alice Steer were married. The marriage was conducted by John Stewart Drummond, a presbyterian minister in Swan Hill. Notably, neither of the two witnesses, Ernest Gerald Gray and Donald Urquhart, were family.

Because of the delayed marriage, the twins were originally registered under the name Steer, though they were always referred to as McDonalds. No father's name was provided for the original registration of twins Doris and Irene, but Donald's name was added as the father when these two births were re-registered in June 1943.

Donald McDonald is shown as the father for Donald (jnr) and Violet.

It says something about the Australian treatment of names that the four children, Doris, Irene, Donald and Violet were always known as Nene, Sis, Dougal and Bub.

While we don't have any photos of the wedding, we do have a photo of the three eldest children that could have been taken at the time.10,11,12,2,1
Nene (Doris), Dougal (Donald) & Sis (Irene) McDonald
Swan Hill to Nyah by Ballast Train
According to Nene, the family travelled on the ballast train when they moved house from Swan Hill to Nyah. The line was being built from Swan Hill to Piangil, through Nyah West (or Nyah Rail as it was then known) around 1914. It must have been quite a sight and adventure for the four young children to have all the family's belongings piled onto a railway wagon.13,14
Ballast train, old S-class steam locomotive No.199, early 1900s
Early Life
Sis spent her early childhood in Swan Hill before moving to Nyah at the age of about 10.

Her father's family lived in Swan Hill and her mother's family lived about 10 km to the South in Lake Boga, so she would have had regular contact with both sides of her family. Sis and Nene once walked across Lake Boga with their 'auntie Beat' (her mum's sister Beatrice), who was just 10 years older than them.

Sis was fairly active. She was known to have horse races with Nene, and she probably did with Dougal and Bub as well. She had a three-quarter mile walk to school each day and was occasionally chased by snakes. Maybe this is where she developed her running skills. Nyah held an annual New Year's Day sports carnival which and Sis & Nene entered and did very well in. Nene reported that one year she won a book, next year another book, then a hat. When asked how Sis went, Nene replied 'she came second'.

It was in Nyah that Sis met Thomas James Phillips.15,8
Nene (Doris), Bub (Violet) & Sis (Irene) McDonald, Nyah
Nyah Picnic Sports
A highlight on the family's social calendar must surely have been the annual Nyah picnic sports day. Held on New Years Day, the social gathering drew people from all around the region, including a large contingent from Swan Hill. A popular location was the Nyah recreation reserve on the bank of the Murray. At night, dances would be held in any available hall.

During the war, the day was used as a fundraiser directly for the war effort, but also to help returned wounded Nyah soldiers.

The 1916 event featured athletics and swimming. In the girls' under 14 race, the McDonald twins came first and second. Their father, Donald, was one of two judges on the day.16
Nyah picnic sports: McDonald girls 1st and 2nd 1916
Married in Essendon
Tom and Sis were married in September 1922 at St Monica's Roman Catholic church in Essendon. Tom was 25 and Sis was 19 (the registration says 20). They stayed for a time at the home of Tom's sister, Teresa (Tess) O'Loughlin in Glen St, Essendon as they prepared for the marriage. Tom was Catholic, but Sis was not, so Tess and her family helped with her conversion to Catholicism. Witnesses to the marriage were John and Mary Phillips, Tom's brother and sister.

Also around this time, Tom took Sis and Nene to visit his parents in Bacchus Marsh. According to Nene, Ellen was nice, but John was 'a bit grumpy'.17,3,18
Tom & Sis Phillips
October 1922
Doris 'Nene' McDonald, Tom & Irene 'Sis' Phillips (McDonald), Jack Phillips, Sep 1922
Family in Shepparton
Soon after their marriage, Tom and Sis set up home Shepparton.

The couple's first child, John Lawrence Phillips was born in Shepparton in March 1923. The 1924 electoral roll shows Tom Phillips at 46 Maude St, but does not show Sis; she may not have reached the voting age of 21. It is probable this is where they lived when Jack was born.

Second son Reginold arrived about 16 months later in August 1924. At this time, according to the Shepparton rate books, the family lived in Nixon St. No one knows why Reg was born in Ascot Vale.

Third son, Laurence Lloyd arrived in 1925. The next birth location mystery is why Sis gave her address on the birth certificate as 7 Swallow St. Perhaps she was was staying at the home of a midwife for a while. Maybe the Nixon St house was being renovated for the new arrival, or expanded to accomodate the growing family at the time. We will probably never know.

Finally a girl; Irene Alice followed, then two more boys, Donald and Brian.

All six children spent some of their time growing up in Nixon St, though for the youngest Brian, not very long. Rate books and electoral rolls show the family in Nixon St from 1924 to 1937, first at number 62 (till 1931), then at number 16 (from 1933). The two Nixon St addresses may not have been different houses, just the result of house numbers being reallocated.

The five oldest children went to St Brendan's primary school in Shepparton. In 1936, Jack and Reg went to Assumption College in Kilmore where they boarded. Laurie followed a couple of years later.19
Reg, Jack, Laurie, Don & Rene Phillips
Back: Reg & Laurie; front: Rene, Brian & Don Phillips
Milk Arrowroot biscuits: Auntie Nene reckons Jack, Reg & Laurie were brought up on milk arrowroot biscuits and milk. The Simply Australia website says 'At the turn of the last century arrowroot was a common source of starch, so this biscuit was seen as a good food for young, growing children. Milk Arrowroot soon became the food of choice for Australian mothers and their children as it was easily digestible. It was often crushed and served with milk as a way to start babies on solids. Then as kids grew up, it was packed as a sandwich in school lunch boxes'.18,20

Reg, Laurie & Jack Phillips
Margaret Sellwood (Lee) remembers Tom & Sis Phillips visiting Beatrice and the family in a big flash American car (the Studebaker) when they lived in Lake Boga. She was about five years old and commented that 'It was like they were from another world'.21

Life at the Shepp East Pub
In 1938 the family had their first taste of what life could be like while living in a pub. With the youngest, Brian, just two years old, they bought the Pine Lodge Hotel and 10 acres of land in Shepparton East.

The three older boys were boarding at Assumption College in Kilmore. Rene had attended St Brendan's primary school in Shepparton for three years and Don for one year before in 1938, they are both in the Grade I to IV class photo for Shepparton East School no. 1715.

While Tom was busy running the business, it was also a very busy time for Sis. As well as looking after the children and the usual domestic duties, she also worked the bar and kitchen. There was also a lot of night trading, which hotelkeepers had to do to survive in the days of six o'clock closing. Despite all this, Sis found time to be involved with the Shepparton East branch of the Country Women's Association.22,23
Major Lung Operation
Around 1940, Sis had a major operation in which one lung was removed. It came about suddenly following a haemorrhage. Sis was taken from Shepparton to a hospital in East Melbourne, possibly St Vincents or St Ives, where the operation took place.

The three eldest boys, Jack, Reg and Laurie were at Assumption College in Kilmore at the time. One day at morning rosary the Brothers announced to everyone that the boys' mother was about to have a serious operation and that they should all say a few prayers for them.

The family rallied around to help. Sis's mum came up from Melbourne to help look after Rene, Don & Brian. Sis spent time recovering at the home of her sister-in-law Tess in Essendon. And her sister Bub helped out with the kids and housework when Sis returned home.24,25,26
Newly-painted old tin bath: Sis Phillips had a major operation and recouperated for a while at Tess's place in Essendon. Unfortunately for Sis, the old tin bath had just had a coat of white paint, so when she got out, sensitive parts of her were also painted white. She commented that having a lung removed was nothing compared to having paint removed from her backside!27

Orr Street, Shepparton
After moving out of the Pine Lodge Hotel around 1940, the family lived in a house at 77 Orr St.

Tom was then involved in a number of business ventures including the Court House Hotel, where the couple worked for a while.

When they bought the Hotel Australia, they continued to live at Orr St for some time after the purchase. According to her sister, Bub Williams, Sis was very keen to move into the pub, but Tom said only if Bub helped out at the pub.24,28
Tom & Sis Phillips, 77 Orr St, Shepparton
Image: Laurie & Lorraine Phillips
Back: Sis Phillips, Val Irwin; front: Brian, Don & Rene Phillips; probably 77 Orr St, Shepparton
Image: Laurie & Lorraine Phillips
Family Life at the Aussie Hotel
Although the family's official commencement at the Hotel Australia was November 1944, Tom & Sis still lived at Orr St for a time before moving. Sis was keen to move in but Tom insisted that her sister Bub would need to help out first.

At the time, Jack, Reg and Laurie were about 21, 20 and 19. They were either working in Melbourne or heading off to fight in the Second World War.

Rene was about 15, Don 13 and Brian 8. These three variously attended Sacred Heart college in Shepparton, St Brendan's primary school in Shepparton and St Patrick's boarding school in Ballarat.

All six children worked at the Aussie Hotel, though probably only the five boys were paid.

Some of the children married and left, the four oldest having left by 1951. Some lived for a time in the pub.

In the latter years at the Aussie (at least the last ten years), Tom and Sis would head up north in winter to the Broadbeach pub in Queensland for a holiday and to escape the cold.28,29
When the boys got a bit rowdy while drinking late at night in 'The Cupboard' (under the stairs), Sis would drop a little soap into one of their pots. She said 'you get to be a pretty good shot after a while'.30,29

Interests and Accolades
When Sis wasn't looking after the children or working in one of the pubs, she was known to occasionally dance or play bowls. She was also involved in the Shepparton East Country Women's Association.

In later years, like Tom, she was keen on the horses. She was part owner with Tom and son Laurie in their thoroughbred venture. And she always had her 'trannie' nearby, and whenever it was switched on, you could hear a race being run.

Sis also travelled to Nauru and Tasmania with her mother.

This is what was said about Sis Phillips on the occasion of the couple's 50th wedding anniversary. 'There's not a great deal you can say about mum', Reg Phillips said yesterday, 'except she's been a great mother and wife'. 'The Phillips family is a credit to Shepparton and largely responsible for this is the wonderful guidance given by their parents', Cr Kevin Riordan. 'Tom Phillips is one of the best loved men this city has and Mrs Phillips has been a wonderful backstop for her husband and a magnificent mother', Cr Kevin Riordan.24,31
Later Years
After moving out of the Hotel Australia in 1979, Tom and Sis moved into a unit in Corio St. Tom died in 1980. Sis died in 1987 aged 84. They are buried at Pine Lodge cemetery.

At the time of her death, Sis had 29 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.
Graves of Tom and Sis Phillips, Pine Lodge Cemetery, Shepparton East


  1. [S5] Irene Gladys McDonald, birth registration no. 9877/1943, 4 April 1903.
  2. [S374] Irene Gladys Steer, birth registration no. 8482, 4 April 1903.
  3. [S11] Thomas James Phillips and Irene Gladys McDonald, marriage registration no. 7536, 9 September 1922.
  4. [S2] 'Lying-in', Wikipedia, online, Wikimedia Foundation, viewed 9 August 2014. <
  5. [S2] 'Lying-in home', Find & Connect, online, 2011, viewed 15 August 2014…
  6. [S2] 'Board and lodging', The Argus, Melbourne, 19 June 1909, p. 10, viewed 9 August 2014
  7. [S376] From the Memories of the Life of Beatrice Lee, unpublished, 1987, p. 2.
  8. [S52] Doris 'Nene' Courtie, personal communication, 10 November 2001.
  9. [S281] 'Phillips Family', Facebook, webpage, Facebook Inc., group created 25 June 2011, 3 April 2012 post by Irene Barnes.
  10. [S146] Edwardian Index Victoria 1902-1913: Indexes to births deaths and marriages in Victoria, CD-ROM, Macbeth Genealogical Services, 1997.
  11. [S53] Donald Glenorchy McDonald and Alice Euphemia Steer, marriage registration no. 4052, 12 May 1910.
  12. [S375] Doris May Steer, birth registration no. 8481, 4 April 1903.
  13. [S52] Doris 'Nene' Courtie, personal communication.
  14. [S188] On 'This Bend' of the River, Nyah district centenary committee, 1993, p. 110. This was probably around 1913-1915 because at the time railway workers camped in the Nyah area as the rail line was being built from Swan Hill to Piangil, through Nyah West (or Nyah Rail as it was then known).
  15. [S58] Violet 'Bub' Williams, personal communication.
  16. [S39] 'Nyah picnic sports', Swan Hill Guardian and Lake Boga Advocate, 1892-1937, newspaper, A Knox Chapman, 6 January 1916, p. 2, viewed 7 June 2013,
  17. [S108] Pauline Wilson, personal communication, 30 December 1996.
  18. [S52] Doris 'Nene' Courtie, personal communication, 30 December 1996.
  19. [S102] Jack Phillips, personal communication, 2 March 2013.
  20. [S2] 'Arnotts Milk Arrowroot', Simply Australian, online, Cincinnati, Ohio, viewed 13 July 2014…
  21. [S51] Margaret Sellwood, personal communication, 3 March 2012.
  22. [S15] Irene Barnes, personal communication, 5 December 2012.
  23. [S233] Shepparton Shire & Town Rates Index, 1885-1939/1941, computer file, Shepparton Family History Group.
  24. [S15] Irene Barnes, personal communication, 5 October 2012.
  25. [S58] Violet 'Bub' Williams, personal communication, 1 September and 30 December 1996.
  26. [S32] Laurie Phillips, personal communication, 10 December 2012.
  27. [S37] Margaret Deveney, personal communication, 14 April 1996.
  28. [S58] Violet 'Bub' Williams, personal communication, 28 September 1996.
  29. [S15] Irene Barnes, personal communication, 4 December 2013.
  30. [S16] Catherine Wayman, personal communication, 2 March 2013.
  31. [S259] '50 years of memories', Shepparton News, September 1972.
  32. [S104] Laurence Lloyd Phillips, birth registration no. 35021, unknown date.
  33. [S7] Irene Alice Phillips, birth registration no. 32713, unknown date.