Sunday, 7 September 2014

Skeletons in My Family Tree, or Esther's (Mostly True) Story

This is a 'story' I've written just putting together historical documents recently uncovered by my cousins in New York; Brisbane and Perth, Australia; and Glasgow. One supplied birth and death certificates, another cousin found newspaper articles from online archives. Someone else had family letters and I found electoral rolls. All this together with census records in Scotland practically told the story itself, there was very little for me to make up. Esther was my 'first cousin twice removed', or my grandfather's first cousin. I didn't know she existed until a few months ago.

"I didn't really mean to kill myself when I was 39. Or maybe I did, not that anyone cared either way. Tom, my second husband, sure didn't. Maybe he even killed me, I can't tell you. Well, he wasn't really my husband, but living in Sydney away from all my family up in Queensland, we got away with living together. Anyhow, when he found me on the floor, he just took the tube from the gas stove out of my mouth and stumbled back to bed, drunk. He didn't even notice I was dead, or at least that's what he told the cops. I just love how most of the newspapers described him as 'ill'. Read: hungover; I'm telling you he was ossified. It wasn't just me. 

But way before Tom, I really messed up my life when I got pregnant at 17. Mother and Dad were really upset, it just being 1915 and us living in rural Queensland. My Irish parents, born in Scotland, had immigrated from Ayrshire in the South West of Scotland all the way to Australia. Dad, whose people were once iron miners, now had 1,700 acres of land, growing wheat, lambs and dairy cows. We were supposed to be respectable, pioneers in our small community, and I let them down.

Mother was particularly livid. She was determined that I should do right by my child. I guess she felt that way because she'd been illegitimate herself. Her mother didn't marry her father but found someone else to go off and marry and they started another family. Though mother was close to one of her half-brothers, she never got to live with her mother again. She was left behind with her grandparents, always on the outside looking in, I expect.

I'm sure mother thought she was doing the right thing by me as well, George's father being well off and all, with a big station down in Victoria. George had 28 to my 17 years so he was always going to be the boss, wasn't he? I don't think that ever set well with me but there it was. I tried to make the best of it to start off. 

So, George and I were married and Mary was born in 1916, named after George's favourite sister. She was a lovely child, Mary, and I reckon she was made of stern stuff. Then again being the eldest - as I was - she had to grow up fast so she could help me with all the other bairns.

Esther, top right, with George and six of  their eight children.

Katherine, named for my sister Kit, came along in February 1918 and then Harold at the end of October the same year. That says a lot about my dear husband, George, doesn't it? We had George Jr. in November 1919. I got a bit of a break before Heather was born in 1921. 

And then the world fell apart. My darling Katherine wandered off one afternoon and found the hut where one of George's labourers had stayed a while. Old Mack left behind the arsenic he used to keep the bugs off the vegetables and the ticks off the cows, and dear sweet Kitty found it. She was only four years old when she died of poisoning. The coroner ruled it as accidental but I know George always blamed me. I blamed myself. But by then my children were ages 6, 4, 3, 2 and 1. I was five months gone with Stuart when I lost my Kitty girl. I was 24 by then but by God I felt a hundred years older and wearier still.

I took to drink in a big way. Of course George hated my drinking. He stayed away more and the babies didn't come so often. Maureen was born in 1925 and then Lucy Jean in 1926. Lucy was premature and I only had her a week before she left me. Then George left me as well. He went back to Victoria to his father's home farm and he took the kids with him. All my babies gone!

I drowned my sorrows well and truly then. It wasn't too long before I took up with Tom. He cheered me a bit, always had a joke and a bottle and I could forget my losses for a day or two. We left the countryside behind and hit the big city, moving all the way down to Sydney. Tom got a job working as a security guard at a factory but all the money seemed to go for booze. Of course we had kids, you knew that already. John and Robbie were born in 1929 and 1935. My eldest daughter, Mary, she got married at her father's home in 1936; I didn't go, didn't dare show my face.

Tom didn't come from a wealthy family, or if he did I never saw any of it. We were poor, worse off than I ever knew how to manage. There was never enough after Tom bought the booze and we both drank it. I meant to do better, but I was too worn down, too far gone. I loved Johnnie and Robbie but I pined for my other babies, especially Kitty. Poor Lucy never had a chance but if only I'd paid more attention maybe I'd still have my lovely Katherine and the rest of my bairns. The bottle was necessary by this time, you see, just to make life more bearable. 

Anyhow, Tom had this job at a factory and one night the bitumen boiler went up in flames. Tom tried to put out the fire but his hands were burned. Even one of the firemen got badly burned. So, Tom was off work for  a week with his burnt hands and I doubt he drew a sober breath the whole time. He said his hands hurt something awful, said he needed anesthetic, didn't he? I understood about anesthetic myself. We both stayed completely pie-eyed all week.

The kids were really in a bad way by now, more bones than flesh. There was never much food in the house and I know I wasn't a good mother anymore. I'd just lost the will. The nosy old landlady - we'd only lived there a couple of weeks and she was on to us - had shopped me to the authorities. I knew they were going to arrest me and take my babies away. Having lost all my other children I just couldn't face that again. Late that night Tom and I had a big row about it all and he knocked me around a bit. I found a tube and attached one end to the coal gas stove and put the other end in my mouth. And that was the end of my story."


The Muswellbrook Chronicle 22 June 1937

SYDNEY, Tuesday.

When a flame spurted from a bitumen boiler at premises in Wentworth Avenue, Glebe Point,this morning', two men, Thomas BXXXXX (46), night watchman, and a fireman named Esterman, were severely burned about the body.The outbreak was soon extinguished, and practically no damage was done to the building.

Sydney Morning Herald
23 June 1937

Fire in Factory.

A fire officer and a workman suffered burns while endeavouring to extinguish a fire which broke out in the factory of Pabco Products(Australia), Ltd., roofing and flooring manufacturers, in Wentworth Park Road, Glebe, yesterday.

They were Station-Officer F. Eastlake, of Pyrmont fire station, and Thomas BXXXXX, 42, a married man, of Doncaster avenue, Kensington, and an employee of the company. First-aid treatment was rendered by firemen.

The fire broke out at about 7 a.m., when a quantity of boiling paint overflowed from a container. Brigades from George-street West, Glebe, and Pyrmont were summoned,and the fire was extinguished before a great deal of damage had been done. When the firemen arrived at the building they smashed down the front door to get at the fire quickly.

Sydney Morning Herald 27 July 1937

After an inquiry Into the death of Esther JXXXXXXX, whose body was found in a flat at Doncaster Avenue, Kensington, on July 2, the City Coroner yesterday found that the woman had committed suicide by Inhaling gas. The reason, he suggested, was that she knew that a warrant had been issued for her arrest, and that her two small children, who were also found in the flat, were to be taken from her. A statement said to have been made to the police by Thomas BXXXXX was tendered in evidence. It set out that BXXXXX had been drinking with the woman In the flat, and that on the morning of July 2 he found her with the end of a piece of tubing, which was connected to a gas jet, in her mouth. He pulled the tube out and turned off the gas, the statement continued, but he then went to sleep, not realising that she was dead. The Coroner described the conditions in which the children had been kept as "most revolting." He said that statements in evidence that the woman had repeatedly brought cheap wine into the flat for her family were almost incredible.

Newcastle Morning Herald & Miners Advocate 27 July 1937

SYDNEY, Monday.

"Most revolting," was how the City Coroner  today described the condition of two children of Esther JXXXXXXXX, who was found dead in her flat at Kensington on July 2. Evidence was given that the two children had been locked in the flat for two days while JXXXXXXX and Thomas BXXXXX consumed large quantities of cheap wine. BXXXXX said that on July 2 he found JXXXXXXX with a gas tube in her mouth. He turned off the gas, carried the woman into the lounge room, and then went to sleep again. He had no idea the woman was dead.' The Coroner returned a verdict of suicide.  

Barrier Miner Broken Hill New South Wales 29 July 1937 

SORDID DEATH OF WOMAN Committed Suicide While Inebriated 
SYDNEY, Thursday. 

DECLARING that the case had presented some extremely puzzling  features, the city coroner returned a verdict that Esther JXXXXXXX (39) had committed suicide on or about July 2 last by inhaling a quantity of coal gas, while in a state of inebriation, at her home in Doncaster Avenue, Kensington. Evidence disclosed that in one room of a flat in Doncaster Avenue  police found the body of the woman lying on the floor, with her two  children crawling about her, while in another room they found a  man named Thomas BXXXXX, who was in 'a state of drunken stupor.' 

"This is a very sordid matter,"said the coroner, and almost a  revolting one when one thinks that a man and woman should get into  such a shocking state with 'drink' and leave their children shut up for two days." 

Advocate Bernie Tasmania 3 July 1937  

Children Clamoring For Food : Mother Dead, Father Ill. 
SYDNEY, Friday.

Police found Mrs. Esther BXXXXX (39) dead today  in a flat in Doncaster Avenue, Kensington. Her husband, Thomas BXXXXX,  lay on a bed and was unable to tell clearly what had happened, and their two children were clamoring for food. The children, a boy aged seven and a girl aged two, in a search for food, had spilled jam and other stuff on the kitchen floor. They were taken away by a child welfare officer. A post mortem examination will be made to determine the cause of  death.  Superficial wounds were noticed on Mrs BXXXXX's face and neck. The police stated that BXXXXX would be admitted to hospital for treatment.

Recorder Port Pirie South Australia 3 July 1937

SYDNEY, Friday. 

MRS. Esther BXXXXXX (39), was found dead on the floor of a flat at Kensington today in mysterious circumstances. Her husband, who was lying on the bed, was unable to tell clearly what had happened. Two children, a boy aged 7 and a girl aged 2, were in the flat. The woman had been dead since last night. Her husband, Thomas BXXXXX,  was admitted to hospital for treatment with superficial wounds on the  face and neck. The police state that BXXXXX had been burned. 

News Adelaide South Australia 3 July 1937 

Woman Found Dead in Flat SYDNEY, Friday.

In a flat in a building in Kensington today Mrs. Esther BXXXXX, 39, was found dead on the  floor. Her husband, Thomas BXXXXX, who was lying on a bed suffering  from injuries sustained at his work last month, was unable to tell  clear The children, who in their search for food had spilled jam and other foodstuffs on the kitchen floor, were taken away by the Child Welfare officer. A post-mortem examination will be made to determine  the cause of death. Superficial wounds were noticed on Mrs. BXXXXX's  face and neck. BXXXXX was admitted to hospital for treatment. 

Longreach Leader Queensland 3 July 1937 


The incessant crying of a baby in a flat at a residential at Kensington today led to the discovery of a dead woman, her husband apparently and their two children nearly starved. The children were so emaciated that the youngest was barely able to walk. The dead woman was Mrs. Esther BXXXXX (33). Three weeks ago she and her husband  Thomas BXXXXX (45) took a furnished fiat on the ground floor at the rear of the residential. A week ago the man was severely burned about  the hands in an explosion when a quantity of malthoid caught fire at Glebe. Since then he has not been at work. The children, John (8) and his sister Bobbie (2) were heard crying since early this morning and the proprietress telephoned the Child Welfare Department. Two officers of the Department, with a constable, went to the place, and  were told that Mrs. BXXXXX was last seen yesterday. The proprietress  prized open a window for the officers, and when she climbed through  Into the sitting- room,she found the two children in a pitiable state. Their mother was lying dead on the floor, fully clothed, and the children were crawling about her. They could barely stand. They  had spilled sugar from a container on the floor, and were both trying to scrape it up for food. Groans from a bedroom attracted the officers to the room and BXXXXX was discovered. He appeared to be  ill. The children were carried out and women tenants made them  porridge and gave them biscuits which they ate ravenously. The woman's body was taken to the morgue for a post-mortem, and BXXXXX was admitted to the Sydney Hospital. The children were placed in the  care of the Children's Welfare Department, and are being treated for  malnutrition. The condition of the girl is serious.


sanda said...

What an amazing story. So sad. You have presented it in a most readable way. As they say, truth is stranger than fiction. But I say there's no such thing as fiction!

Beryl said...

Esther was certainly hardy. All those pregnancies and drinking in a time without modern medical care. Do you have an idea what happened to any of your first cousins thrice removed?

Sandra said...

Shelley this is so fascinating, sad and well written. Such a rich tragic story, how well you have pieced it all together.

Shelley said...

Sanda - There was so much information there was hardly anything to invent; I took the view that she was left but it is just as likely that she ran off with Tom and left all the kids with her husband who then went back to Victoria where his family were to help him out. Tom's surname is the same as Esther's mother's step-father and we're still wondering if there is any relationship. This is a very interesting family both from the amazing distances they immigrated and from the dramatic events in their lives. Esther's siblings are almost as dramatic as she is and I'm going to write them up as well some time.

Shelley said...

Beryl - Women had to be hardy back then didn't they? Amazing how many pregnancies they seemed to survive -- or not. We haven't been able to track down living family from this branch. I assume they know about the sad stories in their family but it's hard to know. We do know that Esther & Tom's son died very young in a car accident.

D A Wolf said...

This is wonderfully written, but WOW. Terribly sad.