Friday, October 14, 2011

The Death of William Smith : A PITIFUL STORY

William Smith, my paternal Great Grandfather born in 1854, was the son of Owen Smith and Christiana Matheson (from the Isle of Skye). Owen disappeared from the records, however in 1857, Christiana went on to marry Jabez Smith, a shepard then later a store-keeper on the station "Boorolong" near Armidale.  Jabez and Christiana had three children, Eliza and Catherine - twin girls, born in 1858 and Charles born 1860. 

Jabez wrote his will in 1885, and died in 1888. His will states that "My stepson William to have all my horses and 1 dray & harness". The probate papers for Jabez' will describes these items as " 1 harness (old) worth £1, 10/- and 1 dray (old) worth £6". When in total his whole estate was valued at probate for just under £1000 with the majority of his estate being granted to his son Charles and his son in law, John Archibald Chisholm ; it seems step-sons were not very important in the scheme of things.

In 1881 William married Agnes Jane Johnson. I do not know why William and his family left  the thriving Boorolong station, and moved to such a remote area. I might assume that he was no longer welcome at Boorolong after the death of his mother in 1894 and perhaps  they thought he might "Make his Fortune"  carting goods to the miners whom had flocked to the area  because of the gold rush that was happening along Swamp Oak Creek during that time, but those reasons are now lost to time. Together William and Agnes Jane had 4 sons and 4 daughters; William Thomas, Ernest Jabez, Albert James, Henry Owen, Eliza Pearl, Janet Christina, Ethel May, and later, an illegitimate daughter, Vida F. Smith

However in 1895 tragedy struck. I was recently reading a book called Three of a kind : a history of Niangla, Weabonga & Ingelba by Claire Brazel et al. There was no mention of the Smith family in the index, although, from NSW death certificates held by me, I already knew that William had died at "Swamp Oak" - later renamed Weabonga in 1917. I was casually reading some of the small inserts of newspaper clippings that illustrate chapters in this book, when I was came across this passage on page 161 which rocked me to my core:

A PITIFUL STORY:- A sad story of destitution reaches us from Swamp Oak (writes the Walcha “Witness”) A Mr [William] Smith, a carter by occupation, has been living with his wife [Agnes Jane Johnson] and family near the school there. One boy got injured and was taken to Tamworth Hospital with a broken leg. From inquiries made by Constable Payne it appears the rest of the family were sleeping in the house without one blanket between them. Sickness set in, in the shape of inflammation of the lungs. The residents of Swamp Oak subscribed a little money and sent the father to Tamworth for medical advice. He reached Tamworth, but appears to have got no advice and no medicine for the children. On his return, although he did not complain, it was noticed that he was bad. Now the father and two boys have died, and the mother and remaining two [where were the other three?] children are in a bad state. Constable Payne came into the town – having ridden through from Tamworth and made arrangements for the admission of the mother and two children to the Walcha Hospital. Mr W. Moore has gone out for them.
Tamworth Observer, 24th August 1895

This trip, done either on horseback, by dray or by foot would have been no mean feat. The distance between Weabonga and Tamworth is about 45.5 miles, and the terrain is steep  and wild and the tracks at that time, rough.

from Google Maps 2011

I had previously found a plaque inscribed with the name  "W. Smith and his two sons" from  their burial place at the Weabonga Cemetery, with only minimal details listed. I wrote to the Tamworth Historical Society filling them in with the missing details and asked if they had any information regarding an outbreak of diphtheria  - the offical cause of death given on  the NSW Death certifcates of William and his two sons, Henry Owen  (aged 10) and Albert James (aged 6) - in the area during July and August (the months of their death) of 1895, but they could not give me any answer.

Weabonga Cemetery plaque - from Australian Cemeteries Index

Information on Diphtheria:
"Diphtheria is aninfectious disease which primarily affects the mucous membranes of therespiratory tract (respiratory diphtheria).
Throughouthistory, diphtheria was a leading cause of death among children, and it wasonce referred to as the "strangling angel of children." Thediphtheria bacterium was first identified in the 1880s. In the 1890s, theantitoxin against diphtheria was developed, with the first vaccine beingdeveloped in the 1920s.
The signs andsymptoms of respiratory diphtheria are caused by the bacterium's ability tocause a localized inflammatory reaction of the cells lining the upperrespiratory tract. In certain cases, the disease can become more severe andwidespread, and it can involve other organs of the body as well. 
Diphtheria is transmitted to closecontacts via airborne respiratory droplets. Overcrowding and poor livingconditions can further contribute to the spread of diphtheria."

Family lore always had William and the two children dying, after his horse and dray were  broken up and washed away while trying to cross a flooded and swollen creek.

It is a story worthy of more investigation, but no matter what the circumstances, the idea of my Great Grandparents and their children "living without a blanket between them" will always send a shiver down my spine.

NSW BDM Certificates
Australian Cemeteries Index
Three of a kind : a history of Niangla, Weabonga & Ingelba / Claire Brazel et al, 1991
Google Maps

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