You have found your ancestor’s date of death, but you are wondering how they died. You could buy a death certificate, but a certificate for all relatives can be a costly business. Newspapers are the answer. With the growing number of Australian newspapers available to search at Trove, there is a good chance you may find an article on your relative’s demise. In turn, it may lead to an obituary which can also be a wealth of information, but I will discuss those in a future post.
When I began reading old newspapers, I was amazed at the number of deaths and accidents reported, compared to today’s papers. It seemed even the smallest of accidents could make newspapers right around Australia. Death reports were explicit and sparing little detail. However, despite the nature of these reports, I do find them intriguing reading and they can show when, where, and how a family member died. Also, accident reports show information that you may never have found otherwise. I may never have known that my great-great-grandmother lost the top of her finger or my great-great-aunt was bitten by a snake.
Horse related accidents were naturally common whether falls or buggy accidents. As the years passed, motor cars were the culprits, with many stories of them rolling or hitting trees. The increasing number of motor cars also caused some problems for those still using horses as their main source of transport. Fire was a common cause of death or accidents. Candles, coppers, and fireplaces all increased the risk of burns.
Following are some examples of deaths and accidents involving my family members found in the papers at Trove:
Charles Bishop worked at Weerangourt Station, Byaduk, but I found he also died there. While chopping wood in 1916, he suffered heart failure and died at the age of 60. I found this reported in four newspapers.
I feel sorry for poor James Elston. He died at only 21. The first article I found on him was in 1901, eight years before he died. James had broken his leg, but this was the fifth break in two years. He was sent to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne. The Barrier Miner published in Broken Hill reported the accident as a possible record-breaker.
In March 1908, James was back in hospital. He had been thrown from a buggy and fell on a fence. As a result, he fractured his spine between the shoulder blades and was crippled, his condition critical. In January 1909, it was reported that James had succumbed to injuries at the Hamilton Hospital.
Robert McClintock died from heart strain and tetanus as a result of chasing a fox. This was in 1913 and Robert was only 18. I decided to search Trove with the phrase “chasing a fox” and it threw up many articles about deaths and accidents incurred while chasing foxes. Some had fallen from horses, others accidentally shot by themselves, or others died the way of Robert McClintock.
Jane Diwell’s death in 1909 demonstrates the dangers women faced doing simple housekeeping tasks. Married to Samuel Hazeldine, Jane was in a back shed at their home in Murtoa boiling up beeswax and turpentine, when her clothes caught fire. Despite desperate attempts by her husband to save her, she died from her burns. Samuel received severe burns to his hands.
Frederick Hazeldine of Murtoa was watching the eclipse of the sun in 1910 when the 10-year-old slipped off a fence and broke his arm
Frank Coulson was only 17 when he met his fate in 1935. His body was found near Digby. He had sustained a fractured skull and his pony’s saddle and bridle were lying close by. Different articles tried to offer an explanation to his death from having been kicked in the head by the pony or haven fallen awkwardly as the pony jumped a fence.
George Gamble lost his life after a cave-in at the Colac Brick Works in 1910. He was dug out but later died at the Colac Hospital,
Mary Jane Hodgins (Mrs Matthew Gamble, below), my great great grandmother, lost the top of her finger in an accident involving a horse. Notice that this took place in Colac, Victoria, but was reported as far away as Maitland, New South Wales
In 1906, Amy Margaret Bubb, Mrs Benjamin Combridge, was bitten by a snake that had hidden in a mattress. Her daughter Amy was darning the mattress and noticed something she thought was mice, moving inside. She called her mother who hit the mattress and was bitten by a black snake on the wrist. Young Amy ran to the neighbours’ house almost a kilometre away through paddocks and returned with a Mrs Arklay. By this time, Amy Sr’s arm was black. Mrs Arklay made an incision and drew black blood from the wound which saved Amy. This article ran in Tasmania and Adelaide as well as The Argus.
I had known that my great, great, great grandfather William Diwell had died in a fall at the Merino Flour Mill in 1871, but I have since found that he was severely injured three years earlier. In 1868, the Merino school-house verandah was falling down, so William volunteered to remove it. Part of the verandah fell on him and he was pulled out suffering a severe head injury. By all accounts, if the full verandah had of fell on him he would have been crushed to death. He was 43 at the time and I think he may have been lucky to make it 46 when he did die.
The most gruesome article I have read about one of my family members is that of my great, great, great grandmother Ellen Barry, Mrs. Gamble. Ellen was a feisty Irish woman, often in the courts and rather fond of a drink. One night in January 1882, Ellen was home alone in her cottage in Colac, when a fire broke out. The next day, the coroner found that due to Ellen’s propensity for a tipple, it was most likely she had knocked a candle that started the fire.
These few examples prove how much you can find out about your ancestor’s death, not to mention their life before death. If you are using Trove, it is useful to search all the papers available because as Mary Jane Hodgins’ accident shows, incidents can be reported interstate. You can use filters to narrow your search down, particularly if you have a specific date.
In a future post, I will share some of the other articles I have found which don’t relate to my family but show the value of these stories in developing an understanding of how precarious life could be for those living in the 19th and early 20th century. We can also learn how death was considered in those times by the style of writing and the depth of description. Most importantly for family historians, our ancestors become more than just a one-dimensional date on a page.