Thursday, 23 January 2014

All the single ladies

I "collect" everyone I can in my genealogical work - not just direct ancestors, but all their brothers and sisters and their children. It's given me some fascinating stories, and helps in the genetic genealogy side of things - if I know what surnames are connected with my second and third and fourth cousins, it helps me find out precisely where our connection lies. But the stories are more important to me - one of the main reasons I do genealogy is to find out about the lives of all these past people.

One of the most challenging tasks, for me, seems to be finding the later lives of unmarried women.

The single ladies often don't have jobs - or at least not the kind that lets their names appear in newspapers or advertisements. They often don't own property, so they don't appear on those lists. And it seems in many cases they outlive their siblings, so there are no useful obituary notices inserted by family.

Take my bloke's Byrnes ancestors, James and Anastasia, who arrived from Ireland in the mid-1850s. They had 12 children, five boys and seven girls; but they had bad luck with their daughters. Two died in childhood and one at the age of 18; only two of the girls married, and only one of them ended up having children. The two daughters who remained single, Ellen (born 1869) and Mary Agnes (born 1875) are a special interest of mine.

The two girls' whereabouts are known in 1904, when their father James died intestate; Anastasia swore an affidavit giving their locations. Ellen was living in Koondrook, Victoria, where the family farm was located - so probably with her mother - and Mary Agnes was living in Prahran. Both are just described as "spinster". I would love to know what Mary Agnes was doing in Prahran - as far as I know, there were no family members living there, and no profession is listed. I can't find her on the electoral rolls - at least, not that I can say is her with any certainty.

Eight years later, in 1912, Anastasia died. She did leave a will, and she left all her property "unto my three daughters" Ellen, Mary Agnes and Bridget (who was married). I find it interesting that her still-living daughter Alice, who was married and living in Queensland, is not mentioned in the will. A family dispute? We'll never know. At this stage Ellen was still in Koondrook and Mary Agnes in High Street, Prahran. And that is where my knowledge of Mary Agnes ends. I can't find her on electoral rolls; I can't find a record of her emigration, marriage or death; she may be one of the myriad Mary Byrnes but none of them can be definitely pinned down. I don't know what happened to her, and that blank space on the tree is bugging me.

Ellen, on the other hand, I have traced; but I don't feel I know any more about her life for the crumbs I have discovered. Still in Koondrook in 1914, by 1919 she was living in Waitchie, a tiny town over 50km from Koondrook. Fewer than 150 people live in Waitchie now and it doesn't seem to have been much bigger then. I wonder if she had a friend there, perhaps someone she lived with, or did she live alone? The electoral roll just says "home duties" and gives no street address. She was still there in the 1920s, but by 1931 was living in Boundary St, Kerang. And that is the last I have of Ellen until her death in 1940 in the Beechworth Mental Hospital, which gives more clues, but also more questions.

An inquest was held into Ellen's death, and I read it in the Public Records Office. It's terribly sad; she was admitted into the mental hospital in late September 1940 and was described as "a feeble old lady suffering from melancholia" who "had had 'heart attacks' in the train from Sunbury and arrived in a collapsed condition". She became a "chair patient", which I assume means that she was mobile but otherwise needed care. She died in December that year, of arterio-renal sclerosis; she had seen a priest the night before she died.

Poor Ellen, with her melancholia. I wonder what she'd been doing over her life. By 1940 all but three of her siblings (not counting the elusive Mary Agnes) had died; two of the survivors were in Queensland and one still in the Koondrook area, all elderly themselves, of course. Why was she in Sunbury, and why did she go to Beechworth? (Since she arrived in a condition of collapse, I wonder if she was sent there rather than went willingly). The death certificate correctly gives her parents' names, including mother's maiden name, and her place of birth; was a relation on hand somewhere to give those details? I wonder if there is more in the archives - perhaps in the Public Records Office - for me to discover about these Byrnes single ladies. I hope so.


  1. It's a wise move to go sideways with your research, Vanessa.

    So often we turn up family information in sibling or cousin records. Keep at it and one day you may be able to add to the stories of "all the single ladies".

  2. Thanks Jill! I am finding so much reward in the sideways records, and it's allowed me to fill in some gaps.