Someone posted a postcard of Little Coast Hospital on Facebook the other day and I knew it was a hospital that treated patients with TB (Tuberculosis or Phthisis) as one of my Great, Great Uncles had died there in 1887. It reminded me that my Great Grandmother, Mary Ellen Jeayes (nee Walker) also succumbed to this disease when she was quite young. So I decided to see what I could find out about her treatment since I knew very little about her day to day life. We have no photos either, but her name was ever remembered in the family and my aunt was named for her.
Mary Ellen Walker was the daughter of Alfred Walker and Mary Ann Connelly. She was born 16 March 1866 in Botany Street, Sydney and was the first child of Alfred and Mary Ann, Alfred’s second wife. She had five younger siblings but, sadly, only two survived into adulthood and she also had two half-siblings.
When she was 22 years old, Mary Ellen married Charles Jeayes on 6 June 1888 in Paddington Sydney, just before an economic depression. It was Charles’ brother George who had died of TB in 1887. George had emigrated from Warwickshire England in 1884 and Charles had followed in 1886.
Charles and Mary Ellen lived at Balmain for many years. Charles was a compositor and, although there was an economic depression looming, they must have made ends meet. Within a few short years they had three sons, George Walker (1889), Charles (1890) and my Grandfather, Wilfred Edward (1892). These were the years of a severe depression in Australia (1890 – 1893) and by 1894, within two years of Wilfred’s birth, Mary Ellen had also contracted TB. This must have been a terrible blow to the young family. I can only begin to imagine how they must have felt and the fear Mary Ellen must have had for the fate of her children.
TB has many names – tuberculosis, consumption, pthisis, scrofula and two others I had not heard of before – Pott’s disease and white plague. Apparently in the 19th century, it is said, it was almost the disease of choice. It was slow progressing and therefore provided time to get one’s affairs in order and die a good death! It became a disease representative of temperal wealth and spiritual purity and wealthier women would deliberately pale their skin so as to appear to have it!! I could not imagine though, that Mary Ellen thought so highly of the disease. It was around the time that she was ill that the X-ray was developed, although I doubt she would have had access to such modern diagnostics, but physicians had by then realised that it was an infectious disease. Sanatoriums had been around for some time and although there was no cure, death rates were starting to drop.
Although sanatoriums were designed for the chronically ill as the hospitals would not take them, my research revealed that some patients, at least in the particular sanatorium that Mary Ellen was placed, did leave. Some were fit enough to return to work, often living on for many years after.
However, Mary Ellen was not so fortunate and she passed away on 16 October 1895 when she was only 28 years old. Her death certificate informed me that she died at Thirlmere Home Picton and that she was buried in the Roman Catholic Cemetery in Picton. I decided I would like to find out more about Thirlmere Home and, of course my first port of call was a search on the Australian newspaper database Trove. Many articles answered my search.
It seems Thirlmere Home was a hospital set up by Mr J H Goodlet in about 1876 which he maintained from his own funds. That was, at least, until 1893 when an article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 15 September 1893 advertised a public meeting with the aim to raise funds to assist with maintaining the hospital or, Thirlmere Home for Consumptives as it was then called. After 17 years supporting the home from his own funds, I think Mr Goodlet was probably due for some help. The home was for the very poor who could not pay for their care and might otherwise die in the streets.
In the article ‘The Thirlmere Home for Consumptives – A Word for the Helpless’, Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 1895 and just 7 months before Mary Ellen passed away, the home was described as a “little oasis for the consumptive poor”. The setting was described in the following way:
amidst the low green hills of Thirlmere near Picton, there is a pleasant red brick house, standing in gently sloping paddocks, its near approaches skirted by flower-beds and shrubbery. The house is clean and wholesome, the air all about it dry and bracing, the surrounds peaceful and rustic.
The home accommodated around 36 patients, sometimes including sick children. It does sound like it might be a pleasant place to spend your last days if it could not be with your family. At least far better than dying on the streets so I think I am glad Mary Ellen was there and I am thankful to Mr Goodlet for his generosity. Treatment at that time seemed to be isolation from the rest of the population to prevent spread of the disease, plenty of rest, good food and light exercise outdoors in the fresh air.
The full article appears below. It is rather long but gives a good picture of what the last year of Mary Ellen’s life might have been like. She would have been one of the women mentioned in the article. Other articles told me there were 3 wards – one for women with 12 beds and 2 for men of 10 and 12 beds respectively.
Sydney Morning Herald Saturday 18th May 1895, Pg.5
The Thirlmere home also had a monthly report published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Mostly this report gave statistics of the number of patients, how many had been admitted, how many had left and how many had died. In the month that my Great Grandfather lost his wife and my Grandfather and his brothers their mother, two patients had died. One was obviously Mary Ellen.
The sadness however, doesn’t end there. Charles was left with 3 little boys to care for aged 6, 4 and 2 years old. Apparently the loss of his wife and brother must have been all too much for Charles and it was believed, by my father, that Charles left his two eldest sons aged 6 and 4 in an orphanage where they were eventually fostered out to quite wealthy families. The younger son, my Grandfather Wilfred, was taken in by Mary Ellen’s brother Edward Walker, who raised him until adulthood. Whatever happened the boys managed to keep in touch.
Uncle “Ted” Walker was married but had no children of his own and it is for him that Wilfred’s son and my father, Edward Walker was named. It is not known what happened to Charles senior after that – he disappeared, so far without a trace. No further entries appeared in the Post Office Directories of the time and no death has been discovered as yet. His son Charles believed he had returned to England but it is not known on what basis he assumed this.
Rest in Peace Mary Ellen, your boys made it.
©Lynette Nunn 2016
Photo: Formerly Thirlmere Home now Goodlet House, Queen Victoria Memorial Home.
Source – Queen Victoria Memorial Home – Heritage Assessment Incorporating Brief Archaeological Assessment of Harmony House – City Plan Heritage July 2013 accessed 30/6/2016
https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/how-tuberculosis-shaped-victorian-fashion-180959029/ accessed 30/6/2016 http://www.faena.com/aleph/articles/the-unexpected-influence-of-tuberculosis-in-victorian-fashion/ accessed 30/6/2016