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Book Review – Suicides and Settlers – Their Place in 19th Century Western Australian Social History

January 15, 2011

Suicides and Settlers - Their place in 19th Century West Australian Social History

From Hesperian Press


Suicides and Settlers – Their Place in 19th Century Western Australian Social History (Claire McIntyre, 2008, Hesperian Press, ISBN 978-0-85905-446-1).

When I bought this book, I really only read the title and the notes on the back cover.  I think I did have a quick flip through it, but books that cover the topic of suicide, are local to where I live and where a large chunk of my ancestors have lived at different times, and appear to be arranged alphabetically by  name don’t come around that often.  So it went into the basket.

What the book turns out to be is a collection of findings on the 315 suicides recorded in Western Australia in the 19th Century.  It is arranged alphabetically by the name of the suicider.  It has an alphabetical index of all names mentioned (and the author has been meticulous about recording all names involved, from the name of the person who found the body,  to the members on the inquest jury and so on.  Some entries are just a note of the name, date and method of suicide, from Police reports or death certificates, if that is all that was available.  The majority are much more detailed and include details from inquests, correspondence and newspaper reports.

There’s another list of suiciders by location, which is also handy, and an index of names, linking to the pages those names appear on (fairly obviously).

There are three and a bit pages of introduction that include a bit about suicide generally and a bit about the legal side of things at the time.

There are a couple of things I was disappointed about:

Thing 1: There is no analysis or list of suicides by date – timeliney type of thing.  I’d like to see if there are patterns – for example, I have a theory that the changes to the Family Law Act that made divorces ‘no blame’ in  Australia and ‘no fault’ – as in you only had to be separated a year and cite ‘irreconcilable differences’ to get a divorce – which happened in 1975, contributed to a large increase in suicides in the following five or so years.  I know that my father suicided in 1976 and two of my school friends fathers too, in 1980. That’s my personal experience, and purely ‘anecdotal’ – but I know that there was an expectation that divorces would increase – what wasn’t foreseen was the massive influx of applications from women.  Women wanted out of marriage big-time under the new rules.  Men, meantime had expected what had always been – that they would be married ’till death do us part’ unless they were proved to be ‘adulterous’ or ‘cruel’ or ‘deserters’.  If they were none of those things, they could expect to stay married.  The new rules changed the balance of power in some relationships, and changed the rules and life-as-they-knew-it for a lot of men, and to a lesser extent (numbers wise) women.  And suicides increased.

Were there more poisonings than hangings or gunshot suicides?  Were there more men than women committing suicide (it appears so from the reading I’ve done of this book, but was this just the nature of the population distribution or some other factor/s)? Was there a period of time where suicides were more frequent and did this correlate with economic or social change?  Were these patterns repeated in other colonies in Australia, or in other emerging or established colonies or nations, other periods of history, or the present?

Thing 2. This is not a failing of the book so much, as a failing of books, generally – I desperately wanted this to be a hypertexed, digitised, searchable and report-generating database.  The book is built like a database.  The data is there, but apart from the alphabetised bit ‘how many people with the surname Jones committed suicide in Western Australia in the 19th Century?’ or the localised list – ‘how many people in Kalgoorlie committed suicide in the 19th Century?’, it is not possible to easily collate the sort of information I’d like to extract from this otherwise fairly wonderful collection of information.  I badly want to enter it all into a database so I can do the analysis I so missed.  And make lists.

Having said all of that, and having read faithfully through to the letter H so far (and had a cheaty browse of the index) here are some wonderful new things I have learned (and a few questions to follow up):

1. When Copall SING committed suicide on Mr S. Moore’s farm at Herne Hill in the Middle Swan in January 1844, William Wade was one of the first on the scene.  When ‘young Willie Moore’ told Henry Towton, who was tending cows in the absence of Copall Sing who had gone missing, that he thought he’d seen a man at the bottom of the field, Towton went to look and then sent the boy to get Mr Moore’s bailiff.  William Wade arrived.(McIntyre, p. 150/Perth Gazette 20 January 1844)

Background: William Wade arrived in Western Australia aboard the Ganges (15 October 1841) with his brother Thomas, when William was 18 and Thomas was 20.   According to the Heritage Council of Western Australia, “Swan Location 10 was one of the first rural grants at the Swan, and among the first in the State, and the first improvements at Oakover were made in 1829-30, the first year of European settlement in Western Australia”. The property in question was first granted to Ensign DH McLeod of the 63rd Regiment, then transferred to Ensign Robert Dale.  Mr Samuel Moore was the next owner, and he named the property Oakover. William Wade was employed by Moore “as storekeeper at Oakover, Wade’s duties also included acting as Moore’s secretary, assisting with maintenance and repairs to the buildings, and with farm work as required”.  An unnamed nurse-maid who also arrived aboard Ganges was also employed at Oakover. Samuel Moore died in 1849.  William Wade married Eliza Kirwan (15 September 1851) a year after she arrived aboard Scindian (1 June 1850) with her parents and four siblings.  Eliza’s father, John Kirwan was my great-great-great grandfather.  You can read a Heritage Council of Western Australia assessment of Oakover, (containing the quotes above) which mentions William Wade, and also the suicide of  Copall Sing, here.

2. Another Ganges passenger, Joseph Auguste BESSONET (BESSON) committed suicide by  hanging, in Perth, 23 December 1877. (McIntyre, p. 14/Perth Gazette 209/1877).

3. H. Frost who committed suicide by exploding a dynamite cap in his mouth in Norseman on 14 July 1898 was believed to have come from Eaglehawk, Bendigo, Victoria, and was also believed to have a wife and family in Melrose SA.  (McIntyre p. 51-52/ Police Gazette 246/1898; SROWA AN5, Acc. 430 F. 2894/1898)

Comment: Norseman is where my father grew up, so it interests me.  I spent a lot of time there up until I was about nine years old.  Melrose, South Australia is where the Bacon Branch of my family originally settled after arriving in South Australia, before they came to Narrogin, Western Australia.  I would like to follow up on this entry, to find out if there was a Frost family in Melrose, and whether they were there at the same time as the Bacons, and what became of them after the death of H. Frost.

4. Mary Jane HAYTER (HATLEY), a seamstress, committed suicide by poisoning on 7 June 1895 in Perth.  She had come to Western Australia following a man she had had a relationship with in Camden, New South Wales about 18 months before.  She had had a baby in Albany, and located the man, but he denied paternity.  The post-mortem revealed evidence of a former pregnancy but none at the time of examination. (McIntyre, p.69-70/Police Gazette 106/1895; Inquirer 14 June 1895).

Comment: When I read this, I immediately wanted to know what happened to that baby.  It apparently wasn’t with her in Perth.

Overall Comment: This book is and will continue to be a valuable source of information, or a pointer to other valuable sources of information.  I have already ascertained that I need to read Emile Durkheim’s Suicide (if I haven’t already, and forgotten) and I can download it to my Kobo, which is an added bonus.  There is a reference to a photographer, Roy Millar, who “has left a great collection of photographs taken of people places, buildings and activities in the goldfields in the 1890s”, that I want to follow up in the Pictorial Collection in the Battye Library.  And I’ve only read through to H.

This is not an easy book to read through from cover to cover, because it is a bit like reading an encyclopedia cover to cover, or a dictionary.  But unless I had, I would not have picked up the reference to Roy Millar, for example, as he is mentioned as an aside or as a complement to commentary about the suicide of another person.

There is a lot of information here on a whole range of topics, apart from suicide.  A huge amount of research has been done, and it is all meticulously referenced, so I am not disappointed.  I have purchased and now have constant access to a great resource.  But for me it feels like Volume 1, and I desperately want Volume 2 – the bit where once the author has collated all the information, she puts it together in narrative form and analyses what it all MEANS.  Perhaps this is one of those cases of ‘further research required’ – a project for another researcher at another time.  Just like a family history really.

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