Tuesday, September 22, 2015

An interesting snippet of news about John and Catherine Mason


Adelaide Observer, 22 November, 1856, p. 3
This snippet of news from the Adelaide Observer may be only 16 words long, but it's actually quite informative. It's taken from the Observer's report of the meeting of the South Australian Destitute Board on Monday November 17, 1856, so we're looking at a date about two months before John Mason's death on January 22, 1857, at the age of 42. 

First of all, its mention of "12 years in the colony" confirms that the Mason family arrived in South Australia about 1844. That ties in with their assumed arrival in Adelaide from Sydney on the Dorset in January 1845. It also confirms that they had 8 children.

What is new is the information that John Mason was bedridden for nearly a year before his death. What would cause a man in his early forties to be incapacitated for such a long time before his eventual death? Did he have an accident, or a work-related injury? He worked as a labourer, which in those days meant a lot of heavy work with little safety equipment, so it's quite possible, though I haven't found any reported accidents in the newspapers. His death certificate says he died of heart disease, so some sort of heart condition or a stroke is another possibility. 

Whatever the case, poor Catherine must have been in a desperate state. It seems unlikely that the family could afford any sort of medical care. With eight children to look after, and a husband not only unable to work but also in need of care, it's not surprising that she was applying to the Destitute Board. 

Previously I'd only come across reports of her appearance before the Board some months after John's death. Whether or not the 'enquiries' of the Relieving Officer resulted in some relief before his death isn't clear. At it's peak in 1855, the SA Destitute Board was providing relief to over 3,000 men, women and children. This was a time when lots of women found themselves abandoned by their husbands who had gone off to the goldfields. Perhaps out of necessity, the Board was not known for its liberality, and many cases were refused. 

By the time the Board discussed her case again in June 1857, the three oldest girls (aged 14, 13 and 11) were working and receiving board, but the widowed Catherine still had five daughters at home to feed. On that occasion Catherine was granted two rations.