International Women’s Day – Ellen Gavin, Julia Kunkel and Johanna Gavan


This is possibly George & Julia Kunkel on their wedding day  Today is the centenary of International Women’s Day and an appropriate day to honour our female ancestors. I have chosen to highlight the lives of my great-great-grandmother Ellen (Murphy) Gavin and great-grandmother Julia (Gavin) Kunkel as well as an unrelated friend.  Their lives were so much harder, and stoic, than ours and I thank them for their contribution to our family and our country.

Among the unmarked graves in the Old Roman Catholic section of the Drayton and Toowoomba cemetery is one where my women ancestors from the Gavin family are buried: Ellen Gavin and her daughter Julia Kunkel née Gavin. Also buried with them is an unrelated friend, Johanna Gavin (aka Gavan)[1]. Despite the sacrifices they made for their families and the roles they played in the development of their new country, their lives have passed unremarked by posterity.

 Ellen Gavin, with her husband Denis Gavin, and daughter Mary Gavin aged 2, arrived in Moreton Bay on the Fortune on 18 December 1855 having left Liverpool on 3 September 1855. Eleanor (aka Ellen) Gavin was 24, a Catholic whose native place was Wicklow. Her parents were James and Annie Murphy. Her father was dead but her mother was living in Wicklow. Her husband Denis was a farm labourer, aged 23 and a Catholic. His native place was Kildare, where his mother was still living. His parents were Denis and Mary Gavin.  Ellen could read but Denis was illiterate. Information on her death certificate indicates she was born in Davidstown, County Kildare.  Their daughter Mary Gavin, born in Dublin, was two years old. From her husband’s obituary and her first child’s birth, it is believed that Denis, and probably Ellen, were employed to work for Mr Gordon at Wallumbilla station out near Roma. In 1855 this area was near the edge of European settlement so the isolation must have been quite a shock to the new immigrants. Denis was employed as a carrier travelling between Wallumbilla and Ipswich so he would have been away for many weeks at a time. Unless Ellen was able to travel with him on his journeys, a rough and demanding life, it is likely that she was often left alone on the property to take care of the children, and possibly had responsibilities to the station owner. Their first Australian-born child, James, was born at Binbian Downs station on 3 June 1857 and baptised by Father McGinty in Dalby in 1858.

 The family must have moved into Dalby soon after this, probably when his employment contract finished, as Denis’s name appears there on various records. Denis continued to work as a carrier while they were in Dalby and their second daughter Julia Gavin was born there on 15 November 1859. Another daughter Rosanna Ellen Gavin was born 20 December 1864 and died 27 March 1865. Like many of our women ancestors, Ellen’s life is not visible in official records. Throughout she would have supported her husband and children, helping to establish a family life for them in their new home while reconciling herself to her infant’s death. As her children were devout Catholics it must be assumed that their mother played an important part in their religious training.

The family were living in Toowoomba by 1876 and Denis worked for a while as a gardener. On 28 March 1896, Ellen Gavin died at her residence in Seaton Street, Toowoomba. The death notice refers to her as the “beloved wife of Denis Gavin” and “mother of Mr James Gavin of Pechey and Mrs Kunkel of Jimboomba”. She was 74 years old and “formerly an old and respected resident of Dalby”.[2] Her death certificate indicates that she had given birth to 2 males and 5 female children, although we know only of the son and 3 daughters. Ellen was buried in the Drayton and Toowoomba cemetery on 29 March 1896.

Julia Gavin, Ellen and Denis’s daughter, was baptised in Dalby by Father McGinty on 25 June 1860 in front of witnesses John Healey and Barbara Ross. She married George Michael Kunkel at St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Dalby on 17 August 1879. George had commenced employment with Queensland Railways as a ganger in August 1878. Throughout their married life they moved around southern Queensland, working on the railway line near Dalby, Beaudesert (1896), Jimboomba, Highfields (1899), Grantham and Geham (1901). Julia and George had eleven children whose birth places reflect the family’s railway postings. My grandfather, Denis Joseph Kunkel, the couple’s eldest child, was born at the Forty Mile Camp near Dalby in 1883. His birth in a railway camp highlights the huge challenges and risks that our women ancestors faced in delivering their children and caring for their families. As time progressed Julia also worked as a gate-keeper for the railway at Gowrie (1886) and at the 27 Mile on the Beaudesert line (1890).[3] 

Julia Kunkel  nee Gavin died from post-natal complications of puerperal fever and a septic embolism. Her obituary reports that she had been operated on without anaesthetic because she had a weak heart, a terrifying and horrendous situation. The doctors deemed her operation a success but her family would disagree.[4] She died aged only 42 years, on 20 November 1901, leaving behind her husband, George Michael Kunkel, and ten children ranging in age from 21 down to 2.  (Julia’s obituary is included at the end of this story). Only a month later the children were orphaned when their father also died suddenly, on Christmas Day 1901. Julia Kunkel was buried from her father’s residence in Seaton Street, Toowoomba and laid to rest with her mother in the Drayton and Toowoomba cemetery on 21 November 1901. The full story of Julia and George Michael Kunkel is told in Grassroots Queenslanders: the Kunkel family.

Ellen and Julia are among the many unacknowledged women pioneers of Queensland whose lives have largely passed unnoticed. However their social contribution has not been insignificant with many descendants living in Queensland or around Australia, including some high profile achievers. There is no known photograph of Ellen. The photograph included may be Julia and her husband George, a conclusion based on various factors.

Buried with Ellen and Julia is another unrelated Gavin (or Gavan) woman, Johanna Gavin. Years of research have established no genetic relationship between the women so it must be assumed that there was a link of friendship as they had lived in the same area for many years. Perhaps sharing a surname was a further link. Johanna Gavin nee Mackin or Macken was the estranged wife of Stephen Gavin, son of Mark Gavan, a convict from Galway. Johanna Mackin sailed on the Southesk which departed London on 17 March 1877 and arrived at Moreton Bay on 4 June 1877. She was a single woman of 22, who had paid her own fare and so was classified as “free” not “assisted”. It is unlikely Stephen had paid her fare as Johanna came from Tipperary while Stephen was from Galway. Stephen and Johanna’s marriage does not appear in the indexes but as their children’s births record both parents’ names it is assumed they were married. Their children were Peter Michael Gavin (b 1880), Johanna Gavin (b 1881), Bridget Gavin (b 1884 d 1885) and John Gavin (b 1890). The family were living at Fairy Land, Maida Hill in 1890 but by 1895 when Stephen applied to be admitted to Dunwich Benevolent Asylum, the couple were living apart. Johanna Gavin worked as a cook at the Commercial Hotel in Allora and later in Ruthven Street, Toowoomba, possibly at the Shamrock Hotel. Johanna Gavin died on 17 May 1913, aged 54 years. Her husband Stephen was still alive at the time. Perhaps it was an act of charity that Denis Gavin permitted her to be buried with his wife, Ellen Gavin and daughter Julia Kunkel.

OBITUARY: Darling Downs Gazette 21 November 1901

We sincerely regret to have to record the death of Mrs George Kunkel, wife of the respected railway ganger of Geham, and daughter of Mr Denis Gavan (sic), of this town. The deceased was born in Dalby and was 42 years of age, and leaves a husband and 10 children to mourn the loss of a good wife and mother. Deceased, who had been ailing for some time, came in about a week ago to consult Dr McDonnell, who found her to be suffering from a serious internal disorder and at once pronounced the case to be hopeless. On account of the weak state of her heart, the doctors could not administer chloroform and had to perform an operation without its aid. Although the operation was a success, the patient’s constitution was too weak to make the recovery and she gradually sank and expired at 3.45 on Wednesday morning. The husband is at present also in a poor state of health.  Deceased throughout her life has been a particularly devout adherent of the Roman Catholic Church.  The deepest sympathy is felt for the bereaved husband and children in their terrible loss. The funeral leaves Mr D Gavin’s residence off Seaton St at 2 o’clock this afternoon.


[1] Roman Catholic section 1, block 16, allotments 18 and 19.

[2] The Chronicle, Death notices, 4 April 1896.

[3] Queensland Government Railways: index to staff employed in various departments and stations 1889-1912, Caloundra Family History Research Inc., Caloundra, 2007.

[4] Darling Downs Gazette, 21 November 1901.

[5] Cass, P. Grassroots Queenslanders: the Kunkel family, Darwin, 2003.

About these ads

2 thoughts on “International Women’s Day – Ellen Gavin, Julia Kunkel and Johanna Gavan

  1. Pingback: 52 weeks of Abundant Genealogy: Week 3: Celebrate the generosity of free websites | Family history across the seas

  2. Pingback: Australia Day 2012: Wealth for toil on the railway? | Family history across the seas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s